Archive for the ‘Cooking Tips’ Category

Wood-fired pizzas (or the next best thing)

Monday, October 31st, 2011

I think it would be awesome to have a wood-fired pizza oven but the reality is…I will never have one.  But here’s a technique that will get you close.  It involves a pizza stone, a paddle, fresh dough and toppings.

Purchase the largest stone you can find or maybe it’s a combination of two stones. 

Place the stone(s) in the oven on one of the center racks and remove the other racks so you have room to maneuver with the paddle.  Turn the oven on to its highest “bake” setting, usually around 550 degrees.  HOWEVER, I noticed in the directions that came with my stone that it recommended that the temperature be introduced gradually.  So what you can do is set it to 350, let it preheat…take it to 400, let it catch up and then finally take it to 550.  The whole warming time might be close to 20 or 25 minutes.

Have some freshly made dough…

that has been rolled out and docked (poked with a fork throughout).  Set that on top of the paddle but make sure there is plenty of cornmeal sprinkled on the paddle to keep the dough free and loose once it is set on the paddle.  The size of the pizza round should not exceed the width of the paddle or the width of the stone.  You might need to experiment a bit so you get just the right amount of dough to match your equipment.  The crust should be very thin for best results. 

Once the dough is on the paddle, add your toppings and then take to your super-heated oven. 

With quick jerking motions transfer the pizza to the stone.  This will take a little practice but will come in time.

Set your timer for 10 minutes and allow pizza to bake. 

Check it after that and if the edges are brown and crusty and the cheese is bubbly, your pizza is ready and can be removed from the oven with the paddle.  If you are going to be eating right away you can cut and serve from the paddle but if you are holding it for any length of time transfer the pizza to a baking rack to prevent the crust from sweating and losing it’s crispiness.

AND….if you have a barbeque you can duplicate this entire process by putting a stone in there, cranking it up to it’s maximum heat and then baking inside with the lid down.  The BBQ gives it a nice flavor but generally does not accomodate a very large pizza.  Very fun to try, though.  Give it a try, fine tune as you need and you will have added a wonderful item to your cooking repetoire!

Tofu – give it a try!

Monday, October 10th, 2011

pressing tofu

If you are trying to minimize the use of meat in your cooking you might want to consider tofu.   Most people just roll their eyes when they hear the word tofu but I’ve recently learned a few things about working and cooking with this Japanese food.

First let me explain quickly that tofu is made from unfermented soy bean curd.   It’s creamy colored, has the texture of baked custard and can range from being soft to firmer.  The appeal of tofu is that it is completely tasteless which makes it a food that pairs well with about anything you choose to cook it with.  Also, because of its bland taste, it becomes the perfect host for all kinds of marinades.

What seems to turn people off is the texture.  Tofu tends to be so watery that even the firmer tofu can squish and mush up real quickly in your mouth.  Well here’s a trick that helps get rid of that problem and just makes tofu it easier to use and enjoy.  In my quest to learn how to make the perfect Pad Thai I came across a recipe that incorporated the use of tofu.  Up until that point I had always used tofu directly from the carton it comes in.  This recipe recommended a simple technique for pressing the tofu to extract all that unnecessary and unwanted liquid.  Here it is…

Tofu is typically packaged in small square containers with water.  When you open your carton of tofu you should first drain off all the liquid you can.  Then set the square of tofu in the center of a pie plate.  On top of the pie plate set a regular dinner plate and then weigh the plate down with a heavy object.  You should try and find something that weighs about three pounds (see picture above).  Use objects that aren’t too tall because as the plate presses down on the tofu it may tip to one side or another causing whatever’s on top to fall off.  So choose a heavy object that isn’t too tall and set it on top of the plate.  The weight needs to rest on the tofu for one to two hours.  What works best is to set everything in the fridge in the morning and by dinner time it will be ready.

Drain off the liquid from the pressing and then cut the tofu in either ½ inch slices or cubes.  And at this point, because you’ve pressed out most of the internal liquid the tofu will more readily accept a marinade, should you choose to marinate it.  The marinade  can be something Asian like a ginger and soy marinade or any of the bottled marinades will work well. After an hour of marinating it’s ready to be cooked.  Tofu can be steamed, grilled, pan-fried, added to casseroles or included as part of a stir fry.  It is truly versatile and much better tasting when pressed and prepared this way.

Coffee grinder…spice grinder!

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

coffee grinder

There are few tools and appliances that are worthy of sitting on my counter full-time.  My food processor is one of them and my coffee grinder is the other.  But I don’t use the grinder for coffee.  Of course you can use the grinder for coffee but mine is specifically designated for grinding whole spices.

I don’t think I would ever have the patience to use a mortar and pestle.  The one time I tried, it nearly killed me.  Way too much effort, it doesn’t work all that well and what a mess!  A $20 grinder is a much better solution.

Quite often a recipe will call for toasted whole seeds which should be cooled then ground.  That’s where the grinder comes in.  Just place the amount you need in the grinder, recap the lid and whirl till it gets to the fineness you want.  And that’s the other thing.  You can control the coarseness or fineness of the spice.  So many times I want cracked black pepper so I just pulse it one or two times and there it is.  I do use my peppermill for small amounts of black pepper but anything over ½ teaspoon needs to come from the grinder.

I have used the grinder for whole peppercorns, cumin seeds, coriander, fennel (my favorite), anise and even cinnamon sticks.  I’m sure it could tackle others as well. Many East Indian dishes recommend toasting those spices first, and then grinding.  That is all possible in the coffee grinder (after they have cooled). 

In my experience the coffee grinder grinds most evenly if it’s not overloaded (up to ¼ cup).   Wipe it clean with a dry paper towel between changes and it that’s too much work just turn it upside down and gently tap it on the counter (that’s what I do).

If you enjoy barbequing I think it would be fun to create a signature spice blend for your meats using toasted seeds and passing them through the grinder.  That seasoning mixed with a little oil and fresh garlic would be an awesome rub for grilled items.

A lettuce Spinner – hard to live without one

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

There is a difference between kitchen gadgets and kitchen tools.  Gadgets are typically used only once and they often end up being too hard to use, clean or store; not worth the trouble.  A kitchen tool, on the other hand, is something that is used frequently, saves time and helps produce a better end result.  That’s why I put lettuce spinners in the tool category.

If you like to create your own greens for a salad, a spinner is truly indispensable.  The spinner is designed to work with leaf lettuces and other leafy greens.  It was not intended for use with iceberg lettuce.  The leaf lettuces are cut off at the bottom, rinsed thoroughly and then individual leaves are set inside the spinner.

The cord is pulled and causes the inner basket to spin dispelling any water that would otherwise accumulate on the leaves.

The water is poured out of the spinner and the spinning is repeated one or two more times depending on how many leaves you have in the spinning tub.

So why is this important?  If wet leaves are used to create a salad, it’s hard to get a dressing to take hold of the pieces because the water wants to run off the leaves and pool to the bottom of the plate creating a watery mess of the dressing.  If the leaves are spun dry, then the dressing sticks to the pieces and flavors the greens as it is designed to do.

I’m also a fan of the spinner because it acts as a the storage container for the lettuce.  So after coming home from the store I immediately cut off the bottom of the greens, give the leaves a good rinse and toss them in the spinner and spin.  As they sit in the spinner they crispen and will keep for several days, even a week or two if they are super fresh heads to begin with.  You can store other greens simultaneously as well.  When you are in the mood for a salad, the leaves are crisp and ready to use.  Now that’s a cool tool.

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