Cook Anything With These

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Cooking and eating delicious food are two passions of mine. Of course, to create superior dishes require good ingredients. But ‘good’ ingredients does not necessarily mean ‘expensive’ ones!

Some of the best tasting dishes are made from cheap cuts of meat, and the commonest of vegetables. But here’s a bit of wisdom earned from over the years: sometimes, it’s the tools at your disposal that are key. 

Your first set of tools are an understanding of kitchen chemistry. After all, chemistry is the study of how substances change with the application of physical processes (heat, pressure) or combining them with other substances.  That sounds a lot like cooking to me!

Luckily, in recent years there’s been a lot of people analyzing how our tastes of salt, sweet, sour and bitter play with one another. Recently, a fifth taste has been recognized. Studies confirmed just a few years ago that our mouths contain taste receptors for this ‘more-ish’ savory taste.

Umami is what I am talking about. (It’s pronounced ooo-MAH-me.) The Romans loved garum, the fermented anchovy sauce that they sloshed liberally as we do ketchup today. It is key to the bone-warming joy of gravy made from good stock, meat juices and caramelized meats and vegetables.

Staples List #1: Tools to bring out flavor with chemistry.

Worcestershire sauce: This is a fermented liquid condiment created in the city of Worcester in Worcestershire, England, in the first half of the 19th century. 

White Wine or Sherry: This does not necessarily mean a ‘cooking wine’. They have extra salt in them. As a rule, if you wouldn’t drink it, don’t cook with it!

Ketchup: Yes, believe it or not! This is used for the base of a whole bunch of sauces.

Fish sauce: The umami flavor in fish sauce is due to its glutamate content. Soy sauce is regarded by some in the West as a vegetarian alternative to fish sauce though they are very different in flavor. Fish sauce is not only added to dishes as a seasoning, but also used as a base in dipping sauces.

Oyster sauce: This describes a number of sauces made by cooking oysters. The most common in modern use is a viscous dark brown condiment made from oyster extracts, sugar, salt and water thickened with corn starch. Some versions may be darkened with caramel, though high-quality oyster sauce is naturally dark.

Soy sauce: (Also called soya sauce in British English) This is a liquid condiment of Chinese origin, made from a fermented paste of soybeans, roasted grain, and brine.

Garlic: Most often used as a flavoring agent but can also be eaten as a vegetable. It is used to flavor many foods, such as salad dressings, vinaigrettes, marinades, sauces, vegetables, meats, soups, and stews. It is often used to make garlic butter and garlic toast.

Onions: one of the most widely used foods in cooking because of the luscious flavor they add to cooked vegetable and meat dishes.

Ginger: The root or underground is often associated with Asian cooking, and commonly used in stir-fries. The stem (rhizome) of the ginger plant can be consumed fresh, powdered, dried as a spice, in oil form, or as juice. It has also been used for thousands of years for medicinal purposes.

Cornstarch: Wheat flour and cornstarch are the two most common forms of grain starches we use in our cooking. 

Potato starch: Potato starch, tapioca (made from manioc root), and arrowroot are larger-grained starches … This type of starch is called resistant starch, which functions kind of like soluble fiber. Many studies in humans show that resistant starch can have powerful health benefits. This includes improved insulin sensitivity, lower blood sugar levels, reduced appetite and various benefits for digestion

All-purpose flour: Thickener and building block for sauces, pasta, and baked goods.

Eggs: The ultimate natural emulsifier – they smooth things out, allow batters to stick and flow, and add richness to everything.

Grain Starches: Wheat flour and cornstarch are the two most common forms of grain starches we use in our cooking. Because it is almost pure starch, cornstarch is a more efficient thickener than wheat flour.

Grain starches also contain a relatively high percentage of fats and proteins, which can make sauces thickened with these starches look opaque and matte-like. These starches also tend to have a distinctive cereal taste once cooked.

Root and Tuber Starches

Potato starch, tapioca (made from manioc root), and arrowroot are larger-grained starches that gelatinize at relatively lower temperatures. Sauces thickened with these starches are more translucent and glossy, and they have a silkier mouthfeel. Root starches also have less forward flavors once cooked.

These root starches don’t stand up as well as grain starches to longer cooking and so they’re best used to thicken sauces toward the very end of cooking.

Choosing Which Starch to Use: If you need to thicken at the beginning of cooking, as for macaroni and cheese or a classic beef stew, go for a grain starch. If you need to quickly thicken a sauce just before it comes off the stove, use a root starch. I prefer using root starches in baking for custards, puddings, and pie fillings.

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Aside from the right ingredients, the correct mix of kitchen equipment allows you to transform simple and inexpensive ingredients into meals that you’d pay several times more for at a restaurant.

Staples List #2: Kitchen equipment to bring out flavor with physical processes (cutting, browning, mixing, etc).

Food Processor with a 720 watt motor: As mentioned in a previous blog entry, the food processor can do the work of many other appliances. It chops, slices, grinds and mixes. All with only a change of its blades. It is less expensive and more versatile that a stand mix master and easier to use.

Mandolin: This is for the items that need a thinner slice like homemade potato chips.

Iron Skillet: This has been the workhorse of the kitchen for centuries. The older ones are the best. If you by a good new one it could cost you over a hundred dollars.

If you didn’t inherit one like I did, start by scouring thrift shops and antique stores for a more reasonable priced skillet. Don’t worry about the way they may look. They can be brought ‘back to life’, check out how on the internet. I like to have several sizes as well as a flat iron grill for tortillas and egg omelets. Twelve inch is a good versatile size.

Sauce Pans: I have four in my kitchen. One that holds about two cups, four cups and a two quart. Also a Dutch oven. I have one porcelain cast iron Creuset style pan with a lid for brazing in the oven. I also have four different sizes of skillets. From small to large with flat perpendicular sides.  I find this is best to use when I need a lot of room on the cooking surface because it is never good to crowd what you are frying.

Bamboo Steamer: I used to have a steel steamer that collapsed when not in use and fanned out when putting in a pot to steam items. I no longer use the metal one. I find a bamboo steamer is easier to use and gives better results for a much more variety of uses such as steaming buns or sausages. Vegetable are better because they are steamed and not sodden when taken out. You don’t have to lift the whole steaming tray out when you want to check the food.

Spatulas: Different shapes are used for different food items. Three most used one in my kitchen is a silicon one used for the none stick pans, a flat blade for grilling and one called a fish spatula that has a beveled edge for getting under the more delicate meats and fish.

Wooden Spoons: An array of wooden spoons are very useful. Stainless steel slotted spoons and metal tongs. The ones that kind of look like a lobster claw.

Potato Peeler: I have two kinds that I find useful. A regular one and one that does multiple type of cuts as well as peels. This is for julienne cuts of carrots, potato, cucumbers and other vegetables.

2 Baking dishes: 9 inch round, 9 X 13 rectangular. Can be glass or tin.

Mixing bowls: Small, medium and large.

Measuring cup set

Measuring spoon set

There are literally hundreds of kitschy kitchen gadgets out there that either don’t work or have a single use. The Rollie Egg master is one, if not the worst ideas I have ever seen for a useless kitchen tool. http://www.thepizzle.net/the-rollie-eggmaster-is-the-best-dumbest-cooking-device-ever-invented/

The items I have listed above are what I believe can be used for cooking that a kitchen would need to be able to cook just about anything.

Home Made Is Best

Homemade pork sausage with fennel!
This required two pounds of home ground pork shoulder and a large bulb of fresh fennel, roughly chopped.  Added pulverized fennel seed, black peppercorns, red chili flake, kosher salt, minced garlic, and a dash of white wine.  The proportions came out perfect – the sausage has a perfect balance of herbal flavors and heat.
I prefer to leave sausage meat loose (no casing) as it’s less work and more versatile. For example, here I molded some of the result into a pair of sausage patties and fried them for lunch. Note that there is very little grease in the pan. Delish! Pork shoulder is fatty, but compared to store-bought sausage it doesn’t weep grease and it’s an explosion of fresh flavor when eaten!

Pork Fennel Sausage

2 lbs Ground pork shoulder

1 large fennel bulb, chopped rough

1 tsp ground fennel seed

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp red chili flakes

2 tsp kosher salt

2 tablespoons minced garlic

1 tablespoon white wine.

Grinding Meat at Home – A Word of Praise for the Food Processor

A homemade burger, using ground beef made with the food processor.

The ideas and dishes shared on this blog have two goals in mind: to allow for better quality dishes, while not breaking the bank.  One technique which combines both goals is to grind your own ground beef and pork at home.

A lot of people never think about doing this because they don’t want to buy a meat grinder, or a meat grinder attachment for a mixer.  Actually, you can put that concern to rest by simply using your home food processor.

The Cuisinart DFP-14NRY. A 720-watt motor, $159 on Amazon.com.

While I wouldn’t recommend using a blender or a Magic Bullet to do this, most any food processor can grind meat into hamburger so long as it’s already chopped into cubes. If you have a less-powerful food processor, be sure to place less beef in it at one time. (Less powerful = a processor that handles less than 11 cups of food at a time, or with a smaller than 720 watt motor.)

There are several cuts of meat that will work for grinding but by far the easiest and most commonplace is chuck steak.  When you get the steak home, start by trimming off as much of the silver skin and hard, knobby fat as you can manage. Don’t worry about trimming off fat that’s soft and pliable.

Chuck steak’s location on the cow. Relatively tough, weight-supporting muscle but oh-so-tasty.

Next, cut it into cubes slightly larger than one inch on a side.  Once again, if you spot any silver skin or hard fat, take the time to remove it.  This ensures that your ground meat is smooth and not gristly.

Place 1-2 cups of the meat at a time into your food processor and pulse-chop it a few seconds at a time until you get ground beef with a relatively rough, loose texture.  The grinding process releases a ‘sticky’ protein that will allow you to compress the meat into shapes like patties for your burgers.

If you don’t need to use all the ground beef at this time, your best bet is to divide it into 1-pound sections and place each one in a plastic freezer bag.  Properly stored ground beef lasts 3 months without a problem in the freezer, and a great deal longer if you use a form of vacuum food storage.

There are several advantages of grinding your own beef.  Supermarket-ground beef has a higher risk of contamination, as it’s made from muscle tissue taken from dozens or hundreds of cows. If you like (as I do) hamburger cooked with a bit of pink inside of it, then your risk of food poisoning drops significantly since you know exactly what’s going into your burger and how fresh it is.

On the left, home-ground beef. On the right, the denser, stickier, and slightly drier ground beef one would buy at the supermarket.

Supermarket ground beef is also more densely packed.  The sticky proteins have been wrung out like water from a wet towel, making the meat ‘mealy’ and leading to denser, less juicy burgers and meatloaf.  Definitely, from a quality standpoint, self-grinding is the way to go.

From a price perspective, self-ground beef is much more budget-friendly so long as you exercise patience when you shop. Where I live, ground chuck at the local supermarket runs around $3.50 to $4 per pound. Chuck roast is usually more expensive than that.

However, chuck roast regularly goes on sale for $2 per pound. When that happens, a little cutting, grinding, and freezing a dozen pounds of hamburger will save you some money, get better quality meat to work with, and allows you to know *exactly* what’s going into your food!

Chow Mein Ramen Noodles

One of the fastest, easiest and inexpensive Chow Mein dinners for two ever.

It is made using chicken or beef pieces. As I have mentioned before when I buy large cuts of meat I save the smaller trimmed pieces for other dishes like soups, and stir fry. The dish shown is with beef pieces.

It is economical About $1 per serving, as far as time, total time 15 minutes. Ingredients, simple and best of all a one pan dish cleanup.

Recipe:

1 tblsp oil

approximately 7 oz of thin sliced chicken or beef

2 garlic cloves minced

2 ramen noodle cakes I use the top ramen packages (discard seasoning packets. I save for something later.)

7 oz of shredded cabbage

3 green onions cut into 2 inch lengths

1 cup of water.

Note* You can add bean sprouts, water chestnuts slices,small corn if you want. You also may need a bit more liquid but wait and see if after adding the noodles it is a little dry. I added some beef stock.

Chow Mein Sauce:

1.5 tblsp light soy sauce

1.5 tblsp oyster sauce

1 tblsp Chinese cooking wine

1 tsp sesame oil

1 tsp sugar

Directions:

  1. Mix sauce in a bowl
  2. 2. Heat oil in large skillet over high heat.
  3. Add garlic. After 10 seconds add the meat.
  4. Cook for 1 minute then add cabbage and the white part of green onions
  5. Cook for about 1 1/2 minutes, until the cabbage wilts then push everything to the side and put in the two ramen cakes.
  6. Add water, after 45 seconds turn over the ramen noodles. After about 30 seconds break up the noodles and add your vegetables. Toss for about 2 minutes until all the noodles are covered with the sauce. If the noodles are not quite done you may want to add a bit mor water of chicken or beef stock.

Ready to eat immediately.