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Archive for the ‘General Tips’ Category

Roux

In preparation for a post I’m going to make later about chowders, here is a post about roux. Roux is one of several ways to thicken a soup or sauce, and it’s very simple. If you’ve ever tried to thicken something by just dumping a spoonful of flour into it, you know this is not ideal: it makes it taste floury, and the flour often fails to diffuse through the liquid and therefore leaves nasty little lumps. The easy way to get around both of these problems is to fry the flour first. You can use either oil or butter.

Butter

I made this particular batch of roux for a chowder, and since those are dairy based, I chose butter. Mmmm. My rule of thumb is one great big spoonful of flour for every serving of food my roux is going to be distributed over – given my preferences, this works equally well for soups and sauces, but your mileage will almost certainly vary. If you are new to roux, make twice as much as you think you need in a separate pot and add it to whatever it’s thickening a little at a time.

Roux

Goop of the evening, beautiful goop.

You may need to add more oil or butter to get a nice, goopy consistency for the amount of flour you use. I haven’t found that it matters very much how long you cook it (it has to sizzle, but not for any particular length of time), but you do have to stir it around pretty much constantly or it gets icky. Ickier. Let’s face it, this isn’t pretty stuff, but you won’t be able to see it once it goes in the rest of your food.

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1. Recipes are not holy writ.

Not even baked goods – which can be fairly sensitive – have to be calibrated so precisely that you cannot change them a little. For every recipe for chowder, chili, or chimichangas that one cook swears is the only one on the planet worth using, there are a hundred more that someone else considers better. Those recipes all came into existence because someone did an experiment and considered it an improvement. There is no reason you cannot be the next person to do the same thing and get a result that is exactly what you want.

2. Food is made of ingredients.

I mean two things by this statement. One is that scratch is superior. “Cake mix” is not a true ingredient. True ingredients are things like “bran” or “olive oil” or “lentils”. In theory, prepackaged foods and mixes were originally made from ingredients, but many of the things that are listed as ingredients I would classify as “components” – minerals and additives that you don’t really want to eat. (You’re fooling yourself if you think you really want to eat carmine or any of its comrades in arms. You may be willing to eat these things, in small quantities, for the sake of convenience, but if the food in question was just as easy, tasty, and quick, and lacked these ingredients, that would be obviously preferable.)

The second thing meant by “food is made of ingredients” is that food does not become more complicated when it encounters other food. Broccoli is not complicated. Olive oil is not complicated. Salt is not complicated. Spices are not complicated. For some reason, when I combine these items, put them in the oven for twenty minutes, and serve the result to houseguests, I am treated as though I have done something complicated. But nothing happens to any of my ingredients to make them more intimidating. They’re the same things, just mixed up and heated. Part of my goal in creating this blog was to help people be less freaked out by cooking – to help people realize that food is made of ingredients, and ingredients are not scary.

3.Testing is better than timing.

Responsibly written cookbooks will usually remind you about the fact that ovens differ, altitude and humidity can affect cooking, and the art of making food is so variable anyway that the times suggested are no more than vague gestures at half-formed suspicions of patterns. Not only that, but if you want your pasta soft and mushy (like I do) then of course cooking it to the “al dente perfection” described on the package won’t leave you with an optimally pleasing dinner. If you are boiling potatoes and want to know if they’re soft enough to eat yet, fish out a chunk with a spoon, run it under cold water, and eat it. If you are cooking apples and want to know if they have been in long enough to mash easily, get a spoon, take the lid off your pot, and poke them. If you are making muffins and want to know if they are cooked through, open the oven, reach in with a toothpick, and stab one.

4. Proportion is subordinate to combination.

My mother’s recipe for pumpkin bread calls for a teaspoon of cinnamon, half a teaspoon of nutmeg, and half a teaspoon of cloves. Why? I don’t know. These amounts are small enough, in relation to the scale of the recipe, that it can’t affect how the bread comes together. It’s not a matter of baked goods being delicate. (Though it might be a matter of the batter containing eggs, so they can’t say “to taste” for fear someone will take it literally.) If I want twice as much ground cloves because they just sound really appetizing at the moment, or I’m all out of nutmeg but only find out when I’ve already made the batter, it won’t hurt anything! What matters is that those spices taste nice, with each other and with pumpkin. Tarragon is nice with potatoes; cheese is nice with basil; celery is nice with tuna salad; chocolate is nice with peanut butter. How much of each? That’s up to you! This is why spices come with shaker tops!

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I have a poorly kept secret: I am addicted to Better Than Bouillon.

organic veggie better than bouillon

Behold the drug that lurks in my refrigerator. But this variety is not alone. It has many friends. Choose your weapon. Insanely, some grocery stores don’t stock the full range of these miraculous jars of condensed flavorful goodness. If you can’t find a store that has the one you want, you can buy it online from their website.

The one thing all soups have in common is broth. There are a few ways to handle broth:

  1. Just simmer all your ingredients for a while and cross your fingers, hoping for them to extend enough flavor to their liquid. This can work if you have a lot of very flavorful ingredients, like onions, a ton of garlic, and punch-packing veggies like broccoli and carrots, and you’re generous with salt and spices… or if you just like bland soup. In general, though, it’s not ideal.
  2. Make your own stock, which is worth trying at least once (more on that later) but very inefficient for regular use. It takes at least an hour to cook, plus whatever chopping and peeling time beforehand and however long it takes to start boiling at all, and generates dishwashing tasks. It’s also a little disheartening to have to dump all the tuckered-out ingredients down the garbage disposal at the end (it’s no good to eat them; their flavor is all sucked out). And if you cook regularly at all, it’s gone long before you’ll be in the mood to make more.
  3. Buy prepared stock. This tends to taste really awful. If you find some that you like, more power to you; I’ve stopped running experiments with it after consistently making really lousy soup with this stuff.
  4. Buy some form of reduced stock, like bouillon cubes or Better than Bouillon, to reconstitute. Bouillon cubes don’t taste very good either, and it’s hard to use them if you don’t want to dissolve an entire one all at once – say if you’re just cooking one serving of soup, or want to add some flavor to a sauce. Better Than Bouillon, however, is delicious, and its paste consistency and jar packaging mean you can use a pea-sized amount or a great big heaping spoonful depending on what you’re making.

There are instructions on the jar for the recommended ratio of Better Than Bouillon to water. In true improvisational style, I advise you to mix up some according to the instructions. Once. Take note of the color, and let that be your guide in the future: for items that have a lot going for them in the flavor department already, aim for a lighter, clearer color and for dishes that will rely heavily on their broth, be a little more generous.

The Better than Bouillon website has some cooking ideas, but the short version is: Better Than Bouillon is great in everything. Apart from my heavy reliance on it in the soup department, I also put it in sauces, use it to make broth in which I cook couscous and TVP and other things that need to be boiled, and add a dab to random things like scrambled eggs that I want to jazz up. It’s great stuff.

Superior Touch is not paying me. I don’t think they know I exist. They just make a super product.

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