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Notes from the Test Kitchen

What the *&@#%!$ Should I Do with All This Lettuce?

Why relegate lettuce to salads when you can roll it up into a fat blunt and smoke it?!

Let me explain.

When researching new ways to use lettuce in the kitchen (sick as I was of green salads as a dinner table staple), I came across quite a few wild lettuce chat boards filled with comments about the sedative and narcotic effects of the lowly plant we chomp on as an appetizer or palate cleanser. Wild lettuce is a cousin of the leaf lettuces we eat on a regular basis. Suddenly my ideas of lettuce soup and braised lettuce seemed so lame. READ MORE

What the *&@#%!$ Should I Do with All These Radishes?

Slice them thin in salads. Or serve them with a slather of butter and a dunk in fleur de sel as a predinner munch. Or, um … (Crickets.)

That peppery root vegetable, part of the brassicaceae family (its cousins include the cabbage, turnip, mustard, and wasabi plant), is woefully underused in the American kitchen. Radishes' bad reputation seems to have started way back in Pliny's era, when he proclaimed the radish "a vulgar article of the diet" that has a "remarkable power of causing flatulence and eructation." READ MORE

What the *&@#%!$ Should I Do with Carrot Greens?

You've signed up for a CSA, you're loving the fresh food and its adorable box, you're cooking every night and feeling healthy doing it, maybe you're even playing a little "Eye of the Tiger" in the kitchen as time whips by in an energized, excited frenzy of cooking local ingredients, and then screeeeeeeeech. You open up your fridge and are confronted with an abundance of carrot greens. The carrots they were once attached to have been dispatched successfully, but the greens remain. READ MORE

That’s So Salty! It’s Not Salty Enough.

Several years ago, I wrote a recipe for chocolate chip cookies that called for kosher salt. Soon after the recipe was published, I received an email from an upset mom who said the cookies were so salty she couldn't serve them. I had tested those cookies 20 times (really!). I was determined to prove her wrong. I reached for my kosher salt (I always use Diamond Crystal, a habit I picked up in restaurant kitchens), and then realized I hadn't tested them with Morton's kosher salt. So I made them again with Morton's. It was like eating a salt lick.

That was the day I learned that salts are not created equal.

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7 Things to Do with Canned Sardines

The last sardine cannery in the United States closed its doors for good last month, due to "global competition, corporate consolidations and a general lack of appetite, at least in the United States." But not only is the small, oily, silvery fish inexpensive, easy to prepare, and loaded with things that are good for you, like Omega-3 fatty acids and calcium, it’s also one of the most sustainable fish around: The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program lists sardines as a "Best Choice" due to their abundance and high production rate. Usually canned sardines are thought of as a last resort for when you can’t be bothered to cook, but reconsider. Here are some recipes. READ MORE

You’re Lame If You Use Briquettes

Hardwood lump charcoal or briquettes? It's fuel for fire, it cooks things, what's the difference? I grew up with the uniformly shaped briquettes, watching my dad douse them with lighter fluid and then stepping back as the flames whooshed up. But flaming lighter fluid, while entertaining and exciting, doesn't do much for food. READ MORE

What to Do with All That Produce

Sometimes I get a little carried away at grocery stores and farmers’ markets, and I end up with way more produce than I'm prepared to handle. So here's my game plan for such occasions: I pull out my big pasta pot, fill it with water, salt it, and start blanching—boiling vegetables for a minute or so until they are just tender and then dunking them directly into ice-cold water to stop the cooking. You don't have to drain the pot of water each time you add a new vegetable to it.

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Cue the Circus Music

In the test kitchen we run a pretty tight ship. Deadlines are important, and we do our fair share of fiddling with our daily tasks to fit it all in. So when tasked with creating 10 new sandwiches and a rabbit sugo recipe for an upcoming story, all in just a couple of days, the scrambling began.

While we usually only shoot photos with Chris one day a week, this week the photo sessions stretched into four days. Right out of the gate on Monday the sandwich insanity began. We had 10 different breads, several cheeses, a bunch of meats, mushrooms, onions, pickles, olives, artichoke hearts, mustard, avocado, herbs, greens galore, and more.

Oh, did I mention each sandwich has its own fancy mayonnaise creation to accompany the filling? As mundane as making a sandwich may sound, these fantastical sandwiches each have about 10 ingredients plus the mayo.

Next up: We charge forth with sugo. Then tomorrow we have an entire Passover menu to prepare and shoot, so Kate, Aida, Chris, and I must find some inner strength. My calming vision: It’s Friday afternoon and I have a cold cocktail, and there are no sandwiches in sight.

Walk-In Lunch

Usually, the issue in the test kitchen is not what to eat for lunch but how much. Granted, it may be a strange assortment of foods (braised artichokes, chopped liver, and derby pie, anyone?), but victuals always abound. That is, every day except Monday, when we have yet to shop and cook for the week. With paltry pantry pickings, whoever gets hungry first plays the role of Iron Chef and whips up something on the fly. We affectionately call it our “walk-in lunch” as we make the meal from whatever’s in the fridge (“walk-in” being a term borrowed from restaurants where all perishables are stored in walk-in fridges).

Despite the scary potential flavor combos and meals that come from throwing together leftover bits of this and that, we usually come up with tasty treats. The key seems to be using a good dose of interesting spice. This week: a comforting parsnip-potato soup topped with leftover toasted pumpkin seeds from last week’s cotija-cilantro salad (recipe due out in May). For the soup, we simply sautéed some garlic, onions, celery, and carrot until browned, added parsnips, potatoes, thyme, and broth, and cooked until the vegetables were knife tender. After a few whirls in the blender with some nutmeg and some toasted pumpkin seed oil, lunch was served. Just a reminder that you should be inspired not defeated by the leftovers in your fridge, as you never know what walk-in genius may arise.

Where Are Recipes Born?

It’s assumed that we do a lot of cooking in the test kitchen, and we do. But where do the recipes come from? They are not just random recipes from cookbooks or online directories; we make them up.

But before any cooking can actually happen, we spend hours on research. Some recipes take less research, like Nutty Trail Mix, and some take more, like the tamales recipe in our soon-to-come “Mexico Staycation” feature.

While I enjoy eating tamales, making tamales does not come naturally to a girl from Wisconsin. It is quite familiar, however, to our resident nueva Latina, Kate, and our Southern California girl, Aida. Yesterday, when tamale making commenced, Kate was forming tamales, Aida was dictating what she was doing, and I was noting the written directions so that any novice could successfully make a proper tamale. Although it usually does not take all three of us at once to complete a recipe, certain situations call for extra care and clarity, and especially accuracy. What’s the point of investing in a time-consuming recipe if it’s not accurate and won’t turn out delicious? Collectively, we were able to come up with a process that would make sense to any novice.

If I had it my way, I would be able to spend at least twice as much time researching a recipe and leave no stone unturned, no question unanswered. Unfortunately, the food dork in me could also spend two weeks here in the kitchen reading up on how colonial women used to kill and dress turtles for soup. For now, I’ll just have to continue to read my food dictionary on the bus.