Pantry Basics: Dry Ingredients

Pepper

Along with salt, you need pepper. In most cases, that means black pepper. You can buy it already ground or as peppercorns. For the latter, you’ll need a grinder or pepper mill. Many people swear by the pepper mill and they are right that pepper will lose its potency after it is ground. But that doesn’t mean that already ground pepper doesn’t have a punch. You just might have to use a little more. If you have a pepper mill or grinder, by all means, get the peppercorns, because it is better. But cost may push you to use the pre-ground and that’s okay. The only problem I have with using peppercorns is that they can get expensive. If you can find a good, inexpensive source, go for it. Along with salt, pepper is a basic seasoning that gets put on almost everything.

There are other kinds of peppercorns, white, orange, red and green. They all come from the same plant, piper nigrum, a flowering vine. The peppercorns are drupes, a sort of fruit containing a seed. The color results from drying, preserving or stripping off the outer husk. It’s still the same thing, although minor flavor differences can occur. Different types are used mostly for appearance.

Sugar

Even if you are diabetic or prefer artificial sweetener, you’re still going to need sugar at some time or other. There’s just no replacing it in some cooking, especially baking. That’s because sugar acts like a liquid in many applications. Replacing it with sweetener, even Splenda, doesn’t replace the volume of sugar. However, sometimes, you can replace half the sugar in a recipe and it will work well.

Flour

Wheat flour is used for more than just bread. With flour in the home, you can make biscuits, pancakes, sweet rolls, even tortillas. There are also many kinds of flour from different kinds of grains. But basic white flour is the most versatile for cooking and baking of all kinds.

Why not a wok?

Some people might dispute my belief that a cast iron skillet is the most useful, versatile piece of cookware you can own. I understand. I suppose a lot depends on your cultural heritage. If you grew up in a yurt on the Mongolian plains or in a hutch among the rice patties of rural China you would disagree. You would say that the wok, that ubiquitous Chinese cooking vessel, was more versatile and useful. But that’s probably just because you didn’t grow up cooking on a modern American cooktop.

And that’s the real problem with the wok in American home kitchens. Woks, made of carbon steel, like swords, are great on an open flame. The small, hot fires of rural Asia were what the wok was designed for. And it does that great. Controlling heat on such a fire isn’t easy, and the wok gives the cook varying temperature surfaces so food doesn’t overcook and come out underdone.

Also, the wok is great for camping or other open fire cooking. It can be used to make soup, heat water for washing and be used as a temporary holding spot for odds and ends.

But American cooktops are flat. Even with one of those rings, the heat is very uneven and doesn’t get near hot enough. Also, the heat that leaks out of the ring can cause the stovetop finish to be burned or blackened. So, a wok just doesn’t work that well there.

Instead, use a wok pan. What’s the difference? A traditional wok is heavy and usually has two handles, like a pot. It is shaped like a shallow bowl. But a wok pan has a flat bottom, allowing the cooking surface to be heated evenly on the flat cooktop. And instead of two small handles on the sides, the wok pan has a long handle like a saucepan. That makes it much easier to handle on a typical stove top. Some of the larger models have a small handle on opposite side making it easier to handle the weight.

Wok pans also are made of high-grade aluminum, keeping the weight down but the heating ability high. The shape of the sides still gives you the same stir-frying and cooking ability of a traditional wok. Many are non-stick but without the usual coating. Instead, these pans use a texture inside the pan to keep food from sticking. It’s not fool-proof, but for most stir-frying, it works well. A regular non-stick coating would break down under the high heat usually used in stir-frying. This hybrid pan is really a good choice and I use mine all the time.

Pantry Basics: Cooking Oils

We at The Bachelor’s Kitchen maintain that any well stocked kitchen should have three kinds of salt, three kinds of vinegar and three kinds of cooking oil. And now we’re going to look at those oil choices.

First of all, cooking oil is usually some kind of plant-based fat. These came on the cooking scene about 100 years ago. Before that, people used mostly lard.

Lard really does have some good uses, especially for very high heat cooking. For example, you simply cannot make the classic British dish called Bubble And Squeak with anything other than lard. Many bakers prefer lard as the shortening in pie crusts and other kinds of dough. Its problems are: 1) it cannot be used by people with dietary restrictions against the use of pork, like halal or kashrut; 2) it is high in saturated fat which has been linked to health problems like heart disease; and 3) it’s rendered (cooked) pork fat! But on the good side, it’s a good substitute for butter, it can be used at temperatures up to 420° F, and it has a mouth-feel that vegetable fats do not have.

The go-to all-purpose oil for cooking should be something that doesn’t have a lot of flavor of its own and can withstand high heats without burning or smoking. That means vegetable oil, corn, canola or peanut oil. Vegetable oil can be a mixture of different oils or from some lesser known source such as rapeseed. The most common blends are made of palm, corn, soybean or sunflower oils. Other vegetable oils include olive oil, palm oil, soybean oil, canola oil, pumpkin seed oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, peanut oil, grape seed oil, sesame oil, argan oil and rice bran oil.

Some of these oils have raised concerns in recent years because they contain trans fats. Trans fats are especially prevalent in whipped or hydrogenated oil. That process makes fat softer and/or able to stand at room temperatures. But they cause free radicals in the bloodstream which can lead to the creation of blockages in small arteries, such as those feeding the heart.

Our regular oil for cooking is soybean oil. It can handle fairly high temperatures and has very little taste of its own. Also, it is readily available and affordable. I don’t like corn oil because of the flavor and the fact that we eat too much corn in too many things already.

Our second oil, one every home should have, is extra virgin olive oil. This designation, compared to other types of olive oil, does not refer to the olive’s sexual history, but to whether it is from the first pressing of the olives. Olives are pressed much the same way grapes are. The first pressing yields the best oil with the best taste. Extra virgin olive oil has a very distinct flavor that is ideal for infused oils (really good with crusty Italian bread) and salad dressings. However, this is not an oil to use for frying or sautéing because it begins to smoke at temperatures as low as 300° F. Often this oil is used in place of butter in recipes.

Your third cooking oil is going to depend a lot on the kind of food you like to make. If you do a lot of baking, you might choose vegetable shortening rather than an oil.

Some kitchens have a fourth oil. We like popcorn, so we keep on-hand a butter flavored oil just for that.

Oils well sealed can be stored in a cool, dark place, like a cabinet, for many months, but not indefinitely. Like all fats, it will go rancid over time and if allowed to be exposed to air for more than just a few minutes. If it’s an oil you don’t use very often, or you use only in very small amounts, like my toasted sesame oil, it should be stored in the refrigerator. You will have to remember to take it out a couple hours before you need it so it can come up to room temperature.

We’re Back from Winter Vacation

 

Apparently, we were totally unprepared for this topsy-turvy weather we had during the Winter. More time was spent staring out the window than writing or cooking combined. That is not a good thing for The Bachelor’s Kitchen.

But now, the Sun is shining more often than not. The temperatures are nearly warm enough to turn on the air conditioning. And, most importantly of all, the flowers outside our kitchen are blooming. We are looking forward to even more cooking, learning about food and having some fun.

And remember you can always use the Contact Us page link to send us a note or an idea or a question. We also welcome comments on each post. Like most shake-down cruises, it is likely we will stumble or get busy or something else. That is just the way life goes sometimes. I thank you, blog readers, for your support and patience.

The easiest way to keep up with developments at The Bachelor’s Kitchen is to subscribe to our Daily Email Update, Hot Stuff.

It’s Boxing Day!

We don’t celebrate this holiday much anymore. Traditionally, it was when the lord and lady of the manor gave small boxes and the day off to their servants. Gifts were also given to purveyors, like butchers and grocers, and to other service providers like post carriers and taxi cab drivers. Inside the boxes are usually a little money, sometimes other surprises.

So, we may not have servants anymore, we still rely on postal carriers, bus drivers and grocery store clerks. So if you have a favorite worker you depend on, take a moment to give them something to say thanks.

Happy Winter Solstice!

Today is the first day of Winter in the Northern Hemisphere North of the Tropic of Cancer. The tropical zone doesn’t have winter.

There are many festivals associated with this holiday. China has a big one. The Winter Festival is full of dumplings and other foods. It’s called the Dongzhi Festival.

In many Northern European cultures, this time of year is called Yule, which is usually incorporated with Christian traditions.

In Ancient Rome, the Solstice marked the highlight of Brumalia, a festival honoring Saturn and Ceres, and sometimes Bacchus. The festival culminated in Saturnalia, marked by feasting, gambling and giving to slaves.

This special day, the longest night of the year is also called Blue Christmas, where people mourn for their lost loved ones because of the increased darkness.

In Wales, it’s called Alban Arthan, or The Quarter of the Little Bear and goes back to the Druid celebration of the Solstice. A key part of that was bringing a tree and mistletoe into the house to honor nature.

There are many more traditions for this time of year. Tell us, in the comments, some of your favorite seasonal traditions.

Coffee Talk Part 6: Other Brewing Methods

When you began learning about food, a whole new world opens up. It isn’t about being a foodie or a gourmet, but about what food meant to all different kinds of people. Beyond just food, there was also an education in drinks: fine wine, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, even milk.

We’ve looked at where coffee comes from, how different roasts affect the taste and the caffeine content, different grinds and grinders. Now, we’re looking at brewing. There’s boiling, gravity filtration and pressurized. And then there’s another classic brewing method.

Steeping is exactly what it sounds like. Boiling water is poured over grounds and allowed to sit for several minutes, allowing the hot water to extract the flavor from the grounds. The French Press is one of the most common methods using steeping. The French Press got its name because of the plunger. When the coffee has been steeping long enough, anywhere from four to seven minutes, the plunger presses the grounds to the bottom of the pot. The filter part of the plunger also holds the grounds down while the coffee is poured. This method usually requires a courser grind.

Another steeping method developed in recent years takes a page from tea brewing. Most of us are familiar with the tea bag. But there are also coffee bags on the market. The coffee is brewed in the cup just as you would with a tea bag. In Malaysia a muslin bag called a sock is used to steep a large pot of coffee. This is sort of a homemade coffee bag.

When we talked about other brewing methods, one used what’s called a flip pot. Water is boiled in a lower section while coffee grounds are in a filter in the middle and an empty pot on top. When the water boils the whole thing is turned upside down and the hot water allowed to trickle down through the grounds to the other pot. A similar method is used in one steeping method, called the vacuum pot. Water is boiled in the lower pot where building pressure pushes it up into a top chamber containing ground coffee. The coffee then steeps. When all the water has been pushed up into the top, the pot is removed from the heat and allowed the cool. The resulting vacuum pulls the coffee through a filter into the bottom pot from which it is then served.

There are two other steeping methods that have been developed in the last decade or two. One is called an Aeropress which combines the steeping of a French Press with the pressure of an espresso maker. Instead of using a plunger to press the grounds into the bottom of the pot, the plunger is used to push the steeped coffee through a filter into a cup.

Brand new on the market is something called a Softbrew, which is like a French Press without the plunger. Not a lot of information is available on the quality of this method.

So, now you know all the different ways to make the perfect cup of coffee and all the factors that affect the quality and the taste. But there are many myths about coffee making. We’ll look at those next.

Coffee Talk – Part 5: More Brewing

For many of us, our first exposure to coffee besides the always-on percolator in the family kitchen

More and more coffee is grown in open fields using chemical fertilizers to produce higher yields and greater mechanization. This presents an environmental danger worse than the super strong coffee that came out of that perculator.

Shade grown coffee not only produces better quality with fewer beans, but it also provides homes for many birds and other small animals. The loss of this traditional growing method is costing our world a good deal more than just the price versus high volume, cheaper coffee. There’s also the high use of water for processing the coffee crop. This is particularly important for coffee growing regions in Africa. Some promoters are pushing for ways to make better use of the coffee, such as using the wet grounds as mulch for plants in your garden or home. This supposedly helps keep away bugs.

Brewing can be done in many ways, from old-fashioned boiling to the common drip method to the French Press. These come in four basic categories: boiling, filtration, steeping and pressuring.

Pressurized brewing is commonly called Espresso, although there are some alternate ways of using water or steam under pressure to produce a concentrated coffee. A Moka pot, or Italian coffee pot is a three chamber stovetop device in which water is boiled in the lower part. The steam and water thus created is forced through a small opening into the middle section where the coffee grounds are. Between the middle and top sections is a filter. As the pressure builds, the coffee is sent through the filter into the top section where it is collected for serving. The strength is similar to espresso, but without the crema.

Espressing we’ve talked about already, but to cover again, finely ground coffee is packed into a thick disk called a puck. High pressure steam is then sent through the puck pulling out many of the hard-to-dissolve compounds and oil that regular brewing won’t remove. The toffee-colored foam that comes out is called the crema and is the mark of properly espressed coffee. Underneath the rich crema is a strongly flavored coffee that is thicker than regular coffee. It also has a taste not produced by any other method.

In recent years, single-serve coffee methods have come on the market which also use steam or high pressure water to quickly extract coffee from the grounds. These usually use pre-packed coffee pods for single-use brewing.

Boiling involves simply cooking the ground coffee in water, just like my father did on those camping trips. It’s simple and easy but does not provide the kind of control needed for a good cup of coffee. Egg shells and other additives have been used to help settle the grounds. This is called Cowboy coffee. The ground settle and then the coffee liquid is poured off the top. But some cultures use a simple strainer, much as traditional tea brewers use. This is most common with the very strong coffees of Southern Europe, Northern Africa and Asia Minor, especially Turkey. Very finely ground coffee, water and sometimes sugar are put in a narrow pot and boiled. Another traditional methods involves a single cup, common in Southeast Asia and Indonesia. There, this method is known as Mud coffee. Boiling water is added to a coup containing ground coffee. It is then allowed to cool, during which time the ground settle to the bottom of the cup. Only very finely ground coffee works in this method. Most boiled coffees are extremely strong and rarely subtle.

Filtration methods use a combination of boiling and gravity to brew coffee. First came the percolator. This device, whether electric or stove top, boiled the water, sending it up a tube to erupt over grounds in a basket, usually containing a paper filter. That moved into the drip coffee maker. Like the percolator, water was boiled and sent cascading over grounds. But unlike the percolator, the water was only cycled through the grounds once. Percolators keep boiling and circulating the coffee water through the grounds until a selected strength is achieved. Drip systems use a controlled release of the water from the basket containing the ground coffee. Ideally, this has to allow appropriate amount of time for the hot water to extract the coffee compounds before moving into the pot, or carafe, underneath the basket. Drip coffee can be automatic using an electric coffee maker, or manual, in which boiling water is pouted into a container at the top of the maker.

Another variation is called the Neapolitan Flip Pot. Like the Moka Pot, it is made of three sections. The lower section contains water to be boiled. The top is basically an upside-down version of the lower section. In between is a filter containing the coffee grounds. Once the water in the lower section comes to a boil, the pot is turned upside down to allow the water to slowly pass through the grounds in the filter section. This device can then be take apart with the now-lower section used as an ordinary serving pot.

We’re not done yet. There are other brewing methods to talk about, as well as one of the most popular — steeping. So, stick around for more Coffee Talk!

Coffee Talk Part 4: Brewing

If you’ve been reading this series, you’ve seen us take a journey through the world of coffee from the origin, to the growing, to the processing, roasting and grinding. Now, it’s time to get cooking.

The ground coffee can be prepared in two ways: brewing and espressing. Brewing is clearly the most common and the easiest and most forgiving method. Espressing requires high-pressure steam, finely ground coffee and tightly packed grounds to work correctly. Therefore, espressing should be left to trained persons.

The difference is the quantity and type of compounds that are removed from the grounds. Brewing will remove only the water-soluble compounds, while espressing removes oil-soluble compounds as well. Properly brewed coffee should be a shade of brown ranging from light to near black. Also it should be transparent, not muddy. Espresso should be a light, creamy caramel color, thick and opaque. Under the creaminess is a dark, concentrated liquid.

The key to all coffee making, no matter what kind or method, is water temperature. Too cool and it won’t remove the valuable flavor compounds, thus wasting the coffee. The most common mistake in making coffee is not having water that’s hot enough.

We normally think of Espresso makers as large, steamy, locomotive-looking contraptions that whistle and hiss. These use steam shot through tightly packed grounds to make the drink. But there’s also a vacuum pot commonly used in many homes, especially Italian homes, that produces a similar product on an ordinary stove top.

Brewing can break down into several different methods. Boiling was common until the 1930s when filtration methods like percolating became popular. Steeping is common for single portions or cups, and is still popular for high-end coffees.

There much more to learn about brewing a good cup of coffee, which we will cover in the next post.

Can Ramen Be Both Convenient And Healthy?

Ramen is a Bachelor’s Kitchen favorite. Not only is it cheap, it is filling. And what used to be a college dormitory staple has gone way beyond schools and have become a regular for those who are finding it hard to make ends meet.

But is it healthy? Well, it can be.

ramen-cuThe simplest way to up the nutrition of this simple noodle dish is to add vegetables and proteins. That can turn this staple into a complete meal. But you can take it a step further without a lot of trouble.

In The Bachelor’s Kitchen recipe section, we have the Asian Noodle Bowl, a simple way to use the noodles as an ingredient that abandons the salty flavor packet and adds good protein and vegetables.

A stir-fry is another quick and easy way to make ramen healthier. On the blog Dumbed Down Food  by Rick Brandt, a recent graduate from the University of Iowa, one of the most popular posts is Ramen Stir-Fry.ramen3

Here’s what you need: a small pot, a small frying pan, a package of flavored Ramen (chicken or beef preferred), a half cup of frozen mixed vegetables (small cut veggies are best), two eggs and a teaspoon of butter. The eggs, if you like them hard boiled, can be cooked ahead of time.

Start with the pack of Ramen and it’s flavor packet. Remove both from the wrapper, break up the noodles and put them in the small frying pan. Add enough water to cover them. Then add the frozen vegetable and put the pan over high heat. Bring to a boil and cook until the noodles and veggies are tender.

While that’s cooking, cook your eggs in the small pot or saucepan, if you haven’t already. Then chop them into bite size pieces. Drain the noodles and veggies, add the butter and the seasoning packet to the noodles and cook over medium heat for a couple minutes. Be sure to stir it a lot so it doesn’t burn. Add the chopped eggs and you’re done.

See? Even a busy, culinarily-challenged college student can do it.

The wonderful thing about instant ramen noodles is that they are versatile. Want a sandwich but you’re out of bread? No problem! How about a ramen noodle grilled cheese sandwich?ramen-burger-delish-blog Believe it or not, it’s the latest craze.

Cook a package of ramen according to the directions on the package. Drain the water and let them cool. Then add one egg and mix. Dump the contents of your pan onto a cutting board and spread them out until the pile is about a half-inch thick. Cut two bread-size squares from the pile and place each piece between two pieces of wax paper. Then put them into the refrigerator.

After about 20 minutes, the ramen “bread” should be holding together. Heat them in a pan for a minute or two on each side. Add three or four slices of cheese and stack the other noodle patty on top. Then finish it the way you would a regular grilled cheese.  The cheese will melt into the spaces between the noodles.

Or, perhaps you prefer to bake it into a ramen frittata, packed with shredded cheese, bacon and tomatoes. Better yet, just smother it in chocolate and ice cream for a one-of-a-kind dessert.

In the book Rah! Rah! Ramen, +Sara Childs+ explores dozens of quick recipes for using instant noodles in the microwave. The dishes range from Macmen N’ Cheese to a spinach cannelloni soup to lemon curd ramen. Childs says she could come up with plenty more.

“If you look at it as just a basic ingredient, you can keep adding with your imagination and take off on it.”

At its heart, ramen noodles are just wheat flour and palm oil. It’s what food historians call a “platform food,” on which you can build any flavors. On top of everything else, ramen is cheap.

But that’s not all. Ramen often brings out memories, of college days, of childhood, of young love and of hard times. And it leads to creativity, like ramen beef stew, ramen tuna casserole and ramen burritos.Mummy-Ramen-Noodles These creations might not be in the same league as restaurant quality noodle dishes, but they bring the art of cooking down to an “everyman” level.

Now when you open a pack of ramen noodles, you can let your imagination soar. Look upon this humble food as the vehicle for your own personal gourmet cuisine.