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As I glugged cup after cup of canola oil into the pan, my confidence seemed to dissipate. “This is nothing like baking,” I thought. “How much oil is enough? Is this pan even going to work?” I realized I might have crossed into a whole new, unfamiliar world as I stared at my candy thermometer hoping the oil would reach the right temperature for deep-frying tempura. The oil finally reached 360°F, but then it started to go over. Removing the pan from the burner, I waited for it to cool, but then it dipped below 360°F. So I placed it back on the burner, where it didn’t heat up quickly enough, so I had to crank the heat, and of course, it went over that magic number again. At this point, I was really getting sick of deep-frying and thought I better stick to what I know. And this was before I splashed boiling hot oil into my eye.

You see, when it comes to me and cooking Asian food at home, I don’t have the best track record. I can pipe roses out of frosting, bake three pies in one day, or craft the perfect tart crust with one hand tied behind my back. But I still can’t even get the simplest stir fry right. At this point, I know to just call for take-out or make reservations when I get a craving for Chinese, or Japanese, or Thai – and for a person who loves cooking, that’s just sad. But lately, I’ve been getting a little antsy thinking how much salt and MSG is in my takeout order. So when my latest craving hit, I decided that I wanted to try my hand at making my own tempura at home.
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Welcome to Chocolate Week at Table Matters! We’re celebrating all-things cocoa just in time for every chocolate lover’s favorite holiday. Stay tuned as we explore its many sides.

If I could, I would strike Palmer’s “chocolate” from this earth. You know what I’m talking about — that low-quality holiday candy that tastes like chocolate that’s been chewed up and spit out by the mouth of a dirty mama bird before being re-melted and shaped into little medallions. I cringe recalling all the Halloweens and Valentine’s Days I spent shoving those cheap candies in my mouth, trying to get rid of them before eating the much more worthwhile Kit Kats, or the ultimate trick-or-treat wins, the Almond Joys.

Likewise, I would happily rub out any of the new-fangled Hershey’s products that wear the wrappers and take the shapes of chocolate, but are in actuality the terrible bastard children of chocolate and corporate frugality. Yup, that’s right: If you weren’t already aware, there’s a good chance that the “chocolate” you’re buying from Hershey’s isn’t chocolate at all. See, back in 2008, Hershey’s started replacing some of the cocoa butter in its products with a combination of cocoa butter and other vegetable oils. Using other vegetable oils is cheaper for companies, which explains why a bag of the aforementioned Palmer’s always costs a dollar or two less than actual chocolate. But those “chocolate” products taste cheaper, too, as do most foods when unnecessary ingredients complicate their simple recipes. See, the process of making a good chocolate only requires a few steps: Cacao pods are roasted, ground, and made into chocolate liquor (which, if desired, can then be separated into dry cocoa solids and cocoa butter). Then you add in vanilla, sugar, and often lecithin (an emulsifier), and you’ve got some good eatin‘.
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Even the most unrefined palate can tell the difference between a good cup of coffee and a bad cup of coffee. I’m well aware that the fine line between the two can easily affect the outlook of an entire day.

After years of enjoying my store-bought coffee in blissful ignorance, I started to wonder what I was really paying for when I threw down three dollars for a cup of hot bean water. I found that even with hand crafted Japanese kettles, meticulously weighed beans, and the never-ending list of “the best” brewing methodologies, we have little control over our own brew. Not even the most well-equipped coffee connoisseur does.
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I’ll admit it. When I moved into my new apartment this year, along with my sheets, coffee mugs, and suitcase, I toted along a value-sized tub of animal crackers. It was the kind you could find at your local wholesale club, weighing in at over two pounds, and it didn’t even last three weeks.

Even as a grown adult, I still haven’t grown out of my love for this hallmark childhood snack. I like them plain, dunked in tea, or dipped in peanut butter, but while I was noshing on my latest tub of animal crackers, I noticed something I didn’t like: the ingredient list. Enriched flour, soybean oil, high fructose corn syrup, soy lecithin…for such a simple snack, I was surprised to see such a long list of unnecessary and unnatural ingredients. To think that the miniature animals I had so lovingly craved were actually filled with chemical additives was appalling. That was when I began thinking of trying my hand at making my own.
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In 1999, a company named Breakaway Foods created a line of products called IncrEdibles. Packaged in tubes with sticks at the bottom, the IncrEdibles family consisted of savory, meal-replacing treats that could be heated in the microwave and then pushed from the tube and straight into one’s mouth. No utensils were required; all you needed was a food hole in your face ready to receive such appetizing tube products as Macaroni & Cheese, Chili Mac, and Scrambled Eggs with Cheese and Sausage. The IncrEdibles press release also used the phrase “push n’ eat” [sic]. Apparently if you don’t have time to eat food with a fork, you don’t have time to say the letter “i” either.
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Some grandmothers send you home with handmade pies after each visit. If you’re lucky, you have a grandmother who slips you a $20 on your way out the door. Not mine. Instead of baked goods or money, she fills my arms with large plastic bags of frozen pierogi.

I can’t remember a time I’ve left her house without a dozen in hand. At every family gathering, our Mom Mom generously distributes her homemade pierogi to my sister, cousins, and me. We’re all mostly in our twenties now, and the pierogi often come in handy later as a quick and easy solution for dinner.

Though I’m grateful for her efforts to ensure I always have a dozen in my freezer throughout the year, I most appreciate Mom Mom’s seemingly endless pierogi supply around the holidays. Without them, Christmas Eve would lack my favorite family food tradition, and I wouldn’t be found shoveling the potato-stuffed dumplings into my mouth at a rate only my late grandfather could match.
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DIY TM_DY_CANES_FI_001

Q: What do Tom Green, the Hoover Dam, and candy canes all have in common?
A: They’ve all been the subject of false rumors, perpetuated thanks to the Internet.

So for the record, Tom Green didn’t dress up as Hitler at a bar mitzvah, the Hoover Dam doesn’t have bodies of workers buried inside, and candy canes? Oh, where do I begin. Perhaps with a warning: other than grappling with a particularly divine-tasting edible, a column about foodstuffs isn’t normally the place to tackle religion. Today it is, because the candy cane and Christmas are as intertwined as the stick’s red and white stripes.
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DIY TM_DY_YOGURT_FI_001

I have a great deal of appreciation for yogurt. Many of my childhood memories involve bewilderingly shaped Yoplait containers filled to the brim with sickly sweet fruit-flavored dairy solids. As a child, I was constantly tricked into enjoying the yogurt gimmick du jour – drinkable yogurt, yogurt from a plastic tube-shaped sleeve, and cups of yogurt with lids full of crushed cookies and candies. But I didn’t truly acquire the taste for real yogurt until Fage, the original Greek yogurt, began appearing in my household refrigerator.

This new yogurt was drier, thicker, milder, and more substantive than the more common European-style yogurts I was used to eating. Greek yogurt omits nearly all of the flavorings and additives found in supermarket brands, like the gelatin added to some Yoplait yogurts for texture and consistency or the ambiguous “natural flavor” at the end of nearly all yogurt ingredient lists. The idea behind Greek yogurt is simple: Plain yogurt is placed in a fine strainer and then a significant portion of the excess liquid (or whey) is allowed to drain. Traditional Greek yogurt contains goat’s milk, but most American brands use cow’s milk.
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There are many ways to split society into opposing halves. Rich vs. poor. DC fans vs. Marvel fans. Butter people vs. margarine people.

We all begin as butter people; nobody erupts from the womb ready to move from mother’s milk to margarine. Kids happily spread their school-lunch rolls with individual pats of butter, top their pancakes with generous globs of the stuff, and will even take bites of butter sticks when a caregiver isn’t looking. But slowly, margarine creeps in. Maybe we eat margarine because our parents do; others among us switch when we’re old enough to start paying attention to our waistlines or hearts. After all, the American Heart Association and the Mayo Clinic both recommend using margarine. So eventually, we stand in the dairy aisle, look at our options, and put the margarine in our carts. MORE

Fish Fortnight

A Chesapeake Classic

True Marylanders don't settle for store-bought crab cakes

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As a third generation Marylander, I spent many summer days of my childhood hiding under the picnic table watching my parents and brothers — from an up-wind safe odor-free distance — as they enthusiastically did their crab picking and eating. Even at an early age I knew that I was missing out on an important part of being a true Marylander, and an important family gathering. But I also knew what my family was doing when they picked crabs, and it wasn’t appealing.

My family ate every part of the crab except, of course, the grey lungs (or “devils-fingers” in Maryland jargon), which not only taste terrible but could leave you with a nasty stomachache. After discarding the lungs and sucking down as much crab meat as they could find, they even ate the kinky yellow guts and the mysterious bitter golden crab mustard that many Marylanders refuse to touch. How much nicer it was, I thought, to eat something ripped apart from itself before it reached your table. MORE

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We shove plenty of foods in our face holes without thinking much about them. What’s in a Twinkie? How was the slurry that becomes a McDonald’s chicken nugget actually formed? What the hell combination of black magic and ingredients is needed to make Mountain Dew Code Red? When we decide to consume foods and drinks like these, we know we’re heading into a bit of a mystery; there are ingredients and processes involved that we will never truly understand. So it goes.
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Do not try to make your own Old Bay.

I’m serious. Don’t even bother.

I wholeheartedly encourage you to whip up your own crab seasoning or make your own Cajun spice. Sprinkle these mixes liberally everywhere you would use Old Bay — seafood, corn on the cob, french fries, wherever. But when you do this, start with the intention of making something different from Old Bay. Trying to beat Old Bay is a losing proposition. There are many reasons why. Here are the top three: MORE

Bookshelf

Into the Wild Brew Yonder

Jump into the wide world of small-batch brewing with True Brews

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My first encounter with homemade kombucha took place about 10 years ago. My younger sister had been brewing a batch in our parents’ sunroom when she was offered a last-minute job at a summer camp. She left her gallon of tea and SCOBY (also known as the symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) behind when she left to take the gig, and not knowing what to do with it, my parents let it sit. A month later, I came to visit and my mom asked if I’d help her dispose of the contents of the jar.

By that point, the bacteria and yeast creature in the jar had grown to be approximately four inches thick and had a disturbing flesh-like consistency. It took the liberal application of a serrated bread knife to free it from the jar and when I was finished wrestling it out to the compost heap, I swore that I’d never again tangle with something so otherworldly.

However, fast-forward a decade and you’ll find that I am now eating those words. I’ve been brewing kombucha in my own kitchen for the last six months or so and have found it to be easy, delicious, and satisfying. What’s more, it has made me deeply curious about the many other kinds of homebrews and liquid ferments I can make in my small city apartment. MORE

DIY TM_FLOUR_AP_003

White flour is like a ghost: if we don’t think about it, we’re fine. But when we do start to think about it, we get a little creeped out. Oh, it might not look like we’re scared of it when we wolf our restaurant bread baskets or take forkfuls of cream cheese-frosted carrot cake, but when we start to think about that powdery wheat product on its own, some serious flourphobia rises to the surface. Together I’m hoping we can make it through this. That’s right, together: I have flour-fear issues, too.
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