Ask Chef Rachael - December 2011

Q. How do I pick good balsamic vinegar?
A.
Wow. Big question! As I have said of selecting wine and olive oil, it depends. And as with wine and olive oil, your choice for great vinegar might not be the same as everyone else’s. You have to trust your palate. I think you should like the taste of it straight out of the bottle. If you can’t stand the taste of it on a spoon, you aren’t going to like it any more in your recipes. For this reason, the least expdeensive ones probably won’t cut it. That being said, I suggest trying several in your price range to find one that’s right for you. There is no need to buy the most expensive brand, but if you are using it as a finishing drizzle, you might prefer the thicker, longer-aged balsamic vinegars, and they are usually the more expensive ones.

Q. What is the difference between soy sauce and tamari?
A.
Both are made from brewing soybeans with salt (usually sea salt) and water, but soy sauce also contains wheat. Both have a salty flavor profile (and the same amount of sodium), but because it is brewed from 100% soybeans, tamari tends to be smoother, richer, softer and generally more well-balanced than regular soy sauce. Because it doesn’t contain wheat, true tamari is often chosen by people with digestive issues such as gluten intolerance, but it’s a flavorful choice for everyone.

Q. I need to bring a simple appetizer to a holiday potluck. Any ideas?
A. Speaking as a hostess, I can tell you that I prefer when people bring things that don’t require extra cooking or assembly in my kitchen. I also appreciate it when people ask what else is on the menu, or better yet, ask for a specific recipe. If you feel comfortable asking, I’d suggest that. Unless it is a recipe you were assigned, I wouldn’t suggest making anything you haven’t made before. There are plenty of appetizers that are great at room temperature, and those are usually greatly appreciated by a hostess as she won’t have to worry about keeping anything hot or cold. Lastly, keep it simple. It doesn’t have to be overly fancy as long as it tastes good. You can add a little flair with garnish(es) to dress almost anything up. Here's a simple recipe for Deconstructed Tuscan-Style Melon and Prociutto with just four ingredients. It’s one of my favorites. Choose the best quality prosciutto and Acacia honey (available in the Imported Cheese Department) you can afford and find.

Q. A lot of recipes call for toasted nuts. Do I do this myself, or do I buy them toasted?
A. You’ve probably seen roasted peanuts and almonds in the store, but these are sold this way primarily because they’re “snacking” nuts. You can make toasted nuts at home either in a dry sauté pan set over a low heat, or in the oven on a sheet pan at 300˚ or so. I recommend stovetop toasting, because it’s easier to keep your eye on them (and harder to forget about them!). Some nuts burn in a flash, and there is nothing worse than ruining such an expensive ingredient. Also, they’re easier to smell on the stovetop, and a nutty aroma is a good indicator that your nuts are ready. If you listen closely, some oilier nuts will even start to sizzle and sing (very, very quietly) when they’re nearly done. While a faint golden color is easy to detect on some nuts, it’s harder to see on others, so let your nose be your guide. Shake or stir your nuts frequently to ensure they toast evenly.

Q. Can I substitute whole wheat flour for all purpose flour in my baking recipes?
A. You can, but it works better in some recipes than others. Where you are looking for chew (in things like slicing breads, pizza crusts and some cookies) the extra protein in whole wheat can be a good thing. In lighter, airier recipes where a very soft and tender, open crumb is desired (as in cake, quickbreads and muffins), whole wheat protein can make them tougher and less fluffy. In general, I suggest using whole wheat to replace some all purpose flour, not all of it. In recipes where tenderness is critical – such as in cakes – I recommend you use cake flour in place of part of the all purpose flour and whole wheat in place of the other part, because cake flour has even less protein than all purpose, which will help to even things out. Recipes written specifically for whole wheat are a better bet, and you can find loads of them on the Internet. You can find great baking recipes and tips for using all kinds of whole grains in Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day, by Jeff Hertzberg, M.D. & Zoe Francois, and at their website at www.artisanbreadinfive.com.

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