Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Salt of the Earth

It seems pretty obvious, but salt is essential in the kitchen, and for life. For cooking, or table side as a condiment, it's a staple in every pantry, in every part of the world. It can be stored indefinitely, and it's recommended that you include 8 pounds of salt, per adult, in a year's supply in food storage.

As basic as it seems, though, there are more varieties of salt than you may be aware of.

Table Salt
This is a refined salt with added anti-caking and, sometimes, bleaching agents. Most of it comes from mines and is ground to a fine crystal. Table salt is used for cooking and at the table as a finishing salt, as it's name suggests. It is free flowing and has a very tiny crystal size.

Often, table salt contains added iodine. In the 1920's people weren't getting enough iodine in their diets. This led to terrible thyroid problems so, it was decide to add trace amounts of iodine to salt to make sure we got enough. Seafood and sea salt naturally contain trace amounts of iodine, and so people who eat lots of seafood, or use sea salt, don't have to worry about iodine deficiencies.

Kosher Salt
Kosher salt is used in meat preparation according to Jewish dietary guidelines, and has less additives that regular refined salt. It's crystal shape tends to be more “flakey,” dissolves easily, and has a less pungent flavor than most other salts.

Sea Salt
Sea salt is also less moisture sensitive, and stores well. It usually contains trace minerals, including iodine, that can also be beneficial to your health. My favorite sea salt actually comes from Utah, Redmond Real Salt. It's salt left over from the ancient lake Bonneville that filled prehistoric Utah Valley, and which the Great Salt Lake is but a remnant. It won the “Best Taste” award in 2004 from Chef's Best.

Grinder Salt
Grinder salt is a refined salt, used for finishing or cooking, and made specifically for use with a salt grinder. It's low moisture content allows it to flow freely. Personally, I'm not sure why anyone would need a salt grinder when Kosher salt or sea salt are available. If you do use a salt grinder, though, make sure you use one with ceramic or plastic grinding mechanisms. The salt will corrode metal (even stainless steel) and ruin the flavor.

Gourmet Salts
There are several gourmet salts that are becoming more popular these days. They come from very traditional production methods they world over, foodies are now rediscovering many of these salt varieties. Harder to find, and more expensive, that most varieties, I lump them together into a signel category. They include, but are not limited to:

Kala Namak – an unrefined mineral salt from India, with a sulfuric flavor.

Celtic Sea Salt – hand harvested from the coast of Brittany, France, using no metal.

Fleur De Sel – a premier artisan sea salt, harvested from the surface of salt evaporation ponds. Different areas of the world produce different flavors based on the mineral content of the water.

Grey Sea Salt – is a “moist” unrefined sea salt, usually from coastal France, and is considered by many to be the best quality salt available.

Hawaiian Alaea Sea Salt – volcanic baked red clay is added to this salt, enriching it with iron oxide (rust). It is said to be mellower in flavor than most sea salt.

Hawaiian Black Lava Salt - harvested from above ground pools that formed beause of lava flows, purified volcanic charcoal is added to this salt both for color and its detoxifying effects.

Smoked Sea Salt – a relatively new invention, salt crystals are smoked over a wood fire to infuse them with a natural smoky flavor.

Picture by Steve Woods

Friday, July 24, 2009

This is the Place – for Fast Food

Happy Pioneer Day!

Pioneer Day is a holiday where my fellow Utahans and I celebrate the coming of the Mormon Pioneers to the Salt Lake valley. We celebrate with parades, fireworks and, of course, food! I'm going to be busy with my kids (they'll be marching in a local children's parade) and work (no day off for me, I'm afraid), so I probably won't pull my grill out until tomorrow.

That's okay. I've got plenty of may favorite sausages thawing in my refrigerator, getting ready to go. I think I may try grilling tofu this year, too. I know, the Utah Pioneers didn't have tofu on the march from Illinois, but not all Mormon immigrants came from Europe, either. There are plenty that have come from Japan and other parts of Asia.

See? When it comes to food, I can justify anything.

Today is also National Drive-Through Day. Why the US Census felt we needed a day to celebrate fast-food drive-though service, is beyond me. Still, it has become an American institution. Goodness knows I've driven through enough of them in my lifetime. As much I'm trying to limit my fast-food exposure, it's not something I see myself stopping entirely in the near future.

Maybe after I'm dead. Which may happen sooner than later if I keep eating fast-food.

In any case, the combination of the two holidays has given new meaning to Brigham Young's words when the Pioneers first crossed the mountains into the Salt Lake Valley, “This is the place. Drive on.”

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Summer Cookouts and Burn Offerings

I don't know why I've not done as much blogging about grilling this summer. It's not like I haven't fired up my grill a time or two this year. We had a great time celebrating Independence day with grilled sausages and American potato salad. Pioneer Day, Utah's birthday, is coming up this weekend so I'll probably pull it out for that holiday, as well.

So why haven't I done it more? Or blogged about it? You got me.

It's my second year moving to charcoal. I have to admit it's been a lot of fun cooking with fire. Part of my likes cooking with charcoal more than propane. I like the smokey char it delivers. I'm pretty convinced it's not as good for the environment, though. Which side of me will win? The inner arsonist or the tree hugger? The jury's still out. I suspect that if I continue grilling as much as I am, that I'll end up getting bigger grills and using them both. Why decide if I don't have to?

I really like grilling in the summer. Even though there are moments when I have to pay attention, most of the time I get to set up a reclining deck chair on the patio, grab a soda, and let the smoke waft around me. I get to relax, something in short supply these days, waiting for the food to cook.

If I'm working on something that's going to take more time, I may grab a book to read while enjoying the sun and shade. At times like this, my girls will sometimes join me in their own patio chairs for a “sit and chat with ol' Dad.” What doting father could ask for more?

What can I say? Some days it's good to be the cook.

There's something primal about cooking with fire. Maybe that's why Steve Raichlen calls his newest show Primal Grill. It appeals to the primitive in us. Something deep in our DNA connects with the basics of fire and food. If you think about it, the sparks coming off that fire may be the very sparks of the first human civilization. Being able to cook food was a big step in our evolution as humans.

Food and fire played a big part in early sacrifice, as well. Adam built an altar for such things, and the Israelites observed the practice of the burning a sacrificial lamb, looking forward to the Messiah.

Of course, I don't think we should confuse their sacred burnt offerings, with the typical “burnt offerings” many of us will be taking off our grills this weekend. Especially if I fall asleep in the reclining deck chair.

Sweetie? Go grab Daddy another soda, will you?

Monday, July 20, 2009

French Country-Style Sourdough Bread

Otherwise known as “Pain de Campagne,” this classic French, country-style loaf is a perfect example of what a rustic, sourdough bread should be. It's tangy flavor, dense and springy texture and chewy crust make it a great accompaniment to almost any meal. I think it's great all by itself, with a glass of milk or herbal tea. The addition of rye flour gives it an extra boost to the flavor, although you can substitute whole wheat flour, if you'd like.

The French traditionally proof this dough in a basket to help the dough retain it's shape before they bake it. I don't have a basket so I proof mine in a large mixing bowl, about 8 to 10 inches in diameter. Either way, line the basket/bowl with a dish cloth, dusted with flour before you put the dough in.

Equipment Needed
Mixing bowls
Wooden spoon (plastic is fine)
8" basket for proofing (optional)
2 dish towels
Baking sheet
Cooling rack

1 cup simple sourdough starter
1 teaspoon dry yeast
3/4 cups water
1/3 cup rye flour
2 1/4 cups unbleached flour
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
Extra flour for dusting

Make sure you have enough sourdough starter on hand. If you refrigerate it, like I do, remove it from the refrigerator and allow it to come to room temperature, while you read the rest of the ingredients.
Remove 1 cup of starter for this recipe. Don't forget to replenish your remaining starter.

Sprinkle the yeast into the water in a small bowl. Let it sit for 5 minutes, and then stir to dissolve. Mix the rye flour, one cup of the unbleached flour, and the salt in a large mixing bowl, making a well in the center.

Pour the sourdough starter and dissolved yeast into to the flour. Using a wooden spoon, mix in the flour from the sides of the well. Add the remaining flour, a little bit at a time, until you form a soft sticky dough. You may not need all the flour.

Lightly flour a clean counter top or other flat work surface. Turn the dough out onto the surface and knead until smooth and elastic – about 10 minutes.

Put the dough into a clean, lightly oiled, mixing bowl and cover with a dish towel. Let the dough rise for 2 hours. Punch down the dough and let it rest for 10 minutes.

Prepare a basket or clean mixing bowl by lining it with lightly floured dished towel. Shape the dough into a round loaf and place in the bowl for proofing. Cover with a clean dish towel and let it rise until double in size, about 1 1/2 hours.

If you want to, you can proof the dough on a lightly floured baking sheet. It will spread out a little more than if you were to proof it in a basket, but it's perfectly acceptable. Doing this will avoid the extra step of getting the dough out of the basket.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit (220 degrees Celsius)

Remove the top dish towel and dust the top of the loaf with additional flour. Place a baking sheet, upside down, over the basket, centering it over the dough. Gently invert the whole thing. Remove the basket and floured dish towel, revealing the loaf. Dust with additional flour if desired, although you probably won't need to. Cut three or four parallel slashes, approximately 1/4 inch deep, across the dough and three or four at right angles to create a crosshatch pattern in the dough.

Place the dough and pan in the preheated oven and bake for about 1 hour, until golden brown and hollow sounding when tapped underneath. Cool on a wire rack.

I like this bread broken apart instead of sliced, served with soups or fruit jam.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

“Old Dough” Sourdough Starter

During the California goldrush, pospectors would carry a mixture of flour and water in a packet strapped to their waists. The heat of their bodies fermented the mixture, creating a natural leaven, and giving them the nickname “sour bellies.”

To follow up from the simple sourdough starter recipe I gave you last time, let me show you how to make an "old dough" starter. I learned to use it with certain sourdough bread recipes, like San Francisco sourdough bread, along with the simple starter.

Equipment Needed
2 large glass mixing bowls
wooden spoon (plastic is fine)
waxed paper
aluminum foil

1/2 teaspoon dry yeast
4 tablespoons room temperature water
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour plus extra for dusting
cooking oil

Add the water the large glass bowl. Sprinkle in the yeast and leave for 5 minutes. Stir with a wooden spoon to dissolve. Add the flour and mix to from a soft, sticky, dough.

Flour a cutting board or area of the counter top. Turn out the dough on the floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes.

Oil a clean bowl. Put the dough into the bowl and turn to coat with the oil. Cover with with a dish towel and let rise for about 3 hours. Punch down the dough and divide it into two equal pieces. Tear one piece of dough into small pieces, and mix into the dough of your next loaf of sourdough bread, when you add the rest of the simple starter required by the recipe. Wrap the remaining piece loosely in plastic wrap, and then aluminum foil, allowing room for expansion, and set aside for future use.

“Old dough” can be prepared in advance and frozen or refrigerated. To use frozen dough, let it thaw in the refrigerator overnight, and then rest at room temperature for at least two hours before using.

To replenish “old dough,” pinch off a racket-ball sized piece of dough from the sourdough bread you're making before shaping and proofing the loaf. Wrap and refrigerate as above.

Monday, July 13, 2009

How to Make a Simple Sourdough Starter

Sourdough starters offer an alternative method of preparing yeast for mixing in bread dough. It's also a way to keep yeast cultures alive, when refrigeration isn't an option.

Yes, I've seen sourdough starter available in some specialty markets, but why pay for it? In it's most basic form, it's a mixture of bread flour and water. Fresh bread flour naturally contain a variety of yeasts and bacteria, including the important lactobacillus sanfranciscensis bacteria.

I'm not making this up. Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis was first discovered as one of the main bacteria in sourdough bread, and then named after the city it was discovered in: San Francisco.

Yeast and lactobacillus grow symbiotically within the mixture, breaking down the gluten and acting as both a leavening and flavoring agent. The mixture is left to ferment anywhere from a few hours, to a few days.

Rye flour was a common ingredient in norther Europe during the middle ages. Bread's made with 100% Rye flour, it turns out, doesn't respond well to traditional bakers yeast, being too low in gluten. This makes sourdough starters the preferred method to leaven rye bread.

Breads made with starter require a bit more planning, if you don't have any starter already on hand. The two most common ways to make a sourdough starter today start with bakers yeast: a simple sour-dough starter, and the “old dough” method. Here's the more common, simple starter.

Simple Sourdough Starter

This liquid starter can be used to make a French poolish starter, fermenting only two hours before using, or an Italian biga starter, fermenting at least 36 hours. A poolish starter gives less of a yeasty or “sour flavor”, but still retains some of the “chewiness” associated with sourdough.

Equipment needed
wooden spoon (plastic is fine)
wide mouth 1 quart glass jar

2 teaspoons dry yeast
1 1/4 cup water
1 3/4 cup unbleached flour
pinch of sugar (optional)

Do not use metal utensils with this. I'm not sure why, but somehow the metal interferes with the bacteria and yeast.

Place the water in a large glass jar. Sprinkle in the yeast, and let it sit for 5 minutes to activate. Stir to dissolve. Stir in the flour and sugar, if your using it, with a wooden or plastic spoon. Cover the jar with a dish towel (do not seal!) and leave it in a safe place on the counter, away from direct sunlight, for up to five days before refrigerating. You can put a lid on the starter, but never seal it tightly. The culture needs air to live.

Stir the mixture twice a day. It will become bubbly and smell pleasantly sour.

Maintaining the Starter

After removing the amount of starter required by recipe, replenish with an equal amount of flour and water. For example, if you used 1 cup of starter, replace it with 1/2 cup of water and 3/4 cup of flour (this makes about 1 cup when mixed). This lets you keep the cultures alive and lets the mixture continue to ferment for the next time you make sourdough bread. Let the jar ferment on the counter for at least 12 hours, or overnight, before returning to the refrigerator.

If you aren't going to use your starter at least once every other week, you need to feed it. Remove half the starter and replace with and equal amount of flour and water, just like replenishing your starter.

Sometimes the starter will separate, and the liquid portion turn various colors. This is called a “hooch” and is perfectly normal. You can stir it back in, or drain it off if the starter is looking a bit too watery.

Many sourdough aficionados don't refrigerate the dough. They also make sourdough bread at least once a week. I don't make it as often so, I've learned to refrigerate mine. I had some starter that I believe “went bad” on me after two weeks on the counter. It quit smelling pleasantly sour, and just smelled ... off. I decided not to take chances and threw it out. Now I refrigerate.

Sourdough starter can also be made with whole wheat flour for 100% whole wheat sourdough bread.

Next time, I'll show you how to make sourdough starter using the “old dough” method.

Do you know of any great sourdough resources on the web? Feel free to share them in the comments.

Friday, July 3, 2009

How to Make American Potato Salad

July 4th, Independence Day, is today. For my friends overseas, that's the day America declared its independence from the British Crown. What better way than to celebrate with something grilled, and a side of American Potato Salad?

Immigrants to America brought their own food and food cultures with them. This is all the better for us American foodies because we get to sample to best cuisines from all across the world. Some foods have become truly American staples, though, contributing to the world's recipes. American Potato salad join the ranks of such tasty dishes as New England clam chowder, meatloaf, and jambalaya. It's also a great cold salad, so you can enjoy it all summer long, not just on July 4th.

Equipment Needed
vegetable peeler
kitchen knife
cutting board
sauce pan
baking sheet
measuring spoons
mixing bowl

6 medium potatoes
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup bread and butter pickles
2 tablespoons of the pickle juice from the jar
2 tablespoons yellow mustard
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup sour cream
3 green onions
1 medium celery stalk
3 eggs, hard-boiled

Wash and peel the potatoes. Cut them into 3/4 inch pieces. Place them into a large saucepan with enough cold water to cover them by about 1 inch. Bring it to boil, add 1 teaspoon of the salt, reduce heat to medium low. Cover and simmer for about ten minutes, or until the potatoes are fork tender. Do not overcook, or they will be mushy.

While the potatoes are boiling, you can make the dressing. Finely chop the bread and butter pickles, and put them in a mixing bowl. Finely chop the green onion and celery and add to the pickles. Add the mustard, reserved pickle juice, mayonnaise, sour cream, remaining salt, and pepper. Mix thoroughly and set aside.

I bottle my own bread-and-butter zucchini pickles, based on a recipe from my great grandmother. I think they're fantastic for this.

When the potatoes are done, drain them thoroughly and place them on a baking sheet. If you'd like, drizzle a bit of the pickle juice on them and toss evenly. Refrigerate the potatoes until completely cool.

This is a trick I learned from Cook's Country magazine, the sames folks behind America's Test Kitchen. They can't claim it as original, either. The French do it with their potato salads.

Add the cooled potatoes to the dressing and gently mix with a rubber spatula. Cover and refrigerate until well chilled, about 30 minutes. Chop the boiled eggs and mix them in before serving.

Makes 6 – 8 servings.