Here we are, on the verge of another new year: time to stock up on the bubbly and make some resolutions. Oh, and maybe whip up a pot of hoppin’ John to bring a year of good luck. Today’s Food section examines the history of that Southern favorite whose roots stretch all the way to Africa. We also present ideas for an intimate New Year’s Eve dinner for friends. And editor Joe Yonan cleans out his pantry as he prepares to embark on a year-long sabbatical up north. Beginnings, endings — we’ve got it all.
Including, of course, 2011’s final Free Range chat. The weekly tete-a-tete with the Food staff starts at noon sharp. Our chatters — a smart and lively bunch! — always have great questions. But sometimes they also help out with great information. Which is why, just like last year, this last Chat Leftovers of the year presents some cool tips from past chats that we didn’t have time to post during our meager allotted hour.
Chatters, take it away!
To clean cooked-on egg from a nonstick skillet, try dampening the bottom of the pan with a bit of water and covering it with a thick layer of baking soda. Let it sit several hours. The offending item usually lifts right off. This works for nonstick pans, too.
For the chatter who complained that their homemade spaghetti sauce was too orange: You can add tomato paste to enrich the color and flavor of your homemade sauce. Some cooks add just a tablespoon or two, but I like to add as much as a small six-ounce can (plus I don’t have to worry about saving it / forgetting it in the fridge).
I have a stainless-steel mesh tea ball that I use for putting things like an herb sachet into foods when I want to be able to take them out later. I have two sizes, a teacup-size one and a teapot-size one. Put the herbs in, dunk the ball into the stock/water/liquid; when done, fish the tea ball out, dump contents in the trash and wash. Easy-peasy. I got the large one at my local Asian supermarket; you can probably get them at any large Asian store where they have pots, pans and cooking utensils.
Cook, then freeze butternut squash. It is a wonderful substitute for pureed pumpkin; also for pureed sweet potatoes in rolls.
If you have an oily pizza stone, don’t wash it with soapy water! The soap will get into the porous surface, and all your breads and pizzas will taste soapy in the future. The best way to clean it is to get an abrasive sponge of some sort. Wet the stone completely. Sprinkle a decent coating of baking soda over the stone and get to work. Rinse and repeat. If it’s really bad, you can let the baking soda sit for a while and come back to it later. Make sure you rinse the stone really well and let it dry completely before using it again. (It might crack if you use it when it’s still damp.) I’ve tried to smoke the oil out of mine before, but the stench is sickening, and this is the only good way I’ve found to clean a stinky stone.
What to do with spent coffee grounds: Turn them into a granita. This idea comes from Food Network Magazine: Steep 1 / 2 cup spent grounds in 2 cups boiling water, covered, for 8 minutes. Strain through a coffee filter. Whisk in 1 / 4 cup sugar and a pinch of salt. Pour into a metal baking dish and freeze. Scrape with a fork.
I took an Indian cooking class in India last year, and it really got me comfortable with the techniques. Some of the most important things to remember (as my cooking teacher said) were: 1) hot pan, hot oil; 2) spices go in first to release their flavors -- especially important with mustard seeds (they should start popping as soon as they hit the pan); 3) have everything prepped in advance, because it goes fast (high-heat cooking), and keep stirring; 4) cook with the window open: The smells are wonderful, but a snootful of chili can cause a bit of coughing!
To avoid cream and get a more heart-healthy angle, I suggest adding nut butters to soups, rice porridges, smoothies (banana, peanut butter, plain yogurt and kale is lovely), etc. They are good as thickeners and have healthful fat.
For the chatter who liked the idea of the Tuna and Potato Galette recipe but wanted a substitute for tuna: Think of the rest of the flavors in the galette (herbs, cheese, potato) and what you like with them. Then add. You can take a small amount of beef (say, one frozen hamburger patty) and thaw, brown with half a package of onion soup mix, and it would probably go well. Or your favorite sausage: Use two or three links (the equivalent of a can of tuna), take out of the skin, and brown. I think a chicken-and-sage sausage or a chicken-and-apple sausage would work. Or just andouille. Last, for plain and simple, you can get canned chicken, but you might want to flavor it a bit.
My little daughter learned at school that violets are edible. Into my lunchbox yesterday she tucked a salted cucumber and violet salad: actually pretty good!
Spare ribs vs. baby back ribs: For the novice smoker, baby backs are the way to go. They are harder to mess up, and they are what most people are used to, unless you have a good barbecue pedigree. When I throw parties for multiple people, I always smoke baby backs. When it’s just for me and my family, I do spare ribs! Tips: Remove membrane; smoke low and slow, but not too much smoke or you’ll overwhelm the naturally sweet taste of the pork; wrap in foil for the last hour of smoking for the “fall off the bone” quality.
I have had to find uses for a lot of radishes in my CSA basket. First, I roasted them with olive oil at 450 degrees. That worked fine. I have also been tossing them in my smoothies (also doing that with rhubarb). With banana, yogurt, flax seed and strawberries, it is good. Either you cannot taste the radish, or it lends just a tad of spiciness, depending on the size of the banana and the sweetness of the berries.
Chicken nuggets: I do this for my niece and nephew. It’s cheating a bit but captures the juicy ground-up meat in nuggets. Throw chicken breasts into a food processor (or just get ground chicken). Mix in grated onion, an egg, bread crumbs, any flavoring you like (processed mushrooms are good and add moisture). Form into bite-sized patties, roll in bread crumbs, and pan-fry until cooked through. Cut-up chicken breasts taste and feel like cut-up chicken breasts, not nuggets!
Smoked bluefish makes a great “tuna” salad.
In summer, I cook dried pasta by putting it in cold water that I then bring to a boil. By the time the water boils, the pasta is done, which saves not only energy but also up to 10 minutes of time in front of a hot stove during these too-hot days. I’ve tried this with spaghetti and farfalle so far. Maybe not all pasta will be cooked a second after the water starts to boil; some shapes and thicknesses may need to boil a minute or two -- but that’s instead of 10 to 12. I guess there must be some reason pasta isn’t usually cooked this way, but the cold-water method works for me.
I buy celery for stock and then freeze what I don’t use. Since the texture of the celery for stock isn’t an issue, I simply pop the frozen stalks into the stock pot, and they work out great. Stock is supposed to start cold to maximize the extraction of gelatin, so having them come straight from frozen seems to do no harm.
I make a roasted red pepper and tomato soup that is good hot or cold. Take a baking sheet, cover with sliced, cored red peppers, garlic, onions and tomatoes (I usually squeeze out the seeds and extra juice), sprinkle with a little olive oil and roast. Then pour all of the above plus a little fresh basil and/or oregano into your blender, and puree. You can serve right from the blender or heat. And play with the flavorings; many good options.
After years of using the shelf liner/carpet slip-proofer stuff to keep cutting boards, etc., from slipping, I cut some small pieces to put on plates under serving bowls or bowls of soup.
Once upon a time, I put a pot of frozen lima beans on the stove to cook, left the kitchen and forgot about it until the smoke detector went off. All the water had boiled away, and the pot and the beans inside were black. Fortunately I did not start a fire. Ever since then, I set the timer for 5 minutes or so whenever I turn on a stove burner, even if I never leave the kitchen. And I keep a small fire extinguisher nearby.
Have depression glass serving bowls? Before you put ANYTHING in them, make sure you know how much they’re worth. Some depression glass is worth a lot of money. To find out if it truly is depression glass, shine a black light on it. If it glows, start researching.
Make a hybrid pumpkin/pecan pie! After your pumpkin pie is baked, spread a mixture of 1/4 cup melted butter, 1/2 cup brown sugar and 1/2 cup chopped pecans by spoonfuls over the top, but not quite to the crust. Raise your rack to one below the top and turn your oven on broil. Broil for 2-3 minutes, watching carefully so that your topping doesn’t burn. You end up with a yummy toasted/caramelized pecan topping on your pumpkin pie! When doing this, it is very handy to have foil or a pie crust shield over the rim of your crust to keep it from being burnt.
Check a new digital thermometer for accuracy before using it. Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, so use that as a test.
For a brisket side dish instead of noodles: farfel! My family’s traditional accompaniment to brisket. Saute sliced mushrooms and set aside. Add some more oil to the pan and saute some barley-shaped noodles (look for them in the kosher section at many grocery stores) until about half of it is turning fairly golden brown; the rest should remain pale. Then add water and cook until soft (think risotto without the stirring). Once it’s done, stir the mushrooms back in and put in a casserole dish. Before serving, bake until the top gets crispy. Topped with brisket and gravy, it’s heaven on a plate!
I’ve been getting beautiful kale from the farmers market, but my usual kale dishes are very wintery. Instead, I’ve been chopping up kale and adding it to boiling pasta water for the last minute of cooking. Then I drain, add fresh tomatoes, whatever kind of sauce I’m craving, and go. It’s such a fast and delicious meal in the summer.