Saffron

If you’re using saffron primarily for its golden color rather than flavor, you can cut costs by using turmeric or even plain yellow food coloring. If you want the proper taste, though, stick with the real thing and avoid the grocery store. Not only can a specialty shop or website (Buck’s and Penzey’s both have good reputations) save you a lot of money, their saffron will be much fresher.

Although some sources recommend lightly roasting saffron for more flavor, the traditional method is to soak it in some of whatever liquid you’re using in the dish you’re making, ideally warm or hot, for a few minutes before adding both saffron and liquid to the dish.

Saffron grows as a beautiful fall crocus that will actually do quite well in our climate, given a sunny spot and very well-drained soil — and reasonable safety from wildlife (a generous sprinkle of chili powder will keep the squirrels from eating all the bulbs). The harvest is a bit labor-intensive but not particularly difficult once you figure out which little bit of flower you’re looking for.

The WSU Extension has a very nice .pdf about growing saffron, written pretty much with Eastern Washington in mind but still useful for those of us on “The Wet Side.” To download it, find the “Miscellaneous” section at the bottom of their listing for Benton and Franklin Counties and click “Grow your own saffron.”

Hey, vendors! I’d love to see locally-grown saffron at the market, even just briefly and in limited amounts. I wonder if it could be sold as whole flowers to make things easier, kind of like shelling peas…

Paella recipe (but I’d leave out the chorizo, especially since they don’t say which kind, and peel the tomatoes)

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Measurements

Measurements vary from country to country Many places not only use metric but weigh the ingredients rather than measuring by volume. The good news is that many recipes are forgiving enough that the difference won’t matter, or can be corrected by adding a little flour or liquid until it feels right (a phrase I normally despise, but there we are).

You can find conversion sites online, and there are also apps for tablets and, probably, phones. The trick is figuring out whether that “cup” the recipe calls for is US or metric, that tablespoon US or imperial. If the recipe calls for you to weigh things you’re used to measuring, like flour or sugar, it’s probably European of some kind (get a good-quality kitchen scale that does grams as well as ounces if you’re going to try many of these). The publisher’s location is also a good guide, if you can determine that, but watch out for books that are written in the UK (or Australia) and published in the US without editing.

By the way, what Americans call “corn starch” the English call “corn flour.” I’ll be posting a sort of mini-glossary later this winter, but thought you might want to know about that detail now, if you’re playing with international recipes.

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Tomato trivia

Leftover canned tomatoes will keep in the fridge for up to a week, but for best results store them in a glass jar. You can add sliced or chopped garlic, shredded fresh basil, and some good olive oil to drained whole canned tomatoes* so they’ll keep better.

Green tomatoes will ripen best in a cool, dark location. That traditional sunny windowsill just shortens the time they have before rotting. One source* suggests ripening the end-of-summer last picking by arranging the tomatoes on a baking sheet, covering them with newspaper, and tucking them under the bed.

How to dry tomatoes, including how to get all those skins off.

Previous Market blog posts about tomatoes.

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*How to peel a peach : and 1,001 other things every good cook needs to know / Perla Meyers. Wiley, c2004. ISBN: 0471221236

Peppercorns

Black peppercorns are the nearly-ripe berries of Piper nigram. Tellicherry is generally considered to be the best variety of black pepper and comes from the Malabar Coast of India. Lampong and Sarawak are also popular varieties.

Green peppercorns are the same berries picked while completely unripe. They’re best known in green peppercorn sauce, served with steak.

White peppercorns are the seeds of the fully ripe berry. They show up in light-colored sauces, purely for aesthetic reasons, and in Scandinavian cooking.

Pink peppercorns are the dried berries of the Baies rose and technically not pepper at all. They’re less widely used but can be found in vinaigrettes and light sauces for fish.

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Hot peppers, chili powder, and a note on squirrels

Small pointy hot peppers tend to be hotter than large round ones. The little ones are hotter because they have more ribs and seeds, which have more capsaicin.

Chili powder is made of ground mild and hot chiles, oregano, and cumin. Some kinds also contain garlic and salt.

If your chili powder is getting old and needs to be replaced, it doesn’t have to go to waste. Sprinkle it generously over bulbs when you plant them to keep the squirrels out of them, or on top of the soil to protect established bulbs.

By the way, if you like to feed your neighborhood squirrels, you can reduce the amount of digging they do by cracking the nuts you put out for them (and not putting out very many at a time). They bury nuts to soften the shell; if they can get into the nut right away (and aren’t full) they’ll go ahead and eat it.

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Egg trivia

Officially, there is no difference between white and brown eggs, or between organic and conventional ones. However, many people claim to prefer the taste of brown eggs and I know several people who get a stomachache from eating too many conventional ones.

That said, freshness and feed do make significant differences and are difficult to track. These may be the factors that are really in play when people find differences between types of eggs. Free-range and pastured hens definitely have better diets and produce better eggs.

One way to test an egg for freshness by floating it in cold water. Fresh eggs will float on their sides while older eggs will “stand on end” in the water. Even better, crack open the egg and check the white. An old egg, while still safe to eat and legally “fresh,” will have a watery yolk that runs all over the pan; it takes a truly fresh egg to make the classic round, thick-edged fried egg.

To freeze eggs, break them into a container. Pierce the yolks with a fork and gently mix the whites and yolks, creating as little foam as possible — foam will dry out the eggs. Whites frozen by themselves do just fine, but separated yolks will do best if you add a bit of salt to those intended for cooking and a bit of sugar to those that will go into baked goods.

Note: a “no antibiotics” label on a package of chicken meat is of dubious value. Years ago, they experimented with antibiotics as a way to increase the weight of chickens, but found that it was not cost-effective — the drugs cost more than the additional weight could earn. Now, chickens seldom get antibiotics unless they need them.

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Pumpkins

Pumpkins grown for decoration (such as jack o’lanterns) are not suitable for eating; look for “pie pumpkins” or “sugar pumpkins” for baking. To save effort on a pumpkin pie without giving up your good home-made flavor, avoid the canned pumpkin pie filling and look for plain canned pumpkin puree (the label may say things like “unsweetened” and “100% pumpkin”), to which you can then add whatever your favorite recipe calls for.

You should also to be aware that squash of all kinds cross readily with any gourds growing in the area. Avoid squash with “warts” on the skin (compare a normal pumpkin with one of the “knucklehead” ones to see what I’m talking about). Warty squash are likely to have taste and/or texture issues.