KY Ingredients: Oregano

Oregano, sometimes known as wild marjoram, is an abundant herb in southern Italian cooking; less so in the north of the country. Its popularization in North America is attributed to soldiers returning from Italy following World War II. It was often referred to as “Pizza Spice”, a dish where they likely encountered it the most often.

Unlike most herbs, oregano is a bit of an oddball in that its taste is stronger and more vibrant when it’s dried than when it’s fresh. Fresh oregano, grown in the Mediterranean basin, can have a mild numbing sensation on the tongue. The cultivars grown elsewhere usually do not have this property.

Dried oregano should be added to dishes at the beginning of the cooking time to ensure it has time to infuse into the other ingredients. Fresh oregano is added near the end of the cooking process to help preserve more of its flavour.

Oregano, part of the mint family, adds a warm and just ever so slightly bitter note to foods. It’s prized for its robust pungency. It’s often paired with tomato in sauces and soups to give some dimensionality to those dishes.

Oregano is a common herb in the cuisine of the Western Mediterranean where it grows wild. It’s used in Turkey to flavour meats, often lamb. In Greece, it provides a bit of zip to the Greek Salad. It’s used on pizza and other southern Italian tomato-based dishes. It’s used in Mexican taco seasoning. It’s safe to say that it’s one of the basic go-to spices in any kitchen… which means it’s easy to run out of it and usually at the worst time.

Substitutes for oregano — Other members of the mint family can often step in for oregano. Thyme is one but the closer choice is marjoram. Marjoram isn’t as heat-stable as oregano so add it at the end of your cooking. If you happen to have fresh oregano at hand, 1 teaspoon (tsp) of dried oregano is the equivalent of 1 Tablespoon (Tbsp) of fresh.

Fresh oregano

How to press tofu

There’s a basic all-purpose tofu marinade at the bottom of this page.

Remove the tofu from its packaging and drain any remaining liquid from it.

Fold a kitchen towel to make a medium sized rectangle. Line with a folded paper towel. Set the tofu on the top third of the towel . Wrap the top of the tofu block with the kitchen towel by folding the bottom 2/3s up and over the tofu block.

Set a small cutting board on top of the tofu. Weight it down with something heavy, like a 28-ounce can of tomatoes or a cast iron frying pan. Allow the tofu block to press for 15 to 30 minutes.

Remove the weight and drain off the excess liquid. Pat the tofu dry with more towels. Slice the pressed tofu into cubes, thick rectangles, or sticks, according to how you plan to use it.

The tofu will now be able to accept a marinade or is ready for a starch coating.

A good all-purpose tofu marinade

Course: Kitchen basics

Yield: 4

Ingredients

  • 1 pkg Extra Firm Tofu – drained and pressed
  • 3 Tbsp Rice vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp Maple syrup
  • 3 Tbsp Tomato paste
  • 2 Tbsp Soy sauce or Tamari
  • 1.5 Tbsp garlic/ginger paste or 2 cloves garlic, 1 Tbsp minced ginger.

Directions

  1. Cut the drained and pressed tofu into the shape you want.
  2. Mix all remaining ingredients in a bowl. Add tofu and mix gently. Cover and refrigerate for 2 to 24 hours. Food safety: uncooked tofu must be refrigerated.
  3. Cook as called for in your recipe. If grilling, use the leftover marinade to brush onto the tofu burgers, kebabs, etc.

Why I like tofu …

Tofu is one of those foods that for those who like it, like it a lot and for those who don’t, they loathe it. I’ll confess to be in the tofu lover category. I certainly haven’t explored all the culinary ways that tofu is used but what impresses me so far is its sheer versatility.

Photo credit: Wikipedia CC

I think of tofu as the cheese of the plant world. It’s made in a similar fashion. Soy beans are crushed and ground, mixed with water until they make soy milk. This milk is coagulated with some different ingredients — usually calcium chloride, magnesium chloride, calcium sulfate (gypsum), or some combination thereof. The coagulants cause the soy milk to separate into thick curds which are then pressed to extract the excess liquid. The amount of liquid extracted will determine whether the resulting bean curd, another name for tofu, is soft, firm or extra-firm.

While the basic process of making tofu is simple — prepare the soy milk, coagulate the soy milk to form curds and press the curds to form the bean cakes — there are plenty of places in that process where the curd makers can influence the taste and texture of the final product. This process only refers to the standard tofu bean cake. Soft or silken tofus have an entirely different process. North American consumers tend to prize tofu for its neutral, almost bland, taste. They want a blank canvas. In many Asian regions, consumers prefer a more “bean-y” taste.

If you live near a producer (or make your own), tofu is sold from large buckets filled with water to keep it fresh. Tofu is a perishable item, so you will find it in the refrigerated area of your store. Most of us buy it from a grocery store, sealed in plastic to keep in a considerable amount of water. This trapped water vexes the would-be cook. Tofu’s like a sponge but until that water trapped in the interior is removed, no flavour agents in a marinade can permeate the curd. Removing the water is easily done by pressing (instructions in another blog) and then the tofu block can absorb the marinade. No more bland.

Tofu blocks will keep for a very long time in your freezer. In fact, I often throw my tofu into the freezer straight away when it comes home. Freezing helps expel water from the block and produces a chewier, more “meat-y” textured product.

Tofu can be ground and subbed into other dishes for ground meat. Tonight I’m experimenting with a tofu based taco filling. I’ll let you know how that works out. I’ve grated it and used it in place of eggs in an “egg” salad sandwich filling. I like it fried and crispy as a stand alone dish or as part of a stir fry. I like it in stews or soups. I love it marinaded and baked as a salad topping. For my money, it’s one of the most versatile proteins that I have access to in my kitchen. And speaking of money, it’s one of the most affordable protein sources I can use. Even buying the least expensive varieties of ground beef will cost me around $3.00 for a meal for my family of three adults. A block of tofu which feeds the same three runs about $2.50 in my local market. Fifty cents might not sound like a lot, but it is a 16% reduction in my food bill on that one ingredient swap.


Green onions: storage trick

It seems to me that I’m buying these with my grocery order on an almost weekly basis. i used them for garnish on a pot of steamed rice, or as an ingredient to an Asian inspired dish. I love the little spark of colour they add to a dish along with the subtle flavour addition. The week following, I’m throwing them away because they’ve become limp or worse. I’ve tried several methods for extending their life but nothing seemed to do the trick.

Game changer: I have no idea where I read it because I’d love to give credit where credit’s due. Next time you purchase green (spring) onions, chop them all up right away. Put them into an empty water bottle and store in the freezer.

The next time you want some sliced green onion for the top of a dish, just shake them from frozen out of the bottle. They take no time to defrost, there’s no unnecessary food waste and it’s about as convenient as it gets. And, to my surprise, the onions did not freeze into one massive clump that got stuck in the bottle. A couple of vigourous shakes on my part ensured that they poured freely from the bottle.

Thanks for reading. Keep cooking and we’ll talk later.


KY Ingredients: Eggs Part 1.

Ahhhh, the ever versatile, yet humble egg. Although I know there are many people who voluntarily don’t use eggs in their cooking, I’ll confess that’s never been a position I could defend. Eggs are a nutritious, cheap source of protein and one of the few foods that naturally contain Vitamin D, as well as other fat-soluble vitamins such as A, E and K. Eggs are also used as a binding agent, an emulsifier, a thickening agent, and for leavening. In my mind, they are an indispensable part of cooking chemistry.

Shell colour

Let’s get this one out of the way right off the bat. Brown eggs are no more or less nutritious than white shelled eggs. The colour of the shell depends on the type of chicken that laid it. Some chicken breeds, like those who have red ear lobes, are white egg layers. Others, like those with dark earlobes, produce brown shelled eggs. Inside, it’s the same stuff, except…

The colour of the yolk depends on the hen’s diet. Very bright, bold egg yolks indicate a diet that was full of greens.

Leavening agent

The egg white is fat free and is about 90 percent water and 10 percent protein When an egg white is whipped, a process technically known as aeration, air is forced into the liquid, creating a foam. Egg whites, properly whipped, will yield about eight times their original volume.This foam traps air bubbles, resulting in a froth that increases height and provides a rising action in a lot of baking. As the foam is baked, the air expands, lifting and providing a lightness to the texture. As the protein continues to heat and congeals, the air is trapped and the shape is retained. This is what gives a souffle or the meringue on a lemon pie its lift and height.

To maximize the volume of your beaten egg whites, you must first ensure that the bowl and beaters/whisk are absolutely grease and oil free. Even a little bit of yolk in the egg whites will cause a problem. That’s why when you’re separating eggs, to do each egg one at a time over a separate bowl and pour the newly separated white into the work bowl. That way, if a yolk breaks and messes up one white, you haven’t lost the entire bowl you had cracked for that angel food cake.

Also egg whites whip up best when they are at room temperature. Eggs separate best when they’re cold. So if you can, leave yourself enough time to separate the eggs and still let the egg whites come to room temperature.

Emulsifier

Every one knows that oil and water don’t mix — that is, until you add an egg yolk. The yolk contains lecithin, a fat that can be used to emulsify these two strangers into a smooth mixture. Egg yolk is what keeps mayonnaise or Hollandaise sauce stable.

Binding agent

An egg is often used in recipes to take advantage of its binding ability. In hamburgers, meatballs or meatloaf, the egg proteins tighten up during the cooking process and help keep everything together. Generally speaking, one large egg per pound of meat is the ratio used.

Egg is also used to keep breading adhered to the underlying food. The basic process for breading anything is to roll the food in plain flour, then dip it into an beaten egg mixture, followed by rolling it into the bread crumb coating. If you can, setting the food aside on a wire rack for 10-15 minutes to let the coating dry really helps keep things where you wanted it.

Thickening agent

An egg’s ability to hold 4 times its weight in water makes it a good thickening agent in sauces, puddings and custards. Make sure you cook the mixture gently. Since the yolk and the white gel at different temperatures, you need to stir frequently and softly so the egg incorporates into the entire dish, rather than ending up with scrambled eggs in your custard.

Additionally, you don’t want to add eggs directly to a hot dish. Pour a bit of your hot liquid into the lightly beaten eggs and mix vigourously to warm the eggs up. This is called tempering. If cold eggs hit the hot liquid, they will solidify too quickly, leaving you with a stringy mess that no amount of beating will smooth out again. .

Storage

In many European locales, and I’m sure other places in the world, eggs are stored at room temperature. They are kept in baskets and they do perfectly well. This would be my preference but, alas, I do not live in an egg-sensible market.

In North America, freshly laid eggs are washed at the hatchery, removing the protective, anti-bacterial coating that Mother Nature provided. In addition to this, eggs are stored under refrigerated conditions before they get to the grocery store. Once refrigerated, eggs need to stay refrigerated for food safety reasons.

Where in the fridge should they be stored? Definitely, not on the door although many fridge manufacturers have an egg shelf on the fridge door. This is the warmest part of the fridge and has the most temperature fluctuations. Generally speaking, eggs should be refrigerated in their carton. Egg shells are porous and can absorb strong smells into the egg, giving them an “off” flavour. That said, I store mine in a large glass vase because I have a very small fridge and need the room.

If you need room temperature eggs, something often called for in baking, you can quickly warm them up by setting them in a bowl of warm (not hot) water for a few minutes.

Get cracking

The best way to crack the egg shell is to smack it on the counter or another flat surface. Cracking it on the side of a bowl or fry pan increases the chances of having egg shell drop into the dish. The force from the thinner edge of the bowl pushes the shell towards the centre of the egg, meaning it’s now in your cake batter.

So what to do when in spite of your best efforts, there’s now a little bit of egg shell sitting in your bowl? The two best methods for removing is to wet you finger and just fish the sucker out. The second method (and probably the most efficient) is to use the larger egg shell to fish it out. The sharp edge of the egg shell will cut through the viscosity of the egg white and help you fetch it.

And don’t forget your eggshells are compostable. They will break down nicely in your regular garden compost. Finely ground egg shells can replace pumice stone supplementation if vermiculture (worm) composting is your thing. You can even add the finely ground shells as a top dressing to your house plants for that extra boost of calcium plants need when they’re growing. (Calcium is used in cell wall structure).

And finally…

Yes, you can unboil an egg. The white of a boiled egg becomes solid because the proteins get tangled up during the cooking process. Scientists have discovered the way to make it liquid again Why on earth would anyone want to. Well, SCIENCE… On a more serious note, the technology is being pursued because it gives them an insight on how to untangle other proteins, something that might be useful in the medicine of the future.

And that’s it for today. Thanks for reading. Keep cooking and we’ll talk later. More on eggs coming in future columns because I don’t think we’ve fully “egg-splored” this versatile kitchen ingredient.


KY Ingredients: Allspice

Jamaican pimento, myrtle peppers, Jamaican peppers — it’s all allspice.

For years, I thought Allspice was just another spice blend — like poultry seasoning or pumpkin spice. Apparently, I’m not alone. The common name for this spice — All Spice — has been used by English cooks since the 1600s. Obviously, it reminded someone of a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. In fact, if you don’t have allspice in your spice cupboard and a recipe calls for it, you can use 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves, and a pinch of ground nutmeg in its place.

In reality, it’s it’s own thing. Allspice comes from the small, dried unripened berries of the Pimenta dioica tree, a species native to the Caribbean. It figures prominently in Caribbean cooking where it’s a key component of Jamaican jerk spice.

In the British Isles, it’s usually reserved for the dessert cart dishes. We typically reserve sweet spices for cookies and cakes. Elsewhere in the world, it’s used in savory dishes. In Middle Eastern cuisine, it flavours meat dishes. German sausage makers use it in their wares. And in Poland, it’s found in everything from pickles to deli meats.

Where do you use allspice? Let us know in the comments.

Thanks for reading. Keeping cooking and we’ll talk later.

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