Tips & Tricks

How To Tell When Meat Is Done

A few weeks ago, I read Tara Austen Weaver‘s book The Butcher and the Vegetarian, a memoir in which she writes about being brought up as a vegetarian and the challenges she faced as an adult, when she had to start cooking meat for herself to try to recover from a serious health issue.

The Butcher and the VegetarianIt’s a very good read, witty and honest, and even for readers like me, who don’t share her dietary background or meat-handling angst, there are a lot of elements to relate to in her story. I especially enjoyed the sections where she addresses the political and ethical sides of the meat question in a remarkably level and dispassionate way.

A number of things she wrote stayed with me after I’d turned the last page, but there is one short passage in particular, early on in the book (p.31), in which her brother gives a technique for testing the doneness of red meat. It’s a small thing, but I liked the tip so much I thought I would, in turn, share it with you:

Continue reading »

45 Things To Do With Fresh Sage

I recently remarked to a sympathetic friend how difficult it is to buy fresh sage around here. Sage isn’t used intensively in French cuisine, so it’s not part of the classic range of fresh herbs sold at produce shops or at the green market. But I enjoy its flavor very much, so I decided I would try and find seeds to grow my own.

Only days later, I walked past the sidewalk display of Etablissements Lion on my way home, and noticed that they sold potted sage plants that looked exceptionally healthy. I couldn’t resist; I chose the most beautiful one and adopted it.

It now rooms with our blooming strawberry plants on the bathroom window sill, but it is so bushy I thought I’d better start thinking of ideas to put it to good use. And I did what any modern person would do: I turned to twitter and asked, “What do you like to do with sage?”

The response was multicolored and inspired, and I thought it would be a pity not to share it with you. Surely there are other owners of expansive sage plants who would benefit. So here’s a compilation of the suggestions I collected — my sincere thanks go to the twitterers who kindly contributed their ideas.

Continue reading »

Chocolate Tasting: How To Taste Chocolate

Mast Brothers Chocolate

Last week I had the good fortune of visiting Tain-l’Hermitage, a town in the southeastern quarter of France, near Valence. It is right in the middle of the Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage wine country, in a gorgeous area that’s full of peach, cherry and apricot orchards. But me, I was there for the chocolate: Tain is also home to the Valrhona chocolate factory, and I’d been invited to take a tour.

We spent the day in paper hats, paper coats, and paper shoes (v. becoming), going in and out of large halls housing huge machinery, fat bags of cacao beans and ripples of chocolate, breathing in the intoxicating scents cacao emits as it is submitted to the many torments (cleaned, roasted, husked, crushed, ground, conched, molded, cooled, wrapped) that will turn it from bitter bean to the voluptuous antidepressant we know and love.

And the only thing I love more than chocolate is understanding how stuff works, so this was very much my idea of a happy Tuesday — despite the fact I’d had to get up at 4:45am to take the train, but I am nothing if not committed.

At the end of this full and instructive day, we were treated to a session with Vanessa Lemoine, the in-house expert in sensory analysis, a discipline in which the five human senses are used to describe and analyze products.

Among her responsibilities at Valrhona, she is in charge of training the chocolate tasters who assess the ten-kilo samples that are sent ahead of any cacao shipment. The beans from each origin are expected to conform to a particular flavor profile, according to the particularities of the cacao variety, the region’s terroir, and the production method that Valrhona and the growers have agreed upon. Any crop that differs significantly from that profile won’t be accepted for purchase. This is to ensure that the quality and personality of the single-origin chocolates as well as the blends remain steady, so that the chocolatiers and pastry chefs who have built their own recipes on a particular chocolate can in turn offer consistency to their customers.

The thing is, you can’t judge a crop by its bean: at this stage, the aromatic components are dormant, and its full potential will only be revealed after the beans are processed and turned into actual chocolate. So the sample beans go through a mini production line, and emerges as chocolate the tasters will grade along thirty different descriptors. A tough job, I’m sure — and I’m not being ironic.

It takes many training sessions to reach the finesse of palate that’s required of these tasters, but Vanessa Lemoine gave us a short primer on how to taste chocolate, and I thought it so interesting I wanted to share it here. The process is in some ways similar to wine tasting, so if you’re a honed wine taster, you’re that far ahead.

Continue reading »

Converting Yeast-Based Recipes To Use A Sourdough Starter

Once you have a natural starter alive and kicking on your counter, stealing the occasional banana from the fruit bowl, it’s hard to go back to baking bread with commercial yeast.

Not only would that feel like a bit of a betrayal (though you can always blindfold the jar of starter or work under the cover of night) but every loaf is an opportunity to strengthen your starter as well as your skills. And frankly, you’ve gotten used to the vivid flavor and lasting freshness of sourdough-powered bread, so you’re a bit spoiled.

Most breads leavened with commercial yeast can be leavened with a natural starter. It is just a matter of converting the recipe; all you need is a calculator and a play-it-by-ear disposition.

That’s not to say you want to limit yourself to those recipes written with a starter in mind: even though baking with a natural starter has the ancestral high ground and is regaining considerable popularity of late, it is still practiced by a minority of home bakers, and most of the bread recipes out there call for commercial yeast.

But of course, most breads (see caveats below) leavened with commercial yeast can be leavened with a natural starter. It is just a matter of converting the recipe; all you need is a calculator and a play-it-by-ear disposition.

So, how do you go about it? There is no single method* but I have had good success with mine, so I wanted to share it with you below. If you want to chime in with your own method and experience, I’ll be most interested to hear them.

Continue reading »

On Fresh Peas, and How to Shell Them

Petits Pois

I did not grow up eating peas. My mother didn’t like them so they never appeared on the family table, and the revolting stuff we were served at school didn’t do much to dispell the notion that peas were, well, beurk (that’s French for yuck).

Fast-forward a decade or two and what do you know, I find out that petits pois, freshly shelled and cooked with grace, are in fact a delicacy, to be savored in proportion to the manual labor they require.

The first time I bought fresh peas at the greenmarket and sat down to shell them, it took me a while to find my groove. You see, I had years of green-bean-trimming experience, but none with these animals.

My initial technique was to pry them open through sheer force, but I was dissatisfied with the results. It was awkward and messy and left green gunk under my thumbnails; it could not have been the Mary Frances way*.

I fiddled with each pod, experimenting with different approaches as if trying to unlock one of those mechanical puzzles my friend Derrick loves so. Eventually I discovered that if I tore the stem end and pulled the string down along the pod, it acted like a pull tab to open envelope. The pod surrendered, and I was able to open it easily and free the peas with a run of the thumb.

Continue reading »

Get the newsletter

Receive a free monthly email with a digest of recent entries, plus exclusive inspiration and special announcements. You can also choose to be notified of every new post.