Cooking Can Save Your Life

Eating has become complicated in our modern life. But it doesn’t have to be.

Amen to that, sister. That’s from Christina Pirello, christina_pirelloan advocate of eating better with natural and whole foods. She’s saying what we’ve been saying for some time, as readers of The Bachelor’s Kitchen know.

In Change Your Life, Cook Dinner! Pirello dissects the conflicting information about what we eat.

It’s as though we don’t even see food as food anymore, just the sum of its nutritional parts. We have lost touch with our intuition and fallen victim to the science of nutrition. And as soon as we lost touch with our gut instinct, we became the perfect victims for the sharks who swim just under the water…marketers. They pounced on our confusion and through the smoke and mirrors of dazzling packaging, checkmarks, seals of approval and health claims have slowly and consistently robbed us of our health. And it seems to me, made us stupid in the process. It’s as though we don’t think for ourselves anymore — about anything.

Even those of use with pretty good nutritional knowledge find ourselves confused. If we’re supposed to eat a low fat diet, what about good fats? Can artificial sweeteners be worse than sugar? Why is there so much emphasis on carbohydrates in the government’s recommendations? Why so many questions.

Food is simple. Nature is simple. It’s easy to be healthy and vital. But we have to understand a few things first. There are a couple of facts about the effects of food on health that are not in dispute by any expert I have heard.

For example, we all know that our diets are killing us. But rather than change our food supply, everyone’s talking about some sort of cure, a magic bullet that will fix the problem, a single culprit to eliminate.

And we know that people who eat a more traditional diet for their culture or region don’t suffer from the same diseases, such as obesity and diabetes.

This tells us something very important. There is no one diet that serves all of humanity well. As humans, we can adapt to a wide variety of diets and foods — except, it seems, to the modern Western diet so commonly eaten today.

What Wine Goes With That?

We used to know a guy who worked for a wine distributor. From time to time they needed a hand to work wine tastings at area wine shops and liquor stores. Helping out, I learned a lot along the way. We’re not an expert, but can usually pick out a decent bottle of wine for any meal or occasion.

Unless you grew up drinking wine, your eyes probably glaze over when you look down a long aisle of bottles from all around the country and the world. There are reds, whites, rosés, blush, concord, kosher, local, national, Italian, French, South African, Australian, German, Californian, New York, Oregonian and undoubtedly more that I can’t think of right now. How’s a bachelor to choose?

Choose what you like. You’ve probably heard that there are rules about selecting wines. But I say throw those all out the window. The best wine is the wine you like.

The rules of thumb for choosing wines are a reasonable place to start. But don’t limit yourself. In general, foods that are light and delicate should go with a wine that won’t overpower the dish. Similarly, a hearty or spicy dish can stand up to and be enhanced by a wine with a strong or assertive taste. The color is not as important as the flavor and scent.

That being said, the rule says that white wine should go with white meat like chicken and fish; red wine with red meat like beef, lamb and pork. That’s because chicken and fish dishes are usually lighter and white wines are usually also lighter. But that is NOT an absolute. You can have a hearty, spicy fish dish that would go well with a hearty red wine like a burgundy or a cabernet.

The best first step is to find a good wine shop. Yes, you COULD buy wine at a liquor store or a grocery store. But just try asking something there to help you select a wine. You’ll probably hear something like, “It’s all good. I like Mad Dog, myself,” as he scratches himself. For those who don’t know, Mad Dog is Mogan David 20/20, a powerful concord grape wine that tastes like cough syrup and has strong alcohol kick from the addition of brandy. It’s also cheap and thus a favorite of professional drunks.

A good wine shop should be clean and well-lit. There should be more wine than other spirits or liquors. It should also be cool. The shelves should be clearly marked and organized in a logical way.

The most important thing to look for in a wine shop are the people who work there. They should be friendly and more than willing to answer questions. They’ll probably ask some questions of you, as well. If their response to a question is to reach for the nearest bargain bin bottle, run, don’t walk, out of the store and find another. In a good wine shop, the sales people regularly taste wines from various makers, wineries, countries and grapes. They should have learned a great deal about wine before they’re allowed on the sales floor. They should never look down at you or become less attentive when they find out how much you want to spend.

The kinds of questions the sales person should ask when you ask for a wine recommendation are:

  • What is the occasion?
  • What kinds of wines have you had that you like?
  • What kind of food will be served with it?
  • How much are you looking to spend?

If they don’t ask those questions or if they don’t pay attention to the answers, leave and find a better shop. If you say I’m looking for a bottle under $15 and they trot out a $50 bottle, leave. But if they bring out an $18 bottle, hear them out. It might be worth it. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, they should be as interested in teaching you as you are in learning.

Once you find a good shop, go there often and develop a relationship with YOUR sales person. They will get to know your tastes and you will get to trust their judgements. Most wine shops have tastings from time to time. Go! You will get to learn about some new wines, have a chance to talk to the staff and meet some people who might share your interests. You can attend a tasting even if you don’t buy something.

Don’t let wine intimidate you! It’s just fermented grape juice, for goodness sake. It’s one of the oldest, simplest drinks humans have every known. Later on, we’ll look at some of the different types of wine and what you might expect from them.

Pantry Basics: In the Refrigerator

Now that you’ve stocked up the cabinets and shelves with Pantry Basics, it’s time to turn to the cold stuff. These are all pantry items that will need replenishment whether you use them or not. None of these items will keep without spoiling for more than a couple of weeks up to a few months, depending on what it is. The object of having a well-stocked pantry is that you can make almost anything at a moment’s notice.

Eggs. We’ve talked about eggs before. Don’t shy away from this food just because you’ve heard it’s high in fat and cholesterol. While that is true, if you don’t eat them everyday, the nutritional value outweighs the bad. Get farm fresh eggs at a farmers market if you can. Yes, you will pay more, but it is well worth it. There has been some study that says there’s no taste difference, but I disagree. Learn to compute the cost difference between the different size eggs. If the difference is the same, then it doesn’t matter which size you pick. If there is a difference, take the smaller size of the biggest difference. In other words, if there’s 10 cents between medium and large but 14 cents between large and extra large, the large eggs are the best value. Eggs should be allowed to come to room temperature before use if possible. If you’re in a hurry, you can put the eggs you’re going to use in a bowl of warm water for a few minutes.

Milk. Unless you’re getting raw milk from a farmer, what type or brand of milk you buy matters very little. Organic milk might be available in your area which might have a better taste but undoubtedly will cost more. All milk and dairy products in your supermarket are processed. This is due to federal laws and regulations that all dairies have to follow. So buy the cheapest you can get. Milk is picked up and transported in large tanker trucks like what’s used to deliver gasoline. It is then dumped into large holding tanks and pasteurized. There are two kinds of pasteurization. One heats the milk more slowly and to a lower temperature, thus preserving at least a little of the milk’s natural flavor. The other method, used most often today, is called ultra pasteurization. The milk is brought to a very high temperature for just a few seconds before being rapidly chilled to just below 40F. Either way, the milk is then separated, the cream and fat removed, and what’s left is skim milk. Some of that cream and fat will go to make butter, other portions will be put back into the milk in a controlled way to create whole, 1% and 2% varieties. Some milk will be redirected to make yogurt, sour cream, cream cheese, cottage cheese and other dairy products. Most of it will go to packaging. The fat difference between whole milk, which is 3% milkfat, and 2% is pretty small. However, between whole milk and skim, the difference is significant. All milk these days is homogenized,which means it is stirred until the cream (fat) dissolves into the rest of the milk.

Butter. Don’t be afraid to use real butter. There is nothing else to match that wonderful flavor. I don’t care what they say, there is no margarine or spread that can even come close to the taste of real butter. Yes, I know butter has a lot of saturated fat and cholesterol, but if you use it judiciously and with a little thought, you can make it no worse than margarine or other products. I avoid using butter in cooking if I can. Usually extra virgin or regular olive oil can substitute well. If it’s going to stand on it’s own, like on bread with no additions, go ahead and use the real thing. You’ll want to buy a butter dish for it. Keeping butter covered allows it to last unrefrigerated for up to a week. It’s the air that makes it go bad or rancid, not the temperature. If your home is warm, like in the summer months, put the butter in the fridge when not using it. Take it out a couple of hours before you need it so it can soften up. Whipped butter is not a value since it’s still not as spreadable as whipped margarine, which is very bad for you due to presence of trans fats. Besides, butter is all natural, so it can’t be as bad for you as a tub of chemicals.

Parmesan Cheese. A hard, sharp, dry Italian cheese made from skim cow’s milk. It is straw-colored and has rich flavor. It should be aged 12 to 16 months. It is made all over, but the best comes from Italy’s Parmigiano-Reggiano, which is often aged 2 years. Get the real thing, a wedge, if you can. It costs a bit, but it should last for a while. You’ll need a grater, too. Don’t get the little block inside a plastic grater bottle, it breaks. Also, stay away from the powder-like stuff, too, if you can. You can get it already grated or shredded, I find that works best for me. This can spice up lots of dishes, not just Italian food.

Condiments.  If you have them, put them in the ‘fridge.

Pantry Basics: Roots

The term “root cellar” refers to an underground storage area where fruit and vegetables that didn’t spoil so quickly could be stored. It was cool and dark, an ideal place for root vegetables, often the only food available in winter or during drought. It was protected from the heat of summer and from the cold of winter, usually keeping an even temperature all year. It was one of two ways before refrigeration people in rural areas had to keep things cool. The other was a stream box or stream chest, a slatted box with a lid that allowed extra milk, butter and eggs to be stored in a nearby creek or stream and kept cool for a few days. The money earned from these extra foods was called butter and egg money, which later referred to what was saved out of the household budget.

Root vegetables can keep for several months in a cool, dark environment. These include carrots, potatoes, onions, garlic, turnips, radishes, parsnips and rutabagas. Celery, rhubarb, beets, apples, home canned foods and smoked meats could also be stored in a root cellar. Every kitchen should have at least a few basics in their pantry.

Potatoes. This is American’s favorite vegetable. It is often served at every meal. It is as much a staple of our cuisine as bread. It can be served in a wide variety of ways. These tubers are members of the same  family as nightshade, henbane and tobacco. The leaves and seeds of the plant are poisonous. The tubers themselves can be poisonous in their raw state, with dangerous compounds lying just beneath the skin. Cooking or high heat will render those compounds safe. Potatoes originated in South America and were first cultivated by the Incas. There are more than 4,000 varieties grown all around the world. They can be baked, fried, boiled, steamed, roasted and cooked in just about any way you can imagine. The skin, well cleaned, is safe to eat and can improve the nutritional quality of potatoes. Nutritionally, potatoes are loaded with vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fiber and phytonutrients, but very little protein.

Onions. Like potatoes, these root vegetables come in many varieties, sizes and can be applied to many uses. These days, we mostly use onions as a seasoning or flavor enhancer. Onions are not tubers, but are bulbs that have been used in cooking since their earliest known human civilizations. It can be eaten raw or cooked or dried. It goes with almost all foods, cuisines and dishes. It is a basic flavoring in French cuisines’s mirepoix, a mixture of finely chopped onions, carrots and celery used a base for most dishes. Onions contain a sulfurous compound that creates an irritating gas when cut. Learning to cut onions efficiently and quickly can reduce exposure to this tear-inducing gas. Shallots, leeks and scallions (green onions) are also a part of this group but do not store for as long as most common onions.

Garlic. This is also a member of the onion family. It has many uses in both cooking and medicine. The garlic bulb is divided into several sections, called cloves. It is used in a wide variety of cuisines and cooking styles. It is believed to have originated in Southeast Asia, but it has been used for so long in so many parts of the world that scholars are unable to pinpoint its source. In the United States, most garlic comes from the town of Gilroy, California. Having been there, I can assure you that the aroma of garlic can be detected for many miles around this coastal town. China is the largest global producer of garlic. It is a must for cooking because it adds a huge amount of flavor and can save many dishes from being bland. Unlike potatoes, garlic should be stored at room temperature and dry to keep it from sprouting. Peeled garlic should be stored in wine or vinegar in the refrigerator. Be careful of using garlic to flavor stored oils, as it can create a dangerous mold that will make people sick. It has been claimed to be beneficial in the treatment of high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease, but this has not been confirmed in medical studies. It has been found to have an antibacterial quality which can be used to treat wounds and infections. Garlic also causes bad breath and smelly sweat due to a gas produced in the blood during digestion.

Pantry Basics: In The Freezer

The freezer is one of The Bachelor’s Kitchen’s best friends. It enables you to have quality meat and vegetables at any time. It should not be filled with frozen dinners, although one or two for emergencies, carefully chosen, might not be a bad idea. But the following items are things you should try to keep stocked at all times. Buy these in quantity when on sale so you have some fresh meal ingredients available when times get lean.

Chicken breasts. These are often on sale but in packages of three pounds or more. While that’s way more than any bachelor needs, buying in this quantity when the price is low is a good deal. When you get home, or at most the next day, wash and dry the beasts and wrap each one in its own plastic wrap. Wrap them as tightly as you can. If you’re going to be keeping them in the freezer for more than a week or two, also wrap each one tightly in aluminum foil. Place all of them in a zip-topped freezer bag and then the bag into the freezer. All this wrapping may seem excessive, but it will prevent freezer burn from ruining the meat. Use this same process for just about anything that might be left in the freezer for a while.

Frozen Vegetables. We really like frozen vegetables. They are not much, if any, more expensive than fresh. They already are cut and trimmed, so you’re not buying the parts of the plants you don’t eat, like corn cobs and broccoli stalks. They are well cleaned and ready to go into whatever dish you’re making. Do not eat thawed vegetables without thoroughly washing them. Some types of frozen vegetables will get mushy if thawed but not cooked. Avoid those in any kind of sauce or “ready to eat” additives. If unsure, just check the ingredients label.

If you want to make your own frozen vegetables, after cutting, cleaning and trimming them into individual pieces, make sure they are completely dry and lay them out on a cookie sheet with a little space between each one. Put the sheet in the freezer so each piece of vegetable is individually frozen. This should take a few hours. Then put the pieces in a zip-topped plastic bag and back into the freezer.

Ground Beef. For American kitchens, this is a staple, although it’s not as cheap as it once was. Still it’s a versatile beef that can do a lot more than just hamburgers. A pound of ground beef, a little pasta and some tomatoes and you’ve got a quick meal. If you buy this in quantity, separate it into about one-pound chunks before wrapping and freezing each chunk in its own package. If you know you’ll want some hamburger patties, you can make them now and individually wrap and freeze them for quick dinners.

Fish Fillets. You don’t have to be stuck with child-like fish sticks or even breaded fish. You can buy fillets of tilapia, salmon, whitefish and other mild, easy to cook fish in large bags, individually wrapped and frozen. Some people are afraid to cook fish, but it’s not as hard as you think. And there are people who had a bad fish experience in their past and think they don’t like it. But give it another shot, you might be surprised. Fish should never smell fishy. If you smell ammonia, it’s gone bad and should be thrown away. If you can, buy fresh fish just for the day you want it. But that’s hard to do if you live a long way from the coast, thus we have it on our Pantry Freezer Basics list. We’ll talk about some ideas to Bachelor Cook fish later.

You might wonder why I don’t list frozen fruit. It’s great for making smoothies or desserts, but not as just fruit. It gets too mushy after it thaws. Some cooks recommend the individually frozen method I mentioned above for vegetables, but I haven’t found it to work for all vegetables and most fruits. There are good uses for frozen fruit, but not as a Pantry Basic.

Pantry Basics: Non-Food Items

We’ve talked a lot about the ingredients you need to have a reasonably well-stocked pantry. There are plenty of items we could include, but we’ve tried to concentrate on the basics.

So, while we’re talking about Pantry Basics, in addition to food, you’re also going to need some other items to help keep your food. This entry will talk about all those non-food things your pantry should also include.

Containers. There’s not need to spend hundreds of dollars on expensive plastic containers from name-brand companies. You can now buy inexpensive containers that can go well in the refrigerator, freezer and microwave. Because they are inexpensive you don’t care if they get stained, lost or ruined. Starter sets are available or you can buy packages of just eh sizes you need. Typical sizes are called Entree (about the size of the center of a dinner plate, square), Side/Salad (more versatile cube-like and just the right size for a single serving of soup or stew), and Snack (small, can be rectangular or round, just the right size for dressing, condiments or single servings of protein). You can buy larger sizes, but I find breaking things down to fit these standard sized containers gives me more options, like one-serving meals or portions that can be divided into “use soon” in the fridge or “use later” in the freezer. These are a MUST for leftovers. As I don’t encourage bachelors to make single-serving meals, you need to have a way to keep leftovers and have them valuable for quick and easy meals when you get home from work and don’t want to cook or wait for a meal.

Plastic Wrap. This has been in American kitchens for many decades and it is so very useful. The advantage is that it keeps air from getting to food, and air is, as I have stated before, a greater threat than almost anything else. Plastic wrap should alway be backed up by other containment if used for storage. It can be used in the microwave, but only for short periods of time, as it will melt if what it’s covering gets too hot.

Aluminum foil. This has been around the kitchen even longer than plastic wrap and just of useful. The good thing is it can be used for cooking, except in the microwave.

Wax or Parchment Paper. Parchment usually refers to a writing surface made from animal skin, such as vellum. But parchment can be made from plant based materials. Fibers are boiled down from pulp and then collected and then washed, leaving behind just the cellulose which is then dried. This gives it a resistance to grease and a semi-transparency. Wax paper is regular paper coated with wax. These are not always interchangeable. Wax paper is very useful for mixing dry ingredients or coating a countertop to protect it from stains or dirt. It is also handy for covering dishes in the microwave to prevent splattering all over the inside of the oven. However, under high heat, the wax will melt making food taste like biting into a candle. Parchment paper is great for lining cookie sheets and cooking in the oven using a method called “en papier” (in paper). It will burn if it gets hot enough, but in contact with food it is safe.

Freezer and/or Storage Bags. The difference between freezer bags and storage bags is the thickness of the plastic. Freezer bags are able to keep out frost and some freezer burn, while a regular storage bag will not do quite as good a job. Freezer bags also allows less of the food’s scent through making them better for storing vermin-prone goods like flour, sugar or corn meal. But storage bags are usually cheaper. They both have their uses. Storage bags can usually only be used once, while freezer bags can, if kept clean, can be re-used, depending on what was stored inside. If it was meat, do not re-use the bag. But bread or wrapped products might be re-used if clean.

You can probably find other useful things to keep in the pantry, but these are the basics.

Pantry Basics: Dry Goods

In addition to the flour, sugar and baking mix I mentioned in an earlier article, there are a few other dry ingredients we need to have in the pantry.

Rice. This is a staple for most of the world. Only in the more Northern climates, like Europe and North America, do people consume more wheat and other grains. You can buy rice in many forms, but I stick with the very affordable five pound bag of regular long grain white rice. It is the easier to cook and the most adaptable to a wide range of recipes and cuisines. It is true that brown rice, which is exactly the same but with the outer hull still on, does have higher nutritional value. But it also requires longer cooking and can be more difficult to get right. You can buy instant rice if you’re not sure of your ability to cook rice without it coming up mushy or sticky. Instant rice is just rice that has been partially cooked and then dried. An agent to keep it from sticking together or absorbing moisture from the air are about the only things added. The boil-in-the-bag types are okay, too. The microwavable or boxed side dish varieties present a problem since they usually have lots of salt and other stuff in them. However, I will admit they are very convenient.

Cooking rice DOES take some practice. Sushi chefs spend two years just learning how to make the rice. Fortunately, rice is inexpensive. Start out with small amounts until you get the hang of it. Here are the tips:

  • Wash the rice in a strainer. Do it in batches if you have to. Rinse under cold running water and try to make sure every kernel gets doused. Don’t be afraid to get your hands in there and work the water and rice around. You are removing the excess starch on the outside of the rice kernels which can make the rice mushy or clumpy.
  • Add rice and cold water to a cold saucepan that has a good, tight-fitting lid. Use 3 cups of water to 2 cups of uncooked rice.
  • Add 1 teaspoon salt, or 1 chicken bouillon cube or 1 teaspoon chicken bouillon granules. You can also use 1 cup of chicken stock in place of 1 cup of water.
  • Stir once.
  • Put on high heat and bring to a rolling boil. You may stir once if you fear the rice might be sticking, but that’s all. Any more will make the rice mushy.
  • Turn the heat to low, cover and walk away for 15 minutes.
  • Remove from heat and let the pot sit for 10 minutes.
  • Now, carefully use a fork to fluff the rice and break it up.

It may not work the first time. Every stove and pot is different and can affect how the rice turns out. But once you get it, you’ll find it easier each time. I’m not a big fan of most rice cookers because I don’t think they turn out any better. For the beginner, instant rice is easier but may or may not be fool-proof.

Pasta. My problem with pasta, as I think I’ve mentioned, is that we eat too much of it because it’s cheap. As a processed food, dry pasta is not bad as it usually doesn’t have much of the bad stuff in it. FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS ON THE BOX! The times they give are usually pretty accurate. Do NOT throw pasta against the wall to see if it sticks. Just pull a bit of it up out of the pot, blow on it to cool and see how it feels in your mouth when you chew it. You’ll know if it’s right. Always use at least 4 quarts of water or more. This is one time a stock pot is really useful. Personally, I don’t think there’s much difference between one pasta brand and another. Think about using pasta more creatively instead of just a tomato based sauce. Mix with extra virgin olive oil, grated Parmesan cheese and dried basil for a classic Italian side dish. Pine nuts go great with this if you have some, but they are expensive. Mix vegetables, cheese, herbs and a little oil or butter to make a healthy side. Just don’t have a big plate of pasta with sauce and meatballs or meat sauce. That’s like eating half a loaf of bread.

Bread Crumbs. Like chicken stock or broth, I think you should make your own bread crumbs. It’s not hard. If completely dry, they can go in an airtight container (otherwise, stick them in the freezer). You can save up stale bread or crackers for just this purpose. If you must buy bread crumbs in the store, try to find Panko, the Japanese style breadcrumbs. Your last choice should be that sawdust in the container they sell. I don’t care how they dress it up, it’s still sawdust. It’s just too fine to create more than a mush. If you need bread crumbs for a recipe, put some bread in the toaster on the darkest setting without burning or blackening. If you have a food processor, use it. Otherwise, let the bread sit for a bit and try toasting again until you get as much moisture out of it as you can. Watch it carefully! If the oven’s already on, cut the bread into small pieces and arrange on a cookie sheet and bake until golden brown.

Next, the icebox.

What’s the difference between wines?

We thought it would be a good idea to talk about all the different kinds of wines and what makes them different. What is wine, anyway?

Wine is some kind of fruit juice that has been allowed to ferment. Fermenting mean the sugar in the juice has been eaten by micro organism called yeast, which are everywhere. The yeasts give off two things as they eat, grow, reproduce and die: alcohol and carbon dioxide. Wine is the oldest intoxicating drink known to humankind. It is made from various juices all around the world. The only places wine isn’t made are very cold climates where conventional fruit does not grow. Wine is usually made from grapes because this fruit has the best balance of acidity, sugar and amount of juice. Wine can also be made from any fruit juice and from some grains such as rice and barley. Most starchy grains are used to making brewed beverages, like beer, or distilled liquor, like vodka or whiskey. It’s believed that the earliest wines were made in the area around what is today Iran about 8,000 years ago.

Wine is named for the variety of grape used, the method and/or the region in which was made. For example, Chianti applies only to wine made mostly from Sangiovese grapes specifically grown in the Tuscany region of Italy. Champagne can be made from several different grape varieties, but can only come from the Champagne region of France. The method used is called Champagnoise, which can be applied to any sparkling (bubbly) wine but does not confer the name Champagne.

Laws generally state that a wine with a varietal name, such as Chardonnay, has to contain mostly Chardonnay grapes. Other juices can be added in small amounts to create a particular or consistent flavor. Wines that do not meet the majority grape requirements are called blends and usually have a trademarked marketing name, such as Meritage. Wine made from grapes mostly from a single harvest are called Vintage. This designation can mean a lot or mean nothing at all depending on the type, style and region of the wine. Winemakers try to make their products consistent from year to year, so vintage often doesn’t mean anything.

There are hundreds of wine grape varieties, many of them you have probably never heard of. Some of the more obscure grapes don’t make a very good wine by themselves, but are used as blending juices to create a particular taste. In addition to red and white, wines are also divided into dry and sweet. Most of the best wines are dry because sugar often hides the delicate combination of flavors that can exist in wine. But there are places for sweet wines, like Muscat, usually drank as a dessert. Rose or blush wines are always blends and are often sweeter than many popular wines. White Zinfandel, for example, has nothing to do with real Zinfandel, which is a hearty red wine. The sickeningly sweet White Zinfandel is a blend of chablis and whatever leftover red wine they have lying around. It is usually drank by people who don’t like the dry quality of most wines. The only good thing I can say for it is it doesn’t taste like wine.

What’s classified as sweet in wine terms is often not what most people consider sweet in food terms. Gewürztraminer, for example, is considered a sweet wine but its taste in food terms would probably be called semi-sweet.

You’ve probably seen on TV wine tasters swish the wine around their mouths and spit it out before precisely naming it down to the year. There are really very few people who can do that. The only reason they spit out the wine is because they are usually tasting so much that they would otherwise become too drunk to be able to identify the wine. The real way to taste wine is to use your nose. When a wine is presented to you, the waiter should hold the bottle so you can read the label and make sure it’s what you ordered. He or she should then lay the cork next to you after removing it from the bottle. Don’t smell the cork! That would only tell you something if the wine had gone bad, called corked, by reacting to some small germs in the cork itself. Cork is a natural product and even though they go through elaborate procedures to clean them, sometimes something slips through. Corked wine will smell of ammonia and dirty latrine. Believe me, there will be no question. Just return it. People in the wine and food business know this happens and factor that into their costs of doing business. All the cork can tell you most of the time is whether the wine has been stored properly. Wine should be stored long-term laying on its side so the liquid touches the cork. Keeping the cork wet makes it less likely the seal will be broken and air allowed into the bottle, which would make it go bad. Because of a shortage of cork oak trees, many corks today are made from a synthetic material that does not require being kept moist and will not allow the wine to become corked.

Wine should never completely fill the glass. It reacts with air, and you will want to swish the wine around inside the glass, causing some agitation to add air into the wine. Take your time, there’s no rush, even if some wait person is standing anxiously at your elbow. Some wine lovers like to look at how the wine coats the side of the glass. What this means is not always clear. Next, you want to smell the wine. Go ahead and stick your nose well down into the glass, as far as you can without actually getting your nose wet. The smell, or bouquet, of the wine is as much a part of the taste as what hits your tongue. The smell should give you some idea of the taste. You should smell fruit and other scents from around the vineyard. Lavender and earth smells might be present. Enjoy the smells whatever they might be.

Now, you’re finally ready to taste it. Sip a small amount into your mouth and swish it around a little. But NOT like mouthwash! Pucker your lips and suck in a little air, making bubbles in the wine in your mouth. This wakes up flavors you might not otherwise detect. Try to do this as quietly as you can. You’re not sucking down a shake with a straw, you know. Now, you can swallow. Pay attention to how the wine tastes as to goes to the back of your mouth and into your throat. There may be a lingering flavor, called a finish.

Red wines should be served at room temperature or just below, around 70 F. White wines should be cool but not cold, about 60 F. Icing down wine longer than needed to bring it down to temperature will kill the taste.

Now, enjoy it! Wine is an amazingly complex substance and has fascinated people for thousands of years. After all this, we still have more to cover, and we’ll do that soon.

Fear of Sauce Making

Novice cooks always seem to be afraid of making sauces. We have never understood why, exactly. Mother-Sauces

Some sauces are “fussy.” But most are simple and a byproduct of regular cooking.

Hot and cold

The first division we can make about sauces is they are either hot or cold. A hot sauce is probably what most of us think of when someone says “sauce.”

An example of a cold sauce would be something we think of as a condiment or a dipping sauce. Ketchup, salsa, tartar sauce or mustard are examples of cold sauces. Some, like ketchup, start out as a cooked sauce. But many are cold throughout. Cold sauces are some of the easiest to make and a good place for novice cooks to begin.

Salsatomato-and-pepper-salsa

This is one of the best examples of a cold sauce. It’s easy to make, consisting of tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, some spices and sometimes herbs like cilantro. The key to good salsa is to allow it time to let its ingredients get together and exchange flavors. It’s best to make salsa the night before you need it.

Hot

Hot sauces can be as simple as gravy or as complicated as Bechamel. Hot sauces are used most commonly as an enhancement to an entree or as a part of a dish. Most hot sauces use a roux (roo), a blend of flour and fat, as a starting point. But many begin with some basic vegetable combinations, as in a pasta sauce.

We divide hot sauces into three groups: gravy, topping and rouxs.

Gravy

gravyMany don’t think of gravy as a sauce, but that’s exactly what it is. Its shares many of the same elements as a roux. It is also one of the first sauces many cooks learn to make. It is a rustic sauce made from the drippings of roasted or fried meats. Flour is added to the drippings in small amounts. Lots of stirring with a whisk is required. Other liquids can be added, like wine, vinegar, milk, cream or stock. The combination is brought to a boil and then simmered until thickened. This is ideal to do while meat is resting, because it takes about ten or fifteen minutes.

Topping

homemade marinara sauceA topping sauce is something like a pasta sauce, the most common of them. Pizza sauce also qualifies. These usually start with some basic vegetables, like celery, onion and garlic, brought together with oil in a pot. Tomatoes or tomato sauce are added along with herbs, water or broth and spices then cooked until the flavors come together. We recommend making your own sauce instead of opening a jar. It does not take much longer and the freshness and quality are so much better.

Rouxs

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThese sauces usually begin with flour and fat. In this category we find the famous four French “mother” sauces, each a basic sauce from which other sauces can be made by adding other ingredients.

The most basic sauce in this group is Bechamel, a simple butter, milk and flour sauce which becomes the base for cheese sauce among others. These can be toppings, but they can also be essential to a dish, like lasagna or Eggs Benedict.

A Basic Bechamel Sauce begins with melting 5 tablespoons of butter in a bechamelsaucesaucepan over medium heat. A 1/4 cup of all purpose flour is sprinkled in a little at a time, whisking constantly. Stir until the mixture is smooth and begins to brown. It takes about 7 minutes to reach of golden sandy color.

Remember that lighter color rouxes have less flavor but more thickening power. Darker roux’s, often found in Cajun cooking, are more flavorful and lose most of their thickening power.

Whisking continuously, slowly stir in 1 quart of milk. Bring the mixture to a gently simmer, barely bubbling, then lower the heat to medium-low. Cook for 10 to 20 minutes, stirring frequently until the mixture no longer tastes gritty. Season with a coupe teaspoons of salt and some freshly grated nutmeg. Remove from heat.

Now you can add cheese or other ingredients if you want more than just the usual Bechamel.

The key to most sauces is lots of stirring and gently handling. Sometimes a sauce “breaks,” meaning it separates. Usually, adding a little more liquid under a low heat will fix a broken sauce.

Kitchen Intermediates: Griddle

As we continue our series on intermediate level kitchen equipment, things that are useful but not essential, we take on one of my favorites — the griddle.

A griddle is a flat surface, usually metal in the developed world, that’s used for cooking all sorts of foods. It’s kind of like a large, flat fry pan. You’ve seen the big industrial models in restaurants and diners. There, it’s called a flat top. In the underdeveloped world, a griddle can be a flat stone or brick tablet over an open flame. Flatbreads are a common item cooked over this type of griddle.

When I was a kid, we had a two-burner cast-iron griddle that was used almost as often as the cast iron skillet. Believe it or not, those are still available. In fact, if you can afford it, this is the preferable model because it has the weight to sit flat on the stovetop.

Another variation is the griddle pan. Most in this country are square with a single handle. The problem with these is they lack to weight to sit even on the burner. I have one of these. I like it and I use it quite a bit. But without food on it, the handle weight causes the other end to rise up off the burner. Also, it doesn’t heat as evenly as I would like.

This is a variation on a Welsh griddle, which is cast iron, round and has a single handle. It looks like a crepe pan, for which it is ideal. A griddle typically has either a short rim or a shallow trough for grease.

Another type is the tappan, a Japanese griddle you may have seen in robata restaurants like Beni Hana.

You also may have seen an electric griddle, similar to an electric skillet or grill. The problem with these is uneven heating.

Costs for a griddle or griddle pan can range from about $15 to well over $100.

The griddle is a close cousin of the indoor grill or a grill pan. But we’ll look at those later.