- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 11, 2004

“My soup is too thick. What should I do?”

“How do you make your oatmeal creamy?” The answers seem so obvious. For the soup, add water. For the oatmeal, read the box, which directs us to start the oatmeal in cold water.

How could anyone not know? I’ve come across surprising questions while teaching cooking classes and writing columns on kitchen basics for Bon Appetit magazine and the Los Angeles Times. Some were from beginners in the kitchen. Some were from experienced cooks. Many surprised me because I assumed the answers were common knowledge.

When I think back to the time when I was learning to cook, however, I’m reminded that no question is too obvious. On one attempt to follow a neighbor’s recipe for eggplant salad, my eggplant exploded while baking in the oven. I had no idea that it needed to be pricked first so the steam would be released during baking.

Here are some of the queries I receive repeatedly from students and readers. Maybe the answers can help you, too.

“Why is your broccoli bright green, while mine is yellowish and flabby?” asked a young woman at a cooking demonstration as I was garnishing a fish entree with beautiful, crisp-tender broccoli.

Water temperature and timing are the keys. Broccoli stays bright and retains a pleasing, crisp-tender texture if you cook it this way: Plunge the florets and the peeled, sliced stems into enough boiling salted water so that they swim freely and cook uncovered over high heat. Taste the broccoli often, and when you like the texture, drain it. If it sits in water, it will soften and the color will dull. If you’re not serving it right away, rinse it with cold water to set the color. Reheat it briefly by plunging it into boiling water or microwaving it just until hot.

“Why do some recipes call for sauteing rice?” asked Bethany, who helped me set up ingredients for a class I taught recently in Bethesda.

Sauteing the rice first makes for fluffy rice with each grain distinct. This is often called a pilaf. To make one, before adding any liquid, briefly saute the rice in oil to help prevent the grains from sticking together and to give them a toasted flavor. Then add hot broth and cook the rice over very low heat in a covered pan without stirring it.

“My husband and I disagree about cooking pasta,” said Carol, one of my readers. “He puts olive oil in the cooking water but no salt. I do the opposite. Who’s right?”

Carol wins the competition. Some people think oil will prevent pasta from clumping together in the pot, but the solution is to use enough boiling water so that the pieces have plenty of room to cook. (A much better use of the oil is to toss it with the cooked, drained pasta.) For the best flavor, add about 1 tablespoon of salt to 3 to 4 quarts of cooking water; pasta absorbs it better during cooking than afterward.

“I rarely cook dried beans because I can’t seem to find time to soak them. Is there a faster way?” I was asked by my next door neighbor, an avid cook.

Conventional wisdom says that dried beans need soaking overnight before being cooked so that they can expand properly. Most traditional recipes still call for soaking. Yet I learned years ago from the head chef of La Varenne cooking school in France that soaking is unnecessary if the dried beans are relatively fresh. Many packagers now make it easy by specifying a “use by” date. Even with older beans, I usually skip the soaking step, and the beans are fine. If they seem particularly dry, add 30 to 60 minutes to the cooking time. Just simmer until tender but not mushy.

“Why doesn’t my chicken soup have any flavor?” asked a shopper I met at the supermarket.

She was using the right flavorings — onions, carrots, bay leaves, even fresh dill — and still the soup was bland. It turned out that she was making soup from the worst possible chicken choice: boneless, skinless breasts. Bones give depth of flavor to soup. Legs and thighs are preferable to breast because dark meat contributes more flavor. Even the skin adds flavor, and I always leave it on the chicken when making soup. To easily remove the fat, refrigerate the soup so the fat rises and congeals. Then use a spoon to scrape the chilled fat off the surface of the soup.

“I love roast chicken, but it seems to take all day,” said Annie, a student who was eagerly learning to cook. “How can I do it more quickly?”

Annie was picturing her mother’s turkey, which roasted for hours and needed frequent basting. Unlike turkey, roast chicken is one of the easiest entrees to prepare. When roasted at high heat (400 degrees) the French way, a chicken will cook in less than an hour. The meat will remain succulent, and the skin will be brown and slightly crisp. Roasting the bird without a stuffing also shortens the cooking time. Choose a 3- to 31/2-pound fryer. It will cook faster than larger roasting chickens. Because the skin keeps the meat moist, the chicken does not need basting.

“Why doesn’t the meat brown when I make stew?” a friend wanted to know.

There are two secrets to successful browning, which gives meat an attractive hue and contributes flavor to the sauce. First, brown the pieces in batches so they have enough room in the pan. If crowded, they will steam, and the juices will not caramelize to produce the desired brown hue. Second, use high heat. Cooking over a low flame will produce steam. Don’t use nonstick pans, some of which cannot withstand high heat.

“Why do potatoes so often fall apart in stews?” I was asked by a student in my Mediterranean stews class.

The trick lies in choosing the proper potato. Baking potatoes, also called russet or Idaho potatoes, turn mealy during cooking and do not hold their shape well when simmered in liquid. For neat potato slices or cubes in stews or soups, use waxy potatoes such as white or red boiling potatoes or Yukon Golds. Cook the stew over low heat to prevent the spuds from breaking up.

“Why does white sauce always come out lumpy?” wrote a macaroni-and-cheese lover.

White sauce is made of milk thickened with a roux, a cooked mixture of butter and flour. Some think the milk’s temperature matters, but the secret is in the stirring. Use a whisk to gradually stir the milk into the flour mixture to make a smooth sauce, with the pan off the heat. Keep whisking while returning the sauce to a boil, and the white sauce will be silky.

“Why do you leave tomatoes on the counter but refrigerate apples?” my mother asked. She likes to store tomatoes neatly in the refrigerator.

Tomatoes taste best at room temperature. If you chill them while they’re still pale, they will never ripen. I even keep ripe tomatoes at room temperature unless they’re getting too soft. The same is true of pears, peaches, nectarines and plums. Apples also ripen at room temperature, so when I pick very green apples from my trees, I leave them on the counter for a bit. Those sold at the market are usually ripe enough. If left out, they may become mealy. So pop them into the fridge to keep them crisp.

“How can I melt chocolate if I don’t have a double boiler?” asked a reader of my quick-cooking newspaper column.

Set a bowl above a saucepan of hot water over low heat. Let the chocolate melt uncovered. As soon as it has melted, remove the bowl from above the water and stir the chocolate until smooth. Or melt it in the microwave on 50 percent power. Just make sure you stir it frequently (every 30 seconds) because microwave-melted chocolate holds its shape and, thus, can easily be overcooked.

“Egg whites always become dry when I beat them and then won’t fold smoothly into cake batter. How can I prevent this?” asked a Bon Appetit reader.

I was taught by a pastry chef at cooking school that sugar is the key. Whip the whites until they’re not quite stiff. Then beat in the sugar at high speed and continue whipping for about 20 seconds. The whites will be stiff, shiny and smooth. If your recipe directs you to use the sugar at a different stage, reserve one-third of it and beat it into the whites.

“Why do my mashed potatoes come out gluey?” asked a Los Angeles cooking-school student.

This often happens when you use a food processor to mash the potatoes. The action of the blade whirling rapidly through the potatoes brings out their natural gluten, resulting in sticky, gluey potatoes. Mashing the potatoes by hand is best. Also good, though, is pushing them through a ricer or a food mill, which produces light and fluffy mashed potatoes.

An old-fashioned potato masher works well, too. Be sure to mash the potatoes while they’re hot, and for tasty potatoes, pour in hot milk while you mash them. If you’re mashing a large amount and you’d like to use a machine, a mixer is better than a food processor, but add hot liquid while beating to help prevent pasty potatoes.

Perhaps the most amazing question of all came from someone I had imagined was an experienced cook. “I followed the recipe exactly, so why was my cake as hard as a rock?” It turned out that she had cut the sugar by half, substituted applesauce for butter and used a larger baking pan than the one specified.

Following recipes for baking cakes means just that — using the quantities and pans in the directions. So when tinkering with recipes, it’s fine to experiment if you like. But you’d better be ready for surprises.

Golden roast chicken with Middle Eastern spices

My favorite accompaniments for roast chicken are rice pilaf and a Mediterranean salad of diced tomatoes, cucumbers and onions. It’s easy to get the side dishes ready while the chicken roasts in the oven.

1 3- to 31/2-pound chicken, giblets removed

11/2 teaspoons ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 tablespoon vegetable oil or olive oil

Pull out excess fat from inside chicken. Rinse chicken and pat dry. Mix cumin, turmeric, salt, pepper and oil in a small bowl. Rub mixture all over chicken, inside and out. (Wash your hands immediately so the turmeric won’t stain your fingers.) Put chicken on a rack set in a roasting pan.

Roast uncovered in preheated 400-degree oven about 50 minutes or until the juices run clear when you pierce the thickest part of the thigh with a knife or skewer.

If juices are still pink, roast a few more minutes and test again. Transfer chicken to a platter. Let chicken stand for 10 minutes before carving.

Makes 4 servings.

Rice pilaf with raisins and toasted almonds

This enticing rice makes a delicious accompaniment for roast birds or grilled lamb.

2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, vegetable oil or butter

1 onion, minced

11/2 cups long-grain white rice

3 cups hot chicken, beef or vegetable broth or water

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1/2 cup golden, dark or mixture of raisins

1/3 to 1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted (see note)

Heat oil or butter in a large saucepan. Add onion and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes or until soft but not brown. Add rice and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes or until the grains turn milky white.

Add broth or water and a pinch of pepper. If using unsalted broth or water, add 1 teaspoon salt; if broth is salted, add just a pinch. Bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat, without stirring, for 10 minutes. Add raisins without stirring.

Cover and cook for 8 minutes or until rice is just tender and liquid is absorbed. Let stand off heat, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes.

Fluff rice gently with a fork. Taste and adjust seasoning. Mound on a platter, garnish with almonds and serve hot. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Note: To toast slivered almonds, place on baking sheet and bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 4 to 5 minutes or until they brown lightly, shaking baking sheet once or twice to redistribute them. Transfer to a plate to cool.

Classic chocolate mousse with Grand Marnier

Grand Marnier and rum are the most popular flavorings in France, but chefs also like to add cognac, coffee liqueur or raspberry brandy to this mousse. You can keep the mousse, covered, for 2 days in the refrigerator. If you like, garnish each serving with a spoonful of softly whipped cream and a perhaps a coffee bean.

7 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped

3 tablespoons Grand Marnier

1 tablespoon water

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, room temperature

4 large eggs, separated

1 or 2 tablespoons sugar

Whipped cream and a coffee bean, optional

Combine chocolate, Grand Marnier and water in a bowl. Set the bowl atop a saucepan of hot water over low heat. Leave until chocolate melts. Remove bowl from above pan of water. Stir until smooth. Stir in butter. Add egg yolks, one by one, stirring vigorously after each addition.

Using a mixer, whip egg whites until they hold soft peaks. Beat in sugar to taste.

Continue beating at high speed about 20 seconds or until whites are stiff and shiny.

With a rubber spatula, quickly fold and stir one quarter of the whites into chocolate mixture. Gently fold in remaining whites.

Pour into 4 dessert dishes, ramekins or stemmed glasses. Cover and chill at least 2 hours or until set. Garnish each with whipped cream or a coffee bean, if desired.

Makes 4 servings.

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