Shoestring Gourmet Guide: Part 1, Meal Planning

2012-07-25 by . 9 comments
Close up of bananas brûléed

A gourmet dessert for less than the cost of a Mars bar.

A couple years ago, I decided to learn professional cooking the hard way: take a dishwasher job in a local fine dining restaurant, and work up from there. This put me in a pickle: I had to balance my budget on a dishwasher’s meager wages. Ironically, the only way to do it was by cutting back on something I loved: food and wine!

I had to cut the average weekly grocery bill to about $30/person; however, I still wanted to regularly cook gourmet meals. Even though I read everything I could find about saving money on groceries, the most useful strategies came from watching how restaurants keep food costs low to turn a profit.

There are several strategies restaurants employ: first, they plan their menu and preparation so that one step can be used in multiple dishes, and one ingredient in many ways. For example, beef stock is reduced and used in several sauces. Second, they also use strict storage techniques to ensure cooked dishes can be safely served for as long as possible, reducing waste. Third, they know market value of standard foods and negotiate with multiple suppliers to get deals. Fourth, they use tricks to employ cheap ingredients where possible, allowing them to showcase premium ingredients where they count the most. For example, port reductions used a cheap American port, but were served with top-notch meat.

Today, I will tackle the first topic: menu planning. more »

Cherry, berry, nut (1/4)

2012-07-18 by . 3 comments

When you visit a supermarket, you are always greeted with a marvelous display. No matter the season, the produce section is filled with fruit and vegetables in all colors of the rainbow. But when you take the alluring fruit home and bite into it, more often than not you notice that it was bred for looks and not for taste. The fact that it is often grown in greenhouses, where the heat is sufficient but the light is not, and picked unripe, to better withstand long transportation routes, doesn’t help either. Ultimately, if you want taste, you have to head to the farmer’s market, where you can get abundant fruit, in season and grown locally; and if you want good fruit in the winter, you have to preserve it.

Put a little thought into the packaging, and you can give gifts with a personal touch

While even the simplest strawberry jam can brighten a winter day, it is easy to tire of the same old few sorts all winter long, and start longing for Ray Bradbury’s “summer on the tongue.” Jams, jellies, preserves and syrups—they are the true “summer caught and stoppered”. They make great bread spreads, cake fillings, or also presents with a personal touch. In this series of posts, I will share the unusual, exotic, and varied ones I know of, ones you won’t find in your local supermarket, giving one recipe for each taste-improving idea, and mentioning some other jamsof the same kind for inspiration. While none of them are radically new, I am including some rare recipes, so even if you have been making jams for years, you are likely to come across new ideas. Even if you’re a novice, don’t worry. I don’t explain the basics of jam cooking and canning in this post, but they are easy, and the notes at the end will help you get started.

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Filed under desserts

Three Books for Every Kitchen: Part Two

2012-07-04 by . 2 comments

Editor’s note: this post is the second part of a series. The first part reviewed a beginner’s book, New Best Recipe.

So you can make dinner without needing to follow a recipe to the letter. When you look at a recipe, instructions like “until properly cooked” no longer scare you. You can look at a recipe and have a pretty good idea whether or not you will like it before you cook it. Congratulations, you’ve made it to intermediate. Now how do you get better? Well, you can continue to follow recipes. You can continue to experiment and put an assortment of ingredients in to a pan together, and I recommend you do, but if you want to make the next leap, you need a whole lot more “how” in your vocabulary. more »

4th of July special: red-white-blue ice cream ideas

2012-07-02 by . 0 comments

With the holiday around the corner, we admins decided to give you a holiday special. Last year, we had a nice question for colored ice creams, and while rumtscho answered it with ideas, they were untested. So we enlisted the help of some #FryingPan regulars and tried out a few ideas. Some didn’t work outright, but in the end, we created three ice creams fit to adorn your holiday table. They all work with a single batch of white ice cream, so you don’t have to plan three days early, refreezing the bowl of the ice cream maker overnight.

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Filed under desserts, holiday specials

Taking your bread to the next level with steam

2012-06-20 by . 11 comments

You’ve baked your first loaf of bread. It was good. It was clearly better than store bought bread. But—you know it could be better. It just wasn’t quite there, yet. So where do you go next? The answer is steam. Adding steam to the oven is transformative: loaves rise, crusts brown and crackle, and baby unicorns take up residence in the open crumb. (Ok, maybe not all of that happens, but trust me, it’s good.)

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Filed under baking, equipment

Three Books for Every Kitchen: Part One

2012-06-06 by . 3 comments

I must have 50 cook books in my kitchen—some are useless, some have some inspired recipes, and some are totally impossible to cook out of—but there are three books that I love. Three books where all the pages are stained, covered in notes, check marks, and smiley faces. Three books that taught me how to cook. These are the three best books in my kitchen, the three books I recommend to everyone.

As I’ve progressed as a cook, I’ve gone through three distinct phases, beginner to intermediate to advanced, each well supported by one of these books. Today, New Best Recipe, the book that taught me to cook. more »

How to experiment with a dish: What I learned this Shavuot

2012-06-04 by . 3 comments

A few years ago, my mother gave me our family recipe for Matzah Cheese Balls. My namesake, my great-grandmother Martha, used to make them for my mother when she was a child, but I don’t remember my mother making them for me. I decided to make them for Shavuot this year.

Unfortunately, they turned out bland—too subdued for the modern palate. Undaunted, I decided to fix the recipe, guided by intuition and an occasional visit to The Frying Pan. In contrast to the methodological testing of our previous two posts, I’ll explore a less rigorous, more common approach. How do you fix a recipe when it just doesn’t turn out as you’d like?

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Cookies, meet flavor

2012-05-23 by . 2 comments

I had always associated shortbread cookies with boredom: heavy, unremarkable flavors like vanilla, almond, or—when the chef feels particularly adventurous—hazelnut and rum. Smitten Kitchen’s recipe changed that, using the very plainness that bored me as a canvas for the fresh flavor of matcha. Even before baking them, I could taste the mild astringency of the green tea, the combination of tender cookie and creamy white chocolate ganache filling allowing the grassy notes to shine.

I would have baked them the minute I discovered them, but I had no matcha. I started thinking of alternatives, but most were ingredients I didn’t have handy. I wondered which one would be best but, even after asking a question on our site, could not decide. There seems to be no previous experience with fresh, lively shortbread cookies.

If I wanted to know, I would have to find out myself.

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Filed under baking, experiments

Bread Hydration Experiment

2012-05-09 by . 8 comments

Yeast being proofed, well-foamed.When you search out bread recipes—whether in artisan baking books or on the Internet—you quickly notice patterns: the breads with an open, irregular crumb are all made from very wet (high hydration) dough and the recipes commonly feature preferments, slow rises, a particular hand kneading technique, and carefully pouring boiling water into a very hot oven. But only the wet dough seems unique to them.

If you look around Internet (including our own site), you quickly come to the conclusion that the wetness of the dough is what gives rise to the crumb. For example, a random artisan bakery says:

The amount of water in a dough defines the type of bread it will make.

Looking in books seems to support that. For example, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice classifies breads based on their hydration, referring to the wet ones as rustic.

Can it be that easy? To get an irregular, open crumb, just add water? Sure, without all the other steps, it won’t be quite as tasty, but home-made sandwich bread even without those steps is still tastier than the supermarket stuff.

This calls for an experiment!

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Filed under baking, experiments