Herbs R Fresh

 

If you like herbs like we like herbs, then you plow through more than the average American. There are also likely fresh favorites you keep around pretty much all the time. For us, that would include cilantro and parsley. Both have subtle, lovely flavor profiles that go great with many dishes.

That said, both can get long in the tooth quite quickly. They're highly perishable, and can be hard to keep fresh after even a couple of days in your fridge. Considering the handling such foods receive as a part of modern distribution and sales, it's no wonder, really. A little handling and preserving work can go a long way toward having these indispensable always at hand.

When you get delicate perishables home, inspect them first and foremost. Get them out of the plastic produce bags, and better yet, don't put them in those things in the first place and reduce your plastic throughput. Remove any off colored or bruised stuff and toss it in your compost.

Give your goods a gentle rinse in cold, running water. Shake them dry, gently but thoroughly; excess water is not a friend to successful storage.

Remove any rubber bands or twist ties; all they do is bruise the goods and promote rot.

Place the washed produce on a clean paper towel and let them air dry a bit. Wrap the goods in the paper towel and store them in your crisper drawer just like that. If you use what you buy steadily, and pay attention to FIFO, (First In, First Out), in your fridge, your cilantro, parsley, green onions, radishes, etc will stay fresher, longer.

Consider drying some of those staple fresh herbs. It's a given that fresh is better than dry, but house dried herbs from a good fresh source are far better than store bought or none. Those faves of ours will dry thoroughly in a dehydrator in less than 30 minutes. I've tested both cilantro and parsley and found that our home dried stuff retains reasonably potent flavor for up to a month when stored in glass, in a cool, dark, dry spice cabinet.

Finally, and especially as the winter months are upon us, plant a fresh herb window box. An 18″ x 6″ x 6″ box will allow you to grow a full raft of your faves, and reasonable tending will sustain them through the season. There's nothing cheerier in the dark months than fresh, bright herbs growing in your kitchen.

 

 

We can pickle that!

If you love pickles like we do, you’ve pretty much always got several jars in your fridge. In addition to cukes, we’ll typically have store bought capers, olives, and pepperoncini. That list is a great source for fridge pickling brine you can now add to carrots, chiles, green onions, green beans, radishes, garlic, and whatever else strikes your fancy. 

Got a favorite brand with a just right pickle flavor? Save that brine and jar, and replace those kosher dills with a mix of jalapeno, garlic, onions and carrots. Top things off with fresh vinegar if needed, and you can add additional pickling spices as well if you like. Allow your new batch to marinate for 2 or 3 days, and you’re back in business. Fridge pickled goodies will last a month or two, although they’re so good, they’re unlikely to survive that long.

Try something a bit outside the box, like pearl onions in leftover caper brine, or cherry tomatoes in pepperoncini brine; experimentation is bound to lead to fresh ideas and new favorites. Let that outside the box thinking color your spice selection as well. Here’s the perfect chance to experiment with a single jar; develop something you love and you can expand to a batch run later. In addition to providing wonderful treats for a Bloody Mary or martini, pickled veggies add great zing to everything from salads or omelettes to soups and stews.

Next time you’re in the produce aisle, see what looks good and grab a little extra to pickle with. As always, carefully inspect and chose top quality for this endeavor. Try something that maybe you think you don’t like or aren’t that familiar with, like Bok Choi, Fennel, or turnips. A quick pickle brings a very tasty note to an otherwise dull character; try pickled celery and you’ll see what I mean.

 

Once you’re home, thoroughly rinse your produce in clean, cold water. For radishes, carrots, chiles, green and sweet onions and cukes, top, skin, seed, core, etc, and then cut them into whatever form you prefer your pickles in.

Fo green beans, corn, or peas, a quick blanch and shock will help preserve texture and color. Bring a large pot of well salted water to a rolling boil, and have an ice bath standing by that, (50%-50% ice and water).

Toss your veggies into the boiling water for about 30 seconds, the transfer them with a slotted spoon and plunge them into the ice bath. Leave them there until they’ve cooled completely. Remove and you’re ready to pickle.

When you’re ready to pickle, pour the remaining brine into a clean bowl or pitcher. Wash your jars thoroughly, and either sterilize them in your blanching bath, or run them through your dishwasher. Do the same with lids and rings.

For whatever you prepare, make sure they’re well packed, with at least an inch of brine above the tops of the contents, and seal the jars well.

Oh, and don’t forget to dust the rim of your Bloody Mary glass with chile salt.

Duh! Cooking Tip: Wondra Flour

 

Wondra flour; here’s what we hear the most about it:
What is this stuff?
It’s a bit pricy for flour, is it worth the cost?

Wondra is a brand name for instant flour so ubiquitous you’ll see the name used generically in recipes, (yeah, there are other brands). ‘Instant’ in this application means pre-gelatinized, a process wherein finely ground, low protein wheat flour is steamed and dried. Wondra, FYI, also has a bit of malted barley flour, which acts as a dough conditioner when baking bread, and also helps with browning and caramelization. The result is a flour that doesn’t need cooking, (or a while lotta time), to blend seamlessly with liquids.

The answer to the second question is a resounding ‘Yup’, it’s worth it. If you don’t already have it in your kitchen, get some on your next grocery run. If you’ve never used it, you’ve got a treat in store. If you do know what it is and have only used it as a thickener, I might have another trick or two for y’all.

As mentioned, far and away the coolest thing about Wondra is it’s effortless effectiveness as a thickener. Got the basics of a gravy going, some fat in a pan? Rather than the usual slow and deliberate process, you can literally toss a tablespoon of Wondra in there and whisk to your hearts content; you’ll end up with the easiest dang lump-free gravy you’ve ever built. Same goes for thickening soups, stews, and sauces. You can add Wondra straight away, or draw a cup or two of liquid aside, blend that with some additional fat, pour it back into your pot and bingo, lumpless delights. Wondra works great with sweet stuff as well; I’ve used it to thicken fruit pies and tarts with great success.

That said, Wondra is good for a bunch more stuff than thickening.

In pursuit of the perfect tender, flaky pie crust/biscuit/scone? Sub Wondra for a third of the All Purpose flour you’re likely using, (AKA, a 2:1 regular to Wondra ratio), and you’ll achieve a better measure of that gold standard. Tender and flaky are all about less gluten, (AKA, protein), and Wondra has less than anything out there except cake flour, (Which has a distinctive flavor you might not dig in stuff other than cake).

Use Wondra as the dusting flour to roll your dough out on. The low gluten count helps keep the dough from sticking to rolling surfaces, even if the dough itself has a fairly high gluten content.

Wanna pan roast like a Pro? Dust your protein lightly with Wondra just before you cook; you’ll be rewarded with a thin, crisply crusted skin that’ll taste great, seal in juiciness, and look fantastic.

Make Wondra your go-to flour for frying batter and you’ll get a lighter, crisp crust that highlights the flavor of the food rather than overpowering it.

The late, great Julia Child recommended instant flour for crepes. Because it dissolves so quickly, you need just a 10 minute rest to achieve great results, instead of the hour called for when using all-purpose flour.

If you grease and flour pans when you’re baking, Wondra’s the stuff for you; it’ll cover corners evenly without clumping.

IMPORTANT CAVEAT:
As with any flour, use Wondra sparingly and you’ll avoid the telltale “flour flavor” note; Wondra gets dissed for this, but the fact is, use too much of any flour and you’ll achieve the same gaffe…

Salted WHAT?!

Easy answer; almost everything.

No, really; why do y’all think that salted caramel, chocolate and a hundred other deserts are hot right now?

One of my favorite authors, Mark Kurlanski, wrote a great book all about salt. Think that’d be a boring read? Think again, it’s a page turner. Salt has been used for money as well as for food, ya know…

So, naturally, the next logical question is, “I thought salt was bad for us?”
Answer: All things in moderation, Grasshopper!

We’ve been told that line, but is it true? Turns out the answer is, probably not.

The whole sodium leads to high blood pressure thing has never really been proven. Again, moderation is the key; high sodium diets aren’t any good for you, but neither is much of anything else, when taken out of balance.

Besides that, there are bunches of good things salt does for us, including;
Aids blood sugar control by improving insulin sensitivity.
Helps maintain the proper stomach pH.
Helps lower adrenaline spikes.
Aids sleep quality.
Helps maintain proper metabolism.
Supports proper thyroid function.

Look any of those claims up; there’re ample sources of support for them.

More to the point for our purposes here, salt makes food taste good. You might be shocked at how much salt is used in a professional kitchen. They don’t go crazy, mind you, but they sure do salt, and the primary reason is that proper salting makes food more enjoyable, and specifically, it enhances quality over quantity. In that light, you could argue that proper salting helps encourage weight management, too.

Next, you ask, “OK, let’s say I buy that, why is it so.”

Ahh, I nod sagely, it’s science time! (And if you enjoy this side of food study, you’ll want to look up Harold McGee)

Chemically speaking, table salt, is sodium (Na+) and chloride (Cl-).

Why do humans dig it so? Well, we came from it, in a very real sense; The Earth is made up of lots of minerals that get continuously washed into the sea, and sea water is, therefore, salty. Sea critters get raised in that, and they are from whence we came, si? As land-based critters who evolved from sea-based critters, we still rely on water and salt for many of our basic biological processes, as described in the last paragraph. Salt plays a crucial role in allowing water to diffuse throughout our bodies properly, and as such, being relatively intelligent, we’ve developed taste buds that dig what we need to survive. Neat, huh?

Now, taste wise, research suggests that salt has the effect of flavor suppression for what we perceive as bitter tastes. By doing that, it’s thought that salt thereby allows us a greater perception of sweet and sour. It’s not really clear why it is that salt lets us taste the caramel or a green bean more distinctly; there’s supposition that the presence of the salt suppresses water within the chemistry of the food, and thereby allows volatile aromatics to become more noticeable to us. As to whether or not salt actually does something like that, or just gets our brains to perceive it as such, your guess as good as mine; that might just be a dandy PhD subject.

“Alright,” you concede, “I’m in; so how do I do this right?”

Well, first off, use the right salt. For cooking, there’s a couple things to consider, source and grain size. For my mind, sea and kosher salts are best and anything that says ‘Iodized’ or ‘Table Salt’ I avoid like the plague. As for grain size, keep in mind that the larger they get, the slower the salt dissolves. If you’re doing rubs, big grains are fine, because that nice slow, time-released salting goes great with that process. If you’re making brine, you’d like the salt to dissolve pretty quickly, so smaller is better. And keep in mind that the same thing will happen on tongues as well.

Getting the idea that you might want more than one kind of salt in your pantry? I just went and looked at ours; we have 9 varieties of sea, kosher and various finishing salts. The latter has become popular lately, and they are, in fact, pretty cool. If you’re gonna finish a dish or garnish a hand made chocolate, why not Hawaiian black, Chilean pink, or Fleur de Sel? If you’ve never tried fish quick cooked on a heated block of Himalayan Pink Salt, you aughta; it’s not only cool, it’s seriously delicious.

We use kosher and sea salts as our primary cooking varieties, flaked for canning, pickling and brining, and the various others for special touches here and there. Once you get one you like, stick to it. All salts do not weigh the same, so for baking, brining, or any other recipe where the ratio really matters, you’ll want to know where yours hits the scales. The other great thing about kosher is it’s uniformity; you can grab it and send it to a dish with great control and repeatable uniformity, and that’s important.

So, how to use the stuff like a pro?

First and foremost, the rule is, do it, but don’t overdo it. You want to taste the food better, not the salt. The best way to achieve this goal is to salt throughout the cooking process, and taste what you’re making at every step. If what you’re adding is already salty, (bacon, olives, capers, etc), taste before you salt.

Do keep in mind that salt levels will change as your dish develops. If you reduce a liquid that’s salty, it’s gonna taste saltier. Ditto for stuff you make and then shove in the fridge for a spell. On the too light side, dairy sucks up salt like nobody’s business, so multiple checks are warranted with, say, a cream soup or stew.

Do it like this and your dishes will properly develop flavor as they cook, with the added fringe benefit that, if you screw up and hit it too hard at an intermediary step, you have time to fix it.

OK, so if you do screw up and over salt, whataya do? Adding cream and or butter, as mentioned above, reduces saltiness, so do that if your dish warrants it. Starch can do the same thing, so a piece or two of bread, soaked in milk for about 10 minutes, squeezed dry and added to the dish can help; note it also acts as a bit of a thickener though. The great Julia Child advocated grating a raw potato or two into a dish, allowing it to simmer for about 10 minutes, and then straining them out, noting that, “they’ll have absorbed quite a bit of the excess salt.” Anything good enough for Julia is certainly good enough for us, right?

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Now, one last tip, helped by this New Yorker cover; I know y’all have watched Food Porn TV and seen a bunch of chefs do this: get a nice pinch of that kosher salt, and raise your hand about a foot above the pan or bowl, and ever so slowly, release a dusting of salt from that lofty height. You didn’t really think those chefs do that just to look cool, did you? The increased drop height will allow you to better judge the amount of salt you’re adding, as well as allowing the salt granules to spread more evenly over the food.

Oh, and you’ll look cool when you do it, too.

Juniper!

It’s so much more than a flavoring for gin! The variety that Juniper berries are harvested from is indeed a relative of the ornamental kinds we see out and about, but not all juniper berries are edible, so go with known sources rather than picking from the front shrubs. As some forestry buff is likely to point out, Junipers are actually a coniferous evergreen, and as such, the berries technically aren’t berries, they’re cones; now look who’s picking nits…

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Juniper berries can be a bit hard to find, but World Spice, Penzey’s, or Pendrey’s will come to your rescue with a fresh supply; it’s well worth adding to your spice cabinet and here’s why.

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You’ll use Juniper sparingly, so an ounce or two is plenty for your pantry. It’s a strong flavor, similar in seasoning power to Rosemary, but with a fruitier, somewhat resinous overtone to it, (again, they’re cones, so that makes sense, right?)

Juniper makes a stellar addition to base spices for stock, equally good for my mind in beef, chicken, pork or veggie. Two or three whole berries are plenty, added to your usual cohorts.

You can toast or roast the berries to bring out more complexity in the flavor profile.

If you’re using them as part of a rub or marinade and want to release a stronger juniper flavor, gently crush the berries under the flat of a chefs knife as you would garlic cloves, or do them up in a dedicated spice grinder.

For dang near any kind of game, Juniper is a secret weapon for taking the funky (AKA ‘gamey’, ‘strong’, etc) notes out of the taste profile. Try this wonderful rub as a marinade on any game you like.

3 cloves fresh Garlic
1-2 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 teaspoon black Pepper
3 juniper berries, crushed
2 sprigs Rosemary, about 3″ long
Juice and zest of 1/2 fresh Lemon

Peel and finely mince the garlic.

Zest the lemon, bright color skin only of course.

Strip the leaves from the Rosemary sprigs and chop them finely.

Put juniper and pepper in a spice grander and process them until fine ground.

Put all of the above into a non reactive bowl, add the garlic, lemon juice and 1 tablespoon olive oil. mix thoroughly to a paste like consistency, add more oil if needed.

Spread evenly on all surfaces of your meat. Allow to marinate, refrigerated, for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.

This is also a great marinade for poultry or pork. If you like the flavor profile, try adding a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar and a cup of grapefruit or orange juice for a wonderful wet marinade.

Herb and Spice Use 101

Adding herbs and spices,
A ‘Duh’ cooking moment?

Well, yes and no…
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(And yes, that’s really our cabinet…)

First off, disclaimer, this is a quick overview in response to a question from a reader, not The Big Picture view, K?

The first and most important answer to the question is this: Herbs and spices and herbs should be used to compliment the flavors of great food, not overwhelm them. In other words, all things in moderation, eh?

With that in mind, do think of salt and pepper as spices. They impact the flavor of foods and should not be left out of your thought process when deciding what to add, if for no other reason than not to add too much or too many. You can almost always say yes to salt, to some degree. Just a little shake or two of salt will wake up natural flavors and help others blend. Likewise, pepper adds a pleasant bottom note, a base to a flavor profile if you will, that’s more often worth it than not.

So, what else, if anything, do you need? The answer is again, moderation, most of the time. If you’re not making black mole, you don’t need 20 different spices and herbs. If you’re unsure what you need, but confident you do need some thing, try 2 and 3 component combinations that will enhance the flavor of the dish you’re building. It may be as simple as salt, pepper and lemon, or salt, pepper and garlic, or maybe garlic, lime and dill. Be selective, add a bit, allow the flavors to marry, then taste and see where you’re at.

Take for example, something simple like chili – what could and should go into your signature taste for that dish? We braise our meat in beer, add a dash of salt, onion, a little garlic and fresh cilantro to the base tomato flavor, and then use our house made chili powder, and that’s it.

The chile powder looks like this:
3 Tablespoons ground Chiles of your choice
1 teaspoon ground Cumin
1 teaspoon ground Mexican Oregano
½ teaspoon smoked Paprika
½ teaspoon ground Garlic

There’s a great example of a wealth of complex flavor fueled mostly by the food, enhanced with just a few choice herbs and spices.

The next question that gets asked a lot is when to add herbs and spices. There’s no one answer to this question; it depends on what you’re cooking and adding. Here are some general rules of thumb.
1. You can add herbs anywhere in the cooking process. In general, if you want the flavor note of the herb to stand out more, add it toward the end, and I f you want the flavor note blended with the dish more thoroughly, add it at the start.
2. Ground spices and dried herbs release flavors quite quickly; they can and will peak and diminish if added too soon. For instance, in that chili we’re making up there, we add the chili powder when there’s about an hour left to go in the process; that lets the flavors infuse, but also keeps them brighter than they would be if they were in there for hours on end.
3. Whole spices release flavor more slowly than ground or leaf form. This is why we toss Bay leaves, whole pepper corns, Juniper and stuff like that in when we’re making stock; they can and should do their thing through the whole process to maximize the flavor notes they add to the mix. Try tying these kinds of herbs and spices into a sachet of cheesecloth; that’ll make them really easy to fish out when their work is done.
4. When making uncooked foods like salads, salsas, and dressings, add spices and herbs an hour or two or three before serving; that’ll allow flavors to marry properly. For salad dressings, add the spices to the vinegar and let that sit for half an hour before adding the oil.
5. For marinades, try briefly and gently heating the seasoned liquid and then allowing it to cool completely; that’ll help release the flavor notes from the spices.

And then there’s the ‘How Much to Add’ question.
It’s real hard to form a viable general rule for the correct amount of spices and herbs to use, ’cause the strength of each differs widely, as does their effect on different foods.
I think it is a sound rule of thumb to say that, the stronger the herb or spice, the more sparingly you should employ it. For example, it doesn’t take a whole lot of Rosemary to go from herbed to overwhelmed, so go easy with those bad boys.
Keeping in mind that recipes are often written to the lowest common denominator, you may want to get a feel for altering them effectively, and more to the point, you probably want to get comfortable building your own ideas for scratch, right?
If you need a starting point and just don’t have a comfortable reference, try this:
Use 1/2 teaspoon per pound of meat or pint of sauce or soup.
For strong herbs and spices and hot chiles, start with 1/4 teaspoon and adjust as you see fit.
It’s always easier to add than take away…

BTW, don’t shake herbs and spices from the jar into what you’re cooking; you’re asking for a disaster when the whole thing cuts loose and falls in, and besides that, rising moisture can ding the potency of the herb or spice. Crush leafy herbs in your hand and then add them to your dish.

Finally, store your stuff in airtight jars, away from strong light, heat and moisture, and if you don’t use it inside of year, reevaluate if you need it, and consider getting some fresh stuff, too!

Vas-y!