Wednesday, March 31, 2010

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

Dear Tricia, Since you've mentioned a few of your favorite cookbooks here and there, it'd be cool to see a top 5 or top 10 list of your absolute favorite/can't-live-without cookbooks.

What a perfect idea! And how, because my other favorite thing to talk about, next to food, is myself. Well, that and the vast array of music trivia that I know for no good reason. (Did you know that Bret Michaels wrote "Every Rose Has its Thorn" in a laundromat in Dallas? Well now you do. You're welcome.)

1. On Food and Cooking- Harold McGee
I commonly refer to this one as my Bible. And, while it doesn't have recipes in it, it explains the history and science of everything thats involved in cooking and baking. Some of the content is kind of dry (Its my dream to re-write it someday in my own style. Ooh! I want to email my agent with that idea!) but it answers every question you've ever had about food by getting down to the science of it. And you can't argue with science. (You hear that, Fundamentalists?)

2. Chez Panisse Fruit- Alice Waters
This is both a cookbook and reference book for me. Alice Waters, founder of the famous Berkley restaurant Chez Panisse, wrote about every type of fruit- when its in season, how to pick the good stuff, the history behind it, etc. Then there's recipes to follow each subject. She has a book on vegetables too but I'm partial to this one for no good reason.

3. The Last Course- Claudia Fleming
When I first ventured into pastry, Claudia Fleming was still the pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern in New York City. She wrote a book of her signature recipes and its still my favorite dessert cookbook to this day. In 2002, I spent a weekend in Boston and was able to try some of her desserts, made by the woman herself, when she was the guest chef at Finale.

4. The New Professional Chef- The Culinary Institute of America
I have to pay homage to my alma mater here. This is, by no means, a progressive cookbook. But what it does offer, are old school, traditional recipes and instruction on every basic cooking method and ingredient, ever. Its huge. Seriously, its like 12 pounds. And it has recipes on everything from Beef Bourgignonne to Waldorf Salad.

5. Cheese Primer- Steven Jenkins
If you're interested in anything about cheese, this will be like porn to you. I love this book almost as much as I love my dog.

6. I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence- Amy Sedaris
I don't like this book for the recipes, I like it because its hilarious. It makes me laugh every time I open it. Amy Sedaris is my hero. She made a tiny tear-away 2007 calender for a friend of mine (Only one degree of separation between you and me, Amy!) one Christmas. It was 2009.

7. Barefoot Contessa's Back to Basics- Ina Garten
If I had to pick a cookbook written by a celebrity chef, this is the winner. Ina Garten's show on the Food Network, Barefoot Contessa, is like taking a Xanax with a martini chaser. Seriously, the film work is pretty sexy. Her recipes are ones that you can and actually want to make in your own kitchen, unlike a lot of celebrity chef- written cookbooks I've read, and even though a lot of them are French influenced, they're not overly complicated. Plus, she's not annoying as all get-out, unlike most celebrity chefs on the Food Network. (I'm looking at you, Rachael Ray and Giada De Laurentiis.)

8. Fanny Farmer Baking Book- Marion Cunningham
I considered leaving this one off the list just to avoid any other professional cooks making fun of me. Again, this isn't a book of progressive stuff, but sometimes you just don't need to reinvent the wheel, you know? This book has my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe and my favorite banana bread recipe. When I ran a hotel kitchen in Telluride, I used those two recipes every single day because those were the ones that I got the most requests for. Well, that and my peanut brittle... but that recipe is a secret.

So, that's my top 8. Again, a lot of these aren't cookbooks- they're reference books- but that's what I use most these days to keep the blog going. And its always good to try and learn about the food while you're cooking it. It cancels out all the damage from those Real Housewives of Orange County marathons.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Do the Mashed Potato!

Dear Tricia, I love mashed potatoes and make them a lot, but sometimes they get really gluey and pasty. How do I make them fluffy all the time?

This is an easy fix. There's a few different things you can change to make your taters fluffy all the time, but first lets figure out if you're using the right potato.
Potatoes are divided into two basic categories: waxy and starchy. Starchy potatoes (like Russet potatoes) are super high in starch content and don't have a lot of moisture in them. That's why they are great for things like baked and mashed potatoes- they fall apart easily when they're cooked. On the other hand, that's exactly why you don't want to use them for things like potato salad- they'll fall apart when you start to mix everything and just turn into mashed potato salad, and that's gross and then you'll ruin the 4th of July. Waxy potatoes (like Yukon Gold or Red potatoes) are higher in moisture content and lower in starch. That means they hold their shape really well when they're cooked and are better for things like potato salad or scalloped potatoes, but they're terrible for mashing. So first and foremost, make sure you're using a starchy potato if you want to make mashed potatoes. By the way, did you know that there's no such thing as an "Idaho Potato?" But something like 98% of potatoes grown in Idaho are Russet potatoes, so that's what they're talking about if someone mentions these so-called "Idaho" potatoes. Now you can correct them. I like to act really smug when I do that.
Alright, so now that you're using the right potatoes, lets talk about how you're mashing them. And try to sit up straight while you're reading- your posture is bugging me. When you boil the potatoes, the little starch molecules inside the potatoes mix with water and swell up. When it comes time to mash them, you're basically breaking the wall of the little starch molecules, letting out the water, and making the potatoes more gluey. So the more you mash, the more gluey they get. This is why you NEVER want to mash potatoes in a mixer- it mixes them way too much and they get gluey in like seconds. Just remember- beating the crap out of potatoes gives you crappy potatoes. Simple, right?

You can do two things to mash them into fluffy success:

1. Use a potato masher. That's the funny, kind of swirly shaped metal tool with a handle on it. Its really basic, but it works. And remember, just mash the potatoes until you get most of the lumps out and then call it a day. Being an over achiever when you're mashing potatoes doesn't give you better results.

2. Buy a ricer. A ricer is a super cool tool that most kitchens I've worked in use to mash potatoes. The ones in kitchens are big and a little confusing to put together, but now you can buy smaller ones for your kitchen at home that are super simple to use. Its just like the Play-Do attachment that you used as a kid that made the long, skinny spaghetti shapes and it presses the cooked potatoes through small holes without overworking them. Then you can add your hot milk, butter, and all the extra fixings that make your mashed potatoes awesome, give it a quick stir and you're done. If you like having fun kitchen equipment, a ricer is a good one to have, especially if you make a lot of mashed potatoes.

Alright, so now what do you do if you made gluey mashed potatoes and you haven't read this blog yet? You don't have to trash the potatoes. If you've got the time, you can scoop the potatoes into little balls, dip them in beaten egg and breadcrumbs, and cook them in a pan of super hot oil. When they're brown, they're done... drain them on some newspaper and you've got potato croquettes instead. No one will ever know you messed up to begin with. There are some great potato croquette recipes online, especially on the Food Network's website because they're super basic. Happy mashing.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

One of These Things is Not Like the Other

Dear Tricia, What's the difference between a muffin and a cupcake? I tried to make muffins and the recipe stunk. The muffins had too many blueberries and it kinda sunk into the muffin pan.

I know... muffins and cupcakes go in the same little paper cups that go in the same little muffin pans and they look so alike too. Baking can be hard and those little guys are probably reveling in the fact that they're making it harder. Jerks.
But there's three major differences between the two and I'm happy to share those with you.

1. Cupcakes have more sugar in them- usually double the amount. They also have more fat (oil or butter... it depends on the recipe), though not always double.

2. The way you mix them in the recipe is usually different too. Muffins are pretty simple: you mix the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, baking soda, etc. The stuff that's not wet. Duh.) in one bowl and the wet ingredients (eggs, oil, water, etc. The stuff that's not dry. Unless you've had one too many bong hits, this should also be common sense, but no judgment.) in another bowl. Then you stir them up together just until they're mixed. It's really simple and fast, actually. That's why they're awesome for breakfast- you can have them mixed in the time it takes to brew a pot of coffee.
Cupcakes have a more complicated mixing method that is used in most cake recipes too. First, you have to cream the butter and the sugar together, then you slowly add the eggs, then you add the dry ingredients. It takes an electric mixer, and its more time consuming. In fact, I've wrote two separate blogs on how to master this method. (Why Butter and Eggs are the Slash and Axl of Baking is my favorite one.) Not all cupcakes use this method... but unless they come out of a box, a lot of them will.

3. Cupcakes usually have frosting. And while I'm totally supportive of eating one at every meal, you won't usually see them at the breakfast table.

The thing about putting heavy stuff in a batter is that its easy for it to sink to the bottom, especially if there's a lot of it, like in your recipe. Some recipes just aren't good recipes. And unfortunately, except for yours truly, there's no bad recipe police squad. But when it comes to adding extras, like chocolate chips in cookies, or nuts in banana bread, or berries in muffins... you can always change that to what you like. That's not the case for super important measurements for baking soda and salt and things like that, but for the rest of it... feel free to make your own rules.
Next time when you add the blueberries to your muffins, toss them in flour before you stir them in. This should help keep them afloat in the batter while your muffins are baking. (The protein in the flour helps make a little safety net around the blueberry that keeps it from sinking.)
If you ever have crappy muffins that have sunk, like yours did, you don't have to throw them away. Break them up in little pieces and eat them on top of yogurt and fruit. Serve it for brunch, calling it a "yogurt and muffin parfait" and you'll be so gourmet. Oooh la la...

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel, I Made You Out of Egg...

I got a voicemail from a friend the other day asking me if I knew how to tell a hard boiled egg from a raw egg without cracking the shell. He knew, and of course I knew (because I know everything and am the smartest woman alive), but he was with someone who didn't know. I was caught a little off guard by this. I posted a poll on my What the Bleep fan page on Facebook (Have you checked it out yet?) to find out who else knew... and everyone knew. I assumed it was this thing we all learned in 1st grade science, or maybe on 3-2-1 Contact! for those of you Gen X-ers, but apparently I was wrong. Some are still in the dark. Let me turn the light on for you.

When an egg is raw, the yolk and white are still in their liquid form. Obviously. You can shake the egg, roll it around the counter top, whatever... and the yolk and white will be able to move around inside of the shell. When you boil the egg, the white expands briefly before it finishes cooking and the cooked yolk stays put inside of the white. In their solid forms, they are stuck in place and can't move around.
If you stand a hard boiled egg up on its butt- the bigger end- and spin it like a top, it will spin for like ever. If you do the same to a raw egg, it will just wobble and fall over because the liquid insides are moving around and making the egg lose its balance. This is the trick. Just spin the egg like a top (or a dreidel, if you're Lexi) and see if it keeps spinning or if it falls. Simple as that. And if you didn't know this, I'd send an email to your school board and ask them why they never taught you the stuff you really needed to know in elementary science. Jerks.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

And Oldie But Goodie for St. Patrick's Day

In honor of the holiday where its socially acceptable to drink before noon, here's a blog from a couple of years ago to help get you in the Irish spirit... And yes, that's me in the hat and beard. I was most definitely in the spirit of St. Patty's when it was taken.

Dear Tricia, I am very proud of my irish heritage, but what kind of self-respecting Irishman doesn't know how to make corned beef? What makes corned beef corned? With St. Patrick's day only a few months away I'm
starting to freak out a little bit because my rigorous drinking schedule precludes me from much cooking. I can't just serve potatoes again this year! Help me out here.

Well, my Irish friend, I've found some helpful info for you. Let's get down to business. First of all, corned beef is usually a brisket (but sometimes a round roast... all hail the mighty rump roast!) that is pickled (or "cured") in a brine. A brine is a very salted, seasoned liquid. That's what they also do to bacon. So, the brisket gets soaked in the brine and then cooked. The Oxford dictionary defines "corn" as a small hard particle, a grain, as of sand or salt. So "corned" refers to the grains of salt used to cure it. Those pesky Brits; so pompous with their fancy pants vocabulary. You can also take the corned beef one step further and smoke it. That's what pastrami is. You almost always will buy corned beef already cooked so all you have to do is slice it and serve.
Wanna know the history of it? Too bad you don't have a choice: continue reading. When Irish immigrants came to New York, the lower east siders decided that they wanted a cured meat that was similar in taste and texture to their beloved Irish bacon. So they learned a cheaper alternative from their friendly Jewish neighbors and started using corned beef instead. (insert politically incorrect Jewish joke here.)
St. Patty's Day always happens during Lent, and if you were raised Catholic (like I was, which is why I'm the furthest thing from Catholic as an adult) you know that you're not allowed to eat meat on Fridays during Lent. However, if St. Patrick's Day falls on a Friday during Lent, some bishops will pardon your heathen ways. It's rare: the next St. Patrick's Day on a Friday during Lent won't happen for another 9 years. In the mean time, enjoy your corned beef and Irish Car Bombs and green shirts and pinching. If you can slice up a corned brisket and serve it as a sandwich, I think your party guests will be content. All they're looking for is a sponge for all their alcohol anyways, right?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Imposter Chocolate Chip Cookies!

Dear Tricia, My dad makes AWESOME chocolate chip cookies. When I asked for the recipe he told me he used the recipe off the back of the Toll House bag. So I tried to make cookies at home and they didn’t taste right. The only thing I could come up with, is the he used “real” vanilla extract, and the only thing I had was “imitation” vanilla that I use to keep my cake icings white. Could the “imitation” be the flavor culprit?

Hmmm... they tasted different when you only changed one thing, so my first instinct is to say, yes, that's the culprit. That's just logical. But I can't write a one sentence blog, so lets take a quick class on vanilla, shall we?
Real vanilla extract comes from vanilla beans, which are grown in hot, humid areas ranging from Mexico all the way down to the West Indies and South America. Vanilla has been around since the 15th Century (well, I'm sure its been around longer, but that's when "we" discovered it) and is the second most expensive spice in the world, right behind saffron. Vanilla is so expensive because it takes so damn long for actual plants to grow. A vanilla plant will need 3 years just to be strong enough to grow the vanilla blossoms that will turn into vanilla pods. But remember 4th grade science and all that talk about pollination? Well the only insect that can successfully pollinate a vanilla blossom is one single type of bee that only lives in Mexico. And as I've already mentioned, vanilla grows in lots of places outside of Mexico. So guess who has to pollinate it? The growers. Vanilla has to be pollinated by hand within 12 hours of the blossoms opening. That's it. A 12 hour window or nothing else. After each blossom is painstakingly pollinated by human hands, it needs another 10 months just to grow the vanilla pods, which are what we use for baking. That's a pretty high maintenance plant. Super needy. (Ladies, when it comes to relationships, don't try to be too much like a vanilla plant. Positive results probably aren't in your favor.) But then it keeps going... after the pods are harvested, they have to be aged, dried, cured, "sweated", conditioned... it goes through a months-long process of being wrapped in fabrics and left in boxes and dipped in boiling water and all kinds of booby traps that help it develop its characteristic flavors. No wonder its so freaking expensive.
So, back to Imitation Vanilla. You know how every celebrity has a designer perfume? Like Paris Hilton, for example, will go on and on about how her perfume has components of grapefruit, musk, and vanilla, and cheap hooker in it? The designer imposter version of her perfume probably only has a limited number of those components in it. Most likely the cheap hooker one, since that's the most recognizable. Well vanilla has 171 identifiable aromatic components. (Imagine having the job that defines all those... crazy.) And imitation vanilla only has 1 of those components in it, Vanillin. And unfortunately, vanillin is produced as a by product of the paper industry. Gross. This is why the complexity of the real deal is so much more noticeable than the fake one. And possibly why your cookies taste different than your dads.
If you decide that real vanilla is something you want to include in your baking, you don't always have to use vanilla extract. You can also find ground vanilla pods (vanilla powder), vanilla sugar, or you can use the whole pods, which can get expensive.
The other thing I thought of... butter. In baking, you're usually supposed to use unsalted butter because salt is already going to be included somewhere else in the recipe. Find out if he's using salted butter, or maybe you are and didn't realize it. That could also affect the flavor. Let me know how it works out for you.