Monday, July 27, 2009

I've Caught the Frenchies Lying... Yet Again!

Dear Tricia, Are french fries really from France?

Oooh, those Frenchies.... always trying to take credit for our food staples here across the pond. This time, they can't take credit. Its actually Belgium that wins the race in this tour de Fries.
From what I've researched, there are two ideas behind French fries getting their nationality-based name. (Frankly, I think they should be called Ethiopian fries because Ethiopia doesn't have much of an association with food. Isn't it time we help them out?)
Some people believe that the name comes from the act of "frenching" something. (Insert french kiss joke here. Its just too easy.) Have you ever had French-cut green beans? They're just regular green beans cut into thinner strips, just like how a potato is cut into thin strips for fries. I personally disagree with this idea for three reasons:

1. Frenching, when referring to the way you cut something, is more often called a julienne cut.
2. You'll more often hear the term frenching in reference to meat, which is when you trim fat off a piece of bone-in meat to expose the bone. You'll often see this in lamb chops and some roasts. And frankly, bones and fat have nothing to do with fries or potatoes.
3. I'm a sucker for stories. Keep reading.

The second idea behind the name goes all the way back to the 17th century in the magical land we now call Belgium. (In my imagination, they had glitter and unicorns everywhere.) According the Belgian history, the lower class were used to eating small fried fish as a nice little side dish to their meals. However, when the winter came and the rivers were too frozen to fish, they improvised and cut potatoes into long strips and fried those instead. (Historically, the poor people of the world have come up with the BEST food ideas. It's true! Go check out my "Corned Beef: the Other Not White Meat" for proof.) These Belgian fries eventually started to become a popular staple as a side dish.
Lets move forward to World War I, shall we? When British and American soldiers came to Belgium, they tasted these delightful Belgian fries and began to call them "french fries" because French was the language that the Belgian Army was speaking at the time. According to the Belgian Tourist Office website, "...even if they are sometimes refereed to as French Fries there is nothing French about them," and then go on to blame the false nationality on a linguistic misunderstanding. Go check out, if you think I'm drunk and misreading this. (I'll be the first to admit that has happened. More than once.) In fact, according to that website, Belgium is super serious about their Belgian fries. So serious, that they even prefer that the fries be served in a paper cone. Fascinating.
My last reason for not supporting the Frenchies on this one is because if the French wanted to claim the potatoes as their own, wouldn't they have called them "pommes Francais", the literal translation for french fries? But no, they call them "pommes frites" (pronounced "freets") instead, which translates into potato fries. You lose, France.

What the Bleep: the Next Step...

As some of you may already know, I've sent What the Bleep to literary agents for possible publishing. Its been my ultimate goal from the get-go to have this blog turned into something you can actually hold in your hands. While I'm in the process of doing this, please continue to send in your questions and spread the word about this awesome, can't-miss, must-read site. Thanks for all the support!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Beef on Steak and Getting Grilled on Grilling

Dear Tricia, What is the best cut of beef to grill for steak? I often go into the grocery store and there are a million different choices. Some are cheap and others are crazy expensive. I don't want to just go with the most expensive. What is the best way to choose your steak? Sirloin, T-bone, filet? Marbling, etc?

Lawdy, this one's a doozy of a question, but I think I can help you. Welcome to Beef 101: I'm so glad you decided to attend my class today. There will not be a quiz at the end of the class, but I would suggest having a cocktail.
As far as picking the "best" steak to grill, think of it like wine: everyone has their favorite, but one isn't necessarily better than another. For instance, I prefer my wine out of a box, but that doesn't mean it's not as good as a cheap bottle of Chateau de Gas Station. The same goes with steaks. I prefer a filet mignon, but that doesn't mean its going to taste better or worse than a porterhouse. There are a few cuts that will be a little easier to eat, grilled, than some others so lets get to that.
Check out the photo of the rainbow-colored cow above. (He's so fancy!) There you'll see where each cut of beef comes from within the cow. Now, when you want a steak, you want a piece that is both tender and flavorful. And knowing that steak is basically just a cut of muscle, tenderness comes from parts that are muscles that don't get used a lot. In comparison, think about Lance Armstrong's quadriceps (that big muscle on top of your thigh) compared to say... Rosie O'Donnell's. Golden Boy uses his quadriceps a lot, so his are very firm and tight. Hard as a rock, I'm sure. Rosie's obviously don't get used as much, so they're on the softer side. But if you were to cut off a chunk of her thigh and grill it, it's going to be a lot easier to eat than Lance's. I know, the cannibalism references aren't nice, but it's a good visual for what parts of the cow are tender.
For good flavor, you want some marbling. Marbling is very thin strands of white fat that are present throughout the beef. You should be able to see them with your naked eye. While marbling adds great flavor, it makes the steak less tender, so you want to try and find a good balance of the two. A steak with no marbling at all will be very tender, but less flavorful. And a steak with thick lines of fat will not be tender because all that fat is just connective tissue that is hard to chew. I mean, come on: gristle has an unpleasant name for a reason.

Tenderloin- Like the name easily suggests, the tenderloin is the most tender part of the cow, because its a muscle that doesn't get exercised. (And if anyone can tell me why San Francisco's grimiest neighborhood is named "The Tenderloin," I'll buy you lunch at Chili's. That's about all I can afford these days.) Filet Mignon (french for "cute steak") is the most tender but less flavorful. Filets are usually much smaller, but thicker cuts, so if you like your meat well-done, go for a thinner cut like a New York strip or a T-Bone.
Short Loin- This is a great section of beef for grilling. The Porterhouse cut comes from this area, which has a little bit of tenderloin on it. The T-Bone also comes from this area, and the New York Strip is cut from the T-Bone. Not sure which one you feel like grilling? Well, take a look of the quality of steaks in the grocery store that day. Maybe the New York Strip has nicer marbling than the porterhouse, or maybe the porterhouse is a little bit fresher. Or maybe one's on sale and the price is more appetizing. Hey, I don't judge. We're in a recession for Pete's sake.
Rib Cuts- This is where the rib-eye, rib roast, and ribs are cut from. They're much less tender than the cuts on the short loins, tenderloins, and sirloins, however much more flavorful. The Rib-eye and ribs are great for grilling, and even better when marinated. You can get rib-eyes with or without the bone. The rib roast is not something you'd want to grill; hopefully just the sheer size of it tells you that its better for roasting. And if you disagree, than you need to go back to eyeball school.
Sirloin- This gives you the sirloin steak or the top sirloin. Like the rib cuts, the sirloin is less tender but much more flavorful than the steaks cut from the short loin.
Flank- While very flavorful, the flank steak is incredibly tough. You have cut it against the grain in order for it to not rip your jaws off while chewing. Flank steak is great for grilling on kabobs if its cut into small pieces.

Beef you don't want to grill:

Round- This is usually ground up to make ground round, or roasted as a round, or rump roast. (And the namesake of my precious blog.)
Chuck- This is a strange cut because its heavily exercised (which makes it tough), but it has lots of good marbling and collagen (fat) that melts when cooked and makes it hella flavorful. You'll commonly see it as ground chuck, but this one is best for roasting or stewing.
Brisket- Hopefully you know not to grill a brisket. That's just blasphemy. Do I need to elaborate?
Shank- This is the toughest of all cuts, so its pretty much used for stewing and that's all. If you're dying for a grilled steak and that's all that you have, make sure you let me know how long it took for you to chew it.
Plate- Short ribs, skirt steak, and hanger steak come from this area. It's very tough and fatty, but this is where fajita meat comes from. So, if you want to grill skirt steak for fajitas, make sure you marinate it really well first.

As a disclaimer, I need to mention that the fancy cow diagram above describes American cuts of beef. In England, they have a completely different diagram and use other parts of the cow differently, but since England isn't really known for their beef, or cuisine for that matter, I'm going to say our diagram is superior.
For more help on grilling and marinating, go check out one of my earliest blog entries, "My wife kicks ass at grilling and I'm less of a man now."

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Girls Just Want to Have Fun... And Wine... And Snacks... And Wine.

Dear Tricia, Can you recommend savvy healthy snack options to compliment wine night with the girls?

Why of COURSE I can! Not only am I a pro at combining entertaining and food, but I'm also a pro at drinking wine. Sure, I know a lot about it, but I'm just better at drinking it.
So we've got a few things to pay attention to here: savvy, healthy, and for my and every other young professional's sake: convenient. This helps me narrow it down, because I prefer to just set out an entire wheel of brie with a knife. (And that's just when I'm drinking wine without any guests coming over.) For healthy, you can't really go wrong with a homemade bruschetta. Fresh tomatoes, fresh basil, olive oil, balsamic vinegar... it's healthy, its colorful, and its refreshing because right now its like 150 degrees outside and no one wants hot artichoke dip.
So, for a very simple version of homemade bruschetta, (pronounced "broos-ket-a", not "brush-etta"), here's what you'll need:

4 ripe Roma tomatoes (Smell them to check if they're ripe. Do they smell like a tomato? Are they soft, but not mushy?)
1/8 cup fresh basil, chopped (You can find it in the produce department of the grocery store in little plastic containers.)
1 teaspoon of garlic powder
3/4 teaspoon of salt
2 Tablespoons of olive oil
1 Tablespoon of balsamic vinegar

1. Chop the Roma tomatoes into pieces. How small? Well, small enough to make them easy to scoop up with a piece of bread or pita bread, and small enough so that its not messy when you eat it. That's how you have to think when you're cooking: how can I make this easy to eat? (And that goes for you, Mr. Sushi chef who always makes spicy salmon rolls the size of coaster.)
2. Rinse and dry the basil. Pull the leaves off the stems (just throw them away or discreetly leave them in your nosy neighbor's mailbox), and chop the basil in to pieces as small as you can get them. Don't worry about them getting stuck in your teeth when you eat the bruschetta. Everyone's going to be eating it, so you'll all have green flecks in your teeth together. Consider it a bonding experience.
3. Mix the chopped tomatoes, chopped basil, garlic powder, salt, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. Then let it sit in the fridge for about 30 minutes until you taste it. When you let bruschetta (or salsa too) sit before you eat it, the flavors blend together like the members of The New Kids on the Block. Sure, you can put them out on stage and they'll sound OK, but when you give them some time to rehearse (especially after a 15 year hiatus), they're going to sound completely awesome. And don't laugh at that: I'm serious. I know that everyone of you had a little crush on Jordan Knight.
4. After the bruschetta sits, take it out and taste it. Does it need more salt or garlic? Go ahead and add it. A recipe is just a guide: its what you do to make it your own that makes you a rock star in the kitchen. Serve your bruschetta with slices of baguette (get fancy and toast them in the oven for a few minutes), or pita chips, or anything that tickles your fancy. Have fun with it.

If you don't have time to put anything together, like if I come over unannounced because I need a drinking buddy or need to talk about my boyfriend, there are some really helpful things to have on hand to make a quick antipasto platter. Things like canned artichoke hearts, mixed olives, and hummus can make a really beautiful plate to serve for snacks and they're very healthy. A great way to serve artichoke hearts, cold and right out of the can, is just to drain the water out, cut them in quarters, and toss them in a little Italian dressing. You can get fancy and serve sliced prosciutto or with them, add some mixed olives in a cute dish, and then throw some fresh cut red bell peppers on the plate too to serve with some hummus. All these are things you can buy in the store: you just have to open the containers and put them on a platter. And no matter how lazy you are (I'm talking to myself here), its really simple and takes less than 5 minutes. Some of the more upscale grocery stores even have antipasto bars with all kinds of goodies that you can package up yourself and just pay by weight.

Let me break down the nutritional information on these two snacks:

Bruschetta: Even though there's some salt in it, the recipe is predominantly tomatoes, so you're getting lycopene, polyphenols (antioxidants that counteract things like your skin drying out from having too much wine on girl's night), Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin K (helps prevent bruising if you happen to run into doorways on occasion like I do), fiber, and each tomato is roughly only 25 calories. Fresh basil also has plenty of Vitamin K in it to help keep away those naughty little random bruises.

Antipasto platter: Again, this plate definitely has some salt in it, but the olives are super high good fats that take care of your skin, hair, nails, and even help your metabolism. Hummus has lots of Vitamin A, protein and complex carbohydrates (so you'll feel full), fiber, and the fat content is almost entirely unsaturated.

If you're not already the most popular girl at wine night, this will definitely push you to that level. And if you're not comfortable being the most popular girl at wine night, just take a cue from... we'll call her "Sue"... and bring a lame bag of pretzels every time. Yeah, you know who you are...

Saturday, July 11, 2009

How to Win Friends with Flaccid Cheesecake

Dear Tricia, I make a delicious little cheesecake cup that comes in a phyllo shell. I love making them, and people love eating them, but what I hate is the mushiness of the shell after a while. Is there a way to keep those once crispy little shells from becoming flaccid?

Hey fancy pants, you sound too well-versed in a kitchen to be reading my blog. Phyllo cups and cheesecake? You're good. You're almost smug. I like you.
To start off with, lets explain what phyllo cups are, for those who aren't quite as savvy as your Martha Stewart-self. Phyllo dough (pronounced "feel-o", no "fy-lo." You know, like your Fila running shoes you wore when they were cool for about 2 weeks in the eighth grade? Say it like that.) is a very thin layer of dough that, when baked, gets very crispy and flaky. Its so thin, in fact, that it usually has to be baked in layers of a few sheets at a time, otherwise it just falls apart. Have you ever eaten that little delicious Greek piece of magic known as Baklava? That's got layers upon layers of phyllo dough.
The thing about phyllo dough is that its a little hard to work with because its very dry when it is unbaked. And when you bake it, that makes it even drier and crispier. And what happens to dry things around moisture? They suck it up like there's no tomorrow. Just like me right now: I have a ridiculous sunburn that makes my body suck up lotion really fast, and makes me really thirsty. Unfortunately for the burn, I'm sucking up Chardonnay instead, which is why I'll have to remember to spellcheck this later. Maybe twice.
So you have your crispy little baked phyllo shells with cheesecake inside them. Needless to say, they're going to suck up moisture from the cheesecake and get soggy. Now, how do you fix it? Just like my personality, the answer is simple, but only if you bake the cheesecakes before you put them in the shells. Bake your phyllo shells, empty. When they are cool, coat the inside with a little bit of melted chocolate. You can use your finger to do this: I won't tell. Pop them in the refrigerator for a couple of minutes, just until the chocolate hardens. Then you can take your already-baked cheesecake, and either spoon it into the shells, or take a small cutter and cut small circles of the cheesecake to put in the shell. The chocolate will make a hard barrier so that the cheesecake can't touch the phyllo to make it soggy. If it looks too sloppy for your liking (and it probably will, based on the tone of your voice in your smug question), just top it off with some whipped cream or berries. People f-ing love berries on their cheesecake. Seriously, in a retail bakery, you can charge twice as much for a cheesecake if you just throw a couple of blueberries on it.
If that doesn't answer your question because you're used to baking the cheesecake batter inside the phyllo shells, then I'm sorry but I don't have an answer for you because I can't defy the laws of physics. Anytime you bake something in a phyllo shell, its going to soak up moisture from the filling while it bakes and get soggy. That is, unless you fill the shell with a lovely sawdust filling or a careful selection of hairballs. But I'm pretty sure those won't go over too well at your dinner party.
And remember, when you hear someone mispronounce "phyllo," just do what I do and mercilessly make fun of their ignorance. I tend to upset people by always saying the wrong thing, so sometimes I like to just get it out of the way early. Happy cheescake-ing!
No, on that that spellcheck...

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Why Your Leftover Pancakes are an Epic Fail

Dear Tricia, Whenever I make pancake batter, I always end up making too much so I try to save it to cook the next day. Whenever I try to make pancakes on the next day though, they always come out flat. Why is that?

Good question. I can relate to your over-ambitious measuring. I used to always accidentally make too much pancake batter but I've never tried to save the extra to cook later. I think I'm just more of a French toast person.
There's a very simple reason why your pancakes are flat, and unfortunately, its nothing exciting: its just the baking powder. If you check out one of my older blogs about baking powder and baking soda, (Baking Powder vs. Baking Soda: The Ultimate Fight) you'll learn that baking powder works twice to make pancakes rise. First it starts to make the batter rise when it mixes with anything acidic (in pancakes its usually milk). That creates little carbon dioxide gas bubbles. Then the gas bubbles expand rise even more when it comes in contact with heat. That's why its called Double Acting baking powder: the gas bubbles work twice to make the pancake rise. Its like putting gas in a car: it takes a certain amount of gas to get the car started, and then it takes more gas to actually keep the car running. Except that baking powder is a lot cheaper than $2.44 a gallon and won't kill you when you put it in pancakes.
So when you make your pancake batter, whether its from scratch (I know... I'm mocking you by suggesting that), or out of a box, the baking powder starts doing its job as soon as it is completely mixed. But like, a car, what happens when you just leave it running? Eventually it will run out of gas. When you take the batter and mix it up, you'll notice it starts to bubble right away. When you refrigerate the batter and just let it sit, the baking powder runs of carbon dioxide (gas) to make bubbles and eventually the bubbles all pop and make your pancakes flat. Its actually kind of sad, isn't it?
So if you're fine with flat pancakes (come on... don't be picky... we're in a recession!), they're completely safe and sound to eat the next day, but you might be happier sticking two of them together with some syrup and sausage and making your own homemade McGriddle. I guarantee you that yours will give you less McGurgles than the real deal.