Love to cook? Read on for professional tips on building flavor without all the calories!

Archive for October, 2012

What pan should I use?

Pots and pans are shaped differently for good reasons. Learning about them is, however, an often overlooked lesson for new cooks. Here’s a quick primer on what vessel to use when:

For searing meats, use a frying pan. They have short sides so that steam can escape and you can get a good sear (browning) on your meat. Too much steam will hold liquid in the pan and cause boiling. This means that your meat won’t have enough contact with the hot pan surface and it won’t brown. This is the same reason that it’s important to be careful not to crowd the pan. Too much food in the pan can also cause boiling because there are too many juices running from the meat. Again, your meat will not properly sear (brown).

For roasting in the oven,use a large pan and leave space around your food. This will allow the heat to reach all around it and it will brown evenly.

For cooking in liquid (braising), use a heavy pan with medium high sides (like a Dutch oven) and cover it. This will keep the liquid from evaporating and contain it around the food so that it assists flavoring and simmering. Use just enough liquid to surround the meat so that it will flavor the meat and cook it gently.

For making a reduction, use a pot with a large surface area — one that is wider than it is tall. Spreading out the liquid exposes more of the surface liquid to the air and it will reduce faster. Note that liquids reduce slowly at first and more quickly as time goes on. Therefore, you need to pay close attention as you have less and less liquid. If you are not careful, you can not only totally boil your liquid away. Not only will you have no product left, if you leave it unattended long enough, you can overheat your pan and catch it on fire!

For making stock, use the opposite type of pan that you would use for a reduction. You want the liquid to simmer but not boil away (reduce), so use a pot that is taller than it is wide. Less surface area is exposed, so the liquid will not boil away as quickly.

For melting products (like chocolate) that can easily burn, use a double boiler (two pots that fit together). The bottom pot contains water (just enough so when it boils the water does not touch the top pot) and the top pot sits on top, just above the water. This causes a very gentle heating process that insulates tender products and protects them from burning.

The same is true for baking tender things like custard in the oven. You can cook them in a water bath by placing the cooking vessels on a jelly roll pan (cooking sheet with sides) or larger pan with sides and then adding just enough water to come about half way up the sides of the vessels containing your custard.

For steaming, use 2 pots that are almost exactly like a double boiler, except that the top pot has holes in it to allow the steam from the boiling water to come through and cook (steam) the food. Generally, use a pot that is several inches taller and wider than what you want to cook. If your pot is too large, you can burn your food. If it’s too small, it can overflow, so choose the size of the pan according to how much food you want to cook.

Don’t forget to allow for food that grows in size as it cooks, like rice (which triples in size) and caramel corn sauce (which bubbles up when the soda is added).

No matter what pan you are using, remember to stay in total control of your heat. Pans with heavy bottoms will help, but it’s up to you to cook food steadily and carefully so that it won’t burn. Have fun!

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Burdock… the late, great, mis-understood starch!

Bored with your vegetable choices? If you are a fan of Asian cuisine, you may have eaten something called burdock root and not even realized it. If you’re not a fan of Asian cuisine, you might want to discover this interesting and tasty vegetable. Although it used to be standard fare in western cuisines, burdock is now regularly available only in Asian grocery stores.

Called “Gobo” in Japanese and “u-eong” in Korean, this unattractive stalk is covered with a tough looking brown skin. Actually the tap root of the burdock plant, it can grow up to 3-1/2 feet in length and usually has a diameter of about two inches. Touching the skin, however, reveals that it is amazingly thin and can easily be peeled with a standard potato peeler – and that’s exactly what you should do with it. Peel it and cut it into strips or chop it into ¼” circles. If you are chopping a lot of it, get the pieces into cold water as soon as you can. Like other white root vegetables (the potato for example), it will discolor as it oxidizes. It looks most interesting when it’s cut into circles because the way the fiber is arranged makes it appear like slices of banana.

The best way to cook burdock root is to braise it. Put the pieces in an appropriately sized sauce pan. Make sure you have a lot of surface area and add beef broth just to cover. Then turn the heat on low to medium and simmer it until the pieces are tender. Don’t cover the pan because you want the broth to almost cook away. (Keep an eye on it so that the liquid doesn’t entirely cook away and burn. This will take about 30 minutes.) Then sprinkle it with salt and pepper and it’s ready to eat. The broth will have become a moisturizing sauce so you don’t need to add any butter or oil. In fact, the dish is better without either of them because the natural taste of the root is not disguised. The taste is similar to a sweet carrot, although al dente burdock pieces will also remind you of water chestnuts or artichoke, which is actually a relative. It is absolutely delicious with a beef steak or roast. In Asian restaurants, it is often braised, pickled or shredded and served with Asian sauces.

What to do with leftovers? Add the cooked burdock to a stir fry or re-fried rice. Use it to thicken a soup. Chop it and use it as a steak topping or mix it into a meat salad. It will fit anywhere you might think about adding cooked carrot or celery and will give an interesting twist to your meal.

Burdock is also nutritious. It contains starch, fiber, calcium, amino acids and protein – all packaged together without a ton of calories. In some circles, it is also thought to have great medicinal attributes. It’s possible to find all kinds of scalp treatments and burn creams made using it in health food stores. As well, some people think it is useful for combating toxins in the body and that it has diuretic properties.

The burdock plant can be found growing in the woods. It grows huge leaves that can be very irritating to human skin and it blooms generally in the summer and early Fall. Its purpose in nature? Primarily food for a variety of moths, as well as humans who are adventurous enough to try it.

The burdock bloom is in the form of a purple thistle or burr that spreads its seeds by grabbing on to passers-by for a quick ride to a new place. This, in fact, is exactly what happened to a Swiss man whose name was George de Mestral. In the 1940’s, George was walking in the woods and got a number of burrs on his pants. George was an inventor and curious about everything, so he examined the burr to see what caused it to lock so beautifully onto other surfaces. He saw that the burr was a collection of little hooks and he was actually imitating this quality of the burdock plant when he invented the hook and loop system that changed our lives and became known as Velcro!

Like many mushrooms and other plants that grow in the woods, take care if you decide to pick burdock yourself. A plant called Deadly Nightshade (Belladonna) looks almost exactly like it and is extremely poisonous. You should know what you are doing or you should buy it from someone you trust.

You will always find it in Asian stores. If you’re up for trying something new, have a go at it and report back!

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