The World of Summer Squash

As with so many gardens this time of the year, ours has begun to produce beautiful summer squash. My husband only grows two kinds and they are the two you see most commonly in the supermarket – zucchini & yellow crookneck squash. There is more to summer squash, though, and that is the subject of this Cooking Tip. I will discuss a few of the varieties although the list is not exhaustive.

I am pretty sure you won’t be able to find all of the following varieties in your supermarket. At my local markets, I can buy zucchini, yellow crookneck squash, chayote and tatume. You may find a larger selection at a farmer’s market and you can certainly grow most of these.

Chayote

With a somewhat wrinkled shape and a light green color, this variety is slightly sweet with an apple- or cucumber-like flavor. It may be put into a salad, marinated, pickled, grilled, sauteed or used in soups.

Cousa

This variety of summer squash is shorter and squattier than zucchini. It is lighter in color and may be striated. It has very thin skin and is a bit sweeter than zucchini. Because of the shape, they are great for making stuffed squash boats.

Pattypan

This squash comes in a variety of shades from white to yellow to green as well as different sizes. They are also known as “scallop squash” due to the scalloped edges. The smaller ones take very well to the grill but are also good when roasted or sauteed.

Round zucchini

Also known as Eight Ball zucchini. they taste just like regular zucchini but are shaped more like a grapefruit. They are great for making stuffed squash just as you would stuffed peppers. Another fun use is to spoon out the insides and use as a bowl in which you serve soup.

Tatume/Tatuma

A Mexican heirloom squash also known as calabacita or Mexican grey squash. Some look like a lighter green zucchini and others are more round in shape. No matter the shape, this variety is sweeter and more flavorful than zucchini. Use just as a regular zucchini.

Yellow Crookneck

This is what most of us call yellow squash and can be either straightneck or crookneck. They are bright yellow and the skin can be either smooth or bumpy. They have the best texture if under 6 inches in length. Flavor is mild and similar to zucchini. A popular use is in a summer squash gratin, especially when mixed with green squashes.

Zephyr

This squash is two toned, yellow on top and pale green on bottom. It is a hybrid between yellow crookneck, delicata and yellow acorn squash. They are perfect for slicing into rounds or making into zucchini noodles. They have a somewhat nutty flavor.

Zucchini

This is the squash most people think of when you say summer squash. They are thin skinned with firm flesh. The smaller ones may be eaten raw but may also be grilled, sautéed or grated into zucchini bread.

As you pick out your summer squash, look for ones that are firm, vibrant in color and heavy for their size. Avoid wrinkled skin or soft spots. Pick smaller squash (aim for under 8 ounces) as they will be more tender, less watery and more flavorful.

When you get the summer squash home, store in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator for up to about a week or two. Some experts say they will keep longer if put in a plastic bag with one corner open to promote air circulation.

If sliced and blanched, they can be frozen and kept that way for up to a year. It can also be grated and frozen to use later in zucchini bread or muffins. Note, though, as it thaws, it will accumulate liquid, which will need to be drained.

My favorite way to prepare summer squash is to toss them in oil and Italian seasoning, sear in a grill pan or a cast iron skillet and then serve with a grating of Parmesan cheese. What is your favorite way?

Fresh Lemon Substitutes

In a prior Cooking Tip, I wrote about Lemons, different varieties and their uses. If you do not have the fresh fruit available, are there any suitable substitutes? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

If your recipe calls for lemon zest, Better Homes & Gardens suggests trying the following although they do caution that you will not get the same flavor as you would with fresh zest.

For 1 teaspoon of freshly grated lemon zest, try one of the following.

  • ½ tsp lemon extract
  • 2 Tbsp bottled lemon juice
  • 1 tsp lime zest or other citrus zest

When it comes to using bottled lemon juice rather than fresh, there aren’t too many side-by-side taste comparisons.

Cook’s Illustrated tried making both lemon curd and lemonade with packaged products. Although none were ideal, they found that ReaLemon lemon juice from concentrate and True Lemon crystallized lemon juice both were acceptable.

A news organization did a taste test among five of their staff where they used fresh lemon juice or one of the substitutes in seltzer water. Only two of the five correctly identified the cup with fresh squeezed juice. However, the fresh juice was preferred for flavor overall.

The other consideration is the ingredient list. For fresh lemons, there is only one ingredient – fresh lemon juice. I looked at the ingredient list for different brands of lemon juice products at my local market. This is what I found and it should help guide you if wish to buy one of these products.

Kroger —lemon juice concentrate (water, lemon juice concentrate), sodium metabisulfite (preservative), lemon oil, sodium benzoate (preservative)

Italia —lemon juice, lemon oil, potassium metabisulfite as a preservative

Santa Cruz — organic lemon juice

Lakewood — organic lemon juice

Minute Maid frozen lemon juice – 100% lemon juice from concentrate

Tantillo — lemon juice (99.94%), essential lemon oil (0.12%), potassium metabisulfite (0.06%) (as a preservative)

ReaLemon —lemon juice from concentrated (water, concentrated lemon juice) and less than 2% of sodium benzoate, sodium metabisulfite and sodium sulfite (preservatives), lemon oil

I try to always have fresh lemons available. If kept wrapped in plastic in the produce drawer in the refrigerator, they will last quite a while. Alternatively, zest and juice the lemon and store them separately in the freezer. I am not a fan of the packaged products for dishes in which lemon is a predominant flavor although they can work in a pinch when you only need a small amount.

What about you? Have you ever done a taste test? Which do you prefer?

Foraging for Food

During our time in living in Albuquerque my husband and I visited Silver City, New Mexico. While there, we dined at a restaurant called The Curious Kumquat. It was known as a “foraging forward” restaurant. It was an excellent place to dine that featured many dishes composed of ingredients that were obtained by foraging. The chef, Rob Connoley, has also written a cookbook, Acorns and Cattails, in which the recipes feature “ingredients that any home cook can forage, grow, or hunt.” Have you ever foraged for your food? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Have you ever taken a hike and eaten some of the wild-grown berries? My husband has been known to screech to a stop when he sees blooming elderflower along a country road. He picks it and then makes delicious elderflower cordial. That is foraging. Of course, it is much more than that and one needs to be very careful about what one eats in the wild. There are edible and poisonous plants that look very similar. And, we all have been taught about being careful of mushrooms growing in the wild.

Here are some rules that I have gathered from foraging experts. These presume that you are foraging only where it is legal to do so.

  • Seek the help of an experienced forager. Look for foraging clubs or seminars that might be in your area.
  • Familiarize yourself with what grows in your area – herbs, trees, weed, etc. Learn to positively identify them.
  • Learn to identify poisonous plants.
  • Use good foraging guides and cross reference between them. As I mentioned, there are look-alike plants that you do not want to confuse.
  • Do not eat anything that you cannot positively identify as safe.
  • One expert’s mantra is “Assume Nothing, Test Everything”. He warns that you should not eat any wild plant unless you are 150% (yes, that is correct) certain of its identification. Even then, he recommends testing it to ensure you do not have an allergy or sensitivity to it. Here is what he calls the “Tolerance Test”.
  • Begin with easily identified foods such as dandelions, nettles, strawberries and blackberries.
  • Only pick as much as you need and never take all the plants of any one kind in an area.
  • Do not pick in areas that are subject to pollution such as roadsides or near commercial farms.
  • Harvest at peak time for the particular plant. This is when the flavor and aroma will be best. Good guides will be your helper in this regard.
  • Harvest early in the morning. (This is also good advice for cutting the herbs growing in your own garden.) This is when the essential oils are highest.
  • Make sure you properly cook what you forage and use only those parts of the plants that are edible. For example, whereas ripe, cooked elderberries are edible, the bark, stems are roots are considered poisonous.
  • Consider cultivating wild edible plants in your own garden

This map will tell you what might be available where you live. Just as with all produce, there are seasons for wild edible plants. Here is one website that lists what is available at certain months although not all of these items will be available everywhere.

Do you forage? Let me know.

What do those food dates mean?

If you were to look through my pantry or refrigerator, you would certainly find some items that were beyond their “Best By” dates. Would I find the same if I snooped through your pantry? What do these dates mean and are they really that important? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

You may not realize this but according to the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), they do not require any food dating apart from infant formula.

So, why do we have these dates? Manufacturers provide dates to help consumers and retailers determine the quality of the food, not the safety.

They go further and state that “Most shelf-stable foods are safe indefinitely. In fact, canned goods will last for years, as long as the can itself is in good condition (no rust, dents, or swelling). Packaged foods (cereal, pasta, cookies) will be safe past the ‘best by’ date, although they may eventually become stale or develop an off flavor. You’ll know when you open the package if the food has lost quality. Many dates on foods refer to quality, not safety”.

They continue by explaining that “foods that have been in the freezer for months may be dry, or may not taste as good, but they will be safe to eat. So, if you find a package of ground beef that has been in the freezer more than a few months, don’t throw it out. Use it to make chili or tacos. The seasonings and additional ingredients can make up for loss of flavor.”

There are different terms you will see on food items that need some clarification.

Sell By – This date is more for retailers than consumers, telling them how long to leave something on the shelf. After this date, many stores put these items in the Bargain section. You should regularly look through this section in your store as you can get some perfectly safe food items for great prices.

Best If Used By/Before – This date tells you that the food may be of higher quality or have better flavor if you use it before that date.

Use By – Manufacturers use this date to tell the consumer when to expect the product to be at its best quality and you might expect some deterioration in quality after this date.

Freeze By – A date that tells you when to freeze a food item to retain its quality.

Now, these recommendations presume that you are handling and storing the food items properly. If you do notice any signs of spoilage such as off-odors, flavors or texture, it should be thrown away.

Another interesting tidbit from the USDA is that what causes food spoilage are molds, yeasts and bacteria. Viruses do not cause foods to spoil as they cannot grow in food. As for bacteria, there are what are called pathogenic bacteria, which are the type that cause illness. There are also spoilage bacteria. The latter causes food to spoil but do not cause illness.

There are all sorts of charts in books and online with recommended storage times for different food items. An easier way is to the FoodKeeper website and app from the USDA. Just input the item and it tell you how long you should keep it. For instance, if you input Apple Cider Vinegar, it tells you

For freshness and quality, this item should be consumed within:
Indefinitely
if in the pantry from the date of purchase

The USDA also tells us that it is fine to donate items past their printed dates. As they say, “The quality of perishable products may deteriorate after the date passes but the products should still be wholesome if not exhibiting signs of spoilage. Food banks, other charitable organizations, and consumers should evaluate the quality of the product prior to its distribution and consumption to determine whether there are noticeable changes in wholesomeness.” For more info on this topic, see this link on their website.

I hope this information makes you feel better about not throwing away every food item that hits its “best by” date. There is way too much food waste going on in our country and this Tip may help you decrease that just a bit.

Jam – Freezer or Preserved?

My husband has been harvesting beautiful and delicious fresh strawberries from his garden lately. Although they are great to just eat out of hand or make into some yummy dessert such as strawberry shortcake, we have more than enough to also make strawberry jam. I thought I would use this Cooking Tip to talk about the differences as well as the pros/cons between preserved and freezer jam.

Preserved jam is the type you see on store shelves. You cook your fruit mixture making it to your taste and preferred thickness level. It is then spooned into sterilized canning jars, sealed with lids and placed in a pot of boiling water for a specified amount of time. At the end of that time, the sealed jars are carefully removed from the water and set on a rack to cool. As they do, they seal, signified by a little popping sound.

Freezer jam on the other hand is either not cooked at all or only briefly. Generally, the fruit is mashed, sugar is added and left to macerate for a while before adding pectin. The jam mixture is once again placed into sterilized jars and sealed. However, rather than preserving it by placing it in the boiling water, it is cooled and stored in the freezer.

Preserved jam

Pros

  • It is shelf stable and does not need any refrigeration until it is opened.
  • It is thicker and more jam-like as it sets up better than freezer jam.
  • It has a smoother consistency than freezer jam.

Cons

  • It is more labor-intensive to make.
  • Because of the cooking process, the resulting jam is darker in color and has somewhat of a “cooked fruit” taste.
  • It requires more sugar than freezer jam.
  • You need to very careful to ensure the jars/lids seal properly.

Freezer jam

Pros

  • It is easier to make than preserved jam.
  • It requires little or no cooking, depending on the recipe.
  • Because it is not (or only slightly) cooked, it retains the bright color of the fruit.
  • Because the sugar used is more for sweetness rather than preserving, you generally use less sugar.
  • The jam may be put in any container that is meant for the freezer.
  • Perhaps the biggest pro is that it has more of a natural fruit taste. Because it is not cooked, it just tastes “fruitier”.

Cons

  • It can take up significant freezer space.
  • It results in a thinner jam.
  • If you are using a no cook recipe, the sugar and pectin might not fully dissolve causing a slightly gritty consistency.
  • It is not as good for gift giving as it must remain frozen, or at least refrigerated.

No matter which type of jam you wish to make, this is not a product where you can just “wing it”. For proper consistency, taste and safety, you really need to follow a tested recipe. The recipes contain four critical ingredients – fruit, pectin, acid and sugar.

Fruit is obviously needed for color and flavor.

Pectin is necessary for gel formation. Some fruits may be naturally higher in pectin and thus, not require additional pectin. Other fruits, or if you are making freezer jam, will need to have pectin added to the mixture. There is a type of pectin called “low or no sugar” pectin. It is used when jam makers want to put less sugar into the jam. Rather than using sugar to gel, it uses calcium. It will give you a thinner, less sweet but fruitier result.

Acid assists with gel formation as well as flavor. The right amount is necessary to set the pectin. Again, follow the recommendation from the recipe.

Sugar is vital for gel formation and flavor. It also acts as a preservative as it inhibits the growth of bacteria.

I remember the first time I tasted freezer jam and could not believe how much brighter and more fruit-like it tasted. Although, as noted above, there are advantages and disadvantages to both types of jam. Which do you like?

Knives — which ones do you really need?

If you peruse many culinary websites, you are bound to see an article about what items you really need in your kitchen. Such a list is going to vary depending on how you like to cook/bake, the size of your kitchen and who compiled the list. However, one item that will be on everyone’s list is a few essential knives. What knives are usually included on this “must have” list is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Almost all experts will agree that there are only a very few knives that all cooks should have. The first, and most important, is the Chef’s knife followed by a paring knife. Many will tell you that those are really the only two essential knives. The third most recommended knife is a serrated one. There are a few others, though, that are very useful to have if you have the space and want to spend the money.

Chef’s knife (aka Cook’s knife)

These are multi-purpose kitchen knives that are usually 8-10 inches long although you can find shorter ones. They are easily recognizable by the prominent point and a cutting edge that is a sloping curve. This curve is what allows the user to perform a rocking motion cutting technique, which means you “rock” the knife from tip to heel as you cut. Most people will probably find an 8-inch the most preferable size. Mine is a 9-inch and I love that size.

You can do almost any cutting task with a chef’s knife from cutting through a chicken, slicing/dicing veggies, cutting/slicing meat to chopping herbs. If you are going to splurge anywhere in your kitchen, splurge on an excellent chef’s knife. Splurging does not mean spending hundreds of dollars as very good chef’s knives can be found for much less.

Paring knife

A paring knife looks almost like a very small chef’s knife. Blade length can range from two to four inches long and it allows you to cut with more precision. This kind of knife is great for smaller tasks such as coring tomatoes, hulling strawberries, segmenting citrus, and for cutting smaller items such as shallots. If you just want to cut a lemon in half, reaching for a paring knife rather than a large chef’s knife is perfect. They can also be used for non-cutting tasks such as testing to see if a roasted beet is tender or if a cake is done. Although you want a sharp paring knife, you can certainly opt for spending less money here.

Serrated knife

A serrated knife has a serrated cutting edge that looks like a saw. The blade can be 5 to 10 inches long. The ones with longer blades are often called bread knives as they are the best way to slice through bread. They are not limited to slicing bread, though. They are also useful for slicing tomatoes, pineapples, watermelon, chopping chocolate or making cake layers. Because of their design, they are meant to slice food items, not chop them.

I have both a typical bread knife and a serrated deli knife. Because its blade is offset from the handle, it gives more room between your hand and whatever you are slicing,

Boning or fillet knife

When you need a knife that will bend to go around things such as meat joints, you want a boning knife. The blade is thinner and somewhat flexible so it can maneuver around bones and joints. Fillet knives always have a flexible blade, whereas boning knives can be either stiff or flexible. These knives are not designed to cut through bones, but rather around the bones and so are helpful in breaking down a whole chicken or removing bones from pieces of meat. They are also useful for skinning seafood as well as removing silverskin from meat.

There are many other kinds of knives including utility, carving, cleavers, oyster, cheese and santoku knives. Another piece of cutting equipment that is very helpful is a good pair of kitchen shears.

This Tip should help you equip your kitchen with the knives you will need. Other considerations are how to keep them sharp and how to store them. And, of course, knowing how to best use the knives is an important skill for safety and efficiency during your food prep. Consider booking a class on Knife Skills with me. I would love to show you just how to use those wonderful knives.

Agave Nectar – Should you be using it?

A few years ago, Agave nectar was all the rage and touted as the sweetener to use. I have written about sweeteners in cooking/baking in prior Cooking Tips. Here is one on Liquid Sugars, of which agave is just one type. Here is another one – Sugars – more than just sweetness. In this current Cooking Tip, I will focus only on agave.

Agave nectar comes from the agave plant, also known as the “century plant”. It is used for its supposed healing properties and is the plant from which tequila is made. Agave nectar is a golden-colored liquid sweetener that comes from this same plant. There are different kinds.

  • Light agave nectar – This has undergone multiple processing steps including heating and filtering. This gives it a more neutral taste but it also leads to a loss of some of its nutrients.
  • Raw agave nectar – This is an unprocessed nectar. It is darker in color with a more distinctive taste. No nutrients are lost since it is not processed.
  • Agave sweet powder – With this product, all the liquid is removed, turning it into a granular form, which is then crushed into a powder.

Agave has been pushed by some by saying it is a more natural and healthier sweetener. It is touted as having a low glycemic index (GI) and thus, less impact on your blood sugar levels. However, the story doesn’t end there. The reason it is said to be low on the GI scale is that it is 85% fructose. Fructose will not raise short term blood sugar levels as rapidly as the glucose found in table sugar (table sugar, aka sucrose, is made up of 50/50 glucose and fructose). However, there are those who say because fructose is only processed by the liver, it can lead to other health concerns such as increased triglyceride levels, increased insulin resistance and others. So, as with so many wondrous “health finds”, there are two sides to the story.

Another benefit is said to be that since it is 1½ times sweeter than other sweeteners, you can use less. Another nice thing is that it doesn’t crystallize like honey.

If you wish to use it in your kitchen, there are some recommendations. It can easily be added to beverages, vinaigrettes, sauces and as a topping for things such as oatmeal. The biggest problem comes with baking.

If you have a recipe that was designed using agave, great. However, if you are trying to swap out other sweeteners in favor of agave, there are factors that you need to consider.

  • As mentioned above, it is sweeter. You will, therefore, need to reduce the amount you use by ½ to ⅓.
  • It is a liquid as opposed to granulated, brown or other sugars. This will need to be compensated for by decreasing other liquids.
  • Just as with honey, it can lead to excessive browning of items in the oven. Reduce the oven temp by 25° to prevent this.
  • Baked goods made with agave can be sticky and so the use of parchment is strongly advised.
  • It must first be combined with the liquids or fats in your recipe to prevent a crusty or oily layer on top.
  • If baking time is more than 40 minutes, reduce the cooking time by 5-10 minutes.
  • Sugar does more than just add sweetness. See my Sugar Cooking Tip for a further discussion on this. Be aware of this before simply swapping it out.

I found three tests of head-on comparisons of the same baked goods made with agave and sugar or honey.

  • Cook’s Country tested cornbread and honey-wheat rolls. They found light agave to work just as well as honey, but it lacked true honey flavor. The amber agave led to darker baked goods with an earthier flavor.
  • Cook’s Illustrated tested it in cookies and cakes as a substitute for sugar and found, even with recommended adjustments, the results were subpar.
  • Deseret substituted agave for sugar in brownies. Although the agave brownies were moist, they were more cake-like and lacked the caramelized sugary crust that the brownies made with sugar had.

I looked at multiple sources to come up with the following recommendations for you if you do want to try agave in place of another sweetener.

  • Honey – replace with equal amounts.
  • Maple Syrup – replace with equal amounts.
  • Brown Rice Syrup – use ½ to ⅓ as much agave and increase other liquids in the recipe by up to ½ cup.
  • Corn Syrup – use ½ as much agave, and increase other liquids in the recipe by up to ⅓ cup.
  • White Sugar – recommendations vary just a bit
    • Some sources recommend that for every 1 cup sugar called for, use ⅔ cup agave, and reduce the liquid in the recipe by ¼ to ⅓ cup.
    • Another source recommends the “75% rule”, which means using only ¾ of the amount of agave by volume as granulated sugar. For every cup of sugar that the recipe calls for, reduce the liquid by 2-4 tablespoons.
  • Brown Sugar – again, there are some differences in recommendations
    • One guide is that for every 1 cup sugar called for, use ⅔ cup agave and reduce the liquid in the recipe by 2 tablespoons.
    • Another says to use ¾ cup of agave nectar for each cup of brown sugar the recipe calls for and reduce the liquid by no more than a tablespoon.

When it comes to reducing the liquids, you have choices. Some liquid ingredients (milk, eggs) are made up of water while others are liquid fats. Although both categories are liquid, water will evaporate as it heats whereas the fats will remain. Therefore, you are probably better off reducing the former rather than the latter.

Remember that it is not an all or none situation. You do not have to replace all the sweetener in a recipe with agave. In fact, it may be better to only swap out a portion.

One source recommends the following

  • Cakes & brownies – replace only ½ of the sugars with agave
  • Cookies –replace ⅓ of the sugars with agave
  • Bars containing fruit – replace ⅔of the sugars with agave or 100% if it is fresh fruit

If you use agave or have been thinking about it, I hope this Tip will give you some information to help you be successful with it!

The Many Colors of Bell Peppers

I have written a prior Cooking Tip on chili peppers in which I discussed many different varieties. In this Tip, I wanted to talk about the pepper we use most commonly in our kitchens – the bell pepper.

Bell peppers are great for adding not only flavor but also color and texture to your dishes. The one thing they do not add, though, is heat as they rate zero on the Scoville heat chart. You will see them offered in different colors for varying prices. Just what is the difference?

The most common colors you will see are green, red, yellow and orange although rarely you might see brown, white, purple and even striped. The difference in color has to do with the stage of ripeness along with the varietal of the pepper plant.

All bell peppers start out green and change color as they mature. Depending on its varietal, when it is ripe it may become yellow, orange, red or one of the more unusual colors. Some varieties even remain green when ripe.

The taste of a bell pepper also changes as it ripens and changes color. Many people think they do not like bell peppers because they have only tasted the unripe green one. Those are more grassy and even bitter as compared to riper peppers. As they ripen, they become sweeter and lose the bitterness. It is almost like a different fruit. (Yes, even though we think of them as vegetables, they are botanically classified as a fruit.)

When using bell peppers, you can easily substitute one color for another. The only caution I would add is that using an unripe green pepper in place of the riper colored ones will alter the taste. However, swapping out red for yellow and so forth will not change the taste. It will, though, change the appearance.

The nutritional value also changes with the ripening process. Although all bell peppers are a very healthy fruit, as they ripen, they do develop higher amounts of some nutrients such as vitamin A & C, lycopene, and lutein.

When choosing bell peppers, pick ones that have a firm skin without wrinkles. Look at the stem; it should be fresh and green. They should feel heavy for their size. Avoid peppers with any kind of blemishes.

Green peppers will have a longer shelf life because they are less ripe. They will also be less expensive since the colored ones have had longer time on the vine, which necessitates more care. Do not let that discourage you from buying the colored ones, though, especially if you think you do not like bell peppers because you have only tasted green ones. Store them whole and unwashed in your refrigerator produce bin.

I love the ripe ones raw on a salad but they have many other uses such as stuffed peppers, sausage and peppers, made into a romesco sauce and many others. Do you have a favorite use? Let me know.

Tea – for more than just drinking!

For those of you who know me personally, you know that besides great food, I love a good cup of tea. I do not just love to drink tea, though. I love to teach about tea and do that frequently in our local tea shop/café, English Tealeaves. These two topics of food and tea come together in this Cooking Tip as I discuss Cooking with Tea.

Let me start with a little Tea 101. “Real” tea is made from the leaves of the Camellia Sinensis plant. All tea (white, green, oolong, black, pu-erh) comes from this plant. The differences in tea result from the particular variety of that plant along with how the leaves are processed. This “real” tea is contrasted with what we call Herbal Tea. Herbal “teas” do not contain any tea leaves from the Camellia Sinensis plant. Rather they are made from totally separate plants such as chamomile, peppermint and rooibos. The reason they are called “teas” is that they are brewed in the same manner as real tea. The better terms for these beverages are Herbal Tisanes or Fruit Infusions. Both real tea and tisanes/infusions are wonderful beverages that can be used in many culinary applications.

There are a number of different ways you can use tea in your kitchen. At times, you might use a combination of these methods.

Use the actual tea leaves.

Although we do not normally eat our tea leaves, they are edible. The leaves add both flavor and texture to your dish. Most of the time, you will chop or grind the tea before adding to the other ingredients. In general, 1 Tbsp of loose-leaf tea yields 2 tsp of ground tea, or even less if ground to a fine powder. Some recipes call for first steeping the tea and then chopping the wet leaves.

Examples of applications

  • Peppermint brownies – grind the sugar from the recipe with dried peppermint tea leaves before continuing with the recipe.
  • Chai snickerdoodles – grind masala chai tea and add to your snickerdoodle recipe.
  • Toast appetizers – top bread with a spread made with mayonnaise, cheese and finely ground tea leaves.
  • Homemade pasta – give your homemade pasta a green color and a subtle flavor by mixing matcha into the dough.

Use the infused liquid

Steep the tea in water or another liquid and use that liquid in your recipe. You probably will want to make your tea a bit more concentrated than you would for drinking purposes. If steeping in water, use more tea leaves rather than increasing the steeping time. The latter can easily lead to bitterness due to the release of tannins from the tea leaves.

If you steep in liquids with a higher fat content (whole milk, cream, butter, oil), you can steep the tea for a longer time as the dairy buffers the tannin development. You can steep up to 90 minutes, depending on the taste you wish to achieve.

The concern of tannin development only applies to steeping real tea. Herbal/fruit teas do not get bitter with prolonged steeping. In fact, they require a longer steeping time even for drinking as the flavor infuses a bit more slowly into the water.

A couple of tips are that the lower the moisture content and the higher the viscosity of the liquid, the longer the tea will need to infuse.

Another idea for using tea-infused liquid is to actually cook ingredients in that liquid.

Examples of applications

  • Chicken salad – poach chicken in water to which green tea leaves have been added. The wet leaves are then chopped and stirred into the chicken salad along with the rest of the ingredients.
  • Roasted fruit – toss fresh peaches in brewed green tea and then, roast in the oven. Top the roasted peaches with a vinaigrette also made with tea.
  • Pizza dough – have your friends asking “what is that special flavor” when you use steeped tea to make your pizza dough.
  • Shrimp – marinate shrimp in brewed tea and then make a vinaigrette with more brewed tea.
  • Tea rice – cook rice in brewed tea for a special side dish.
  • Simple syrups – add tea leaves of your choice of flavor to your simple syrup, which can then be used to pour over fresh fruit or added to a cocktail.
  • Tarte Tatin – infuse vanilla black tea into the butter and finish as any Tarte Tatin.
  • Chocolate truffles – infuse your cream/water with your favorite tea to make a tea-flavored ganache. Make into truffles or use in another application.
  • Hot chocolate – infuse tea into the milk and then finish as you would for homemade hot chocolate.
  • Pastry cream – infuse tea leaves into dairy to make a delicious pastry cream, which can then be used to make a fruit tart or a number of other desserts.
  • White chocolate mousse – infuse jasmine tea into cream. Use the hot cream to melt white chocolate and finish into a wonderful light mousse with a delicate jasmine flavor.

Vinegars

You can easily make tea-infused vinegars by bringing the vinegar to a boil, taking it off the heat and then adding the tea leaves to infuse. After cooling to room temperature, strain and use as desired. These infused vinegars are wonderful for making a unique vinaigrette.

Cold steeping

For some liquids that should not be heated such as fruit juices or alcohol, you may steep at room temperature or even in a chilled environment.

Spice Rubs

Add finely ground tea leaves to your favorite spice mixture and add use it as a rub on meat or add to a braising liquid, soup or chutney.

Smoking

Add tea leaves to a stove-top smoker and then smoke the food of your choice. The tea leaves can be the main medium for producing the smoke or used in combination with wood and cooked rice (to buffer the heat). Other flavors components of your choice such as spices may also be added.

There are so many types of teas and tisanes with a myriad of natural and added flavors. Stop thinking of tea just as a beverage but also as an ingredient. You will be amazed at what you can do with it. Do you cook with tea? Have you made something special with tea? Let me know.

Mayo — for more than sandwiches!

In last week’s Cooking Tip, we learned just what mayonnaise is, how it is made as well as some taste testing results of commercial products. Mayonnaise can be used for so much more than just spreading on sandwiches and that is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

The first thing is that you can do to enliven your mayonnaise is by adding your own flavors. In my local supermarket, the following varieties can be found. Do you have any fun flavors in your store? Let me know.

  • Chipotle
  • Chipotle Lime
  • Miso
  • Black Truffle
  • Hint of Lime
  • Garlic
  • Sriracha
  • Wasabi
  • Harissa

Mayonnaise also forms the base for many sauces such as aioli, remoulade and others.

Aioli

This is one of the most famous mayo-based sauces. It originated in Provence and was made by pounding garlic with a mortar and pestle and emulsifying with oil. There were no eggs or acid added. Today, though, it is a mayonnaise flavored with garlic. As opposed to mayonnaise, which normally takes a neutral oil, aioli classically uses a fruity extra virgin olive oil.

Aioli is often used as a sauce or dip with seafood in Mediterranean cuisines. It is also used as a burger spread, on pasta, as a topping for crab cakes or a dip for grilled veggies.

Spanish-style aioli is called allioli and is often served with patata bravas (fried potatoes) or seafood.

Just as with mayonnaise, other flavors made be added to create versions such as sriracha, cilantro jalapeno, roasted red pepper, citrus, sundried tomato, avocado, caper peppercorn, honey basil, orange chive, sesame ginger or smoked paprika.

Remoulade

Remoulade is a mayonnaise-based sauce also with French origins. Although it originated in France, regional variations arose as it spread across the world.

There are four basic types of remoulade.

  1. French – this is the classic. The base of mayonnaise is enlivened by mixing in herbs (parsley, chives, chervil, tarragon), capers, diced cornichons, vinegar or lemon juice. It may also contain anchovies and/or horseradish.
  2. Louisiana – this type is spicier because it incorporates Creole and Cajun flavors such as stone-ground or Creole mustard along with paprika, green onions, celery and parsley. Some also add lemon juice, hot sauce/cayenne and hard boiled eggs.
  3. Danish – An interesting variety that contains minced cauliflower, cabbage and cucumber pickles. It often contains turmeric, which is what gives it a yellow hue. Other possible ingredients are sour cream, red onion and carrots.
  4. Comeback sauce – This sauce originates from central Mississippi. It is similar to Louisiana-style remoulade with a base of mayonnaise but typically uses a milder ketchup-like chili sauce rather than hot sauce.

Remoulade is used as a condiment or dipping sauce. It is usually paired with seafood, cold meats and fried foods such as fried pickles, fried green tomatoes, fried fish, crab cakes, a po’boy sandwich or French fries.

Tartar Sauce

Although tartar sauce is often described as a type of remoulade that uses mustard rather than anchovy, it actually has fewer ingredients. The main ingredients are mayonnaise, capers and sweet pickles.

Rouille

This is a French sauce that traditionally does not contain any mayonnaise. I am including it here, though, as modern versions do use mayonnaise. It is ubiquitous in Provence as an accompaniment to the famous fish soup, bouillabaisse. The name means “rust” in French, because of the reddish color of the sauce.

There are two methods to create a rouille.

  1. The traditional method uses olive oil, chili peppers and garlic. Breadcrumbs are added for texture and thickening. A wide range of spices may be added including, but not limited to, saffron, orange peel and basil.

  2. The modern method uses mayonnaise instead of olive oil along with chili peppers or red pimentos and maybe garlic. Because mayonnaise is already thick, breadcrumbs are not always used. As with the traditional rouille, a wide range of spices may be added.  

It is the ideal sauce to accompany a dish of fish, shellfish or fish-based soups.

Salad Dressings

There are also many salad dressings based on mayonnaise. These include:

  • Thousand Island
  • Russian dressing
  • Ranch dressing
  • Lemon poppy seed dressing
  • Coleslaw dressing
  • Blue cheese dressing
  • Buttermilk ranch dressing

How do you use mayonnaise? Do you have a special sauce that you make with mayonnaise? Let me know.