Friday, December 17, 2004

Article on buying meat

Here's a great article on "How to talk to your butcher."

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Bread and drink

You sit down at the table. Is your drink on your left or your right? What about your bread plate? One wrong move and you can mess up the entire table.

The last post reminded me of a simple way to figure all of this out. With both hands, touch the tips of your index finger and thumb, and straighten the rest of your fingers. Now, hold your hands so that you're looking at two circles. It should look something like this: b d. You've got it right there! [b]read is on the left; [d]rink is on the right.

Testing doneness by touch

When you test doneness by cutting into a piece of meat, juices come flowing out because the meat hasn't had a chance to rest and allow the juices to redistribute evenly throughout the meat. Instead, test doneness by poking the surface with your finger. Here's how:

1) With your left hand, lightly touch the tip of your index finger to the tip of your thumb.
2) With your right hand's index finger, press the muscle at the base of your thumb on the inside of your left hand's palm.
3) Compare how that feels to when you press the surface of your meat.

Those are the steps. Here are the rules:

1) Touching the index finger to thumb = rare
2) Middle finger = medium rare
3) Ring finger = medium
4) Pinky = well done

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Searing meat until golden brown

When you go to a nice restaurant, chances are that any meat dish you get will have a nice sear -- be it chicken, beef, pork, or even fish. Getting a nice sear on your meat at home is quick and simple, and requires a few basic steps.

1) Use the right pan, and make sure it's hot. Do NOT use nonstick pans -- they don't sear meats well. What you'll find is that your meat is cooked but you won't have a lot of coloration. In general, you can use All Clad pans, or Calphalon pans that are either stainless steel or hard anodized, or basically, anything that is not non-stick. In general, you want a thicker pan -- not those cheap $10 pans, but something that is thick and retains heat well and distributes heat evenly. Make sure you heat up the pan nice and hot. Medium high is usually the maximum temperature you want to use, since you don't want your food to burn. Turn the heat on the pan around 3 minutes before you put the meat into the pan, and feel the air around the pan before putting the oil/butter in. This brings us to the second point.

2) Use butter if you want to cheat. You can get a nice sear on your meat using vegetable oil or olive oil, with the proper heating of the pan and the right pan. However, if you use butter, the fats in the butter will naturally brown and caramelize. This trick works especially well with delicate meats like fish and scallops. Just remember not to turn the heat too high, otherwise your butter will blacken or your oil will smoke. If it's smoking, turn the heat down. Medium high is usually hot enough.

3) Dry your meat and salt it. Make sure your meat isn't dripping with liquid. Add a nice layer of salt and other dry seasoning if appropriate. The seasoning will stick to the meat and help form a nice crust on the meat. If you've marinated your meat, don't resalt it, unless you like things really salty.

4) Put your meat in the hot pan, and leave it alone. Don't push on it. Don't move it around. Don't poke it. Watching people cook steaks and pieces of meat is sometimes painful -- they push on the meat, pushing the liquid out and leaving the meat dry, or they flip it too often. Put the side that you want to present face down. Leave your meat in the pan for a good amount of time -- let it sear, and let it cook mostly on this first side you put down. It won't stick to the pan if you let it sit and cook. I usually watch the side of the meat to see how far it has been cooked. If you look at the top view of the meat, it should obviously still be uncooked, since you haven't flipped it. But look at the side-view -- when the side view looks like it has cooked around 3/4 to all the way to the top, it's time to flip the meat.

5) Flip your meat -- use tongs or something to do it. Now, leave it alone. Don't flip it back and forth. When you flip it back and forth, all you do is heat up the outer surface of the meat, and it continues to dry out. What you want is the interior of the meat to cook, and to do that, the heat has to penetrate through the exterior portions of the meat, and to do that, you have to let the meat sit on the pan long enough on one side so it gets to the middle.

6) Take your meat off the pan and let it rest for a few minutes. Let your meat rest a little after cooking. The heat in the meat will continue the cooking process. If you cut it right away, the juices will spill out and your meat will be dryer than if you let it sit for a few moments first.

In the next blog post, maybe Andy will talk about how to determine whether a piece of meat is medium rare, medium, or well done, just by poking the exterior.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Seems healthful until you make it

In college, it was frozen yogurt. Now it's Jamba Juice smoothies. These "ice cream substitutes" are almost worse than the real thing because people often believe they are healthful substitutes. Frozen yogurt and smoothies may have less fat than ice cream, but packed with sugar, they are not exactly healthful. They are okay substitutes until people feel like they are healthful and end up eating/drinking five times more than if they had been eating ice cream.

The same goes for bagels and muffins. Most people feel like a bagel or a muffin beats a donut. From a transfat perspective, they are, but a problem arises when people think bagels and muffins are healthful and therefore, end up consuming more fat and calories than had they allowed themselves to indulge in a donut. This MSNBC article provides a caloric and fat breakdown of donuts, bagels, and muffins.

While this is not exactly cooking advice, there is a cooking-related moral to the story. Often, once you make it and know what goes into it, you will never order it at a restaurant again. About five years ago, Ben and I made creme brulee once. We have never made or ordered it since.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

More on picking vegetables and fruits

When picking fruits at the market, make sure you smell them. If they smell sweet, that's a good sign. Fruit that doesn't smell usually is not as good as fruit that has a strong sweet smell.

Pick fruits that are heavy for their size -- meaning that they have a lot of water content. Some of this comes with experience, but you can always ask the guy at the store to cut you a small piece from some fruit that you want.

For vegetables, a similar philosophy applies. Vegetables should be vibrant in color, and not wilted. Broccoli heads should be tight and dark green. Purple means that it's old.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Picking veggies 101

In today's "Today" article, Phil Lempert shares some advice for picking and storing fresh vegetables. In terms of where to buy vegetables and fruits, for locals, I suggest the Milk Pail Market near the San Antonio Shopping Center. The produce is fresh and cheap. They also have a huge selection of cheeses at low prices.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Icy ice cream

For some reason, many ice cream maker manuals and recipes seem to leave out one crucial step in the ice cream making process. Everything has to be really cold.

First, the ice cream maker's inner container has to be completely frozen. Most people do this. Second, the ice cream mixture has to be cooled to room temperature and then chilled in a refrigerator for several hours before it is poured into the ice cream maker.

If your homemade ice cream is icy, the container or the mixture was not cold enough. Why is this? Consider why you cannot just forget the ice cream maker and stick the mixture straight into the freezer. Ice crystals form and you get a solid chunk of ice. Moving the mixture around while it is being frozen prevents ice crystals from forming, resulting in a creamy texture. When either the mixture or the container is not cold enough, the mixture cannot freeze enough before it is put in the freezer. So when the partially-frozen ice cream mixture goes in the freezer, ice crystals form.

So, next time you have an immediate craving for homemade ice cream, make your mixture, chill it in the refrigerator, and then go out and buy some Mitchell's or Rick's.