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Cooking Tips: Salt

March 8, 2012

Poor salt. It has really gotten a bad reputation over the years.

But I’m here to clear some things up. That table salt you use? Probably this stuff here, is no good for you. Because it has been chemically refined. Long term overuse has health risks such as kidney stones, high blood pressure, etc. In fact when you’re done here, head on over to THIS SITE and read all about table salt and the risk factors associated with it. 

Meanwhile, natural salt such as: rock salt, sea salt is good for you. In fact, salt contains minerals that are essential for you to carry on living. If you interpret that as needing to take a dip in the ocean, then you have my full support (as long as I’m invited).

A worthwhile investment for your kitchen? A salt grinder. And fill it with some yummy rock or sea salt. And now that we’ve cleared up the myth surrounding salt, we need to learn to use it properly.

In the kitchen, salt has magical powers. Your “Spock is not impressed” face tells me you want some examples. Very well then *leans back in chair, cracks knuckles*

Salt can improve flavor, preserve food, fill in for ingredients, radically alter a dish’s flavor, and generally blow your mind with unorthodox combinations (sea salt & chocolate anyone?) Here’s a few random uses:

  • If you’re cooking pasta, salt the water heavily. You will thank yourself.
  • Blanching, boiling, poaching vegetables = Add salt to your water
  • Most protein doesn’t need anything but a good sprinkling of sea salt & cracked black pepper
  • Brines! A brine is a cold saltwater marinade to preserve and tenderize meat.
  • A light dusting of coarse sea salt on a finished dish for some extra texture

But where we want to use salt the most is in different stages of our cooking. Adding a pinch here or there to correct the seasonings (remember taste as you go!).

When you do a taste test and think “Hmmm…what does this need?” 99% of the time, it’s salt.

You see, salt is THAT guy on your team. He’s not spectacular at any one thing, but he’s a workhorse. He’s a hustle player that inspires the rest of the team to bring their best. The “glue” guy. That is why you see salt as an ingredient in almost every recipe on the planet whether it’s a Red Velvet Cake or an Orange & Grapefruit Salad.

Salt draws out moisture & breaks things down.  So that the onions in your spaghetti sauce are nice and soft instead of hard & crunchy. One of the best things to ever happen in a kitchen? Onions, Carrots, & Celery sauteing in melted butter with a liberal sprinkling of salt. If I could have that smell permeate my entire life…I would die happy.

Don’t be afraid of those weird combinations either. Dark chocolate & sea salt? Salted caramel? Puttin’ the age old sweet & salty to the test. Mmmmmm….

 

So there are two takeaways from this blog

#1 – Sea Salt, Rock Salt, Crystal Salt, Himalayan Salt = Good. Table Salt = Bad

#2 – When in doubt, add salt

Happy cooking!

P.S. Curious about where to find a decent salt & pepper grinder? Bed Bath & Beyond, Williams Sonoma, Amazon

Roasted Valentine’s

March 5, 2012

No, this post will not be gruesome as the title may suggest. It will, however, feature a bevy of roasted food. Because when you’re eating healthy…sauteeing veggies in butter is NOT the way to go…sadly *sigh*

Our Valentine’s Dinner Menu consisted of:

Roasted Butternut Squash & Roasted Asparagus

Pan-Seared Roasted Monkfish, Pan-Seared Scallops, & Toasted Garlic & Onion Pappardelle topped with a tangy Saffron infused Béchamel

Hungry yet? Yeah…I bet you are.

First thing’s first: Get yer veggies roasting. They take the most time, and as we’ve learned: Timing is everything.

Grab a vegetable peeler and peel the squash. Slice ’em in half lengthwise and scoop out the guts. Then dice them into 1″ cubes.
What I love about sweet squash (pumpkin, butternut, acorn) is that you can go sweet or savory with the seasonings. For this exercise, I tossed in cinnamon, nutmeg, a pinch of tumeric, salt and as little olive oil as possible. For roasting, it is essential for the veggies to be coated in some form of fat, otherwise your stuff will just char under that high heat. Unless blackened veggies are your thing. Then char away.

The Asparagus was tossed in dry mustard, white pepper and sea salt (and as little EVOO as possible)

Spread one layer evenly on a heavy duty pan. Roast at 400° for at least 30-35 minutes. Check every so often, tossing and turning to ensure even browning.

Now the monkfish, we’ve never had it before. The fella at the Shrimp Dock told me it was “poor man’s lobster”. That was all I needed to hear. One thing I did learn…ummm…it’s ugly. Like…just, ugly. So, (when in doubt) I gave it a liberal sprinkling of salt & pepper and tossed it in a SCREAMING hot cast iron skillet. About 2-3 minutes on one side, flip it over and place it in the 400° for 8-10 minutes. It’s done when you can get a knife down in the meat with little to no resistance. Monkfish has a tendency to dry out easily, so be careful not to overcook it. After it’s rested for 4-5 minutes. Slice them into discs (I know, weird).

About 2 minutes before everything was ready to come out of the oven, I started the Scallops. They are tediously delicate and insanely easy to overcook. You CANNOT blink an eye while doing this.
Most scallops you find will be stored in a milky white liquid. Drain and rinse. Pat them dry thoroughly (otherwise they won’t brown) and hit them with some salt & pepper. I get a shallow stainless pan and heat some clarified butter to as hot as it can stand. Gently set the scallops down in there and let it sear for 60-90 seconds, gently flip them over. Give them 45-60 seconds on this side and call them done. Serve them immediately. This method should give you a beautiful golden brown crust, while the inside remains tender and creamy. I like to drizzle the tiniest amount of truffle oil on them for that extra richness. HEAVEN, every time.

Now…what to put on top of all this ocean dwelling protein? How about a tangy Béchamel sauce?
Where to go for that? Hmmm…who’s a French cooking legend? Oh wait! Julia! (like you didn’t see that coming) Her classic sauce is a simple French staple. Recipe at the bottom:

The Garlic-Toasted Onion Pappardelle was in our Christmas gift basket from our dear friends o’er at Browniebites. It was nom noms.

For dessert (what? It’s Valentine’s Day!) Kara whipped up some yummy Chocolate Banana Souffles she found on that thingy called Pinterest. Click the pic for the link!

Classic Béchamel

  • 2 tbsp flour
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 2 cups hot milk
  • pinch of salt

1) Melt the butter on medium heat, add the flour, we’re making a white roux here. We don’t want any color.
2) Remove from heat slowly pour in the hot milk while stirring constantly to whisk out any lumps.
3)  Return to heat, bring to slight boil while whisking for about a minute.
4) Remove from heat, add salt and any other flavorings. In this case, I put a pinch (literally) of saffron in there for a nice floral element.

Look at that! You’re practically French! (good thing? bad thing?)

What do you do for V-Day? Brave the crowds and go out for a romantic dinner? Stay at home in your PJ’s and watch trashy rom-coms?

Snowy Hike on Rich Mountain Loop

March 4, 2012

In January, we decided it was time for a wintry hike in the Smokies on a weekend when the upper elevations received a nice dusting of snow. Our buddies, the Brownes, tagged along with us up the Rich Mountain Loop.

The loop starts at the Cades Cove parking lot just before starting down the Cades Cove Loop Road. The trail is a total of 8.5 miles with an elevation gain of 1736 feet and just as the name implies it takes you on a loop up Rich Mountain, so you get all new scenery for the duration of the trail. Once you hit the loop part of the trail, you can go either left or right, but we chose to go left. Going right will get you to the top quicker, but you face the brutally steep elevation climbs. Although coming down when it was wet and muddy from snow trying not the slide the rest of the way down the mountain wasn’t much more fun.

The Cove early morning is so quiet and serene.

This trail has several streams that you pass over and this time of year they are dripping with icicles.

About a mile and half in, you run into the back of the John Oliver Cabin that sits in the Cove. If you are driving the Cades Cove Loop road, this is the first cabin you can stop to see. There was still a dusting of snow on the roof.

That’s Mr. Brown having too much fun with an icicle.

Trekking along up the trail.

Where we came from…

Where we are going…

Stopping for lunch and to admire my husbands amazing hair.

Ah, finally, a view at the top of the Cove below.

Heading down the trail.

Happy hiking…

Feeesssssh Tacccooooss

February 14, 2012

Around the Brown house, we have had (need to get back in the habit of) a monthly tradition of Fish Taco & Margarita Sunday. It’s also our ongoing mission to convert any non-fish taco believer into believers in the greater Knoxville area. So…beware. One day you may find yourself sitting at our house on a Sunday chowing down on yummy goodness.

I don’t think we’ve ever shared our fish taco recipe. Over the years it’s evolved from several other things and occasionally we change it up. I’ll provide the variations and healthier alternatives as well.

Tortilla
A pillowy soft flour tortilla. We prefer Olé! tortillas…since we can’t have Rosa’s Tortillas on hand at all times. Seriously, Rosa’s tortillas are so good they have a drive-thru window so you can order them by the dozens…which we do every time we go to Texas.
Healthier alternative: Yellow Corn Tortilla. But be prepared for them to fall apart.

Be sure to warm those guys up before serving.

Fish:
A good white fish is what you’ll need here. Tilapia, Mahi Mahi, Cod, Mullet, or Halibut if you’re feeling rich.  Something meaty, and flaky. Now, there’s two schools of thought here. Fried, or not fried. And the option you choose will change up your toppings a good bit. A fried fish goes better with a sweeter, traditional slaw while anything grilled or baked goes better with a tangy, vinegary slaw.
Obviously, the healthier choice here is NOT to fry. In that sense, I usually season it one of two ways
1) A healthy dose of Old Bay. Is there anything better for seafood?
2) Salt, pepper, lime zest and a spattering of lime juice just before serving.

Slaw
Typically we go with an old favorite, adapted from Rachael Ray’s recipe.

  • 1 Head red cabbage – sliced VERY thin
  • 1 red onion – sliced VERY thin
  • 1 small Jalepeño – De-seeded & sliced…VERY thin
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 2 TBSP Vegetable Oil
  •  3 TBSP Honey
  • 2 TBSP Hot Sauce
  • 2 tsp lime zest <======== ZEST!!!!
  • Juice of 2 limes
  • Salt & Pepper

–  Mix it all up, cover & refrigerate for at least an hour.

Now, with a fried fish…just go with a good ole’ fashioned cole slaw. Here’s a great recipe.

Variation: A mango chutney we whipped up once while camping. I can’t recall exactly what was in it, but it had; Mango, Red Onion, Raddish, Cilantro, Poblano Pepper? I think…

Cheese
Ah, the cheese. See…you can’t just slap some shredded cheddar on a fish taco. Doesn’t feel or taste right. Most of the time, we don’t even use cheese because it’s not really necessary. But some cheeses that work GREAT with fish tacos: Cotija, Feta, Swiss, Goat Cheese…

Remi’s Chipotle Sour Cream Sauce:
Sorry folks…I’m gonna toot my own horn here for a sec. I threw this together one day and have never looked back. It even goes great on sandwiches as a condiment.

  • 1 cup Sour Cream
  • 2 TBSP Mayonnaise
  • Zest & Juice of ONE lime
  • 1 Chipotle Pepper in Adobo Sauce (more or less to taste) – Minced, super fine

– Mix, cover, chill.

For you folks that can’t take the heat…just leave out the pepper itself and add a lil splash of the adobo sauce. I would say leave it out all together, but it’s the smoky flavor that makes this sauce jazzy.

Healthier Alternative: Substitute Plain Greek Yogurt for the sour cream and use low-fat mayo

Avocado

And there you have it! Fish Tacos. Don’t be afraid. I used to be a non-believer. Now? Now I’m writing a blog telling you to eat fish tacos. And seriously…experiment. The possibilities are vast.

Bonus:

Margaritas
Don’t worry! I didn’t forget about them! And I make a good one🙂

  • 2 ounces premium Tequila (seriously, no Jose)
  • 1 1/2 ounces fresh lemon juice <=== Secret Ingredient
  • 1 ounce orange liqueur
  • 1 tbsp superfine sugar
Shake in a shaker with 1-2 ice cubes until thoroughly chilled. Pour over crushed ice.
That’s my preferred method. Feel free to do the old fashioned salt on the rim version.
Happy Cooking!

Cooking Tips: Zesting

February 9, 2012

What did I say last week? Zesting? Ah, that’s right. This is a post about how to get the most out of your citrus…from that part you usually toss in the garbage.

Look, I’ll just come right out and say it. I LOVE to zest. Some of you may know what zesting is, how to do it, and understand the wonders of its power. Others may not have a clue what it means or have ever seen a zester. This tip is for the latter

First, let’s find the official definition:

Zest is one of those fun words that doubles as a noun & a verb
Sure, sure…but can you use it in a sentence please?

You’ll zest a lemon to use its zest. Confusing right? Sorta. Hang in there.

So, here’s the official (cooking) VERB: to give zest, relish, or piquancy to.

And the (cooking) NOUN: the peel, especially the thin outer peel, of a citrus fruit used for flavoring

And Zest-ing is what you do. The literal act of peeling off the skin.

© - pauladeenstore.com

Most commonly, what you’ll need is a “zester” (pictured above)…grater, peeler, etc. There’s a wide variety of tools and methods to get that stuff off there. In fact, I’m willing to bet that most of you have a box grater. Probably don’t even remember how you got it. You just use it to grate stuff like carrots every now and then. Well, those other 3 sides come in handy too…

Here’s a handy video. Gordon “screaming” Ramsey will show you how to zest


I use my microplane. Those things are great for everything. Citrus, garlic, ginger, chocolate, hard cheese.

Zesting is a fantastic way to use what normally gets thrown away. And things like that make me happy. The zest is chock FULL of oils that pack a punch of flavor.  Also, if you’re using zest & juice. Zest first.

Here’s a bunch of examples:

  • Toss lemon zest into a pasta dish just before serving
  • Broiling/baking/grilling fish or chicken? Toss some lemon or lime zest on it (avoid lime for salmon)
  • Lemon or lime zest make GREAT additions to marinades.
  • Toss some zest into softened butter. Instant citrus butter.
  • Add some zest into your cake batter, cookie dough, sweet breads or pies…even pie crust
  • Add a lemon peel to your next cocktail. James Bond did it.
  • Infuse some olive oil with lemon zest
  • Add some lemon/orange peel to vodka. Let it sit in an airtight container for a few weeks. Strain. Chill. Serve. *We did a variation of this with some Meyer lemons and made homemade Limoncello, an Italian liqueur.*
  • Candied orange/lemon peel. Here’s a recipe
  • One of my personal favs: Sour cream, a little mayo, chipotle, lime juice & zest = Awesome
  • Toss some lemon peel down your disposal. Lemony fresh. (don’t throw TOO much in there)
  • Strange tip: Cats peeing in your flower bed? Put orange peel out there. They hate it.

So…that’s zesting in a nutshell. 9 times out of 10, my secret ingredient is lemon in some form or fashion.

Happy Cooking!

Baby Judah

February 5, 2012

Our good friends, the Nichols, had their first child on January 6th. They decided to leave the gender a surprise and were gifted with a beautiful baby boy.

Cooking Tips: Substitution

January 29, 2012

It’s happened to all of us. We’ll be reading over a recipe and realize that we don’t have one of the ingredients called for. There’s no time (or energy) to run out to the store again…so what do we do? Well, this is where we learn…

Today’s Tip: Learning the art of substitution

And it’s a very fine art. Mind you, not everything has a substitute. If you’re out of eggs…then my friend you’re out of eggs. But there are so many times where one can improvise. For example, if you don’t have buttermilk, then you can make your own. If you’re out of white wine vinegar, then find another vinegar that will achieve the flavor you’re going for. It’s all a learning process. One that comes with years of experience. But as they say…knowing is half the battle, and essentially, you’re striving to know more. To get to that eventual point where you don’t panic when you’re out of something, because you know a good substitute in your mind. Or…if that fails, the overlords at Google can help you find ANYTHING.

What’s extremely important to keep in mind, is what you’re going for. For instance, you really want to add some almond extract to this batch of cookies you’re making, but you don’t have any. You can use vanilla extract. Will it be exactly the same? No. Will it be close enough for comfort? Yes.
Flavor profile is what’s key. Going for tangy? Make sure your substitute is tangy. I.E., vinegar = lemon juice. Sweet and out of sugar? Try some honey. Creamy but don’t have heavy cream? Use half n’ half or whole milk. That’s the rule of thumb.  Don’t be throwing in ketchup when it calls for mustard.

I have compiled several common examples that the average household doesn’t have on hand.

  • 1 cup Buttermilk = 1 cup of milk + 1 tablespoon white vinegar or lemon juice. Let stand at room temp for 10 minutes.
  • Creme Fraiche (you hear that ALL the time on food network) = 1 cup heavy cream + 1 tablespoon buttermilk, let sit overnight in a warm place. Stir every 6-8 hours. Refridgerate. Good for sweet and savory stuff.
  • Bread crumbs – Crushed crackers, crushed corn flakes, crushed potato chips
  • Ricotta cheese – Cottage cheese
  • Gruyére – Swiss
  • 1 cup Mascarpone Cheese: (the Italian version of cream cheese) = 3/4 cream cheese, beaten with 1/4 heavy cream.
  • 1 cup heavy cream = 3/4 whole milk, 1/4 cup melted butter, or you could just use 1 cup half n’ half (for a less dense flavor)
  • Amaretto – Almond extract
  • 1 cup Cake flour = 3/4 cup all purpose flour + 2 tablespoons cornstarch. Sift together.
  • Yogurt – Sour cream and vice-versa
  • Apple cider vinegar – You can use white vinegar or lemon juice
  • Lemon Zest – Orange zest
  • Nuts – Good news, Walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, almonds…can all be used for most things calling for nuts. Cashews on some occasions, but keep in mind cashews have a rich, buttery flavor that could throw the dish off
  • Cornmeal – Polenta – Grits= All the same thing.
  • Cookie crumbs – Any kind of cookie really. Almond, vanilla, graham, ginger, etc. Unless you’re going for oreos. Mmm…oreos.
  • Kale, mustard greens, collard greens, swiss chard can all be treated the same
  • Onions, scallions, leeks all similar.
  • Pumpkin = Sweet potatoes

In fact, I just stumbled across a Blog on the Joyofbaking that has a bajillion substitutes. How handy is that? It’s pretty thorough. I mean, this page has an entire dictionary. This could go on FOREVER.  My advice for just learning? Google it. (or call your chef Dad all the time)

Stay tuned, as we’ll do a blog on “Healthy substitutes” at some point…you know, trying to make things HEALTHIER. Which is a different kind of substitution.

Happy Cooking! Next week: Zesting