Take Back the Basics: Kitchens – Designs, Layouts, and Appliances

Good morning, class. I hope you had a great summer and are prepared to learn this year.

For those who are new, I’m the Culinary Arts and History teacher, Ms. Young. A little backstory about myself – I’m a culinarian by trade (as in, “I actually was part of a vocational program – the U.S. Department of Labor’s Job Corps program – in which culinary arts was one of the options”). I studied and worked in culinary arts in both Kentucky (as part of my basic culinary training) and California (as part of the advanced training). In Kentucky, I volunteered in a city soup kitchen and at my Job Corps center’s cafeteria. In California, I was a greeter and a server for two wine-tasting events, a server for the Mayor of San Francisco’s (Ed Lee’s) campaign dinner, did line-cooking work for several casual- and fine-dining events at Treasure Island Job Corps Center, and I was chosen for an externship with Three Stone Hearth, a community kitchen/organic food store in Berkeley.

Some of my most memorable teachers/figures I’ve worked with include a front-of-house teacher who looked like Larry David from Seinfeld if he were shorter and more of a nebbish, a garde manger teacher who was a former soccer player from Brazil, a baking teacher from Germany who fled to America to escape Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime (and will fly into a rage if anyone casually tosses that word around), a Chinese-Texan pastry/confections teacher whose work with cakes and centerpieces are the stuff of elaborate, star-studded events, an International Cuisine/Bistro teacher who hates The Food Network with a passion and first met me when I took the bus into San Francisco for a Friday-afternoon out (and knew I wasn’t exactly cut out for the kitchen, but had some potential to teach), a Russian fine-dining teacher who was surprised when I (an African-American woman) knew a little bit of his mother tongue, and a career counselor who turned the last few weeks of my stay into a modern-day career woman take on My Fair Lady.

Outside of my culinary studies, I’ve taught myself how to write fiction and nonfiction since I was at least eight years old. I even went to school to become a screenwriter (University of the Arts, Class of 2007). I’m with Philadelphia’s Screenwriting Club, and am currently compiling a portfolio so I can take my talents to either New York City (as I want to write for Saturday Night Live) or back to California (this time, in Los Angeles, but San Francisco is only six hours away by vehicle). My Television History teacher was an executive for The Family Channel (back before it was called FOX Family and then ABC Family) and the head of the Writing for Film and TV department worked on my sister’s favorite soap opera Guiding Light.

My favorite colors are blue, white, silver, and purple; I prefer Coke over Pepsi (though I’m weaning myself off soda for health reasons); I actually like anchovies on my pizza, and I am the oldest of my two sisters, but younger than my brother, who sadly died of a heart attack before I could meet him. I teach because I want to pass my knowledge onto others the same way most men pass their DNA to unsuspecting women, because passing knowledge to others doesn’t result in me ending up on those “Who’s My Baby’s Daddy?” episodes of The Maury Povich Show.

Just so you know, you don’t need to know my backstory for a pop quiz or a final exam. I just thought you’d like to know a little bit about me since I never really introduced myself when I first started this blog.

Anyway, that’s my story. I hope through the comments section either on this blog or on any of the social media sites I post this on, I can learn about you, but probably not.

With that, we can now start our lesson, as seen on the blackboard. I do allow you to take notes (whether on paper or electronically), but if you can’t or don’t want to, listen carefully and don’t come crying to me when test time comes and you can’t remember the essentials I’ve taught you.

Quantity cookery has been around for as long as there has been multiple food sources, a means to prepare it, and large groups of people to feed (quality cooking, on the other hand, had to wait awhile before people could discover and refine it. For those who want to hear about Boulanger, Escoffier, and Careme will have to wait until next time).

Ancient Greece had an atrium arranged around a central courtyard for women in which a covered but otherwise open patio served as the kitchen (I could picture a lot of upscale homes — in The United States and abroad – these days with a modified version of that design) and was usually next to a bathroom (so that both rooms could be heated by the kitchen fire, even though there’s that old adage of “Don’t shit where you eat”) and had a separate storage room in the back for food storage and kitchen utensils. If you were a commoner during the time of the Roman Empire, you had to do all of your cooking in a community kitchen (similar to what I did as an externship in Berkeley) which came equipped with bronze stoves. If you were wealthy around that time, you had a kitchen-type atrium in your house, similar to how it was in the days of ancient Greece.

The kitchen remained largely unaffected by architectural advances throughout the Middle Ages. Open fire remained the only method of heating food. European medieval kitchens were dark, smoky, and sooty places, whence their name “smoke kitchen.” Early medieval Europe and the Iroquois Indian tribe of America had longhouses in which an open fire was under the highest point of the building and the “kitchen area” was between the entrance and the fireplace. In place of a chimney, these early buildings had a hole in the roof through which some of the smoke could escape. Wealthier homes had upwards of three kitchens and were divided based on the types of food prepared in them. If you were a European noble back then, the kitchen was in a separate sunken floor building to keep the main building. For social and official purposes, it was free from indoor smoke. Leonardo da Vinci invented an automated system for a rotating spit for spit-roasting: a propeller in the chimney made the spit turn all by itself. This kind of system was widely used in wealthier homes. Beginning in the late Middle Ages, kitchens in Europe lost their home-heating function even more and were increasingly moved from the living area into a separate room. This (along with Japan inventing the first known stoves around the time of the Middle Ages) was the point when the kitchen as we know it today would evolve.

The evolution of the kitchen is linked to the invention of the cooking range (“stove”) and the development of water infrastructure capable of supplying water to private homes. Until the 18th century, food was cooked over an open fire or in some kind of area were fire was allowed to burn in a closed space (similar to the Indian tandoor or a brick oven seen in many a pizzeria that touts itself as bringing an authentic Italian style to the masses). Technical advances in heating food in the 18th and 19th centuries, changed the architecture of the kitchen. Before the advent of modern pipes, water was brought from an outdoor source such as wells, pumps or springs.

Technological advances during the era of industrialization brought major changes. Iron stoves, which enclosed the fire completely and made it safer to work in the kitchen, appeared. Benjamin Franklin’s “Franklin stove” appeared around 1740, though that was for heating, not cooking. Over in England, Benjamin Thompson designed the Rumford stove 60 years after the Franklin stove. This stove was more energy-efficient than earlier stoves. It utilized one fire to heat several pots, which were hung into holes on top of the stove and were thus heated from all sides instead of just from the bottom. A lot of kitchens, particularly the commercial ones seen in restaurants and some culinary classrooms still have sections where pots are hung over the stove. Now you know that it’s not just for design.

However, Thompson’s stove was designed for large kitchens and was too big for domestic use. The Oberlin stove was a refinement of the technique that resulted in a size reduction. This one was patented in the U.S. in 1834 and became a commercial success with some 90,000 units sold over the next 30 years. These stoves were still fired with wood or coal. Although the first gas street lamps were installed in Paris, London, and Berlin at the beginning of the 1820s and the first U.S. patent on a gas stove was granted in 1825, it wouldn’t be until the late 19th century when gas stoves would be commonplace (mostly in urban areas, because if American and world history has taught me anything, it’s that urban areas are always the first to introduce something to mainstream society, whether it’s gas cooking or any type of music or fad originated from ethnic or sexual minority groups that have often been marginalized, overworked, or screwed over by the white, heterosexual majority).

Urbanization in the second half of the 19th century induced other significant changes that would ultimately change the kitchen. Out of sheer necessity, cities began planning and building water distribution pipes into homes, and built sewers to deal with the waste water. Gas was used first for lighting purposes, but once the network had grown sufficiently, it also became available for heating and cooking on gas stoves. At the turn of the 20th century, electricity had been mastered well enough to become a commercially viable alternative to gas and slowly started replacing the latter. Like the gas stove, however, the electric stove had a slow start. The first electrical stove had been presented in 1893, but the technology wouldn’t be stable enough for commercial use until the 1930s.

Dry storage space in early 19th and 20th century kitchens was also a concern at that time. In the 1920s, The Hoosier Manufacturing Co. of Indiana adapted an existing furniture piece, the baker’s cabinet, which had a similar structure of a table top with some cabinets above it (and frequently flour bins beneath) to solve the storage problem. By rearranging the parts and taking advantage of modern-at-the-time metal working, they were able to produce a well-organized, compact cabinet which answered the home cook’s needs for storage and working space. This is what it looked like:

 

Looking at this should bring back memories of those life-sized toy kitchen playsets that a lot of us at one point in our lives had as children. It does for me, anyway.

In all of this talk about kitchens and stoves and evolving social and scientific trends, you’re probably wondering why I haven’t said anything about the refrigerator or refrigeration in general. While it is true that refrigeration has been around for as long as quantity (and quality) cooking has, the refrigerator had a long ways to go before it’d be a kitchen staple. Artificial refrigeration’s history began when Scottish professor William Cullen designed a small refrigerating machine in 1755. Cullen used a pump to create a partial vacuum over a container of diethyl ether, which then boiled, absorbing heat from the surrounding air. The experiment even created a small amount of ice, but it had no practical application at that time. The first practical vapor compression refrigeration system was built by James Harrison in the 1850s when he emigrated from Great Britain to Victoria, Australia.

The first gas absorption refrigeration system using gaseous ammonia dissolved in water was developed by Ferdinand Carré of France in 1859 and patented in 1860. Carl von Linde, an engineering professor at the Technological University Munich in Germany, patented an improved method of liquefying gases in 1876. His new process made possible the use of gases such as ammonia, sulfur dioxide (SO2), and methyl chloride (CH3Cl) as refrigerants and they were widely used for that purpose until the late 1920s, though wouldn’t be until 1913 when refrigerators (referred to back then as “ice boxes”) would become a staple in the American home kitchen. If you know anything about early 20th century history (whether through media consumption or family history), then you’ve probably seen this contraption:

The icebox was a compact non-mechanical refrigerator-type kitchen appliance. Before the development of safe powered refrigeration devices, this device was considered common. Iceboxes had hollow walls lined with tin or zinc and packed with various insulating materials. Most common materials used were cork, sawdust, straw, and seaweed. A large block of ice was held in a tray or compartment near the top of the box. Cold air circulated down and around storage compartments in the lower section. The exteriors of iceboxes were made of wood for ease of construction, insulation, and aesthetics. Many were handsome pieces of furniture back in the day and, for those who love and collect antique furniture, still are.

Finer models had spigots for draining ice water from a catch pan or holding tank. In cheaper models a drip pan was placed under the box and had to be emptied at least daily. The user had to replenish the melted ice, normally by obtaining new ice from a deliveryman who brought ice for the icebox. The horse-drawn ice wagon and the daily occupation of the iceman who made regular door-to-door deliveries of block ice, was as much a social institution as the milkman, right down to the claims that the housewife often found sexual comfort in him instead of her husband (if she was still married).

Sadly, all things (good and bad) must come to an end. With widespread electrification and safer refrigerants, mechanical refrigeration in the home became possible. With the development of the CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), along with the succeeding hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), that came to replace the use of toxic ammonia gas that cooled a lot of early home refrigeration appliances, the refrigerator replaced the icebox. However, because of the prevalence of the icebox in recent human history, “icebox” is still used (mostly by older people) to mean “refrigerator” in some American English dialects. The iceman’s job isn’t as prevalent now as it was back then, but the job still has a niche market in Amish communities, where modern technology is considered taboo by their religion and simplicity is a virtue.

It wouldn’t be until during and after World War II that the kitchen would really transform into how we have it now (or at least what we think of when we think of the word, “kitchen”). The idea of the standardized kitchen was first introduced locally with the “Svensk köksstandard” (translated: Swedish kitchen standard), formerly “The Frankfurt Standard.” The equipment used remained a standard for years to come: hot and cold water on tap, a kitchen sink, and an electrical or gas stove and oven (as I mentioned before, the icebox/refrigerator would be added later). This concept was refined again using unit furniture with wooden fronts for the kitchen cabinets. The concept was amended again by the use of smooth synthetic door and drawer fronts – first in white, recalling a sense of cleanliness and alluding to sterile lab or hospital settings, but soon after in more lively colors, because, hey, if you’re going to be at home cooking for your husband and kids, you might as well make the kitchen less depressing. The 1930s and 1940s America saw electrified small and large kitchen appliances such as blenders, toasters, and, later, the microwave oven.

After years of being relegated to the back of the house, post-World War II housing often placed the kitchen front and center. The U-shaped kitchen (seen to your left), with its sink-range-fridge work triangle and the cook at center stage, blossomed, as did kitchen islands, double ovens, and separate cooktops, which are still around in a lot of modern kitchen models (and what I want in my dream kitchen, as I’m used to working with double ovens, kitchen islands, and oven ranges that aren’t relegated to the stove), as seen below:

 

The kitchen hit an aesthetic low point in the late 1960s and all throughout the 1970s. The appliances and fixtures were there, but…the colors, man:

These don’t apply to all kitchens, but the color schemes and sizes are accurate for most suburban homes. Lots of bright, clashing colors, the room was smaller (at least compared to places like the living room, which did get an upgrade when TV became a bigger deal), and everything seemed very Barbie Dreamhouse. James Lileks’ website and book Interior Desecrations takes a funnier, more informative look at how kitchens (and other rooms in the house) looked awful during the 1970s. I recommend that for a laugh and a look back at a truly ugly era.

The 1980s and 1990s were when kitchens not only started to become beautiful again, but also something out of a high-class restaurant kitchen, while at the same time, staying true to its 1950s roots. However, 1980s and 1990s kitchens were also home to a lot of pretentious and unnecessary-unless-you-have-the-money-and/or-skills-for-it additions, such as wine racks, cookbook shelves, water coolers like the ones you see and chat around in most offices, granite countertops, and cabinets that cost more than you spend on food and/or necessary kitchen repairs (a lot of which are either empty or serve as hiding spots for appliances you’ve only used once). There’s nothing wrong with wanting a kitchen that looks like the one you saw on a TV show, but most houses aren’t equipped for that (similar to how women – and men – strive for the perfect body and will often resort to unhealthy and dangerous means to get it, from eating disorders disguised as crash diets to low-rent plastic surgery).

So, now we’re in the 21st century. We have come a long way from the days of underground rooms covered in soot from the makeshift open-fire stove. Kitchens these days range from the small and simple to the sleek and professional-grade. These days, cooking calls for you to coax the Brussels sprouts out of their climate-controlled produce drawer, mince celery in a high-speed food processor (or with professional-grade knives), and upload a cranberry relish recipe on your laptop or tablet computer. You don’t have to worry about losing family recipes these days as long as they’re in your hard drive or saved on the cloud (whatever that means), and I’m sure Grandma or Great-Grandma would have loved to have had that in her time, but the low-tech kitchens of her day have their charm, too – and had a lot of values that still live on today. The 1920s kitchens taught us the importance of cleanliness while preparing food; the 1930s kitchens introduced us to electric appliances, such as toasters and blenders; the 1940s kitchens taught us the importance of homecooked and homegrown meals (as well as canning and preserving foods); the 1950s and early 1960s kitchens made cooking a family affair and a social event; the late 1960s into the 1970s gave us cheap and convenient ways out of cooking, such as microwave meals and take-out; and kitchens from the 1980s to now show us that we can look like we’re skilled in cooking, even if we’re not.

That’s the lesson today. Next time, we’ll get into food and food trends. Good night, and happy eating!

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Confection Section: Taffy Duck

Confection Section is a new recurring piece, focusing on the history of candy and confections and how you can recreate these sweet treats at home, no matter what time of the year it is. Want to surprise trick-or-treaters with gummi spiders you made yourself? Want next year’s Valentine’s Day candies to come from the heart and not from a heart-shaped box? Ever want to make your own Reese’s cups or the kind of candy your parents/grandparents enjoyed in their youth? This recurring piece is for you!

If you live in the Southeast Pennsylvania/New Jersey/Delaware area, summer isn’t summer without a trip to Atlantic City and a box of salt water taffies from a boardwalk candy or souvenir shop. Of course, if you hate the sand between your toes and all the pain that comes with organizing a beach trip or don’t live in or near a coastal state, you can order some salt water taffies from an online bulk candy company and enjoy your balmy, sunny days lounging in a cheap beach chair or an inflatable kiddie pool in nothing but your swim trunks/a cheap, ill-fitting Speedo/thong bikini bottom and a flimsy, brightly-colored T-shirt with a risqué slogan (“F.B.I.: Federal Bikini/Booby/Booty Inspector” or one where it has an arrow pointing down and some lewd command for women to perform oral sex on whoever’s wearing the shirt), a parody of a TV show/cult classic movie/Internet meme (those “Keep Calm and…” shirts or a spoof of Breaking Bad), or the last place you went on vacation (usually Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; New York City, New York; or Williamsburg, Virginia), but it’s just not the same. On top of that, you will get neighbor complaints over public indecency and/or bring down property values, like on the season four Simpsons episode “New Kid on the Block,” when an interracial couple goes to buy a new house next to The Simpsons, but turn it down after seeing Homer naked in a kiddie pool, fishing out a half-eaten hot dog and passing out from drinking Duff.

Salt water taffies, much like the Philly cheesesteak and the Coney Island hot dog, has long been associated with East Coast food – in this case, salt water taffy has been associated with Atlantic City, New Jersey. The confection got its salty taste from a flood that soaked candy store owner, David Bradley’s, supply of regular taffy (Fun fact: the Atlantic Ocean is the saltiest out of the four major oceans in the world, but the Red Sea in the Indian Ocean has the saltiest sea water in the world, courtesy of the Dead Sea, which is so brackish, you can easily float in it – unless you’re so fat or inexperienced at swimming that you can sink right through, like Selma Bouvier on The Simpsons episode where Moe steals Homer’s idea for a fiery cocktail and Aerosmith becomes the first band to guest star on the show as themselves).

You’d think a disaster like this would ruin Mr. Bradley’s livelihood, but you would be wrong. When a young girl came into his shop and asked if he had any taffy for sale, he said he had “salt water taffy” instead. The girl didn’t understand the sarcasm behind it. She thought it was a new confection he created. David Bradley’s mother was in the back and overheard the conversation. She loved the moniker for Bradley’s ocean-soaked treats and, thus, a beachside sweet that’s not tanned and in a sexy swimsuit was born.

Though a flood accidentally created this candy and David Bradley sold it, it was Joseph Fralinger who popularized the salt water taffy as a souvenir for tourists and Enoch James refined the recipe, making it easier to unwrap (though I’ve unwrapped salt water taffy and there are times where it still sticks to the paper – or, the paper becomes part of the taffy and I get an untentional dose of fiber), cut the candy into bite-sized pieces, and is credited with mechanizing the process of taffy-pulling.

Salt water taffy is still sold widely on the boardwalks in Atlantic City, including shops in existence since the 1800s, like Fralinger’s and James’ and the Atlantic Maritime provinces in Canada (Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick), but has found its way to places like Salt Lake City, Utah and even the West Coast (the picture of the salt water taffy in barrels is from a candy store at a popular San Francisco tourist spot, Pier 39. I’ve been there a few times during my stay in San Francisco, and I have been at that exact candy store – along with a pizzeria that had the best S.O.S [spinach-onion-sausage] pizza and got me into watching and rooting for college basketball) and comes in an array of flavors, from blue raspberry and banana to guava and maple.

The appeal of salt water taffy is that the taste reminds you a lot of strolling the boardwalk on a July afternoon, taking in the ocean air, the energy of people of all ages enjoying a day out, the seagulls recreating the climax from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds as people foolishly throw French fries and other foods on the boardwalk floor…ah, memories. Yours may vary.

Taffy-pulling is one of those activities that many will tell you is a “lost art” in the sense that it used to be done by human hands – both for business and as Saturday night family fun – but now has been handed over to machines for efficiency reasons, but most candy shops that specialize in “from scratch” confections (particularly the boardwalk candy shops and any shop owned and operated by Amish farmers and their wives at the Reading Terminal Market in Center City) are keeping taffy-pulling alive, and you can too, if you want to create your own candy. Go to a place like Sur La Table or those craft stores like Michaels’ and you’ll see a lot of candy-making tools and molds, meaning that, yes, making homemade candy isn’t just for Grandma’s Sunday church socials or the Amish anymore.

The most important instruments in candy-making (especially if you’re making sugar-based candies or any type of sugar sculpting) are quality ingredients (as with any food you cook), a candy thermometer, and a sturdy pot (particularly a double-boiler or large saucepan that can handle high heat), though the candy thermometer can be substituted for a spoon and knowing what happens when sugar syrup boils.

Name

Temperature

What Happens to the Sugar Syrup

What Can You Use It For?

Thread

223-235 degrees Fahrenheit

The syrup drips from a spoon, forms thin threads in water

Glacé, candied fruits
, and sugar cages (complete with a marzipan wild animal or a scale model go-go dancer made of fondant, white chocolate, royal icing, and marzipan)

Soft ball

235-245 degrees Fahrenheit

The syrup easily forms a ball while in the cold water, but flattens once removed

Fudge and fondant

Firm ball

245-250 degrees Fahrenheit

The syrup is formed into a stable ball, but loses its round shape once pressed

Caramel candies
and caramel filling if you’re making homemade versions of name-brand chocolate candy bars, like Twix and Snickers

Hard ball

250-266 degrees Fahrenheit

The syrup holds its ball shape, but remains sticky

Marshmallows

Soft crack

270-290 degrees Fahrenheit

The syrup will form firm but pliable threads

Nougat (also nougat filling for homemade candy bars) and taffy

Hard crack

300-310 degrees Fahrenheit

The syrup will crack if you try to mold it

Peanut brittle, lollipops
, sugared glass if you want to make a gingerbread house with realistic windows in it (or a gingerbread model of the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, California)

Caramel

320-350 degrees Fahrenheit

The sugar syrup will turn golden at this stage

Pralines

 

Above all else, it is imperative that you BE CAREFUL when handling hot sugar syrup. Working with hot sugar is not for the clumsy, the careless, or the easily-distracted (that applies to cooking of any kind, really). A lot can go wrong if you use the cold water method (that’s the method where you use a spoon and your own judgment to test how hot the sugar syrup is), as hot sugar has a tendency to stick on your skin as it burns, so you can’t just rub it off your skin. I don’t know if a hospital trip and a skin graft can be used to mend skin burned from hot sugar, but it seems like the logical conclusion should a sugar burn ever happen to you. I once burned a small part of skin near my elbow on my left arm with hot glue during a high school project. I didn’t go to the nurse about it, because, what was she going to do, give me Tums for it? I decided to cover it up with some tissues and, if anyone asked, just say I fell while walking home from school. My legs, feet, and ankles loved to play “Hey, how can we make Canais/The Philly Foodie a klutz today?” all through middle school and the first half of high school, so a nasty spill resulting in some scraped skin is more believable than “I wasn’t watching what I was doing while handling a hot glue gun.” The point of that is: hot sugar syrup is a lot like the glue from a hot glue gun before it sets, so treat it as if you were working with a glue gun.

As with all cooking projects (whether amateur or professional), keep your hair tied back and/or put in a chef’s hat or cap if it’s long and remove all jewelry before starting. Ideally, you’re only supposed to have a plain wedding band as the only acceptable piece of jewelry to wear when doing kitchen work, but I hate rings [which, if I ever decide to get married, will pose some problems] and wearing them while cooking hot sugar syrup is just asking for either the ring to fall in or the hot syrup to permanently glue your ring to your ring finger, leaving you no chance to either pawn the ring to cover your rent/mortgage/divorce fees or leave it to your children in the will unless you’re willing to have it amputated (or your insurance covers it).

You’re probably restless and waiting for me to give the steps on how to make salt water taffy, Atlantic City-style. Well, here we go. As with all the recipes here at “Take Back the Kitchen,” be sure to find a way to save it for later (print, transcribe, or download).

How to Make Salt Water Taffy

Atlantic City-style salt water taffy starts with these ingredients:

1 cup sugar

1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

2/3 cup corn syrup

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 cup water

1/2 teaspoon salt flavoring

Lemon, orange, peppermint, lime, strawberry, pineapple or Fireball flavorings.

Pink, green, yellow, or orange color pastes

 Yeah, not exactly the paradigm of healthy eating, but, like with all sugary, fatty, and overall decadent foods, it helps if you only have this once in a while…unless you have blood sugar issues, food allergies (specifically to food coloring, as there are people out there who can’t eat foods with Red Dye #3 or Blue Dye #2 in it), or don’t like salt water taffies. If corn syrup scares your waistline or you can’t find it (it shouldn’t be too hard to find, but you might live in a country where they don’t carry it in stores, like the United Kingdom or Australia), then substitute for simple syrup (which is just sugar and water boiled until it leaves a thin coat on the back of a spoon).

The first thing you do is combine your sugar and cornstarch and place it in a saucepan. After that, add your corn/simple syrup, butter, and water and stir. Next, you heat the mixture. To prevent it from crystallizing, do NOT stir the mixture until it reaches hard ball stage (refer to the chart above) or, if you’re doing the cold water method, until a small portion of it forms into a ball when you drip it into a bath of cold water.

Once it reaches the hard ball stage, add your salt flavoring. Immediately pour the mixture on a greased slab or section of marble table top that has a plastic mat made for sugar work (you can find those at any restaurant/cook supply store). Allow to cool slightly.

Since you’re working with hot sugar, it’s best if you have rubber gloves for this next part, unless you’re like my Pastry/Confections instructor, Chef Kin Joe (a kindly Chinese man from Texas whose cakes and confection work looks like they should be at some bigshot Hollywood celebrity’s wedding/divorce/engagement/sweet 16/finally 18/finally 21/finally got the necessary plastic surgery/TV milestone/just removed that kidney stone party or gracing the page of a food porn mag like Saveur) who can work barehanded with hot sugar and it only mildly annoys him.

As quickly as you can, pull the hot sugar mixture until light and pearl-like in color. Don’t overdo it, or it will end up looking dull.

Divide into separate portions. Color and flavor each portion as desired while it is being pulled. You don’t have to limit yourself to what the ingredients say. Experiment with different colors and flavors.

If you want to make two- three- or four-toned taffy, then layer the colored pieces next to each other. Let them heat up a little next to a heated stove or under a desk lamp (normally, for sugar work, you need a special type of lamp that looks similar to a desk lamp, but takes a higher wattage light bulb). Once the sugar ribbon is malleable enough, stretch it until the two ribbons become one with two or more colors.

Pull out the sugar ribbons to around 1½ inches wide and ¾ of an inch thick. Cut into pieces with a scissors and wrap in wax paper. Twist ends of paper to seal.

Store in a jar, a decorated candy box or dish, or give to friends, loved ones, or anyone with a sweet tooth. Or, if you have some salt water taffy from a beachside candy shop, do a blind taste test to see if you can tell the difference between your homemade taffy and the store-bought.

…And that’s how you make Atlantic City-style salt water taffy without the trip to the boardwalk. Good night, and good eating!

TV Dinners #1: A Cooking Lesson from Cartoon Network

“And then, the Three Little Bacon Steaks WERE PUT IN THE OVEN and baked at 350, SMOTHERED IN CHOCOLATE! The end.”

The Red Guy, Cow and Chicken

This was an actual line from the late 1990s animated show, Cow and Chicken, Cartoon Network’s answer to Nickelodeon’s Ren and Stimpy (only it wasn’t that over-the-top with gross-out humor, but it did make fun of gender identity and transsexuality a lot — not in the same way as South Park and Family Guy have done, but a lot of the jokes would be considered a little near-the-knuckle for more prudish audiences) and part of Cartoon Network’s original programming series, Cartoon Cartoons, which also includes popular series like Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls, Codename: Kids Next Door, and Johnny Bravo, along with lesser-known shows, like Sheep in the Big City, Courage the Cowardly Dog, Whatever Happened to Robot Jones, and a favorite I watched in high school, Time Squad*.

This quote was from the season three episode, “Going My Way?”, in which The Red Guy is a drifter who gets adopted by Cow and Chicken’s insane parents and treat him better than their own offspring. One of the ways The Red Guy impresses Mom and Dad (that was their names) is by reading a “fairy tale” from a cookbook.

In this era of food blogs, people emulating food dishes that appear on their favorite show has become common, from people trying to recreate Skittlebrau (Homer’s beer and Skittles concoction from the season nine Simpsons episode, “Bart Star”) to someone setting up a  Tumblr blog centered on making real-world versions of the Burger of the Day specials seen in the background of the FOX animated sitcom Bob’s Burgers (including an especially dubious one from the first episode called “The Child Molester – Served With Candy”).  I’m jumping on the bandwagon as well, but my twist is I’m going to find out if any of the dishes in my favorite TV shows can be recreated in real life.

Welcome to “TV Dinners.” Today’s Special: Bacon Steaks Smothered in Chocolate.

Savory Chocolate Sauce

It may seem like a pregnant lady’s or 20-something stoner’s favorite dish (I mean, really? Who mixes chocolate with anything that isn’t cookies, cake, or candy?), but that’s because chocolate has been pigeon-holed as the stuff of desserts, pastries, frozen delights, breaking dietary taboos, warm winter drinks, sweet summer treats, and, if you really want to let your mind wander into the red-light district, sex. Seriously, who among you hasn’t had prurient thoughts of drizzling someone’s naked flesh in hot fudge and licking it off in sensual voracity? Adult toy stores online and in the real world cater to those who believe chocolate is an aphrodisiac, whether it’s in the form of body paint or performance enhancing bonbons, but that’s another blog entry for another day.

Savory chocolate dishes aren’t rare, but, outside of ambitious young cooks and eaters with an open mind, no one really thinks to try them, which is a shame, as savory chocolate dishes aren’t as nasty as you’d think. In savory chocolate dishes, dark chocolate is commonly used, but some dishes, like this take on baba ghannoush (or ghannouj), uses white chocolate to bring out the creaminess of the mashed eggplant.

Even if you don’t want to dive in headfirst into a savory chocolate dish, you can try a savory chocolate sauce. The one most people would be familiar with is mole (pronounced “mo-lay,” not “mohl,” like the underground animal, a treacherous double agent, or the benign skin tumor that can either be a beauty mark, a sign you may have cancer, or, in some ancient civilizations, a sign you were into witchcraft if you stuck it with a needle and it didn’t bleed), which is served on chicken. Mole sauce is actually the generic name for the dishes served with that kind of sauce, with mole poblano as the most common type outside of Mexico.

Much like a lot of stories of how popular dishes are made, mole was made purely by accident and with limited ingredients. A visitor had stopped at a Mexican convent and two nuns were scrambling for whatever they could provide for him. The nuns had little in the way of food and used a molcajete (a stone mortar and pestle used in traditional Mexican cuisine) to grind every ingredient they could find and simmered it in liquid until it thickened.

Traditionally, mole is made with guajillo chiles (roasted, stemmed, seeded, and chopped), stewed tomatoes, cinnamon, unsalted peanuts, and cocoa powder (though you could substitute that for Mexican chocolate or a bar of dark chocolate that’s been melted in a double boiler). Speaking from personal experience, mole sauce tastes like barbecue sauce without the sweetness and with a little more heat and it goes great with grilled chicken.

However, if you just want a barbecue sauce with a dark chocolate edge, you can prepare this. It’s the homemade barbecue sauce I first made when I decided to take culinary arts at Job Corps, with some minor adjustments.

Dark Chocolate Barbecue Sauce
• 2 tbsps unsalted butter
• 1 oz semisweet chocolate (chopped)
• 1/3 cup brown sugar (packed)
• 2 tbsps cider vinegar
• 2 tbsps unsweetened cocoa powder (I recommend Hershey’s Special Dark baking cocoa)
• 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
• 2 tsps dry mustard
• 2 tsps chili powder
• 2 tsps kosher salt
• 1/2 tsp ground coriander
• 1/4 tsp cayenne
• 1 cup apple cider vinegar
• 1 cup stewed tomatoes
• 1/4 cup finely chopped onion
• 2 tablespoons minced garlic
• 2 tablespoons liquid smoke (optional)
• 1 tablespoon paprika
• 2 teaspoons dried oregano
• 2 teaspoons dried thyme
• 1 teaspoon black pepper

Preparation:
Melt butter in a saucepan over a medium heat. Add onion and garlic and saute until lightly browned. Add remaining ingredients (vinegar last), reduce heat and simmer over low for 20 minutes. Allow to cool. Optionally, you can puree this sauce to make a smoother barbecue sauce.

Bacon Steaks

A bacon steak (also known as a bacon chop, but not a pork chop, because a bacon steak is from the part of the pig where we get bacon – the belly if you want the streaky, fatty strip bacon that you can enjoy from breakfast to dinner; if you want Canadian bacon, you have to take it from Porky’s back) is just bacon cut thick enough to pass for a steak, hence the name. It can also be regular beef steak with bacon wrapped around it if you want to get fancy, but, for the sake of this blog post, a bacon steak is a thickly-cut slab of bacon that looks like a steak.

As for whether or not you can bake it at 350 degrees Fahrenheit (177 degrees Celsius, or 4 on the gas mark if you’re using a gas oven), you…actually can. Depending on your oven (I’m going by the electric oven I have in my house currently), bacon steaks/chops take anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes to cook in the oven, turning ever so often so it cooks on both sides. Compare with pork chops, which can take 35 minutes to cook (maybe a little longer, depending on your oven). And yes, you can smother the bacon steaks in chocolate (or rather, the savory chocolate sauce) in chocolate as it cooks. The end result will taste salty, smoky, incredibly rich, and (depending on whether or not you puréed the sauce) very smooth.

And that’s how you make bacon steaks smothered in chocolate.

Thanks, and happy eating

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*There are some Cartoon Network-made shows that have aired on the channel, but aren’t Cartoon Cartoons: Samurai Jack, Class of 3000, Megas XLR, anything made during Cartoon Network’s failed attempt at airing live-action shows (Out of Jimmy’s Head, Dude What Would Happen, Destroy Build Destroy, Incredible Crew, Tower Prep, and Hole in the Wall [even though that was a short-lived game show that aired on the FOX Network]), and the post-Golden Age Cartoon Network shows, like Adventure Time, The Looney Tunes Show (not the installment show of classic shorts, the sitcom), Regular Show, Steven Universe, Uncle Grandpa, MAD, Robotomy, and The Amazing World of Gumball.

Making Bacon: Not Just Sexual Innuendo Anymore!

Hello readers. Only three more days until I go back to my regularly scheduled blogging.

In the meantime, enjoy this video from America’s Test Kitchen (probably the only cooking show out there that isn’t inane or considered “food porn”). I don’t know if this show comes on where I live, but, this is the 21st century, and there’s practically no TV show out there that isn’t available online in some capacity (except for maybe these late 1990s horror comedy cartoons I liked: one was called “Toonsylvania,” which Steven Spielberg made when he first started DreamWorks Studios and the other was called “Monster Farm” about a boy named Jack who inherits a farm filled with monster animals. The latter show came on ABC Family Channel back when it was called FOX Family. The former show aired on FOX back when that channel and other free-TV channels, except for NBC and PBS, aired Saturday morning cartoons).

Enjoy, have a happy and healthy new year, and I’ll see you with new material.

Avenue BBQ, part two: Crock(Pot) and Roll

Last time on Take Back the Kitchen, we looked at the history of barbecue and some regional differences. Today, we’re going to look at how you can have a barbecue in your own house if you don’t have a barbecue grill, if the weather is too damp or cold to cook outdoors, or if you’d rather not like your meat burnt from charcoal or gas flames.

The best crockpots are the ones for today’s busy idiot (no disrespect to anyone who’s busy or an idiot. It’s just that, in this quick-fix world we live in now, that’s the only way I can describe people who are slaves to wanting things done easy rather than putting a little effort behind a task, and that kind of mentality knows no skin color, ethnic group, religious preference, sexual orientation, body size, gender, or physical/mental disability) — the kind where you can set your ingredients in there and let it cook low and slow until tender (usually anywhere from 3 to 8 hours, depending on how tough your cut of meat is and what you’re cooking). Crockpots are what pressure cookers were back when they were first in vogue (I’m going to assume the 1950s. While pressure cookers are still around, they’re not as popular as they used to be…unless you’re a terrorist or have an old pressure cooker your grandmother or mom used to use and you want to keep up tradition): a big pot people can use to make thick,stews (especially beef stews), boiled dinners, and pot roasts and not have to worry about getting actively involved with what’s being cooked. Basically, it has the same emotional arc as a drama about a parent who abandoned his or her kid(s) in the past and is trying to get back in the child(ren’s)’s life (lives): starts out cold, but warms up very slowly, and you can expect a lot of boiling and steam.

Much like Kleenex, Chapstick, and Kool-Aid, “Crockpot” (actually spelled “Crock-Pot”) is actually a brand name that has come to generically describe the product. Crock-Pot’s claim is that it’s the original and everything else is a pale imitation, and I applaud them for taking pride in their work, but for those who don’t have the money for an authentic crockpot go for brands like Hamilton Beach (which is said to have a lot of good products that won’t put a hole in your wallet).

But let’s save the kitchen appliance chatter for a later day. We’re here to talk about crockpot barbecueing.

Crockpot-barbecuing meat is no different than braising (in fact, it’s a close relative of it). Both cooking techniques involve tough or large cuts of meat being cooked in a liquid (in this case, a thin, Carolina-style barbecue sauce, but you can use a less thick, Kansas City-style barbecue sauce if you’re making pulled pork for a pulled pork sandwich) after being browned for color and flavor, either in a brazier (a specialty pot used specifically for braising), a saucepot, a Dutch oven pot (if you’re not serving large groups of people), or a crockpot. The main difference between crockpot barbecueing and grilling is that there’s no fear of your meat coming out dry and burnt, since you’re utilizing a moist-cooking technique.

Slow cooking — be it with crockpot, brazier, or Dutch oven — touches on that want for warm, filling meals, especially in the winter months when no onereally cares about their waistline expanding. While others will tell you you can use a crockpot any time of the year (say, if you want to make chili for a summer barbecue), it’s the winter months in which slow cooking shines. Does beef stew appeal to you more when its ten below or 75 degrees and balmy?

With that, I’d like to introduce you to my family’s beef stew recipe:

Young Family Beef Stew

Ingredients

2 pounds beef stew meat (cut into bite-sized pieces)
½ cup stewed tomatoes or 1 cup tomato sauce
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 celery ribs, sliced
2 cups baby carrots
4-5 small potatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces (about 3 cups)
1 cup frozen corn
1/4 cup water
Whisper of cayenne
Pinch of garlic powder (or ¼ minced garlic)

Optional ingedients for this include peas, beans, bacon, mushrooms (white button), and frozen mixed vegetables (my mom uses canned and frozen vegetables because they cook faster and she doesn’t like to futz around with fresh vegetables, e. For a barbecued beef stew, we use either a bottled barbecue sauce or make a quick version using ½ cup tomato paste (or ketchup), ¼ cup brown sugar, few squirts of Louisiana hot sauce, some cayenne, and molasses to taste.

Always remember that the times listed are just suggestions, depending on what you use for slow-cooking. You may need more time; you may need less. I’m going by how my family makes this.

Instructions

  1. Combine beef, celery, carrots, onion, potatoes, salt,  pepper, and stewed tomatoes in a crock pot (my family uses a six quart, since that’s enough to feed the four of us and have leftovers for the next few days).
  2. Cook on low for  6-7 hours, eight at the most.
  3. About 30 minutes before serving, add water and seasonings. For a thicker stew, add ¼ cup of flour and enough vegetable oil to make a roux out of it. The roux is ready if it tastes more oily than floury.
  4. Mix until well-combined and let simmer for another 30 minutes.
  5. Serve immediately.

I also find that this tastes great when put in a hoagie roll and eaten as a bastardized version of a roast beef au jus sandwich. You really should try it this way.

Happy holidays and happy eating.

Operation Thanksgiving 4: Side Dish Follies

Welcome back to “Operation: Thanksgiving.” We’re in our fourth day (or blog post) on how to make Thanksgiving a little less hectic on the kitchen front (if you need help on the family and relatives front, I’m not qualified for that). I laid out my plan on day one. Day two outlined the history of Thanksgiving and why a turkey was chosen as the main course. Day three focused on the turkey and the easy ways to make it juicy and moist (along with debunking every moisture retaining technique you learned from family and the media). Today, we make like a bad Operation player and touch the sides.

Stuffing

What would Thanksgiving be without stuffing in or served alongside the turkey? For some people, better.

I used to be one of those people who thought stuffing was disgusting – without even tasting it, which is a cardinal sin in culinary. You have to taste everything at least once before you can pass judgment. You may be missing out on something great. That’s how I found out that gluten-free brownies are just as good as ordinary brownies. I didn’t discover how good stuffing could be until November 2011, when my culinary class was assigned to cook Thanksgiving lunch and dinner for everyone at Whitney M. Young Job Corps center (which averages in at about 400 students, not counting students who leave because they finished the program, got thrown out, or decided not to stay, plus the regular staff members) and the kitchen staff taught us how to make it by hand. It was just a typical bread and celery stuffing, meant to be served alongside the turkey during the lunch and dinner rushes.

Initially I refused, citing that I didn’t like it. My teacher insisted, and I figured, “I’m not going to stick to most of my ways. I came out here to Kentucky to try new things.” It…wasn’t too bad. It could have stood to be seasoned a little more, but it wasn’t as gross as I imagined it would be.

Now, why would I think stuffing is disgusting? I mean, look at it.

Great Grandma's Bread Stuffing Recipe

Its name is appropos to what it looks like: stuffing, from an old couch that a stoner must have thought would taste better in the oven. Also, it seems that the stuffing and the turkey are competing for being the dryest thing at the table since that time your theatrical son chose to read Oscar Wilde’s memoirs instead of saying grace at the dinner table (hey, it’s more educational and less embarrassing than the time Uncle Gerald gave that stirring reading from Penthouse Forum. Sitting at the adult table can be vastly overrated, sometimes)*.

“So, Canais [or “Philly Foodie,” if you can’t make heads or tails of the pronounciation of my name],” you ask, “How can I make my stuffing moist?”

Now, assuming that’s not more food-based sexual innuendo, I’d answer, “It’s very simple…”

Or maybe not.

Because while you might dream of having moist stuffing inside a roasted bird, reality in the form of borrowed time, better resources (more pans, more oven room), and/or guest request may call for the stuffing to be cooked separately. Frankly, it doesn’t matter which method you use (stuffed in the bird vs. cooked separately), as long as you follow these steps to better, more moist stuffing:

Use bread: You can use grains or eschew stuffing all together if you have guests who don’t like/can’t eat gluten, but the truth of the matter is: You need bread for your stuffing. Now what kind of bread depends on what kind of stuffing you’re aiming for – and it has to be fresh bread. Don’t try to cheat with prepackaged croutons. It’ll taste like crap and everyone will know it. If you want to stick to tradition, use Pullman bread (the typical, square loaf bread, often sold as “white bread”). Whole grain bread adds a sweeter, fuller taste. Italian loaves cut into cubes is what I used when my class made stuffing from scratch. They’re great for sopping up the juices and, if you happen to have an Italian loaf flavored with olive oil or an Italian herb (basil or oregano), all the better, as it imparts a very homey taste. Good, old San Francisco sourdough gets you chewy, tangy stuffing (which is equal parts good and bad). Whatever you use, estimate 3/4 to 1 cup stuffing per person when figuring out how much you will need, or, failing that, err on the side of too much rather than too little. This is good advice, because the next blog post will be about what to do with all those leftovers.

Dry your bread: Nobody likes mushy stuffing, except those so hungry and desperate that they will eat anything, and even then, it’s a crapshoot. As I mentioned before, you can’t use prepackaged croutons, but you can make your own with fresh bread. Cut whatever bread you’re using (if you’re using cornbread or buttermilk biscuits as your base, all you have to do is bake your cornbread or biscuits and crumble them when they cool off) into cubes and toast them in the oven for 15 minutes (or until golden brown) at 275°F.

Aromatic vegetables are your friends: As I mentioned in the turkey section, a mix of diced or roughly cut (but small enough to be inconspicuous) aromatic vegetables (mirepoix) is essential, whether you’re making sauce or roasting poultry, and here, it’s no exception. The only difference is, instead of carrots, use garlic, along with your celery and onions, as you sauté them in a pan slicked up with a full stick of butter (you can cut it in half if the mere mention of a stick of butter makes your heart seize up in a pre-emptive attack).

Fresh herbs are also your friends: I already touched on this in the turkey post, so I’m not going to belabor the point. In the case of stuffing, you can’t cheat and use powdered herbs. You can, if you don’t have any fresh herbs, but if you want the stuffing to taste like something, then I advise you to use fresh and dried herbs. Sage, thyme, and parsley are the herbs associated with stuffing, but you can improvise and either add on or substitute any of those three for ground cloves, allspice, mace, and/or nutmeg. Rosemary — an herb my mother hates with a passion (I myself love it) — can be used as well, but it will impart a pine tree-like flavor to your stuffing if you use too much — unless you want to combine Thanksgiving and Christmas in one meal, then by all means, go nuts. In seriousness, though, a pinch of the herbs and spices is all you need to give the stuffing a pop without making it overbearing.

Pack the stuffing loosely: The stuffing expands as it absorbs juices, and if it’s too tightly packed, it won’t cook through. On top of that, you run the risk of causing food-bourne illness if you do pack it tightly. If your hand can’t fit inside the cavity after you stuffed the bird, it’s too much. The excess stuffing can be cooked off in a casserole pan or put in a freezer bag for later use.

A little liquid goes a long way: This will make or break your stuffing, as the liquid is what keeps the stuffing together. However, too much can make it soggy. You’re going to need one to two cups of stock (not broth, stock) of any kind (chicken is the gold standard, but you can use vegetable or mushroom if you don’t want to make your vegetarian eaters mad), but if you want to mix it up, create a liquid mixture made of milk, white wine, and the stock of your choice. The key here is to have something that will not only hold the bread crumbs together, but also give it a great flavor.

Next up, Cranberry Sauce

Like stuffing, I was never a fan of this Thanksgiving staple. Not because no one knew how to make it right, but I was under the impression that no one made it at all, and that the only form it existed in was the can, jellied monstrosity by Ocean Spray. My “Damn you, Ocean Spray” from the previous post was half-funny and half-serious. I just really hate that Ocean Spray came up with the canned cranberry sauce (their cranberry juices are okay in my book). It wouldn’t be until college that I realize that cranberry sauce need not be this way. One of the student orientation heads brought some homemade cranberry and orange sauce. One taste and all my preconceptions about cranberry sauce vanished.

It wouldn’t be until I went to Job Corps for culinary arts that I went searching online for homemade cranberry sauce recipes I could put in my Thanksgiving repertoire. This one I picked (and just did) because it’s more of a relish than a sauce and it’s very versatile. It can be equally enjoyed at the Thanksgiving table or on a shrimp salad pita sandwich during your lunch break at work.

Pomegranate Apple Cranberry Relish (credit to A Spicy Perspective)

Ingredients:

2 cups pomegranate juice
1/2 cup sugar
1 12-ounce bag fresh cranberries
1 medium crisp apple, peeled, cored, diced (I used a Granny Smith apple because I wanted it to taste tart, but you can use the mild apples, like Gala or Red Delicious)
1 cup pomegranate arils (seeds) [See my blog post about POM and pomegranates for how to break and de-seed one of these suckers. It’s not as messy as handling cranberries]
1 teaspoons orange zest
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint (or parsley)*

*I substituted for ground cinnamon for two reasons: 1) it gives it a bolder flavor that’s more suited for autumn, and 2) my mother couldn’t find any mint, and I didn’t go shopping with her to look for it myself. I also forgot to put salt in it, but I think I made up for it with the cinnamon.

Directions:

1) Simmer the pomegranate juice and sugar until it reduces to less than half, and a thin syrupy consistency is reached—about 15 minutes (longer if you feel it could be a little sweeter).

2) Meanwhile, using a blender or a food processor, coarsely chop the cranberries.

3) Pour them into a medium bowl and add the pomegranate syrup. If the syrup is still warm, don’t worry about it. You can make up for it by chilling it in the refrigerator.

4) Add the diced apple, pomegranate arils, orange zest salt and mint. Mix well.

5) Serve right away or chill for up to a week. Makes about 4 cups.

Mashed Potatoes

Mashed potatoes seems like a no-brainer recipe. Boil some spuds until soft and yielding, mash as you pour in milk or cream, season to taste, the end. Which is why I don’t understand why people would resort to instant. Yes, if time really isn’t on your side, you can whip this up in 15 to 30 minutes flat, but I’m the kind of person who at least wants to put some effort into something, whether or not it’s stupid easy. If that means I’m an ovethinker, then, well, that’s what I am.

And just like anything that seems easy to make, it’s also easy to screw it up. Case in point: I had to make mashed potatoes for wonton filling in my garde manger (pantry) class. The potatoes were only half soft when I had to mash them. Also, it would have been best if I peeled them before cubing them. My point is, “Don’t do what I did.”

As long as you use Russets (Idaho) or Yukon Golds (they’re starchier and result in a creamier mash, mash it by hand instead of machine (immersion blender and food processors), don’t overdo it on the mashing, don’t add too much liquid (and if you do, then you can turn it into potato soup), respect the “2:1 potato-to-butter ratio” (for every pound of potatoes, use a half-pound of butter), and don’t make them too far in advance (to avoid drying them out), then you’re golden.

I will, however, add that I swear by stock and cream cheese for really good mashed potatoes that don’t also double as stucco.

Vegetable, Grain, and Legume Dishes

Normally, green bean casserole (the one with the fried onion sticks in them) is the go-to veggie dish for the Thanksgiving table, but let’s be honest. It’s time to retire it. It had a good run and it should have gone out on top before 1979 ended (kind of like how The Simpsons should have ended after the season nine episode where Homer becomes the sanitation commissioner for Springfield and then buried the entire town in trash, which would be around 1998-1999).

At my table, the vegetable dishes are usually collard greens (or some kind of braised greens dish. Mustard greens and kale have been served before), a rice and veggie dish (usually broccoli, and usually with that bright yellow cheese sauce), asparagus spears, or baked potatoes. Vegetables don’t really get much attention at my family’s table, which is a shame, because that’s an essential part of a balanced diet. If I had my way, I’d prepare ratatouille (not that Pixar movie; it’s an actual vegetable dish of North African and Mediterrenean roots), creamed spinach, and brussel sprouts (yeah, it’s not everyone’s favorite vegetable, but, if cooked right, it will be. Brussel sprouts really benefit from some time in a slow cooker).

My family doesn’t do beans at the table, since not everyone likes them (myself included). I have taken a liking to quinoa, thanks to my internship at Three Stone Hearth, a community kitchen/health food store in Berkeley, California. Quinoa is a grain-like crop grown primarily for its edible seeds. You can use it as a substitute for rice if you’re making a pilaf recipe, but I enjoy quinoa more in a salad recipe (like this recipe below):

Greek Quinoa Salad

Ingredients:

  • 3-4 cups water or vegetable broth
  • 1 1/2 cups quinoa, uncooked
  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • juice from one lemon
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 cup kalamata olives, sliced if desired
  • 1/3 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1/3 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 1 red onion, diced
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

Preparation:

1)      In a medium-large saucepan, cook the quinoa in vegetable broth for 15-20 minutes, until tender, stirring occasionally. Allow to cool.

2)      In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil.

3)      Gently toss the quinoa together with the remaining ingredients, except the feta.

4)      Pour the olive oil mixture over the quinoa.

Add more salt and pepper to taste and gently stir in the feta cheese

Breads (Biscuits, Cornbread, and Croissants)

If you don’t know how to make bread by hand, you can take a shortcut and get your breads either from a bakery or just use Pillsbury or Jiffy brand. But, if you have the know-how and the time to make biscuits, cornbread, and/or croissants by hand, then read on:

I’m a fan of knock-off recipes. A knock-off recipe (also called a “copycat recipe”) is a recipe written to imitate a certain food or meal from a popular chain restaurant or fast food joint. You see them all the time online, from imitations of Outback Steakhouse’s Bloomin’ Onion to imitations of your favorite candies, like Almond Joy and Reese’s Cups. The knock-off recipe appeals to my “I can do better than these guys” sensibilities, because why go to Dairy Queen for a Blizzard when you can just throw some ice cream (either store-bought or homemade) in a blender and mix in some candy, fruit, nuts, or cookie dough pieces until it’s so thick that it can’t slide out of the cup? And why go to Red Lobster for the Chedday Bay biscuits when you can make them yourself at home? I think you see where this is going.

Cheddar Bay Biscuits

Ingredients

2 cups flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup chilled butter, cut into pieces

1 cup buttermilk

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1/2 cup cheddar cheese, shredded

Method

-Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

-Mix the dry ingredients, then cut the butter pieces into it with a pastry cutter or two knives.

-Add the buttermilk, stirring just until a sticky dough forms.

-Turn it out onto floured surface, pat it into a square, and fold it in on itself a couple of times, like a letter.

-Pat it out again to about 1/2 to 1 inch thickness, depending on how you like them. Use a biscuit cutter to cut the biscuits out.

-Arrange them on a baking sheet, as close to each other as possible without touching. Make a small indentation in the center of each biscuit with your thumb (I’ve heard this helps them rise straight, but I’ve never not done it, so I have no idea.)

-Mix butter or margarine and garlic powder. Brush mixture over warm biscuits before removing from cookie sheet.

Cornbread

Good cornbread is hard to find. In my younger, more naive days, I thought Jiffy brand Cornbread Mix was the quickest way to good cornbread. Then, one day, I tried a piece of Jiffy cornbread after years of not having it and was shocked to find that it wasn’t the little slice of buttery heaven it was before. I learned a horrible truth about my beloved cornbread: real cornbread (as in, “From the Deep South of these United States. The kind of places where answering ‘No’ to the question, ‘You ain’t from around here, are ya?’ will get you strung up faster than a piñata at a little kid’s backyard birthday party”) is grittier than packaged or bakery versions. Why? Because wheat flour and sugar, among other ingredients, dominate commercial mixes. From then on, I’ve been on a journey to find a cornbread recipe (from scratch) that would make me love cornbread again.

And I made it when I was at Whitney M. Young Job Corps Center:

Juffy Cornbread Mix (Not very creative, but it’s still mine)

Dry Mix:

2/3 Cup Flour
1/2 Cup Yellow Cornmeal
3 Tablespoons Sugar
1 Tablespoon Baking Powder
1/4 teaspoon Salt

Wet Ingredients:

1 Egg

1/3 Cup Milk

2 Tablespoons Vegetable Oil

Method:

1)      Combine dry ingredients in a bowl, mix well.

2)      Whisk in vegetable oil and mix until dry mixture is smooth and lumps are gone.

3)      Combine mix with egg and milk, mixing well.

4)      Fill muffin pan 1/2 full,

5)      Bake for 15-20 minutes or until toothpick poked in center of one of the cornbread muffins comes out clean.

A note for cooks: Cornbread is a quick bread, meaning that its batter or dough should be made quickly. Working on it too long or mixing it too much can and will result in a less than savory crumb.

Croissants

As I said before, you’re better off just getting ready-made crescent rolls from either a very good bakery or the grocer’s freezer in one of those tubes that go “POP!” when you press on it with a back of a spoon, as croissant dough is very labor intensive to work with.

I’d like to thank Fine Cooking.com and my Baking Class instructor, Master Baker Chef Egon Grundmann from Treasure Island Job Corps Center for teaching me how to work with this dough and for the recipe:

Ingredients:

For the dough

  • 1 lb. 2 oz. (4 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour (add more for rolling, so the dough doesn’t stick)
  • 5 oz. (1/2cup plus 2 Tbs.) cold water
  • 5 oz. (1/2 cup plus 2 Tbs.) cold whole milk
  • 2 oz. (1/4 cup plus 2 Tbs.) granulated sugar
  • 1-1/2 oz. (3 Tbs.) soft unsalted butter
  • 1 Tbs. plus scant 1/2 tsp. instant yeast
  • 2-1/4 tsp. table salt

For the butter layer

  • 10 oz. (1-1/4 cups) cold unsalted butter

For the egg wash

1 large egg

Method:

Make the dough

Combine all of the dough ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Mix on low speed for 3 minutes, scraping the sides of the mixing bowl once if necessary. Mix on medium speed for 3 minutes. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured 10-inch pie pan or a dinner plate. Lightly flour the top of the dough and wrap well with plastic so it doesn’t dry out. Refrigerate overnight.

Make the butter layer

The next day, cut the cold butter lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick slabs. Arrange the pieces on a piece of parchment or waxed paper to form a 5- to 6-inch square, cutting the butter crosswise as necessary to fit. Top with another piece of parchment or waxed paper. With a rolling pin, pound the butter with light, even strokes. As the pieces begin to adhere, use more force. Pound the butter until it’s about 7-1/2 inches square and then trim the edges of the butter. Put the trimmings on top of the square and pound them in lightly with the rolling pin. Refrigerate while you roll out the dough.

Laminate the dough

Unwrap and lay the dough on a lightly floured work surface. Roll into a 10-1/2-inch square. Brush excess flour off the dough. Remove the butter from the refrigerator—it should be pliable but cold. If not, refrigerate a bit longer. Unwrap and place the butter on the dough so that the points of the butter square are centered along the sides of the dough. Fold one flap of dough over the butter toward you, stretching it slightly so that the point just reaches the center of the butter. Repeat with the other flaps, then press the edges together to completely seal the butter inside the dough. A complete seal ensures the butter center won’t come out over the edges.

Lightly flour the top and bottom of the dough. With the rolling pin, firmly press the dough to elongate it slightly and then begin rolling instead of pressing, focusing on lengthening rather than widening the dough and keeping the edges straight. Roll the dough until it’s 8 by 24 inches. If the ends lose their square shape, gently reshape the corners with your hands. Brush any flour off the dough. Pick up one short end of the dough and fold it back over the dough, leaving one-third of the other end of dough exposed. Brush the flour off and then fold the exposed dough over the folded side. Put the dough on a baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and freeze for 20 minutes to relax and chill the dough.

Repeat the rolling and folding, this time rolling in the direction of the two open ends. Fold the dough in thirds again, brushing off excess flour and turning under any rounded edges or short ends with exposed or smeared layers. Cover and freeze for another 20 minutes.

Give the dough a third rolling and folding. Put the dough on the baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap, tucking the plastic under all four sides. Refrigerate overnight.

Divide the dough

The next day, unwrap and lightly flour the top and bottom of the dough. With the rolling pin, “wake the dough up” by pressing firmly along its length—you don’t want to widen the dough but simply begin to lengthen it with these first strokes. Roll the dough into a long and narrow strip. If the dough sticks as you roll, sprinkle with flour. Once the dough is about half to two-thirds of its final length, it may start to resist rolling and even shrink back. If this happens, fold the dough in thirds, cover, and refrigerate for about 10 minutes; then unfold the dough and finish rolling. Lift the dough an inch or so off the table and allow it to shrink from both sides—this helps prevent the dough from shrinking when it’s cut. Check that there’s enough excess dough on either end to allow you to trim the ends so they’re straight. Trim the dough.

With a knife and a ruler, mark the top of the dough at 5-inch intervals along the length. There should be 7 marks in all. Make a mark 2-1/2 inches in from the end of the dough. Make marks at 5-inch intervals from this point all along the bottom of the dough. You’ll have 8 marks that fall halfway between the marks at the top.

Make diagonal cuts by positioning the yardstick at the top corner and the first bottom mark. With a knife or pastry wheel (better known as a pizza cutter), cut the dough along the marked lines. Repeat until you have cut the dough diagonally at the same angle along its entire length. Change the angle of the yardstick to connect the other top corner and bottom mark and cut the dough along this line to make triangles. Repeat along the entire length of dough. You’ll end up with 15 triangles and a small scrap of dough at each end. Toss the scraps out if they aren’t triangular enough to be made into croissants.

Using a paring knife or a bench knife, make a 1/2- to 3/4-inch-long notch in the center of the short side of each triangle. The notch helps the rolled croissant curl into a crescent. Hold a dough triangle so that the short notched side is on top and gently elongate to about 10 inches without squeezing or compressing the dough. Lay the croissant on your work surface with the notched side closest to you. With one hand on each side of the notch, begin to roll the dough away from you, towards the pointed end.

Flare your hands outward as you roll so that the “legs” (the thin ends) become longer. Press down on the dough with enough force to make the layers stick together, but avoid excess compression, which could smear the layers. Roll the dough all the way down its length until the pointed end of the triangle is directly underneath the croissant. Now bend the two legs towards you to form a tight crescent shape and gently press the tips of the legs together. Don’t worry if they come off during the proofing phase. That’s normal.

Shape the remaining croissants in the same manner, arranging them on two large parchment-lined rimmed baking sheets (8 on one pan and 7 on the other). Keep as much space as possible between them, as they will rise during the final proofing and again when baked.

Proof the croissants

Make the egg wash by whisking the egg with 1 tsp. water in a small bowl until very smooth. Lightly brush it on each croissant.

Refrigerate the remaining egg wash and put the croissants in a draft-free spot at 75° to 80°F. Wherever you proof them, be sure the temperature is not so warm that the butter melts out of the dough. They will take 90 minutes to 2 hours to fully proof (perfect time to watch a movie). The croissants are ready if you can see the layers of dough when the croissants are viewed from the side, and if you shake the sheets, the croissants will wiggle. Finally, the croissants will be distinctly larger (though not doubled) than they were when first shaped.

Bake the croissants (Finally!)

Shortly before the croissants are fully proofed, position racks in the top and lower thirds of the oven and heat it to 400°F convection, or 425°F conventional. Brush the croissants with egg wash a second time. Put the sheets in the oven. After 10 minutes, rotate the sheets and swap their positions. Continue baking until the bottoms are an even brown, the tops richly browned, and the edges show signs of coloring, another 8 to 10 minutes. If they appear to be darkening too quickly during baking, lower the oven temperature by 10°F. Let cool on baking sheets on racks.

Well, we reached the end of this battle in “Operation: Thanksgiving,” but the war isn’t over yet. Once I’ve and you’ve recovered from our respective food comas, I’ll be blogging about what you can do with all those leftovers.

Goodbye, happy eating, and Happy Thanksgiving (or Happy Hanukkah, since that happens to fall around the same time as American Thanksgiving this year. I’ve never seen this happen and I’m glad to be alive to see it. Mazel tov!).

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*NOTE: Those two events never happened to me personally. I’m just painting a hypothetical picture of how dry the stuffing and turkey can get. All recipes and excerpts are property of their respective books and websites unless otherwise noted. All commentary is copyright of Canais “Philly Foodie” Young.

Operation Thanksgiving 3: More Turkey Troubles (or Me Against The Kitchen)

Welcome to part three of “Operation: Thanksgiving,” your guide and my spin on that holiday that will pack your digestive tract tighter than the overhead luggage on an over-booked flight home. Last time around, I got into some cultural history about the holiday and how the goofy-looking turkey went from being domesticated by ancient peoples to carved by modern man (or woman) for an autumn holiday sandwiched between the garish, sugar rush of Halloween and the cold, yet heartwarming lull of Christmas (or Hanukkah, if you’re Jewish, Ramadan, if you’re Muslim, or no holiday if you’re Jehovah’s Witness, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, or you’ve long given up on holiday cheer and want everyone else to know it).

Today, we’re going after the popular dishes of Thanksgiving, specifically, some subsitutes, new spins, and the right way to cook dishes you can’t do without…which means, “Yes, we will discuss how to make that turkey come out a little less dry so your critical relatives can get off your damn back,” which is the subject of today’s post.

Now, cooking for large crowds (what’s known in the foodservice biz as “high-volume service,” whether you’re serving the cream of the social crop at a fine-dining restaurant or serving the unfortunate souls who have to make due with soup from a homeless shelter. I’ve done both) isn’t for the weak or slow. You have to be on your game and make sure everything is prepared in time. You have to know how to do your stuff and do it well under pressure (again, a lesson learned from my Job Corps days). It also helps that you have others around you who can work as a team and also know what they’re doing. If you feel you can’t handle this, then don’t read and wait until the next entry. If, however, you are a seasoned Thanksgiving kitchen veteran or feel that you can handle it, then read on.

I’d like to thank the good people at Cook’s Illustrated, the writers of all those recipe books I poured through, and my Basic and Advanced Culinary Arts instructors who taught me well, as all my tips will be from these sources and it’s only fair to give them credit.

First up, the turkey:

This isn’t like the roast chicken you can make for Sunday dinner and use the leftovers for chicken salad sandwiches and feeding the outside cats (and the indoor ones) who won’t leave you alone, despite that you’re out of dry and wet cat food. A lot of care goes into making a turkey the best anyone’s ever tasted, regardless of whether you’re serving to a large family or just you (or you and someone you love).

If you know me at all, then you’ll know that one of my major pet peeves is a dry turkey. Everything else on the Thanksgiving menu can be five-star, but if the turkey is dry, then that’s a major flaw to me. Part of the reason is because I have that need for everything to be right. Then there’s the fact that I want to show others that the two years of learning culinary arts at Job Corps weren’t a waste, even if I never get a job in that field (I can show my support for farmers’ markets, sustainable agriculture, local growers, fair trade, and talented people who want to go to school to be five-star chefs, but don’t have the money or don’t know what to do to reach that goal, though), and the fact that I always get the hiccups whenever I eat dry turkey.

So, if this is your first time roasting turkey and you’ve been racking your brain on how to make that turkey moist, stop racking and start taking notes.

Let’s start off with why your turkey would end up dry. The most common reasons are either: (a) you overcooked the bird, or (b) you made a mistake in how it was prepared or while it was roasting in the oven.

You may have heard from cooking shows or dear old ma (or grandma) that a pat of butter under the skin or rinsing it is the key to juicy turkey. Well, you can tell dear old ma (or grandma) not to bother with her technique (no matter how many generations it’s been passed down), because you have some new tricks up your sleeve:

First, you need the right equipment:

a roasting pan three inches deep or less and a rack for even roasting.

This one has been with my family for years. We don’t have an inside-the-pan rack for it, but the turkey still comes out okay. The ones with the rack inside like this one…
…are good if you’re planning on turning the pan drippings into homemade gravy (which is simply your pan drippings, plus a flour/oil mix called a roux and some whipping cream if you want it smoother or have to stretch it).
Which leads me to my next secret to juicy turkey: your mirepoix (pronounced “mere-pwah,” named for a French field marshal and Louis XV’s ambassador, Charles-Pierre-Gaston François de Lévis, duc de Lévis-Mirepoix). “Mirepoix” is just a fancy name for the aromatic vegetables cooks chop up to flavor soups, stews, sauces, and roasted meats. It goes by various names, such as “sofrito” in Spanish, “refogado” in Portuguese, “Suppengrün” in German, “the holy trinity” in Creole and Cajun cooking, or “włoszczyzna” in Polish. A common mirepoix is made up of 2 parts onions for every one part of celery and one part of carrots (though you can also add or substitute for other aromatic vegetables, like leeks, parsnips, celeriac, bell peppers, garlic, or tomatoes). What you want to do is chop your aromatic veggies into medium to large chunks (depending on how big the turkey is) and spread the chunks out on the bottom of the pan, creating a flat surface.
But the mirepoix can’t make the turkey juicy alone. You need to season the bird all over — including the inside cavity. Salt and pepper are your go-to guys, but you can use any seasoning you want. Most of the time, I’m a kitchen-sink seasoner when it comes to roasting poultry  (meaning, “I use everything but the kitchen sink”), but you (and I) have a special blend when it comes to turkey. A nice dry rub I like to use for poultry is salt, pepper, a whisper of cinnamon, a pinch of nutmeg, some garlic (whether fresh and crushed or dry and powdered), some white pepper, and either basil or Italian seasoning.The spice rack (or spice section of your pantry) is your oyster; use it to your advantage. Do taste tests if you must to come up with a winning combination
It also helps if you stick an apple (Granny Smith, Fuji, and Gala are good. Save your Red Delicious for apple juice, apple sauce, or good, old-fashioned, out of hand eating) in the neck cavity. It keeps it juicy and imparts a fresh, fall flavor to it when combined with the cinnamon inside the bird. Or, you could do what I did four years ago and fill the cavity with dried cherries and fresh orange slices. It surprisingly came out good, but it imparted a very sweet taste to it that even I couldn’t handle.

Stuffing the bird also keeps it moist, but only if it’s a moist stuffing (read: it has broth/stock in it).
And last, but not least, some “dos” and “don’ts” for roasting your turkey:
  • Don’t truss the turkey. Trussing is when you tie the legs and wings of poultry together to keep its shape and cook evenly without drying out any of the extremities. You might be asking, “But Philly Foodie, how can you tell me not to do this if the goal is to have a turkey that’s not dry?” Well, in this case, trussing is a bad thing. The legs and wings are dark meat (which is from the active muscles of a bird) and dark meat doesn’t dry out quickly like white meat does. The dark meat will cook faster unfettered and thus reduce the chance of the breast overcooking by the time the dark meat is done. And if any of this sounds like sexual innuendo, I do NOT apologize, because it’s your mind that’s face-down in the gutter.
  • As much as TV, magazines, and your fellow home cooks make it seem glamorous and will pressure you into doing it, just say “No” to basting as your turkey roasts in the oven. The meat is covered by the skin and won’t absorb the juices, so why bother? Also, you will lose valuable heat by opening and closing the oven door a lot. Here’s how you combat this: For the first 20 minutes, roast the bird at a really high heat (450 degrees).  This will allow the skin to brown on the outside and lock in the juices. After 20 minutes, reset the oven temperature to 325 degrees, and turn the turkey upside down so the breast is on the bottom. Add ¼ cup of low sodium chicken stock seasoned with black pepper. This will act as a basting mechanism for the turkey. Since the breast cooks faster than the dark meat and needs less cooking, situating it breast side down exposes it to less direct heat.
  • The phrase “Stick a fork [or knife] in it. It’s done” actually does more harm than good for Tom Turkey, so don’t do it. Why? You lose valuable turkey juice that way.  Some folks like to use the pop up meat thermometers which are fine when they work while others use the leg check technique (read: if the leg when you wiggle it is very easy to move and the skin breaks the bird is done).  You can also use the “20 minutes per pound” rule for a no stuffing bird or the “25 minutes per pound” rule for a stuffed one, but if you’re not good with math, then stick with the other two methods.
  • Do remember is that once the turkey has reached the proper temperature (165 degrees Fahrenheit whether or not it’s stuffed), remove the turkey from the oven and allow it to sit 20 minutes to keep the meat moist. If you carve the meat immediately, all the juices will run out and your goal to make a moist turkey will have been a fool’s errand.

In the next post, we’ll go through the side dishes, sauces, and biscuits. See you then, and happy eating!

Friday Video: Cooking With The Fraternity Chef

This week on Take Back the Kitchen’s Friday Video (don’t worry; tomorrow I’ll have an article ready), Daniel “Dano” Pettinato shows you (and other starving college students) how to make macaroni and cheese. Personally, I don’t care much for it, but, to my sister, it means everything. I’m trying to wean her off the boxed and pre-made stuff in favor of “homemade”-style. I don’t think she can tell the difference. Food is food to her.

“Dano” Pettinato is originally from East Hartford, Conneticut. He is currently the chef for Psi Upsilon (Psi U) at Trinity College (also in Hartford, Connecticut). He has an online video series he created with ChefsInTheKitchen.tv (which is the same place I’m applying for to pitch a cooking show series — or do some kind of production work for them).