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.