Friday, February 25, 2011

Cooking Without Tasting

After being away on business for nearly a week I was really looking forward to coming home and cooking my own dinner again. I planned out my meals for the week including one recipe I'm in the process of tweaking and two that were brand new to me.

Cut to me three days into the week and quickly spiraling downward into a vortex of sinus congestion woe. (For the record, I don't believe that's overstating the situation)
Being sick is no fun in general, but this week has been especially aggravating because I have temporarily lost the ability to taste and smell.

I've still cooked on the days I've felt up to it. Tuesday was seared pork with dijon brandy sauce and roasted fennel (still felt reasonably ok at this point), Wednesday was roasted sweet potatoes with goat cheese and relish (slipping into comfort food mode), and yesterday was linguine with creamy tomato sauce (full on sweatpants-glued-to-rear-end-glued-to-couch mode).

The only problem is I have no idea how any of this food actually tasted. The temperatures and textures I'm well aware of but without a functional nose, the taste is entirely lost on me.

This made me realize two things. First, how dependent I am on my ability to taste when I'm cooking. As I should be. Even when a dish is so familiar you can make it without a recipe, one of your ingredients could be spoiled, you may absent-mindedly forget to add salt or you just may be feeling like a little more heat on that particular day. The point is, whether the recipe is old or new, easy or hard, it's essential to taste as you go along. If you notice something that needs adjustment it's much easier to fix it then than when the dish is being served.

The second thing I realized is when I first started cooking, I rarely tasted anything as I was going along. I read and followed recipes line by line relying on a piece of paper, not my own taste buds to tell me if I was doing it right. If it came out poorly in the end I had no way of telling if it was a mistake in the process or a poorly crafted recipe. But I never felt like tasting before completion was necessary, as if it wouldn't taste right anyway because it wasn't finished.

So when should one stop to do a taste test when cooking? Here are a few places I always make sure to taste:

  • Before and after adding any seasoning 
  • Before placing something in the oven to be baked
  • Before and after adding any thickening or thinning agents
Tasting can and should be done at whatever point in the recipe you feel like you need a better read on what's going on in that saucepan down there. If I'm cooking for myself, I don't worry too much about "double dipping" when I'm tasting, but if I'm cooking for others I always have a couple of spoons handy so I can sample without having to lick anything that's going back in the food. 

Happy tasting, dear readers. And when the full functionality of my nose returns, I shall rejoin the ranks of tasting spoon-wielding chefs everywhere.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Discussion: Culinary Identity

Whether you're new to cooking or have been at it for a long time, I think most people tend to follow a basic rule in their kitchen: cook what you like. There are surely exceptions here and there, but if you spend much time cooking food that you don't want to eat, how long will you keep cooking?

When it comes to what kinds of food we eat, there are a variety of factors that influence our choices: tradition,  price, religion, preferences, cravings and many more. When it comes to how and where we eat, even more variables enter the picture. We eat anywhere between the car and the kitchen table off of anything from paper plates to fine china. When you factor in how many kinds of ingredients exist in the world the possibilities of your culinary experiences are quite literally endless.

If there are so many drivers for the choices we make, how do we figure out what kind of eaters we are? On the most basic level, biology breaks it down to omnivores, herbivores and carnivores. As far as classifying eaters goes, this breakdown is where the simplicity both enters and exits the pictures. Herbivores, for example, encompass much more than just vegetarians. Vegans, fruitarians and raw foodists all fall under the herbivore umbrella, but the specific habits of each group have stark differences. Omnivores have fewer mainstream subsets, but based on consumption percentages alone of meats versus plants, the spectrum of eating is fantastically broad. The only group that remains straightforward are the carnivores only because an exclusively carnivorous diet is one that humans do not typically maintain over a lifetime.

It's simple to classify yourself as ominvore or herbivore. It's a far more complicated process to define just what kind of ominvore or herbivore you are. So what is the benefit of understanding your unique brand of omnivore or herbivoreism?

I eat meat, so I am by classification an omnivore. However, I usually eat it for three or fewer meals per week. I'd venture to guess that I also have at least three vegan meals per week. I could break it down into percentages, chart it, analyze it and try to really understand the statistics behind it, but the point is that the percentages don't matter. They don't matter because I eat what I like. Sure, certain things influence my preferences. I like vegetables, so I tend to eat more of them. When bell peppers are ringing up $1.50 each at the grocery store, I avoid them like the plague.

When you cook for yourself or others, your end results are always judged. That's why its so important to have a clue of what kind of cook you are. How can you have confidence if you can't begin to define what you're doing or why you're doing it?

I believe finding your culinary identity is a permanently incomplete process. And it should be! Knowing even one food you like is the starting line. Exploring that food, perhaps introducing a few new ingredients moves you along the path. After a while the exploration will lead to both discovery and a slight comfort with the unfamiliar. Understanding your culinary identity, nebulous though it may be, makes you more confident with anything you're cooking or eating. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Recipe: Perfect French Toast

Over the weekend, my dear older sister was visiting from Chicago. If we're giving credit where credit is due, then major kudos go out to this lady who has made the drive to Indiana to visit me more times than anyone else (parents, of course, excluded from this count) since I moved. We always make a point to go out to one of several fantastic restaurants while she's in town. Our other tradition is staying in on Sunday morning and making breakfast. This always includes some sort of breakfast carb (pancakes, waffles, french toast, etc.) and deviled eggs.

"Why deviled eggs?" you ask? "Why not?" we respond. We don't typically see them except for Easter and Thanksgiving if we're lucky, so we've made it our own personal tradition to whip up a batch every time she's in town. Because they're tasty, that's why.

Now to do a complete 180: let's talk about french toast! I love deviled eggs, but I'm not totally sold on the recipe I was raised on. Don't get me wrong, they're delicious and addictive and even better when they're oddly colored because they came from dyed Easter eggs, but they're also the only reason I have miracle whip and yellow mustard in my fridge. I'm convinced there's a different (not saying better) way, so the deviled eggs are still on the drawing board for now.

On to the toast! (For real this time)

I call it Perfect French Toast not because I am so conceited that I think I make perfect recipes (though, I must say that my french toast beats the pants off Mark Bittman's version) but because my trusty taste tester, The Vegetarian, told me that I was not allowed to change anything about it because he liked it so much in its original form. It's the only time he's ever forbidden me from elaborating on what could be improved upon next time, so I'm leaving it. For now...

Perfect French Toast:

3 eggs
1/2 cup half and half
1 tsp. vanilla
6-8 slices of day old french bread
  1. Whisk the eggs, milk and vanilla together in a shallow casserole dish until well combined.
  2. Place a griddle on the stove over medium heat.
  3. Soak slices of french bread in the egg batter, allowing them to absorb the batter. Turn them over in the batter to ensure both sides are well-coated.
  4. Place 3-4 slices of bread on the griddle at a time and allow to cook for around 2 minutes on each side. Before flipping them over, sprinkle with cinnamon.
  5. Flip the toast slices over and continue to cook for an additional 2 minutes or so.
  6. Repeat steps 3-5 for the remaining slices of bread and serve immediately.

Helpful hints:

  • The older the bread, the better. The "perfect" version was made from a boule that was about four days old. I used day old sourdough for yesterday's version. If you have to use fresh bread, toast it in the oven to dry it out a bit before using it.
  • The longer you soak the bread in the batter, the further into the bread it will absorb (and the older the bread, the better it will absorb). I'd recommend soaking for a few minutes on each side.
  • If you aren't serving these immediately, toss them in the oven to keep warm. Unlike pancakes, french toast responds to this treatment quite favorably.
  • Instead of syrup, try topping with agave nectar. It's a natural sweetener that has none of the red number 40s and high fructose corn syrups that are found in so many commercially available pancake syrups.
  • If you need more batter than is made here, but not so much to double the recipe, add 3 Tbsp. of half and half for each additional egg you toss in.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Butternut Gnocchi

Lesson learned this evening: 14 oz. of squash is less than the weight of a typical butternut squash. Trying to make gnocchi with almost three times the squash than I meant to? Well, it makes things difficult. Next time instead of just reading the recipe, I'll try reading AND comprehending. 14 oz. does not equal one squash. Lesson learned. Moving on...

Despite overly wet dough and, well, we'll say "free form" gnocchi as a result, the finished product was actually quite delicious. It was based of of the Buttercup Squash recipe out of Barbara Kafka's Vegetable Love. The color of the gnocchi, a bright orange-yellow, was bright and beautiful. The sauce she recommends along with it, really just a combination of ricotta, parsley, and reserved cooking liquid from the pasta, balanced the color and flavor very nicely. The only change I would make to the sauce is the amount of parsley she recommends - she says half a bunch. Which, if her supermarket bunches are anything like mine, that's a heck of a lot of parsley. I went for something closer to a quarter cup and would do a little less (around 2 Tbsp.) next time.

This one is still an "in-the-works" recipe for me if for no other reason than I want to get the gnocchi looking a little nicer. For the next time around, I'm planning on adding a little bit of potato to the squash for two reasons: 1. I think it will tone down the squash flavor just a touch. 2. I think it'll be a slightly fluffier texture inside and make it a bit easier to work with. I hope it doesn't affect the color too much, as that is an impressive looking feature of the recipe. I'll probably do 3/4 squash and 1/4 potato. I also plan to make the dough drier and roll out the gnocchi into logs. This may require some guesswork with portions and may be aided by a brief refrigeration, but Mark Bittman has some lovely illustrations in How to Cook Everything: Vegetarian that show gnocchi-making.

A couple of things I messed up and wish to not repeat next time. First, squash is ridiculously hot when you take it out of the microwave. Don't touch it until it cools a little bit! I'm still working on really learning that time around I'll probably cut the squash and potato down, boil it, let it cool, and then process it to start the dough.

Once those tweaks are in there, I think it'll be good to go. And in the meantime, my sister will get to enjoy the not-so-beautiful version when I cook up the leftover dough for her this weekend.

Why I'm a crappy blogger.

I am a terrible blogger. There. I said it.

But it's true! I am awful about updates often enough to keep any audience coming back. I'm no good at keeping it brief and spend way more time than any human should agonizing over every word in my posts. I always think about things that would make a great blog post but when it's time for the fingers to hit the keys, I instead become interested in that massive pile of (previously ignored) laundry.

I am Emily and I suck at blogging.

I would like to say for the record, there are things I am good at. Cooking, for one. Singing is another. I like to think I'm pretty good at my job. I also excel at eating peanut butter, being a complete type A, ignoring speed limit signs, talking very fast, and picking the fastest line at the grocery store. 

I want to be a better blogger. I have a lot to say when it comes to food. And let's be honest, I have a lot to say about things period. Talking about food and teaching people how the heck you cook it are passions of mine. I get excited about perfect french toast, irritated at people who think twinkies are a fine dessert, and feel compelled to tell anyone who will listen how simple it is to make you own pasta sauce.

I am Emily and I love to talk. About food.

The main purpose of this blog is to give me a place to talk all about food and cooking, but I hope it will also function as a place for lively discussion, a home for my favorite recipes, and, most importantly, a place where people can learn something that inspires them.

Is the fourteenth time a charm? I'm pretty sure that's how many times I've tried to start a blog. Whatever. I'm trying! That's the first step, right?