Monday, April 27, 2009

Banana break

This piece of culinary genius comes from my husband. He rarely cooks, though as I have said before, when he does the results are inspired.

We are preparing for a vacation to the Cayman Islands for a friend’s wedding. Given the high cost of everything from toothpaste to dry goods on the island, we have been planning to bring a suitcase or two of non-perishables to prepare in our kitchenette. We leave in a week, and so far we've eaten about half of everything I have bought for our trip, including a box of PC Organics Original Pancake Mix.

I am interested to discover all of the possible uses for pancake mix. Not only does it make great pancakes, but as we have now learned, a thicker batter with double the egg works as a delicious frying batter for sweet treats. B cut up several not-too-ripe bananas we had sitting on the counter and dipped the pieces in the batter before frying them for several minutes per side in hot oil.

I remember being slightly horrified when I watched Nigella Lawson dropping battered mini Bounty bars into her deep fryer and gobbling them up straight from the vat. Now I’m more concerned for us never leaving the house and dipping everything we can think of into pancake batter. It tastes so good.

For those of you who are regular follows of my blog or know me at all may wonder why I am now embracing the wheat, so to speak. I wrote about my no wheat policy several months ago as I began questioning the necessity of my personal ban. Since then, I have visited an allergy specialist who quickly concluded I am not allergic. She gave me a good earful about not just food allergies, but also how the digestive system works, and I can see that my personal fluctuations had more to do with stress than anything else. I have subsequently been eating all things gluten-filled for two months now with no change in my general health and well-being.

If you are one of the many people who has been recommended by an alternative health practitioner to avoid certain foods, I invite you to consider verifying their claims with your family doctor. After all, why live life without all of the tastes our culinary world has to offer if you don't have to?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Ratio + imagination = freedom

Good news! There's a new book out called Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking. The author, Michael Ruhlman, went through the trouble of writing down what every good cook knows. Each recipe, whether it be for bread or soup, is developed in accordance of basic ratios between the ingredients. Once you learn these ratios, you can ditch the recipe books and cook freely according to your taste and whim.

To adopt this method, dust off those kitchen scales, or break down and finally spend 30 bucks on this indispensable tool. The ratios are measured by mass, not volume. This is a vital distinction when it comes to flour since depending on humidity and settling, a single cup can vary in weight by several ounces.

The ratios are simple. In this article, Ruhlman shares the 3-2-1 ratio for making cookies: 3 parts flour, 2 parts fat and 1 part sugar. Use white flour, butter and white sugar and you have a basic sugar cookie. Replace some of the sugar for brown sugar and you have a darker cookie. Add molasses and some ginger and you have a gingersnap. Increase the fat and add some eggs and you have a richer cookie. The possibilities are endless.

I am eager to try the ratio, shared by Ruhlman in this video, for making levened dough: 5 parts flour and 3 parts water. The amount of yeast, he says, is not critical, and salt is for flavour. I have been experimenting lately with making my own bread, feeling tied to my recipe book, following the steps and hoping I haven't missed a critical ingredient. My book, Bernard Clayton's canonical The Complete Book of Breads, may be interesting and thorough, but it nonetheless uses volumetric measurement for dry ingredients. I am frustrated by this lack of precision.

I love how automatic I am at making soup, or adding salt to meats, ratios I have learned and absorbed through trial and error and are now second nature. Now, I will try my hand at the bread ratios. I have a feeling I will see instant results.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Orange food

I was reading the Health Canada Food Guide again the other day, and noticed the fine print on their recommendations for fruits and vegetables. We may all have the “five-to-ten servings” advice knocking around in our heads, most likely from the V-8 commercials that suggest drinking their “vegetable” juice is the best hope some of us have for fulfilling our daily quota. Health Canada’s fine print, however, says that of those five-to-ten servings of fruits and vegetables, one vegetable should be dark green and another should be orange. So much for V-8.

In terms of fast and convenient eating, the green veg is far more accommodating than the orange. Frozen spinach bought in pellets is easily prepared and can be added to soups and omelets. The fresh variety, especially when bought as washed baby spinach, creates the beginnings of a great salad. In addition to baby spinach, several other dark greens can be eaten raw, especially swiss chard, whose tender leaves, when shredded, also make terrific salads and slaws.

Unless you enjoy eating carrot sticks, however, the preparation of orange veg requires more planning. Aside from carrots, in the orange variety we really have two other options: squash and yams. Neither can be enjoyed in their raw form and both require peeling, which is unfortunate when you are trying to prepare food quickly.

There are solutions. Yams are best eaten baked, when their flesh is soft and the sugars have begun to caramelize. Accomplish this by placing scrubbed yams on a baking sheet in a 375ºF oven for about an hour or until they feel soft and are easily pierced with a fork. Baked yams can be stored in the fridge for up to a week, in their skins and sealed in an airtight container. (I haven’t tried freezing them, since they usually don’t last long enough to make it to secondary storage.) So, if you like yams, bake a whole tray full at a time and save the rest for later. At mealtime, scoop the baked yam out of its skin and reheat in the microwave, adding butter and salt once it’s hot. One orange veg serving done.

Squash and yams also make great quick soups. For a fast yam soup, put some cooked yam in a saucepan and add water or chicken stock, enough to cover. Bring to a boil, then purée with an immersion blender, season and serve. The same can be accomplished with uncooked squash, peeled and cubed and simmered for five minutes in water or stock until the pieces are tender. Purée and season as with the yam soup, then serve.