Archive for category Ruminations

Celebrate With Me Today!!!

Today is a good day!  I’m so excited that CookingAfterWork is being featured as the “Food Blog of the Day”  on Foodista.com.  For those of you that don’t know, Foodista, in addition to being one of the leading sources of online food news, organizes the International Food Bloggers Conference, the premier event for food bloggers, and in 2010 released the “Foodista Best of Food Blogs Cookbook,” the first cookbook of its kind.  So, my friends, it won’t be long before the whole world catches on to what you already know – that this blog is freaking Awesome! 😄

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A Few Words About Salt

Ever wonder why a recipe specifically calls for kosher salt?  Ever wonder why you followed a recipe exactly and the resulting dish was too salty or too bland?

First, some background.  Kosher salt is so named because it was originally designed to help in the process of koshering meats.  Like common table salt, kosher salt consists of the chemical compound sodium chloride.  Unlike common table salt, kosher salt typically contains no additives.  Kosher salt crystals are larger and coarser than table salt crystals.  In most professional kitchens, and in most professional recipes, kosher salt is the standard.  This is because (1) the coarse crystals are easy to handle and measure out with your fingers; and (2) some believe that kosher salt, which is not processed as fine as table salt retains more minerals (although there is considerable disagreement on the veracity of this point).

Because kosher salt crystals occupy more volume than table salt crystals, when substituting kosher salt for table salt in a recipe or vice versa, you cannot do an even exchange – you must adjust the amount of salt.  Kosher salt crystals can vary in size considerably from one brand to another so it is recommended that you use the conversion guidelines which are generally provided on the package.  If there is no guidance provided, use roughly 2x more kosher salt (by volume) to replace table salt.  Another reliable technique is to use weight measurements rather than volume measurements (i.e., grams rather than tablespoons).  In addition to variations in the size of crystals, the density of the kosher salt crystals may vary between brands.  As a result, you can use the exact same measure of kosher salt called for by a recipe, but end up with a much more salty dish.  When that happens, the chances are that the recipe writer used a different brand of kosher salt.  The two most common brands of kosher salt sold in the U.S., are Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt and Morton’s Kosher Salt, and they have a noticeably different impact on a dish. Diamond’s salt crystals are larger and less dense so, for the same volume, Diamond’s salt will pack less of a salty punch.

By now, you’re probably thinking something like “who the hell has time to worry about buying and storing multiple salts.”  Despite having written this post, and having read a whole book just on salt (o.k., I’ll admit that I can get pretty geeky sometimes), I don’t make a big fuss about salt in my everyday cooking.  I generally use Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, because of its purity and because it’s a lot easier to add more salt to an under-seasoned dish than to correct an over-seasoned dish.

So what should you do?  When in doubt, go kosher and adjust your measurements accordingly.  If preparing a dish on the stove top, don’t add all the salt called for by a recipe at the beginning.  Add some salt at the beginning to open up the flavors, but reserve adding more until closer to the end of cooking when the flavors have come together and you can get a truer sense of how much salt you personally feel the dish needs.  The phrase “salt to taste” is not just put there to be vague and annoying – it’s your food so season it as you like.

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Quinoa: an Introduction

Quinoa is not a grass, but its seeds have been...

Dry Quinoa

I am knee deep in the middle of a love affair with Quinoa. I know it’s a bit weird to be so enamored of a food, but I’m not the only one. Quinoa has many devoted followers in health food circles, and, more recently, has become quite the trendy food among a more diverse group of diners looking for a nutritious and easy to prepare “grain.”  In fact, Quinoa cooks in less time than rice and has a higher nutritional content, making it perfect for busy cooks.

Quinoa should definitely be in your cabinet. So let’s take a closer look at it:

Quinoa (pronounced like “keen-wah”), although considered a grain, is technically the seed of a plant that is related to the beet, chard and spinach plants. It is native to South America – particularly the Andean countries such as Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia – where it has been grown since the time of the Incas.  It was a dietary staple of the Incas until the Spaniards came and, in an attempt to destroy native culture, decreed it illegal under punishment of death to cultivate Quinoa.  Cultivation survived, and today, there are several varieties available in the U.S., the most common being white, red and black.

Quinoa, regardless of the variety, is extremely good for you, and is sometimes referred to as a “Super Food.”  Quinoa is high in protein, and the protein it supplies is complete protein, meaning that it includes all nine essential amino acids that the body is unable to produce on its own.  Quinoa is rich in calcium, iron, magnesium (which regulates blood pressure) and manganese (an antioxidant).  It contains healthy levels of B vitamins and vitamin E.  It also contains a healthy dose of dietary fiber.  It’s low in calories and is gluten free.  Because of its high protein content, it is an excellent source of proteins for vegetarians, vegans or anyone wishing to cut back on their meat intake. (Click here for more on the health benefits of Quinoa).

Because Quinoa is a seed, it tends to sprout in moist situations.  For maximum freshness, ensure there is no moisture in the quinoa you are purchasing or storing until you are ready to use it.   If stored in a cool dry place, it will keep for several months.

When preparing Quinoa for cooking, it is best to wash the seeds first by placing them in a mesh strainer and running cold water over them until the water runs clear after passing through the Quinoa. The basic method for cooking Quinoa is adding 1 part Quinoa to 2 parts boiling liquid.  Stir briefly then reduce the heat to a simmer and cover.  One cup of Quinoa usually takes about 15-20 minutes to cook.  You will know it’s done because the water will be absorbed, and the seed will be translucent but still a little firm.

When cooked, Quinoa seeds are fluffy with a slight crunch.  They have a very subtle nutty flavor. If you want to enhance the nutty flavor, you can dry-roast the quinoa for 5 minutes in a skillet after they have been rinsed and before cooking them.  Like rice, Quinoa is very versatile.  You can use it in much the same was as you would use rice – pilafs, chilled salads, soups, and stews. My favorite preparation is a very hearty vegetable salad. (click here for Quinoa Rainbow Salad recipe).

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Because Naked Breasts Aren’t that Interesting

Now, now, this is a cooking blog so this post is not actually about a woman’s breasts, but what to do to make otherwise boring chicken breasts more interesting.  The easiest way is to finish off the sautéed chicken breast with a sauce.  And the key to a good pan sauce is chicken stock. Chicken stock is the real focus of this post, because as the great Chef Escoffier said “Stocks are to cooking what foundations are to a house.”  With chicken stock on hand, you can easily make sauces to give a little boost to otherwise simple preparations of meats; you can make rich soups; you can cook grains in it instead of water to give the grains a little more flavor; and most importantly, you can make those rich braises where the meat practically falls off the bone.

There are basically two types of chicken stock – the delicious kind you make yourself and the crappy kind you buy at the supermarket.   OK, maybe that’s a bit harsh.  If you’re really in a pinch, the commercial varieties will do, just don’t tell anyone and do it knowing that you’ll eventually have to answer to your god for the crime.  Seriously, making your own chicken stock is easy and something you only need to do every couple of months so it’s well worth the effort to do it yourself.

The following is a basic recipe for chicken stock. It makes about  2 1/2 quarts of Chicken stock.  Store it in small freezer safe containers (1 and 2 cup sizes tend to be the most useful) and freeze it until you need it.

Chicken Stock

makes approximately 2 1/2 quarts

Qty Item
3 1/2 Lbs Chicken parts and bones (I like to use a mix of necks, feet, parts of the carcass and an old stewing hen, if available)
3 quarts Cold Water
4.5 oz onions, roughly chopped
4.5 oz carrots, roughly chopped
2 oz celery, roughly chopped
1 Garlic clove, crushed
1 bunch herb stems (4-5 thyme stems with the leave removed, 2-3 parsley stems with the leaves removed, 1 small rosemary stem with the pines removed, 2 Bay leaves)
4-6 whole peppercorns
  1. Trim the chicken parts of excess fat and skin and rinse them under cold water for a few minutes (or let them soak for a few minutes) to remove any blood or debris.  Place the chicken parts in a stock pot (or any pot large enough to hold all the items) and cover with the 3 quarts cold water or as much water as is necessary to cover the chicken.  Bring the water to a boil.  As the liquid comes to a boil, a foam/scum will rise to the top.  Continuously skim off this foam until it stops rising.
  2. Once the foam stops rising, lower the water temperature to a simmer.  Add the remaining ingredients and continue to let it simmer for about 2 hours.  Keep an eye on it every 10 minutes or so to skim off any foam/scum that rises to the top.
  3. After about 2 hours, strain the stock through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl.  Discard the vegetables.  Set the chicken parts aside. At this point, you can cool the stock and prep it for storage, or you can pour it into another pot and continue to boil it down to concentrate the flavor.  I usually boil it down further until about 2/3 of the original amount remains so that I can have a richer tasting stock.  I then usually add a few pinches of salt.

Now that you have some stock on hand, you’re ready to dress those breasts.  And what goes better with chicken than a nice sherry mushroom cream sauce. This Chicken Breast with Sherry Mushroom Cream Sauce can be made in 30 minutes.

While I don’t recommend using the really meaty parts of the chicken, if you did use parts with some meat on them, you should reserve the meat and use it for chicken salads, or this absolutely fabulous Chicken Pot Pie.

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Condiments to the Rescue

Keeping a variety of condiments on hand is the key to being able to whip up a variety of meals without a lot of fuss on a weeknight.  I’m not just talking about your diner standards such as ketchup and mustard – although keeping a good dijon mustard on hand is always a good idea.  I’m talking about pestos, chutneys, and, if you want to get fancy, preserves.

While some pestos can be made in as little as 20 minutes, most require a little more time.  I find it easiest to prepare some whenever I have some free time and good quality ingredients and then freeze them for later use. The key to making a good condiment (as is the key to making anything), is to use ingredients that are in season and locally grown, if possible. The flavor will hold up better to freezing.

Condiments can very quickly transform a simple grilled fish into something still simple, but divine. It’s also a good way to extend the life of a seasonal delight such as Meyer Lemons (see Meyer Lemon Salsa recipe here).  The following are two condiment recipes that I love and generally keep in my freezer. Read the rest of this entry »

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Home-Cooked vs. Take-Out

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day who doesn’t understand why anyone would take what’s left of their precious little free time to cook their own food when you can get any type of cuisine delivered right to your door or desk in under 40 minutes with no clean-up after.  For the person who views cooking as a chore to be avoided at all costs and who has a lot of discretionary income, there is probably no counter-argument that will sway such a person.  For a person with less of an aversion to the kitchen, I offer four points to consider when weighing the value of cooking your own food against ordering take-out:

1.  Ingredients – you control them.  Sugar, fat, unrecognizable mystery sauce – you can control  or eliminate all that.

2. Quality – because you control the amount and quality of the ingredients, you control the quality of the finished product.

3. Portions – you control whether you eat a pound of pasta or a normal serving size.  I know that, theoretically, you always have the ability to control your portion size by simply putting the fork down, but that takes a lot of self-control.  We’ve all done it – eaten 3/4 of a plate of food that was already 2x more food than we really needed, but we kept going past the point of comfort for the simple reason that the food was there.  Check out Brian Wansink‘s book, “Mindless Eating:  Why We Eat More Than We Think” for some fascinating and funny insight on that point.  I personally find it a lot easier to control how much I eat before I put it on the plate, than after it’s on the plate.  Take-out portions are always too big and too hard to walk away from.

4.  Costs –  on a cost per serving basis, the monetary costs of cooking for yourself will often be equal to or less than the costs of ordering the same food in for delivery.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing against take-out in all cases, but against take-out as the default method of eating.  Take-out definitely has its benefits – cuisines that might be beyond your cooking skills to duplicate (that’s Indian food for me) and it eliminates the time costs of your own labor.  The last benefit is pretty powerful, and if you’re using that free time to do things that make you happy and enhance your life, then by all means order in every day.  However, if you’re just freeing up more TV time, why not spend some of that time cooking for yourself?  If your apartment is as small as mine, you can cook for yourself and watch TV so it’s a win-win.

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