A Note On Baking Times

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From time to time, some of you comment that the baking times I suggest in my recipes do not seem to work, and that quick breads, bars and cakes need to bake longer than my recipes say. First of all, let me acknowledge that I slightly understate the amount of time I think baked goods need to be in the oven, because if you check your cake and it’s not quite done, you can leave it in a little bit longer, whereas if it’s already burnt, it may be a total loss. Knowing the best possible moment to take baked goods out of the oven is one the trickiest skills in all of cooking and baking. It seems to me that predicting exact baking times is a fool’s errand because there are so many variables. Oven thermostats vary in accuracy, and convection ovens (which I use) usually bake faster than conventional ones. Temperature matters, cold ingredients going into the oven will take longer than warm ingredients. And the size and material of the baking pan you use is also a factor; aluminum conducts heat and bakes faster than stainless steel, which is faster than glass.  Also, every time you open the oven door, you loose heat and extend the baking time. Those of you who live at altitudes above 2,500 feet may need to adjust my sea level recipes (read more about those adjustments here.)

So, bear with me. My recipes are ones that worked for me, in my kitchen, on the day I wrote them down.  Some recipes I’ve made successfully time and again, while others are experimental, works in progress.  I once toured General Mills’ Betty Crocker test kitchens in Minneapolis, where teams of home economists test and retest recipes to make sure they will work under varied conditions in home kitchens. And good for them, but I don’t have a team of home economists, and in a sense, you are the testers. So, please, continue to tell me how the recipes work for you.  Praise, brickbats, all sort of comments are welcome. I depend on you to let me know how to make this blog serve you better. And, thanks for reading.

Art: Bread shop, Northern Italy, early 15th Century (via Wikipedia)

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Condiments You’re Going to Love: Starting With Sesame Salt

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From time to time, people come to me with a question which goes like this: “I’m trying to eat a more natural, whole foods diet, but sometimes it gets a little dull.  What can I do to perk it up?”  You could perhaps interpret this entire blog as an attempt to answer that question, but today I want to focus on condiments, little bits of seasoning you apply at the table. And the condiment I highlight couldn’t be simpler: sesame seeds toasted with a little salt and then ground. We call it sesame salt or by its Japanese name, gomashio (go-mah-she-oh, goma= sesame, shio=salt). There are at least a couple of reasons we prefer sesame salt to plain table salt. First of all, it delivers a lot more flavor per gram of sodium. Secondly, sesame seeds are highly nutritious, containing as they do iron, magnesium, manganese, copper, and calcium, along with thiamine and vitamin E.

Here’s how to make sesame salt: 1) Rinse 1/2 cup unhulled brown or black sesame seeds in a fine mesh strainer and shake dry. 2) Heat a cast iron or similar thick-bottomed pan and pour in the seeds along with 1 to 1  1/2 teaspoons good quality sea salt. 3) Toast this over low heat, shaking or stirring constantly, about five minutes or until the seeds smell aromatic, turn a slightly darker color and begin to pop. 4) Grind with a mortar and pestle until about 75 % of the seeds are ground. 5) Cool, then store in a container with a lid. No need to refrigerate. Sesame salt will keep for weeks, but you’ll probably use it before then.  Sprinkle on rice, other grain dishes, noodles, even toast. Adjust the amount of salt to suit your taste. If you double or triple the recipe, it will take longer to toast the seeds. Yes, if you make a larger batch, a food processor works great, but using a mortar and pestle is more traditional and more fun.

Variations: Change up this recipe by substituting other seeds: flax, sunflower, pumpkin. Another variation: toast pumpkin seeds in a 325˚ F oven just until they begin to smell great and look a little golden, then sprinkle them lightly with umeboshi vinegar and toast for a few minutes more, or until they are dry. Watch closely! Chop coarsely in a food processor–an incredibly tasty condiment.

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Photos–Top: Grinding sesame seeds and salt with a mortar and pestle. Above: Toasting sesame seeds and salt in a cast iron skillet. Every kitchen needs one!

A Professional Chef’s Top 10 Tips For Success in the Kitchen

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Although I’ve been cooking professionally for thirty years, sometimes I still feel like a beginner. The culinary world is so vast that what I’ve learned is just a fraction of what there is to know.  Aware as I am of my limitations, I hesitate to offer advice–but sometimes I do anyway! So, here is my list of ten tips which, if you take them to heart, could help make you a more confident and polished cook.  Much of this, frankly, I’ve learned the hard way, and I pass these suggestions along to you in hopes that you can avoid some of my missteps. Also, I’d love it if you’d offer some kitchen tips of your own.  What kitchen wisdom have you discovered which you’d like to share? Comments welcome.

1. Start with a good knife. You really don’t need most kitchen gadgets if you have a good knife. I like the all purpose chef”s knives made by Wusthof or Henckels. While these knives can be pricy, they’re a good investment as they can last for decades. Try out various models to find the size and handle shape most comfortable for you. Shop around and you’ll probably find a deal. Also, invest in a diamond steel to keep your knife sharp.  If you have an old, dull, but quality knife, have it professionally sharpened and then maintain the edge with a steel.

2. These are also essential: a roomy cutting board, a micro plane grater, kitchen shears and an instant read thermometer.  The later is especially useful if you cook meat, fish or poultry, but an instant read thermometer will tell you if your food is heated through, no matter what it is. From a food safety standpoint, food should be heated to 140˚ F or more. I prefer the nondigital thermometers because they don’t need batteries.

3. Maintain a properly-stocked pantry. By that I mean, stock the essential ingredients you constantly use: salt, soy sauce, miso, vinegars, oil, stock, canned tomatoes, pasta, whatever those are, for your cooking style.  Also, herbs and spices. Buy these in small quantities in bulk, if possible, and toss away those more than a year old. Read seven more kitchen tips after the jump…

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Photos– Top:  The flavors of this Rustic Italian Lentil Soup were created in layers (see tip number 7), and the recipe is here. Above: clockwise from top, unbleached parchment paper, Wusthof chef’s knife with ergonomic synthetic handle, instant read thermometer, two styles of micro plane, shears, diamond steel.

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Making Sauerkraut: Do Try This At Home!

Making sauerkraut, day one: nine pounds of salted red and green cabbage packed into a 5 liter glass jar (mixing red and green cabbages should yield a pretty pink kraut).

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Many of the foods I write about on this blog I’ve been making for years, even decades. On the other hand, one of the reasons I enjoy blogging is that it motivates me to tackle projects I’ve been meaning to do, but never seemed to have gotten around to, like making sauerkraut. I realize that sauerkraut (“sour cabbage” in German) is not universally loved, but it ought to be. Fresh, quality kraut is delicious–tangy, crunchy, slightly salty. It’s high in fiber, low in fat, shares the health-giving benefits of all the cruciferous family, and most importantly, contains the friendly probiotic bacteria which help keep our intestines happy. It’s downside would be that salt is an important ingredient, so people who need to be cautious with salt should probably eat sauerkraut only in small quantities, rinsing it first with water. Sauerkraut, like yogurt or miso, is a live food and needs to be eaten raw. Canned or pasteurized, it loses most of its flavor, texture and nutritional value.

In the photo above, we see the result of day one in my sauerkraut making project. I’ve chopped nine pounds of red and green cabbage, and I’ve mixed in six tablespoons of quality sea salt and packed it down with a big wooden spoon. Next step is to place a weight on top and cover it all with a clean cloth.  What will happen next is that the salt will draw water out of the cabbage thus creating a brine in which the cabbage ferments. In order to ferment healthily, the cabbage needs to be covered with brine, so if it isn’t covered by liquid after 24 hours, I will add enough salted water so that it is. After that, it’s mostly watchful waiting, checking every day to see that the cabbage is safely soaking in brine, and that everything is o.k. In two to four weeks, the sauerkraut will be ready (this project is not for the impatient!). Later on, I will post to let you know how my sauerkraut is doing. You’ll find step-by-step instructions for making sauerkraut, along with photos, here and here. If you’ve experimented with sauerkraut making, I’d be delighted to hear what you’ve learned.  Please comment!

Cooking Techniques: James Holloway Shares His Recipes For Eight Great Salad Dressings

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I’m a great advocate for making salad dressings at home. Buy quality ingredients and learn a few simple techniques, and soon your homemade dressings will be far better than any you could buy, and at half the cost.  Really.  My co-chef for the Monday night vegetarian dinners in Palo Alto, James Holloway, is the king (well, at the very least, the prince) of salad dressings. He’s ever coming up with creative ways to dress the various green, vegetable and grain salads we serve throughout the year. Here, James shares with us eight of his dressing recipes, from a simple red wine vinaigrette to a rich blue cheese caesar aioli. See his recipes after the jump…

(Photo: balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar/ via Wikipedia) Continue reading

Cooking Techniques: For Old-Fashioned Goodness, Try Canning at Home

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( A NOVICE CANNER LEARNS WHAT TO DO WITH ALL THOSE APPLES)

Although as a kid I remember my mother canning peaches, plums, tomatoes, pickles, and who knows what else, canning has always seemed  mysterious to me. So when my neighbor Ric Duran offered to walk me through the process and to let me use his canning equipment, I had to say yes. Here’s what I learned: canning is not that difficult.  Most of the work is in preparing the food to be canned–and that’s just cooking. Then it’s a matter of having a large pot with a lid and a rack, new jars and lids (or used jars in perfect condition), tongs.  That’s about it, although of course one must observe strict sterilization procedures and proper processing times.  Apples are among the easiest things to can because they have a pH of less than 4.6 and are considered acidic enough to be safe from the major danger in improperly canned food, botulism. Photos of my canning adventure and a recipe for apple-pear butter (which really turned out to be delicious) are after the jump. You might want to cook up a batch even if you don’t feel like canning.  It should keep well for a week in the fridge, and you could always freeze the rest in small freezer bags. If you do want to try your hand at canning, the excellent website of the National Center for Home Food Preservation explains everything in clear English.

PHOTO ABOVE: With help from my neighbor, Ric Duran, my apple-pear butter was a canning success. The lovely lady in the background photo is my great-great aunt, Mary D. Jones. The multiple-exposure shot was made in a photographer’s studio sometime in the 1890’s.  She lived to be nearly 101, and I remember her well.

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Cooking Techniques: Tips for a Perfect Stir Fry Every Time

Teriyaki Tofu and Vegetable Stir Fry

Stir frying would seem to be a quick and easy technique to master. And it is.  But for a really first rate stir fry, there are a few things to consider. First, select interesting, but compatible ingredients. Choose foods with a variety of textures, colors and shapes–cut vegetables into similar sizes, but use a variety of cutting styles. Second, freshness and quality of ingredients count for so much because stir frying is a technique which reveals, rather than hides. Third, the brilliance of this method is that it cooks quickly at high heat, thus searing in flavor. Cook over the highest heat you can manage.  And don’t over crowd the wok.  You want to quickly fry the ingredients, not simmer them. Two or three quick, small batches are much better than one, slow one. Fourth, sauce and seasonings should be assertive enough to bring the various elements together, but not so strong as to mask individual flavors–be cautious in adding strong seasonings. Fifth, timing is crucial. So, have all your vegetables cut and ingredients assembled before you begin stir frying.  Also, have the other parts of the meal ready to go, rice or noodles cooked, condiments assembled. And, have your friends and family nearby and ready to eat.  Other than that, it’s a breeze.  Once you feel comfortable with it, stir frying is a technique you will use successfully again and again. Here’s my outline for making a tofu and vegetable stir fry… Continue reading