Note on Garlic
Raw garlic cloves contain a sulfur-based compound called alliin and an enzyme called alliinase. These two elements are not in contact in raw garlic, which is why a head of garlic has almost no aroma. When the garlic is cut, the enzyme comes into contact with the alliin and converts it to allicin, a new and very pungent compound that gives raw garlic its typical aroma. This compound also gives garlic its bite.
When you slice garlic, only a small amount of enzyme and sulfur compound come into contact, so just a small amount of allicin is produced. The result is a mild garlic flavor. When you mince garlic, however, more allicin is produced because there’s more contact between the sulfur compound and the enzyme. More allicin means more aroma and flavor.
For the strongest garlic flavor, put the cloves through a press or mince them into a smooth paste. Chopped (as opposed to minced) garlic has a moderate amount of flavor and aroma, while sliced garlic has the least. Because heat breaks down the harsh-tasting allicin, roasting or toasting garlic cloves before adding them to a dish will pretty much eliminate any harsh garlic flavor. If you want a strong garlic flavor add it to your recipe late in the process. The later, the more garlic the flavor.
Note: What about the Green Shoots That Sometimes Sprout From Garlic?
Many a cook has been told to remove any green shoots from cloves of garlic because they are thought to have a bitter taste that persists even when the garlic is cooked. A test was made using raw garlic in aioli and cooked garlic in pasta with olive oil and tried each recipe with the shoots removed before mincing the garlic as well as with the shoots were left in. The results: the aioli had a more bitter, unpleasant taste in the batch made with the shoots left in; the batch without the shoots still had the bite that you expect from garlic, but it was less harsh. The pasta made with the shoots had a harsh, somewhat metallic aftertaste that, once established, tainted every bite that followed.
According to Barbara Klein, a professor of sensory science at the University of Illinois at Urbana, the sprouts contain stronger, more bitter-tasting compounds than those found in the clove, and they tend to persist even after cooking. Klein said that when cooking she always removes the sprouts, and we recommend this practice.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
When using Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) in a recipe in which sautéing, or other high heat is being used it is not necessary to use the expensive stuff. For these situations use a EVOO like Pilippo Berio available at most grocery stores. If you want the flavor of good EVOO to come through in low temperature cooking or as a dressing then use the better types of EVOO. We recommend Novello’s Fior Fiore as a very good, reasonably priced EVOO for that special flavor at low temperatures or in dressings. Fior Fiore can be ordered from the Bakers Catalogue. If you want top of the line EVOO a large selection is available at O&Co of Boston who will ship anywhere.
The best technique we have found to make the perfect boiled egg, i.e. solid center but not overcooked and turning gray, is a simple three step process. Step one: place eggs in a pan of cold water with just enough water so eggs are covered. (If your eggs float it means they are not fresh. In this case add enough water so they are not touching the bottom of the pan.) Step two: cover pan and bring to a full boil. Boil for 3 minutes. Step three: turn off heat and leave eggs sit in the hot water in the pan for 11 minutes. They are done at this point and should be chilled. We usually just dump them in a bowl filled with ice and water.
Note on Parmesan Cheese
While it will cost you a little bit more, Parmigiano-Reggiano has a depth and complexity of flavor and a smooth, melting texture that none of the domestic or other imported parmesan chesses can match.
Parmigiano-Reggiano owes much of its flavor to the unpasteurized milk used to produce it. It is a "controlled-district" cheese, which means not only that it must be made within the boundaries of this zone but also that the milk used to make it and even the grass, hay, and grain fed to the cows that make the milk must come from the district. Consequently, "just like good wine, a lot of character comes from its soil and climate."
The low salt content of Parmigiano-Reggiano makes it more perishable than other cheeses once cut from the wheel. Once cut, the cheese will also begin to dry out. This was evident in the Parmigiano-Reggiano sample purchased at the grocery store. Tasters rated this a few tenths of a point lower than the sample purchased at the specialty cheese store because of a chalky finish. This drying effect was even more glaring with chalky pregrated products, which.
Another benefit of the larger wheel is that Parmigiano-Reggiano can age longer. Parmigiano-Reggiano ages for about 24 months, while domestic Parmesan ages for about 10 months. The longer aging allows more complex flavors and aromas to develop.The aging also makes a difference in texture, creating a distinctive component that tasters described as "crystal crunch." The crunch stems from proteins breaking down into free amino acid crystals during the latter half of the aging process. The crystals are visible, appearing as white dots in the cheese. No other Parmesan has this effect.
Other textural differences are created by the fact that the curds for Parmigiano-Reggiano are cut into fragments the size of wheat grains, which is much finer than the fragments created in the manufacture of domestic Parmesan. The benefit of smaller curds is that they drain more effectively. Domestic Parmesans have to be mechanically pressed to get rid of excess moisture. The consequence is a cheese that is much more dense: they can be characterized as "rubbery," "tough," and "squeaky."
That is not say that all of the other Parmesans are completely unacceptable-just most. One domestic parmesan to be recommended is Wisconsin-made DiGiorno. So while there are more affordable Parmesan options, the Parmigiano-Reggiano is in a class of its own. When added to a dish it acts as more than a seasoning; it can add a complex spectrum of flavor. And, as I found after learning that Italians commonly eat Parmigiano-Reggiano in chunks as a table food, it makes for a tempting snack while preparing a complementary meal.
Notes on Shrimp
Fresh or Frozen?
Because nearly all shrimp are frozen at sea, you have no way of knowing when those "fresh" shrimp in the fish case were thawed (unless you are on very personal terms with your fishmonger). The flavor and texture of thawed shrimp deteriorate after a few days, so you're better off buying frozen.
Peeled or Unpeeled?
If you think you can dodge some work by buying frozen shrimp that have been peeled, think again. Someone had to thaw those shrimp in order to remove their peel, and they can get pretty banged up when they are refrozen.
Check the "Ingredients"
Finally, check the ingredient list. Frozen shrimp are often treated or enhanced with additives such as sodium bisulfate, STP (sodium tripolyphosphate), or salt to prevent darkening (which occurs as the shrimp ages) or to counter "drip loss," the industry term referring to the amount of water in the shrimp that is lost as it thaws. Treated shrimp have a strange translucency and an unpleasant texture and suggest that you avoid them. Look for the bags of frozen shrimp that list "shrimp" as the only ingredient.
It’s safe to say that any shrimp you buy have been frozen (and usually thawed by the retailer), but not all shrimp are the same—far from it. The Gulf of Mexico supplies about 200 million pounds of shrimp annually to the United States, but three times that amount is imported, mostly from Asia and Central and South America.
Mexican whites (Panaeus vannamei), from the Pacific coast, are usually the best. A close second, and often just as good, are Gulf whites (P. setiferus). Either of these may be wild or farm-raised. Unfortunately, these are rarely the shrimp you’re offered in supermarkets. The shrimp most commonly found in supermarkets is Black Tiger, a farmed shrimp from Asia. Its quality is inconsistent, but it can be quite flavorful and firm. And even if you go to a fishmonger and ask for white shrimp, you may get a farm-raised, less expensive, and decidedly inferior shrimp from China (P. chinensis). (There are more than 300 species of shrimp in the world and not nearly as many common names.)
All you can do is try to buy the best shrimp available, and buy it right. Beyond choosing the best species you can find, there are a number of factors to consider.
Because almost all shrimp are frozen after the catch, and thawed shrimp start losing their flavor in just a couple of days, buying thawed shrimp gives you neither the flavor of fresh nor the flexibility of frozen. It is recommended that you buy frozen shrimp rather than thawed. Shrimp stored in the freezer retain peak quality for several weeks, deteriorating very slowly after that until about the three-month point. If you do buy thawed shrimp, they should smell of saltwater and little else, and they should be firm and fully fill their shells.
Avoid pre-peeled and deveined shrimp; cleaning before freezing unquestionably deprives shrimp of some of their flavor and texture; precleaned shrimp are nearly tasteless. In addition, precleaned shrimp may have added tripolyphosphate, a chemical that aids in water retention and can give shrimp an off flavor.
Shrimp should have no black spots, or melanosis, on their shells, which indicate that a breakdown of the meat has begun. Be equally suspicious of shrimp with yellowing shells or those that feel gritty. Either of these conditions may indicate the overuse of sodium bisulfite, a bleaching agent sometimes used to retard melanosis.
Despite the popularity of shrimp, there are no standards for size. Small, medium, large, extra-large, jumbo, and other size classifications are subjective and relative. Small shrimp of 70 or so to the pound are frequently labeled “medium,” as are those twice that size and even larger. It pays, then, to judge shrimp size by the number it takes to make a pound, as retailers do. Shrimp labeled “16/20,” for example, require 16 to 20 (usually closer to 20) individual specimens to make a pound. Those labeled “U-20” require fewer than 20 to make a pound. Large shrimp (21 to 25 per pound) usually yield the best combination of flavor, ease of preparation, and value (really big shrimp usually cost more).
One more note about size: Larger shrimp generally have larger veins, which should be removed. The veins in smaller shrimp are often so negligible that it’s not worth removing them. Either way, the issue of removing the vein to be one of aesthetics. It neither harms nor improves the flavor of the shrimp.
Meat (muscle) is made up of two major components: muscle fibers, the long thin strands visible as the "grain" of meat, and connective tissue, the membranous, translucent film that covers the bundles of muscle fiber and gives them structure and support. Muscle fiber is tender because of its high water content (up to 78 percent). Once meat is heated beyond about 120 degrees, the long strands of muscle fiber contract and coil, expelling moisture in much the same way that it's wrung out of a towel. This is called denaturing. In contrast, connective tissue is tough because it is composed primarily of collagen, a sturdy protein that is in everything from the animal’s muscle tendons to its hooves and/or claws. When collagen is cooked at temperatures exceeding 140 degrees, it starts to break down to gelatin, the protein responsible for the tender meat, thick sauces, and rich mouth feel of braised dishes.
In essence, then, meat both dries out as it cooks (meat fibers lose moisture) and becomes softer (the collagen melts). That is why (depending on the cut) meat is best either when cooked rare or cooked to the point at which the collagen dissolves completely. Anything in between is dry and tough, the worst of both worlds.
This brings us to why braising and boiling are effective cooking techniques for tough cuts of meat. In a recent test to determine the relative advantages of roasting, braising, and boiling, three identical cuts of beef suitable for pot roasting were cooked using the three methods. One roast was cooked in a 250 degree oven, one was braised, and one was simmered in enough liquid to cover it. The results were: the roasted sample never reached an internal temperature of more than 175 degrees, even after four hours, and the meat was tough and dry. Both the braised and boiled roasts cooked in about the same amount of time, and the results were almost identical. Cutting the roasts in half revealed little difference both exhibited nearly full melting of the thick bands of connective tissue. As far as the taste and texture of the meat, tasters were hard pressed to find any substantial differences between the two. Both roasts yielded meat that was exceedingly tender, moist, and infused with rich gelatin.
The conclusion? Dry heat (roasting) is ineffective because the meat never gets hot enough. It does not appear that steam heat (braising) enjoys any special ability to soften meat over boiling. Braising has one advantage over simmering or boiling, however half a pot of liquid reduces to a sauce much faster than a full pot.
What Happens to Meat as It Rests?
A final but very important step when cooking all red meats is allowing it to rest before slicing. As the proteins in the meat heat up during cooking they coagulate, which basically means they uncoil and then reconnect, or bond with each other, in a different configuration.
When the proteins coagulate, they squeeze out part of the liquid that was trapped in their coiled structures and in the spaces between the individual molecules. The heat from the cooking source drives these freed liquids toward the center of the meat.
This process of coagulation explains why experienced chefs can tell how done a piece of meat is by pushing on it and judging the amount of resistance: the firmer the meat, the more done it is. But the coagulation process is apparently at least partly reversible, so as you allow the meat to rest and return to a lower temperature after cooking, some of the liquid is reabsorbed by the protein molecules as their capacity to hold moisture increases. As a result, if given a chance to rest, the meat will lose less juice when you cut into it, which in turn makes for much juicier meat. In the case of beef, the texture of the meat also improves, becoming a bit firmer as it rests.
When is it OK to refreeze food?
Julie Child had a saying, “if it is good enough to eat, it is good enough to freeze.” Let this be your guide. When meat and vegetable matter are froze and then thawed the cellular structure making up the food can be damaged, i.e. the cell walls can burst. Each time you thaw and refreeze something, more and more damage is being done, so you find yourself with mushy veggies and tough, flavorless meat (the meat juices escape from the burst cells and this results in tougher, drier meat.). If the food is edible, refreezing will not make it unsafe, only potentially unpleasant. Most fish and some meat you buy in a supermarket has already been frozen at least once, so buy fresh whenever you can.
The best way to keep a pan from sticking.
The easy answer is to season your pans, but not all pans can be seasoned. So how do you keep that chicken breast or fish filet from sticking? The majority of today’s meat products have a lot less fat in them that they did, say 20 years ago. Animals are being raised much leaner. Leaner meat results in less natural lubrication in a pan. Likewise with fish, eggs or vegetables, like potatoes, there is little or no natural fat available. So if the pan is not ready those items will stick and make cooking difficult. The answer is three fold:
- never place high protein or high starch foods in a cold pan, always have your pan at or slightly above the temperature you plan to cook at; and
- second, always use a non-stick spray like Pam in the pan before you add any other oil or fat and have your oil hot before introducing the food.
- once food has been introduced into the pan do not move it for several minutes. It takes a few minutes for the protein in the food to release from the hot pan, but release it will if you give long enough. This is also how you develop a nice brown crust on sautéed foods.
Note on Black Olives
- Prized in Provence for their nutty, smoky flavor, tiny black niçoise olives are a staple of the region's cuisine and the traditional olive of choice for topping a pissaladière. These brine-cured olives are generally sold loose or packed in deli containers, and they cost a pretty penny, usually $11 per pound or more (and most of that weight is pit!).
- Canned black "California" olives are really green olives colored black with a chemical additive and should not be used for any purpose.
- Greek kalamata olive, both fresh and jarred, are briny and fruity. They really can not stand in for the nicoise in recipes calling for nicoise, but are wonderful in their own right.
- Salt-cured black olives, sometimes erroneously labeled "oil-cured", and known for their wrinkled exterior, are very salty and bitter so use carefully.
- We do not use the oversized cerignola, which are so mild that there use in recipes results in almost no olive flavor at all.
For a truly authentic black olive, seek out real nicoise olives or save a few bucks and go with the common kalamata -- odds are you won't know the difference.
- Best Choice: Niçoise, "Smoky" and "nutty".
- Best Pinch Hitter: Kalamata, "Fruity," and "briny".
- Too Overpowering: Salt Cured, "Harsh," "bitter," and "salty."
- Too Meek: Cerignola, "Bland" and "mild."
- Unacceptable for any use: California “Black Olives”
Note On Cooking Pork
Proteins are long chains of linked amino acids that fold into a huge variety of three-dimensional shapes. Folded muscle protein also holds and immobilizes a considerable amount of water in an ordered fashion. When things heat up, this organized state of affairs is thrown into disarray as the proteins unfold. Thermal analysis of pork has shown that there are three approximate temperatures at which groups of pork proteins come undone: 126 degrees, 144 degrees, and 168 degrees. As each of these temperatures is reached, more water is freed from the proteins. Meat proteins also tend to compact as they cook, squeezing out the freed-up water.
All cooks focus on the temperature reached at the middle of a piece of meat to determine doneness, but this may be too myopic. The means by which the middle gets to that temperature is at least as important. High-heat cooking methods, such as searing, guarantee that the outer layer of meat will be well browned before the inside is just done. This works fine for the recipes above, but for pork chops the story is different. By keeping the heat level low, water loss on the outside of a pork chop is minimized, and more of the juice that is bound inside the meat remains there. And so the secret to juicy pork chops is revealed: Slow cooking over low heat is best.