Sunday, October 25, 2009

Dried Herbs - A Primer

Fresh herbs are generally better for things like salads and sauces, but dried herbs have an honored place in my kitchen. Dried herbs are often better in dishes like stews, casseroles, and other dishes that require long cooking times.

Unless you're growing your own fresh herbs, dried herbs are also more readily available in most supermarkets. They seem to cost less, too.

Dried herbs are also better for food storage. They should be stored in airtight containers, in cool, dark places. Sunlight and heat will compromise the flavor and quality of dried herbs, so keep them away from your stove until you need them. Depending on who you talk to, dried herbs can be kept this way for anywhere from a year, to five years, without significant flavor deterioration. If you've got containers of dried herbs older than that, get rid of them.

Dried herbs add great aroma, color and flavor. The drying process concentrates the flavors of the herbs, so you really only need about half as much when substituting dried herbs for fresh ones.

Here are six common herbs and one common herb blend I recommend for most pantries.

One of my favorite herbs to cook with, basil has a sweet and spicy flavor, with just a hint of mint – the dried form a bit more so than the fresh. Traditionally partnered with garlic, basil is used in salad dressings and long-cooking Mediterranean sauces and casseroles. Tomatoes and basil are match made in heaven. It's almost as if God had them both in mind during the creation.

Dried bay leaves have a pungent, resinous flavor and are well suited for long cooking times. They are excellent for inclusion in most stocks, soups, stews, and sauces. They are part of the traditional bouquet garni and are commonly used for infusing white sauces with savory flavors. They are also great with fish. I like to break them apart into a couple of pieces before adding them to a dish, to maximize the flavor. Just make sure to remove them before serving.

Dried dill is less pungent than fresh dill. It has a subtle, almost anise like tone. Traditionally it's used in marmalades, dressings, and other Northern and Eastern European dishes. It is excellent paired with cucumber (thus, the famous dill pickle), fish and root vegetables. I like adding a pinch to scrambled eggs.

Dried oregano has a powerful, almost spicy flavor. A variety of wild marjoram, oregano is used in many Mediterranean and Italian dishes. It's especially good with tomato dishes, pasta sauces, and sprinkled on pizza. It is also frequently used in Mexican cooking.

Dried rosemary has a pungent, spicy, almost refreshing flavor. Dried rosemary is different from most herbs, in that it is milder than its fresh counterpart. I love using it in casseroles and marinades for lamb, pork, or chicken. I like to toss it with roasted potatoes, too. It's common to many Italian dishes and is used to flavor many breads. What I don't like is how hard the spines of it can be. Crushing dried rosemary under a rolling pin easily solves this problem, and helps release its flavors. The aroma is intoxicating!

Dried sage has a subtle, slightly bitter flavor. It's good with most meats, especially fatty pork, duck, and sausages. I like using it occasionally with beef stew or as part of a rub for roasts. It can also be good with some egg and cheese dishes. Use it sparingly, though. Too much will ruin a dish.

Italian Herb Blend
A blend of common herbs, this is a great shortcut for adding flavor to almost any savory dish. Typically it's a mixture of marjoram, oregano, rosemary and thyme. I like using it in sauces, stews, and cooked tomato dishes. It's also great sprinkled over pizza.

I've got a spice primer posted around here, as well, if you're interested.

Photo by Tijmen van Dobbenburgh

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Quick and Simple Dijon Mustard Sauce - 200th Post!

It's my 200th post at Confessions of a Mormon Foodie! To commemorate it, wouldn't you know I'd post something as dirt simple as this Dijon mustard sauce. You'd think I'd go all out, or something. Not today, gentle readers. I'm too tired to go all out. Then again, that makes this easy recipe perfect for today.

In order to save time, I may cook up a bunch of things all at once, and then reheat and re-purpose them throughout the week. I don't always do this, but it does help me throw together quick meals when I don't have much time or energy. It also helps on those rare occasions when I just don't want to cook, but still want to eat something good and not resort to take-out.

The other day, for example, I had sauteed a bunch of chicken breasts. When I got home from work tonight, I just didn't have the energy to cook a whole meal for 5 hungry mouths, my own included. I didn't want a peanut butter sandwich, and I didn't want to order pizza. My girls do a fine job with boxed macaroni and cheese, but I wasn't up for that, either. What was I to do?

No worries. Quick meal time! I had cooked chicken breasts, frozen veggies, and a loaf of bread I'd made that morning. While the veggies were cooking in the microwave, I came up with this quick Dijon sauce for the chicken. After reheating the chicken and cutting some bread, I realized the whole meal had been thrown together in just over ten minutes.

Equipment Needed
Microwave safe bowl
Microwave (You had to have seen that coming, right?)

3 heaping tablespoons plain yogurt or sour cream
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard (a spicy brown mustard will do just as well)
1 tablespoon butter
pinch of sugar
dash of mixed Italian herbs
salt and pepper to taste

Mix everything together in a microwave safe bowl. Microwave on high for about 40 seconds, or until bubbly. Serve over cooked chicken, beef, fish, or just about anything else that you like to eat mustard with.

Was that quick (and simple) or what?

Makes about 1/3 of cup of sauce.
Yes, you could easily make this in a saucepan over the stove if you prefer.

Photo by Charles Thompson

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Killer Split Pea Soup

Split pea soup is a favorite around our house. It's certainly my wife's favorite soup and she likes it thick. Very thick. Thick enough you can patch holes in your roof. I like a thick creamy soup as well as the next guy, but it's is more like green Spackle. Delicious, creamy, green, Spackle.

I don't like making quite that thick. With autumn in full swing, and winter not too far behind, a hearty, warm, bowl of soup can be just the thing. Don't worry. This is my favorite split pea recipe, not my wife's. It can easily be doubled so you'll have leftovers the next day.

At the end of the recipe, I'll give you some tips on how to dress it up, and even make a very tasty vegetarian version.*

Equipment Needed
kitchen knife
Cutting board
large pot with lid

1 cup dry green or yellow split peas
4 cups of chicken stock
1 meaty ham bone, or 1 cup diced ham
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1 large celery stalk, finely chopped
1 small clove garlic, crushed
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon dried marjoram
salt and pepper to taste

Rinse and sort the peas. Combine all the ingredients in large stock pot and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat. Simmer for about one hour.

Remove the ham bone (if using). Cut the meat from the bone and chop into small pieces. Be careful not to burn yourself.

Return the meat to the pot. Give the bone to a friendly dog. Add salt and pepper as needed. I don't like salting it before hand because you can't be sure how much salt the ham will give the soup.

Cover and simmer for another 20 minutes, or until desired thickness is achieved. Remove the bay leaf and serve.

Makes 4 main dish servings.

This is still a pretty thick soup. You can dilute it with water or milk, if you like. You can also put it into plastic freezer bags and freeze it for later, if you like.

I love this soup because you can substitute so many ingredients to make variations. Any stock will do. You can even use water with a little bouillon. Try replacing the ham with crispy chopped bacon, either in the soup or on top as a garnish. Croûtons make a great garnish, or try a dollop of sour cream. Instead of marjoram, cumin makes a tasty variation as well. A shot of lemon juice can be interesting, as well. I've not tried it, but it just occured to me that a dash of wasabi powder would add a nice kick.

*Vegetarian Split Pea Soup
If you want to make a vegetarian version, use vegetable stock and omit the ham, adding one teaspoon soy sauce to the stock (optional). Add 1/4 cup chopped olives during the last 2 minutes of cooking for a surprisingly tasty zing.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

How to Cook Crepes

Crepes are amazingly versatile, very thin, pancakes. Although the word “crepe” comes from France, many cultures throughout the world have their own variations.

Not only cultures have their own variations, but different people, as well. Some people pronounce it “krape,” as in “grape.” Others pronounce it “krep,” as step. I suspect the former is the English pronunciation and the latter, the French. Most English chef's I watch on TV pronounce it “krape,” and reports it that way, too.

Different people have different batter variations, and even different levels of browning allowed. Some say it should be brown on one side, some say it should be brown on both sides, some more brown on one side than the other, and some say there should be no browning at all. My personal preference is brown on one side and, if it gets a little color on the other side, so be it. I'm not a purist when it comes to these things, but I do like a bit of caramelization when I can get it.

Speaking of not being a purist, crepes can be filled, folded, rolled or otherwise mangled, an infinite number of ways. I've filled them with cream cheese, fruit, sauteed vegetables, meat, eggs, and even peanut butter. They make a great dessert just sprinkled with powdered sugar.

The first time I ever tried crepes was when I was a young boy. My older brother had come back from a mission to Arizona/New Mexico, and made us an alcohol-free version of crepe Suzette. I still don't know how he lit the sugar cubes on fire. I don't remember seeing any liquor anywhere, bur I could be wrong.

I didn't have crepes again until I was an adult, and started making them myself. I'm no expert, and I don't make them very often. Recently, though, I made dinner crepes, filled with leftover ham and vegetables, for my oldest daughter's birthday. She's studying French in school and I like encouraging her, even it's with food.

This recipe is just one of dozens of batter variations I've found and tried. Most people think of two kinds of crepes, savory and dessert. Honestly, a basic crepe recipe can be used for either one. The only difference, here, is that I don't always add the sugar unless I'm making a dessert crepe.

Equipment needed
Measuring cups and spoons
Mixing bowls
Frying pan or specialized Crepe pan.
Plastic wrap

1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons to 1/4 cup sugar (depending on how sweet you want it)
pinch of salt
2 eggs
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons butter

Put the flour in the sieve and sift it into a mixing bowl. Add a pinch of salt, and the sugar to the bowl, and whisk together.

Break the eggs into another bowl and beat until scrambled. Add the milk and whisk together. Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and whisk until smooth.

In a small pan, melt the butter over medium heat until it quits foaming and starts to turn light brown. Be careful! The difference between lightly browned butter and burned butter can be as little as a few seconds. Remove the pan from the heat and quickly mix the melted butter into the batter.

Cover the batter with plastic wrap and let it stand on the counter for one hour. If you want to wait longer, put it in the refrigerator, and then let it come to room temperature before cooking.

I'm not exactly sure why crepe batter needs to rest, but I suspect it has something to do with limiting gluten formation. Maybe one of you gentle readers can tell us.

As for the rest, I leave you the following video. It shows how to cook the crepe in a crepe pan. There are all kinds of specialized pans available if you really want to check them out. I just use my skillet. It works just fine.

I've recently started using a technique I learned from Jacques Pépin's Complete Techniques. It requires one extra step, and seemed a bit odd to me at first, but it ensures that you're get a very thin crepe, regardless of the size of your pan. I'll have to share it with you, someday.

Photo by Wong Mei Teng

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Lime Dressing for Green Salads

This tangy citrus and lime dressing is very much like a vinaigrette, but it's not. It replaces the vinegar with lime juice. I got the idea from some Mexican salad dressing recipes I'd seen.

I really enjoy this dressing on simple green salads, but be warned. It's pretty tart. Still, I enjoy it as a bright and tangy alternative to a traditional vinaigrette dressings. As with all green salads, add the dressing just before serving so the lettuce won't get soggy.

Equipment Needed
Measuring Cups
Measuring Spoons
Cutting Board
Kitchen knife
Garlic press (optional, you can always use a knife)
Small jar with a lid, like a small canning jar

1 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley, or 1 teaspoon dried parsley
1 large clove of garlic minced
1/2 cup lime juice
3/4 cup olive oil (extra virgin is best)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

Chop the parsley, mince the garlic and put them both into a small jar. Add the rest of the ingredients. Seal with a lid and shake like crazy to mix. Taste, adding salt and pepper as needed.

Is that easy, or what?

Serve with green salad.

Makes 1 1/ 4 cups, or about 6 servings.

You can also make this in a bowl with a whisk, but I think a jar it much easier.

Picture by Rob Owen-Wahl

Monday, October 5, 2009

Simple Green Salad

My Mom used to make these kinds of simple green salads all the time. It's really just a grouping of fresh ingredients with lettuce as the base. Even though this kind of crisp, green salad is best suited for summer, I love this kind of thing all year round, especially when I'm pressed for time.

This variation features tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions, and radishes, but other raw vegetables can easily be varied according to taste and time of year. For example, I enjoy a little green or red cabbage from time to time, just to shake things up. As with all green salads, add the dressing just before serving so the lettuce won't get soggy.

Equipment Needed
Cutting Board
Kitchen knife
Vegetable peeler
Mixing bowl

1/2 cucumber
1 medium green bell pepper
3 medium tomatoes
8 radishes
1/2 red onion
6 lettuce leaves (Iceberg, Romaine, or whatever you like)

Peel the cucumber with a vegetable peeler, or leave the skin on if you like. Cut the cucumber into very thin round slices. Remove the seeds and stems from the green pepper and cut the pepper into very thin round slices. Alternately, cut into matchsticks. Remove the stem from the tomatoes and cut them into thin wedges. Remove the leaves from the radishes, discarding them or saving them for some other dish, and cut the radishes crosswise into thin round slices. Peel the red onion, cut it in half, and cut through the layers, separating them into thin, curved strips. Cut or tear the lettuce into fork sized pieces.

Add all the vegetables, except the lettuce, into a large mixing bowl and toss. If you're using a vinaigrette type dressing, toss in about 1 to 1 1/4 cup of the dressing with the salad. If you're using something thicker, like Ranch dressing, you can toss it in now if you want, but I prefer to wait.

Arrange the lettuce into six salad bowls or plates. Even divide the dressed vegetables between the plates, pouring any remaining dressing from the mixing bowl evenly onto the salads. If using a thicker dressing, now is the time to pour it on, about 1 or 2 tablespoons of dressing per bowl.

Makes 6 servings.

If you like spicy food, try adding a chopped green chili pepper.

Almost any kind of dressing will work. I'll share a citrus and olive oil dressing that I rather like, next time.

Picture by Andrzej Gdula

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Mighty Leaf Tea Top Brew Mug

The lovely people at Mighty Leaf Tea Company continue to amaze me. They keep creating interesting, and tasty, products that support tea culture. Recently, they sent me a brand new product of theirs to review, a Tea Top Brew Mug.

The Tea Top Brew Mug is essentially a traveling tea pot. It's patented Tea Top lid allows you to brew your tea wherever you go, and avoid over-infusing it. Anyone who's tried to brew tea, herbal or otherwise, when traveling to work has run into the problem of “what to do with the tea bag” once it's done brewing. This amazing lid allows you to simply pull up on the tea bag, removing it from the the hot water, and then holding it securely for you in domed recess until you can dispose of it properly. The double-walled stainless steel body keeps the tea quite hot for an incredible amount of time, but still allows for comfortable handling. The rubberized bottom keeps the mug quite stable on any surface.

It's also fits perfectly into the cup holder in my car. Bonus!

I was flattered that Mighty Leaf would send this to me. It came in a lovely box with easy to read directions for it's use and cleaning. They were also kind enough to send me a sample of their chamomile citrus herbal tea. I've never been a huge fan of chamomile tea, but I seriously have to rethink that with this tea. The orange tones against the lightly flowery sweetness of the chamomile is a perfect combination.

The design and concept of this “teapot on the go” is charming and clever. I enjoyed being able to enjoy a hot cup of rooibos tea while on my way to work, and not just at home. It was a nice change from my typical glass of milk, juice, or soda. The lid fits quite securely within the body of the mug, and the spent tea bag really does stay in place once you pull up on the string, pulling the tea bag away from the water.

Unfortunately, the things that make the brew mug so amazing are also what gave me the most trouble. The body acts so well as an insulator that the tea never did cool down enough for me to actually enjoy it during most of my drive to work. This may seem silly, but I travel 90 minutes each way to my day job. Having to wait 80 minutes to drink my herbal tea, without burning my mouth off, wasn't what I'd hoped for.

The irony that I want something designed to keep liquids hot to cool down faster is not lost on me. It really does keep the tea that hot, that long.

The metal body seemed to give my rooibos tea a slight metallic edge. Oddly, I didn't taste that with the citrus chamomile Mighty Leaf sent along with the mug so, I can't be sure it's the mug and not something wrong with the tea I bought. (I have to confess, I bought the rooibos at the grocery store. I need to stick to ordering from Mighty Leaf. Their organic rooibos is far superior to anything other rooibos teas I've tasted, and it's not any more expensive.)

The mug is not dishwasher safe. It's not a big deal to wash something like by hand, although I did have to make sure my kids knew not to put it in the dishwasher. I love the Mighty Leaf logo on the side, but it began to wear off very quickly, even after just a few washings. It's not completely gone, but it's sad to see the cute leaf/steam mascot half worn away.

My last complaint is little trivial, and one of them may be that I've simply missed the point. The spout on the lid seems better suited to pouring the tea into another cup than drinking from. I would completely fine with doing this, if I had a second cup holder in my car, or were simply brewing the tea in my car, or at work, with the intent of pouring the tea into something else to drink from. That may have been the point of this product, but I was really hoping it would work better as a travel mug that it did for me.

If you're looking for a tea pot you can take with you anywhere, this might just be the perfect solution for you. If you're looking for it to double as a travel mug after you brew the tea, it could be better. I haven't tried putting any other liquids in it, but I'm positive it will keep cold things cold and hot things hot, regardless of whether it's used to brew them. I just wanted to be able to enjoy the tea a little sooner.

2 1/2 zucchinis for the mug

3 1/2 zucchinis for the chamomile citrus tea