The Key to Chinese Cooking by Irene Kuo — Book Review

The Key to Chinese Cooking

I love Chinese food. It is one of my top 20 cuisines.

This book made me love it more. When I got this book, the most authentic Chinese meal I had was the kind you got a Dim Sum in Seattle’s international district. Fabulous. But dinner’s, even there, were more Americanized. This book made me realize there was a lot more to Chinese food than I had thought. Chinese food is not thrown together. It is art, skill, and above all, attention to detail. When done right. This book will get you going in the right direction.

How many books do you know where the introduction is 120 pages in? The first part of the book, a book unto itself, is all about learning the techniques. You learn what a slippery coating is, how to red-cook, stocks, soups, how to flavor-pot, and so on. After that education, you can delve into the few hundred (? I didn’t count) recipes that follow and learn more techniques, history of food, people, and serving of food.

Some recipes are very easy. Vinegar slithered cabbage is one that I made recently. It took 10 minutes, and was terrific. Others, like the Yin-Yang soup, can take hours. That soup is quite amazing as it is visually appealing and delicious — two soups made independently, one green, one cream, and then placed in a single serving bowl to form the yin and yang symbol.

Typical dishes that you might want to make because of exposure in restaurants, such as mo-shu pork come out very nicely. You can go from familiar to “I’d never have thought of that” such as winter melon stuffed with ham, or wildly named Phoenix-Dragon chicken. If you like to cook, like Chinese food, this book should be near at hand.

The Key to Chinese Cooking by Irene Kuo
This check list is in the following categories:
  • TOTAL: 57 / 70
  • 10: 0 to 10 points: Book must have interesting recipes.
    The recipes in this book are interesting to read and make you wonder what other possibilities a person used to just “Western” foods might discover. For instance Hundred year old eggs. Putting eggs in tea for flavor and color?
  • 9: 0 to 10 points: Recipes should have descriptions, stories, comments. It should be a good read! I like historical.
    Most recipes have a personal relevancy, and some description of the dish, how to serve it, and alternative ways of preparing it.
  • 10: 0 to 10 points: More use of raw or “from scratch” than re-use of prepared foods.
    Generally, ingredient lists in this book do not contain anything I would want to make myself.
  • 8: 0 to 10 points: Complete recipes without missing parts, confusing statements, hard to find uses of ingredients. Likely tested recipes.
    Most recipes are wonderfully easy to follow. Occasional ones, especially when page turns are necessary, are a bit tricky. The author does state “3 tbs oil”, and “add remaining tbs of oil” in a step. I don’t like this as it gets confusing.
  • 2: 0 to 5 points: Pictures. Not necessary but they make it nice.
    There are hand drawings, which are sometimes useful, and better than some photographs that don’t explain things well, but the black-and-white drawings don’t make me or my wife decide to make a dish.
  • 10: 0 to 10 points: Original recipes. Not just another collection of normal recipes in the genre.
    While there are dishes anyone who has eaten in a typical Chinese restaurant in the Western world, there are many that are “original”. Some are variations of Irene Kuo’s family. One of my favorite is sweet and sour cucumbers.
  • 5: 0 to 10 points: Density: Not too many recipes on one page. 1 complete recipe is generally good, though 2 may be acceptable. More than 2 is getting harder to read. If a recipe is on multiple pages then it is hard to follow.
    There are recipes that cross pages, start in the middle of a page, and, worse, ingredient lists that start on one page and end on the next, sometimes requiring a page turn.
  • 4: 0 to 5 points: The index of the book should be organized well. Ideally it should have both ingredients, and recipe names.
    A well done index. I can look for an ingredient and find recipes, preparation techniques, discussion on use of the ingredient.
  • Recipes Made
  • Yin-Yang spinach and chicken soup
  • Peking duck
  • Char Siu (Chinese bbq pork)
  • Cabbage, vinegar slithered
  • cucumber skins, sweet and sour
  • mo-shu pork
  • crab gunn
  • tea eggs
  • fish-fraganced chicken
  • spicy beef with peanuts
  • many, many others…

Toaster Ovens

My First Toaster Oven

Many years ago, during the monster remodel, I was deprived of my kitchen. Entirely. No sink, stove, oven, or even the built-in microwave — the refrigerator was plugged into the dining room. To get warm food,  I purchased a toaster oven, and having enjoyed my oven’s convection facilities, got a toaster oven with a convection option and digital controls (a Cuisinart). I began to realize, after using the toaster oven for a while,  that I did not need to use the large oven. Why heat such a large appliance when what I was heating would fit in the toaster oven?

Digital Quality

Digital controls are the way to go. The analog (mechanical) controls are imprecise, clumsy, but also simple and cheaper. The digital controls mean that when you set the oven to 375, it will likely be a lot closer than the oven where the temperature knob’s pointer has to be moved around to where 375 is marked. It really shouldn’t be a dramatic difference, but it does seem to be one. The office I worked in had such an oven and getting things to come out of it done well  or not smoking required constant monitoring. I suspect the actual reason for the performance difference is not that the better one is digital but the cost is so low in the mechanical variety and the cost of the digital is higher, making it premium, possibly means that the digital version is just better made.

Read The Label, But…

Many prepared food items say “Do not heat in toaster ovens”. I ignore that advice.  I don’t have the kind of toaster oven that has inadequate temperature controls. The room between the heating elements and the food are more like a toaster’s than an oven’s. I am careful to never put flammable things near the elements. I have seen the less expensive “rickety” toaster ovens have some near fires before, so pay a bit more and get a toaster oven that is more usable and safer.

Use your own judgment.  Always have a fire-extinguisher in your kitchen and know how to use it.

Some Specifics

I have used a Cuisinart toaster oven and a Wolfgang Puck oven. I liked them both but wish I could combine the best features of each. The Wolfgang Puck (WP) oven is larger, having a full 12″ in both directions. The Cuisinart is slightly smaller at 11″ and 9″. The controls on the Cuisinart (C) are more intuitive and easier to use. The WP oven can’t be “set and forget” unless you use an external timer — you have to wait for the oven to be ready before the timer will work. A feature on the WP oven is the rotisserie. I haven’t used it as much as I thought I would but only because of time limitations — I don’t get into my kitchen nearly as much or as long as I’d like.


All the toaster ovens I have owned have been convection ovens. This is a wonderful feature. Try and get a big oven that is convection too. It means you can cut down on the time to cook by generally one third. The way this works is that there is a fan in the toaster oven that circulates the air in the oven so that you don’t get hot spots and cold spots. It will tend to dry food out just a bit more than otherwise but that is not generally something I have to compensate for.

Toasting Toast In A Toaster Oven

A toaster oven is a compromise. Most are not great at toasting. A dedicated toaster that has its elements much closer to both sides of the bread is going to be superior at toasting toast. If it is all you have, then do it. Some toaster ovens are much better at this than others, but generally a good toaster is better than the cheapest toaster ovens.

Team Effort

We often use the toaster oven in conjunction with a microwave. Get the inside of the food hot with the microwave, then finish it off with the toaster oven to restore crispiness and add browning. Also we add the plates to the toaster oven (see hot plates ).

Big Oven vs Small Oven

When to use the “big oven”? It should be obvious. Only when what you want to heat won’t fit in the toaster oven. If you have a good quality toaster oven, this will be the only criteria. If you have a lower quality oven, you might want to read the label and limit to dishes that don’t say “Not in a toaster oven”, if you are cooking prepared items. Make sure that you don’t get the dish too close to the elements (top or bottom) — otherwise, fire up the big oven. Many toaster ovens have inaccurate temperature controls, as already mentioned, but the larger ovens tend to be better at this. If you dishes need accurate temperatures, and not just a blast of heat, then use the big oven.

Go Green

So save some energy and time when you can by using a toaster oven that heats faster and uses less power. Use a convection toaster oven for even better savings.



Geen Chicken

Geen Chicken

I got this recipe from a book that seemed marvelous to me at the time. I was 19 or so, and it was one of my first cookbooks. The book has fallen apart and is now a lose collection of pages. This recipe has stains all over it and I think it was the first I made.

You will want to cook it. Now I need to tell you why. It is simple and delicious and capable of dealing with many variations, which I do all the time.

Geen apparently means shallow fried. The chicken is a boneless breast or thigh, marinated, then coated in an egg yolk, and then fried followed by a quick saucing. It can take under 10 minutes to cook but the marinating process is best done for at least that long.

My all-time favorite cookbook, Irene Kuo’s The Key To Chinese Cooking, would describe the cooking technique as slippery coating followed by shallow frying.

Recipe: Geen Chicken
This check list is in the following categories:
Adapted from “The Quick and Easy Chinese Cookbook” by Patricia Young (1978)
  • Ingredients
  • a chicken breast or chicken thighs
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp soy sauce
  • 2 tsp cornstarch
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tbs ketchup
  • 1 tbs worcestershire sauce
  • sesame oil
  • vegetable oil
  • Preparation
  • pound the chicken or thighs a bit between folds of a sheet of saran wrap
  • slice chicken into strips
  • beat egg in a small bowl
  • prepare marinade
    mix salt, soy sauce, cornstarch together. I like adding a bit of the sesame oil here ( 1/4 tsp)
  • Cooking
  • put chicken into marinade and let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes. Ideally, put it into a vacuum for quicker and better marination.
  • add oil to frying pan. It should be more than a smear but not deep. Heat pan till oil is very hot.
  • add egg to marinade and chicken and stir till mixed
  • take mixture and put into frying pan. Be careful as it will sizzle and splatter.
  • After a short time, flip the chicken. Cook until it is all white and no pink. I like it a little brown even.
  • Pour off excess oil.
  • Add ketchup, worcestershire sauce, and stir again.
  • Add a tiny bit of sesame oil and serve.
    I love garnishing this dish with a bit of cilantro and sprinkling *toasted* sesame seeds on it.

Ship It!

The Quick and Easy Chinese Cookbook (1978)

Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human — Book Review

Catching Fire, by Richard Wrangham

This book that makes you think. Every foodie should read it. People who want to lose weight should read it. I am writing a blog that I may finish soon (will put link here) about the social factors of food. This book explains a lot of why food is so social in ways I had never thought of.

The book starts by saying that eating cooked food is part of our evolution. As the subtitle says, we became human because we learned how to cook. Arguments are considered one at a time. Can people survive without cooking? What evidence is there that we have been cooking for a while? What changes has cooking made to us and could those changes have occurred otherwise? What changes has cooking had on our social life?

One thing that particularly struck me was that cooking makes digestion of food more efficient. We get more out of food once it has been cooked for a period of time and amount of energy than we would if it were raw. Not just cooking either. Grinding, chopping, pulverizing manually all aid in digestion. A finely milled flour produces more energy for us than a coarsely milled flour. The author says that is no wonder we are fighting obesity when our food gets more and more efficient for us to get calories from them. I had a minor epiphany, an “aha moment”, when I thought about juicing and how it is supposed to help people lose weight. It is all raw food. It is finely blended so we don’t have to spend hours eating it and it is more efficient food than it would be otherwise. It will still make you lose weight because it is raw. I suspect if you ate all the foods that you might when juicing without blending them, you’d lose even more weight but it would take longer to eat. Monkeys, the author says, take hours to eat to get just the same amount of calories we might in 20 minutes.

The book discusses how male and female roles perhaps were created around food. I am not sure how much of this is speculation but surveys of groups of peoples around the world and historical findings seem to add some plausibility. The females of our more distant relatives, when we hadn’t evolved to full humans, were likely the cooks, fire-tenders, and home-makers. Only recently have things changed, and that is largely because we are not quite the same sort of hunter/gatherer that we used to be. Read the book for a much better argument on this topic!

One more item that really got me thinking was how food has pacified us. It makes more sense for us to be friendly and able to deal with others around a fire, to be more cooperative when hunting, gathering, or farming. Natural selection would slowly choose people that could get along better in a group. A question now is, with fast food, and easy ability for a sole person to survive by themselves, will this pacification be undone. Well, evolution takes time, so it will likely be many generations before we will know the answer to that one.

If you like thinking about food and how it relates to you, this book should be devoured.



Does ginger beer have alcohol?

I love ginger ale, ginger beer, pickled ginger, candied ginger, ginger slivers in food, and probably anything “ginger”. I recently did a few taste testings of ginger ales and beers and the variations are vast. As are the methods of producing them.

There appear to be at least three ways of making a fizzy ginger beverage. The way that things like Canada Dry are made is to take an extract of ginger, and then add carbonated water. This version of ginger beer has no alcohol in it and so it is a fine refreshing beverage for anyone, anytime. The downsides to the popular widely available drink is that it is high in calories, often from high-fructose corn syrup, which is fine in smallish amounts. Also, too match the palates of more people, the ginger flavor is turned way down. Other flavors, like lemon, are added in and, to me, it becomes less “ginger” than soda.

Ale or beer? Well, strictly speaking, an ale is a type of beer, but the first example of a ginger beverage I gave you is as much beer as the commercially available root beer. No alcohol in them. No yeast was used to make them. A “real” ginger beer is an ale. Ales, in the beer world are fermented with the yeast floating on the top. The other kind of beer is a cold fermentation with the yeast huddling at the bottom. This is a lager.

Real ginger beer is wonderful stuff when done correctly. Some contain substantial alcohol. Others not much at all. It depends on how much yeast, how long, how much sugar, etc. The basic recipe to making a true ginger beer is to get a quantity of ginger root, peel it, and slice, dice, grate, crush, etc. Boil water, add a cup of sugar, stir until dissolved, add the ginger, then let it cool. Put the resulting mixture into a container, wait until cool (under 110F) and add 3 tbs of yeast (a package). Also consider adding lemon or lime juice — the acidity of these may help keep the ginger beer free of infection. The container should not be completely full so that escaping CO2 can have a bit of headroom. I have had bottles explode doing this, so I’d recommend a plastic pop bottle or milk container. Place in a dark cool place and observe daily for bulging. If it bulging too much, let some air escape so as to avoid an explosion. If it is growing too fast, check more than once a day. After it has started fermenting for at least a few days, but no longer than a few weeks, try it. If it is to your taste, strain it, and bottle it. Be careful here because if you haven’t killed off the yeast by starving it or developing too much alcohol, it will retain the capability to explode bottles. A friend of mine used to boil this result to fully kill the yeast and maybe make it less boozy, but I have never tried that.

What happens when you ferment is complex. I am not a chemist or food scientist, merely a foodie in development, but I can guess that what is happening. Alcohol helps break down the ginger, and by itself or with enzymes break down structures that keep the oils and, ummmmm, other things locked up. The other things are mostly something called zingerone, and something called gingerol, which when dried turns into shogaol which is more intense. So this means you could add powdered ginger to the brew as well for a very gingery batch. Another possible thing that happens is that some flavors are not dissolvable in water and are in alcohol.

Ginger beer purity law doesn’t exist. I am not sure it would fly. A lot of people like lemon or lime mixed into the ginger beer. Other things too, such as anise, fennel, honey. I like some of those, but my favorite is pure ginger (with ordinary table sugar). Molasses, honey, and other types of sugars can provide the food for the yeast as it goes about its business.

Another variant of a ginger beverage is the ginger wine. This is another old traditional beverage made with raisins and ginger. The result is far from grape-juice and quite similar to ginger beer.

My wife and I tried a few recently. Of course there’s the ubiquitous Canada Dry, found in all grocery stores, but strangely absent from Costco shelves. We tried Bundaberg, Fentiman’s, and Trader Joes, and also a ginger wine: Stones Original. My wife preferred the Bundaberg hands-down and the Trader Joes and Fentiman’s next. She did not like the Stones. Me… I like all. The Bundaberg was smooth and balanced but I thought it would be better with more bite (being a ginger-lover). Fentiman’s and Trader Joes are a bit yeasty and much like I would make. The Stones ginger wine was a bit boozy (which is why my wife didn’t like it so much) but I felt it had bite and balance after that. The “boozy” flavor is because it had a bit of alcohol to it. All were intense ginger when compared to typical store ginger ale. [Note: Trader Joe's is out of their brew as of 2014-12-19. Maybe it is just a seasonal item]

I just found out that there’s a ginger beer bar in Seattle: Rachel’s Ginger Beer. I’m going as soon as I can, and will report back!

Ship It!

Broccoli Cheese Soup and other broccoli based broths

Broccoli cheese soup done French-onion style

Broccoli Cheese Soup

Broccoli Cheese soup is one of my family’s favorite things to eat, along with broccoli cheese in or out of a broccoli casserole. It isn’t the wet version of broccoli cheese, and it isn’t a green cheese soup. The problem is remembering what recipe I used last time. Was it a broccoli cheddar soup or broccoli gouda cheese soup or broccoli mixed-cheese soup? Was it cream-based or just creamy or a broth? I don’t remember but do remember that it was like a French onion soup with croutons sprinkled with cheese floating on the top and put under the broiler for just a bit. Maybe they won’t notice what type of broccoli soup is under the distracting top? Will they notice that it isn’t a creamy broccoli cheese soup or will the subterfuge be loudly announced at the table? An experiment will follow and I won’t tell them.

Big Bags of Broccoli

We often get a large bag of fresh not frozen broccoli from Costco, so we need to do a lot of things with broccoli before it goes bad or even just unpalatable. I have hundreds of ways to cook broccoli, and I have a collection of 30 plus broccoli soup recipes. I have invented some number of my own by trying to remember the ones I’d read. This is what happens with most of my cooking friends. All recipes become a blur and the result is a mish-mash of recipes and available ingredients tempered by available time, stress levels, and hunger. In software terms, recipes become patterns where you have a rough idea of what a broccoli soup has in it, and know how to make supporting parts, and the result is undeniably called “broccoli soup”.  All recipes follow one pattern: a base flavor is chosen, other flavors are added to enhance that flavor, and texture is manipulated, resulting in a final dish after tweaking to deal with variations.  In the case of broccoli cheese soup, you know that the final flavor must have a broccoli flavor, some sort of cheese flavor, and that it must be largely liquid in texture. Getting the broccoli flavor is relatively easy to do: add broccoli. Do you keep the broccoli whole, use fresh broccoli, use frozen broccoli bits, puree it, add chunks, use roasted broccoli, or other choices are all reasonable things to do and all have an effect on the flavor profiles.

Fresh broccoli

Fresh broccoli is wonderful. I have worked on a farm harvesting broccoli and know that it smells different there than it does when you are in a supermarket. Broccoli isn’t a fast fader like lettuce, peas, or many other more tender vegetables, so my opinion is that it won’t matter that much. I doubt anyone can taste the difference between a cooked broccoli that is one hour old and one that is one week old (kept well, of course).  Age of broccoli also has an effect on taste. If the plant was harvested later, it will have bigger stalks, and also tougher “skins”. When using fresh broccoli make sure that the lower ends of it are not woody on the outside. The inside will be completely fine but some older stalks will be tough at the bottoms. Remove the tough skins with a vegetable peeler (could save the peelings for a vegetable stock) and you are good to go.

Frozen broccoli

Frozen broccoli is the next best thing to fresh broccoli. Modern commercial vegetable processing techniques are pretty amazing. Vegetables are flash frozen after being slightly blanched. The result is not like you might do in your own kitchen. The broccoli pieces are separate (a good sign to look for when purchasing frozen broccoli) and don’t have a lot of ice crystals on them. Ice crystals mean that cell walls may have been ruptured  and the goodness that is broccoli may leak away quickly. We want our broccoli to be stiff and be close to what fresh broccoli is like after a short cooking period.

Roasted broccoli

Roasted broccoli is a great way to add extra flavor, but you need to start with fresh broccoli; frozen is just too wet. Heat up your grill or broiler, dry off the broccoli, then brush a little olive oil on it, and heat until you see the florets get little black specs on them. At this point, take the roasted broccoli off the grill and wrap them in an aluminum foil wrapper for just a bit (optional step). The heat will bring out the sugars in the vegetable and set the free. It does change the flavor and not everyone likes it. I actually love roasted broccoli (and roasted cauliflower), but a number of my family members, do not — I think it pushed the expectation button the wrong way.[Link to expectation and food]. In broccoli soup adding some roasted broccoli would bring out the flavor of broccoli a lot, and combining with un-roasted would keep the flavor profile identifiable.

Broccoli Preparation

Always chop the broccoli as uniformly as possible. The stems can be pretty much made to be uniform squares. It is hard to make the florets uniform squares and I don’t recommend trying. Keep them as florets and possibly add them by size after your stems have cooked a bit. The idea is to have all the broccoli cooked to the same doneness. But then it doesn’t matter much as we will be pureeing some possibly.

Broth or What?

Next major ingredient to consider is the liquid. I tend to use chicken stock. I have just used water, usually what I cook the broccoli in, but then make that richer with some real cream. A vegetable stock or broth is fine. A beef broth will work, and I did this once, but the flavor of the beef broth dwarfed the broccoli so the dish was not quite what had been expected. Do that, and add sesame oil and ginger and garlic for a stupendous broccoli soup a la chinois (in the fashion of the Chinese cuisine) and then add crispy fried noodles on top. Enough of that diversion across continents and back to our more western expectations of broccoli cheese soup. Heat the broth until boiling, add broccoli either directly or in  steamer basket above the broth, and cook until just before it looses its crispness. Take some florets out and reserve. This step is optional, and I’ll describe why in a bit.

Oh Wait! Here’s a step you can add right now if you choose, as it brings extra depth. Sautee some onions in butter or oil. Also consider adding some crushed or sliced garlic. Garlic in broccoli soup is wonderful but with broccoli cheese soup it should be toned down to make sure you can still taste the cheese. Add this to the liquid now. This could also be done before and add the broth to this, but I like doing it in this order. Browning the onions adds a super depth but changes the flavor, so don’t do too many. Always cook the onions until they are translucent.


Bacon is another addition to broccoli soup that really pushes the comfort factor, on a scale of 1 to ten, up to level 11. It is another thing, however, that can take your recipe out of the healthy broccoli recipes category and into the triple-c rated recipes: Cardiac Caution but Comforting. Rendering the bacon till crisp and adding maybe a teaspoon of the remaining fat with some dry, crisp bacon bits is a reasonable compromise.


Cream is another ingredient that will take your recipe out of the healthy broccoli recipes book and into triple-c territory. You can avoid this by using a blender with some (or all) of your soup. Once mostly cooked, blend one half to all of it, put it back in the pot, and heat, test for seasoning and serve. Always use a towel over the top of your blender and hold onto the lid, unless you have a blender whose lid seals and locks. Also don’t overfill your blender but do it in batches with the blender only half full.  I did these mistakes and got burned or had a big mess in the kitchen. Picture a fountain of hot liquid popping out of the top of your blender, and keep all that goodness for your pot.

If you purchased bulk broccoli, you can freeze the results at this point. Broccoli soup, cheese or no cheese, cream or not, freezes well. The reserved bits of broccoli don’t retain any crunchiness, but my family hates crunchy broccoli anyway

. Broccoli cheese soup -- all in the pot


Finishing any task is always good. Finishing a recipe is the ticket. Add lemon juice to broccoli soup to brighten the flavor. A small amount of sherry will deepen the flavors of the soup. A bit of fennel seed (I want to try fennel pollen!) goes well, but don’t do all three. Of course test for saltiness at the end (as well as in the middle a few times). Too salty and you may need to dilute and add lemon. Not salty at all means that it is likely a bit bland. Lemon again can help, especially if you are on a low sodium diet. Truffle oil, or other finishing oils like extra-virgin olive oil may ratchet this out of the boring but make sure they don’t kill the cheese flavor if you went that way.

The best finishing touch is the French Onion Soup touch. I do this instead of putting the cheese into the soup (or reducing the cheese in the soup). It makes sure that there is  cheese flavor that is tasted, adds crunch, and makes it a much more special dish.


Ship It!

Saffron, Pure Saffron!

Pure saffron is like pure gold in the kitchen. Cooking with saffron is something I love to do and saffron is one of my favorite flavors. The first time I ever used it was in a dish I made from Pierre Franey’s “60 Minute Gourmet” called “Crevettes a l’Indienne’  (or ‘Shrimp in Indian Sauce’). I just made this dish for my wife not too long ago and it still comes out very well. I recommend this dish to anyone who likes saffron, a mild curry, and shrimp. The shrimp are cooked in a sour-cream and yogurt sauce with a cumin and cardamom, and then served beside saffron rice. The contrast of the deep saffron flavor in the rice matches the heat and tartness in the shrimp’s sauce and seems to intensify the shrimp flavor. I once did this with powdered saffron I had been given, and the results were not anywhere near as good. Which is why I want to emphasize the use of pure saffron.

Once I had made that dish, I craved saffron. I made a number of saffron breads,  paella,  many Moroccan dishes, and a lhassi (a yoghurt flavored drink). All were terrific and I have served to company many times. The paella was actually four different kinds, but they all had saffron in them. The best paella that had saffron was a seafood only one; the chicken or spicy sausage versions seemed to lose a bit of the aroma and taste of saffron.

Buying Pure Saffron

Saffron is not your average ingredient starting with how it gets harvested. Unlike many ingredients, where a machine can harvest a billion pounds of a crop in a week, saffron is a very human labor intensive job. Saffron is the stigmas of a particular crocus flower (crocus sativus). They must be delicately hand picked then hand plucked. A machine might be possible in the future as robotics gets better and better but for now it is done by hand. The amount of labor that saffron takes makes this a very expensive spice. A quick search on the internet puts saffron prices between $200 and $250 US for an ounce. Compare that with sugar at about $2.50 US for 5 pounds! Another more related item would be turmeric which is available for $2.50 for two ounces. That’s about a hundredth the cost.

Don’t ever buy powdered saffron! Ever! Unless you can smell it, and then just maybe. The reason is that unscrupulous people will sell you “saffron powder” but it is more turmeric than saffron, or perhaps other things. What you want to purchase are long slender stigmas (aka saffron threads) that have a dark solid red color. The color should be as uniform as possible, and dark, deep, red. If it is a lighter color, it is an inferior version. If it has multiple colors, then it wasn’t picked correctly or at the wrong time, or it isn’t saffron. The smell should be intense, earthy, and slightly sweet. You want pure saffron, unadulterated. I would also steer away from “saffron extract” as I don’t know what is in it.

If a dish does call for powdered saffron, first determine if it really needs to be powdered. If so, make sure you start with saffron filaments, then place them in a mortar and pestle to grind them yourself. You may need to heat the saffron filaments up just a bit so that they will grind better, but make sure you do this just before you put it into your dish. Hot saffron is losing its aroma and goodness by the second but putting it into a liquid will arrest the loss and contain the flavors. And please be careful when heating the saffron. Burned saffron threads are more bitter and lose all their good flavor and you probably would be better using turmeric. Really, the best way to use saffron is to steep it in a small amount of liquid.

Once you get it home, store it in an air-tight bottle, and keep that in a dark, cool place. It should last six months or so without degrading too much under those conditions.

Growing Saffron

The saffron crocus is said to be relatively hardy. I once bought some saffron bulbs (really  corms), watched them grow. Eagerly, I watched the saffron plants waiting for flowers. Finally they flowered and I saw some stigmas that looked like they might be just the ticket. Then they disappeared. Every saffron flower and even every saffron plant I had grown, all five, just disappeared, never to be seen again. I think a deer or other creature from the nearby woods decided to become a gourmet.  I was quite disappointed as I thought I’d get a crop of saffron flowers that look great, and maybe enough saffron for a good meal or two.

Saffron is produced in many places. There is Spanish saffron, saffron from Morocco, saffron from Afghanistan, Turkish, French, and so on. It generally likes a warmish Mediterranean climate. There are varieties within countries as well. La Mancha is an area in Spain that is said to have high quality saffron. I haven’t yet had enough different varieties all in short succession to know one from another, but my best advice to buying is look for a dark, deep red color, very dry looking threads (damp could mean mold might set in), and very little dust (dust might be an indication of age, lack of care, or sweepings). Another key factor is price. If it is too low, then there may be something wrong with it, or it isn’t saffron. This is perhaps snob-economics at work, but then it is a labor intensive crop and should be more expensive.

Saffron Dishes

Beware dishes that claim to be “saffron”. I have had a lot of saffron rice dishes that were the right color but the flavor  is missing the complexity, fragrance, and wonderfulness that saffron adds. The cook may have used turmeric and just called it saffron, bought the wrong thing,  or perhaps  doesn’t really know saffron.  A turmeric rice dish is a fine dish by itself, as turmeric has its own magic. When it is advertised as saffron and turns out to be turmeric, I feel very disappointed. It is all about expectations. If you do order saffron rice, or just about any saffron dish, look for the saffron threads. Your saffron rice should have a bright yellow color with flecks of dark red. The dark red flecks will be the saffron threads.

The dishes that saffron is most commonly associated with are paella, which is a Spanish or Portuguese rice and seafood stew, risotto, an Italian rice dish, or breads, but also found in many pastries from India, the middle-east, and even Sweden.

There are a lot of sauces that use saffron. Most are cream-based as the depth of the saffron needs something rich as a pairing. The fact that cream sauces tend to stick to the foods they are used with makes the flavoring work better too.

Cooking With Saffron

When cooking with saffron, using too much will break your bank and turn the dish somewhat bitter. On the other hand, I know people that put in one or two threads in a meal that serves 5 or more people. When used this sparingly, it may as well not be used at all. It is supposed to be a prevalent flavor, in my opinion. Why pay that much for something that good if you can’t actually taste it. It should be (a line stolen from the Iron Chef America TV show) “the star of the dish”.

Cooking with saffron is easy. Make sure you steep the (always dried) saffron threads in hot water. Many saffron recipes start this way and hopefully include the use of the water the saffron threads were steeped in. Other wise, I’ve heard that saffron tea was a delicacy in Roman times so don’t waste it! If you abhor tea, or just want to try something different, add the saffron tea to a smoothie, lhassi, or milkshake and bump that up a few notches. Or if you have to, you could use it as a dye — the saffron color of many clothes from earlier times was due to this spice. This should tell you that you should not be cooking with it in your finest clothing, just as much as you wouldn’t cook with beets when dressed that way.

Baking with saffron is another culinary adventure. Think about it. The smell of bread baking is already a wonderful aroma that will even pull kids away from video games (that’s potent stuff). When you are baking a plain saffron bread, it smells a little like it has already had a heaping of fresh butter on it and something else and it is, to me, quite one of the most wonderful kitchen smells. If you have it in a soft bun with raisins, perhaps a little cardamom, the you get a sweet complex flavor that is just going to break a diet.

If you have never had saffron please add it to your bucket list. You must experience a good saffron rice, or a paella, or a saffron brioche, or Swedish saffransbrod. When you do, see if you can get some raw saffron filaments to smell to lock the source of the flavor in. I am sure that you will want more.

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Odd Food Pairings

Food pairings are an essential part of eating food. Otherwise, you’d have just one thing on your plate. When you add a second, it is nice when it makes the other taste even better. A sauce is a pairing if you stretch the idea just a bit. Usually a pairing is one dish with another, or a wine with a cheese, or a wine with food. Wine pairings are actually what most people think of when they hear “food parings”. I am going to discuss a few food pairings that are a little less common.

I have to make an admission of a food craving that bothers a lot of people. I like catsup on my French toast.

My justification to get my wife, daughter, and sons off my case and stop saying “ewwww” is that catsup these days in the US is little more than tomato syrup. It might have a little less high fructose corn syrup than most super market mass market syrups,  and a tad more vinegar because those syrups don’t have any vinegar. The justification doesn’t really work and I have to suffer looks of derision and disgust. My point here though is: why not? It is a syrup-like sauce, as it is sweet. Tomatoes go with eggs. I think it is a good combination. I go a few more steps and do a chili sauce with French toast and egg dishes. I have done sriracha (not sweet, but garlicky) and like that too. I have tried the other famous sweet chili sauce (mae ploy) but it is a bit too sweet for my liking. I recommend you try all of these, if you like savory and or hot flavors. Try them on grilled cheese too.

An episode of “Aarti Party” pointed out that using mayonnaise is a fine thing to spread on a grilled sandwich, or meat. When she said this my mind immediately produced the nasty aroma of hot old mayonnaise while hand washing dishes. Watching Aarti’s results, and later trying it myself on a panini, I am reprogramming that association to a crispy, delicious coating. As a coating for frying, it is just like an egg and oil. Mayonnaise is, after all, an emulsion of egg in oil.

A book I am reading, The Flavor Thesaurus: A Compendium of Pairings, Recipes and Ideas for the Creative Cook by Niki Segnit, has a lot of odd combinations listed. Some I have known about are chocolate and chilies, chocolate and chicken (mole), chocolate and beef. One I haven’t tried is chocolate and cheese. Nikki’s justification, echoes to me my catsup and french toast argument. She writes that it is much like chocolate and milk. Why not? I do recommend the book as well.

There is the idea that pregnant women like odd food pairings. Pickles and ice cream? As I have never been pregnant I can’t talk too much about it, but my wife tells me that there is truth to it. Many women crave odd food pairings that disappear after pregnancy, so these are probably hormonal. If the craving persists long after pregnancy then maybe they are on to something and should tell the world about them.

A food pairing can be a chemistry thing, a reinforcement of existing flavors, or a ying and yang juxtaposition. When it is a chemistry, it is like the salt on the top of chocolate that causes the tongue to be more sensitive to the particular tastes in chocolate.  I read somewhere recently that astringent foods and beverages help with the palatability of fatty foods. Astringent foods are often the tannins found in tea or red wine.

Reinforcement is a beautiful result of food pairings. Consider having a wine with desert. The white wine with a slight apple hint makes that apple strudel taste more like apples and the strudel highlights the apple.

The ying and yang juxtaposition is salty and sweet, salty and sour, ice-cream and pickles, pears and peanut butter. It keeps your taste buds a little off balance so they never get completely used to one flavor and tune out. Balance in these food pairings is maintained by having the right proportions of each so that you don’t think “too much pickle”.

What odd food pairings do you like? [Open Question]

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Food Names — It’s Not Champagne

Food names are important. They help you associate a flavor, texture, smell, with a specific product or recipe. I don’t want this blog to get too political; it is all about the preparation, and enjoyment of food. However, a particular story appeared on my radar and I felt I had to make a small comment. In that story,  the EU wants to restrict the usage of names such as parmesan and feta to products made only in the areas where the original was produced. Parma, Italy, would be where the only parmesan could be made, and Greece would be the sole provider to the world for feta cheese.  Manufacturers elsewhere would need to say “parmesan-like” or “feta-like” or “sparkling wine”.

This feels like it would hurt manufacturers outside of “protected designation of origin” . It confuses consumers in restaurants and cooks when procuring ingredients. Do you know what you are getting when you get a salad with olives and a salty sheep’s milk cheese? It doesn’t conjure up the immediate images and luscious taste that “Greek salad” would.

What about all the immigrants from all those European countries that brought techniques with them or import ingredients from the “homeland”. Will they now have to change the name of what they produce, even if they have called it that for decades or even a century?

So do we ban Europeans from making “hot dogs” (though, really they were a German invention, slightly changed over years in the US)? Corn dogs? Philly Cheesesteak? Buffalo wings? Baked Alaskan pie?  Well, no, because they are recipes and aren’t like cheese or cured meats based on a combination of local ingredients. They are more like spaghetti.

Colby, a cheese originating in Colby, Wisconsin could have qualified for the US equivalent of protected designation of origin. Well, except for the fact that it didn’t rely on local ingredients so much and isn’t made in Colby  any longer. Scratch that one and just enjoy that cheese.

Then we have funny things like “French fries” (and Canadian bacon!). This attributes the food to somewhere, and the natives of that place have entirely different names for them and haven’t a clue if you ask for those items. I don’t think we should change those names. What other foods are like this [Open Question]?

I am concerned about dishes called “Veal Parmesan”. If we are to follow all the rules, and the EU request goes through, could we call it veal parmesan if there is no parmesan in it? Or does it become veal a la parmesan? Sigh. this is where it does hurt consumers. What won’t really get hurt long term are the mass produced cheeses, like that familiar round green cardboard container with “pasta cheese” in it. Or any cheese made by anyone for a particular purpose. People will see “pizza cheese” and use it for that purpose.

The silver lining in this is only going to be revealed in some years. Suppose a canny cheese maker, making a local cheese, decides not to call it the same thing as anything already made in Europe. Then the cheese, being very good and slightly different from anything else, gains some respect, and then a name for itself.  It becomes the flagship cheese for that company and begins to get sold all over the US, then perhaps internationally. If it were called, say “cheddar”, then it would be replaceable. Now you have to ask for it by name.  One such cheese is Beecher’s Flagship, a cheese I really like! It is not a cheddar but I would substitute Flagship for a cheddar in many, many dishes.

Cheddar is not a protected name, but two areas in the UK that produce cheddar are the only areas allowed to put their specific areas in their produce’s name. These are produced in a protected geographic indication. The two are West Country Farmhouse Cheddar, and Orkney Scottish Island Cheddar.  If a cheese has one of those two names on it, it has to be from a specific place in the world, and not Hoboken, New Jersey. It also gets a little label that says it is from a protected geographical indication.

It may take a while for a brand with a specific geographic name, or a unique name like “Flagship” to become popular, and it may not ever, but marketing under the name “parmesan” is probably not worse than “parmesan-like”. I think a name like, say, “Seattle Triumph” with a subtitle of “A local feta-like handmade cheese” would be the way to go. I’d know where it is from, get familiar with a name, and have an idea what it might be like.

The world is a melting pot. People are intelligent. People are critical and will know when one thing is better others. It will all work out in the end and I don’t think the EU’s efforts will have a good return on investment. L’aissez faire!


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Orange Juice — Freshly Squeezed In February

Like Lacrosse Only Better

Like Lacrosse Only Better

Orange Juice! There is nothing better than “fresh”, unless perhaps perfectly aged wine, cheese and a few other things. On a recent trip to Sun City, Arizona, I was treated with fresh orange juice… really fresh orange juice!  When the freshness of food hits you, it really hits you. It is a fresh slap in the face to remind you — “Fresh is best!”

An Orange Bucket

An Orange Bucket

My father-in-law has an orange and a tangerine tree in his yard. My son, picked them,  my father in law, made the fresh squeezed orange juice adding a few errant tangerines, and I got to taste the result probably 10 minutes after picking. Wow!  The few tangerines make a  big difference and the result is definitely amazing. The tangerines were the last fruit from the tangerine tree and “had” to be used.

We had “fresh squeezed orange juice” in a restaurant in Washington state recently. It was good. Very good. Much better than the mass-produced orange juice you might get in a supermarket these days especially if from frozen concentrate. However,  the right-off-the-tree was so incredible that it made the restaurant version seem like relative orange juice concentrate.

Orange juice, not from concentrate

Not From Concentrate

There are a few reasons why the squeezed-as-you-watch version  is superior to the restaurant version. Their oranges may have been sitting around for days, weeks, and hopefully not months before getting to the orange press. They may have been perfectly ripe, or perhaps they were picked early so they’d ripen on the shelf instead of rotting. The oranges we had in Arizona were about ready to fall off the tree they were so ripe. The flowers for the next crop were forming on trees that had been picked a week earlier, so the tree was eager to get going on a new generation. Fresh oranges are a key to orange juices.

Orange Blossom

Orange Blossom

Another big factor in why the flavor was so good were the wafts of very thick and heavy orange blossom perfume. Everywhere you walked, you could smell this sweet jasmine-like scent. I imagine the locals are not all that aware of it any longer, but for 3 days all I smelled was this wonderful aroma. I believe it helped make the orange juice taste better! Can orange blossom smells make orange juice taste better? [Open Question]


Less Than Ten Minutes From The Tree

Can the kind of orange juice extraction method make a difference? [Open Question] I believe it can. Much like a coffee grinder can make a difference. Grinding coffee is done either with a high-speed whizzing bar or a crunching, rolling, slow grind. The winning coffee grinding choice in taste is the slow, non-heating method. It would be hard to heat orange juice to the point that it would change its flavor, but getting flavors from orange peel and seed and pith are what could change things. I did have a fresh orange juice made in a juicer (the kind used to make carrot juice), and liked that, but felt the orange juice press version was better. Hand squeezing orange juice might also be good if you want a fore-arm exercise. I like the press my father-in-law has. It was efficient and simple.

Me, Drinking Orange Juice

Me, Drinking Orange Juice

I also have opinions on whether mixed fruits are better than juices from just one fruit. My answer is try them all. I like them all and like the novelty that having tangerines in the orange juice had over both straight tangerine juice and straight orange juice. The mixture of fruits makes the juice stand up and say “I’ve got a secret”. I had to ask why the juice tasted different and why was this batch more orange colored than that batch. I had been thinking the oranges were older or from an older tree or …. but the answer was so much simpler. I have had orange juice mixed with other entirely different juices, and like them. Citrus juice wit other types of juices can be awesome. Passion fruit, in my opinion, mixes well. So does pineapple. Some combinations I have yet to try: orange juice and tomato juice; orange juice and cucumber juice. I know a few people who have tried this but I don’t yet trust their recommendations.

What oranges are the best for fresh juice? [Open Question] I don’t know. I am not sure what variety of orange we used in our fresh juice. I wonder if blood oranges would produce a nice juice? Are Valencia oranges in Spain the best? I’ll have to plan a trip :-) , and stop by Florida and get some florida orange juice en route.

One year, I had bought a few grapefruit. Slicing one of the grapefruit in two gave us a surprise. The seeds, normally white ovals, were a bit misshapen and had a touch of green to them. They were sprouting. My eldest son, being a gardener, took two seeds and planted them. They grew. In a few years they were 3 feet tall. One died but the survivor is now about three and a half feet tall and flowers. It hasn’t produced anything and may be sterile, but the small amount of scent it gives is like the aromas we experienced in Arizona. I am looking forward to getting into the greenhouse where we keep that plant and getting a waft of citrus bloom. I’ll have to try tasting orange juice nearby and see if the flavor is better. Meanwhile, I am having dreams of orange blossoms wafting steamy clouds that turn into bright orange juice.

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