Month: June 2014

Caramelization: A Process That Starts as Science and Ends as Culinary Art

I planned to use the market’s abundance of berries, apricots, plums, and nectarines in both a salad (fruit combines well with sharpness of endives and firm slices of kohlrabi) and a fruit pie, for my friends this weekend.

I am not a good baker; I tinker with proportions to cut out extra fats and sugars and use shortcuts whenever possible. This time, I was determined to follow the rules to make short crust pastry, the base for my fruit pie. It took me a few tries using 1 cup of flour, 4 oz of butter (my first trial with ½ butter + ½ lard was abandoned, as I left it longer than the recommended 30 minutes in the fridge and it turned hard), and ice-cold water to make a soft pastry. I rolled out the pastry into a circle and brushed it with beaten egg yolk, so that the juice from the fruit wouldn’t seep through the pastry. I piled apricots, raspberries, black currants, and blueberries, mixed with ½ cup of sugar, onto the pastry. Finally, I brushed the fruits and pastry with whisked egg-white coating, and dusted everything with a little more sugar. I folded the edges of the pastry up toward the center, so that the fruits were secure in a pie basket, and set it to bake at 400°F. That was when things fell apart.

The nutty, smoky aroma of caramel wafted through my kitchen much before the recommended 35 minutes was up. When I checked, the pie was brown and the fruits soft and gleaming, but there were blobs of glowering, brown, syrup that bubbled and hissed in the corners of my oven! I didn’t count on caramelization, the complex process when the sugars in the fruits melt at high temperature. The water (juice) from the fruit first foamed before condensing and spilling over the pastry, which had me scraping the hot oven (melted sugar hardens and becomes much tougher to clean when cooled) with gloves and a long wooden spoon. The fruit pie wasn’t as sweet as I expected, as I had scrimped on the sugar having assumed that the sweetness of the fruit would be enough. However, the kitchen smelled rich with flavors of childhood – spun sugar and caramel pudding!

I had much more success when I caramelized onions for the onion dip.  Managing the unhurried process to draw out the sugars from the onion is easier in a pan. The resulting amber, gooey onions can be enjoyed in a variety of ways. I have had caramelized onions with melted Brie in a sandwich at a friend’s restaurant. I have also added them as a burger topping with crumbled blue cheese, and as a garnish in rice pilaf.

Caramelized Onions

Spanish onions – 2

Olive oil – 6 tbsp

Unsalted Butter – 4 tbsp

Salt – 1 tsp

Pepper – ½ tsp

Chili powder –1/4 tsp (optional)

  • Slice the onions into halves, and cut each half into thin slices on the diagonal.
  • Heat the oil and butter in a large pan.
  • When the butter starts to bubble in the pan, add the sliced onions.
  • Let the onions cook for a minute on high heat before adding the salt, pepper, and chili powder. I do like chili powder; it adds a nice warm red hue to the onions.
  • Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring the onion slices frequently.
  • Reduce the heat to medium and let the onions cook slowly for about 20 minutes. Stir occasionally.
  • The onions reduce in volume considerably. If they haven’t yet reached a reddish-golden color, turn up the heat and continue to cook, stirring constantly for another minute.
  • Cool and store in a refrigerator if not using immediately.


Onion Dip: Combine and whip until smooth ¾ cup each of mayonnaise and sour cream. Add in the caramelized onions. Season to taste. Serve with celery, endives, and carrots.

Onion Soup: Once the onions are a reddish brown color, add stock (wine, if desired), thyme, and bay leaf. Cook for another 20 minutes. Just before serving, float a broiled/toasted cheese slice on the soup.


Do I Need A Wok? What Can I Make With Chicken?

My friend remarked that I tend to favor the wok for most of my cooking (at least in this blog!), and wanted to know if there is any advantage to using a wok over something like a round-bottomed sauté pan.

I find that the design of a wok is more versatile for different styles of cooking. For example, all the finely slivered vegetables of a stir-fry dish come into contact with heat at almost the same time, rendering them crisp and perfectly cooked. The round bowl-like base of a wok  heats up quickly, and all that is required is deft movements of the spatula to lift and mix the ingredients to distribute the heat evenly through them. By the same token, sautéing vegetables or cubes of chicken are similarly effective, with an added advantage. The spacious rim of the wok acts like a warming tray, allowing you to pile almost-cooked vegetables on the side as you wait for ingredients that need a little longer time (chicken) to finish cooking. Once the chicken is cooked, slide down the vegetables from the rim and mix – easy! The shape of the wok’s base also allows one to use less oil, and cooking healthy flavorful meals is something I strive for daily.

Tools and equipment are only as good as how often you use them. Use what you have, and if it works, don’t swap it out. N. went off to her summer job with last year’s grab bag of basic kitchen equipment (see: Outfitting A Student Kitchen). Experience has taught her that she could save money and remain healthy if she cooked most of her week’s meals over the weekend. (I totally approve, of course). Her question for this summer was: What are some ways to use the ubiquitous chicken breast?

The following are versions of recipes that I have used over the years. I adapted them here to use the four chicken breasts that come in a packet. All the recipes use just a few fresh ingredients (as it is wasteful to buy many types of spices/sauces for a short-term summer stint), with fresh aromatic herbs highlighting the simple flavors. Additionally, they can be all prepped, cooked, and frozen on the same day.


Chicken with Red Peppers

Chicken breast – 1, cubed

Red pepper- 1, chopped

Onion – 1, chopped

Garlic – 3, peeled and sliced

Basil or parsley – ½ the bunch

Oil – 2 tbsp

Salt and pepper – to taste


Heat the oil in a wok or pan.

Add the onion and cook until soft.

Add the garlic and cook until lightly browned.

Add the red peppers and chicken and stir-fry until the chicken is browned. Lower the heat and cook for about 15-20 minutes, turning and checking that the pieces are uniformly browned.

Add the herbs and season to taste.

Serve with pasta.



Baked Chicken with Parsley

Chicken breast – 2

Egg – 1

Garlic – 3 cloves, minced

Breadcrumbs – 2 tbsp (can use stale bread that has been toasted/baked and crushed)

Parmesan cheese – 2 tbsp

Parsley – 2 tbsp, chopped

Oil – 3 tbsp

Salt and pepper – to taste


Whisk the egg and add in the minced garlic.

Add the whole chicken breasts to the egg and garlic mixture. Cover with saran wrap and leave it in the refrigerator for about three hours.


Heat the oven to 350°F.

Place a foil-covered pan with the oil in the oven.

Mix the parsley with the breadcrumbs, and season with salt and pepper.

Lift the chicken gently from the egg mix, keeping as much of the egg and garlic coating on it as possible.

Place it on the breadcrumb mixture. Cover generously.

Put in the heated foil-lined pan. Cook for 25 minutes each side.

Serve with vegetables.




Grilled/Broiled Chicken

Coat the last chicken breast lightly with oil. Season both sides with salt and pepper.

Broil in an oven for 20 minutes on each side.

Serve with broiled whole tomatoes (topped with Parmesan cheese and basil) cooked alongside the chicken (20 minutes).

Alternatively, cut the broiled chicken into strips and add to a Caesar salad.

Farmer’s Markets – Relationships you can count on

I look forward to Wednesdays in June, as this is when my neighborhood farmer’s market erects its stands. It is a time to renew acquaintances with the familiar faces and discover unfamiliar local produce. My goal for the next three months is to expand my repertoire with untried produce.

Last year, I discovered an unexpected mouthful of Eastern fruit flavors (floral, sweet, and tangy like mangosteen or lychee) in the winter cherry. This small berry, protected in a pod that makes the fruit look like a green lantern, first grew in Europe and China. It appeared in my local farm stand at the end of August, and that brief tryst had me scouring my local grocery store for the rest of the season – unsuccessfully!

The season for the unfamiliar is short-lived, and farmers are eager to showcase their produce to consumers. When you are a regular, they will usually let you sample the unusual – in my case, the farmer handed me a winter cherry and showed me how to pop open the lantern-like cover and slip the fruit directly into my mouth. The flavors were unexpectedly refreshing; I ended up buying the container. Another time, I came across these long curly green stalks, which I would have passed on at a grocery story, not knowing what to do with them. The farmer’s daughter, a young college student who was helping her parents, snipped a small piece so I could smell their garlicky aroma. Since then, I have experimented with garlic scapes whenever they are available ( usually in late spring before the stalk is cut so that the nutrients go to the garlic bulb). I substitute the scapes for garlic, mince and add them to a salad, or simply grill them.

On Wednesday, I picked up spring onions, garlic scapes, and snow peas (mangetout or snap peas) – there were stands with red chard, spinach, radish, and herbs in containers, before my final stop at the meat stand. I asked for goat, but Terry, who owns her farm and runs the stand with a homemade sign that says her chickens, goats, and sheep run free enjoying the sunshine, said that the animal was only 50 lbs and she had to wait for it to become 70lbs!

Over the years, I have been persuaded to try different varieties of tomatoes and eggplants, but the window of experimentation is small for some, such as zucchini blossoms, potent shiso (perilla) greens used in Japanese cuisine or dandelion greens. I hope that you add a few new favorites this season and  make some new friends along the way!


Fresh Homemade Cheese — Paneer, Ricotta, Queso Blanco

I came to enjoy cheese late in life, and the cheese counter is still not a place I gravitate towards in a grocery store. When A. suggested a trip to a mozzarella factory in Sorrento, I was hesitant at first. However, I was sold on the idea when I heard that I would get a chance to braid my own mozzarella! Later, watching the third generation family members hover over metal vats that spun churned milk curds (rennet had already been added earlier to the milk), and as a steady of stream of locals popped in to pick up fresh mozzarella, I knew that I had made the right choice.

The trip to the mozzarella factory concluded with a cheese sampling – 10 samples of provolone, fresh and smoked mozzarella, and caciotta, but it was the warm ricotta that took me down memory lane. The pearly-white ricotta curds scooped out from the vat reminded me of my mother’s fresh paneer, an Indian cheese. The cheese was fresh, light, and mild.

When I returned home, I was determined to make cheese to capture both memory and its fresh flavor. Here I was, a not-so-into cheese person, debating over each step in the process of curdling milk to get fresh cheese – from the best type of cloth (muslin vs. cheesecloth) to strain the curds, to the acidic agent (vinegar or lemon juice) that causes the milk to curdle and separate into curds (milk solids) and whey (yellowish-green liquid). I wondered if I should add salt or citric acid that would preserve the cheese or omit them completely as I planned to savor the cheese immediately.

I discovered that “fresh” cheese made throughout the world just differs in the choice of milk used – paneer is made from cow or buffalo milk, ricotta from sheep or cow’s milk, and queso blanco from goat or sheep’s milk. Ricotta is usually made with the whey from mozzarella – or other cheese – making process. This whey already contains rennet, the enzyme that helps coagulate milk to curds.

I planned to use the fresh cheese in three ways: ricotta to pair with summer berries, paneer with its traditional pairing of spinach, and queso blanco to use in an ensalada tricolore with avocado, greens, queso blanco, red peppers and tomatoes – the colors of the Mexican flag!

My grocery store had cheesecloth, lemons, and whole milk, and I opted to use the simplest and most easily available options for my first attempt.

Ricotta/ Paneer/Queso Blanco

8 cups of whole, unpasteurized milk

2 ½ lemons, freshly squeezed

  • In a non-reactive pan (stainless steel), bring the milk to boil slowly. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon, so the heat is distributed evenly and milk does not stick to the pan. This should be done patiently!
  • Check the milk until it reaches about 200°F (I used my meat thermometer, but if you have a candy thermometer, it is even better). At this point just before it starts to boil over (about 7-8 minutes), the milk should have just started to steam and become frothy.
  • Add the lemon juice. Keep stirring the mixture until the curds (white solids) form and separate from the liquid (whey). Try not to break the curds, just scoop them gently together.
  • Remove from heat immediately.
  • Strain the curds through the cheesecloth fitted over a colander. (If you want to experiment with whey, set a pan under the colander to collect the whey. Whey can be used to make butter or replace water in the recipe to soften pizza dough, flour tortilla, or chapatti.)
  • Grab the corners of cheesecloth and make a pouch over the strained curds. Squeeze out more of the liquid, by twisting the ends and making a knot. Tie it over the faucet and let it continue to drain.
  • Ricotta is ready to use after about 10 minutes. Serve with raspberries and blueberries stewed in a dash of an orange liqueur.
  • In order to make paneer: Once most of the liquid has drained out, set the cheesecloth with the strained curds onto a plate. Place another plate on top of it, and weigh the plate down with cans. Refrigerate for 2-3 hours. The cheese will compact into a rectangular shape. Slice it into cubes and add them to cooked spicy spinach.