Ask Chef Rachael - July 2012

Q. What is the congealed white stuff on cooked fish? Does it mean I've overcooked it?
A.
It's called albumin – and many, many people incorrectly conclude it is fat or that it means your fish has been overcooked, neither of which are true. Albumin is actually a water-soluble protein found naturally in animal and vegetable tissue, eggs and milk. Many people notice it most on salmon or other non-white fish. As your fish cooks, the albumin is squeezed out of the contracting (shortening) protein fibers. It's perfectly safe to eat, though some people prefer to blot it off for appearance's sake.

Q. What is "Za'atar"?
A.
Za'atar may refer to a Middle Eastern herb or a spice blend. The herb tastes like a cross between savory, oregano and thyme. The spice blend usually combines that herb with other herbs and spices, varying greatly by region to region. Use it to season salmon, grilled pita or other flatbread, hummus, lamb or other grilled meat, lentils, beans and grains such as couscous and Middle Eastern-inspired soups, salad dressings and sandwich spreads.

Q. What makes a tomato an "heirloom"?
A.
Heirloom refers to a cultivar that was commonly grown in an earlier timeframe that isn't used in large-scale modern agriculture. Most heirloom plants predate WWII, though some heirloom scholars insist a plant must be as old as 100 to be a true heirloom. They are not hybridized or selectively bred and are propagated through open pollination such as by insects, birds or wind. This means the flower is pollinated by pollen from another plant that produces produce with seeds that can reproduce the vegetable or fruit. Not as consistent in size, occasionally even smaller than hybrid or selectively bred plants, heirlooms may also take longer to grow – a key reason many modern farmers choose not to grow them. Renowned in particular for their beauty, heirloom fruits and vegetables are unique, even odd-looking. Tomatoes may be purple, pink, orange, yellow, white, striped or mottled. Heirloom varietals are also widely appreciated for superior texture and taste.

Q. What is the difference between diced and chopped?
A.
Both are uniform, generally squarish pieces of food, but diced food is smaller. Chopped food is typically bite-sized. Both may be finely or coarsely cut, such that finely chopped carrot pieces may approximate diced carrot pieces in size. In recipes where size is particularly important, good recipe writers will also specify a measurement for chopped or diced foods, such as "in 1/4 inch pieces."

Q. Is there a good substitution for allspice? I never seem to have it on hand.
A.
I actually prefer to mix my own blend, combining 1 part finely ground black pepper with 2 parts each cinnamon, ground cloves and ground nutmeg. You can omit the pepper if you like and adjust the cloves and nutmeg down to as much as 1 part, to your own personal taste.

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