Q. My spaghetti sauce (containing either ground meat or meatballs) tastes just great. But is doesn't look nearly as good as it tastes because, when ladled atop the spaghetti, water leeches out onto the plate. My husband claims I don't draim the pasta sufficiently, but I'm convinced that is not the problem. I have tried adding parmesan to the sauce, but that doesn't fix it. Please help.
A. The problem you're having with the sauce is called syneresis. The food industry encounters it with such products as tomato catsup and applesauce. It has to do with the water-binding capacity of solids -- in this case tomato solids, which are small pieces of tissue composed mainly of cell walls and cell membranes.
Tomato solids are mainly fiber -- cellulose, hemicellulose and pectin. These compounds have the ability to bind water provided they are treated right. There are three conditions under which syneresis may occur in a tomato sauce: 1) if you use tomato paste that has been cooked excessively during the canning process, 2) if you use fresh tomatoes that are overripe and have lost their pectins to an enzymatic breakdown, and 3) if you don't evaporate away sufficient water while the sauce cooks.
If you make your tomato sauce mainly from tomato paste, I would recommend switching to tomato puree or at least substituting some tomato pure'e for paste. It hasn't been concentrated nearly as much and rarely undergoes syneresis.
The most likely cause of syneresis is the third possibilty -- excessive water in the sauce. A well-made tomato sauce has been simmered until thick.
Q. We have a long, braided strand of garlic heads purchased from a specialty food store. Do you have any hints on how to keep the garlic from drying or spoiling?
A. Garlic heads are bulbs, just like tulip and amaryllis bulbs. Mother Nature devised these earthbound "seeds" to weather the winter under the surface of the ground, which remains quite moist during their half-year of imposed storage.
The greatest enemy to bulbs stored above ground is evaporation. Since the bulbs' tissues are living and respiring, a certain amount of moisture is lost -- especially when the bulbs are stored at room temperature or above. Moisture loss can be minimized by imitating underground wintry conditions.
To store your garlic strand for the longest time, then, keep it in a cool place away from the sun and away from drafts of dry air. A root cellar is, of course, ideal. In default of such a handy room, the refrigerator can serve as an acceptable substitute. Neither holding method allows you to display and enjoy the beauty of braided garlic.
So, should you opt for beauty, enjoy it knowing that at least a third of the garlic will have desicated before you've had a chance to use it.
Q. I just tried to make some spritz cookies which oozed out from the cookie press and wouldn't come loose from the end of the press. The recipe was advertised in a magazine: it had the same ingredients as the recipe I usually use but required whole eggs rather than just yolks. Also, the recipe called for all-purpose flour. Is that the right flour to use for these cookies?
A. The spritz cookie formula is basically a 1-2-3 cookie dough (1 part sugar, 2 parts butter, 3 parts flour by weight) that also contains egg yolk or whole egg. Egg yolk, which is mostly fat and protein, is preferable. Its low water content produces a pressable cookie dough without causing gluey batter and a tough cookie.
The egg whites of whole egg, on the other hand, are 80 percent water. When mixed, the whole-egg dough's higher water content results in formation of gluten which in turn causes gluiness -- especially if you overmix the batter.
Q. I know that collard greens and kale are excellent sources of vitamins, perhaps more so than other vegetables. The traditionally southern method of cooking them with pork or bacon for hours also destroys their nutritional value. For that reason, I choose to steam them. The smell they emit is horrible! Can you suggest a remedy?
A. These vegetables are high in sulfur-containing compounds, which are quite smelly. Also part of the traditionally southern method of cooking collard greens and kale was the iron pot in which they simmered for hours out in the yard. The fumes were carried away by summer winds. If you want to avoid the smell, cook them outdoors -- maybe in an old pot on the barbecue. Your neighbors will then appreciate the variety of your diet.