Flavor To Savor: Thyme

Every herb, every spice, every umami building liquid, every type of cheese even, can either play a specific role in cooking or have such a variety of uses that it can be a trifle overwhelming. Why not start there? I imagine that many people who wish to cook, look at everything available in their supermarket, or every recipe available on the internet and wonder, “Where on earth do I start?”. That’s why I am a firm believer in general ideas and techniques that can be applied to multiple cooking scenarios.

That is a big part of the reason I am so drawn to thyme. You can add it to virtually any savory dish (sometimes less savory ones as well; I sprinkled a touch of dried thyme on some candied nuts I was making and they turned out fantastic.) and it will magnify the  flavors of your ingredient without overwhelming them, while at the same time keeping a low profile, causing your tasters to wonder, “What on earth you put in this…” or “When did you learn how to cook like this?….”, or “Can you tell me how you make this? It must be so complicated.” Which is when you smile and say that you just boiled the squash or potatoes or rice, or you just threw the tomatoes or zucchini or peppers in the oven to roast; that it took hardly any work, and the only ingredients you used were oil, s+p, and thyme. “Thyme?” “Yeah.” Then they’ll usually give you a really confused look like they’re wondering who in their right mind buys thyme, or isn’t that something you only need in restaurants?

If you are me, you will then crush some between your fingers and force them to inhale deeply. But do use your own good judgement when considering if you should move on to that step.

Thyme has been around for centuries. Sorry to start with such an obvious remark, but the interesting part was that it was used for properties other than just cooking. The Romans especially attributed to it the power of warding off poison, and would eat it raw before or during a meal for this purpose. Or they would infuse their baths with it if they thought they were the subject of foul play. Thyme does contain the chemical compound thymol, which is still used in antiseptic or germ killing products to this day. Thyme tea is still a common remedy against throat or stomach infections. Thyme’s supposed anti-poison properties also made it a common weapon against the Black Death. Pouches of thyme were worn around the neck, and poultices of thyme were applied to blistered skin.

The Romans also popularized the idea of thyme being associated with or inspiring bravery, and would be given sprigs of the herb on their way to war. They would wear them in pockets or purses, and keep the sprigs with them during battle. “Thymon” in Greek means courage, so this part of its history is included right in the name.

So, it wasn’t until Monasteries in the Middle Ages started using thyme commonly in their simple breads and roasts that it picked up real speed as a truly worthy culinary herb.

Thyme has a very perfumey flowery smell. Like I said, because it does not overpower, it acts as a really good addition to most vegetables and proteins, as well as breads and other baked goods. Fresh time is really worth the splurge, as the oils have a much easier time of seeping into the entire stew or chicken, depending on what you are cooking. While dried thyme, and all dried herbs, has a stronger more concentrated flavor, it does not spread throughout the whole dish half as much as fresh stuff. Slightly crush the fresh herb and add it to your mixture early on, so it has time to meld with the other ingredients. Or just throw an entire sprig on top of some vegetable to roast, and the amount of depth it adds will astound you. Whether or not you feel like chopping it, or just tossing it in, going for the fresh, or rubbing the dry into powder, you’ll find that thyme is the easiest way to build flavor without sacrificing ease or time. If you don’t have poultry seasoning, thyme, and a little sage if you have it, are basically the biggest components of that, and if you by them separately you can use them for stuff other than just poultry.

Try lemon or french thyme as well, and you will be in for a slightly surprising, more nuanced and pronounced flavor that still pairs well with most protein, especially neutral tasting fish.


People’s Biggest Fears: Seasoning

It seems to me that people who have not been exposed to cooking in their youth, have not had a mother who cooked in front of them, and/or, never endured restaurant work of any kind, have many irrational fears and misconceptions about cooking: how hard it is, how much time it takes, how much knowledge you have to have, how many things you have to purchase… Whatever it is, there is always some reason why they simply cannot cook.

I digress. Why is it, I wonder, that people are afraid to put salt and pepper on their food? (and yes, in case you were wondering, seasoning is: salt and pepper). They apparently do not fear the actual seasoning, but the flavor it would impart.

The truth is, most gourmet food is fresh, well-sourced ingredients, and salt and pepper. That’s what you pay for when you go to a really nice restaurant.

Cooking is simple, but it becomes complicated when people are afraid to season their food. Blandness in home cooking can most often be attributed to those adventurous people bringing good raw ingredients into their homes, and refusing to sufficiently salt them. What they get is bland food, and what we get on the other side is complaining. Not salting your food is nobodies’ fault but your own.

My old boss once told me that all our pasta was cooked in water so salty it tasted like sea water. Yes. That is a true story. Sea water.

So go ahead. Sprinkle that half a teaspoon on your chicken breast, that teaspoon on your vegetables, that tablespoon or two in your rice and pasta water.

To evenly sprinkle freefalling salt, grab it between your fingers and rub them together over your ingredient while moving your arm in a circle. For salt in a container, I hope I don’t I have to tell you to just shake it or twist it.

This series will continue to explore fears and misconceptions in the kitchen, and some tips on how to get over them.

Restaurant Recollections: A Different Experience

It was called the Beach House; a restaurant sitting right on the ocean beach, overlooking the tides, and the sunsets that made them look like liquid gems. I was nervous about going in; after all this place was way too upper class for me to work in.

I was wrong, as is the case much more often than I like to admit. The chef sat down with me right then and there, and offered me a job ten minutes later. Even though he admitted that they had just filled all their openings.

He also told me that he had just started his job as head chef 4 weeks earlier. The fact that he told this to me, a stranger whom he had just hired, should have sparked a little warning in me that he might not be a great boss. But more on that later.

This was a real restaurant, as I was soon to find out – as opposed to the tiny small menu restaurants I had previously worked in. 50 homemade sauces lined an entire wall of the walk-in cooler. I spent my first day learning how to make the salads, but unlike other restaurants, I made them for myself and then ate them, which was super fun, and also a great learning experience.

The second day, I missed the bus. And then the next one, because it was full. I ended up two hours late, sick with worry and sure that I was about to be fired. My boss sat down with me, and was very understanding about the whole thing; I went and got changed and cried a little bit. Then I went back down and learned how to make sushi.

Ok, I am kind of lying. I started to learn how to make sushi.

Restaurants operate a lot differently than people who have not worked in them think they do. This series on my restaurant recollections will, I hope, allow readers to gain an understanding of how stressful and complicated restaurant operation actually is, but also, how unique and rewarding the job is in the long run.



All About the Good Fat

Our bodies need fat to function, and lucky for us, its using fat in cooking that really makes food taste good! Why does frying work so well, and, wait a second, shouldn’t it be avoided? Like the plague? Or something worse?

Yes, some fats should be avoided like the plague, because they pretty much are the plague! Those are called trans-fatty acids, and are partially hardened, or hydrogenated, to increase their shelf-life, and decrease expense. Our bodies cannot break down these fats, and trans-fats also harden the cell membrane and raise LDL cholesterol. I tried to find simple info on why this is so for the LDL cholesterol problem, but all the explanations I found I couldn’t understand, so while I choose to believe Chris Johnson of On Target Living, I have yet to find a good explanation of how cholesterol works.

Anyways, while trans-fats are horrible, and are in every processed food out there (any package that says hydrogenated has trans-fats regardless of what the nutrition label says) the good news is that if you cook at home, you don’t have to worry about trans fats at all! Any fat in your meat or fish or cheese, basically, any naturally occurring fat, is good and necessary for your body in small amounts. This is saturated fat. The best saturated fat around is coconut oil, which has a really high smoke point. This means it won’t smoke up your house as it gets really hot, so you can use it when you need some really intense heat.

Monounsaturated fats include olive oil, avocados and most nuts. These are also helpful in raising HDL cholesterol levels, and they apparently are up there in the “good for your body to do what it needs to” thing.

But this is not a nutrition blog. I’m bringing up this stuff about fat because people who are paranoid about fat, yet eat packaged foods, need to hear that a couple tablespoons of olive oil is far less harmful that the 19 or even 30 grams of trans-fat that one can consume in a single serving of, say potato chips.

Everyone is in a hurry to get healthy, but no one is in a hurry to get to the store and actually buy some groceries! So let’s do this!

Even if you are not a nut person, fats like olive and coconut oil can be consumed in appropriate amounts through sauteing and frying food in them. But it is important to let the pan get hot before you put the fat in (not so much with butter, as it burns very easily) otherwise your food will still stick to the pan. Wait until you can really feel the heat with your hand hovering about two inches above the pan. Then dump your oil in and carefully lower whatever you are cooking onto it without letting it drop in and splash you. I mean, you could do that if you want, but you will pay for it later.

Thanks to Brittany Barb (Long) for the pic!

Anyone Can Roast. And Everyone Should.

Many people find fulfillment in extolling the virtues of raw vegetables. And certainly there are many virtues to be found in the crunchy fresh flavor of, say, a red bell pepper, a home grown carrot, or a certain beautiful cucumber currently sitting in my fridge.

Clearly the cucumber is not going to benefit from anything except me eating it. But peppers and carrots, and about a hundred other vegetables, while they can be greatly enjoyed while eaten raw, seem to have drunk a magic addiction potion when you pull them out of the oven and sink your teeth into that perfectly roasted flesh.

Roasting must be done at a high temperature, 425-450 degrees at least, to work its magic, which is simply to pull the sugars out of the veggie and caramelize those sugars on its surface. Hence the need for the high heat.

Of course my wonderful mother is to blame for the roasting craze I have found myself in for the last few years, but this post was inspired particularly by a fantastic meal she cooked just last night which proves you can pretty much roast anything.

She started out with leeks by poaching them lightly in plain old water. Those suckers are tough and need a decent amount of cooking. However overcooking just completely turns them to mush. So, she poaches them for literally two minutes, just to make sure when they roast it will be all the way through.

She chopped green peppers and fresh tomatoes and I helped her wash the kale. She tossed those with oil, sage, thyme, lots of lemon juice, s+p, and I don’t know what else. There were also some defrosted meatballs (freeze, freeze, freeze people, it will save your life) plus those leeks layered right on top and a good sprinkle of cheese. Then she roasted this pile of goodness, and we devoured it. As it should be. All is right with the world.

Steak Salad (I even cooked the steak!!)

I have never been a salad person. Why even put the lettuce in it, when we all know that we eat salad for the toppings and dressing, and in our hearts actually despise the grassy green stuff we pretend to like cuz it has no calories? Why not just drink a glass of water, instead of eating a bunch of lettuce?

And then there’s the problem of store-bought dressing. The injustice of something so repulsive having so many calories, and being poured on so many unsuspecting peoples plates is just depressing, when you think about it. 60 calories so I can sludge my way through piles of fake blue cheese and mayonnaise? I don’t think so. Instead I chose the sun dried tomato vinaigrette. Whether or not it went with my toppings is really immaterial. Cuz everything tastes the same once you’ve poured the dressing on, right?

That is, unless you have an organic, shot by your dad in the back yard, pan-fried a few days ago by yours truly, venison steak. And yes, I would have just devoured the left overs on their own, except that I also really wanted to eat the cucumber with the amazing aroma that just screamed “Eat me!” and the cherry tomatoes that aren’t going to get any better, but are perfect right now, and cheese.

And when I want to eat all of those particular things, it suddenly becomes steak salad.

I am not an amazing cook by any means. I’m putting my thoughts here to push myself to do research and practice more. But one thing I have learned about salads that changed my life, and actually made me like it more, even with the unnecessary lettuce, is that salads needs seasoning too. And by seasoning, I mean salt and pepper. Well, mostly salt. And it must be sea salt or some type of unrefined salt. (If that confuses you, just do a google search on unrefined salt.) The amount of enjoyment a little bit of salt can add to an unremarkable salad is astronomical. You’d think the dressing would add enough, but all they really put in that stuff is sugar to make it more addicting, just like every other processed product out there. And so once you’ve dumped on your 4 tablespoons, you think you’ve already added way too much. Yet you still probably don’t enjoy your salad. Cuz there is hardly any salt on it. I am telling you right now, salt your salads; and do it before you put the dressing on, so it gets on all those veggies that really need it.

One last tip in the salad department: use a big enough bowl. Salads, even if they are just for you, take up a lot of room, and there is nothing more annoying that making a beautiful one, and then not being able to get the dressing (the only thing you were actually craving) onto the lettuce because there isn’t enough room to toss it without it going all over your counter. Been there, done that, and take it from me, the 30 seconds you spend washing out your tossing bowl is well worth it.

Fat is What??

Impossible to count how many times I have asked myself that question. But there are two answers that gave me the most notable food for thought: that fat is good for you, and that fat is flavor.

Ok, so, both of those answers do require certain explanation, but they are both essentially true, and my morning cinnamon raisin bagel with butter and cream cheese (those of you who have learned to control yourselves in the bagel department, please don’t let me know, or at least try to control your shudders), is just one good of example of the second. Sure a bagel is, on its own, practically food euphoria. But add to it pure, no apologies offered fat (yes, that would be the butter and cream cheese), and it suddenly becomes not only euphoric but absolutely irresistible.

The “fat is good for you” part of the equation is not so adaptable to my food intake today. I did eat a salad for lunch (and some left over potatoes…..and some, just a little I promise, super delicious almond toffee) and the sprinkling of bottom of the bag trail mix bits that my mother dumped on it is a pretty good case in point of the fat is good for you fact. We do actually need fat in our diet, just not the fat that we all usually are in the mood to eat. But if you ever wondered why most nuts, avocados, and certain meats taste soooooooo good, that would be because they have a huge fat content. Which brings me back to: fat is flavor.

I didn’t start realizing how very true this was until my third job in the restaurant biz as a cook. You know that silky finish fine dining sauces always seem to have that yours don’t? Butter. You know that amazing chocolate cake that just screams for you to engulf it, or perhaps make it last as long as possible, that you can never manage to recreate at home? Butter. You know that one seafood appetizer that you will always fall for, even though it is ridiculously priced? Butter. The answer is always butter.

Some people may not want to hear this. After all, doesn’t that mean that to eat yummy food they will have to get fat from eating all the butter? (btw, when I figured this out, I was actually happy because I finally had the secret I had never known before. anyways.) It doesn’t mean that. Because although fat is always flavorful, it is not the only thing that is flavorful. Now stop and read that sentence again. Its important, because it is that reality which sets apart great restaurants from the average. Because fat is so flavorful, it can sometimes be the cheater way out of working for flavor, or caring about it. So next time you despair of eating good food, just come back here to this site and read that sentence again.

That being said, as I write this post, I am nibbling as slowly as I possibly can on a quite fantastic vanilla bean creme brulee; and here’s some advice folks: if you’re gonna eat creme brulee, just use the heavy full fat cream, ok?


Winter Inspiration

Sometimes the New Year does not immediately inspire; sometimes it takes its time, and then surprises you with its originality.

Which is then promptly ruined by human weakness, unless that human can find some way to harness his trepidation. And so it was decided, on a snowy January evening, that I should seriously explore my interest in food by writing about it, as I had always wanted to. As I sit in the rocking chair writing this first post, I tell myself, “Three well thought out posts a week. Surely you can accomplish that.”

The web is a scary place for sure. And putting yourself out there is tough. But I love food so much that I know I need to do this. A few times a week, I will talk about what I ate that day. Did I make it? What was the process, if so? What went well, or badly? Did my amazing Mom make it? Do I know what she put in it? Most importantly, what did it taste like; because, after all this is Fantastic Flavors, and when it comes down to it, we will eat any food if it tastes good to us, no matter what it looks like.

I made it here to this web page in one night, and now all I need to do is talk about what I ate today.

Breakfast was not at all made by me. At all. It was oven-toasted leftover pancakes, made by my dad yesterday – his special recipe with molasses and whole wheat, that I wish I was talented enough to recreate – poached eggs, made by my Dad today, sliced tomatoes, bacon, green onions, cheese, orange slices and of course coffee. Not to shabby. The tomatoes were fantastic for the dead of winter, and with the green onion sprinkled on top on them, and the saltiness of the bacon, they practically exploded in one’s mouth.

Some trail mix was tried midday (more like mid afternoon), as well as tzatziki made by me yesterday. With corn chips. Shudder. But the tzatziki itself is so interesting and addicting. I made it, with homemade yogurt, from this recipe,  which has always turned out so flavorful even without the overnight rests.

Dinner was oven roasted russets coated in some yummy balsamic mixture which my mom conjured up, as well as venison steak pan fried with a little Montreal Steak Seasoning, and diced eggplant sauteed with onions, garlic, oil, tons of salt (and it still wasn’t salty enough), pepper, lemon juice, more oil, and thyme.

I might have to devote a post entirely to thyme, as it is my favorite herb of all time, at least for now. And yes thyme is an herb, not a spice. Do not call it a spice. Use common sense.