A Notice to Readers – Possible Technical Difficulties

Hello to you all,

Recently, it was brought to my attention by a reader from FaceBook and I quote, “I’ve looked at, read it, liked it is that all I have to do? At the end where it says register it is asking me to pay for a subscription.”

First, I cannot stress enough that I do not know why anyone should have been asked to “pay” for a subscription.  Please know I’m writing this blog for my own fun and am NOT looking for any funding of any kind.  If any of you out there come across this problem, please report it to me as soon as you can.  I am forwarding on that question to WordPress.com’s Help Center for clarification.

Also, if you do like this blog, at the top left of your screen, you should be able to see an option with a star symbol with just the letter, “L” . You can try hitting that to possibly avoid the “subscription” issue as described above. You may also see the option the “Follow” the blog in the upper left corner of your screen as well down in the lower right corner of your screen.  Using the “Follow” function, will allow you receive my postings via email if you wish.

I am still trying to figure out all of the functionality of WordPress.com, so please bear with me.  If you want to leave comments on the blog itself, that would be great, but if you are having any trouble or further concerns, please keep me advised via the various social media options provided so I will know what to work on.

For those of you using WordPress.com, any advice/guidance would be helpful, too. Thank you.

Thank you all for your patience!

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Love, Truffle Oil and a Bit of “THE LUXE LIFE”

You know, you’ve just GOTTA love a guy who brings you home a great, big bottle of black truffle extra virgin olive oil especially when he detests it! Isn’t it great when someone you love just “gets ya”? Well, recently that is what my partner did for me. No bouquet of roses; no big box of chocolates or anything else one may think of as a romantic cliché. However, when I saw that 750ml bottle of black Truffle Oil, I could NOT have been happier!

La Tourangelle Black Truffle Oil

La Tourangelle Black Truffle Oil (Photo credit: KevinElliottChi)

I was happy mostly because, 1) my partner remembered my mentioning of how I love Truffle Oil (either white or black) for its earthy, slightly unctuous mouth-feel that I would drizzle over practically everything (but not cook with and I’ll get to why later), and 2) buying this oil, for me, happens very infrequently as it can be quite expensive…more so than ANY bouquet of roses, LOL!

Having a little bit of luxury, no matter in what form, always lifts one’s spirits and it certainly did mine. As soon as I could get the wrapping off of the Truffle Oil bottle, I starting to make a simple dinner – panko crusted pork loin cutlets; steamed green beans and smashed red potatoes with a bit of cream and butter.

I have been running low on my pantry staples such as fresh and dried herbs so the flavorings to those dishes were minimal (thank GOD for salt and pepper!), but once everything was completed, I drizzled just a few drops of the Truffle Oil over everything…well, I did add a bit more to the smashed potatoes.

The oil not only elevated the tastes of those humble ingredients into something more luxe, but the aroma rising up from the hot food was mesmerizing for me. The flavor and bouquet imparted by the Truffle Oil made me feel as though I was seated in a Michelin Star restaurant. I actually had to sit back for a few minutes and enjoy the whole experience before diving in to dinner.

I thought in this post I would depart from some of the instruction from America’s Test Kitchen’s on-line cooking school at http://www.testkitchenschool.com/?Extcode=N2JCBLOG0 and talk not only about truffles, but a bit about other food items that are considered luxurious and a welcomed treat…budgets permitting, of course. And share with you how I was able to experience other culinary delights during what I called a period of “unapologetic gluttony”.

Types of Truffles:

Winter/Summer Black and White Truffles

As explained by Gourmet Food Store – http://www.gourmetfoodstore.com/truffles/types-truffles.asp:

  • Winter Black Truffle
    • The Winter Black Truffle, also known as the “Périgord Truffle” or “The Black
      Black Truffles

      Black Truffles (Photo credit: ulterior epicure)

      Diamond of Provence”, provides the rich, but delicate perfume, and a taste once described as mixture of “chocolate and earth”. These black beauties are the most popular fungi sought by chefs worldwide. These truffles also command an extraordinarily high price for just a small amount. For example, some truffles have sold as high as $6000.00 a pound!

    • Summer Black Truffles
      • The summer black truffle is not as spectacularly fragrant and aromatic as the white truffle, but it does have a very nice perfume, much more subtle, but still quite lovely. They are better utilized by being cooked, to bring out the most of that subtly earthy chocolatey flavor as possible.
  • Winter White Truffle
    • This truffle is often called a “Piedmont Truffle” indicating where the truffle originates, not the species of fungi. This treasure possesses a taste that is often
      White truffle from the woods of Tuscany

      White truffle from the woods of Tuscany (Photo credit: you.go)

      compared to shallots and garlic with an intense earthy and musky aroma.

    • The main disadvantage of Winter White truffles (or any white truffle for that matter) is that although their aroma is intense, it tends to fade pretty quickly, as opposed to black truffles, which are more subtle, but have a longer longevity. Yet this is exactly why white truffles make a magnificent first impression, and why they are primarily used uncooked, mainly shaved or sliced over already prepared dishes, so that their aroma will waft and envelop a dish.
  • Summer White Truffle
    • This would probably be your best bet when going for summer truffles. Although not as highly aromatic as the Winter White truffle, the Summer White still has most of that pungency characteristic of white truffles.
    • They are much more affordable than the winter variety, so it allows for more experimentation and more quantity.
      • The flavor is sweet and with hints of garlic, with a musky fragrance.
      • As with other white truffles, they are best used sliced or shaved over already
        White Truffle Pasta

        White Truffle Pasta (Photo credit: wEnDaLicious)

        cooked dishes, to maximize the aroma of the truffles.

Earlier in this posting, I mentioned why I would never cook with Truffle Oil. There are “cooking oils” and there are “finishing oils”. Cooking oils are just that – oils used (or that should be used) for the sole purpose of cooking.

  • Such examples include Vegetable Oil, Corn Oil, Canola Oil, Grapeseed Oil, Peanut Oil, Olive Oil and Extra Virgin Olive Oil:
    • Olive Oil has a higher smoking point and is better for browning meats.
    • Extra Virgin Olive Oil is not a preferred cooking oil since its flavor does not stand up to high heat, but it will lend a strong flavor especially when an item is quickly cooked such in a sauté.

In comparison, finishing oils are just that as well – oils used when a recipe is finished and it just needs a final dash or nuance of extra flavor and bouquet.  Toasted Sesame Oil is one such finishing oil.

The powerful flavor and aroma of toasted sesame oil will not last when exposed to heat so it is best used in the absolute final moments of a heated recipe or to dress salads and to use in sauces and marinades.  It is highly perishable so best to store it tightly sealed in your refrigerator.

Back to Truffle Oil, I found a useful article on how best and how to creatively use this oil at, “Zesterdaily.com” – http://zesterdaily.com/world/tradition/truffle-oil-controversy/:

“How to Enjoy Truffle Oil

A cooking oil that should never be used for any actual cooking, truffle oil degrades rapidly, especially in the presence of heat. It’s best to hold the bottle in one hand and your fork in the other before you apply droplets to scrambled eggs, gnocchi or mac and cheese. It has more stamina in cooler applications, such as on popcorn and in vinaigrette.

It’s a convenient mnemonic that white truffle oil best enhances cream-colored foods, including potatoes, chicken, celery root, halibut, onions and cream. I use it habitually with cauliflower, steamed and pureed with butter for a side dish or blended into simple soup — garnished with Dungeness crabmeat for company. Because of its delicacy, I’ve found that you can use more of this truffle oil than the standard import, and it’s too subtle for truffle fries.

One of the best ways to experience true truffle oil is to make truffle butter. Into softened salted butter, blend in two teaspoons, or three for a more pronounced flavor. Wrapped tightly, you can store it in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Eat it on artisan bread, mashed potatoes or corn on the cob.

No truffle oil is a substitute for even a single fresh truffle. But until I experience my own exotic truffle hunt, I’ll hold onto my bottle of real truffle oil, a miracle of food preservation and an affordable luxury I treasure. At $6 an ounce, it’s a steal.”

Well at least now I know, as well as you do, too, how we can make our own truffle butter. I’m going to try it and report back to you in my next posting!! Can’t wait!!  Should any of you out there try this and find that it works, please provide feedback.  I would love to hear any and all results, please.

So I’m sure that some of you may be wondering what I meant earlier by my period of “unapologetic gluttony”.  There was a time back in the ‘90s when I worked in a high-paying position; saved up quite a bit of money, continued to work, work work, but not enjoy life around me.  I mean, why work and “squirrel away all of those nuts”, if you can’t dig into them from time-to-time, right?

As luck would have it (though I didn’t think it was very lucky at the time), I was laid off from my lucrative though life-sucking job.  After the initial shock of the job loss wore off and after giving up on a fruitless job search I made a decision – I was going to take the better part of a year off; cash in those “nuts” I slaved away at saving and explore some of the enjoyments that life has to offer.  Those enjoyments mostly came in the way of enjoying some luxury food items.

First I have to give credit to one of my best friends, former roommate and frequent partner in crime – Michael McLoughlin – for introducing me to these treats.  Michael was a guy who truly appreciated food and KNEW how to cook.  In fact, he once told me that his aunt was willing to pay his entire tuition to any culinary program of his choice after finishing high school.  He passed because he always wanted cooking to be his hobby and passion rather than just “a job”.

One night when we were just sitting around, we both wanted something for dessert and I knew we had nothing readily available in the house…well, that is what I thought, anyway.  I remember Michael getting up unexpectedly; rattling around in the kitchen and producing a chocolate cake complete with a chocolate buttercream frosting! I was in shock because for me at that time, if something didn’t come out of a box, such a cake, I was lost.  So I asked him how the hell did he make that? Michael said simply, “You just have to go into the pantry and the ‘fridge; look around and be creative.”.  The cake was delicious!

So one of my first forays into trying a luxury food was caviar; again with my partner in crime – Michael. I can’t remember if it was Beluga or Ossetra, but I DO remember my first bite!  It

Black Beluga caviar.

Black Beluga caviar. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

was buttery, creamy and I enjoyed the popping of the plump, black eggs against the roof of my mouth and coating my mouth in a combination of that creaminess with the briny brightness of the ocean – HEAVEN!

I have to admit that I was hesitant to try this costly treat at first because I had caviar before, but not like this experience.  The caviar I had tried before at various parties and cocktail events consisted of small, black or red, tiny eggs that had a grainy feeling in my mouth and were just way too salty.  However, after indulging in a true caviar experience, I was an instant convert!

Now I don’t advocate going out there and spending an exorbitant amount of money on a tin of Beluga especially when rent and other bills are screaming for payment in this economy.  However, should you want to indulge, try going in on the product with some friends and enjoy a small tasting party with some sparkling wine such as Proseco.  It may make for a fun way to enjoy a bit of “the luxe life” even if for only a brief time.

Other “unapologetic gluttonous” indulgences of mine and Michael’s include eating foie gras so commonly that I got to a point where I would just slather it onto a Ritz Cracker like Cheez Whiz. Yes, I know that is blasphemous to those of you out there, but I didn’t care!  I ate lobster in all its forms as though it were canned tuna fish and delighted in every mouthful.

Michael and I gobbled down oysters with champagne every Friday at Legal Sea Foods in Boston and we especially loved the tiny Kumamoto Oysters for their delicacy and especially

Kumamoto Oyster Chefs-Resources.com

Kumamoto Oyster Chefs-Resources.com (Photo credit: Theages)

bright flavor; we spent ludicrous amounts of money on Saffron, the world’s most expensive spice just so we could experiment flavoring various paellas and other recipes and the list goes on.

One final and I think funny story I would like to share with you about “The Adventures of Michael and Me” is when Michael packed a picnic basket for a day when we decided to visit Ogunquit Beach in Maine.  I thought he would pack the usual stuff one may bring to the beach to munch on like subs, chips, cookies, sodas, etc.  Well…not exactly…

Michael made a stop at one of our favorite gourmet stores in Boston called Savenor’s Butcher & Market – http://www.savenorsmarket.com/web/ – to get some “munchies”, as he put it. I thought, “Munchies for the beach? At Savenor’s?”.  Anyway, Michael comes back with a grocery bag filled with duck liver pate with truffles; water crackers;  TWO tins of beluga caviar; brie, gorgonzola dolce and the sharpest of cheddars; dried figs, prosciutto slices; and not lobster rolls, but several cooked and halved chicken lobsters!!  Then to wash it all down we had to stop at a liquor store, of course.  No, not for wine coolers, beers or sodas, but Michael picked up two bottles of Veuve Cliquot and a case each of chardonnay and cabernet.  All of that just for a day’s visit to the beach!  I don’t remember much about the beach, but I do remember feeling incredibly happy just munching and sipping on the best food and drink we could afford and best of all – sharing it with a good friend.

Ok, even as I wrote the paragraph above now, I really don’t want to think about the cost of that little picnic basket we put together, but back then, I really didn’t care because I was “unapologetically gluttonous” and I wouldn’t trade the experience of the summer of ’97 for anything in the world!  I was at a point in my life where I was fortunate enough to afford both time off and to afford the cost of enjoying some delicacy items for the first time in my life.  That may have been the point for me where I began a true curiosity and appreciation of food.  And I don’t mean only about delicacies, but mainly the endorphin release I experience when thinking, talking, reading, writing or doing anything that is related to food.

Of course, we all don’t need to eat as I did with Michael in order to develop an enjoyment of food.  Whatever peaks your culinary curiosity or brings you fulfillment when in the kitchen, even if a recipe fails from time to time, learn from it and keep up the pursuit! I think that part of the fun not only of eating is the experimentation/trial and error part of just playing around in your kitchen with recipe clippings you’ve been saving in a drawer somewhere. Well…dig up one of those clippings and give it a shot even if it seems daunting.  Turn your kitchen into your own personal laboratory! You may be very surprised and pleased with whatever may result! If you do, again I would LOVE to hear from you and how you felt about the experience and about the resulting dish, please.

In closing this post, I will say that if any of you out there are the least bit curious about some of the items I mentioned, start small and share your shopping costs with like like-minded friends.  For example, buy a small bottle of truffle oil to see if you like the taste before splurging on huge bottle and finding it unappealing; buy a sparkling wine such as the Proseco I mentioned above which is much more affordable than a bottle of Veuve Cliquot; just try one oyster for the very first time and see how you feel and think even if in the past you may have felt revulsion at the thought; purchase a small amount of duck liver pate, put it on a water cracker and savor the buttery quality it will exude over your taste buds.

I guess all I’m saying is try something at least once.  It can be a new spice, herb, oil, food product or whatever may peak your interest one day when shopping. You never know what may become your next new favorite piece of “The Luxe Life”.

And remember as Julia Child once said:

“This is my invariable advice to people:

Learn to cook – try new recipes, learn from your mistakes,

BE FEARLESS,

And above all have fun!”

Once again, I hope you found this posting to be informative and a bit entertaining. As always, I invite you to follow my blog by looking for the small, black box located at the lower right corner of your screen that says, “Follow”. That will allow you to receive further postings.

And as I always say, I invite your questions, comments, tips and debates that you would like to share.   All of your thoughts are most welcome. Thank you.

Now get out there and COOK!!

Posted in black truffles, Cooking Oils, Culinary School, Finishing Oils, Home Cook, Novice Cook, truffle oil, white truffles | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“He who controls the spice controls the universe.” ― Frank Herbert, Dune

Spices have played a dramatic role in the development of Western civilization. When the spice trade flowed from ancient times, those who controlled that trade truly controlled, “the universe” as it was known at that time.

Spices today are plentiful and are used mostly as flavorings. However, in ancient and medieval times, they were rare and precious products, used for medicine, perfume, incense, and flavoring.

The flavorings and aromas produced when using spices are essential to most, if not all, recipes.  Perhaps the quote from Thomas Keller (Famed restaurateur and owner of, “The French Laundry”) captures the essence of how spices may help a cook bring recipes to life:

“A recipe has no soul. You, as the cook, must bring soul to the recipe.”

If you’re a fan of, “Starbuck’s Chai Tea” consider that its recipe includes, ground cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, ginger and cloves.  Those ground spices mixed with milk, black tea and honey produces this wonderfully aromatic and complex favorite beverage so widely enjoyed.

However, before I discuss spices, I think it’s important to talk about salt for a moment. Is salt a spice? Well…no, actually. Even though it is probably THE most popular SEASONING as it does boost other flavorings during cooking and helps to season when preparing food, such as in brines or in rubs for grilling.

Salt is technically a mineral; basically a “rock we eat”.  It has had an incredible influence throughout history.  For example, Not only did salt serve to flavor and preserve food, it made a good antiseptic, which is why the Roman word for these “edible rocks” is a first cousin to Salus, the goddess of health.  A soldier’s pay—consisting in part of salt—from which the word, “salary” is derived.  A soldier’s salary was cut if he “was not worth his salt,” a phrase that came into being because the Greeks and Romans often bought slaves with salt.

Spices lend fragrance and taste to cooking and they have healthful benefits. Salt may lift other flavors during cooking or food preparation, but salt can also be harmful to the body if not used in moderation as opposed to spices used in cooking, which are generally sparse in usage by comparison.  And, I think we all know salt in some form pervades almost everything we eat today especially in food where we can’t control the sodium such as in frozen and other types of prepared foods and in fast foods.

Specifically, spices are ‘bits of dry seed, bark and root,’ according to Harold McGee, whose authoritative book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen is regarded by chefs as the bible for understanding the science of food as well as the history of many ingredients.

Purchasing whole spices and grinding them yourself is ideal. Whole spices have a longer shelf life than ground spices (which lose their punch after a year) and fresh-ground spices have a superior flavor. If you want to grind your own spices, invest in a small coffee grinder and reserve it for just this purchase.

Pepper IS a spice – probably the world’s most popular spice.  Black pepper is a berry – as are all varieties of pepper (the spice; not the vegetable, just to be clear) and are grown in grapelike clusters on the pepper plant – a climbing vine native to areas in Asia. The black pepper (which when picked, is allowed to dry and shrink until the skin of the berry darkens) is the most flavorful and most commonly used in recipes.

Aside from black pepper found on most, if not all, dinner and restaurant tables, there are other varieties of this spice. A few of these varieties include:

  • White Peppercorns:
    • Black pepper berries are the same used to make white pepper.  The difference is that they are collected at an earlier stage in their development, but they are harvested at a riper stage. Once the skins are taken away, so is the heat that is characteristic of black pepper. White pepper tends to have more a perfume-like quality rather than having any heat quality.
      • Julia Child always preferred, as demonstrated when she cooked in concert with Jacques Pepin in, “Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home”, television series, to use white pepper primarily when preparing white sauces, vichyssoise, etc. It’s still not clear if she used it because she preferred its milder flavor or more simply – when cooking something white, use white pepper; perhaps a bit of both.
  • Green Pepper:
    • Like black pepper, green peppercorns are picked before they ripen. The green peppercorn is the soft, under ripe berry that is usually preserved in a vinegar or brine. It has a fresh flavor that is less pungent than the berry in its other forms.
  • Pink Pepper:
    • These are not true “peppercorns”, but similar tasting berries often called Pink Peppercorns, Peruvian pepper, Baies Rose Plant, or Peppertree that is native to South America.
      • Pink peppercorns have a sweet, fruity fragrance along with a delicate, sweet, and peppery, but not hot flavor. Their flavor is reminiscent of a mild citrus zest and sweet berry mixture.
      • The flavor of pink peppercorns goes especially well in fruit sauces, vinaigrettes, desserts (such as Crepes Suzette), and combined with other fruit flavors. These peppercorns have a rich rose color that adds an elegant appearance to any cuisine.

And just a final note on pink peppercorns, I ran across this recipe for, “Pink Peppercorn Ice Cream – http://www.cookingchanneltv.com/recipes/creme-fraiche-ice-cream-with-pink-peppercorns-and-lemon-thyme-recipe/index.html”.  It sound sounds interesting to me, so if you should make this recipe, please share your feedback.  I may give it a shot myself and FINALLY use my ice cream machine, LOL!

So on to some commonly used spices!

Cinnamon:

Cinnamon has been popular since ancient times. Egyptians imported it from China in 2000 BC. Romans believed Cinnamon was sacred, and Nero burned a year’s supply of the spice at the funeral for his wife. Finding Cinnamon was a primary motive of world exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries.

  • Cinnamon is the dried bark of various laurel trees in the cinnamomun family. One of the more common trees from which Cinnamon is derived is the Cassia. Ground cinnamon is perhaps the most common baking spice. Cinnamon sticks are made from long pieces of bark that are rolled, pressed, and dried.  Cinnamon imparts a warm, spicy character to cakes, cookies, pies and other desserts.  Use this aromatic spice as a topping for hot chocolate, espresso drinks and classic winter beverages such as wassail, hot cider and mulled wine.
    • Aside from the cinnamon derived from Cassia, there is Saigon Cinnamon. This esteemed spice, considered a favorite in a variety of international cuisines, is prized for its sweet, spicy taste and aroma., Considered the finest and most flavorful cinnamon in the world,
      • This premium cinnamon is also a traditional seasoning for many classic Indian, Greek, Mexican, Vietnamese and Middle Eastern favorites, including chicken, seafood and lamb dishes.

Coriander:

Coriander is probably one of the first spices used by mankind, having been known as early as 5000 BC. Sanskrit writings dating from about 1500 BC also spoke of it. The Romans spread it throughout Europe and it was one of the first spices to arrive in America.

  • This light brown round seed is the dried fruit of the herb cilantro.  Some areas of the world refer to cilantro as coriander, so any references to “fresh coriander” or “coriander leaves” are meant as cilantro.  However, the seed is not interchangeable with the herb cilantro, although they are from the same plant. Confusing, right?
  • Coriander possesses a sweet, almost gentle flavor that may bring to mind essences of citrus peel and sage and it pairs well with seafood, lentils, lamb and curries.

Ground coriander mixes well when simmered with milk, honey and cinnamon and serves as a non-alcoholic alternative to a “nightcap” before bedtime.

Allspice:

Christopher Columbus discovered Allspice in the Caribbean. Although he was seeking pepper, he had never actually seen real pepper and he thought Allspice was it. He brought it back to Spain, where it got the name “pimienta,” which is Spanish for pepper and has no relation to the sweet pepper known as pimento which is used in stuffed olives, etc.

  • The name Allspice comes from the fact that the flavor tastes like a combination of nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves. Jamaica provides most of the world’s supply, though allspice is native to the West Indies and South America.  Allspice is a berry roughly the size of a pea.  After drying, the berries are small, dark brown balls just a little larger than peppercorns.
  • The warm sweet flavor of Allspice lends itself to a wide variety of foods. It is commonly used in both savory and sweet foods. Allspice is used in Jamaican jerk seasoning and in Jamaican soups, stews, and curries. It also is used in pickling spice, spiced tea mixes, cakes, cookies, and pies. Food producers use it in ketchup, pickles, and sausages.
  • Cooking Allspice in a bit of butter can further bring its versatile and lively flavor when adding it to various dough and batters.

Cardamom:

As early as the 4th century BC Cardamom was used in India as a medicinal herb. Greeks and Romans imported it as a digestive aid. In Sweden it has become a more popular spice than cinnamon.

Cardamom is a spice native to the Middle East, North Africa, and Scandinavia. Most recipes usually call for green cardamom rather than the black or Madagascar.  It has a strong, unique spicy/sweet taste, which is slightly aromatic.

  • It is best to buy cardamom still in the pods, remove the seeds (save them, however, since they contain a great amount of flavor) and then grind them on your own which will result in a brighter, richer flavor of the spice.
  • Cardamom is more expensive than average spices so a little goes a long way.  Here is a simple conversion – if a recipe calls for 10 pods that would equal 1 ½ tsp ground.
  • A small amount of Cardamom will add a tempting flavor to coffee cake, Danish pastry, specialty breads, and apple pie.  It pairs well with poultry; rice and even just a dash of it in your regular, daily cup of coffee may be a pleasant and unexpected change.

Nutmeg:

This spice was written about by Roman philosophers and mention of it was found in Arabian literature noting its supposed aphrodisiac qualities.  At one time, nutmeg was one of the most valuable spices. It has been said that in England, several hundred years ago, a few nutmeg nuts could be sold for enough money to enable financial independence for life.

  • Stimulating and robust, Nutmeg is the hard, brown seed from a tropical evergreen native to Indonesia, but it is grown in the Caribbean, especially in Grenada.
  • A pantry staple around the world with its warm, sweet, spicy flavor, nutmeg is widely used for baking, complementing everything from cakes, muffins and cookies to custards, fruit pies and other desserts.
  • Ground nutmeg adds piquant nuances to a variety of savory dishes, including béchamel sauce, creamed spinach, quiches and soufflés.
  • Culinary professionals and home cooks agree that the rich, spicy character of nutmeg is brought out best by grinding or grating the whole seed just before using a recipe calling for nutmeg as its main spice.
    • To enjoy whole nutmeg, use a spice grinder or microplane grater just prior to adding the spice to your favorite recipes
    • However, when preparing foods with many different spices, using pre-ground nutmeg will work just as well.

Cumin Seeds:

Another of the world’s oldest and most popular spices, Cumin is native to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and Egypt. Currently it is grown in many places, as it is rather easy to grow and adapts well to many climates.

  • Cumin “seeds” are actually the small dried fruit of a plant related to the parsley family.  This spice is hotter to the taste, lighter in color, and larger than caraway, another spice with which it is often confused.
    • This distinctive seasoning has a bold, spicy flavor with rich overtones.  Its earthy flavor is featured in many Middle Eastern and Latin American foods.

Cumin plays a flavorful role in a wide variety of global seasoning blends, including garam masala, sofrito, adobo and curry powder.

  • To heighten flavor, toast seeds in dry skillet until aromatic; lightly crush before use adding an enticing warmth and complexity to your favorite dishes.

Cloves:

For me, cloves have always brought to mind the fragrances and warm feelings of holiday occasions.  For example, who can’t remember at least once in their life enjoying a holiday ham studded with these nail shaped, dark, small, but potent powerhouses of flavor and aroma?  Or a bowl of mulled wine, cider or even tossed into a bowl of potpourri?

To be honest, although I enjoy the scent of cloves – in moderation – I REALLY do not like the taste imparted by cloves into foods, but that is just me.  Even as a child and to this day, I flicked them off my holiday ham or flinged them from anything mulled that I was drinking as soon as possible!!

However, I draw the line regarding the smell of clove cigarettes (also known as Kreteks) – UGH!  That odor from those kreteks is beyond unpleasant, in my opinion, but I digress…

The name clove derives from the French word “Clou”, meaning nail, a descriptor of its shape. Upon further research, it was interesting to note that as far back as The Han dynasty China from 206 B.C. to A.D. 220, when it was called “tongue spice;” courtiers were required to hold cloves in their mouths when addressing the emperor.

Once again, among the other spices that were mentioned previously, cloves were among those over which wars were fought.  From the eighth century on, cloves became a major player in European commerce. Wars were fought over exclusive rights to the clove trade, including in the 18th century when the French purportedly stole clove-tree seeds from the Dutch in order to break their monopoly on this profitable business.

Cloves have a sweet, penetrating flavor and can be purchased either whole or ground.

They’re used in cuisines around the globe, where cooks rely on cloves’ warm, spicy flavor and aroma to add distinctive character to a wide range of sweet and savory dishes such as in recipes including apples, beets, lamb and tomatoes.

  • Whole cloves are valued for their intense spicy flavor, which adds sweet heat and are often used when preparing ham as they are poked into the skin on the outside of the ham.
    • This gives the ham flavor and is decorative though I have to admit that in today’s creative cuisine culture (unless one has a earning for the “retro”), studding a ham with cloves, canned pineapple rings and maraschino cherries may have run its course, but again – that’s just my thinking.
      • Plus there are SO many ways to prepare either a fresh or pre-cooked ham now, I would encourage readers, both novice and expert, to take a chance and practice some existing ham recipes that include rubs, marinades and glazes.
      • The internet is full of new ideas to explore!!! I say, “Experiment!”. And who has to say that a ham is just for holiday, right? RIGHT!

At this point, I don’t want to lose you with an overload of information. I could keep going on with information and historical background regarding other spices such as Fennel Seed, Ground Ginger, Mustard Seed, Saffron, Star Anise and an endless array of spices that are available.  For questions about those spices, purchasing and best storage methods, I invite you to send your comments and questions of which I will be very happy to answer.

However, I will mention one last spice, a SPICE BLEND, actually, that a beginner home cook may find useful:

Pumpkin Pie Spice:

This spice is a blend of “warm” spices. Typically ingredients are cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice and mace (Mace is the outer covering or husk” of nutmeg).

Give that cocktail recipe a try and please give some feedback even though it’s not my recipe. It may be something fun for any upcoming holiday parties!

Once again, I hope you found this posting to be informative and a bit entertaining. As always, I invite you to follow my blog by looking for the small, black box located at the lower right corner of your screen that says, “Follow”. That will allow you to receive further postings.

And as I always say, I invite your questions, comments, tips and debates that you would like to share. All of your thoughts are most welcome.

Thank you!

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“An herb is the friend of physicians and the praise of cooks.” – Charlemagne

Well it’s been close to two weeks since my last entry, but the delay was due to my learning the use, care and storage of some pantry basics for a well stocked kitchen from which is my http://www.testkitchenschool.com/?Extcode=N2JCBLOG on-line cooking school from America’s Test Kitchen. Those basics included a section on herbs so I thought that since summer has ended and fall has begun, sharing a bit of basic knowledge about some commonly used herbs may be helpful to a beginner cook such as I am for those approaching holiday menus.

I thought it would be interesting to begin with a bit about how the use of herbs, not only for cooking, but for medicinal purposes, has been used for ages by mankind, too. I found this short timeline from, http://www.herbgardeningguru.com/history-lesson.html to share with you:

  • Herbs have been used since prehistoric times. In France, check out the Lascaux cave paintings which depict herbs. Carbon dating traces those drawings back to between 13,000 and 25,000 B.C.
  • Ancient Romans and Greeks crowned their leaders with dill and laurel. The Romans also used dill to purify the air.
  • In the 5th century B.C., Hippocrates, the famous Greek physician, listed approximately 400 herbs in common use.
  • Around 65 A.D., Pedanius Dioscorides, a Greek physician serving with the Roman army, wrote “De Materia Medica,” in which he described the medicinal uses of many herbs. Even today, it is considered one of the most influential herbal books.
  • In the Middle Ages, herbs were often used to help preserve meat as well as covering the rotting taste of meals that couldn’t be refrigerated. Herbs also helped mask the odors of people who bathed irregularly, if at all. This period was not favorable to the progress of herbs in medicine. In fact, the Catholic Church began burning herbalists, having associated them both with witchcraft and paganism.
  • Many of the early settlers grew herbs for seasoning their food, as well as, for their medicinal properties. American Indians often used herbs for tanning and dyeing leather.

Hopefully some of you found that a bit interesting and the section on the Middle Ages didn’t gross you out too much! So let’s move on some of the most commonly used herbs in cooking.

Basil:

Per, http://ramonasbasilgarden.com/basil-list/, “There are over 100 different varieties of basil with such exotically enticing names as, Dark Opal Basil, Magic Blue Basil, Red Holy Basil and even, Christmas Basil. If only I had the time to experiment with those basil variations <sigh>!

Genoa Basil, is the type of basil that most home cooks may be used to using both fresh and dried because of its versatility. Because of those qualities, it has always been my “go to” herb, personally. This type of basil is characterized by its notable licorice and slightly citrus flavors.

When prepping basil, such as slicing & chopping, use a method known as, “Chiffonade” to avoid bruising the leaves. Chiffonade simply means taking basil leaves, stacking them, rolling them tightly and slicing them gently into thin strips with a chef’s knife. Then you’ll have perfectly cut strips of fresh basil leaves for your recipe.

Fresh raw basil works best in a recipe such as a Caprese Salad (which is a very easy salad consisting of slices of tomatoes and mozzarella, then drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and topped with strips of fresh basil) so you can taste the sweet, fresh, licorice flavor which complements the Caprese Salad. If you are preparing a long cooked recipe, such as tomato sauce, add basil towards the end of the cooking process since prolonged cooking with fresh basil will dull its flavor. You will also notice the perfume of the basil much more if you use that tip.

Bay Leaves:

These wonderful, aromatic leaves are often used to flavor sauces, stews and marinades.  They work well to flavor poultry, pork and beef, as well. Bay leaves can also be used to lend a wonderful fragrance and taste to cooking water when preparing pastas, potatoes and beans.

There are two types – Turkish and California bay leaves. Chefs and home cooks prefer the milder, but simultaneously complex flavoring that the Turkish variety lends to recipes than its Californian “cousin”. But use them sparingly – one or two leaves will tend to do in most recipes.

If you are using fresh and using them sparingly as mentioned above, bay leaves can be stored in your freezer. Simply place them in a Ziploc-type storage plastic bag; be sure to remove any air from the bag and the leaves will last in the freezer for you until called for in your next recipe.

Cilantro (also known as Chinese Parsley):

Well, I’m sure we’ve all heard that this could be called, “the love it or hate it” herb. It can be too pungent for some tastes and it has often been described as, “soapy” among other descriptions.

I found the following humorous exchange between Julia Child and Larry King from a 2002 CNN interview  when Julia turned 90 years old (I have the full interview transcript if anyone is interested in reading it) on how she detested cilantro:

CHILD: “I don’t like cilantro.”

KING:    “What is that?”

CHILD: “It’s an herb that it has a kind of a taste that I don’t like.”

The interview continues, of course, regarding other topics, but I found it interesting that Julia Child’s palate found cilantro unpalatable to her.

Now, on the flipside, the herb can be described as “fragrant,” with a “stimulating, piquant finish”, also.  Cilantro leaves are indispensable for Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Indian, South Asian, Mexican, Latin American, Chinese, African and Southeast Asian cuisines.

Cilantro can be confused easily with flat-leaf parsley in appearance if not clearly marked by your grocer, so be sure to sniff carefully – your nose will DEFINITELY tell you the difference!  Cilantro leaves are best when picked young. The stems are as flavorful as the leaves so they can be chopped along with the flavorful leaves for your recipes, thus leaving little to no waste.

And as mentioned when cooking with basil – freshly chopped cilantro works well when sprinkled over a salad or perhaps as a finish to a completed chili recipe; once a longer cooked meal involving cilantro approaches its finish, stir in the cilantro. That will bring out the flavor and fragrance of this unique and often maligned herb.

Oregano:

Literally translated, Oregano means, “Joy of the Mountains”. It is widely used in Latin, Mediterranean, and Mexican dishes with its strong flavor that has been described as having an “earthy” quality, but with a “peppery” finish to it.  Mexican oregano has a flavor distinct from other varieties and is worth seeking out for Mexican recipes.

I think for some beginner home cooks this herb brings to mind using it in tomato sauces and especially using it when preparing pizza.  Aside from that obvious pairing, oregano (either fresh or dried; check what your recipe calls for!) does work well beans, chicken, eggplant, fish, lamb, mushrooms, peppers, pork, potatoes and sausages.

When preparing to use oregano, keep in mind that fresh oregano bears up well at the start of a recipe, such as a chili, and you’ll want to keep only the flavorful leaves. Dried oregano is a bit mellower and it does add a more familiar, flowery component to your recipe as compared to using fresh oregano.  It is interesting to note that of all the dried herbs, oregano has one of the highest antioxidant levels. Just one teaspoon of dried oregano leaves has as many antioxidants as three ounces of almonds and ½ cup of chopped asparagus!

MARJORAM:

Marjoram is a cousin to oregano and like oregano is a member of the mint family, but its flavor is more subtle than oregano’s. The round, light green to light gray-green leaves possess a pleasant, pervasive quality with a warm, slightly bitter taste. Its sweet, minty flavor resembles a mix of oregano and basil, and is well-suited for lamb, poultry, beef, fish, stuffing and tomato dishes.

MINT:

Mint is an incredibly vigorous herb. It comes in a wide range of flavors, some with fruity overtones.  The mint family includes hundreds of species, but the variety most commonly used in the kitchen is spearmint and it could be described and both “subtle” and “vivid”.  Bruising the mint as one might do when making a Mojito helps to awaken its lively aroma. This herb adds complexity to salsas, sauces, rubs, marinades and is used best as a finishing herb in most recipes.

Parsley:

In ancient times parsley wreaths were used to ward off drunkenness. Chewing parsley will help with bad breath from food odors such as garlic.  I have to admit that for years, I was never a fan of parsley. It simply never interested me because it reminded of chewing grass for some reason.  Plus, growing up, I never saw parsley as anything else but a curled up sprig of green-gray color to garnish my plate when dining out with my parents.

Once I started to use fresh parsley, the flat-leaf variety (also called, “Italian Parsley) as a finishing herb, I began an appreciation for its bright, clean, fresh taste. I still think it is an underutilized herb, but it is becoming much more widely used as home cooks become more familiar with how to use it as more than just a garnish.

There are more than 30 varieties of parley, but the most common are curly-leaf and the more pungent Italian or flat-leaf parsley as I mentioned above. The flat-leaf has more flavor than curly parsley and is preferred for cooking, while dried parsley has little flavor at all. And although the leaves are most commonly used, the stalks are good for adding flavor to stocks. So don’t throw away the stalks – they can be stored in your freezer in an airtight container to add flavor to stocks.

Rosemary:

When using this amazingly, pungent, woodsy herb, all I can advise is RESTRAINT! When used sparingly in both its fresh and dried forms, it lends a lively aroma to recipes involving lamb, salmon, pork, spinach, mushrooms and a host of other ingredients. If used “heavy-handedly” it will overpower the taste of most, if not any, recipe so again restraint is advised.

Now those notes of caution were not meant to scare of the home cook at all.  Italian cooks are particularly fond of this pungent herb with its needle-like leaves in their recipes. They often use it to flavor meats and tomato sauces.  Rosemary stems, stripped of their leaves, can also be used as skewers for kabobs. Dried rosemary is an excellent substitute for fresh.  If using dried rosemary, finely crumble it before adding it to a dish. This will help to release the aromatic oils of this herb.

Sage:

Do we really want think of sage as, “The Thanksgiving Herb”? I say this because it seems most familiar as it is widely used to flavor seasonings and stuffing used around the holidays for poultry (For example, “Bell’s Seasoning” and “Stovetop Stuffing Mix”).

But this herb is not a “one hit wonder”.  Sage derives from a hardy, evergreen shrub grown in the Adriatic Sea region. Strong and highly aromatic, this gray-green herb has been used in cooking since the Middle Ages and the ancient Romans prized this pungent herb for its medicinal properties.  Its fuzzy, oval, gray-green leaves provide a heady flavoring to veal, eggplant, roasts and beans. Fresh sage is less bitter than dried sage, but both forms should be used lightly as it can easily overpower a recipe.

Tarragon:

This herb, with its distinctively assertive flavor, garnered the name, “little dragon” originally in the Far East.  It is believed to have been brought to Europe sometime in the 13th century and became very popular in both French and English cooking.

Tarragon is excellent with seafood, fruits, poultry, eggs and most vegetables, as well as sauces, particularly béarnaise sauce. Tarragon can easily dominate other flavors, and care should be taken when using tarragon. Tarragon leaves (discard the stems as they are not edible) should be used fresh, as the aroma of dried tarragon is usually very weak. French or German tarragon is sweet and aromatic, reminiscent of fennel, anise and licorice. The French variety is most often used in cooking.

THYME:

One of the most important culinary herbs of Europe, thyme delivers a floral, earthy flavor to all types of food, including potatoes, beef, poultry and venison.  Also, thyme was believed to have certain medicinal properties and was used to help treat chest and respiratory problems.  That belief may lend credence to the “menthol-like” aroma attributed to this versatile herb.

It may take a bit of “time” to prep thyme, but it is very easy to do so with some patience.  When using fresh thyme, merely grab the stem and gently run down its length with your fingertips thus releasing the buds. The tips of the steps will be more delicate than the lower part of the stem which is woodier. Chop/mince the buds and the delicate tips of the thyme stems for your recipe.

Whole bundles of thyme can be used to flavor soups, stews and other recipes requiring longer cooking. Wrap them in cooking twine; add to your recipe and then remove once the cooking process is complete. You will notice the incredible perfume the thyme leaves lent to your dish immediately!

Once again, I hope you found this posting to be informative and a bit entertaining. As always, I invite you to follow my blog by looking for the small, black box located at the lower right corner of your screen that says, “Follow”. That will allow you to receive further postings if you wish.

And as I always say, I invite your questions, comments, tips and debates that you would like to share. All of your thoughts are most welcome. Thank you!

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Kitchen Gadgets – Necessary or Just More Junk for the Junk Drawer?

Ok, I’ll be the first to admit that for the longest time I would be FIRST in line to purchase the latest, cutest and what I thought to be the “must have” kitchen gadget. For example, I was in the home goods section of a major department store recently and saw a salt & pepper grinder set that was made to look like the face of a bunny with the grinders as ears. The set also had eyes on it for cuteness and to catch the buyer’s eye, I’m sure, as it did for me.

I really gave it thought since they were just such a cute gadget to have, but then it dawned on me, “Wait, I already have a perfectly good S&P set at home; no need for another”. So although that allure was tempting, I truly had to FORCE myself to walk away from the gadget wall before filling up my kitchen drawers with more things that my get one use, if that. I also knew that if I did come home yet another “cutesy” thing for the kitchen, I would NEVER hear the end of it from my partner!!

However, I’ve not always had the kind of willpower.  Some gadgets for me have included apple, tomato and jalapeno pepper corers; “As Seen On TV” Veggie Slicers; egg separators (to get the yolk separated from the white of an egg when I could have just used my hand and fingers for the separation); a super-sharp veggie peeler with an attachment that can double as a mini-mandolin; a non-stick frying pan that can fry only one egg at a time and the list goes on.

I will admit some gadgets can be useful and perform “double-duty” in the kitchen which is always a help and cuts down on buying yet another gadget. For example, an egg slicer (the kind with metal wires that you push down for even slices on a hard-boiled egg) is great for slicing mushrooms evenly as well strawberries. And I have to give this nod to Rachael Ray for a great tip – see if you have any leftover plastic tops from quart sized containers (like you may get from your favorite delis & take-out restaurants). If so, keep two or more of them and use them for when you are slicing large amounts of cherry tomatoes perhaps for a salad or for a fresh sauce.

Depending on the size of those cherry tomatoes, I can fit between six to eight of them between the two plastic container tops. Keeping one had flat on top of the first plastic container top, take a serrated knife (which is always best when slicing tomatoes), slowly slice through the middles of the tomatoes (the bottom plastic container top will also help steady the tomatoes for slicing and catch any juices thus reducing clean up time) and you will have made quick work of what could have been a laborious & tedious task.

Look around in your draw of gadgets and see what you can find as truly useful in more ways than one. You may be surprised! And what you may no longer need or have not used since you purchased (I would say, if you’ve not used the items in at least six months – toss’em!) they can always be donated, I’m sure…or they make great additions to that future yard sale that we all are planning at some point, right?

Once one learns about more about proper cutting techniques, one will learn that having a quality set of knives will prove far more useful than a draw overflowing with nifty gadgets. As I’m learning from my on-line cooking culinary school - http://www.testkitchenschool.com/?Extcode=N2JCBLOG0 – having a chef’s knife; a paring knife; a serrated knife and a carving  knife will prove far more cost-effective because they will last longer with proper care and regular sharpening. Also, once one gains more comfort after practicing chopping a bag of onions (Ya just gotta work through the tears when you practice that and work as quickly as you feel comfortable without cutting yourself!); mincing a clove of garlic and other items, one may also feel some satisfaction upon realizing that learning proper cutting techniques with a minimal amount of the best tools on their own is a basic skill any home cook/chef should try to master.

I’ll make further comments on cooking tools (pots/pans; knives; measuring cups, etc.) as I continue on with my lessons and share my experiences and insights with you. Meanwhile, I always invite questions, debate and suggestions to my blog at any time.

Thank you!

 

 

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Welcome To My OnLine Cooking School Journey!

Everyone always talks about “finding their passion” in life, right? I have always been one of those people. However, I thought that going through a professional culinary program would be expensive and I didn’t relish the idea of graduating with loans to pay while probably starting with a kitchen job peeling potatoes for 10 or more hours a day at minimum wage. So I just stayed in my comfortable, too comfortable, corporate world as a human resources consultant.

The work was interesting for a time and the money was excellent, but all the while a part of me needed to do something to satisfy my feelings of, “What if…?”. What if I had gone to culinary school and followed my passion regarding food. And when I say passion, I don’t mean just dining, but learning about where my food comes from; how is it prepared; how to learn about the best tools used by chefs; how do chefs learn to produce fine food over and over with perfect consistency and how to demystify some things (such as sauces and using more exotic ingredients, etc.) so that they might be more readily understood and usable for the home cook? My curiosity list could go on, but I think you get the idea.

I came across the America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School On-Line Program – http://www.testkitchenschool.com/?Extcode=N2JCBLOG0 – It offered a 2-week free trial and it gave me access to many lessons starting with Cooking Basics, access to instructor and their direct feedback to me and it just goes on from there. So as I explore this on-line culinary journey, I invite you to come along for the ride via my blog and I hope you will find it as enjoyable and as challenging as I will.

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