Friday, January 30, 2009

Exsqueeze me, but you're ruining the bread.

Dear Tricia, Why does my husband molest the bread when we go to the store? Can he really tell freshness just by squeezing it? Does Mrs Baird's know about this?

You know what I call a man who likes to molest young loaves of bread? A breadophile. Get it? Ha ha ha! Like a pedophile but with bread? Ha ha ha... ha ha. Ha. OK, I'm fully aware that I'm the only one laughing, but I don't care. It happens all the time.
I'm sorry to inform you, but squeezing the bread will not be an indicator of the freshness. When you look at the ingredient labels on most loaves of bread in your regular grocery store (not so much in a health food store where breads aren't packed with additives), you'll notice that 2 of the first 5 ingredients are usually high fructose corn syrup and sugar. Along with making your bread taste better, sugar and corn syrup are natural preservatives to keep the bread fresher longer. After that, the other "less than 2% of the following ingredients" that are always listed are also preservatives to keep it fresh. If there are ways to tell one loaf of bread is fresher than another, squeezing it isn't the most reliable way, especially when different brands use different recipes and ingredients. If someone tries to tell you that their bread is fresher because its softer, you can tell them to suck it. You could go to Wal-Mart, buy a loaf of Iron Kids bread and sure, its soft. But it also has milk, sugar, and high fructose corn syrup in it and could have been on the shelf for 5 days. Then I could bake you a loaf of bread at home that just has flour, yeast, salt, and water in it. I could give it to you an hour after its baked, but it won't be as soft. They're different recipes, with different ingredients. But which one is fresher? (I'll give you a hint. My bread is so fresh and so clean clean.)
The bakeries that sell bread in your average grocery store make massive amounts of bread. There's a whole aisle dedicated to it, so those guys have mass production, product consistency, and freshness down pat. It's pretty hard for you to find a stale loaf. If there are randomly stale loaves of bread that snuck into the freshies, its most likely not their fault. A grocery stocker probably just didn't rotate the bread correctly. If you're familiar with my other posts, you understand when I tell you that he's probably the same guy who drops the kiwis and pears in the produce department.
So squeezing the bread won't tell you its fresh. It just tells you that your husband likes squeezing loaves of bread. And that's alright. I happen to like slapping raw bread dough like its a butt cheek.
To find the freshest of the loaves on the shelf, just reach for the loaves on the back of the shelf. They always stock the new bread towards the back so that they can sell the older stuff first. Now you can tell your husband that his squeezing the bread is for pleasure, not business. And that's okay too. I could think of much worse things to squeeze.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The truth about grapes: Part 4 in the Produce Series

Completing my last of 4 segments on seasonal fruits and ripeness takes us into fall. Ah... Fall. It's my favorite season, mainly because in Texas, it doesn't really exist, so anything close to it is very much appreciated. Sweater weather... foliage... and grapes. That's right, grapes come into season in the fall, and so do apples and pears, but they stay in season throughout the early part of winter, so we've already covered them. I will offer you some more interesting factoids in a bit though.
With grapes, you want to choose firm fruit that doesn't look anywhere close to being shriveled. Check to see that it is firmly attached to the stems, and with green grapes, look for ones that have a more yellowish color. And you can always taste a grape in the store to check for sweetness. I know what you're thinking. "But Tricia. That's shoplifting! I read your post about pineapples and I'm scared someone will kick me in the shins for stealing a grape." But I'm pretty confident that if you ask the produce guy if its okay for you to taste a grape, he's going to say yes. And then when he turns around, he'll probably roll his eyes at the crazy paranoid person in the grape section of the produce department. Grapes, no matter what kind, naturally have a silvery-colored film on them called "bloom." It's a natural yeast and you'll see it on blueberries too. What's cool about bloom is that in northern California, there's so much of this natural yeast in the air from all of the grapes in vineyards that some bakeries don't even have to use commercial yeast in their breads! Crazy, right? It's a great factoid to share with a wine snob at your next cocktail party. For full effect, I suggest ending your rant with "So stick that in your car and park it!"
The only other major fruits that come into season in the fall are apples and pears, and we've already gone over those for winter, so here's some fun facts that you can tell people to make yourself sound less dumb.
There are somewhere between 4,000-8,000 varieties of apples. They cross pollinate with other apples pretty easily, so there are lots of varieties that just haven't been named yet.
Apples won't ripen any further after they are harvested, they'll just eventually get mealy.
It's very common for commercial apples (not Organic) to be put into very cold storage for up to a year before they show up in your grocery store. Yes, you read that correctly.
Fuji apples will always have 5 bumps on the bottom of them.
Honeycrisp apples are the greatest invention since velcro. Well, that last one is subject to opinion, but I'm a firm believer that its true.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Summer summer summer time: Part 3 in the Produce Series

So, moving on to summertime fruits. Summer is my favorite because that's when peaches come into season and when it's more appropriate and people are less likely to judge your for drinking alcohol during the daytime.
When I was the chef at a hotel in Colorado, I ordered a case of Olathe sweet peaches one June. They were the most perfect looking peaches ever and they smelled amazing. Each one had a tiny green leaf on them and they were so cute. I cooked and baked with them, but I also placed them randomly throughout the hotel because they were so adorable. I think the housekeepers got annoyed with finding random peaches everywhere, but it made me happy. The rest of the stone fruits, like plums and pluots (a hybrid of plums and apricots)also come into season. Cherries and apricots are still in season during the summer. And along with the stone fruits, blueberries, cantaloupe, watermelon, strawberries, and raspberries are in season.
With peaches, plums, and pluots, you want to find ones that are not bruised and are soft. If you're going to wait a few days before you eat it, buy it firm and it will ripen at home. Stone fruits won't actually ripen after they're harvested, so when you leave it on the counter to soften, the only major change is that the acidity level will drop a little bit. Don't put stone fruits in the refrigerator. They hate refrigerators. Don't even try it: if you put a bag of peaches in the refrigerator, they'll start crying. Plus, they actually have more flavor at room temperature, so do yourself and them a favor and leave them out on the counter. Here's a cool factoid about stone fruits. It works best in peaches and apricots, but if you break the pit open with a hammer, there's a small bitter almond inside of it, called "noyeau," sometimes spelled "noyaux." It's where bitter almond extract comes from, and the French make a liqueur out of crushed noyeau and brandy. You have to roast it for a few minutes in the oven before you use it because there are trace amounts of a not-safe-to-eat enzyme and roasting them will get ride of it. I like to crush up the noyeau and put it in pies for a little extra almond flavor.
With summer melons, you can thump and kick them all you want, but the best way to check for ripeness is by looking at the end of the melon where that little indented dimple is. (The "blossom end." That's where the melon was attached to the plant.) Press it and if it gives a little, its ripe. A ripe melon will also smell like a melon: cantaloupe is the easiest to check for ripeness. Look for melons that aren't cracked and are heavy for their size. And with watermelons, the ones WITH seeds usually have more flavor than the seedless ones. You're trading convenience for flavor in this case. And who doesn't love spitting watermelon seeds at people? I sure do. And if you don't, then I don't want to be your friend.
Berries are usually ripe in the store, but strawberries are easy to tell if they're not ripe: its all about color and the leaves. Strawberries should be a deep red with no green or white on them. The leaves should be green and soft. Definitely pass on the ones with hard leaves that are starting to turn brown. Again, check for smell because ripe strawberries smell divine. It's like smelling the bowl of potpourri at God's house. It's heavenly. Blueberries and raspberries should not be mushy or molded. Don't be afraid to open up the container and check them out. If you're not going to eat them for a few days, spread them out on a plate and put them in the refrigerator... mold is contagious and if one goes bad in the container, they'll all get moldy. And I'm pretty sure that if one jumped off a bridge, the rest of them would too.

And by the way, I totally don't have permission to use that photo of Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff. I hope I don't get sued because I'm pretty sure Will Smith is a Scientologist and nobody likes a litigious Scientologist.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Pineapples, mangoes, and papayas, oh my: Part 2 in the Produce Series

So lets move on to produce in the Springtime. Depending on where you live, Spring time is March-May. Spring break is usually in March but it's still cold. I don't get it. I once got caught smoking pot in my parents' garage during Spring break because it was way too cold to do it outside. If early Spring were warmer, then maybe that little mishap would have never happened and I wouldn't have gotten grounded for so long.
March is when pineapples, mangoes, and papayas are in season. Pineapples are pretty easy to tell if they're ripe, but everyone comes up with the most bizarre ways to try and check. Seriously, I once ran into a woman in the produce department who told me that she pulls the leaves off the top of the pineapple and if they come out easily, its ripe. What kind of hooey is that??! It's vandalism, not a check for ripeness, I'll tell you that. All you have to do is look to see if the outside is yellow. That's right: between all of the little brown sections, look to see if its yellow.
Yellow = ripe. Green = not ripe. And if you see someone pulling the leaves out, go kick them in the shins, and tell the manager so that they can be escorted off the premises for ruining produce.
Mangoes and papayas are like pears and peaches: they're ripe when they're soft. Stay clear of brown spots and buy it more firm if you don't plan on eating it right away. Smell is also a good helper... if it smells like a pineapple/mango/papaya, its ready to eat. I think papayas taste like feet, but that's a personal thing. I also find that it makes people incredibly uncomfortable if you stop and smell fruit while staring at them for long periods of time without blinking. I enjoy doing that very much.
Moving towards May, you get a couple of stone fruits that come into season: cherries and apricots. Stone fruits are a fancy way of describing fruits that have a hard pit in the middle of them. (More about that when we move on to summer. You'll get to learn fancy pants words like "noyeau!") Apricots should be orange, without any green on them, and are ready to eat when they're soft. Again, avoid ones with brown spots because that produce guy probably dropped it. Cherries are usually ripe when they're in the store, so you'll actually want to go for the firmer ones.
And can we talk about that saying "Life is just a bowl of cherries?" If anyone can explain how life is really like a bowl of small stone fruits, I'm interested in knowing why because I'd prefer life being more like a large platter full of barbecue sandwiches. But that's just me.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

How to tell if fruit is awesome or if it will make you cry: Part 1 in the Produce Series

Dear Tricia, I need a fruit lesson! I have the recipe for Jason's Deli Fruit dip and I am wanting to try all the dip/fruit combos. But how do I know what is in season when? How do I know if the fruit is good or not? Do I thump it? Shake it? Ask it? Kick it?!

What an awesome question! I am definitely a fan of asking fruit if its in season. I do it all the time. It doesn't always answer me, but I like for it to know that I value its feelings. Shaking and kicking... not the greatest ways of checking to see if its good.
This question is like opening up pandora's box on this blog because I totally geek out over produce. It's my favorite section of the grocery store and I have been known to get pretty misty-eyed over perfectly-ripe peaches. (Its true. It was cute, fuzzy, it smelled good... like a puppy, except peaches don't shit on your carpet and chew up the couch. Peaches probably taste better than a puppy too.) Because the topic is pretty broad, I'm going to post it in different sections and start with winter, since that's what we're in the dead of right now.
Winter time is best suited for citrus fruit. Weird, right? You think lemons and oranges, and you think summer. But no... winter is when citrus in season. Limes, lemons, grapefruits, oranges, tangerines, kiwi; these are all your basic citrus fruits. When you're shopping for oranges and all of their weird hybrid orange friends (like tangelos, tangerines, clementines, kumquats), you want to pick the orange that is heavy for its size. A heavy orange means there's plenty of juice in it. Oranges from Florida (Valencia) tend to have more juice in them, but not be as attractive as oranges from southern California. Kind of like people, eh? People from LA and those damn Housewives from Orange County have the style, but Floridians have the substance. You'll probably notice most of your orange juice is marketed as Valencia orange juice from Florida. Here's a cool secret about picking oranges. You know how some of them are green at the ends? That's a GOOD thing. Buy those oranges. That means they stayed on the tree for a long time to fully ripen. The chlorophyll from the tree is what turns the starch into sugar to give you a really sweet orange. But when there's no starch left and its all sugar, the chlorophyll had no where to go but to the peel. It's called re-greening and its telling you "Holla! Pick me!"
With lemons, limes, and grapefruits, same thing. Go for a heavier fruit so that you know its juicy. Have you ever tried to make a cocktail with a lime and its all dried up when you cut it open? Its heart breaking. It ruins your cocktail. Don't worry about any brown spots on limes. Sometimes they just get a little sunburn.
With kiwi, you want to pick a soft one, depending on when you plan on eating it. If you don't want to eat it for a few days, pick one that is firm so that it'll be ripe by the time you want it. If you want to eat one soon, find a soft kiwi that yields to gentle pressure and doesn't have soft spots from being squished or dropped by the produce guy. I saw him do it. He dropped one. Don't get that one, get the one next to it.
Also in season in the earlier months of winter are apples and pears. With apples, you want to choose one that is firm, doesn't have spots from being dropped, and doesn't have any mold on the bottom of it where that little brown nub is. If you're cooking with apples, pick a crisper apple to holds up well to heat like Granny Smith or Gala. Macintosh aren't great for cooking with; they tend to get mealy and no one likes applesauce when its not supposed to be applesauce.
Pears are tricky because they're never ripe in the grocery store. I usually buy one and don't get to eat it until like 4 days later. Pears are just like kiwi: if you want to wait to eat it (like you have a choice), choose a firm one and it'll ripen up at home on the counter. If you want one right away, choose the softest one you can find. Just give it a little squeeze and make sure that same produce guy didn't drop it right after he dropped that kiwi. Also, avoid pears that have soft brown spots on them from being dropped. Those spots grow really fast and before you know it, the entire pear is one giant soft brown spot. No fun.
Another way to check apples and pears for ripeness is to smell them. If you can find a pear that really smells like a pear, it's good as gold.
If you want to know what else is in season while you're shopping, check the stickers on the fruit and see what country they're from. If they're from South America, they're likely not in season. But if they're from the United States or Mexico, they're closer to home and closer to being in season. They'll also probably be easier to understand when you ask them if they're in season.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

My coconut frosting is coco- not white

Dear Tricia, My coconut frosting turned yellow. What did I do wrong?

I got this one via text message while I was at work. And since the economy blows and no one's going out to eat right now, I had time to answer it while making salads, but will transfer it to the blog.
I found out that the ingredients used in this coconut frosting were: evaporated milk, sugar, eggs, butter, and clear vanilla. (Where's the coconut??!)
OK friend, easy answer. Your icing turned yellow because half the ingredients in your recipe are YELLOW. The only way to fix this is to use icing with no yellow ingredients, or perhaps one of the following:

1. Learn to breed albino cows that make white butter with their milk.
2. Use only egg whites, or even better... use the white shell too for extra whitening. Hell, throw in some whitening toothpaste while you're at it. And a dash of Oxy Clean!
3. Re-construct the color spectrum so that our eyes see yellow as white. I see this one as the most feasible option.

For real though, anytime you want white icing, you're going to have to use mostly shortening as the fat because it's white. Even with butter cream icing, and listen up brides because this is directed at you, you'll never get solid white frosting because butter cream has BUTTER in it. It is yellow. It is not white and it never will be. (Although I've seen some crazy mothers of brides get away with some crazy stuff... maybe one of them will figure out how to change the color spectrum.)
To make white coconut frosting, use a shortening-based recipe, and fold in coconut flakes and coconut shortening when it's finished. It's white and its got cool texture with the coconut flakes. It'll taste better if the flakes are toasted, but then your icing will be spotted with brown and that defeats your purpose. But I'll be here next time when you need to know how to fix your brown frosting.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

What the hell is a goober??

Dear Tricia, My husband makes peanut brittle at Christmas time. We are now left with 5 pounds of raw peanuts. Is it okay to freeze them until November? Will it affect the taste?

5 pounds of peanuts in your freezer? Sounds like you're storing my paycheck in the freezer and didn't tell me. *cue canned laughter*
In researching your question, first I found some really interesting factoids about peanuts that I thought were cool enough to share. Ancient Incans used to bury peanuts inside graves with the deceased so that their loved ones would have food for the afterlife. Peanuts have also been called goobers, and goobernuts. (I know! Weird!) But goober comes from the African word "nguba," and peanuts were originally brought over to America by the slaves.
The average American eats 11 pounds of peanuts a year, mostly in the form of peanut butter. And we can credit George Washington Carver for that: along with his busy schedule of implementing crop rotation and inventing cool stuff, he also discovered over a hundred ways to eat peanuts, using them in coffee, salad dressings, bread, ice cream, and candy. Nice job, George.
Roasted peanuts are super high in antioxidants. Turns out their polyphenol (antioxidant) properties rival those of blackberries, strawberries, apples, carrots, and beets. I think that from now on, I'll be eating peanuts with my antioxidant-rich glass of red wine, and waiting for my body to turn into Superman. Or, at least an American Gladiator. I already have my Gladiator name picked out and everything.
So, back to your question. It's perfectly fine to put peanuts in the freezer for long-term storage, and actually its recommended for them since they're a high-fat nut and can go rancid if left at room temperature for too long. You'd want to do the same for walnuts and pecans too. And my paycheck. Peanuts, my paycheck... same thing.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The devil and his eggs

Dear Tricia, I love deviled eggs, but I can't hard boil an egg to save my life! They always crack or are under cooked. Mom says bring the water to a boil with the eggs in it. Grandma says she's a soulless atheist who shouldn't have married her son, and that I should boil water drop them in, and then turn off the heat. No matter what I do my eggs and family dynamic still make me cry. Can I get some help here? If you could throw in some bonus deviled egg tips too that would be sweet, and probably piss of my overly religious grandma - she hate the devil and all of his finger foods.

Who doesn't love deviled eggs?? Someone un-American, that's who. When you bring a tray of deviled eggs to a party, you're going to be the most popular person there. It's true! 8 out of 10 doctors agreed on it. The other two doctors were probably educated in El Salvador or something. Let's get down to it.
In honor of one of my personal heroes, Bill Nye the Science Guy, I took your dilemma to my test kitchen (also known as my parent's kitchen) to do some hard boiled experimenting. I boiled 5 different eggs using 5 different times and methods, including the atheist's method and Jesus Christ's BFF's method. Every egg was boiled in 3 cups of salted water with the heat on High. My first instinct was that I have been over-boiling my eggs all along because your mom and grandma's methods didn't involve much boiling time. However, there were some surprising results that I'll touch on in a minute.

1. Jesus' BFF's method of dropping the egg in boiling water and turning off the heat for 10 minutes yielded a a very soft white and a runny yolk: basically a soft-boiled egg.
2. The atheist's method of bringing the water to a boil with the egg in it (I pulled out the egg when the water came to a boil) also yielded a runny white and egg yolk. I tried this two ways:
3. The third method was similar to the atheist's method of bringing the water to a boil with the egg in it, but I let it boil for 5 minutes. The yolk was much closer to being cooked, but still not firm enough to devil.
4. I brought the water to a boil, put the egg in for 5 minutes, and then pulled it out. The white was firm but the yolk was still soft... similar to the method number three.
5. My original way of boiling eggs: let the water boil, put the egg in for 10 minutes, turn off the heat and let it sit for 5 minutes. The end product was a hard boiled egg with a firm yolk.

Since method five worked best for deviling eggs, this just re-establishes the facts that I know what I'm talking about so more people should be reading this blog, and that I might be the smartest woman alive.
I also realized that letting the water come up to a boil with the egg in it doesn't give that different of results than if you put the egg in boiling water; what makes a difference is how long you keep the egg in the water once its boiling.
Okay, now let's talk about cracking eggs. My dad said that's why he always let the water come to a boil with the egg in it; that it was less of a shock to the egg's cold temperature. This might be the reason why the atheist is doing the same thing. However, I've never had a problem with cracked eggs going directly into boiling water, BUT I SALT THE WATER, just like when cooking pasta. I also gently lower the egg into the water with a spoon so that it doesn't collide with the bottom of the pan and crack. So, salt the water and that may eliminate the cracking. I have no science to back this up: only experience, and I think experience would win in a cage match against science.
Also, when you pull the egg out of the water, put it in a bowl of ice water. This helps the shell come off easier. The most basic deviled egg recipe is my favorite: it'll taste like Jesus' BFF made it. There are more elaborate recipes online that involve all kinds of spices and fillings, but this one is a classic.

Cut 12 boiled eggs in half and mash up the yolks with:

4 Tablespoons mayonnaise
2 Tablespoons mustard
2 Tablespoons relish
salt and pepper to taste
Paprika to garnish

Spoon the mixture onto each egg white. Sprinkle the paprika on each egg. Enjoy your new found popularity, even if you're not so popular in grandma's eyes anymore.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The yes's and no's of vino

Dear Tricia, I know this isn't a food question, but how can you tell which wines to match with different foods? I like to bring a bottle of wine to my friends' for dinner, but I never know what you're supposed to match with what.

The rules of wine and wine pairing have drastically changed over the years. First of all, there's so many more wines than there were 20 years ago; especially American wines, so along with all the new options, there are different rules to follow.
The first rule is: drink what you like. Seriously. With all of the wine snobbery that keeps people afraid of learning about it, all you need to know is what you like and what you don't like, and stick with that.
Second: the old-school idea of matching red wine with red meat and white wine with white meat and fish doesn't necessarily apply anymore. For instance, red wine goes great with salmon... if your friends are making salmon, I'd recommend a Pinot Noir. If you're wine shopping on a budget, there's some amazing wineries from the Pacific Northwest that make great but cheap Pinot Noirs. Red meat usually pairs the best with a red wine. But chicken can also pair well with it... something richer like a chicken with a heavy cream sauce like alfredo can pair well with a red. White wine can also go well with heavier foods like curries. If you're just not sure, you can totally stick to the old school rules of white with white meat and red with red meat. But don't be afraid of being "wrong."
Spicy foods are balanced out well with a white wine: kind of like when I hang out with my Mexican homie Eddie. He's a spicy kind of guy... especially after 4 shots of Jaegermeister. And since I'm the whitest girl ever, we balance each other out nicely. So when it comes to Chinese, Thai, Indian, or Latin influenced foods, go with a white wine: a Sauvignon Blanc or a Pinot Grigio is a light and easily drinkable wine for those.
If you're just bringing a hostess gift to your friends, you can never go wrong with champagne. Its bubbly, festive, and makes people happy. Seriously! If you ask your friends, "Which would make you happier? Champagne? Or a Chinese finger trap?" they'll surely choose the champagne. No contest. Watch the happiness ensue.
So... to sum it up: as long as you choose a good wine, don't worry about what you think it'll pair with. If you're not sure, then stick with the red with red meat rule and the white with white wine rule. If some uppity wine snob scoffs at your pairing, feel free to lecture him on limiting the possibilities in his life and denying himself of his rightful happiness. Drink what you enjoy. I happen to like boxed wine. And you know what? It pairs beautifully with my Whataburger and my Taco Bell.