Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Ethylene Gas is Straight Up Bananas

Can we talk about bananas for a hot minute? I have this food pet peeve- we all have them- and one of mine is when bananas get brown spots on them. I hate that. I think they taste disgusting when they're really ripe. Seriously, its gross city and my taste buds are the mayor. I like my bananas with the tiniest hint of green on them, which means I usually get to eat 1 banana before the rest of the bunch gets spots on them and I let them rot and make banana bread.
Sometimes I feel bad for talking smack about bananas (No, I do. I have actually found myself looking at bananas and thinking "I'm sorry guys.") because they actually have this really cool thing they can do that a lot of other fruits can't: they produce ethylene gas. Ethylene gas is this really powerful thing that makes other fruit around it ripen faster. Produce companies (they used to be called "farms") have ripening rooms where they can store fruit to ripen before its shipped to grocery stores. No picking ripe tomatoes from the plants anymore, they just pick them early and stick them in a room pumped full of ethylene gas. Bananas produce so much of it that it can't really be contained- it goes through cardboard boxes, shipping crates, even concrete. It's a super power. Bananas totally deserve to wear a cape for that.
I have this really awesome fruit bowl that I got as a wedding present and I want so badly to be able to store all the fruit together in it with bananas on top, just like some awesome fruit bowl pin up photo of perfection, but I can't. If the bananas sit on top of the onions, the onions get a brown mushy spot on them where the bananas were, or the onion starts to grow shoots faster. Mr. Sweet Potato starts to grow little root mustaches, and the pears might as well just commit fruit suicide. Its like back when you're in elementary school and no one wants to sit next to the kid who farts all the time. (What were his parents feeding him??) Bananas are the farting kid. Out of courtesy, you'll probably want to keep the other kids at a distance. The ethylene gas is just that powerful. But its kind of awesome in a way. If you need to ripen your tomatoes, you can just store them next to some bananas or put them both in a bag together for an afternoon. Its like 7 minutes in ripening heaven. Ethylene gas needs oxygen and room to warm temperatures to do its thing though, so don't go and put a banana and a tomato in a vacuum packed bag from one of those as-seen-on-TV contraptions and stick it in the freezer and expect it to work, dumb ass. Give it some room to breathe. Anyways, consider this my public apology to bananas because they don't really get enough credit for being such hard working little farters. Good job guys.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Snoop Dogg Loves His Nog

Dear Tricia, Our milkman dropped off a couple of recipes yesterday using Egg Nog. One recipe is Egg Nog Bread Pudding and the other is Egg Nog French Toast. Do you have any other suggestions (other than adding some good booze) for this seasonal drink?

No, my only suggestion is adding good booze. Just kidding, that's only my gut-reaction suggestion. I'll give you some other ideas too.

In addition to your email, I got a question from a friend wondering what kind of alcohol to add to egg nog for a wow-inducing cocktail. (No, seriously. The instructions were that it had to "wow" someone. I'm not making that up.) While I am not personally a fan of eggnog (thanks Stomach, and your lactose-hating evil ways), I am a fan of coffee. And I know that during the holidays, people freak out over eggnog lattes at Starbucks. It's like, come November, everyone's Facebook statuses suddenly change to "It's Egg Nog Latte time!" "Gingerbread Lattes are the best!!" "I love my sugary, overpriced seasonal coffee beverages!" So my thought was an eggnog latte martini:

3 parts eggnog
1 part espresso vodka

Shake it with ice and strain into a martini glass. Top with a little grated nutmeg.

If you happen to have an espresso machine in your home (lucky), then foam a little bit of milk and put that on top. Then you get an ice cold, yummy martini, complete with hot foam. Why, hello there temperature contrast. Don't mind if I do!

If you're not a fan of boozy drinks, then I do have a couple of ideas for you.

1. Eggnog pudding= its super simple: buy a packet of instant vanilla pudding mix. Follow the recipe on the side of the box that will tell you to add 2 cups of milk to the pudding mix, stir, and chill, except use eggnog instead of milk and add an extra 1/8 teaspoon of nutmeg. You can eat it by itself or pour it into a pie crust to make eggnog pudding pie. But make sure you say it like Bill Cosby, otherwise it won't work.

2. I love the eggnog French toast idea, and just wanted to share with you all how freaking easy it is. Instead of dipping your bread in egg, just dip it in a bowl of eggnog. There's already eggs in the eggnog (what a brilliantly obvious statement) so you'll still get delicious, crusty pieces of breakfast heaven. Add some rum to your syrup to top it with and find a comfortable spot to take a nap on in your post-breakfast nog coma.

3. If you have an ice cream maker, dump that stuff in the ice cream maker and turn it on. Done. No, seriously, a basic ice cream recipe consists of cream, milk, eggs, and sugar. Guess what eggnog is made out of? Nope, you're wrong. It's not made out of holiday magic and sparkles, it's made out of cream, milk, eggs and sugar. Put it in an ice cream maker, turn it on, and when it's frozen, put a spoon in it and put the spoon in your mouth. Crazy good, right?

By the way, if you want a fancy coffee drink without the hooch, try adding some eggnog to your coffee instead of milk. It'll save you $4 that you would have spent at Starbucks, and then you can save up your money to buy me a Mr. T cookie jar or a Christmas sweater featuring a snowman wearing gold chains like Snoop Dogg's. Street cred, yo.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

And Christmas Cookie Season Begins...

Dear Tricia, Any tips on how to ensure our Christmas Sugar Cookie decorating event, Thanksgiving weekend, ends with soft delicious cookies and not me in tears with a floor covered in cookie crumbs? I'm just not a fan of hard cookies. Help?

Well, first of all, I apologize for being late. My full time job is an event specialist for a catering company and I am in the middle of Christmas party madness and Hanukkah hell. I love my job very much, but I just wanted to clarify that, although I wanted to answer your question on time, my schedule hasn't allowed it. (It was either blog or have a pre-bedtime martini and, if you regularly read my blogs, you'll know that the martini will always win in my world.)

So, let's talk decorating cookies. Harder cookies are ideal for decorating because the icing doesn't pull any crumbs off them and make a mess. But I understand your love of soft cookies (when I first started this blog, I think I got "how do I make soft cookies?" from about a dozen different people), so here's my favorite recipe for softer sugar cookies:

1 cup margarine
1 1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sour cream
4 cups flour

Preheat your oven to 350. No, seriously. Go preheat your oven. Get it hot before you start baking. Don't be dumb.
Mix the baking soda, baking powder, salt and flour together. Set aside.
Cream the margarine and the sugar until just combined. Do not beat the shit out of the butter and sugar. You're going to mess up the recipe if you cream them until they're white and fluffy. Go read this blog entry. Then continue.
Add the vanilla and the eggs, one at a time. Scrape down the sides of the bowl in between each addition.
Add the sour cream.
Add the flour.

When you roll out the cookies, make sure you put them back in the refrigerator to get them cold again before you bake them. The freezer is even better. Then bake them, depending on how bad ass your oven is, for about 15 minutes or so, or just until the edges start to brown.

Now I'm sure you're wondering why I said to use margarine instead of butter, because if you know me, you know I love butter and think that margarine is weird and creepy. Without going into the science of what exactly makes margarine weird and creepy, let me just tell you that when its cold, butter is hard and margarine still magically remains soft. Let that be your visual of why your cookies will be softer and save me the trouble of grossing you out and turning you off of margarine forever. Margarine = soft cookies. Plus, you've got sour cream in there too and the extra fat will help keep them soft.
These cookies may get some crumbs in your icing, but you asked for soft cookies, so that's what you get. I always try and deliver.

And if you ever want traditional sugar cookies that are ideal for decorating, the "My Cookies are Vulgar and Offensive" blog will give you the best recipe, courtesy of my Aunt Mary. Plus, there's a picture of some hilarious cookie cutters of people doing it that I'm dying to use. And by the way, does anyone know where I can buy this Mr. T cookie jar?? If someone can find that for me I'll be eternally indebted to you and will be able to say "I pity da fool" with more street credit. Cookie jars= street cred, right?

On a side note, I'm on this signature cocktail kick with all of my holiday parties and I have to recommend the delicious champagne flute full of heaven better known as The Poinsettia. It's half cranberry, half champagne, and all awesome. You're welcome.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Libby's is Never Gonna Give You Up, Never Gonna Let You Down...

Dear Tricia, I tried to make a real pumpkin pie without using a can of Libby's pumpkin pie mix. I followed a recipe where I roasted the pumpkin, added eggs, sugar, spices and evaporated milk. I thought that since I made the pie from scratch it would taste even better than coming from a can, but I was sorely mislead. My pie did NOT taste like the pumpkin pie I'm used to. Why? Was it the recipe?

First of all, I totally just Rick Rolled you in the form of a jack-o-lantern. And if you don't know what that is, I'm surprised you still like my blog. Moving on....

Actually, no it wasn't the recipe- it was the pumpkin. Pumpkin pie such a misleading name for a pie: its not made from the pumpkins you and I know as pumpkins. Libby's has a monopoly on the canned pumpkin industry- they produce about 85% of the world's canned pumpkin and it all comes from a very special, trademarked type of pumpkin grown in Illinois.

Libby's developed a sort of cross-bred type of squash called a Dickinson Pumpkin. It looks more like a giant butternut squash than a pumpkin and its got lots of extra pumpkin meat inside, unlike that wimpy guy you use for carving your gnarly jack-o-lanterns. A Dickinson pumpkin is trademarked by Libby's as their own proprietary seed. (Read: no one else has access to growing or harvesting it except for Libby's.) That means no one else's brand of canned pumpkin is going to ever taste like Libby's because they're the only ones who can grow that tasty little squash. Smart huh? And terribly frustrating if you like to make things from scratch. Their proprietary seed is off limits to you, me, and everyone else who wants to know.

Remember last year when there was a warning that canned pumpkin would be scarce because bad weather affected so much of the canned pumpkin industry's crop? I read about one non profit group who takes produce not-fit-for-harvest and donates it to shelters and soup kitchens. After Libby's crappy harvest of pumpkins last year, the non profit took it upon themselves to ask for a donation of the crapkins and Libby's wouldn't allow it because their proprietary seed is off limits to anyone but the consumer who buys the pumpkin in its final, canned form. (What, you don't think someone would take that crapkin to a professional and try to cross breed their own copy? I'd totally do that. And then I'd sell it to all of you. I'd call it Magic Unicorn Glitter Pie Mix.)

If you want to make a pumpkin pie from scratch, I'd suggest taking whatever recipe you used and try using equal parts of both butternut squash and pumpkin instead of just pumpkin.

And by the way, you're welcome for your newest bit of food knowledge to drop at your company's holiday party this year. That's one even your boss will be impressed with, which might help him forget what you said about him at last year's party after one too many eggnogs. Yeah, we all heard about it.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Stuff It.

Dear Tricia, Being a non-native in Colorado and coming from Texas, I have had many conversations with my friends and coworkers about whether it is called "stuffing" or "dressing." Is there a difference? Or is it just different lingo for different areas?

This is a great question to start off my month of Thanksgiving-themed blogs! Stuffing or dressing: which one is it? My immediate thought was that stuffing is cooked inside the bird and dressing is cooked outside, but this one had me scratching my head so I went to several different sources to try and find an answer. The Food Lover's Companion, which most of us in the restaurant world will deem as the most reliable source of culinary information, was no help at all.

Stuffing: see dressing.

Not awesome. For the first time ever, the FLC let me down. Jerk. So I decided to go back a little further and check out my husband's unabridged, second edition Webster's Dictionary. (Its a mammoth book- 16.4 pounds to be exact. Yeah, I put that sucker on my bathroom scale.) This edition was published in 1934, so I went back a good 80 years to see what they thought then:

Dressing: a. the spice mixture added to the bread, etc., used in stuffing a roast. b. a seasoned mixture as of bread, nuts, or oysters, often used to stuff poultry or roasts.

Stuffing: any seasoning preparation used to stuff meat; a composition of bread, spices, condiments, etc.; forcemeat; dressing

Yeah, that didn't tell me much either, except that dressing is used as stuffing. Then, when you start to get into the difference between stuffing being used as a noun (like a bowl of stuffing) or a verb (you're stuffing the turkey), things get really unclear.

The only difference I can find, when there is a difference explained at all, is that dressing is cooked by itself, while stuffing is cooked inside the turkey. However, there are still so many stuffing recipes that are cooked outside of the turkey. They're used interchangeably and have the same ingredients. Case in point,'s food dictionary has this little gem to offer:

stuffing: see dressing

Ugh... not again. Way to give me a whole lot of nothing, What that does tell me though, is that dressing and stuffing may indeed just be regional differences. So I started looking up the history of stuffing in the south, and let me tell you, they do NOT like using the word stuffing. Chef Eve Felder, one of the deans at the Culinary Institute of America, claims that stuffing isn't a pleasant word, so in the South, they called it dressing. Those southerners- so polite and gentle.

Then I went to my Facebook fan page for the blog (Have you joined it yet? You're missing out.) and started asking where everyone is from and what they call it. Everyone responded pretty quickly- from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas, California, Florida, Tennessee, New York... seems that majority of them call it stuffing, and the ones who call it dressing are from the south. Not everyone from the south called it dressing, but the only ones who even mentioned the D-word were southern.

So the answer? I'm going with both. Dressing and stuffing are the same thing, with the same ingredients, sometimes cooked outside of the turkey, sometimes cooked inside. (Or sometimes layered in between glorious layers of duck, turkey, and chicken like the culinary wonderment that is the Turducken.)

Similar quandaries include the sprinkle/jimmie debate, the sub/hero/hoagie dilemma, and of course, my favorite: soda/pop. (Even though we all know it's soda. Le duh.)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A What the Bleep? Oldie but Goodie...

In honor of the most sacred, precious, and meaningful holiday of the year... lets talk pumpkin seeds again. Here's one from last year that I love.

Dear Tricia, Pumpkin carving season is upon us, and I hate for anything to go to waste. It turns out pepitas are one of my favorite salty-go-with-beer accessories. The problem is, when I harvest those little seeds of joy myself and try to roast them, they turn out to be chewy bits of hell. How do I get the crisp, salty bites of love that I crave?

First of all, kudos to you for not letting those little gems go to waste. This reminds me of the rocky mountain oyster post I wrote a few months ago, except that my readers will actually eat pepitas. Pepitas are roasted pumpkin seeds, by the way. It's how they're referred to in Mexican cooking and you'll often see them in the bulk section of the grocery store labeled as such. The difference between what you see in the store and what's inside a pumpkin is that what's inside the pumpkin seed still has the hull, or shell around it. Inside the hull is a little green kernel that is a little easier to chew, but both are completely edible, and to take the hull off the seed is pretty labor-intensive, so for this blog entry, I'll refer to the entire seed. Plus, if you're going to ask me about eating these while drinking beer, I'm going to assume that you're not up for the dextrous challenge. No judgement though.
Oh, and I should probably write a quick disclaimer. I woke up with a cold this morning and have about 4 different medications running through my body right now, so my wit isn't exactly up to its usual ninja-like speed. I'm also cranky because I was supposed to dress up for a charity Zombie pub crawl today, and as much as I'd like to suck it up and drink vitamin C- packed screwdrivers in full zombie regale, I had to cancel. So instead, I'm medicated and experimenting with pumpkin seeds. But regardless, I'm happy to educate you, dear readers.
This is was an email I didn't immediately know the answer to. My first thought was that you're probably not cooking them long enough, but it's not that simple. In my research, there are a few different methods to getting crispy pumpkin seeds. Some people claim that boiling the pumpkin seeds before roasting them works. Others think that a low oven temperature does the trick. On my medicated no-funday Sunday, I tried 4 of these different methods. I also managed to do other super important things, like catch up on my Real Housewives of Atlanta.
With each experiment, I used 1/4 cup of fresh pumpkin seeds scraped straight from a soon-to-be jack-o-lantern. I rinsed the seeds to get all the pulp off and then set them on a paper bag to dry off for about half an hour. Before roasting, I tossed each batch in 1/2 teaspoon of olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt.

Batch #1: I boiled the pumpkin seeds in salted water for 10 minutes. Then I roasted them at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
Batch #2: I roasted them at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. I also started to get the spins from cramming so many vitamins into my bloodstream.
Batch #3: I boiled the pumpkin seeds in salted water for 10 minutes. Then I roasted them at 275 degrees for 1 hour.
Batch #4: I roasted them at 275 degrees for 1 hour. I think I also had made about 13 trips to the bathroom at this point from drinking so much hot tea and water.

The results? Batch #4, the seeds that weren't boiled, and baked at a lower, slower temperature were the crispiest, crunchiest and least chewy. The ones that were boiled were a little tougher than the pepitas that weren't boiled. But each one was nowhere near being a chewy bit of hell. So apparently, slow and low... that is the tempo. The only reason I can come up with for boiling the seeds first is to give them a saltier flavor (from the salt in the water), but if you prefer saltier pepitas... then just add more salt. Its not rocket science.
I just used salt and oil for my seasoning, but you can definitely get creative here: try tossing them in a little cayenne for spicy pumpkin seeds, garlic and parmesan for something Italian, or cinnamon and sugar for sweeter snacks to go with your beer. You can also use cooking spray if you don't want the fat or calories from olive oil.
Aside from tasting awesome with your beer, pumpkin seeds are also really good for you. They're high in protein, omega fatty acids, Vitamin A (to keep your eyes healthy while squinting with jack-o-lantern-carving concentration), and Potassium (to help your keep your hands from cramping).
Now back to my pepita experiment snacks, Family Guy, and thinking of something non-traditional to carve in the pumpkin. A Christmas tree, perhaps?

I must mention that my adorable and dear friend Dawn sent me this doozy of a question, and I promised her I would include the photo her ninja jack-o-lanterns from last year. So, yes, friends, I know the creator of the masterpiece in the photo above. That's just how awesome my network is.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

My Martini Glass is Stressed and Needs a Drink

Dear Tricia, This is a safety hazard question, so I wanted to ask the expert. I went back and read about exploding casserole dishes in the oven and blow torching "cold" glasses, but I'm still not sure. I want to use a martini glass to decorate a cake and use sugar/corn syrup mixture to make it look like there is a vodka/cranberry drink in the glass. And I am scared to put the hard ball sugar into the glass and breaking it. I like my eyes, granted they need a little work, but I would like to keep them working. So, will I cause the thin martini glass to shatter by pouring 325 degree melted sugar into it?

Great question, and thanks for referencing the blog I wrote about a gazillion years ago about breaking dishes in a hot oven. And also, I find it hilarious that you want to "ask the expert" about a safety hazard since I'm consistent about running into doors, dropping breakables and slamming my fingers in drawers. I'm a walking disaster and I have the bruises to prove it.
To digress for a second, and for those who don't want to go back and read the older stuff (you're missing out), I have to mention a day in culinary school when my partner and I were taking a blowtorch to a dessert served in a champagne glass. Since she was from the Virgin Islands, and I'm from Texas and neither or us carry the word "cold" in our vocabulary, we took the glass right out of the refrigerator and put the blowtorch to it. It immediately shattered. So, like dumbasses, we tried it again on another glass. Shatterific. Our teacher wasn't crazy about us. (And I wasn't crazy about her either, if I must say. So there.) The point is, you can't take a cold glass and immediately put something hot in it because there are little pockets of air inside the glass that expand when they get hot. When they expand too fast or too much, they explode and break the glass. And then you're left with a dessert served in broken glass while 20 fellow students look at you like you just farted.
So I understand your hesitation. Let me break down the science of it: when things get hot, they expand. My fingers swell in the summer time when its hot as hades outside. Carbon dioxide bubbles inside a cake expand in the oven and make the cake rise. And air pockets inside glass expand when you heat it. The problem is, glass is a terrible conductor of heat. You could pour hot sugar on half of a glass plate and the air pockets inside that side of the plate will start to expand, but the other side of the plate's little air pockets aren't doing anything because the heat is taking too long to travel over there. So with the inside of one part of the plate expanding and the other side doing nothing, there's a lot of "thermal stress" going on. (What a terrible term. How much stress can a dish go through? Get a job already.) And with all the "thermal stress," it breaks.
So how do we avoid that?
First, you need to make sure your martini glass isn't made from blown glass. Hand blown glass (shouldn't it be referred to as mouth-blown?) has much more irregular pockets of air than generic glass that is made from pouring molten glass into a mold. Not sure if yours is hand blown? I found the most comprehensive checklist here . If you're buying your martini glass at the Dollar Store, I don't think you have to worry about it being blown. Lucky you: functionality and its a bargain. But if you're buying a martini glass somewhere all posh-like such as Crate and Barrel or ZGallerie, try asking the people who work there. (That's how I found out my new glasses were blown, which explains why they all like to break in the dishwasher. Not awesome.)
Second, you need to ease the "thermal stress" the glass is going through... you know, like giving it a xanax. By slowly bringing the temperature of the glass closer to the temperature of the hot sugar, it puts less stress on the glass once you start adding liquid magma-like substances to it. While you're cooking your sugar, put the martini glass under the tap with running hot water and just let the water run. Don't just splash some warm water in it at the last minute: really let the glass get hot so that when you pick it up to dry it off, its super hot. This is going to help warm up the glass enough so that the temperature of the hot sugar isn't so shocking. When your sugar is almost ready, stop the water, dry off the glass, and its ready to pour the sugar in. And when you're finished pouring the sugar in, don't do something stupid like put it in the freezer. Mixing and matching temperatures is never a good idea.
I'm curious to see how your experiment turns out. Send pictures. Happy fake martini-creating! You should reward yourself with a real one after your dessert success.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

And that's how the carrot cake crumbles.

From my Facebook fan page:

My mother emailed me asking how to fix her friend's crumbly carrot cake. The e-mail said the cake had excellent flavor and moistness, but crumbled to bits when it was cut.

Ahh, carrot cake. Who doesn't love carrot cake? Or, rather, who doesn't love that its a delicious vehicle for cream cheese frosting into my belly? Yum. (On a side note, when I worked in a bakery, I always tried not to laugh when customers would get carrot cake because it was "healthier." It's cake, my friends. Cake with frosting and cream cheese. Lots and lots of both... But, whatever makes you happy.)
Crumbly carrot cake is a disappointment. I'm disappointed already. But there's a couple of very simple things that I want to talk about before I go into the possibility of it potentially being a bad recipe.

1. The size of the carrots and extra goodies you add at the end may be your culprit. For those of you living under a very large rock with no sunlight or ways of communicating with the outside world for the past 300 years, carrot cake calls for lots of extra stuff besides eggs, butter and sugar. You have your shredded carrots, raisins, nuts, pineapple... lots of bits and pieces of yummy little things. When you start adding all of this to cake batter, its going to disrupt the gluten. To put it very simply, gluten is the protein that holds your cake together. But when you start to add lots of stuff to your cake batter, it tears apart the gluten, making it much harder for the cake to hold itself together- hence the crumbliness. (Yes, crumbliness is a word. I checked.) So carrot cake, to begin with is going to fall apart a lot easier than something very simple like a plain chocolate cake just because its got a lot of extra gluten-tearing crap in it. Something your alleged "mother's friend" may want to try is shredding the carrots smaller, chopping the nuts smaller, and possibly even pureeing them all together. In most home kitchens that aren't pimped out like mine is (thanks to the miracle of wedding gifts- thanks everyone!), you're going to use a cheese grater to grate the carrots, which gives you pretty large-sized shreds. If you use a microplane (or some people just call it a zester), you get really small, fine shreds of carrots that aren't big and jagged enough to tear apart so much gluten. Here's what it looks like: I use mine all the time for lemon zest and parmesan cheese, its a well spent $15 investment.
I'm a fan of just pureeing everything together because when you add the nuts and fruit and carrots at the end, it gives you a really smooth batter with all the flavors but none of the chunks that make the cake crumbly. Its not your traditional looking carrot cake when you slice it- there's no giant shreds of carrots, but there's also no crumbliness. That's how you make awesome meatloaf too, without the annoying look of those little presumptuous chunks of carrots and celery. Yuck. (Plus, I just really like to use my food processor. So much fun that I'm borderline embarrassed.)

2. Lets talk about cutting cakes. Cutting cake is something I've done a LOT of, especially wedding cakes. (And that's a blog for another time. Holy Drama, Batman.) When you cut a cake with lots of stuff in it, you've got to use a serrated knife. That's the knife that has the little jagged teeth on it that hurts really bad when you cut your finger. (Let me make that mistake for you- you don't have to do it yourself.) When you use a serrated knife, you have to saw, not just push down. The teeth are on there for a reason: it looks like a saw because you have to SAW. By sawing with the knife, the knife does all the work and cuts the cake without destroying it, as long as you don't start pushing down. Try this next time: saw saw saw... don't press down.... saw saw saw.... don't press down. Make that your mantra. You'll be amazed at how nicely you can cut a piece of cake without tearing it apart.
Something else to consider when cutting cake, and this may be obvious to you, but its not to everyone: let the cake cool before you cut it. For real. Cutting warm cake, no mater what kind it is, is going to give you really messy, crumbly pieces. If you stick it in the fridge and cut it when its cold- even better if you're going to neat slices. But warm cake and a knife will never bode well for avoiding crumbliness. (I LOVE that word!)

3. I don't know what kind of recipe she used- perhaps its an old family recipe that's 100 years old- but I want to point out something.

Are you ready for it?

Wait for it.....

Wait for it......

Sometimes, recipes are BAD!!!!

No, its true, especially now that everyone can put whatever they want on the internet, and that includes a lot of really terrible recipes. Honestly, sometimes recipes just don't work. If you prefer to find your recipes online, try and avoid sites like, where anyone and everyone can upload a recipe to share. There's no double checking on that website- some of the recipes are good, some of them are really horrible. For pretty solid, free recipes, I'm a fan of which features recipes from Bon Appetit and Gourmet, both of which (until the publishing industry started to crumble too) were super reliable sources. And for the best of the best recipe websites, I'd recommend joining, which is $35 bucks a year. If you haven't read any of my blogs where I geek out of this website, let me tell you... its the best test kitchen in the country. They test recipes over and over and over again until they WORK, and as a bonus, you're never inundated with pictures of Rachael Ray, like some other food websites. This is the magazine that broke the news about using vodka for the flakiest pie crust ever. But if you're into cookbooks and not the internet, the best baking recipes I've used over the last 10 years were all found in The Fannie Farmer Baking Book. The basics, like chocolate chip cookies, banana bread, and carrot cake, are all really killer.
And what do you do when your recipe is bad? Just because a recipe is bad doesn't mean you can't change it. Play around with it, add some things, take some things away. Don't be afraid to have fun and make mistakes. I mean, if the author of the recipe already gave you a crappy recipe, you probably can't make it much worse. But if you do, you can always send me an email.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Oh no, my eye!

I received a fairly frantic phone call from my brother-in-law the other day. He had been slicing a jalapeno, and before washing his hands, accidentally rubbed his eye. Not good. If you've ever been in that situation, I'm sure you know why the burning and stinging was bad enough to call me and ask what to do.

I have been in this situation before. Its not fun. I've cut hot peppers and then absentmindedly touched my face, leaving a big red stripe on my cheek all throughout dinner. Real cute. Capsaicin, that unfriendly little oil that lives deep inside peppers and burns the living daylights out of your mouth, and whatever else it comes in contact with, is a pretty resilient monster. And to be honest, there's not a magic fix-it that will make the burning instantly stop. That's why pepper spray is such an effective self-defense tool. I'm sorry, but there are no ninja skills on the planet that make a hot pepper not burn- especially if you rub it in your eye. There are a few things that can take the potential for 8 hours of burning and cut it back to 45 minutes or so. Let's talk.

First of all, plain old water won't do a whole lot. Capsaicin is an oil and it needs something stronger than water to rinse it away. That's like trying to rinse out a frying pan full of oil with water- its not going to do jack squat. Weirdly enough though, If you want to help remove capsaicin from your hands, rub some vegetable oil on your hands and then wash that off with soap and COLD* water. Make sure you get underneath your nails too. The Pepper Spray Store (yes, there is one) recommends using Dawn soap over other brands. I'd try it myself if I was willing to sacrifice my own comfort for the sake of science, but my eyes are already burning from Drano fumes coming out of my clogged kitchen sink, which would be a huge variable and won't give me an authentic result. Um, yeah. That's why I can't rub jalapeno in my eye today. Right.

Milk- There's a protein in milk called casein that loves fat. Since capsaicin is a fat, casein will surround it and help remove it from you skin and carry it away like a magic little dump truck. Opti Free (the saline and eye care company) recommends using milk on your skin to help alleviate the pain by first soaking the area in cold milk, and then washing with soap and water. While they don't suggest using milk to soak your eye, there's no good reason why you can't perform a little eye flush with cold milk. Is it the best idea to put food on your eye? Not always. Is it going to make you go blind? No. I'm pretty sure I'd put milk, lint, bologna, whatever in my eye if someone told me it would get rid of the pain. Put milk in a shot glass and tip your head over it. Press the glass against your eye and tilt your head back, letting the milk cover your eye. I know its hard, but try to keep your eye open and blink as much as you can. Oh, and milk alternatives won't work. Tempting, but almond, soy, and rice milk are too big a wussies to fight that mean capsaicin.

Saline- Pretty much the safest thing you can put on your eye. Your tears are natural saline, so squeezing a bottle of saline (you know, that salt water stuff people store their contacts in) into your eye and washing it out as much as you can will help. Again, this isn't going to make the pain go away instantly. Its just like eating spicy food: the heat eventually fades away, it doesn't just stop all of a sudden. If you buy an eye flush or have one of those fancy first aid kits that includes an eye flush, its made of the exact same thing.

You're going to want to keep your eyes closed, but try and blink as much as you can. Your eyes will produce natural tears that are trying really hard to get the burn out. Good job, tears.

Oh, and make sure you wash your hands lots and lots before you use the bathroom. Just like it stings your eyes, capsaicin will sting you everywhere else- even in the places the sun doesn't shine. And its a lot harder to put milk on those places... Just read the comments about bad jalapeno stories on my Facebook fan page for proof of your own.

For prevention next time,or if you're just really sensitive to capsaicin, you can always cut peppers while wearing rubber gloves. Not latex gloves: rubber gloves. The big yellow ones. Capsaicin will make its way through latex. Just remember that if you use rubber gloves, to wash those after as well. Le duh.

* Why cold water and not hot? Capsaicin affects nerve endings called VR1 receptors, which normally change shape when they detect heat. Capsaicin tricks them into changing shape without actually feeling hot temperatures-- you'll even sweat and everything. If you use hot water, the VR1 receptors will deform even more, which is what the capsaicin is already doing. Long story short? It makes you feel even hotter.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Reason #957 Why Sugar is Awesome.

Dear Tricia, Let's say someone is making something and uses a little too much cider there something said person can do to counteract the vinegar? What about salt or other spices? This is purely hypothetical...I never make mistakes. I have a friend that is curious.

Of course its hypothetical... Is it the same friend who spilled red wine on my white couch last month? Because I know I certainly didn't do that. I never spill anything, ever.
Being vinegar- happy is an easy fix, and all it takes is.... wait for it...... wait for it.........


Right, sugar. (Suck on that, Dr. Atkins! Sugar can be awesome!) Start adding sugar a little at a time, stirring it in to whatever you screwed up and tasting it as you go. There's no recipe or formula here. Sorry. You messed it up and the universe isn't going to coddle you anymore. But keep adding a little bit of sugar until the flavor starts to balance out. If you're making soup, you may want to add a little brothk or water, or whatever the base of the soup is and that may help out as well.

In trying to figure out the science of why sugar works, I stumbled across the pH scale. Remember that lovely pH scale in 7th grade science? Acids are on one side of the pH scale in the 0's and 1's. Bases, or alkalines, are on the other side over in the 13-14 side. Neutral is right in the middle around 7. (In my mind, Lindsay Lohan would be at 0 with battery acid, Betty White would be at 14 with drain cleaner, and Jennifer Love Hewitt and her brain cell-robbing facial expressions would be neutral at 7.) Vinegar is acidic- it hangs out with the 2's and 3's in Lindsay Lohan's neighborhood on the acid side of the pH scale. I thought that maybe, to cancel out all that vinegar flavor, sugar might be hanging out with Betty White on the base side of things. But I was wrong: sugar is neutral, right around 6 and 7 with pure water and Jennifer Love Hewitt. So it's not counteracting anything, just masking the flavor. And that's fine too, because it still fixed your problem. Er, I mean, your friend's problem.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Another Oldie but Goodie... Unsolved Chili Mysteries!

Dear Tricia, My husband loves chili...but every time I make a batch it either turns out too cumin-y or too chili powder- y. What is the best combination of spices for a hearty chili? Also, what is the best kind of meat to use? Is bison good? And the beans, which kind should I use there? Please help me please my baby's belly!

*I should warn all of you that if I suddenly go missing, I have been kidnapped by the International Chili Society. I'm wearing grey shorts, a white shirt with a the Star of David on it, and ski boots.*

I thought this would be a pretty light-hearted blog entry... its just chili, right? Well I was wrong. The International Chili Society proved me waaaaay wrong. Yes, there is a society for chili and, yes, it is international. And they have rules. I'm afraid to type too loud in case they hear me and read this and tell me I'm wrong. Shhhhhhh.
First of all, I'm going to give you a quick history lesson. There are two groups of people that can be credited with the first chili. Supposedly, Ranch cooks were one of them. Why? Because they usually had meat that was about to go bad and needed a good way to cover up the impending taste of rotten death. Chile peppers did a nice job covering it up. By stewing the chile peppers and meat together (that's what "chile con carne" actually translates to: chile pepper with meat), they came up with a hearty dish, used up what was going to be thrown away eventually, and the cowboys ate it right up. And if you read my Rocky Mountain Oysters post from Monday, you'll realize that throwing away anything was unheard of... even the cow's family jewels. The second group of people credited with making the first chili are the Aztecs, though theirs harbors a lot more anger. Supposedly, they were so angry about the Spanish Conquistadors invading their lands, that they killed and cut up the Spaniards, seasoned the meat with chile peppers, and ate them. Mmmm... cannibal chili. It gives Spanish Chile a whole new meaning, doesn't it? Can you imagine Fox News doing a story on that? "Aztec Cannibals Make Invaders into Chili." They'd probably blame it all on President Obama.
So lets get to fixing your chili, shall we?
First rule: lean meat only, preferably not ground. Lean meat is tougher, but the reason why you want to use it is because you're slowly cooking it in lots of flavorful juices that will tenderize it. So yes, bison is good because its lean. Ground meat will fall apart if its cooked slowly in so many juices, so cube up it up into medium sized chunks. Any stewing meat is ideal, and as a recession bonus, its cheap. Please refer to my "The Beef on Beef and Getting Grilled on Grilling" post for a quick lesson on the different cuts of beef. There's also a pretty picture to look at.
Second Rule: No beans. Since I live in Texas, we're going with Texas-style chili. And Texas-style chili NEVER has beans in it. If you must add beans (Shhhh! Don't let the International Chili Society hear you!), add them after you've finished cooking the chili so that they don't break down into mush. According to the history of chili (and its lengthy), if the cook lived in a poor area, they could bulk up the chili by adding beans, but that was not ideal. If you must disobey The International Chili Society, then just use whatever beans you like, because you're already in going to get in big trouble. And if you don't, then I'm telling on you. You can buy actual "chili beans," but kidney beans and pinto beans are perfectly fine too. Just use what you like best. Its like me and box wine: sure, I'm supposed to drink fine wine out of a bottle, but do I always want to? No. I'm just not that fussy. So... Franzia it is.
Third, we're going to talk about spices. Adding spices to chili is about as personal as picking out underwear, except imagine having 6,000 different types of underwear to choose from. Its exhausting and there is no right or wrong choice. What I learned from "Chili Cookoff Confidential" is that its not so much about what spices you use, but when you put them in. This is what's called a "dump." Go ahead and laugh... I did. And the fact that I'm talking about dumps and underwear in the same paragraph is purely coincidental, I promise. But the chili pros swear by mixing up all the spices at the beginning of the cooking process, and adding them to the chili in 2 or 3 "dumps" along the way. You add the first dump when you cook the meat. The second dump goes in when you're adding liquid to the meat to make the gravy. And the third dump goes in right before you finish cooking the chili. This is actually a really smart idea because spices change flavor as they cook, and in the case of cumin, it tends to get a little bitter. So you're probably adding the right amount of chili powder and cumin, but not at the right time. Whether or not you use two or three dumps seems to remain controversial in the chili world. But again, there are also 6,000 different types of chile powder to choose from, so there is no possible way to be right or wrong here. You'll also get better results by using different types of chili powder together, not using one kind. This makes the flavor of the chili more robust and complex, not just spicy. If you can find it, chimayo chili powder is my absolute favorite. And anytime you happen to travel to the southwest, especially New Mexico, make an effort to buy different regional types of chili powder that, most likely, you can't get at home. That's a much better souvenir than a stupid shot glass with the coyote with the bandanna, howling at the moon. God, I hate those.
So in conclusion, remove the beans, use lean meat, and add your spices in separate "dumps. " That should help your chili dilemma and fill your husbands belly with happy results. For more information on chili, check out the International Chili Society's website, And if I suddenly go missing, that should also give you a hint to where kidnapper took me.

**Shortly after this blog was posted last year, Michael (who is now one of my favorite people in the world) from the International Chili Society contacted me and had me judge one of their cook offs in San Antonio. Turns out they're really passionate about chili, but have no interest in kidnapping people.**

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Shelby, drink the juice.

Dear Tricia, I love biscuits and gravy, and I really want to know how to make real gravy from scratch. Am I in over my head? Is this something I have any chance of learning before I'm a grandpa?

Biscuits and gravy ARE AWESOME! Its my favorite thing to make for Sunday brunch and I like to get all southern when I make them... you know, quote lines from Steel Magnolias and talk like I'm from Mississippi. And doing my impression of Julia Roberts as she's about to go into Diabetic shock is always a fun bonus. "Don't talk about me like I'm not here!"

No, you're not in over your head. Gravy is actually a really simple sauce that anyone can master. And as a bonus, all you need are a few ingredients. So as soon as you master this recipe, you'll be really psyched that you can have an almost empty fridge but still be able to make gravy.

Here's what you need:

1/2 pound breakfast sausage (you can use ground sausage or sausage links. If you use links, just peel off the casing and use the meat inside. The casing is that weird rubbery thing that holds it all together. Throw that part away.)
1/3 cup flour
2 cups milk
salt and pepper

1. Heat up a pan on a stove over medium-low heat (that means if your oven knob goes from 1-9, put it at 3 or 4. Or 3 1/2 if you can't make up your mind. Whatever. Just make a decision.) and put the sausage in it.
2. Break up the sausage into little pieces. I like to use a wooden spoon, but you can use whatever works best for you. What you want to do is "render" the fat, or slowly pull all the fat out of the sausage. If you have the heat up too high, you'll sear the sausage and give it dark color on it and the fat will stay inside. That's a no-no. With gravy, fat is good, so you want to gently ease it on out.
3. When the sausage is fully cooked, add the flour and start stirring. What you're doing is making a "roux", which is a cooked mixture of fat and flour. The flour is what's going to thicken up your gravy, but you need to cook it a bit first so that your gravy doesn't taste like paper mache. (Not that I know what paper mache tastes like. Especially not because I tasted some in 1988 when I was making mummies out of action figures with my cousins.) So stir and cook, stir and cook, and wait until the flour starts to turn a little golden. Go ahead and give it some color... you're not going to burn it as long as you keep the heat at medium-low.
4. When the flour has some color on it... like the color of apple sauce, add the milk. Now you're going to need to use a wisk. Stir the milk and sausage and roux together and try to wisk out any lumps. (Not to be confused with pieces of sausage.) Keep wisking and let the milk get really hot. As it gets hot, the flour will thicken it. If its taking like 10 minutes, then the heat isn't high enough. Turn it up a little and watch the magic happen. When the gravy starts to bubble a little, its done. Remember, its going to thicken up as it cools too, and if its too thick, you can thin it down a little with more milk.
5. Season it with salt and pepper. You probably don't need as much salt as you think: the sausage has a lot of that already and is what mainly flavors the gravy.

Now, if you take out all of my babbling, here's the quick instructions:

1. Cook sausage over medium-low heat.
2. Add flour, stir, and cook until golden.
3. Add milk and wisk until thickened.
4. Season with salt and pepper.

Just like that. 4 easy steps, 3 main ingredients: its one more item that you can add to your list of "things that aren't rocket science." On a side note, you don't always have to use sausage- my Grammie Sue (who was awesome because she crocheted little crafty ducks that were jelly bean holders and when you squeezed it, a jelly bean would pop out of its crocheted butt) used chip beef, and you can also use bacon. Whatever floats your (gravy) boat.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Demystifying Polenta: Its Just Ground-Up Corn!!!

Dear Tricia, Polenta is intimidating me. It's cornmeal so I think that I like it, but I both of my experiments have been failures. The first time it was all my fault. I burnt it and take complete responsibility. The second time, Polenta puffed up it's big Italian chest, bit it's thumb at me, and got lumpy. It tasted okay, but I felt gypped. Maybe I didn't "rain the grain" properly. I don't know. Also, I can buy polenta in both the bulk and refrigerated sections of Whole Foods. What's that about? I suspect the tubes of polenta are there so I can be lazy, but the recipes I find always call for the grain.

Yeah, polenta has this really intimidating reputation for being some kind of elusive magic food that no one can master, not even Bruce Lee. To add to the hype, there was an article about it in the New York Times earlier this year called "Taking the Fear out of Making Polenta." I think that's really sad and ironic because polenta started out as a peasant food way back in the day. Those peasant dudes didn't have to go to culinary school to figure it out: its just porridge. Don't be afraid of food. Have fun with it, and if you mess up, then just start over or try it again some other time. Okay, off my soap box now.

The whole "rain the grain" concept: forget about the term. Let's not over complicate what "slowly sprinkling the cornmeal into the water" is. Its cooking, not meteorology. Even my Bible, (and every other professional cook or chef's Bible) The Professional Chef, doesn't use that term. You're making a big bowl o' gruel. Not a big deal. And when it comes to who's higher on the food chain, you will always win over polenta, hands down.

Alright, so traditionally you boil salted water in a pot, and slowly sprinkle the polenta in while you stir stir stir. When it all has been added, turn down the heat and keep stirring to prevent those naughty little lumps. Its not a quick process- give yourself at least half an hour- and if you don't stir enough, you'll get lumps. If you have the heat up too high, you'll also get lumps then. My guess is that you had the heat up too high: both times, not just when you burned it. But just to be sure, I tried a couple of different methods to find an easier way for you to succeed next try.

First try: Alton Brown's method. While I'm not a big fan of the Food Network, I do love me some Alton Brown. He's kind of like a male version of myself, but he cusses less and I probably look better in heels. And that's ok... I love him all the same. Anyway, he has a recipe that makes polenta in the oven, so you don't have to stand there and stir for 40 minutes when you could be doing something else more important. (Like playing Lego Batman on Wii or making margaritas.) Here's the recipe:

2 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 cup finely chopped red onion
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 quart chicken stock or broth
1 cup coarse ground cornmeal
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 ounces Parmesan, grated

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large, oven-safe saucepan heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the red onion and salt and sweat until the onions begin to turn translucent, approximately 4 to 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, add the garlic, and saute for 1 to 2 minutes, making sure the garlic does not burn.
Turn the heat up to high, add the chicken stock, bring to a boil. Gradually add the cornmeal while continually whisking. Once you have added all of the cornmeal, cover the pot and place it in the oven. Cook for 35 to 40 minutes, stirring every
10 minutes to prevent lumps. Once the mixture is creamy, remove from the oven and add the butter, salt, and pepper. Once they are incorporated, gradually add the Parmesan.

And that's it. You leave it cook in the oven, stir it a few times, and when I tried it... it was completely free of lumps. And super easy, too. I like that, and it probably fits in a little better with your schedule than standing over a stove for longer than an entire episode of "Family Guy."

I wanted to try something else too. I went back to that New York Times article... the one that supposedly takes the "fear" out of making polenta, and I checked out what the author's secret was. He swore by making a slurry of polenta and water first (traditionally, a slurry is when you mix cold water and cornstarch together first before you add it to a sauce to thicken it. This is to prevent lumps), then "add it to not-to-high heat, bring it to a boil, reduce it to a simmer and gradually add more water as needed to keep the mixture smooth and loose."

That's confusing as all get-out. (Its also the same method for making risotto, but that's another blog for another time.) Seriously, not to knock another writer, I mean... he does write for the New York Times and I don't, but it didn't really take the fear out of making polenta. I'd venture to say it adds more fear to it. An amateur would need the Polenta Whisperer to use that recipe. So I tried it anyway and it worked fine too- no lumps. But it took the traditional process and added like 3 more steps to it. It was so much more time-consuming than the oven-method and it gave me the same results. No thanks, New York Times.

So, if I were you, I'd try Alton Brown's method. It gave me lump-free polenta and it also took less time with half the work. About your polenta-in-the-tube question. Its just a convenience product- like buying frozen waffles or TV dinners. If you like to chill polenta, slice it, and grill it, that's why you'd buy it already made in a tube. Not gonna judge... go on with your convenience-loving self if it makes you and your belly happy.

When I get time (and an extra $35 for the annual fee), I'm going to try Cook's Illustrated's recipe for making polenta in the microwave. I'm feeling pretty good about it, but I'll keep you posted. In the meantime, let me know how your next run goes. I always love What the Bleep feedback.

Thanks for reading, and make sure you join my Facebook fan page where I get to interact more with my readers. Word.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

More on Avoiding the Rubber Chicken

When I first started this blog, I wrote about reheating chicken breasts without making them rubbery. I wanted to expand on that for a minute and let you know about this awesome product that I found.
First, I should explain that I like to cook a bunch of chicken breasts at the beginning of the week and keep them in the fridge so that my husband and I can take them to our respective jobs and eat them for lunch. (I use the word "respective" loosely, as my current job totally blows.) Reheating that chicken in an oven is obviously impossible at work, so its either eat the chicken cold, or microwave it. Either way makes the chicken harder to eat, so I've started marinating the shite out of all the chicken before I cook it. Remember what a marinade does? It starts breaking down the fibers of the meat before you cook it so that you get a more tender product. Its like sending Mr. T in to give your meat a good, eight hour talking-to before you put it on the grill. But I don't always feel like mixing up a marinade from scratch (I've got to save my energy for more important things like cocktail hour and writing this blog... the two sometimes happen simultaneously), and that's where this awesome product comes in.

1888 Premium Olive Press is this killer dirty martini mixer that is the very first of its kind. (Google it and order some pronto! Or, if you live in Texas, you can find it at your liquor store.) Seriously, no one else has ever thought of this, and that's just crazy: its made by pressing whole olives in a giant gazillion-pound press, taking the olive juice and bottling it. This happens to make a dangerously good dirty martini because your cocktail ends up tasting like olives, not ocean water. It also makes a bad ass marinade. I have been pouring 1888 over chicken breasts, salting them, and letting them sit overnight before I roast them in the oven. This way, not only is the chicken super tender when it comes out of the oven, but it stays super tender when I eat it cold or reheat it in the microwave. It only flavors the chicken lightly, which I like, because a lot of marinades are BBQ or smokey flavored, and I'm not always in the mood for that.

As advanced as the culinary arts have become, its funny that there are still only two ways to tenderize meat. You either marinate it, or beat the crap out of it. For real, those are your two options. Even on an angry day, I'm much happier to pour a bottle of olive juice on my chicken than start a fight with it. (And then I can enjoy a martini at the same time. Score!)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Tricia's Top Five Reasons Why Showgirls is the Best Movie of All Time

Okay, not really. I'm writing about cooking stuff, I just thought I'd change it up a bit to give my google searches some variety and to try and expand my fan base. I do think Showgirls is an awesome movie, by the way. It makes me laugh for the entire 2 hours.

Dear Tricia, What would your top 5 kitchen utensils or items be? Why? Any specific brand(s)?

Top 5 is the perfect number for you to ask for because once you start getting up to 10, the kitchen tool junkie in me starts to show her true colors. For real, you should have seen me when I opened up some of my wedding gifts. "A citrus reamer?? I've always wanted one of these!!" I don't know if my husband was ready to see that side of me. Alright, this was tough, but here goes.

1. As far as knives go, you don't need an entire fancy set. Let's be real- you're never going to use all of them and you probably don't need extra crap on your counter top. So a chef's knife is most important. A chef's knife is a large (usually between 8-10 inches), all purpose knife with a straight blade (as opposed to a serrated blade... you know, those zig zag-shaped blades that you use to slice bread with and it hurts extra bad when you cut yourself? Um, hypothetically speaking, of course.) that is used for any chopping, dicing, slicing, etc. I prefer my Global knife because it comes in two sizes and the smaller one fits my hand better. Its also really light and easy to sharpen. (Knives are a whole other blog. Read that one here.)

2. A paring knife. That's the tiny knife with the tiny handle and straight blade that is used to slice really small stuff and cut fruit with. I use my paring knife for little things like picking lemon seeds out of lemons and other random tasks that don't even involve cutting. I prefer a Shun paring knife because it has something like 14 types of steel in the blade, and again, really easy to sharpen. I've had my knives for years and don't plan on getting new ones anytime in the near future. Both of my knives are Japanese... leave it up to those guys to make as awesome of knives as they do cars. Driving around in my Honda and using my Japanese knives makes me feel like I'm representing my Japanese homies pretty well.

3. Tongs are basically an extension of your hand. They're completely awesome and they're probably every one's favorite utensil in professional kitchens. I used to carry mine in my back pocket. Tongs are used to grab hot stuff, flip it over in a pan, take hot pans out of the oven, grilling, and can be used anytime you don't have a hot pad or a towel. Instead of using a spatula to move stuff around in a pan, they give you more control to grab things and move them where you want- you gotta show that food who's boss, and tongs will help you do it. I'm not brand specific when it comes to tongs, they just need to be sturdy ones that aren't too big to handle comfortably, and they need to be all metal so that they don't melt when you're handling said hot stuff.

4. A heat-safe, rubber spatula. I make a lot of eggs (and coincidentally, most of my blog questions happen to be about eggs), and a rubber spatula is the best thing to cook them with. When you're scrambling eggs, or making them over-easy, or whatever, a rubber spatula keeps everything from sticking to the pan and because its flexible, gives you more control. A plastic spatula is a disaster. I hate them. Also, you need a heat safe spatula so that, duh, it doesn't melt in high temperatures. Nothing says unappetizing like melted plastic in your food. Restaurant supply stores sell my favorite ones (they're always white with a red handle), but if you're not near one, Williams Sonoma and Sur La Table sell Le Crueset ones that are really sturdy. (And they always come in pastel colors around Easter. Bonus!) Don't buy the Cuisinart ones: I accidentally ate a splinter that came out of the handle of one of those. Unpleasant doesn't even begin to describe the cat-hacking-up-a-hairball-like noises I made during that experience. It wasn't cute.

5. A good non- stick pan for cooking omelets. (Wanna know if its spelled "omelet" or "omelette?" Click here.) I make omelets ALL THE DING DANG TIME. And to get an omelet to flip without sticking, I've found that a non stick pan with no scratches is completely necessary, especially if you don't cook a lot. In order to keep it scratch free, don't wash it with a metal scrubber or use any metal utensils in it. A non-stick pan is also great for making good eggs over easy. One blog reader on my facebook fan page specifically calls this pan her "egg pan." I call mine James.

I feel like I'm neglecting to mention all of my favorite baking tools: my Kitchen-Aid mixer, my mini offset spatula, and my squeezy citrus juicer. The blender is also super helpful. And that food processor that I'm saving up for is going to be awesome. And my French press coffee maker. And my Blu Ray player so that I can watch Showgirls...

Friday, July 2, 2010

Fourth of July= Pie and Blowing Things Up

I have to make some peach pies on Sunday for my family, and for those of you who are into some good ol' American pie for the 4th of July, I wanted to repost my vodka pie crust blog titled "American Pie and Vodka, and no I'm not Talking about Tara Reid." The crust is the most flaky, amazetastic pie dough you'll ever use, and yes, it uses vodka. I've heard that when you get it just right, rainbows spontaneously occur, and unicorns magically appear in your backyard.

Dear Tricia, I'm told my pie crusts are pretty good. But I ran into a recipe that calls for vodka! I know the alcohol would bake out, but why in the world would I even want to add it? (And if I was going to pick a booze to add, it would be tequila....)

Sometimes when I think I'm too much of a bad ass in the kitchen (or just too good at pretending like I am), I get an email like this that makes me think, "Wow. I really don't know!" So this was a fun one to research.
It turns out I'm not that behind on my baking skills, as this is a recipe that Cooks Illustrated (For those of you that aren't familiar, Cooks Illustrated is sort of like an awesome science magazine for recipes... everything is fool-proof and it never features Rachael Ray!) just developed last year that had most bakers scratching their heads. They suggested that you take half of the water in the pie crust recipe and substitute it with vodka. So, if your recipe calls for 1 cup of water, use 1/2 cup of water and 1/2 cup of vodka. "But why in the world would you want to waste good vodka?", you ask. If you'd rather have a martini than a glorious flaky apple pie, then get out of the kitchen and go ahead and get back on Facebook. But if you're willing to donate the martini to the pie crust, then this recipe guarantees the flakiest pie crust you'll ever taste. Here's why:

1. Gluten doesn't form in alcohol:
What the hell is gluten? Well, if you're a loyal reader, you should know this. But if not (shame on you!), here's a brief overview: if you've over-worked your pie dough and then try to roll it out, its super hard to get it to roll without it springing back like a piece of elastic. That's because it has a lot of gluten in it. As a visual, pretend that water and flour are like... thanksgiving. And too much thanksgiving = elastic pants.
When you mix water and flour together and keep stirring/kneading/over-all-messing-with it, gluten forms. Gluten is a natural protein that makes baked goodies like bread chewy. But when you're making pie dough, you don't want a lot of gluten to show up at the pie crust party because it makes the crust end up chewy and tough. This can be avoided by not over-working the pie dough. You simply mix the water/butter/flour together until it just forms a ball and then refrigerate it. It's also a lot easier to roll out that way. But as an added bonus (I feel like I'm channelling Billy Mayes here), gluten won't form in alcohol. It's like magic! For some strange reason, gluten just hates alcohol and stays far far away.

2. The alcohol evaporates in the oven:
Lets play pretend again. Pretend you have a really soggy and wet pie dough that you put in the oven to bake. What you're going to take out of the oven in 45 minutes is a doughy, heavy, definitely-not-flaky pie crust. Not enough of the water evaporated out of the dough so it just stayed gross and soggy. But what alcohol does is evaporate completely in high heats. (The same thing happens when you cook with alcohol... you keep some of the flavor but the boozy stuff disappears.) So if you're taking half of your water and substituting it for alcohol, half of the liquid is guaranteed to evaporate, and some of the water will evaporate too. This makes a flaky, light pie crust.

So why use vodka and not some other delicious liquor? Vodka is the most odorless, tasteless alcohol, so it leaves a classic pie crust flavor without any other interference. But if you prefer tequila (or bourbon, like myself. Helloooo Woodford Reserve), why not use it? Have a little nip for yourself and then try it out and let me know what happens. Any other liquor will have more sugar, which means your crust might possibly brown more, but keep a good eye on it while its baking and use some foil to cover the top if it happens to get too dark.
Another helpful hint I learned from researching this recipe is that the dough can be a little more wet and difficult to work with, so try rolling the dough out in between pieces of wax paper or parchment paper to avoid bigger mess to clean up later. But if you're sampling the tequila while baking, a mess might be unavoidable anyway. And I support that.

Here's the recipe:

2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons sugar
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/2 cup cold vegetable shortening, cut into 4 pieces
1/4 cup cold vodka
1/4 cup cold water

1. Process 1 1/2 cups flour, salt, and sugar in food processor until combined, about 2 one-second pulses. Add butter and shortening and process until homogeneous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 15 seconds (dough will resemble cottage cheese curds and there should be no uncoated flour). Scrape bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. Add remaining cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses. Empty mixture into medium bowl.

2. Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together. Divide dough into two even balls and flatten each into 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days.

For similar blog entries, check out my archives under the titles, "Rootin' Tootin' Gluten" and "Whoever made up the phrase "Easy as Pie" was a Big Fat Liar."

Monday, June 21, 2010

Last One is a Rotten Egg!

Dear Tricia, Last month I bought 2 -18 count organic eggs around 6pm, put them in my trunk, came home, parked in my garage and forgot they were there… 2 hours later (ugh!!) I remembered and put them in my fridge. I ended up throwing them away, but hated doing it…would you think they’d be good still? I’ve heard that cooking with room temperature eggs is better anyway…how long is “room temperature” before you start letting it rot? Hate wasting food, but hate getting “wasted” more.

Good question! I understand your hatred for wasting food and money. Like I always say, nobody likes a waster. But unfortunately, I have news for you that puts you in the waster category. At 2 hours, your eggs were just fine. Insert sad face here.
What's funny to me about Americans (not that I'm not American, but I just notice that Americans seem to be especially concerned about refrigerating EVERYTHING) and their refrigeration habits, is that they think that anything left out at room temperature is going to go bad immediately. I know people who request ice to pack their groceries in for the 20 minute ride home, which seems a little ridiculous. Let's not forget that produce grows outside in the hot sun, and that eggs come from warm chicken lady holes.
In Europe, you'll usually find eggs at the grocery store out at room temperature, far away from the refrigerators. Their system of putting expiration dates on eggs is based on when the egg was laid, not when it left the farm like it is here in the States. So their guidelines on refrigeration are obviously different than ours, but you don't seen some crazy Egg Plague taking over Europe either. I've also seen eggs out at room temperature in Grenada, part of the British West Indies. I ate them and I was fine. No Egg Plague for me, I've avoided Salmonella, and have only gotten food poisoning from calamari and bad hockey arena food. (Ugh. Never again.)
"But what about eggs giving me Salmonella, Tricia?" Here's the deal with Salmonella: you don't get it from eating undercooked or spoiled eggs. A chicken has to already have Salmonella in their body in order to get Salmonella into the egg. It happens before the egg leaves their body, and before the egg even has a shell around it. And even then, if you boiled the egg, you'd cook the Salmonella right out of it. It's not like an automatic thing that magically happens if you leave an egg out and then it just gets Salmonella. That would be some form of crazy ninja bacteria that doesn't exist yet. But ideally, that's why you're not supposed to eat raw eggs. And people are usually good about that until it comes to eating raw cookie dough. Then it doesn't seem to matter anymore, does it?
Here's my humble opinion... that's why you're here, right? According to the Egg Safety Center (, you can only leave eggs out for 2 hours at room temperature before they are unsafe. And frankly I think that's a load of crap. A humongous pile of steaming crap, covered in Salmonella. Especially because the health department and food safety books will tell you that you have a 4 hour window. There's no set standard, just a lot of overly cautious, super litigious people who are afraid you might get sick and then sue them. Do you want to avoid eating room temperature eggs if you're like 98 years old with pneumonia, or you have the immune system of an AIDS patient? Probably. But for most of us... its fine. Every bakery and restaurant I've ever worked in leaves eggs out at room temperature all day. I've written about this before when I talked about how room temperature eggs are best used in baking. And you were just fine after you ate that delicious piece of Red Velvet cake that I baked.
Now would you use those eggs to make cookies if you cracked them open and they smelled rotten? No, of course not. You always want to use your best judgment when it comes to food safety, and you can read more about that here. So remember to use your eyes, nose, and brain. And when you go to Italy and eat that fritatta at breakfast that is oh-so-delicioso... just remember that those eggs didn't ever see a refrigerator.

Monday, June 14, 2010

When Vegetables Attack!

Dear Tricia, I need to find a way to use up everything when I buy a lot of veggies.

I got this question on my Facebook fan page (thanks, Erin) when I opened up a little conversation about vegetables. And its a good one, because no one likes to throw food away, unless you're a waster... and no one likes a waster. On a side note, I can totally relate to this because when I lived in San Francisco, I used to go the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market every Saturday and come home with a bag full of random produce that I had no intention of cooking within a week. It all just looked too pretty not to buy. Some people splurge on shoes, I splurge on pretty vegetables.
When I need to use up random veggies, (which never happens anymore, because feeding my husband is like feeding a 14 year old, garbage disposal stomach of a boy) I always make them into an easy enchilada casserole. I've written about this before too, when I was writing about how to eat your feelings without getting cellulite, but I'm happy to share it again. You'll need said excess veggies, a package of corn tortillas, two cans of enchilada sauce, a can of refried beans, and shredded cheddar cheese. (I like to use non fat for everything, but you can use whatever you want.)
To start off with, cut up your veggies into bite sized pieces. Steaming them without any gadgets is easy; just get a saute pan really hot (and seriously, wait until its really hot or this trick won't work), throw the veggies in there, pour in 1/2 cup of water and put a lid on it. When the water is completely evaporated, your veggies will be just about done. You don't want to crowd the pan and dump like 2 pounds of veggies in there because that's too much to cook at once. So do it in batches... just enough veggies to cover the bottom of the pan. When you're done, put all of your veggies together in a bowl.
Next, get a casserole dish ready. Put two tortillas in the bottom. Using a spatula or a knife, spread a healthy layer of refried beans on the tortillas. Then put a layer of vegetables on top. Pour about a 1/4 cup of enchilada sauce on the veggies. Repeat this until you've filled up the dish. You should use up the entire can of enchilada sauce. Once you've finished, put two last tortillas on top and pour the other can of sauce on them. Top it with a layer of shredded cheese and throw that sucker in the oven at 375 degrees for about 20 minutes. When its melted and gooey, its ready, and you can eat your feelings, not get cellulite, and use up your vegetables. Congratulations, you just killed 3 birds with one stone.
Bird murderer.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Truth about Tilapia

Dear Tricia, Talk to me about tilapia.

Talk to you about tilapia? Hmmm, should I tell you about that time it got in trouble in the 9th grade for selling history essays to jocks for $50 a pop? Or I could tell you about that one time it formed an all-girl group called the Hot Sundaes but got hooked on caffeine pills and ruined their chance at mainstream stardom. But you probably don't want to know that kind of stuff about tilapia. I'm guessing you want to know how to cook it. No problem.
Tilapia is a mild-tasting, white fish that lives in warm, shallow, fresh water. (Read: it doesn't come from the ocean.) Its super healthy for you because its high in protein, and low in carbs, fat and calories, unless its farm-raised. Farm raised tilapia is more commonly seen in grocery stores and its actually really high in fat. Try to avoid any farm raised fish if you can, especially tilapia. Its more expensive, but I believe that its completely worth it. Just my opinion.
Because tilapia filets are usually pretty small (you can only eat about 30% of the entire fish, which isn't much, compared to say tuna, where about 50% of the fish is edible), it cooks really quickly. And because its so mild-tasting, you can season it with whatever you want.
If you're on a health kick, the easiest way to cook tilapia is by preheating your oven to 400, putting it on a piece of foil to keep it from dripping, and seasoning it with anything you like: I like to go old school and just use Old Bay Seasoning. But look in your spice cabinet and use what sounds good... anything lemony or garlicky is awesome too. Put it in the oven and it only has to cook for about 8 minutes. (This may vary. If you preheated your oven like I told you to, it will be around 8 minutes. If you turned on your oven and then put the fish in right after then its obviously going to take longer. Le duh.) "But how will I know if its done, Tricia?" Its simple. The fish was kind of translucent when you put it in there, right? When the fish is solid white, then its done. If you're not sure, take a knife and open it up a little bit... the center should be white. And if its just about there, but not quite, you can go ahead and take it out of the oven because it will continue to cook another 5 degrees or so. (This is called "carry over cooking." It happens to every kind of meat when you take it out of the oven or off the stove.) Finish it off with a squeeze of lemon or lime and you're all set to go. Simple, and easy.
If you want to get a little fancier and aren't concerned about calories, try this:
1. Get about two tablespoons of butter ready, and chop up a clove of garlic. (The already chopped up stuff in the jar works fine too.)
2. Get a small bowl of milk ready and take your piece of tilapia and dip it in the milk. Make sure both sides get coated. Then sprinkle both sides with grated Parmesan cheese. Press down on the cheese lightly to make it stick on the fish. (If you don't like Parmesan cheese, you can use breadcrumbs. You can buy them already made at the grocery store, or click here to learn how to make your own.)
3. Put a saute pan on medium-high heat on your stove and let it get hot. (You can also do this while you're coating the fish.)
4. Melt the butter in the pan and put the garlic in there while its melting. Stir it around a little so that the garlic gets coated with butter.
5. When the butter is melted, put the Parmesan tilapia in the pan and let it cook for about a minute or two.
6. After a minute or two, use a spatula to turn the filet over to finish cooking. As soon as you turn it over, turn the heat down to medium. It should take another 2 minutes or so to finish cooking. Again, you'll know when it done when the fish is no longer translucent.

If its taking longer than this to cook, then you're not letting your pan get hot enough before you add the butter. The butter should make noise when you put it in the pan. Noise is good when you're cooking: it means something's happening in the pan. When you get good at that, you can start slamming pots around and slamming oven doors and dropping f-bombs and pretending like you're a professional chef. That's how it is in the real world.

On a side note, I would like to apologize for the month-long gap in my blogging. I got married in May and have been a little preoccupied. But I'm back from my honeymoon now and will get back to my regular writing. Thanks for reading! And don't forget to share your favorite blogs on Facebook and Twitter using the links on the right.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Easy, Cracker!

So I'm going back to an oldie but a goodie again, but for two very good reasons that all happened yesterday. Yesterday morning while my fiance was making me some post-birthday hangover eggs, he asked me for help on how to crack an egg without getting shell in it. And then last night while I was up late obsessing over this cool new show called Future Food, I saw an infomercial for a product called the EZ Cracker. It's a little plastic contraption of sorts that cracks an egg for you without getting the shell in it. Here's what they claim:

EZ Cracker is the new and easy way to crack and separate eggs. It cracks eggs, separates egg whites, and strip shells from hard boiled eggs in just seconds. Now you can enjoy eggs without any mess or hassles. You no longer have to worry about tiny pieces of egg shells getting into your food.

Right, because I stay up late at night, losing sleep, worrying about tiny egg shells in my food.

One of the first questions I received when I started this blog, was "What's the proper way to crack an egg? I always get pieces of shell in mine." I'm going to rewrite that blog here so that you can learn how to crack an egg with your own two hands, like a big boy, without having to shell out $20 bucks (Pun Alert!) for a plastic piece of shit that sounds like its a large African American man, yelling at me. "Easy, cracker!!"

1. Use a FLAT surface to crack the egg. If you use the lip of a bowl or the corner of the counter top, the edge just causes more unnecessary breakage that create tiny broken pieces of shell. What you're trying to do is create one simple broken line so that you can put your thumbs in there and open up the egg. You don't want to smash the daylights out of it. Then you'll look like one of the stroke victims in the commercial who act like they only learned hand-eye coordination yesterday. So just tap the egg on a flat counter, and put your thumbs in the crack to open up the shell. Easy peasy.

2. Don't be an idiot and bang things against the egg like in the commercial. Seriously, don't. The "actor" (I wonder how much she got paid) was banging a fork against an egg and it cracked all over the place and made a mess. Its just you, the egg, and a counter top. Leave the foreign objects out of it. (And why a fork?? Why not something substantial, like a meat tenderizer or something?)

3. If you get shells in your egg, use a big piece of shell to get the little pieces out. I know, it tempting to stick your fingers in there and chase that piece of shell around for like 10 minutes because "I can grab it, just wait a second," but swallow your pride and use a piece of shell. It works the fastest, every time.

4. If you're baking something and you have to add eggs to a recipe, crack the eggs in their own bowl first. Then if there's any shell in it, you can pick them out first before you add them to your Aunt Tillie's morning glory muffins. If you try breaking an egg over the side of a bowl (that's your first mistake. I said to use a flat surface.) to add them right into your recipe mix, you're probably going to get shells in everything, especially if you're new at this whole cracking of the eggs dilemma. And then you'll be digging around the batter trying to find a piece of shell, when you could have followed my advice and cracked the eggs in their own bowl.

5. To peel boiled eggs, all you need to do is put those eggs in a bowl of ice water as soon as they're done cooking. I swear by this trick. Its called "shocking" the eggs. Let them chill in the water until cold and they'll take off their shells like they were on "Huevos Gone Wild."

6. To separate egg whites from the yolk, crack the egg on a flat surface. But then, when you break open the shell with your thumbs, keep the egg in the biggest of the two shell halves. If you tip the shell and jiggle it around a little, the white will pour off the side and leave the yolk in the shell. If that's too difficult, you can break the egg into a bowl, and then use one of the shell halves to scoop the yolk out.

** My Aunt read this entry and emailed me, reminding me that you can use your fingers to separate eggs. You can crack the egg into your hand, an let the white slip through your fingers while the yolk stays in your hand. While she's right, one of my mentors in a restaurant I worked at wouldn't let me do this. We saved all of our whites to make meringue and she insisted that the oil on our hands could interfere with how fluffy the eggs would whip up. Since her resume is WAY more impressive than mine, I've never been able to use my hands to separate eggs since.**

So, to sum up, you have to trust your own two hands here. If you create one simple crack in that egg, let your thumbs do the work and just pull the egg apart. You don't have to get violent. Because, as much as I love cool kitchen gadgets, I do not love unnecessary ones that waste your money. (Although I'm sure an arthritic old lady could benefit from an EZ Cracker, but she's in a very small minority.) I'm sure you could use that $20 for something much better, even if you really want the Bacon Wave that comes as a free bonus gift. Call me old fashioned, but we got along fine without it until now (and the Bump It... and the iPad...), so I think you'll survive if you just learn how to break eggs with your own two hands like a real man. Or woman. And I'm looking at you, Rachael Ray.