Saturday, February 28, 2009

How do I make good scrambled eggs?

Just about anybody will take on scrambled eggs in the morning. They are a very simple dish; but in the kitchen simplicity does not always translate to ease. So while anyone can scramble eggs, few can scramble them well. With a few steps that are “easy” one can fine-tune their breakfast into the perfect egg-sperience.
Before anything, and I can’t stress this enough, you have to find good eggs. Given that this dish has essentially one ingredient, quality is key. A better egg will make a world of difference in the final product. I happen to love Ronnybrook eggs if you can get them, otherwise go to your local farmers market. Past that you will have to weed your way through the barrage of marketing terms: Organic, Vegetarian, Free Range, Cageless etc. etc. They’re all labels that don’t add up to much in terms of taste. So just test to find your favorite egg.
Now that you have the right egg, let’s scramble! When you crack your eggs, use a flat surface like a cutting board, not the edge of a bowl, which has a tendency to push bits of shell into the egg. If you do find yourself chasing a piece of shell around the bowl, try using the shell of the egg to scoop it out. The fragment will not run from the shell like it does your finger.
Beating them is the next step, a whisk is best for this. As opposed to a fork, the whisk does a better job of working air into the eggs. Referencing Pythagoras: If air is what makes them fluffy and fluffy is what makes them yummy; then air is what makes them yummy. Using a brisk circular motion, whip the eggs until they are a solid yellow color and frothy bubbles cover the surface. You can use an electric mixer for this if you like, however it IS possible to over-whip the eggs, so be careful. Also do NOT add salt to this mixture. Salt prevents the protein bonds from forming that retain the air you just worked so hard to put in there.

Now comes the hot part, but not too hot. Low heat is the key to preparing good scrambled eggs. Put a medium non-stick* skillet over a small flame and allow the pan to warm. I like good butter for plain scrambled eggs, it compliments the richness of the yolks. Toss in a pat of butter, enough to barely coat the surface of the pan. If your butter sails across the pan leaving a wake of spattering grease, then your pan is too hot. The pat should simply relax and form its own Jacuzzi without browning.
Pour out the eggs into the pan, they should begin to solidify without popping and bubbling. Take a rubber spatula and, using constant motion, scoot it along the bottom of the pan, lifting the eggs and gently turning them over onto themselves. Breaking them up as you go. Salt and pepper them to your taste as they finish.

I prefer my eggs a little underdone, but if you like them a little more cooked it is important to keep in mind that you should remove them from the heat just before they’ve arrived at the desired temperature as they WILL continue to cook once they are out of the pan.
You might have seen this when you put perfect looking eggs on your plate and a minute later they have turned into a piece of rubber floating in a puddle. With the heating process, the protein molecules formed bonds to retain the water and air in our mix. If the eggs overcook those bonds can tighten up and squeeze out the water and air. This is why slow heat and careful finishing are essential.

That’s all yolks!

* I own one non-stick skillet and I only use it for eggs at low temperature. Poly(tetrafluoroethene) or Teflon, while stable at room temperature, begins to deteriorate at 392 F. Not a good thing considering it will actually kill your canary if it’s close by. If it begins to chip off, throw your pan away, it’s definitely not good to consume.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

How do I get away from recipes? (Part 2)

Recipes are just guidelines. With enough trial and certainly a bit of error, it will become more and more instinctual to know which substitutions will be successful and which ones will not. A great way to learn/practice is to try and use up leftover items that may be hanging around in your fridge, yet still in their prime. Extra herbs, leftover pasta, rice or some cooked squash are things inevitably found in my fridge just waiting for another chance. As a result, all kinds of pestos, veggie rice bowls, mac n'ham n'cheese and squash quesadillas have emerged from my kitchen sans recipe. (Let it be known that I am speaking B.C., as in Before-Cheffing, so at the time there was no such unfair advantage.) Recipes are useful to familiarize the cook with techniques and steps but using them solely as a reference, once you are comfortable enough, will give you alot of freedom to experiment with your own ideas.
Another important lesson that will go hand in hand with recipe off-roading is learning how to fix a dish in case you have gone too far and things aren't looking so delicious. Tuning into enough cooking shows can help prepare you for such culinary tests, though I recommend 'actually' cooking as opposed to 'watching' cooking. That said, it all helps either way. I credit food television with exposing people far and wide to exotic dishes and ingredients, which is also a great start. Try to be inspired by a dish you have seen elsewhere and apply it to something you make for yourself. As Josh said in the previous post, you will learn from your mistakes and become a better cook in the process.
But what good is all of this learning without a little homework to reinforce the curriculum? So, I leave you with an assignment in the form of a vague recipe that I want you to try. Make it taste good and you have passed...

1 can of beans
1 splash of an acid (citrus or vinegar)
a handful of nuts
some salt
some pepper
a pinch of a spice or an herb
a glug of oil

Spin the ingredients you have chosen in a food processor until smooth. Taste. Adjust. Taste again. Adjust until satisfied. Serve as you would any other hummus that you have purchased at the market... but would not feel as rewarded eating.

Repeat often!

and ENJOY.

One last thing: Let us know if you try this out and post your results, will ya?

Monday, February 23, 2009

How do I get away from recipes?

This a great question because a lot of people get caught in cooking ruts and end up restricted by recipes. As a result improvised dinners never meet their full potential.

The trick starts with the capacity to veer off course a little bit, to understand substitutions and ingredient stand-ins. For instance, use a poblano in lieu of a bell pepper in a recipe. It can change the flavor dramatically and add heat. Use lamb instead of beef for your stroganoff, leeks instead of onions in your soup. Scribble outside of the lines and see what happens.

The catch is this, in your experimenting . . . you’re going to screw it up . . . . bad. It’s the only way to learn. So get comfortable with this fact, and open up to learning from your mistakes. Maybe the poblano was too bitter or the stroganoff a little too lamby. The key is to take note and not make the same mistake over and over.

Now if you’re going to get inventive, great. Just start out real simple, keep the number of ingredients low, say around five. The cooking steps should be few and easy to execute. Cutting out the variables will allow you to judge what it is exactly that is happening, and so, better gauge how to adjust it.

This brings us to the next step. Free your mind and your tongue to notice what is happening. Taste and feel for the components. If you’re making a salad dressing, is it salty enough? Does it need sweetness? Honey maybe? Is it acidic enough? Does it feel viscous enough to stick to you salad? You have be able to sense what is missing, and discover how adjust for it. Even a perfectly executed vinaigrette recipe will vary greatly over time, every lemon is different, olive oil changes over time, and so on. These small variances can add up to a very different finished product, even in a simple thing like a salad dressing. It is the ability to correct for these variances that will help you get away from recipes.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Is stock easy to make?

Yes! It is so easy that you don't even need a recipe if you just remember a few small details. The method to make homemade stock is a great thing to know because you can boost the nutrition in your recipes (stock is ever-so-much more nutritious than water!) and store-bought stock is not only expensive but tends to be high in sodium. Also, you can feel like a 'green samaritan' by using up more parts of your meats and veggies and throwing less away.

Here is the most basic of basics: vegetable stock. What you want to do is throw a mixture of appropriate vegetable* pieces and scraps into a large pot and cover those ingredients with cold water. Put the pot on the stove and slowly bring it up to a simmer. Maintain a gentle simmer for 60-90 minutes, skimming the top occasionally. Take stock off of the heat and strain. It is then ready to be added to soups, stews, braises and sauces. Use it to cook pasta and rice for added flavor/nutrition or just sip it on its own with a bit of extra seasoning. Leftovers can be frozen and thawed as needed.

As far as what you can put in your stock, the basic foundation is onions, carrots and celery. Missing carrots or celery may be acceptable but your stock will be very sad without onions or something from the onion clan like shallots, leek greens or scallions. These items should be washed and cut into large chunks but they need not be prepped with too much fuss. Remember, our goal is simplicity. In addition, you may add any or all of the following, or trimmings from them:

corn cobs
green beans
fresh or dried mushrooms (stems too)
turnip or beet greens
parsley (stems too)
bay leaf
tomato paste
a splash of vinegar

cabbage + cabbage family (broccoli, cauliflower) = sulfuric
turnips, rutabaga = bitter
spinach = too delicate
bell peppers = some say too strong bt maybe used sparingly...
beets = unless you want pink stock

To make a meat-based stock, use the guidelines listed above and add either:
chicken scraps or bones
meat scraps or bones
fish scraps bones (NO eyes or gills)

A wise chef once said 'it's a stock pot, not a garbage can!' and that means even though what you are using is essentially scraps, they should be clean, fresh and have integrity... the same chef said, 'a little practice makes perfect!' and we agree.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Is there a difference between stock and broth?

When purchasing in the supermarket, the words are used interchangeably, but in culinary terms there is a difference. Both are the liquid strained from simmering meat, bones, vegetables and aromatics. The main difference is that stock is not a seasoned item. It’s destiny is a soup or sauce, to be seasoned during further cooking. Broth is a finished item. It is fully seasoned and intended to be eaten as such.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Like fishing monkeys in a barrel? What?

1 Whole Fish – Roughly 2lbs. after cleaning and scaling. Red Snapper, Dorade or any bass and Branzino
1 Head Fennel
1 Medium Onion
2 Lemons
1 Bunch Thyme

-Slice thinly the fennel, onion and lemons. Toss them with olive oil, salt & pepper, and the whole sprigs of thyme. Allow to rest for 15 minutes.
-Generously season the fish with salt and pepper inside and out.
-In an oven-safe vessel, spread a third of the mixture out to make a bed for the fish, stuff some in the cavity, and bury the fish in the remaining mixture
-Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes or until a pin bone of the dorsal fin slides out easily.

You need to start with a good fish. Have your fish guy show you the gills, they should be red and not too slimy. Gray or dull looking gills are a bad sign. The pupils of the eye should be black and clear, not cloudy. Give it a sniff, it should NOT smell fishy at all.

To prepare the fennel, remove the tops, cut length wise and remove the outside layer if it's funky or damaged. Cut out the core by making two diagonal incisions, Leaving you with four pieces.

Next for the tools, a mandolin is a great thing to own, for 27 bucks you can cut your slicing time down to nothing, and it does a perfect job every time. (The lemons don't work quite as well on the mandolin though)

In this demo, I'm using meyer lemons, They tend to be milder than regular lemons. As with everything, I encourage you to experiment and decide what you like. You could substitute or mix any citrus here, Limes, oranges, Yuzu, even grapefruits (in moderation).

It is important to allow the mixture to rest, so that the onions can macerate. This will sooth the onion a little, and allow the flavors to mingle.

As with any cooking time, it depends on the size of your fish, your oven, and you general attitude in life. So the real trick to determining when you fish is done lies in the dorsal fin. A whole bone should come out easily when tugged. This means the flesh is cooked and so, seperated from the fin bones. Your fish is ready to enjoy!

What is the coolest thing you've eaten today?

Today was special because while working our table* in the Chelsea Market, which is always abound with treats, a kindly bread baker from Amy's Bread presented (or should I say presidented...?) us with this piping hot, politically correct loaf of bread. Damn! This guy looks good everywhere, especially with some fresh butter.

*Grill-A-Chef's Josh and Ori are live-and-in-chef-coats at the Chelsea Market on Thursdays and Saturdays from noon to 6pm....remember?! Come visit us with your culinary concerns.
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