Ask The Chef

Chilies For Summer

A. and N. recently commented that one of my recipes was tongue-numbingly spicy! I hadn’t taken into account my tolerance for chilies, and had assumed giving a range, between say 1-2 chilies in a recipe, would be a sufficient warning. The fiery heat in a spicy dish comes from both the number of chilies added and the type of chili used.

Chilies are available most commonly in red and green colors – the red chili is spicier than green, while the darker green varieties are hotter than the paler ones. The Scoville scale, which measures for the pungency in both chilies and other spicy food, can only serve as a guideline. For example, Carolina Reaper is now the hottest chili pepper available pushing bhut or ghost pepper down the scale; bhut when I was growing up was the hottest chili known and those who ate it were looked on with hushed admiration. Serrano, which I use, is three-quarters way down the chart, but obviously is still too hot for A. and N.

Heat receptors on our tongue feel the chili burn, and people with more heat receptors are more sensitive. A compound found in a chili called capsaicin is responsible for the burn or chili heat. As you build up a tolerance to spicy food (by eating more because you enjoy the kick), these receptors become less responsive. Why bother suffering to build up a tolerance? Chilies have anti-oxidant properties and provide vitamin C – roughly six oranges’ worth in one chili. The other advantage of eating spicy hot food (especially prevalent during these summer months!) is that the chilies cool you down more effectively. Chili heat increases blood circulation and metabolism, which increases perspiration – releasing heat and cooling down the body naturally.

Following some basic precautions, spicing up food with chilies is adding yet another flavor enhancer to a meal.

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Precautions:

  • The capsaicin gland is in the white pith-like tissue in the center of the chili fruit. Remove this spongy tissue along with the seeds attached to it for a milder flavor.
  • After chopping the chilies, wash your hands well with soap and water to prevent the burn irritating your skin.
  • If a recipe gives you a range, start with the smallest number of chilies in the range.

How To Tone Down A Spicy Dish:

  • Once a dish is cooked and tastes spicy hot, the dish can be saved by adding a teaspoon or two of sugar to counter the heat. Sour flavors are also known to reduce the heat. Add a little lime or lemon juice to the dish.
  • Dairy products also counter chili burn. In Indian meals, dairy products such as yogurt are added to the dish or served on the side. In Thai dishes, coconut cream serves to balance the heat. In Mexican food, sour cream is served with spicy guacamole and meat.
  • Drink buttermilk or milk with the spicy dish or eat a carbohydrate such as bread or rice to minimize the chili heat.
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Final Touches: Lattice, Herringbone, Rope, and Scallop edges

Food vendors in Latin America use different folds (crescent shape or rope edge) to seal off empanadas, creating a quick way to identify whether the filling is pork meat, beef, or vegetable. When making rope-edged empanadas, I realized that Indian vendors also use markers to identify whether the samosa pastry holds a vegetable filling (upright triangles) or meat (folded over triangles). The crimped dough of Cornish pasty started out for a more practical reason: The story goes that miners could hold the pasty by the thick crimped edges and eat right up to the meat-filled pasty. They would then discard the crust without worrying about having eaten with sooty fingers. A finishing seal, besides being practical, also adds a final flourish to a pastry dough. That dual purpose comes to mind given the start of pie-making season – think apple, pumpkin, pecan, meat, and fish. I decided to learn a few simple patterns to showcase pies with different fillings.

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For a Lattice Topping:

Cut ½-inch wide strips of dough, making sure that you have enough strips to cover the pie (~10 strips for a 6-inch pie dish). Lay half the strips across the filled pie in one direction, spacing them uniformly. Then lay the remaining strips uniformly at right angles over the first layer.

 

For a Rope Edge:

The simplest way is to cut two strips of pastry dough. Fold one over the other to form a rope pattern. Press it over the rim of the dough.

For empanada dough: Do not overstuff the empanada with filling. Leave enough dough around the sealed edge to make the rope edging. Use your thumb and index finger to pinch together a small amount of the dough. Pull it up and outwards before folding back over the sealed edge. Pinch a small amount of dough from where you ended before and repeat, overlapping slightly over the first fold. Repeat the pinching and folding pattern and a rope pattern emerges. If the folds are not tightly overlapped, you will get a crimped edge.

For a Scallop Edge:

Trim the dough to be level with the edge of the pan. Shape the dough to stand up against the rim. Pinch a piece of dough from outside of the raised edge between the left index finger and thumb (3/4-inch apart). Using the right thumb, push pastry from the inside toward the fold created by the left thumb and index finger to form a scallop.

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For Herringbone Edge:

Trim dough to be level with the edge of the pan. Dip a fork in flour and press the tines of the fork into the edges of the dough or pastry. Dipping the fork again into the flour, press into the dough, this time rotating the fork so that it faces the other way — creating a herringbone design.

 

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Enjoy finishing your pies!

How to Debone and Enjoy a Whole Cooked Fish

Having grown up near a coast, I love the smell and taste of freshly caught fish – a hint of an ocean spray. (Remember: fresh fish should have no other smell!).  Although my preference is for saltwater fish, I wasn’t about to turn down a recent offering of freshly-caught golden trout from a local creek. After all, this is the middle of the trout fishing season based on the dates (April 1st to October 15th) when  trout fishing licenses are issued, which means that the lakes, ponds, and creeks are full of golden, brook, brown, and rainbow trout. While I do enjoy trout, I am not adept at eating it cleanly off the bones. When A. mentioned an interest in learning how to cook and debone whole fish, I thought that I would record my husband demonstrating the process in just a few steps. He promises that they are easy to do!

Besides being cheaper pound for pound (whole fish vs. filet), a whole cooked fish served on a white platter surrounded by fresh greens and colorful vegetables looks impressive. Fish cheeks and fish head are prized delicacies in many countries as is the meat near the bones. Trout bones cannot be used for stock, but if you buy whole flat fish or other less oily fish, the bones can be cooked with white wine to make a delicate fish stock.

Trout is an earthy-tasting, plain fish, and like salmon it is an oily fish rich in the good omega-3 acids. Trout is available all over the world and cooks quickly on the grill or under the broiler. Here are some suggestions for cooking trout.

In England, brown trout is stuffed with parsley and lemons and grilled with a dash of olive oil, served alongside lightly-buttered boiled Jersey new potatoes.

Rainbow Trout steamed in a Chinese style: Marinate the fish in a mixture of soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, and sesame oil for about ten minutes. Steam for ten minutes with slivers of fresh ginger, scallions (spring onions), green chilies, and cilantro tucked in and around the fish.

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Scandinavian festivities include smoked trout on an open-face rye bread sandwich topped with crème fraiche, cucumber, and dill. Substitute the smoked trout with cooked trout or combine the cooked trout with crème fraiche and seasonings to make a fish mousse.

Get a whole fish next time you buy fish,  and ask the fishmonger to scale and gut it, removing the heads (if you prefer) and fins. Show off your new skills in deboning and enjoying a whole fish.

 

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.

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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.

 

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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.

HERBS and SPICES: Substitution or Omission

A. wanted to make the Fish in Coconut Sauce recipe from my last blog, but didn’t have any coriander powder. She wanted to know if she could substitute it with another spice.

A specific spice, like coriander, cannot be substituted with just another spice. Each spice has its own unique medicinal property – be it preservative, astringent, digestive, or antibacterial, as well as its own aroma. When the spices are combined, the aromatics act as flavor enhancers and work together to add depth to a dish.

However, note that a recipe will sometimes specifically label a spice as optional. This “optional” spice is used in negligible amounts and does not affect the overall flavor of that dish, in which case it can be omitted from the recipe. Alternatively, you can swap spices as long as you stay within the same family of spices. For example, if the recipe asks for black mustard seeds (available in ethnic stores), you can replace them with yellow mustard seeds (found in all grocery stores). They might lack the piquancy of the black mustard seeds, but they are in the same family of flavors. Cassia bark is cheaper than its distant relative, cinnamon, but it is coarser and less aromatic. Similarly, green chilies can be replaced by jalapeno, serrano, or scotch bonnet – depending on your tolerance for heat!

A spice can be a bark (cinnamon), the stigmas of a flower (saffron), a bud (pepper) a fruit (nutmeg), a seed (mustard), or an underground stem or rhizome (ginger). Herbs are the leaves and young stems of a plant, and in some cases, the leaves (coriander/cilantro) grow on a spice plant.

The use of spices and herbs started out in culinary history to flavor and preserve food at its optimum best at a time when refrigeration was uncommon. Spices and herbs continue to offer health benefits, keep food pathogens in check, and add zest to everyday foods. Herbs, like spices, were added to a dish because of their medicinal properties and fragrance. Tried and tested herb and meat combination such as rosemary and lamb, sage and sausage, or veal, basil and tomatoes have been passed down through the ages. As herbs are usually added toward the end of cooking, there is a little more flexibility with substituting herbs. However, it is important to choose similar flavors. Both rosemary and oregano have strong flavors, and work well with the equally bold flavors of meat or poultry. Chives are in the onion family and can replace leeks in egg dishes. Marjoram is a relative of oregano, and can replace oregano for milder flavored tomato-based sauces. Both rosemary and sage have a minty flavor, and can be used interchangeably with poultry dishes. If the herbs are added to a dish during cooking or are part of a marinade, stick to the recommended herbs in the recipe. Flat-leaf parsley and thyme can stand up to heat, and some herbs like bay leaf and sage develop spicier or deeper tones as they dry, so substituting a herb could result in unexpected outcomes.

Some common spice and herb mixes include Indian (garam masala, panch phoron, kaala masala, goda masala), Chinese (five-spice powder), Mexican chili powder, Ethiopian (bebere), Italian herbs, French (quatre-épices, herbes de provence, boquet garni), as well as mixed (pudding) spice, pumpkin pie spice mix, and mulling spices.

To summarize my answer to A.: Generally, omission is better than substitution. But, when whole spices can be purchased inexpensively and stored for long periods, and fresh herbs can be grown on a windowsill, why not use the originals?!

 

Ask the Chef: How to Clean and Devein Shrimp

This year, we incorporated the Italian Christmas Eve meal tradition of using seven fish into our holiday plans (upon A’s suggestion and some timely New York Times recipes). One of the dishes was roast shrimp with aioli (see the NYT recipe here) Preparing this feast meant that A. and N. had to look closely at the fish and shellfish that we were planning to use, and it turns out that they had the most questions about the shrimp.

It is almost always cheaper to buy whole shrimp (look for shrimp with firm flesh) and clean it yourself. I devein the shrimp before cooking. My mother would also do the white vein on the underside, but I have noticed that most cooks do not bother with this step.

How to clean shrimp:

  • Hold the shrimp with its head between your dominant thumb and two fingers, and yank firmly away from your body. Its shell should come off cleanly.
  • Next, position the tail between the dominant fingers and pull away from your body with a firm tug.
  • Remove the legs and all the other shells

Devein:

  • Turn the body so that the curved side faces you
  • Use a small, sharp knife and run it a quarter inch below the flesh
  • Carefully remove the black/brown string-like vein that runs the length of the skin
  • Rinse the shrimp.