Saturday, January 31, 2009

Book Review: What Einstein Told His Cook, Vols 1 and 2

What Einstein Told His Cook, volume 1 and volume 2, by Robert Wolf, discuss the physics and chemistry of cooking. It's question and answer format creates a friendly, informal tone that is accessible to all cooks, new and experienced. McGee's On Food and Cooking is a much more complete discussion of the science behind cooking, but is not nearly as easily understandable for the average reader.

Neither volume of What Einstein Told His Cook is really intended to be read through from cover to cover. Rather Wolf really sees his book more as a reference book for cooks. Of course, I read both through cover-to-cover (and back-to-back); this way, I could find out what he discussed in each book and know where to go later if need be.

For the most part, the science is clearly and well-explained. Wolf's scientific training and experience as a teacher-- ahem -- college professor shine through. His explanations do not assume that you understand more science than what most junior high school students have had. I like this approach; it reduces the chance you will misunderstand his explanations.

One of my favorite discussions in both volumes was his discussion of fats. I came into the discussion understanding what a saturate fat was and what an unsaturated fat was. I also understood that hydrogenation adds hydrogen molecules to an unsaturated fat. Thanks to Wolf, I now understand what a trans fat is and why that is bad -- something McGee was unable to do.

Each section contains some recipes that underscore the points he made in that section. The recipes are easy to find and relatively easy to follow. I haven't tried any of them yet, so I can't speak to how tasty they are.

Like any book, it has its weaknesses. Volume 2 is definitely the weaker of the two volumes. His answers aren't quite as clearly written and I have had some serious questions about a few of the scientific claims. Still, there is good information in it, so it is worth reading at least once.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Soup, wonderful soup

This last week I came down with a bit of a cold. Mostly it was sore throat and earaches (at least at first). So I did what I normally do when I feel crappy -- I made soup. Not chicken soup, but rather ham and bean soup.

When Julia and I returned home from the holidays, we returned with more than just our holiday gifts. We returned with half of a bone-in country ham. For those who don't know what is so special about country ham, it is salt-cured. Really, really salt-cured.. As in the hams do not have to be refrigerated to be stored and are hard as rocks.

Preparing a country ham is a whole ritual in and of itself. The exterior of the ham must be scrubbed to remove any mold that might have grown. (Note: The mold that grows actually prevents pathogenic bacteria and molds from growing.) Then the ham must be soaked for 12-18 hours to remove the excess salt. Then the ham is baked until done. When we carve the ham, we always save some meat around the bone for soup-making.

Soup is a wonderfully flexible dish; the proportions between meat, vegetables, spicing, etc. can adjusted to available ingredients and individual tastes. The soup bone I used this time had lots more meat than usual.

Ham and Bean Soup
1/2 to 1 pound of country ham with bone in
15 oz. bag of 15-bean soup mix (with flavor packet removed, I just like the mix of beans)
1 medium to large onion, chopped into bite-size pieces
1/2 pound of carrots, chopped into bite-size pieces
1-2 celery stalks, chopped into bite-size pieces
1/2 pound of mushrooms cut into bite-size pieces
2 tablespoons chopped garlic (I just garlic from a jar)
3 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon chopped thyme
1/4 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/8 cup white vinegar
Enough water to cover all the ingredients

Soak the beans overnight. Drain. If the beans can not be soaked overnight, then they can be soaked in an oven preheated to 250°F (121°C) for 2-3 hours. In a real pinch, they can be simmered for an hour, then brought up to a boil to cook. Doing so leads to a thinner broth, but firmer beans.

Combine all ingredients and simmer for at least 3 hours, preferably 4-6. Add water as necessary to keep food covered and stir occasionally.

At least an hour before serving, remove the bone(s). I like to get the marrow out of the bones; normally this is done before the bones are boiled, but since they were already cooked through, I wait until near the end. Put some broth in a tall bowl or cup, add the marrow, then use my hand blender to puree the marrow into the broth. Return mixture to the soup. The marrow adds more wonderful richness.

Note that no salt is added to this recipe; the country ham will supply all the salt needed.

For dinner the next evening, we decided to let the soup simmer a bit longer. I had simmered it for three hours after I put the beans in (started everything else while I soaked the beans), but it wasn't quite the consistency I wanted. The beans were firmed that I wanted and the broth wasn't quite thick enough. Another hour of simmering and voila!, the soup was much, much better. Then again, I often think bean soup is better on days two and three. The flavors marry so much overnight and develop a lot of depth.

This recipe can by varied by which vegetables are added (I often only use mushrooms and onions, roasting the vegetables before adding them to the soup, using lemon juice or balsamic vinegar instead of white, or using a sugar-cured ham (though you need to add salt).

Monday, January 19, 2009


Roasts are a simple way to do meat and heat up your kitchen at the same time. I love roasting meats in the winter! But too many times, roasts are dull. Sure they have the great Maillard browning on the surface, but there is too little complexity to the flavor. But how can you get great flavor with little work?

The solution is marinade. Marinades can be made from nearly any potable fluid in the kitchen: vinegar, milk, wine, soda, etc. Some work better than others; not all work well for a roast. I like to marinade my chicken in milk (or buttermilk) when making fried chicken, but don't think it will work too well on a roast. On the other hand, wine works amazingly for nearly all applications (I plan to try it with fried chicken soon).

Yesterday I had friends over for singing and gossiping. All of them had religious issues with alcohol, so I needed a non-wine marinade.

Roast Marinaded in Mustard Horseradish
Most of these measurements are approximates - I added ingredients until the marinade smelled/looked right
A three-pound roast -- I used a round sirloin roast
3/4 cup of worchestershire sauce
1/4 cup of soy sauce
1/2 cup of white wine vinegar
4 tablespoons of minced garlic -- I used preminced garlic in a jar
2 -3 tablespoons of honey
2 teaspoons of dijon mustard
2 teaspoons of horseradish (not cream of horseradish)
1/2 teaspoon of dried ginger

Gently score the top and bottom of the roast. The scores only need to be 1/8" deep.

Blend all ingredients (except meat) with hand blender until the marinade is a consistent texture. Pour about half the marinade in a bowl that is a little wider and deeper than the roast.
Pour the remaining marinade over the meat. If the meat is not fully covered by the marinade, you will need to turn the roast over every 15 minutes to ensure even coating. Marinade between 1/2 hour to 1 hour. Put meat on roasting rack in the roaster.

Move the lowest rack to its lowest setting. Preheat the oven to 450°F (232°C). Roast meat until it reaches the desired level of done. I roasted until the meat reached 145°F (62°C); I used an oven thermometer with temperature alarm, so I didn't time it. Let meat rest before carving.

2009 01 18 roast

(It's about time I started including pics of what I make.)

I opted to serve the meat chilled as I had a casserole to make and didn't want to have meat cooking in the oven at the same time as the vegetarian casserole. The meat turned out very flavorful and very, very tender. The garlic, mustard, and horseradish gave the meat a little bite without overwhelming the intrinsic flavor of the meat. The marinade created a light crust that kept the juices in the meat; I had very few drippings into the pan.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Putting my own spin on an old favorite

This weekend I wanted to BAKE! I love to bake, but I don't want all the products sitting around the house -- we eat them. But I felt like I needed to make some cookies for neighbors who helped out during the snows of the holidays.

I didn't want to make the same-old, same-old. I wanted to put my own spin on the cookies. So I decided to make special snickerdoodles!

Cookie dough:
3 eggs at room temperature
2 1/4 cups of white sugar
4 sticks of butter, at just below room temp and cut into 1/2 cubes
1 tablespoon of cream of tartar
1 teaspoon of salt
1 1/2 teaspoons of baking soda
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
4 cups of unbleached flour

1/2 cup of dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon of cinnamon

Cream the butter and white sugar together until fluffy. Add eggs and continue creaming until well mixed. Sift together remaining dough dry ingredients. In 1/2 cup increments add dry ingredients to the wet ingredients (I use a stand mixer and add a new scoop about every 30 seconds or so). Once dough is well combined, chill for an hour or so.

Sift together the brown sugar and cinnamon for the crust. Remove any lumps that can not be reduced to powder.

Preheat oven to 400°F (204°C). Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper to make clean-up easier. Once the dough is chilled, remove from the refrigerator, using a #50 ice cream scoop (about 1 1/2 tablespoons) scoop out cookie dough, roll in crust, then place on cookie sheet. Do not flatten scoops. Bake for 11-13 minutes.

I used brown sugar instead of white because I wanted a little extra carmelization of the sugar. Light brown should work as well as dark brown, but dark is what I had on hand. The cookies were delightfully crispy on the outside and tender and chewy on the inside.

We went to a get together this weekend and I put out my cookies. People loved them (but no one wanted to eat the last one -- they didn't want to seem rude).

Monday, January 5, 2009

Empty Pantry

Deciding what to make after a four-and-half day cross-country drive after the holiday was a real challenge. I'd eaten all the fresh food in the refrigerator and in the panty, so I didn't have any onions, potatoes, carrots, celery, etc. But we needed to eat last night. What to do?

Fortunately, my parents had some venison they wanted out of their freezer. And I had canned black beans and red wine. Hmmm, I feel an idea brewing.

A lot of people claim they don't like venison; they don't like the "gamey" taste. If the venison properly field-dressed (don't puncture the intestines or the bladder), the meat won't taste gamey. While venison may seem tough, that is because it doesn't have much fat on it. Long, slow, moist cooking will tenderize roasts and steaks; adding beef fat to ground meat will make it more tender.

Venison and Black Beans in Wine Sauce
1 pound of venison cut into bite-size pieces
3 cans of black beans (red beans would work, but not kidney beans)
2 tablespoons of chopped fresh garlic
1/4 cup Worchestershire sauce
3 tablespoons tomato sauce
Pinch of kosher salt
approximately 2 cups of full-bodied red wine (I used syrah, but I suspect any full-bodied red like zinfandel or merlot would work as well)
1/2 teaspoon of ginger
Black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons oil (I like canola; olive oil has too low a smoke point)

Sprinkle salt over venison. Brown the venison in a large skillet over med-high heat. Once the venison is seared, add remaining ingredients and simmer over LOW heat for at least a half an hour. Serve over rice.

I wish I had let the dish simmer longer than 45 minutes - an hour and a half would have been great (but the bread wouldn't wait). The venison could have used a longer cook time to make it more tender. In fact, I wish I had braised it in the oven, but the oven was occupied by bread. It was quite yummy nonetheless.