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

Minty Freshness

My husband and I were walking through our local garden center and I wanted to look at all the fresh herbs on display. They had an excellent selection of different types of herbs and even within an herb category, there were numerous varieties. One of those that I so enjoyed was mint. They probably had 6 or 7 different varieties of mint. That fact is what led to this Cooking Tip where I will delve into some of these mint varieties, what they are and how to use them.

According to gardening experts, there are over 600 known varieties of mint. If you buy your mint in a plastic container in your supermarket, you will probably not have a choice. The container will be labeled “mint” and that will be it. It will be most likely spearmint although the label does not usually specify this. If you want to try any of these other wonderful types of mint, you will have to search them out in a good garden center.

Spearmint

One of the most common varieties, it is also the earliest cultivated and used mint. Therefore, many older books just refer to it as “mint”. It has less menthol (the chemical that gives you the minty and cooling flavor) than its relatives and thus has a sweeter and mellower flavor. It is also more herbaceous making it the choice for when you are making a savory dish that calls for mint.

Peppermint

Another very common variety, peppermint is a hybrid of watermint and spearmint. It contains significantly more menthol than spearmint. In fact, it is so high that it is often felt to be spicy, similar to pepper. Because of these qualities, it is better suited to sweet dishes or beverages. My husband grows a type of peppermint called “Candy Mint”, which has an even more intense flavor. I love using that to make Chocolate Mint truffles.

Apple Mint (aka applemint, wooly mint)

This mint looks unique in that its leaves are rounder and have a furry appearance. It may be that the name comes more from the leaf shape rather than its flavor, which is mild due to its low menthol content. Any apple comes in with the aroma more than the flavor. It is often used in making mint jelly but is also nice in fruit salads and beverages.

Chocolate Mint

The leaves of this mint are darker than other varieties and the stems are purplish. Both the origins and flavor of this mint are controversial. As to the origins, some say it is a hybrid of orange mint while others say it is more closely related to watermint. Others call it a cultivar of peppermint.

In respect to flavor, there are those who will detect definite chocolate notes. Others say they can detect chocolate in the aroma but not the flavor. Some liken the aroma and flavor to an after-dinner mint such as an After Eight or Peppermint Patty. Still others feel that any chocolate notes are imaginary. When a chemical analysis was made, there was nothing that would account for the chocolate aspect. For those that feel there is a mild chocolate flavor, they like to us it in desserts and beverages.

Ginger mint (aka Scotch mint, Vietnamese mint)

This is a low-growing mint that is a hybrid between spearmint and corn mint that does not grow in the wild. The mint flavor is strong and a bit spicy with hints of ginger. Great uses are soups, vinaigrettes, seafood dishes and baked goods. It is also used in making candy and in flavoring chewing gum.

Mojito Mint (aka Cuban mint)

This mint is a variety of spearmint but has an herbier flavor. It is the one most traditionally used in making the drink known as a mojito.

Orange Mint (bergamot mint)

A relative of peppermint, its parent plants are spearmint and watermint. The leaves are tinged with red. The flavor is citrusy and it is more aromatic than many mints, reminding many of Earl Grey tea. It can be used in drinks, fruit salads as well as fish/poultry dishes.

Pineapple Mint

With its pretty variegated leaves, some grow this as an ornamental plant. It is a type of apple mint. Its fruity scent flavor lends itself to use in beverages, jellies and fruit salads.

Watermint

This is an intensely minty variety with very pronounced menthol notes. Because of this, it needs to be used sparingly so as to not overpower the dish. It is more commonly infused into hot water and used as a medicine.

To store fresh mint, trim off the stems a bit and place them in a jar/glass with about an inch of water. Cover with a plastic bag secured with a rubber band and store in the refrigerator. You can extend the life by changing the water every few days. Other options include hanging the sprigs to air dry or drying using a food dehydrator.

You can also freeze mint. One method is to place whole or chopped mint leaves into the wells of an ice cube tray and cover with water. Once frozen, you can move them to a freezer bag. To use later, just add one of the cubes to your dish or beverage. Another option is to lay the leaves flat on a baking sheet and put that into the freezer. After about an hour, carefully move them to a bag for longer storage. Although the flavor is maintained in the freezer, the texture will be limp. Due to this, it may not be suitable as a garnish.

According to my husband, mint is easy to grow. His exact words were “it’s hard not to grow it.” Since the only way to try some of these different varieties is to grow them yourself, I hope you give some of them a try!

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

Asparagus – A Sign of Spring

My husband just harvested the first asparagus spears of the season. Since it is not a long season, I like to make the best of it and serve it in many different ways. With that first harvest I made a wonderful Skillet Asparagus Salad with Goat Cheese from Cooking Light. To encourage you to experiment, I thought I would devote this Cooking Tip to just that subject – Asparagus.

If you are not growing your own asparagus, you need to purchase it at the store. Choose spears with firm stalks and tightly closed tips. Try to buy a bunch with similarly sized stalks for even cooking. When you bring it home, trim a small amount off the bottom of the stalks and place in a jar or glass with a bit of water in the bottom. Cover loosely with a plastic bag. Store in the refrigerator. Change the water daily. It is best, though, to eat it as soon as possible

There are different varieties of asparagus – green, purple and white. Purple asparagus gets its color from anthocyanins, the same pigments that give us other purple food such as grapes. White is just green asparagus this is grown in darkness under the dirt. Because photosynthesis is limited, chlorophyll doesn’t develop and the resulting spears are white.

You will also notice that asparagus spears come in different widths from very thin (pencil) to thick. The thin spears are best for sautéing, steaming or grilling whereas the thick spears are better if you wish to roast or braise them although they can also be steamed or boiled.

When you are ready to eat it, it should be thoroughly washed and then the woody part of the stem removed. Most people teach the “snap” method. Pick up a spear and gently bend it. They are said to naturally snap where the tender part ends and the woody part begins. Cooks Illustrated feels this method is too imprecise and wasteful. They just trim the bottom one inch, which is the woodiest part. Then, they peel the bottom half to expose the white flesh.

Realize that it only takes a short time to properly cook asparagus. Thin asparagus will only take a couple of minutes. Thicker spears will take a few minutes longer.

There are various methods of cooking asparagus.

Steaming

Place asparagus in a steamer basket and cook gently over simmering water just until tender. This method is great for preserving the green color.

Boiling

You can boil asparagus but it will not take very long. If you are not serving it right away, you may want to plunge it into ice water once it is tender to avoid overcooking and loss of color. This is essentially blanching, a method where you cook it in simmering water just until it is tender and then you put it in an ice bath.

Microwave

Place in a microwave-safe dish with 2 tablespoons of water. Cover and microwave on high for about 3 minutes. Stir and continue to cook just until tender, another 2 or 3 minutes.

Pan searing

Cooking in a hot skillet with butter/oil is a great and quick method. This is what I did for the above mentioned Asparagus Salad.

Grilling

Lay directly across the grill grates or use a grill basket. You can also grill inside by using a grill pan.

Braising

This method goes against the standard wisdom of cooking asparagus only until it is crisp tender and still bright green. However, Keith Dresser of Cooks Illustrated highly recommends it. To do this, choose the larger spears that are at least ¾ inch thick. Peel the skin until the white skin is exposed, which helps the braising liquid to get into the interior of the stalk. Bring a large skillet of water/chicken broth/olive oil/salt to a simmer and add the asparagus in a single layer. Cook covered until the spears are tender. Remove the lid, continue to cook while shaking the skillet until the pan is almost dry. This creates a light glaze that coats the asparagus. Add flavorings such as lemon/chives or orange/tarragon.

Pan steamed

This method combines the methods of sauteing and steaming. To start with, you put the asparagus into a skillet with water and seasonings, cover and steam it for about 2 minutes. Then, you uncover and cook until almost dry and asparagus is crisp tender.

Roasting

Roasting is a bit tricky because the spears can easily overcook and lose their nice green color by the time they brown. To use this method, choose thicker spears. As with many roasted veggies, putting your baking sheet in the oven while it is preheating is very helpful to getting the right result. This means the spears will start to sear as soon as they hit the hot pan. Cooks Illustrated tested different roasting methods and recommends a very hot oven (500°F) with the baking sheet placed at the lowest position. They caution against shaking or stirring the asparagus while it is cooking. This resulted in asparagus that was crisp-tender, deeply browned on one side and green on the other.

One of my favorite recipes that used roasted asparagus is from My Recipes, Roasted Asparagus & Arugula Salad with Poached Egg. It is not only extremely tasty but can make an impressive starter or first course for a dinner party.

How you decide to cook your asparagus is your choice. I just encourage you take advantage of this wonderful vegetable during its peak season. Your taste buds will thank you!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

The beautiful Mediterranean way!

I recently wrote a series of Cooking Tips on Healthy Eating and Cooking. Although I did not use the term “Mediterranean”, much of what I wrote about is very consistent with eating a Mediterranean diet. Since this is a very healthy way to cook and eat, I thought I would write this Cooking Tip on that very subject.

The term “Mediterranean cuisine” is not synonymous with the term “Mediterranean diet”. The cuisine of the Mediterranean is of a great variety as there are twenty-one countries bordering the Mediterranean. When the Mediterranean diet is referenced, most are referring to how they eat in Italy, Spain, southern France, Greece, the isle of Crete and the Middle East. All of these have a focus on the following type of diet.

  • Minimally processed, seasonally fresh, locally grown foods
  • Abundant plant foods – vegetables, fruit, cereals, legumes, nuts, seeds
  • Primary source of fat is olive oil
  • Moderately high intake of fresh fish and low intake of poultry and meat
  • Moderate amounts of dairy products, mostly cheese that is not high in fat as well as yogurt
  • Garlic, nuts, herbs, spices all add flavor & interest
  • Potatoes & rice are eaten in restraint
  • Pasta is a side or first course, not a main course
  • Dessert is usually fresh fruit or, in some cases, honey-based sweets
  • Moderate alcohol consumption, preferably from wine and usually with meals

If you wish to start cooking and eating this way, start with stocking your pantry and refrigerator the Mediterranean way. Following is a list of common ingredients although it is far from complete.

  • Olive oil, usually extra-virgin (For a more in-depth discussion of olive oil, see this Tip.)
  • Herbs – common Mediterranean herbs are parsley, dill, rosemary, thyme, sage, mint, fennel, bay, tarragon, lemon verbena and oregano. As much as possible, try to use fresh herbs. Oregano might be one exception.
  • Spices – cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, anise, saffron, sumac, za’atar and Aleppo pepper.
  • Dairy – cheese made from sheep’s and goat’s milk as well as yogurt.
  • Beans and lentils
  • Rice and grains, especially ones such as bulgur, farro, barley, wheat berries and quinoa. For more info, see this Tip.
  • Olives
  • Vinegars – balsamic, red wine and white wine
  • Pomegranate molasses – this is reduced pomegranate juice used especially in Middle Eastern and Persian cooking.
  • Preserved lemons – lemons pickled in salt and their own juices. Common in North African dishes.
  • Rose water – water that has been infused with the essence of rose and is often used in Middle Eastern, Indian and Persian cuisines.
  • Harissa – a spicy, fruity chili paste.
  • Tahini – ground sesame seed paste.

Once you have guidelines on ingredients and what to eat, cooking Mediterranean dishes is no different than any other cooking. Having decent knife skills, understanding the different types of cooking (sautéing, steaming, poaching, baking, roasting, etc.), knowing how to use herbs/spices and understanding what NOT to do in the kitchen are all skills that transcend cuisines. Check out my other Tips on these subjects. If you are in the Colorado area, consider booking a class to help you with any or all of these skills. For great ideas on how to cook Mediterranean, consider attending one of these upcoming classes.

Springtime is the perfect time to upgrade your eating and cooking habits to the wonderful Mediterranean way. I hope you give it a try!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Gnocchi — a different Italian dish

When you think of Italian food, what do you think of? Is it pizza, spaghetti or lasagna? There is so much more to Italian food than that. One of those “other” dishes would be Gnocchi. What gnocchi is, how to make it and how to serve it are the subjects of this Cooking Tip.

The word “gnocchi” actually means “lumps”, although the word is said to derive from the old Lombard phrase knohha, meaning “knot” or from nocca, which means knuckles. We often call these” Potato Dumplings” but they were not always made with potato. This dish dates as far back as the 1300s when it was made from flour or breadcrumbs. A cookbook from 1570 contains a recipe made from flour/breadcrumbs/water and pushed through the holes of a cheese grater. The potato version probably began in the 16th or 17th century.

Since potato gnocchi are the main variety found outside Italy, let’s discuss how to make them. The goal is to make light and airy gnocchi although it is easy to end up with dense and heavy ones if you aren’t careful.

The type of potato is important. Almost all experts recommend using a dry, floury variety like Russets. Some feel that a white all-purpose or a Yukon gold are acceptable but if you have never made them before, stick with the Russet. They have a lower water content and a higher starch content. Because of this, you can add less flour, which means less gluten and an end product that is more tender.

How you cook the potatoes is a bit of a debate. There are those that only recommend baking them in their skins as this will remove moisture. Others feel the potatoes can be boiled but do advise to boil them in the skins to reduce moisture.

Whichever method you use to cook the potatoes, you then want to mash them while they are hot. The absolute best method for this (as well as making mashed potatoes) is to use a ricer. These are inexpensive tools that are worth the money.

After ricing (or mashing), the hot potatoes should be spread out on your cutting board or baking sheet so they cool and to maximize moisture evaporation.

Eggs are not a traditional ingredient although many recipes will add one as it makes an easier to handle gnocchi due to its capacity to help bind the dough together. This prevents the gnocchi from disintegrating in the boiling water. Eggs also add richness to the finished product. The downside is that the egg white can contribute to a denser and chewier gnocchi. Using only the yolk is a great alternative.

Once cool, it is time to make the dough. Mound up the cooled potatoes and start to add a bit of flour and egg, if using. As excess flour is the enemy to light and tender gnocchi, you only want to add as much flour as necessary to get a cohesive dough. Harold McGee says you should need less than 1 cup per pound of potatoes. Cook’s Illustrated recommends weighing your ingredients and using 4 ounces of flour to 16 ounces of riced potatoes. Whatever recipe you follow, do not add all the flour at once. Add it in stages to get the proper result.

The ingredients should be gently kneaded into a dough. Using something like a bench scraper and just scraping and folding can help in preventing over-kneading. Your goal is a moist but not sticky dough.

After you obtain a nice dough, it is portioned and rolled out into a thin rope. It is cut into pieces, generally about ¾ of an inch in size. Shaping into the traditional ridged C-shape is next. This can be done by using a gnocchi board or a fork. A wonderful friend who had lived in Italy gave me a gnocchi board and I love it. It is very easy to use.

For cooking, they are normally gently placed into boiling, salted water and cooked only until they rise to the surface. They are plated and dressed with a sauce. Some find that they can be cooked directly in the sauce without the boiling stage.

Sauces are varied but include marinara, pesto and a butter sauce with sage, herbs and/or garlic. One of my favorites is a sun-dried tomato pesto.

What are the problems that arise in making gnocchi?

  • Dense and chewy gnocchi – this is normally due to adding too much flour and/or kneading too aggressively.
  • Lumpy mashed potatoes – using a ricer will give you a smooth and airy result.
  • Bland flavor – cooking them in salted water and then serving with a flavorful sauce is the answer to this problem.

Every area of Italy has its distinct gnocchi style and sauce.

  • As mentioned above, gnocchi can be made with just flour and water although they will be heavier and denser than potato gnocchi.
  • Gnudi di Ricotta – ricotta dumplings
    • These are more common in Tuscany and use no potatoes. Rather, strained ricotta, egg, breadcrumbs and cheese are combined and rolled into balls before being dusted in semolina. After cooking, they are fried in butter until golden brown.
  • Gnocchi alla Romana – semolina gnocchi
    • This dish originated in Rome and is made with semolina flour. Traditionally, the dough is chilled, cut and baked with butter and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
  • Gnocchi Parisienne
    • This is a French version of gnocchi. The base is a choux pastry (the dough used to make profiteroles.) The dough is dropped into water via a piping bag to cook followed by putting them into a pan of butter to crisp up. Finally, it is dressed with lemon juice and herbs.
  • Malloreddus
    • Eaten on the Italian island of Sardinia, this variety is made with only semolina flour and water, sometimes colored with saffron. This results in a denser and chewier gnocchi.
    • The traditional sauce is Campidanese, a sausage, tomato and fennel ragu.
  • Malfatti
    • These are very colorful as they are made from ricotta, spinach and Parmesan bound together by semolina and egg. They tend to be larger than other gnocchi, about the size of a golf ball.

Fresh gnocchi can be frozen uncooked for up to 2 months. Boil them frozen although it will take a bit longer. Store cooked gnocchi in airtight container in refrigerator for up to 4 days.

Have you made gnocchi? Although they do take a bit of practice and patience, they can be a delightfully different Italian meal.

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 · Techniques

Preheating your pan — Truth or Myth

Many of you may know that I really do not like it when “Culinary Myths” are passed down without any thought to whether those myths are really true or not. This happens at all levels from home cooks to experienced chefs. I have already written two Cooking Tips on a number of such culinary myths. In this Tip, I want to discuss another topic that falls into this category. That is whether or not you preheat your pan before adding the fat.

I was taught a certain way in culinary school and just accepted it as fact. However, when you start to do a deeper dive into this subject, it is not as clear cut. I was taught that you heat your pan before adding the oil. There are also other individuals, well-respected in the culinary world, that also advise that. Because of this, I have often taught this to those who have attended my cooking classes. I began to wonder about the accuracy of this recommendation and decided to investigate.

There are two main reasons why preheating the pan before adding oil is advised. They are fat degradation and food sticking. You may also hear arguments about even food cooking and the pores in a pan.

Fat degradation

Some feel that the longer the fat is in the pan being heated (such as would happen when you add the fat to the pan before heating it), the more likelihood there is of that fat breaking down into unpleasant and even unhealthy compounds.

While this may make sense on the surface, it really doesn’t when one considers that the fat will not start to deteriorate until it reaches its “smoke-point”. It doesn’t matter whether that fat is added to a cold or hot pan. All that matters is the temperature at which the respective fat starts to break down.

Here is a chart on smoke-points of various types of fat. As you can see from that chart, other than butter, extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil and some nut oils, the smoke-points are above 360°F and often as high as 500°F. This is higher than you are going to use in most cooking situations. Therefore, the concern for fat degradation as a reason to preheat your pan really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in most cases.

Food sticking

This reason goes like this adage – “Hot Pan, Cold Oil, Food Won’t Stick”. What makes food stick to a pan is if the pan isn’t hot enough. If you do not add your food until your pan is hot, it really doesn’t matter whether you put the oil in at the beginning of heating or after the pan is hot. If you put your food into a cold pan, it will stick no matter if there is oil in it or not.

If you heat your pan and add the “cold” oil (more like room temperature oil), the oil heats up immediately. You can see this for yourself by watching how quickly the oil starts to shimmer. As others have pointed out, the adage is incorrect in and of itself as in reality, it is “Hot Pan, Hot Oil, Food Won’t Stick.”

Pores in the pan

I was taught in culinary school that if you preheat your pan dry, the pores in it (microscopic holes) will close up allowing the oil to glide on the surface and prevent sticking. The proponents of this argue that if food is added before these pores close up, the pores will grab onto the food and cause sticking. However, the closure of the pores is a matter of the pan heating up, not when you add the oil. So, once again, make sure your pan is at the right temperature before adding the food.

Even cooking

If you put your fat into a cold pan and heat it, you will notice that the fat tends to pool around the side. Because of this, the temperature of your pan is going to be different at different spots. Some experts feel this will lead to uneven cooking. However, the difference in pan temperature occurs regardless of when you add the oil. It may be a good reason to make sure you are cooking with good quality cookware, which is more likely to heat evenly, but it is not a reason for preheating the pan before adding the oil.

With all that in mind, what is the home cook to do? For most situations, whether or not you preheat your pan before adding the oil really doesn’t matter. There are a few exceptions to this declaration. Here are some guidelines.

  1. Almost always make sure your pan is hot before adding the food. Add the oil either before you start heating the pan or after it is hot but do not add the food until all is hot.

  2. One exception to this is if you are cooking on a very gentle heat, such as sweating veggies or cooking fresh herbs or spices. In this case, you do not need to wait until your pan is hot. You can add both oil and ingredients to a cold pan and proceed to cook over a gentle heat. Many chefs feel that slower, more gentle heat/oil draws out more flavor. Too much heat can deactivate some flavor-producing enzymes in the allium family (onions, garlic) and/or drive off aromatic/flavorful essential oils in the herbs and spices.

  3. If you want to sear a piece of protein to get that wonderful, flavorful crust, you may want to heat your pan first and then add the oil. If you have heated your pan so that it is above the smoke-point of your preferred fat, this will minimize the time that fat is in the extreme heat. Realize though, that fat degradation starts immediately upon reaching the smoke-point. If you are using something with a low smoke-point (such as butter) heat your pan, add your butter, add your protein and cook quickly. Another option is if you are using oil, you can brush the oil on the protein before putting it in the hot pan. That also leads to less splattering.

  4. If you are pan frying or deep-fat frying, this takes much more oil than the typical sauteing or searing process. It could be quite dangerous to add this amount of oil to a hot pan. You are much better off adding the oil to a cold pan and heating them together.

  5. The type of pan makes a difference.
    • Never pre-heat a dry non-stick pan. High heat can quickly cause the coating on such a pan to break down. Although non-stick pans do have their place (cooking eggs, making crepes, cooking delicate fish), they should not be used for any high-heat application.
    • Although rare, a cast-iron pan could crack if heated dry.
    • The thermal shock of adding cold oil to a preheated enameled cast-iron pot could cause cracking.
    • Check the instructions from your cookware manufacturer. Some advise against heating a dry pan.

So, there you go – another Culinary Myth busted. See my other two Tips (Part 1, Part 2) for more culinary myths. Have your ever heard anything about cooking and/or baking that you want investigated? Let me know.

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Crepes — Simple but Impressive!

I am going to be teaching a fun class on Crepes. I thought all of you might also enjoy learning all about these delightful creations. From very light and sweet crepes used to make Crepes Suzette to sturdier and nuttier Buckwheat crepes that you would use in a full-flavored savory dish, there is so much to learn. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Although you will find crepes used in other cuisines, they are French in origin. The word crêpe is French for pancake. They originated in Brittany in the northwest of France. At that time, they were not typically filled but rather eaten as bread. Buckwheat flour was the preferred flour up until about 100 years ago. A sidenote is that in some parts of France, the heartier Buckwheat crepe, normally containing a savory filling, is called a galette. The word “crepe” is reserved for the lighter and more likely sweet version.

February 2nd is known in France as Le Jour des Crêpes (the day of crepes). According to The Institute of Culinary Education, this celebration is “believed to have begun in the year 472 when crêpes were offered to French Catholic pilgrims visiting Rome for Candlemas by Pope Gelasio I. Now, Le Jour des Crêpes and Candlemas are synonymous occasions in France and Belgium, where crêpes take on additional meaning, their circular nature symbolizing either a coin or the sun.”

The ingredient list for crepes is small – flour, eggs, butter, milk and/or water. Other ingredients such as salt, sugar and vanilla are optional depending on the type of crepe you are making.

Flour – most standard crepes use just all-purpose flour. For a heartier crepe, buckwheat flour can be used. This is a very strong tasting flour, which can be tamed by using a combination of buckwheat and all-purpose flour. One advantage of using all buckwheat is that it is gluten-free. Rice flour can also be used for gluten-free crepes and is better suited when you want a lighter and/or sweet crepe. Other flours that can be used are garbanzo flour, chestnut flour and whole-wheat flour. Even cornmeal is sometimes used.

Liquid – some recipes may call only for water but this does lead to a bland crepe that lacks some structure. Milk gives you a richer crepe. There are those that feel all milk is too heavy and will use a mixture of milk and water.

Seasoning – for a savory crepe, just add a pinch of salt. For more variety, you can add finely chopped herbs, minced sun-dried tomatoes or other spices. For sweet crepes, add a touch of sugar and vanilla extract.

How to make crepes

Start by melting your butter and allowing it to cool just a bit so it doesn’t scramble the eggs. Browning your butter before using it adds a delightful nuttiness to the crepe. The easiest and best method for combining all these ingredients is by using a blender although you can do it by hand with a whisk. Just make sure everything is thoroughly incorporated and realize that your crepes might end up a bit denser than they would if you used a blender.

Some recipes will have you just add all the ingredients to the blender or bowl and then combine. Others will have you do it in steps. Those recipes have you start by first blending the liquid and eggs. This is followed by adding the flour and again blending. Finally, pour in the melted butter as the blender is running.

Most sources will tell you it is very important to rest your crepe batter for 30-60 minutes before cooking the crepes. You can even refrigerate it overnight. This allows the flour to fully hydrate, for bubbles to disappear and for the flavor to develop. There are those such as J. Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats who feel the resting stage is not that important.

To cook them, you do not need any special equipment – only a small nonstick skillet. I have a special nonstick crepe pan that I love. It has a slightly larger surface area and shorter and straighter sides than a nonstick skillet. It looks something like this one. You can even purchase the type of crepe maker that you see experts using in crepe shops. The diameter of these is much larger and requires a bit of practice to learn how to twirl the batter to get a good result. I bought one for my husband and every time I get it out, I have to re-learn how to do it.

There are a few important tips on how to cook them. First, you want to add melted butter or oil to your hot pan. Add a small amount and wipe out the excess with a paper towel. Since you want a thin crepe, it is critical to only add enough batter to get this result. How much you add will depend on the size of your pan but for an 8-inch pan, you will want to try about 3 tablespoons. Add the batter to the center of the pan and quickly tilt and rotate the pan so the batter flows out and covers the bottom. As you cook a few, you will soon find the best amount of batter for your pan. For a scientific explanation of the best method, see this article from Physics.

Some recommend the “pour out” method in which you pour in more batter than you need, swirl the pan once to get an even coating followed quickly by pouring the excess batter back into your bowl. Try both methods and see which you prefer.

Cook them only until the bottom is set. This shouldn’t be more than 15-30 seconds. Carefully flip the crepe and finish cooking the other side for an additional 30 seconds or until set. If you cook them too long, they could get rubbery. Realize that crepes are similar to pancakes in that the first one often does not turn out. You will get better results as you do additional crepes.

Crepes are best eaten just after cooking. However, you can store them in the refrigerator in an airtight container for three days. Gently reheat them in a skillet before serving. They can be frozen up to a month. Be sure to place either wax paper or parchment between each crepe before placing in an airtight freezer bag.

Crepes are delicious but they are really just a type of envelope to hold the filling. This could be nothing more than my husband’s favorite of a sprinkling of lemon juice and sugar. It could also be whipped cream/berries, chocolate sauce, Nutella or the classic Crepes Suzette.

For savory fillings, a couple I like are Chicken, Corn and Red Pepper as well as a Beef Picadillo with a Chipotle Crema. One of the best meals we had in Paris was an unbelievably delicious but so simple Ham and Egg crepe.

The French way to fill a crepe is to place the filling on the crepe and then fold it into quarters. You can also just roll them like an enchilada, fold them into a square or do a simple fold-over. Here is a link to a nice description of some of the most common folds.

Once you learn the basics and practice just a bit, you will be able to easily impress your friends and family with these delectable creations!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Custards – how to cook this yummy dish.

I have been working on a class I will be teaching on Crêpes. In the class, I will be teaching how to make different varieties of crêpes as well as numerous fillings, both savory and sweet. One of the sweet ones is an Orange Custard filling. Custards are delicious and wonderful creations and it is a technique that all cooks should know. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

A custard is nothing more than a mixture of milk, eggs and often sugar that is cooked into a thickened product. It forms the filling not only for crêpes but also is the basis of crème brulee, flan, ice cream, quiche and more. It is not difficult to make a custard but there are some hints that I hope you find helpful. I also recommend that you invest in a good instant read thermometer as it will help you make a delicious custard that is safe to eat but not overcooked.

Custards can be categorized in a couple different ways. The first is by the cooking technique.

  • Baked custards are typically started on the stovetop but baked in the oven. Examples are crème brûlée, flan and cheesecake.
  • Stovetop (stirred) custards are, as the name implies, cooked totally on the cooktop. These custards are smooth, creamy and thickened but do not gel as with a baked custard. Examples are crème anglaise, pastry cream and zabaglione.

The other way to categorize custards is by how they are thickened.

  • Basic custards – thickened by eggs alone. They are delicate and care must be taken to not overcook them. They thicken between 160° and 180°F. Cooking it beyond 185°F may cause it to curdle and lose its shape as the egg proteins break down. You also run the risk of creating scrambled eggs. To prevent this, these custards are usually cooked by using a double boiler. They should never be boiled.

    These custards are meant to be very soft and creamy although the thickness can be adjusted by changing the proportion of the egg content. If you use more whole eggs or egg whites, the custard will turn out firmer and glossier. More egg yolks (or yolks alone) produce a softer, creamier custard.

    Examples – crème anglaise (which can be frozen into ice cream), flan, pot de crème, crème caramel.
  • Starch-thickened – this type of custard is thickened with the aid of a starch such as flour or cornstarch. They have more body and are not quite as delicate as the starch helps to protect against curdling. The recommended amount is one tablespoon of flour or two teaspoons cornstarch (or arrowroot) for every cup of liquid. Whereas this does help guard against curdling, it can also turn a smooth, creamy dish into a thicker and coarser one. This type of custard needs to be brought to a simmer to ensure it is cooked properly. A guideline is to cook it for 1-2 minutes after bubbles appear. For more information types of thickeners, see the Tip.

    Examples – puddings, pastry cream, cheesecake.
  • Gelatin-set – gelatin is used to produce a set-up custard that can stand on its own after it has been chilled properly. I love using leaf gelatin rather than powdered for the silkiest texture. See this Tip for more info on gelatin types.

    Examples – a classic example is a Bavarian, which is usually set in a decorative mold. A basic custard may also have gelatin added to it, often along with a fruit puree or chocolate. It then can be made into an icebox pie.

Now for some technique advice. Many custards start by having you beat/whisk the eggs (whole or just yolks) together with the sugar until it has thickened and turned light yellow. Some will recommend you continue to the “ribbon” stage, which means the mixture will form a ribbon as you lift up your spoon and allow the mixture to fall back into the bowl. These instructions are meant to help you ensure that the sugar has mostly dissolved. You do not necessarily need to go all the way to ribbon stage but a good mixing until the color and consistency changes is a good idea.

Some recipes will have you heat the dairy (milk, cream) before adding it to the egg/sugar mixture. This is not necessary unless you want to infuse flavor into the dairy. For example, I have a custard tart recipe in which I infuse vanilla seeds and orange zest into milk. This is achieved by bringing the dairy to a boil, adding those two ingredients, covering it, taking it off the heat and allowing to steep for 30 minutes. That steeped dairy is then whisked into the egg mixture. If I did not want to infuse any flavors, I could have added everything together and then heated it on the stovetop.

If you are told to add hot milk/cream to the egg mixture, the danger is that the eggs will start to cook and you will end up with a scrambled egg mixture. To avoid this, you should “temper” the hot liquid into the eggs. This simply means adding some of the hot liquid very slowly into the eggs while whisking. Once the eggs have been diluted with the dairy, you can put it all back into the pot and continue with the recipe.

If your egg/dairy mixture is started cold, the heating should be done very gently so as not cook the eggs but still thicken the mixture. Resist the temptation to turn up the heat to speed the process. I love how Harold McGee puts it in his book, On Food and Cooking.

“Turning up the heat is like accelerating on a wet road while you’re looking for an unfamiliar driveway. You get to your destination faster, but you may not be able to brake in time to avoid skidding past it.”

As he goes on to explain, the chemical reactions that cause the thickening of the custard don’t stop just because you take it off the heat. So, if you try to hurry this step, you may easily get to the point of curdling or overcooking.

Whether your custard is made totally on the stovetop or ends up in the oven, if there is no starch in it, it requires gentle heating. On a stovetop, this generally means using the double boiler method with constant stirring. If in the oven, a water bath should be used. A water bath just means putting the custard dishes in a larger pan (such as a roasting pan) that has enough hot water in it to go up about half-way the height of the custard dishes. Even though your oven temperature may be set at 350°F, the water in the pan won’t exceed 212°F (or even less if you live at altitude). This means the custards are exposed to a gentler & more even heat. Some recommend putting a rack in the bottom upon which you place the custard dishes so that they are not directly exposed to the hot bottom of the pan.  Without a water bath, the outside of your custard could overcook before the center is done.  With a water bath, you are more likely to catch them at the perfect degree of doneness.

If you are concerned about egg safety, you may be wondering if the eggs in a stovetop custard are cooked enough to sterilize them. As long as the mixture is cooked to at least 160°F, you will be fine. As mentioned above, you do not want the mixture to go above 185° or it might curdle. A basic crème anglaise should be ready between 175°-180°F but some recommend taking it to 180-185°F if using it to make ice cream as it will be a bit thicker.

Baked custards should come out of the oven when they are still jiggling when gently shaken, which will be around 170°-175°F.

Who doesn’t love a custardy dish? Whether you want to make a savory quiche, a chocolate pudding or an elegant crème brûlée, I trust this Tip will help you impress your friends/family.