Cooking Tips rss

Ideas, advice, and what to make now from the Chowhound community and CHOW editors.

How to Keep Tortillas Hot for the Table

Tortillas, whether used to make tacos or as an accompaniment to an entrée, should be served hot. Chowhounds have some creative solutions for keeping them hot on a buffet table or taco bar.

hoosfoos likes the La Tortilla Loca Microwave Tortilla Warmer, which holds up to a dozen and keeps them warm for at least an hour. Bryan Pepperseed wraps tortillas in a damp cloth and puts the whole bundle in a slow cooker on the low setting.

HillJ has developed a technique that she says keeps tortillas “moist and warm for hours”: Wrap an electric heating pad in a bath towel, place it on the serving table, and plug it in. Park a platter of tortillas on the towel-wrapped heating pad, keeping the tortillas covered with a paper towel or napkin. HillJ uses the same setup for brunch buffets, and says it works equally well for waffles, French toast, and pancakes.

Board Link: Keeping tortillas warm

Better Béchamel

Béchamel, the white sauce that’s a building block in many casseroles and creamed vegetable dishes, is a simple enough affair: Milk and seasonings are added to a butter-and-flour roux and cooked until thick. A few variables can make for an easier and better result, say hounds.

It’s not necessary to heat the milk before incorporating it, many hounds contend, though using cold milk can lead to lumps if you don’t take care. But others do find using heated milk easier. “I always throw the milk in the microwave to warm it up,” says Janet from Richmond. “No lumps and also makes the sauce thicken much more quickly.” Heated milk creates a glossier, shinier, and much smoother béchamel, adds maria lorraine.

Sooeygun learned to make béchamel by heating the milk with onion, bay leaves, and peppercorns to infuse it with their flavor. “And don’t forget the nutmeg,” another classic addition, says maria lorraine.

Board Link: Sauce-making technique (bechamel)

Positively Degenerate Flourless Chocolate Cake

When it comes to flourless chocolate cake, there are two main types: dense and intensely chocolaty versus lighter-textured and -flavored. The dense type is made with whole eggs, while the lighter type calls for separated eggs, with the whites whipped and folded in. “I guess it comes down to whether you want a truffle-like experience, in which case you’d go with the whole egg recipe, or something a little more subtle like the ones with beaten whites,” says bear.

Among the rich and dense types, bear is a fan of David Lebovitz’s “lusciously smooth” chocolate idiot cake. “It’s incredibly easy,” she says. BobB loves Lora Brody’s bête noir, which is also easy (it’s made in a food processor) and “so rich that a one-inch slice is plenty.”

fern makes a different dense flourless chocolate cake, also called la bête noir. Lynndsey Rigberg tried it, and says it was almost too intense: “The Beast is indeed, the Beast. It had a wondrously smooth texture…it was almost like a chocolate pot de creme.”

Lynndsey Rigberg prefers the texture that comes from incorporating beaten egg whites. Martha Stewart’s recipe has “a light, but surprisingly chocolaty and rich texture,” she says. Nigella Lawson’s chocolate cloud cake is also fabulous, says bear.

Board Link: best flourless chocolate cake recipe?

Don’t Toss Your Fennel Tops

Don’t throw out fennel fronds and stalks once you’ve trimmed them from the bulb. Fennel fronds can be used like an herb to add a punch of fresh flavor to salads, or to finish dishes. “I sprinkled the chopped fronds over a sweet potato bisque and it made a huge difference in flavor,” says danna.

coll uses fennel stalks and fronds to stuff chicken or turkey cavities before roasting, and suggests adding an orange or lemon, too. ChristinaMason uses fennel trimmings to stuff whole fish before roasting, or lays them under fillets before cooking. goodhealthgourmet adds the stalks to the liquid when poaching fish.

Board Link: How do you use fresh fennel trimmings? Or do you?

A No-Strings Celery Romance

Raw celery can be tough and stringy, but there’s an easy fix. Many hounds peel the stalks with a vegetable peeler or paring knife before eating the celery raw. Or simply pull off the strings: alkapal breaks off the bottom end of a stalk, leaving the strings attached, then pulls the broken-off end upward, leaving the stalk “de-stringed in one fell swoop.” If you’re going to cut the celery in several pieces for stuffing or crudités, don’t cut quite all the way through, recommends RGC1982. “Bend the celery back for a final crack while peeling the toughest, longest strings from the outside layer of the celery.”

Favorite fillings for stuffed celery are cheese spreads like pimento cheese, and tuna, egg, and chicken salads.

Board Link: Cheese/spread in celery ribs: celery’s too tough, too large; what to do?

Hearty Pasta e Fagioli for Cool Weather

Pasta e fagioli, Italian pasta and bean soup, is a nourishing dish. “What a healthy, hearty, and delicious soup for the fall and winter,” says SaraASR.

smtucker praises Mario Batali’s recipe, which begins with sautéing onion and parsley. “Cooking the parsley for a full 10 minutes was a test of faith the first time I made it,” says smtucker, adding, “But what an amazing amount of flavor.” If the soup is refrigerated, the pasta absorbs the broth and becomes soggy; add pasta only to the amount that will be eaten immediately.

lexpatti likes to purée a cup of broth and beans and return it to the pot before adding the pasta. “Makes it a bit creamy,” she says. cassoulady recommends adding a Parmesan rind to enhance the soup’s flavor. Cheese Boy suggests adding a small pat of lightly salted butter or a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil to each bowl after serving, saying, “Your pasta e fagioli will suddenly become memorable then because these two lastly added ingredients will put it over the top.”

roxlet makes a nonsoupy pasta e fagioli without tomatoes. She adds cooked pasta to olive oil, beans, garlic, parsley, salt, and red pepper flakes, adding pasta cooking water and tossing with Pecorino Romano. Andrew_Cookbooker likes this version, with spinach, carrot, and potato.

Board Link: Pasta Fagioli

Squash for Dessert

There is more than pumpkin pie when it comes to winter squash desserts. Butternut, acorn, and kabocha squash all translate easily into sweets.

chocoabot likes this citrus squash tart because its flavor is different than the typical warm spices paired with pumpkin. jsaimd loves kabocha squash cheesecake with walnut crust from Pichet Ong (P*ong).

“Squash slices layer up wonderfully with apples in a baked crisp,” says 4Snisl, who uses equal amounts of each. paulj recommends Ecuadoran dulce de zapallo, squash poached in a spiced brown sugar syrup, which is often paired with fresh cheese.

Board Link: Squash-y Dessert??

Pesto Without Pine Nuts

While pine nuts are most often called for in basil pesto, Chowhounds use a variety of nuts and herbs in pestos.

Hounds are split in preferring pine nuts or walnuts in their basil pesto, though a few use almonds. ZagChef uses roasted macadamias (he adds only half the amount of nuts called for), and TroyTempest has enjoyed it with pistachios. rozz01 makes a pesto of Italian parsley, cilantro, and cashews that her guests love, and hotoynoodle likes walnuts in parsley pesto.

Pesto freezes well, and is handy portioned in small containers or frozen in an ice cube tray, with the frozen cubes then stored in a freezer bag. Hounds recommend brushing or spraying the ice cube tray with oil before filling to help with release of the frozen pesto.

Board Link: pesto pine nuts or walnuts?

Pork Shoulder Ecstasy

Pork shoulder is a fatty cut with lots of connective tissue. Long, slow cooking melts the fat and breaks down the connective tissue, leaving the meat moist and very tender. “Because of its high fat content and marbling, pork shoulder is the classic cut for pulled pork barbecue,” notes Tom Armitage. “The general advice I’d give is to braise the heck out of it and just choose the sort of flavor you want,” says katecm. “It can fit into so many sorts of dishes.”

Crispy pork, a stovetop version of carnitas, is TorontoJo’s favorite way to cook pork shoulder (she uses chicken broth in place of the water called for). “It looks gray and unappetizing for about 90 percent of the cooking time,” she says, “then at the very end it suddenly transforms into this golden brown, crispy, savory wonder.”

This chile verde from Bay Area Bites is “foolproof and delicious,” according to Dcfoodblog. JungMann recommends cider-braised pork shoulder with caramelized onions.

Caroline1 loves this simple prep: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Place a pork shoulder in a deep, covered pan not much bigger than it is. Sprinkle the top of the pork liberally with Worcestershire sauce, then pack a fairly thick layer of brown sugar over it. Pour enough apple juice in the pan to come at least halfway up the pork, avoiding the brown sugar. Cover, place in the oven, and reduce the heat to 200 degrees. Bake for six to eight hours, until it’s falling-apart tender. “It just vanishes before your eyes,” says Caroline1, “and it tastes far more complex and sophisticated than it sounds. Don’t tell your guests how easy it is.”

CHOW’s Chinese-style Red-Cooked Pork is made with shoulder.

Board Link: What is your favorite recipe for pork shoulder?

Nudging Zucchini into Deliciousness

Zucchini can be watery and tasteless, or it can be delectable. The first step is choosing the right zucchini. Buy small ones, advises mbfant, who adds, “The larger it gets, the more water, more seeds, and less flavor it has.”

If you sauté zucchini, it’s best to cook it quickly over high heat, so it browns, say several hounds. “I find browning zukes to add a ton of great flavor!” exclaims scuzzo. Or marinate it, then grill. Hounds like to sauté zucchini with onions and/or garlic (add garlic at the end, so it doesn’t burn), and top it with crumbled blue cheese, or Parmesan and lemon juice, or cilantro and lime juice. karykat likes this quick sauté of zucchini with toasted almonds.

It’s also easy to make flavorful dishes incorporating grated zucchini. linguafood makes kolokithokeftedes, Greek zucchini fritters, by mixing grated zucchini with fresh mint, feta, a bit of flour and panko, and an egg. Drop into oil and fry until golden brown. “Dip into tsatsiki, and it’s heaven,” she says. LauraGrace makes an even simpler fritter: “A huge pile of grated zucchini with an egg and just enough flour to hold it together, salt and pepper, and maybe a bit of cayenne. Fry until very crispy and serve hot.”

linguafood also likes it raw, sliced carpaccio-style, with feta and pine nuts. (Try CHOW’s recipe.) paulj arranges the zucchini slices, along with sliced bell pepper and tomato, in a pool of olive oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper, saying, “It’s an easy way to create a visually pleasing salad.”

Board Link: Is zucchini worth eating? ;-)