Recipe: Mamo’s Carrot Raisin Slaw

Carrot Raisin Slaw

Carrot Raisin Slaw

A very good and very simple recipe that often made its appearance at holiday buffets when I was growing up in Dallas. Serves 8-12.

Ingredients:
4 c grated carrots
1 c raisins/currants/golden raisins in any combination
¼ c mayonnaise
2 T sugar
2 T lemon juice

Method: combine all ingredients and refrigerate 2 hours or more to allow flavors to develop.

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How to get big(ger) holes in your baguettes

Holes cross section

Slice on the right has bigger holes/more open crumb

Big, lacy holes are a right of passage in baguette making. Big holes mean an airy, well-made loaf with a chewy, tasty crumb. Contributing factors to big holes may include very high hydration dough, extremely careful dough handling, years of experience or all of the above. Like oven steam, big holes are a goal that can elude the home baker.

Today I discovered a short cut which, while not producing the biggest holes I’ve ever seen, definitely is a step in the right direction. I found this while watching a video on baguette making which had recently been posted to to Breadtopia. While I didn’t agree with some of the other techniques, and the loaf this baker produced actually didn’t have big holes, it gave me an idea for preshaping the dough, the step before it’s actually rolled out into baguettes.

Typically I preshape my dough into a ball… I use Jeffrey Hamelman’s “gingerbread man” technique to flatten a disk, fold in the arms and legs, then flip it over and shape into a ball tucking the open surfaces tight inside. The purpose of this is simply to provide a sealed surface so air has less chance of getting out as the dough expands. But the Breadtopia demo does something different. The baker pulls the unshaped dough piece out into a rectangle, then folds in the sides to meet in the middle, then folds from top and bottom like a business letter and finally shapes into a log. This adds a number of layers of lamination, each of which can trap some air. It’s the way I’ll be shaping my baguettes from now on.

300 g lump of dough

Unshaped dough at 300 g. The scrap on the top is to bring it up to weight.

Stretch dough sideways

Pull it out into a rectangle…

First side fld

Now fold in from one side so the fold meets in the center

Second fold

Fold in from the right, so it looks like this

Business letter fold

Now fold 1/3 down from the top and 1/3 up from the bottom like a business letter

Shaped log

Flip it over, seam side down, and shape gently into a log

Compare log to ball

Three logs compared to one traditional ball at upper right

Holes cross sectoin

Cross section with the open crumb on the bottom

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How to steam bread in a home oven

Steamed baguette closeup

Variegated color, nice “ears” and blisters are benefits of oven steam

Every home baker tries to get more steam into his/her home oven, and most always we fall short. I’ve tried spraying water on the oven walls, pouring water into a cookie sheet in the bottom of the oven, dousing the loaves themselves with water as they go in among other strategies and never been satisfied. This is especially frustrating because any of us can produce perfectly steamed boules simply by cooking them in a cast iron dutch oven and leaving the lid on for the first 20-25 minutes of the bake.

Steam and no steam

Baguette at top baked without steam, on bottom with steam

Today I had the inspiration to try recreating the dutch oven environment with my baguettes by using a caterer’s aluminum tray as the lid over my half-sheet baking surface. The tray was the right width but a little long so I folded some aluminum foil over the ends. The tray was preheated along with the baking sheet and I sprayed my loaves and the inside of the tray with water as it went in, then again at 10 minutes for good measure, and removed the tray at 20 minutes to finish the bake.

Home made steam setup

My home made steam baking setup

The results were pretty, pretty good, definitely as good a crust as I’ve achieved on an open pan in my home oven. I’m going to continue to tinker with the fit of the tray and the baking sheet, maybe using some heat proof tape or just finding a pan that’s a better fit. But I’m very encouraged with this first effort.

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Why nitrites are so bad for you. (Or ARE they?)

Bacon strips

Top bacon strip has no nitrates, bottom has nitrates. Which is healthier? (Answer below)

A while back we examined “uncured” meat products and how they actually are cured, just with different methods than the traditional curing salts. We also talked about how those products can contain just as many nitrites as a package of Oscar Meyer bacon, yet can be labeled “no nitrates or nitrites added” because their nitrites come from celery powder, which the FDA classifies as a flavoring agent rather than a cure. But we stopped before defining why it’s so important to avoid nitrites (and nitrates, which turn into nitrites through fermentation) in the first place.

Well, maybe it’s not that important. Maybe nitrites are not that bad. After all, they’re derived from nitrogen which is one of the common elements in nature and fundamental to plant growth. The Piggery has a great bar chart on this blog post, showing that leafy greens like kale contain far more nitrites than cured meats.

Last time we talked about a nitrite byproduct called nitrosamide, which indeed has been shown to be carcinogenic. It used to be found in burnt bacon, then the bacon industry changed its curing method so the nitrites are reduced before the bacon cooks and nitrosamides have less opportunity to form. Nitrosamides are also found naturally in our stomachs (as a byproduct of digesting nitrites) and in beer. So if you’re worried about getting sick from food you can probably find better things to worry about—like getting botulism from uncured meat.

In a way this issue can be seen as an instance of no harm, no foul. Concerned consumers think they’re buying food without nitrites, which they aren’t. But they think nitrites are bad for them, which they aren’t. However, deceptive marketing practices make you wonder what else the marketers being disingenuous about.

I’m specifically thinking of this FAQ on the Applegate website, to which I’ll add some italics for emphasis:

In the early 1900’s, scientists discovered how to make sodium nitrite synthetically. Since this factory process was easily standardized, synthetic nitrite became popular. Today, these industrial chemicals are also used in products like fertilizer, pyrotechnics and rocket propellant, and can contain heavy metals, arsenic and lead.

But not to worry! Applegate products never contain synthetic sodium nitrite. We cure meat using nitrates found in nature – in celery, specifically. When mixed with a culture starter, the natural nitrates in celery juice turn to nitrites and achieve the desirable results (better flavor and appearance) without the factory side effects.

See what they did there? They don’t claim that “synthetic sodium nitrate” is different from “natural nitrate”. They can’t, because it’s chemically identical. But they build a case for guilt by association. Synthetic sodium nitrate (whatever that is) is used in making fertilizer and rocket fuel (!) which can contain bad stuff like heavy metals or even arsenic (!!). Ipso facto, nitrates not from a natural source may also contain those poisons, and it’s better to avoid the “factory side effects”. What factory side effects? See what they did there?

Maybe Applegate Farms just hired an overeager copywriter—because according to this New York Times article they’ve also been active in lobbying the U.S.D.A. for more accurate labeling standards. But don’t hold your breath. The Times article was written in 2011, and nothing has changed.

Paleo Bacon

Answer: neither. But this zero-nitrites paleo bacon is pretty good.

Meanwhile, I found one bacon that’s completely free of nitrates, natural or synthetic. The cure is based on plain old sodium chloride, AKA table salt. It’s also got lots of saturated fat, so don’t think of it as healthy. (The package helpfully tells us it’s “not a low calorie food”.) But it ain’t bad.

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Recipe: No-Knead Pizza Dough (in pictures)

Yeast and water

Add yeast (1/4 t if making tonight, 1/8 t if making tomorrow) to 340 g water (about 1 1/2 c)

Add flour

Add 500 g (3 1/2 c) all purpose flour

Before Autolyse

Mix flour and water with a spoon (or your hands) so water is absorbed by the flour. Distribute 1 1/2 t salt over the top, but don’t mix in yet. Let rest 20 minutes. (autolyse)

This is what it looks like after.... the flour and water are already working together with no effort from you.

This is what it looks like after…. the flour and water are already working together with no effort from you. Now, moisten your hands and work the dough to get out any lumps.

Dough after Rising

Cover and let proof till doubled in size. 4 hours for 1/4 t yeast, overnight if using 1/8 t. I let this one get away from me a bit. Notice those nice bubbles.

Dough Shaped and Unshaped

Divide the dough into quarters. Shape each piece into a smooth disk like the lower left example, tucking under any rough pieces. Wrap in plastic wrap until 2 hours before baking.

No knead dough flattened

Place one of the dough balls on a silicon baking sheet. Flatten it with your hands, then use your fingers to push it out to the edges with uniform thinness. When you’re done, wait a few minutes and resume. The dough will further expand. If it gets so thin a hole appears, repair it with a piece from another part of the pizza.

No Knead Cheese Pizza in Progress

Rub the dough with olive oil, then add tomato sauce, then your choice of toppings starting with the cheese (or maybe just cheese)

No Knead Cheese Pizza, Done!

Transfer the silicone sheet to a preheated pizza stone or upside-down cookie sheet in a preheated 500 degree oven. Bake 10 minutes or until cheese is bubbly and crust is brown around the edges and on bottom. Serve promptly.

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A visit to the Casola Dining Room at SCCC (Schenectady County Community College)

SCCC table setting

Welcome to Casola Dining Room at SCCC

There are two things that the Casola Dining Room has in common with the legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley. First, you have to call exactly two weeks in advance of your desired dining date and time to have any hope of a reservation. And second, if you do score a table, you are going to have an excellent meal.

Salad Nicoise

First course in the Provence themed menu: Salad Nicoise

Casola Dining Room is the showcase of Schenectady County Community College’s Culinary Arts Program. Students who have completed three foundation courses work together on a menu that is American Regional in the fall, International in the spring. (It changes every week, but those are the overarching themes.)

There are two seatings at lunch and two at dinner and you will get attentive service in a white-tablecloth setting as you enjoy a carefully prepared appetizer, entrée and dessert for the grand sum of $16 (plus a scholarship surcharge at dinner). No tax, no tipping (though you can, and should, leave something extra which goes to the program) and you can bring alcoholic beverages for a modest corkage fee.

Boullilabaise

Boullilabaise

SCCC is a treasure in Upstate New York that has spawned countless chefs and front-of-house folks who are broadly distributed throughout a region filled with eateries. Because of the known quality and work ethic of its graduates, some of the best establishments make a practice of focusing their hiring on SCCC and those grads, in turn, hire their fellow students. Between 550 and 650 students are in attendance at any given time, pursuing a two-year associate’s degree path that can lead them to hospitality or casino management as well as culinary arts. If you attend full time, the entire two years will cost less than $7000. That’s a ridiculous bargain.

Almond Pear Tart

Almond Pear Tart (look closely for some spun sugar latticework)

My server mentioned she was a first year student which caused me to ask Instructor Jay Larkin (a hotel management specialist whose classes are always full) about prerequisites for front-of-house staff. He had a great response which I’ll share in full:

For the service class there are no prerequisites and this is both a challenge and a blessing. The challenges come in the form of nervousness on the part of the student serving the guest for the first time as it truly can be the first time they have experienced fine dining service as a server or even as a guest. The blessing comes by way of no preformed habits to modify in service techniques. Many “seasoned” professionals have come through the program only to find their skills are not as well honed as once thought. We instruct at a high level of service to make any service thereafter easier to understand.

I think that gives you a good idea of why this program is so special and so successful. If you’re planning a visit to Upstate New York, consider putting Casola Dining Room on your itinerary. Be sure to check schedule because they only serve during school semesters. And don’t fail to call exactly 2 weeks in advance.

For the current Casola Dining Room menu, check here. For reservations call (518) 381-1391. And if you know someone who is ready to consider a career in cooking or hospitality, send them to the SCCC Culinary home page.  (Remind them if you learn to cook for a living, you’ll likely always be able to find a job, and you’ll likely never go hungry.)

P.S. There are students of all ages at CCC including lots of mid-life career changers. Jay and Dean of Students David Brough and Supervising Instructor
Rocco Verrigni told me about one student who completed the curriculum while still in high school, and another who got her certification at age 72 and is now pastry chef at one of Albany’s most prestigious restaurants. So no excuses. Come on down!

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Recipe: Tunisian Chickpea Salad

Tunisian Chickpea Salad

Reverse engineered Tunisian Chickpea Salad, with the original at left

This is my reverse engineering of the wonderful Tunisian salad from Healthy Living Market. The flavors and textures are nicely balanced and the unexpected spices (ground coriander and caraway) add a note of mystery. Serves 8.

Ingredients:
2 c cooked chickpeas (canned, or prepared from approximately 7/8 c dried)
1 c carrots (about 4 medium), peeled and grated
1/4 c currants
1/4 c finely chopped cilantro or flat leaf parsley, leaves only, or a combination
1 1/2 T olive oil
1 T lemon juice
1 T fresh squeezed orange juice (optional, but nice if you have it)
1 t Kosher salt
1/8 t ground black pepper
1 1/2 t caraway seeds
t t ground coriander, or to taste*
1/8-1/4 t cayenne**

Method: Add all ingredients to a glass, metal or ceramic bowl and toss to mix thoroughly. Allow flavors to develop for an hour or more, then adjust spicing to your preference. Serve at room temperature or slightly chilled.

* Ground coriander quickly loses its flavor, so get a fresh batch for this recipe. Start with 2 t then add more if needed. It should contribute a prominent but not overpowering taste.
* 1/8 t will be nicely peppery while 1/4 t will give you something bordering on “hot” which is how Healthy Living serves it.

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Food for thought: ChefSteps


I was introduced to ChefSteps while doing some work with Modernist Pantry. ChefSteps has short, elegantly produced videos of food preparation, typically modernist cuisine but also some old favorites like crème brulee and pan gravy. My favorite sequences are like this for steak tartare where there is no narration, just beautiful photography, with captions explaining what you need to know.

Modernist Pantry bundles a set of videos on spherification with its products which otherwise you’d have to pay for. But most of the videos are free. You can see them on Youtube, but I advise you to to to the site where you’ll find the text for the recipes and the opportunity to browse for more inspiration. Check it out.

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Recipe: No-Knead Pizza Dough

Pepperoni no-knead pizza

Pepperoni Pizza made with no-knead dough

This is a variation of Overnight Pizza Dough for those without stand mixers, kitchen scales, pizza peels or a work ethic. Time does all the work. This is so easy, you’ll shake your head at those bags of pre made pizza dough they sell in fancy markets these days. Makes 4 personal pizzas.

Ingredients:
1 1/2 c lukewarm water (340 g)
1/8 or 1/4 t rapid-rise yeast*
3 1/2 c all purpose flour, unsifted (500 g)
1 1/2 t kosher salt
silicon pad or parchment paper

Method: Add yeast* to warm water in a bowl and allow to bloom 5 min. Add flour and mix with a spoon until all water is absorbed. Allow to rest (autolyse) 30 minutes. This step hydrates the flour and is the beginning of the autopilot dough development. Add salt and mix with moistened hands to smooth out dough and work out any lumps of dry flour. Cover and rest in a 70 degree room until doubled: 4 hours for 1/4 t yeast, overnight if using 1/8 t. Punch down the dough and divide it into four balls; dust with flour then wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate. (You can also put the wrapped dough in a freezer bag at this pooint and freeze for future use.)

Approximately 2 hours before baking, take dough out of refrigerator. 1/2 hour before baking, heat oven to 500 degrees with a pizza stone or overturned cookie sheet on center rack. Form the pizzas by flattening one ball on a silicon pad or parchment paper; press flat with the heel of hour hands then work the dough out from center till you have a thin, uniform circle or rectangle.

Allow to rest 10 minutes and push outward again to expand the size of the pizza; while resting the dough will gather tensile strength so it’s easy to expand. Rub the top surface with olive oil then add your preferred sauce (I like a good jarred tomato sauce–I used one of Uncle Steve’s) and mixed cheese and possibly some meat or veggies. Transfer pizza on its mat or parchment paper directly onto the hot stone or cookie sheet. (Begin to prep the next pizza while the first one is cooking.) Bake 10 minutes or until cheese is bubbly and edges are browned but not burned. Serve hot.

*Use 1/8 t yeast for an overnight ferment, 1/4 t if you’re making in the morning to bake that night.

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How to rate suburban sushi

Hibachi Saba

One fish, same price, two very different results

OsakaSabaI live in a town of 30,000 that has five restaurants specializing in sushi. Can a community our size really support that many establishments providing a top quality dining experience? My suburban sushi tour aims to find out.

I go at lunchtime and try to order the same thing at each place—the lowest priced sushi combo, plus a side order of saba (mackerel marinated in rice vinegar) to see what the restaurant can do with a custom order. The two saba orders at left show the wide variation I’ve encountered. One was beautifully prepared and presented and generous, the other raggedy and sparse.

Nigiri (raw fish) sushi is best for comparative critique because there are fewer variables. There’s the fish, rice, the presentation. That’s pretty much it. I don’t like to eat sushi with my fingers so I generally use chopsticks, turning the fish over into a shoyu/wasabi mix before I eat. If the rice falls apart while I’m trying to do this, it gets demerits from me. In addition, the combinations also include a bowl of watery (but not always) miso soup and a forgettable California roll.

You can find a detailed listing of my findings (which I’ll continue to update) through this Yelp list, but Yelp isn’t necessarily the best source of sophisticated sushi advice in a non-sophisticated region. Not a few of our locals think sushi is from Thailand, and most focus their reviews on the rolls rather than the nigiri which is where a sushi chef makes his (I’ve never seen a female sushi chef) mark or falls short.

Also, a frequent criticism of Yelpers is that the fish tastes frozen, an easy slur that’s not always relevant. I’d rather have sushi grade fish that has been flash frozen at sea and carefully defrosted than “fresh” fish that’s sat around awhile. However, I expect most of the local places do have access to fresh fish if only from the Sysco truck. What happens after it arrives is what counts. How is it kept (and for how long, before it makes way into a Spicy Tuna or Dragon Roll)? And most important, how skilled is the chef at interpreting each piece and making sure, elegant cuts?

I found one place that really knows fish, though it’s not great on presentation, and one which is great on presentation and fair on the fish. The other three are going through the motions, for those for whom “sushi” is an end result rather than a complex tasting experience. I bet It’s the same in your town, but if not let me know.

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