Archive for April 2010


Molecular Gastronomy

April 29th, 2010 — 8:00am

Just when you think you have a modicum of knowledge about cooking, along comes a scientific approach to cooking called molecular gastronomy. The science explores the chemical and physical reactions that take place when we cook in order to help with our ability to enhance flavor. Although not a new science, the application of the science has taken on new meaning in the kitchen.

We were all amused when the program “Good Eats” came on the scene at the Food Network. The nerdy Alton Brown was not only going to tell us how to make the best nachos and chocolate chip cookies, he was going to explain the science behind it. This of course would help explain why he would go to such great lengths to make sure his tortilla chips did not overlap during the heating process.

A primer for the science, Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor, was written in 2006 by Hervé This. The book attempts to explain the science behind what we do and why we do it in the kitchen. The title sounds a bit daunting. In fact it is a very quick study. The author uses very simple terminology to explain very complex cooking processes.

The science is all very interesting. The application of the science to new cooking techniques leaves one wondering just how far one should go to get the best cooking results. The use of a water jet pump to create a vacuum when filtering broth sounds pretty interesting if you can get a clearer broth with more flavor. I am not sure my cupboards have room for such a device. I think I will stick with cheese cloth. And I suppose if I only had enough money for one egg, I would stretch that egg yolk to make several liters of mayonnaise. You can do it, theoretically. The fact that it would not taste very good was left out of the scientific argument.

The science of molecular gastronomy somehow wants to lead us away from the “medieval” cooking techniques we employ today. The trendy use of foams and additives to cooking may or may not stand the test of time. At the moment I just do not think there is a better way to cook a steak than over an open flame. Fire and meat seem down right prehistoric to me. Some things are just not enhanced so much by science. Though posing the questions never hurt anybody.

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Food Rules

April 27th, 2010 — 9:26am

Steamer Clams - Mya Arenaria

Some people accuse me of having too many rules about what foods I will eat and where and when I will eat them. This is especially true about fish and shellfish. Having lived on or near the coast of New England for the first 30 years of my life I was definitely spoiled by all the fresh seafood. Once you taste fresh seafood the frozen varieties just do not always taste quite as good. I will bend the rules for fish that I know has been immediately frozen. In which case I will compromise and cook the fresh-frozen varieties, especially when you live in Texas and you do not have a whole lot of other options.

There is, however, one rule I will never break: I will not eat lobster or clams unless I am in Maine, New Hampshire, or Massachusetts. I know that seems like a rather extreme rule. But lobsters and clams need to be eaten within a day or two of being caught. And where a lobster or clam is harvested definitely has an influence on its taste. The French refer to this as “terroir.” This means the taste of a food is influenced by its environment.

With clams I go to an even further extreme and that is I will only eat clams of the softshell variety, commonly called steamer clams or Ipswich clams, or if you want to get scientific, mya arenaria. This type of clam is harvested from mud flats which extend out into the ocean where tidal rivers connect with the sea. The clam is rather large for a clam variety, and has a very briny taste at the beginning and a very sweet taste at the end. It is difficult to describe the sensation of eating one, but once you do you will not want to eat any other type of clam.

Fried Clam Basket

I was recently working and visiting with family back in New England. My craving for fried clams got the best of me. So I forked over about $21 for a plate of fried clams at Legal Sea Foods at the airport before I headed home. I lovingly ate each one, touched with a little bit of tartar sauce, and washed down with a nice dry white wine. Memories of paper baskets full of fried clams eaten at the beach in the summer time flooded into my head. And my rules about clams seemed to be just right. Once you have tasted the absolute best, you can always wait until your next visit to try them again.

1 comment » | Musings

The 100th Post!

April 22nd, 2010 — 8:00am

The Blogger Hard At Work

Way back on September 8, 2009 I wrote a one paragraph opening for the blog comparing the preparation for blogging with roasting peppers.  The idea being that it takes a lot of work for both, but the payoff could be well worth it.  I think it was an apt metaphor, if not very poetic.

The opening salvos in the blog offerings were largely in monosyllables and generally limited to one or two paragraphs.  At some point along the way I found my voice and it all became like riding a bike; you just do it and don’t think about it much.  While the earlier offerings were painful to prepare, and equally painful to read for some, I think there is a direction to all the madness.  Unfortunately I travel with a faulty compass so the journey never takes a straight line.

I thought, to sum up the first 100, I would pick 5 of my favorite posts or pages.  A kind of short walk down memory lane and a good revisit to some of the ramblings along the way. In no particular order:

First, it became apparent from the beginning that grilling was going to be a major part of the conversation. On September 30th I posted Grillinnovations, an expression of love for my commercial gas grill.  In fact I even ranked it among the loves of my life:

Next to Will, the two cats, and the parakeet my favorite member of the household is my gas grill.  We spend a lot of time together.  Admittedly our conversations are a bit one sided.  But it talks about as much as my last therapist and it takes a lot less money per visit.”

Clearly this was not going to be just another food blog.

My second favorite memory was from the page on Genoa, Italy published on November 28th in the travel section.  I talked about the whirlwind of trying to experience a city in one day.  And it was also apparent that after seeing a couple of churches and a few other tourist sights, I was really on the trip for one reason:

“That’s pretty much it for the “must see” picture taking part of Genoa; pretty shop windows, two major churches, the old wall and the main gate, and a picture in front of the Columbus family homestead.  With any luck it is time for lunch.”

There was no doubt at that point that this really is a food blog.

My third favorite post had to do with my book review about Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain.  I gave it a good review after spilling the beans about myself that at my core I am basically a cheapskate:

“And of course I waited until I could get the book for free on the “Buy 2 Get One Free” table at the book store.  This does not mean I would not pony up the $11 for the book.  It is just that the stars aligned at just the right moment and it was indeed free.”

A Busy Gourmand can also be a frugal one.

The fourth favorite post was when I decided to take the wind out of the sails of the Cook’s Illustrated crowd by doing my own taste test with San Marzano tomatoes.  Posted as Tomato Tastes on April 10th I was able to demonstrate my even handedness along with another dose of frugality:

“The result:  there was a noticeable favorable taste difference in the sauce made with San Marzano DOP tomatoes than the Muir Glen sauce.  Both sauces were very good.  But the San Marzano won the day.  I am not sure it is $6 per can better.  I will leave that judgment up to you.”

I also have to admit all of us had a good time doing the testing.  I think we will be doing more of these in the future.

The fifth favorite (actually this was the number one favorite of so many people, garnering the largest number of hits for any post) was the post entitled Food CravingsIn this post my need for a BLT sandwich turned into a new recipe, the BLT Quesadilla.  I have used the theme of necessity being the mother of invention on several occasions:

“Unfortunately when I woke up there was no bread in the house. I had some tortillas to use, but the idea of a tortilla BLT was not too appetizing. So with a bit of reconfiguring I came up with the idea of a quesadilla BLT; some grated cheese, some bacon, some thinly sliced tomato, and some fresh lettuce, between two toasted tortillas.”

Innovating never tasted so good.

With a little more perseverance I will get to the 200th post very shortly.  In the mean time I will remain The Busy Gourmand.

2 comments » | Musings

Minty Meals

April 20th, 2010 — 8:27am

Grilled Shrimp with Minty Couscous

The spring herbs are beginning to come into their own. We have enough cilantro to open a Mexican restaurant. The parsley seems to be very happy. And of course there is the mint. It is a beautiful lush green color. I rub my hands in it every day just to get a good whiff. Unfortunately that is usually how close the mint comes to being used. It is just not something that I think of every day to put in a dish. Mostly because of its unusual pungency I always find that it is too easy to overdo it.

That is not fair to the mint of course. In moderation it should become a regular culinary herb. The usual internet search turned up lots of things relating to mint, mostly in the libations category. It seems that many other people are a bit perplexed about using the herb for consumption.

Well I borrowed a few ideas from a variety of recipes and came up with a minty couscous which I served with some grilled shrimp. It used the primary flavors of lemon and mint, and the brine flavor from some feta cheese. I guess we could call it Greek Minty Couscous, except that I have never been to Greece nor have I ever seen such a dish prepared in a Greek restaurant. I think we will just stick with Grilled Shrimp with Minty Couscous.

Comment » | Herbs, Recipes

Grilled Chicken Breastzzz…

April 17th, 2010 — 8:20am

Let’s face it, eating healthy does not always mean eating tasty. If you take enough fat, sugar, and salt out of the diet it can get pretty boring. The raw foods craze has never taken hold in our household, and probably never will. We often resort to grilling to add flavor. A little bit of smokiness from the grill can go a long way to add flavor. But try as hard as you may grilling something mostly only gets you half way there when it comes to flavor.

We grill a lot of chicken breasts. They are handy to have around for those last minute meals which seem to become more frequent these days. Way back in the beginning I posted my marinating recipe for grilled chicken breasts. It is a very good recipe. The soy sauce in the marinade seems to caramelize with the grill marks. The ginger root gives the chicken a bit of spiciness as well. However, except for our house sitter who lives on these grilled chicken breasts and coke, I always feel they need a bit of something else.

Grilled Chicken with Asian Sauce

I developed two recipes for sauces, or more appropriately condiments, to go with the breasts. The first was an Asian influenced sauce using most of the original ingredients from the marinade and incorporating some of the usual vegetable suspects. It segues nicely with the grilled chicken. If you are up for something Asian this is a very good low cost, low fat, fast meal.

Grilled Chicken with Tomato and Balsamic Vinegar Sauce

The second is more of an Italian influenced sauce. It incorporates tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, olive oil and some basil. Add a pinch of salt and pepper and this is one of the simplest things you could add to a grilled chicken breast. It does not go quite as well with the underlying soy/ginger in the marinade. It is still good. But for this one I think I had better develop a marinade more along the lines of lemon and rosemary.

Comment » | Recipes

Manager’s Special

April 15th, 2010 — 9:21am

Turkey Meatballs

I have to admit I am a bit of a sucker when it comes to anything that says “Marked Down,” “Half Off,” or “Manager’s Special.” I cannot remember the last time I paid full price for a piece of clothing, or just about anything else for that matter, with the exception of food. I am happy to buy food at a discount but I always want to make sure there is nothing wrong with it, which makes it into the “Manager’s Special.” Most commonly the “Manager’s Specials” around here are due to the fact that the food will soon go beyond its freshness date.

I ran into one of those irresistible specials the other day at the store; over a pound of lean ground turkey, from a reputable producer, for about half the usual price. Of course these deals do not always seem to be so appealing when you get them home. When I asked The Boss if he would like turkey meatballs for dinner he pretty much acted like I was from some other planet. He equates ground turkey with no flavor.

I did my usual internet search to see how the rest of the world treats their turkey meatballs. I was astounded at the variety of recipes, but also mostly astounded by the fact that people were adding so much fat back into the turkey to make it taste better. Not to mention the gobs of salt they were using to increase the flavor. Yikes! Why buy lean ground turkey in the first place?

I decided to go a different route and used the fat-free, salt-free flavor enhancers; fresh herbs, onion, celery, carrot, and my packaged condiments in moderation; a bit of mustard, tomato paste, and worcestershire sauce. I also used the baking method to cut down on the fat from the cooking process. I served my turkey meatballs with some leftover tomato sauce, some linguine, and, to make The Boss happy, his favorite salad; green bean, grape tomato and feta cheese. I figured if he hated the turkey meatballs he could gorge on the salad. I have to admit these turkey meatballs turned out pretty good. And with low sodium and low fat I did not feel guilty eating a few of them.

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Weekday Quickie

April 13th, 2010 — 9:09am

Pork Schnitzel

I arrived home later than usual yesterday without a plan for what to have for dinner. A quick trip to the local grocery store was a bit uninspiring. I think the visions of upcoming vegetable feasts from the garden are affecting my brain. So I grabbed a package of pork loin chops, figuring that I would be able to do something with them in short order.

When I got home I remembered how much I liked the Wiener Schnitzel when I was in Germany; a veal chop pounded very thin, breaded, and then fried in some oil, then topped with a sauce usually made with the veal stock and some milk products. I am not a person who searches out veal in the marketplace. I have always substituted pork, and with a new twist on the German method, I always have added some mustard and capers to my sauce. Other sauces I have heard about that look very good include some sour cream and dill as the base.

So I took out my meat hammer and worked out a bit of the day’s frustration on the pork loin chops. Afterwards they were dipped in egg, breaded, fried, sauced, and put on a plate. Start to finish it took about 20 minutes. Pork Schnitzel, it turns out, is not a bad way to work your way through dinner during the week.

2 comments » | Recipes

Tomato Tastes

April 10th, 2010 — 8:00am

I am a reader, but not always a follower, of books about cooking.  Inevitably when it comes to Italian cuisine the authors of these books always call for San Marzano tomatoes for making their tomato sauce.  More recently I have seen these same cooks arguing that the San Marzano tomatoes need to be a variety carrying the “DOP” designation; which is essentially the Italian government’s way of certifying that the tomatoes come from the Campagna region in Italy.

San Marzano tomatoes are expensive enough but tomatoes carrying the “DOP” designation are very expensive.  They range in price from about $6 up to $11 per 28 ounce can.  By any measure this is an investment in making tomato sauce.

I decided to check out whether there was a noticeable difference in the taste of tomato sauce made with the San Marzano DOP and sauce made with organic plum tomatoes from Muir Glen.  Using a slightly altered recipe from Lidia Bastianich, I made an identical tomato sauce using both varieties.  And to keep the whole thing on the level I had two people do a blind taste testing, while I did a taste testing knowing the makeup of the sauce.

The result:  there was a noticeable favorable taste difference in the sauce made with San Marzano DOP tomatoes than the Muir Glen sauce.  Both sauces were very good.  But the San Marzano won the day.  I am not sure it is $6 per can better.  I will leave that judgment up to you.  You can find more about my tomato sauce and the specifics of the taste test here.

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Gardening Obsession

April 8th, 2010 — 9:40am

Tomato Garden

Now comes the time of the year when I spend most of my waking hours working in and thinking about the garden. I decided to get started early this year. Last year we started a bit late and our harvest of tomatoes was meager and the harvest of many other vegetables was nonexistent. I am hoping with a little bit better planning we will actually get to enjoy more things from the garden.

Last year we also began the process of trying to compost everything from the kitchen and the back yard. It was an ugly process to say the least. However it yielded enough compost to spread a layer a couple of inches deep over the large garden in the backyard. The result I hope will be a much healthier, longer lasting crop of veggies.

Barrel Composter

To make things easier we bought a barrel composter this year. It was nearly impossible to turn the compost in the large, square, ground-based bin. So the plan this year is to largely compost in the barrel composter and store the composted material in the large bin to use next year. It seems like a lot of work. But, I am guessing, we saved over 30 bags of yard waste from going into the landfill. And we put no kitchen waste in the trash for most of the year. It will also give me something else to obsess about during the gardening season

This also gives me the excuse to say that I was so busy getting things done in the garden I did not post any new recipes this week. I’ll get back at it in earnest in the next few days

Comment » | Gardening, Musings

Food Cravings

April 5th, 2010 — 9:53am

Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato Fixings

I develop cravings for certain types of food fairly regularly. These cravings are not necessarily tied to my environment or based on a seasonal trigger. They just pop up and I have to do something about them in order to satisfy the hunger. Most of them are tied to foods I would not ordinarily cook, and are usually not the best things to eat every day if you want to stay healthy. Things like fried chicken, fried green tomatoes, and fried onion rings usually fall into this craving category. The obvious emphasis in all of these foods is of course the word “fried.”

Lately though a new type of craving popped into my head; a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich, the classic BLT. Where it came from I have no inkling. But the idea of a two slices of toasted whole wheat bread, with sliced bacon, tomatoes, fresh lettuce, and a healthy dollop of mustard was just driving me a bit nutty.

Yesterday I decided that this craving had to be fulfilled. Unfortunately when I woke up there was no bread in the house. I had some tortillas to use, but the idea of a tortilla BLT was not too appetizing. So with a bit of reconfiguring I came up with the idea of a quesadilla BLT; some grated cheese, some bacon, some thinly sliced tomato, and some fresh lettuce, between two toasted tortillas. And with a little bit of sour cream and a few leaves of cilantro it turned into a masterpiece. So when the BLT craving hits your stomach try the quesadilla BLT instead.

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