Trial and Error
There is a reason why many people say, "Experience is the best teacher." It's true.
In Sunday's blog I wrote about making fish and chips for this web site. One important decision was the choice of fish. I grew up in New England. We had North Atlantic cod, a delicious white fish with a flaky, firm flesh. A little research revealed that the North Atlantic cod population collapsed in the 1990s due to over fishing. There are now restrictions prohibiting its catch. The population has, so far, failed to recover. It used to be the most abundant fish in the Atlantic Ocean.
I now live in Southern California. North Atlantic cod, even if fishing were allowed, would be an expensive item, flown in from the East Coast. The Pacific Ocean supports species of cod as well. And so I drove down to the fish market near the wharf at the other end of the city. The market had in stock black cod. Wikipedia says black cod is a Southern-Pacific fish.
When asked by the sales clerk how I might be helped, I explained I was doing a fish and chips video for a TV show. (That always carries a little weight, as they think they are dealing with a celebrity chef—if they only knew.) I told them I wanted a firm white fish and I suggested the black cod. The clerk agreed that it was an excellent choice, as it is the specie most often used by the local restaurants for making fish and chips. I bought four pounds, more than I needed, to experiment. It was expensive, but I get a decent professional discount.
I was not impressed. The flavor is almost good enough. It lacks the sweetness of North Atlantic cod, but it doesn't have the oiliness that I find offensive in some fish. The real problem is the texture. It is not firm and flaky. It is a soft, wet fish. Worse, it releases juices after cooking. The juice quickly turns the crisp batter coating into a soggy blanket.
A little more research indicated that Alaska pollock, which is a close relative to Atlantic cod, would have been a better choice. It swims the Bering Sea and the population is large. Although the fish doesn't live for long, its reproductive pattern is prolific. The fish is so abundant, it is considered an important specie to support the Pacific fishing industry.
The next time I drive down into the city, I'll look for Alaska pollock. I might even be able to order it at a fish market closer to home. Even better, there is a young man here in the trailer park who works as a driver for a fish distribution company. Perhaps he can recommend a good store, or even do a home delivery.
Finally, having come out of a vacation away from cooking, I am again working on videos, especially to complete the TV shows. I'm almost aching to finish them. The beginning of each season leaves me feeling like I am facing such a daunting task. I have two of the final 15 shows finished, with a third in the computer and needing to be edited.
Someone gave me an idea. "I'd love to see what you would do with Coq au Vin," which is chicken cooked in red wine. I've made it before. Most recipes don't include serving it over a bed of egg noodles, but that's how I usually serve it. So I plan to start with a show on Pasta From Scratch. I already have a video on YouTube, but it isn't long enough to fill a 30-minute show. I'll need to video it again and do a little stretching. The original video is under 15 minutes, so some very inventive stretching will be necessary. I enjoy a good challenge (as long as it's not 15 TV shows to video and edit) and if I can't stretch it enough, I'll finish it with Coq au Vin. But I'm hoping to get two video projects out of it.
A Vacation (sort of) Comes to an End
For the past few weeks I've been taking time off from cooking for this web site and for my TV show. I have enough projects in the vault to fulfill all my uploads through the beginning of July. So, there hasn't been any pressure.
The past few weeks, though, were hardly a vacation. I spent a few days each week pulling up a very aggressive crab grass that invaded my lawn. I filled three plastic trash bags each week. There isn't an easy way to remove the crab grass. Grab it with your hands and pull. Unless it is deeply established (mine wasn't), it usually pulls up by the roots. But my hands were a mess—broken nails and a few bleeding cuts.
I don't have conscientious neighbors. The people across the street have a yard that is nothing but crab grass, which they don't mow until after it goes to seed. When they do cut it down, they use a string trimmer, which scatters the seeds everywhere. All it takes is a little wind and the seeds are in my yard. I've been pulling up crab grass from my front yard for nearly 20 years. The side and back, however, have remained relatively clean. That is, until…
The lady in the home on the other side of mine went into the hospital for several weeks. She's fine now, but her live-in boyfriend did nothing to maintain the yard while she was away. It was a veritable factory of weeds, all producing virulent seeds. My lawn was inundated.
As it stands now, my yard is more bare dirt than grass. I bought an expensive bag of grass seed ($35). It is pure Bermuda grass. Although it is invasive, it puts down a nice carpet of grass that is not easily invaded by weeds, if maintained. And so I've begun the process of re-seeding the yard. Hopefully it will be back to normal in a few months.
As for the vacation coming to an end, yesterday I did two videos. I made fish and chips, using an interesting recipe from America's Test Kitchen. I have mixed feelings about their recipes. On the one hand, the recipes are tested and they usually produce good results. On the other hand. they have huge kitchens with high-end luxury appliances and a seemingly endless supply of equipment.
Almost every paragraph contained the words, "Cover a baking sheet with several layers of paper towels." In all, you need at least three. How many people have three baking sheets in their cupboards? Although it might seem like bragging, I have four. The lousy ones I keep for my own use. The really nice looking ones I save for videos and photography. Actually, every November/December the local warehouse store stocks baking sheets and/or pans for the holiday baking season. I usually buy one and toss my worst looking sheet in the recycling bin.
I also did a short video on making your own salad dressing. The other day I was in the grocery store and I couldn't help noticing a woman standing in front of the shelves of bottled salad dressing. She looked like a deer in the headlights. It's easy to feel overwhelmed with all the possible choices. But, really, few of them are any good. They don't use extra virgin olive oil. One in particular is mostly water, with some sort of emulsifier to thicken the water and make it act like oil. The second ingredient is sugar, followed by salt, and then canola oil.
Homemade salad dressing is easy to make, and you can control all the ingredients. Water? Why? It has no flavor. Use juice—apple, lemon, or pomegranate, etc. Vinegar? Rather than the white distilled vinegar, try apple cider vinegar or tarragon vinegar. And, of course, the best oil is extra virgin olive oil. With a little thought, you can create some delicious salad dressings.
Yesterday's recipes and videos will be published here and on YouTube in coming weeks.
The Importance of Research
I don't just grab a pot and start cooking with the video camera turned on. And I don't just research half a dozen recipes. The problem with being in the public eye is that if I were to ignorantly split an infinitive, a tidal wave of corrections would surge my way. ["To split" is an infinitive and putting an adverb, "ignorantly," in between is splitting an infinitive.]
Case in point: On Sunday I published my recipe PDF and YouTube video of Lamb and Eggplant Shepherd's Pie. Besides the fact that it is as different from traditional shepherd's pie as crêpes suzette is from a flaming Boeing 787 Dreamliner lithium-ion battery, some people take issue with the word shepherd. This is not the first time this debate has arisen. I refer back to my recipe and video for Welsh Shepherd's Pie.
The argument goes something like this: Shepherds herd sheep; therefore, shepherd's pie is always made with lamb or mutton. If the pie is made with beef, it is cottage pie. There are those in England who will swear this differentiation goes all the way back to the time when King James wrote the Bible. (I know, I know.)
I did my research before publishing my recipe, but I don't like to appear to be too much of a know-it-all in my videos. So I don't go into the background much. The term cottage pie first appeared in the English language late in the 16th century. The food was a way for simple folk, who lived in cottages, to use up the leftovers from the Sunday roast, if they could afford one. Cottage pie used any meat, but mostly mutton or beef. Fewer than 100 years later the term shepherd's pie entered the vernacular. It could also contain beef or mutton. The two names have since been used synonymously to refer to the same pie. Until…
Somewhere in the late 20th century a differentiation became popular. Shepherd — sheep — lamb — pie. Cottage — beef — pie (although no one seems to have an explanation of why cottage refers to beef—do cottagers herd cattle?) This differentiation is new, despite the fact that there are those who will declare it goes back to when Moses and Aaron built the biggest—and most dangerous—battery of their day (which eventually electrocuted poor Uzzah when he reached out to prevent it toppling off the wagon). Size does matter.
Of course, I truly am no know-it-all. Someone recently corrected my pronunciation of briouat, which I mistakenly pronounced BREE-ou-AHT. According to the person who formerly lived in Morocco and ate them often, they are something like BREE-wah or bree-WAH (I don't know if the stress is on the first or second syllable). I did look up the pronunciation on the Internet, but found nothing (and my antivirus software blocked one web site from attacking my computer). My little food encyclopedia doesn't contain the word either.
And in one of my earliest videos, homemade mascarpone, I pronounced it MAHS-car-pone rather than MAHS-car-POH-nay. (It was still closer than how an Italy-trained chef and teacher pronounced it—MARS-cuh-pone.) Live and learn.
So, if you want to put cooking videos on the Internet, be sure to do your research, because someone will always be there to point out where you went wrong.
Sunday 5.12.13 — Mother's Day
These Old Computers
My two desktop computers are getting old and nearing the end of their life expectancy. I usually run them for five years. I plan to build new ones this fall. I have owned many computers since buying my first one in 1983 and during that time I never needed to replace the motherboard (system board) battery. Yesterday morning this computer (on which I keep my web site files) had difficulty booting and when it finally started up, the date was reset back to December 1, 2006. That is typical of a dead mobo battery.
I don't know why, but I had a new battery, still in its package, in my desk drawer. Replacing it was quick and easy. Just to make absolutely certain the problem was the battery and not something else, I checked the old battery in a battery tester. As dead as Marley's ghost.
Not done yet. As a final proof, I shut down the computer again, waited about 30 seconds, and then started it up again. It booted normally. All systems "Go." People who build their own computers assemble these little collections of tests to check everything. This is also why I only build computers in identical pairs. With twins, I can switch parts between computers when I suspect a component might be failing.
What will I build for my next computers? In the past, I tried to balance cost with capability. A former friend of mine, who taught me how to build my own computers, is heavily into gaming. He would always insist I build the fastest computers I could afford and fill them with the maximum memory and the finest video cards. In other words, he would try to talk me into building the computer he would build if he had the money.
I am not into gaming. I build productivity rigs—workhorses that run typical office software for writing, photo editing, and maintaining a web site. The most this rig does is crunch through video clips to render a finished video for YouTube or my TV show. For that, I switch from XP to Windows 7 (this computer is a dual boot rig). Still, it takes almost three hours to encode a high def video for YouTube. Actually, a gaming rig might not be a bad idea.
Do you admit your age? I confess that I was 22 for nine years. In reality, I will be 62 years old this summer. Hardly decrepit, but no spring chicken either. Figuring a computer lasts five years, I will be 67 when I need to build another pair. Will I feel like building my own computers at that age? Will the desktop platform finally disappear by then, yielding to tablets and laptops and smart monitors? Will I have the presence of mind to attempt such a project? Might this next pair of computers be the final ones I will ever build? Possibly, but not certainly.
Therefore, I have plans to build real "dream machines" this next time around. Money is no object, sort of—I won't build a pair of Crays. I do plan, however, to purchase the best microprocessors. That one computer chip will cost over $1,000 each—and I'll be buying two. Crazy? Probably, but again, these will probably be the last computers I'll build. I might as well pull out all the stops and go balls out on this one. In the meantime, I've been watching the prices. I think retailers are expecting the Ivy Bridge CPU chip in September and they are therefore trying to squeeze as much profit as possible out of existing hardware until then. The Sandy bridge chip went up $50 in price. The motherboard I want increased by $125. Hmmm.
I'll be blogging more about the computer build in coming months. Meanwhile…
My latest cast iron cookware hopes fell flat. There was no skillet, just Dutch ovens without lids. And, finally, I'm nearing the end of my time off from cooking. I'm thinking of attempting a Gâteau Marjoraine. Insane, I know—but so was the Gâteau Paris-Brest. And speaking of bike races, the Amgen Tour of California begins today. I'll be watching.
I heard from my friend who works at the charity thrift store. The good news: A set of used cast iron cookware was donated. The bad news: She set it aside for me, but someone found it and moved it to the expensive not-so-thrift store. Would a tag saying, "Hold for Dennis" have helped? Maybe. Maybe not. Nonetheless, later this morning I will drive down to the store and look at the pans.
If they are a brand I don't especially want, I won't buy them unless they're dirt cheap. I can purchase a new Lodge Logic 12-inch (30cm) skillet for less than $16 online. I won't pay more than $5 in a thrift store. On the other hand, if it's a Griswold (highly unlikely), I'll pay a little more. Griswolds are more collectable. If there is any oxidation (rust), I'll walk away.
And so, if the pan(s) need restoring like the little skillet I bought earlier, I might have before-and-after photos after all. I might even do a video. Meanwhile, I've been trying to season an aluminum pan as an experiment, and failing.
Here's the back story: Many years ago (more like decades) I purchased an expensive large sauté pan at a store that sold quality cookware, among other kitchenware. I was in the store looking at gadgets and I saw a booth where a vendor was promoting their pots and pans. The pan in question is an 11-inch skillet with glass lid, made in Germany by Berndes. They are still available on Amazon for $110 each (MSRP $300). The promotion price at the time was much lower. An added incentive was a free 8-inch skillet (Amazon $67, MSRP $160) with purchase. So I bought one.
It was a good and reliable pan for several years. However, like any nonstick cookware, the coating didn't last forever. After many years of use the coating started to peel off and I needed to decide what to do. Recycle or restore? (The smaller skillet is perfect for crèpes, which is the only food I make in it, and therefore the coating is still in excellent condition, because I rarely make crèpes.) I decided to experiment. I sanded off all the coating and undercoating until I got down to the aluminum. It was a lot of work, but since then, the pan has served adequately as a bare aluminum skillet. Naturally, food sticks, but if used with liquids, such as when braising or making sauces, the pan works satisfactorily.
Still feeling a sense of accomplishment at having successfully restored an old cast iron skillet last week, I decided to test the same procedure (see my 5/1 blog entry below) on the Berndes sauté pan.
The results were not encouraging. Unlike on the cast iron skillet, after several times in the oven the coating was spotty. The flax oil didn't adhere to the aluminum as smoothly as to the iron. Yesterday morning I fried an egg in it to test its nonstick properties, if any. There was a small amount of sticking—more than in a properly seasoned cast iron skillet—but not so much as to make the pan unusable. Conclusion: You can't season an aluminum pan the same as a cast iron pan. The metals are too different, I suppose.
I sprayed the pan with oven clean, wrapped it in plastic (but only for a few minutes because oven cleaner damages aluminum), and scrubbed off all the seasoning when it looked dissolved. It needed some sanding because of the oven cleaner. It isn't any worse, but I'm not sure what I'll do with it. It works, but it's ugly. I'll probably toss it in recycling if I buy a large cast iron skillet at the thrift shop.
Enjoying Some Time Off
Other than the tiramisu I made two weeks ago (the recipe and video will be published here and on YouTube in coming weeks), I've been doing very little cooking, other than to eat. I tried to fulfill a request for Sloppy Joes, but so far I haven't come up with a variant that I feel would surpass the originals or be interesting enough to attract attention. One issue I will gladly point out: Most of the recipes call for adding ketchup to the ground beef. Really? Where I grew up we used spaghetti sauce. I haven't totally given up on the idea—it still churns in the back of my mind—but I am setting it aside for the time being.
Another request I received was for Chicken Kiev. I know even less about this food. It sounds intriguing. Hammer a chicken breast into a flat patty, wrap it around a lump of cold, seasoned butter, seal the edges, and then roll it in egg and then in bread crumbs. Fry until the chicken is cooked and golden. When pierced on the plate, the chicken is supposed to gush its hidden treasure of melted butter. America's Test Kitchen published a recipe that looks doable. The only variation that comes to mind—and the recipe definitely needs one—is to prepare some sort of reduction sauce, maybe with chicken stock and Marsalla, for garnish. Given that Kiev is Russian, Marsalla might not be the best choice. Maybe another liquor, but the only one that comes to mind is cognac and that's French.
Other than that squirt of melted butter and the boost to your circulatory system's cholesterol, I can't say I know what the attraction might be. However, with a side of rice and sautéed Brussels sprouts to sop up the butter, I can see where it might be a delicious plate of food. I've considered other possible fillings, such as béarnaise or hollandaise (which would break and curdle while the chicken is cooking) or seasoned mascarpone (which would melt into an oil). No, I think the people in Kiev knew what they were doing when they selected butter.
Another food that has been under consideration is fish & chips. I love good fish & chips, and I haven't eaten it in quite a while. The only time I eat tarter sauce is with fish & chips and the only time I will eat ketchup is on french fries. I have my limitations. With some former friends, we tried a few of the local restaurants down in the city before settling on the one with the best fish & chips.
You need good white fish for proper fish & chips. I grew up in New England and therefore the best fish is Atlantic cod. Try to find that in Southern California. Is it even available, anywhere? During the 1990s the Atlantic cod population collapsed due to overfishing and the specie has failed to recover, despite a cessastion of fishing. I might make a trip to the fish markets down in the city to see what they stock and recommend.
In case some of you might be wondering: No, the fire down in Ventural County is not affecting us up here. Late yesterday, when the winds shifted, we could see some of the smoke well off the coast, out over the ocean. Other than that, there has been no effect. We are concerned, though, because fire season typically doesn't start until late July-early August. It's starting early this year. We've had less than 50% of our normal annual rainfall for the past two years; so vegetation up in the mountains is tinder dry right now. I bought two extra flashlights this year for when the power goes off. The transition lines to our area are up in the mountains.
Yesterday I stacked 15 Lazy Man Meals in the freezer; so there will be even less cooking. As the weather warms up, and it has been quite warm the past two days, I feel even less like cooking. However, we're expecting a few days of very light rain—not enough to make a difference—so with the cooling I might feel like doing some cooking. I might even bake bread again.
Like pretty near all humans, occasionally I experience a brilliant vision of 20/20 hindsight. Such was the case this week.
In my last blog of April I wrote about an old cast iron skillet I picked up at a charity thift store. During the early part of this week I worked through the steps of restoring it. First, I removed all the burn plastic stuck to the bottom. Then I sprayed it several times with oven cleaner, with plenty of scrubbing in between, to remove all the old black seasoning, and everything else that contributed to the hard black and brown crust inside the pan.
As I mentioned on Sunday, the burnt plastic chipped off the outside bottom without too much effort. The old seasoning took a lot longer. I didn't count how many times I sprayed it with oven cleaner and then let the pan sit for a few hours. Each spraying took off layers of old polymerized oil and grease. I was happy to see, when I finally reached the metal, that the iron was not pitted with rust. In fact, there was no rust anywhere on the pan, inside or out.
With all the old seasoning removed, the pan got a final scouring with soap and water and I dried it with paper towels. I then heated the oven to its lowest temperature, 175°F (79°C), and placed the pan inside for 20 minutes to make certain there wasn't even a tiny bit of water anywhere.
Out came the the flax oil from the refrigerator and the pan was given a good coat of oil, inside and out, and then the excess oil was wiped off with clean paper towels, leaving only a thin film on the surface. I returned the pan to the oven, cranked up the temperature to its highest setting, 550°F (288°C), and when the oven reached temperature I set a timer for one hour.
After one hour, the oven was turned off and the pan was allowed to cool in the oven. When cooled, the process of oiling, wiping, heating, and cooling was repeated again, and again, and again. The pan ultimately received eight coats of seasoning, with a further two on the inside. It looks new again, although the inside does show a little wear. This is, after all, a used skillet.
In the meantime, I did a little more research. This comes from sherylcanter.com. She is credited with having come up with the science that demonstrates the value of flaxseed oil over all other edible oils when seasoning cast iron. I mentioned omega-3 fatty acids in my last blog. There is more—something called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), of which flaxseed oil is 57%. By comparison, canola oil is 10% ALA. It's that ALA stuff that polymerizes, crosslinking radicals (or something like them) into the hard coating that protects the cast iron pan and gives it a decent non-stick cooking surface.
Late yesterday afternoon I put the pan through its first test. I heated it to about 325°F (163°C), put a dab of butter in the pan, let it melt, and then broke an egg into it. Eggs seem to always stick the most when the pan isn't right. The egg turned over with virtually no sticking at all. I cooked the other side, plated it, and ate. The pan wiped out with a paper towel and it looks perfect.
Now, where does the hindsight come in? Why oh why did I not think to take before and after photographs of my pan so that I could show you the difference? Maybe next time, if I ever find a good cast iron pan again. (Marilynn knows I am looking for them. Hopefully she'll set one aside if one is donated to the charity thrift store.)
The important point is that I now have a fully restored vintage cast iron skillet. And if there is a second point, I now know how to get the best results when seasoning a pan. It's a slow process. Plan on three days of cleaning and seasoning, maybe longer if you don't have the time to do three to four coats in the same day. If you are going to have cast iron cookware in you kitchen, you might as well take the best care of it and hand it down to your children or grandchildren. When properly maintained, the pans can last for many generations.