Monday, December 29, 2008

Eggs that make you say "Eww"


Dear Tricia, Eggs. I need to know everything about eggs. How do I never get that white ewwwww on the bottom of my pan? How do I flip an egg? Enlighten me.


Eggs happen to be my favorite food of all time. You can make them a million ways, they're cheap, and easy to cook. I once accidentally went vegetarian, basically because I was on a really tight budget, and eggs made it totally do-able.
OK, so the reason why you're getting the white "ewwww" on the bottom of your pan is because eggs are made of 2 parts: the fatty part (yolk) and the protein part (the white.) When I say fatty, I mean good fat: egg yolks are full of lecithin and other good fats that keep your healthy cholestorol doing its job well, and it makes your skin and hair nice. The white is a completely digestible protein that, at only about 15 calories a pop, is a dieter's perfect food. However, unless there's butter or oil in the pan, the protein part will stick to the pan and make a mess, just like if you tried cooking chicken in a pan without butter or oil. So first and foremost, use butter, oil, or nonstick spray. I'm a fan of non-stick pans for cooking eggs because they're easier to clean, but you should still use some oil to keep the whites from making the layer of ewwww on the bottom. Also, if your nonstick pan is scratched or chipped, your eggs will stick. Get a new pan, and hand wash it with a non-metallic scrubby to keep it clean and scratch free.
Second, make sure your pan is nice and hot before you put the oil/butter/nonstick spray in the pan. I have no scientific reason for this; I do, however, have a 10 year career in kitchens, and the rule is, was, and always will be: Let your pan get hot and then put your oil in. I have many a mean chefs who would surely come hunt me down and cut off my hands if I told you any different. Seriously.
So, we have a hot, nonstick pan, and then we're putting our oil (or butter, or nonstick spray, blah blah blah... you get the point) in the pan. Let the oil get hot, and then add your beat-up eggs. Make sure you beat it well before they hit the pan. Beat it. Beat it. No one wants to be defeated.... It's ok to take a Michael Jackson dance break during this part. I do it all the time.
The best tool for cooking eggs and getting them to not stick is a rubber spatula. That's the flexible kind that you usually use for baking when you scrape down the sides of the bowl. Seriously, get a rubber spatula if you don't have one. They're awesome. So when you're cooking your eggs in the hot pan that you added oil to after it got hot, just use the spatula to gently move the eggs around on to keep them from sticking. You don't need to angrily stir the eggs until they're all broken up and the size of peas. Just move them around enough to keep the bottom from getting covered in egg ewwww.
For flipping eggs, start out again, with a hot pan, and then add the oil. When the oil is hot, add the eggs. Let the eggs sit there and cook. Don't try to move them around until the whites start to become a solid colored white and not all snot-like. Really, just let the eggs cook without disturbing them. Once they're white, gently use your trusty rubber spatula to work your way under the eggs to loosen them from the pan. The more the egg cooks, the easier it will be, so if you're just breaking the egg up and making a mess, that means you need to let it cook a little longer. Once the egg is completely loosened up from the pan and slides around on its own, use a regular spatula (like the kind you use for flipping pancakes) and scoop up the eggs to flip them over. If you're a risk-taker (or a masochist, or if you just like to clean), you can certainly use a little wrist-flipping action and no spatula to flip the eggs in the air like a professional, but if its your first try, have another couple of eggs ready to cook after you completely miss and the eggs land on the floor. Ewww not included, of course.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Why we love muffin tops



Dear Tricia, Why do the tops of muffins taste so much better than the rest of the muffin?

Oh sweet Jesus... you've really asked a doozy of a question when it comes to food science. And as much as I love demystifying food science into terms that are easy to relate to and might make fun of a celebrity along the way... this one's tough. I'm going to try and make this as simple as possible.
First of all, its true that muffin tops taste better. They're moister and sweeter. When the muffin batter is baked, all of the starches in the batter become politely separated by water molecules. Water is like the hall monitor... or perhaps a crossing guard that keeps everyone in straight lines and makes sure they stay where the heck they need to be. The water stays there in nice straight lines and keeps those starches in straight lines too, separated from the other starches, because that's how the batter rises and stays risen. Unfortunately, once the muffin is baked, the starches like to go hang out with the other starches again, or "retrograde." So as they come together, they squeeze the water molecules up towards the top of the muffin. And guess what sugar is attracted to? Water. So the water gets squished out of the starches and migrates north, along with some of the sugar. In my mind, this makes a sound like when you squeeze air out of the sides of your mouth and it sounds like a fart. I know that's not what really happens, but it makes it a little more magic-like for me. So because water and sugar both hang out up top, that's what makes it moister and sweeter, tasting better than the rest of the muffin. The whole process of this is called "retrogradation." Try not to confuse that with "degradation," or "self-degradation," if you're me at a cocktail party full of couples.
Now, once you're telling this muffin top story to impress your friends, throw in some extra fancy terms like "amylose," "amorphous,", and "amylopectin." Don't worry about them knowing what they mean; no one knows that the hell amylopectin is. But if your crazy ex girlfriend Amy shows up and thinks you're making fun of her, then maybe you can "accidentally" confuse the act of "retrogradation" with "degradation." But it wasn't me who suggested that.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Baking Powder vs. Baking Soda: the Ultimate Fight




Dear Tricia, What's the difference between baking powder and baking soda? If don't have baking powder, can I use soda instead?

No, lazy bones. Go to the store and buy some baking soda. Even with our current economy, the price of baking soda hasn't gone up so it'll only set you back about 80 cents.
The difference is actually pretty substantial, even though they look so much alike. (Kind of like the kids from "High School Musical." I know they're supposed to be different people, but I just can't tell them apart. Call it being out of touch I guess.)
So lets start with baking soda. In order for any baked goodie to rise in the oven, it needs to produce carbon dioxide. Yeast in breads will produce carbon dioxide bubbles and help make the bread rise. But other leaveners like baking soda and powder need to make that happen too. Sodium bicarbonate is baking soda's real name and it is a naturally occurring salt. When you use it in a recipe, it immediately reacts with anything acidic (like buttermilk, or yogurt, or vinegar) to begin making carbon dioxide. That's why you can't leave a fully mixed batter with baking soda in it just sitting around for a while: it's already working hard for you and you're just letting it go to waste. You have to bake it immediately, slowpoke. Don't save it to bake tomorrow or it won't rise and you'll ruin Christmas.
Baking powder is a much different machine. It is baking soda and an added acid (in the form of a salt crystal, but that's extra info you don't need to know to impress people. Isn't that why you're reading this?) that reacts twice when you're baking. Hence, the "Double Acting" on the label. The first time it reacts with a batter, it starts making carbon dioxide bubbles immediately as it comes in contact with moisture, and then it reacts again when it gets heated up in the oven. Here it is, in a form that's easier to remember:

The Tale of Double Acting Baking Powder

act 1: Baking powder meets batter. They fall in love. Carbon dioxide bubbles form.
act 2: Things get hot in the oven. Carbon dioxide bubbles grow bigger and make the batter rise.

And, scene.

So, if you ran out of baking powder and you're wanting to use soda, go buy the baking powder. You can make a homemade single acting baking powder by mixing baking soda with cream of tartar, but chances are you probably don't have that one in your spice cabinet either. Refer to my "How did Diana Ross' hair get in my eggs?" post and find out why you need to go buy it too.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Corned beef: the other not white meat.



Dear Tricia, I am very proud of my irish heritage, but what kind of self-respecting Irishman doesn't know how to make corned beef? What makes corned beef corned? With St. Patrick's day only a few months away I'm
starting to freak out a little bit because my rigorous drinking schedule precludes me from much cooking. I can't just serve potatoes again this year! Help me out here.


Well, my Irish friend, I've found some helpful info for you. Let's get down to business. First of all, corned beef is usually a brisket (but sometimes a round roast... all hail the mighty rump roast!) that is pickled (or "cured") in a brine. A brine is a very salted, seasoned liquid. That's what they also do to bacon. So, the brisket gets soaked in the brine and then cooked. The Oxford dictionary defines "corn" as a small hard particle, a grain, as of sand or salt. So "corned" refers to the grains of salt used to cure it. Those pesky Brits; so pompous with their fancy pants vocabulary. You can also take the corned beef one step further and smoke it. That's what pastrami is. You almost always will buy corned beef already cooked so all you have to do is slice it and serve.
Wanna know the history of it? Too bad you don't have a choice: continue reading. When Irish immigrants came to New York, the lower east siders decided that they wanted a cured meat that was similar in taste and texture to their beloved Irish bacon. So they learned a cheaper alternative from their friendly Jewish neighbors and started using corned beef instead. (insert politically incorrect Jewish joke here.)
St. Patty's Day always happens during Lent, and if you were raised Catholic (like I was, which is why I'm the furthest thing from Catholic as an adult) you know that you're not allowed to eat meat on Fridays during Lent. However, if St. Patrick's Day falls on a Friday during Lent, some bishops will pardon your heathen ways. It's rare: the next St. Patrick's Day on a Friday during Lent won't happen for another 9 years. In the mean time, enjoy your corned beef and Irish Car Bombs and green shirts and pinching. If you can slice up a corned brisket and serve it as a sandwich, I think your party guests will be content. All they're looking for is a sponge for all their alcohol anyways, right?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Box cake + sagging = worst baker ever


Dear Tricia, I am a really big fan of cheap box cakes. Especially the one that has the different colored rainbow sprinkles. But every time I make one the middle sinks in. Should I be embarrassed about my sagging problem? Please help.

Yes. You are officially the worst baker ever. What's worse than you being the worst baker ever is that you like cheap box cakes. Just fork over the extra 79 cents and buy the Duncan Hines brand already. You're embarrassing yourself.
That said, I can help you with your sprinkle cake conundrum. First of all, are you measuring everything correctly? I know its tempting to be all chef-like when you're baking and just throw in a pinch of this and estimate what a cup of that looks like, but with baking, you really do have to be exact if you're looking for the perfect sprinkle cake.
Do you live at high altitude? If you do, don't add as much water. A liquidy cake batter won't want to rise and stay risen. (See my pregnant cake post for an example of what proper cake results will look like)
Is your oven pre-heated? While a hot oven will force a cake into its submission and make it rise like no one's business, an oven that's not done pre-heating will basically just sip a cocktail, nudge your cake and ask, "Do you want to bake or what? Yeah, I didn't think so."
Make sure your pan isn't too big. It will definitely sag if the pan is too wide. Follow the directions on the back of the box and use their recommended cake pan size. My guess is that this is probably your problem: seeing as how you won't even buy the store brand cake mix, you probably don't want to fork over the dough for the right cake pan. Hey, I understand: times are tough. (cheapskate)
Last, when you are mixing the batter, bake it right away. Cake batter doesn't like to sit without being baked... it's on a mission to fill your belly. Let it do its job.
Just to be sure I didn't leave anything out, I checked the Duncan Hines website for cake baking tips, but after I read part that said "don't frost a warm cake" I knew they weren't going to be much help. And they weren't. They basically said half of what I said here but without the irreverent, judgmental humor. Where's the fun in that?
*UPDATE*
I forgot one of the most important baking rules ever!! Don't slam the oven door. When you're starting to get curious about how your cake is doing and you open up the oven door to check on it, close the door very gently. Shaking the cake before its completely baked just ruins the structure and collapsing is inevitable. Or, just look through the oven window instead of opening the door. Resist the temptation. Resist. The. Temptation.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Is it better when the Germans roast your nuts?




Dear Tricia, I am in love! Yeah my husband is great and all, but I had these amazing German roasted nuts this weekend. While I enjoyed them so much, I would have paid less if I had flown to Germany and bought them there! Do you have a recipe for German roasted nuts? Not that I need the frequent flier miles, it's kinda cold in Germany!

Seeing as how my last name is Reisch, you have come to das right place for German inquiries. Now, I have never had these elusive German Roasted Nuts, but after researching them, I found out that they're a trademarked product used with a patented nut roasting machine, specifically for roasting nuts with water. In looking at information on these machines, I learned that they are:
1. very large
2. very expensive (so expensive that they won't advertise the price)
3. and that the German nut roasters are very secretive about how they actually work.
I'm pretty certain that you'll have to trade your firstborn for one of those machines and if it fits in your garage, you're lucky.
I don't have any recipes for "water-roasting" nuts. I do, however, have 2 recipes for candying nuts that might be close to what you're looking for. One is super-easy, and one requires a little more skill but is worth the effort. For the easy one,

You'll need:
1 pound RAW nuts with no skins
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp salt

Toss the nuts in the maple syrup, sugar, and salt and spread them evenly on a cookie sheet lined with wax paper or parchment paper.
Roast at 350 degrees for about 10-12 minutes, or until the nuts start to smell toasted.
Be very careful with them when you take them out of the oven, since hot sugar is basically equal temperature to liquid magma.

The more advanced recipe requires you to get all your kids out of the kitchen for 20 minutes since they like to grab things... especially hot things that you're busy trying to cook. This is probably why I don't have kids. Or maybe its because I don't have a boyfriend. Who knows.

You'll need:
1 pound RAW nuts with no skins
3/4 c plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla

Have a clean cookie sheet ready.

Combine the sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla with just enough water to make it feel like wet sand. Wipe the inside walls of the pan off with water to make sure there are no loose sugar granules on it.

Let the sugar cook without stirring it or moving the pot around. Once the sugar is dissolved and it is clear and bubbling, you're going to cook it until it "spins a thread." That means, when you dip a spoon in the sugar and pull it out, the extra sugar that drips off the spoon drips so thin that it looks like a thread.

Once the sugar is hot enough to spin a thread, TURN DOWN THE TEMPERATURE TO MEDIUM, and dump in all the nuts and start stirring. (very important to turn it down, otherwise you're going to mess up everything and ruin Christmas) You're going to stir as fast as you can (Watch out! The kids have a sixth sense that tells them when something hot is on the oven! Go yell at them to sit back down in front of Blue's Clues)and keep stirring. The sugar will start to crystallize, or look like its turning back into solid sugar, but that is fine. Just keep stirring until the sugar starts to melt and turn light golden brown, or caramelized. The nuts will start to make a popping noise because they are toasting in the sugar.

Once all of the nuts are coated in a golden brown caramel, pour them on to a cookie sheet and separate them with the spoon so that they harden individually and not in chunks. Let the liquid magma nuts cool before you eat them or throw them at your husband.

I hope this helps you. Give them a try and decide if you want to add more spices next time, or maybe some salt or some heat(like chili powder.) These won't be the exact same as your prized German Roasted Nuts; those German nut roasters are so secretive that they won't let anyone, including me (a girl with the most German last name EVER) know how they make them. And because of that, I think they can just suck it. Or, das schtucken it, rather.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

My ginsu skills ginsuck



Dear Tricia, What is the proper way to hold a knife?

I'm glad you asked, random stranger. First of all, I need to preface this post by saying that you never ever ever (ever ever ever) need to invest in a set of expensive, differently sized kitchen knives all stuck inside a fancy wooden block with a celebrity chef's name on it. You'll never need all those different sizes, and once you put clean wet knives in the block, bacteria will start to grow in the knife slots. The only knives you ever need to purchase for your home kitchen are a good chef's knife (also called a French knife), which is your basic, 8-10" large all-purpose-cutting knife, and a small paring knife. The rest are unnecessary. Save yourself some dough for cocktails.

In order to properly show you how to hold a knife, I attached a lot of pictures to this post. Please ignore the DBK logo on the knife: I am not endorsing Daniel Bouloud. I think his knives suck.

Wrap your thumb around the bottom of the handle and your fingers around the other side of the handle. If you haven't at least figured this part out on your own, I'm surprised that you even had the brain cells to go pee by yourself today. Your index finger will not be wrapped around the handle: it's going to hook across the top of the blade.

Like this:




The reason you're hooking your index finger around the top of the blade is to give you more control. Letting your finger ride straight on top only gives your wrist more wiggle room to mess up what you're cutting. Have some control, why don't you?!


See? Your index finger needs to be wrapped around the top of the blade for full control. NOT laying on top of the blade. Here are some other improper ways to hold your knife:




Remember, bricks and trees aren't the best cutting boards, and neither are your hands. Stay clear of them.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

How to make pesto in your meth lab




Dear Tricia, How do I make pesto? I mean, how to do I really make it?


Well, I can tell you how to make it, but I'm not sure if I can tell you how to really make it. Okay, that was a stupid joke. For reals, it's easy. So easy, in fact, that I'll tell you right here in seconds. Er... minutes. But if you're on meth, you'll be able to read it in seconds, I'm sure.
Get a food processor. (See my Swedish meatball post for how to steal one from your divorcing neighbors. Very important to master that trick if you want to pimp your kitchen for free.) If you don't have divorcing neighbors, or no neighbors at all because you live in a meth lab (congrats on your meth haze-induced culinary endeavors!! A real gourmet, huh??), then use a blender. It won't look as nice and smooth, but it'll still taste good. You'll need:

2 cups packed full of basil leaves
1/3 cup pine nuts (Buy them in bulk at a health food store or an upscale grocery store other than Whole Foods Market because they fired me.)
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 grated parmesan cheese
3 chopped garlic cloves
salt and pepper

Blend the basil leaves and pine nuts together. Add the garlic and blend that in. Add the olive oil in a slow stream until it's all blended together. Scrape the sides of the food processor or blender with a spatula to get all the goodness off the sides. Add the parmesan cheese, and however much salt and pepper tastes good to you. Seriously... taste it. Does it need more salt? Then add more salt. I'm always surprised at how many people don't check. Maybe that's why they're sending me their questions on this blog.

Simple as that. A little expensive if you're trying to have a homemade pesto dinner party for 30, but come on... you live in a meth lab. You can afford it.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mom! Grandma's ruining Christmas again!




Dear Tricia, Will you please explain high altitude baking in a way that my grandmother will understand, and in turn, stop ruining the brownies?

So happy you asked because I used to be a pro at high-altitude baking when I was working in Telluride, CO. Oh, except for brownies: I could never master those. No, seriously... brownies at high altitude are a problem child, so take it easy on Grandma. In fact, I think that's why everyone in Telluride was so thin. It had nothing to do with the absence of fast food restaurants and healthy lifestyles. It was definitely the lack of brownie baking skills.

Are you ready for some math? Yeah, I'm not either. Let's make this as simple as possible: when you're baking at 5,000 ft above sea level or higher, take the leavener (the baking soda or baking powder) and just cut it in half. 1 teaspoon in Dallas is 1/2 teaspoon in Denver. That's the biggest part of high altitude baking.
Problem solved, right? Well, no, not exactly. A lot of brownie recipes don't have and baking soda or baking powder in them, so now what do you do? I went to Cook's Illustrated Test Kitchen website to see what I could find.

1. Turn up the oven temperature an extra 25 degrees.
2. Add an extra tablespoon of flour, per cup, to your recipe. For those of you who didn't pass the 5th grade (It's okay... I had a neighbor who didn't, and now I think he's a chairman of Google), if it calls for 3 and a 1/2 cups of flour, that means you're adding 3 and a 1/2 extra tablespoons of flour.
3. Add a little bit of cornstarch in with the flour. They don't specify how much, but I can't imagine it being anymore than a tablespoon or so.

If Grandma's brownies were as weird looking as mine were (all of the sugar rose to the top and created a nice top-crust of diabetes,) try reducing the sugar by 2 tablespoons per cup. Instead of giving you a math problem to figure that out, just do exactly what that says: take every cup of sugar that your recipe calls for and scoop out 2 tablespoons of it with a measuring spoon.

Hopefully this will help Grandma and her brownie dilemma. If not, here's a high altitude recipe I found from www.allrecipes.com:

* 7/8 cup all-purpose flour
* 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
* 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
* 1/2 teaspoon salt
* 3/4 cup butter, melted
* 1 1/2 cups white sugar
* 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
* 3 eggs
* 3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips (optional)
* 1/2 cup chopped pecans (optional)

DIRECTIONS

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease an 8 inch square baking dish.
2. In a large bowl, combine the flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt; set aside. In a separate bowl, stir together the melted butter, sugar, and vanilla. Mix in the eggs. Gradually stir in the dry ingredients just until blended. Fold in chocolate chips and pecans if using. Spread the batter evenly in the prepared pan.
3. Bake in the preheated oven until the edges start to pull away from the sides of the pan and the top appears dry, 35 to 40 minutes.

This recipe got mostly good reviews from the readers on the website, except for a couple of people who are probably just miserable people to begin with. I hope this helps your Grandma and her brownies. Oh, and keep her away from the brandy while she's baking. I've found that helps too.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

I'll have the grilled cheese with a side of mold



Dear Tricia, Where does mold come from? Why is it in my fridge? Am I okay if I eat only the non-moldy half of a piece of cheese?


Hey, heard any good mold jokes lately? Yeah, neither have I.
Friends, the word of the day is mold! Every time you say or hear the word, you have to scream. Ready??
Mold *AHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!* is teeny tiny microscopic fungi that floats around in the air and loves to have babies with other mold *AHHHHHHHHHHH!* spores. (With a name like Fungi, how could you not be a baby-making-magnet?) It loves 2 things in its fungi world: moisture and reproducing, so it basically has the same interests as a Mormon. Its in your refrigerator because there’s plenty of moisture and plenty of other mold. *AHHHHHHHHHH!* The only way to get rid of it is to take everything out of the fridge, unplug it, and scrub it out with baking soda or vinegar. Don’t use commercial cleaners because you don’t want your food around those fumes, unless you're a fan of Lysol-flavored dinner.
Don’t worry about eating the non-moldy *AHHHHHHHHHHH!* half of a piece of cheese: unless you’re hypersensitive and allergic to mold *AHHHHHHHHHHH!*, you’ll be just fine. Any kind of mold *AHHHHHHHHHHH* that is visible to the eye won’t harm you; it’s the bacteria that you can’t see, like staph or salmonella, that are harmful. Just to be sure, I checked out the Mayo Clinic website, and they said that hard and semi-soft cheeses are fine to eat even if they've molded. *AHHHHHHHHHH!* If it's a soft cheese like ricotta, cottage cheese, or brie, they do recommend throwing it away, although I can't necessarily trust their judgment when they also recommended throwing away blue cheese: a cheese that is naturally covered in mold *AHHHHHHHHHHHH!* to begin with. Plus, Mayo probably doesn't understand what its like to be on a budget. So scrape it off and enjoy your grilled cheese. And clean out that fridge. It's seriously starting to gross me out.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Happy pasta for fun noodle time dinner




Dear Tricia, Is there an easy way to know when different types of pasta are 'al dente'? I tend to way overcook anything besides spaghetti.

First of all, let's talk vocabulary for the less-inclined-to-know-foreign-words people who are reading this. "Al dente" (pronounced like "den-tay") is Italian for "to the tooth" or "to the bite." That means you have to chew the pasta because it is firm enough to chew, but not hard. If you've never had this delightful pasta experience, then you've been suffering from what I like to call Mush Mouth. If you're not overcooking your spaghetti, than you don't have far to go until you're a pasta expert. Seriously, there's only about 600 different pasta shapes in the world, so 1 out of 600 ain't bad. It's a good jumping off point, at least.
It's easy to just tell you you're leaving the pasta in the water too long and to stop doing that. However, if you find yourself in a bind and you've overcooked the farfalle and its too late to start over and your girlfriend has showed up for the make-up dinner you promised her after your fight yesterday about you playing too much Halo, take the pasta, drain it, and dump it in a bowl of ice water. This stops the pasta from cooking further. It won't fix your pasta, but it'll help it from getting mushier.
Truthfully, you're probably boiling your water wrong to begin with. I promise I'm not trying to talking to you like you're stupid (I saved that for the first paragraph), but there is a very particular way to boil pasta water. First, you've got to get the water to a rolling boil: not just an impatient couple of bubbles at the bottom... let the water get seriously messy, like someone on "Girls Gone Wild." After its messy and rolling and you got it to put its shirt back on, add lots and lots of salt; enough so that you can taste the salt in the water. And only after the salt has dissolved, you can add the pasta. There are no exact times for how long to cook your pasta because the shape, size, and thickness will determine when they are al dente. The best way to learn is to not get distracted by your Halo game, and keep checking on the pasta by tasting it. When it is soft enough to chew, but still firm, its done. And remember, if you think you've gone too far, pour it into ice water. In fact, the first couple of times you practice, just go ahead and have that ice water ready. Only 599 varieties left until you're a pro!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Is that a salad, or did you just fart?


Dear Tricia, Ok...ahem(clearing throat)...Tis the season for potlucks! As a lovely 28 year old female there is pressure to arrive to a friendly potluck dinner with something sinfully delicious...and to be honest...I'm a hard working lady and don't have time to bake or slow roast anything! What's a girl to do? When a guy brings a salad...its perfectly acceptable...but when a girl walks in with some leafy greens everyone looks as if you farted in the middle of the room! So...we single gals need some advice. What's are some potluck suggestions for a gal on the go?

First of all, it IS completely acceptable to bring a salad, and if you're getting dirty looks, then your host can just suck it. (I'd just go ahead and tell the party "That's right. I brought a salad. Jealous?" but that's just the kind of person I am.) What I've found for you though, is a standard spinach artichoke dip, which everyone and their mom loves. That's why its on every Chili's and Applebees menu. It's also cheap to make since I know I'd rather spend my money on cocktails than a stupid potluck dish where people might look at you like you farted.
Grab a casserole dish or "borrow" one from your neighbor. (See my Swedish meatball post for how to steal kitchen equipment from your divorcing neighbors.) In the dish, mix:

1 14 oz can artichoke hearts, chopped
Half a bag of frozen chopped spinach (thaw it in the microwave since you're a busy girl.)
1/2 c sour cream
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup cream cheese
1/4 grated parmesan cheese (this time you can cheat and use the stuff in the green can. I won't tell.)
A sprinkle of garlic powder or a clove of chopped garlic.

Mix it all up in your casserole dish with a spoon or your hands, cover the dish with a lid or with foil, and bake it when you get to the pot luck, at 375 degrees for 20 minutes.

That's all you have to do. It's fool-proof, even when you're making it after a few glasses of box wine at 2 in the morning. (Hypothetically. I'm not saying I tried it out after box wine binge drinking. Especially not last Thursday.) Pair the dip with a bag of chips at the party, because I promise you someone will have brought chips as their potluck dish. Then its their turn to be looked at like they farted.

That's a spicy meat-a-ball... from the fjords.




Dear Tricia, My only problem in the kitchen is that dishes won't wash themselves... Blargh!!! How about a recipe for meatballs that don't turn out like hard balls of sawdust?


Have you ever wanted to dress up like a member of Abba while making meatballs, just because it gives it that extra Swedish feel? No? Oh. Neither did I. Just checking.
I don’t have a favorite meatball recipe, because any meatball recipe can be adjusted to make it moister and less sawdust-y. There are 3 great tricks:
First of all, don’t use just ground beef. If you have the extra cash, get some ground veal in there, and some ground pork. If your recipe calls for a pound of beef, use 1/3 pound beef, 1/3 pound, veal, and 1/3 pound pork. Trust me; this will make a huge difference.
Second, don’t use dried breadcrumbs, use fresh. If you have a food processor, just pulse some bread slices without the crusts. If you don’t have a food processor, you have a couple of options. You can either cut or tear up the bread into small pieces, or you can borrow a food processor from your neighbors that are about to get a divorce: I promise you they registered for a food processor at their wedding, and they’ve never used it. Chances are, they’ll forget you have it, and you can totally score a sweet piece of machinery. Then you can let me borrow it.
Third, if your recipe doesn’t call for grated parmesan cheese, add some. Add about a quarter cup for every pound of meat. Grate your own... don't use the fake stuff in the green jar. Again, it'll make a huge difference in the sawdust comparisons.
For the cooking process, fill a hot pan about a 1/4'” with olive oil cook the meatballs on medium-high heat, just enough to give them a dark brown color and 2 sides. After they are browned on both sides, finish cooking them in your sauce on medium heat for about 20 minutes. If you are making your own sauce, add the meatballs at the end of your sauce-creating when you’ve gotten the flavor of sauce that you wanted. If you’re using sauce out of a jar (Hey, I don’t judge.) let it get hot before you add the meatballs.
For some good recipes, I’m a huge fan of Ina Garten (Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network,) and epicurious.com has great recipes from Gourmet and Bon Appetit, all ranked by readers, so you can pick the best one. Go rock out with your meatballs out.

You say potato, I say retarded.




Dear Tricia, Ok, here is a really general topic. I consider myself a pretty good cook for a dude my age with no training. I can make many sorts of dishes pretty well, but I am never satisfied with my potatoes. I really want to be able to make some good breakfast potatoes and a nice side dish for dinner. They always seem to come out too hard in the center or too cooked on the outside. Am I retarded? I am so scared. It is getting cold and dark. Now there is a bright light.

First and foremost, yes you might be a little bit retarded. But that’s not going to stop me from telling you how to cook your potatoes because, what can I say... I’m an equal opportunity advice-giver, and I also donate money to the Special Olympics. When it comes to boiling potatoes to mash them, there’s a really great way to cook them perfectly without getting them too mushy or too hard in the middle. You know how when you boil potatoes, you’re supposed to cook them until a knife can be inserted into the potato easily? (You didn’t? Well, now you do.) Try taking the potatoes out of the water a few minutes before that, when you can put a knife into the potato, but it takes a tiny bit of pressure to get it to do that. Then, put the hot potatoes in a colander to drain them, and cover it with a towel. The potatoes will steam until the centers are perfectly cooked. (I’ve got to give it up to my homie Ina Garten for that trick. Seriously. Watch Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network. She's kind of awesome.))
For an easy yet delectable potato side dish for dinner, I’m a huge fan of roasting them: Wash the potatoes, but leave the skins on. Cut the potato into 1” pieces. There’s really no method to this: you just want a piece of potato that is big enough to look appetizing, and small enough to fit into your mouth. Keep in mind that if your guests are children or Japanese business men, you'll probably want to cut pieces on the smaller side. All of the pieces need to be similar in size too so that you don’t end up with some un-cooked pieces, and smaller pieces that turn to mush.
Put the potatoes in a large bowl and coat them with a little bit of olive oil, plenty of salt and pepper, sliced shallots or onions, and some fresh herbs. (Whatever tickles your fancy... rosemary is pretty traditional, and thyme is also quite lovely.) Spread the potatoes out on a cookie sheet and roast them at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes, or until they are done. Not sure what done is? Take one out, let it cool off first so you don’t burn off all your taste buds, and try it. Is it soft, but not mushy? Did you enjoy eating it? Then they’re done. If it was hard and gross and you audibly said “That’s disgusting,” then leave them in a bit longer.
If you want something fancier, bake the potatoes on a cookie sheet at 400 degrees until they're the texture that you like for baked potatoes. (This can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on how crappy your oven is, or if you live at high altitude.) Let them cool a bit, and cut off the top third of the potato. Scrape out the insides and mash it up in a bowl with butter, cream cheese, bacon, more bacon, chives, more bacon, salt, pepper, and anything else that can clog your arteries. Then put the mash back inside the potato with a spoon and cover it in grated cheese. Pop them back in the oven until the cheese is melted. There you have it: a new way to eat your feelings when you're feeling down in the dumps.
For breakfast potatoes, try some old-fashioned hash browns. I’m always so surprised at how many people don’t know how to make them because they’re super easy. Wash and peel a couple of potatoes. Get a cheese grater, and grate the potatoes in the larger grate so that you end up with a pile of shreds. Get a large frying pan really hot, and put enough canola oil (not olive! None of that E.V.O.O. crap that Rachael Ray brainwashed America with, it’ll burn too fast) in it to coat the bottom. You're going to cook the potatoes in 2 batches. Put the first half of the potatoes in an even layer into the hot oil. Sprinkle lots of salt and pepper on the potatoes, and then turn the heat down to medium. If you leave the heat on high, you’ll get burned potatoes on the outside, and raw potatoes in the middle. Let the potatoes cook slowly until the bottom is a nice golden brown. Then, flip the entire thing over with tongs or a spatula to cook the other side. Season it with plenty of salt and pepper too. (It’s okay if you break it in half while flipping. No one will notice unless you audibly drop an f-bomb while you do it.) Cook the other side until it too is golden, and voila! Hash browns. Eat, enjoy, and go back to bed to sleep off your hangover.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

How did Diana Ross' hair get in my eggs?


What the hell is cream-of-tartar? Why do I have to put it in my kid’s homemade play dough?


This is my favorite kind of question because I totally geek out over food science and chemistry. I got kicked out of high school chemistry every day, but once I learned how much chemistry was involved in food, I got interested again. But I digress.
So, cream of tartar, is the solid salt form of tartaric acid. It is naturally occurring and is used in baking and candy making quite a bit.
For your kid’s homemade play dough, first of all, you’re totally super-mom if you’re making your own play dough. So congrats on that. The cream of tartar keeps the salt from crystallizing. Without that, the play dough gets grainy. I think that it makes the play dough taste like play dough too, but I’m not positive: I just guessed that because I checked and “magic play dough flavor” isn’t in the ingredient list.
For meringues, when you are beating egg whites, the egg whites have to “denature” in order to stand up straight and make foam. Here’s a visual for denaturing: Imagine Diana Ross’ hair. Under a microscope, that’s what egg whites look like before they are whipped: lots of tight little curly masses that don’t want to loosen up. When they denature, they loosen up and start to look like Darryl Hannah’s mermaid hair in “Splash,” very loose and wavy. As you keep whipping the egg whites, imagine Darryl’s mermaid hairs all starting to hold hands and stay together. Its cream of tartar’s job to make sure everyone is holding hands really tight and don’t let go. Cream of tartar is like the hair gel in Darryl Hannah’s mermaid hair. When you don’t add cream of tartar to your egg whites, you may notice it start to “weep” or fall. That’s when you get a lot of liquid at the bottom of the bowl and your meringue starts to droop and look really sad. Adding a 1/8 tsp of cream of tartar will prevent it.
In candy making, cream of tartar keeps your sugar crystals from joining together and making a hot mess in your pan. Unlike denaturing, where you want the eggs to hold hands and stay together, in candy making you don’t want sugar crystals to join together. But that’s really hard when sugar crystals are naturally attracted to each other. Seriously, they just can’t stay away from each other… don’t leave them alone for the weekend or you’re asking for it. In this case, cream of tartar “inverts” sugar, or just breaks it down into its basic form so that it can’t run and join the neighboring sugar crystal for a party.

Seitan? Say what?


Dear Tricia, alright girl I have one for you. I make a MEAN green chili. I use cubed pork. Here's my q....I want to make a really good green chili that's vegetarian. So I sought out "meat substitutes" I thought I might try a product called Seitan....I am not sure if it would hold up to long slow cooking though and how it would make it taste. I was going to used something like chicken boullion to give it the taste but that also is not veggie friendly. Any suggestions?


Excellent choice with the seitan. (prounced “say-tan”, by the way, not “satan.” No satanic references in this entry. Wait… except that one I just made. Nevermind.)
The quick history of it, if you’re interested: Seitan is made from wheat gluten, the protein found in wheat that occurs when it is mixed with water. The starch is washed away and what is left is a chewy mass that after it’s processed a little bit further, resembles meat. It originated in ancient China, is commonly used in vegetarian Asian cooking (especially for those with strict Buddhist diets) and you’ll often see it marketed as “mock duck” in Asian markets. Macrobiotic diets are full of seitan, and you can totally impress your friends with that. “After a convincing phone call from Gwenyth Paltrow, I’ve decided to go macrobiotic. Vegetarian green chili? We can join a drum circle after we eat, bra.”
Seitan is a better meat substitute than tofu because it has a sturdier, more meat-like texture, but still soaks up the flavors you cook it in.
For your green chili dilemma, seitan should hold up to long slow cooking, but don’t add it as early as you would add cubed pork, for two reasons: you have more of a chance of over cooking the seitan, and it soaks up the flavor faster than meat does, so it doesn’t even need the extra cooking. In fact, when your green chili starts to taste the way you prefer, add the seitan at that point and let it cook enough just to soften and to soak up the flavors.
Using vegetable stock is the most basic alternative to chicken bouillon, and it has less salt. You can buy vegetable broth in quart-sized containers in the soup aisle, or you can buy a more expensive version, sometimes sold in the freezer section. For flavor reasons, I’d go with the frozen stuff, but you can always just jazz up the other stuff with extra seasonings.
Also remember that anytime you are making a substitute version of an original recipe, its never going to taste the same, so don’t get frustrated if your seitan doesn’t taste just like pork. If it did, it would be called something else… like pork.

I can't make it stick. *updated!*

Dear Tricia, I am decent in the kitchen...however, I have yet to learn how to bread something and get it to stick to the meat...got any clues on that?

Ah… dredging. That’s what the act of sticking stuff to meat is called, at least. It’s no longer the sound of your feet as you make your way into your crappy cubicle job every day.
There are 3 easy steps and 3 easy ingredients to perfect dredging. You will need 3 dishes for your newly-discovered holy trinity of breading methods: eggs, flour, and bread crumbs. (Or panko, or cornmeal, or whatever it is that you have chosen to bread your dinner with.)
Set up a little assembly line of dredging on your countertop. Let’s pretend you’re making cornmeal fried chicken, just like your old Aunt Gussie use to make. (I’ll save the story of when she got drunk and flushed her dentures down the toilet that one Christmas for another time.)

From left to right, you will have:
1) Thawed chicken
2) A dish of seasoned flour (use salt and pepper and whatever sparks your fancy. Get creative. Clean out the spice cabinet. Just make sure it’s a dry ingredient. No Sriracha or Budweiser.)
3) A dish of a couple of beaten eggs with a little water mixed in to thin it out. You’ll need to beat it really good, like the domestic abuse guys in the backseat of the squadron car on COPS say to. Make sure it’s a blended mixture, without any gross egg white boogers.
4) A dish of cornmeal. Season it with your fancy pants seasonings that Aunt Gussie’s recipes call for. Or just use salt and pepper if that’s all you have. But you MUST season season season!
So now your assembly line is rarin’ to go and you simply coat the chicken in 1) the flour, and then 2) the egg, and then 3)the cornmeal. At this point, the cornmeal is so attracted to that gorgeous floured, egged chicken thigh that it’s not going anywhere.

Here’s another helpful hint if you’re not overwhelmed by all of the new vocabulary and domestic abuse references: use your left hand for handling the egg-y chicken, and your right hand for handling the floured or cornmeal’d chicken. This way you have one hand for wet stuff and one for dry stuff and won’t bread your fingers and make a giant mess and waste time having to wash your hands every 30 seconds. Because we all know that at this point, you’re way behind on your dinner party, and everyone’s already hungry and drunk in your living room.

*Update*
My mother read this blog and wondered why use "the holy trinity" on fried green tomatoes. At first I thought she was questioning the holy trinity reference because she works in a church and I was being a blasphemous daughter, but she's right. With fried green tomatoes, you don't always need to dredge in all 3. Some recipes call for flour, egg, and cornmeal, and some just call for cornmeal. That's the great thing about cooking: there is no right and wrong: it's all about what works for you. Stick with what you like. (No pun intended.)

My wife kicks ass when it comes to grilling and I'm less of a man now.


Dear Tricia, I'll admit it - I let my wife grill. She's gets it right every time. I panic. . . I either cut it to check how cooked it is (medium rare for steaks, medium well for burgers is what I like - but they have to be seared on the outside) or I take it off and have to put it back on or I turn it too many times or I overcook it for what I wanted (although I almost never actually burn it). I'm also clueless for making marinades and sauces. . . I prefer spicy / vinegary / pepper type of sauces over sweet ones. I'm so ashamed.

So you feel like a girly man, huh? When I think the opposite of a girly man, I think of 2 things: Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Hans and Franz. But because I'm not a Republican, I'll go with a Hans and Franz themed post. In hopes of becoming more like the Hans and Franz of grilling, lets pump *clap* you up with some tips. We'll begin with marinades, since you’re going to be making that before you grill. A marinade has two very important qualities: it flavors the meat, and it tenderizes the meat. “What is tenderizing?” you ask? Well… that just means it starts to break down the connective tissues so that when you cook it, you get a tender product that you can gently saw your knife into, rather than hack and cuss at like a stale piƱata. A marinade needs a nice balance of acid and flavorings. Acid is what will break down the meat fibers: citrus juices or vinegars are great options, and so is alcohol. In fact, alcohol will speed up the tenderizing in twice the time that a citrus fruit will, so I’d suggest adding a beer or some wine to your marinade. The most fun part of this is deciding what you want to add: do you like spicy stuff? Great. Add some crushed red pepper flakes, jalapenos, and Sriracha. Do you like something more deep and earthy? Add that red wine from the back of the fridge. The point is you must add something acidic in order for the marinade to do its work, and just have fun with the flavors. Always add a little bit of vegetable oil to the marinade to keep the meat from sticking on the grill. Also, poke some holes in the steak before you marinate it, that way it will reach the inside of the meat, and not just the surface. Marinate in the fridge, not out on the counter so that you’re not risking any bacteria growth, but let the steak come to room temperature just before you cook it.
(Here’s a fun fact to impress your guests with while you’re grilling: in Pre-Colombian Mexico, they used to wrap cuts of meat in papaya leaves because a naturally occurring enzyme called “papain” breaks down the fibers in meat. It also exists in pineapple, and you can find a derivative of it commercially, at the grocery store.)
Now, let’s talk grilling. To start with, set the grill to two different temperatures. Put one half on high and the other half on medium. This is so important and I’m surprise at how many people never do it! The high temp side is what you’re going to sear the meat with. Take the marinated meat, season it with some extra salt and pepper, brush it with oil. (Don’t use olive oil, it burns too fast.) and put it on the high side. Leave it there to get some really nice dark grill marks. Let the grill do all the work, don’t lift it up and keep checking it. When it has a nice dark color, flip it over and sear the other side. Brush that side with oil too… this helps keep it moist. If you like your steak rare, you won’t need to cook it any further, just a few minutes on each side to get dark color, and then take it off the grill. If you like it medium rare, you’re going to move it over to the medium temp side to finish cooking. Letting it cook at a lower temperature protects the outside from burning while the inside cooks. When you take the meat off the grill, let it rest for about 5 minutes before you serve it. This is going to let the juices settle and make it easier to cut, and the meat will also continue to cook a little bit on its own.
If you want to learn how to tell when the meat is done without cutting it to check, get a food thermometer at the grocery store and check the steak’s temperature. Here’s your guide:

Rare –125 degrees, red in the center and warm throughout
Medium Rare- 130-135 degrees, pinkish red in the center and fairly hot
Medium- 140-145 degrees, pink in the center, grayish brown surrounding, hot throughout
Medium Well- 150-155 degrees, grayish brown center, only a trace of pink
Well Done- 160 degrees, gray in the center

As you practice more, you’re going to remember how the steak feels when you press on it and you will be able to tell when the steak is done without a thermometer. Meat will continue to cook another 5 degrees or so after you take it off the grill to rest, so remember that when you’re taking the temperature.
Happy grilling, and congratulations on your new-found manhood. Feel free to celebrate your non-girlyman-ness by grilling in a weight lifting belt and talking in with an Austrian accent.

My cake looks pregnant and might be a cannibal


Dear Tricia
My cakes always rise higher in the middle than on the sides. Its like they have a pregnant cake belly...or they were being cannibals in my oven and eating other parts of the cake. How do I keep that from happening?


It’s true: cakes do have a tendency to resemble something out of a maternity magazine, but they mean no harm, I promise. There’s a very simple solution, and you have a couple of options: There are cake pan strips that you can buy at cake decorating stores or craft stores that are meant to wrap around the cake pan to level out the top of your cake. However, I’d suggest saving yourself 20 bucks and make them yourselves. All you need is an old towel that you don’t use anymore, like that one you used to clean up your roommate’s hair dye catastrophe, or maybe the one you dry off your dog with. He can probably use a new towel anyway.
Cut the towel into 2- 3” strips (however tall your cake pan is), and wet them in cold water.
Wrap the wet towel strips snugly around your cake pan and pin or paper clip the ends together.
Bake as directed.
When your cake is done, you should notice a much less domed top, but you will never get a fully flat top. Unfortunately, there are laws of science that just cannot be challenged. However, if you want a straight top to frost and decorate, just flip the cake over and use the bottom as your canvas.