Archive for the ‘Food History, Health and Nutrition’ Category

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.

Shabu-shabu – something everyone can enjoy

Monday, June 27th, 2011

As part of our introduction to Japanese food my husband and I have discovered shabu-shabu.  It is a wonderfully delicious and healthy soup that is typically prepared table-side with guests adding their own meats and vegetables in the broth.   Here’s how shabu-shabu works.

You start by purchasing a portable burner and setting that at your table. 

Find a pot that fits the burner and still allows you to feed about four per.  Add about one quart of a good broth or stock.  Supplement the stock with ginger slices, lemongrass, garlic, red pepper flakes, star anise…whatever flavors you enjoy. 

Allow those to simmer together for a few minutes while you prepare the vegetables and meats.  In this broth I also added some of the small pieces of dried shiitake mushrooms.

For the vegetables you can use any combination you choose. 

If you use things like sweet potatoes and carrots, be sure they are sliced thinly so they cook quickly at the table.

Add the vegetables that take longest to cook first…

and add the quick cooking vegetables, like spinach, last.  In this particular meal I used cubes of tofu but frequently we add shrimp and very thinly sliced raw pork or beef.  Pieces from the loin are most tender.  When the meat is shaved super thin it cooks in seconds.   Thicker pieces will take longer. 

Also have ready some beaten egg in a bowl, usually one egg per person.  Once the vegetables have cooked to your liking…

slowly add the egg to the simmering broth,  cook for another minute and stir.

Ladle the soup over bowls of rice and you are ready to enjoy.  You can add soy sauce, if needed, or other Asian style sauces but the truth is, if you create an awesome broth at the onset you need very little help at the end.  This is a very light and healthy soup making it the perfect meal for the summer.

Making chocolate chips from scratch

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011


So why would any sane person want to make their own chocolate chips?  Only one reason I can think of and that is food allergies.  The inspiration for this experiment came from a co-worker whose son is allergic to soy lecithin.  Soy lecithin is in so many food products, including chocolate chips.  She had asked me one day if one could make chips from scratch and the question so intrigued me that I gave it a shot.  Here are the results.  This post serves as an excercise for anyone who has to be careful with food allergies and would like to substitute/recreate/conjure comporable ingredients.


Cooks frequently substitute unsweetened chocolate baking squares by melting shortening and then adding cocoa.  With that in mind I attempted to make a sweetened chocolate version using the same technique.


I used butter, instead of shortening, thinking that would improve the flavor. 


That was melted in a small pan…


and then to that I added some powdered sugar and unsweetened cocoa powder. 


I used powdered sugar thinking the granulated might turn out grainy.  If I were to do this again I might try the granulated, just to see.

FYI – I used the following ratio of ingredients, which once again, may not be perfected but was merely a starting point.  The ratio was 4:8:6, in this order…butter:cocoa:sugar and I happened to use tablespoons for the measure. 

If I were to repeat this I would try less butter and a little more sugar.  Just a thought but it demonstrates how you might think through and adjust as you are trying to find alternatives that work for you.


Once the mixture was ready I poured it on a sheet of parchment and spread it out a bit.  I didn’t want the sheet too thin or the chips would be too thin.  I was trying to find a balance.  Once the chocolate hardened…


I broke and cut it into smaller pieces and then placed it in the freezer to get super firm.  I mixed the cookie ingredients and then added the frozen chips last so they would withstand the mixing.  They were baked as usual.


 When they came out of the oven there were some edges that were somewhat melted so I took an offset spatula (or a knife) and brought them back to the edge of the cookie for a more even shape.

The first bite or two was a bit of a shock to the palate, just because they aren’t exactly what you might expect from chips but honestly, they grew on me.  I like dark chocolate and this was a pleasant combination for me.  I took the platter of cookies to work with a note of explanation for any who dared sample.  The cookies got a thumbs up!

Understanding Beef 101

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

beef diagram

This may be a review for some and first time information for others and it may seem like alot of information but if you can bear with the length I think it will be helpful.

This is for anyone who has stood at the meat counter wondering what exactly you are buying and how it should be cooked.  We will review grading, what exactly is meat and how should each cut be cooked.  Each principle builds on the other.

What about grading?

There are three grading labels; prime, choice and select.  Prime is the highest quality, choice is next and lastly select.  Every piece of beef is graded according to its texture, color, age and the marbling.  If you do not see one of those words on the package then you are purchasing the select grade and stores generally use their own creative name to define the meat.  For example a package may have a seal that says “blue ribbon beef”. The name“blue ribbon” means select.  If the meat is prime or choice manufacturers are very proud of that fact and will clearly state that on the label but because select is a little lower in quality they try and hide that fact behind a nice name.  Once in a while they will actually come out with it and say select.

What is meat?

We need to remember that meat is actually muscle.  If you think of meat in terms of your own body and muscle its easier to understand.  When we exercise our muscles become tough and firm.  Well a steer is no different.  The meat from a lazy steer will be alot more tender than a steer that’s had a lot of excersice and is built like Arnold Schwarzenegger.  And along those lines, the meat from a younger animal will be more tender than the older one.  That’s because their muscles aren’t fully developed – which explains the principles behind veal.  Knowing that meat is muscle helps us understand which parts are tough and which are tender.

How should each cut be cooked?

The most exercised muscle on a steer is its shoulder.  We call that the chuck.  The chuck is the toughest part of the animal.  The second most exercised part is the rump or what we call the round.  Some of the round can be fairly tender, other parts are a little tougher.  The muscles that get worked the least are in the rib and loin area.  They’re going to be the most tender and also the most expensive.   All the best steaks come from there.

Before we go one we need to talk about cooking methods.  When we’re talking about meat there are two possible ways of cooking it; we can use dry heat or moist-heat.  Dry heat would include cooking under the broiler or roasting in the oven or grilling.  Those are methods of dry cooking.  Moist cooking methods include the addition of a liquid, just like the name implies.  Braising is the culinary term for cooking with moist heat.  That’s when you simmer a tougher piece of meat in a liquid for a long time.  So how does those related to each part of the animal.

Let’s start with the chuck.  The chuck tough.  It is full of tendons.  The only way to break down all that tissue is to simmer the meat for a long time.  Or in other words the moist heat method works best on tougher cuts.  Some other names that indicate a tough piece of meat are the words shoulder, shank and arm.  If you see those words in the description all those cuts need to be cooked slowly in liquid.  You really have no other choice if you want your meat to be tender.

The round or rump is a little harder to figure out.  You can always cook the round using moist heat but quite often you’ll get good results with dry.  And here’s an good example.  Ever noticed the huge beef roasts that are served at buffets?  Those roasts come from the round and they’re cooked with dry heat.  They’re roasted at a low temperature for a long time.  When you’re trying to decide how to cook a piece from the round you should take into consideration the grading of the beef.  Is it prime, choice or select?  The higher grades of round will broil and grill better than lesser grades.

Anything that says rib or loin is meant to be cooked with dry heat.  That means you can grill it, broil it or roast it.  It is not intended to be simmered in liquid.  In fact it tends to get dry and tough if it is simmered too ong.

Now with all these rules there is an exception, which is flank steak.  Flank is a tough muscle yet it’s always cooked with dry heat.  Dry heat works with the flank because when it’s served it’s cut crosswise into very thin strips which which we cal mechanical tenderizing.  The pieces are cut so thin that it compensates for the toughness and makes it easy to chew.

And one final comment about grading.  In our society we have grown accustomed to lean meats and many of us are revolted by the presence of fat.  Don’t be shocked when you look at a prime steak compared to a choice and a select grade.  The prime is loaded with fat (marbling is term used in the food industry) which  respresents flavor and tenderness.  The select grade will appear much leaner but it also means the meat will be less tender and have less flavor.  Everything’s a trade off.


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