Pumpkin Soup with Chillies in Adobo Sauce

Squash as a soup base makes the perfect blank canvas upon which to paint the spices of your favorite cuisines. I decided to daub my paintbrush in Mexican spices today. I have some cooked pumpkin in the freezer from the large pumpkin I cooked last Autumn that I used for the recipe, but you could use canned pumpkin in a pinch.The results were great with the exception of one garnish ingredient that I’ll talk about at the end. So, before you try this, read the caveat!

Pumpkin Soup with Chillies in Adobo Sauce
Pumpkin Soup with Chillies in Adobo Sauce
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Rajasthani Lamb

When Mind GoesBlank and I started exchanging recipes, Rajasthani Lamb was one of the earliest of his recipes that I tried. I first made this dish in 2010, and have made it about twice a year since then.  I usually make it with cubed leg of lamb.  I decided to try it with cubed lamb shoulder this time.

Rajasthani Lamb (serves 4)

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Carnitas in a Slow Cooker

One could argue that since I live in a region where incredible taquerias abound, I have no reason to cook carnitas, myself. But, one would be wrong!  It’s a great dish for get-togethers, and it freezes well. There are an almost infinite number of recipes for carnitas on the internet and in cookbooks. Some call for cooking the pork shoulder in lard, some in milk, some in beer, and some in orange juice. I’ve found that all the recipes I’ve tried and studied have a few lacks when it comes to pleasing my palate, so I’ve developed a recipe based on my personal tastes and experience.

My recipe takes advantages of aromatics, particularly citrus zest. And in contrast to most recipes, I cube the pork so that I can coat more surface area with spices and so that the citrus juices can soak into the meat more deeply. This recipe calls for pork shoulder roast, but you can substitute an equal weight of country ribs.

I like to make my own chili powders from dried chilis.  An equal amount of prepared chili powders can be substituted.

Carnitas taco

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Like it or lump it.

Lumps – the shame and bane of more cooks than I’ve had hot dinners. I’ve checked my library, and apparently the way to avoid them is to sieve the flour.

Before you add it.

Or after.

Or make a roux, then add cold milk.

Or hot milk. Or add the roux to the milk, which should be hot. Or cold. Only do this on a Thursday. I’m yet to perfect the incantations, but I’m hoping one Thursday I’ll get it right!

Let’s play with our food and waste some flour and water and butter and test some variants.

When a roux is added gradually to milk or milk to roux, lumps do not appear. When a roux is added all at once, especially to boiling milk, lumps are far more likely.

So we have a method, but not an explanation.

Flour is mainly starch polymers of amylose and amylopectin. Amylose is soluble in hot water but amylopectin is not. When flour is put into hot water, it loses amylose, and water fills the space between the amylopectin molecules, causing the granules to swell, and forming a gelatinous starch paste. Flour deposited quickly in hot water is enveloped by a gelatinised layer that limits the diffusion of water toward the dry central core of the lump.

Placing a one centimeter ball of flour in hot water causes it to become moistened to a depth of one or two milimeters, with the centre remaining dry.

So how can I prevent lumps? No voodoo or incantations are required. I just need to break the lumps (with a whisk) into particles smaller than the thickness of the starchy layer. Instead of sifting the flour before you add it and the batter afterwards, try sifting the flour into the liquid while you whisk it.

60 / 60 perfect pasta

Pasta is a delivery mechanism for children as far as I can tell. It is the universal canvas upon which nearly any flavour can be introduced. So why do so many adults sneer at it? The benefits of fresh handmade pasta over dried shop bought are real, but with a little science and the right tools we can narrow that gap to nearly nothing.

Dried pasta is an inexpensive, portable and versatile food. It has relatives all over the world. Rice flour pastas, mung bean flour pastas, couscous, they all follow the same story. What I’m interested in for this post is the stuff you can get in any supermarket or corner shop here. Dried durum flour pasta. “Italian” pasta.

The shape of pasta seems almost infinite, but it’s not. I’ll come to choice of pasta shapes in another post.

Durum is the hardest variety of wheat (i.e. highest protein content). Pasta dough made with durum wheat flour is very stiff, which gives our dried pasta its unique resilient texture when cooked.

Durum wheat kernels are ground through steel rollers, separating out the bran and the germ then cracking the starchy endosperm into pieces. Semolina comes from here too.

Producers take great care when they dry their pasta. Dried pasta dough has an optimum moisture level of 12 per cent. If it’s dried too quickly or more than that, it breaks too easily, but too slowly or less and bacteria start partying.

Once you get your dried pasta home, all you have to do is cook it in a big vat of boiling salted water for ten minutes, right? Regardless of shape, size or intention of pasta, those seem to be the instructions.

Uh, not exactly.

Let’s consider what happens in that pan when we cook pasta.

The starch in the flour has to hydrate in the water then gelatinise in the heat. If you put cold dry spaghetti into hot water the surface starch hydrates and becomes sticky, so if you don’t stir it will stick together. There is a pernicious myth that adding oil to the water will help this. It won’t. Oil and water don’t mix, the oil will just float on the surface. It will reduce the surface tension of the boiling water / starch mix reducing that annoying boilover problem, though.

Ok, so if we have a really huge pot of boiling water, that’ll reduce stickiness, right?

Nope.

Theoretically, you will need to stir it less because the large volume of moving, boiling water will do the work for you. Theoretically.

In practice, Harold McGee published an article in the New York Times in 2009 showing you could cook dried pasta perfectly in a bare minimum of water. What’s cool about this is if you use a minimum of water, you can even use the water in funky ways…. but that’s for another post.

So what is going on here?

We’re going to look at what professional kitchens do with dried pasta, and then what we can do at home. In my opinion, this is one of the cases where we can win this game.

Most large restaurants parcook their pasta before service. They take it to very al dente then shock it in ice water, and coat it in a neutral flavour oil. This way they can cook it really really quickly in the pressure of a service.

This doesn’t sound like a method to transfer to the home to me. The pasta is easily overcooked. If there isn’t enough oil the pasta will give up starch and glue itself together as it cools. Either that or, worse, it will continue to absorb moisture as it cools making it flabby and, well, nasty.

Finally, if there’s too much oil, the pasta itself is now adding oil to the sauce I want to cook it in.

There must be an answer, and with a little science, and the right tools, there is.

The answer is a cold water soak. This completely separates the hydration process from the cooking process. The time spent soaking depends on the thickness of the pasta. Linguine takes 90 minutes ish. Fettucini two hours. Rigatoni 4 hours. Spaghetti one hour. It’s a beautiful and amazing process, as you have very fine control over how you like your pasta done.

If fully hydrated, the pasta starts cooking the moment it comes into contact with boiling water, and it takes just 60 seconds.

Let’s go nuts. The pasta will absorb the flavour and colour of the hydrating liquid. So once you’ve tried this method and become a convert, water will become a very boring way of cooking pasta. But that’s another post.

Ingredients

Uh, some dried pasta.

Your choice what type and how much.

Some cold, water-like liquid, seasoned well.

Procedures

Cover the pasta with the liquid, then wait between one hour and several until it’s the consistency you want. Drop it into boiling water for 60 seconds. Drain and serve.