Food 101 is a series for my generally smart and curious friends who just never got around to learning how to cook for themselves. Enjoy!
We’re going to start easy. Real easy. Pasta.
The short version is this: Put a very big pot of water on to boil. Add some salt. It will not make it go faster, but it should make it tastier (source: among other places, What Einstein Told His Cook). Wait until boiling. Dump the pasta into the pot, stir a couple times in the first couple minutes. While you may save some time by covering the pot while the water heats, once you add the pasta, take the cover off. It will help you make sure it doesn’t boil over. Cook for roughly the time on the package. When you think it’s about ready, get one out and taste it. Now, if you want to be technically correct, you’re going for al dente, which translates as “to the tooth” because it’s supposed to have some chew to it. But if you like it softer, by all means, cook longer. If you’re going to go for a higher skill level, like fresh pasta or ravioli, again, follow given instructions. Fresh pasta cooks very quickly. Ravioli are often done shortly after they’re floating on top of the water (much like how you discovered that your pet goldfish was done).
When it’s done, the easiest way to separate water from pasta is some sort of colander or strainer. If you don’t have one, you can try fishing it out with a spider strainer, slotted spoon, tongs… You can try pouring the water out very very slowly… You risk steam burns whichever way you try it usually, so just be very careful.
We’ll get to sauce later (as in, the very next Food 101), but honestly, if you’re busy and not good at this yet, there are bottles of pre-made sauce that are tasty and don’t cost much. I tend to enjoy sauce from Trader Joe’s. Just microwave it until warm.
The goal for most of you is to feed yourselves faster, cheaper, yummier, and healthier than you would be otherwise if you weren’t cooking. Some of the time that WILL mean that I will advocate making some things and buying some things. But cooking pasta? You can totally do that!
For more information, I suggest Good Eats, Season 1, Episode 11, Pantry Raid- Use Your Noodle There’s a link to the transcript, which also usually has a youtube video embedded, but if it’s not working, search youtube for the name of the episode. Alton Brown also discusses whether to put oil in the pasta water in this episode, the answer is “no”. Note– You do not need to be as hardcore as Alton Brown. He’ll suggest things like buying a MASSIVE pot to cook pasta in, and storing pasta in something other than the container it comes in. These are not strictly necessary.
Extra Credit: Harold McGee (author of several food science tomes) posted in the New York Times about how you don’t technically need a lot of water to cook pasta. There’s a more detailed examination at Serious Eats. This is not the easy way, but if you really want pasta and don’t have a large pot, this might work for you. It also gives you some hope that it all works out in the end if the water is too cold or there isn’t enough of it.
Leave any questions in the comments!
Filed under: Uncategorized | 2 Comments
Tags: Food 101, pasta
Recently, on facebook, I mentioned making roasted chickpeas. It’s a simple idea, and quite popular even outside the food blogger world based on the abnormally large number of people who responded to me. But much of the discussion revolved around the spices– everyone had a favorite blend. There were several people who add sugar. Some go in the cinnamon/nutmeg direction, others who go in the savory/spicy direction with the sugar.
And then there was the paprika discussion. My childhood knowledge of paprika was based on an American Girl Doll cookbook, as something red to put on top of the mashed potato volcanoes. I seem to remember some sort of implication that it was largely flavorless. Hah. There were a couple people from facebook in the Smoked Paprika fan club, and one person inquired as to where I acquire mine… and I have to share. In long format. We’ll start from the beginning.
In the summer of 2008, I was interning for a friend. Very long story short, I was in her kitchen, and made fun of her for having matching spice bottles. At the time, it seemed like the kind of thing one would do if you found a particular bottle that seemed pretty, and you wanted to decorate your kitchen with the pretty bottles, rather than use spices. And she is NOT that kind of person. And so she (lovingly) educated me. You see, they were all from Penzeys.
Penzeys has both a mail order/internet presence, and a number of physical locations. They provide great value and great quality for common and hard-to-find spices. There is a jar of each spice available for you to smell, which helps when trying to decide between similar options. They offer jars, but they also offer bags (which are cheaper, because you’re not paying for the jar, and easier to move with if you’re a twenty-something moving from apartment to apartment– lighter and less breakable!). Same spice/herb rules apply– try not to buy more than you’ll use in 6 months to a year, and if it doesn’t smell, you’re not actually adding flavor, you’re adding dust. But I’ll be honest, we’re on our second or third year for most of the bags we bought, and I haven’t felt the need to get rid of anything. The 6 whole nutmegs for $2.59 might actually last me for the REST OF MY LIFE. In 3 years, we used about half of one with aggressive use, and then it fell on top of some raw meat. Oops. So now we’re on our second.
Some highlights– They have four paprika options- Californian Sweet, Hungarian Sweet, Hungarian Half Sharp, and Spanish Smoked. We have the Spanish Smoked. It’s got great flavor and color, and adds a smokiness that’s hard to find without liquid carcinogens. I love cooking with rosemary, and there’s a particular bakery that makes a rosemary loaf close to my heart, but I’ve never been able to get the right flavor out of dried OR fresh rosemary to recreate it, partially because I don’t have a mortar and pestle. But I’m excited about adding the recently acquired powdered rosemary to… well… everything. (chickpeas? popcorn? bread? compound butter?) I love za’atar, which is a Middle Eastern spice mixture of thyme/oregano, sesame seeds, and sumac. Sumac, however, is hard to find. We bought some at a Lebanese grocery store, and it was missing something. The Penzeys stuff is NOT missing it. It’s acidic and fruity and pungent. We combine everything together, add it to olive oil, and make pita chips with it most often. Bay Leaves are often absurdly expensive, $6-$8 for however many fit in a small jar (not many). Here they’re more of a packing material for gift boxes, $3.15 for an ounce, and an ounce is a lot:
They offer spice blends, most without salt (better value!). Other than curry, I tend to prefer to mix myself, but there are a few I like– the lemon pepper is a great shortcut. At some point, I want to try making my own corned beef, and I’ll be using their pre-made mix, as I otherwise just don’t have a lot of other uses for dill seed and juniper berries. I also enjoy the premixed mulling spices.
I will admit that the freeze dried chives didn’t appeal to me (chives are SO EASY to grow! Even without much sun!), and the dried cilantro frankly just smelled like leaves. But that’s about all I have against this place.
Lots of locations! Including Arlington MA, Falls Church VA, Raleigh NC, Philly and Pittsburgh PA, and three in the Portland OR area.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Leave a Comment
Tags: food, spice
I will miss my friends who are still in DC. I’ll miss free museums. I’ll miss Teddy Roosevelt Island, the woman who works at the amazing little Indian Place near the Crystal City water treatment place and the bus depot, and having a local Vietnamese shopping center. And a few places I still haven’t told you about.
The pizza above is from 2Amys, a neat little Neapolitan pizzeria near the National Cathedral. It’s a homey place with a wood burning oven and a great menu. Pictured is the Marinara (no cheese!) with onions added. The onions weren’t my favorite add-on, I have to admit. Far better is the eggplant confit, or pairing a fatty meat like the pancetta with arugula (the fat acts like a salad dressing, as it basically looks like someone tripped and put a salad on top of your pizza!). It can get busy, and it’s popular with families. But the out-of-the-way (read: no close metro stop) location means you’re somewhat less likely to be sandwiched between piles of obnoxious tourists. I’ll take local crabby urchins over exhausted grumpy tourist tykes any day of the week.
Their other bits are great too, from the Suppli a telefono (breaded and fried little balls of risotto-ey goodness) to the Potato and Prosciutto Croquettes. While I thought the “stuffed pizze” (think calzones) had a bit too much ricotta, it might just be how easily I’m overwhelmed with dairy. The Bruschetta is somewhat disappointingly really just… bread. Really good bread, but not what I expected for $6. Many thanks to my think-tank Evil Twin for introducing me to this place (we’re both the evil one, born on the same day, both went to Smith, both lived on Green Street).
Switching continents, we come to one of the highlights of the Virginia portion of the Orange Line- Peruvian Chicken places. There are a couple places near Virginia Square, and then there’s the place that used to be very close to Balston Station that’s now… a longer walk. (There are also places up and down the Rt 7 area, and supposedly some in DC and Maryland). They primarily serve chicken. Charcoal rotisserie roasted with a blend of herb and spice I can’t even begin to recreate well. The one Anthony Bourdain went to on the DC No Reservations episode is on a side street across the street from George Mason Law, and quite convenient. Only, your only two options for sides are fries and coleslaw. And usually when we went in, we got a faintly Imperialistic vibe, as the whitest guy there bossed around the nicer- and darker- individuals. We usually went to the one near the Balston mall, and followed it down Wilson Blvd when construction closed the one we’d been going to (it’s somewhat unclear if this location was new, or had been there the whole time). They have a lot more sides, our favorites being yucca, spinach, and plantains (pictured), as well as rice, chickpeas, fries, onion salad, and a bunch of others. They even have things other than just chicken– the Carne Asada’s pretty good too. We’d get a whole chicken, eat somewhat less than half of it, and then remake the rest of the chicken into pot pie or enchiladas or something.
I’ll also miss Tyler Cowen’s Ethnic Food Guide. While there were a few situations in which his advice wasn’t very useful– I’m sorry, I just don’t like Ethiopian. Call it a failing if you will, it’s just not our thing– We could count on his advice to at least find the better versions of any particular cuisine, and the better places in whichever area we happened to find ourselves in. His advice was always useful and relevant, and while there are a lot of great blogs in the Boston area, I doubt there’s such an exhaustive list as Cowen’s one page html guide.
We’re now back in Boston. Ish. Finding a place to stay, finding a job… and revisiting favorite Bostoney locations.
Filed under: Uncategorized | 1 Comment
Tags: dc, food, restaurants, reviews
One of the benefits of living in the DC Metro area has been the wealth of free things to do on the weekend. We’ve been trying to fill in the gaps these past few weeks, doing the things we hadn’t yet done while we’re still here. So we finally went on a tour of the Capitol Building. It used to be that you would have to write your Congress Critter for tickets to the tour, but these days you can just sign up online! And while the Capitol Dome really is quite pretty… if you’re more interested in the politics of the Capitol instead of how a state gets a statue into the building, this may not be the tour for you. We learned about the paintings. We learned about the statues. We learned a liiitle about the history and architecture… But even though neither body was in session, all we got to see was a movie and some dome shaped rooms with statues in them. Pretty rooms. Pretty statues. But not really my cup of tea.
After that, we headed to the National Botanic Garden, not to be confused with the National Arboretum (Although if you really like Bonsais, the Arboretum is a must see). The greenhouse really does, oddly enough, seem bigger on the inside. There’s the jungle room (pictured), but also cacti, medicinal plants, a children’s garden, and a room full of orchids. It was much busier than the Smith greenhouse, so I wouldn’t go there for quiet meditation, but I would bring your camera. It’s gorgeous and warm and very green.
Then we made the small hike back up the hill to Good Stuff Eatery. This is probably my favorite burger place ever. Sure, I’m a little biased because I like Top Chef, but it’s not as if Spike was one of my favorites during the competition–I like him a lot more since. And the burgers aren’t very photogenic. They’re just good.
What’s my favorite thing here? Every burger I’ve tried. Pictured here is the “Prez Obama Burger”, with bacon, blue cheese, and an amazing red onion marmalade. The Coletti’s Smokehouse is also amazing, with bacon, cheddar, onion rings, and bbq sauce. I also love the Chili & Cheddar (self explanatory). And those are just the ones I can’t stop thinking about. They do have more standard burgers. They do have a turkey burger, and a veggie offering. But this is not a place that encourages you to mix and match whatever it is you might want like most places around here. This is about a carefully constructed list of robust and even sometimes delicate flavor combinations created by a chef that really seems to care about them. They look squishy and messy, and that’s because they are, but they’re so good.
But even better are the shakes. In my lactardedness, I have a very distinct sense of what is worth taking a box of lactaid and what is not, and it is not often that I go crazy. But these shakes? OH-DEAR-LORD. The toasted marshmallow actually comes with a toasted marshmallow on it. The Cookies&Cream shown above, a seasonal shake, has got me on a Cookies&Cream binge. And the MilkyWay, and the Black and White (which seems to be Vanila with Fudge Sauce)…. They’re so rich and overwhelming for lactards that my boyfriend and I split the Kid Sized one. But OH we enjoy it.
The fries and onion petals, while good, often suffer the effects of an overcrowded frier. I still keep ordering them, though, because even if they’re not as crisp as they might be, and even if the onion petals get stuck to each other, they are the best vehicle for the various mayos offered. I might eat the mango mayo with a spoon if I thought no one was looking.
Between being Top Chef related, being very close to the Capitol and Library of Congress, it’s a hot spot for tourists. Being so close to the Congressional office Buildings, it’s a hot place for staffers. So there are lines sometimes. Quite a bit, actually. I recommend going when Congress isn’t in session, and not during super peak tourist times. And to make it worse, they’re closed all day Sunday. But even when they’re busy, this is where I bring friends from out of town. Spike is often there, working the line, although not quite as much recently, as he’s trying to open a new place, We the Pizza, next door. It may even open some day, although the opening date keeps getting pushed back. I’m sad we’ll miss it. And I will definitely miss Good Stuff when I move back to Boston.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Leave a Comment
Tags: burgers, dc, food, sightseeing
As a kid, we would sometimes have biscuits. Made with Bisquick, and often fresh chives from the plant in the backyard (and, by the way, if you want a low light herb garden? Look into chives. They even flower!). They were “drop biscuits”, and they were yummy, but there were no layers. When my mother relented and bought biscuits-in-a-can, it was amaaaazing. You could pull them apart! And as I grew older, they were even more fantastic, because one could buy biscuits and crescent rolls that tasted buttery, but had no actual butter in them! Perfect for the lactarded.
Unfortunately, they also have lots of ingredients I can’t pronounce. Which I’m not opposed to ALL the time, but it would be nice to be able to make them from scratch sometimes.
I’ve played around with them a bit, but while they’ve been yummy, they’ve never had layers. I expected that in order to get them perfect, I was going to HAVE to use butter, and learn some crazy puff pastry type procedure. Nope. I mixed some things together, patted the dough out, folded, refolded, patted, folded, folded, patted, and then cut them out. And they had FLAKES. It felt like a minor miracle.
Adapted from Rise Above:
- 2 cups flour (plus 1/2 cup or so for rolling out the dough)
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2/3 cup vegetable shortening (I only used a half cup of margarine and it turned out fine.)
- 1 cup plain soy milk
- Optional: herbs, etc. I added about a tablespoon of Dill and a teaspoon of Onion powder
Heat oven to 450º.
Mix flour, baking powder, salt, and any herbs in a bowl. Spoon the vegetable shortening into the flour mix as you use two butter knives in a scissor motion to break it up and mix it. (I just cut the stick of chilled margarine into little pieces with a knife. You’re going for “pea sized pieces” in this sort of thing, just like pie crust. You can also use a stand mixer or food processor.) Once you’ve got nice, relatively consistent crumbs of shortening and flour mix, pour in your soy milk. Mix this up until you’ve got a dough.
Then put it on your counter and start rolling it out. Roll it out to about an inch or so thick, then fold it in half on itself, and do it again. (I did this process twice. Not sure if it’s necessary.) Then grab a biscuit/cookie cutter, or glass and start cutting biscuits. For your extra dough, I roll it back into a ball, and start over. Roll it out to an inch or so, fold it over, and roll it out again.
I use a spray on oil and a cookie sheet, and toss them in the oven. I want to say it’s about 12-15 minutes, but I usually just eyeball them. (For me, it was a little over 15 to give them some color, and they could have been a little browner.)
Filed under: Uncategorized | Leave a Comment
Tags: bread, food, vegan
Even when something I make isn’t quite worth sharing, it’s usually edible. My first loaf of bread was NOT.
I’ve done a lot of bread since then. I’ve kneaded bread. I’ve not kneaded bread. I have bought unbleached white flour, whole wheat flour, spelt, rye, bread flour. I own a box of gluten, and buy my yeast by the pound. Challah, brioche, Cinnamon bread, Dill bread, Sticky Buns, Pretzels…
I can’t say I’ve got whole wheat down the way I would like to yet. But it’s edible these days. I still don’t know what happened the first time around, but I have put it behind me. The only thing I still muck up sometimes is when I take the bread out too early, which I don’t do assuming I can find the probe thermometer!
Mostly these days, I’m making dough for several loaves at a time, and not kneading, thanks to Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. It’s so convenient–I stir together some ingredients, let it sit on the counter a couple hours, and then shove it in the fridge. Then when I want bread, I take out however much dough I want, shape it, let it rise, and pop it into the oven. It’s perfect for having two of us– we end up having fresh bread all the time, instead of eating half of a large-ish loaf, and then trying to find something to do with the second half before it gets too stale. The original recipe, as linked, has you use a fourth of the dough at one time, I’ve upped it to a third. It’s so flexible– I can make anything from bread to calzones with it– although, to be honest, the Alton Brown overnight pizza dough recipe is much better for shaping into pizza or calzone shapes. And it’s so easy to do that even my mother, who hates anything to do with baking, will make this bread.
I can now make a nice loaf of kneaded dough without worrying about it all that much. But I usually don’t. Even if you outsource the kneading to a bread machine, stand mixer, or food processor, you still have to be near it. I enjoy it sometimes, especially if I only want one loaf of something. But having a bowl full of bread dough in my fridge is so convenient.
In any case, that’s what I’ve spent most of my baking time doing for almost the past year and a half! Dough, dough, and more dough. It’s been a huge learning experience. There are some great tips at Smitten Kitchen. But mostly I’m happy to keep learning at this point.
Filed under: Uncategorized | 2 Comments
Tags: bread, food
My mother raised me to grocery shop carefully. She was such a stickler for coupon use that she tells me that when I was very small, I thought coupons were REQUIRED to make a purchase. I was raised to comparison shop, to clip coupons, to be ultra-price-sensitive. Even so, this woman terrifies me:
The tips are good- in moderation. Clipping coupons. Comparing prices in circulars. Using as many coupons as possible, as efficiently as possible. Understanding store policies on “bonus” money. But please, look at what there are coupons for– brand name processed food products and non-food items. If you look at her pantry, it’s pop tarts, juicy juice and hamburger helper. There are no manufacturers coupons for fresh vegetables.
Just because this woman has created an algorithm for spending as little money as possible on as much food as possible does not mean that this algorithm is a good thing. It doesn’t even mean she’s saving money– to get any utility out of the hamburger helper box, you need to buy hamburger. If you have 15 boxes of pop tarts and everyone’s sick of them by box 4, you have wasted time and space at the very least. What about the cost of buying vitamins because your kids aren’t getting balanced meals? General health care costs? Saving that much money is time intensive– is there a better use of her time?
I do not know what’s virtuous about getting food that’s not very good for you and not very tasty just because it’s basically free, instead of spending at least some of that energy on attaining better food.
Filed under: Uncategorized | 1 Comment
Tags: food, tv
Mmmmmmm Ray’s Hellburger. You might have heard of it, it was on the Daily Show after Obama and Biden visited (note: clip mentions Smith!!).
I can tell you this: since then, it’s been busy. Don’t-try-going-on-a-weekend busy. It was busy before. It’s painful now. But it’s really good.
The burger can be “au poivre” (coated in cracked pepper, as pictured), “cajun” (spicy), or just normal. You can get it “cooked through”, “medium”, or “recommended” (very pink). People criticized Obama for wanting his burger on the more cooked side, and while I do enjoy a good “recommended”, it is VERY juicy and VERY messy, and the “cooked through” is much easier to eat. Even when you do get “cooked through” you’ll need the roll of paper towels on every table.
Some toppings cost extra- there’s a wide selection of cheese options. I hear they’re good, and worth the couple dollars extra. And then there’s the bone marrow and foie gras options– again, I haven’t tried them. What I have tried are the mushrooms, the onions, the pickles, the “heck sauce” (think thousand islandish, just like everyone else’s special sauce.) It’s all very good, and these don’t cost extra.
There aren’t fries. There are chips, sometimes corn on the cob, sometimes Mac&Cheese. The burger comes with either an orange “smile” or a piece of watermelon depending on the season. But seriously, the burger is very… beefy. When I eat here, I have enough trouble finishing the burger. I don’t have room for other things.
It’s very good, and it’s a great experience. But it’s become a little touristy, it’s become very crowded and rushed, and I just can’t recommend it on a weekend during the lunch rush (which, on the weekend, extends to at least 3 or 4). It’s cash only, but there’s an ATM in the back. If you’re willing to brave the loud and the crowded, and fight a little for a table, it’s a very good (if messy) burger that awaits you.
(PS- Ray’s The Steaks is also amazing, I haven’t tried Ray’s The Classics yet.)
Filed under: Uncategorized | Leave a Comment
Tags: barack obama, burgers, food, restaurants, reviews, Smith College
Taking a brief break from burgers, I bring you pie, plus math. Which usually ends up being pi, but isn’t here (click picture for instructable):
If I were still at Smith, with access to the shop at Smith or Hampshire, I would be VERY tempted to make this.
Filed under: Uncategorized | 1 Comment
Tags: food, math, pie
This will be my first in a series on my favorite burgers. Burgers are all the hype. From Hubert Keller to former Top Cheftestants, really good burgers or sliders are gaining a place in fast food and haute cuisine.
I like burgers. I mean, they don’t even have to actually be good for me to like them. But I’m going to tell you about a few places that are worth it (but also not TOO expensive).
Five Guys makes a fast food burger– no question about it. But it’s better than your major chains. For one thing, you’ve got a lot of topping control. Really, most fast food restaurants have about 10 sandwiches– some beef, some chicken, maybe a veggie burger? But you have no idea what’s the difference between the 4 chicken sandwiches, and neither does the person taking your order half of the time either. Not so with Five Guys- 15 toppings, from grilled onions to jalapeno peppers, and you pick what you want on your burger (or hot dog, or, I guess, grilled cheese). Now, a hot dog with lettuce, tomato, and mushrooms is unusual at first thought, I admit. But I also have to admit that it’s both yummy and filling.
The fries? Well, there’s some controversy. They’ve won awards. They give you a whole lot of fries. And a lot of the time, they’re very good. But they’re not always good. There are huge bags of potatoes stored all over the store, and there’s a sign that tells you where that days potatoes are from. Which means that there isn’t perfect consistency in their fries. Or at least that’s my best guess as to why some days the fries are BRILLIANT and why some days they’re only so-so. On any day, I still like them better than any of the big chains.
The overall experience is still fast food like, even though they take a bit longer to get you your food since it’s cooked to order. There is no ambiance, each location has the same white with red accent decor, the chairs aren’t very comfortable. There are peanut scraps everywhere since there are whole peanuts available in big boxes for you to eat as you wait. If you are allergic to peanuts, avoid at all costs– in addition to the big boxes and scraps, the fries are cooked in peanut oil. But as fast food goes, it’s fun, cheap, easy to figure out what you’re ordering, and tasty.
There’s a location finder on their website– while you’re tripping over them in the DC Metro area, they’re expanding slowly lots of other places, including into New England.
Filed under: Uncategorized | 8 Comments
Tags: burgers, food, reviews