Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Tomato Passata – what is it and do you need it?

As the summer winds down and, with it, the fresh tomato season, you might wonder if there is a way to get that fresh tomato taste throughout the year. I wrote an earlier Cooking Tip on different canned tomato products but now I want to concentrate on Passata. It Italian, it is known as “passata di pomodoro”, meaning tomatoes passed through a sieve.

Passata is basically a thick but pourable uncooked tomato sauce. It is made from crushed and strained tomatoes to remove skin/seeds. Although some will say it is the same as tomato purée, it is not exactly the same product. Purée is the cooked version of tomato passata. Although the latter can be used in many dishes as a substitute for passata, it will not give you the freshness and brightness of a real passata. There are some brands that use both names on the jar.

What do you use it for? It is a great base for a pizza & pasta sauces, Indian dishes, soups, stews, chili, etc. It makes a thicker, more intensely flavored sauce than using the same amount of crushed or diced canned tomatoes.

Tomato passata may or may not be available in your local supermarket. It is certainly available online. If you find the product in the store, look at the ingredient list as it should only contain tomatoes and salt. It should be sold in bottles or small boxes, not cans.

There is no real substitute for passata but if your recipe calls for it and you have none, you can try a substitute. If the recipe only calls for a tablespoon or two, just try tomato paste. If you need more, put your canned tomatoes in a blender and then through a strainer.

You can also make it yourself at home and would be a great use for excess tomatoes from your garden. The best tomatoes to use are those that are ripe and flavorful, especially San Marzano and Roma. They should have a high flesh content compared to seeds.

There are a couple of different methods that people recommend. One has you boil the tomatoes briefly until they are soft and tender. After straining, they are put through a food mill. You can push them through a coarse strainer but it will be a lot more work depending on how many tomatoes you have.

An alternative method is to put chopped fresh tomatoes into a blender and process until there are no visible chunks. Pour through a strainer and push on the contents so only the skins remain. Discard skins.

No matter which method you use, do not add seasoning until you want to use it as it might limit the versatility. If you want it thicker, some recommend reducing it on the heat. However, this does reduce the fresh flavor and the same can be achieved when you actually use it.

For storage, you may either can it (using a proper canning method) or freeze. To freeze, pour into ice cube trays, freeze and then store in a freezer bag/container. Good for up to 3 months frozen. Canned passata may last up to a year in your pantry.

Do any of you have passata in your pantry? What do you use it for? Enjoy the fresh tomatoes while you can and if you have enough, try making passata for those cold, winter months!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

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 Tips · Ingredients

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!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Umami Flavors

As we grew up, we learned about the different tastes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. More recently, people have begun talking about another taste – umami. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip – what is umami and how do we get umami in our foods.

Umami is a savory taste. It is actually a Japanese term that roughly translates to “good flavor” or “good taste”. It has also been thought of as a full-bodied, meaty flavor.

Umami was first studied in 1907 by isolating a compound thought to be responsible for this savory flavor. It was later identified as monosodium glutamate, a sodium salt that produces a strong savory taste. For a discussion on MSG, see this Cooking Tip.

MSG has often been added to foods to boost the umami flavor in foods. However, there are many foods that inherently have this taste, specifically those that contain a high level of the amino acid glutamate. Although not totally comprehensive, here is a list of many such foods.

  • Meat has high levels of glutamate
  • Soy sauce (to be forwarded a Cooking Tip on soy sauce, email me.)
  • Tomatoes, including sun-dried tomatoes
  • Miso
  • Anchovies
  • Mushrooms
  • Potatoes
  • Cheese with the more aged and stronger having more umami. For example, an aged parmesan.
  • Seaweed
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Fish sauce
  • Coconut aminos (see this Cooking Tip)
  • Tree nuts such as walnuts and almonds. These are especially helpful to adding umami to vegetarian meals.

We know what most of these items are but I would like to elaborate on just a few.

Worcestershire sauce – each manufacturer has its own recipe but a typical list of ingredients is fermented anchovies, onions, garlic, vinegar, molasses, tamarind paste, salt, sugar, and a seasoning mixture that often includes coriander, mustard seed & cloves. It adds an umami punch to marinades, meat dishes, soups/stews.

Miso is a Japanese fermented paste and is typically fermented soybeans, a grain, salt, and koji (a mold). It can be fermented from a few weeks to several years. The most common use of miso is in Japanese-style miso soup, but also adds its unique flavor to marinades, ramen, or vegetable and tofu dishes.

Anchovies are a fatty fish that are most often served cured. After removing the head and inner parts, they are coated in salt, pressed and held in a temperature-controlled environment. During this time, chemical reactions occur which lead to flavor development. Being high in glutamic acid, they are full of umami. They are essential to a traditional Caesar dressing and are often added to Mediterranean dishes, meat dishes and pizza sauces.

Fish sauce is one of those ingredients essential to Asian (especially Thai) dishes. It is made from fermented (at least 12 mos) fish, typically anchovies. The fish breaks down and the salty liquid that forms is collected and filtered before bottling. It is both a condiment and an ingredient. Again, it is full of glutamates that result in a rich, savory taste and a brininess that brings out depth and flavor in everything from dipping sauces and soups to stir-fries and marinades.

Many recipes will call for some of the umami rich ingredients. However, you may also want to experiment on your own. Add a bit of soy sauce to that pasta sauce. Chop some anchovies and throw them in your beef stew. How do you up ramp up umami in your dishes? Let me know.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Flavoring Choices

Spices and flavors have been used for thousands of years all over the world. So much of our food would be pretty bland without these ingredients. In this Cooking Tip, I would like to explore this world of Flavors and Flavoring.

Did you know if you combine lemon, banana, raspberry and pineapple essences that you end up with strawberry? I sure didn’t know that but people who are educated and trained as Flavorists know this and so much more. These scientists have looked at items that bring us flavor such as fruits, vegetables, spices and leaves. Through their investigations, they have identified “flavoring substances” and how they work together to please our palates.

As the Flavor & Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA) points out, there are hundreds of natural substances in a strawberry that lead to what we taste as strawberry flavor. Flavorists isolate these compounds to develop a strawberry flavor that we can add to our foods. They also design new flavor combinations that we love to try.

Do you look forward to those new Lay’s potato chip flavors each year? (The most recent offering – Grilled Cheese & Tomato Soup – was supposed to be on shelves October 21.) How do they do it? According to FEMA, “when a food company decides it wants to introduce a new product to consumers … they often contact flavorists at companies that specialize in creating flavors, and they ask them to create a flavor that meets their requirements and will be appealing to the consumer.”

If you look at an ingredient list on a product, you may see “natural flavor” or “artificial flavor”. We probably all prefer the term “natural” but they may not be that very different. FEMA’s definition is “Natural flavors are ingredients that come from natural sources such as a spice, fruit, or vegetable.  They can even come from herbs, barks, roots, or similar plant materials.  Natural flavors also come from meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy products.”

And, “artificial flavors are flavorings that don’t meet the definition of natural flavor. There isn’t much difference in the chemical compositions of natural and artificial flavorings.  What is different is the source.  For example, an artificial strawberry flavor may contain the same individual substances as a natural one, but the ingredients come from a source other than a strawberry.” Of course, companies must abide by the FDA’s rules, which are found here, if you are interested. Other countries have their own rules.

Many times, we home cooks use flavoring extracts in our cooking and baking. I am sure we all have extracts in our pantry but what are they? FEMA defines them as “a solution that contains essential components of a complex material.  A flavor extract is such a solution, but composed specifically of compounds that create flavors.”

The most commonly used in the USA is Vanilla. I have written another Cooking Tip on Vanilla and it can be found here. What other ones do you have in your pantry? Besides vanilla, I have almond, anise, banana, lemon, orange, peppermint, raspberry and spearmint. There are many more, of course. Just check out your favorite supermarket or online supplier.

One little tidbit I want to tell you is that you will often see “Mint” extract on the shelves. You may also see “Peppermint” and less commonly “Spearmint”. If it just says “Mint”, it is most likely a mixture of peppermint and spearmint. If you are using it to make those holiday baked treats, you probably want pure peppermint. Plain mint can be used but will give you a slightly different taste.

There is also something relatively new to our supermarket shelves and that is flavoring pastes. Once again, vanilla paste is the most common but there are others. They all usually have natural flavors but also often have sugar or corn syrup as well as some sort of thickener (Gum Tragacanth , Xantham Gum, Carrageenan). The company with the most varieties is Taylor & Colledge.

If you look at a bottle of any kind of extract, you will always see alcohol. That is because it is used in the distillation process. There are those that say because alcohol evaporates during baking, extracts are not the best forms of flavor for baked goods. Rather, they recommend saving your extracts for cold applications such as beverages or sorbet. Here is a video from Natures Flavors that explains that.

This company recommends using “flavor concentrates” or “flavor emulsions” in baking. Here is a video (scroll to the bottom of the page) about the concentrates and one about the emulsions. According to the company, these items are “extremely concentrated water soluble liquids containing no alcohol or sugar and are set in a Natural Gum Acacia Base.” They are made to withstand high temperatures, making them the preferred use in baking.

For even more info, check out this video that contrasts extracts with concentrates with oils and powders. I give you these links because I think this company explains things well. I have not tried their products (they do look fun, though) and they are not the only producer in the market.

I suspect that most of us home cooks use these kinds of flavorings in the extract form. We have done that for years and I would think that practice will continue to be the main one we use. With this Cooking Tip, I hope you will see that there is more to flavoring than just extracts. Just have fun in adding flavor to your foods and let me know how it goes!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Should you try Coconut Aminos?

I was teaching a Thai cooking class for a bridal shower recently. (Thank you, Diane for booking it! If anyone is interested in booking a fun and yummy cooking party, email me for more information.) We were discussing some of the typical Thai ingredients such as fish sauce, soy sauce, tamarind, etc. Someone asked what I thought of Coconut Aminos. This is an ingredient that although I knew about, I had never used. I decided it was time to learn a bit more about it and Voilà, this Cooking Tip!

Sushi with soy sauceAminos are liquid amino acids. Recall from your high school chemistry/biology classes that amino acids are the building blocks for protein. In recent years, consuming liquid amino acids has become somewhat of a health trend. There are two types: one is soy-based and one is coconut-based. Both forms contain all or almost all of the essential amino acids. This Tip will concentrate on the coconut version.

Coconut aminos is derived from the nectar (or sap) of the coconut palm blossom. It has added salt and undergoes a natural fermentation.

Proponents of coconut aminos claim the following:

  1. If you have a soy or gluten intolerance, coconut aminos could be for you as it is both soy- and gluten-free. (Be aware that non coconut-based liquid aminos are not soy-free.)
  2. These products are lower in sodium than soy sauce. Regular soy sauce is very high in sodium. There is lower sodium soy sauce but that is still higher in sodium than coconut aminos. Be sure to check the label, though, as the different brands of coconut aminos in my local market varied from 200 to 600 mg of sodium per 1 tablespoon. In comparison, my favorite soy sauce has 920 mg/tablespoon and a lower sodium variety has 575 mg. Soy-based liquid aminos may have as much sodium as regular soy sauce. (I wrote another Cooking Tip on how to tell a good soy sauce from an inferior one. If you wish to read it, let me know and I will send it to you.)
  3. Coconut aminos are free of MSG (monosodium glutamate). Some people may have unpleasant reactions to MSG. (  Here is a link to another Tip I wrote about MSG. Be aware that liquid aminos made from soy may contain MSG. I do not want to get too far in the weeds but some scientists say that coconut aminos does contain glutamate, a byproduct of the natural fermentation process. These scientists say that the glutamate in fermented coconut aminos is better tolerated in sensitive individuals. An exception is Braggs, as it is not fermented. However, Braggs coconut aminos is a bit different than the typical coconut aminos in that not only is it non-fermented, it also has added apple cider vinegar.
  4. If you are concerned about GMO ingredients, coconut aminos are made from coconut tree sap, something which is not genetically modified. In contrast, many soybeans are. As always, check the label to ensure it is non-GMO.
  5. It is approved for the Paleo diet.
  6. May will tout other health benefits but be wary of these claims. There is really no true scientific evidence for anything other than the above.

How should you use it? While coconut aminos will add an umami punch to your dishes/sauces, it is not a perfect substitute for soy sauce. Although it is still savory, it will also add a touch of sweetness. If you do not like coconut, do not worry about coconut aminos. It really has no coconut taste. It will also be thinner in consistency.

Are there any downsides to using Coconut Aminos?

  • Some say it is too sweet and is not as savory as soy sauce.
  • Although it is lower in sodium than soy sauce, it is still not a low-sodium product. As always, read the label and follow your doctor’s advice for your sodium intake.
  • It is also much more expensive than soy sauce. Whereas a good soy sauce may be as little as $.25 per ounce, coconut aminos are usually upwards of twice that.

One last comment – If you are just looking for a gluten-free alternative to soy sauce, consider Tamari. Although it is made without wheat, it is still soy-based and has a high sodium content.

Have you tried Coconut Aminos? If so, let me know what you thought. I am going to try it in the near future. If you are interested in my impressions, just email me.

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Tomatoes — canned or fresh?

20190815_180834aDespite being summer when fresh tomatoes are at their best, I suspect every one of us has canned tomatoes and tomato products in our pantry right now. If you don’t, email me and let me know why not. For the rest of us, we probably have at least some (if not all) of the following: whole tomatoes, diced tomatoes, fire-roasted tomatoes, tomato puree, tomato paste and tomato sauce. These products are the subject of this Cooking Tip.
 

  1.  You can turn whole tomatoes into almost any other tomato product whereas diced tomatoes cannot be magically transformed into whole tomatoes.
  2.  Whole tomatoes come packed either in juice or puree, giving you more choice. She recommends packed in juice if you want a fresher tomato flavor and packed in puree for a deeper tomato flavor.
  3.  Diced tomatoes have calcium chloride added, which helps the diced tomatoes retain their shape. This may be what you want in a salsa but whole tomatoes will cook down better. Most American whole tomatoes also have calcium chloride added but Cooks Illustrated found that it mostly acts near the surface, leaving the interior very tender. You can find whole tomatoes without calcium chloride but you will need to look at the Italian imports. I looked at the whole tomato products at my normal market. They carried their own store brands, Muir Glen, Hunts and Kuner’s. The only one that did not have calcium chloride was a higher-end store brand. Although my store didn’t carry them, the Cento brand does not have calcium chloride listed as an ingredient. A quick perusal of Amazon showed that if you want to stay away from calcium chloride, imported is going to be your choice.
  4.  No seasoning is added, thus giving you more control over the seasoning in your dish. Tomato sauce and stewed tomatoes are going to have a number of things added to them. If you have looked on your grocer’s tomato shelf, it is getting even harder to find any diced tomatoes without some added seasoning.

 
What about substituting one type of canned tomatoes for another? For example, if your recipe calls for diced, will your can of whole tomatoes work? It depends – if you want the tomatoes to hold their shape, whole tomatoes will not do this well. If you do not care about the shape/texture, feel free to substitute. Another caution about substituting is to remember that some of these canned products contain added seasonings, which you may or may not want in your dish.
 
I’m sure most of you have heard that the best tomatoes are San Marzano, the name coming from the region of Italy where they are grown from specific seeds. Today, you can find tomatoes grown elsewhere from the same seeds. Cooks Illustrated did a taste test and found they did not live up to the hype. If you want to read their entire results, here is a link although you will need a membership to view it. For purposes of this Cooking Tip, I will tell you that they preferred Muir Glen, an American brand that was very acidic with a high sugar content. Their runner-up was Hunt’s. Serious Eats agreed that the San Marzano designation wasn’t necessarily a winner. Their preference was for Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Finally, just to show you how much an individual’s taste matters, a taste test from TheKitchn put Cento at the top, Muir Glen at #3 and Trader Joe’s last at #9. Who do you agree with? San Marzano or not? Let me know.
 
Tomato products are one of those pantry staples that are a boon to a cook. With this Cooking Tip, I hope you will take a minute to read labels to ensure you get the right product for your dish. Happy Tomato Cooking!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Pesto — make it your own!

I was making sandwiches for lunch the other day and wanted something different. Off to the freezer I go where I found cubes of three kinds of frozen pesto – classic Genovese pesto, basil pesto with manchego cheese and sun-dried tomato pesto. Out came the latter, which I then mixed with grilled and chopped red onion & mayo. I proceeded with spreading that on some nice bread, topping with ham and grated Parrano cheese, brushing a bit of olive oil on the outside of the bread and finishing the sandwiches off on my stovetop grill. Very yummy if I do say so myself. That got me thinking that Pesto might be a good topic for a Cooking Tip.

Pesto is such a delicious sauce and requires no cooking. Classic pesto (aka Genovese pesto) is made from fresh basil, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, garlic and olive oil. Traditionally, it is made in a mortar and pestle although modern cooks tend to use a food processor or blender. The different methods give different results. The mortar/pestle will give you a coarser pesto with a fresher basil flavor where as the food processor results in a finer texture with a less fresh (but still yummy) flavor.

There are many different recipes for classic pesto. Although they all have the same basic ingredients, they may use different ratios of ingredients. I encourage you to try different recipes until you find the one (or ones) you like. Techniques will vary, too. Some will have you put all the ingredients in the blender (or food processor) at once, blend and finish with seasoning with salt to taste. Others will have you blend all the solid ingredients to a paste and then stream in the olive oil to the desired consistency and ending with salt to taste. Others will have you hold off on the cheese, only adding it just before serving. Another method is to start by grinding the garlic and salt to a paste followed by the pine nuts and grinding again. Then, basil leaves are pounded into the mixture. Cheese is next and it is finished by drizzling in the olive oil as desired.

Some professionals recommend blanching the basil leaves before using to help keep the color as green as possible. The blanching supposedly deactivates the enzymes that cause the basil to turn brown. Testing by TheKitchn.com did show this to be true but there was a downside – the pesto made with blanched basil tasted less fresh with less basil flavor.

SeriousEats.com did a different type of testing. They made pesto with three variations. The first was made classically with fresh basil using a mortar/pestle. The second used fresh basil but made in a mini food processor. The third was also made in the mini processor but rather than fresh basil, they used basil that had been frozen and then defrosted. The theory for this latter technique was that freezing leads to cell rupture thereby releasing more flavor into the pesto. Their interpretation of the results was that the classical method produced the best pesto – very creamy with the brightest flavor. They thought the pesto made with the fresh basil in the mini processor was the worst – gritty texture with flavor that was too mild. The final batch – made with frozen basil and the mini processor – fell in the middle. It did have a nice creamy texture and improved flavor over batch #2. However, they still preferred the classic approach. They did conclude, though, that if you do not want to go the mortar/pestle route, at least throw the basil in the freezer before putting it in the processor.

Find your preferred technique and then mix up the ingredients. Use different herbs (cilantro, parsley, arugula, spinach, mint or a combination) or swap out the pine nuts for almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios or walnuts. You could also vary the cheese from Parmesan to another hard cheese such as pecorino, asiago or manchego. Add some citrus for a bit of zip.

How about that sun-dried tomato pesto I used in my sandwich? It does have some of the classic ingredients (basil, garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan, olive oil) but adds roasted red pepper, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh tomatoes, tomato paste and chili powder.

You may store your homemade pesto in the refrigerator. Just put it in the smallest container possible, pack it down to eliminate air pockets and either pour a thin layer of olive oil over it or put a piece of plastic wrap directly on the pesto before covering the container. It should keep in your refrigerator for up to a week. Or, do as I do. Spray an ice cube tray with nonstick spray, spoon the pesto into the compartments and freeze. Once frozen, you can remove from the ice cube tray and store either in a freezer bag or other freezer-safe container. You may lose some of the vibrant green color but I think that is a fair trade-off for always having homemade pesto at your fingertips.

Rarely does one make pesto as an end in itself. It is always an accompaniment to something else. The most common is as a pasta sauce, usually thinned out a bit with the pasta water. How about spreading it on a sandwich or on a pizza crust? Dollop it on your grilled chicken breast. It is classic served with potato gnocchi.

You will note that I did not give you any one recipe. That is because I think (unlike many culinary professionals) that there is not just one way to do things or one recipe that is the best. You need to find what is best for you. That depends on your taste, your kitchen equipment, your available time, your budget for ingredients as well as your interest in simple versus more complex techniques. Find what works for you and then branch out and experiment. Have fun and realize that there do not have to be so many hard and fast rules in cooking!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Mustard — Love it or Hate it?

Mustard is one of those ingredients of which I am not a fan. I use it in cooking but refrain but spreading it on a sandwich, a burger, etc. This Cooking Tip is for those of you who (like my husband) love mustard. Real mustard aficionados may want to visit the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wisconsin. It boasts having “more than 6,090 mustards from all 50 states and more than 70 countries.”

Mustard is made from ground mustard seeds that are mixed with liquid. Different types of mustard seeds yield different levels of spice. Yellow seeds are the mildest with brown and black having a higher spice level. The seeds on their own really have no heat; it is only when they are combined with liquid that the enzymes present in the seeds help to release the compounds that account for the heat of mustard. The more acidic the liquid, the slower this reaction occurs resulting in a longer-lasting heat. This is why mustards made with vinegar hold their heat whereas ones made with water lose their pungency more quickly. Even the temperature of the water affects the flavor. Hot water tends to deactivate the enzymes and break down some of the heat compounds. This is why the mildest mustard you can buy is that made from yellow seeds and abundant vinegar. On the other end of the heat scale is mustard made with brown or black seeds and cold water.

Here are a few of the mustard varieties that you may see on your supermarket shelves.

Yellow mustard – made from yellow mustard seeds, this variety is mild rather than spicy. It is what we think of when we grab for that American-style mustard. Its yellow color comes from the mustard seeds as well as the addition of turmeric. The liquid used is a mixture of vinegar and water. Although not very hot, its flavor still has a sharp note. It is a favorite for topping a burger or hotdog.

Brown mustard – made from the small and hotter brown mustard seeds and less vinegar than the yellow variety. It is more assertive and spicier as well as being more coarse (due to leaving the bran on the seeds). At times, other spices such as cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg are added. Because of its full flavor, it stands up well to meats such as pastrami, roast beef and sausages, earning it the name “Deli” mustard.

Dijon mustard – this variety was first made in 1865 in Dijon, France. It is made from the hotter brown mustard seeds and originally the liquid was “verjuice”, an acidic juice made from unripe grapes. Today, low acidity liquids such as white wine are used. Both the brown seeds and the lower acidity result in a strong and sharp flavor. Because of its smooth texture, it is a favorite for salad dressings or creamy sauces. It is considered a medium-hot mustard.

Whole-Grain mustard – also known as Coarse mustard. The seeds are only ground enough to make a paste yet leave a coarse texture with bits of mustard seeds. The different brands will have varying heat levels.

Honey mustard
– a mixture of honey and mustard, usually on a one-to-one ratio. The mustard is generally of the milder, yellow variety. Because its flavor is on the sweet side, it is often served as a dipping sauce.

Hot mustard – the high heat level comes from using brown or black seeds along with cold water. Chinese hot mustard is of this variety.

English mustard – this is really just a type of Hot mustard. The one we usually see is Coleman’s, which is made from a mixture of yellow and brown mustard seeds. By not using vinegar, the goal is for an increased heat level. However, since it uses both yellow and brown seeds, it is not quite as hot as Chinese mustard.

German mustard – these mustards cannot be put into one category. Rather, they range from sweet to spicy and from fine to coarse. Some also add other ingredients such as horseradish.

Beer mustard
– in this type of mustard, beer is the typical liquid although vinegar may be added. Since there is less acid, the heat level is significant. The flavor of the beer can vary from mild to strong depending on which beer is used. Similarly, Spirit mustards use spirits rather than beer although vinegar is typically also added. Whiskey and bourbon are common.

There are also many creative variations although they are certainly not as common on our supermarket shelves. These include mustards that use wines other than white wine, mustards flavored with horseradish, sriracha & balsamic vinegar. Other sweet mustards such as Pecan/Honey & Brown Sugar are also made.

Although mustards made with acidic liquids retain their punch longer than those made with water, all mustards will lose some of the pungency over time. Therefore, buy it in small quantities and store it in the refrigerator once opened.

If you do not think you like mustard, perhaps this guide will help you find a mustard you like. But, then again, if you are like me, none will make it onto my bratwurst!

 

 

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Cinnamon — Sweet or Spicy?

Cinnamon is one of those wonderful, warm spices that makes us think of fall. It is a spice, though, that I daresay most of us use year-round. In this Cooking Tip, I want to talk about the different types of cinnamon so you can choose what works best for you.

There are two main types of cinnamon – Cassia cinnamon and Ceylon cinnamon. They are from the bark of different trees (although the trees are related scientifically) and are very different products. The different trees result in different levels of the volatile oils, which is what impart the flavor. The amount of these oils can also vary with the age of the bark at the time of harvesting. Older trees contain more oils.

Cassia cinnamon is what most of us probably have in our pantries and see on most supermarket shelves. In the bark-form, it has a rougher texture, a darker color and is rolled into thicker sheets. It also has a more intense flavor, which is what makes it a favorite in the culinary world.

Cassia cinnamon can be further broken down into Indonesian, Chinese and Vietnamese/Saigon.

  • Indonesian – this is the sweetest and most mild among the three. This is also the most common in the US. It usually comes from the bark of trees that are under 10 years old. Another name is Korintje cinnamon.

  • Saigon – this is very fragrant and flavorful, more spicy than sweet. The trees from which it is harvested are often 20-25 years old.

  • Chinese – this has a strong, bitter flavor and is mainly used medicinally in China. In the US, it is mainly found in the form of oils used to flavor food in the manufacturing industry.

Ceylon cinnamon is often referred to as “True” cinnamon and is native to Ceylon/Sri Lanka. As compared to cassia, the bark sheets are thinner and finer in texture. Its flavor and aroma are very mild and delicate although proponents say its floral and citrus notes add more complexity to the flavor. It is more expensive and harder to find than cassia cinnamon. The trees are usually only 3-4 years old. Another interesting fact is that this is the type of cinnamon that is most used in Mexico where it is known as canela. (Asian dishes are more likely to use cassia cinnamon.)

So, there are definite differences but do they make a significant difference in what comes out of your kitchen? Cooks Illustrated did a taste test of eight cinnamons. Half of them were from Vietnam and the other half were Indonesian. While definite differences could be detected when the cinnamon was simply sprinkled on rice pudding, those differences went away when baked into cinnamon rolls or on pita chips.

Cooks Illustrated also did a different taste test comparing three Ceylon cinnamons with their favorite Indonesian product. Once again, they added them to rice pudding as well as baking them into cinnamon rolls. In this test, tasters could easily identify the Ceylon products as they were milder although they preferred the spicier Indonesian cinnamon.

Serious Eats also did tastings and produced the following recommendations.

  • Saigon cinnamon is best for most traditional Western dishes – cookies, cakes, pies, breads, etc. They found that the bolder flavor held its own against the fat/flour of these items. They also found that it paired well with other spices that are typically found in these recipes such as allspice, clove and nutmeg.

  • Ceylon cinnamon was best when there were not as many competing flavors. Their favorite uses were when used with chocolate, vanilla, dark liquors and citrus as well as in savory dishes.

One aspect with which you may or may not be concerned is the presence of a compound known as Coumarin. It is found in much higher levels in the cassia cinnamon as opposed to Ceylon cinnamon. Some feel it may have deleterious effects on your liver. Whereas this is probably more of a problem if you are taking cinnamon supplements, if you are concerned, consult your physician. Here is a link to a discussion of cinnamon and coumarin by the National Institutes of Health.

Just like any other spice, store your cinnamon in a cool, dark and dry place. It should last at least a year. If you take a sniff and don’t smell much, it is time for a new bottle. Some recommend grinding it fresh from cinnamon sticks. Of course, how fresh it will be depends on how fresh your sticks are. You may have no idea of this when buying in a supermarket. It is unusual but not impossible to find harvest dates on your cinnamon sticks. Cinnamon Hill is one such place. If you know of others, let me know. If you have read many of my Cooking Tips or attended my classes, you will know that I am a fan of Savory Spice Shop. Next time I am in their shop, I will ask if they know the harvest dates of their cinnamon sticks. If you want to know their answer, just email me.

I encourage you to pick up some of these cinnamon varieties and do your own taste test. You may not find just one favorite and that is fine. Different cinnamons lend themselves to different preparations. Enjoy and have fun with cinnamon!