Make ratios work for you

It’s unfortunate that we’ve learned to view recipes as something to be followed rather slavishly.  That’s not the way cooking works since there are so many variables in ingredients available.  If we can get out of that habit, then we’ve made a huge stride in cooking for one.

I’ve talked about Pam Andersen’s How to Cook without a Book-which is based on using ratios in recipes.  Even more liberating from the slavish following of recipes are a number of books which really don’t give specific quantities at all or just suggest approximations of ingredients.  These can be easily adjusted if you pay attention to the proportions of the main ingredients or the ratios.

Cover of cookbook, I just purchased Michael Ruhlman‘s Twenty.  I found it a fascinating approach to cooking–it introduces you to the really important ingredients that you work with so often that you almost do not think about them–you take them for granted: like salt, eggs, water (yes, water!) and onions, to mention a few.  He presents recipes that will make you aware of how these ingredients actually work in the process of cooking–to help you understand them so that you can improvise!

Another great thing about this book is that even though the recipes may be for more servings than you want, ratios are given for important ingredients.  For example, in a recipe for “Traditional French Onion Soup”, he give a and “onion-to-liquid” ratio that he prefers for the main ingredients–7 or 8 pounds onions (which really cook down) to 6 cups of water.  That gives you the information you need to downsize the recipe.  Other ingredients are mostly “to taste” although quantities are suggested in the base recipe.  It’s wonderful when the recipes give you this kind of information; however, you can always look at the major ingredients in a recipe and come up with your own ratio.

This book stresses “thinking about food”–and that does not mean looking at the recipe that has 20 ingredients, and dreaming about how nice it would be to make that, but it serves 16, and….  Techniques that are basic to many recipes are presented–some of them are basic ingredients–to help you understand the why and the wherefore of the ingredients.  That is the key to improvising.  The other important thing stressed: think!  Once you understand ingredients, you can adjust the recipe, you can improvise.

This is a book that I’d recommend highly–at least check it out of the library and read it–it just might give some food for though, and open some doors to make single-serving cooking easier for you.  I’d also suggest checking out Michael Ruhlman’s website for other good information for the home cook.

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Trying a new recipe….

As much as I’ve talked about improvisation in the kitchen when you’re doing single-serving cooking, I do occasionally like to have a recipe, at least for starters.  Trying to cut a recipe serving six or eight to one-person size is really frustrating.  The major ingredients are not that hard to do–it’s the seasonings that are hardest.  You’ve a much smaller quantity so you do need to cut them, but usually NOT by the same proportions as the main ingredients, so I was excited to see that the editors at America’s Test Kitchen had come out with Cooking for Two 2013, in addition to the Cooking for Two 2011.

In perusing  these (Kindle editions), I though the recipes looked like a good starting place for single-serving cooking: many looked as if the second serving would freeze well, and that’s a bonus. (If you’ve read much at all here, you’ll know I don’t “do” leftovers, nor do I do the cook-one-thing-and-eat-it-all-week scene.) For me, having one serving to eat now, and one in the freezer is good. Other recipes looked as if I could prepare a single chop or chicken breast, with the full recipe, freeze that, and then just add the meat later after thawing the base.

One of the appealing things about the recipes in these books is that they are not terribly involved–like weeknight suppers, and not all-weekend cooking marathons–and shouldn’r leave you with a sink overflowing with dishes, pots and pans.  Definitely worth a try since I’ve always had good results with recipes from Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country.

When making a recipe for the first time, I do follow it–otherwise how would I know how I need to change it?  For my first exploration from the 2013 Cooking for Two I picked a dish that I though sounded tasty and fun, and that the second serving could be put in the freezer: “Moroccan-Style Quinoa with Chickpeas and Kale”.  I like quinoa, I like chickpeas, and kale so this seemed a good one to try.  I honestly did follow the recipe.  Really I did, despite some temptations to tweak the seasonings…like put in extra garlic–that sort of thing.

I’m going (since I’ve given you the attribution above) to reproduce the recipe here with a little adaptation (because I don’t want to key in the entire thing).  It was easy to follow, and –very little cleanup afterwards–all good points.

Moroccan-Style Quinoa with Chickpeas and Kale

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped fine
  • 1 carrot, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch pieces
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 cup quinoa, rinsed (if not prewashed)
  • 1-1/2 cups vegetable broth
  • 3/4 can of chickpeas, rinsed
  • 2 tablespoons golden raisins
  • salt and pepper
  • 6 ounces kale, stemmed and chopped into 1-inch pieces
  • 2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
  • 1/4 teaspoon lemon zest plus 1 teaspoon juice
  • 2 tablespoons crumbled feta cheese
  1. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in medium saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add onions, carrot and cook until onion softens. Stir in garlic,  coriander, pepper flakes and cook until fragrant. Add quinoa and cook stirring often until lightly toasted.
  2. Stir in broth, chickpeas, raisins, 1/8 teaspoon salt.  Place kale (still wet from washing) on top and bring to a simmer.  Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer until quinoa to  is transparent and tender (18 to 20) minutes.
  3. Off heat, add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil, pine nuts, lemon zest and juice. Sprinkle with feta, season as needed with salt and pepper to taste.  Serve.

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I’m likely to make this again, because it did go together easily, and cleaning up afterward was easy; but there will have to be some serious modification! The quinoa and chickpeas part of it is okay–except for being  very bland–and I really, honestly did follow the quantities given in the recipe so I’d know. Well, now I do!

I’m not really familiar with Moroccan style seasonings, but I don’t think that this was it.  Even with the added lemon zest and juice, garlic, red pepper flakes, raisins, and coriander, it’s definitely not even approaching complexity. It’s missing something.

Then there was the kale. The recipe didn’t say anything about what kind of kale.  When I went to the  market, I did look for Toscano (Lancinato, Nero) or Russian red kale, but I could find only the curly, redbor kale; I picked out the smallest, youngest looking leaves in the bin. But it still wasn’t what this dish needed–at least for me. The kale completely overwhelmed the flavor of the rest of the dish–I had kale-flavored quinoa and chickpeas.  For me it  just did not fit with the quinoa and chickpeas.

I liked the idea of a one-dish meal (since it’s something I’ve posted about here a number of times), but I’ll not do it with that particular kale again.  I think I’m more likely to do spinach, or maybe arugula, though I might try it with Toscano or Lancinato kale, hoping that would be a bit milder.  (No pictures either–even with the smaller leaves, the kale was a rather icky green by the time it was tender.)

My other frustration with the recipe–supposedly for two–was that the servings were huge–I  have at least two more  servings sitting in the fridge now, even after having had a very reasonable portion for supper. Another piece of information for when I try another of the “for-two” recipes.

I know that when writing recipes public consumption, you do have to be moderate with seasonings, but this was downright bland, not something that I expect from recipes from this source–I’ll be looking out for that with other recipes. I guess I was expecting to taste and think that I’d need more garlic, or maybe more red pepper flakes next time, but I wasn’t expecting what I got from this.

You think I sound frustrated?

You’re right–because I have come to expect better from the recipes from American’s Test Kitchen–and now I have two more servings to try to make more palatable. I’ll try to add more seasoning when I reheat, but I don’t want the quinoa to be total mush.

I will do the quinoa and chickpeas combo again, but likely replacing the vegetable broth with at least part chicken broth, definitely increasing the coriander, red pepper, lemon juice and zest, and figuring out some other spices to add for more complexity–while trying to still keep it simple. (That’s my rationalization for going in search of a Moroccan cookbook now.)

Bottom line for me, it’s a starter–now to see where I can go with it. But, I’ll be trying another recipe from the book….but I’ll definitely feel free to make adjustments right from the start on a few things.

Oven-braised lamb and garbanzo beans

It’s another grey day–unseasonably warm, but at least not hot, sticky, and terribly humid today–the kind of day when you need to smell something cooking–long, slow, and tantalizing.   I found lamb shoulder chops on special (2-1/2-pound package) at the grocery store, I decided to try the lamb/garbanzo slow-cooker thing in the oven since it’s not too hot (and I’ll use the oven to prepare a second dish for reheating tomorrow (acorn squash stuffed with Sicilian sausage).

Book coverThe slow cooker version of this concoction was really good, but I thought it could be improved by doing it in the oven. Even after reading the Cook’s Illustrated Slow Cooker Revolution (volume 1), I am still not a wild fan of the slow-cooker.  I use it because it does some things well, and is necessary at times to fit cooking into a working schedule.  The Slow Cooker Revolution has improved my slow-cooker results immensely, mostly because I’ve discovered some unusual ingredients that can improve flavor.

My impression was that many of these recipes required more preparation time than I would be able to put into a slow cooker recipe, given that I use it for utter simplicity.  I’m interested in seeing what comes from volume 2 of the Slow Cooker Revolution.  If I have to do a lot of preparation for the recipe, then I might as well not use the slow cooker.  I still find that I like over-braising when possible; however, I do find I’m using the slow cooker even more since I read the first volume of this book. That said, I still prefer oven braising, especially if I’m working at home.

Romertopf clay baker (oval)I had intended to do this in the Romertopf, (one of my favorite things for roasting and baking hearty, peasant-style comfort food in the winter) but by the time I had boned the lamb and added other ingredients, it wouldn’t fit in either of my small ones (great for single-serving cooking), and was not enough to fit in my large Romertopf (for roasting whole chicken, for example)–so it was the Dutch oven for today.

(Shoulder chops are reasonably priced, and the boning doesn’t take long if you use a boning knife rather than trying to do it with a paring knife or chef’s knife.  Those bone went into a saucepan with a tad of salt and some bay leaves to make stock.  After boning out, I had about 2 pounds of lamb, so that’s what I started with.)

Oven-braised lamb and garbanzo beans

lamb from chopsIngredients

  • 2 pounds lamb (from boned shoulder chops)
  • 2 14.5-ounce cans of garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
  • 3 large onions, chopped
  • 1 14.5-ounce can of fire-roasted, diced tomatoes with juice
  • 2 tablespoons of Hatch chilli powder (used for the slow cooker), but more added after tasting this halfway through cooking
  • 2 teaspoons of salt, or to taste
  • 1 tablespoon fresh Mexican oregano, minced
  • 1 cup water

PreparationIMG_7667

  • Put everything in pot
  • Cover
  • Pop it into the oven, and check for liquid in an hour
  • Go get laundry or whatever, then check liquid again

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In order to be as much like the slow-cooker, I did not brown the meat or cook the onions separately–just combined everything, covered, and put in a preheated, 300-degree Fahrenheit oven.  I added 1 cup of water to start, and checked in one hour but there was plenty of liquid.

On tasting, I found it needed more than the 2 tablespoons of chili powder so I added about 1 tablespoon more, stirred, covered, and let it continue to cook. There was plenty of liquid, so next time, I’ll not add any water–just rely on the juice from the tomatoes, onions, and meat.

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The stock made with the bones smelled really good–if more liquid had been needed during baking, I would use some of the stock.  There was some meat from the bones in the stock, but I not enough to spend time picking off, although I’m not compulsive about trying to get every bit off when I bone meat like these chops. Since I started the stock in cold water, the meat that was left was pretty flavorless, but the stock was good.

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There will be a next time for this–and unless I’m really pushed for time, or can’t leave the oven while I’m out, I’ll opt for the oven method to cook this–a much more complex flavor with the same ingredients, likely attributable to the bit of evaporation that takes place in the oven but not in the closed slow-cooker.

Getting this added flavor lead me to consider the energy used in the various cooking methods–the energy required for cooking is certainly part of the energy required to make that food edible–the energy  of production and transportation, and the cooking is all part of the picture: the footprint of feeding me. We cannot ignore the energy used for cooking when we talk about other energy costs associated with our food so I spent some time browsing to find information on different cooking methods.

In trying to research this issue, I’ve perused many different sources–and the gas/slow cooker comparison is difficult, and I get the feeling that the answer to which is more efficient is an “it depends” situation.

Interestingly, an article on slow cookers versus electric ovens from the University of Connecticut Sustainable Living suggests that there may not be a significant difference in energy use.  SFGate discusses gas versus electric energy use, which gets more complicated, but I’m not sure that there difference is significant enough to make me give up oven braising, even though I’d like to minimize my “carbon footprint” as much as possible. If my slow cooker requires eight or so hours of cooking, and my oven braise requires only two or three hours on low to medium heat, then it may be a toss-up, since the slow cooker doesn’t cycle, and the oven (gas or electric) does.

Oven braising in the wintertime helps warm the house so probably cuts my heating use some, but I’m certainly NOT going to oven braise in the summer and increase the use of air-conditioning.  There is lots of conflicting information out there on the ‘net.  The “best” I found was from the Consumer Energy Center (California Energy Commission)–from that information, I’m not going to give up oven braising for the slow cooker anytime soon, but I’ll still use the slow cooker for some things.

Cover, pressure cooker perfectionOne comparison that I’d really be interested in is slow cooker versus pressure cooker energy use, and taste of the same dish prepared in both. Most data that I found suggested that the slow cooker wins on convenience, and the pressure cooker on energy saving. A taste comparison would certainly be interesting.  I’m almost certain that a pressure cooker can’t replace a good old-fashioned slow braise in the over.

I’ve recently started playing with a pressure cooker–it’s a lot different than what my mother used. The recipes in Pressure Cooker Perfection have been a good starting point. I suspect that I’ll be using a pressure cooker more  in the future, as well as the slow-cooker. Climate, air conditioning, and heating, are all things that will enter into my decisions. I’m also trying out an portable induction unit which is supposed to be ore energy efficient.

So many options for energy efficiency–but what about taste?  I doubt that any other method is going to come out tasting like an oven braise, no matter how many umami-enhancing ingredients you add.

A son goût!

Dutch oven with lamb and garbanzos

very simple, very tasty

A cucumber is a cucumber is a….

Another summer delight is the cucumber.  I know–they’re available year-round in the supermarket, but my favorites seldom show up in good condition in the market except at the farmers’ market during the summer, because I can get something besides the “slicing” cucumber (though that will do in a pinch).

short chubby pickling cucumber with typical coloration

pickling cucumber

I like my cukes to be drier and without pronounced seeds, so I use pickling cucumbers to eat instead of the “slicing” or “field” cucumber.   During the winter, I’ll use the English (the big long ones in the plastic wrap) or the “baby” cucumbers since they have less developed seeds–and I can’t see having to scrape out that much of my cucumber.  A less watery cucumber (than the slicer) is desirable since I like to put them into cucumber and tomato salads, white bean salads, macaroni salads and all sorts of things like that–they are so cool and crunchy. I really don’t want to scrape out the seeds and salt to remove water!

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cut Amira cucumber with small seed cavity and seeds

the Amira cucumber

Until recently, I’d been using pickling cucumbers, but a friend has introduced me to the Amira cucumber which she has grown in her garden regularly for some years; it’s now become my new favorite cucumber! Long, slender, with a deep green, thin skin, and seeds that are not very pronounced at all, and it is without the one downside of the pickling cucumber–a tendency to bitterness, especially in hot, dry weather. I’ll be planting some of these next summer, to take the place of the Diva (a slicer that does not need more than one plant to set fruit) cucumbers that I have been planting for the last few years.

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Cucumbers are a member of the gourd family (Cucurbitaceae)which also includes squash, gourds, and melons. Cucumbers come in three main types: commonly called field or “slicers”, pickling, and “hothouse” or English cucumbers.

  • The American slicing (also garden, salad,  or field cucumbers) have a thicker skin and are usually waxed (for the supermarket) to prevent dehydration.  Since the skin is thicker, I prefer these peeled and because of the larger seeds which may be bitter and tough, and likely will need to be scraped out. These are a “wetter” cucumber and need to be salted to draw out excess moisture before use in salads. (Sorry, no pictures since I don’t have any of those around the house!) In the supermarket, these are the loose ones, with the waxed skin.
  • The pickling cucumber is noticeably different from the slicing or salad cucumber–there are gradations of color, and the skin is bumpy. These are usually shorter and chunkier than slicing or salad cucumbers, but they are perfectly good to use in place of slicing cucumbers.  (These will include gherkin and cornichon types which are smaller than other varieties of pickling cucumbers.)  When these are found in the supermarket, they usually seem to be dehydrated, since they are not waxed.
  • The English, Japanese, or “hothouse” cucumbers, which are longer and skinnier, and have small seed cavity and small seeds that don’t need to be scraped out. These are sometimes called “burpless” since they do not contain some of the compounds in the skin which can cause digestive distress to some people. These are found wrapped in plastic instead of waxed; the skin is thin so they don’t need to be peeled.

Favorite things to do with summer cucumbers include cucumber sandwiches, tomato and cucumber salad (with onion and herbs) as a side dish, or add cheese (maybe feta or ricotta salata) for a light meal (especially with fresh bread to soak up the juice), and I like to add them to other summer salads like white bean salad or pasta salad.  Slices are great as a crudity with hummus or other dip (baba ganoush). Then there’s that dish of cucumbers and onions, thinly sliced with a bit of sugar and vinegar and marinated.  Or combine them with yoghurt or sour cream, or even make a cold cucumber soup that’s easy and refreshing.

Recipes for cucumber salads or soups can be found on the web or in most cookbooks, but I’d especially recommend one of the vegetable cookbooks listed in the bibliography–Marian Morash’s The Victory Garden Cookbook, pages 92-101 for cucumber basics and some more novel uses such as sautéed  cucumber, and even baked stuffed cucumbers.

pickling and Amira cucumbers side by side

Amira and pickling cucumbers

Vegetable cookbooks….

At the Wake Forest Farmers’ Market today, purple-hull peas made an appearance. There were lots of questions about them.  What are they? They certainly don’t look like what most folks are used to as “peas”.  How do you cook them?  Do you eat the pods? What do they taste like?

One of the joys…or perhaps frustrations, for some…of a trip to the farmers’ market is that you find “new” vegetables–uncommon ones, or simply regional ones–like purple-hull peas which are not necessarily included in a vegetarian cookbook.  So you need general, basic information–not fancy recipes; just the basics for starters.  Where to go?

There are lots of vegetarian cookbooks out there–some very sophisticated with wonderful recipes that make vegetables into worthy main courses or entrées; however, that’s not what you need to begin cooking a vegetable that is completely new to you.  For that what you want is the nitty-gritty information of how to prepare it–do you shell it, peel it–or how best to cook it.  The more sophisticated vegetarian books may just call for the ingredient and not give you the those basics or even just some simple recipes.

One of my favorite vegetable (note that I didn’t say vegetarian) cookbooks (and gardening information too) is The Cover of The Victory Garden CookbookVictory Garden Cookbook by Marian Morash.  It’s organized by veggies in alphabetical order so you can go directly to beets, kohlrabi, cauliflower or whatever, and find information on growing, preparing, buying the vegetable.  There’s a highlighted section of special information that includes yields (how much usable vegetable do you have after preparation/trimming or peeling), how to store and preserve, microwave instructions, and even suggestions for things to do with what is left from your first use (especially useful if you’re doing single-serving cooking).  Now that’s a vegetable cookbook!  The recipes given go from the most basic to more advanced. Terms (e.g. string and snap beans) are explained.  It’s a great place to start with a new vegetable.

The one I have in my library was published in 1982– I guess it’s time for me to go to the Regulator Bookshop and browse through the cookbooks again to see if there’s a new edition and if it has significant additions.  As for pink-eyed purple-hull peas…well, unfortunately, the closest this book came was black-eyed peas. True, they’re a Southern thing…and that’s another post coming up.

Another cookbook for single-serving cooking

Cover of Serve YourselfI’m always browsing cookbooks–especially those that appear to deal with single-serving cooking.  A friend recently mentioned Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One to me. True to form, I immediately went in search of it–and was pleased to find it available in Kindle format.

I really identified with a statement made in this book: “…we solo artists deserve just as varied a diet as anyone.  While I love having some leftovers around that can morph into new dishes, I also appreciate the beauty of starting and finishing a single cooking project on a given night.” (Kindle location 173)

One of the things that I find delightful is that there are suggestions and recipes that are incredibly helpful in allowing morphing leftovers.  These include condiments (to use not only on leftovers) but suggestions on using those extra ingredients that seem to be the bane of single-serving cooking–such as what’s left of that bottle of wine that you opened to go with dinner yesterday evening.  Personally I think that this is a book worth having in your library if you cook for one, but I suggest that, at least, you check the local library and peruse this one.

I’d also recommend his website for fun reading of his “Cooking for One” column for more thoughts on cooking for one, and more recipes.  Even cooking for one it can still be a son goût!  

Eat Your Books to find recipes!

I have  found a resource that I have to rave about: a website called Eat Your Books. For those of us who have LOTS of cookbooks it’s a real treasure.  How many times have you stood, staring at the bookshelves, wondering where  you saw that recipe for beef tongue?  (Okay, maybe not many for tongue, but how about that overflow of tomatoes in the summer and the zucchini and eggplant?)  Well, there’s caponata, ratatouille….but where are the recipes. This site does not provide recipes–it provides the means for you to find them in your own books!

Eat Your Books is a site that has indexes of cookbooks (over 1,200 now and growing).  You put those virtual books on your virtual bookshelf on the website, and you can then search the indexes for recipes.  A friend discovered this and told me about it.  It’s not free, but is definitely worth the price.  I signed up for a trial membership and spent the time adding some of the titles that I own, and took it for a test drive.  I tried some common things (eggplant, tomatoes, and zucchini), and some rather esoteric things (beef tongue, beef heart). Worked like a charm.  (Of course, I did have several cookbooks that had  beef tongue recipes.)  The tomatoes, zucchini, and eggplant were there too.  The search is not quite Google so it made a difference if I searched for tomato-zucchini, or tomatoes and zucchini, but once you get the hang of it, it’s like having the world at your fingertips.

Another great thing that the site does is list the major ingredients with each recipe so that you can evaluate the potential from the list of recipes.  So, though I had tomatoes and zucchini, I did not have peppers, so I could rule out some recipes right at the search point.

Needless to say my test drive was a short one.  I was preparing food for the time when I was having a house guest, so I really gave the “trial” a good workout, and decided this was a must-have for me.  Because it was still in “beta” testing, there  was a special rate for a lifetime membership and I opted for lifetime rather than annual. The beta testing is over now and the “real” version is up and working but I think there may still be a special lifetime membership offer.   I have only entered about 40 of my titles so far, but it’s well worth the effort to do this.  I cannot imagine being without this website now. There is a blog and community pages as well.

At the present time, there are rarer books that are not included, but the numbers are growing all the time, and new features are being added.  You can also suggest books to be indexed.