Thursday, March 21, 2013

Caramelized Onion Tart using White Onions

My Finished Tart...Delicious!
As I've mentioned before, I think we're pretty spoiled here in Mexico in terms of how many ingredients are available to us that we're used to from the States, at least when compared to other places around the world!  But I have still been sad to find the lack of different types of onions!  City Market has a decent selection given that they have cippolini and other small varieties, but it's very difficult to find common yellow onions.  When I see them at Chedraui and Superama, I snatch up as much as I think I could possibly use before they go bad...but I always run out and want more.  And forget about finding really sweet onions, like Vidalias!

Regardless of not having "exactly" the right type of onion, we're fortunate that white and red onions are still pretty versatile.  And I even discovered recently that you CAN get wonderfully delicious, caramelized onions using white onions, so I thought I'd share that process with you.

I found this recipe on for a Rustic Onion Tart with Olives, Capers and Anchovies that sounded amazing, so I decided to make it for a dinner party we were headed to.  I figured I was going to have to wrestle with the onions since I was using white onions instead of yellow onions and I did, but it wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be and the tart turned out quite tasty.

My Kitchen all prepped to caramelize my onions...
I was using the bread maker to make the pizza dough. 
Can you tell I was having fun?

Here's the thing about white onions vs. yellow onions...they have less natural sugars in them, so that makes caramelizing much harder.  (The definition of "caramelization" is the breaking down of sugar molecules at around 300°F/150°C into many different chemical compounds.  As Harold McGee writes in the bible of food science, On Food and Cooking, "Heat transforms table sugar, a sweet, odorless, single kind of molecule, into hundreds of different molecules that generate a complex flavor and rich brown color."  Caramelization is, in short, absolutely amazing.  We all know how delicious caramel is, and you can make that at home using only sugar and water!  The magic is in those special chemical reactions.)
In the middle of the caramelization process...almost there...

Back to the onion tart recipe...I had to tweak it a little bit.  It calls for heating 1 Tbsp of olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium high heat until shimmering hot.  At that point you add the onions (the recipe of course calls for yellow but I substituted white) and a generous pinch of salt.  You then cook them, stirring constantly, until the onions are golden and softened.  With sweeter yellow onions, this only takes about ten minutes.  I knew it would require a lot more effort with the white onions (and a little bit of cheating), so at the same time I added the onions and the salt I added about 1/2 Tbsp of sugar into the skillet as well. I reduced the temperature slightly (just above medium) and while the onions cooked, I stirred them almost constantly with a wooden spoon.  (If you don't stir, they'll burn.)  As the onions caramelized, much of that flavor was stuck to the bottom of the pan.  I used my wooden spoon to continually scrape up those yummy brown bits, incorporating them back into the onion mixture which helped to evenly caramelize the onions.  (If you have a spot in your pan that is difficult to scrape up, it helps if you gather some onions on top of it, use your wooden spoon to squeeze out some of their juices, and then scrape up the caramelized spot.)  I have to admit, the whole process ended up taking about 35 minutes until I felt my onions were caramelized enough, but when I was finished the onions were incredibly sweet and caramel-ly delicious!  They blended perfectly into this tart recipe, and it was a big hit.  

Assembling my tart before baking. 
Notice the final dark color of the caramelized onions,
located on the blue plate in the middle top.

You can use this method for cooking caramelized onions for any application, whether it be for classic French onion soup, inside a quiche, to serve on top of a sandwich or burger, or even to simply pair with some pan-fried potatoes for breakfast.  Let me know how your caramelized onions turn out, and what you used them in!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Cooking at Altitude: A Basic Overview

After my recent article on baking at high altitudes (and its follow-up blog post More Details on High Altitude Baking), I received a lot of good feedback.  I have a feeling that baking and cooking at altitude is just as frustrating for you all as it is for me!
But baking is not the only problem we have in the kitchen at high altitudes, is it?  Cooking presents some challenges, as well.  I'm sure many of you have had trouble cooking rice, beans, stews and other braised dishes. Why in the world won’t they turn out the way they usually do?!? Don’t worry…it’s not that your cooking skills are waning! Cooking at altitude needs some adjustments as well, particularly when you are using “moist heat methods”, or cooking in liquid.

Here’s why, and it’s for basically the same reason that we have to modify our baked goods recipes: At high altitudes, there is less air pressure. This diminished air pressure means that water boils at a lower temperature than the expected 212°F/100°C. Because the water boils at a lower temperature, the liquid stays at that lower temperature and these dishes take longer to cook. (Additionally, the liquid evaporates faster than we expect because the boiling point is lower.) The result? Rice is still hard when all the water has been absorbed, beans don’t get soft until you’ve cooked them within an inch of their lives and all the skins have fallen off, and your tough cuts of meat that you are braising take forever and a day to tenderize…all of which are major annoyances! But now that you understand what’s going on in your dutch oven, slow cooker, or saucepot, you can make some adjustments and achieve the results you’re hoping for.

First of all, however, I will start out with the advice than many of you are probably already screaming: use a pressure cooker. Using a pressure cooker is a great way to avoid nearly all the problems with cooking at altitude. I don’t personally have a pressure cooker, but I hear they work great, even cooking foods faster than you can cook them at sea level. The reason is simple. The device doesn’t allow steam (and therefore liquid) to escape below a certain temperature, and this trapped steam increases internal pressure and temperature. Therefore, the ambient air pressure is not an issue. In fact, pressure cookers provide even more pressure than is typically available at sea level, so they provide the exact opposite effect of cooking at altitude. The result is a device that allows the food inside to cook at a highertemperature than the boiling point (usually 250°F/121°C), cooking foods faster and more efficiently.

However, like me, not all of us own a pressure cooker. And I’m always up for a challenge. So here are some tips for cooking foods using traditional moist-heat methods at altitude:

RICE: Most folks who cook rice the way they’re used to end up with dried out, undercooked mess. To fix this, just follow these steps:

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1. Increase your amount of liquid by about ⅛ to ¼ Cup for every Cup called for. (For example, if you are cooking white rice, your sea level ratio is 1 Cup rice to 1 ¾ Cup liquid. At altitude, you would need to use a ratio of 1 Cup rice to 1 ⅞ to 2 Cups liquid. For brown rice at altitude, use a ratio of 1 Cup rice to 2 ⅝ to 2 ¾ Cup liquid. For wild rice at altitude, use a ratio of 1 Cup rice to 4 ⅛ to 4 ¼ Cups liquid.)

2. Cook your rice longer by about a tenth more time. For example, white rice takes about 15-18 minutes to cook at sea level, but may take 20 minutes or more at high altitude.

3. Adjust as you go by checking the rice occasionally. Add 1-2 Tbsp liquid if the rice is dry but not yet cooked, or cook a few more minutes if the liquid has not been absorbed.

**I have had a lot of luck cooking my rice in a rice cooker at altitude. I simply increase the amount of liquid and let the rice cooker do the rest.

BEANS: Most folks who cook beans the way they’re used to end up with a disintegrated mess where all the skins have fallen off. To fix this, just follow these steps:

**For MORE details on the tips below, check out this previous post.
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1. Presoak your beans. You can do this in cold water and it will take 10-12 hours to reach maximum effectiveness, which is doubling the size of your bean. Or, in a saucepot, add your beans to water and bring to a boil. Blanch them for 1 ½ minutes. Turn off the heat and let them soak. It takes 2-3 hours to reach maximum effectiveness, which is doubling the size of your bean.

2. Cook your beans at a lower temperature than the boil. This is always recommended to prevent beans from losing their skin. Your cooking liquid should be at a slow, lazy bubble.

3. Plan for your beans to take longer to cook and be prepared to use more liquid than your recipe calls for. This is inevitable at altitude but as long as you build some extra time into your plan, you should be fine.

4. Add acid, sugar, or calcium. All three of these substances prevent disintegration and loss of skins. Using molasses (a good source of all three), tomatoes (acidic), or hearty greens (calcium-rich) will achieve this goal, but of course these ingredients won’t work with all recipes. Alternatively, add just a touch of vinegar (such as cider or red/white wine vinegar, depending on your recipe) or a tablespoon of sugar to achieve the same results.

5. Don’t store your beans too long before using them. Bean compositions physically change after several months, particularly in warm temperatures and at high humidity and the result is their they will never get as soft as younger beans.

BRAISES: Many folks I’ve talked to have found that braising meat (such as stews, pot roasts, etc.) takes a much longer amount of time than they’re used to, meaning their meat doesn’t get as tender as fast and sometimes their pots are drier than usual. To fix this, just follow these steps:

1. Add about a cup more liquid to your recipe for every quart (4 Cups) of liquid called for. This will help to adjust for the quicker evaporation. Don’t forget to adjust your seasonings to taste.

2. Plan for at least a quarter more time than your recipe calls for, and you’re probably safer if you plan for more than that. It all depends on the cut of meat you’re using so just make sure you start your braises with plenty of time and don’t be alarmed when they don’t tenderize in the amount of time you’re used to.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Cooking Beans at Altitude

I received another GREAT question via email about living and cooking at altitude...this time about beans, so I thought I'd share it with you all:


I'm really struggling with cooking beans up here. I can't seem to get them soft at all without the skins all falling off. There are lots of ideas on how to cook them on the internet from soak them overnight, to don't soak them too much. Could I draw on your expertise to try again with a little more info under my belt.


Photo Courtesy of

So, about beans. As you have discovered, it takes items cooked in liquid (beans, rice, stews, etc.) much longer to reach the desired end state at altitude than it would at sea level. The reason is the same for the varied affects we see in baked goods: The lower air pressure at high altitude allows water to boil at a temperature lower than the sea level boiling point of 212°F/100°C. Because the water boils at a lower temperature, the liquid stays at that lower temperature and these dishes take longer to cook. Time is an annoyance (although one we have to live with), so the skins falling off and the possible disintegration of our beans because they take so long to cook is the real problem here.

There are a few different tips to help prevent this disintegration.

  1. Presoak: This really is crucial at high altitudes, as cooking time can be reduced by 25% or more. The heart of the matter is that beans have a very effective seed coat, which controls the absorption of water. It takes up to an hour in cold water for the seed coats to even become hydrated (meaning letting water through them at all), which means that if you don't soak them you are basically spending your first hour of cooking just getting the water through the skin, which is definitely not going to help your end result. (The outside could be overcooked before water even reaches the middle of the bean.) The amount of time you soak your bean depends on your water temperature. In cold water, you reach maximum effectiveness (doubling the size of your bean) at 10-12 hours. (This absorption happens the quickest in the beginning, as the bean absorbs more than half its water capacity in the first two hours alone.) Or, you can bring your beans to a boil in water and blanch them for 1 1/2 minutes. Turn off the heat and let them soak, and the equal amount of water absorption (two times their weight) only takes 2-3 hours.  You cannot soak beans "too much" (as in, making them hard again through soaking), but you will not receive any benefits after 10-12 hours in cold water.

  2. Lower Temperature: Interestingly enough, it is actually recommended that we cook beansbelow a boil no matter what altitude we are at in order to prevent them from losing their skins and disintegrating. At sea level, the recommended "bean cooking temperature" is 180-200°F/80-93°C, known as the "simmering" point. "Simmering" is marked by slow, lazy bubbles. Obviously, if you follow this recommendation here at altitude, you will need to lower the temperature even more (say 165-180°F/74-80°C--the "poaching" temperature at sea level!), but more importantly look for those slow, lazy bubbles. And of course, your beans will take even more time to cook, which takes us back to the important step of presoaking (and prior planning!).

  3. Add Acid, Sugar or Calcium: Acid makes the bean's cell wall more stable and less disolvable. Sugar reinforces cell wall structure and slows the swelling of the starches. Calcium cross-links and reinforces cell wall pectins. Molasses is a good source of all three, and acidic tomatoes are also very helpful. Sometimes I cook beans with hearty greens, so there's calcium right there. Of course you can't always add these types of ingredients depending on your recipe. I have not tested this, but I imagine that adding just a touch of flavored vinegar (such as cider or red/white wine vinegar) or a tablespoon of sugar might help enough to get your desired end result without changing the taste of your dish too much.

  4. Add Salt or Baking Soda: This is not a great option due to their drawbacks, but these ingredients reduce cooking time greatly (due to the sodium in both and the alkalinity of the baking soda that help dissolve cell walls). The drawback is their affect on the taste and texture of the end result. The taste of salt is no problem (at about 2 tsps per quart of water), but this can lead to a mealy internal texture as opposed to creamy. That's a risk you might be willing to take. But baking soda makes beans taste "slippery" and soapy, so even though it can reduce cooking time by 75% you probably wouldn't risk it.

  5. Pressure Cook: I don't own a pressure cooker so I haven't tested cooking beans in one, but regardless of the outside air pressure these machines cook at 250°F/120°C which will cook your beans very fast, particularly if they've been pre-soaked.

  6. Storage: If beans are stored for several months or more in warm temperature at high humidity, their compositions physically change and they will never get as soft as regular beans. So don't buy more beans than you can cook within about 2 months, if possible, just to avoid this.
Okay, hope this gives you a couple of ideas to try for your next bean dish! Oh, and remember that sometimes beans are grown in such conditions that simply make them harder and more water resistant, and these beans just never get soft. When you're rinsing your beans before cooking, take out any that seem to be unusually small, as they might be this type of "hard-seed" bean, but other than that there is no way of telling if you've got bad beans before you cook them.

Here's a bean dish I cooked recently that I loved...

Sausage, Cannellini and Kale Soup
Recipe Adapted from
Serves 4-6
  • 1 Cup dried white beans (such as alubias)
  • 1-1/2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped (1-1/2 cups)
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled and finely chopped (3/4 cup)
  • 1 medium celery stalk, finely chopped (3/4 cup)
  • 1-1/2 tsp. minced fresh rosemary
  • 2 Tbs. tomato paste
  • 2 large cloves garlic, minced (1 Tbs.)
  • 1 quart homemade or lower-salt chicken or vegetable broth
  • 6 oz. kale or other hearty green such as chard, center ribs removed, leaves chopped (Kale is hard to find in Mexico City, but I know one type, "Col Chino" can be found. Chard is widely available and called Acelga. Alternatively, you can use Spinach and cook for less time; see instructions below.)
  • 1 Parmigiano-Reggiano rind (1x3 inches; optional; authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano is available at Costco, or use Grana Padano or Parmesan rind, found at Chedraui)
  • 1-1/2 tsp. cider vinegar
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2/3 lb. sweet or hot bulk Italian sausage, rolled into bite-size meatballs (Italian sausage can be found in the meat freezer section--next to the butcher--at Superama)
Put your beans in a large container or bowl and cover by at least three inches of cold water. Soak at least overnight and up to 12 hours. Alternatively, put your beans in a small saucepot and add cold water to cover by at least two inches. Bring the water to a boil and blanch beans for 1 1/2 minutes. Turn off the heat and let them soak for at least 1 hour and up to 3 hours.

Heat 1 Tbs. of the oil in a 4- to 5-quart pot over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, celery, and rosemary and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables begin to soften, about 6 minutes. Add the tomato paste and garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 seconds. Add the broth, beans, and Parmigiano rind (if using). Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium low, and simmer gently until the vegetables and beans are tender, about 2-3 hours. Add the hearty greens and simmer for 15 more minutes. (If using spinach, cook for only 5 minutes.)

Meanwhile, heat the remaining 1/2 Tbs. oil in a 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium-low heat. Add the sausage meatballs, sprinkle with a pinch of salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned and cooked through, about 10 minutes.

Add the sausage to the soup and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Cook 5 minutes more to meld the flavors. Stir the cider vinegar into the soup and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

To Tickle Your Funny Bone: Ordering Drinks Overseas

[Please pardon my departure from my usual topics of food and Mexico.  I wrote this post for The Hardship Homemaking blog, for which I am an occasional contributor and thought some of you might like to see it.]

If you drink alcohol, you probably have a favorite mixed drink. Just like with your favorite meal, blanket, or movie, being able to order "your drink" even when you're outside of the U.S. makes you feel like you just might survive, right?!? Coincidentally, I recently heard a couple of HILARIOUS stories from friends on this subject, so I thought I would share them here, with their permission of course. Hope this tickles your funny bone...and please share your funniest "foreign bartender" story with us, too!

My friend Katie on trying to order a Dirty Martini in Germany....

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"Drew and I were living in the hotel when we first got to Germany and decided to grab a drink at the bar in the lobby. I played it easy with a glass of wine, but he really wanted a dirty martini. The bartender was Italian and on the first attempt, just brought him a glass of straight Martini & Asti Vermouth. Drew took this as an educational opportunity and explained that he wanted 1 part vermouth, 2 parts vodka and a splash of olive juice. A short while later, a glass of booze arrived. It had some green globs floating at the top and looked pretty weird. We soon realized that our dear bartender thought that olive juice was olive oil! Wasn't long until Drew learned to stick to beer..."

My friend Kristina on trying to order a Caipiroska in MIAMI....yes, I realize that's not overseas, but there was some sort of language/cultural barrier going on...

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"During our holiday trip to Miami my husband and I joined some friends for dinner. Since living in Sao Paulo, Brazil on our first expatriate assignment, the Caipiroska has been my signature drink. I've enjoyed this refreshing, muddled, lime/sugar/ice/vodka glass of deliciousness in several countries and various U.S. states. However, a Caipiroska was not in the cards for me at this Miami eatery.
After ordering our drinks the waiter returned to our table and said "I'm sorry, ma'am, can you tell me the name of your drink again? The bartender said he's never heard of this before." I proceeded to tell him that it was a Brazilian drink made with vodka and lime and that I'd be surprised if the bartender had never made one before...bartenders in my home town in Ohio even knew how to make one!
The waiter left and returned with our drinks including a glass of vodka over ice with a lime wedge on the side. I couldn't help but laugh as the waiter said "Is that not it? You did say vodka with lime, right?" He returned to the bar with the glass. Five minutes later the manager came out with the SAME glass of straight vodka and said "Here's your drink, ma'am." I told the manager that this wasn't what I'd ordered and he angrily asked me "What, exactly, DID you order?"
I explained what I ordered and he stormed away as our poor waiter returned to our table. I told the waiter to just forget the Caipiroska. He laughed and said the bartender was online looking up directions and that the drink would be ready any minute. He returned a minute later and placed a perfectly textbook Caipiroska next to the, now watered down, full glass of vodka...and our empty dinner plates."