Tips & Tricks

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.

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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.

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On Greens, and How to Keep Them Fresh

Fresh Herbs

I’ve come across many versions of this tip over the years. Keeping one’s greens fresh and happy seems to be the culinary equivalent of keeping one’s skin young: it’s a losing battle, but everyone hopes to find the magic technique.

Wash, don’t wash (we’re talking about greens again now; we’ll address personal hygiene another time), wrap in plastic, cloth, or a paper bag, keep on the counter or refrigerate, and even this one: put the herbs upright in a glass of water and place on a shelf or in the door of your fridge. (That gave my French-sized refrigerator a good laugh.)

I’ve experimented with those ideas to varying degrees of success — mostly on the lower end of the scale — and after throwing out enough wilted herbs to start a compost heap, I’ve finally found the M.O. that works for me, so I thought I’d share.

When I get back from the greenmarket on Saturday mornings, I put my purchases away, sit down for a cup of coffee, then get to work.

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Cheese Course

Cheese Platter

I have a new piece appearing today on NPR’s weekly Kitchen Window column: this one is all about putting together a cheese platter, how to serve it and what to enjoy it with.

And on the picture above, you will recognize — from left to right — an ash-coated goat cheese from the Deux-Sèvres, a Pont-l’Evêque from Normandy, and a Perail des Cabasses, a sheep’s milk cheese from Aveyron.

(Previous contributions to Kitchen Window:
- Fresh Herb Muffins
- Cherry Soup with Hazelnut Rosemary Tuiles
- Artichoke and Goat Cheese Mille-feuille,
- Asparagus Confit with Almonds and Rosemary,
- Chocolate and Candied Ginger Tartlets.)

How to Open Scallop Shells

Coquilles St-Jacques

Perk-to-being-friends-with-a-chef #326 : he will teach you how to open scallops!

This in turn allows you to jump the line at the fish stall, because the people in front of you need to have their scallops opened and cleaned (ha!), but you ask politely if you can just buy yours and go. And you know it’s just a figment of your imagination, but you like to think that they, as the fish guy, look at you in awe and think “wow, this girl opens her own scallops!”.

And here’s how you do it: hold the scallop shell horizontally in your left hand, flat side up, round edge facing you. Insert the end of a round-tipped knife in the opening to the right of the shell, and work the knife towards you, rotating it on itself to open the two halves just enough for you to slip the meaty tip of your left thumb in the gap, and maintain it open.

This is when you start to feel how very much alive the scallop is, as it struggles with all its might to keep that trapdoor shut. Thankfully you are the mightiest of the two, this is what we call an ecosystem.

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