January 22, 2013
In winter, a home cook is only as good as her latest soup stock. This year it has become a bit of an obsession for me. I keep finding myself washing mason jars I have recently emptied of stock just in time to fill them with more of this golden liquid.
As with most cooking, however, I’ve been more or less winging it. So I decided to ask a few real life experts about what it takes to step up my soup stock game. Here’s what I learned:
1. Plan for balance
“I see a lot of people add vegetables to a pot willy-nilly and then end up with a really oniony tasting liquid, which isn’t horrible, but doesn’t necessarily make a great soup,” says Tamar Adler, author of An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace. The goal, says Adler, is to be creating a great soup from the beginning. This means adding a balance of celery, carrots, and onions, as well as a good-sized collection of bones.
2. Collect a critical mass of ingredients
Writer and chef Samin Nosrat makes stock in large batches. “All month long I save onion ends, the last bit of celery, carrots, or the end of a bunch of parsley or thyme in my freezer.” She sees this habit as, “compiling something of a stock kit, so when it’s time I can just pull everything out of the freezer, stick it in a pot, cover it with water, and bring it to a boil.”
3. Don’t treat your stock fixings like a compost pile
Not everything adds to the flavor of a stock. It’s a good idea to stay away from all brassicas (i.e. broccoli, cauliflower, etc.) because they tend to add a gassy flavor. And while parsley stems add a pleasant savory flavor, woody rosemary and thyme stems often impart a bitterness, if any flavor at all. And while stock ingredients need not be beautiful, you’ll want to make sure they haven’t started to rot, either. “If you wouldn’t eat it, why put it in stock?” says Preeti Mistry, former Top Chef contestant and chef at Oakland, Calif.’s soon-to-open Juhu Beach Club.
4. Try a two-for-one approach
Most stock starts with leftover bones and trimmings, making it a great way to prevent food waste and an economical choice for home cooks. But some techniques create delicious stock and delicious meat entrees all at once. In fact, Adler’s favorite kinds of stock come about this way. In a conversation with chef Josh Lewin on the Slow Food USA website, Adler described the benefits of this approach. “If you boil or braise meat, you end up with broth or with braising liquid – whatever combination of vegetables and wine and water or stock the meat cooked in. That means that you have the meat itself for a meal or several, and then the beginnings of a soup, or several. It doubles the number of meals you get for your money and the time you’ve spent cooking.”
5. Roasting brings out flavor
It’s common to roast beef bones before making stock, but Mistry also likes to roast chicken bones on their own until there are a “a nice, dark caramel color” before using them in a stock. She also likes to add roasted bones to store-bought stock as a way to double up on flavor, especially if she or one of her loved ones are fighting a cold. “When I’m sick I want to make a stock that’s really intense,” she says.
6. A little raw meat is good too
Nosrat also stashes raw bones and chicken parts, like heads and feet in her freezer to add to the pot alongside roasted chicken carcasses. “Raw parts (and those parts in particular) are so rich in gelatin, adding a lot of body,” she says.
7. And now for the extra magic
One popular, unexpected stock addition is the green, leafy tops of fennel bulbs (collect them in the freezer along with the other vegetable bits). Parsnips can also provide an interesting twist. Bay leaves and peppercorns are another common additions. Nosrat says she also occasionally adds a tiny splash of vinegar. “I learned from the nonnas [Italian grandmothers] that it helps to extract calcium and other nutrients from the bones,” she says.
8. Cook it. Cook it real good.
The best way to build flavor in stock is to cook it at the lowest simmer possible for several hours. But can you simmer it for too long? That depends on whom you ask.
“I usually start stock after I cook dinner … and leave it on the stove overnight (at least six hours),” says Nosrat. And she’s not alone in this approach. Many chefs leave stock simmering in the background while doing other things.
But Adler has another, more precise approach. “When you taste the vegetables and they don’t taste like anything anymore, they’ve done all they can for the stock,” she says. The danger, Adler believes, is that “the flavors start to get over-cooked and muddy.” Instead, at that point, Adler thinks it’s a good idea to strain your stock. If you want it to be more distilled, you can just let the strained stock cook longer on its own.
January 14, 2013
Filmmaker Byron Hurt’s father died at age 63 from pancreatic cancer. To the end, Hurt says, his father loved soul food, as well as fast food, and could not part with the meals he had known since childhood. Hurt began to look at the statistics. The rate of obesity for African Americans is 51 percent higher than it is for whites. He saw a long list of associated risks, including cancers, heart disease and diabetes. Black females and males are more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Looking around at his own community, Hurt had to ask, “Are we a nation of soul food junkies?” The search for an answer led him to his newest documentary, “Soul Food Junkies,” premiering tonight on PBS.
The film includes interviews with historians, activists and authors to create an informative and deeply personal journey through soul food’s history. Hurt unpacks the history of soul food, from its roots predating slavery to the Jim Crow South to the modern day reality of food deserts and struggles for food justice. One woman interviewed, who served Freedom Riders and civil rights activists in her restaurant’s early days, tells Hurt that being able to care for these men and women who found little love elsewhere gave her power.
Now a healthy eater, Hurt says he hopes the documentary can speak to others who find their families facing similar discussions around health, while also telling the story of soul food.
A lot of people give their definitions in the documentary, but how do you define soul food?
When I think about soul food, I think about my mother’s collard greens, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and sweet potato pies. I think about her delicious cakes, her black-eyed peas, her lima beans and her kale. That’s how I define real good soul food.
Was that what was typically on the table growing up?
It was a pretty typical meal growing up. Soul food was a really big part of my family’s cultural culinary traditions but it’s also a big part of my “family.” If you go to any black family reunion or if you go to a church picnic or you go to an [historically black college and university] tailgate party, you’ll see soul food present nine times out of ten.
Why do you think it’s persisted and is so popular?
Well, it’s a tradition and traditions really die hard. Soul food is a culinary tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation. People are very emotionally connected to it. When you talk about changing soul food, people become unsettled, territorial, resistant. It’s hard. A lot of people, to be quite honest with you, were very afraid of how I was going to handle this topic because people were afraid that I was going to slam soul food or say that we had to give up soul food and that soul food was all bad.
My intent was really to explore this cultural tradition more deeply and to try and figure out for myself why my father could not let it go, even when he was sick, even when he was dying. It was very difficult for him, so I wanted to explore that and expand it out to the larger culture and say what’s going on here? Why is it that this food that we love so much is so hard to give up?
Where does some of the resistance to change come from?
I think the sentiment that a lot of people have is that this is the food that my grandmother ate, that my great-grandfather ate, and my great-great-grandfather ate, and if it was good enough for them, then it is good enough for me, and why should I change something that has been in my family for generations?
How were you able to make the change?
Through education and awareness. There was this woman I was interested in dating years ago, when I first graduated from college. So I invited her over to my apartment and I wanted to impress her so I decided to cook her some fried chicken. I learned how to cook fried chicken from my mother.
She came over and I had the chicken seasoned up and ready to put into this huge vat of grease that had been cooking and boiling for awhile. She walked into the kitchen and said, “Are you going to put that chicken inside that grease?”
That was the first time that anyone had sort of challenged that. To me it was normal to cook fried chicken. Her mother was a nutritionist and so she grew up in a household where she was very educated about health and nutrition. So she said, this is not healthy. I had never been challenged before, she was someone I was interested in, so from that day forward I started to really reconsider how I was preparing my chicken.
When she challenged you, did you take it personally at first?
I think I was a little embarrassed. It was like she knew something that I didn’t know, and she was sort of rejecting something that was really important to me, so I felt a little embarrassed, a little bit ashamed. But I wasn’t offended by it. It was almost like, “Wow, this person knows something that I don’t, so let me listen to what she has to say about it,” and that’s pretty much how I took it.
How would you describe your relationship with soul food today?
I do eat foods that are a part of the soul food tradition but I just eat them very differently than how I ate them growing up. I drink kale smoothies in the morning. If I go to a soul food restaurant, I’ll have a vegetarian plate. I’ll typically stay away from the meats and the poultry.
The film looks beyond soul food to the issue of food deserts and presents a lot of people in those communities organizing gardens and farmers markets and other programs. Were you left feeling hopeful or frustrated?
I’m very hopeful. There are people around the country doing great things around food justice and educating people who don’t have access to healthy, nutritious foods and fruits and vegetables on how they can eat better and have access to foods right in their neighborhoods…I think that we’re in the midst of a movement right now.
How are people reacting to the film?
I think the film is really resonating with people, especially among African American people because this is the first film that I know of that speaks directly to an African American audience in ways that Food, Inc., Supersize Me, King Corn, The Future of Food, Forks over Knives and other films don’t necessarily speak to people of color. So this is really making people talk.
December 18, 2012
This year, I made an extra effort to knock out my Christmas shopping as soon as I could. I enjoy gift exchanges—at least to the extent that it’s a way to show I appreciate the people nearest and dearest to me and that I’m keeping them in my thoughts. Frankly, I’d much rather spend the month of December baking (and sharing the resultant wealth of goodies) and being social. But some years, I’m completely strapped for ideas and find myself—days before Christmas—manically browsing shopping websites or, as a last-ditch effort when sanity has completely escaped me, venture out to the shopping malls in hopes that I’ll find the perfect gift. For those of you finding yourselves in said situation, here are a few last minute gift ideas for the foodie who made it onto your “nice” list this year.
Books: The Village Voice‘s Fork in the Road blog recently pointed out 18 books released in 2012. On that list, I’ll personally vouch for two titles. In Vintage Cakes, author Julie Richardson takes a trove of classic recipes—some dating back to the 1920s—and updates them for the modern American palate. Keeping in mind that the tools and techniques of previous generations are not the same as our own, the amount of sleuthing it took to reconstruct these cakes is amazing. Paired with tips and techniques, historical backgrounds on each of the cakes and fabulous photography, it’s a book that works well in your kitchen and on the coffee table. I need to try her version of Texas Sheet Cake to see how well it stacks up against my grandmother’s.
I’d also heartily recommend giving a gift subscription to Lucky Peach, a cross between a literary journal and food magazine that, wrapped together, makes for a magnificent piece of candy for the eye and the mind. Launched in July 2011, each themed issue pairs photography lush illustrations with fabulous writing in delectable ways. (Contributors have included the likes of Ruth Reichl and Anthony Bourdain.) If you subscribe now, the person you’re giving this to won’t receive their first issue in the mail until February 2013; however, you can also buy the current issue on newsstands so you can have something under the tree.
There are also the old standbys that always make for good gifts. I’m a big fan of The Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook, which is a great cookbook for someone to learn on and contains recipes that are easy to pull together. One year for Christmas I received a copy of The New Basics, and this book has since become my go-to resource for those occasions when I’m having company over and need to lay my table with something a little more impressive than my everyday cooking.
Music: I’m a big fan of the husband and wife duo that writes Turntable Kitchen, a blog that, in addition to expanding your culinary horizons, cultivates your sonic palate. Kasey writes about food, Matthew tackles music—using the language of food and flavor to describe sounds—and together they find tunes and nibbles that complement each other. What’s more is that these internet-based explorations of new flavors and sounds can be taken into our humble, analog realm by way of the Pairings Box. Each month, you get a bundle of music, recipes, suggested pairings and a few ingredients to play with. Unfortunately, the Pairings Box ships out mid-month, so unless you’re OK giving someone a nice card letting them know what goodies will soon be arriving—or do holiday visiting in January— you’ll need a more immediate option. In this situation, try The Recipe Project, which takes recipes from today’s most famous chefs and turns them into songs. (E.g., Mario Batali’s recipe for spaghetti with sweet tomatoes.) This book/CD package can be found at your local bookseller.
Toys: If you know someone culinary aspirations, encourage them to build up the relationship they have with their kitchen. If they are just starting out, giving the gift of standard pieces of equipment are always great. I was thrilled to get a good set of pots and pans when I was in college. Another year I received a slow cooker and a food processor, and for the single working professional, those pieces of equipment made my life in the kitchen so much easier. In the event that you have the budget to splurge on knives, your budding chef will be eternally grateful. There’s nothing worse than bad cutlery. When I finally came into a set of really good knives, it made a world of difference in how I work in the kitchen.
For the established chef, you can add to their collection of kitchen gadgetry. Personally, I’m not a fan of uni-tasker appliances, but if you know someone who enjoys specific foods, find the toys to let them indulge their interests. I highly recommend browsing America’s Test Kitchen Feed’s gadget reviews for handy tools—and whether or not the latest kitchen toys are really the greatest. While not the most aesthetically pleasing, their review of this heavy-duty steel nutcracker has me contemplating a splurge purchase. When you consider how much less expensive nuts are when bought in the shell, it’s a great gift—especially if you give it with a bag of oh, say, chestnuts to roast over an open fire. For sheer whimsy, check out the Foodigity blog’s online shop where you can find dinosaur-shaped tea infusers, unicorn corn holders and ice cream sandwich body pillows. You need to place orders by Friday, December 21 to ensure delivery by the 24th.
Food: Giving the gift of food itself is always a good idea. I’ve yet to hear complaints from anyone who is well-fed. There are a few ways to work within this idea, perhaps the most obvious tack to take being a food basket, be it one you cobbled together yourself or one you purchased prefab. Or if there are seasonal goodies you like to make, attractively package them and give them as gifts. This year a friend gave me some of her homemade fudge, which she wrapped in cellophane and topped with a felt Christmas ornament she also made herself. The presentation—and the food—were equally delightful.
Another tack to take on this theme is to look to your local food bank. These charitable organizations do what they can to ease hunger in the community, and they rely on monetary and edible donations to continue their mission. Some food banks will also let you donate on behalf of another person—so for someone who would rather see money go to charity than to buying them a gift, this is a great way to go. Contact your local food bank to ask if you can give in this way.
December 4, 2012
I love decorating my apartment for the holidays. The day after Thanksgiving, the tree goes up and it—along with windows and tables and other flat surfaces I can do without for the next four to six weeks—are festooned with whatever seasonal odds and ends I’ve amassed over the years. Not sure what it is, but when I walk into my home at night and am greeted by scads of novelty lighting, I suddenly feel at peace with the world. In recent years, I’ve indulged my love for shabby chic (or maybe just campy) decor by making beer can reindeer, which I’m currently using to decorate the living room shelf used to house bottles of my preferred adult beverages. (It’s a theme. I’ll work it for all it’s worth.) But as I began to look at the decorations in my apartment, and ponder how the halls were decked in past Christmases, it occurred to me that there are lots of ways to use goods in the pantry to make your digs a little merrier. Here are a few ideas for the foodie who has yet to trim their home:
Popcorn and/or Cranberries: When I think of garland, my mind immediately gravitates to the metallic boas used to wrap around bannisters and trees—maybe even a younger sibling. But you can also make your own—and from products that will actually biodegrade. One option is to make a garland out of popcorn: buy yourself a bag of popcorn (not the kind you microwave), prepare and, using a needle threaded with waxed dental floss, string on as many fluffy white kernels as your heart desires. When you’re through with the garland, set it outside for the birds. You can also use fresh cranberries. The fruit should dry nicely on the tree and keep for a few weeks; however, be careful about placing fruited garlands on surfaces that might stain. Alternate cranberries and popcorn, or, as Better Homes and Gardens suggests, add slices of lime for a festive splash of green. Some people spray their garlands with shellac so they can be used a little longer; however, if you do, please do not leave these outside for the animals to eat.
Gingerbread: How could you complain about edible ornaments for your tree? Martha Stewart has recipes for gingerbread that will be strong enough to be used as decoration, but not so tough that you can’t enjoy the fruits of your labors. Roll out a tray of gingerbread people, remembering to make a hole so you can string through a length of ribbon. Bake, decorate and hang. The cookies need to set up overnight, but I also wouldn’t let them stay on the tree but for so long. Stored in airtight containers, they keep for a week—so when out in the open, you have a much more limited time frame to eat them. This might be something you want to do a day or two before Christmas. What could be nicer than waking up on the 25th, gathering around the tree and having cookies to dunk in your coffee? You can also make a gingerbread house, which some people eat at the end of the season, but others spray it with a coat of shellac and use it for several years.
Dough: Another classic option is to whip up a batch of ornament dough. Nothing but flour, salt and water, I suppose this is technically edible while raw (not that I’d recommend that), but because you can make it with items you can find in your kitchen, I’m including it on this list. Roll out the dough and make festive cutouts, bake off and decorate with paints, glitter and any other craft trimmings you like. If you’re a Michelangelo in training, sculpt figures—but remember that the back side is going to be resting on a baking sheet and will be completely flat. You can back those ornaments with colored felt to pretty up the undecorated side after they’re baked and cooled. And before baking, don’t forget to make a hole where you want your ornament hanger to go.
Cinnamon: If you have an abundance of cinnamon sticks in your pantry and you’ve no idea how to use them, I strongly suggest making yourself cinnamon stick Santas. Aside from the cinnamon, you just need some acrylic paint to render the facial features and a product called Sno-Tex (also sold under the name snow paint) to create a textured white beard. Attach a ribbon and hang on your tree.
Peppermint: I love wreaths. Between the splash of color and, if you’re using live botanicals, an invitingly aromatic way to greet your holiday visitors at the door. You can also greet your guests at the door with food by crafting a wreath using star mints. For this, you need a coat hanger or metal hoop, bags of mints or other hard candy with the cellophane tails, and embroidery thread. If using a coat hanger, shape the hanger into a circle and begin tying candies onto your wreath form until you have a full wreath. Top with a bow, and you’re good to go. If you’re using candies with cellophane tails on both ends, your guests will have a tail to tug on to get at a holiday treat. If you’re using hard candies with a tail on just one end, consider attaching a small pair of scissors to your wreath with a strand of ribbon or yarn so your guests can easily snip off their candy.
As our regular readers may know, we like our “five ways” posts so I’m cutting it off here. But I’m sure there are lots more ways to work food into holiday home decor. Let us know in the comments section below how you get crafty with food to make the season a little brighter in your home.
Read more articles about the holidays with our Smithsonian Holiday Guide here
November 16, 2012
The first thing I did when I got into the office this morning was a Google search for DIY Sno-Balls because I woke up to the sound of NPR confirming my worst fears: Hostess, the bakery responsible for Twinkies, is declaring bankruptcy and liquidating its assets in light of a labor strike that began on November 9. I’ll leave the discussion about how the bakery ran afoul of its workforce to other information outlets and instead focus on the actual baked goods. In the pantheon of novelty foods, Hostess was the prima domestic diva bar none. Not only were her wares fun to look at—a Sno-Ball’s shaggy mound of pink coconut-topped creme-filled chocolate cake, the curlicues of icing atop their branded CupCakes—but also fun to say. Oh that there were some sort of diagnostic to measure the volume of tittering that Ding Dongs and Ho-Hos elicited in schoolchildren over the decades. And while I used to joke that Twinkies could survive a nuclear holocaust on account of the preservatives, they and their brethren now seem to be on the critically endangered list of supermarket snack cakes. (There is the possibility that Hostess’ nostalgia factor will attract the attention of another company will buy out and continue certain product lines, but as of this writing, that remains to be seen.) So what does one do should these cakes go extinct?
The cream-filled sponge cakes debuted in 1930 with banana-flavored cream filling—later changed to vanilla when World War II made sourcing bananas a tough task—became a cultural touchstone in the 50s after becoming a sponsor for Howdy Doody, the wildly-popular children’s television program. Ever since, Twinkies have been the everyman’s eclair, and of all the Hostess cakes, they may very well be the most versatile. A staple at state fairs, you frequently see them battered, and fried. In 2006, an entire cookbook was concocted, inviting fans to expand the horizons of the humble Twinkie—sometimes in strange directions, such as the recipe for Twinkie sushi. The cakes have even inspired mixologists. Michael J. Neff, co-owner of Ward III bar in New York, admitted to experimenting with muddled Twinkies in his cocktails—although he found the combination of cake and booze to be perfectly unpalatable. Most people, however, approximate the flavor by combining a few choice liquors. So on the one hand, there’s an entire cookery subculture that would die off should these products no longer be available to sustain and inspire trash food devotees. On the other hand, this situation may be a win for our national fight against obesity and diabetes.
During a lunchtime trip out to the nearest CVS, I had a George Bailey moment and saw a vision of what the world would be like if Twinkies ceased to exist. The prepackaged cakes rack was stripped down to the wire, with the only Hostess products remaining being a few packages of Zingers and a healthy supply of fruitcake. If there’s a run on Twinkies, like I think there will given this morning’s news, what’s a person to do? It is not impossible to replicate these snack foods at home. Twinkie pans have been available to home cooks for ages and America’s Test Kitchen even came out with their iteration of Hostess CupCakes. For me, the more difficult treat to make at home is the Sno-Ball, because in this case, you have the component of marshmallow frosting that has to be sticky enough to make the colored coconut flakes stick, but no so sticky that you can’t eat it out of your hand without making an epic mess. It’s a delicate line to tread and I’m amazed at whatever chemistry and unpronounceable ingredients converged to produce this scientific marvel of modern baking. I found a recipe or two to work with, so we’ll see how this goes. So it is possible to more or less get your fix. But what you give up is the convenience of cakes that will stay fresh ad infinitum and packaged so that you can only have one or two at a time. If you make batch, you need to liquidate your stock in a matter of days. And that’s a lot of sugar—and fat—to have to consume in a short span of time. On the upswing, you may be able to produce a higher-quality product at home because you have control over the ingredients. And to be honest, part of Hostess’ downfall has been a cultural shift away from the processed foods that are the company’s bread and butter. (Well, Wonder Bread was the company’s bread and another culinary icon that may be biting the dust.)
Faced with the prospect of cowboy mascot Twinkie the Kid riding off into the sunset, is it worth the elbow grease to produce your own novelty cakes at home? And is the media buzz about the loss of the Hostess dessert products simply a case of overblown nostalgia or are we losing something more than a line of junk foods? Talk to us in the comments sections below.