Category: Reference

Guanciale vs Pancetta

January 21st, 2011 — 10:18am

Bucatini all' Amatriciana with Guanciale

I know there are many pressing questions in the world. Should North and South Korea reunify? How can we speed up the rebuilding of Haiti? Will any one realize that the Kardashians are New Jersey’s version of white trash? But for me there was a very burning question. Is there really much difference when cooking with guanciale versus pancetta? I tasted guanciale in some pasta all’ amatriciana in Rome. But without a recent comparison with pancetta I really had no way of telling if there was much of a difference. It is also hard to come across guanciale other than by mail order. When I found some at Whole Foods I had to see for myself.

First the guanciale comes from the cheek of the pig. And like most cheeks they are full of fat, which is why our cheeks are so puffy. The fat versus meat content of the cheek is much higher than in the pancetta which comes from the stomach region of the pig. The one-quarter pound of guanciale when rendered leaves very little bits of intense flavor. I also found that the guanciale when rendered maintains its softness while pancetta can often tend to crisp up like it’s cousin bacon. It creates a different feeling in the mouth when you take a bite. It is a bit more succulent.

In the bucatini all’ Amatriciana the guanciale really made a difference in the flavor of the dish. With so few ingredients the sauce has to rely on the guanciale to give it some heft to stand up to such a substantial pasta. The pancetta almost melted away in the tomatoes, where as the guanciale stood up to the tomatoes and made them more interesting. At about $26 dollars per pound (on the low end) the guanciale is a bit of an investment. But when in Rome do as the Romans do. If you feel like splurging a bit your pasta sauce will be grateful for it.

1 comment » | Musings, Recipes, Reference

The Month of Food Holidays

December 6th, 2010 — 1:05pm

National Egg Nog Day - December 24th

It has been a bit quiet in the kitchen for me these days. Between work, taking a class in tax preparation (don’t ask), and working on a new web site I have been devoting a bit less time to preparing meals. Thankfully Will has stepped into the breach. So not to worry, I am well fed.

National Fruit Cake Day - December 27th

I was researching a few recipes based on some old cookbooks and I ran across a mention of December being a “Food Holiday” month. I took my research a step further and found out that December is both “Egg Nog Month” and “Fruit Cake Month.” In for a penny in for a pound, I decided to delve in further. To my surprise every day in the month of December is designated as some sort of special day for a food or a food related item. Not only is December both “Egg Nog’ and “Fruit Cake” month they each have their own special day on December 24th and December 27th, respectively. Two full weeks are taken up with designations; we are nearing the end of “Cookie Cutter Week” and soon to be in the midst of “Lager Beer Week.” I suppose if you are a pilsner fan you better lay off them from December 8th through the 14th.

Repeal of Prohibition Day - December 5th

As a public service I am going to publish the List of December Food Holidays. Sadly we have already missed such venerable holidays as National Pie Day, Eat A Red Apple Day, National Fritters Day (I frittered mine away), National Apple Pie Day, National Cookie Day, and the dual holiday on December 5th, National Sacher Torte Day and the Repeal of Prohibition Day. Although unbeknownst to me, I did split a bottle of wine with Will on Repeal of Prohibition Day. I guess maybe my subconscious knew that something was up.

National Microwave Oven Day - December 6th

There are a few ironies on the list; National Bicarbonate of Soda Day follows Pepper Pot Day. I guess whoever put the list together had some sort of method to their madness. I have not decided how I will be celebrating National Noodle Ring Day. I suppose if I knew what a noodle ring was I could perhaps make some more adequate plans. I do know that National Champagne Day, on December 31st, will be a big day around here. And lest I forget, today is National MIcrowave Oven Day! I am going to head out to the kitchen and give ours a big kiss.

2 comments » | Musings, Reference

The Salt Conundrum

July 13th, 2010 — 10:33am

I was watching one of my favorite chefs on the Food Network yesterday. I usually do not pay much attention to the measurements provided for the recipes on the show, mostly because I rarely follow someone else’s recipe completely, unless it involves baked goods. For some reason I was paying attention to the amount of salt added to what was billed as a “quick dinner for two.” Following the amounts of salt actually measured, and not including all the “pinches” of salt used to finish the dish, I counted four teaspoons of salt added to the meal. With all the “pinches” of salt it was probably closer to five teaspoons, or about one and two-thirds of a tablespoon of salt. I was astounded.

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005, a publication provided by the Department of Health and Human Services, the maximum intake of sodium should be about 2,300 mg per day, or the equivalent of how much sodium is contained in a teaspoon of salt. According to my calculations, the chef on the Food Network was providing her guest with about twice the daily limit of sodium in one meal. I am sure the food tasted great. I wonder how the guest felt a couple of hours after eating the meal.

This summer I have been experimenting with the use of salt. Some of these experiments have been inadvertent as I forgot, on at least two occasions, to add any salt to the meal at all. (It is hard to remember things while you are drinking wine and running back and forth to the grill.) I can honestly say that this really has not affected the taste of the food much, if at all. I realize that two things have been at play here; fresh vegetables, which we eat from the garden every day, already contain a fair amount of sodium, and I have been using an abundance of fresh herbs to add flavor to my dishes. In the cases when I made an entire meat loaf and a large number of meatballs without adding any salt, the meats involved already had plenty of sodium in them, and the herbs I added were delicious, but also confusing to the palate. My taste buds were too busy figuring out all the other ingredients to miss the salt.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Your taste for salt is acquired, so you can learn to enjoy less.” As we add more and more salt to our diet our taste buds crave more and more salt. This leads to a perfect example of a feedback loop, and a deadly one at that. Cutting back on salt gradually will actually reduce your craving for it. If you add more fresh vegetables to your diet and remember that many processed meats already have plenty of sodium in them (think bacon), then you will realize that adding all the extra salt really is not necessary.

I am going to present a very controversial opinion here; using an abundance of salt to enhance flavor is a total cop out. All these chefs on television, the chefs in all these five star restaurants, and anybody else who portrays themselves as a real “chef” while using gobs of salt to trick the palate are really not all that good at cooking. I realize that some salt is necessary. But following the McDonald’s, Denny’s and Red Lobster School of cooking by using a lot of salt does not become these so called chefs.

In my recipes I almost never quote an amount of salt or pepper, although I suggest they be used. Sure a little pinch here and there is necessary. But before you reach for the salt try these tricks first:

  • The use of lemon juice or lemon zest can trick the palate into thinking that you are using salt. I always thought this. If you read some of the science in Molecular Gastronomy you do not have to take my word for it. And the lemons do not contain a lot of sodium.
  • When using herbs increase the amount when cooking or add most of them at the end of the cooking process. The essential oils in herbs cook out very quickly. When you add them closer to the end of the cooking process you get more bang for your buck. Your palate gets overwhelmed with the herbs and does not miss the salt very much.
  • Add some heat to the food. I find that spicing up the food with a little heat tricks the palate. A few red pepper flakes, a bit of chopped jalapeno, or a dash of cumin or curry can really confuse the palate.

And remember your food already contains sodium:

  • You know the “trinity” of cooking? The onion, carrot and celery you add to the pot contain 5mg, 40mg, and 126mg of sodium respectively. Before you add the salt you are already close to 10% of your daily sodium requirement.
  • If you cook with cheese, which I do almost daily, you are adding a lot of hidden sodium. If you top your pasta with 1 oz of parmigiano reggiano, you are adding 532mg of sodium to your diet. No need for any salt in the pasta sauce.
  • When using prepared meats you are adding a lot of sodium to your diet. Bacon, Italian sausage, and any other prepared meats are loaded with sodium. For most of these items 3.5oz contain at least 1,000mg of sodium or a bit less than half your daily requirement. I am not going to stop eating them. I am just not going to add more salt.
  • Prepared foods such as mustard, ketchup, soy sauce, capers, olives and just about everything else contain all the sodium you really need. A tablespoon of mustard can contain 360mg of sodium. When you add a tablespoon of capers to the sauce you are adding 315mg of sodium. This is why I sometimes switch to prepared horseradish with just 60mg of sodium in a tablespoon.

I do not expect you to remove salt from your diet. I do ask that you experiment a little and see if not adding any salt to some dishes really affects the flavor. Remember you can always add some salt after cooking if you do not like the taste. It is impossible to remove the sodium once it is in the dish.

4 comments » | Musings, Reference

Research Mode

June 29th, 2010 — 8:48am

Plumeria in Bloom

I have been a little slow in posting here for the past several days.  There are a lot of excuses; travel to uninteresting cities with unremarkable food (Peoria), experimenting to develop a recipe for a meal I had in Buenos Aires (not going so well), and researching some recipes and techniques which may come to fruition soon.  Although the research has been interesting it will not yield too many results for awhile.  So I posted a picture of the only thing I have been able to accomplish of late.  After three years of constant care and worry, growing from a three inch stick to a three foot tree, my plumeria bloomed last week!  All good things do not necessarily come from the kitchen.

I have a couple of “go-to” references I use when beginning some research on recipes and techniques.  For general food reference and basic cooking techniques I go to the Time Life series “Great Meals in Minutes.”  This is an admission I would never have made in print earlier except that James Syhabout, who was recently chosen as one of the “Top New Chefs” by Food & Wine Magazine, admits that he refers to an earlier Time Life series for his food inspirations.  So now I am out of the closet about my Time Life Books series.  For all things Italian I go to The Italian Cookbook by Maria Luisa Taglienti.  It is not the prettiest or the most inspiring book in the Italian cooking genre. I like it because it was written post-World War II, and before the works of Marcella Hazan.  Much like Marcella Hazan the author married an American and eventually moved to the United States.  The book was first published in 1955.  There is nothing “nouvelle” about the recipes.  I go here for a reality check when I think we are making things a bit too complicated in the kitchen. 

During my research I also came across an interesting web site called “Library Thing.” You can enter in the title of a book and it will provide you with the basic description and publishing information about the book.  The nice thing about the site is that users of the site cross reference other books in their collections that relate to the book you are researching.  When I pulled up The Italian Cookbook, it cross referenced such books as Buon Appetito Your Holiness  (something I often say to Will when he is feeling full of himself), a book written by one of the cooks for the Pope, Lidia’s Italian Table, written by one of my other “go-to” authors Lidia Bastianich, and Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, by Pellegrino Artusi, written in the 1890’s as one of the first Italian cookbooks focusing on the science of cooking (and referenced in the book Molecular Gastronomy).  The latter book I am going to go ahead and order for my library.  Research is not without its cost.

You may be asking where all of this is leading.  Well, I am working on a few things.  It is going to take me some time.  The good news is that I have a full week away from work and I will be near the kitchen most of the time.  Before you know it some new recipes and ideas will be flowing onto the blog.  In the mean time start clicking on stuff on the “Library Thing” and above all else enjoy the picture of the plumeria.  It was three years in the making.

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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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Kitchen Confidential

March 9th, 2010 — 10:44am

The original publication of Kitchen Confidential was released in 2000.  Although I have been a big fan of Anthony Bourdain and his style of food and travel criticism, I never got around to reading, other than small snippets of this book until this week.  I guess perhaps like a fine wine I was hoping that the test of time would give me a better perspective on what the book contains.  The book has been re-released with some additional commentary to maybe tone down the original ramblings.  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.

This is largely an autobiography of someone who was full of passion for food but did not really get around to pulling it all together until much later in life.  I suppose there is a good moral in there for all of us.  He is not ashamed to tell you about his addictions to drugs, booze and cigarettes.  One is actually amazed that he is someone who can still stand erect.  His story is typical of one who has a great intellect matched with a total lack of ambition smothered by an overbearing ego.  In his early career he seems to go through kitchen gigs faster than he can pop aspirin; which is actually one of his other special talents.

Let’s face it Mr. Bourdain was the original potty-mouthed celebrity chef.  Based on his outrageous commentary in the book he landed his first television show in 2002 on the Food Network traveling around the world, trying to gross everyone out with his proclivity for eating brains and intestines.  The use of shock value in the cooking world was born.  Unfortunately he paved the way for Gordon Ramsay who just went one better than Bourdain.  That is if you think a foul mouth is a great asset on a great chef.  I bring this up because if you are at all offended by coarse language this is not a good book for you.  On the other hand if you can read through all the coarse stuff you will understand that Bourdain’s acting out is actually his way of expressing admiration for certain things culinary.

The book by itself is a good culinary history spanning from the mid-1970’s up until its publication in 2000.  I think the post script added in the latest release does help to round out the reader’s perspective.  The advent of the Food Network and the increased interest in cooking has actually increased the expectation of the diners.  This has stopped many of the outrageous behaviors outlined in the book.  And, as I would agree with Bourdain, has launched a bunch of hacks on television peddling recipes and rubs at the expense of serious cooking.  So I think it is a good read.  And I will continue to enjoy Bourdain’s irreverence.  It is based on a serious love of good food, and of course, good drink.  You can find more about the book here.

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Mexican Herbs

November 7th, 2009 — 8:00am
Mexican Mint Marigold

Mexican Mint Marigold

One of the nice things about living in a moderate climate is that a great variety of herbs are available to us.  With few exceptions most of the herbs are perennial.  The other nice thing about living in Texas is that many of the culinary herbs have migrated across the border from Mexico.  When people talk about the “New World” influencing what we eat they focus on the most important items; potatoes, tomatoes, corn, etc.  But the new world also brought us some important herbs which most of do not realize we may be using every day.

We grow and use a variety of herbs that have come predominantly from Mexico.  We use these herbs across cuisines, although you may more commonly encounter them in Mexican or Latin American foods.  With the exception of cilantro these Mexican herbs bloom.  We incorporate them into the perennial garden and nobody seems to know the difference.  The herbs listed in order of our most common usage are below.

We use cilantro regularly.  It is a common staple in both Asian and Latin cooking.  It has a lemon-pepper type taste.  Its flavor dissipates very quickly when cooking.  I recommend that you add it to a dish just before the cooking is completed or use it fresh in salads.  This is the most difficult of the Mexican herbs for us to grow as it bolts very quickly in temperatures above 80 degrees.  We have it in the garden between October and March.  We have let it bolt and go to seed.  Which of course results in the coriander seed.  It is not worth the trouble.
Mexican Mint Marigold
I had never even heard of this herb until I moved to Texas.  The flavor is comparable to tarragon although a bit stronger.  It mixes well with any of the herbs with an anise flavor (basil, fennel).  We use this as a replacement for tarragon as for some reason I cannot get tarragon to grow in Texas.  The leaves are also great in salads.  And as you can see from the picture it is quite a beautiful plant when it blooms.  We keep it in the perennial garden for this reason.
Mexican Oregano
This plant is actually native to Texas and Northern Mexico.  It was originally cultivated as a landscape shrub in Texas as the deer will not eat it.  It has been used as a common culinary herb in Mexico.  The taste is almost exactly like Greek Oregano.  I find that the flavor does not dissipate in cooking like the flavor of Greek Oregano so we use it regularly.  Even if you do not want to use it as and herb it is a spectacular bloomer in the middle of our long hot summers.
Although we use this pretty rarely we keep it in the perennial garden.  It has a pungent resinous flavor which does not lend itself to being eaten raw.  It is largely used in dishes that take a long time to cook, mostly commonly with beans.  It is an underlying flavor in many Mexican soups.  It is sometimes used in Mexico as a medicinal herb in the form of teas to control indigestion and flatulence.  I guess that’s why we add it to our bean dishes.

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Two Essentials For Cooking

October 14th, 2009 — 10:05am


I was originally going to call this post “For Beginners.”  The reality is whether we are a beginner or an old hand cook we still adhere to some very basic recipes and techniques which we have to learn somewhere.  Long before the day of the ubiquitous cooking shows we had to rely on cookbooks and maybe a person who was kind enough to let us watch how recipes really came together in a meal.  Not having enough mentors around most of my learning was by trial and error guided by my old friend the Fannie Farmer Cookbook.  Whether it was telling the difference between a veloute or bechamel sauce or finding out how long to cook the turkey this book has stood the course of time.  My paperback volume purchased in 1983 is held together with heavy tape and stained with every conceivable splatter from the kitchen.  I suppose I could buy a new one but the old one seems to be such a good friend. I would hate to give it up.  This is one of those essential volumes to keep on hand to get you through the basics of cooking.  It has lots of good illustrations to help you truss that chicken or debone a duck.  This is my “go to” volume for everyday cooking.

The other essential I came to a bit late is a notebook where you jot down new recipes, changes to recipes, or any ideas that pop into your head.  I am a great experimenter.  Many of my original ideas turned out great.  However, if you do not write them down the next time you make them they may not be such a good idea.  Under much pressure I began documenting my ideas many of which I will share here in the blog.  I also use my notebook as a catchall for the recipes that always seem to be floating around on scraps of paper.  It is not an ideal filing cabinet but it keeps the scraps from floating around all over the kitchen.

My suggestions is this.  Get these two essential in your kitchen.  The first a good everyday cookbook for learning.  The second a good journal for sharing ideas.  After all that is what cooking is all about.

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Sweet Harvest

October 8th, 2009 — 10:45am


Our timing was way off in most of the garden this year.  We planted green pole beans and purple bush beans (they turn green when they cook) during some warm weather, and while they had a lot of flowers it became too hot for them to produce any beans.  I gave up on them and just left them in the ground to do whatever green beans do when they are not producing fruit.  Recently we have had a spate of cool rainy weather, which is something of a miracle in North Texas this time of year.  The beans began to produce fruit with a vengeance.  Last night we enjoyed them in my favorite salad of green beans, grape tomatoes and feta cheese in a lemon vinaigrette.

I was immediately reminded of how different a bean tastes when you consume it the day it is picked.  The beans were sweet and crunchy.  The flavor and the feel of the beans in the mouth makes an extaordinary dining experience.

Which of course brings me to the subject of growing your own vegetables or at least procuring produce from a local farmer.  There are of course a lot of good scientific reasons why this is a good idea which I expound upon at length in my article called Fresh Is Best.  But the most important reason is the taste!  In comparison to recent green beans procured from the local supermarket these beans tasted almost like candied beans.  It turns out that green beans lose their sugars faster than any other vegetable other than sweet corn.  In fact, sweet corn converts its sugar to starch in one day and green beans follow right behind by converting their sugars to starch in about two days.  Ever wonder why when you cook corn or green beans there is a  film on the top of the water?  That is the starch oozing out of the vegetable.  When I cooked my green beans last night all I saw were, GREEN BEANS!

So you live in an apartment in a big city.  What are you to do?  The best alternative is fresh frozen.  And do not even let those puppies thaw out.  Put the vegetable completely frozen in the boiling water and you stand a chance of getting a taste that approximates fresh.

So here is to my favorite green bean recipe.  I post it here.

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