Archive for April, 2013

Early Bird Gets the Best Produce

In most communities you will be able to find a farmer’s market where you can get local produce. Even out of season, some markets can remain open to offer some decent products. So if you are on the hunt for some ingredients then it is best to visit the markets as early in the day as possible for the best selection.

I know from experience that it is first come first served. You might have seen something the week before that you had your heart set on having for the coming weekend and you arrive at the market to find that they are sold out.

Make a list, but be flexible

Planning a menu and making your shopping list and heading out to gather what you need are fun parts of preparing a meal. Your list should be flexible when shopping at farmer’s markets. Keep in mind a few substitutes that will work with your menu so that if you cannot find a particular product on your list you have a back up. This also adds to the thrill of the hunt so to speak and keeps disappointment at a minimum.

I travel quite a bit to find all the ingredients that I need to prepare some of my meals. Everywhere I go I make mental notes on products that I might not have seen at other places. So when I might actually need that product, I know where to find it.

Resist over-buying

It is easy to over-buy at the farmer’s market; everything looks so delicious and fresh. Buying fresh is best when you prepare and consume the products within a day or so of purchase. This will give you the best flavors and retain more of the vitamins and nutrients. So, as a rule of thumb, if you can’t use the product in the coming 3-4 days then don’t buy it.

Happy hunting!!

The President’s Jam

I thought that with this post I would spend it on the art of preserving. This is nothing new and has been around for a long time. Preserving is a great way to capture the flavors of the season and have them throughout the year. I had watched my grandmother and parents do this when I was young and I started to do my own preserving during the 90s when I was raising my family.

There is something about connecting with the food that you prepare and also knowing what exactly is in it. For the most part you would either grow or pick your own fruits or vegetables to start the process, and this in itself is what makes it more fun.

You must not just pick any product and use it for preserving, but pick it at its peak. Selecting product at its peak makes preserving even more special—I love to open a jar of strawberry jam in January and get that taste of summer.

In the fall, I love to get local chestnuts and cook them down to make a vanilla bean infused confiture that I can use throughout the year. I make a chestnut confiture with mascarpone cheese and lemon zest and smear this in a fresh made crepe and served it warm with a cooked down pear sauce—it is just outstanding. Since you can only get chestnuts in the fall and I know I would like to serve this during the year than I need to preserve them when they are harvested.

Preserving does not always have to be during the regular season. Last December I was at the market and they had some very ripe and juicy raspberries from California, I knew that I needed a raspberry jam for some Christmas cookies that I was going to make in the coming weeks so I prepared the jam and saved some for the upcoming parties and canned the rest for future use.

Food safety is paramount and there are dangers that you need to keep in mind. For example, if you do not properly seal and boil the jars, than this you can result in botulism. If you are canning a high acid food then using a boiling water bath is fine, but if you have a low acid food than you will have to prepare them with the pressure canning method. It is also recommended that you consume the product within the first year. So follow canning procedures methodically and keep these tips in mind:

  • Use only the best, top quality ingredients—use fruits and vegetables at their peak of freshness
  • Leave the recommended headspace when filling jars
  • Carefully remove air bubbles by sliding a nonmetallic spatula between the jar and food and press gently on the food to release trapped air
  • Wipe rim and threads at the top of the jar with a clean, damp cloth before putting the lid on the jar
  • Center heated lid on jar and apply band and adjust until fit is fingertip tight
  • After heating, or processing, remove jars from canner; set jars upright on a towel to cool and allow jars to cool undisturbed for 12 to 24 hours
  • Do not retighten bands after cooling
  • Before storing, check lids for seals—lids should not flex up and down when center is pressed
  • Label the jars with date and contents and store jars in a cool, dry, dark place
  • Use fresh preserved foods within one year

The Local Cheese Plate

For the love of cheese, I have always had a great affection for cheese even when I was young. I would always go for the blue cheese dressing and loved the goat cheese that was always offered. But it was my experience in France that really brought it all together. I will never forget the first time that I had entered a fromagerie in Paris and I tasted the real Roquefort Blue Cheese—it was heaven. I had never experienced anything quite like that before.

That was only the beginning, as I worked and traveled in the different regions of France I was always amazed at how the cheeses would change. The French family that I was living with in Dijon had a chalet in the Jura Valley near the Swiss border. When visiting the chalet, we would drive down to a nearby cheese maker’s farm and they would show us how and what they were doing to make superior cheese—it was just fascinating.

I had heard of a cheese called Morbier that had a line of ash through the middle of the cheese but had never tasted it before. When I did taste it for the first time, I just fell in love with it. One of my favorite things is a good Morbier with red wine.

There is also a Comte cheese from that area, which is a great melting cheese and I still use it today for some of my dishes. The Comte cheese is a gruyere style but still very different. I would have to say that I did have a few cheeses in my travels that needed an acquired taste. But a fine red wine would always balance out any of the cheeses that I had a chance to enjoy.

That was 1984 and the culinary boom in the US had not quite started yet. Now, our country has really come a long way with cuisine and the production of fine cheeses. After my return to Lancaster County, PA, I was pleasantly surprised to find some very good cheeses produced here by both Amish and “English” farmers. There is a group called Farm Fromage and they act as a distributor for all of the small farms. Many of these Pennsylvania cheeses are produced from raw goat and cow milk. The grasses and feed the animals eat combined with the climate of the area all plays a huge role in the quality and taste of these artisan cheeses. I like to use them as much as possible for any of my receptions and dinners that I am serving. I will also use the European cheeses alongside local cheeses because it is nice to compare them side-by-side.

Know Your Kitchen Tools

Knives & Boards

How do you choose the proper kitchen tools? It can get confusing walking into a kitchen supply store and trying to decide what’s the most important equipment that you need to start with and what can stay on the wish list for a while longer. First stop, knives. You will need a few good quality knifes to work with; here are the basics to get started:

  • Chef knife—8 to 10 inches long for dicing, mincing, chopping and cutting
  • Paring knife—4 to 5 inches long for peeling and trimming
  • Offset serrated knife for slicing
  • Boning knife—6 inches long for filleting
  • A good quality sharpening steel. I like the diamond coated sharping steel—it is well worth the price and keeps my knives in great shape.

The price of knives varies greatly but there are a lot of mid-range quality knives available today. Look for knives made from good quality stainless steel with a full tang (the knife is made from a single piece of steel; the section inside the handle is the tang), you’ll get a sturdy knife with good balance. Be sure to hold the knives you are considering to purchase. How does it feel in you hand? How’s the balance? If possible, test the knives in the store by chopping, slicing and dicing some vegetables.

As for the cutting boards, I suggest purchasing composite cutting boards. They are easy on the knives and are easy to clean and sanitize. I do not use wooden cutting boards anymore since they are harder to clean and can harbor bacteria.

Pots & Pans

The pots and pans you choose should be viewed as an investment so it is important that they are of good construction. They will last a lifetime if you take care of them properly. There are many choices on the market, but you can never go wrong with heavy-bottomed stainless steel.

An advantage of stainless steel is that it is nonreactive to acids in foods and will not alter the flavor of the food. They are great for browning foods and providing those little browned bits that can be deglazed with wine or broth for excellent pan sauces and gravies. Another advantage of stainless steel cookware is its durability—and it is dishwasher-safe! In addition to stainless steel I suggest adding a good quality non-stick pan as well. Here’s what you should start with:

  • 8-inch non-stick sauté pan—great for making omelets and searing scallops
  • 10 or 12-inch sauté pan—the perfect choice for searing meats
  • ½ to 1-quart saucepans—versatile for sauces
  • 3 quart saucepan—good for larger amounts of sauce or small amounts of stock
  • 8 or 12 quart stockpot—the go to pot for stock and soups

I’ll address small wares that are essential to your kitchen tool inventory in a future blog.