Avoiding kitchen catastrophes

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

Food writer answers intriguing questions about cooking

"A little learning is a dangerous thing," Alexander Pope remarked. I don't disagree, but clearly no knowledge at all can be just as hazardous. Especially in the kitchen. If you can't tell a coulis from a clafoutis, don't know whether it's better to chop garlic or mash it in a press, or fail to appreciate the role of a mirepoix, you could be setting yourself up for culinary catastrophe. What's more, to the extent your lack of knowledge makes you less adventurous, you could be missing out on some flavorful experiences.

Fortunately for the "epicurious" among us, food writer Nancy Rommelmann has cooked up an informative volume that comprises, as its title proclaims, "Everything You Pretend To Know About Food And Are Afraid Someone Will Ask." Among the more intriguing culinary queries she deals with are the following:

What's the most humane way to cook a lobster?

Rommelmann asserts that lobsters must feel pain because they flail about so when plunged into boiling water, but the authors of the "Joy of Cooking" disagree. Whatever the case, Jonathan Bartlett, in his "Cook's Dictionary and Culinary Reference" argues that the lobster's death is instantaneous and entails no suffering. Still, there are precautions that can be taken if for no other reason than to ease the guilt of the cook. One method is to sever the lobster's spinal cord before cooking, though, as Rommelmann notes, this hardly seems more humane than boiling. Another technique involves anesthetizing the lobster by putting it in water and slowly increasing the temperature. A third approach is to submerge the crustacean in wine so that it is too intoxicated to care. Finally, in an effort to summon the courage necessary to prepare dinner, the cook might consume the wine instead of giving it to the lobster.

Is a sweet potato the same thing as a yam?

You might think so judging by the two varieties of sweet potatoes typically found in the supermarket and the fact that yams and sweet potatoes are generally prepared in much the same way. For example, "The Oxford Companion to Food" recommends steaming, boiling, mashing, roasting, or frying yams, just what you'd do to sweet potatoes (though the "Joy of Cooking" warns that yams do not take well to pureeing). But a true yam is a totally different vegetable than a sweet potato, which, as Bartlett notes, is not really a potato at all.

What Is a Scoville unit?

Devised by pharmacologist Wilbur Scoville, a Scoville unit measures how hot a chili pepper is. The higher the number, the hotter the chili. Thus, a bell pepper scores 0 (no heat whatsoever) on the Scoville scale. A poblano chili registers between 1,000 and 1,500 units (mild burn). The state pepper of Texas, the jalapeno, is medium hot, or around 2,500 to 5,000 units. The fiery cayenne pepper scores between 30,000 and 50,000 and the hottest pepper known to humankind, the habanero or Scotch bonnet, scores a whopping 100,000 to 300,000 on the Scoville scale. Scoville units, thus, scientifically validate the familiar principle that the smaller a chili pepper the hotter it is likely to be.

Does champagne come in bottles bigger than a magnum?

A magnum is equal to two standard bottles of champagne, but there are much larger bottles than that, all named after Biblical kings: a Jeroboam is the equivalent of four bottles, a Rehoboam of six bottles, a Methuselah of eight bottles, a Salmanazar of 12 bottles, a Balthazar of 16 bottles, and a Nebuchadnezzar, the largest of all, of 20 bottles.

Must a wine have "legs" to be good?

The tendrils of wine that adhere to and slowly slide down the sides of a wine glass are its "legs" or "tears." The more viscous the wine, the better the legs. However, viscosity breaks down with age, so an old bottle of wine may be excellent and have no legs at all. Hence, a wine's legs are all but irrelevant in assessing its quality and nowhere near as important as its three essential attributes -- color, nose, and taste.

What is the most expensive food in the world?

Beluga caviar, selling for $800 per pound, is the world's most costly food, but saffron, at $600 per pound, is close behind. It is made up of the stigmas of the purple-flowered crocus and it takes some 70,000 of them to make a pound. As they must be picked by hand, the harvesting of saffron is labor-intensive, therefore making for a high-priced spice. French truffles, at about $500 per pound, are also among the world's most precious foods. By comparison, genuine balsamic vinegar at only $75 per ounce or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese at a mere $17 per pound seem like real bargains.

Rommelmann's little book deals with lots of other culinary issues ranging from why arabica beans are never used in instant coffee (they're too good) to whether sun-dried tomatoes really are dried in the sun (not likely) to why cashews are never sold in the shell (the shell is toxic). And it tells you why in the kitchen a china cap is never worn on the head and a mandolin is never strummed. (The former is a conical sieve and the latter is a guillotine-like slicer.) But ultimately, when it comes to culinary knowledge, the best tutor is a good recipe like the following one.

Grappa Semifreddo

Originally a peasant's drink but now one of the biggest things in distilled spirits, Grappa is a potent form of Italian brandy distilled from the skins and seeds left over from wine making. Semifreddo is a chilled, mousse-like dessert. This recipe, adapted from Gourmet Magazine, offers a good lesson on both of them. When making it, use pasteurized egg whites from a carton so you won't have to ponder the culinary question, "What is salmonella?"

Ingredients:

3 egg yolks

1/2 cup sugar

1/3 cup plus 6 teaspoons grappa

2 egg whites

1 cup cream

Directions: Beat egg yolks, sugar, and 1/3 cup grappa in a bowl set over simmering water until thick and pale and mixture registers 170 degrees, about 10 minutes. Place bowl in ice bath and beat mixture until cold. Beat egg whites with a pinch of salt until they just hold stiff peaks. Beat cream to soft peaks. Whisk one third of whites into yolk mixture, then fold in remaining whites and cream. Spoon mixture into six 1/2-cup molds, cover with plastic wrap, and freeze until firm. Chill the remaining grappa. When ready to serve, dip molds in hot water for five seconds, run a knife around edges, and unmold, spooning a teaspoon of chilled grappa on top of each. Can be garnished with chocolate or caramel sauce or warm espresso.

Listen to A Harte Appetite Fridays at 8:49 a.m. and Saturdays at 11:59 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Write A Harte Appetite, c/o the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699 or by e-mail to tharte@semissourian.com.

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