Month: January 2015

Tapioca, Arrowroot, and Cornstarch – More Food Thickeners

I grew up using three starch thickeners that I haven’t worked with in a while. Arrowroot was used primarily in coconut pudding, cookies, and healthy porridge. Cornstarch bulked up Indian-Chinese dishes, and tapioca helped to set both sweet and savory food. As I tried to perfect roux with white flour and butter last week, I decided to revisit the three starches of my childhood.

Tapioca, arrowroot, and cornstarch have distinct properties. All three starches are neutral in taste and have a lighter, more powdery texture than flour. They can replace flour to thicken a stew or gravy and glaze a fruit pie. Tapioca and arrowroot are being rediscovered because of their gluten-free properties and are now commonly available; choosing between them depends on the type of ingredients needed for a dish. If the ingredients are acidic, then tapioca and arrowroot starch are preferable. If the dish is dairy-based, use cornstarch. Unlike flour that makes sauce opaque, tapioca, arrowroot, and cornstarch offer glazes that range from clear to glossy. Depending on whether a chocolate pudding benefits from shimmering glaze (use arrowroot), a fruit pie from a clear glaze (use tapioca starch), or creamy soup from a translucent glaze (use cornstarch), these starches offer a variety of ways to present the final dish.


What all three starches do have in common is that none of them can be added directly to a hot stock or liquid. They should first be mixed with equal parts water to form a watery mixture called slurry. The slurry is then added to the simmering stock and whisked continuously so that the starch gelatinizes and thickens. The slurry prevents the starch from clumping together. As with all starch thickeners, the key to achieving a smooth rich stock is to continuously whisk the starch so that the mix does not taste floury, until you reach the right consistency. Be mindful of overcooking.



Arrowroot Starch Cassava/Tapioca Starch Cornstarch
Source From a ginger-like rhizome From a root tuber From endosperm of corn
Slurry Mix in cold liquid Mix in cold liquid Mix in cold liquid
Substitution for 1 tbsp. all purpose flour 1 ½ tsp 1 ½ tsp 1 tbsp
Best for Fruits or similar highly acidic medium Fruits and similar acidic medium Dairy-based medium
Cooking times  Cannot be cooked for long periods, best below boiling point. Does not do as well as tapioca with dishes that have to be frozen. Does not do well reheated, so add just before needed. Cannot be cooked for long periods. Good for dishes that are going to be frozen, like a fruit pie Can be cooked for longer periods than the other two. Does not do well when the dish has to be frozen
Appearance of Final Dish Shiny glossy glaze Clear glaze  Translucent glaze



Coconut-Chocolate Pudding with Arrowroot

Organic unsweetened coconut milk – 1 ¾ cup

Cocoa powder – 4 tbsp

Semi-sweet chocolate morsels – 5 tbsp

Arrowroot powder – ¼ tsp

Salt – ½ tsp

Sugar – 2 tbsp

Cinnamon and nutmeg (freshly powdered) – ½ tsp

Crushed arrowroot biscuits or sugar cookies – topping

  • To a ¼ cup of coconut milk, add cocoa powder and cinnamon, nutmeg powder and arrowroot. Mix well to form the slurry.
  • Bring the remaining coconut milk to a simmer.
  • Add salt and sugar to the warm coconut milk. Stir to dissolve.
  • Take ½ cup of simmering liquid and mix well with the slurry. Add this mixture back to the simmering coconut milk. Whisk for a minute. Add the chocolate and continue whisking until it starts becoming thick, about 30 seconds or so. Remove immediately from heat.
  • Pour into ramekins and chill for 8 hours or more.
  • Before serving, sprinkle the crushed cookies on top.


Food Thickener: The Final Step in Making Gumbo

Struggling to make sense of the religious disconnect in the news, I tried to offset it with a food analogy that works – Gumbo. A stew that originated in the south, the Creole gumbo is a blend of several cultures (West African, French, and Native American) and culinary influences (Spanish and German). The success of all the variables coming together is in the final step, the addition of a thickening agent.

A food thickener or agent is usually added at the end of cooking to enrich the stock. There are several options to condense the cooking liquid: reducing the liquid to a concentrate in order to intensify its flavor (such as a wine reduction); bringing it to a velvety-smooth consistency by adding cream, whisked egg yolk or yogurt; or adding a starch, such as cornstarch, tapioca, arrowroot, or flour.

There are three ways to thicken gumbo, but the most commonly used method is to add roux. Roux, which is made with equal parts flour and butter and slowly cooked over low heat, is added to hot gumbo stock. The starch in the flour breaks down to become gelatinous, and gives heft to the stock without altering the flavor. Mastering the roux is key to making a good gumbo. The roux starts out as pale-cream in color, and is the base for béchamel or white sauce for soups. When the flour and butter continue to cook further it turns a warm toffee color. This darker roux is less of a thickener than its paler counterpart, but imparts a nutty flavor associated with gumbo.



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The other two methods of thickening gumbo stock are using filé (dried sassafras leaves) or simply letting okra and the vegetable trifecta of onions, bell pepper, and celery cook down. There are meat gumbos with Andouille sausage, chicken, and turkey or shellfish gumbos with shrimp and crab. Gumbo is both haute cuisine and an everyday meal. My interpretation (as I cannot call upon a family recipe) of the dish was made with essential gumbo ingredients that I had at hand.


Shrimp Gumbo

Flour – 4 tbsp

Unsalted butter – 4 tbsp

Shrimp – 1 ½ lb, with heads and shells

Vegetable oil – 3 tbsp

Onion – 1, diced

Garlic cloves – 3, minced

Okra – 10 pods, sliced lengthwise

Bell pepper – 1, diced

Celery – 3, diced

Tomato – 1, diced

Bay leaves – 2

Dried thyme, oregano, basil – ¼ tsp each

Cayenne pepper and paprika – ¼ tsp each

Salt and pepper – ½ tsp each

Green onions – 3, chopped (garnish)

Cooked Rice – as accompaniment


  • To make the roux: Heat a cast iron pan. Add the butter. When it melts, add a tablespoon of flour at a time, stirring and incorporating it into the butter. Keep stirring on simmer. As the roux cooks, it loses the floury taste. The color changes from white to cream to brown, and the aroma from sugar cookie to toffee. Once it has reached a deep brown, remove the roux from the heat. Keep aside.
  • Shell and de-vein the shrimp. Reserve the heads and shells. Make a shrimp stock by adding the heads and shells to 4 cups of water. Bring to a boil. Cook on low for about 20-25 minutes. Skim off the scum that rises to the surface. Keep aside.
  • Heat the oil in another pan.
  • Add the onion to the hot oil. Sauté until they are lightly browned.
  • Add the garlic and okra and sauté for a minute.
  • Add the bell pepper, celery, and tomato to the mixture. Cook on low for about 5 minutes, stirring so that the okra is crisp.
  • Add the herbs, salt, and pepper.
  • Add the hot stock and continue to cook for about five minutes. Add the roux a little at time, stirring continuously so it is incorporated into the stock.
  • Add the shrimp and cook for a minute on each side. Remove from heat as soon as the shrimp turn firm and pink in color.
  • Serve with cooked rice. Garnish with green onions.







Looking A Gift Horse In The Mouth: My New Spiralizer

Other than owning a basic food processor and blender, a spice/coffee grinder, and a coffee machine, I tend to stay well away from kitchen gadgets. I prefer to improvise with tools that I already own. On the other hand, the rest of my family loves gadgets. When N. decided that the family needed a present for the holidays, I ended up with a Spiralizer!

A Spiralizer is a simple cutting tool; a hand-held device with blades that slice vegetables into strands of varying thickness and length. Although I was a little reluctant to add another gadget that would take up shelf space, now I cannot seem to stop spiraling vegetables. Instead of grating them in a food processor, I added carrot ringlets to make carrot cake for a birthday celebration. I served long strands of zucchini noodles instead of crystalline rice noodles with stock from last week’s Vietnamese soup, Chicken pho. (As befits a coincidence, the Williams-Sonoma catalog arrived in the mail with a catchier title than I thought of: faux-pho). I also made curly zucchini fries dousing them liberally with herbes de Provence.


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Surprisingly, I’ve been inspired by the Spiralizer and have been substituting all kinds of ingredients with ribbons and curly strands of vegetables.  Zucchini was the winner this week – replacing spaghetti to be served with meatballs, cabbage in coleslaw, and green papaya in a Thai salad.

IMG_2684 IMG_2688 IMG_2693

Semolina Gnocchi (Part 2)

I had previously written about the semolina grain and how it appears and tastes differently in North African and Middle Eastern couscous and Indian uppamav contexts. The semolina granules used in couscous and uppamav have a distinctive texture. Adding vegetables or meat to the dish make them both substantial meals. Semolina flour, on the other hand, is smooth much like regular flour. It is used to make both bread and pasta.

Semolina flour is made from the inner endosperm of durum wheat which is  yellow in color, and the resulting flour has a pale yellow hue. The flour is commonly used to make gnocchi. As N. is a big fan of gnocchi, I waited for her to come home to make potato gnocchi with semolina flour. The recipe uses rich ingredients resulting in a decadent and creamy gnocchi. Baked gnocchi can  be eaten on its own, warm from the oven! Alternately, serve with fresh tomato sauce.


Baked Potato Gnocchi

Potato – 1 large, boiled

Semolina flour – 1 cup, plus ¼ cup for dusting

Milk – 4 cups

Nutmeg powder – ½ tsp

Egg yolks – 2, whisked

Egg – 1, whisked

Butter – ¾ cup, room temperature

Parmigiano Reggiano cheese – ¾ cup + ¼ cup, finely grated

Sage – 10 leaves, finely chopped

Parchment paper

Metal grater

  • Using a metal grater, grate the boiled potato into a large bowl. Keep aside.
  • Bring the milk to a simmer in a large pan.
  • Add the semolina flour and nutmeg to the milk. Mix well, removing lumps with a wooden spoon. The mixture should be smooth. Cook for about 7-8 minutes, stirring continuously so the mixture doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.
  • Remove from heat. Add the butter, egg yolks, egg, and ¾ cup grated cheese and combine.
  • Add chopped sage and grated potato. Mix with a light touch to form a dough ball. Roll out the dough on parchment paper, about 1 1/2-inch thickness. Refrigerate for an hour.
  • Dust a clean surface with a little flour.
  • Take a small amount of dough and start to roll between your palm and then on the clean surface to make a 4-5-inch-long log. Use a light touch.
  • Cut into small pieces (about 1-inch). Make a small dent (collects the sauce later) in each piece with your pointer finger. Place the small pieces on a parchment paper. Or, use a cookie cutter or a tea strainer to cut out different shapes.
  • If you are not cooking right away, freeze the gnocchi. It can be baked from frozen.
  • Otherwise, sprinkle the remaining grated cheese and bake it at 425°F for 25-30 minutes. The gnocchi should have a light brown crust.
  • Serve immediately.




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