Tag Cooking basics

Winter = Soup Season = Great Vegetable Stock

Winter is soup season. OK – every season is soup season. But still, even if you aren’t trudging through snow to get home, a warming soup is a the best welcome home on a cold day. And I’ve cooked a lot of soups this winter: Deborah Madison’s lentil minestrone; Martha Rose Shulman’s pureed butternut squash and white bean soup (more on that soon); Mark Bittman’s sweet potato chowder (ditto); Yotam Ottolenghi’s Savoy cabbage and Parmesan rind soup (ehh …); and an utterly forgettable parsnip soup. Some have done well by The Professor;  others not so much. But here’s what I’ve learned: in most cases, the stock more than matters – it’s the deciding factor in whether a vegetarian soup is truly satisfying to a meat-eater. So what is the best vegetarian stock?

One year ago, I spent the better part of a day gathering, peeling and chopping ingredients (17 in total, including collard greens and lemon grass) to make Cooks Illustrated‘s Ultimate Vegetable Stock. The recipe’s creators were aiming for “a nicely balanced, robust vegetable stock recipe that vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike would consider making.” And the stock was certainly more complex and flavorful than any packaged option.Though 5 hours and 17 ingredients better? I’m not so sure.

Since then, I’ve been using a stock based on Superior Touch’s Better Than Bouillon, embellished with a few teaspoons of soy sauce. In general, The Professor has been happy with the flavor that it adds, but I keep wondering if there is a simple home-made alternative. If you have a great recipe for home-made vegetable stock, send it to me and I’ll include it in my vegetable stock taste test.

City Kitchen — a New NYT Cooking Column by David Tanis

David Tanis — a cookbook author and longtime chef at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse — just kicked off a new column for The New York Times called City Kitchen. The column is about cooking at home and, more specifically, about cooking in cramped city kitchens. But no matter the size of your kitchen, the column promises to be great source of cooking insight and experience.

His debut column — titled “Small Space, Big Flavor: First, Start the Beans” — reminded me that I’m a dolt for not cooking with dried beans. As Tanis writes, “a small batch of freshly cooked beans is well worth the little effort it takes to get them cooked. … Don’t cave and go the canned-bean route — save those for emergencies or camping trips.”

I’m going to throw my can opener away. Or at least as The Professor to hide it.

In any case, check out the column and the accompanying recipe for Cannellini Bean Salad with Shaved Spring Vegetables, which looks delicious.

Mark Bittman’s Four-Spice Salmon and How to Cook Fish

The New York Times columnist Mark Bittman — aka The Minimalist — has a great video on making Four-Spice Salmon. It reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write two posts — one on the matter of eating seafood and one on how to cook fish. So I’ll take Bittman’s video (which includes two tricks I use myself) as my excuse to write up my cooking tips. While Bittman pan fries his salmon in the video, my tips are geared towards roasting or grilling.

#1: Cook Individual Pieces: Cut the filet into individual portions before you cook it. Not only will it look nicer on the plate, but it will help you cook all the pieces evenly and make it easier to determine when the fish is done. If you’re cooking an uncut three-pound piece, it’s sooooo difficult to know when the thickest center pieces are ready.

#2: Use a spice rub: This is Bittman’s second tip and I second it. No I third it! In any case, I approve. In the video he mixes cumin, coriander, nutmeg and clove. Because I sometimes don’t have time to make my own spice mix, I’ve also bought them. My current obsession is Whole Food’s Tequila Lime spice mix, a combination of chili pepper, coriander, cumin, oregano, garlic, onion, parsley, lime and tequila. Or “tequila flavor,” at least. Bittman puts the spice mix on top of the fish. Why stop there? I smear the mix on all sides of the fish.

#3 Buy an oven thermometer: The oven gods are fickle and rarely heat the oven to the temperature that you set it for. An inexpensive thermometer will tell you your oven’s true temperature, helping you reach your pre-heating goal. And when it comes to cooking fish, you need to have confidence in your oven temperature so that you can be confident in your cooking time.

#4 Time It: Rather than going by the old “10 minutes per inch of thickness” rule of thumb, I recommend using a resource like Weber’s On the Grill app, which provides standard cooking times for different kinds of seafood (and meats as well). if you’re making tuna or salmon, which some people eat rare or medium rare, adjust the time to suit your taste. If the timer goes off and you’re not sure that the fish is really cooked through, take it out of the oven, cover it with tin foil and let it “rest” for 5 minutes. It will keep cooking but much more slowly than it would in the oven, so you’re not as likely to over-cook it by mistake.

Melissa Clark on Rice Pudding … and Sticktoitiveness

Melissa Clark, in her most recent column for The New York Times, told the story of a recipe that she had copied from one of her parents’ cookbooks when she was a fledgling.

The piece is, on its face, a story about Catalan rice flan. As Clark writes in her “nut graph” — the paragraph, early in any article, in which a journalist lays out the basic theme and tells the story in a nutshell:

It was unusual in that it wasn’t like the soft and spoonable flans I’d met before. This one baked into a solid yet still creamy cake that I sliced and served in wobbling wedges topped with its own ambrosial caramel sauce. I made it repeatedly for several months, then dropped it to conquer some other culinary frontier — poundcake, I think.

But what struck me wasn’t her tale of flan. It was her obsessive pursuit of kitchen perfection — the fact that she cooked the dessert repeatedly for several months until she had mastered it. Moreover, having been reminded of the flan recently and unable to find her copy of the recipe, she writes: “I had to bake it nine times before I was happy, leaving a trail of crunchy rice, curdled custard and bitter-tasting batches in my path.” Several months! Nine times!

Her confession made me feel both better and worse about my recent months of cooking vegetarian dinners for The Professor. Better because I stopped feeling bad about both the little steps backward (such as my second attempt at bean risotto, which The Professor liked less than the first) and the failures (Ciao Giada’s stuffed peppers! And good-bye!).

And worse … or at least daunted, by the realization that it can take months of practice to really nail a recipe. Adding ten A+ vegetarian dishes to my repertoire is going take a lot of work!

The Very Best Recipes for Health

I just bought Martha Rose Shulman’s book, The Very Best Recipes for Health. I’m an avid reader of her column for The New York Times, “Recipes for Health.”  In fact, it’s where I found the recipe for beet risotto that launched this blog, so I consider her a sort of Patron Saint of The Roasted Beet.

The Very Best of Recipes for Health, by Martha Rose Shulman

I’ve already gone a bit Post-It-crazy, marking recipes that I want to try — White Beans with Pesto, Garlic Soup with Spinach and Pasta Shells, and a Spicy Tunisian Carrot Frittata, among others. The book includes a whole chapter on vegetarian main courses!

A mortar and pestle is the perfect tool for pureeing garlic

I’ll write about the recipes  as I test them, but in the meantime, I wanted to share a helpful tip (one of  many that Shulman sprinkles throughout the book) on using a mortar and pestle to puree garlic.

“Don’t pound the garlic with and up-and-down wrist motion. That’s too rough, and the garlic will become too pungent as you pound out the volatile oils. After gently mashing the garlic with your pestle to break it down, the motion should be more of a grinding action, circular around the inside of the bowl.”

I love my mortar and pestle and often use it to crush garlic. Now I know the right way to do it!

How to Make Vegetable Stock

Making vegetable stock often seems like more trouble than it’s worth. Yet the store-bought stocks tend to be too bland or too salty. (In How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, Mark Bittman laments that he wanted to “include an appraisal of store-bought vegetable stocks, but … none is consistently good enough to recommend.”) So in cooking for The Professor, I’ve sometimes fallen off the vegetarian wagon and succumbed to low-sodium chicken stock. But I’m determined to find an alternative.

So consider this the first post in an ongoing exploration. Some experiments will be needed. And ultimately some taste testers. For the moment, I’m starting with a recipe for “The Ultimate Vegetable Stock” from the team of cooks and testers at Cooks Illustrated magazine and the PBS television show, America’s Test Kitchen. They set out to create “a nicely balanced, robust vegetable stock recipe that vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike would consider making” — a goal that lines up nicely with the focus of this blog.

The Cooks Illustrated team doesn’t just throw a few onions and celery stalks into a pot with water and let it simmer. The recipe calls for lots of ingredients — which you can see below, including some surprises like lemon grass, cauliflower, collard greens — and involves several steps.

It also involves more prep work than many stock recipes, as The Professor pointed out.

“You don’t have to peel the onions for a stock. Just chop them and throw them in the pot with the skins,” he offered, as he passed through the kitchen and saw me thinly slicing shallots. “That’s how the Barefoot Contessa does it.”

“Thanks,” I said, ignoring the advice as I continued slicing. Though I wondered if the Barefoot Contessa had it right. Would the recipe’s extra ingredients and additional steps be worth it? I’ll find out soon.

Note: Cooks Illustrated keeps cooking secrets like how to make vegetable stock behind a pay wall, but you can sign up for a free two-week trial to access the complete Ultimate Vegetable Stock recipe. In the meantime, here’s the list of ingredients:

2 medium onions, peeled and chopped coarse

10-12 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

8 large shallots, sliced thin

1 rib celery, chopped coarse

1 small carrot, chopped coarse

vegetable cooking spray

4 large leeks, white and light green parts only, cleaned and chopped (about 5 1/2 cups)

stems of fresh parsley from 1 bunch

2 bay leaves

1 1/2 tsp table salt

1 tsp black peppercorns, cracked

1 pound collard greens, cleaned and sliced into 2-inch strips

1 small head cauliflower

8-10 sprigs fresh parsley

1 stalk lemon grass, trimmed to bottom 6 inches and bruised

4 medium scallions, white and light green parts, cut into 2-inch pieces

1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar