Shhh…it’s a secret!

baking-ingredients-FotografiaBasica

In gaming, there’s nothing like a good secret, or seven. Sometimes, you stumble across a secret — a path you never saw before, an item that gives you special powers, or a new place to visit. Other times, secrets are revealed for the benefit of masses or handed down between generations. It’s often the same in cooking. Maybe you carry a centuries-old secret family recipe, or maybe you figured something new out last week when you attempted to spice up your boring macaroni and cheese. In this post, I’m sharing a few of my favorite food-related secrets, some that I’ve discovered through trial and error, others that came through word-of-mouth (or the Internet).

For the best lightly-sweetened, mashed sweet potatoes, try some honey.
Somewhere in the past, I stumbled across the world’s simplest recipe – honey butter sweet potatoes. Simply cook and mash sweet potatoes (or yams) and stir in a couple tablespoons each of honey and butter. But one time with this recipe, during a crazy “I must eat healthy!” moment, I eliminated the butter and used only honey. The results were surprisingly tasty! I was a little worried that the potatoes would turn out gooey or sticky, but instead they took on a silkier texture, kind of like the effect of adding cream to mashed white potatoes. But what was really great was that the honey sweetened up the potatoes just enough to really bring out their flavor. With a couple pinches of salt, they were perfect. I now always make my honey sweet potatoes around the holidays when everything else on the table is already rich and laden with calories.

Tired of bland stir-fry? Infuse your soy sauce with brown sugar and ginger.
A few weeks back, I posted a stir-fry recipe that’s in my regular meal repertoire. Well, it contains a big secret; one that I only recently discovered! Prior to making my own stir-fry sauce, I had been using the bottled “teriyaki” sauces from the grocery store. While not bad, they were always too salty and overpowering for my taste. Then a friend told me about her homemade stir-fry sauce, the main components of which were soy sauce, brown sugar, and ginger. Well, I took that idea straight to the kitchen and haven’t looked back at bottled sauces. Adding brown sugar and (ground) ginger to soy sauce gives it a great flavor that, when cooked, is reminiscent of your favorite Chinese take-out. The versatile sauce can be used over noodles and rice, vegetables and meat. And you can add all sorts of other flavors to it — garlic, onion, pepper, vinegar — depending on your taste buds. And if you think it’s too thin, a little bit of cornstarch will thicken things right up.

If you aim to make thin, chewy cookies, only use one egg in the mix. 
Despite having a decent, hands-on knowledge of cooking science, this one took me awhile to latch onto. As most of you know, eggs are a staple in baking and cooking. Not only to they add flavor and richness, but they also act as binders and as leavening agents. That last bit is important when it comes to flour-based baked goods like cookies and cakes — eggs work to help the batter rise properly as it cooks. So, generally speaking, when you make a traditional cookie recipe that uses two eggs, the cookies turn out light, puffy, and have a cakey, crumbly texture. If you eliminate one egg, thereby eliminating a leavening agent, the cookies generally turn out a little thinner, chewier, and crispier around the edges – almost like those “freshly-baked” cookies you see on TV! Of course, a lot depends on the freshness of the eggs, the temperature regulation of your oven, the batter itself, and so on, so a little experimentation may be required to get things to your liking.

What’s my powerhouse ingredient when it comes to seasoning homemade soup? Oregano!
I’d long held the notion that oregano was only for spaghetti sauce and pizza until I started making my own soup. I followed several recipes but soon ventured out on my own, particularly when it came to bean soup, a perennial favorite. The main issue I had when it came to bean soup was getting the seasoning right. While beans offer up unique flavors, just cooking them in broth wouldn’t do. Plenty of the soup recipes that I worked with included oregano as a component, but never as the main spice. Well, one day, being low on spices and with a ready pot of bean soup, I added in a good amount of dried oregano, some salt, a couple bay leaves, and some garlic powder, and let things simmer away. The results? Fantastic! The oregano gave the soup a hearty and bright aroma and lent the beans a nicely herbed flavor. I now keep loads of oregano round during the winter just for soup-making! (P. S. This goes mainly for broth-based soups, though I’m sure oregano has it’s place in cream-based soups as well.)

Want to punch up those chocolate brownies/cookies/cake pops? A little coffee goes a long way.
This is one of my favorite it’s-not-really-a-secret secrets. And I say this not just because I adore coffee, but because coffee and chocolate are simply a baking match made in heaven! Ever since discovering years ago a chocolate brownie recipe that used finely-ground coffee in the mix, I’ve been hooked on adding coffee grounds to any recipe that calls for baking cocoa. (And coffee in liquid form has it’s place too. 🙂 ) But the real secret behind using coffee in baking is getting it as finely ground as possible. Some coffee grinders do a suitable job of this — I think a mortar and pestle works even better. But however you grind up the coffee, the particulates need to be super-duper tiny in order to extract all the tasty deliciousness. And using it doesn’t make your chocolate dessert taste like coffee, it just makes it taste even more rich and chocolately!

*****

Do you have any favorite (and shareable) cooking or baking secrets?


Let’s see just how many blogs Cary can put on her roster before going mad! While you’ll find her here on occasion, you’ll more likely to catch her over on United We Game or Geek Force Network; or better yet, working on her own blog about gaming and nostalgia and such, Recollections of Play.

 

 

 

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Vegetable stir-fry (with tofu and/or meat)

With gardening now officially done at our house, the time has come when we must deal once again with store-bought vegetables. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, but you know what they say: “Once you go black, you can never go back!”

Um…that’s not… …right? …

Anyway, making stir-fries is one of my favorite ways to manage our vegetable intake during the winter. They’re quick, savory, and a little goes a very long way, especially with the addition of a protein such as tofu or chicken or whatever you like.  The recipe below heartily serves 3-4 people. And loners need not fret, because it re-heats very well as a leftover! (It also bears mentioning that you can use just about any combination of vegetables here.)

Vegetable stir-fry (with tofu and/or meat)

Ingredients

vegetable oil
1 small onion, shopped
1 chili, seeded and diced
1/2 of a red, green, yellow pepper, chopped
1 small can sliced water chestnuts, drained
1 small can bamboo shoots, drained
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup broccoli florets, chopped if large
1 cup snow peas, chopped, or left whole if small
4-6 scallions, sliced into rounds
1 package of extra-firm tofu, drained, pressed, and cubed and/or 1 chicken breast, chopped, or 1 small sirloin steak cut into strips, or other meat/fish

For sauce:
1/4-1/2 cup soy sauce (use more if you like a thinner sauce)
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon Chinese Five Spice
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon agave nectar or honey
1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Splash of cooking sherry (optional)

Cooked white or brown rice

Instructions
  1. Prepare 1-2 cups of white or brown rice in a style of your choosing.
  2. In a small bowl, mix together all sauce ingredients. Set aside.
  3. If using tofu, heat oven to 425 degrees and bake tofu for about 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown. (Turn once if you remember. I never do. This process dehydrates the tofu a little, making it less mushy.)
  4. If using meat, in a hot wok or large frying pan pour in about a tablespoon of oil. Let it heat up over medium-high heat for a minute and then add the beef/chicken/whatever.  Sauté for about 5 minutes in just the oil, then add in a tablespoon or so of the sauce and cook for a minute more. Remove meat from pan keeping any remaining oil/sauce in the pan.
  5. Back in the wok, over medium-high heat, add in the onion, chili, pepper, water chestnuts, and bamboo shoots. Sauté for 5 minutes. Add the garlic. Sauté for 1 minute.
  6. Add in the broccoli and snow peas. Stir the mixture and sauté for a few minutes until the broccoli turns bright green. Add in the tofu and/or meat saute for about another 5 minutes until the snow peas and broccoli become tender.
  7. Pour remaining sauce over everything in the pan and stir. Cook for 1-2 minutes. (Any longer and the sauce will turn very dark and sticky.)

Top with fresh scallions and serve immediately over rice.


Let’s see just how many blogs Cary can put on her roster before going mad! While you’ll find her here on occasion, you’ll more likely to catch her over on United We Game or Geek Force Network; or better yet, working on her own blog about gaming and nostalgia and such, Recollections of Play.