"If olive oil comes from olives, where does baby oil come from?" Anonymous
My philosophy about food is simple. First of all it must taste great. I try to create recipes that are easy to make and that take advantage of fresh seasonal products with a minimum of processed ingredients. I try to avoid really hard to find ingredients.
Here is a partial list of some of the ingredients I use and what you need to know about them. Sometimes I recommend specific brands. I chose them because of flavor, availability, and price. To duplicate my recipes, you must use them too. But that doesn't mean that other brands won't work as well or better.
My recipe conventions. With common ingredients I don't specify the type or size. If a recipe calls for sugar, I am referring to white table sugar. Salt is table salt unless otherwise specified. Flour is all-purpose flour, milk is whole milk, eggs are large, and butter is unsalted.
Balsamic vinegars. There are many different types and the stuff in the grocery is not real true traditional balsamic. I hat to break it to you.
Beef. The Zen of beef labels. Here are the different grades of beef and some important terms that you need to know. The Zen of beef cuts. Three charts that will answer your questions. The Zen of beef ribs. There are two important cuts, one is better than the other, and three methods of cooking.
Beans. Not all beans are created equal, and if the recipe calls for dried beans and you only have cans, what do you do? Click here for the Zen of beans.
Chile peppers, chili powders, and hot sauces . There are scores of different peppers and pepper sauces on the market and they have a wide range of flavors and heat levels. Click here for everything you need to know about chile peppers, chili powders, and hot sauces, and some tips on using them.
Chocolate. Not all chocolate is the same. Not by a long shot. As in wine, the source of the fruit and how it is handled makes a massive difference in taste and price. Chemically it is amazing stuff, and working with it can be tricky. It's important to know how it is made. Here is a whole article on The Zen of Chocolate with everything you need to know.
Clarified butter and ghee. Clarified butter, also known as drawn butter or ghee, is an amazing cooking oil. Here's a great way to make it.
Clams. There are scores of varieties of these delectable varieties and they can be bought live, shucked, frozen, and canned. Here's what you need to know about buying clams.
Corn. Corn is the most important agricultural product in the US. By far the vast majority is used as feed for cattle, and much of it is used, in a chemically altered state, as an ingredient in practically everything on the shelves in the middle of the grocery from barbecue sauce to breakfast cereal. But I'm most interested in sweet corn on the cob.
Corn syrup. Corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) are sweeteners and they are very different. Many people think HFCS is dangerous. Click here to read more about the different corn syrups.
Five spice powder. One of the specialty spices in many Asian dishes is Chinese five spice powder. It is a blend of cinnamon, cloves, star anise, fennel, and Szechwan peppercorns. Here's how to make your own and some good places to buy it.
Garlic. Fresh garlic (Allium sativum) is the most aromatic member of the onion family and it adds a lot of flavor to many dishes. When raw it can be powerfully pungent, but when cooked it can be savory, mellow, nutty, and even sweet. Read what every cook needs to know about garlic in my article, The Zen of Garlic.
Hard boiled eggs. You thought you knew how to boil an egg? No you don't. I always thought that all I had to do to hard cook eggs was toss them in boiling water, but according to the American Egg Board, this is wrong! Here's how they say we should hard cook eggs. The Zen of Hard Boiled Eggs.
Hams. There's fresh ham, dry-cured ham, wet-cured ham, country ham, city ham, spiral cut ham, Prosciutto di Parma, Black Forest Ham, Westphalian Ham, Serrano Ham, Ibérico Ham, Bayonne Ham, Smithfield Ham, canned ham, ham steak, picnic ham, and, heaven help me, turkey ham. I can explain all this (except why USDA allows something called turkey ham) in The Zen of Ham.
Herbs and spices. Meats and veggies often taste great unadorned. But chefs make their living by amping foods up with herbs and spices. Read The Zen of Herbs & Spices to learn what you need to know about these important flavor enhancers and a list of what well armed cooks will have in their tool kits.
Ketchup or catsup. Most barbecue sauces contain ketchup, and really, when you think about it, most tomato based barbecue sauces are just a form of pumped up ketchup. Click here to read more about ketchup and my faves.
Lemon, lime, and orange juice. As a rule of thumb, a medium lemon or lime will give you about 2 tablespoons of juice or about 1 ounce. A medium orange will give you double that, and a medium grapefruit double the orange. Fresh juice is better than bottled, but bottled will do if you don't have fresh. You can freeze fresh citrus juice in ice cube trays, and then put them in zipper bags for storage. And it's still better than the bottled stuff.
Liquid smoke. Many commercial barbecue sauces contain liquid smoke, which is smoke from burning hardwood that has been captured in a still and dissolved in water or alcohol. When added to sauces it contributes another layer of flavor, simulating, but not quite duplicating, the flavor produced by burning hardwood in your cooker. Barbecue snobs hate it, but if you have no way to cook outdoors, it can really help create an outdoorsy flavor.
Mayonnaise. Mayonnaise is a simple miracle. It's oil and a watery acid with egg yolk holding it together. Oil and water, as we all know, don't usually mix. That's why salad dressings separate. But some compounds can glue them together in a colloidal suspension called an emulsion. Egg yolks and mustard are good emulsifiers, glues that make the opposites hang together. It's amazing chemistry that we overlook as we spread the creamy stuff on our sandwiches.
You can make your own mayo with a wide range of oils, everything from olive oil to grapeseed oil, and a variety of acids, including lemon juice and white wine. Just dump a pasteurized egg yolk in a bowl, and then drizzle in some oil while whisking non-stop. Tiny droplets of the oil disperse into the egg yolk and are held in suspension.
But pasteurized eggs are hard to find, and you should use pasteurized eggs because raw eggs are often contaminated with salmonella nowadays. Then you have the leftover whites to deal with (you can freeze them for use in other dishes), and the results will keep in the fridge for only about a week. So I buy the stuff in a jar. Hellmann's Real Mayonnaise is the popular standard, with good reason. Yes, it has a pinch of sugar and preservative, but it's pretty good quality, winning taste-offs against all comers except home made.
Rather than make mayo from scratch, I like to doctor it. Nothing picks up a turkey sandwich better than a little mayo mixed with a few drops (that's all you need) of sesame oil. Another great mix-in is a hint of chipotle in adobo sauce. Click here for my recipe for Mayo Mojo, a spice mix that amps mayo up to 11 and is perfect for as a sandwich spread, on potato salad, tuna, and egg salad.
Mushrooms. Click here for what you need to know about mushrooms and why it is OK to wash them.
Sugar, molasses and other sweet syrups. Click here to learn what you need to know about sugars and syrups.
Mustards. There's yellow ballpark mustard, brown Dijon mustard, powdered mustard, and more. Click here to learn what a cook needs to know about mustard.
Oils & fats. There are scores of oils and fats to cook with. Click here to learn about their different flavors, cooking properties, and health implications.
Pickles. Originally an ancient method of preserving foods, pickles live on as condiments and snacks. There are a remarkable number of pickle types. Here's a guide to The Zen of Pickles. Click here for my recipes for Kosher Dill Pickles and Pickled Tomatoes. Click here for my recipe for Sweet & Sour Pickled Onions. Click here for my recipe for Sweet & Sour Sandwich Pickle Slices.
Pie thickeners. The bane of all pie bakers is soupy pie. So experienced bakers use some sort of a thickener to make it nice and firm. Here's what you need to know about the options. Read The Zen of Pie Thickeners.
Pork. Just what are baby backs? spareribs? Rib tips? Riblets? St. Louis cut ribs? Rib chops? Rib roasts? Country ribs? And for heaven's sake, what the heck is a McRib? Read about the different cuts of pork.
Parmigiano-Reggiano (Parmesan) Cheese. Parmigiano-Reggiano, called "The King of Cheeses" in Italy is a magical cheese. Dotted with crunchy crystals and permeated with the mysterious flavor enhancer, umami, it barely resembles the popular imitator labeled parmesan. Learn all about this wonderful cheese in the Zen of parmesan.
Potatoes. They most definitely are not the same! Some are better for mashing, some for baking, and some for frying. Click here for The Zen of Potatoes.
Rice. Rice is the primary food for more than half the people in the world. It is versatile enough to be an integral part of an entree or a dessert. My article, The Zen of Rice, describes white rice, brown rice, wild rice, and arborio rice and how to cook them.
Salt. Salt is an important flavor enhancer that actually expands taste buds, and even a small amount can really wake up a dish either in cooking or at table. But there are many kinds of salt, and you cannot exchange them freely. Here's an article on The Zen of Salt that describes the difference between, table salt, kosher salt, sea salt, pickling salt, and more.
Soy sauce. Real soy sauce is made by fermenting soy beans and other grains. It is high in natural glutamates, amino acids that amp up the flavor of food with which it is used and it can add flavor and be used as a salt substitute. Click here to read more about soy sauce, shoyu sauce, and tamari sauce.
Stocks, bouillons, gravys, soups . Confusing. Let's straighten them out. Click here to learn which is which.
Steak sauce. In the US steak sauce is a moderately thick brown sauce sold in grocery stores. It is sweet, salty, and savory. The contents vary from producer to producer. Click here for more on the subject and a recipe for a steak sauce by cookbook author Brigit Binns that I like a lot better than the bottled stuff.
Vinegars. There's balsamic, distilled, cider, sherry, rice, raspberry, malt, and wine vinegar, to name a few. Click here to read more about vinegars, how they are made, and how to use them.
...more to come (to be notified when new recipes and other articles come online, be sure to subscribe to my free, spam free, email newsletter).
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