Friday, July 28, 2017

Cooking Pasta for the Best Results


            A staple in almost every home’s pantry is spaghetti or some form of pasta that makes its way to the dinner table on a regular basis.  Many of us take the time to focus on building the flavour and complexity of the accompanying sauce for our pasta of choice; however the pasta itself needs attention as well. Many food articles could be dedicated to achieving palate-pleasing goals in pasta sauces, but let us not forget about the substance of these dishes – the pasta noodle. Thus this blog entry will be focused on unraveling some myths and procedures in what seems to be one of the simplest tasks in the kitchen – boiling water and cooking pasta.

            The first thing to examine is the dry pasta noodle and the transformation that takes place during the cooking process. The most obvious observation is that cooked pasta is larger in volume and flexible, compared to dry raw pasta. What makes this possible is the absorption of water during the boiling process. The cooking process of any food, no matter how simple it seems, needs to be analyzed because this is our chance of infusing flavour into the ingredients being cooked.

            Everyone has heard of the process of salting water when boiling pasta, but why? Some believe it is to help the pasta from sticking or to help keep the water from boiling over; however the reason is to season the pasta and to increase the flavour. Pasta on its own is very bland, and combining bland cooked pasta with a sauce that you have perfected, will be a detriment to your finished dish. If the pasta water is salted liberally then the pasta will be absorbing salt-water, instead of just water, and thus your pasta dish will be seasoned from the inside out.

            Another no-no is to add oil to your pasta water. This idea probably first came about to prevent the pasta noodles from sticking together, however it will affect your finished dish negatively. Oiled pasta water will help to keep your pasta from sticking together when cooking, but a film of oil will always be left on the drained noodles. This thin film of oil will inhibit the starchiness of the cooked pasta and then in turn lead to the accompanying sauce to not stick to or absorb into the noodles as much. When pasta is eaten you want the starchiness of the pasta to hold onto the sauce as much as possible, so that the dish will be able to be enjoyed to the fullest. That being said, drained cooked pasta should not be oiled for the same reason.

            A better way to help prevent your pasta noodles from sticking together during the cooking process is to stir the noodles constantly for the first two minutes of cooking time. By that point the water will have returned to its full-boil action and the agitation of the bubbling water will keep the pasta moving and prevent it from sticking.

            There are many ways that people use to determine that pasta is cooked to perfection – including the old wives’ tale about throwing it against the wall, and if it sticks, it’s done. The best way is to let your mouth do the talking. Carefully remove a strand or piece of pasta from the boiling water. After waiting a few seconds to cool down, take a bite. It should feel ‘el dente’, meaning ‘to the tooth’ in Italian. This relates to the feeling that the pasta should not be overcooked and offer some resistance when biting into it. It should not be hard, but should not be too soft and mushy either. The package of the pasta you purchase will always offer a guideline cooking time, but your bite will always give you the right answer.

            Once the pasta has been drained, do not rinse it. Rinsing will cool the pasta down and also wash away some of the starchiness that we want to help secure the sauce to the noodles. Once drained thoroughly, immediately toss the cooked pasta with the sauce. This will keep the pasta strands from sticking to each other, and will start the absorption process of the sauce into the pasta - yes, pasta absorbs flavours from the sauce even if the pasta is already cooked. Think of leftover homemade chicken noodle soup: If it is left in the fridge overnight, the pasta noodles are huge and there is much less broth. Thus this is proof that pasta noodles will continue to absorb flavours after cooking, and we always want the pasta noodles to taste like the sauce anyway.

            Homemade “spaghetti” is a very common dish in many households, and whether you use spaghetti, linguine, or other types of noodles, I hope these few simple recommendations help to make your meal more enjoyable and flavourful. You can also watch my YouTube video on this topic by clicking this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFDIQpvO_T8
Until next time... Happy Cooking!

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Rest in Peace Caryn


            In my career as a certified Red Seal Chef, I am not only a Food Columnist, but also a published Author, Culinary Instructor, and get hired as a Host/MC for various events. However, one of my greatest accomplishments is also being a Culinary Travel Host, and I owe the honour of having that title to a very special lady: Caryn Zimmerman.

            We first met years ago after one of my live cooking shows. She was a huge supporter of me, and became a friend of mine, ever since. With her vivacious personality and expertise in the travel industry, along with my passion for food and people, we eventually became a great business team as we launched Chef Dez Culinary Tours. Many people have combined food and travel together, but no one did it quite like us. We had a knack for it, and our travel guests agree.

            Our first Chef Dez Culinary Tour was in 2014 to Savannah GA. We wanted our tour guests to experience southern hospitality at its finest all while being surrounded by incredible history from one of the oldest cities in the USA. Twenty-four guests traveled with us for 8 days, and I am now friends with many of these guests still to this day. This inaugural tour really opened my eyes to what Caryn can accomplish when it comes to travel and making sure our guests are looked after.

            In 2015 the Chef Dez Culinary Tour took us and our guests through the state of Texas. We visited many cities, stayed at incredible properties, travelled to wineries, ate true barbecue, and much more. All of us left pieces of our hearts in Texas because of this amazing tour. Again Caryn shined. My favorite time with her was at the Texas State Fair: the world’s largest state fair.

            Our last Chef Dez Culinary Tour was to the Canadian province of PEI in the fall of 2016. Here, with our tour guests, we got to experience not only the beautiful autumn colours of PEI, but also to experience east coast living at its finest. The pinnacle part of this trip was staying at the property of Chef Michael Smith, The Inn at Bay Fortune, and having a private cooking event with Chef Michael. Although this trip was culinarily focused around oysters and lobster, Caryn didn’t let her shellfish allergy stand in the way. Her motto was always “This is not about me. This is about our guests.”

            Unfortunately, Caryn passed away on June 27, 2017 after a short, but fierce battle with cancer and it is in her honour that I dedicate this blog entry. Anyone that knew Caryn, knows how full of life she always was. Caryn was the type of person that made any party or gathering an event that no one would soon forget. From her flip-flops, to her sunglasses, wild accessories, and her zest for life, everyone knew when Caryn was there.

            Thank you Caryn for not only being a friend and colleague, but also as a mentor. You have taught me so much over the years, and was always there for me. I miss you terribly and would give anything to hear your laugh and see your smile again. If I knew I was going to lose you so soon, I would have tried to spend even more time with you.

            Because of this loss, the Chef Dez Culinary Tours are postponed indefinitely. At this point I can’t even imagine doing them again without her. The community of Abbotsford BC, where she resided, and everyone that she came across in her travels, would agree that we have lost a very special person. Rest in peace Caryn…

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Healthy Chocolate Mousse?

            In preparation for a dinner party this Friday, I wanted to get familiar with transforming avocados into chocolate mousse. I have heard of this being done before, but until now I have never tried making it. One of the vegetarian dinner guests for this Friday also doesn't eat dairy or eggs so I had to come up with a plan for her dessert... and I think I nailed it.
            Make sure you use really soft ripe avocados for this recipe to ensure that they process into a smooth homogenized mixture easily. A food processor will give you the best results for this recipe, but in a pinch a blender could be used. I made sure to weigh the flesh (weight is without skins or pits) for a precise recipe measurement, but you can use 2 small avocados if you don't have a kitchen scale. If too much flesh is used (in ratio to the other ingredients) then it will tend to taste too strong of avocado.
            I used a double boiler for melting the chocolate chips (a stainless steel bowl over simmering water - without the water touching the bowl), but if you watch it carefully you can melt them in a microwave (in a microwave safe container).
            A traditional "mousse" is made with whipped cream and beaten egg whites, so this isn't really a mousse, but more of an avocado chocolate pudding, I guess. But does it mean that by using avocados that this is now a "healthy" dessert? Well, no... but, healthier! You see, it still has chocolate and sugar in the recipe. It is also important to point out that avocados have a lot of fat content, but they are healthy fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated); which, in moderation, are beneficial to a healthy lifestyle and can lower bad cholesterol levels.
            Two of my children (ages 8 and 11) and my wife, were my guinea pigs for this recipe, and they all immensely enjoyed this dessert! It has an almost "strawberry & chocolate" flavour to it; a slight "green" flavour, I guess. The prep is extremely easy and thus can be made in a hurry... but just remember to allow time for chilling. Until next time... Happy Cooking!

Avocado Chocolate Mousse - makes approximately 1.75 cups

240g ripe avocado flesh (approximately 2 small avocados)
1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
6 tablespoons coconut milk
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt

1. Peel and pit the avocados and place the flesh in a food processor.
2. Melt the chocolate chips and add to the food processor.
3. Add the coconut milk, sugar, vanilla, and salt to the food processor and puree until completely smooth.
4. Portion into dessert dishes and chill in the refrigerator for a minimum of 2 to 3 hours.
5. Optional garnish idea: mint leaves and fresh raspberries.


Friday, July 7, 2017

Almost $7 for a Bottle of Yellow Mustard

            A lot of people are led to believe that because I am a Chef that I don't eat out at restaurants. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Yes, it is not something that I do frequently, but there are times when I just want to let someone else cook for me, or have an evening out with my family.
            Recently, to celebrate the end of the school year, and the great report card results of our youngest children, we decided to do just that. We ended up going to a local restaurant/pub where they have a section for families. We all got settled into our booth, ordered beverages, and waited for our entrĂ©es to arrive. My 11-year old son, ordered a burger and garlic mashed potatoes from the kids menu. When his order arrived he said to me "Dad, can you get the server's attention?"
            "Why?" I asked, "what do you need?"
            "I would like some ketchup and mustard for my burger. It only has mayo and lettuce on it." He replied.
            "No problem." I answered as I got up from the booth and found our server. When I made the request however, I was told that she could bring a ketchup bottle to our table, but the mustard would be an extra charge since they didn't have a bottle of mustard, and she had to get it from the kitchen. I shrugged my shoulders and agreed - I wanted my son to be happy.
            Moments later she approached our table with a bottle of ketchup and a small portioning cup of pale looking mustard. My son took a small amount of the mustard to taste it and it was honey mustard, not just plain condiment yellow mustard. Obviously there was an error, so I took the honey-mustard and approached our server once again. She told me "this is the only mustard we have."
            "You don't have yellow mustard? Just regular hot dog mustard?" I was in disbelief.
            Just as she started replying "no, this is all we have" a Supervisor (I am assuming) was walking by and asked what was happening. I filled her in on the situation.
            "Of course we have regular mustard" she replied and then told the server to get me some.
            Please keep in mind here that I didn't make a big fuss. I am not the type to make a big scene about little things and I always try to treat people with the most respect I can in any situation.
            I went back to the table and shortly after the yellow mustard arrived.
We were astounded by how much mustard was brought to our table - I measured it afterwards and it was 4 tablespoons of mustard, which is 60ml. My son ended up only using a couple of teaspoons of it (how much mustard can you put on one burger anyway?).
            When we got our bill at the end of our meal, sure enough there was an extra charge for the mustard - $1.00! I couldn't believe it, one dollar for four tablespoons of yellow mustard, and surely they didn't expect my 11 year old son to have 4 tablespoons of mustard on one child sized burger, did they? Even if they did, this would be equivalent to $6.67 for a standard 400ml bottle of mustard.
            Walmart was located next door to the pub, and I was curious to know what they were selling mustard for, so we walked over. There one could buy a whole 400ml bottle of brand-name mustard for $1.50.
            Don't get me wrong, it's just one dollar... one dollar isn't going to break my budget. That's not the point. Mustard is cheap and it is considered to be a basic condiment. If they had hot dogs on the menu, would I be expected to pay a dollar for the mustard for it? Next time you are in Costco, look at the huge commercial sized cans of it and also the low price. This is the size and cost that restaurants would pay for the same yellow mustard, and possibly less through their suppliers.
            This is not about restaurants recouping their costs. This is about how little they value customers choosing to spend their money at their establishment. We were a table of four, and we could have chosen elsewhere to go out for dinner... and next time we will.
            This is not the first time we have had problems here. Have a look at my blog post from September 26, 2016 titled "A Pub Without a Steak Sandwich???" and you will see another example.
            Until next time... Happy Cooking... and maybe cooking at home is a better option.