Ask Carb Diva: Questions & Answers About Foods, Recipes, & Cooking, #44
Well, I did it. A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was struggling with an article. What would normally take two or three days at most to write I had been wrestling with for 3+ weeks. I challenged my readers to let me know when they thought they had "detected" that pithy bit of prose from me.
Guess what? No one noticed. Nope, not one peep.
Maybe I'm losing my edge.
Oh well, that enough about me. Let's talk about food and recipes and fun gadgets cuz that's why you're here.
My Favorite Things
Rockin' my inner Julie Andrews, each week I tell you about "A Few of My Favorite Things." This is where I share with you the name of one product, gadget, or piece of equipment that I absolutely cannot function without. I promise that it won't be expensive or difficult to source.
This week it's my instant read thermometer. Honestly, if you want to check the doneness of your burgers on the grill, the casserole in the oven, or even the loaf of bread you just baked in the oven, you need an instant-read thermometer.
I have a Marshcone Precise Cooking Thermometer (ASIN B01D1VSL32 on Amazon). There are thermometers that are cheaper or more expensive, simpler or flashier. But this little guy has been a workhorse for me. (When I remove it from my kitchen drawer it even lets me know how hot (or cold) the room is.
Is There a Formula For Making a Great Casserole?
I do have another question about casseroles. This week I made one from a leftover pork chop, cauliflower, and a slice of bacon. After adding an onion, herbs, rice and a creamy white sauce, it was a hit.
Are there guidelines to a successful casserole using leftovers? Goodness knows I have had my fair share of disasters. Sometimes things meld together and other times, it is too wet, too dry or just lacking pizazz.
Mary, I can't promise a perfect casserole every time (as my husband, the scientist would explain "there are too many variables") but I can provide some basic guidelines and then a list of suggested ingredients.
First, a few pointers:
Size Matters - Cut your ingredients in similar-sized pieces
Get Rid of the Water - Remove excess moisture from vegetables.
- This means that spinach must be cooked and then squeezed dry to within an inch of its life. Frozen spinach should be treated as though it has already been cooked. Thaw it and then squeeze. Remember, spinach is the "amazing disappearing vegetable". It's 91 percent water (more on that below).
- Mushrooms are next in line as far as water content. Don't add them raw. Slice, dice, or chop and then saute until they are dry. (Mushrooms will give off a LOT of water when cooking and that could potentially sog out your casserole.)
- Onions also contain a lot of water (especially the sweet onions such as Vidalia and Walla Walla). A little bit of raw onion is OK in your casserole, but if you want onions to play a bigger role, please consider sauteing them. You don't have to go as deep and dark as you would for French onion soup, but cooking until golden will create a luxuriously creamy almost sweet layer of flavor in your casserole.
Under-do - Don't cook your pasta until it is al dente. Remember that it will continue to cook in the casserole, so pull it when it's still about 2 minutes from being "done".
A Goldilocks-Approved Baking Dish - If you dish is too shallow, your casserole will lose too much moisture; it will be dry and maybe even burnt on the edges. If too deep, by the time the interior is hot the edges will be crispy beyond redemption.
It's All About Proportion - Everything in moderation, right? Too much sauce and you have casserole soup. Not enough and you are chewing cardboard. Here is a good rule of thumb (where did that expression come from?):
- 4 cups starch
- 2 cups protein
- 2 cups vegetables
- 3 cups sauce
Now, let's look at a table of suggestions:
Starch (choose 1one
Protein (choose one)
Vegetables, raw (or canned, drained) (choose two or more)
cooked ground beef, chicken, or turkey
bell pepper, chopped
1 can cream of "anything" soup plus water, broth, or milk
tater tots, thawed
cooked crumbled bacon
spaghetti (red) sauce
cooked white or brown rice
canned salmon or tuna, drained
stale bread cubes
cooked crab meat
broth thickened with cornstarch or flour
chopped cooked ham
shredded or diced leftover chicken, beef, or pork
Vegetables, parboiled (partially cooked)
1 14.5 ounce can beans, drained and rinsed
mushroom, onions, or spinach--see notes above under "Get Rid of the Water"
Bake It - Cover your casserole with foil and bake in a preheated oven for about 20-30 minutes, or until bubbly. The internal temperature should be 165°F.
Top It - Remove the foil, add a fun topping (optional) and bake a few more minutes or slip under the broiler (watch closely so that is doesn't burn) until crispy brown. Suggested topics are:
- crushed potato chips
- crushed crackers
- crushed tortilla chips
- butter-sauteed bread crumbs
- grated cheese
- slivered almonds
- chopped walnuts
- French fried onions
- chow mein noodles
How Much Water IS In That Veggie?
This is my own question, and I'm going to answer it too. In the topic of building a tasty casserole, I mentioned that spinach and mushrooms contain quite a bit of water. Just in case you were wondering, here is a list of the "soggiest" veggies:
- cucumbers - 96 percent
- celery - 95 percent
- lettuce - 95 percent
- peppers - 94 percent
- tomatoes - 94 percent
- summer squash - 94 percent
- asparagus - 93 percent
- mushrooms - 92 percent
- spinach - 91 percent
- broccoli - 89 percent
Mason Jar Meals
On Pinterest, I see a lot of those Mason jars with oats and fruit in them. I think people put them in the fridge overnight. Why is this so popular? Is it to soften up the oats or a 'trendy' time saver for the breakfast rush?
Mary, my younger daughter started making these "breakfasts in a jar" a few months ago. I'll be honest, the concept just didn't appeal to me. I know that oatmeal is a super food, and a great way to start the day, but the thought of cold oatmeal was a turn-off. But, don't let my fussiness keep you from trying this.
The photo above is from the blog CleanFoodCrush, and she provides seven food/flavor combinations.
But, back to your question. Why are these popular? I asked my daughter and she rattled off a long list:
- they are inexpensive (once you invest in the jars)
- lots of fiber
- non-animal protein (she is vegetarian)
- good source of iron (she is also anemic)
- all the other nutrients in oats and the fruits
- most of all, we eat with our eyes and they're pretty!
Have you noticed that Mason jars aren't just for breakfast anymore? Now using them for lunch is also a "thing". That one actually sounds good to me (but since I work at home I'm still not on board). The theory is that the dressing goes in the bottom of the jar. Next, the veggies, then the protein, and finally the lettuce is suspended on top (above the dressing) so that it stays crisp.
However, eating out of the jar seems a bit unwieldy to me. I think if I was taking my lunch to work, I'd want to have a plate too. Do you think this "trend" is hub-worthy, or are there already too many Google hits on the topic?
Can One Produce UHT Coconut Milk at Home?
Hi Linda, diverse mailbag this week for sure. I got an easier question for you (hopefully). I drink coconut milk daily, and the one I that I buy is UHT treated. Apparently it is a process to kill bacteria. Now if I want to make coconut milk at home, there is no way to do a UHT, or maybe there is, I don't know. In that case is it not advisable to make it at home? If you happen to know anything, that would be great. Thanks! Rinita
Rinita, before I answer your question I’ll explain UHT because some readers might not be familiar with the term.
UHT (ultra-high temperature) is a processing method that heats liquid food (usually milk) to sterilize it. This is not the same as pasteurization. Pasteurization employs mild heat (<100 °C). The process is named for Louis Pasteur, a French chemist who in 1864 found that heating young wine for a short period would kill microbes that, over time (aging) could cause wine to sour.
UHT goes further than pasteurization, heating liquid to 135°C (275°F) for 1 to 2 seconds. In Germany, France, and Spain more than 50 percent of milk sold is UHT. The advantage of UHT is that it greatly extends shelf life and UHT products can be transported and stored without refrigeration.
Can it be done at home? Unfortunately, no it cannot. There are two types of processing, both of which are complex and require expensive equipment. Injection-based processing forces high-pressure steam into a chamber which holds the liquid. Infusion-based processing pumps the liquid through a nozzle into a high-pressure steam chamber.
If you are making your own coconut milk, you probably aren’t concerned with long-term storage. Here is a video that shows how to make coconut milk from young coconuts, mature coconuts, and pre-grated (packaged) coconut.
What About Those Bubbles?
What is your take on baking soda or baking powder. I am a bit confused. And what is up with that carbon dioxide?
Eric, do you remember your grade-school science fair project with the exploding volcano? You know the one I mean—you make a mountain (complete with crater) of papier mache or playdough. Spoon in some baking soda and then pour in the vinegar. An instant explosion of “lava”! You created a chemical reaction when you did that; you made carbon dioxide. And, it’s that carbon dioxide, that gas, that creates the bubbles and craters in your baked goods. Without that “lift” your biscuits and cakes and cookies would be leaden hockey pucks.
So, why do we have two kinds of leavenings (baking powder and baking soda)? They aren’t interchangeable, so let’s look at the similarities, the differences, and how each is used.
Baking soda is the non-scientific name for sodium bicarbonate. When it is combined with liquid AND acid* it immediately jumps into action and creates bubbles. Immediately is the operative word. Since baking soda is fast-acting, you have a short amount of time to move that dough from the mixing bowl to the baking sheet. Baking soda also helps with browning (what would our golden, flaky biscuits be without it?)
*(when we’re baking that acid could be citrus, vinegar, coffee, molasses, yogurt, sour cream, or buttermilk)
Baking powder is made of baking soda AND a powdered form of acid (usually cream of tartar). So when you use baking powder as a leavening agent (1) you don’t need to add acid and (2) you have more time to fiddle with the dough/batter because that second agent doesn’t react until it becomes wet AND hot. So baking powder gives an immediate lift to your batter, but there’s another, sustained “push” when that batter goes into the oven. This is what you need for lighter cakes, fluffy muffins, or delicate cookies.
You also asked about carbon dioxide. In the food industry, it is most commonly used to put the bubble in carbonated beverages. Carbon dioxide is also used in concert with nitrogen to help preserve packaged food. The two replace some of the oxygen--remember, bacteria are living organisms and need oxygen to survive and thrive.
I hope that satisfies your curiosity. If not, you know where to find me.
Hey, we've been doing this for 44 weeks. I want all of you to know how much I appreciate your questions and comments. If not for you this series would have ended a long time ago.
I'm not ready to quit, and I hope you will continue to join me on this journey. Remember you can leave your questions below in the comments, or send me an email at email@example.com.
See you next Monday!
© 2018 Linda Lum