Ask Carb Diva: Questions & Answers About Food, Recipes, & Cooking, #94
Last Sunday I watched “60 Minutes”, an American news magazine and television program that each week presents three long-format stories with in-depth reporting. They told the story of Chef Massimo Bottura, an Italian restaurateur who owns and operates a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Modena. His culinary creations are not mere food on a plate; he combines contemporary art and avant-garde cuisine in unheard-of methods. He doesn’t just break the rules, he smashes them into subatomic particles. His clientele are the rich and famous, the waitlist is months long, the dinners are 12-course masterpieces, and the price tag begins at $1,000 per couple.
Why am I telling you this? There is another side to Maestro Bottura. He could simply wallow in his abundant wealth but instead, he and his wife began a non-profit in 2016 to feed the hungry and disadvantaged. His plan is not soup kitchens; he obtains donations of foods that are slightly damaged (for example broken pasta) or are near their expiration date. With these, he creates gourmet three-course meals which are served at long communal tables. The meals are free and the diners relax in a homelike atmosphere. The concept has spread, and Food for the Soul now operates in Bottura's hometown of Milan, and in Rio de Janeiro, London, Paris, Modena, Bologna, and Naples.
Isn't that a great story? It makes me happy and I just had to share the happy with you.
Let's Get Started
Let's open today's mailbox. If you're an old friend, you already know how this works. But, if this is your first visit, let me introduce you to my kitchen.
Each week I receive questions about food ingredients, cooking or baking terms or methods, requests for recipes, and queries about nutrition. Just about anything food-related has been covered here.
I'm sharing this past week's questions and my responses; it happens every Monday. Want to join in the fun? You can leave your question in the comments below, and next week the answer will be right here. It's that easy.
Share Your Knowledge of Some of the Lesser-Known Herbs
On my favorite baking show, they are using some herbs I have, quite frankly, never heard of. How about you giving us a short list of rarely-heard-of herbs which are quite handy in the kitchen? How about it, friend, something other than rosemary, sage, and thyme?
Bill, your question had me doing a happy dance. I love this topic and as I begin to write I'm not certain how long this will be. For the curious, the program of which Bill speaks is the Great British Baking Show. If you live in the U.S. you will find it on your local PBS (Public Broadcasting Service).
Here's a list of the herbs and foraged plants (you might call them weeds) that could have made a guest appearance on the show.
- Angelica - This herb is named for the legend that an angel appeared to a monk in plague-ridden Europe and led him to this plant to use as the cure. Angelica is in the carrot/parsnip family and they all bear the same white lacy flowers. The roots and seeds are used to flavor gin and benedictine. It is also commonly used in Chinese medicine.
- Borage - This plant originally native to the Middle East has lovely blue flowers that can be used to decorate a salad. The leaves can also be eaten and have a taste reminiscent of cucumber. Borage is an annual but self-sows freely. It attracts honeybees (which is a good thing).
- Fenugreek - Take one look at the bright yellow flowers of fenugreek and you will recognize it as a member of the pea/legume family. That means that if you have a peanut allergy, you should avoid fenugreek. India is a major producer and the yellow seeds of the plant are frequently used in Indian cuisine. Fresh leaves are also used in curries and sprouted seeds are a common microgreen for salads. Fenugreek is used as a flavoring agent in imitation maple syrup.
- Feverfew - This perennial daisy lookalike originated in Eurasia but has spread around the world to the rest of Europe, North America, and Chile. Feverfew is a common herbal remedy for headaches; steep a few fresh or dried leaves in water for 5 minutes.
- Lovage - Like angelica, this too is a member of the carrot/parsnip family. Lovage is a tall herb (5 to 8 feet in height), looking somewhat like parsley on steroids. It's native to Europe and is used in salads, to season soups and broth, or as a vegetable (the root). The seeds can be used like fennel.
- Ramps - Ramps, also known as wild leeks, are one of the many rewards of springtime foraging. The flavor is a cross between an onion and garlic, with garlic definitely taking the lead. Unfortunately, they have become quite popular and will disappear if not harvested with care. Don't brutally pluck them from the ground. Use a slender knife, push the dirt away from the bulb so that you can see what you're doing, and slice, leaving 1/3 of the bulb (with roots attached) in the ground so that the plant will regrow. These only grow in North America, so the English cooks/bakers would not have used them, but they're worth mentioning.
- Sweet woodruff - This perennial herb is a world traveler, growing with wild abandon in most of Europe, across Iran, Turkey, and Siberia, in China and Japan, and much of the United States and Canada. It is indeed sweet; the dried leaves smell of vanilla, honey, and new-mown hay. Sweet woodruff avoids the sun and grows best under trees and in the woods with dappled sunlight. Woodruff was used medicinally in the Middle Ages for stomach ailments. In Germany, fresh sprigs are steeped in Rhine wine to make the wine punch maibowle. The fragrance of sweet woodruff is strongest when it is dried (it lasts for ages) and makes a wonderful potpourri.
Bill, while we're at it, there are a few other terms on the Great British Baking show that might have caused you to pause and scratch your noggin:
Treacle - Kinda sounds like something you'd use to patch your roof, doesn't it? Buy a bottle of dark molasses and you'll have a reasonable substitute.
Moscovado sugar - Sometimes called Barbados sugar, this is unrefined sugar, similar to dark brown sugar, which can be a stand-in, but will never quite replace moscovado which is sticky and moist (like wet sand) and has complex flavors of toffee, fruit, and a slight bittersweet aftertaste.
Stem ginger - I had to look this one up. It's chunks of ginger that have been candied in a simple syrup. I don't recall seeing this in the grocery store, but here's a link for making your own.
Caster sugar - Is also called baking sugar or superfine sugar. It's not powdered sugar. You can make your own by putting granulated sugar in a food processor; a couple of minutes should do it (no more or you'll wind up with powdered sugar and have to start over). One word of advice—place a towel over the processor so that the dust doesn't escape.
Rose essence - This is a flavoring much like rosewater, but much more concentrated. If you have access to an Indian or Middle Eastern market you might be able to find it there. Of course, it's also available on Amazon. (By the way, this is not the same as essential oil).
The next question is from Mary (Blond Logic).
Does Baking Soda Really Tenderize Meats?
My husband read an article that says baking soda, helps to tenderize chicken and that it's used often in Chinese restaurants to do this. Do you know if that's true and if it is, why it works?
Mary, this most certainly does work, but before I explain the how I'll discuss the what and why. There are actually two separate processes that can be used to tenderize meat. One is brining. I explained that process in my article "Perfect Pork Chops" (it's received more reviews than any other article I've written to date). The salt in a brine solution causes the proteins to unwind and form loose strings. But, the process takes several hours (a minimum of 4 and a maximum of 24) and the salt can affect the taste of the final dish.
Baking soda actually changes the chemistry of the meat. It raises the pH on the meat’s surface, making it more difficult for the proteins to bond. The good news is that a baking soda soak takes much less time—15 minutes rather than several hours or overnight.
So now you're probably wondering why anyone would choose to brine rather than use baking soda? Baking soda does have its limitations. It only tenderizes the meat that it touches. Unlike brine, it doesn't penetrate below the surface. Therefore, baking soda works best with meats that are thinly sliced; a Chinese stir-fry is a good example.
For each pound of meat, you will need about 2 teaspoons of baking soda. Rub it on the surface or dissolve it in a small amount of water (just enough to submerge the meat). Wait 15 minutes and then rinse the meat and pat dry. Some people complain about a slight aftertaste from the soda. You can counteract that with the addition of a little acid. A squeeze of lemon juice or a dash of rice wine vinegar will do the trick.
Each week we learn about a food item that you probably toss into the trash bin without a thought or a care—until today that is. Let's find out which discards can be re-used and re-purposed.
I'm not a tea drinker, so had to rely on friends and the internet for these tips.
- After you brew your tea, transfer tea bags to a clean surface and let dry completely. Add the dry tea bags to smelly shoes and let sit overnight or about 8 to 12 hours.
- By the way, that tip works in refrigerators too.
- De-gunk a greasy, stuck-on mess on the bottom of a pan. Place a ta bag in the pan, fill with hot water, and let sit overnight. The tannins in the tea will loosen the mess and make the pan easier to scrub.
- Place a couple of tea bags in your bath as you run the water. The tannins will leave your skin feeling soft and hydrated.
- Apply a cool, damp tea bag to bug bites.
- Add to the compost pile.
- Place cool, damp tea bags on your eyes to relieve puffiness and under-eye circles.
By the way, this will be my final installment of "Don't Throw That Away." Next week I'll have a brand new topic for you.
Did you know that there is a Table of Contents for this series? I have created an article that provides a detailed listing of each question I've received. It's broken down by category, and within each category, the questions are listed alphabetically. Each question is actually a hotlink back to the original post.
Here's a link to that Table of Contents.
I have also cataloged all of my personal recipes that I have shared with you in this weekly Q&A series and in all of my other articles as well. The link to that Index is here. There are hotlinks to each recipe and this will be updated as new recipes are shared.
Let's do this again next week. If you have questions about foods, cooking techniques, or nutrition you can ask them here. If you are in search of an old recipe or need ideas on how to improve an existing one I can help you. If you want to learn more, let's do it together. Present your questions, your ideas, your comments below. Or, you can write to me personally at this email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
And, I promise that there will always be at least one photo of a kitty in every Monday post.