Seasoned Advice Blog The Seasoned Advice Bolg Wed, 01 Mar 2017 18:40:14 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Comestible Orange Goo: Making Purée from Fresh Pumpkins Wed, 31 Oct 2012 12:00:05 +0000 A pumpkin, wrapped at its base in a towel, with a meat cleaver halfway through.

It is autumn again, and cooks and bakers go crazy about everything pumpkin. Cream of pumpkin soup, pumpkin pie, pumpkin ice cream – all of these start out with the same ingredient, a soft mash of pumpkin flesh. And as with so many things, the one you make yourself is much better than the canned version from the store. This raises the question: how do you make a truly concentrated and tasty pumpkin purée?

The antagonists

Regardless of what you’re cooking using pumpkin—bread, soup, cheesecake, and of course pie are all options—your first obstacle is to use the right type of pumpkin: you must avoid the jack-o’-lantern pumpkins. Instead, look for the pie or sugar pumpkins. They’re generally much smaller, only a few pounds each. If you’re shopping at a supermarket, they have PLU code 3134. Cheese pumpkin and butternut squash are also great varieties for cooking; if in Europe, try looking for the local translation of the term “musk pumpkin” (from the Latin name Cucurbita moschata), which is a more generic name including multiple type of tasty pumpkins and squashes.

You can find more information about pumpkin varieties at Jack Creek Farms’ All About Pumpkins site, the University of Illinois Extension’s Pumpkins and More, and of course Wikipedia’s list of pumpkin varieties.

Once you’ve acquired good cooking pumpkins, you’re left with a few obstacles: the nearly impenetrable shell, the fibrous strands, and the 90% or more water content. Thankfully, with a few tricks, each is fairly easy to overcome.

The Results

Four pie pumpkins will yield about 50 oz (1.4 kg) of purée (a little over what you’d get in three cans).

Dramatis personæ

  • Jellyroll pan (often called a cookie sheet, with walls on all four sides)
  • Food processor (or something else to purée the cooked pumpkin)
  • Tea spoon, tongs, spatula
  • Kitchen towel
  • Mallet or hammer
  • Meat cleaver or other sturdy knife
  • Oven capable of 425°F (220°C)

Preparing the pumpkins for the oven

Preheat the oven to 425°F/220°C.

Opening the pumpkins

The easiest way to open a pumpkin needs three tools: a mallet (here, substituted by a hammer with a paper towel to soften the blow), a meat cleaver, and a kitchen towel.

First, wrap the towel around the pumpkin so it won’t roll off your cutting board.

Second, grab the knife in one hand and the mallet in the other. Position the cleaver on top of the pumpkin, and use the mallet to gently pound the cleaver in (as shown up top). Do not attempt to hold the pumpkin; that’s what the towel is for.

Finally, put the hammer down, and use the knife to finish separating the two pumpkin halves (the knife should be stuck in the pumpkin, and will sit there even if you let go of it). Once you’re through the pumpkin partway, its fairly easy to cut it the rest of the way.

The nice thing about this method is that at no point is any part of you in the path of the knife were it to slip, unlike the approach of trying to force the tip of a chef’s knife through.

Cleaning out the slimy fibrous strands

pumpkin gutsClean pumpkin

The next step is to clean out the fibrous strands and seeds that reside in the middle of the pumpkin. The easiest way I’ve found to do that is with a tea spoon. You can also separate out the seeds (and cook them) if you’d like, though personally I just scoop it all into the trash.

The stems usually break off fairly easily. Hold the pumpkin sideways in one hand, and snap the stem off with the other. If it won’t detach, give it some taps with the mallet or the cleaver. You’ll want them off so you can flip the pumpkins face-up later.

The robot A few seeds always fall on the floor, but I feed those to the robot—it seems to enjoy them. Just let them dry first.

Alternatively, you can stare at the seeds, they look fairly interesting up close.

Baking out the water

Pumpkins have a lot of water. Our goal here is to get rid of some of it, while also developing some extra flavor from browning.

The first bake

Tasty baked pumpkins

Oven temperature: I also tested 375°F for longer, but some juice on the bottom of the pan burned and the pumpkin took on an off-flavor. The texture was a better, but that didn’t matter after running through the food processor. There may be potential in the lower temperature if you don’t have a food processor. I haven’t played with it fully.

I line a jellyroll pan with foil to make cleanup easier. Either way, lightly oil and then put the pumpkins face-down on the pan. Put on the middle rack of the preheated 425°F (220°C) oven and bake for approximately an hour, rotating halfway through if your oven isn’t completely even. Optionally, flip pumpkins face-up (using tongs, spatula, or even your hands if you’re quick) and bake until slightly browned (around 10 minutes). Take pumpkins out of oven and, if not already face-up, flip face up.

Reduce oven temperature to 350°F/175°C (second bake is done at lower temperature). Allow pumpkin halves to cool for 30 to 45 minutes. The taste should be pumpkin, but very weak (watery).

The purée

If you want to continue later: Scoop the pumpkin into a food container and refrigerate. Chilling in an ice bath should keep it fresh longer. The time for your second bake will be increased as the pumpkin will be colder to start.
Scoop the pumpkin out (it should basically fall out of the shell, which should actually be hard at this point) and put it into a food processor. Process for a good while, stopping once to scrape the sides. The pumpkin should have a texture similar to what you’d get out of a can at this point, but will still taste watered-down.

The second bake

Replace the foil on the jellyroll pan (or, if not using foil, clean the pan). Spread the pumpkin purée evenly across the pan. An offset spatula works well for this, but it doesn’t have to be perfect, so you can use anything convenient.

What if I cook longer? Testing, its possible to cook at least until its nearly as thick as tomato paste, but if you do so, the pumpkin flavor starts lessening. So, your best bet is to keep checking it and pull when the flavor is at its peak.

Put the purée into a 350°F/175°C oven. Unfortunately, the baking time at this stage varies a lot, depending on how thick the pumpkin is, etc. To gauge when its done:

  • When done, it’ll be slightly darker on top.
  • There is usually a crack or two running through it. Many more cracks will form as it cools.
  • It should be around the same thickness as canned pumpkin. Note it will thicken more as it cools.
  • And most importantly, it has a robust pumpkin flavor and no longer tastes watery.

Allow the purée to cool (continuing to dehydrate).

Storage and use

The pumpkin purée can be used immediately or packed in air-tight containers and stored in the fridge for a few days or the freezer for a few months. Note that if you freeze it, you’ll liberate even more water, and will probably want to let that run off (or soak into paper towels) before using the thawed pumpkin purée.

Do not attempt to can the pumpkin purée. It has too low acidity, so it is not safe when canned at home, even when using a pressure canner; commercial pumpkin purée is canned in special canners with much higher pressure, controlling for heat and acidity in a way not easily achieved at home.

Additional Photos

Additional photos can be found at (link to be added before publication).

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Curdling Beans Wed, 17 Oct 2012 12:00:08 +0000 Inexpensive and nutritious, and the stereotypical staple of vegetarians; few culinary concepts more quickly draw shudders from confirmed omnivores than does tofu.

Don’t shudder. Hear me out.

My first encounter with the snow white curd was while watching an episode of the Cosby show in the early 90’s. A progressive chef added an ingredient to the soup that Dr. Huxtable found abhorrent. An unmelting, white lump. What was this lump and why did Bill Cosby hate it somuch?

Tofu gets a bad rap. Touted as a meat replacement it is abused in everything from “burgers” to “scrambled eggs”. Applications that are as insulting to the unfortunate bean curd as they are to the poor soul who has to eat it.

Soy milk is similar in composition to cow’s milk and like cow’s milk it can be curdled and pressed into a curd. This makes tofu more similar to cheese than meat. Smooth and sweet, with fresh or sometimes nutty, overtones, Tofu is an interesting ingredient in its own right.

I recently found myself the accidental owner of a 25 pound sack of soybeans. Upon learning that they can’t be used in chili I had two options for them: either learn to make tofu or industrial plastics. A quick search revealed that many different ingredients are used to coagulate soy milk. Unlike the acid or rennet that are used to curdle cow’s milk, soy milk is curdled by means of various salts. Some were traditional. Others decidedly not traditional but more convenient. I could find no clear description of the differences in the tofu produced by the various coagulants. I, therefore, took it upon myself to try all of them and save you the effort.

You’re welcome.

The Experiment

  • A fresh batch of soy milk was whipped up and divided into six containers.
  • Each coagulant was dissolved into a small amount of water and mixed into the hot milk.
  • If a curd formed then it was drained and pressed with 2 kilograms of pressure for 2 minutes into a very small block of tofu.

The resultant curd and whey were weighed to make the process extra sciency! The results that matter, however, are entirely subjective. I poked and tasted each curd to determine differences in their flavor or texture.

Despite my best efforts, there are a great many variables that were not controlled for. The texture of tofu is partially dependent on how hard and for how long the curd is pressed. All the samples were pressed for the same time and pressure. Additionally some sources call for different concentrations of the various coagulants. All the samples used the same concentration of coagulant by weight. It is possible that by varying these variables that all the coagulants could have been made more similar.

Calcium Chloride (CaCl2)
Used in cheesemaking to repair homogenized milk structure and in brewing to alter pH.

Where acquired: Local homebrew store
Flavor: Slightly bitter and a bit nutty
Texture:Smooth and moderately tender

Nigari (Magnesium Chloride (MgCl2))
The traditional coagulant in Japanese tofu. It is part of what is left when sodium chloride is removed from seawater. Sometimes seawater itself was used as a coagulant.

Where acquired: The internet
Flavor: Slightly sweeter than other coagulants
Texture:More cohesive

Epsom Salts (Magnesium Sulfate (MgSO4))
Occurs naturally. Named after a spring in the town of Epsom in Surrey, England. Used as bath salts and as a laxative. Don’t worry- we won’t use that much.

Where acquired: Grocery store
Flavor: Slightly bitter compared to other coagulants
Texture:Slightly more cohesive than Nigari.

Gypsum (Calcium Sulfate (CaSO4))
The traditional coagulant in Chinese tofu. It is mined and used for everything from fertilizer to plaster.

Where acquired: Local homebrew store
Flavor: Sweet and ever so slightly chalky
Texture:Very smooth and extremely tender. More like silken tofu.

Calcium Carbonate (CaCO3)
Used as an antacid and chalk.

Where acquired: Grocery store
Flavor: N/A
Texture:Did not form a curd. Milk thickened slightly and became creamier but I could not tell if this was due to coagulation or just the chalk.

Lemon Juice
I hope I don’t need to explain what lemon juice is.

Where acquired: Grocery store
Flavor: Sour
Texture:Formed a grainy feathery curd. Several attempts with various concentrations failed to produce a good tofu.

An enzyme used to coagulate mammalian milks. I included this out of curiosity. As expected it had no effect on the soy milk.


Nigari, while more expensive and difficult to obtain, produced the best flavor. A little nigari goes a long way and my 1 pound bag of the stuff will last for years. In a pinch Epsom salts were much cheaper and worked almost as well.

So forgo the tofu burgers and your aunt’s Thanksgiving tofurkey and instead enjoy a delicious stir fry or even pan seared pressed tofu with apples and champagne vinaigrette. Just make sure to choose the right coagulant, because not all tofu is made equal. ]]> 1 Cherry, berry, nut (4/4) Wed, 10 Oct 2012 12:00:36 +0000 Berries and nuts

With summer gone, it is time to preserve the last fresh fruits for winter. The last part of the Cherry, berry, nut series will present three more unusual jams, all made from fruit available at this time of the year. While they may not seem as adventurous as the earlier rose petal and shallot jams, they all have a little extra which gives them a more interesting taste than the traditional fruit-boiled-with-sugar. Whether you use them as a homemade gift, or to brighten your own winter days with some fruit taste, they are a delicious treat worth making.

The ideas in the three recipes are not unique to autumn fruit. All three of them – adding nuts to the jam, making a freezer jam, and making a spicy jelly – can be applied to other types of fruit too, depending on what is in season.

Jam with nuts

Ingredients for pear-cranberry-almond jam

There aren’t many ways to add to the texture of preserved fruit. You are basically choosing between jam (a homogenous puree), jelly (juice stiffened to wobbliness) and preserves (pieces of cook-softened fruit embedded in one of the above, or in sugar syrup). If you want something with more bite than cooked fruit, the solution is to use nuts. They won’t stay crispy and crunchy, but their firmness still provides a good counterpoint to the soft jam, and the flavor they bring enriches the already tasty fruit.

You can enhance most jam recipes by adding nuts to them, just pay attention to select compatible tastes. It is always easy to choose classic combinations, for example papaya-pineapple-coconut. But some unusual mixes also provide a very tasty discovery. In the short time pomelos are available in supermarkets here, I always make a pomelo-kiwi-almond marmalade. Today’s jam offers a blend of autumn flavors – cranberry and pear, slightly accented by cinnamon, rounded off with the mild almonds.

Pear-cranberry-almond jam

results pear-cranberry-almond marmalade

  • 50 g almonds, blanched and peeled
  • 500 g ripe pears
  • 100 g fresh cranberries or 30 g candied cranberries
  • 25 ml apple juice
  • 15 ml lemon juice
  • 350 g sugar
  • 3 g ground cinnamon
  • pectin

Peel and core the pears. Cook them with the apple juice and lemon juice until soft. Puree them, add the remaining ingredients and cook until the cranberries split. If using candied cranberries, cook until the jam gels.

Freezer jam

Ingredients for mango melon freezer jam

If you never had freezer jam, you might wonder why somebody would waste freezer space on a food which can be stored in the pantry. The problem is that you have to sterilize jam before storing it in the pantry, thereby cooking the fruit. If you want to enjoy the authentic, fresh taste of the fruit, you have to store uncooked jam in the freezer.

As most other jams, freezer jam works with a variety of fruits. It is best for fruit which changes its taste a lot when cooked (for example, strawberry freezer jam tastes very different from cooked strawberry jam; for even better taste, try strawberry-blackberry freezer jam), or generally for very fresh tastes. The tanginess of the lime in a kiwi-daiquiri jam is much better fresh than cooked. The recipe in today’s post is an example of the former: melon is a fruit whose aroma breaks down quickly under heat, so the mango-melon jam is a prime candidate for freezing.

The recipe as described below should be made with HM pectin, and even then it doesn’t set as hard as usual, because pectin needs some heating to set well. If you prefer a firmer jam, or are using LM pectin, you should first simmer your pectin in a few tablespoons of water or fruit juice and then quickly stir in the hot pectin into the room-temperature jam.

Melon-mango freezer jam

results mango melon freezer jam

  • 200 g mango flesh (ca. 1 big mango)
  • 200 g honeydew melon flesh
  • 200 g sugar
  • 20 ml lemon juice
  • a pinch of fresh grated ginger
  • pectin

Puree the fruit flesh with the lemon juice. Mix the pectin into the sugar. Stir the sugar-pectin mix and the grated ginger into the fruit puree, pour into jars leaving some headroom for expansion and let it stay in the fridge for 3-4 hours, until set. Then move to the freezer for storage.

Spicy jelly

Ingredients for hot orange jam

The combination of spicy and sweet is not for everybody, but it still has ardent fans. Aside from classics like dark chocolate with chile, spicyness combines well with many types of fruit. It is important to remember that your goal is not to make your mouth feel aflame, but to add a new sensation without masking the existing taste of the fruit. Chiles are seldom added to jams, instead they are used to infuse fruit juice which is then processed into jelly or marmalade.

You can combine hot chiles with either fruit (spicy strawberry jelly) or vegetables (spricy green pepper jelly). There is even spicy wine jelly, made with white wine and thyme. Today’s recipe is for an orange marmalade, where the strong flavor holds up well to the hotness of the chile.

I am intentionally vague on the subject of chile peppers in the recipe; the variety and amount you choose will depend on how spicy you want the jelly to be. I would advise you to err on the sweet side, and re-simmer your juice with more peppers if it is not spicy enough for you.

Sharp orange marmalade

results hot orange marmalade

  • 1 kg oranges
  • 100 ml orange juice
  • 1-3 chile peppers
  • 250 g sugar
  • 15 ml lemon juice
  • pectin

Cut the chiles to rings, add them to the orange juice and simmer for 10 minutes. Strain the result and throw the chiles away.

Use a grater or a potato peeler to create thick strips of orange peel. Juice the oranges. Mix the chile-infused juice, the fresh juice, the zest strips, the lemon juice and the sugar and bring to a boil. Add the pectin and cook until gelled.

results together

From left to right: Mango-melon freezer jam, pear-cranberry-almond jam, sharp orange marmalade

This post concludes the series on jams and preserves. In a total of four parts, I have shown 11 ways to make jams different. I hope you found them a useful inspiration for your own jam experiments. And if some winter day the cold and the wetness seem to freeze you to the bones, go to your pantry and open a jar of those preserves – they can cheer you up from the dreariest winter depression.


  1. Not all jams in this series are certain to have the needed acidity for hot water canning! Measure their pH and if it is above 4.5, you can either use pressure canning or keep them in the fridge. For more information on food safety and canning, see this official information on canning safety
  2. I intentionally didn’t include pectin amounts in the recipes. The amount of pectin you use is dependent on the type and brand of pectin you buy. Use the guidelines printed on your pectin package, or learn more about pectin.
  3. If you want a small primer on the difference between jam, jelly and preserves, The Kitchn has a great article.
  4. If you missed the previous posts of the series, they are here, here and here.
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Cherry, berry, nut (3/4) Wed, 26 Sep 2012 12:00:01 +0000 Fruit

Fall is replacing summer, and the pantry slowly fills with preserves. The jams of the last two posts from this series give a wide variety of tastes. None of them are conventional — they range from the simple addition of spices to preserving produce most people don’t connect with jam, like bananas or even herbs. This time, only two recipes, but both are adventurous. Not because they are an acquired taste — it was love at first spoonful — but because they are very far from the usual expectation of jam. Don’t let that stop you, though. They are easy to make and delicious.

Vegetable jams


Ingredients for shallot jam

Many vegetables, especially members of the Nightshade family, tubers, and bulbs contain their own sweetness and can be paired nicely with sugar to create a great jams—no less sweet than one made with fruit. Both tomato confit and bell pepper jam are popular.

Vegetable jams can be made like fruit jam with just sugar, acid and puréed vegetables, or be more complicated, by conserving the vegetables whole in hot sugar syrup. Today’s recipe (adapted from David Lebovitz) is much more involved, marrying the flavor of many unlikely ingredients to create a delicious treat.

Shallot-beer jam

Shallot jam

  • 450 g shallots
  • 40 g neutral oil
  • a pinch of salt
  • a pinch of pepper
  • 100 g dark lager
  • 50 g sugar
  • 45 g honey
  • 60 g cider
  • 90 g prunes
  • a pinch of cocoa powder

Dice the shallots and the prunes. Sweat the shallots in the oil until translucent. Add the rest of the ingredients and cook until everything has caramelized.

The original includes cocoa nibs. They are not only harder to get, but I didn’t like their texture in the finished product, so I preferred a second batch which I made with non-Dutched cocoa instead. Feel free to go back to the original if you want some crunch to your jam. Also, the original did not specify the type of beer, but I find that the dark beer harmonizes with the caramelized onions better than a standard light lager.

Flower preserves


Ingredients for rose jam

Although less used in Western cuisine, fragrant blossoms are enjoyed as food in many parts of the world. Maybe the most common example which has entered our culture is jasmine tea. But flowers can be used in many capacities beside tea, and go especially well in sweet applications. There are jams made with violets and elderflower, but the queen of flower jams is made from the queen of flowers: the rose.

Traditionally, rose jam is made from the very aromatic Rosa × damascena species, which is cultivated commerically for culinary use and cosmetics, mostly in the form of rose water and rose oil. It can be also made with other rose species, but it is advisable that you get them from a garden. The roses in a flower shop may be treated with inedible pesticides and other chemicals. Besides, they are selected for beauty and tolerance for hard conditions (such as being cut and transported). If you have any choice between cultivators, go by fragrance strength. If your jam still doesn’t have enough flavor, you can add some rose water to the next batch.

Rose petal jam

  • 100 g rose petals
  • 300 g sugar
  • 200 g water
  • 15 ml lemon juice

Remove the petals from the flowers. Remove the stamens and cut off the harder yellow parts from the bottom of the petals. Cook a simple syrup from the sugar, water and juice. When it reaches 104°C, add the petals and leave it on moderate-to-strong heat until it reaches 110°C.


The jams

These recipes are good examples of how unusual jams can get. Even if you don’t cook them for yourself, I hope you enjoyed learning more about how to be creative in the kitchen. Have fun, eat well, and stay tuned for the last part of the series, which will take us back to jams closer to the mainstream.


  1. Not all jams in this series are certain to have the needed acidity for hot water canning! Measure their pH and if it is above 4.5, you can either use pressure canning or keep them in the fridge. For more information on food safety and canning, see this official information on canning safety
  2. I intentionally didn’t include pectin amounts in the recipes. The amount of pectin you use is dependent on the type and brand of pectin you buy. Use the guidelines printed on your pectin package, or learn more about pectin.
  3. If you want a small primer on the difference between jam, jelly and preserves, The Kitchn has a great article.
  4. If you missed the previous posts of the series, they are here and here


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No smoker? A $80 grill is enough for tasty pulled pork. Wed, 19 Sep 2012 12:00:31 +0000 Smoked meat at home


Hello! I’m wax, and today I’ll be talking to you about how to make pulled pork using nothing more than a Weber grill and a lot of patience (ok, maybe a few more things, but we’ll get to that). Usually you have a big honking smoker, or at least something more akin to a drum than a grill.

When a smoker is loaded with a heap of coal, it can be left to smolder for hours and will keep a consistent low temperature, while the coals in a grill will instead burn hot and quickly. However, through a bit of research, and some practice, I’ve found that there is a good way to heat my grill to 250°F and sustain it for hours. Using this “snake” method you can limit the amount of charcoal that is lit at any given time, and achieve consistent temperatures for ten hours without adding briquettes.

First, the Grill

Arrange the coals in a long chain along the outer edge of the charcoal grate. Start by lighting the beginning of the chain. The next coals in the chain will take a while to start burning, so you will always have a small amount of coal burning (the chain’s width) for a long time. A few pieces of wood placed at the beginning of the chain give the pork barbecue’s characteristic smoky flavor. Place about four sports worth of charcoal into a starter (in my case this is ~12 briquettes). When the coals are ready place them at the beginning of the chain (this is the side with the wood on top). Place a piece or two of smoking wood on the top of your hot coals.

Arrangement in the grill

The grill is ready

If you’re super concerned about getting your temperatures in the right range (and I highly recommend this if you haven’t tried this before) you can get a fryer thermometer and place it in one of the vents of your grill. This will give you a good idea of what your temp is without the need to lift the lid every time you want to check.

Once your grill is lit, put your grate on and close the lid. Leave the vents all the way open until you’re close to your desired temperature. I usually wait about 20-30 minutes. This is a great time to get your meat prepared.

Then, the meat

The most basic thing to do with pulled pork is to put a seasoning rub on it prior to cooking. This is what I do. I use a basic barbecue rub, the only modification that I make is to use slightly less cayenne pepper as it can get a bit too spicy for my family. It’s very basic, but compliments the smoked flavor of the pork very well. After my rub is prepared (in this case I had some left over from a previous cook) sprinkle it generously over the entire surface of the Boston butt. The amount of rub determines both the amount of bark you get when you are finished and also the spiciness of the final product so keep that in mind as you apply your seasoning.

Start with a heap of rub and spread it evenly on the meat

When I have the pork prepared I head back outside and start closing the bottom vents of the grill. One of the really important things here is to only control your airflow with the bottom vents. The top vents need to stay all the way open when we are smoking so that the smoke is free to escape. Not doing so can cause a bitter taste in the meat.

Time for patience

Once the smoker has settled into temperature (about ¾ to an hour after closing the lid), it’s time to put your meat on. Place your meat on the opposite side from the lit portion of coals. After doing this, make sure to place the lid vents on the same side as the meat. This will help limit the amount of both heat lost and air flow to the coals.

The meat during the smokingOnce the meat is on the grill, the most important thing you can do for the meat is to leave it alone. Every time you open the grill you let heat escape and increase the required cook time. This isn’t a huge deal with a small-volume grill, but it will have an impact. (If you have to look, you might try introducing a foil pie plate with some water in it to provide some additional thermal mass, and as a bonus also doubles as a catch tray for juices and rendered fat from the meat which make an excellent addition to a barbeque sauce).

grate flapGive yourself about 1.5-2 hrs/lb. The desired internal temperature is 190–200°F depending on how much chew you’d like the meat to have. I usually cook overnight, checking about every 4 hours to make sure that the meat is as far away from the currently lit coals as possible, and also that there are enough unlit coals for the cook to continue for another 4 or so hours.

To add more coals I purchased a grate that has flaps that lift up so that I can tend the fire underneath, however if you do not have this, remove the entire grate (with the meat still on it) and place it on some blocks (be super careful with this, the grate is very hot). Alternatively you can try to place coals through the edge of the grate using tongs (this is quite challenging).


There are several ways to check if your meat is done. In the past I’ve used both traditional or wireless thermometers. However, these days I look at the bone. When the meat has pulled away from the bone and the bone moves freely when moved back and forth then the meat is done and ready to come off the grill.When the meat is done, I pull it off the grill right onto a cookie sheet (this is easier than trying to pick up the meat with tongs or spatulas or basically anything else). To do this I lift on end of the meat up and slide the cookie sheet underneath it, then push the cookie sheet under the rest of the way. Carefully lift the cookie sheet off the grill. Cover it with a bit of foil to rest.

Meat ready for pullingThe pulled pork

After a little while your meat is ready to pull. Dig in and pull the meat apart. Depending on how long you let it rest (and cool) it will likely be very hot so be careful. Once your meat is pulled you’re ready to serve (feel free to mix a bit more rub into the finished product if you don’t think the flavor is bold enough).

My favorite way to serve this is on buns with coleslaw, chips on the side, sauce is optional.

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Baklava: A Matter Of Layers Wed, 12 Sep 2012 10:00:05 +0000 The prepared baklava

Baklava is a sweet Middle-Eastern dessert that is associated with a long and tedious assembly process. According to Seasoned Advice user Trey Jackson there is a faster way that is equally good.

I’ve been meaning to make baklava for the first time and I was curious to find out if this alternative method really did yield good results. To that end I made some baklava following the more traditional method and made some more, using Trey Jackson’s fast style. I used this recipe as a base for both.


We layer the phyllo with melted butter…

Chopped almonds

… and chopped almonds with cinnamon.

Half of my baking dish was layered with phyllo dough, with layers of melted butter and cinnamoned chopped almonds inbetween. The other half had a stack of phyllo dough sheets, a thick layer of nuts and another pack of phyllo dough, with melted butter poured over (as Tray Jackson advises).

Directly after assembling, you could see that the traditional one is higher, while I used the same amount of phyllo dough and nuts for both. Fresh out of the oven, the height difference was less, but still there. After pouring the syrup on top and letting the baklava cool, the height difference was bigger again. Now, more importantly: the taste test. Is the time-consuming job superfluous or necessary?

Since I used the same ingredients, the taste was very similar. The mouthfeel however, wasn’t. The top layers of the ‘fast’ baklava didn’t feel like individual sheets, more like a thick caked-together piece of dough which led to not as much crunch. This also made the baklava less steady and more likely to fall apart. Needless to say, this also contributed to the fact that it didn’t look as good as the traditional one.

Final result

Original recipe to the left, filling-in-the-middle to the right.

However, the assembling of the fast baklava was very rapid (it took me perhaps 2 minutes, if even that) and tasted certainly not bad, while the traditional method indeed asked quite some time but was great. I believe the time-enjoyment trade-off is an individual one. I wouldn’t make the fast baklava when having guests over, but I might do it when feeling lazy and just making it for me. It’s certainly better than no baklava.

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Shoestring Gourmet Part 2: Playing the Grocery Game for Keeps Mon, 03 Sep 2012 22:02:09 +0000 Shoestring Gourmet Part 2: “Playing the Grocery Game for Keeps”

cheese at the grocery store


Hunting grocery deals sounds about as sexy as taxes and laundry; however, purchasing food frugally needn’t just be just for frumpy housewives. I approach it as a game of skill and luck, always played for money. Play well, and you can afford those delicious, locally-raised tomatoes on a rice-and-beans budget! Most people are familiar with the basics: buy store-brand, get bulk discounts, shop stores with better bargains. But, how much of a difference do these strategies make?

To test these strategies, I decided to up my game by building a price book. I hit the road and gathered prices for staple goods at four local supermarkets. Each price book entry included the full facts: store, date, item, brand, quantity, and price. As a proper geek, I organized this into a database for analysis. Let’s find out how common sense advice stacks up.

Buying Store Brand:



Store-brand stuff was almost always cheaper than name brand, by about 26% on average, but sometimes as much as 50%. In many cases, the quality is indistinguishable from name-brand products. The only exceptions to this rule are when a store reduces prices on popular items to bring in customers, often taking a loss on the item in order to make profits on other things. These steeply-discounted items are known as loss-leaders, and coupon users often will stack coupons on top for additional savings. Other than loss leaders and applying coupons to sample-sized packages, “always buy the store brand” saves a bundle (unless you’re buying a lot of bacon, where store brand is more expensive).


Bulk Discounts:

Go big or go home, right? Well, not quite. Below we see the unit price of paper towels, versus the package size. As you can see, buying in bulk saves money on average, but pricing varies quite a bit. Stores are quite clever about pricing their packages; the tiniest sizes often carry a hefty “convenience penalty” of 30% or more, as we see above. The largest packages are in roughly the same price range as the mid-sized ones. While I use paper towels as an example because there are more package sizes available, I have observed that these principles hold true for other goods too. Grab that tiny package of flour or sugar if you must, but remember: you’re paying for the privilege of getting only what you’ll use right now!

Those enticing bulk buys at the warehouse stores come with the two hidden challenges, which make it important to use good judgement.

  • Spoilage: if weevils get into a 50 pound sack of flour, you’ll lose a lot more money than with a 5 pound one, and this negates any bulk-buy savings pretty quickly.
  • Storage: when buying in bulk, I try not to buy more than a 3-6 month supply of anything. Nobody wants to move house with 1000 trashbags and a roomful of toilet paper.

Despite this, bulk buys can still save you a lot of money if used right. I bought a 25 pound bag of flour dirt-cheap at a warehouse store, and thought it would never run out. Remember the apocryphal quote about how computers would only need 640k of memory? I was just as wrong. But what about 700 Ziploc bags? I’ve still got about 400 left from that deal. A price book can help you decide if you’re really saving enough money to justify buying enough supplies to provision a small army.


Store Pricing:

Minimum Unit Price By Store ($/lbs unless otherwise noted)
Item Name Aldi Kroger Food Lion Harris Teeter
Bacon $2.990 $3.973 $3.390 $3.000
Beef, Ground $3.190 $1.683 $2.660 $4.500*
Bread $0.680 $0.880 $0.696 $0.696
Butter $2.290 $2.670 $2.670 $2.770
Cheddar Cheese $3.580 $3.490 $3.660 $4.000
Chicken Breasts $1.690 $1.880 $5.327* $3.990
Chicken, Whole $0.890 $0.980 $1.390
Eggs (lrg egg) $0.124 $0.148 $0.258* $0.177
Flour, All Purpose $0.358 $0.398 $0.462 $0.538
Heavy Cream (qt) $3.780 $4.690 $5.980 $6.580
Milk (gal) $2.890 $2.990 $3.290 $3.490
Olive Oil, Extra Virgin (L) $6.980 $6.663 $8.193 $7.047
Onions, Yellow $0.563 $0.663 $0.657 $0.657
Pasta, Macaroni $0.845 $0.960 $0.990 $1.290
Potatoes, Yukon Gold $0.578 $0.918 $0.598 $0.998
Romaine Hearts (count) $0.663 $0.997 $0.927 $1.330
Tomatoes, Roma $1.352 $1.390 $1.290 $1.490

 *Limited buying options, had to use name brand or more expensive version than normal.
Green denotes lowest price in category, orange is highest price.

As you can see from the graph and chart, although some stores tend to be cheaper overall, each store has some items that it sells at the lowest price. For example, although Harris Teeter is generally more expensive overall, it has the cheapest bacon. In some stores, goods are sold in small packages. These smaller quantities seem more economical, but often mask higher unit prices. This practice is quite common at low-end stores making one wonder if the stores are trying to prey on the financial misunderstandings of their customers.  Further, I found that shopping at Aldi rather than Harris Teeter saves an average of 25%, assuming you pick the best value package at each store.



With the data above, we don’t get a set of hard and fast rules, but some useful strategies definitely emerge. Buy store-brand unless you have good coupons, and try to avoid the smallest package sizes. Each of these will save about 20-30% overall. If you set aside a little grocery budget every week, and know typical prices, then you can take advantage of sales and bulk discounts on nonperishable items. By comparison shopping and rotating which stores you visit, you can save a lot on expensive luxury items for fancier meals. Combining these strategies is enough to cut grocery costs roughly in half, and that’s how you beat the house and win the grocery game.

See also: Shoestring Gourmet Part 1: Menu Planning 

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Cherry, berry, nut (2/4) Wed, 15 Aug 2012 12:00:43 +0000

Summer reigns in full glory, and there is juicy, sweet fruit everywhere. Right now, I enjoy it in countless preparations—fruit salads, smoothies, hot pies and cool sorbets—but I know that in the winter, I will still long for this great variety of taste and flavor. Thus, I am making some preserves to last me through the cold season. But I don’t limit myself to old staples such as strawberry jam and apple butter. There is a rainbow of recipes available for fresh, unusual, quirky jams.

In this series, I present some of those unusual recipes. Some of them will probably surprise you, but dare to be different: I have tried them and they are all good. And even if you are already an experienced jam experimenter and know of all these tricks, take a look at them, for some inspiration if nothing else.

In Cherry, Berry, Nut (Part 1), I presented jams made from unconventional fruit (featured recipe: banana jam), jams where the taste is brightened with some good quality alcohol (recipe: blackberry vanilla bourbon jam), and aromatic herb jellies (recipe: sage jelly). This post presents three new ideas: Alternative sweeteners bring a nice touch of difference to otherwise ordinary jams. Spices transform a normal one-fruit jam to something entirely different. Finally, something highly unusual—not a jam at all—homemade treacle.

Alternative sweeteners

There is an endless variety of fruit you can use to make jams. But if you like a certain fruit (or have a garden full of it), it is a better idea to vary the other ingredients. Jam, being a mix of fruit, sugar and (tasteless) gelling agent, it is natural to try a sweetener with more taste than plain white sugar. You can employ almost any natural sweetener for jam making. (Artificial sweeteners should work if you use LM pectin, but this post is about getting maximum flavor, not minimum calories.)

You can use whatever sweetener you have at hand, replacing part or all of the sugar 1:1 by weight. I have found that recipes which replace ⅓ to ½ of the sugar give the best results: a nice additional flavor without overpowering the fruit. Some of my favorite combinations are the always-classic caramel notes of dark molasses in a pear jam, and the gentle flavor of honey in a blueberry-rhubarb jam. You can also get creative with the treacle discussed at the end of this post. But the example recipe today employs one of my favorite sweeteners: strong maple syrup.

Kiwi-grape-maple syrup preserve

  • 300 g kiwifruit
  • 100 g red grapes (choose large, seedless grapes)
  • 180 ml grape juice
  • 20 ml lemon juice
  • 150 g sugar
  • 150 g maple syrup grade C
  • pectin

Peel the kiwifruit and cut them to slices. Put the grapes in a bowl and pour boiling water over them. Peel the grapes and halve them. (It is as fiddly as it sounds. You can change the grape to grape juice ratio if you don’t have the time, just make sure the sum stays the same. Also, don’t fully blanch the grapes or they’ll be harder to peel, not easier). Mix the sugar and maple syrup into the juice and place on low-to-medium heat and bring to a simmer to dissolve the sugar. Add the prepared fruit to the simmering juice. When softened, add the pectin and cook until gelled. Avoid stirring, as it mushes the fruit pieces.

Spiced jams

A sweetener such as honey or maple syrup can add some lovely notes to a jam. A bouquet of spices can completely transform the character of a jam. I find that spices are best used with single-fruit jams, changing them from a boring strawberry jam into combinations we love from our favorite desserts such as strawberry-lime zest jam (add some vanilla for a fuller taste). And while pure apple butter is just a side to something else (if not outright demoted to egg substitute in muffins), cinnamon apple butter is almost as good as having an instant apple pie in the fridge (spread it on graham crackers for a crunch). The recipe featured here is courtesy of Sobachatina’s wife. She calls it “Christmas in a jar”, and I wholeheartedly agree with her.

Spiced apricot jam

  • 600 g pitted apricots
  • 60 ml fresh lemon juice
  • 300 g sugar
  • pectin
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped crystalized ginger
  • ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly grated ginger root
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground cloves
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground allspice

Puree the apricots. Mix everything together and cook until gelled.


Most people have never cooked it, but it used to be a staple a few generations ago. Treacle is nothing but very concentrated fruit juice, to the point where most water has evaporated. It is cooked to a temperature where pure sucrose would still be very light, without much taste. But the fructose and the other compounds found in unrefined fruit juice already change at these temperatures, giving the treacle tastes not found in a pure sugar syrup.

While you can eat treacle like jam, I see it as more similar to honey in its usage. It tastes great as a bread spread, but can also be used as a sweetener anywhere you could use more flavor than what pure sugar or corn syrup gives you. Try using it in baking, or to sweeten desserts or even drinks.

Making treacle takes lots of time and fruit, and the end product is slightly less fruity than a normal jam or jelly. So if you are buying your fruit from a supermarket, it is unlikely to become a common method of preserving fruit for you. But if you have access to large amounts of fruit—your own garden or a deal from a farmer who wants to move lots of fruit at once—it is a great way to reduce mountains of fruit to a manageable volume (in my case, I got 110 g of treacle per liter of juice, that’s about 2 kg of apples) while ending up with a product which is more versatile than just a bread spread. If you are sure that you won’t use it as a sweetener, you can make rachel by cooking pieces of dried fruit and/or nuts in it and canning it all together.

Traditionally, treacle was prepared from fruit rich in both fructose and water, and abundant in our grandmothers’ gardens. This includes apple treacle, grape treacle, quince treacle and watermelon treacle. But if you don’t mind discarding large amounts of dry matter from the fruit, you can try any other fruit you have in sufficient quantities or also exotic fruit (I wonder what pineapple treacle might taste like—if you try it, leave me a comment). The pectin content of the fruit is not important, as the consistency is determined by the fact that there is almost no water remaining in the final product. It is a sticky, viscous liquid, like honey, don’t expect it to gel even when made from high-pectin fruit like apples.

Apple treacle

  • 2 kg apples

Juice the fruit. In a stock pot (not too wide – else the resulting ~100 g treacle will burn easily), bring juice to a low simmer, and let it cook away with a thermometer set to sound an alarm at 105°C. This will take several hours. Once the alarm has sounded, watch the pot until it reaches 108°C (should only take a few minutes), then remove from the heat. Don’t leave it unattended without the alarm, it goes from “not yet ready” to “sticky charcoal” in a few minutes.

Enjoy the summer, and happy cooking!


  1. Not all jams in this series are certain to have the needed acidity for hot water canning! Measure their pH and if it is above 4.5, you can either use pressure canning or keep them in the fridge. For more information on food safety and canning, see this official information on canning safety
  2. I intentionally didn’t include pectin amounts in the recipes. The amount of pectin you use is dependent on the type and brand of pectin you buy. Use the guidelines printed on your pectin package, or learn more about pectin.
  3. If you want a small primer on the difference between jam, jelly and preserves, The Kitchn has a great article.


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Fancy silpat, traditional parchment paper, or plain baking sheet? We experiment with cookies Wed, 08 Aug 2012 12:00:05 +0000 Chocolate chip cookies

The accepted wisdom is that cookies baked directly on something other than an ungreased baking sheet will burn less. I tend to use parchment paper for my baking, but I wanted to test how much it really matters. In addition to the bare cookie sheet, I had parchment paper and a silicone baking mat, so I got to making the cookies.

A plain cookie sheetA cookie sheet with a sheet of parchment paper on itA silpat brand silicone baking sheet


I put a rack in the middle of the oven and preheated it to 350°F (≈180°C).

I stirred these:
11¼ oz all-purpose flour 320 g
1 tsp baking soda 4.6 g
1 tsp salt 6 g
and then creamed these in my stand mixer bowl (the main work bowl):
½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature 115 g
½ cup shortening 100 g
¾ cup granulated sugar ≈150 g
¾ cup packed brown sugar ≈165 g
1 tsp vanilla extract 4.3 g
I also prepped:
2 large eggs
12 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips 340 g

I beat the eggs into the creamed mixture in the work bowl, then stirred in the flour mixture in 3 batches, and finally stirred in the chocolate chips.

I used a disher scoop to drop about a tablespoon of dough onto each baking sheet preparation: parchment paper, silicone mat, and bare baking sheet. I baked each sheet for 10 minutes, and cooled the cookies on cooling racks once the cookies were set.

To prevent the dough from warming up on the counter and confusing the results, I put the cookie dough in the refrigerator between rounds of baking. (I increased the baking time because of the chilled dough; normally I would only bake the cookies for 9 minutes.)


I expected a bigger difference between these 3 methods. The silicone mat browned the cookies a bit less than the other methods – so it can provide a little insurance if you’re afraid of burnt cookies.

Cookies baked on baking sheet

From left to right: baking sheet, silpat, parchment paper


I’m going to stick with parchment paper, because it offers one big advantage over the bare sheet and silicone mat:

Kitchen sink with silpat and baking sheet in it. No clean up.

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Three Books for Every Kitchen: Part 3 Wed, 01 Aug 2012 12:00:03 +0000 Editor’s note: this post is the third, concluding part of a series. The first part reviewed a beginner’s book, New Best Recipe. For an intermediate book, see the review of Ratio.

Ten years after I started to cook, I’m a good cook. I can make the scrambled eggs that troubled me 10 years prior. I make meals without a recipe more often than I use one. When I use a recipe, I’ll liberally make changes and they work. I make 5 course dinners for special occasions, have served dessert for 100, and have cooked on national television. I still use the New Best Recipe and Ratio regularly, but that’s not always what I’m looking for. More often than not, I need inspiration rather than directions.

The Flavor Bible is my favorite book these days. The premise is simple: it’s a thesaurus of flavors. Look up any ingredient and the book lists complimentary flavors, using font to indicate strength of pairing. It is not a recipe book. There are no rules or structure. It’s a reference book more than anything else. There are essays on flavor, pairing, and balance; the book is chock full of beautiful photography; and the world’s greatest chefs (favoring Americans) contribute their favorite flavor pairings for certain ingredients; but that’s all secondary to the lists.

The previous two books (New Best Recipe and Ratio) really taught me the how of cooking. The Flavor Bible wasn’t nearly as informative in my learning process, but it’s my most frequently referenced these days. This is the book I come to for inspiration, when I have an ingredient I know I want to use but don’t know what to do with, when I want to wow someone (myself included), when I want something tried and true, or when I want something off the wall. The book might remind me of a common flavor pairing or suggest something wild, but it always leads me in the right direction. Some examples:

Smoked Salmon

  • You probably already know: capers chives, cream cheese, dill, bagels, and red onions
  • But avoid mayonnaise?
  • What about adding Pernod, juniper, or avocados?


  • Sweet: chocolate with caramelized cauliflower
  • For antipasti-like taste: anchovies, red pepper flake, garlic, and olive oil
  • Fruity: curry and apple
  • Or exotic: cream and sorrel


  • Tonic is overused. Try basil & lemon zest instead.
  • Another herbal combination: cilantro + lime

In addition to individual ingredients, the book also covers larger categories, listing things that may go well with cheese, say. More interestingly though are the categories for whole cuisines (Mexican, Thai, Indian, etc.) which allow you to quickly approximate a flavor profile. For instance: Flavors of Thai cuisine include lemongrass, cilantro, coconut milk, chile peppers, and fish sauce.

Before I found this book, I was comfortable making my dinner from scratch without a recipe to guide every step of the way, but I found myself doing the same things over and over. When I had something truly exquisite at a restaurant or watched some piece of magic on a cooking show, I found I often understood the technique but marveled at the inspiration, the combination of flavors. This is the book that has really helped me take that step in my cooking, to be really inventive, novel, and interesting in my kitchen.

So there you go. Three books that have been integral to my growth as a cook, have served me well over ten years, that I recommend every chance I get, and that I use every day. Pick whichever one suits your needs, but you can’t go wrong with any of them.

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