Flavor Enhancers – Why we love Butter

Butter makes almost everything taste better. All good cooks know that fat means flavor and there is hardly a more versatile fat than butter. Indispensible in the bakery, butter reigns in the savory kitchen. Chef Anthony Bourdain, writer and host of the Travel Channel’s No Reservations, says “In a professional kitchen, it is almost always the first and last thing in a pan”. Butter can rescue a dish from the edge of disaster and bring majesty to the most humble of sauces. Simply said, there is really no substitute for butter.

Butter is mostly fat (about 80%), 15% water and a very small amount of milk solids. Water is what makes the froth when you heat butter in a pan. As water evaporates, the milk solids begin to brown, resulting in a flavorful, nutty sauce that makes an excellent base for other things. Take care – cooking butter too long can burn the milk solids and make the sauce bitter.

Pure butter fat without water and milk solids is called Ghee, or clarified butter. This form of butter can be heated to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, higher than most olive oils can handle without creating trans fats. Ghee can be stored for extended periods without refrigeration providing it is sealed tight and kept free of moisture. The origin of ghee is South Asia with a rich heritage of use in foods and religious ceremonies.

Make a Simple Pan Sauce

If careful when melting butter to not let the water and solids separate from the fat you will have a ‘product completely different from butter in any other form’ says chef Michael Ruhlman. The technique uses a few chunks of butter and a tablespoon or two of hot water which are continually whisked over medium low heat (the amounts of each are not critical). The resulting sauce, known as an emulsion, keeps the butter opaque, creamy and homogenous.

The name for this elegant simple sauce is Buerre Monte and it is wonderful with shrimp and fish, or drizzled over pan roasted meats and cooked vegetables.  Imagine all the flavorings you can add to the ‘base’ of butter and hot water just described, such as: a teaspoon of Dijon mustard for a French Sauce, with some parsley and minced shallot (great on roasted chicken). Try a teaspoon each of white wine and rinsed capers. For a spicy sauce, use minced chipotle chilies, fresh cilantro, shallots and lime juice. Another great combination is dried tarragon, lemon juice, and dry mustard, just a little of each to your tastes.

You can make a little or a lot of Buerre Monte, in just a few minutes. Serve it quickly as this finishing sauce will eventually separate. There is so much more to be said for butter. Please share your quick pan sauce ideas!

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Chilled Summer Fruit Soup

This is one of the most delightful ways to enjoy ripe summer fruits and couldn’t be simpler to make. The base of the soup is simply a puree of melons (cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon or a combination).  Use pieces of whole fruits such as strawberries, slices of kiwi, blueberries, or melon balls as a garnish to give the soup color, flavor, and texture.  This versatile soup that can be made different every time just by using other fruits or juices, such as mango or peaches.  Ever find yourself with an abundance of fruit after a party? Here’s a great way to use it before you lose it.

Fresh pureed cantaloupe with strawberries, melon balls, and kiwi

The variation below adds a refreshing touch of fresh ginger and mint. For an elegant presentation, put a serving of whole and sliced berries in a dish with the puree on the side in a small carafe, so your guests can serve themselves just a little or a lot. Change the entire mood of the soup with a splash of champagne or club soda in the base puree and use a parfait glass for serving.

This light and colorful soup pairs beautifully with tea sandwiches or quiche, perfect for a weekend brunch. If you have the time, make the base puree the day before so flavors will blend. Then add your fresh fruit garnish at serving.

Chilled Summer Fruit Soup

Makes about 4 cups; Equipment: Food processor, cutting board, knife, melon baller or spoon for scooping

Base Puree:

1 whole cantaloupe (or equivalent)

3 oz. unsweetened pineapple juice or chunks of pineapple

¼ cup orange juice

2 T. chopped fresh mint

2 t. lime juice

2 t. grated fresh ginger

Garnish:

1 kiwi, sliced

6 – 8 strawberries, sliced

Reserved melon balls

Spring of mint

Dash cinnamon

Optional: pinch of nutmeg

Instructions:  Cut cantaloupe in half and remove seeds. Scoop melon balls from one half (at least 16) and set aside. Remove remaining flesh from both cantaloupe halves.

Combine chopped cantaloupe with pineapple juice, orange juice, mint, lime juice, and ginger in a food processor.  Puree until smooth, about 2 – 3 minutes. For immediate service, pour soup into a quart size bowl and add sliced kiwi, strawberries, and melon balls. Or prepare single servings with about 1/2 cup of fresh fruit garnish in a small bowl and pour puree over. Chill (overnight for best results) and serve with a spring of mint, sprinkled cinnamon and a pinch of nutmeg, if desired.  Sit back and wait for applause.

Variations:

  • Use honeydew instead of cantaloupe, or just add honeydew melon balls
  • Swirl in some plain yogurt
  • Serve this as a light dessert
  • Serve the base puree as a beverage and garnish with a strawberry on the glass
  • Add ½ cup of French vanilla bean ice cream to puree and stir to partially melt then add fruit garnish

Avocados RULE

Welcome to avocado season! Let the celebration begin now that the emerald gems are on sale for as low as a dollar a piece. Not just any avocados mind you, but the HASS avocado. We can also thank Cinco de Mayo for this glorious windfall, which officially launches the spread of guacamole from now through Super Bowl Sunday.   

Sure, we can be frivolous with money in the presence of such abundance, but buyers beware. If you’ve ever spent $2.49 on an off-season avocado – only to find rot and disappointment inside, you’ll want to learn my selection secret: only buy the ones that have a stem attached.  That’s the little stubby knob that most avocados still have when they reach the market.

Why does this matter?  Some noteworthy facts:  The thick avocado skin is almost impervious to damage. It is one of the few fruits that do not ripen on the tree, making it smart to harvest early and store until needed. Avocados are harvested by hand with special sheers that often leave a stubby nub behind. This is a boon for merchants and consumers because the nub protects the only entry into the fruit from bacterial invaders.

Once the nub is removed, the opening sounds a siren for micro organisms to wreak havoc on the inside of the fruit, virtually undetectable from the outside (you might see some depressions in the skin). Select your avocado with a snugly fitting stub without removing it (bright green around the nub is another indicator of freshness). To tell if the fruit is ripe, squeeze it gently. If it gives under pressure it is ripe and ready to eat (or refrigerate for a day or two). If it doesn’t give under pressure it is not quite ready. Check each day for a change in firmness.

It is just a tremendous bonus that avocados are a healthy food or I’d be hard pressed to drop it from my diet. Of about 500 varieties of avocados on the global market, the Hass is the most highly prized for its rich, nutty flavor and velvety texture, thanks to a healthy dose of healthy fat. 

In closing, the avocado gifts us with a good source of fiber, potassium, vitamin C, vitamin K, folate and vitamin B6. Half of an avocado is 160 calories with about 15 grams of unsaturated fat, 2 grams of saturated fat and no cholesterol.  To learn more about avocados visit the California Avocado Commission website, (image from their website) or just ask me. I have a PowerPoint. 🙂

You might be a Foodie if…..

A recent study reported by USA TODAY revealed that foodies have several things in common.  First, being a foodie is fashionable so they are very cool people. Second, they are fearless experimenters with tireless enthusiasm to try new things.  My thanks to the foodies who created some of my favorite dishes from the ‘fusion’ phase a few years ago: Maple-Chipotle Glazed Salmon, Pecan-Havarti Quesadilla with Pear Preserves, and the Peach Bellini.  What else do they share? More than half of foodies tend to favor three distinct flavor characteristics above all others:

Bitter, such as radicchio or kale (62%)

Umami (a Japanese word for savory taste), such as soy sauce (61%)

Sour, such as plain yogurt and sourdough bread (59%)

By the way, the general population generally prefers the far more familiar: sweet (81%) and salty (67%).

So what happens when you combine a foodie with a mastery of seasonings? You get Val Herzog, owner and creative director at VSpicery in Tampa, Florida.  Val has spent a lifetime blazing trails with stellar custom blends of herbs and spices, boutique vinegars, oils and salts, just to name a few tools of her trade. More than once I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the fruits of her labor and am always enriched by her wisdom. Here are two questions I asked her for this blog:

Val Herzog creating magic at VSpicery

What one thing do you wish people knew about seasonings? 

Val: People are so used to using stale seasonings.  Buy it once and keep it forever.  This may sound like self-promotion, but it isn’t. All seasonings have a “life”.  If it is fresh when initially purchased you have about 8 months to a year of true freshness.  After that the seasonings will loose their robust flavor in gradual stages.  The difference is amazing.

What pearl of wisdom have you learned that changed the way you season foods? 

Val: Play with seasonings. There are so many combinations and many tastes, so individualized. Search for what you truly crave.  I am always playing with flavors, mostly successfully.  When the kitchen becomes my playground my family will ask what’s for dinner, if my response is “I don’t know yet”, their response is usually “Oh, it’s gonna to be good”.  Dinner will have a newness to it.  The real adventure is that the finished product will be different, unusual. Knowing your flavor tolerances allows you to play, but if you don’t play you will never know the boundaries of the people you cook for.

VSpicery is located at 2913 W. Cypress, Tampa, FL 33609. (813) 870-1133. www.VSpicery.com because life should be delicious!

Everybody Loves Salsa

Thank you, Gord, for requesting a recipe for salsa, the number one condiment in America (and we thought it is ketchup!).  The word Salsa can refer to any fresh or cooked ‘sauce’ as well as an exhilarating Latin dance of Afro-Cuban origin, both of which contain hot and spicy elements. Most often the term is synonymous with a combination of just a few, but importantly, fresh chopped ingredients, including red-ripe Roma or plum tomatoes, white onions, spicy chilies, lime juice, garlic, and cilantro.

The beauty of salsa comes from its vivacious taste and texture, something that is lost in translation to the jarred form.  Other differences include the use of vinegar instead of lime juice and a soupier consistency in the jar salsa.  Fresh salsa is quick to make and is far superior to the processed version although the latter has its place. Jarred salsa has a shelf life of 6 months to a year and once opened about 30 days in the refrigerator.  Fresh salsas last about 7 days refrigerated, which in my house is 6 days longer than necessary.

Simple Salsa Ingredients: lime, tomatoes, jalapeno, onion, garlic, cilantro, and seasonings

A short-cut version for making salsa involves a food processor and canned, whole tomatoes, a fair stand-in for when fresh tomatoes are pale and long out of peak season.  For that method, canned tomatoes with their juice go in first and are briefly processed.  Roughly chopped onions and stemmed, seeded jalapeno follow (to taste) with a few short pulses of the processor, then cilantro is added along with lime juice and garlic. At this point continue to pulse until the texture you desire is reached, check for flavor and add salt, pepper, and a pinch of sugar (if needed).  Some will add various colors of bell peppers for a milder and more colorful presentation, use purple onions instead of white onions, and vary the heat by returning some seeds of the chilies to the mix or adding a combination of chilies (dried and fresh).

Following is a basic hand-made fresh salsa with a few ideas on its many uses.  For more recipes, refer to the undisputed authority on authentic Mexican cooking, Chef Rick Bayless and his many magnificent books or his website.  My slightly milder variation on his Salsa Mexicana is below:

Fresh Salsa

Serves:  4 – 6; Equipment: Cutting board, mixing bowl, knife, strainer, measuring spoons

½ medium white onion, diced (about ¼” pieces), rinsed in cool water and drained

4 – 5 plum or Roma tomatoes, diced

½ small stemmed, seeded chili, minced (ex: Jalapeno or Serrano)*

2 large cloves garlic, minced

1/3 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro, stems removed

Juice of a fresh lime

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Pinch of sugar, and freshly cracked pepper

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and season to taste (watch the salt if using tortilla chips). Chill for at least an hour or more to harmonize flavors.

OTHER USES:

  • Make a shrimp cocktail with the addition of sauteed shrimp and scallops as pictured above
  • Combine salsa with fresh avocado for a chunky guacamole
  • Add salsa to burritos, quesadillas, black beans or pinto beans
  • Use as a topping for fish or grilled meats
  • Puree salsa with some fresh celery and a dash of Worcestershire (thinned if needed with tomato juice) for a Bloody Mary
  • Make it fruity with the addition of chopped fresh mango, papaya, or pineapple
  • Use roasted chilies for a smokey essence
  • And a personal favorite, add some diced cucumber a little tomato juice, and call it an Americanized version of gazpacho (topped with a dollop of sour cream).

* Note that the chilies come in many sizes, and the one in the upper picture was the smallest on hand. I used about a quarter of it although I’m a bit of a panzy when it comes to the hot stuff.

Enthusiasts will enjoy learning about how the heat of chilies is measured by visiting ‘Eat More Chiles”. Both the chili membrane and seeds contain the heat but the membrane is more concentrated. The bottom line is let your taste buds be the judge. Chilies are subject to nature’s whims and will vary by weather and season, so use a little bit at a time, taste, then add more if needed (and don’t rub your eyes after handling them!).

A Real Happy Meal

Spring is in full swing in Central Florida.  Everywhere, flowers are blooming and tender baby vegetables are overflowing the produce bins.  I love this time of year when farmers’ markets are brimming with eye-candy, vibrantly-colored fruits and vegetables, and sweet aromas that border on intoxicating.

One of my seasonal favorites is the sunny yellow, orange and ruby-hued sweet peppers.  When eaten raw they make a delicious, quick and low calorie snack. When stuffed and roasted with goat cheese and basil pesto they are sublime.  As simple as it sounds, slice the peppers and remove seeds. Stuff with about a teaspoon each of goat cheese and pesto (the peppers will shrink some so be careful not to overfill).  Drizzle with your favorite oil and roast @ 400 degrees for about 15 minutes.  I serve them slightly cooled with fresh-cracked black pepper and leaves of fresh oregano or basil.

Stuff sweet peppers with your choice of herb cheeses, crab, or pesto and roast at 400 degrees for 15 minutes

As beautiful as they are, there’s more to sweet peppers than meets the eye. Research shows that certain foods such as peppers can help keep hormones and brain chemicals balanced, resulting in a sunnier, calmer state of mind. For some great tips on mood-enhancing foods, watch this five minute video ‘You’re never too old for a Happy Meal’ featuring registered dietician Dr. Sheila Dean of Palm Harbor Center for Health and Healing.

Beans and The Power Soak

On March 31, 2012, the FDA declined a petition to remove BPA from food packaging citing insufficient scientific evidence. The move is ‘not final’ and they support further research. Meanwhile, if you’d rather not use canned beans anymore here’s an excellent alternative.  We already know that presoaking beans overnight not only cuts down on cooking time by up to 25 percent, it also helps the beans cook evenly without splitting. However, if you don’t have the time to presoak consider the “power soak” method.  Others have described this technique and currently you’ll see it in Bon Appetite magazine (reported in their March 2012 issue).

Much faster than soaking beans overnight, power soaking breaks down more of the complex sugars that can make beans hard to digest. The simple process begins with placing beans in a pot and covering with water by three inches.  Bring to a boil and simmer briskly for two minutes, remove from heat, cover, and let stand for one hour. Drain, and your beans are ready to use in your favorite recipes (note that they are not fully cooked, rather brought to the same state as if they had been presoaked).