Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A product review: Progressive chopping mats

I have always liked the idea of chopping mats, you know, those thin, translucent flexible things you can use as cutting boards. The thing I like most is when you are done chopping and mincing, you can pick them up and fold them into a "U" shape and pour whatever you have just sliced and diced into your pot or pan without spilling any of it. In theory. In practice, however, every time I have tried using one, I have sliced and diced it right along with the product I was cutting.

Tonight, however, I decided to give a new brand a try. Three bucks for two 12x15 flexible cutting surfaces. We can all use more cutting surfaces in our kitchens, right? Especially if when we are done using them, we can just chuck them in the dishwasher and have them come out all sanitary again.

I was walking down the kitchen wares aisle in my local supermarket, and I happened upon a set of two by Progressive. Written on the label was "Chopping surface will not dull knives." I snorted; this was the least of my worries. But I decided to risk the three bucks, brought them home, and proceeded to cut up carrots, celery, and onions. I was astonished to discover that not only did my very sharp knife not cut the mat to ribbons, but when I was done, I could barely tell I had been slicing on it at all. As the packaging said my satisfaction was guaranteed, and if I was not satisfied I could return the item, I had carefully saved the packaging and receipt. After I got done testing the chopping mat, the packaging and receipt went in the recycling. I'm satisfied.

I highly recommend these. Go buy some today. :)

Monday, November 22, 2010

How to make Korean Kalbi Marinade

Ever have Kalbi? I have, and I love it. Recently, I discovered how to make it, and I thought I would share it here.

A Korean gal taught me this, and I just finished preparing it for about the tenth time, because it tastes so good. These days I make sure I never leave the grocery store without the ingredients for it; it is such a favorite at our house. I have my own version of the recipe memorized, and once I get started I can literally have it put together and in the fridge in about two minutes. Then we just have to wait a few days for the meat to marinate, which can be a trial at times.

This is most commonly known around here as Kalbi, but I have also seen it spelled Kalbe or even Galbi or Garbi. Some Koreans insist on one spelling or another, but as it is a word translated from Korean pictograms, I don't think it much matters. They all sound the same when a Korean person says them, in any event. Kalbi is good enough for me; this is what most of the menus around here say.

Kalbi is traditionally used with Flanken-style ribs, but works well with any thin slice of meat. I first had it on skirt steak, and was completely hooked. I suppose it would work for chicken or pork, as well, but traditionally there are different recipes for them.

One of the coolest things about this is that while it is absolutely authentic, all the ingredients are easily found in most normal American supermarket-type grocery stores. No need to track down an Asian market for any exotic ingredients.

Here is the recipe for the marinade for up to about two pounds of meat:

Step one:

Place in mixing bowl and whisk thoroughly to dissolve sugar:

1 cup sugar (brown preferred, but white will do)
1 cup soy sauce
3 cups water (warm works best)
2 tablespoons sesame oil

Step two:

Add and stir in:

1/2 large onion, sliced from top to bottom, (stem to root) then sliced into about 1/4" half rings, and sectioned (whatever kind of onion is handy, I typically use sweet)
1 bunch scallions ("green onions," sliced into about 2" pieces, including both the green and the white parts.)
2 tablespoons minced garlic (or even more, if you like garlic like I do. Freshly minced is best, but you can use the stuff in a jar if you really must)
1/2 tablespoon of whole black peppercorns, ground. (I suppose you could use the pre-ground stuff, but why?).
2 tablespoons sesame seeds (optional)
1 tablespoon of Sriracha ("Rooster Sauce," also optional*)

Step three:

Place meat in marinade†, and place in refrigerator for at least 24 hours. The longer the better, though. (within reason) I typically marinate mine for 72 hours, to give it plenty of time to penetrate the meat. (anything less and you are cheating yourself of flavor)

Step four: Take out, shake off, and cook to desired doneness by your preferred method‡

Step five: Serve, and impress the heck out of your friends, neighbors, and family with your secret cook-fu technique.**


†I usually make the marinade in a mixing bowl, then combine it with the meat in a 1 gallon ziplock bag, mix thoroughly, squeeze out the air, seal, then place the bag in the rinsed mixing bowl and put it in the fridge. This ensures the meat is all submerged, and the mixing bowl will catch any leaks or dribbles. If you elect to just put it in the mixing bowl in the fridge, cover it with a lid or plastic wrap, and turn the meat every day to make sure it is evenly marinated.

*I like mine with a bit of heat, so I add about a tablespoon of Sriracha sauce. Really, almost any kind of heat will do, including sliced chiles, or even red pepper flakes. I would avoid vinegar-based sauces like Tabasco and so on, though. The vinegar, I think, would add an undesirable flavor. While vinegar is often used in Asian dishes, this particular marinade is not supposed to taste tangy, at all. But, again, hot sauce or chiles are optional and not at all needed for authentic flavor.

Really, the only constants that should be absolutely adhered to are the one part sugar, one part soy sauce, and three parts water. The other ingredients can be varied in quantity according to taste. The above listed quantities are the ones I have arrived at to suit my own taste, after experimenting a bit, and I think they are a good starting point. These quantities taste the most like the stuff I've had in local Korean restaurants.

‡Regarding cooking, traditionally the meat is cooked on a grill, but really it can be cooked in a pan over medium-high heat, or even broiled. Because of the sugar content of the marinade, however, I would recommend that if broiling, do not use the broiling pan that came with your oven. Any of the marinade that drips onto the pan will turn into a rock-hard substance that is almost impossible to clean off. I typically use a cooling rack over foil in a sheet pan when broiling, but usually if not grilling I will just pan fry it. Much easier to clean up afterwards, as you can just deglaze the pan with a little water, then rinse it out.

I usually prefer my beef medium-rare, but I think in this case, at least when using thin slices of meat, well-done is more suited and traditional. Most important is to get come good carmelization going on each side.

(I do plan to try it with a small roast, someday, however, and in that case I will probably go a day or two more than the 72 hours of marinating, and then cook it normally, which as I said for me is medium rare.)

**Regarding serving, this goes quite well with plain white rice and steamed veggies. Melted butter with a couple drops of sesame oil stirred in would make a very nice topping for the veggies. I really mean a couple of drops, though. People who have never used sesame oil should be cautioned to respect it. It is very powerful stuff. It's one thing when most of it remains in the left-behind marinade, but quite another when applied directly to food. A little goes a very long way, and a little too much can easily spoil a dish.

For a pretty presentation, press the rice into a small bowl to mold, then upend the bowl on the plate leaving just the molded rice, and top it with some finely-sliced scallions. Then pour the sesame butter over the veggies and sprinkle with sesame seeds. If serving with chopsticks, cut the meat into bite-sized chunks before serving. If using flanken-style ribs, simply slice between the bones, leaving them intact.By the way, they tell me it is perfectly permissible to eat the rib sections with your fingers, chopsticks or no. This stuff is that good. ;)

Oh, another possible recipe variation. Although I have never tried it, I suspect it might be feasible to use a sugar substitute to make this, which would make it diabetes-friendly, although really, I don't think the meat absorbs all that much sugar. Most of it stays in the leftover marinade.

Anyway, please try it, I am quite sure you and your family will like it. It tastes amazing, and is a traditional Korean dish even American guys can easily make. ;).

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Racial profiling for cooking videos

Recently I've been cruising the various video sites looking at cooking videos that show how to cook various foods from other countries. Other than America, that is. One of the best sites I've found so far has a Thai woman demonstrating how to make Thai food. Imagine that.

Why would I say "imagine that"? Because there are also plenty of videos out there that were made by white Americans, which purport to show how to make "authentic" Thai food. The word "authentic" in the description always makes me suspect it isn't, because to the person who actually grew up with a particular type of cuisine, it's just food. I wouldn't, for example, make a video showing how to make an "authentic American grilled steak dinner." To me, this would seem absurd, though no doubt someone in another country might be interested to see how we do it and what we typically serve with the steak. But they could certainly do so without my adding the word "authentic."

Of course, this doesn't apply only to Thai food. Google any cuisine from outside the United States, and you will find a video by some white guy from within it who claims to show the "authentic" way of making it. Not to say it is only the non-white nations who suffer such treatment. I am sure, for instance, there are also many traditional European and Eastern-European recipes that are cheerfully butchered by well-meaning or know-it-all Americans.

Which brings me to another point. I recently saw a video about how to make authentic (there's that word again) tacos. This one, however, was done by a woman of Mexican descent. Her English bore no trace of a Mexican accent, though, and when she went to her local Mexican market to pick up her ingredients, she spoke only English to the obviously Spanish-speaking people there. When she got home, and broke out the packet of powdered taco seasoning, I stopped watching. Now, I am sure that there are people in Mexico who use packaged taco seasoning. After all, there are lousy cooks everywhere. However, I don't really want to learn to cook traditional cuisine from them. Would you trust a chef who broke out a packet of powdered Alfredo sauce mix to demonstrate how to make Linguine Alfredo? I hope not.

I don't mean to bash my fellow Americans, here, and this is not really about race or color, except as applied to cuisine. I probably wouldn't listen to a Chinese guy who wanted to teach me about sushi, or a French guy who had a video about pizza, either.

Most people who make videos about how to make the food from other countries do so out of a genuine desire to help, and some of them even know what they are talking about. However, for each one who does, there are many who, despite their good intentions, really do not, and if you really want to learn how to do it properly, the odds are much better if you first find a video by someone who is actually from the appropriate country. And I mean from that country, as in they speak with the proper accent.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Reheating Coffee

One myth I repeatedly encounter regarding coffee is the one that it should never be reheated. People say this in the same tones as they might employ when saying something like "Never make tea out of Nightshade leaves."

The key, however is in what the coffee was doing before it became cold, and in how you reheat it. A half-pot of coffee in a drip-brewer carafe that sat on the burner for four hours yesterday before you finally got around to switching it off probably isn't going to taste very go0d if you reheat it. But you certainly may, and aside from bad taste, and perhaps heartburn, it won't hurt you.

A friend of mine makes a pot of coffee in his drip-brewer every morning, and immediately after it is done brewing, (and pouring a cup) he turns it off. Then, when he wants another cup. he pours and microwaves it. This is his method of making sure each cup tastes fresh-brewed, and it works pretty well, compared to coffee that has been sitting there cooking for hours.

I have occasionally filled my vacuum carafe, had a cup or two, become involved in something, and only realized the next morning that I hadn't drunk more than a little of my coffee, when I picked up the carafe to head for the kitchen. So, should I then pour most of my daily ration of coffee down the drain, and make a fresh pot? Of course not. There is nothing wrong with the coffee in the carafe from the day before, aside from the fact that it is no longer hot. At this point, I have two choices. I can either microwave each cup as I pour it, or I can heat the whole batch and pour it back into the carafe. As one of the reasons I have the carafe in the first place is so I don't keep having to return to the kitchen for a fresh cup, I usually opt for the latter. I pour the coffee into a saucepan, and heat it for a couple of minutes over a burner on my rangetop, then pour it back into the carafe, and continue as usual. I just take care not to boil it.

So, go ahead and reheat coffee, whether in the microwave or on top of the stove. Just remember that it will taste the same as it did when it got cold, so if it tasted lousy before, it will still taste lousy.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Home-roasting Coffee

Many folks don't know it, but you can actually buy raw coffee beans, and an inexpensive roaster, and roast your own beans.

Why would you want to do this? Well, for one thing, green coffee beans keep much longer than do roasted ones, so effectively, every time you roast a batch, you have fresh coffee beans. These, of course, are much fresher than anything that you might buy in the grocery store. Roasted coffee beans are at their best about 24 hours after roasting; the ones in the store have been roasted somewhere, shipped somewhere, and perhaps even shipped somewhere else before finally arriving in the containers in the store. Then, who knows how long they've been sitting in the containers in the store? Then, after perhaps a couple of weeks, you take them home, and take another week or two to use them up.

For another thing, you can discover the perfect roast for your favorite coffee beans. You might, for example, find that while you like the Sumatra beans in your local shop. you like Sumatra even better if it is roasted lighter or darker than what you are normally able to get.

On the downside, it is a bit of a hassle, compared to simply dumping roasted beans out of a bag. It can be anything from a moderately to a very smoky operation, as well, so unless you have a very good fan system in your kitchen, it is an operation best performed outside.

Also, though you may imagine that roasting coffee would smell wonderful, please let me assure you, it does not. In fact it smells a lot like burning popcorn while it is roasting.

But, for those of you who have mastered the art of brewing coffee already, it can be a fun next step. If you locate some raw beans, and don't want to spend the money on a roaster until you're sure it's something you want to do, many roasters like the one pictured above are essentially glorified popcorn air-poppers, with a few bells and whistles tacked on, like timers, and filters to catch the papery skins that come off the beans. So, if you have a popper like this, you can certainly roast your beans in it. Again, though, you will want to do it outside, not only because of the smoke, but also because this method will blow out a lot of the papery skins, and you won't want to clean them up afterwards. And, make sure to roast in small batches; if you simply fill the popper, the beans on the bottom will burn, and the ones on the top won't roast.

If this interests you, and you have trouble finding beans and supplies locally, they can be found at sweetmarias.com. Please try locally first, although I will certainly not blame you if you can't find anything. I live in the Seattle area, and I haven't been able to find a supplier, and Seattle is pretty much "Coffeetown, USA."

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

How Not to use a French Press

Many people buy French presses and are disappointed with the results. So, in a nutshell, how not to use a French press is to merely follow the instructions you get from the manufacturer, or from some other source, and then to expect good coffee right out of the gate.

If you are an avid coffee drinker, you may have, somewhere along the way, purchased a French press. After this, three outcomes were likely (starting with the least likely):

1) It made the coffee of your dreams, and you and your French press lived happily ever after

2) It made coffee that you didn't much care for, and you chalked it up as another overblown gadget you'd wasted money on, stashed it away somewhere, and went back to using your drip-brewer

3) It made coffee you didn't much care for, but since you'd heard and read all the rave reviews about what wonderful coffee French presses make, you decided your palate was unsophisticated when it comes to coffee, and that you should learn to like what your French press turned out. So you use it, but secretly still like the coffee they serve at (insert name of restaurant or coffee bar here) better.

Why do I think it likely you got less than stellar results? Because a French press is a tool, not an appliance. Simply changing to a French press does not guarantee you will make better coffee, just as simply getting better pots and pans does not guarantee you will make better food. Better kitchen tools simply give you the opportunity for better results. You still have to learn how to use them.

In learning to use your French press, the first thing to understand about coffee is this: good coffee is coffee that tastes the way you want it to taste. Period.

You probably bought a French press, and then looked at the instructions for how to use it. Or perhaps, you read something online, or even in a book. The thing is, these instructions tell you how to make coffee that tastes the way the person who wrote the instructions likes it.

These instructions usually go something like this.

1) Heat X amount of water to X degrees

2) Put X amount of ground coffee in the press

3) Pour hot water over ground coffee, and let steep for X amount of time.

4) Pour coffee, and enjoy

I've often seen some other steps included, which contained nonsense like "pour a little water in first to allow the grounds to expand," but what I have listed here are the basic steps.

Here is the second thing to understand about coffee. And this is important, so pay attention. It contains "good" coffee flavors, and bitter flavors. The more water you pass over a given amount of coffee in a drip-brewer, or the longer you allow coffee to steep in a French press, the more bitter the brew will become.

Think of your coffee grounds as tiny, coffee-flavored candies, like those multi-layered jawbreakers. These layers dissolve in water, one at a time, so the more water you pour over them, or the longer they soak in water, the more layers dissolve. The outer layers are non-bitter coffee flavor, but each layer beneath gets progressively more bitter and less coffee-flavored, until at the very center, the flavor is almost all bitterness and no coffee. (Okay, the grounds don't actually dissolve; it's just useful to think of it this way, all right?)

Many people equate "strong" coffee with "bitter" coffee, and think they don't like strong coffee. Subsequently they don't put enough ground coffee in their drip coffee maker, and wind up with a weak, bitter brew. If they put more ground coffee in, they would have better flavor with less bitterness. Well, my idea of better, anyway. A French press has the advantage, here, because the ratio of coffee to water doesn't affect the bitterness of the coffee. Five cups of water, or five gallons, the flavor components are leeched from the grounds at the same rate, so the only difference will be in the strength of the brew. The steeping time is what controls the bitterness of the coffee. This is because in a French press, the grounds just sit there in the same water. In a drip coffee maker, new water is constantly being poured over them, which carries off first the good flavors, and then the bitter. It's like the difference between a stream and a pond.

So what does all this mean to you? What it means is that you need to find your own perfect method for using a French press. Maybe you like coffee with a little more bite to it. Maybe you like coffee that is very strong. Maybe you like coffee that is not so strong, but it's not bitter, either. Maybe you like weak, bitter coffee.

The wonderful thing about a French press is that, given the same amount of water, and the same same kind of coffee, it can produce brews of all these qualities and more. The awful thing about a French press is that, given the same amount of water, and the same kind of coffee, it can produce brews of all these qualities and more.

A French press is not like a drip machine, where pretty much all you control are the brand and type of coffee, and how much of it to put in. With a French press, you control every aspect of the brewing, or in this case, steeping process. The quantity and temperature of the water, the quantity of the coffee, the steeping time. Which can be a great thing. It completely frees you to learn to make the coffee you love. So, why jump back into the pen with the rest of the cattle by following someone else's method?

But, first, of course, you must learn how to make the coffee you love with the French press. To do this, I recommend starting with whatever coffee you like in your drip-brewer, whether it be whole bean or pre-ground. Start by following the manufacturer's, or that guy on the internet's instructions. Then see how you like the taste. Want it stronger? Next time either use more coffee, less water, or increase the steeping time. Want a little more bite? Increase the steeping time. And so on. Experiment, changing only one thing at a time, until you arrive at the perfect method for you.

Some myths, some dos, some don'ts

Myth: Many people say things like "Never pour boiling water over coffee grounds, it will shock them." Then they recommend grinding the coffee after turning the heat off, apparently because the water will cool sufficiently in the few seconds it takes you to do this. I'm not sure why they think a couple of degrees will make a difference. For that matter, I have no idea what "shocking" means, or what it is supposed to do to your coffee, and, as these things go, no one who says this seems to know either. Perhaps make it write scathing letters to the editor? This, to me, is just one of those things the "experts" say, in order to sound knowledgable, and fits right in with other stock phrases like "Always wash your chicken before cooking," and is equally meaningless. I've tried it both ways, and the only difference I have noticed is the cooler the water, the cooler the coffee.

Do: Purchase a good vacuum carafe to pour your coffee into once it is done steeping. This will keep it tasting exactly the same as when fresh, and will keep it hot for hours. These are great things to have even if you don't plan on using a French press. Your coffee stays hot without being left on a burner, and you can take it with you. As I write this I am sitting at my desk with my cup of coffee, and my vacuum carafe. No trips to the kitchen for refills necessary. Of course a thermos will do the same thing, it's just that a carafe is more convenient. To dispense the coffee, all you have to do is push down a lever, and pour.

Don't: Don't leave your coffee in the French Press, and serve it from there. The whole idea is to stop the steeping process at the perfect point. Leave it in there, and it will continue to steep. Do it this way, and you may as well be using a percolator. And, by the way, those travel mugs that have a French press built right in are nothing but useless snobbery, for the same reason.

Myth: You shouldn't put the plunger assembly in the pot until you are ready to plunge. Unless you like cold coffee, this is just silly. Heat rises, and it rises out of the carafe all the more quickly if you don't put the plunger assembly in while steeping. In fact, you will notice that the grounds actually float, so what I like to do is to put the plunger in immediately, and even press down on it just enough to make sure all the grounds are under the water level. This keeps the heat in, and doesn't waste coffee.

Do: Keep your French press and your other equipment clean, especially while you are still experimenting. The brown buildup that results after almost every pot contains bitter oils, which will throw off the flavors of the next batch. I'm not saying that you need to dismantle it and run it through the dishwasher after every pot, but you certainly may. If you choose just to rinse and wipe the plunger after use, just remember that those oils also build up in the crevices between the plunger parts.

Don't: Don't switch brands or roasts of coffee until you have your method perfected with the first one. Unless, of course, you are prepared to start your experiment over.

Myth: You should pay attention when "experts" say things like "Never steep your coffee for more than five minutes." Wrong! It's your coffee, steep it for as long or short a time as tastes good to you. Use what the experts say as a starting point, then adjust one thing at a time from there, until you like the way your coffee tastes.

A French press certainly can make the best coffee you have ever tasted. However, it won't do it automatically. If all this sounds like too much work for your morning cup of joe, for you, it probably is, and in that case, I'd stick with the drip-brewer. However, if you are willing to put in the effort, eventually you will be able to make the perfect cup of coffee, every time, with your French press.

Friday, June 12, 2009

How to avoid overcooking a roast

I was going to save this tip for another day, but, well, I have time, and it's important, soooo...

One of the major obstacles the cook encounters in roasting meat, whether it be a beef roast, or a chicken or a turkey, or anything else, is knowing when to stop.

This is further compounded by roasting instructions found in typical recipes: "Roast for three hours at 350°," or "Roast for ten minutes per pound." What's wrong with these instructions? Well, first of all, the author of the recipe has no way of telling how hot your oven really is when you set it to 350°. Ovens vary pretty widely in this regard. The other is that different shapes require different roasting times. If your roast is shaped like a ball, it is generally going to take longer to roast than one that is shaped more like a hockey puck, all else being equal.

The way to nullify these problems is to cook to temperature, rather than by time.

And, of course, to do that, you need a thermometer. You probably already have a meat thermometer tucked away in a drawer somewhere. And, you likely rarely use it, because you can't read it with your oven door closed, and in any event, if you went by the time suggested in your recipe, you may have discovered that all it is useful for is to tell you your meat is overcooked.

Polder Digital Thermometer

The digital thermometer above solves these problems. The probe goes into the meat, and into the oven, while the readout stays outside the oven and gets its reading through the cable the probe is attached to. No more trouble reading the thermometer.

Also, the digital thermometer's computerized brain can be set to beep when the target temperature is reached. So, for example, you put the probe into the thigh meat of your turkey, and set the alarm to sound when the turkey reaches 165°. Turkey gets done, thermometer goes beep-beep-beep, you pull the bird out of the oven. Simple as that, and no more dry, stringy breast meat. Ever again.

Of course this also works to accurately cook beef roasts to medium rare, pork roasts to done but still juicy, and so on. Most items that we roast are fairly expensive, and often reserved for special occasions. It can be heartbreaking to have them come out overcooked and dry. Imagine never roasting anything that didn't come out perfect, ever again.

Want even more convenience?

Wireless digital thermometers have all the advantages above, plus one substantial one. The readout isn't connected to the probe, so you can take it with you. Why would you want to? Well, say you are roasting something in the oven, but don't want to stay in the kitchen to monitor it. Just take the readout with you, and when it beeps, dash back to the kitchen, and take your roast out. It can also be quite useful when barbecuing, (not grilling, which is cooking over direct heat, and is what most people are actually doing when they think they are barbecuing.) as you can go inside the house, and still monitor the progress of whatever is in the bbq. This, of course, is also a useful thing when you are having a party, and want to mingle with your guests instead of monitoring your food.

As kitchen equipment goes, digital thermometers are pretty inexpensive, but they can make all the difference in your ability to cook expensive meats perfectly, every time. This is one gadget that I consider indispensable.