Thursday, January 21, 2010

oil and vinegar - a primer

I don't think it is possible to function competently in a home kitchen without at least a modest investment in a few kinds of oil and vinegar.   Cooks have used these two foods for literally thousands of years to flavor or even preserve their food.  You will turn to these condiments again and again to enhance salads, soups and all kinds of meat and vegetable dishes.  Since I use olive oil so frequently, I buy it in two liter cans and decant a few cups at a time into a pretty glass bottle with an easy to use pouring spout.  I keep the big can in a cool dark place and the bottle right by the stove where it is convenient.

I recommend starting with the basics listed here.  Don't worry about waste if you can't use these things up right away.  Vinegars keeps indefinitely at room temperature, as do most vegetable oils.  Most nut and seed oils are best refrigerated.   As you gain experience,  you will enjoy experimenting with more exotic oils or vinegars.   I have seen entire stores devoted to oil and vinegar in major metropolitan areas.  (Seems a little over the top to a humble citizen of Fillmore County like me, but I can think of a lot worse ways to indulge oneself.) If you are concerned about salt intake, use more vinegar in your cooking.  The spark from the acid makes up for missing salt.  You can use fresh lemon juice the same way.

1.   Olive oil -- For salads, bread dipping or when the oil is used as a sauce,  it is worth paying a bit more for a flavorful extra virgin oil.  For cooking,  a less expensive more neutral flavored oil is just fine.  You could probably take a one week course just about olive oil.  So I am not going to even try to advise you on specifics.  You could find a decent sized Italian, Greek, Spanish or Middle Eastern food market and ask a lot of questions.  Specialty stores often have bottles open to taste.  Or try the house brand from one of the major grocery chains.  No need to obsess about this.  Just start somewhere.
2.  Peanut oil -- very nice for stir frying or other very high heat frying.  I also like to use peanut oil in some salad dressings - especially with Asian flavors.
3.  Walnut or hazelnut oil -- a little of this goes a long way.  For certain salads nut oil is divine.  Try walnut oil in any salad with roasted beets.  I also like to roast carrots or squash with walnut oil.
4.  Vegetable oil -- I still use a lot of canola oil because it is easy to find, relatively flavorless, inexpensive and mostly monosaturated.   I also have been buying sunflower oil when I can find it.
5.  Toasted sesame oil - a small amount can have a big impact.  Practically indispensable with Asian influenced dishes

1.  White - good old basic vinegar is good to have around.  I hardly ever cook with it any more but it is just one of those things no house should be without.
2.  Apple cider --  Read the label.  A lot of supposed cider vinegar is really "apple cider flavored" vinegar.  Pass that up for the real thing.
3.  Rice -- I have gotten to love the light taste of this vinegar and use it often even in dishes that are not Asian
4.  Balsamic -- It is possible to get balsamic vinegars from Italy that cost $200. for a little bottle.  But for most American kitchens, a good quality mid priced version will serve just fine.  I use balsamic vinegar with all manner of cooked beans and greens and of course salad dressings.
5.  Sherry wine - This is a little harder to find and a little pricier -- but worth it.  Mostly used in salads.
6.  Red and white wine -- all round basics for cooking and salad.

I hope you enjoy assembling an oil and vinegar department in your kitchen.  While you are at it make sure you always have salt (a topic worthy of a separate discussion some day), pepper, fresh garlic and some Dijon mustard.   Then you will be PREPARED to create all manner of beautiful food. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Too many carrots - day three

I don't think there really is such a thing as too many carrots.  But it is true I have a lot in my refrigerator right now.  So I decided to make a lovely raw carrot salad.

Grate about one pound of peeled carrots (this is where a food processor comes in mighty handy).  Add one firm, tart apple, grated or chopped.  I added 1/3 cup chopped toasted almonds and 1/4 cup chopped dates.  But you could use pecans or walnuts or raisins - whatever you like and have on hand.  You could even use pineapple instead of apple.
Dressing:  Whisk together: 2-3 T. oil. 1 T. vinegar (I used sherry wine vinegar which is a lovely vinegar for salads), a dash of salt and pepper, 2 t. maple syrup or honey and the juice of one medium orange.
Toss dressing and other ingredients together.  This makes six generous servings.

I have to go now, but tomorrow we will have an indepth oil and vinegar discussion.  It is about time we did that since we have been talking about salads.  And we are getting to know each other better.  I never talk about oil and vinegar on a first date.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Crunchy fresh winter salads - day two

I looked out the window this morning and saw white white white and black.  Light snow flurries are drifting down and the hoar frost is everywhere.  Then I looked in my Featherstone box and saw bright orange, dusty dark red, pale green, purple and creamy white.  First I thought - beautiful.  Then I thought -  coleslaw.  We are going to eat coleslaw for supper along with chicken legs (sauteed in olive oil with a few cloves of garlic, chopped onion and a bit of chopped carrot) braised in tomato juice.  Add polenta left over from two days ago and we have a meal.

The coleslaw I made today was a basic version.  Coleslaw 101.  I made it from scratch.  It took ten minutes from start to finish and really I am not that fast a slicer.  When it comes to slicing I am for sure not Julia Child or Meryl Streep playing Julia Child.

I started with one half a medium cabbage, one robust carrot and one small red onion.   I peeled the carrot with a peeler and grated it by hand on a box grater.  Sliced the cabbage and (peeled) onion thinly with a good sharp chef's knife.  (Note - I saved the end of the carrot and onion for soup stock and the cabbage cores will go into the compost.)  All the veggies went into a big mixing bowl.  Dressing:  3 T. oil (I used canola.  Walnut oil would be lovely if you had some.)  2 t. sugar, 4 T. red wine vinegar, rounded 1/4 t. salt, few pinches of black pepper and a few shakes of red pepper flakes, rounded 1/2 t. celery seed (the celery seed is really important, I think.)  I tasted it and might add another teaspoon of sugar.  That is the great thing about cooking yourself.  You get to make these important decisions about taste.  YOU GET TO HAVE IT YOUR WAY.
Whisk together dressing, pour on salad and toss.  This should feed six hungry people and will keep well covered in the refrigerator for several days.

Did you check out that pile of carrots in the picture?  I think tomorrow's salad will have to be all about carrots.  Bugs bunny where are you when I need you?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Living without lettuce: where's the crunch?

It is possible to live without lettuce - iceberg or even baby mixed greens.  Not that long ago people actually went for months without a lettuce salad.  And they didn't die or even get scurvy.  For the next few days I will be talking about winter salads.  I know it is hard to go very long without something crisp and crunchy and tangy.  We are going to use our imaginations.  If you follow me on this blog you will see that "I" word a lot - IMAGINATION.  Yesterday when I saw the big fat carrot and the four somewhat tired and flabby raw beets in my refrigerator, I did not see a problem.  I saw an opportunity!  That is because I used my imagination.  (I need to make clear at this point that the tired and flabby beets were from our own garden and were not Featherstone Farm beets.  Featherstone beets are firm and perky, even in January.  That is because they have been stored in more optimal conditions than my personal beets.)

Anyway - back to the salad.  I took the raw beets and the fat carrot and I peeled them.  (If you don't have a really good vegetable peeler please put that on the top of your shopping list.)  Then I grated them, using the grating attachment of my modest food processor.  You could use a mandoline, an old fashioned box grater (largest holes) or even your hands and a sharp knife -  slicing into matchsticks.  The idea is to reduce these hard veggies into small toothsome pieces.  I also added some red onion - about 2 tablespoons grated)  Then the dressing - simple oil and vinegar.  This time I used about 2 T. canola oil and 4 T. raspberry vinegar.  Red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar would be nice too. If you have no vinegar you could squeeze the juice from an orange (if you were using your IMAGINATION).  Then about a teaspoon of sugar and some salt and pepper to taste and voila you have it.  A crunchy, tangy, tasty, healthy salad.  And nary a lettuce leaf in sight.

We ate the salad with some polenta cooked with milk, butter and a little Parmesan.  And a drizzle of white truffle oil.  Caramelized onions on the side.  It was a full meal.  If you are feeling carnivorous, you could add some bits of meat to the polenta or just a piece of some kind of meat fish or poultry on the side.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

There's always a first time

Have you ever eaten kale for breakfast?  If not, there's always a first time - just like this blog.

It is January in Minnesota and fresh lettuce from the garden is not an option.  But kale from the freezer is.  So today we had a lovely brunch for two built around kale.  I  sauteed one medium sliced red onion with about two tablespoons of pancetta.  Pancetta is cured pork - like bacon but not smoked.  You could also use bacon or even just some olive oil or butter.  The point is to add a little fat and flavor to jazz up the kale.  After the onion was soft, I added about 2 cups of thawed frozen kale, chopped.  And just a few spoonfuls of water and about 1/2 t. salt.  I covered the pot and steamed the veggies about 10 minutes, until they were tender.  Then spread them in a dish, cracked a few eggs on top, and baked at 350 degrees until the eggs were set.  Lovely served with a little balsamic vinegar to sprinkle on top.  If you like hot sauce you could use that instead.  We had some oven roasted potatoes on the side, with some homemade ketchup.  Add some bread (we had bread made with some cornmeal and pureed winter squash) and you are all set.  If you look at the picture you can see tea in the cup -- made from peppermint from our garden.  When the mint comes up, I'll tell you how to make your own mint tea.

One of the nice things about cooking is that you can have lots of new adventures. I'm looking forward to sharing my kitchen adventures with anyone who is looking for ways to have a happier food life.