Chili Peppers — Heat or Flavor?

Have you noticed how everything today seems to be flavored with hot peppers? Each producer wants to outdo the other with how hot they can make their product. I must admit that I have a fondness for flavored potato chips. (Don’t tell anyone!) It used to be that you could get all sorts of interesting flavors. Today (sadly to me) it is all about being flavored with chilis and other ingredients that add hotness. This has certainly brought certain chili peppers into the everyday language of consumers and is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

The first thing to address is the word itself. Is it Chile, Chili or Chilli? It is often a matter of location. In American English, the preferred spelling is “chili” and it refers not only to the peppers but also to the delightful stew-like dish we all make. “Chilli” is the preferred spelling in British English whereas “chile” is the predominant spelling in Spanish-speaking countries.

Another interesting distinction is when you are referring to the ground powder. “Chili powder” generally means it is a mix of dried, ground chile peppers along with other spices. “Chile powder” should be solely dried chili peppers.

I do not know about you but I’m sure I vary how I spell the word without thinking about which is proper. In fact, I may alternate spellings within this Cooking Tip. If it is important to you, though, you now have the somewhat authoritative word on this subject.

I am much more interested in the different types of chili peppers, their heat level and their culinary uses.

The active ingredient in chili peppers is capsaicin. That amount that a plant contains depends on the genetic makeup of that plant but also on growing conditions and its ripeness. Higher temperatures and drought increase production of capsaicin. The amount of capsaicin increases until it begins to ripen when it starts to decline. It is maximum about the time that green fruit begins to change color.

Since those are items that you cannot control, what can you do to modulate the heat level in the dish you are making? Here are four factors that you can control.

  1. The variety of chili you use – if you want less heat, you can choose a chili that is known to have less capsaicin.
  2. The amount of chili you use – this is obvious but the more chili you use, the more capsaicin you will have in your dish.
  3. The presence or absence of the parts of the chili that contain the capsaicin – if you carefully remove the seeds and the membranes, you can decrease the amount of capsaicin you are left with.
  4. The length of time that the chili is in contact with the other ingredients – the longer the time, the hotter the dish.

Is there anything you can do to reduce the burn once you have ingested the capsaicin? Everyone has their own remedies but these are recommended although they are temporary measures.

  1. Ingest some dairy (not plant based). Dairy contains a protein that helps to break the bonds between the receptors in our mouths and the capsaicin and washes it away, like a detergent.
  2. Put something rough/solid into your mouth, such as a cracker or rice. The roughness distracts the nerves with a different type of signal.
  3. Take a spoonful of sugar. The sugar molecules bond well with the capsaicin.
  4. Wait it out. The pain caused by the capsaicin generally dissipates within 15 minutes.

Choosing which chilis are hotter depends on knowing a bit about the Scoville scale, which is a rating of pungency/heat level. The higher the pepper is on the scale, the hotter the pepper. The scale goes from zero for bell peppers to 15 million for pure capsaicin. A chili known as the Carolina Reaper was certified as the world’s hottest chili pepper by the Guinness World Records in 2017 at 2.2 million units. However, other peppers known as Dragon’s Breath (2.48 million units) and Pepper X (3.18 million units) claim they are hotter although their claims have not been certified. There are many charts you can find that list the ratings for different peppers but I like this compact one for easy use.

Which are the best peppers to have for your cooking? The following is far from a complete list of peppers but they are the ones that you are most likely to see in the supermarket. They are listed in order of heat level from lowest to highest.

Bell Peppers

These are zero on the Scoville chart, making them a great choice if you just want flavor without heat. These are part of the Cajun trinity (similar to mirepoix in French cooking) and are the base for Creole cooking. They add flavor, crunch and color (green, yellow, red, purple) when served raw on a salad or as part of a veggie tray. They are a great shape/size for making stuffed peppers. Roasting them adds some smokiness. One of my favorite pizza sauces is just puréed roasted red bell peppers.

Anaheim Pepper

This long pepper is also known as a California green chile or a New Mexican chile. The peppers originated in New Mexico, where they are still grown in different versions. They arrived in the city of Anaheim in southern California in 1894 and began to be grown commercially and thereby gaining its name. If grown in the Hatch region of New Mexico, it is known as a Hatch Chili Pepper. This pepper starts out green and turns red when mature. The Scoville rating is from 500-2500. They are very popular in salsas and southwestern dishes.

Poblano Peppers

This pepper is low on the Scoville scale (1000-2000 units) and is used greatly in southwestern cuisines. In dried form, they are called Ancho Chilis. They are fairly large in size and dark green in color until they fully ripen when they turn red. At that point, their hotness level increases. Green poblanos are very flavorful without burning. Think of chili relleno.

One caution about looking for poblano peppers in the store. Many stores mislabel them as Pasilla. In reality, pasilla peppers are the dried form of the Chilaca chile. I am really not sure as they look nothing alike although some say it is because the pasilla pepper looks similar to the dried poblano, the ancho chili.

Jalapeño Peppers

Other than bell peppers, this must be the most known and commonly used chili pepper in the US. It carries a Scoville rating of 3,500 to 8,000 units. We normally see it in its green form but it will turn red when it takes on a slightly fruity flavor. When dried, a jalapeño is called a chipotle. Jalapeños are used in many dishes but are most commonly used in salsas and sauces.

Fresno Pepper

Similar in appearance to a jalapeno, it is higher on the Scoville scale at 2500-10,000 units. In addition to the increased heat level, it also has more fruitiness than the jalapeno. Also like the jalapeno, they are great in salsas and hot sauces.

Serrano Pepper

Serranos are only a couple of inches long, with a tapered end. They are usually found in our stores in a green state but when ripe, they are red or yellowish-orange. It is a very spicy pepper rating between 6,000 and 23,000 on the Scoville scale. It is also said that the smaller the pepper, the hotter it is. These are used where you want a bit more heat, especially in Mexican and Thai cooking.

Cayenne Pepper

This little chili is slender and tapered. In our stores, you are more likely to find it in its dried, ground form—known as ground red pepper or just cayenne pepper. It is often also found in spice mixtures such as some chili powders. It is spicy with a rating of between 30,000 and 50,000 units. Use sparingly in any dish you want a bit of heat.

Thai Pepper

Thai peppers are spicy chili peppers with a wide range of heat – from 50,000 – 100,000. Although in our stores we will probably just see something called “Thai chili peppers”, there are many different varieties. What they all have in common is that they are small in size but high in heat.

Habañero Pepper

Having become popular in recent years, this pepper is now easier to find in the stores. It should be used with care, though, as it rates between 150,000 to 350,000. It is small and bulbous and has a fruity flavor underneath the heat. They are often used to make hot sauces.

As I mentioned, there are so many different chili peppers that it impossible to mention all of them in this Cooking Tip. Being able to recognize the above, where they fit on the heat level and how to use them will help you to harness the power and flavor of Chili Peppers!

Cooking Ratios

I hope you enjoyed my series of Cook Without a Recipe and that you have used some of the information in your own kitchen. In this Cooking Tip, I want to tell you about something else that might help you to be confident in your cooking/baking without pulling out a recipe. That is the concept of Cooking with Ratios.
 
Ratios help you know the proportion of different ingredients you need to achieve a particular result. For example, in culinary school, I was taught that a great pie crust had a 3-2-1 ratio: three parts flour, two parts fat and one part water. Not every pie crust recipe you see will have the same ratio but I suspect they will be close. Plus, if you have a need to make a pie crust, this ratio (along with good technique) will enable you to turn out a great crust without resorting to a recipe.
 
Let’s discuss some other different ratios that you may find helpful. One caveat – most ratios are described in terms of “parts”. These are generally described as a weight. For example, with pie crust, one part is 4 ounces, 2 parts is 8 oz and 3 parts is 12 oz. Note that they are not described in cups. I have said this before but I want to once again encourage you to invest in a good food scale. It is just as quick (if not quicker) than using measuring cups and it is much more accurate.
 
Following are a few other ratios to commit to memory. If you are baking, I wouldn’t stray too far from the recommended ratio. However, with non-baked items, use the ratio as a starting point and then personalize it from there. I will just discuss ratios for some common items. For much more detail and more ratios, see the excellent book Ratio by Michael Ruhlman. The cover of this book has a compilation of the ratios in a circular pattern that you might find helpful. You can even print it from this link. If you would like this info in more of a typical chart form, email me and I will send you two different formats.
 
Different sources list their ratios differently. I will use the format used by Michael Ruhlman. That is that the ratios are listed in the order that the ingredients are combined. So, in the 3:2:1 pie dough, you start with the 3 parts flour, add in the 2 parts fat and then the 1 part water.
 
Vinaigrettes – 1:3 (1 part acid to 3 parts oil)
I discussed vinaigrettes in more detail in Part 3 of my Cook Without a Recipe series. If you are just starting out making your own vinaigrettes, start with this ratio of 3 parts oil to 1 part acid. From there, make it your own by varying the acid you use and adding other ingredients such as shallots, mustard, herbs, and/or spices. After you master that, feel free to alter the oil:acid ratio.
 
Stock – 3:2 (3 parts water to 2 parts bone)
Have you ventured into the world of homemade stock, yet? Although it takes time, it is not difficult at all. Just use the ratio of 3 parts water to 2 parts bone. You will also need to think about aromatics and spices along with the fact that different stocks have a different simmering time but 3:2 water to bone will get you started.
 
Bread – 5:3 (5 parts flour to 3 parts water)
There are an unbelievable number of bread recipes out there along with numerous cookbooks dedicated to making bread. However, you can make great bread by following the ratio of 5 parts flour to 3 parts liquid, with the addition of a pinch of salt and some leavening. This is a perfect example where doing this ratio by weight is so much better than volume.
 
I have a recipe from King Arthur Flour for their Classic White Sandwich Bread. In volume measurements, it calls for 4 cups flour and 1½ cups water. This is far different than the 5:3 recommended ratio. However, if done by weight, the 4 cups of flour weighs about 480 grams and the water weights about 340 grams. If you do the math, this is very close to the 5:3 ratio.
 
Pancakes – 2:2:1:½ (2 parts flour to 2 parts liquid to 1 part egg to ½ part butter)
Start with this ratio and then make it your own by altering the type of flour, liquid and fat as well as additional add-ins.
 
Pound or Sponge Cake – 1:1:1:1
How easy is that ratio? How you handle these ingredients and in what order will make a difference in the outcome. For example, for pound cake, it is 1 part butter to 1 part sugar to 1 part egg to one part flour. For a sponge cake, the order is 1 part egg to 1 part sugar to 1 part flour to 1 part butter.
 
Cookies – 1:2:3 (1 part sugar to 2 parts fat to 3 parts flour)
The ratio of 1 part sugar to 2 parts fat to 3 parts flour will give you a nice sugar cookie. However, many recipes for other types of cookies vary from this significantly.
 
Biscuits – 3:1:2 (3 parts flour to 1 part fat to 2 parts liquid)
This ratio looks similar to the pie dough one but the difference is that the parts of fat & liquid are reversed.
 
Custard – 2:1 (2 parts liquid to 1 part egg)
For many people, making a custard sounds difficult but it couldn’t be simpler, especially when you remember the ratio of 2 parts dairy and 1 part egg. This will make a classic quiche filling but you can make it your own by other ingredients you may choose to add.
 
Muffins – 2:2:1:1 (2 parts flour to 2 parts liquid to 1 part egg to 1 part butter)
You can make any muffin by using the ratio of 2 parts flour to 2 parts liquid to 1 part eggs to 1 part fat. Let your imagination take over after that to create your one-of-a-kind muffin.
 
Pasta – 3:2 (3 parts flour to 2 parts egg)
Making your own pasta dough is as simple as combining 3 parts flour to 2 parts egg. In culinary school, I was taught to use 1 egg to 1 cup flour. You might be saying, “Isn’t that a 1:1 ratio?” No, it isn’t when you once again realize that ratios are based on weight, not volume. That culinary school ratio is actually about 2:1 by weight, closer to the recommended 3:2. Then, I realized that in culinary school, we never used all of that 1 cup of flour. It was just a starting point and we ended up using somewhat less to get the desired dough. That made it much closer to the 3:2 ratio.
 
It is great to know these ratios but, they tell you very little about technique, other than the order to add ingredients. However, once you get the technique down and memorize the ratios, this can not only be freeing but a lot of fun. Let me know if you try it!

Fresh Herbs – A Cook’s Best Friend

It’s that time of the year when many of us cooks get excited because we can have all sorts of fresh herbs growing in our garden that we can snip and use in so many ways. Nowadays, you can buy fresh herbs of many varieties year round but it is so nice to have a personal garden with beautiful and flavorful herbs growing. Right now, our herb garden is growing tarragon, chives, sage, rosemary, basil, thyme, oregano, chamomile, mint, borage & parsley. In this Cooking Tip, I would like to talk about how to get the best out of these fresh herbs. I did write a prior Cooking Tip on storing fresh herbs. If you would like to receive that Tip, just let me know. I will also be teaching a Cooking with Herbs class for Hudson Gardens on Saturday, June 13. My class will be preceded by a Growing Herbs session taught by a member of the Hudson Gardens staff. Join us there as we will be making and tasting many different dishes where herbs are the main star.

Why use fresh herbs? They can take a plain dish to an extraordinary dish. They can add flavor, color & even just a tiny bit of texture. There are no absolute rules for using fresh herbs but there are some recommendations that will help you use them to their best potential.

If you do grow your own, cut them in the morning after the dew has dried. It is at that time that they are the most aromatic and flavorful. Prepare them as your recipe indicates. It is good to use either a sharp knife or kitchen scissors to cut the herbs to prevent excessive cell wall breakage.

For more robust herbs such as rosemary, oregano & thyme, you can add them at any point in the cooking. They do well in longer cooking dishes such as stews. For the more delicate herbs such as basil, parsley and chives, add them at the very end of the cooking process to preserve their color, flavor & aroma.

For most herbs, you are just going to use the leaves. However, for some herbs such as cilantro and parsley, the stems contain quite a bit of flavor and are tender enough that they can be chopped up with the leaves.

Here are some recommendations for using specific herbs. For a fairly complete chart of when/how to use various herbs, see this link.

Basil

  • Varieties – the most common in our herb gardens is Italian basil, which is used in making Genovese Pesto. Other varieties are Thai basil, cinnamon basil, lemon basil and purple basil.
  • Flavor – sweet, floral & slightly peppery.
  • Typical uses — Tomato dishes/sauces, light pasta dishes, summer veggies.

Chives

  • This herb is in the onion family.
  • Flavor – an herbal, green taste with onion overtones.
  • Typical uses – egg dishes, potato dishes or as a pretty garnish on many savory plates.

Cilantro

  • This herb is also known as coriander leaf. There are some people who claim it tastes “soapy”, something that is related to that person’s genetic makeup.
  • Flavor – it adds a bright and citrusy zing to dishes.
  • Typical uses – Latin American and Asian cooking.

Dill

  • Flavor – this is a tangy & grassy herb.
  • Typical uses – it is ideal for poultry or seafood & pairs great with lemon & yogurt.

Marjoram

  • Flavor – has a grassy but slightly sweet flavor.
  • Typical uses – it works well in soups, risottos and dressings & pairs well with chicken, fish and tofu.

Mint

  • Varieties – most common are spearmint and peppermint but you might also want to check out chocolate, pineapple, apple and mojito mint. One of my favorites sold by my local nursery is Candy Peppermint. It tastes just like its name.
  • Flavor – adds a refreshing & cooling flavor.
  • Typical uses – most commonly used in sweet dishes but, can also be used in savory dishes. It is wonderful with fresh fruit or in summer beverages.

Oregano

  • Varieties – there is a Greek and Mexican oregano.
  • Flavor – the Greek variety is pungent and peppery. The Mexican variety has a stronger, more earthy flavor with a citrus note.
  • Typical uses – the Green variety is classically used in Italian sauces and dressings. The Mexican oregano pairs well with southwestern dishes.

Parsley

  • Varieties – along with basil, this is one of the most used and enjoyed herb. In stores, you often find only curly parsley but you should try to find (or grow) Italian flat-leaf parsley as it is more flavorful.
  • Flavor – is mild and subtle while adding freshness.
  • Typical uses – often used as a garnish on many dishes, especially poultry and seafood but is also used in making stock. Try it with pasta, eggs, potatoes or lemony dishes. It is also a very prominent ingredient in tabbouleh.

Rosemary

  • Flavor – this is a robust and sturdy herb that has an almost pungent flavor.
  • Typical uses – great with heartier dishes such as lamb, pork or roasted vegetables.

Sage

  • Flavor – this is a woodsy –flavored herb that is fairly distinctive.
  • Typical uses – does great in stuffings, soups, risottos and really shines in a brown butter sauce. It also pairs well with game meats, poultry & root vegetables.

Tarragon

  • Flavor – this is a very aromatic herb with a peppery and licorice-like flavor.
  • Typical uses – often used in egg dishes, salad dressings and as a garnish.

Thyme

  • Varieties – this is a classic herb in French cooking with leaves that are very aromatic. There is both a common thyme as well as lemon thyme.
  • Flavor – spicy with notes of cloves & mint. The lemon variety adds a citrus note.
  • Typical uses – it can be used in so many ways including meat dishes, soups, stews & sauces. It can also be added to breads and desserts.

Although I am mostly talking about fresh herbs in this Tip, I have just a bit to say about dried herbs. Fresh herbs give just that – freshness – to a dish. When an herb is dried, it loses that freshness and has a more concentrated flavor that can be very different than its fresh counterpart. When substituting one for the other, use only ⅓ to ½ as much of the dried form as the fresh herb.

Those delicate herbs such as basil, parsley and chives tend to taste better fresh Tougher herbs such as rosemary, oregano and thyme can do very well in either fresh or dried forms.

Fresh herbs are a cook’s best friend and can add so much to a dish. Whether you grow your own or not, they should be a part of your culinary arsenal!

Can you wash away pesticides?

We all know we should be eating more fresh produce because of the nutrient and fiber content. We do, though, want to make sure that the produce is thoroughly cleaned. In a prior Cooking Tip, I discussed how to clean produce to ensure that dirt & pathogens are removed. If you didn’t receive it and wish to read it, email me and I will send it to you. I also wrote a separate Cooking Tip on the pros/cons of buying organic. Here is a link to that Tip. In this Cooking Tip, I wish to discuss removing pesticides from produce.

The normal cleaning of our produce when we bring it home from the store is to eliminate dirt and pathogens, not pesticides. Removing the latter requires a different approach. A recent study from researchers at University of Massachusetts recommends soaking produce in a solution of baking soda and water. That study involved apples and, after treating the apples with pesticides, they then tried three methods of cleaning them. One method was soaking the apples in a baking soda solution for two minutes. The second was a two minute soak in a bleach solution that is used in commercial operations. The third was using just plain water.

The two minute soak in a baking soda solution removed more pesticide than the other two methods. However, to completely remove the pesticides took a soak of 12-15 minutes. The researchers also cautioned that they only looked at two different pesticides and results may vary with other pesticides and methods of application.

Cooks Illustrated decided to put this method to the test. They used pesticide-detection cards and tested grapes. They again tested different methods: a 15 minute soak in a baking soda solution, a 30-second swish in the baking soda solution, rinsing under running cold water and soaking in a vinegar solution. They found that the only two methods that worked to reduce pesticides were a quick swirl and a longer soak in the baking soda solution. Their conclusion was to make a solution of 2 teaspoons baking soda per 1 quart of water and swirl your produce in that for 30 seconds followed by a rinse under cold running water. They also caution that this will only work for certain classes of pesticides. They note that spray pesticides or those applied to the roots cannot be removed with this method.

I encourage all of you to eat as much fresh produce as you can. We have a mixed green salad with chopped veggies on it almost every night. We also put fresh greens on sandwiches as well as using fresh produce in many different recipes. Just do what it takes to ensure the produce is clean and safe to eat. Between this Cooking Tip and the prior ones I wrote, you should have all the information you need to do just that!

Unusual Vegetables

I have written a fair amount about fresh produce in prior Cooking Tips. Now, I would like to talk to you about what some people might call “Unusual” vegetables. They are only unusual in that many people either do not know what they are or have never tasted them before. In this Cooking Tip, I hope to encourage you to seek them out and give them a try.

Fennel

This is a crunchy veggie with a refreshing and complex flavor. Because it is often mislabeled “sweet anise”, many people shy away expecting it to taste like licorice. However, the flavor is sweeter and more delicate than anise and when cooked, becomes even lighter. Fennel is not anise. They are unrelated plants. One large difference is that the entire fennel plant is edible but only the seeds of the anise plant are edible.

There are two types of fennel. The one I am discussing is called “Florence Fennel” or “Finocchio”. It is cultivated in the Mediterranean, and has a broad, bulbous base with wispy fronds. (Fennel pollen is the golden powder taken from blooming fennel flowers.)

The other kind of fennel is common fennel. This is where we get fennel seeds. The plant does not have a bulb. Rather, the stems and greenery are used just as with the Florence variety and is considered more of an herb rather than a veggie.

To prepare it, cut off the stalks and trim a thin slice from the base of the bulb. Halve it from top to bottom, through the root end. Cut out and discard the triangular piece of core in each half. Peel off and discard any outer, wilted layers. Now, you may cut each half in half again and then slice crosswise. You may also use a mandoline to get very thin, shaved slices. The fronds may be chopped and sprinkled as a garnish. It may be eaten raw or cooked.

Fennel is freshest from late fall to early spring. Look for firm, tightly packed bulbs with fresh, unwilted fronds. Avoid any with bruises or brown spots. After purchasing, it can be refrigerated in a plastic bag for up to 5 days

Kohlrabi

This is a version of the basic cabbage plant in which the main stem swells to several inches in diameter. It is a member of the turnip family. In fact, the name comes from the German for “cabbage turnip”.

There are two varieties: Green & Purple. The green version has a pale green bulb and green leaves with light green veining whereas the purple has a purple root, stems and purple veining on green leaves. Both varieties have a creamy white flesh. One source says its flavor is reminiscent of a “sassy-sweet blend of mild broccoli and celery root”.

Both the bulb-like stem and the greens are edible. Young kohlrabi are tender enough to eat raw or cooked briefly. The leaves or stems are also edible and can be used in sautés and stir-fries. The leaves are said to have a flavor similar to collard greens. Kohlrabi is most often sold without leaves. If the leaves are still attached, separate the bulb from the leaves. The bulb should be peeled and sliced prior to being consumed. The smaller bulbs won’t need to be peeled, while the larger bulbs tend to have less flavor, with a thicker, chewy peel.

It can be sliced or shredded and tossed in your salad in its raw form, where it will add a fresh, crisp texture with a sweet yet mild peppery bite similar to a radish. It can also be roasted, stir fried or added to a soup or stew. The greens may be cooked just as you would kale, turnip, or beet greens with just a quick sauté.

To prepare it, cut off the stems and any leaves. Cut it in half down through its center and slice into quarters. Use the tip of your knife to cut at an angle through the core and discard it. Using a sharp vegetable peeler, peel off any tough skin. At this point, slice off the top and then slice the quarters into your desired size. For thinner slices, a mandoline may be used.

Choose a kohlrabi that is heavy for its size but no wider than 3 inches. The green leaves should be firm and deeply colored. Avoid soft spots with yellowing leaves. When stored properly in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator, kohlrabi can last for weeks. The leaves can be refrigerated for up to 4 days.

Rutabaga

Rutabagas are also known as Swedes and they are a root vegetable that’s related to both the cabbage and the turnip. Some people confuse rutabagas with turnips. They are related, but rutabagas are generally larger, have a more yellowish flesh and are more mild tasting. They are also denser than turnips and will require a longer cooking time.

Due to being related to both turnips and cabbage, they share flavor characteristics. They can have the peppery, bitter bite of turnips but can also be creamy and sweet if roasted.

Cooking them is easy. They can be cooked until tender and then added to mashed potatoes. They may also be roasted or pureed into a soup.

It is recommended to choose smaller roots (under 5 inches in diameter) to ensure they’re tender. Avoid cracks, bruises, soft spots, or wrinkles. Rutabagas are freshest in the late fall and winter. They may be white or yellow.

As many rutabagas are sold waxed, be sure to scrub the outside before peeling it. Then, just cut into your desired shape.

Pick out rutabagas that are firm, smooth and heavy for their size. They can be refrigerated in a plastic bag for 2 weeks.

Parsnip

Although parsnips look like carrots and are related to them, they are a different root vegetable. They can be eaten raw although they are usually cooked.

Some chefs recommend only giving them a thorough scrubbing rather than peeling as they say most of the flavor is right below the skin. The larger ones have a woody core. I like to cut this out although Cooks Illustrated finds this to be unnecessary if you are going to puree them rather than another application such as roasting. Popular ways of using parsnips include mashing, baking, broiling or pureeing them into a soup.

They are at their peak from fall through early spring. They accumulate more starch than carrots but then they convert it to sugar when exposed to cold temps. This results in the winter roots being sweeter than autumn roots.

Look for ones that are small to medium in size with an ivory color and a firm texture. Avoid any that are soft, shriveled or blemished.

Experts say you can store them in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks although I find they don’t last quite that long.

Celery root

Also known as celeriac, this is another root vegetable that has a crisp & firm texture. Its roots project from a knobby surface that requires deep peeling.

It tastes somewhat like celery because it has similar aromatic compounds as celery but the flavor sweetens with cooking. It can be grated or cut into fine matchsticks and added to a salad but it really shines when made into a mash (either on its own or in combination with other veggies), baked or roasted.

Choose small, firm ones with a minimum of knobs. They are not the easiest to peel and you may find that a knife works better than a veggie peeler.

It can be refrigerated in a plastic bag for 7-10 days

There are other even more unusual vegetables. These, though, are ones that you can probably find in your grocery store. If you haven’t tried them, I encourage you to do so. You may just find a new favorite veggie!

Water-Based Ganache

I am taking my own advice and that which I shared with you in a prior Cooking Tip. That advice is to try a new recipe. I have been wanting to experiment with water-based ganache and I decided there is no better time than now. My experience is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

I’m sure you have heard the old adage (and I’m sure I have even repeated it) that you should not get water in chocolate or it will seize. Well, as it turns out, that is only partially true. I began to wonder about this when I first learned that the chocolates from one of my favorite chocolate shops, The Chocolate Therapist in Littleton, Colorado made their signature “meltaways” with a water ganache. So, I decided to do a bit of research.

It is true that if you get water into your chocolate, it will seize and turn grainy. Many “experts” will tell you that if that happens, there is nothing you can do. You must throw it away and start again. As I said, that is only partially true. If you get a small amount of water into your chocolate, it will indeed turn grainy. However, if you add a bit more water and stir, it will turn into a beautiful glossy mixture. Why is that? If you want a scientific discussion of this phenomenon, see this link from Fooducation.

Why use water rather than cream for your ganache? The pure & simple answer – Flavor. Dairy actually mutes the flavor of chocolate. By not using cream, the true flavor of the chocolate shines through. Of course, that means you want to use a high quality chocolate. There are so many artisan chocolate makers around today and their chocolates have complex & varied flavors. With a water ganache, you can actually taste those wonderful flavors.

Another reason is for your lactose-intolerant friends or family members or for those who choose not to eat dairy. As long as you use a good quality dark chocolate without any milk in it, they also can enjoy these treats. A final advantage is that the caloric content is 40-50% than cream-based ganache.

The method for making water-based ganache is similar to that based on cream. Start by chopping your chocolate into very small pieces. You can heat your water (or other liquid), pour it over the chocolate, allow it to melt the chocolate and stir vigorously. Alternatively, you can melt your chocolate, heat your liquid and then mix together.

The ratio of chocolate to water you use depends on the final product you want. Some will tell you to start with a 1:1 ratio and that will work if you want a pourable chocolate. However, if you want something that you can turn into a truffle, you will need a minimum of 2:1 (chocolate to water) or even a bit higher.

You can also add a bit of fun by using not just plain water but flavored waters in all forms. For instance, citrus-infused water, steeped tea, juices or even liqueurs.

My first attempt was with white chocolate and lemon juice. The person who shared that recipe with me said it reminded her of lemon curd and they truly do taste like that.

I next tried dark chocolate with orange. Instead of juice, I used an orange liqueur. However, I felt like I wasn’t getting enough orange flavor. I did not want to add more liqueur as it would thin out the chocolate and make the result taste a bit too alcoholic. So, I used just a bit of orange oil and that did the trick. Here are those.

My final truffle was chai flavored. I brewed very strong chai tea and used that as my flavoring liquid. The chai flavor was evident but not extremely pronounced. I may try another method that I found. Put your chocolate in a plastic container and add the dry tea to that container. Since I only use loose-leaf tea, I would put it into a disposable spice bag or something similar. Leave it for about a week, stirring it around every so often. The tea flavor is said to infuse into the chocolate. When you are satisified with the aroma, use hot water to make your ganache and enjoy.

Let me know if you try these. I enjoyed them so much that I am not sure if I will ever go back to the cream-based ganache!

Cook Without a Recipe — Part Three

This is the final in a series on Cooking Without a Recipe. After stocking your pantry, learning about tasting and how to cook grains (Part One) and learning how to cook proteins and make a sauce (Part Two), we now turn to two final subjects – Vinaigrettes and Pizza.

Vinaigrettes are something that are wonderful to make at home and, after learning some basics, you can have fun and never have to look at a recipe. The most basic formula for making a vinaigrette is one part vinegar or other acid to 3-4 parts oil. This is not an absolute rule, though. Adjust it to your tastes. I know I prefer a little less oil. I often do only a 1:1 ratio or, at times, I eliminate the oil entirely.

This is one of those recipes that have very few ingredients. Therefore, you want the best quality ingredients you can get. Here are the basic ingredients that you will need.

Oil – Most commonly, you will use extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). You may use other oils with a flavor you like or even a combination of oils.

Acid – Use whatever you like and matches your salad. It can be any type of vinegar, even flavored vinegars. Other acids are citrus juices as well as fruit purees/nectars. I often like to combine a fruit flavored vinegar with some of the actual fruit. For example, I use a peach vinegar along with pureed peaches.

Seasonings – This might just be salt and pepper but could also be minced garlic, minced shallots, mustard, spices or herbs. You may want to add a touch of sweetness in the form of honey, maple syrup, sugar, agave, etc.

No matter your choice of ingredients, the technique is the same. Start by putting the acid & seasonings in a bowl and mix well. Now, you want to force the oil (if using) to mix with the water-based liquid. This is called emulsifying. You can do this by vigorously whisking, shaking in a jar or even using a blender. One caution is that some experts think that putting EVOO in a blender leads to bitterness. Others disagree. Once it is emulsified, taste and adjust to your preference. You can taste it on its own or you may wish to dip of piece of lettuce into it and taste that way.

A final topic I would like you to consider is Pizza. Pulling together a homemade pizza night is something that is so helpful to have in your arsenal of quick and easy meals.

Although you do need a recipe for the dough (if you want one, let me know), you can have fun after that. I try to make pizza dough, divide it into pizza balls and freeze them. Whenever I want pizza or a quick meal, all I have to do is to remember to take the pizza balls out of the freezer and allow to thaw. I can then make a pizza from whatever I have on hand.

The first thing to think about is that you do not always need a sauce. Just a brush of a good olive oil can take the place of a sauce. If you do want a sauce, you can always grab some store-bought sauce although I hope you wouldn’t do that. Simply grab a jar of roasted red peppers, blitz them in a blender and spread on your pizza crust. You can also simply blend tomatoes (fresh or canned) but you will get better flavor if you marinate those tomatoes with some olive oil, garlic, herbs and seasonings before using them. Or, how about pesto as your sauce? Again, it would be great if you make your own but you can buy it in the store. Generally, the refrigerated version is better than the canned.

On to toppings. A basic recommendation is about 1 cup of topping per pizza. I love caramelized onions on almost any pizza but those do take some time. When you have the time, make and refrigerate them. They really are wonderful on pizza. Other veggies such as bell pepper, red onion, mushrooms and zucchini will also work. Even potatoes (I like to par-boil them first), asparagus, broccoli and squash. You may or may not want to sauté them a bit first. If you want a protein, add whatever you like – cooked chicken, shrimp tossed in olive oil, cooked sausage or other ground meat, cooked bacon or pepperoni. Most people think a pizza is not a pizza without cheese although you can make great pizzas without any cheese. If you want cheese, branch out and try something new. The classic is mozzarella but there is also provolone, fontina, asiago, feta, goat cheese and so forth. Finally, add herbs and spices as you desire. You can use dried herbs and spices or fresh. If using fresh, put them on at the last moment before serving. I think I am hungry for pizza!

I hope this series on Cooking Without A Recipe has been helpful to you and you have learned some new skills and make some great meals. If so, let me know. I would love to hear what you are making!

Cook Without a Recipe — Part Two

This is the second in a series of Cooking Tips on how to Cook Without a Recipe. Part one talked about stocking your pantry, how to taste and how to cook grains without a recipe. This Part Two will delve into cooking proteins without a recipe.

Unless you are a vegetarian or vegan, most people would like some animal protein served with their grain or veggies. Knowing some techniques will help you cook these proteins without a recipe. No matter what protein you are cooking, your goal is a piece of protein that is cooked properly but not over-cooked. As I have discussed before, there is no better way of achieving this than an instant-read thermometer. Knowing to what temperature to cook a piece of protein is important but if you do not want to memorize, by all means use a chart. Here is one (Temp Chart) produced by the FDA.

There are multiple cooking techniques for proteins and you should understand these to help you decide how you want to cook your piece of meat. If you want to cook stovetop, there is searing and sautéing. Searing uses a high heat with a bit of oil. It is preferable to coat your protein with oil rather than putting the oil in the pan. The meat is usually seasoned but there is no coating of any kind. Searing produces a brown coating on the meat with fond left in the pan – the basis of a sauce you can subsequently make.

With sautéing, you use a medium-high heat with oil put in the pan. The meat is usually cut into bite-sized pieces and often (though not always) dredged in flour or cornmeal. This is method that is great for meat that you are going to then add to a dish such as pasta, rice, a bowl meal and so forth.

Animal protein may also be cooked in the oven. This is a nice more hands-off method but you do not get the great browning and resulting fond. Because of this, you may start your meat on the stove with a quick sear and finish in the oven.

Another important concept to remember in cooking meat is that meat needs to rest after coming off the heat. The meat will continue to cook off heat for a few minutes before the temperature starts to drop. Ideally, you want your final resting temperature to be about 5° less than the maximum temperature. How long this takes depends on the size of the meat. For a chicken breast or a steak that is about 1½ inch thick, it will be about 10 minutes. For a very large piece of meat, it could need about 45 minutes. Resting also allows the liquid to stay within the meat rather than leaking out when you cut it, giving you a moister result.

One of the easiest ways to produce a flavorful meat dish without a recipe is to create a Pan Sauce. You need to remember some basic steps but then you can vary it to your heart’s content. Here are the basic steps.

  • Sear meat
  • Add aromatics
  • Deglaze
  • Add liquid & reduce
  • Finish with butter and adjust seasonings

Start by searing your meat and when done, remove to a plate and keep warm. Hopefully you will have some wonderful fond in the bottom of the pan, which represents flavor. You may pour off any excess oil that is in the pan but do not scrape out or clean the pan. Lower your heat to medium and add aromatics such as shallots, garlic, and/or spices. Cook until these are softened and aromatic. Now you want to deglaze the pan with a liquid. This allows you to scrape up the fond and incorporate it into the sauce. The most typical deglazing liquid would be wine or other alcohol. Continue to cook until the alcohol is almost totally cooked off. At this point, add a liquid such as stock and reduce it again. When it is reduced to a sauce consistency, take it off heat and add a pat of butter. This thickens the sauce and adds a wonderful richness to the pan sauce. Taste and season as necessary. You are aiming for a creamy, thick and opaque sauce. That’s it to a basic pan sauce.

Now, dress it up as you wish. What can you do? Add mushrooms along with the aromatics. Add a touch of mustard with the butter. You may add fresh herbs to complement the rest of your dish. A squeeze of lemon or lime juice will add brightness.

Another option is to make a Gastrique rather than a pan sauce. The definition of a gastrique is a sweet & sour sauce or a savory caramel sauce. Rather than being made in the meat cooking pan with the fond, it is made in a totally separate saucepan.

You start your gastrique by making a “caramel” sauce. Put ¼ cup of sugar and 3 Tbsp water in a pan over low to medium heat and cook until you have a caramel sauce. Now, add an acid in equal parts to the sugar. For example, add ¼ cup vinegar, fruit juice, wine, etc. Stand back as the sauce will bubble vigorously. It will also harden but continue to cook and it will return to a more liquid state. Add whatever flavors you want – herbs, ginger, caramelized shallots, fresh fruit/berries, citrus peels, chilis. Simmer to what is termed “nappé”, which merely means a consistency that will lightly coat the food. When done, serve with your choice of protein.

To get you started, here are a few ideas.

For a Cherry Sauce, try:

  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Champagne vinegar
  • Cherry liqueur
  • Dried cherries

For an Apricot Sauce, use:

  • Rice wine vinegar
  • Orange zest and juice
  • Ginger
  • Dried apricots

Another option to serve with your meat is a Salsa. It could be a tomato-based salsa but with meat & seafood, a fruit-based salsa can be wonderful. Use your favorite fruit or combination of fruit. Other great additions are red onion, shallots, chili paper, bell pepper and herbs. After combining everything, it helps to chill to allow the flavors to develop. Just remember to taste and adjust the seasonings before you serve it.

Your challenge this week is to grab your favorite protein, cook it and make either a pan sauce or salsa. Let me know what you make and what you think!

Cooking Without a Recipe

As we continue our state of being home-bound and we continue to cook at home more than ever, I thought a Cooking Tip to help you practice Cooking Without A Recipe might be fun. I must admit that I am a recipe lover and normally use recipes as I am always testing different ones for use in future classes. However, when one of you booked a class with me to help her to be able to cook without always relying on a recipe (Thanks, Patty!), I thought it was time to organize my thoughts on this subject. If anyone else is interested in booking a similar class for when we can gather again, just let me know.

I will be breaking this topic up into three separate Cooking Tips. In Part One, I will discuss some basics of cooking/ingredients along with a discussion of cooking grains. Part Two will be cooking proteins and Part Three will be about vinaigrettes and pizza.

To be able to cook without a recipe, you need to have a well-stocked pantry. There are all sorts of lists that you can find online but here is one (Pantry essentials) that I put together that works for me. This list is generic in that it doesn’t contain an abundance of ethnic ingredients. If you tend to eat quite a bit of ethnic cuisine, you are going to want to add those sorts of ingredients to your pantry essentials list. Make it a list that works for you and your pantry. Then, try to keep these ingredients on hand as much as you can.

You also want to taste your dish throughout the cooking process, not just at the end. Because you are not using a recipe where the ingredients and amounts of those ingredients have been thoroughly tested to result in a well-balanced and tasty dish, you need to taste all the time. Only with tasting can you make necessary adjustments to get the flavor you want.

The next question then becomes is how to adjust. Generally, you want to adjust in the following order:

  • Salt
  • Acid
  • Balance sweetness, bitterness, fat & umami
  • Adjust the aromatics to give you the proper bite and texture

As you are tasting your dish and saying, “Hmm, it needs something”, the answer is usually salt. After that, try a little acid such as lemon/lime juice, vinegar, wine, etc. Still not right? Add a little sweetness such as sugar or honey. An ideal result would be a balance of all these flavors. Don’t forget texture. Add something to give it a bit of crunch. Cooking without a recipe gives you an ideal time to play around with these ingredients and flavors to see how they work and interact with each other.

Knowing how to cook multiple kinds of grains is very helpful to getting a meal on the table. Expand your view of grains. It is not only rice but is also farro, barley, quinoa, millet, couscous, wheat berries and more. And, with rice there are many kinds such as white, brown, long grain, medium grain, short grain, jasmine, basmati, arborio. For an earlier Cooking Tip all about rice, see this link.

Cooking all grains is basically the same – cooking them in boiling water until they are tender. The questions that we often have is what is the ratio of water to grain. Believe it or not, you can cook all grains by the pasta method. This is cooking the grain in abundant boiling, salted water until it is tender. Check frequently so you do not over-cook it. Drain, put the lid back on and let the grain steam for a just a few minutes. If you prefer to cook in a more standard way, there are tons of grain-to-water ratio charts online. Here is a link (Water to Grain Ratios) to just one.

You might say that anyone can cook grains, which is true. Learning to cook without a recipe, though, involves turning those grains into your own delicious dish. This can be done in a number of ways – none of which involve an actual recipe.

First, try cooking your grains not just in water but something more flavorful. Depending on what final flavor you want, it might be broth, orange juice, coconut water or jasmine tea. When you first try it, you may want to try part water and part other flavorful liquid. You could also add aromatics such as onion, garlic, bay leaves, citrus zest, etc. to your grain as it is cooking. Gently toasting the grain before adding your liquid is another trick.

Next would be add-ins to give flavor, color and texture to your grain. Fresh herbs are a wonderful idea. Dried fruit or nuts, cooked veggies, pesto, salsa and cheese are all other ideas for add-ins.

Maybe instead of a grain you want a starch such as potatoes. Potatoes on their own are wonderful and they can be baked, roasted or mashed – no recipe required. To make them your own, try adding other veggies such as parsnips, celery root, carrots, squash and so forth. Add-ins as we discussed with grains are another idea to enliven your potato dish.

So, get your pantry in order and let’s be creative. Keep your cookbooks closed. Don’t rely on the internet. See what sort of delightful grain dish you can come up with and let me know. Stay tuned for next week where I will help you cook that protein without a recipe.

Don't fear cooking seafood!

Cooking seafood often instills fear in people. I can understand why. Good seafood is not inexpensive and over-cooking it is all too common. I do enjoy a good seafood dish but I am unhappy when it is dry and overdone. In this Cooking Tip, I want to help you turn out that perfect plate of seafood. This Tip will not cover all seafood, just some of the most popular. Nor am I going to discuss the topics of sustainability, environmental concerns or mercury content. I will leave that for you to research and make your own decisions. I am merely going to talk about cooking seafood.

The fattiness or leanness of the fish species helps to determine proper cooking methods. Cooking methods are broken into moist cooking and dry cooking. Moist cooking methods include poaching, steaming, cooking en papillote and simmering. Dry cooking methods include baking, broiling, grilling and sautéing – either with or without cooking fat.

Fatty fish are especially well suited to cooking with dry heat. For example, baking or broiling are a good choice and these methods actually help to cut down on the oiliness of the fish. You can also use the dry heat method with the addition of fat. Just do not use so much that you cause the fish to be greasy. However, fatty fish can also be cooked with moist heat.

Lean fish are best cooked with moist heat as it helps to preserve the moistness of the fish. If you wish to use a dry cooking method, consider basting the fish in butter or oil. Or, the lean fish can be sautéed or fried with the use of oil.

If you are not sure about the fat content of the fish, ask at the fish counter. Briefly, fatty fish include salmon, mackerel and herring. Trout is considered to have a medium level of fat. Lean fish include orange roughy, bass, cod, flounder, haddock, Mahi-Mahi, grouper, snapper, tilapia and tuna.

The main problem I see with cooking fish is overcooking it. Most fish do not take very long to cook. An average recommended cooking time is 8-10 minutes per inch of thickness. Remember that there is going to be some carry-over cooking and, therefore, you can remove it from the heat when it is just slightly underdone. You can gauge this by visual changes. It is easy to see the color change with salmon. It is more difficult with white fish. You may need to use a paring knife and look inside. If the flesh is still translucent, it is still underdone. Perfectly cooked fish should be opaque but still flaky and moist. Overcooked fish is dry and falls apart easily.

The FDA states that fish with fins should be cooked to 145° or until the flesh is opaque and separates easily with a fork. Shrimp, lobster, crab, and scallops should be cooked until the flesh is pearly or white, and opaque.

Thermoworks recommends the following:

  • Salmon – 125°
  • Halibut – 130°
  • Lobster – 140°
  • Scallops – 130°
  • Shrimp — 120°

Cook’s Illustrated recommends:

  • 120° for wild salmon
  • 125° for farmed salmon
  • 135° for whitefish

Let me discuss a few particular types of fish.

Salmon – I covered salmon in detail in a prior Cooking Tip. Refer to that article for more information.

Scallops – Scallops are wonderful, sweet and delicate but can easily be turned rubbery and unappetizing by improper cooking.

The experts will tell you to always choose “dry” scallops (vs. “wet” scallops) at the store. Wet scallops (aka treated scallops) have been soaked in a liquid solution containing phosphates that is supposed to prolong their freshness. However, the scallops also absorb the water, which you end up paying for since you buy them by the pound. This water evaporates as they cook, which can lead to the following problems. First, the water that is released causes them to steam and it makes it more difficult to get that nice caramelized crust. As the water evaporates, you end up with smaller and tougher scallops. The phosphate may impart a slightly soapy flavor to the scallops. It is generally easy to discern treated scallops as they will usually appear very white in color.

“Dry” is the seafood industry term for natural or untreated scallops. They look more tan in color. They are preferred because they are easier to sear and get the desired caramelization, they taste sweet & natural and you are not paying for added water. That said, I think it is very hard to find dry scallops in your supermarket. To obtain these, you probably need to visit a quality seafood market or order online.

Whatever scallops you purchase, they should be cooked quickly over high heat. Pat the scallops dry. To prevent more moisture from exuding from the scallop, hold off on salting until just before they go in the pan. Leave space between them so they do not steam and cook very quickly over high heat. A typical large scallop only needs about 90 seconds per side. Allow them to rest for a few minutes before serving.

Shrimp is another very popular type of seafood. If not done before you buy them, you need to peel and devein the shrimp before cooking. They can be broiled in as little as 2-3 minutes. Boiling is another common method of cooking shrimp. For a 1 pound of shrimp, bring 4 cups water along with 1 teaspoon salt to a boil. Add shrimp and simmer, uncovered, 1 to 3 minutes or until shrimp turn opaque, stirring occasionally. Drain and rinse shrimp in a colander under cold running water.

You may also cook them on the stovetop by heating a skillet over medium-high. Add oil to hot skillet and then add the shrimp. Cook 3 to 6 minutes until shrimp are pink and opaque.

Seafood is something all of us should increase in our diet. It is also such a quick and easy ingredient to cook, making it perfect for a quick weeknight meal. Just watch it and don’t overcook it. If you do that, I am sure you will enjoy a seafood meal!