Monday, March 30, 2009

Like Oil and Water... and Noodles

Dear Tricia, My mom always cooked spaghetti with a little bit of oil in the water because she said it helped to keep the noodles from sticking together. Is she right? I have money riding on this.

Well friend, I don't know who just lost money, but whomever agreed with your mom needs to pay up. Putting oil in pasta water is something that I've seen a lot of people do, but they're all just wasting good olive oil. In fact, one of the first things I learned from Chef Pardus at the Culinary Institute of America was that tip right there. He also taught me that my knife skills are terrible. I was called "Lefty" because I was always cutting my fingers. (Unintentionally. Despite my burn marks and scars, I'm not into self-mutilation.)
In theory, it seems like a good idea: oil keeps things from sticking. But like me and Rachael Ray, oil and water are mortal enemies. Oil won't disperse itself throughout the water to evenly coat all the pasta, it will only stay in one spot because oil and water just don't mix. I mean, come on... how many euphemisms are there about oil and water not going together? When you pour the cooked pasta out into a colander, the only noodles that will get oil on them are the ones closest to the little blob of oil that never mixed in with the water. That's like hosting a frat party with one beer and expecting everyone to drink it and get wasted. There's just not enough to go around.
If you want to keep your pasta from sticking, leave the oil out of the water. (And salt the water, dammit. If there's one thing you should learn from this blog, it's that.) When you pour out the cooked pasta to drain, put the oil directly on the pasta and toss them around to coat them. Simple as that.
Back to my pocket Tetris game...

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Hearts of Palm: Are they that girl group that sang "Barracuda?"

Dear Tricia, I've seen hearts of palm in salads, but what exactly is a heart of palm? Something about it seems really wrong.

Well, when you find out that words like "self-suckering" and "burglar's thigh" are associated with it, I'm not surprised that you thought something was wrong.
That's such a good question because I wasn't too sure when I got this email. So this one's a learning process for both of us. From my research, I learned that hearts of palm come from the very inner core of the stems of certain palm trees, usually ones called "peach palm trees" when they're grown in the US. South America has different kinds of palm trees that they harvest hearts of palm from, and I couldn't pronounce a single one of them. Its classified as a vegetable (How creative. Who's the genius that decided to put them in salads?), has only about 30 calories for a 4 ounce serving, 2 grams of fiber, and 3 grams of protein.
Peach Palm Trees are "self-suckering." I didn't know what that meant, so I googled it. Take my advice: do NOT google that word. My eyes were not prepared for those search results. I eventually found the meaning of it in reference to botany, and its when secondary shoots will grow out of the base of the tree when you cut shoots off. Palm farming didn't used to be like that and hearts of palm grew to be very expensive because humans are naturally greedy money-whores who decided to cut down tons of palm trees to harvest them. But now they've been domesticated as a farm-raised tree and it has become more sustainable. On a side note: the French are the number one consumers of hearts of palm in the world. Go figure.
To harvest them, fancy heart of palm people cut down the tree and remove the bark. The fibers are removed leaving the center core or heart of palm. While the entire core edible, the outside part of it is more fibrous (I would imagine it being like chewing on carpet,) and the very inner part of it is what is packed in water, canned, and shipped to your grocery store. In Florida, you can buy fresh hearts of palm.
Other weird facts about them: apparently they're also called "burglar's thing" and "swamp cabbage." I'm not sure who designated these nicknames for hearts of palm but I think they might be a little crazy. Or just bored. But the next time you order a hearts of palm salad, I triple dog dare you to call it "A Burglar's Thigh Salad with a little bit of extra swamp cabbage." Let me know how that works out for you.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Dwarf Eggs and Crack

Dear Tricia, Sometimes on shows I see chefs carefully pouring eggs into a pan like they're trying to get the yolk and just a little bit of white. The visual result is a little "mini" egg where the yolk is half or more the diameter of the entire cooked result. Is this just some silly fanciness or is there a point and trick to it? I've heard it's better to crack an egg on a flat surface as opposed to a lip, what do you think?

Honestly? Its silly fanciness. The people who made up that trick are the ones who will serve you "roasted leg of songbird with aspirin sauce," as David Sedaris puts it. If you're referring to something you've seen on "Hells Kitchen," then I don't know what you're talking about. For some reason, when people find out I work in a restaurant kitchen, they always ask if I watch that show. I have NEVER watched that show. I live it every single day of my life. I'd rather spend my rare hours with the TV watching "Labyrinth" and examining David Bowie's spandex. But if you're referring to something you saw on "Top Chef," then its just an episode I've missed. Did I ever mention that I used to drink beers with Marcel, one of the early seasons' villian-esque competitors? His hair isn't really that weird looking. He's also not quite as villiany as he appears on the tube. But once again, I digress.
If you'd like to recreate the silly fancy small-white egg trick (and I don't know why you'd want to), just take your egg and separate the white and the yolk. The easiest way to do this is to crack the egg in half (more about that in a few. Be patient.) and keep it in the shell. Keep it over a bowl to drop the white into and just shift the yolk back and forth between the two egg halves until the white drops off into the bowl. The yolk will naturally have some of the white still attached to it and you can cook it as such.
As I was asking my fellow crazies (ahem, I mean... fellow colleagues) at work about this "mini egg" dilemma, none of them had ever heard of it. Their immediate response was, "Is he referring to a quail egg?" which are tiny eggs that fry just like regular chicken eggs, but obviously come from quail. Sounds like you're asking about something different, but I just wanted to put that out there. If you want tiny eggs, you may be able to special order quail eggs from a specialty grocer (like the ones who ruthlessly fired me... Whole Foods.... you know who you are...).
Now, about cracking eggs. As I've stated before, it's all about what works for YOU. There really is no "proper" way to crack eggs, you just have to be mindful if you get some shell in there. I have found that in my years of cooking breakfast for a living (I'm guessing 20,000 eggs?), cracking eggs is much more successful on a flat surface, as opposed to the corner of the kitchen counter. But if you've found that the opposite works for you, then stick with that. I'm not going to tell you what's right or wrong. Try them both. Pick which one's better. Problem solved. Also, you may want to crack your eggs into a bowl before you put them into a pan, just in case you break a yolk and wanted it to be whole.
Another tip: the easiest way to get pieces of broken shell out of your eggs is to use... an eggshell. It cuts right through the white and picks up said broken shell much faster than using your fingers. I've tried to be smarter than the eggshell so many times but I just ended up chasing the tiny bit of shell around with my fingers for like 10 minutes. Allow me to make that mistake for you and just go with the eggshell on eggshell method.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Elusive Poached Egg

Dear Tricia, I swear I cook more things than just eggs, but I need help on how to poach those bad boys?

I used to have a huge fear of poaching eggs. Like being in jail or working in a cubicle, I was certain it was something I just wouldn't be any good at. Then I started working in a hotel where I made the breakfast everyday, so poaching and I were forced to become friends. It's easier than you think.
To start off, bring a pot of water to boil. You're actually going to poach the eggs at about 180 degrees, but go ahead and bring it a boil and you can turn it down later. Add some salt to the water (I hope you've read enough of my blogs to realize how passionate I am about adding salt to everything. Maybe that's why I drink dirty martinis too. Curious.) and you'll also need to add about a tablespoon of white vinegar. Vinegar is so important when it comes to poaching because it helps the egg keep its shape in the water. (Read the "How did Diana Ross' Hair get into my Eggs?" post for more information on that fancy word called "coagulation.")
So while you're waiting for the water to heat up, crack the egg into a small bowl or ladle. You do this just to make sure that the yolk isn't broken. If it is, use another egg and save the first one for throwing at your nosy ass neighbor who's always peeking over the fence. When your water comes to a boil, turn down the temperature so that the water isn't moving around. Small bubbles on the bottom of the pan are just fine, but make sure it doesn't come back up to a boil. If the water is moving too much, it'll just tear up the egg and you're back at step one. On the other hand, if the water is too cool, the white and the yolk will try to separate before they can cook, so don't be a baby about turning the temperature down either. If you have a cooking thermometer, you can use that in the water to make sure you're somewhere around 180.
Then comes the fun: take a spoon and start swirling the water around in one direction. You're going to make a little whirlpool and drop the egg into the center of it. That helps the egg whites start to wrap around themselves and again, keep their shape. You may want to turn down the temperature again, just to make sure it isn't coming close to boiling. Seriously, the second your water starts to boil, you're not poaching: you're boiling. Obviously. So be mindful of the temperature. The egg should be done in a couple of minutes: When the white starts to solidify and isn't translucent anymore, its done. If you have a slotted spoon, use that to take the egg out of the water to drain it easier. A perfectly poached egg has a white that gives easily to a fork or spoon and the yolk is still very runny but warm.
There's also special pans you can buy meant specifically for poaching eggs. If you like to eat poached eggs often, I'd recommend buying one because they're so convenient and make it impossible to mess up.
I'm a fan of the poached egg. Its one of my comfort foods: when I was having a semi-nervous breakdown last year, I once ate 9 of them in one sitting. Yes, I said 9. Don't judge me! What, you've never eaten your feelings before?
For a video lesson on poaching, there's plenty of videos on youtube, but my favorite is on because the guy has an Irish accent.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Cupcake Vomit Dilemma

Dear Tricia, When I bake cupcakes, why do some of them rise unevenly? It's like there's a big bubble that always explodes out of one side and it doesn't look pretty. Please help me.

It almost looks like the cupcakes threw up on themselves, doesn't it? Ugh... I hate cupcake throw up. Luckily, there are some tips to trouble shoot so that your next batch vomits much less.
First and foremost, are the cupcakes vomiting only on one side? If so, it's probably your oven heating unevenly. A lot of ovens have "hot spots" and just heat up more on one side than the other. Make sure you're turning the cupcake pan a couple of times while it's baking.
Another possible cause for the cupcake up-chuck is not mixing in your baking soda (or baking powder, or both, depending on what recipe you're using) completely. While I'm not a huge fan of sifting (or doing laundry, or rum, or Jennifer Love Hewitt), its very important to sift the baking soda and the flour together so that it gets evenly dispersed into the batter. Otherwise, its very possible that you're getting a big chunk of baking soda in one part of the batter and of course its going to explode out the top of that cupcake.
Make sure you are not filling the cupcake liners too full. If the batter is all the way to the top, it has nothing to hold on to as it rises, so its more likely to lean to one side. Leave about 1/2" of space at the top of the liner for the cupcake to rise. Like me, it needs a lot of personal space and room to grow. Be nice to your cupcake and respect its wishes.
Lastly, when you fill your cupcake liners with batter, try to keep the batter as even as possible. Don't just dump a bunch of batter in there with some of it going all the way up to the top of the cup and one half barely covering the bottom. While this is probably the least likely reason for your dilemma, its still a possibility. I'm a fan of using an ice cream scoop because its easy to measure out each cup evenly, and you get a perfectly round dome to work with.
Happy Cupcake-ing. For some awesome decorating ideas, check out Amy Sedaris' book "I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence," where she completely bypasses the cupcakes and decorates herself in frosting and sprinkles. Genius at its best. (Besides this blog.)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Back in a Flash!

Hey Guys,
I'm on vacation in the mountains right now so I'm not going to post anything this week. Thanks for your patience.... mama needed a break from the real world. :)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Blanching: It's not just doing a Golden Girl impression anymore

Dear Tricia, Why do you blanch things? What's the point?

Good question, fancy pants. A lot of home cooks don't blanch veggies when they're getting down and dirty in the kitchen. To start off with, let me explain what blanching is, for all of the readers out there who think I'm talking about the promiscuous Golden Girl.
Blanching is when you take vegetables (most commonly green ones) and you cook them in salted, boiling water for about 10 seconds. Then you take them out and "shock" them by putting them in a bowl of cold water. The ice water stops the cooking process. Fun, right? Well what's the point in it, you ask? In restaurants, this is super convenient because you've already started cooking the veggies, and when an order comes in, the cook can just finish them off in a saute pan with some butter in it. It's a big time saver when there are 30 tickets up, and your chef is screaming at you "Just get the %$!& plates out, you %&!@& &*$%!" (Welcome to my life. It's like working on a pirate ship.)
At home, the big reason why you'd want to blanch your veggies is because it keeps their color. Anytime you cook vegetables (or fruit, for that matter,) they start to oxidize, which is fancy-terms for turn brown. Blanching them keeps their color so that when you finish cooking your green beans, they stay bright and colorful as a rainbow... a green bean rainbow.
The most convenient reason to blanch at home is if you're having a dinner party or cooking for a large group. When you have your veggies blanched ahead of time, you can just slowly reheat them in a saute pan and take them right to the plate when its time to serve dinner.
So, some things to remember when you're blanching:

1. Make sure your water is salted. It adds flavor. (Please refer to my post on pasta for more details and other hilarity.)
2. Have your ice water ready. If you take out the veggies and have to wait to get your bowl of ice water, then you're not blanching. You're just unprepared.
3. If a recipe you're following says to blanch for longer than 10 seconds, like some will tell you 5 minutes, go ahead and follow the recipe. But then send the author of the recipe an email that says "That's not blanching: that's just boiling a pot of green beans for a while and then sticking them in ice water."
4. Be happy about your new vocabulary. You're becoming more and more like me every day!

Now, if we could only find a cooking method that shares the same name with Bea Arthur... That would really make my day.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Alotta Frittata

Dear Tricia, What's a fritatta? I saw it on a menu but it seemed just like a quiche. Are they the same?

You're asking the queen of breakfast-making the ultimate question. No seriously, I used to make breakfast for a living when I was running a little hotel kitchen for a couple of years and I learned everything about my favorite meal of the day. That's also where I met some of my favorite celebrities and got to see them up close and personal, first thing in the morning. Thank god for photoshop, or those people wouldn't have a career.
A fritatta is different than a quiche for a couple of reasons. A quiche is basically an egg custard with cheese and other fillings that gets baked in a pie crust. It's made with about half milk and half eggs so it has a very non-eggy, light consistency. A frittata is eggs that are cooked in a pan with fillings as well. But you scramble up the eggs and fillings until its halfway cooked, and then let it finish cooking in the oven or under a broiler until the top is golden brown. No pie crust required.
A fritatta is basically the Italian version of an omelette, but without all the fancy flipping and folding that those fancy pants French prefer. Not that I'm anti-French or anything, I just prefer to use the quicker option so that I can spend more time doing more important things like exercising. 6 ounce mimosa curls usually do the trick.