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 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 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.

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.