That’s The Way the Potato Chip Crumbles

A few months ago, I participated in the Lays Do Us a Flavor contest where people submit new flavors for Lays potato chips (if you live in the UK, you probably know them best as Walkers) and was excited that I might come up with that one flavor that could net me $50,000 (runner-up prize) or $1,000,000 (grand prize).

Sadly, this just didn’t happen for me (even though my mother thought I submitted Wasabi Ginger. I didn’t, though that does seem like something I would devise). While I am upset that people will never know such potato chip flavors as General Tso’s Chicken (I really thought this would be a winner. Next time, I’ll go with Chow Mein Fun, since my sister is crazy for that), Bruschetta, Caprese Salad, Avocado and Cream (this one was a joke), Figs ‘n Feta, Gyro, Pepperoni Philly Cheesesteak, and Salted Chocolate Caramel, I do applaud this year’s entries for being likelier candidates to win than last year’s Cheesy Garlic Bread, which I thought was unimaginative. The fact that it won was what drove me to enter this year’s contest. Besides, I was rooting for Chicken and Waffles (or, at the very least, Sriracha, even though the sriracha fad was starting to fade).

This year’s finalist can be found on the main website: https://www.dousaflavor.com/#!/. The cappucino-flavored one seems like it will be this year’s Chicken and Waffles, as it’s a bizarre choice that everyone will predict is the winner, but will only get runner-up. So far, my favorite one is the Mango Salsa (another flavor I should have come up with, as I made mango salsa in Chef Luis’ Garde Manger class and that goes great with chips — mostly tortilla, but potato works just as well), but if I had to predict a winner, it would probably be Bacon Mac and Cheese, as that has a very Middle American appeal to it and caters to the bacon obsession that seems to be everywhere these days (mostly online).

So what can be said about all of this? Nothing much. There’s no recipe to learn, no interesting food history bits. Not today (maybe tomorrow). I just want to congratulate the people who were picked and hope they win the million.

Thanks, and happy eating.

UPDATE: The winner of the Lays Do Us A Flavor contest for this year is the woman (a nurse from New Jersey) who came up with Wasabi Ginger. I am surprised that that was such a hit with people. Bacon Mac and Cheese seemed a sure thing, the cappucino one was too gimmicky and didn’t taste good, and mango salsa was good, but I can see that being a “Limited Time Only” special flavor (which it kind of was). And, in the words of Colin Jost from Saturday Night Live, “[Wasabi Ginger] sounds less like a potato chip flavor, and more like something Joe Biden would accidentally call the Chinese ambassador.”

Advertisements

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!

Exotic Fruits of My Labor — Passionfruit Shortbread

Passionfruit Shortbread.

In this continuation of my previous post, I have a recipe I found on the food blog, “Lucy’s Friendly Foods.” The writer is a mom with training at Le Cordon Bleu who cooks for people who have food allergies (the common ones, like dairy, soy, egg, and nuts) and those who are on vegetarian/vegan diets.

While I don’t have any food allergies (I thought I was allergic to seafood as a teenager because my eyes always itched and I had nausea, but the red eyes were from rubbing melted butter in them and the nausea could have been from foodborne illness) and you will never see me stick exclusively to a vegetarian/vegan diet (I love meat and junk food too much), age and my time as a culinary student with Job Corps made me more mindful of what I eat. On top of that, it’s an interesting cookie recipe no home cook (be they pro or amateur) should be without. It’s not going to take the place of Grandma’s chocolate chip cookies, but it’s something you have to try once (unless you hate passionfruit or shortbread cookies).

Happy eating!

Fizzy Drinks All Around (or I Am the One Who Pops)

It’s been called everything from the dry and dull “carbonated beverage” to the quaint and regional “pop.” Its flavors range from common fruits to strange concoctions, like Jones Soda’s Tofurkey and Gravy. It’s on the lips of everyone, from little kids at birthday parties to doctors who warn of its high fructose corn syrup and other artificial ingredients and politicians who want to curb its intake in schools or tax it in an effort to fight back against the obesity epidemic and stimulate the economy.

It’s soda…where I’m from, anyway. Depending on your region or country, it’s – as I said before – called everything from “pop” to “soft drinks” to “carbonated beverages.” Other regional terms include “coke” (though I don’t know why people would use this, considering that that’s a very common slang term for cocaine. Then again, the original Coca-Cola had cocaine in it and cocaine was considered a perfectly acceptable sugar substitute before it was known for fueling disco dancers, being boiled down into the more insidious drug crack, and glamorized in the 1983 version of Scarface. Also, “coke” when you’re speaking of soda is mostly used when you’re drinking cola. You can have a Pepsi and still call it a coke – unless you’re in the Olympia Café on late 1970s Saturday Night Live), “lolly water” (which sounds like a very British term that’s probably not even used these days), and “fizzy drink” (which also sounds British, but also sounds like a brand name for dollar-store soda).

Soda is, of course, from the soda water that’s used as the canvas on which the soda maker can add flavor to it. “Soft drinks” are called that to differentiate from “hard drinks” (the drinks with alcohol in them). “Soft drinks” can have alcohol in them, but only less than 0.5% of the total volume, but most soda made in America (at least made by the two major chains, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola) would rather load soda with high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners moreso than a little alcohol (since alcohol’s effects can be amplified when in contact with carbonation. I’ve had a ginger ale with a splash of vodka in it and felt the room spin about 10 minutes later), never mind the reports that excessive consumption of soft drinks (especially soda) is linked to obesity, type II diabetes, loss of bone density, low nutrient levels, and cavities in your teeth (eventually leading to tooth decay). So, soda does rot your teeth, but not your brain, despite what those moral guardians and misguided social justice warriors will tell you. My opinion on all of this: all things in moderation. If you’ve been hooked on the fizzy stuff for a while, try and cut back. Switch it up with a good detox drink (mint and citrus-flavored water or just regular filtered water with some lemon in it) and always remember to brush your teeth, floss, and (if you can) visit the dentist.

Health public service announcements aside, that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to instruct you on how to make homemade soda. Yes, I know it seems like something that can’t be done since it’s already available pre-made, but I had a homemade ginger ale from a farmer’s market when I lived in San Francisco, California that left me with a satisfying throat burn and didn’t feel like I was swishing my own spit in my mouth, so don’t come whining to me about how soda can’t be made by hand. With handmade soda, you get to make it in the purest way possible: with carbonated water, a sweetener (particularly cane sugar), and some kind of flavoring agent (a juice, purée, or syrup).

Carbonated Water

If you drink a lot of soda or soda water, you know it gets expensive over time. A six-pack of Pepsi can set you back $6.00, depending on sales tax (unless you’re in Delaware, where sales tax is not a thing), when, back in the 1990s, it was maybe $4.00 (assuming there’s no sale). I’m not the only one to think to myself: “I wonder if there is a way to carbonate my own water.” There are several ways. The easiest way is to just buy soda water or seltzer water (both of which can be found in grocery stores or any place that sells liquor and liquor accessories for home bars and parties) in bulk, but that only works if you have the cash, a home bar, or are starting a homemade soda business. For her 28th birthday, my sister bought herself a SodaStream* (which she has been wanting for a while). While it does save you a considerable amount of money in terms of buying soda and soda water, the costs are actually high and very hidden. The machine itself costs $90 (though my sister bought a $70 model. Either she found a less expensive model or she got a discount since she always shops at Amazon.com for everything from books to new shoes) and each carbon dioxide refill bottle costs $30 for each 33 oz cannister. If I were her and had some gadgeteer genius (the kind that gets you into those Institute of Technology colleges, like M.I.T.), I’d make my own carbonator with a big CO2 tank, some plastic tubing, and a carbonator cap hidden in an easy, yet ingenious way because a large CO2 tank would look awkward in a kitchen setting. For weird parties, like Halloween or raves, or if I want to experiment with something different, I’d find some dry ice and carbonate the water that way.

Sweetener

Until 1985, soft drinks were sweetened with sugar or corn syrup. As of 2010, in the United States, that’s been replaced with high-fructose corn syrup to lower cost. In Europe, sucrose dominates, because agricultural policies over there favor production of sugar beets and sugar cane over the production of corn (besides, corn is more abundant in North and Central America than it is in Europe). The deal with high-fructose corn syrup and human health is that it’s connected with diabetes, hyperactivity, hypertension, and fatty liver disease that isn’t caused by alcoholism. On the other hand, the human body breaks sucrose down into glucose and fructose before it is absorbed by the intestines. Simple sugars such as fructose are converted into the same intermediates as in glucose metabolism. However, metabolism of fructose is extremely rapid and is initiated by fructokinase activity, which is not regulated by metabolism or hormones and proceeds rapidly after intake, promoting fatty acid and triglyceride synthesis in the liver, and increased blood lipid levels. The takeaway to all of this is either (a) all things in moderation, or (b) you’re better off trying to find or make soda with real sugar in it.

Sweeteners for “diet” sodas are no better than high-fructose corn syrup. While aspartame has been disproven in its claims that it causes cancer, neurotoxicity leading to neurological or psychiatric symptoms such as seizures, mood changes, and/or neuropsychiatric conditions in children (including ADHD), it does have a really awful aftertaste (to me, at least) and there are people out there who have an adverse reaction to it, though the worst they get from aspartame is a headache.

Cyclamate – the first sugar substitute to be used in “diet” sodas – is the sugar substitute that caused cancer in laboratory mice, which is a shame, as tasters at the time claimed that cyclamate actually tasted good for a sugar substitute. Fortunately, cyclamate is still available in some places outside of North America. Saccharin followed. Its taste was described as “metallic” or “bitter,” and was also alleged to be carcinogenic. However, it was never banned. Rather, foods with saccharin in it had to have warning labels put on it as part of the Saccharin Study, Labeling and Advertising Act, a United States federal statute enacting requirements for a scientific observation regarding the impurities in, potential toxicity, and problematic carcinogenicity of saccharin, signed into law in 1977 by Jimmy Carter. The ban wouldn’t be lifted until 2ooo.

All of this doesn’t really matter when making homemade soda – unless you somehow have high-fructose corn syrup barrels just stored in your pantry for use in everything from soft drinks to frozen food. All you really need to sweeten your homemade soda is either plain sugar (the same sugar you put in your morning coffee or tea). You can also create your own flavored syrup or use an alternate sweetener, like agave nectar (though that’s if you want your homemade soda to be super-indie, real “arthouse” obscure, which translates to “pretentious” for most people). When soft drinks were first starting out, honey was used as a sweetener. Maybe you could bring that back and do something with it.

Flavorings

As with any food you make, ingredient quality is the key, especially if you’re using fresh fruits, herbs, and spices for your soda. The store-bought sodas can have their “natural and artificial ingredients” label.

A simple fruit syrup is just sugar, water, and the fruit, herb, or spice of your choice boiled down into a thin, slightly sweet goo (think children’s cough medicine if it actually tasted good). If making syrup isn’t your thing, then you can go for a simple fruit purée with as much or as little sugar as you want into the carbonated water for an Italian-style soda. For sodas like root beer and ginger ale, yeast is added, so it’d be like brewing beer or kombucha.

Making imitation Pepsi or Coca Cola (which you can label as “Popsi” and “Kooki Kola” or do the old “blind taste test” by putting the imitation in empty brand name bottles to see if anyone can tell the difference) is probably the most difficult soda you can make because most of the ingredients are only available if you know a good high-end supermarket or can find rare and unusual ingredients online. Those ingredients are food-grade orange oil, lime oil, lemon oil, cassia oil, nutmeg oil, coriander oil, lavender oil, gum arabic (a natural gum made of hardened sap taken from two species of the acacia tree; Senegalia and Vachellia), water, and vodka. The water and vodka you don’t have to look far for, but everything else takes some time and energy to find. On top of that, the directions as outlined on Unusual Food Handers (http://food-handler.blogspot.com/2008/02/coca-cola-how-to-make-coca-cola-at-home.html) make the whole thing like a chemistry class project, what with the use of syringes and high-ended beakers. If you’re looking for something more organic, then Salt and Smoke has a recipe for homemade cola syrup that tastes like “old-school” Coca-Cola (http://saltandsmokefood.com/botanical-cola-syrup/).

Ideas on My Own Sodas and Conclusion

Besides the usual homemade take on ginger ale, root beer, and cola, I am experimenting with fruit-, herb-, and spice-based soda mixes that haven’t been done before. Pineapple mint, white grape and rosemary – heck, maybe I can take that cranberry sauce I made during Thanksgiving and turn that into a soda (complete with ground cinnamon). Of course, all of this is tenative and those were the three ideas I had buzzing in my head ever since I decided that I might want to make and market my own soda.

So, remember to enjoy your soft drinks in moderation and always recycle your empties. My sister has enough in her room to pay off her student loans (with some left over to pay off half of mine).

Thanks, and happy eating and drinking.

=======================================================

*SodaStream also comes with a lot of manufacturing controversy, since its main facility is in a settlement in the occupied West Bank of Israel. According to the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, the settlement (including the Mishor Adumim SodaStream factory), was built on land taken from five Palestinian towns and two Bedouin tribes who have been evicted by the Israeli army, and these Israeli settlements in the West Bank are regarded by many as illegal under international law. The European Union’s highest court ruled in 2010 that SodaStream was not entitled to claim a “Made in Israel” exemption from European Union customs for products manufactured in the West Bank. Why? Because Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory are outside the territorial scope of the EC-Israel Agreement. Human Rights Watch has come down on SodaStream for unlawful discrimination, land confiscation, natural resource theft, and forced displacement of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, while The United Church of Canada, Sweden, Finland, and Norway (all three Scandinavian countries) launched a campaign to boycott SodaStream’s products manufactured in the occupied West Bank.

Oreo Day (or The Sieve and the Sandwich Cookie)

Image

The old packaging I remember from the 1990s.

Another food celebration day has crept up on me. This time, it’s Oreo Day, though I would have gone with “Sandwich Cookie Day” for two reasons: a) Oreos aren’t the only sandwich cookies with a creamy center out there (especially since Nabisco is doing all it can to make Oreos different), and b) you know some overly politically-correct activist is going to get on his or her soapbox and declare that the name is racist. For those who don’t know, “Oreo” is a derogatory name for a black person who “acts white” (read: doesn’t listen to rap, has a good credit rating, isn’t on welfare, has a respectable job, etc). Other variations of this include the “banana” (an Asian who acts white), a coconut (a Hispanic or black person who doesn’t have African roots [like a Brazilian, a Jamaican, or someone from India] who acts white), and a “backwards Oreo” (a white person who acts black). While being called an “Oreo” may be a compliment (because, hey, you don’t follow the stereotypes of your race and cookies are always good), it does have the sting of “You should be ashamed of yourself for selling out to The White Man, the same White Man that enslaved your ancestors and took their sweet time giving us the same rights they have, and still keep us down today, albeit in more underhanded ways, never mind that we’re keeping ourselves down and, therefore, making ourselves look bad.” I guess whoever came up with these was only racist when he or she was hungry and, rather than get something to eat, decided to fan the flames of hatred a little more.

I can’t think of a time when Oreo cookies weren’t part of my life. It’s always been in my pantry, whether it’s the real deal or some discount store knock-off. Even as I’m typing this, there’s a discount store Oreo knock-off in my pantry, called Benton’s Chocolate Sandwich cookies waiting to be devoured by everyone in my family within the span of, oh, say, five days. And even when I couldn’t have the cookie, I’ve always had a dessert with Oreos in it (or flavored like a chocolate sandwich cookie), be it ice cream, cake, pie, or pudding. Oreo cookies are a lot like some of the cartoons I watched when I was younger: kids love them and are the main demographic, but the periphery demographic is mostly adults.

Image

The competition: 1908-2001, with a brief comeback in 2008

Oreos were created in 1912 (making them a little over 100 years old, 102 to be exact) as a competitor to Hydrox Cookies, which, sadly, aren’t around anymore due to mergers, rebranding, and Oreo kicking Hydrox’s butt in sales. The last time Hydrox were seen was when they were sold as part of the product’s 100th birthday in 2008. Compared to Oreos, Hydrox’s filling wasn’t overly sweet, it was kosher/halal  (Oreo’s original recipe had lard in it, and, as Jewish and Muslim dietary laws will tell you, pork products are verboten, as pigs are seen as dirty, disease-ridden scavengers), and Hydrox’s chocolate wafer could stand its own when being dunked in milk.

When Oreo first started, it was known as the “Oreo Biscuit” (which is somewhat true, as a “biscuit” is what Americans and Canadians call a “cookie” and not a quick bread that’s used in a sausage sandwich for breakfast and served alongside chicken and mashed potatoes for dinner, and the product was originally made for British people in mind). It was developed and produced by the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) in New York City (Chelsea area) on Ninth and 15th (which is known as “Oreo Way”). The original packaging was in novelty cans with clear glass tops and they sold for 25 cents a pound. Keep in mind that $.25 a pound in 1912 would be $5.86 today when adjusted for inflation, which is how much Oreos are priced in some of the mom-and-pop delis and kwik-e-marts I’ve been to. Okay, maybe not that much, but I’ve seen them go anywhere from $3.50 to $4.99 — minus tax, of course. As for the original packaging, Nabisco probably switched over to the “We Three Sleeves” packaging to keep the prices down and for freshness reasons, though I’ll bet you there’s a farmer’s market out there that has homemade, heart-smart, gluten-free, vegan Oreos in a decorative can (made of recycled materials, because that’s how the fair-food, go-green crowd works) that’s probably somewhere between $1.50 to $2.50 a pound (maybe more).

As mentioned before, the filling to the Oreo cookie had lard (pork fat) in it, making it unsuitable for eating if you were Jewish, Muslim, or just didn’t like pork and pork byproducts (and, unlike today, people didn’t really care if you were any religion other than Protestant or some kind of Baptist or Anglican Christian. Even Catholics were ragged on because they had a pope as their conduit to God and Protestants didn’t…or, if you want to put a modern perspective to it, maybe Protestants knew that Catholic priests did unsavory things to children, but it wasn’t a major concern until the 1990s, the 2000s, and now). Of course, to cover it up, they used vanilla and sugar. There was even a lemon-flavored cream filling in the 1920s, but has since been discontinued (though if you ever go to Japan or to some American markets, you will find lemon cream Oreo cookies, albeit with the Golden Oreo wafers instead of the chocolate ones. Lemon and chocolate don’t really make a good flavor profile, which is probably why it was discontinued).

Sam “Mr. Oreo” Porcello (exact day and month unknown, but the birth year is somewhere between 1935 and 1936 – died May 12, 2012) was a food scientist from New Jersey credited for devising the modern Oreo cookie filling, in which the lard is replaced with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (still not healthy, but slightly better than lard). It wouldn’t be until 2005 that the Oreo would switch over to non-hydrogenated vegetable oil in an effort to rid food of trans fats (which, despite what you’ve heard or read, doesn’t affect the flavor, so those episodes of American Dad (“Live and Let Fry,” season four, episode 11) and King of the Hill (“Trans-Fascism,” season 12, episode 11) where Stan Smith and Hank Hill respectively fight back against the new “no foods with trans fats” laws because the no trans fats foods lack flavor is a fallacy.

The etymology behind “Oreo” is a mystery. Some say it’s partially from the French word “or,” which isn’t a conjunction used to denote a decision or choice in this case (in French, that word is “ou,” without the left-leaning accent. If it’s spelled with the left-leaning accent [où], then it’s the French word, “where,” as in “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?”). In this case, “or” in French means “gold,” possibly meaning that this cookie is the gold standard. Another theory is that “Oreo” is from the Greek word “όμορφο,” meaning “beautiful, nice, or well-done” (Quick word: I don’t know Greek all that well, except for the alphabet, and that was back in sixth grade when I was taught about the Greek and Roman Empires and from watching TV shows and movies about college frat and sorority houses getting into trouble that would get real-life frats and sorority members hurt, expelled, arrested, shut down, put on academic probation, or, worst case scenario,  deported. I got the word off Google Translate). A final, and simpler, theory is that the name was made up by the company and it was chosen because it was easier to pronounce and remember.

Through the years, Oreo has become so much more than a chocolate sandwich cookie. Its filling has been everything from lemon to mint to chocolate to peanut butter — heck, if you go to China and Japan, you can get green tea filling in your Oreo, while other countries, like Chile, Argentina, Canada, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia have blueberry ice cream filling, orange ice cream filling, strawberry filling, and dulce de leche (a milk-based confection that’s common as muck in the Hispanic world, particularly in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the South American countries that have Spanish as an official language. Brazil, Guyana, French Guiana, and Suriname are the only ones that don’t) filling. There’s been Oreo pies, cheesecakes, regular cakes, brownies, ice cream, and frozen dessert dishes. The wafers, when ground up into crumbs, have been molded into pie crusts (or edible dirt, if it’s Halloween and you want to make a food-based scale model of a cemetery. Someone in my high school senior class did that, and it was amazing) and used as mixin’s for yogurt and ice cream. Basically, if something on the dessert menu says “Cookies and Cream [something],” you can bet that Oreos or an Oreo-inspired chocolate sandwich cookie (whether pre-made or homemade) are involved.

As part of Chocolate Sandwich Cookie Day, I’m going to leave you with a fool-proof recipe for how to make your own Oreo cookies (or, at the very least, the wafers, so you can use them for desserts or just eat that part without worrying about the creamy center). “You can make your own Oreos?” you ask incredulously. Yes, you can. It may seem hard, as the dark chocolate wafers are easy to overbake (their color obscures browned edging, which is an indicator of doneness in most cookie recipes) and the filling is very easy to foul up (coming out either too sweet or not sweet enough. I’ve had enough Oreos and no-brand sandwich cookies to know the difference), but this recipe fixes those mistakes.

The cookie/wafer part is prepared the same way as vanilla icebox cookies, only you substitute part of the flour for Dutch process cocoa (or a mix of black cocoa — which can only be found online or at gourmet grocery stores — and Dutch process cocoa), though you don’t have to bother with the cocoa powder if you’re making mock Golden Oreos. As for the filling, it’s a simple blend of confectioner’s sugar, water, vanilla extract (for best results, try and find clear vanilla extract, as that makes it as white as the actual Oreo filling), and a pinch of salt. That’s it. You don’t need lard or hydrogenated oil for it.

So break out the milk (doesn’t matter what kind. I had my Benton Sandwich cookies with Almond Vanilla Milk. I’m not lactose-intolerant, but everyone else in my family is and I’m open to trying new milks, like when I tried goat’s milk with spiced tea at Three Stone Hearth) and have a happy Chocolate Sandwich Cookie Day with this copycat recipe:

Chocolate Sandwich Cookies

Makes about 4 dozen cookies

Black cocoa (found in specialty shops or online) is what gives these cookies their distinctive dark color and deep flavor; if you can’t find it, substitute additional Dutch-processed cocoa powder. Also, if you can find it, clear vanilla extract will make a bright white–colored filling.

COOKIES

2½ sticks unsalted butter, softened

¼ cup black cocoa powder

¼ cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder

1 teaspoon instant espresso or instant coffee

1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

2 large egg yolks

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2¼ cups (11¼ ounces) all-purpose flour

FILLING

4 cups (16 ounces) confectioners’ sugar

Pinch salt

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2½ tablespoons water

FOR THE COOKIES:

Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter, then combine with the cocoa and espresso powders in a small bowl to form a smooth paste. Set aside to cool, about 15 minutes.

In a large bowl, beat the cooled cocoa mixture, remaining 16 tablespoons butter, granulated sugar, and salt together using an electric mixer on medium-high speed until well combined and fluffy, about 1 minute. Beat in the egg yolks and vanilla until combined, about 30 seconds. Reduce the mixer speed to low and slowly add the flour in 3 batches, beating well after each addition. Continue to beat until the dough forms a cohesive ball, about 10 seconds.

Transfer the dough to a clean counter and divide into 2 equal pieces. Roll each piece of dough into a 6-inch log, about 2 inches thick. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours.

Adjust the oven racks to the upper-middle and lower-middle positions and heat the oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Slice the dough into ⅛-inch-thick cookies. Lay the cookies on the prepared baking sheets, spaced about ¾ inch apart.

Bake the cookies until the edges begin to brown and firm, 10 to 12 minutes, switching and rotating the baking sheets halfway through baking.

Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets for 3 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Repeat with the remaining dough using freshly lined baking sheets.

FOR THE FILLING: In a large bowl, beat the confectioners’ sugar and salt together with an electric mixer on low speed, slowly adding the vanilla and 2 tablespoons of the water until the filling is uniform and malleable, about 1 minute. If the filling is dry and crumbly, beat in the remaining ½ tablespoon water. Transfer the filling to a clean counter and roll into a log slightly smaller than the cookie dough (about 1⅔ inches wide). Wrap the filling in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 20 minutes. 7. Slice the filling about ⅛ inch thick. Pinch each slice of filling between your fingertips to soften it, then sandwich it firmly between 2 cookies and serve.

Thanks, and happy eating!

To see where your favorite Oreo cookie type places, read this article from the food section of Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/06/oreo-flavors_n_4904442.html?utm_hp_ref=taste&ir=Taste

Friday Update: Where In The Blogosphere is PhillyFoodie85 (or When The Chips Are Down)?

It’s been sixteen days since my last post, which, yes, goes against my promise for more frequent posts, but I don’t like to rush my work.

It’s been a pretty interesting week for me. After being put off for a week, I started my city’s COOK Master’s program (http://audreyclairecook.com/cook-masters-program), which is now catering to food writers looking for work along with chefs and cooks doing the same. I met more food bloggers looking to hit the big time than actual cooks, so, for the first time since my creative writing class in high school, I felt at ease at where I was.

The food writing lesson was good, in that it inspired me to always look for new ways to approach my food essays so it doesn’t feel like I’m in a grind (and not a good one, like for coffee and pepper) and to always edit, revise, build vocabulary, never stop learning, and even go out on a limb and make the news as well as report it (meaning that, if I stage at a restaurant or work at a farmer’s market, then I can report on it here). The speakers (Rick Nichols and Drew Lazor of Foobooz) didn’t exactly touch on where I can submit my work, but, hey, that’s why the Internet was made.

Tuesday the 21st’s Health and Nutrition class was canceled and rescheduled for February 25th after a heavy snowstorm plowed through the East Coast, a lesson learned when I arrived in Center City and was buffeted with snow for at least an hour until the program managers told me that there was no need for me to be here since the class was canceled. And it’s not like I was notified earlier about it and went blindly into the winter white. The program managers don’t get in until 11:15 am and, despite claims that they called me to inform me of this on my cell phone number, I didn’t get the message (it did, however, go to my home number). It was all a case of crossed wires and I can’t really blame anyone (except for myself, who should have taken the hint that there would be no class when the snow started to get heavy). This coming Monday and Tuesday, I have Butchery and Wine 101, and the weather isn’t going to be too bad, so I’m pumped and studying all I can.

The rest of the week was pretty much drafting and devising new ideas for this blog, as well as aimless Internet surfing, which brought me to this contest:

https://www.dousaflavor.com/#!/

Lays Potato Chips started this two years ago, where lucky contestants get to enter in what new potato chip flavor they want to see. The finalists last time were Sriracha (a spicy, Asian, ketchup-like sauce that seems to be all the rage with hipsters, geeks, and white kids who want to be Asian. I didn’t taste this nor did I see it at any of the markets where I live), Chicken and Waffles (I did see this, and taste it. The combination of maple syrup and potatoes made up for the fact that I couldn’t taste the chicken), and Cheesy Garlic Bread (I saw this one too and tasted it. I was disappointed that I couldn’t identify the garlic nor the cheese taste. And this one won, which was more disappointing, given how good the chicken and waffles chips were and the potential of sriracha-flavored chips).

Now, you’re probably wondering, “PhillyFoodie [or Canais], why didn’t you enter the contest? You must have a lot of flavor ideas and combos whirling in your head from your two years as a Job Corps culinary student and your time in California, where you pretty much ate from organic gardens, professional kitchens, community kitchens, and farmers’ markets, and one could net you $1 million and some minor fame.” I did think about entering when the contest was fresh and new, but I was too busy. Now that I’m not, I’ve been pouring through The Flavor Bible and devising ideas.

My best ones so far include: Caprese (Tomato, Basil, and Mozzarella), Philly Cheesesteak, Chili Cheese Fries, Parmesan and Walnut, Apple Cheddar (with and without bacon), Mac and Cheese (as a promise to my sister), and, my original idea, General Tso’s Chicken. I’m sure I have more, but I forgot.

Next time, I’ll touch on how to reinvent your kitchen into something more professional.

Good night, and happy eating!

Copycat Recipes: Cuckoo For Cocoa Bombs

This is episode one in a new “Take Back the Kitchen” segment centered on making your favorite restaurant meals and pantry/refrigerator staples from scratch.

Welcome back, readers! It’s January 3, 2014, and, where I live, it’s an ass-biting 14ºF and is going to hit 5º by nightfall (and feel like 14 below). It’s times like this I wish I were back in San Francisco, where their winter weather is no different than what it’s like in early spring (mild and a little rainy).

But, this blog isn’t about the weather or where I’d rather be. It’s about food…and, in this case, drink.

In weather like this, hot drinks are the way to go, be it tea, coffee, cider, toddies, or cocoa. Nestlé, Swiss Miss, Ghiradelli Premium, Trader Joe’s, some Save-a-Lot no-brand — whatever your taste (and your budget), there’s nothing like a hot mug of hot cocoa (especially with marshmallows, but I’m not a marshmallow person, unless it’s roasted over a fire and sandwiched between a chocolate bar and some graham crackers or melted down and used to make Rice Krispie treats). But what if I told you that you can actually make hot cocoa mix and save yourself the time and money? Initially, you’d give me an incredulous look or dismiss me as being crazy, and, prior to that, I’d agree with you, but, yes, it is just as possible to make hot cocoa mix just as it is to make herbed crackers, egg foo young, or Fruit Roll-Ups (which I will touch on in later installments of “Copycat Recipes”). And this take on hot cocoa mix won’t leave a gritty, powdery aftertaste, which is one of the things I don’t like about hot cocoa.

The first thing you’ll notice about this is that it’s not a powdered mix, more like melting chocolate, then chilling it and turning it into pseudo-truffles or an edible fizzing bath bomb. That’s to reduce the mess you get with powders and to put you in control of how you want it flavored. What if you want some mint hot cocoa, or nutmeg, or cinnamon or Mexican-style (with dried, ground chiles)? Yes, you can flavor the powder with spices or add a flavored syrup, but it won’t mix well. Here, you get a better blend of chocolate plus whatever you’re flavoring it with (and, yes, you can use your favorite dessert liqueur, like Remy Martin, Kahlùa, Bailey’s Irish Cream or crème de mènthe if you want to make your hot cocoa adults only).

Instant Cocoa Bombs
(adapted from American Test Kitchen’s recipe)

Ingredients

12 oz (1 bag) semi-sweet chocolate chips*
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 tsp salt
Optional flavorings (mint extract, vanilla extract, crushed peppermint candy, smoked sea salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, pumpkin spice, dried ground chiles, your dessert liqueur of choice, ground coffee, etc)

1) Combine the chips, heavy cream, whatever flavoring you’re using (if any), and salt in a microwaveable glass bowl (I swear by Pyrex).
2) Microwave for 2 minutes (your microwave time may vary). If you don’t have a microwave, then melt the chocolate in either a double boiler or place the bowl with the mixture in it over a boiling pot of water (or the flame on your gas oven if you’re feeling ambitious). Either way, you’ll want to stir your melting mixture until it’s smooth. If you’re flavoring it, taste it to see if the flavored chocolate is where you want it to be.
3) Wrap the bowl tightly with plastic wrap (or use a shower cap and some rubber bands) and refrigerate for two hours or until firm.
4) After the mixture has hardened, take the bowl out of the refrigerator and unwrap.
5) With a tablespoon or a small disher scoop (Disher scoop is what laymen call “an ice cream scoop”. In restaurant supply stores, their sizes range from #6 to #100. A #6 or #8 [which is small and used for cookies] is ideal for this recipe), scoop the mixture into balls.
6) If you’re not going to use the cocoa bombs right away, wrap them in plastic and put them in a resealable freezer bag (or just put them in a freezer bag if you don’t have plastic wrap). They’ll keep anywhere from five days (refrigerator) or two months (freezer)
7) To use the cocoa bombs (either right away or later), place a cocoa bomb in a microwaveable mug (material doesn’t matter. It just has to be able to handle microwave temperatures), add milk (doesn’t matter if it’s cow, goat, soy, or lactose-free), and place in the microwave for 2 minutes (again, your microwave cooking time may vary). Stir until the cocoa bomb melts into the milk. Enjoy either with marshmallows, by itself, with whipped cream, or with a warm pastry, cookie, or brownie of some kind.

*You don’t have to use semi-sweet chcolate. Experiment with milk chocolate chips and white chocolate chips, or use Nutella (or any type of chocolate-hazelnut spread, whether store-bought or homemade)

As an added bonus, I’d like to include this video of how to make homemade marshmallows, along with the video illustrating how to make the cocoa bombs. The marshmallows take a bit more time to make, so you are better off getting store-bought, but, if you hate store-bought or have the time and energy to make homemade, then give this a try:

Instant Cocoa Bombs Video:

Homemade Marshmallows Video:

Happy New Year and happy eating!

A Very Foodie Christmas: Novelty Need Not Appli-ance

On this side of the world (Western hemisphere), there’s only two more shopping days until Christmas – unless you’re like my family and decide that the after-Christmas/year-end clearance sales (which last from December 26th to around New Years’ Eve, maybe New Years’ Day, if a store decides to stay open then. Some stores will even stop the day before New Years’ Eve so they can differentiate between the after-Christmas sale and the year-end clearance sale) are the best time to buy Christmas presents.

Shopping for a foodie or a home cook is a lot like shopping for a child: there are a lot of new, shiny toys out there that everyone wants, some of which are good to have, while others are just novelty that no self-respecting home cook/foodie would want or need. A quesadilla maker does seem like a good idea, but, as the “Thanksgiving Leftovers” post showed, you can get the same results with a good cast-iron pan and a canned good or the back of a spatula pressed firmly, but not too firm or the cheesy filling will spill out (unless you like it like that). I guess I should be one to talk, since my grandmother recently got our family a breakfast sandwich maker from Hamilton Beach and that’s about as novelty as you can get on a kitchen appliance without it being a knock-off of something you’d find at a county fair or circus (cotton candy maker, snow cone maker that’s not the classic Snoopy one, or hot dog roller). However, my family hasn’t had a bread toaster in years, our toaster oven broke, and there are days where we (myself included) either don’t feel like using the oven or stove or can’t, because we ran out of vegetable oil. In that regard, I say, “Don’t pick a novelty kitchen appliance unless you have a good reason to use it and you will use it more than once,” like a pasta maker:

I had to work with one of these monsters in my Bistro class and my Fine Dining class at Job Corps. It seems easy and you’d think I’d get the hang of it just because of my quarter-Italian heritage, but it just didn’t happen, especially since the hand crank kept falling off. The only successful time I had with this machine was when I made kreplach noodles for my Jewish chicken soup, but that was because I had a partner who helped me hold down the machine. If you want to make fresh pasta and you don’t have anyone to be your spotter when hand-cranking it, then invest in an electric pasta maker, get a pasta maker attachment for a Kitchenaid standing mixer, like this one…

…or learn how to cut pasta by hand. The last one isn’t recommended unless you have the time, patience, skill, and a good kitchen knife or pizza cutter and ruler to do it.

So, what constitutes a “kitchen need” vs. a “kitchen want”? It all depends on whether or not you can see yourself using the appliance frequently or if you answer “Yes” to the question, “Could I do the same thing without this appliance?”

Like the panini maker/George Foreman grill. While you may jump down my throat and say that a panini maker is essential in the kitchen, it’s actually not (and this is coming from experience, as I have two broken ones). You get the same results with a cast iron skillet with a ridged bottom, whether you’re making a turkey and brie panini or a pan-grilled steak. On top of that, you can easily soak a ridged cast iron skillet in the sink and not have to worry about emptying the fat/oil reservoir every time you use it.

Then there are the specialized cutters (the ones used for one kind of food, like watermelons, corn, bananas and butter). The only kind of cutters you need in a kitchen are for cookie dough (though you can easily make stencils out of sturdy paper and not bother with those metal ones) and an apple corer. The knife kits they have in stores from Williams-Sonoma to Wal-Mart look almost like the ones that professional chefs use, and work just as well.

Coffeemakers: I’m not much of a coffee drinker, and, if I am, then it’s always cold and always sold at Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, or Cosi’s. I did have one in college, but that was because my sister and I also bought a blender so we can make cold coffee drinks and it ended up getting thrown out when we moved out. If you just have to have coffee, then don’t go for the needlessly complicated ones, like this one (yes, I know it’s a parody commercial from Saturday Night Live, but the Verismo is real. They’re just making fun of the crummy service of real Starbucks cafes): http://vimeo.com/62425881. Go for the ones that look like this:

So, what have we learned in this blog post? We learned that a foodie Christmas shouldn’t have to break the bank like a regular Christmas. It should be about what you need in the kitchen, not what you want (though if it’s not considered redundant and you plan on using it more than once, you can splurge on a “kitchen want”).

Thanks, and have a very foodie Christmas.

 

 

All About Pom (or Pomegranates 101)

This is Pom.

Pom is a Northern European free spirit — a little wacky, with outré ways that won’t win over everyone, but she does have a lot of friends who want to abandon their toxin-laden, supermarket-shopping, fat American ways and try something…different. Her hourglass figure brings to mind Mae West in her prime or Betty Boop before the Hays Code cracked down on her jazz-era sense of sexual freedom. She comes with a charming tag with diagrams on how many antioxidant properties she has than her Far East sister, Green Tea, which I love both as a drink and as an ice cream flavor.

With the exceptions of grape juice (which, to me, tastes too much like cough syrup with sugar in it), I love fruit juices of all kinds. I am very partial to cranberry juice (which, as a girl, is essential for cleaning out any and all infections in my urinary tract), lime juice (put some sea salt in it and you have a non-alcoholic margarita. Of course, you can add tequila and triple sec along with the salt if you want the real deal, but I’m not much of a drinker), tomato/vegetable blend juice like V8 (which I can always count in if I feel I’m not getting enough fruits and vegetables in my diet and is one of the reasons why I feel a blender is essential in the home kitchen), and any kind of exotic fruit juice (mostly from fruits associated with tropic climates, like passion fruit and mango). That’s where Pom comes in.

The concept of pomagranate juice will make those who aren’t used to it a little suspicious. For one thing, the inside of a pomegranate looks like this:

Your pomegranate insides may vary, but that’s typically what it looks like when you break it open, which may seem hard to cut with a kitchen knife because of the thick skin, but if you have a professional-grade kitchen knife, you can slice through it like it’s nothing. As for me, I’d rather summon the ghosts of my primitive, cave-dwelling ancestors and just slam it against something hard until it splits. Unlike my ancestors, however, I’ll be careful not to get any juice or seeds on the floor.

And that’s another thing about the pomegranate and Pom in general. Pomegranates are not like any fruit you’re used to. They don’t  have juicy flesh that can be fit through a juicer. You can’t twist one on a citrus reamer like you do with a lemon, a lime, a grapefruit, a pomelo, a tangelo, or an orange. Its interior looks  like a uterus with a serious ovarian cyst problem (one that needs surgery, not birth control pills, to fix), and, if you do manage to figure out that the seeds are the juicy part of the fruit, then you’ll discover that it’s very bitter and it’s bitterness doesn’t let up. Where’s the sharp, yet safe and refreshing taste of citrus or the mild, familiar autumn taste of apple juice (and its country cousin, apple cider)? You won’t find it here.

The pomegranate was originally from Iran and has been cultivated there and other parts of Europe and Asia, such as the Mediterrenean, the Caucasus region [that’s the area that includes countries like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, the southwestern tip of Russia, and Georgia — not the Southern U.S. state between Florida and South Carolina. This Georgia also goes by the name “Sakartvelo,” has Tbilisi as its capital city instead of Atlanta, and was part of the Soviet Union until the early 1990s], the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and parts of Southeast Asia, it has religious symbolism (not like the apple as a forbidden fruit, which is actually a myth, as the Garden of Eden story in Genesis doesn’t mention that the forbidden fruit that was on the Tree of Knowledge was an apple. But that’s a blog post for another day) in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and in the religious beliefs of ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, Persia, and China. Pomegranates were brought to California with the early Spanish settlers, the southwest coast and inland valley being ideal for cultivation. It’s juice improves well-being and mood in healthy adults (according to a study from endocrine-abstracts.org). The juice is also extremely high in antioxidants, which is said to be good for you. Since the science behind antioxidants is largely unproven, I’ll let you research and come to your own conclusions.

History and health benefits aside, attaining the tart juice of a pomegranate (not the seeds; the seeds are easy to get) does not come easy — and I’m speaking from experience as a former student cook/chef. It can and will leave a mess. Not in the “Oh, no! I gotta wash this shirt!” mess; more like “I swear, Officer!  I was juicing pomegranates three days ago and just now found this stabbed coed’s corpse!”

Most ways I’ve heard about juicing a pomegranate include breaking the fruit with a kitchen knife and careful hands, then reaming the sections like a lemon, putting the seeds in a plastic Ziploc bag and gently crushing them with a rolling pin (which makes the juice bitter, but this can be prevented if you’re gentle with it), and, of course, letting the juicer/food mill handle the dirty work. The last way is the easiest way if you want to reduce mess in your workspace (whether you cook in a professional kitchen or a home one that looks professional), and yes, if I had a juicer, a food mill, or one of those souped-up blenders they have nowadays that can do anything a professional cook can do, only better, then you’d see me use that to juice pomegranates. So, what’s the best way to juice a pomegranate? Why, the Ziploc bag/rolling pin method, of course (though, if you don’t have a rolling pin, anything heavy will do, like a big soup can, your fist if it’s big enough, the bottom of a tumbler or a measuring cup), as seen in this video:

Pom’s juice are great straight up or diluted with water. For those who don’t like her plain (her tartness won’t win over most) or want something a little more, there’s Pom with tangerine or mango juice. As mentioned before, Pom wants to be friendly and helpful to your body underneath its free, often unconventional ways, and will clash with those who are set in their ways. For those who want to party, Pom tastes better with Crown Russe (or any kind of) vodka than it does with anything else at the bar.

I’d like to close out with some pomegranate (both the juice and the fruit) recipes I have on my culinary bucket list):

=============================================

Appetizer:

Pomegranate Bruschetta — a fall/winter season take on a popular Italian appetizer. If you want it simple, just spread some regular cream cheese (or cream cheese made from goat’s milk) on a toasted baguette slice or a slice of Pullman bread (the type of bread people use for toast, grilled cheese sandwiches, club sandwiches, any kind of cold-cut sandwiches, the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich [that perennial favorite of most children who haven’t been cursed with a peanut allergy], and paninis) with the crust cut off and sprinkle pomegranate seeds on top. The pomegranate seeds are edible, but if you don’t like seeds, then you can do what I do when I chew gum: spit it out when the flavor’s gone (though that is definitely frowned upon in more polite settings. I suggest either swallowing the seeds, discretely spitting them out in a napkin, or tucking them in between your cheek and gums and excusing yourself to the restroom when you can’t hold any more).

If a bruschetta isn’t your thing, you can do a Turkish dip called muhammara that combines pomegranate molasses, walnuts, and roasted red bell peppers into a delicious, Mediterrenean/Central Eurasian spread that you can put on pita sandwiches or use as a substitute for ranch or blue cheese dressing with your vegetable platter.

Muhammara (Pomegranate, Red Pepper, and Walnut Dip) [Recipe credit goes to localfoods.about.com. The commentary is, however, copyright of me]

3 to 4 red bell peppers
1 pomegranate, split open
1 to 1 1/2 cups walnuts
1 clove garlic
1 to 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 to 1 tsp. sea salt

1) Roast the red peppers until the skin is blackened and about to fall off. If you have a gas stovetop or a culinary torch, you can roast them that way (I love this way of roasting red peppers). If you have neither, then lay your red peppers on a parchment-covered baking sheet and set the oven to “broil”. Let the peppers sit, covered in plastic wrap or in a plastic Ziploc bag, for about 15 minutes.

2) Preheat your oven to 350°F for the walnuts.

3) While the oven heats, seed the pomegranate by using a sharp knife to cut through the peel from stem to end (that’s called “scoring”). A medium pomegranate can be scored into six sections, and, depending on the size, you may have more or less. That’s normal. After scoring from stem to end, cut off the top of the pomegranate, being sure to cut off enough of the top to reveal the bright red seeds underneath, then use your bare (or gloved) hands to pull the pomegranate apart. If you want to reduce messiness, do this over a mixing bowl or a small to medium pot or pan. Seeding a pomegranate is very labor-intensive, as there are a lot of seeds to pick off the pith, but if you have fast hands and a lot of patience, it shouldn’t be a problem.

4) Lay the walnuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and put them in the oven. Cook until lightly toasted. While ten minutes is ideal time for your walnuts to toast, it’s not always the best time to go with, as oven cooking time varies from brand to brand and walnuts go from raw to burnt very quickly. My advice: invest in a cooking timer (or use a timer app on your cell phone if your cell phone has one) or check your walnuts frequently so they don’t burn.

5) While the walnuts cool, remove the skin from the peppers (which, as I mentioned before, will easily slip off). You can rinse them under cool running water, but this step is optional. Why? If I had to hazard a guess, it’d be because you might want to keep in some of the roasted flavor or maybe the charred pepper skin didn’t leave any black burn flakes behind.

6) Gently rub the walnuts with a clean kitchen towel or paper towels and lift the walnuts off the towels. You won’t remove all the walnut skin, nor do you need to, but it should remove a fair amount of it. You can be how I used to be and be totally anal about making sure every piece of walnut skin is removed, but it’ll take too long, so if you don’t get them all, it’s not the end of the world.

7) Put the peppers, walnuts, pomegranate seeds (if you want, you can save a few for garnish), garlic clove, olive oil, and salt in a blender or food processor and whirl until the mixture is creamy and smooth.

8) Add lemon juice to taste and adjust salt to taste. Serve immediately or cover and chill to serve later. The dip will keep for several days.

9) Garnish with reserved pomegranate seeds (optional)

Best ways to eat it: on crackers or toasted baguette slices/mini toast squares with the crust cut off; with raw or lightly steamed vegetables; as a sandwich spread (toasted chicken or vegetarian flatbread or anything on a pita); with pita chips or homemade or storebought Doritos or potato chips.

========================================

Soup:

Ash-e Anar, a Persian (Iranian) dish made from pomegranate juice and seeds, lentils, mint leaves, spices, ground beef meatballs (sometimes, but most recipes I’ve seen don’t call for meat of any kind. The Iraqi take on this dish, called shorbat rumman, is one such version), and rice. It’s more of a stew than a soup, as the broth is thicker and it’s very filling. It’s a very sweet and sour soup, and the pomegranate seeds are not only beautiful, but also acts as the wuji between the yin of sweet and the yang of sour.

3/4 cup lentils
2 tablespoons butter, margarine, or ghee [a type of clarified butter commonly used in South Asian (Indian, Bangladeshi, Nepali, Sri Lankan, and Pakistani) cuisine and religious rituals in Hinduism]
1 medium onion, chopped
8 cups water (2 quarts)
1 cup long-grain rice
1 teaspoon turmeric
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup chopped green onions
1 cup pomegranate juice (either storebought or homemade)
1 tablespoon butter, margarine, or ghee
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint or 2 teaspoons crushed dried leaf mint
1 tablespoon raisins
1 lb ground beef, seasoned and shaped into meatballs (optional)

1) Pour the lentils in a colander. Set it in the kitchen sink and run cold water over them to clean them. Rinse them until you are sure that they are clean. Set it aside to drain.
2) Melt two tablespoons butter, margarine, or ghee in a large saucepan. Add onion and saute until tender.
3) Add water, drained lentils, rice, turmeric, salt and pepper and meatballs (if using them). Bring to a boil.
4) Reduce heat and cover. Simmer over low heat 40 minutes or until lentils and rice are tender.
5) (if making pomegranate juice by hand): Open the pomegranate and extract the juice using a lemon squeezer, or separate the seeds and use juicing method mentioned in this post. Skip this step if you are using storebought pomegranate juice.
6) Add the pomegranate juice along with parsley and green onions and simmer about 15 minutes longer.
7) Melt 1 tablespoon butter or margarine in a small skillet.
8) Add mint and raisins. Saute until butter or margarine is golden brown. Pour over soup.
9) Garnish with pomegranate seeds and fresh mint leaves and serve.

================================================================

Poultry Dish: Roasted Pomegranate Chicken (with credit to Everyday Cooking for the Jewish Home by Ethel G. Hofman)

I never cooked this one before, but I hope to do so soon. If you’re Moroccan Jewish, this is a favorite at a Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year or the Feast of Trumpets; celebrating the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, and their first actions toward the realization of mankind’s role in God’s world) table.

1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 (3 1/2 to 4-pound) chicken, quartered
1 pomegranate, halved
1/4 cup dry white wine
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon cinnamon sugar
Salt and pepper to taste

1) Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

2) In a cup, mix oil and garlic. Brush garlic oil over chicken.

3) Place chicken in a shallow baking dish. Drizzle any remaining oil over chicken. Bake in preheated oven for 45 minutes, basting several times with pan juices, until skin is browned and juices run clear when a thigh is pierced at thickest part with a fork.

4) Remove 1 tablespoon seeds from pomegranates. Set aside for garnish. Squeeze juice form remaining pomegranate through a sieve into a small bowl.

5) In a small, nonreactive saucepan, mix pomegranate juice, wine, lemon juice, and cinnamon sugar. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low and cook 5 minutes. Season sauce with salt and pepper to taste.

6) Transfer roasted chicken to a serving platter and pierce each piece several times. Pour sauce over chicken. Garnish with pomegranate seeds and serve at room temperature.

===================================================================

Beef Dish: Beef Filets with Pomegranate-Pinot (or Pomegranate-Burgundy) Sauce [with credit to CookingLight.com]

Pomegranate seeds make a pretty garnish for this dish. Some recommended side dishes: grilled vegetables, potatoes dauphinoise, or a really nice mushroom risotto

4 (4-ounce) beef tenderloin steaks, trimmed
3/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
Cooking spray
1 tablespoon minced shallots
1/3 cup pinot noir or burgundy wine (use a burgundy cooking wine if you don’t have or don’t want to use real wine)
1/3 cup pomegranate juice (either store-bought or homemade)
1/3 cup fat-free, lower-sodium beef broth (either store-bought or homemade)
1 thyme sprig
1 1/2 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into small pieces

1) Heat a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat.
2) Sprinkle steaks evenly with salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.
3) Coat pan with cooking spray.
4) Add steaks to pan; cook 3 minutes on each side or until desired degree of doneness.
5) Remove steaks from pan; keep warm in an oven at 200-250 degrees Fahrenheit
6) Add shallots to pan and sauté 30 seconds.
7) Add remaining 1/4 teaspoon pepper, wine, juice, broth, and thyme sprig; bring to a boil.
8) Cook 7 minutes or until reduced to about 3 tablespoons.
9) Remove from heat; discard thyme sprig.
10) Add butter to sauce, stirring until butter melts. Serve sauce with steaks.
==============================================================

Side Dish: Pomegranate and Quinoa Pilaf

When you hear “pilaf,” it’s always associated with rice — thanks, in no small part to brands like Rice-A-Roni (I never did find out if Rice-A-Roni really is the San Francisco treat. I know San Francisco has cable cars, so those commercials aren’t that far off) and tradition. I’m here to tell you that a pilaf dish doesn’t always have to be rice-based. Orzo (a rice-like pasta) works, as does bulgur (a cereal food made from the hulled kernels of several different wheat species, most often from durum wheat), but the best rice substitute for pilaf is quinoa (a chenopod that biologically has more in common with tumbleweeds, spinach, and beetroots rather than the Poaceae family [the family that includes corn, wheat, rice, barley, and millet]).

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 medium onion, diced
1 cup quinoa
2 cups chicken broth or stock
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
1/2 cup diagonally sliced scallions
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted

1) Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Saute the onion until translucent and fragrant.
2) Add the quinoa and stir to coat. Add the chicken broth or stock and bring to a boil.
3) Lower the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes, until the liquid is absorbed and the quinoa is tender.
4) In a large mixing bowl, combine 1 tablespoon olive oil, pomegranate seeds, scallions, parsley, lemon juice, zest, and sugar.
5) Add the quinoa and season with salt, and pepper to taste.
6) Garnish with toasted, slivered almonds.

========================================================================

Dessert:
Pomegranate lends itself better as a sorbet or a water ice than as an ice cream (though it is possible to make a pomegranate ice cream or a gelato), but most dessert cooks will usually play it safe and use pomegranates for either a dessert sauce or use the seeds as a garnish to something like spiced pears, chocolate cookies, or as the base for a syrup or frosting that just lazily gets draped on a cheesecake or a sponge cake like an oversized T-shirt on the shoulders of an ’80s flashdancer.

However, if frozen treats and easy-make sauces on more established desserts aren’t for you, then try a pomegranate meringue, either by itself, on top of a tart or pie, or as part of a Baked Alaska (since the color of a pomegranate meringue is red, this would be ideal for Valentine’s Day or the dessert to any romantic dinner).

For your meringue, you start by whisking egg whites and salt (either by hand or with an electric mixer. An electric mixer is more ideal if you don’t have time or energy to burn) until frothy, keeping the whisk position as horizontal as possible. As you’re mixing, add a mix of cornstarch and sugar in small quantities until the end of the process. In about ten to fiften minutes of mixing, you’ll notice the egg whites are forming stiff peaks. That’s your cue to gently fold in some red food coloring and pomegranate juice for color and mix on low, creating beautiful swirls. With the help of two large slotted spoons, spoon the egg whites onto the parchment-lined baking tray. Twirl each of the meringue mounds so they finish off with a pointed peak. Bake your mounds for about an hour. After an hour, leave them to cool inside the oven with the door slightly open for 15 minutes. Serve your meringues with whipped cream or a handful of pomegranate seeds on top.

========================================================================

Drinks: This is where the pomegranate’s juice really shines. From raw cleanses to cocktails (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic), you can find pomegranate juice as the star. Here are three favorites:

Homemade Pomegranate Ginger Ale

Back when I was living in San Francisco as part of my Advanced Culinary training, I would (if I had the money) go into the city on the Muni on Saturdays to go to the farmers’ market. The people at Job Corps encouraged the culinary students to go out and see the many restaurants the city had. Since I was broke and did not the city well, it took me a while to get out there and do so. When I did, I began frequenting the farmers’ market. It had a lot of fruits, herbs, and vegetables that weren’t seen much back in my home state of Pennsylvania (blood oranges, pomelos, pluots, especially). It was there I tried out quark cheese, persimmons, bizarre-flavored ice cream from Humphrey Slocombe (you haven’t lived ’til you had Secret Breakfast ice cream [that’s cornflakes and bourbon]) and homemade ginger ale.

Prior to that, I didn’t know soda could be handmade. To me, it was either bought at the store or made with that SodaStream machine. Once that sweet, yet spicy taste of homemade ginger ale (and real ginger ale has that satisfying throat burn of real ginger. You don’t get that with Canada Dry or Schweppes, much as I love those two brands), it just blew my mind and showed that you can make soda from scratch, even cola and root beer, which have a lot of complex flavors that you don’t really taste in brand name soda. I came up with the pomegranate recipe for ginger ale like most foodies do it: by accident. I bought Pom and some Canada Dry and mixed them together. I looked online for a homemade variant, but could only find the recipe for regular ginger ale.

The Recipe:

2 cups (about 10 ounces) coarsely chopped, peeled fresh ginger
3 strips lemon peel (about 4 inches each), yellow part only
1/2 cup pomegranate juice (fresh)
1-1/2 cups (about) sugar
3 quarts chilled club soda

1) Place ginger, lemon peel, and 4 cups of water in a 4-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat. Simmer at a low boil, uncovered, for about 10 minutes. Add sugar, stirring constantly, and continue to boil until reduced to about 3 cups, another 15 minutes.

2) Place a fine wire strainer over a large bowl. Pour in ginger mixture to separate solids from liquid. Discard the lemon peel.

3) Cool the syrup, pour into a glass container, seal tightly, and chill at least 1 hour until cold.

4) For each 16-ounce serving, mix 1/4 cup ginger syrup with 1 cup cold pomegranate juice and club soda. Pour over ice. Additional ginger syrup and/or sugar may be added to taste.

Pomegranate Star Fruit Greek Yogurt Smoothie

Smoothies were part of my daily breakfast when I was in college (when I was living in the dorms with my sister, and when I commuted). That was the only reason my sister and I bought a blender (that and my sister wanted blended coffee drinks and I wanted to make smoothies and mousse from scratch). Back then, my smoothies had no exotic fruits in it (unless you consider cranberries exotic), but when I became an intern for Three Stone Hearth and frequented the Farmers’ Market on the Bay (and became temporarily obsessed with Jamba Juice), I tried out some different smoothie flavor combinations. Jamba Juice had a pomegranate blueberry smoothie that I thought was good, but was nothing compared to its strawberry lime peach smoothie, which tastes like summer if summer had an official flavor.

Don’t get me wrong; pomegranate and blueberry is a good smoothie combo, but it’s a little overexposed (as far as Internet searches are concerned). To counter the tartness of the pomegranate, I used the understated, not-quite-citrus taste of star fruit (carambala) and the smoothness of Greek yogurt.

The Recipe:

2 cup(s) plain Greek yogurt, well chilled
2 cup(s) pure pomegranate juice (fresh squeezed or bottled fresh), well chilled
2 star fruits, cut into pieces

1) In a blender, combine the chilled Greek yogurt with the pomegranate juice.
2) Add the sliced bananas and puree.
3) Pour the smoothie into tall, chilled glasses and serve at once.

Pomegranate Sparkling Sangria

A normal sangria is made of brandy, a sweetener (usually honey, orange juice, flavored drink syrups, and agave nector), red wine (sangria is from the Spanish word for “blood” — perfect for those over-21 Halloween parties), and some kind of chopped fruit (oranges, lemons, limes, apples, peaches, any kind of melon, any kind of berry, pineapples, grapes, kiwis, and mangoes are the most popular). If you don’t drink, are underage, or are a recovering alcoholic, you can switch out the brandy and wine with fruit punch, seltzer, or any of your clear lemon-lime sodas (Sprite and 7 Up).

This sangria is red because of the pomegranate liqueur and the Cabernet Sauvignon (a very popular red wine. It’s like Merlot, only more robust and doesn’t hit you as hard — at least that’s what I’ve been told the two times I volunteered for “A Taste of Mendocino”). Like a Long Island Iced Tea, it’s very heavy on the alcohol, so it’s not for lightweights who think they can handle anything stronger than American beer.

The Recipe (credit goes to www.stirrings.com)

1 oz. BV® Coastal Cabernet Sauvignon
1 oz. Stirrings® Pomegranate Liqueur
0.5 oz. Captain Morgan® Original Spiced Rum
2.5 oz. apple cider
Garnish: citrus or apple wedges

1) Combine the first 3 ingredients in an ice filled rocks glass and top with sparkling cider.

2) Stir well.

3) Garnish with citrus wedges and or apple slices.

====================================================

Thank you, and Happy Eating!

99 Batters of Rings on the Wall (or The Perils of Frying)

While searching for a recipe for mee krob (a deep-fried noodle dish from Thailand) online, I discovered that today is Onion Ring Day. It got me thinking about my past encounters with this staple of the appetizer menu.

beer-battered-onion-rings-9-600

I don’t think I’ve ever had a good experience with onion rings. Most of the onion rings I’ve had were from the freezer section (Ore-Ida) or from greasy spoon restaurants, which puts my experience with them either at the average to “Nothing to write home about” level (and the one time I had “from-scratch” onion rings, it coincided with an adverse reaction to fried shrimp initially thought to be a seafood allergy. I don’t know about you, but I can’t enjoy onion rings while my stomach is trying to reject semi-digested shrimp in response to the rest of my body thinking that it could be poisonous).

I gave onion rings a change years later when I was a Basic Culinary Arts student at Whitney M. Young Job Corps center — and once again, I was disappointed. Not because my stomach objected (far from it. I also found out that fried onion rings are more than just a member of the “Not Ready for the Main Course” players along with chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, and jalapeño poppers. Properly-made and seasoned onion rings can go on to substitute for French fries on a delicious hamburger or be enjoyed solo), but because the cooking technique that is frying is very flawed, especially when it comes to frying vegetables (particularly onions and mushrooms).

More often than not, onion rings are a litany of common frying mistakes: they come out soggy, doughy, heavy, and/or  raw, with the “soggy” and “raw” problems a common occurence I’ve experienced in eating amateurly-made onion rings.

How many times have you bitten into an onion ring only for the golden ring and the actual onion split on you like a girlfriend or boyfriend who “needs her/his space” (but is really nailing your sister/brother/best friend/worst enemy behind your back)? It leaves you (the eater) disappointed and, in some cases, burned from the hot oil or gagging from eating a raw or undercooked onion.

“So, how do I turn onion rings around so that I may enjoy them next June 22nd?” you may ask.

Well, it all starts at the core: the onion.
Vidalia onions (sweet onions from Vidalia, Georgia) are your best bet. If you can’t find Vidalias, any sweet onion will do, but make sure they’re sweet. White and yellow onions are actually dry, have a stronger flavor, and are better off for sautéing, roasting, and the occasional use as mirepoix for stock. Why sweet onions? Sweet onions offer a milder flavor, and you want your onion to complement, not upstage, the delicate, fried skin of the onion ring. However, if you can’t find any sweet onions or want a stronger flavor, yellow onions can be used.

Okay, you’ve solved the easy problem (the perfect onion). Now you’re at the hard part of creating the perfect onion ring: the batter.

In the case of onion rings, I do recommend batter, as the old flour + milk or eggwash combo results in the dreaded slippery fried skin that exposes the limp, soggy onion when you go to eat it. For your batter, you’ll need to combine ¾ cup all-purpose flour, ¾ cups cornstarch, 1 teaspoon baking powder, ½ teaspoon salt, ½ paprika (not necessary, but if you want a bolder color and some spicy kick, then add it), and ¼ teaspoon pepper in a large bowl. Slowly whisk in ¾ cup beer until just combined. If you see some lumps in it, don’t worry; that’s normal. Whisk in remaining beer (the recipe calls for 3 cups of beer, but make it four if you want a quick drink. I won’t tell if you won’t, but make sure you reserve 2 cups of beer) as needed, 1 tablespoon at a time, until batter falls from whisk in steady stream and leaves faint trail across surface of batter. If you’re serving kids or don’t like beer, you can substitute beer for buttermilk.

Now you have your onions and your batter. Now what? Just a simple cut onion into rings, dip rings in batter, and fry until golden brown, right? Yes, but if you want perfect onion rings, there are some tips and precautions you need to take:

1) Soak your onion rounds in a bath of 2 cups beer or buttermilk (the two you reserved during the batter-making step), 2 teaspoons of either malt or cider vinegar, ½ teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper in a plastic storage bag that can be zipped shut (you know, a Ziplock bag or any off-brand you can find). Refrigerate the bagged bath for 30 minutes or up to 2 hours.

2) Don’t go past the 2-hour mark or your onion rounds will be too soft and and won’t crisp properly. The beer (or buttermilk)/vinegar/salt/pepper bath not only gives more flavor to your onion rings (so the fried skin doesn’t get all the attention. The onion and the cooked batter are in this together to satisfy your taste buds), but it breaks down the exterior cell walls of the onion so you won’t have to worry about chomping down on a raw onion, shortens the soaking time of the onion rounds, and gives a subtle echo to the beer or buttermilk batter, so you just won’t taste the fried batter separately from the onion.

3) Vegetable oil is the best oil to use when frying onion rings (or anything you want fried, like chicken or other vegetables). You can use peanut oil, but only if you’re sure the people you’re serving aren’t allergic to peanuts.

4) Heat the frying oil to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (177 degrees Celsius or 4 on the gas mark), though the average frying range is between 325 degrees Fahrenheit (165 degrees Celsius) to 375 degrees Fahrenheit (190 degrees Celsius) . Use a fat or candy thermometer to measure your oil temperature. If you don’t have a kitchen thermometer, test the oil by sprinkling some flour (or tossing a bread crumb) in the oil. If the flour fizzles (or if the bread crackles and spits), then it’s ready.

5) Be sure your oil temperature is correct. Too cold and you’ll be left with an oily, runny mess. Too hot, and you’re left with near-edible charcoal (of course, if my mom had her way, she would eat onion rings this way. She already does with chicken wings and fish fillets).

6) Shaking the batter off the onions as you dip them in the batter isn’t really a necessary step, but it helps if you want the batter to adhere to the onion properly. Dusting the damp onions with flour before battering them will help the batter stick.

7) If you’re one of those people who has a gadget for everything in the kitchen, then a deep-fryer is your key to perfect onion rings. If you’re a traditional pots and pans type of home cook, then you can either go for the traditional straight-sided sauté pan or do what my mom has done for years and use a Dutch oven or a pasta pot (looks very much like a small sauce pot). You need something with a deep bottom since you will be free floating your battered onion rings as they fry.

8) Fry the onion rings in small batches. Crowding the pan lowers the oil heat and makes cooking last longer than it should. Of all the cooking techniques out there, frying is high and fast (like The Flash on marijuana). Five minutes is all it takes to get the onion rings done. You can leave them in a little longer if you desire a crispier outer shell or if they haven’t turned to golden brown in the five-minute cooking time.

9) One of the problems with frying is that the food comes out too oily. Let the finished rings drain on a paper towel-lined baking rack.

10) To keep onion rings warm (especially if you’re cooking a full meal), transfer drained rings to a baking sheet-lined pan to an oven preheated to 200 degrees Fahrenheit (around 93 degrees Celsius).

Here’s the recipe in full to keep, print out, write down, and pass down to your next of kin if you wish:

Beer-Battered Onion Rings

Serves 4 to 6

2 sweet onions, peeled and sliced into ½-inch-thick rounds
3 cups beer
2 teaspoons malt vinegar (see note)
Salt and pepper
2 quarts peanut or vegetable oil
¾ cup all-purpose flour
¾ cups cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking powder

1. SOAK ONIONS: Place onion rounds, 2 cups beer, vinegar, ½ teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper in zipper-lock bag; refrigerate 30 minutes or up to 2 hours.

2. MAKE BATTER: Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat to 350 degrees. While oil is heating, combine flour, cornstarch, baking powder, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper in large bowl. Slowly whisk in ¾ cup beer until just combined (some lumps will remain). Whisk in remaining beer as needed, 1 tablespoon at a time, until batter falls from whisk in steady stream and leaves faint trail across surface of batter.

3. FRY RINGS: Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 200 degrees. Remove onions from refrigerator and pour off liquid. Pat onion rounds dry with paper towels and separate into rings. Transfer one-third portion of rings to batter. One at a time, carefully transfer battered rings to oil. Fry until rings are golden brown and crisp, about 5 minutes, flipping halfway through frying. Drain rings on paper towel-lined baking sheet, season with salt and pepper, and transfer to oven. Return oil to 350 degrees and repeat with remaining onion rings and batter.

=========================================

It’s a lot to do just for onion rings, but it only looks hard, and anything worth having is worth fighting for, especially if your enemy is the kitchen. Good night and good eatin’.