Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Praise for Braising!

            Have recent increases in the price of meat leave you with the thought of becoming a vegetarian? With no disrespect to my vegetable eating friends, there is a great technique to bring extreme flavour and tenderness to cheaper cuts of meat. It’s called “braising”.

            Braising is typically the process of first searing meat and then cooking it in a small amount of liquid at low temperatures for a long period of time. This low & slow method, along with the added moisture, is the ideal environment for breaking down connective tissue and thus making the meat more tender. The residual liquid is almost always transformed into a serving sauce with the prepared meat. Braising is used for both large cuts of meats and also for smaller individual cuts, with the main difference being the length of cooking time. Stews are another great example of braising.

            Before the first step of searing, seasoning should be done. By seasoning before searing, the crust that is being created becomes more flavourful as the seasoning becomes part of the crust. This seasoning does not have to be complex. It’s as simple as a dusting of salt and pepper, or as intricate as you want it to be. This flavourful browning of the meat will bring out incredible tastes in your finished dish.

            The searing should be done at a high temperature in order to create brownness on the meat. If the temperature is too low, or if a pan is too crowded, then the initial escaping moisture from the meat will not evaporate, and thus the meat will just boil in its own juices instead of browning.

            The cooking liquid chosen should be selected to compliment the meat/dish. The amount of liquid will be different for every application. Stews are usually submersed in liquid for the cooking time, while pot roasts, for example, usually have just enough liquid to cover the meat by one third to two thirds. Some individual cuts of meat, like pork chops, can be cooked with a lid with no added liquid. Just the trapped moisture in the meat itself may be enough for braising.

            At the end of the cooking time, the residual cooking liquids can be easily transformed into accompanying sauces by reducing, thickening, or a combination of both. Before deciding how to finish your sauce, it will start with tasting. How are the flavours? How intense is it? If you decide that the flavours and intensity are sufficient, then a simple thickening will do: enter in a dissolved
cornstarch slurry and bring to a full boil. If you find that the flavours and intensity are not sufficient, then boil the liquid as is, until it reduces through evaporation of water content. Taste along the way and decide when the sauce is ideal. This may also involve adjusting and balancing the flavours along the way. Once the desired taste is achieved, examine the sauce to see if thickening is even required, as it may have thickened enough on its own during this reduction time.

            Learning many cooking techniques are great to assist you in the kitchen by increasing your skillset, but nothing can replace the hands-on experience of practice. Cook, be happy, know that you will make mistakes along the way, and enjoy life. Life is too short to get stressed out by a serving of food that is not perfect. Until next time... Happy Cooking!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

“Oven Dried” Tomatoes instead of “Sun Dried”

            If you like tomatoes, chances are you also love the taste of robust sun-dried tomatoes. They can be purchased either packed in oil, vacuum packed, or dehydrated; and when buying them from the store, I like the ones packed in oil the best. The ones made from scratch however, are even tastier.

            Whatever the process, dried tomatoes are more concentrated in flavor because most of the water content has been removed during the drying process. Although this recipe is called Oven “Dried” Tomatoes, they are not really dried; they are still moist but have just shrunk to approximately one-third to one-quarter of their original size and have really intense flavour. We love using these in a
number of recipes such as pasta, pizza, sandwiches, or even just eating them on their own. The downside of this recipe is the length of time they need to be in the oven. Cooking them at a low temperature for a long period of time is the best way to extract moisture, intensify flavours, without burning them in the process. Close attention is needed in the latter part of the cooking process to ensure that they do not get overcooked, dried out, and/or burnt. The cooking time is an approximation and will depend on a number of factors: the size of the tomatoes, the ripeness of the tomatoes, the correct calibration of your oven, etc. Do not let this scare you however, just pay attention, that’s all.

            This is a great recipe to make on a day when you are going to be home anyway and want the warm Mediterranean aromas filling your house. Since they are not completely dried however, they do not last indefinitely. Once cooled, store them in an airtight container and keep refrigerated for up to 7 days. Enjoy!
            I have a Big Green Egg outdoor barbecue/smoker and making this recipe with charcoal and your choice of wood is even more incredible than the oven process!

Oven Dried Tomatoes
10 fresh Roma tomatoes
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp. dried basil leaves (not ground basil)
1 tbsp. dried oregano leaves (not ground oregano)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp fresh cracked pepper

1. Preheat oven to 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Remove and discard any green tops of the tomatoes, slice in half from top to bottom (lengthwise), and place them in a mixing bowl.
3. Add the olive oil, balsamic, basil, oregano, salt & pepper, and toss to coat. Gently work a small amount of pulp out of the tomato halves while working the flavourings into the tomato cavities.
4. Arrange the tomatoes cut side up on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
5. Spoon the remaining liquid from the bowl over the tomatoes and lightly season each one again with salt & pepper.
6. Bake for approximately 5 to 6 hours, until the tomatoes have reduced by approximately two-thirds or three-quarters in size but are still moist. Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature.
7. Use in a number of recipes such as pastas, pizzas, bruschetta, grains, etc... anywhere you want incredible tomato flavour.

Makes 20 halves
This recipe is included in Chef Dez's book: "The Best In Your Kitchen"
Until next time... Happy Cooking!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Versatility That Sticks to the Roof of Your Mouth

            As a child, I remember when I first discovered the taste of a peanut butter and banana sandwich and wondered how many others knew about this phenomenon. The contrasting flavours of salty nuttiness and the sweetness opened up a whole new world for me. I then started searching for other ways to indulge my newly established passion for peanut butter. Spreading a spoonful of it on each bite of an apple was my favorite.
            My fascination of peanut butter has matured since then, and I have discovered many ways to use this household pantry staple. The most important thing to keep in mind however, is the growing number of peanut allergies in people. Always inquire with dinner guests to discover any allergies you may not be aware of before planning a menu.
            Peanut butter has been in existence for hundreds of years and is a regular food item in over 70% of households. Peanut butter, in moderation, is a good part of a balanced diet and a source of protein. Although it contains a large amount of fat, approximately 80% of the fat content is unsaturated. Unsaturated fats have been proven to help reduce levels of LDL-cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) without lowering HDL-cholesterol (the good one). If the healthy aspect is your focus however, you are much better off with natural peanut butters where the ingredients are just peanuts. Peanut butters that are not natural may contain unhealthy artificially produced trans-fats, which have been linked to increases in LDL-cholesterol.
            We only buy natural peanut butter in our family, but because of the lack of preservatives it needs to be kept in the refrigerator once opened. Many people complain about the natural separation of the oil upon opening a fresh jar and about the hard consistency when using it cold from the refrigerator, but we have a couple of ways to get around this.
            When we buy a new jar we store it upside down in our pantry before opening. The separated peanut oil is lighter and will always rise to the top, and since the jar is upside down the oil is now at the bottom of the jar once turned right side up. This allows you to more easily incorporate the oil back in without it spilling over the top - a simple butter knife works great. We also throw in a few pinches of salt for flavour. Now that the peanut butter is blended back together it is ready to go to the refrigerator and it will then stay homogenized together. Some people will remove all of the contents from the jar and whir it in a food processor to achieve this, but to me that seems like a lot of extra equipment to clean.
            When it comes to using the hard cold peanut butter on bread or toast, we simply heat the small portion we are going to use. We have a toaster oven and once the bread has been toasted, we place a serving of cold peanut butter on each piece and put it back in the warmed oven for approximately 30 seconds (with the toaster oven off), and then it will spread very easily. Alternatively, if you don’t own a toaster oven, just microwave a portion for a few seconds. The ‘old school’ way would be to plan ahead and leave some out at room temperature beforehand.
            The first alternate use for peanut butter that comes to mind is for making sauces and/or dressings. Use it as a base in a spicy peanut dressing for your favorite salad, or in a peanut sauce for your next stir-fry. There are many recipes available to successfully accomplish these ideas. For a fantastic finishing touch make sure that the garnish for these dishes include a handful of roasted peanuts. For added dimension of flavour and richness in chili, soups and stews, a tablespoon or two of peanut butter is fantastic, but again be sure about any allergy possibilities as most people won't suspect it in these meals.
            One substitution that always keeps me reaching for the peanut butter, is to replace tahini. I love Greek hummus (ground chic pea dip), and it usually requires a sesame paste called tahini. Since I hardly ever have tahini on hand, peanut butter is a wonderful alternative. It is the same consistency as tahini, and the flavour depth that the peanut butter adds to the recipe is incredible.
            In addition to these uses there are many desserts that feature the wonderful taste of peanut butter. I cannot stress enough to take advantage of the free resources like the library and the internet for an abundant number of recipes.
            Experimenting in the kitchen is the pathway to creating recipes that you can call your own and take pride in. Have fun trying these suggestions, but if all else fails there is still one use that you can rely on: the next time you have a case of the hiccups, swallowing a tablespoon of peanut butter will usually eliminate them.
            Until next time... Happy Cooking!

Friday, May 12, 2017

3 Wicked Sauces for Your Steak

            One of my favorite meats on the barbecue is a good beef steak. I used to be somewhat of a purest and insist on only salt & pepper gracing this grilled wonder, but I have lightened up over the years. Although I have never been (and never will be) a fan of coating a beef steak with traditional type barbecue sauce, my wife loves sauce with almost everything. So to please her palate, and mine as well, I usually turn to one of these three incredible sauces. I hope you like them. Until next time... Happy Cooking!

Peppercorn Sauce
2/3 cup full bodied red wine
2 tbsp concord grape jelly
1/2 cup whipping cream
1/2 cup beef stock
2 tbsp canned green Madagascar peppercorns, drained
1 tbsp butter

In a large pan over medium-high heat add the wine and grape jelly. Boil until the wine has reduced in volume by half, and the jelly has melted into the wine.
Add the cream and beef stock and continue to boil until the sauce has become thickened and syrupy, stirring frequently.
Pull the pan off the heat. Stir in the strained peppercorns and butter and serve immediately.

Jus (brothy sauce like you would get with prime rib)

1 cup full bodied red wine
3 garlic cloves, peeled and cut in half
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 cup beef broth
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar

Combine the red wine, garlic cloves, and rosemary in a small pot. Boil over medium/high to high heat until the wine has reduced in volume by half. Add the beef stock, salt and sugar. Stir to combine, cover and set aside off the heat until your meat is cooked.
While the meat is resting, warm the Jus in the pot until hot, strain the garlic and rosemary out and portion into small dipping cups for serving.

Garlic Compound Butter
1 cup butter, room temperature
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

Mix the butter, garlic, parsley and parmesan thoroughly.
Shape in wax paper into a 1-inch cylindrical shape. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap.
Store in the refrigerator (or freezer) until needed.
To serve as a complimentary sauce: unwrap and slice thick circles of the butter to let melt on the hot grilled steaks.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Thawing Meat Safely for Cooking

            Most of us all lead very busy lives, or at least we claim to. We also freeze meat for future dinners because we either bought too much, it was on sale and so we stocked up, or we just plainly don’t want to grocery shop any more often than we have to. Perhaps you have freezing meat down to a science, such as airtight bags, labels, freezer stock rotation, etc. But what about the thawing process?

            There are a couple of thawing processes that I cringe at the thought of, a couple more that are questionable, and two that are ideal depending on how far advanced you are in your meal planning process.

            We have all been there: You come home from work, you have little time to prepare dinner, and there is no meat thawed to cook with. If you are vegetarian, vegan, or it is the first day of the work week and you celebrate “Meatless Monday”, then you are in luck. For the rest of us meat-loving carnivores, what are our options?

            One of the worst things we could have done was to leave meat out on the counter all day to thaw. Food born bacteria growth happens at a fast rate between temperatures of 4 degrees Celsius and 60 degrees Celsius (40F-140F) and food should be kept out of this danger zone as much as possible. Leaving your meat on the counter is not an ideal climate as chances are your kitchen temperature is never below 4 degrees Celsius.

            Some claim that small portions of meat that have been frozen in a flat manner (a thinner mass and more contact with the thawing surface area) can be thawed faster at room temperature if placed on an aluminum pan. Supposedly the aluminum will conduct the heat in the air faster to the meat, and thus providing faster thawing. However, I still believe that this would not be fast enough for safe temperature stabilization.

             Thawing in the microwave (you know we have all tried this) will bring parts of the meat into the danger zone, but for very little time in contrast to the all-day exposure to room temperature. However, this is still not ideal and microwave thawing also adds the undesirable effect of cooking the outer parts of the meat during this so-called thawing process.

            Some insist that leaving the meat in a sink of cold water is best, but I still have to disagree. This is also an uncontrolled environment. Eventually the water temperature will change, albeit slowly because of the chunk of frozen meat submersed in it, because the surrounding air is still room temperature.

            The two best options in my opinion are as follows:

            Think ahead and transfer meat from the freezer to the refrigerator for 24 to 72 hours (depending on the mass size of the meat) before you intend on cooking it. This will keep the meat in a safe temperature controlled environment while it thaws. Keep in mind you will want to practice food safe measurements by keeping the meat well contained and in the lower levels of your refrigerator so as to less likely transfer raw meat bacteria to your fridge or other foods.

            The other option is to make sure the frozen meat is completely sealed in bags with little air. Transfer to a large container that will fit in your sink, but also will not block the flow of water through the drain. Fill the container with cold water, and then reduce the flow of water to a slow trickle (or slightly more). Let the water continuously overflow over the sides of the container and run down the drain until the meat is thawed. This is very fast as long as the meat has been frozen in individual sized portions (not a bunch of chicken breasts stuck together for example). The continuous cold water will keep the water cold and the movement of the flowing water will also aid in the thawing process. Take note: this is to be done while you are at home and staying focused on the situation – not while you are away from the home. Prepping other parts of the meal while this is happening is a good habit to get into. I have thawed chicken breasts in this manner in less than 30 minutes, and seafood in even less time. The obvious downside would be the waste of water.

            So contained in all good advice of meal planning, retirement savings, and countless other situations and topics: plan ahead for best results. Until next time... Happy Cooking!