Thursday, August 31, 2017

Slice and Dice: Beets

"The lesson of the beet, then, is this: hold on to your divine blush, your innate rosy magic..." Tom Robbins
 From the outside, beets fail to leave a lasting impression. In fact, they range from dull to downright curmudgeonly. Who wants that, when you can opt for cheery tomatoes or regally robbed eggplants? Well, as many cooks know, it’s foolish to judge a root vegetable by its cover. Despite their drab exterior, beets possess a beguilingly sweet, earthy flavor. They bring a jewel-like beauty to the table (think garnets and coral) and plenty of substance, including folate and fiber. 

How to Select and Store Beets

Select firm beets with wrinkle-free skin. If you find them with their greens intact, look for vibrant, succulent leaves, and consider yourself lucky: the antioxidant-rich greens are edible so you're getting two-for-one. Use them as a fiber-rich filler in soups, omelets, and stir-fries. 

Beets can be stored in the refrigerator loose and unwashed for up to a week. Cut off the greens first, leaving an inch of the stem intact to keep their stain-inducing juice from leaking into your fridge. Store the greens in a breathable bag in the fridge for up to two days.

How to Steam Beets

If the beet greens are attached, cut them with an inch of the stem still intact.

Thoroughly wash the beets. 

Fill a large pot with a few inches of water. Place the beets in a steamer insert in the pot and cover.

Simmer the beets until they are easily pierced with a knife, about 40 minutes to an hour for medium-sized beets. The skin may appear to pull away slightly. If needed, add more water during the cooking process.

Remove from the pot from the stove and allow the beets to cool.

Beet juice will stain your fingers. Put on a pair of plastic gloves to keep your hand from getting dyed.

Gently rub off the skin with your fingers.

How to Slice Beets

Slice off the stems and root end of cooked beets.

Place the beet on the cutting board root-side down. Slice across it every half inch or at larger intervals for thicker slices.

Wash your cutting board immediately as beet juice stains.

How to Dice Beets

Slice off the stem and root ends of cooked beets. Place the beet on the cutting board root-side down. Slice across the beet at every half inch.

Stack two beet slices on the cutting board. Cut across them widthwise at every half inch. Rotate the batons 90 degrees and slice across them lengthwise every half inch. 

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Caramelizing Onions

Before I met my husband, Chris, I tried my luck with online dating, which ran the gamut from dismaying to disastrous. Sound familiar anyone?

There was the guy who besmirched all Indians even though he knew my ethnic roots. During our shared meal, the waitress kept giving me “you outta ditch him” looks. Then there was the guy who unwittingly emailed me after dating my sister for several months. Guess he had a type.

There was also the guy with the seemingly promising profile (challenging job, close-knit family, big blue eyes) until I reached his list of likes/dislikes. He despised onions and didn't want them cooked in his house.

I know that relationships require compromise, but I eat onions every day. Could I really forgo the zing of red onions in salsa or three bean salad? Wouldn’t I miss the smoky undertow of yellow onions roasted with potatoes, carrots, or squash? And what about the silky, sweet touch of caramelized onions slathered on burgers, sandwiches, and pizza crust?

In the end, I decided giving up onions was too great a sacrifice and I kept looking for the one.

Did I mention that Chris loves onions? In fact, I have to ask him to dial back the mound he that mixes into guacamole and the hill that he layers onto salad. It leads to onion breath and occasional indigestion.

But that seems like a small sacrifice for Mr. Right. 

How to Caramelize Onions

Caramelizing onions is surprisingly simple. It involves cooking away the moisture hidden in each layer of an onion and browning the sugar that is left behind. The process requires patience more than anything else. Resist the temptation to speed things up by cooking the onions over high heat or adding sugar. (Chances are you’ll end up burning them.) Also opt for white, yellow, or red onions but not sweet as they become cloying when their flavors are concentrated.

To make about 1 to 1 1/2 cups of caramelized onions, thinly slice 2 large onions.

Thinly sliced onions

In a large skillet, heat 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat.

Heat olive oil

Add the onions and stir to coat them with oil. Season the onions with salt and pepper. Stir the onions every 2 to 3 minutes until they begin to look glassy.

Lower the heat to medium low and increase the frequency of stirring from every few minutes to every minute as they become stickier, turn light brown, and begin to lose their shape. This will take 20 to 30 minutes, depending on your stove top. 

Stages of caramelization
If the onions stick to the bottom of the pan, add a splash of water and scrap them off. This technique is known as "deglazing." Only do this if the onions are sticking so much that you can't loosen them without water -- some sticking is good as it's the contact with the pan that helps to create the color. You can always add more water if necessary, but adding too much will delay the process as the onions will begin to steam.

Continue to cook the onions, stirring frequently, until they become golden brown.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Poaching Fish

Poached salmon over sauteed greens

Dear readers, raise your hand if you eat two servings of omega-3 rich fish a week. Well, don’t feel bad – neither do I. But I’m starting to think that we should change our ways. After all, fatty fish is not only lovely and nuanced, it’s also easy to cook.

I usually bake or braise fish, which requires minimal effort. But with the summer heat, I’ve been poaching salmon and other fatty fish to eat it warm or chilled over a bed of sprightly greens. Like other moist-heat cooking methods, poaching locks in moisture and practically gives cooked salmon the texture of butter. I know it sounds crazy, but I am not making this up. The truth is you can easily make a five-star meal in your own kitchen, however humble it may be. Looking to comfort yourself after a long day of work or to toast the summer sunset with friends? Then, why not poach some fish.

How to Poach Fish

Chopped celery, carrots, parsley, and peppercornsFill a sauté pan or shallow pot with enough water to cover the fish.

Add a handful of your favorite herbs and spices to flavor the water. I threw in carrots, celery, cilantro, and peppercorns for this version. I also like to create a broth of sorts with lemongrass, garlic, and onions. Get creative here as the possibilities are endless (and surely you know how variety spices up life).

Adding vegetables, herb and spice to simmering water

Heat the water to a gentle simmer so tiny bubbles form along the rim of the pot. Let it simmer for 5 minutes to flavor the water.

Simmer vegetables, herb, and spice

Lower the fish into the water using a slotted spoon.

Lower fish into water

Cook the fish until it turns opaque and is heated through -- this will take about 3 to 5 minutes, depending on the density of the fish.

Carefully remove the fish with the slotted spoon, and serve warm or chilled. 

Remove fish from water with slotted spoon

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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Slice and Dice: Portobellos

Slice off the stem of the mushroom

I used to get a lot of flak for serving meatless meals, having descended from a line of devoted carnivores. The men, in particular, crave dishes with both heft and flavor. Because they are dense and filling, portobello mushrooms seem to satisfy even the pickiest eaters in the family. So, if you’re trying to adopt a healthier lifestyle and/or a greener footprint, be sure to pick up some portobellos.

How to Select Portobello Mushrooms

What do you get when a crimini mushroom (or baby bella) grows up? A portobello with chocolate-colored gills and a woody stem. Select the ones that are plump and smooth-skinned, with a delicate, earthy aroma.

How to Clean Portobello Mushrooms

Using a paring knife, slice off the stem. If it has the texture of a wine cork, throw it out or save it for making stock. If it is tender, rinse it and slice it into pieces length wise. 

Remove the gills using the tip of a spoon to scrape them away.

Scoop out gills with a spoon

Wipe the mushroom cap with a damp cloth or paper towel to remove dirt without soaking it in water.

How to Slice Portobello Mushrooms

Place the cleaned mushroom on a cutting board stem-side down. With a chef’s knife, cut the mushroom in half.

Slice the mushroom cap in half

Rotate each half so the flat, just-cut end is parallel to you, and slice across it width wise into 1/2-inch lengths (or thinner if desired).

Slice portobello width wise

How to Chop Portobello Mushrooms

Repeat steps above for slicing. Rotate the sliced pieces 90 degrees and cut across them width wise to make 1/2-inch cubes (or smaller if desired).

Slice into cubes

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Saturday, May 6, 2017

Slice and Dice: Avocados

My apartment in Japan was tiny, but I figured I could squeeze two other teachers around my bento table for a meal. It would start with chips and guacamole, which where I come from, calls for bottled lemon juice and a few plops of mayonnaise. Over my lunch break, I flagged down a clerk at Isetan department store and asked for lemon juice with the cadence of a cave man. She smiled politely, bowed briskly, and sped off in the direction of the cooler as I followed in hot pursuit. She handed me a bottle of chilled juice and then bowed again. I replied with “Domo arigato” and teetered in her direction. Then I asked for may-oh-naise. The clerk broke into a broad smile, and replied, “My name? My name is Akiko!” Humored, I left without mayonnaise, which I later realized was a good thing. Who needs mayo when you've got fresh avocados?
As luscious as butter and as subtle as white chocolate, avocados add creamy comfort to many a dish. Their bumpy, alligator-like skin hides melt-in-your mouth yellow-green flesh. Here are some tips to use, whether you’re shopping for a batch of rippled, purple-skinned Haas, thin-skinned Fuerte, or another variety.

How to Select Avocados

Avocados only ripen after they have been harvested. To test whether an avocado is ready to eat, give it a gentle squeeze and look for a shallow imprint in the skin. If the flesh is as hard as a bowling ball, it will need time to mature. If you feel the flesh collapses under the skin, the fruit is past its prime.

How to Store Avocados

Ripe avocados can be stored in the refrigerator for two to three days. Once cut, be sure to sprinkle them with lemon juice, lime juice, or another acid to keep them from turning brown (or "oxidizing"). Unripe avocados should be kept at room temperature until they ripen. To hasten the ripening process, place the fruit in a paper bag with an apple or a banana.

To freeze: If, through great fortune, you end up with more avocados than you can use, consider freezing them. Use the steps below to pit and mash the fruit. Then sprinkle it with lemon juice, lime juice, or another acid to keep it from browning. Place it in an airtight container or freezer-safe bag before freezing it.

How to Prepare Avocados

To pit: Thoroughly wash and dry the avocado. Place it on a cutting board lengthwise. Hold a chef’s knife parallel to the cutting board. Starting at one pole, slice into the fruit. Rotate the fruit and continue to slice it along the equator.

Hold the avocado with both hands and twist in opposite directions. 

Carefully insert a spoon under the pit and lift it out. 

To slice: Place half of the avocado on a cutting board with the cut side down. With a chef’s knife, cut it down the middle lengthwise. 

Carefully pull off the skin. 

Place the fruit on the cutting board and slice it lengthwise or width wise.

To dice: Hold half of an avocado with one hand, flesh side up. With a butter knife, cut the flesh into half-inch strips lengthwise. Cut the flesh into half-inch strips width wise.

To mash: Scoop out the flesh from a pitted and diced avocado with a spoon and place it in a bowl. Then mash it with a fork.

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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Cooking Dry Beans

Black Bean Tacos

I prepared a lot of bean dishes in graduate school. Chickpeas were my go to legume. When I was really strapped for time, I would sauté them with turmeric and cumin and smother them in salsa. I loved the contrast of the creamy garbanzo beans and the feisty tomatoes. The cost of preparing the dish was low, and as a grad student that was a huge bonus. 

These days when I cook beans, I reach for dried beans whenever possible. Dried beans are not only cheaper than canned beans, they are free of salt and other unwanted preservatives. When cooked properly, dried beans are also mush-free unlike so many of their tinned cousins.
Soaking Methods for Dried Beans
Using dried beans admittedly requires a bit of planning. After being picked over and rinsed, the beans should be hydrated to reduce their cooking time. This is done using either a quick soak method or a long soak method.
  • The quick soak method (also known as a hot soak) involves boiling dried beans for two minutes and then soaking them for an hour or so in the hot liquid before cooking them.
  • The long soak method, or cold soak, requires soaking the beans in cool water for six to eight hours before cooking them. 
Dried, soaked, and cooked black beans

Black beans in three stages (l-r): dried, soaked, and cooked
Regardless of which method you use, always start with the freshest beans possible (versus those that have languished on the pantry shelf). Not surprisingly, the fresher the bean, the better its cooked texture will be.
How to Cook Dried Beans
Lay the dried beans on a countertop or cutting board. Pick out and discard any shriveled beans, small stones, or other foreign matter. 
Picking through dried beans

Rinse the beans with cold water and drain. 

Soaked beans
To soak with the quick soak method: Place the beans in a pot and cover them with water, using three cups of water for every cup of beans. Bring to a boil and cook for two minutes. Remove from heat. Cover and set aside for an hour.

To soak with the long soak method: Place the beans in a pot and cover with water, again using three cups of water for every cup of beans. Cover and set aside for six to eight hours.

Drain and rinse the soaked beans.  

Place the beans in a pot and cover with water (using three cups of water for every cup of beans). Bring the water to a boil. Reduce the heat to produce a gentle simmer. When the beans just start to soften, season with salt. 
Cook the beans until they are tender, adding water when needed. Cooking times will vary depending on the type of bean you are using. Pinto and garbanzo beans take longer to cook than kidney, navy, and lima beans. Drain beans in a sieve.

Cooked and drained black beans

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Saturday, April 1, 2017

Boiling Eggs

When I was four, our family traveled to Ontario to visit the Raos, who were close family friends. Just before dusk the first night, I managed to get lost in their subdivision. A neighbor heard me whimpering to her cat who was lounging in the driveway. I had thick black hair and a bangle encircling each wrist. She guessed that I was related to the Raos who were the only Indians on the block. To confirm her suspicion, she asked me what I liked to eat. Instead of  saying "curry," I responded with "Cookies and eggs." Thankfully, she called the Raos anyway.

I still get weak in the knees when I eat eggs, and am especially fond of  Eggs in Coconut Milk and Egg Roast. On the rare occasion when my fridge is near empty, I boil one up until its yolk is velvety and its white has a cushy softness. I sprinkle it with salt and pepper for breakfast in a flash.

It’s easy to overcook eggs. To avoid producing boiled eggs with rubbery whites and yellow-green yolks, follow these simple steps:

How to Boil Eggs 

Fresh eggs are often harder to peel than eggs that have been around for a week or so. So boil older eggs whenever possible. 

Place eggs in a saucepan in a single layer. Cover with an inch or so of cold water. Bring the water to a boil over high heat.

Eggs in water

Remove the saucepan from the heat. Cover with a lid and let the eggs sit in the water for five minutes to make soft boiled eggs and 15 minutes for hard boiled eggs. 

How to Peel Boiled Eggs

Drain the water. Allow the eggs to cool for one minute until they are easy to hold. 

For soft boiled eggs: Carefully tap the top of the egg on a hard surface to crack the shell. Peel off the top third of the shell. Use a spoon to scoop out the cooked egg.

For hard boiled eggs: Crack the egg shells by gently rolling each egg against a hard surface with the palm of your hand. You can also cover the saucepan with a lid and slide it across your kitchen counter to crack the shells of the eggs inside. Hold each egg under cold water and peel off the shell, beginning at the wide end, which gives most easily.

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Saturday, February 4, 2017

Slice and Dice: Ginger

Worn out versus fresh ginger
I took a class on the cuisine of Levant in culinary school. One day, the instructor stopped by my station while I was sauteing onions and garlic. I told him that I really wanted to toss in some fresh ginger as so many of the dishes that I learned from my mom combine all three ingredients. He laughed and replied, "Ah yes, the holy trinity of Indian cooking!" 

Fresh ginger brings verve to Indian cuisine, Chinese cuisine, and dishes from many other regions of the world. If you’ve resolved to part with the routine in 2017, seek out the citrusy aromatic in the produce department. 

Ginger looks like an odd shaped hand with knobby fingers. Break off a piece or two from a plump stem with smooth skin (see example on the right above). Avoid chucks of ginger that are wrinkled (see example on the left above). You can store it unwrapped in the fridge for up to one month. 

How to Peel Ginger

It’s best to remove the skin (which has the shade and roughness of a paper bag). Begin by breaking off any small knobs and cutting off the rough end.

Break off nob from hunk of ginger

Cut off dryends of ginger

Cut off dryends of ginger
Some people use a spoon to remove the skin. Other use a knife or vegetable peeler.

Using a spoon: In one hand, nestle the ginger between the base of your index finger and the base of your thumb. With your other hand, clasp the spoon between the stem and the head. Scrape the edge of the spoon against the skin as you move it up the side of the ginger. Rotate the ginger and repeat until all the skin is removed. 

Peel skin with a spoon
Using a vegetable peeler: Hold a piece of ginger vertically on a cutting board. Run the vegetable peeler down the ginger. Turn the ginger and repeat until all the skin in removed.  

Remove skin with a peeler
How to Slice Ginger 

Place a piece of peeled ginger on a cutting board. Pinch the ginger with your extra hand to hold it in place on the cutting board. Position the knife at one end of the ginger and slice into the ginger widthwise. Move the knife across the length of the ginger until it is sliced completely. 

Slice ginger width wise
How to Mince/Dice Ginger 

Hold a chef’s knife over the ginger slices. Place the other hand on the back of the knife. Rock the knife back and forth over the slices and mince finely.

Rock knife over pile of sliced ginger
How to Grate Ginger  

Hold the microplane in one hand at a 45-degree angle, with the tip resting on a cutting board. Hold a piece of ginger so one end touches the grating surface. Slide the ginger down the microplane. Tap the tip of the microplane on your cutting board to remove any ginger that is clinging to the microplane. 

Slide ginger across microplane
How to Create Ginger Matchsticks 

Some recipes, such as stir-fries, call for long, thin slabs or sticks of ginger. Here’s how to prep ginger for those dishes.

Place a piece of peeled ginger on a cutting board. Hold a chef’s knife in one hand. Pinch the ginger with your other hand to hold it in place on the cutting board. Square off the ginger by cutting the rounded sides to form four right angles. After cutting the first side, rest the flat surface you just created on the cutting board to stabilize the ginger, and continue to cut the ginger into a rectangle. 

Create matchsticks of ginger
To create thin slabs of ginger: Pinch the ginger with your extra hand to hold it in place on the cutting board. Slice the ginger by moving across the ginger lengthwise until it is cut completely. As you do this, remember to keep your fingers curled in and out of harms way.

To create matchsticks (julienne): Stack the slabs you just created. With your extra hand, hold the stack at one end to keep it in place. With your other hand, slice along the length of the ginger, through the stack.

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