Adventures in Cooking

Last night ‘somebody who does not want to be named’ (SWDNWTBN), an experienced cook who excels at making fantastic soups, had a fun little adventure in cooking. People always assume that experienced cooks always get perfect results, but I am the first to acknowledge that I make my share of mistakes and blunders in the kitchen like everybody else. Due to inattention or distraction, or just really not being in the mood for cooking, you can easily make messes and ruin dishes. The main difference between an average cook and a great one is that a great one can often salvage the dish or turn it into something else, if it is not too far along the path to oblivion.

This story is about one of those situations that went way too far down the path to oblivion. I was sitting in my office and SWDNWTBN was in the kitchen preparing a big pot of chicken and vegetable soup that would be our lunches for the rest of the week. The chicken would be used in chicken salads or sandwiches, and the soup first by itself, then as a nice purée with the adjunct of a bit of milk or cream. I started to notice a somewhat unpleasant smell in the air and asked SWDNWTBN what was going on. According to SWDNWTBN nothing out of the ordinary was going on, so I assumed that the smell was one of those strange emanations that the city’s pollution level bring to you at times.

A bit later I visited SWDNWTBN in the kitchen and she was cutting the chicken legs into pieces and putting them into a plastic container for us to use in the coming days. I noticed again the strange smell and commented about it. It seemed to be coming from the chicken, but was not too overpowering at the time. A while later, when the large pot of soup was cooling, I passed by the kitchen again and SWDNWTBN asked me if I could smell the chicken that was now in the refrigerator. I opened the plastic container and I almost lost my supper right there and then. The chicken was after all the source of the bad smell and we were now sitting with a nice container of salmonella-infested chicken and a large pot of special salmonella soup, enough to kill the entire neighborhood and then some.

I asked SWDNWTBN if the chicken smelled strange before cooking, and she replied that she smelled it and it smelled really strange, and she wanted me to check it before cooking, but since she was very tired after a long stressful day at work, as she had to do the job of 2 people who are on holidays on top of hers, she totally forgot and cooked the chicken anyway. She mentioned to me that once cooked she did not feel like tasting the chicken as it smelled really bad. I still wonder why she prepared it all and kept cooking the soup, but let’s put it as one of the hazards of cooking while distracted.

We ended up throwing the chicken and the soup away, as we did not want to take a chance in poisoning ourselves. What lessons can we extract from the adventure? First, if the chicken smells bad before cooking, throw it away first and don’t use it in the soup. You might lose the chicken meals, but at least you will still have a pot of soup to eat. Second, when you are very tired and distracted, be careful in the kitchen and if you are not sure about the quality of an ingredient, ask a second opinion. SWDNWTBN almost lost a fingertip last weekend from a bread cutting accident, so it might be a good idea for her to relax a bit away from the kitchen. As mentioned before, a great cook can salvage badly messed-up dishes at times, but no amount of cooking skills can salvage a pot of salmonella soup, unless you need it to get rid of the entire neighborhood…


Picnicking in Style

Just as we finally got the new car the other week, we started thinking about driving out of town to get some fresh air and have some picnics. The weather did not cooperate since then and turned to the worse. Here, around Mexico City, the picnic season is year long, as long as you do not mind some cold morning in the winter, and some rainy evening during the rain season. Winter was finally over and the weather was becoming unseasonably hot, and the rain season was still a few months away, when last weekend the weather turned to cold with daily rain showers or thunderstorms in the afternoon. It put a stop to our plans for a picnic last weekend and we will see how things turn up for next weekend. As I write this the weather is cloudy and it is raining. I could do without this depression-inducing mess…

Those of you who do not know us, would not know the story of how Normita and I met. We were one of those lucky couples who met in the early days of the Internet. Back around the winter of 1998 we started exchanging emails regularly after Normita sent me a message in some forum. She was in Mexico City and I was spending my time commuting and working between Québec and Washington, DC. We started an extended daily email exchange that lasted for 4-5 months until one day her parents were planning a holiday trip to Canada and she decided to take some time off from work and join them. Before she left we agreed to meet in Montreal for a day when her tour was passing through town. We both were nervous about this, even though we had been sharing our thoughts and lives daily for months. Strangely enough we never had spoken to each other and it was strange when she called me the day before we were supposed to meet to confirm.

To make a long story short I planned a nice picnic for our first meeting, and we agreed to meet at her hotel so that I could pick her up. After somewhat of a false start, since they put them in a different hotel across the street and she was calling my cell phone to let me know about this, and she was thinking that I really did not want to see her as I was not answering. What I had forgotten to tell her, was that my cell phone was one of these huge in-car units, as to get any service in the mountains where I lived at the time I needed one of those powerful monsters. I was waiting at the hotel she had told me, and she finally went there to check and it was love at first sight, but that is another story. We left for visiting the city and later to our picnic at the top of the Mont-Royal and we have enjoyed regularly picnicking since the first day we met.

Over the years we have tried many different ways of picnicking in style, and our favorite was always the ones we enjoyed on our pontoon boat on the large lake where we lived in the Laurentian mountains of Québec. We could slowly circle the lake listening to nice music on the stereo and enjoy looking at the scenery while slowly eating our nicely prepared picnic. We also regularly did some fun picnics while cycling. Actually not while pedaling the bicycles, but by cycling to interesting destinations and eating there.

The common denominator to what we have always enjoyed was the style of food we always brought. We have a tendency to get on the fancy side of cold picnics with nice shrimps, smoked salmon, foie gras, and stuff like that. I think that it dates back to the days when I was living alone and traveling all over the world all the time, and I used to have little picnic feasts in my hotel room. I’d buy a bottle of nice champagne, some caviar, foie gras, shrimps, and smoked salmon, as well as a nice baguette and have my little celebratory picnic on the hotel bed. I enjoyed it so much that once a month, when I was at home; I did the same in the living room while watching some movie on TV or listening to some nice music.

Since we like to picnic in style we assembled a nice picnic basket with some nice place settings, good quality cutlery, some nice clothe napkins, and some sturdy quality acrylic glasses, though most of the time we were bringing real crystal INAO standard tasting glasses wrapped in some thick dish clothes, as they are very versatile and somewhat more robust than regular stemware. We have not had the opportunity to picnic much in recent years, but we plan to do so again. In the coming weeks I plan to start assembling a new picnic basket so that we can have it ready for whenever we feel like jumping in the car and having a nice picnic in style. Normita bought me a nice little portable gas BBQ grill last summer, and we only found the proper propane bottles for it last week, so we might get even a bit more involved in our picnicking this time around by preparing some cooked dishes on-site.

In the coming week I will post on how we setup our new picnic basket, reviews of equipment including the grill, and some nice recipes that can be enjoyed with minimal fuss. Hopefully the weather will clear up for the weekend and we will be able to enjoy our first outing. If not we might give it a shot and picnic on the bed like I used to in the old days…


To grill or not to grill…

…that’s the question as spring is approaching quickly in Europe. But what is the essence of grilling and barbecue? It seems there are many answers, leading to excessive disputes among grilling aficionados.

I was recently reminded of that dilemma when overhearing the discussion on a neighboring table during a nice dinner. Two couples in their late 40ies/early 50ies were celebrating a birthday and during the dinner, on of the guys mentioned that he had recently ordered a high-end Weber gas grill. That’s when the other guy went ballistic and proclaimed that no matter how much one spends on a gas ‘grill’ real grilling would never be possible. The discussion continued for the rest of the evening.

So what is the essence of grilling?  Personally I see two criteria and both should apply. One is procedural: meat, fish or whatever is grilled, is heated by applying radiation heat from a very hot surface. The other is more hedonistic and it’s about grilling aroma that partly results from the procedural, partly from other causes as a lot of other factors are contributing to the aroma.

There are many ways to grill, modern and traditional ones – including some that simply are not feasible in our modern world, at least not for even very accomplished grill hobbyists. In our daily lives we typically use a compact grill that can be fired by charcoal or wood, by gas or even by electricity. The later is a matter of dispute as usually you don’t get the intense heat and the heat capacity of the previous methods and, even worse, usually electric grills don’t feature a real grate where fat and juices can drip through, but a wavy surface operating as a contact grill.

That is the same principle used in grilling pans, the meat (or whatever) only rests on minor part of its surface while the heat radiates and convects more or less freely in the wide ‘valleys’ between. I wouldn’t consider it ‘real’ grilling but the results, if done properly, emulate ‘real’ grilling decently. The lack of real ‘grill’ aroma is balanced by a lower health risk from the nasty chemicals that are in the aroma. It’s similar to grilling on a real grill but putting the meat or fish in aluminum pans – healthier, maybe, but way duller – eat your heart out, George Foreman!

In a ‘real’ grill there are three key elements to the procedural criteria. For heat radiation to function properly you need proper distance and high temperature on the heat source’s surface. And you need the capability to either provide high amounts or to store heat energy, as the environment will cool the heat source’s surface. This can be effectuated by the possibility to produce a lot of heat and/or by storing – which is the secret of lava stone grills and the famous Weber Flavorizer™ bars. Charcoal is perfect in this way as it can produce searing heat, especially if ‘encouraged’ by a blow dryer, and it stores a lot of energy on the inside.

The results of the high temperature, the right distance and high heat capacity are simple yet stunning. The surface of the meat or fish will get denaturized very quickly, sealing off juices, moisture and flavors on the inside while making fatty tissue and skin crispy. Any liquids dripping on the heat source will evaporate quickly adding to the aromas. If the meat of fish has been marinated or basted or rubbed, the aromates on the surface will be melted into the crust adding to its taste.

This said, there are several considerations for grilling and some do depend on the type of grill you use. Generally speaking, fatter meat or fish comes out juicier and tastier but it’s a matter of personal preferences and health considerations. If you want or have to stick with leaner cuts or types, you may consider marinating. High heat for short grilling times is also essential so it doesn’t dry out. Thus a charcoal grill may be the better bet here. Also keep in mind that many flavors and spices are not only enhanced by fat, they dissolve and spread in it. Thus for lean cuts the spices and herbs should work well without fat – examples are salt, lime and lemon juice, beer, chiles. Marinating lean cuts with olive oil can be a healthy alternative too.

Another great enhancer, no mater what type of grill you use and no matter whether you prepare lean or fatty, is smoke. Nothing beats the delicious aromas of a wood grilled steak. If you’re firing gas or charcoal, use wood chips to add to the flavor. Depending on heat, duration and amount of chips this can reach from just a touch to hot smoking. I remember one occasion where we ran low on charcoals so we marinated the salmon a bit, put a lot of wood chips in the grill, closed the lid and 30 minutes later we had the most tender, juicy and delicately grilled/smoked salmon ever. In a charcoal grill you can simply throw the chips on the coal. Gas grills sometimes feature smoker compartments. A cheap and easy alternative is a small smoking pouch made of aluminum foil (thanks to grill guru Steve Raichlin for this tip – his books are the best on this matter). Also keep in mind that usually you will soak the chips in water, beer or cider for 20 minutes before using them so they burn and smoke slowly. If you’re doing thinner cuts of meat or fish that only take a short time, using dry chips instead will enhance the aroma.

While dripping fat that flares up (bursts in flames) does provide strong aroma, it’s also very unhealthy. If you grill frequently, you should thus limit flare ups. There are several ways to do it, depending again on your grill. Gas grills usually limit them automatically. On charcoal or wood you can quickly move the meat, spray some water or beer or use an indirect grilling approach where the charcoal is on the sides with a dripping pan in the middle. The meat sits atop the dripping pan and is heated from the sides, fat drips into the dripping pan – this by the way is the only valid use of aluminum containers in real grilling. This works extremely well but isn’t fit for all kinds of dishes and usually takes way longer. Spare ribs are a good example of a perfect fit for indirect grilling. On a gas grill you can use the technique by only heating some of the burners.

Talking health, if you’re grilling over charcoal you need to start the fire. Never use liquid starters as they add a lot of unwanted and unhealthy ‘aromas’. For best results use a grill starting chimney that works fine with newspapers and even better with those little solid starter cubes.

As for sides, many come out wonderfully on the grill, so get them out of the kitchen. Among our favorites are tortillas, oven potatoes (we just wrap them in foil and put them close to the heat), corn on the cob, green onions and sweet bell peppers. Even if you prefer rice, noodles or couscous you can still add some smoke aroma by keeping them close to the barbecue.

A final word on cleaning.  Many people love to grill but hate to clean the grill afterwards. This need not be as some simple routines will take care of the cleaning almost by themselves. First of all, when you’re done with pre-heating, use a wire brush to clean the grate. Next rub it well with oil or fat, using your grill thongs. If the grate is hot and well oiled, meat and fish will not stick to it easily. When you are done grilling, let the grate reheat well – on a gas grill turn the burners to high again. After 5 minutes or so most residues will have burned off and you can remove any leftovers with the wire brush.

So are you getting ready for the new grilling season? You bet we are – we already bought a new gas bottle for the big Weber monster on the balcony and a few bags of charcoal for the cheap little one on the roof. We prefer to have some choices, you know, and the best tool for every dish. Most important of all we will have fun and delicious food and often invite friends or family to join in – the more, the merrier. And we will NOT discuss what is grilling and what is not, we’ll just do it.


Cooking for Two Revisited

A few days ago I posted a comment I had made on another blog about cooking for two and how to deal with leftovers. My advices was mainly to know your appetite, cook the required amount, and if you need to cook more plan what you will do with your leftovers ahead of time. This stuck to the back of my mind and I thought about how we normally handle this here as there is only the two of us. Our goldfishes and the colibris we feed outside do not count…

Here in Mexico the main meal of the day is what we would call lunch in Canada or the US and it is taken at 2-3pm instead of noon. The evening meal, which all of my life was the main meal, is either very light or just some fruits or a sweet bread. I have a tendency to skip it entirely unless I have a sudden craving for something or other. In a way I prefer this style of eating, as you never go to bed with a full stomach and lay there wondering why you cannot sleep because you ate so much. It still feel strange for me to go out to a nice restaurant in the middle of the afternoon, so we normally go out to restaurants in the early evening when we do so. If I go out on a business lunch, I can normally count that the business day will be over at the restaurant. Most serious business is done over a meal, so it gives you a good change to develop solid business relationships and eventually long-lasting friendships.

I am going through this long-winded story to explain the simple fact that during the week I mostly prepare lunches for Normita in the morning and will eat an easy-to-prepare meal in the afternoon as I do not have the time to do anything more involved. I always do single portion dishes so we normally do not have leftovers. When I do have leftovers, normally I use them the next day. On Fridays and weekends things are different as Normita normally finishes work early on Fridays and she joins me for lunch, and we normally plan something more involved on Saturday and Sundays. Friday’s lunch I plan a meal for two and I make sure that I do not have leftovers, so I cook accordingly. The weekend’s meals are a bit different, when we have company I deliberately make more than required, as I never like running short of food for the guests. I tend to use the leftovers the next day or freeze them if we cannot use them all. When we are alone, depending on the dishes we planned, I either will cook just enough, or plan the lunches for the beginning of the week around the leftovers.

Some dishes are much better in larger quantities like stews, soups, roasts, and things like that. I always do a larger portion and deal with leftovers according to their volumes. We used to freeze leftover soups, but now we shy away from doing that as we do not have much room in the freezer and also we ended up with unidentified blocks of ice with bit and pieces in them, and some months later we ended up throwing them away. Now I prefer using them right away and preparing lunches for neighbors and acquaintances.


Cooking for two

I’ve been trying to post the following on another blog and ran into troubles with their posting system. I’ll try again later when the phase of the moon might be better, and in the meantime I decided to post it here and expand a bit on the subject. I will come back to it in the future as it is an interesting subject that I have to deal with regularly.

Over the years I have found that the easiest way to handle cooking for two is to cook only what you need for the meal you are preparing. We always have a tendency to cook too much for fear of running out, but careful planning of portions can be done with most recipes. To do this successfully you need to know your level of appetite and roughly how much a recipe will yield. This can get tricky when you are very hungry, but after a while you can manage to gauge your appetite against your favorite recipes.

At times it is difficult to cook in smaller quantities, as some recipes cannot easily scale down, so then you should plan what you will do with the leftovers carefully ahead of time. Our normal routine in the kitchen here is to prepare larger meals on weekends when we have more time to enjoy them, and use the leftovers for our main meals during the first few days of the week. I always prepare my wife’s lunches, and normally for Monday’s lunch I use leftovers from Saturday, and Tuesday’s are the ones from Sunday. Whatever cannot be eaten within a day or two we freeze or give away.

As an example yesterday we invited my in-laws over for lunch, and I had prepared some Szechuan hot and sour soup and some chicken Cheng Tu style with some steamed rice. I had deliberately made more to use this week. After the meal, when they were gone, I put some rice in the bottom of plastic containers with the chicken dish on top. I also prepared some containers with portions of soup. There were still some leftovers so I froze some single portions for later use next week, and heated up a meal for a neighbor at lunch time today.

To recap:

1. Know how to gauge your appetite
2. Learn how to reduce the portions of your  recipes to yield less or no leftovers
3. If it is impossible to reduce the portions, then plan ahead to use the leftovers in the coming days
4. Whatever cannot be used in a few day, freeze or give away
5. Make sure that you use your frozen leftovers as it is not worth the energy to freeze them if they will not be eaten in the coming weeks
6. Get a huge dog that can become your ALDU (Automated Leftover Disposal Unit)

One of the things that is the most annoying when cooking is converting the recipes to the quantity of food you want to prepare. We are building our recipe viewer to handle this chore automatically, but since we have not decided when we will release it this does not help much right now. We are in the middle of finalizing a major new release of our business management and point of sales systems, and this is consuming all of our cycles right now. Hopefully in the coming weeks we will be able to assign some cycles to this project and announce a firm launch date. I will keep you posted.


Planning a special meal at the last minute

Years ago I remember that some friends were amazed that we had talked one afternoon at work and when I learned that they had no specific plans for their wedding anniversary that night, I invited them for a nice meal at home and prepared everything from the time I left work at 5pm to the time they arrived at 7pm, and this included shopping for the food.

There was nothing amazing in the process, and all it took was preparation and organization. Knowing your limits also helps. If you like to entertain at home like I do, you always end up with some failsafe recipes that you can always whip up at a moment’s notice. If you always keep the basic ingredients at hand and you have made the recipes many times before, you can easily make a nice meal after simply shopping for perishables you might not have at hand. This is exactly what I had done that evening. I do not remember exactly what I had cooked, but I remember running across the street from my office to pick up some small shrimps for a seafood first course, then to the butcher for a nice piece of meat, and throwing together some blueberry desert with some nice blueberries I picked from the over 50 acres of brush I used to own at the time. It also helped to have a well stocked wine cellar with a few thousand bottles where I could always match what I was planning to cook with one or many different wines. Like everything in life it only takes a bit of practice and confidence to end up with great results.

Another thing that you should do is to always think about what you can do with what you have at hand in your house. One of my favorite things to do in cooking is to look into the refrigerator and see what we can put together with whatever things we have laying around, including leftovers. At times it can be a challenge, but it keeps you culinary mind well exercised.

One thing to remember though is that if you are planning a special event where you want to show your best, do not try to do a new recipe for that event, unless you practice it first. Not doing so would be asking for big trouble. I have never met a new recipe that I have not fiddled with to make it work the way I like. The time for the fiddling is when you are relaxed in your kitchen and do not have a bunch of guests to attend to. Unless you have lots of experience you should not try to improvise something for that special meal. ‘Iron Chefs’ antics should be left to the pros, and even for them the results can be very hit and miss.

Saying all this, I wrote a new recipe today for a lentil soup that I plan to serve on Saturday when special friends will come over for supper. I am pretty sure that it should come out well, but in a way I am contradicting all that I have said above. The rest of the meal will be tried and true recipes though. I really do not have time to try the new soup beforehand, but I will probably make it either Friday afternoon, or on Saturday morning so if things do not go as planned I can always prepare something else or try to fix the mess without the pressure of our guests being there.

So remember the following, if you have to do something special at the last minute, do some of you favorite recipes that you are comfortable with. Try to have most of the ingredients for them always at hand, so you have to buy a minimum amount of ingredients at the last minute. Always keep at hand a few bottles of red and white wines of different types so that you have something that can match most dishes without having to run around for wine at the last minute. We will talk about what type of wines to keep at hand for regular and/or emergency consumption in the coming weeks. If you have a bit of lead time and want to try a new recipe, practice it before to make sure that it turns out as you expect and you do not run into major problems with your guests waiting at the table. At least, do as I will do next weekend, prepare it with enough time before the guests arrive to be able to cook something else or change the recipe without being under pressure.