Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Basil — the taste of summer!

If you had to name one herb that spoke to you of the hope of summer, which would it be? I suspect many of you would agree with me that herb would be basil. Because basil is not just one herb, this Cooking Tip will enlighten you on some of the many types and uses for basil. There are over 100 varieties of basil although you will most likely only be able to find one or two in your supermarket. The other ones will need to be sought out in a good garden center.

Basil is native to tropical Asia and Africa and cultivated in many Asian and Mediterranean countries as well as the US. I am just going to discuss a few of the many, many varieties.

The most common variety is what is known as Sweet Basil. Its smooth leaves are oval in shape with a medium green color. It has a sweet but slightly spicy flavor. It is abundantly used in Italian dishes such as pesto sauce, salads, pasta and pizza. If your recipe does not specify a particular type of basil, this is your best choice. An interesting tidbit is that it also naturally repels mosquitos.

Genovese basil is the 2nd most common basil. It is very similar to Sweet Basil and, in fact, some growers will use these terms interchangeably. Some call it a variety of sweet basil. It does though, have larger and darker green leaves. Just as with Sweet Basil, it is a staple in Italian cooking although it does have a stronger flavor. When using this variety, start with just a small amount and then add more to your desired flavor.

Lemon basil – this variety is a mix of basil and lemon with a delightful citrusy scent and light green leaves. Because of the lemon component, it compliments poultry, fish dishes and grilled veggies.

Lime basil – The bright green, narrow leaves of this plant yield a rich citrusy scent like limes.

Greek basil – this variety is smaller than other basils and has delicate light green leaves. The flavor has a spicy quality to it and thus, is often paired with meat dishes or used in soups. It is also frequently used as a garnish due to its unique appearance. Many people like it for container gardening due to its compact size.

Cinnamon basil – with its small green leaves and purple stems/flowers, this is an especially attractive basil. It can also be referred to as Mexican Basil. It has a mild flavor with cinnamon undertones. It is often used in Asian cooking as well as in beverages. Due to the warm cinnamon notes, it pairs well with meat dishes.

Thai basil – this variety has light green leaves and purple flowers. It is very aromatic with a licorice flavor. As noted in its name, it is primarily used in Thai cuisine. It is one basil that retains its flavor when cooked at high temperatures.

Holy basil – also known as Tulsi basil, it has small leaves with a spicy fragrance and is often used in Indian dishes. It should be cooked as it can be bitter in the raw state.

Purple basil – there are different varieties that are sometimes called “purple basil”. Two of the most common are Purple Ruffles and Dark Opal. Purple Ruffles is actually a cross between Green Ruffles and Dark Opal. They both have purple leaves but the Ruffles variety has ruffled leaves. Neither are as sweet as other basil varieties and carry more of a spicy note.

Here are a few tips for using basil in the kitchen

  • Pick the type of basil that is best for your dish. Use sweet basil for European dishes, especially those from the Mediterranean. For Thai dishes, use Thai basil. If you are cooking up an Indian dish, consider Holy Basil.
  • Add the basil at the right time. The aroma can dissipate quickly as the herb is cooked and it does not stand up to long cooking times. So, add it towards the end of the cooking process. Note the exception above about Thai Basil.
  • Store basil in an upright container with its ends submerged in water after trimming the stems. Leave it on the counter uncovered and do not refrigerate. Replace the water daily.

What are your favorite uses for basil? Pesto is probably high on everyone’s list. Another classic and one of the simplest is a Caprese Salad. One of my favorites is a NYT recipe for Heirloom Tomato Tart. How about making a basil simple syrup and then using it to make a Strawberry Basil Soda? Whip up a batch of Basil-Lemon Scones (courtesy of Tea Time Magazine) for a great afternoon treat. Try making them with Lemon Basil.

Whatever you make, as we move into summer, enjoy the wonderful herb known as Basil!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Tarragon — a wonderful culinary herb

I feel like Tarragon is similar to Cilantro in that people either love it or hate it. However, tarragon is much less common and I would suspect many people have never tried it. I was a bit concerned about this herb as I heard it had a licorice flavor and there are few things I dislike more than licorice. This was an unfair judgement, though, and now I know it is a wonderful herb to have in your kitchen. Perhaps some of you feel the same as I did and this Cooking Tip is for you.

Tarragon is a perennial and is part of the sunflower family. Just as with many culinary herbs, there are different varieties of tarragon. The main three are French, Russian and Mexican.

French –this is the one with the best flavor and the one preferred by most chefs. The leaves are much more aromatic than the Russian variety.

Russian – as it is easier and cheaper to grow, much of the tarragon you will see is of this variety. Its flavor is much milder than the French tarragon. Since the tarragon you buy in the supermarket may not be labeled, the only way to tell which variety you have is to crush the leaves and smell it. If you do not have that classic licorice aroma, it is probably Russian.

Mexican – known as Mexican Marigold Mint

As can be seen by its name, this is not a true tarragon. However, this plant grows better in hotter climates and has a similar anise/licorice aroma and flavor.

Tarragon’s primary flavor is light licorice. It also has notes of citrus, grass, vanilla, mint and a bit of spiciness. Because its flavor is fairly prominent, don’t overdo it by adding too much.

There is also a dried version and, unlike many herbs, dried tarragon does retain much of its licorice flavor but the other flavor notes disappear. Therefore, dried tarragon has a strong but less complex flavor.

You can use it like other fresh herbs but it is great with dishes containing chicken, fish, shellfish, eggs, butter and cream. Lemon also complements it well because of the citrusy notes in the herb.

As with most herbs, fresh tarragon should normally be added towards the end of cooking to retain its flavor. The dried should be added earlier in the cooking process. If you do use dried in a recipe that calls for fresh, remember the 3-to-1 rule. Whatever amount of fresh is specified, only use ⅓ of the amount of dried.

There is no real substitute for tarragon because of its unique flavor. Some feel chervil and fennel (bulb, fronds, seeds) do a decent job but true tarragon is still preferred.

Tarragon can be stored similarly to basil – in a glass of water on the counter. Or, roll the leaves in a damp paper towel, put in a plastic bag and in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator.

As tarragon is beloved in French cuisine, you will often see it in French recipes. For example, Béarnaise sauce is a classic French sauce containing tarragon which is considered a derivative of hollandaise sauce. It is one of the ingredients in the dried herb mixture of Herbes de Provence. It is also an important component of the fresh herb mixture known as Fines Herbes. This is also known as PCCT – a mixture of parsley, chives, chervil and tarragon and it is the seasoning in a classic French omelet.

Although our supermarkets carry many more flavored vinegars than they used to, tarragon vinegar is one I have difficulty finding. However, you can make it yourself with white wine vinegar and fresh tarragon. This can then be used in vinaigrettes, on salads or on roasted veggies

One of my favorite uses for fresh tarragon is in a recipe by Australian chef, Bill Granger, for Chicken, Leek and Tarragon Pie. It also makes a nice addition to egg salad.

A classic French recipe Suprêmes de Poulet à l’Estragon (Supremes of Chicken with Tarragon) from the book Classic French Recipes for Special Occasions by Carole Clements and Elizabeth Wolf-Cohen demonstrates a company-worthy dish featuring both fresh and dried tarragon.

Those are just a few ideas for using this wonderful culinary herb. If you have never tried it, I hope some of these will inspire you to get on the tarragon wagon!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Saffron – A beautiful but expensive ingredient

I was writing out my grocery list and as I added saffron to the list, I wondered how many of you used saffron or were familiar with how to use it. I would suspect that the average cook doesn’t have saffron in their pantry. This is probably due to not only their unfamiliarity with this ingredient but also due to the significant cost. I want to delve into this world of saffron in this Cooking Tip.

Saffron is the dried stigma a flowering blue saffron crocus. The reason that it is so expensive is that it is a very labor-intensive harvesting process, something that can only be done by hand. Each crocus flower contains three stigmas. It is only open for a few hours, which is when it must be hand-picked. The stigmas are then separated out by hand and dried. It is estimated to take 200 hours of labor to harvest enough crocus flowers (~70,000) to yield 1 pound of saffron, which can be sold for up to $5000.

The best saffron is said to come from Iran. It is currently illegal to import Iranian saffron to the US due to trade sanctions. Other good saffron comes from Spain, Morocco and India. Some estimate that most of the “Spanish” saffron is actually from Iran and then repackaged and labeled as Spanish, a process that is illegal in the US. A small amount is grown in the US, mostly in Pennsylvania.

Because it is so expensive, imitators have emerged. At times, safflower will be marketed as saffron. Saffron threads may be mixed with yellow crocus stamens (which are tasteless) or even silk threads. Other take saffron powder and extend it by adding turmeric or paprika. If the price seems to too low, don’t buy it. The only way to distinguish real from adulterated is that real saffron is soluble in water and will start to bleed its color as soon as you put it in the warm water. Because of this problem, be sure to buy your saffron from a reputable source. Some stores offer a ground saffron. Because you never know what is in that type of saffron, it is best to grind your own with a mortar and pestle.

Once you purchase it, it should be stored in a cool, dark and airtight environment. Properly stored, it will keep for months or even years.

Due to a pigment called crocin, saffron will color foods a bright yellow. The taste is said to vary depending on where it is grown and the amount of crocin it contains. People have a difficult time describing the flavor but commonly it is felt to be pungent and earthy with notes of honey, fruit and/or flowers.

As mentioned above, it is the most expensive spice you can buy. The good thing is that you do not use very much in each application. Many recipes call for a “pinch”, which is not a standard measurement. It is usually just few threads, enough that you can notice it in the dish but not be wasteful or overpowering.

To use saffron, it must be “bloomed” in a hot liquid. For a dish that is hot and contains plenty of liquid (soups, stews, braises), you can add the saffron directly to the dish. Add it early in the cooking process to allow enough time for it to properly flavor the dish. Otherwise, the threads should be crumbled or ground in a mortar and pestle and steeped in a hot liquid for 10-20 minutes. Because not all the carotenoids in the saffron threads are water soluble, you may want to add a bit of alcohol to the steeping liquid.

Saffron has many culinary uses. It is most frequently used in cuisines from countries where it is harvested such as Spain, Morocco, India, etc. It is often used in fish and seafood broths to give them a golden color. Paella gets its signature golden color from saffron. In the Middle East, it is used along with cardamom to flavor coffees. Scandinavians use it in a saffron bread called Lussekatter for a celebration for the feast of the patron saint Santa Lucia. The Pennsylvania Dutch use it in their signature potpies.

The flavor pairs well with almonds, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, mint and nutmeg.

Because of the price tag, many ask if there is a suitable substitute. The answer is not really. Turmeric will give a similar color but not the same flavor profile.

Do you have saffron in your pantry? It may be something to consider, especially if you are a fan of the above mentioned dishes. Just be prepared to pay for a quality product and then store and use it properly to maximize your investment.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

In my Cooking Tip on “Fats in a Healthy Diet”, I discussed culinary oils in general. In this Tip, I want to focus on one type in particular – Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

This is one of the most expensive type of culinary oils you will buy and we all like to make sure we get the best for our money. I have done some research on how to pick out a great olive oil and following are what the experts tell us.

Here are certain things to look for.

  1. The harvest date – The “Best By” date may be 24-32 months after bottling and 1-2 years after pressing. The “Harvest” date is a much better indicator of freshness. Try to pick one with the most recent date, remembering that olives are usually harvested in the fall and winter, meaning the harvest date for what is on the shelf will be the year before.

  2. The container – Look for oil that is in a dark container. Light can degrade the oil. Pick an oil where the container protects the oil from the light.

  3. Country/Region of origin – Look for where the oil was sourced. Higher quality olive oils will be sourced from one country. Note that wording like “Product of Italy” might only mean that it was shipped from Italy, not necessarily that the olives were grown and harvested in Italy.

    Less pricey & mass market olive oils are often a result of buying cheap bulk oils from all over the world and blending them. This means less quality control over the handling of the oil but it also means these oils lack the distinct flavor that you expect from a good olive oil.

  4. The Cultivars – Look for the specific olives that have been harvested.

If at all possible, taste the oil before purchasing it. This generally means going to a gourmet food store or a shop that specializes in oil. The typical supermarket is not going to offer tastings outside of the rare special event.

The reason that we must be savvy olive oil shoppers is that some deficits in the industry have been documented. In a 2016 article from the Denver Post, the writer noted that about 75% of the extra virgin olive oil sold in the US is often diluted with lower quality olive oil. The article goes on to note that a 2010 University of California study found that 69% of imported oils sold in California stores at that time failed to meet international standards for olive oil.

Not only will the authentic, high-quality extra virgin olive oil give you tremendous flavor and variety of that flavor but the fresher, more pungent-tasting oil is higher in polyphenols, which are high in antioxidants.

To be fair, since these exposes, the industry has attempted to improve quality standards. In 2010, the USDA issued the “United States Standards for Grades of Olive Oil and Olive-Pomace Oil.” However, these standards are voluntary. So, producers may choose to seek certification by the USDA as “US Extra Virgin Olive Oil” if they wish, but that it is not mandatory.

Some states have gone further, including California. They have adopted standards recommended by the Olive Oil Commission of California. According this website, “California olive oil handlers who produce 5,000 gallons or more are required by law to participate in the OOCC’s mandatory government sampling and testing program. Producers with less than 5,000 gallons may voluntarily participate in the OOCC’s government sampling program.”

The California Olive Oil Council (a different entity) has a mission to “uphold the highest standards within the olive oil industry through its Seal Certification Program”. The members of COOC must submit their oils for testing and evaluation to ensure it meets the qualifications to be labeled Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Therefore, if you buy an oil with the COOC seal, you can be assured that you are getting the real thing.

What do you do on a daily basis, though, in your kitchen? Authentic, high-quality extra virgin olive oil can be very expensive. If for no other reason, you probably don’t want to use that for all of your oil needs. That is why most of us have other more moderately-priced oils that we use for general cooking use. We save that special oil for vinaigrettes, for dipping and other uses where the flavor shines through.

What is in your kitchen? I looked in my pantry and I have two different olive oils, only one of which is extra virgin. When I looked for the above items, this is what I found. Even though I purchased it from a reputable olive oil retailer, it had no harvest date. (I wonder if this was due to the fact that the oil was brought into the store in a bulk fashion and then bottled and labeled by this particular retailer.) It did list both the country from which the olives were harvested as well as the particular varietals. It was packaged in an appropriate bottle. Since it was a Spanish oil, it did not have COOC certification. All in all, not bad.

The next time I am in my local supermarket, I am going to look for these recommendations. My guess, though, is most of those on the shelf will be sorely lacking. Let me know what you find, not only in the kitchen but also where you shop!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Proteins on a healthy diet

We are moving forward in this series on cooking/eating healthy. After discussing some general tips, grains, breads and veggies, in this Tip I want to look into the subject of proteins. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, only 5% of U.S. adults consider themselves to be vegetarian. Therefore, I will mostly be discussing meat/seafood. I will not be discussing cooking methods in this Tip but will leave that for the next one.

There are a couple of general recommendations that almost all experts will give. First is to avoid processed meats such as lunch meats, hot dogs, bacon, sausage and jerky. Second is to eat smaller portions of fish and meats. Given that, let’s move on to the sources of animal protein.

I am sure that most of you have heard that you should limit, or even eliminate, your intake of red meat. This includes beef, pork and lamb. Why is that? That recommendation is based on the fact that red meats have more saturated fat than other protein sources. I will note that there are some people out there that do not agree with this recommendation and feel that red meat is not as bad as everyone says. However, most experts feel that consuming red meat is often linked with cardiovascular disease.

When you do consume red meats, the recommendation is to eat leaner cuts. See the following chart for the USDA’a definition of lean versus extra-lean. These numbers are based on a 3½ ounce serving and will help you when looking at the nutritional labels in the store.

 LeanExtra-lean
Fat10 gm5gm
Saturated fat4.5 gm2 gm
Cholesterol95 mg95 mg

For beef, another recommendation is to choose “Choice” or “Select” cuts as they will have less fat than “Prime” cuts. For example, if you look at one of the most popular (although one of the fattiest) cuts of beef – Ribeye Steak – the fact content is 50% higher for Prime than Choice. For ground beef, choose a package that is labeled at least “90% lean” and, if you can find it, 93% or 95% lean.

A look at the nutritional label of different cuts can be enlightening. A package of Choice Sirloin steak shows 10 gm total fat and 3 grams of saturated fat, putting it into the “Lean” category. The same serving size of a Choice Ribeye contains 17 grams of total fat and 8 grams of saturated fat.

The reason the fattiest cuts are more popular is that fat contributes to flavor and moistness. When choosing the leaner cuts, you need to take care when cooking so they do not dry out. I will discuss this more in my next Tip.

For pork, the leanest choices are pork loin and pork tenderloin.

The leanest cuts of lamb are loin, leg and shanks.

Poultry

When most of us think of healthy meat, we think of poultry. The most common poultry we eat is chicken although turkey is another excellent choice. Much of the fat found in poultry is in the skin. The same serving size of skin-on poultry can have three times or more as much fat as skinless. Because the skin can protect the meat from moisture loss, many chefs will leave the skin on when cooking but remove it before eating.

Breasts will be the leanest type of poultry. Without the skin, chicken breasts have under 2 grams fat per 3 ounce serving and less than ½ gram of saturated fat. Chicken thighs can have twice as much fat as breast but would still qualify as lean. Many feel they have more flavor and are moister. Similar cuts of turkey will have even less fat than chicken although at these low levels, the difference is minimal. The lower fat content does, though, tend to make turkey drier.

Seafood

Seafood is something that most of us probably do not eat as often as we should. Although seafood can be relatively high in fat, it contains some very heart-healthy polyunsaturated fats known as omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, seafood is considered the best (but not the only) source of this type of fat. Other good sources of omega-3 fatty acids are flaxseed oil, flaxseeds, walnuts and chia seeds. There is another type of fatty acid known as omega-6 that is often discussed in tandem with omega-3. I will wait on the discussion of this fatty acid for an upcoming Tip on Fats.

Although the above mentioned fatty fish may be healthy, they are higher in total fat than other types of seafood. If you are in the market looking at the seafood, the flesh color will give you an indication of fat content. The leaner choices are those that are lighter in color whereas the darker ones are going to contain more fat, albeit healthy fats. Below is a chart showing you the fat content in a 3 ounce serving. The amount of omega-3 fatty acids in seafood also varies with the fattier kinds containing more omega-3s. Examples include salmon, herring, mackerel and sardines. If you want more detail on this, see this article from Seafood Health Facts.

Fat ContentTypes of Seafood
High Fat (10 grams or more)Herring, Mackerel, Sardines, Salmon (Atlantic, Coho, Sockeye and Chinook)
Medium Fat (5 to 10 grams)Bluefish, Catfish, Rainbow Trout, Swordfish
Low Fat (2 to 5 grams)Tilapia, Halibut, Mussels, Ocean Perch, Oysters, Pacific Rockfish, Salmon (Chum, Pink)
Very Low Fat (less than 2 grams)Crab, Clams, Cod, Flounder/Sole, Haddock, Hake, Lobster, Mahi-mahi, Pollock, Scallops, Shrimp, Tuna

Plant sources of protein are great in that they do not contain saturated fats. Examples are beans, peas, lentils and nuts. They also provide dietary fiber and other nutrients.

Unless you are a committed vegetarian or vegan, it is good to know that both plant-based and animal protein have benefits and drawbacks. Animal foods are denser in essential amino acids and are more easily digestible.

Plant-based protein is often low in calories and high in fiber. It is, though, a little less digestible. Plant proteins rarely contain all the essential amino acids. This is not to say that you can’t get all the nutrients you need from plant foods; only that it takes effort and planning.

We all need protein although getting sufficient protein is not really a problem for most Americans. Learning how to pick and choose the best proteins is essential to a healthy diet. I hope this Tip combined with the next one on Cooking Methods will help you make better choices.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Veggies can be exciting!

We are now on to Tip #4 in this series of Cooking Tips on cooking/eating healthy. In this Tip, I want to talk about a very important part of everyone’s diets – Vegetables. We all should be eating more veggies but it would help if we could make them a bit more exciting without sacrificing nutrition.

All veggies are high in important nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. They are also high in fiber while being low in sugar, fat and sodium. There are some differences, though, in vegetables. Veggies can be divided into starch and non-starchy. Starch breaks down into glucose in our bodies and these veggies are higher in calories than non-starchy and lower in fiber.

It is recommended that we eat all types of veggies but we should consume more of the non-starchy, especially if you are diabetic or pre-diabetic.

Non-starchy vegetables contain only a small amount of starch. Here are some of the most common. One caveat – beets and carrots straddle the line between starch and non-starchy. So, if you are trying to decrease your intake of starchy veggies, you should limit these two items.

  • Artichoke
  • Asparagus
  • Beets
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Chard
  • Cucumber
  • Eggplant
  • Fennel
  • Greens (Collard, Kale, Mustard)
  • Green Bean
  • Jicama
  • Kohlrabi
  • Leeks
  • Mushrooms
  • Okra
  • Onions
  • Pea Pods And Sugar Snap Peas
  • Peppers
  • Radishes
  • Rutabaga
  • Salad greens
  • Summer Squash (Yellow, Zucchini)
  • Tomato
  • Water Chestnuts

Starchy veggies contain more starch but they also have abundant nutrients. Some examples are:

  • Potatoes
  • Corn
  • Lentils
  • Parsnips
  • Peas
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Winter Squash (acorn, butternut)

The best form to eat vegetables are either fresh and frozen. Frozen is a great option as they are picked at the height of ripeness and then quickly frozen. Be careful, though, that the frozen package you pick up does not contain a sauce or seasonings. These often contain added sugars and sodium. Watch out for canned vegetables as they also often contain sodium and sugar. As I have said in my prior Tips in this series, you should become adept at reading the nutritional facts labels. Make sure the only ingredient on the label is the vegetable.

Unless you are eating canned or frozen veggies, you need to clean them. The USDA recommends washing your produce under cold running tap water to remove any dirt & reduce bacteria. If there is a firm surface, such as on apples or potatoes, the surface can be scrubbed with a brush. Do not use detergent or soap as these are not approved for use on foods. You could ingest residues from soap or detergent absorbed on the produce. Note that the recommendation is just for plain water. You don’t need any special type of produce spray. If you really want to do more than just plain water, make a mixture of 1 part distilled white vinegar to 3 parts water. This is really not necessary, though.

There is a bit of debate over washing pre-washed, bagged greens. Although some recommend washing these items, many others say you are more likely to introduce contamination from your kitchen by doing so. Also, any pathogens left on pre-washed greens are probably so tightly adhered that washing them again in your kitchen is probably not going to do anything. The latter is the opinion of the USDA.

What about peeling your veggies? It is generally accepted that the peels are full of beneficial nutrients that you will lose if you peel them. So, if you are able to just scrub your veggies and eat/cook them without peeling, you are better off. There are some peels, though that are just too fibrous to eat or they are too difficult to clean properly. In that case, wash them first and then peel them. By washing them first, you are not transferring debris/pathogens from the outside to the inside. Most pesticide residue can be removed by washing. However, if you are concerned about this, peeling will give you an extra measure of comfort.

Now that we know which veggies we should eat often, which ones we might limit somewhat, and how to clean them, how do we make them tasty? There are those people, like my husband, who just love veggies in the purest form. If you are not one of those, let’s look at some ways you can increase your interest.

Having a salad every day is one of the healthiest habits you can form, whether it is before dinner each night (as we do) or as the main part of the meal. It is a great way to get a variety of veggies in one dish. Start with a mixture of greens such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, microgreens or more. Add in fresh veg such as celery, carrots, cucumber, bell peppers and green onions. One drawback for me in making sure we eat salads every day is all the prep – slicing and dicing all those ingredients. Something I do to make this easier is to prep ahead for a few days. If I am making a salad for Monday night, I also set out small bowls for the next three nights. I then cut up enough veg for each of those nights and put them in the small bowls. Now, for the next three nights, I just have to put my greens in a salad bowl and dump in the contents of those bowls of precut veg. Voila – instant salad!

Sometimes we will eat our veggies raw but other times, we want them cooked. Cooking veggies can alter them in the following ways.

  • Texture – caused by the fiber in the veggies
    • Fiber is made firmer by:
      • Adding acids such as citrus juice, vinegar or tomato products.
      • Sugars – this is more often used when cooking fruit
    • Fiber is softened by:
      • Heat – the longer you cook veggies the softer they become.
      • Alkalis – this is why you do not want to add baking soda to your veggies as it will make them mushy.
  • Flavor – flavor can be lost in the cooking liquid and with prolonged cooking times
    • Cook your veggies in as short of time as possible to limit flavor loss.
    • Some veggies where a bit of flavor loss is preferable is with strongly flavored veggies such as onions, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, turnips and rutabagas.
  • Color – there are white, red, green & yellow/orange veggies
    • White
      • Potatoes, onions, cauliflower
      • Other veggies may not be white on the outside but are on the inside. Examples are cucumbers, zucchini and celery.
      • Acid helps to keep the whiteness. So, if you are cooking your veggies in water, add a small amount of lemon juice.
      • Cooking for shorter amounts of time helps preserve the color.
    • Red
      • Red cabbage, beets
      • Acids turn them brighter red.
      • Alkalis turn them blue or blue-green.
      • Over-cooking leads to loss of the red color.
    • Green
      • Acids lead to loss of the green color.
      • Overcooking turns bright green veggies to an unappealing olive green.
    • Yellow/Orange
      • Carrots, corn, winter squash, sweet potatoes, some bell peppers
      • Yellow & orange pigments are very stable. Acids and/or alkalis do not cause much of a color change.
      • Overcooking can dull the color.
  • Nutrients — nutrients are often lost by overcooking or cooking in a lot of water.

The main ways of preparing veggies (other than eating them raw) are boiling, microwaving, steaming, sauteing, grilling or roasting. Here is a colorful guide from Cooksmart.com showing you which veggies do best with which methods of cooking. The same website has a great section on how to prep veggies if you are not familiar with how to get them ready for eating.

Boiling

This is not the best method as it is so easy to overcook the veggies and much of the flavor and nutrients can be lost in the water.

Steaming

This method leaves your veggies crisp and there is less loss of flavor. It works great for porous vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli and cauliflower.

Microwave

This is one area where your microwave is a useful tool, especially (but not exclusively) for frozen vegetables. A few minutes in the microwave and your veggies are ready for the table.

Sautéing

Sauteing is a great way of cooking veggies as it allows you to get some color on them. You can use a nonstick pan or you will need to add a bit of oil if using a regular pan. Heat your pan, add a small amount of oil and heat until hot. Before adding the veggies, add some aromatics such as shallots, garlic, or ginger. These will add great guilt-free flavor to the veggies. After sautéing the aromatics, add the veggies and cook until done. If the pan gets too dry during the cooking process, you may add a splash of water/broth. Add a bit of salt to taste as you are cooking and, if desired, finish with some acid such as lemon juice. Optional toppings include a grating of parmesan or pecorino cheese, nuts or seeds.

You can even do a combination of the above two if you are cooking raw veggies. Start them in the microwave with a touch of water to soften them – no more than about 3 minutes. Then, toss them in a hot pan (beware of splattering) as above and finish by sautéing.

You can even do a combination of the above two if you are cooking raw veggies. Start them in the microwave with a touch of water to soften them – no more than about 3 minutes. Then, toss them in a hot pan (beware of splattering) as above and finish by sautéing

Roasting

Roasting veggies requires you to preheat the oven and takes longer (~30-45 minutes) than other methods. However, as moisture is driven off in the oven, it does concentrate flavors and leaves you with crispy edges.

Something that is helpful to get crispy results is to put your sheet pan in the oven as you preheat it. That way, your veggies start to cook and sizzle as soon as you put them on that hot pan. Oven temperature recommendations vary but are usually pretty hot — 400° to 500°. I will prep my veggies, put them in a bowl, season them with salt and fresh herbs (rosemary, thyme) and toss them in a small amount of olive oil. You can even add a bit of balsamic vinegar. Carefully remove the hot pan from the oven, add the veggies and roast until tender and crisp.

Grilling/Charring

I am not a fan of most grilled foods and so, we do not own an outdoors grill. However, I do like to grill or char veggies stovetop. For that, I use either a grill pan or a cast iron pan. After preheating the pan, I add the veggies and cook them until they are brown and just a bit charred. I normally toss them first in a small amount of olive oil, salt and pepper. When cooking them on the pan, space them apart so they will char. If you place them too close together, they will steam, which is not the result you want with this method. I especially like this method for zucchini and Brussels sprouts.

None of these methods require you to add anything to the cooked veggies before eating. However, you can consider a small grating of a flavorful cheese such as parmesan, pecorino or asiago or a sprinkling of nuts such as slivered almonds. Just to be sure to watch how much you add. Some like to add a pat of butter (although this is a saturated fat) or a drizzle of olive oil. You can get butter-flavored olive oil or herb-infused oil for more flavor.

I hope this Tip will encourage to eat veggies every day whether it be in a salad, as a side dish or even both. They can be extremely tasty and are certainly a necessary part of a healthy diet.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Whole Grains can be very tasty!

In this Part 2 of my Cooking Tips series on healthy cooking, I want to talk about one very important thing you can do and that is to eat more Whole Grains. I will not be talking about flours and bread in this Tip. That will be in a future Tip. For this one, I will concentrate on grains we may serve as a side dish. All recipes I note are ones that I have tested and find very tasty. Try these recipes as a way to get more whole grains into your diet in a delicious way but also as a starting point to experiment.

What are whole grains? Grains are the edible seeds of plants and for it to be “whole”, it must contain all of the main three parts of the seed.

  • Bran – fiber-rich outer layer with B vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals. The latter are naturally found in food and are felt to be important in disease prevention.
  • Germ – the core of the seed that is rich in healthy fats, vitamin E, B vitamins, antioxidants and phytochemicals.
  • Endosperm – the interior layer composed of carbohydrates, protein and small amounts of B vitamins and minerals.

When you are shopping, you need to pay attention to the nutritional facts label. It is not always straightforward. A 2013 study by Public Health Nutrition looked at products considered Whole Grain and evaluated them to see what would be most useful for the consumer as far as labeling. What they found was that just looking for the term “whole grain” can be misleading. You should see “whole grain” on the label and try to pick products where it is at the top of the ingredient list. However, also look for products with more fiber but less sugar, sodium and trans-fat.

There are many wonderful whole grains out there. Although you can get all of them online, I am going to limit my discussion to those you are most likely to find in your local supermarket. Some of these are gluten free and others are not. I will note that in the description.

Before discussing the individual grains, I want to talk about cooking them. I tend to cook whole grains with the “pasta method.” Cover the grains with liquid, bring to a boil, cover, reduce to simmer and cook until done. Here is a chart from the Whole Grains Council that will give you more specifics. If you are one of us that lives at high altitude, review this Tip on Cooking at High Altitude. You will need more water and more time to cook most of these whole grains.

To liven up the final dish, here are a few ideas.

  • Cook using low/no sodium broth. Can also cook in fruit juice but those are high in sugar. Vegetable juice is another alternative.
  • Toasting the grains before you cook them heightens the flavor. Those that take toasting well are amaranth, millet, oats, quinoa & wheat berries.
  • Add nuts, seeds, citrus zest and/or dried unsweetened fruit.

Now to the actual grains.

  • Amaranth
    • Gluten Free
    • These are the tiny seeds of the amaranth plant. The seeds are not a true grain.
    • When cooked, they resemble brown caviar and remain crunchy.
    • It has a strong, grassy flavor.
    • Cook it up like grits or make a porridge.
  • Barley
    • Can be whole (hulled) or pearled. The hull is very tough and must be removed.
    • Only the hulled is considered “whole”. However, it is harder to find and takes longer to cook.
    • Can be served as a side dish or added to soups/stews.
  • Bulgur
    • Wheat kernels that are boiled, dried, husked and cracked. Also known as cracked wheat.
    • Because bulgur is precooked, it is quick to prepare. You are essentially just rehydrating it.
    • Often added to soups, stuffed veggies and salads. Tabbouleh is one very characteristic bulgur-containing dish.
  • Corn
    • Gluten Free
    • Whole kernels are ground into cornmeal, which is then often used in baking.
    • Popcorn is a different strain of corn but is still a whole grain.
    • Polenta, toss fresh corn in salads, soups and quiches.
  • Couscous
    • This is not really a grain but a pasta made from semolina flour, and therefore, is not a whole grain. There are whole grain varieties that are made of whole wheat durum flour. They are much harder to find in stores but are readily available online.
  • Farro
    • This is a high-fiber, high-protein wheat that can be found in three forms.
      • Pearled – the bran & outer husk is removed but still retains some fiber. It has the shortest cook time and is the most common in our stores.
      • Semi-pearled – part of the bran is removed. It is sort of a middle ground in terms of nutrition and cooking time.
      • Whole – the whole grain remains intact. It has the longest cook time.
    • It has a chewy texture and a nutty flavor.
  • Millet
    • Gluten Free
    • A small, round ivory grain with a mild flavor.
    • Has a mild flavor and mixes well with other foods.
    • Use like rice.
  • Oats
    • Gluten Free but some companies process their oats on the same machinery as other gluten-containing grains. So, be sure they are certified gluten free.
    • Contains a special variety of fiber that’s felt to be helpful in lowering cholesterol.
    • Both old-fashioned & steel-cut are whole grains.
    • Steel cut is chewier and nuttier.
  • Quinoa
    • Gluten Free
    • A small, light-colored round pseudo-grain. It is not a true grain but is in the same family as spinach and chard.
    • It is naturally coated with a bitter and soapy layer, called saponin, that is to deter animals. It should be removed by rinsing in water before cooking. Some brands will be pre-washed when you buy it.
    • It is quick cooking.
    • Comes in white or red varieties.
    • It has a mild flavor, is chewy and slightly nutty.
    • Good in pilafs, salads, casseroles, soups.
  • Rice
    • Gluten Free
    • Limit your intake of white rice but, instead, choose brown, red, black or wild.
    • Brown rice can be long-, medium- or short-grain. Two of the most popular rices, basmati & jasmine, also come in brown versions.
    • Pigmented rices – black, purple, red, mahogany. The color is caused by the anthocyanin pigments in the outer bran. This makes them very high in antioxidants.
    • Wild rice is not true rice. It is an aquatic grass.
  • Wheat berries
    • The whole kernels of hard red spring wheat before it is ground into flour.
    • Because they are whole and firm, they take a while to cook. It is often recommended that you soak them overnight to shorten the cooking time.
    • Cook them in simmering liquid for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour or cook them in a slow cooker.
    • It is chewy & nutty.
    • Add to soup, chili, salads, side dishes.

That is quite a bit of information but just scratches the surface on whole grains. I hope you are intrigued and challenged to try some of these whole grains. I know my favorites are bulgur and farro. What about you? Do you have a favorite?

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Luscious Caramel Sauce

When you want caramel sauce to pour over your ice cream, do you run to the store and buy a pre-made bottle? We have all done that but did you know you can make your own so very simply? How to do that is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Why would you want to make your own? First, you avoid a run to the store. Second, you know what exactly is in the sauce. Here is the ingredient list for a couple of major brands.

Ghirardelli Premium Caramel Sauce – Corn syrup, water, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, skim milk, heavy cream, salt, natural flavor, pectin, disodium phosphate.

Torani Caramel Sauce — Corn Syrup, Sugar, Invert Sugar, Heavy Cream, Water, Butter, Nonfat Milk, Natural Flavors, Salt, Lecithin, Sodium Bicarbonate.

What is the ingredient list for homemade caramel sauce? It is usually just sugar, water & dairy. That is a much shorter ingredient list without any artificial ingredients.

There are two main methods of making caramel – wet and dry. In the wet method, the sugar is dissolved in water whereas in the dry method, the sugar is melted without the addition of water. The wet method takes longer as the water must evaporate but you are less likely to burn the sugar than with the dry method.

Even though recipes will give you amounts of ingredients, the timing and resulting caramel will vary depending on such variables as the size/type of pan used as well as the type of cooktop and its heat. It is something that you need to use your eyes and nose for as the color of the sugar changes and the aroma develops. It is also something that takes just a bit of practice to get it just where you want it.

In the wet method, you add the sugar and water and stir until dissolved over medium-low heat. After the sugar is dissolved, raise the heat to high and let it cook without further stirring. Keep an eye on it as after a few minutes, it will start to turn a light amber and then darker amber. The longer you cook it, the darker the color and the deeper the caramel flavor. Be careful, though, as it can quickly go from dark amber to burnt. After it is at your desired color, very carefully add heavy cream (it will bubble vigorously) and whisk to combine.

Note that the longer you cook the caramel, not only does the color darken but the harder the resulting caramel will be when it cools. If it ends up too hard, you can gently re-heat it and add more liquid to thin it. On the other hand, if it is too thin, make a second batch, cook it slightly longer than the first batch and combine the two.

For a dry caramel, sprinkle a thin layer of sugar into your pot, not reaching to the edges. Over medium-high heat, cook it and watch as the sugar starts to dissolve. It will then start to turn amber around the edges. At that point, gently and carefully swirl it to distribute the sugar. Once most of it has turned amber, add another thin layer of sugar and continue to cook until amber. Repeat until you have added all the sugar and reached the desired color. Remove from the heat and immediately and carefully add your cream.

What about butter? Some recipes call for it whereas others do not. Butter produces a very nice mouthfeel due to the high fat content. However, as butter is solid at room temperature, your caramel sauce will be firmer when cooled, especially after being in the refrigerator.

Many pastry chefs will tell you that you can use either of these methods interchangeably and get similar results. Others will say that since with the wet method, you must take time to evaporate the water, the sugar cooks longer resulting in more complex flavors.

The biggest problem people have is that the sugar can crystallize, making the sugar syrup very grainy. If it does this, take it off the heat, add a couple tablespoons of water and heat again until the crystals dissolve.

The following are recommended methods to prevent crystallization in the first place.

  • Use a wet pastry brush to wipe down any sugar crystals on the side of the pan. Not all chefs do this and say they have no problems.
  • Although not as common, some will lightly oil the sides of the pan before starting so the sugar does not stick to the pan.
  • Another method involves putting a lid on the pot if you see any crystals on the side. This will produce steam and dissolve the crystals.
  • Add a different type of molecule. Crystallization is most common in what is called a “pure solution”. By adding a different type of ingredient such as corn syrup (mostly glucose) or a few drops of acid (lemon juice, vinegar, cream of tartar), you can prevent crystallization.
  • A common recommendation is to not stir as the sugar is cooking, particularly before the color starts to change. Then, only stir if spots are getting too dark. I must say that there are pastry chefs, though, who do some careful stirring without resulting crystallization.

Another problem is that the caramel gets too dark or even burns.

  • Use a heavy gauge stainless steel pot. With a thin pan, you are more likely to experience uneven cooking and a higher likelihood of burning.
  • Try to not to use a pot with a dark interior as it is much harder to judge the color.
  • A wide saucepan or even a deep skillet is better than a tall and narrow pot. With the latter, there is less surface area, which slows down the caramelization process.
  • Have a bowl of cold water ready. When you reach the desired color, submerge the bottom of the pan into the cold water to quickly stop the cooking process.
  • Quickly add your cream as the cold cream will cool down the solution. Just be careful as it will bubble vigorously as you do this. Stand back and then whisk together.

Once you get the correct color, there will be almost no water left. As this cools, it will become rock hard. You need to add moisture to get the desired consistency. The more liquid you add, the thinner it will be. If you add too much, just put the pot back on the heat to evaporate some of the water. If it is too thin, add more liquid.

Remember that cooked sugar is extremely hot and can cause serious burns. Always be careful when making caramel or anything that requires you to melt sugar. Use heavy oven mitts and long sleeves. Many experts recommend that you put a bowl of ice water nearby in case any of the mixture splashes onto your hands. If so, immediately put them into the ice water. NEVER taste it until it has fully cooled!

Homemade caramel sauce is a delightful concoction. Although it does take a bit of practice, once you master it, there will be no more quick runs to the store for that pre-made sauce.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

An Essential Ingredient to Thai Curries

In the last couple of Cooking Tips, I discussed different aspects of Thai Cooking. In the first Tip, I explained the differences between a Thai curry and an Indian curry. Tip #2 was a more general discussion of important Thai ingredients. In this Tip, I want to spend a bit more time looking at one of those ingredients – curry paste.

The word curry can be used to either mean a dish or a spice mixture. In Indian cooking, that spice mixture would be made up of dry, ground spices. In Thai cooking, it is called curry paste and it is a moister mixture that is finely ground or pureed made not only from spices but also from many fresh ingredients.

There are many different versions of curry pastes and the ingredient list for each may vary depending on the cook and/or brand. Let’s first discuss ingredients and then the most common types of curry paste.

Ingredients

  • Chilis – depending on the variety of curry paste, it may contain red or green chilis, either in the dried or fresh forms.
  • Fresh aromatics – typical ones are shallots, garlic, lemongrass, galangal, cilantro root, makrut (aka kaffir) lime zest, grachai (a member of the ginger family), turmeric and ginger.
  • Dried spices – other than those pastes that have some Indian or Muslim influence, dried spices are not typically used. When they are included, you might see coriander seeds, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, mace and cloves.
  • Umami boosters – shrimp paste and dried shrimp. Besides giving an umami boost, shrimp paste also gives an authentically Thai flavor.

Types of Curry Paste

Red
This paste is made with dried red chilis and can have up to 20 different varieties. Traditionally, the dried red chilis are soaked, which reduces some of the harshness and heat. One expert lists what he calls the “Basic 10” of ingredients – dried red chilis, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, galangal, cilantro root, makrut lime zest, white peppercorns, shrimp paste and salt. Others may also add coriander and cumin.

Green
The chilis used in this paste are very similar to those in red but here they are in their fresh (green) state. Besides the fresh green chilies, other typical ingredients are shallots, lemongrass, white pepper, coriander root, garlic, kaffir lime zest, shrimp paste and sea salt. This all gives this paste a green color. In the final dish, sweet basil leaves, round green Thai eggplant and kaffir lime leaves are often added, which contribute even more to an overall green hue. As compared to red curry paste, this one has a more balanced and herbier flavor.

Some consider red curry paste as the spiciest whereas others give that prize to green paste.

Traditionally, Thai people considered green curries as the hottest followed be red. As Thai food became popular in the West, the red curry emerged as the hottest. However, in authentic Thai cuisine, a green curry will always be spicier than a red.

Yellow
The color of this variety comes from fresh turmeric and curry powder. Other common ingredients are coriander, cumin, lemongrass, galangal, shrimp paste, dried red chilies, sea salt, ginger, garlic and shallots. It is milder than the other pastes but the actual spiciness will depend on the actual chilis used. It also often has a touch of sweetness.

Panang
This curry paste is similar to red but has the addition of ground peanuts as well as cumin, coriander seeds, dried red long chilies, shallots, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime zest, coriander root, white pepper, salt and shrimp paste.

Massaman
Because of the Muslim in influence in this curry paste, it has abundant dry spices that are commonly seen in south Asia – cinnamon, star anise, cloves, cardamom and nutmeg. Other ingredients are dried red chilies, shallots, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, coriander, cumin, white pepper, salt and shrimp paste. It is a relatively mild curry paste.

The most common use for curry paste is in Thai curries where the curry paste is cooked with a protein and/or veggies and a liquid such as coconut milk or stock. That is not the only use, though and these pastes can be used as a marinade, a rub for chicken, fish or beef as well as in stir fries.

If you have been reading these Cooking Tips for very long, you know that I do not use or recommend many convenience items. For example, when you need a small amount of Chinese Five Spice, do not buy an entire bottle that may go stale before you use it all up. Rather, make your own from ingredients that are probably already in your pantry.

Curry pastes are different, though. You can certainly make these pastes from scratch but it is a fairly time consuming process and involves a whole host of ingredients, many of which are difficult to come by outside of a good Asian or international food market. Therefore, most of us will buy a good prepared curry paste.

A good curry paste is said to have an aroma strongly of herbs. When looking at the ingredients, there should only be herbs, spices, salt and shrimp paste. No oils, no additives and no water. Many Thai cooks strongly suggest only buying Thai brands.

Some differences that may be seen between store-bought & home-made is that the home-made version may have more complex flavors and may have a fresher taste as the herbs are added at the end and not further processed. Another advantage of home-made is that you can customize the blend to accommodate dietary restrictions and flavor preferences.

Brands – Favorite store-bought brands are:

  • Maesri – one advantage of this brand is that it comes in small cans rather than larger containers.
  • Mae Ploy – this is my favorite brand but it does tend to be saltier than other brands.
  • Chef’s Choice – this brand is mostly found in Europe and Asia.
  • Mae Anong – a favorite of many Thai afficionados.

Storage
Curry paste can be refrigerated for at least a week or frozen for six months to a year.

With the info found in these last three Cooking Tips, you should be able to make your own kitchen your favorite Thai restaurant!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Ingredients – The Key to Great Thai Meals

Learning to make Thai meals is always one of my most popular classes. Since so many people love it, I thought I would write a few Tips on this subject. Last week was the difference between Thai and Indian curries. This one discusses Thai cooking in a general sense and the next one will concentrate on Thai curry pastes. If you want to learn how to cook Thai in your own kitchen, contact me for information. In the meantime, for some tips on cooking Thai at home, read on.

One thing I teach over and over is that mastering cooking techniques rather than recipes should be the goal of all of us. If you have a good grasp of techniques, you can cook any cuisine. The techniques of cooking Thai as opposed to Italian or Indian or French are not all that different. What really makes the difference are the ingredients.

What do I mean by cooking techniques? I would recommend reviewing a couple of resources as a starting point. On my Home Page, you can download a free article entitled “Great Tips to Improve Your Cooking”. I also wrote an earlier Tip on “What Not to Do in the Kitchen”. These would be a great foundation for you.

Besides what you will find in those articles, a good cook should know the difference between cooking methods such as sauteing, stir-frying, grilling, roasting, poaching, steaming and so forth. Having good knife skills and always trying to improve is also important. (Why not book a class concentrating on Knife Skills?) Knowing what pots/pans are best to use for a particular dish as well as controlling the heat under that pot is very helpful.

For the rest of this Tip, we are going to presume you have a working knowledge of good cooking techniques. Let me move to what makes Thai food taste differently than other cuisines and that is Ingredients.

There is no way I can discuss all the ingredients that a Thai cook might use but I do want to go over some common ones. If you really want to make Thai dishes with authentic flavor, I strongly encourage you to seek out the real ingredients rather than relying on some of the substitutions I list. The following are listed in alphabetical order.

Aromatics

These are veggies from the allium family and include items such as shallots, onions, scallions and garlic.

Basil

Most commonly used is Thai basil, a relative of Mediterranean basil. It has purple stems and flowers with a slight licorice flavor and a hint of spiciness. As the flavor profile is so distinct from Mediterranean basil, it is best to seek out the Thai version rather than substituting if that is what is called for. Some Thai recipes call for sweet basil, which is the Mediterranean version.

Chiles

Although it does not have to be overly spicy, most Thai food will have somewhat of a bite to it. This is provided by fresh and dried chili peppers. The one most commonly seen in our local supermarkets is called a Thai chili pepper, a small and very hot pepper. In reality, though, there are many different varieties with varying heat level. On the Scoville scale, they can range anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 heat units. To put that in perspective, the jalapeno averages around 5000 units. For more information on chili peppers in general, see this Cooking Tip.

Cilantro

Also known as Chinese parsley, this herb is commonly found in our supermarkets.

Coconut Milk

Although not used in all Thai dishes, it is used in many. Coconut milk is made by soaking fresh or dried coconut in water, squeezing out the liquid and discarding the pulp. It is not the liquid inside fresh coconuts. Although you can drink that, it is not generally used in cooking. Also, stay away from Cream of Coconut, which is a sweetened product used for making cocktails.

The best coconut milk has a significant layer of coconut cream that rises to the top of the more liquid part. This is one thing that distinguishes a quality coconut milk from a lesser one. The better ones have a nice layer of cream on top. At times, you will want to use the cream separate from the thinner milk and at other times, you will just mix it all together. The cream layer, though, will give you a more luxurious taste and texture. My preferred brand is Chaokoh. Cooks Illustrated also likes that brand but at their last review, they chose Aroy-D as their favorite. These may or may not be available in your local supermarket although they certainly would be at an international market.

Curry Pastes

Thai curry pastes are a mixture of many fresh and dried ingredients. They are totally different from curry powder. There are numerous kinds with some of the most common being red, green, yellow, panang and masaman. Each has a different blend of ingredients yielding a different taste and level of spiciness. They are used not only in Thai curries but can also be used in Thai soups and stir-fries.

You can make your own but despite the advice in my Spice Cooking Tip, it is not something I normally do. The ingredient list is long and fairly complex. There are great commercially available curry pastes from which to choose. My favorite is Mae Ploy. The important thing to remember is that even among the same type of curry paste, the flavor and especially spiciness can vary greatly from brand to brand. Whether you are using a recipe or making your own Thai curry paste, always start with less than you need. If you are used to using one tablespoon of your favorite brand, don’t assume one tablespoon of another brand will be the same. I recommend finding a brand you like and then sticking with it for consistency.

Fish Sauce

Made from fermented fish, typically anchovies, this is the “salt” of Thai cooking. It is both a condiment and an ingredient and is full of glutamates that enhance flavor. In taste tests, the best fish sauce had the highest protein content. The higher protein content helps to balance the saltiness and other flavors. Most experts recommend the Red Boat 40°N brand but other highly rated ones are Thai Kitchen, A Taste of Thai and Golden Boy. Megachef is another recommended brand but the one you are most likely to see in an international market is in a blue bottle and is said to be formulated more for Vietnamese cooking. Megachef does have a Thai version in a brown bottle but is more difficult to find.

Galangal

Another herb with a pale yellow root and a distinctive flavor. Since it is a relative to ginger root, you can substitute that although it will not have the same taste.

Kaffir lime leaf

These are the leaves of a dark green knobbly lime that add a sharp and sour flavor. The leaves are used in curries and soups and the juice is sometimes used in soups. There is no real substitute but you can try lemon leaves or finely grated lemon/lime rind. One kaffir lime leaf is equal to ½ tsp lemon rind.

Lemongrass

This is a Thai herb with a distinctive, lemony flavor. The outer layer is discarded along with the straw-like top. Only the bottom ⅓ is used and is normally sliced or chopped. Although many mainstream grocery stores will carry pre-packaged lemongrass in their herb section, I usually find it dried out and not worth buying. You are much better off getting fresh lemongrass from the international markets.

Limes

Juice from regular limes is a very common ingredient used to add sourness and balance other favors.

Palm sugar

Made from various palm trees, it is a light brown, raw sugar. It comes in two forms: hard/lumpy or softer/paste-like. I would suggest you seek it out due to its distinctive flavor but in a pinch, you could try substituting raw sugar, brown sugar, coconut sugar, maple syrup or even honey.

Rice

Easily found in our supermarkets due to its popularity, Jasmine rice is the type that is served with Thai dishes. It is very flavorful with a distinctive aroma.

Tamarind

This is an ingredient made from the seed pod of a large Asian tree. It often comes in a block requiring you to break off a piece and soak in lukewarm water for 5 mins. (1 Tbsp of pulp in ¼ cup water) After soaking, the pulp should be squeezed & kneaded well to dissolve everything that can be dissolved followed by straining out the seeds/fiber. You can also easily find tamarind concentrate, which does not require soaking/straining. Although the taste will not be authentic, you can try substituting lemon, lime or grapefruit.

This is not an exhaustive list but if you have these items in your pantry, you are well on your way to delicious Thai meals. Stay tuned for the next Tip on Curry Pastes.