By Cathy Durkin Mestek
I don’t think it’s my imagination that we’ve lost some ground. There’s no time like the present to work together to do better.
When my late husband, Steve, and I decided to have children, we opted for adoption and brought Jimmy, Cassi and Timmy into our family as infants from Korea during a span from 1984 to 1991.
Every few days or so, I get an email or a phone call from someone who needs help with cooking.
Often, all that’s required is a bit of information. In other cases, I’ll confirm that they’re on the right track.
I enjoy these calls and letters because it helps keep me in touch with what real cooks in the kitchen are doing.
Here is a recap of some of the more interesting questions I’ve been asked lately.
The biggest thing people seem to be asking about is the difference between organic, sustainably raised and locally sourced.
Among the things affecting the price of food is the price of fuel, especially for transporting the food from the farm where it is grown to our table. The higher the cost of gas, the more transportation costs go up, and that adds to the price of food. A study by Worldwatch Institute found that food travels, on average, more than 1,500 miles before we put it on our tables.
Locally sourced food is one of the key food service trends according to the National Restaurant Association. Of chefs surveyed, 44 percent said this was the food trend that grew the most in the last decade.
There is no legal definition of locally sourced, so you need to ask how far it travels. For example, farmers markets are a good place to find locally grown food, but ask. Is 300 miles or 10 miles local to you? The local food movement is one in which the goal is to develop the local economy and to create a more self-reliant and resilient food network.
Sustainable vs. organic
Organic farms require certification approved by the USDA. However, organic food can be grown on a large scale and may be shipped miles away.
Produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Farms using sustainable practices do not require certification — it’s more a philosophy or way of life. Less (or smaller)almost always is more sustainable. Sustainable agriculture strives to cause no damage to the environment or threaten human health with any of their farming practices, therefore growers try to keep their selling local.
Cooking with fats
Question:I use virgin olive oil for cooking because I have been told that it is stable and does not transform into saturated fat when subjected to high temperatures. Is this true?
Answer: Yes, this is true. All olive oil, not just extra virgin, is more stable than many other oils. When polyunsaturated oils are heated to high temperatures, changes (such as oxidation) can occur, making the fat more harmful.
Butter, however, adds a unique flavor and texture to foods that you may not want to give up. Try replacing half of the butter with olive oil and you effectively will raise the burning temperature as well. This works well for sauteing vegetables.
Saturated fats are most responsible for high cholesterol and are found mostly in foods that come from animals, such as beef or poultry fat, butter, cream and cheeses made from whole and 2 percent milk. Some plant fats also are high in saturated fat. These include coconut, palm and cocoa butter.
Polyunsaturated fats are better and are found in fish, nuts, seeds and such oils as soybean, corn, safflower, canola, olive and sunflower.
Cooking with wine
Question:I’ve found a lot of recipes that call for wine. I don’t want to use alcohol; is there a substitution?
Answer: Yes, there are substitutions you can use, depending on what the alcohol is intended to do in the recipe. For example, in meat dishes, the wine usually is adding flavor and an acid — the acid helps break down the meat tissues and could be replaced with vinegar or lemon juice.
When cooking with alcohol, you need to cook the sauce for at least 20 to 30 seconds to allow the alcohol to evaporate. Because alcohol evaporates at 172 F, any sauce or stew that is simmering or boiling is hot enough to burn the alcohol off.
I’ve noticed that some cooks have decided they don’t want to cook with wine because it tastes funny. The first rule of thumb here is never use any wine you wouldn’t want to drink, and do not use “cooking wine or cooking sherry,” because these typically are salty and have other additives.
What type of cream?
Question: What do they mean when they call for heavy cream?
Answer: Typically, heavy cream refers to whipping cream, although there is a difference in that heavy cream will have a higher butterfat content, which allows it to be whipped up nicely.
Whipping cream is just fine for toppings on pie and dessert. If the cream has to be whipped, you definitely need to use one or the other. Heavy cream is often used in sauces, such as alfredo.
You can reduce the calories by using half-and-half instead. This also is referred to as “light” cream. You will need to add gelatin to give it some body.
Whipping cream comes in pint-size containers in a liquid form and says “whipping cream.”
What is creme fraiche?
More and more, I see recipes that call for creme fraiche (pronounced krem fresh).
This is a matured, thickened cream that has a slightly tangy, nutty flavor and velvety, rich texture. The thickness can range from that of commercial sour cream to almost as solid as room temperature margarine.
In France, the cream is unpasteurized and therefore contains the bacteria necessary to thicken it naturally. In our country, where all commercial cream is pasteurized, the fermenting agents necessary can be obtained by adding buttermilk or sour cream.
It is used as a dessert topping and for thickening cooked sauces and soups; it has the added advantage of not curdling when boiled.
Make your own creme fraiche by whipping together one cup whipping cream and two tablespoons buttermilk. Set aside at room temperature for 24 hours or until very thick. Stir once or twice during that time. Cream will thicken faster if the room is on the warm side.
Stir thickened creme fraiche well. Refrigerate at least six hours before serving. Cover tightly and store in refrigerator for up to two weeks.
This just in blog, by Dan Plutchak, editor
As the presidential candidates crisscrossed Wisconsin this past week ahead of Tuesday’s presidential primary, they’ve pitched all the things they would do as president.
But, as you head to the polls to vote, remember any president can do very little without the cooperation of Congress.
It’s the role of the House and Senate to pass legislation. The president’s only duty is to either approve the law with his or her signature, or reject it by veto.
When Donald Trump says he’ll force Mexico to pay for a wall between our two counties, or when Ted Cruz says he’ll step up policing in Muslim neighborhoods, it’s unclear what sort of legislation Congress could consider, making those campaign promises little more than talking points.
No matter who you vote for Tuesday, their proposals won’t go very far unless voters also pick a majority in the House of Representatives and at least 60 agreeable senators.
Lykeminded blog, by Jim Lyke
Don’t mess with Bessie.
That message comes through loud and clear from certain locals whenever Janesville’s iconic cow gets adorned with anything from high heels to pink spots to Mexican headwear.
So I imagine a segment of the population is none too pleased about the recent announcement that Bessie is transitioning from a Guernsey to a Holstein.
Apparently cows, unlike leopards, can change their spots.
It was Dr. Seuss’ birthday last week, March 2, so I got out his books, all of them favorites of mine, to read again.
Who knew I was being politicized when I relied on others to read me books long before I could read on my own? His words go much deeper than they appear at first glance.
His books make great beginning readers. True to the fairy tale form, they offer simple morality tales for kids. But some of his stories touch on complex social and political themes.
For example, “The Lorax” touches on environmental conservationism and activism.
Seuss wrote “Yertle the Turtle” in reaction to Hitler’s rise to power.
“The Sneetches” talks about racism and discrimination.
“The Butter Battle Book” covers the arms race.
“Horton Hears a Who” is about isolationism.
Lots of serious stuff.
Seuss writes, “If you never did, you should. These things are fun, and fun is good.”
Now that’s some good advice for the days when you’re taking everything much too seriously. That’s from “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish.”
This story is encouraging people to be observant and imaginative. At the book’s start, we are asked to notice opposites: old and new, bad and glad, thin and fat, fast and slow, high and low. Comparison is an easy way to notice differences and uniqueness.
So, what does this have to do with a cooking column? Well, I was going to write about “Green Eggs and Ham” and give you a recipe for Florentine eggs, my version of green eggs, but “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish” caught my eye because there are a lot of fish in the supermarkets right now. This is due to the Lenten season, when some Catholics eat fish or seafood in lieu of meat.
We can take Seuss’ encouragement to be observant to heart as we shop for fish. Start with the eyes — they should be clear and bright, not clouded or murky. A whole fish should look shiny,not slimy. Fresh fish flesh is firm and bounces back when you press into it.
And as counterintuitive as it may be, fresh fish should not smell fishy. It should smell like the ocean. A fishy smell means that fats inside the fish have begun to oxidize, a sign of decay and age.
Some people are intimidated by fish and then they make mistakes. But if you remember to get the pan searing hot before you add the fish, you’re halfway to success.
If you are frying your fish, the oil should be 375 F.
Don’t overcook fish. It’s done when there’s just that little bit of translucency left in the middle. Measure the thickest part of the fish and cook 10 minutes per inch.
If you use a marinade, go easy on the salt and don’t let fish marinate too long as it will make the fish soggy.
Blackened red snapper
— Recipe by Mario Batali of The Chew
4 fillets (6 to 8 oz.) red snapper fillets
Unsalted butter (to sauté)
1 lemon (halved)
Cajun seasoning mix:
1 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tsp. ground black pepper
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. kosher salt
For the Cajun seasoning mix, thoroughly mix together all ingredients.
Season the snapper generously with the Cajun seasoning mix and gently pat into the fish to stick.
Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and add equal parts oil and butter. Once it has foamed and subsided, add snapper fillets (as many as fit comfortably,) skin side down, and cook until nearly opaque all the way through. Flip and cook another minute, then transfer to a platter. Wipe skillet clean and repeat with remaining fish.
Serve with lemon.