Cooking for Picky Eaters

There’s nothing more frustrating for an enthusiastic home cook than cooking for picky eaters. And when I talk about picky eaters, I’m not defining them in the way that an extreme foody like Anthony Bourdain would, who looks with disdain on anyone who wouldn’t try pickled feral cat noses. I am talking about hard core picky eaters, the type who views any spice other than salt or pepper with deep suspicion, who eats only white bread, drinks only light beer, and has only ever ordered the steak at any fancy restaurant he or she has ever visited.

The fact is, these people make up about half of the population, so unless your family and social circle consists entirely of foodies and professional chefs, you will have to cook for these people on a regular basis. You could just say to hell with it and serve shake and back chicken breasts with plain baked or mashed potatoes, or you could find a compromise that will allow both you and your guests to have a satisfying meal.

Rather than talking about what you should cook, it is best to start with what you can’t; nothing too spicy, nothing undercooked or raw, nothing with its head still attached, nothing overly trendy, and nothing foreign other than Italian or Mexican. You are going to have to work off of a base of some of the most commonly used ingredients in your local grocery store, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be creative; if anything it forces you to be more creative.

Throwing a pile of painfully hot or exotic ingredients into a pot does not make you creative. You can actually be just as creative with everyday ingredients as you can with fish sauce and habanero peppers. In any case, many of the finest restaurants in North America serve dishes made almost entirely of local ingredients, so there is no shame in just trying to add a little twist to a traditional meat and potatoes dish.

Your strategy should be to start with safe ingredients, add more flavour than your guests might be used to but not so much that it overwhelms them. If you want to be a good dinner party host than you have to remember you should be focused more on the enjoyment that your guests get from eating the food than the enjoyment you get from preparing it. The ingredients and taste are only one part of the equation; you also need to put some thought on the presentation. You can serve your guests something they’ve eaten a hundred times before but if serve it in a new and visually impressive way it will feel like something new.

If you have the budget for it, beef wellington is perhaps the quintessential fancy dish for picky eaters. It takes some work to prepare but it essentially is just roast beef with mushrooms and puff pastry, so anyone who doesn’t like it doesn’t really belong on anyone’s guest list. You don’t necessarily need to reward every picky eater you invite over with a beef wellington, you should just look at serving something that visually impressive and appealing to the non-foodie.

Why Does Anyone Buy Artificial Vanilla?

Last week I ran out of vanilla extract. I’m not sure when or where I bought that bottle of vanilla, but it must have been years ago; it could have come with the house for all I know. In any case, the bottle real vanilla extract was acquired before I became a serious home cook. Since I’ve taken a more active interest in cooking I’ve noticed that everyone recommends that you the real extract versus the artificial stuff. I was actually surprised to see that my vanilla was in fact the natural stuff.

When I went to the grocery store to get a new bottle they had the real and artificial stuff side by side and the real stuff was about three dollars or so more expensive. This was a decent sized bottle that will probably last me several years, so I couldn’t help but wonder who would bother buying the artificial stuff.

I made banana bread this evening and I used a quarter teaspoon of vanilla extract. It’s not like there are many recipes out there that call for a half cup of vanilla extract. A bottle of vanilla extract for most people will last several years, so the extra three or four dollars every couple of years will be imperceptible. If you are literally so destitute that you can’t spare an extra three dollars for something that will last for years then you probably aren’t spending your money on vanilla extract anyway. If you are buying artificial vanilla extract there is a pretty good chance that you are cheap.

Don’t Serve Chilli to Your Guests This Christmas

Everyone seems to like making chilli at Christmas. If you are having a crowd of people over for a party during the holiday season you should keep in mind that no matter how great your chilli recipe is, they really wish you hadn’t made it. Absolutely nobody wants to eat anything that requires cutlery or plates at a crowded party.

If you are having some people over for dinner, feel free to serve chilli with some nice fresh bread and whipped butter. I’m sure they will love it. But if you have a crowd of people over for drinks, nobody is going to want to try to drink beer and eat a bowl full of chilli at the same time and then have to locate the garbage can. They just want to grab the occasional potato chip or sausage roll with their non-drinking hand. It is bad enough that you have to hold a bowl and a spoon/fork for an extended period of time, but if you are going to properly eat chilli than you will need roll to go with it. Since humans are only equipped with two hands, one of which needs to hold your beer, eating chilli at a party quickly becomes a logistical nightmare.

Make life easy on your guests. Serve them snacks that can be eaten with one hand does not leave anything to be disposed of, be it bowls or bones. That’s right, no chicken wings either. If you want to impress your guests with homemade appetizers, try serving something like quesadillas, chicken strips, or a good old nacho dip. And even if you like impressing guests with you cooking skills, even your most ardent foodie guests will be quite disappointed if you do not have a few bowls of store bought kettle cooked potato chips lying around.

You Don’t Need a Rice Cooker

The other day I saw an ad in a flier for a sale on rice cookers. 50% off. Most things that are truly 50% off are good deals. If a rice cooker was 100% off it wouldn’t be a good deal. The only way you should take a rice cooker into your home is if the rice cooker manufacturer pays you rent. You already have a rice cooker in your house. It’s called a pot.

Making rice is easy. You put rice in a pot, add water, put the lid on it, turn the stove on medium wait a little bit and then you have tasty, ready to eat rice. I have never bothered to investigate the features of a rice maker just as I wouldn’t spend any time learning about a toast buttering machine.

Most kitchens are too cluttered with too many unnecessary tools. If you want to make your life easier in the kitchen you need start getting rid of things you already have, not adding more useless clutter. Rather than adding a useless rice cooker, throw away that electric can opener taking up counter space, then give away your knife block and buy yourself a single good chef knife.

If you make kitchen appliances and want to grow your business, the way you do that is by convincing consumers they need more types of kitchen appliances. There isn’t a lot of money to be made in simplifying kitchens. The next time you are tempted to buy some new gadget like a rice cooker, look at all of the kitchen tools and appliances you already own and ask yourself how many of them actually use.

Everyone is Opening Wine Bottles the Wrong Way

If you’ve ever been to a fancy restaurant you will notice that the waiter always starts by cutting around the mouth of the bottle to remove the top part of the foil covering. After removing the top part there is a slightly jagged edges of foil around the mouth of the bottle and the wine passed over those edges as the wine is poured. This makes absolutely no sense. Aside from being a waste of effort, it is also not particularly sanitary.

The logical way to remove the foil from a bottle of wine is to simply make one slice up through the entire length of the foil and remove it entirely. It takes a fraction of the time and then the wine is passing over nothing but clean glass as it pours. One of the reasons why the top of a bottle is covered in foil is presumably to keep the mouth of the bottle clean, so why would anyone want to pour the wine over foil that has been exposed for years instead of the clean glass underneath.

Wine bottles can sit around for a long time in your local restaurant or liquor store. A thin layer of dust will build up over time in even the cleanest environments. People will occasionally walk by the bottle and sneeze or cough. People who do not always wash their hands after going to the bathroom will grab a bottle by the neck and hold it up for a closer look before putting it back on the shelf.

Most waiters in fancy restaurants no doubt pride themselves on their cleanliness, and maybe all of the members of your dinner party group are all have very clean hands, but would want them to dip their finger in your glass of wine after pour it? No? Then why would you want them manhandling the top of your bottle of wine before pouring it for you? The next time you open a bottle of wine, ignore the waiters in fancy restaurants (but listen to this random food blogger) and just remove the entire foil cover.

Store Bought Frozen Meatballs are the Perfect Way to Let Your Holiday Guests Know How Little You Think of Them

If you really can’t stand whichever friends or family members you are entertaining over the holiday season and want to express your disdain for them without creating an awkward scene, all you need to do is go to your local grocery store and buy a box of frozen meatballs to serve them. It doesn’t matter which meatballs you choose. Swedish meatballs, home style, pub style, whatever box you pick will clearly and succinctly communicate the lack of esteem in which you hold them.

Like 90% of the human population I love meatballs and have tried many different types of store bought frozen meatballs, every one of which was an abomination. I’ve enjoyed many frozen food section appetizers in my day; chicken wings, mozza sticks, sausage rolls, chicken fingers. I probably wouldn’t break them out for an anniversary dinner, but they were good enough for a casual evening having a few drinks with friends. I feel like every person who makes frozen meatballs is a lonely and hateful person who resents anyone with a circle of friends and an active social life.

I have never tasted a store bought meatball that tasted like ground beef was the primary ingredient. Without fail, every single one has been a rubbery mass of a vaguely meat flavoured gelatin substance. If you take a store bought frozen meatball out and leave it out on your counter for a few hours, you can squeeze it as hard as you like and it won’t break apart. They do not in any way resemble the standard homemade meatball, which has meat as the primary ingredient.

Homemade meatballs are not that difficult nor very expensive to make, you just need to get your hands a little dirty. All you need to do is mix together some lean ground beef with an egg, bread crumbs or oatmeal, and whatever herbs you feel like adding in and then baking them for a half hour to 45 minutes  and you’re done. If you are having people over whose friendship you value, who have done favours for you in the past, and who could count on in times of need, you should not think twice about getting your hands dirty for a few minutes.

It is one of the facts of life that you will frequently have guests at your house, particularly during the holidays, whom you really don’t like and don’t want to encourage to accept the next invitation that you unwillingly extend. Those are the times when you want to break out the box of frozen meatballs. For $12.99 you can let someone know how little you think of them and significantly lower the odds of them ever accepting an invitation again.

Cooking Horrible Healthy Food

Cooking, like any field of endeavor, has its activities that bring nothing but sheer joy and excitement, but also has those mundane and joyless tasks that you do because you know you have to but hate doing all the same. Few things bring more satisfaction to a cook than the sound and smell of a juicy striploin sizzling on a cast iron pan with butter or taking a piping hot dish of macaroni and cheese out of the oven. Unfortunately there are some unappetizing, joyless dishes that you need to prepare if you want to ensure that your family has a healthy, balanced diet. Making something taste less awful is not nearly as motivating as making something taste amazing, but it is a valuable and necessary skill for any cook.

Do you like the taste and texture of quinoa? If you do, you are a liar. You may be lying to yourself, but that still makes you a liar. Perhaps you like to shredded cardboard as well. With the exception of Kale, nothing symbolizes the health vs satisfaction trade-off like Quinoa. It isn’t that it tastes all that bad, in fact it hardly has any taste at all; it’s that it is so good for you and so ubiquitous that it is becoming difficult not to eat it. Lobok tastes terrible but it’s no better for you than any other vegetable and you probably don’t even know it exists.

As uninspiring as it may be, you need to have a strategy for eating healthy, uninspiring foods. There several strategies that you can use. For some healthy green vegetables like broccoli and asparagus, you can serve them as a small side with a meat dish to make the meal healthier. If you take a bite of a steak, a forkful of twice baked potato, and then a piece of steamed broccoli or asparagus, you will hardly notice the taste since the taste of the steak and potato is so much more dominant and satisfying. You can eat a head of broccoli without hardly noticing.

Some vegetables have a bland taste but can carry other flavours fairly well. Quinoa is one of those, and if you want to eat it you need to boil it not with water but with some flavourful liquid. Some people like chicken broth but I prefer diluted lemon juice with some basil. I also through some lemon zest in with it. I don’t actually like lemon all that much but it sure tastes better than quinoa and the taste is strong enough that it does a good job of masking what I am eating from my taste buds.

When all else fails, you can simply pour some melted cheese over it or wrap it in prosciutto, and while both options can work well, they are a bit of a cop out. If you really want to eat more healthy things but can’t bring yourself to do it, then try adding them into pot dishes where they will get lost in the mix, like adding pot barley to your beef stew or throwing some lentils in your soup (no too many though, they soak up a lot of water). The point is you and your family probably need to eat more things you don’t like, and you need to come up with a plan that allows you to do so from time to time without completely ruining your dinner.

Never Try to Make Real Sourdough Bread

I bought an award winning book from a French baker living in Sweden who is a passionate advocate of baking break using sourdough starter rather than yeast. Though I was suspicious of his tiresome raving against “industrial” bread and “multinational” corporations caused me to roll my eyes, I admit that I was intrigued by his description of the sourdough process, and I endeavoured to give it a try.

What intrigued me most of all was the idea that you could make bread rise without using anything other than flour, water, and salt. Essentially sourdough starter is made by adding water and flour together in a jar and letting the naturally occurring bacteria start to grow. At the beginning of the process I was actually rather impressed with myself as the mixture started to bubble just like it was supposed to. On the downside it also smelled awful. It also looked disgusting. I mean, who wants to have jar of wet flour fermenting away on your kitchen counter.

When it was time to make the sourdough bread I followed the author’s directions to the letter. In order to have a better personal connection or whatever to the bread, I dumped all the flour onto a board and made a well in the middle to add the water and the sourdough. When I added it the water immediately spilled over the top of the well and all over the floor. Then started wildly mashing together the flour and water into a messy pile of slop. I added what I thought was enough water to replace what spilled, but I’m not sure how accurate of a guess I made.

I finally managed to knead the thing into a ball and put it in a bowl to rise. It became zombie loaf; not entirely dead or alive but smelling terribly. After two days I threw it in the garbage and then made myself a wonderful loaf of French bread in a few hours using good old industrial yeast.

Prime Rib Is Overrated

Everyone says that prime rib is the best oven roast, and for years I’ve been listening to them. Every time prime rib is on sale, which isn’t that often, I feel like I should buy it. And every time I make it, end up spending more time trying to pull away the fat and grizzle then I do eating. I want to eat roast beef, not roast fat and grizzle.

All these celebrity chefs on TV talk about how all the fat marbling you get in prime rib ads so much flavour to the meat. Marbling is one thing, but there are huge chunks of pure fat as big around as your pinkie running throughout prime rib, not to mention all the grizzle.

Why would I pay more money for a roast when I have to trim off a third of it, not including the bones? When you factor in the actual edible parts of the prime rib it is actually as expensive as tenderloin. My dog loves prime rib. He loves how he gets to eat all the parts I cut off and then gets to gnaw on a meaty bone. If our world was run by dogs, it would make perfect sense that prime rib would be the most expensive roast, but it is beyond me that civilized human beings would bid up the price of this fatty, grizzly mess of a roast.

If the same logic applied to chicken, the thighs would be the most expensive part of the chicken. The same chefs who love prime rib also prefer the more grizzly and fatty chicken thighs, but yet they have been unable to brainwash the chicken buying public like they’ve done with the beef buying public. There are a couple of potential explanations. One is that chicken lovers are more independent thinkers and less susceptible to outside influence that beef lovers. The other, more plausible explanation is that many people have dogs, and prime rib is the preferred cut of beef among every single breed of dog.

If beef buyers took the same approach as chicken buyers, eye of round roast would cost twice as much as prime rib. It is pure beef, with no fat, grizzle, or bones. If you cook it slowly on low heat, you can make it every bit as tender as prime rib. Do yourself a favour, next time you want roast beef, buy an eye of round instead of prime rib and put your savings towards a nice bottle of red wine to go with it.

Home Cooks Need to Learn When to Ignore Celebrity Chefs

If you like cooking, you may also like watching cooking shows on TV or reading recipe books from your favourite celebrity chef. There is a lot to be learned from someone who has worked as a professional chef for many years, but there are also plenty of things to ignore. Knowing when not to take a celebrity chef’s advice is an important skill that every successful home cook needs to acquire.

You need to understand that to be a professional chef, you need to eat everything. To run a successful high end restaurant you need to serve a wide array of dishes as you have a wide array of customers, each of whom generally likes to try something new every time they come back to the restaurant. You can’t master cooking a recipe if you never actually taste what you are cooking, so chefs are by their nature extremely open minded and adventurous when it comes to trying something new. And because they are always pushing the envelope to create new and bold flavours, they have are much less sensitive to strong tasting foods. The average home cook, and particularly the friends and family members that he or she is cooking for, tend to have much less adventurous culinary tastes.

A huge proportion of the North American population eat pretty much the same thing over and over. Tacos are about as exotic a food as half the population has ever eaten, so when you want to try to impress a dinner guest with something new, you need to sometimes be careful not to try something too new. Maybe that Asian stew with the fish sauce and habanero peppers is not the way to go. Also, a lot of people don’t like their fish to be looking at them while they eat. Celebrity chefs love to serve a whole bass, but your neighbours are not celebrity chefs, so perhaps serve them a filet instead.

There is not a single chef in the world who likes their steak well done, or more accurately, there isn’t a single chef who would admit to liking their steak well done. The prevailing wisdom in the cooking industry is that the less a food is cooked, the more flavourful it will be, and so sophisticated diners who appreciate great food will have their food cooked as rare as possible while the uncultured, simpleton diners will lean toward well done. Don’t listen to any of that. Cook your food to whatever level of doneness you and your guests prefer. You are the one buying the food, not the chef on TV, so cook it however way you like it.

It is also important to know how to adjust recipes. For example, I find that most cookbook recipes call for at least twice as much garlic as I can handle, so whatever recipe I see, I always cut the amount of garlic in half. I also find that many recipes will overdo the onions, so I will often cut back a little bit, sometimes by using a small onion or substituting with shallots. When I see fish sauce I either omit it from the recipe or omit the recipe altogether. If you like the taste of rotting fish, feel free to add it. The point is that you need to adapt the celebrity chef’s recipes to your tastes, not adapt your taste to their recipes.