Everyday Cook - Alton Brown (2016)
PANTRY (A FEW OF MY FAVORITE THINGS)
Although I could sit here and type rhapsodic on each and every foodstuff I keep on hand in my pantry, this book would be ridiculously heavy if I did. Besides, odds are good you’re familiar with things like all-purpose flour, tomato sauce, rosemary, Cap’n Crunch, and the like. So I decided to keep this list to thirty items that, albeit far from obscure, are not exactly run-of-the-mill. In any case, they’re all called for in recipes herein, so let us take a few moments to consider:
The first of the ancient grains featured herein, AMARANTH was praised by the Aztecs who highly revered the seeds of this weed, which deliver not only protein but lysine, an amino acid that’s missing from most plant foods, and explains why vegetarians like it so much. It’s interesting to note that Spanish conquistadors tried to wipe amaranth out and convert the native Central Americans to wheat, but amaranth grows like the weed it is so they couldn’t manage it. Because of that, the amaranth gene pool has survived intact. I’ve come to appreciate amaranth and amaranth flour in baking. The cookies are addicting, but it’s okay because amaranth is so darned good for you. Eat a dozen…go ahead.
ANCHO AND CHIPOTLE CHILES: I tend to use these two together quite a bit. Anchos are the dried version of poblano chiles while chipotles are simply smoked and dried jalapeños. The latter are most often found in cans with adobo sauce, but those are completely different critters in my book. I like dried chiles because they’ll keep forever in the pantry. I like the combination of the two because I like the fruitiness of the ancho and the smoke of the chipotle. Without either my EnchilLasagna just wouldn’t be as good. When rehydrated, they’re also terrific in salsas. Oh, and if you can find the form of chipotles called ahumado, which are gray rather than brown, scoop them up…They’re the good stuff.
ANCHOVIES: Anchovy fillets that have been salted, packed in oil, and then canned (or jarred) can deliver a serious dose of both glutamic and inosinic acids that combine to create the savory flavors food folk call umami. And the nice thing is that it doesn’t take much to do the trick. A single fillet can shake a dish up without making it taste at all “fishy.” In fact, of all the folks I’ve served my spaghetti to, only one has called me on the fish. Other uses: tapenade, onion dip, beef stew, meat loaf, and yes…Thanksgiving turkey gravy. There! I confess!
PS: We used a can in the photo, but I actually prefer jarred versions because you can easily reseal and refrigerate what you don’t use.
BLACKENING POWDER BLEND: Blackening is tricky business involving a lot of spices meeting up with extremely high heat. Get it wrong and everything tastes burned. Part of that is technique, but it’s also about getting the ratios just so. There are plenty of blackening powders on the megamart shelves (seems like any chef who’s so much as touched Louisiana has one), but odds are you have most of this stuff anyway, and if you don’t, you should. Just remember to give this a shake before you dole it out.
I’m giving the blend to you here in parts so you can make as much or as little as you like. Just remember it’s parts by volume…doesn’t matter if it’s a teaspoon or a gallon.
1 PART EACH:
Freshly ground black pepper
2 PARTS EACH:
Combine in a big jar, screw on the lid, and shake. Store in a cool place for up to 3 months.
CHIA SEED: All you have to do is attach the word Aztec or Mayan to a food and I immediately don’t want to eat it. It’s not that I don’t like “superfoods,” it’s just if they’re so gosh darned super, why haven’t we been eating them by the shovelful all this time? This is especially true of chia, because if even a quarter of what they say about chia is true, it’s all you really need to eat to live to 150. Am I intrigued by the fiber, the antioxidants, the protein? Maybe. And the fact that chia’s protein is more complete than that of flax, and that its benefits can be gleaned whether the seed is ground or not, is certainly a point of nutritional interest. But what really makes chia special is how it can be used to make Chia Pets. No, but seriously, it’s the fact that the outer fibers of the seed are highly hydrophilic, allowing the seed to absorb nine times its weight in water and form a kind of gel, a curious characteristic that many “natural” beverage companies have taken advantage of. I take advantage of it too on this page, where it helps to set almond milk into something resembling a custard. Oh, and yeah…it’s good for you.
CRYSTALLIZED GINGER (AKA CANDIED GINGER): Chop fine and add to various cookies, cakes, breads, et cetera. Cook with sugar and water to make a syrup for use in glazes or even just iced tea, or the ginger ale. It can be used in barbecue sauce and blended into smoothies. I love the chewy texture so I just eat the stuff, and you might do the same, especially when you are traveling, because ginger’s unique chemistry (compounds such as zingiberene, gingerol, zingerone) may protect against motion sickness and a host of other gastro grumbles. Whether you buy it or make your own, as long as you store it in an airtight container it will keep exactly forever.
DEMERARA SUGAR: Originally from Guyana (which was once called Demerara), this is a light brown sugar with a difference; the crystals are large, rectangular, crunchy, and dry. Most commercial brown sugar is quite wet because it’s made by blending together refined white sugar and molasses (a good thing to keep in mind if you run out of brown sugar for baking). Demerara’s unique characteristics make it perfect for topping baked goods when other sugars would simply dissolve. My Apple Spice Bundt Cake is totally made by the Demerara sprinkled onto the glaze as it cools. The sweet crunch on my Peach “Cobbles” also comes from these mahogany gems. I would never use it as a substitute for other sugars in baking, but Demerara can go and do what no other sugar can…crunch.
FISH SAUCE: Imagine a fermented, concentrated liquid version of anchovies and that’s fish sauce. Why? Because that’s all it is. Anchovies are stacked in barrels with salt and allowed to, well…“rot” would probably be the correct word. Fish sauce is the liquid that’s left over. I have Red Boat brand in my kitchen at all times, not because they pay me but because I love the stuff. It’s funkier than a Parliament LP, and a very little goes a very long way. That said, the Pho Bo just wouldn’t be pho without it.
Side note: Opossums love fish sauce…that’s all I’m going to say.
FIVE-SPICE POWDER: This classical mixture always contains the same five spices, but it can be mixed to many a ratio, depending on the cook. After considerable experimentation I’ve settled on:
5 star anise pods
1 cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons fennel seeds
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns (red)
15 whole cloves
I crush the anise and cinnamon roughly by wrapping them in a tea towel and smacking them with a rolling pin. Then I transfer everything to a spice grinder and pulse to a powder. Store it in airtight containment for up to ninety days. You can, of course, purchase a premade mixture, but what fun would that be? I use this in my Zissou’s Buffet of Underwater Delights, but I often sneak it into pho broth as well. And you know what…it makes great ice cream too. Oh, and I rub it on ribs sometimes before I smoke them. Pork and five-spice are besties.
FLAXSEED AND FLAXSEED MEAL: It seems that flax has become the poster seed for health food pundits and gurus, given its supposed ability to combat everything from skin cancer to depression. And then there are the omega fatty acids and a fair amount of protein. Me…I just like it. Keep in mind that whole flaxseeds can pass through the gut undigested. I still like using them because I like their crunch and their flavor, but I also use the ground “meal” version, which is nutty and reminds me of old school Grape-Nuts. Remember Grape-Nuts? Oh, and I sprinkle it on peanut butter and honey sandwiches…and chocolate ice cream, which I think may well counteract any possible health benefits.
FURIKAKE: Yes, there’s a lot of Asia in my pantry these days, but what can I say? Hosting a few hundred episodes of Iron Chef America will do that to you. Such is the case with furikake, the mixture of ground dried fish, dried seaweed, sesame seeds, and other seasonings used to flavor rice, snacks, pickles, and sushi. My thing is popcorn. I don’t just sprinkle furikake…I shovel it. And that’s okay because other than being rather high in sodium, it’s pretty darned good for you.
PS: Some folks prefer the spicy version with wasabi, but I’m a purist.
GRAINS OF PARADISE (AKA GUINEA PEPPER, ATARE, OR ALLIGATOR PEPPER): The seeds of Aframomum melegueta, an African shrub related to cardamom, are available from most online spice vendors. The pyramid-shaped seeds are slightly smaller than peppercorns but…Let’s put it this way: if black pepper had a mysterious, sexy and slightly naughty sister, it would be GOP. And unlike black pepper, which packs a bite but rarely any subtlety, GOP plays amazingly well with desserts, especially apples. I also like using it in my spice cake because no one can exactly put their finger on what it is. I like that.
HERBES DE PROVENCE BLEND: Another example of a mix that everybody has a version of. Well, I’ve been to France so I get one too. Again, go parts by volume.
1 PART EACH:
2 PARTS EACH:
3 PARTS EACH:
Seal in a jar and shake. Will keep for about 2 months. After that Provence is gonna start to fade.
KATSUOBUSHI: What happens when you take a skipjack (aka bonito) tuna, cut out its loins, then smoke them and dry them and salt them and smoke them some more and maybe dry them a little further? Rock-hard bananas…at least that’s what they look like. The stuff is so hard that you have to use a thing like a wood plane to cut it into thin shavings. Luckily you can buy it preshaved in bags that keep for approximately ever. Why keep it around? It’s the basis of dashi, the cooking stock upon which Japanese cuisine floats. In that case the flakes are steeped and strained out, but you can also enjoy them sprinkled on everything from pasta to ice cream (seriously). Katsuobushi is also one of the weirdest foods in the world to watch. Finish the Grilled Shishitos with them and behold what can only be described as a dance. The first time I witnessed this it scared the hell out of me.
LEAF LARD: Unlike most lard on the market, which is simply pig fat that’s been hydrogenated to make it easy to work with and shelf stable (yuck), “leaf” lard is rendered from the soft fat that hails from around the kidneys. Its chemical makeup and crystalline structure differentiate it from other forms of lard and make it specifically well suited to pastry work, especially piecrusts. Its fats are less “saturated” than those in butter, so it’s actually a healthier option; it doesn’t taste at all porky, it’s terrific for frying, and if refrigerated in a sealed jar, it keeps for months. My favorite application? The Little Brown Biscuits.
LIQUID SMOKE: I spent most of my life assuming this is terrible stuff, no doubt laden with artificial flavors and noxious chemicals, or worse, squeezed from wet cigarette butts or some such. Then I read that the “good stuff” contains nothing but smoke and water and is generated via a simple still. Intrigued, I made my own by placing a bag of ice on top of a metal bowl set upside down over a slightly larger tube cake pan perched atop a chiminea fireplace, inside which hardwood was smoldering. It took five hours to produce a couple of tablespoons, but, dang, was it tasty. Luckily there are a few brands out there still making it the right way, albeit faster than I can. Even if I didn’t use it in food per se, I’d keep it around the bar to drip a drop at a time into my Smoky Tequila Sour.
MALDON SALT: There are two kinds of salt: salt you cook with and salt you finish with. Maldon salt’s, large, gorgeous, light, and fluffy flakes melt in the mouth or crunch pleasantly on the tooth. It’s harvested in Essex on the eastern coast of England and has been for a couple thousand years. Seawater is filtered and boiled and then slowly evaporated until the crystallization begins. Then the salt is raked, just so, to form the characteristic shape. I finish many dishes sweet and savory alike with Maldon, but the special cold smoked version tops my Butterscotch Puddin’. That’s right…butterscotch.
MEDJOOL DATES: Dates are the fruit of the date palm, and of the dozens if not hundreds of varieties, I think Medjool are the best. They have the largest meats and the sweetest flavor. I love dates, which makes it tough to explain why I never ever mentioned them for the entire 252 episodes of a food show I used to make. Doesn’t matter. Medjool dates lend a rich, caramel goodness to stews, braises, and a host of appetizers and hors d’oeuvres that all depend on the date’s signature stickiness to hold together. My favorite application is the Kick-in-the-Pants Smoothie in which coffee, banana, and date come together to basically make the closest thing to a chocolate shake that isn’t a chocolate shake. Despite their sweetness, dates are considered healthy due to their high vitamin content and because their sweetness doesn’t seem to raise blood sugar. Store them in something airtight in the fridge for up to three months.
MUSCOVADO SUGAR: This very dark brown sugar is made in only two locations that I know of: the Philippines and the island of Mauritius, from whence my personal favorites hail. The difference between most commercial brown sugars and muscovado has to do with processing. Since granulated sugar is the sugar most people want and use, a great majority of sugarcane and beet sugar is refined to that level. The liquid left over from the process, molasses, is then added back as needed to make brown sugar. The makers of muscovado simply stop refining the sugar while it still has considerable molasses in it, which means it’s less refined, and I think superior in flavor and texture. You’ll pay more for it, but you’ll get more flavor, and isn’t that the point?
NUTMEG: Sumac may be my secret weapon, but I never go out without a nutmeg in my pocket, so it wins the spot on my culinary coat of arms. Although most folks associate nutmeg with holiday baking and, of course, eggnog, I don’t carry it for those applications, though I do like eggnog quite a bit. And, I don’t carry it because you can get high off it. You can, that is certain, due in large part to myristicin, a compound that breaks down in the liver into a “psychedelic” drug. It takes a lot to do the trick and there are lots of downsides, including possible death, so I’m not going to tell you how. What I like about nutmeg is that its flavor, though distinct, tends to cooperate with rather than dominate the foods with which it works. A little bit in béchamel defines that sauce. It elevates spinach and mushrooms and carrots, while still playing nice with the classic “pie spices,” such as clove and cinnamon. I like it because it’s a marble-size nut that’s easy to carry and to grate. I also like that nutmeg often associates with booze, and not just eggnog. I’ve been known to grate it right into bourbon (especially if the bourbon is on the cheap side). If you don’t believe me on all this, go make yourself a Mr. Crunchy or an Oyster Po’boy and get back to me. My one rule: Always grate it fresh.
In 1667 the English traded their last nutmeg-growing island in the Pacific to the Dutch in exchange for another island called Manhattan. #truestory
PEPITAS/GREEN PUMPKIN SEEDS: Same thing, of course, they’re just a lot more common in the cuisines of Latin America and as such are often available in the “ethnic” aisle under that name. Pepitas, Spanish for pumpkin seeds, are commonly used in Latin cuisines. Typically, pepitas are hulled and roasted or toasted prior to packaging.
QUINOA: I have gone on record more than a few times over the last few decades saying that I deeply dislike quinoa. Again…superfood. But this time instead of the Aztecs or the Maya, it’s the Incas who cultivated and cooked the seeds of the Chenopodium quinoa in the mountains of Peru as far back as 5,000 BCE. A member of the beet family, quinoa delivers an astounding amount of nutrition. There is quite a bit of protein containing nearly all the essential amino acids, anti-inflammatories, unsaturated fatty acids, and a whole bunch of phytochemicals, some of which are thought to reduce the chance for various cancers. So here again…we ought to be eating this stuff. But what I’ve come to appreciate is the flavor and texture, both of which are rather difficult to describe. What I do know is that this avowed quinoa hater always adds it to his oatmeal, and the Roasted Thanksgiving Salad may just be my favorite recipe in this book.
PS: Many packagers mention rinsing quinoa prior to cooking, probably to ensure that any residue from the outer seed coat, which is quite bitter, has been removed. I only rinse my quinoa when I make a whole pot, but for small quantities I don’t bother.
RED PEPPER FLAKES: Few spice blends are looked further down upon. Maybe it’s the pizzeria association or the fact that you never really know what you’re going to get heat-wise. And that’s pretty much true. Most jars of “red pepper flakes” contain crushed bits of at least four different chiles, depending on the heat level (according to the Scoville scale) desired by whomever is making the mix. Anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville is the norm, so blenders will use whatever they need to get there. Then there’s fruitiness and smokiness to be taken into account. I tend to reach for the flakes quite a bit (five or six recipes in this book call for them) and I have different brands I appreciate, but even they change with the seasons. That’s why I’ve gotten to where I blend my own. But then, I’m a freak.
RICE STICK NOODLES: Unlike wheat-based dry pastas, rice noodles can be hacked for a wide variety of textures simply by changing up how they’re hydrated. You can simply soak them in hot water or you can soak them in lukewarm water. Or you can soak them, then quickly boil them. This means they lend themselves to everything from stir-fries to soups like the Pho Bo. Rice noodles can also be served cold in salads or on rolls, and since they’re rice, there’s no gluten to fret about.
SARDINES: The word “sardine” refers to many varieties of small, oily fish in the herring family, and I heart them all, especially when they’re in cans. I am, in fact, currently in possession of thirty-two cans of sardines from the United States, France, Portugal, and Spain. Unlike anchovies, I feature sardines front and center as evidenced by the dip/spread on this page. Besides tasting great I have only one rule by the way: always oil, never water. Water-packed sardines actually taste worse than water-soaked tuna, and that’s saying something. Did I mention that sardines are considered sustainable and deliver a heaping helping of omega fatty acids? Just sayin’.
In case you’re wondering, “sprats” are the Baltic cousins of sardines and are traditionally smoked before canning. I have about twenty cans in stock, all from Latvia. Then there are kippers, which are herring that have been split, salted, then smoked. I have thirteen cans of those, and they’re all from England.
SICHUAN PEPPERCORNS: First things first…this isn’t pepper—that is Piper nigrum. The two are not even related. What we’re talking about is the pericarp, or outer husk, of a variety of prickly ash. Although green specimens show themselves from time to time, here in the United States most of what we get are red. And we’re lucky to get them at all, seeing as how they were banned for several years by the USDA for possibly carrying a disease called citrus canker, but now the supply is flowing once again. Sichuan peppercorns are the chief spice responsible for the characteristic flavor of Sichuan-style food; they are referred to as ma la, or “numbing spice.” That’s because Sichuan peppercorns deliver a citrusy, piney zing while putting the middle of your tongue to sleep. The first time this happens you may fear you are having some life-threatening allergic reaction. After you get used to the sensation it’s quite pleasant…at least I think so.
SMOKED PAPRIKA: There are probably as many different types of paprika as there are varieties of Capsicum annuum growing around the world, and they deliver flavors ranging from sweet to semisweet to semihot and hot. The most famous hail from Hungary, where the chiles are allowed to slowly dry in the sun, but my favorites are from the La Vera region of Spain, where they dry their pimentón over smoldering fires. In any case, paprika loses its efficacy quickly, so purchase in small batches from reliable spice peddlers. Fun fact: Though considered critical to Spanish cuisine, Capsicum annuum is American in origin.
STAR ANISE: If making your own five-spice isn’t enough reason to keep these pods around, you clearly haven’t had the Thai Iced Tea or the Pho Bo.
SUMAC: My secret weapon. I got into sumac when I was studying the history of hummus. Most of us learn to add lemon juice for acidity, but then I ran across some research suggesting that hummus was a standard in many parts of the Middle East long before citrus reached the area via the Indian subcontinent. What did they use instead? The crushed berries of a Mediterranean bush, not the poison sumac we grow in the States. Earthy yet lemony, unique yet oddly familiar, sumac is also a key ingredient in za’atar, which is kind of like the five spice of the Middle East. I tend to use it a lot on fried foods that can use some acidity to cut oiliness. Order from the Interwebs…I never see it in stores.
WHEAT BERRIES: Wheat gets a lot of bad press these days, what with all those empty calories and that (look away, children) gluten. But wheat berries, which aren’t berries at all, are as whole as grains get and include the good stuff like the germ and bran. When cooked, they are nutty and pleasantly chewy and they play well with vegetables, herbs, and meats. It’s worth pointing out that “bulgur” refers to wheat berries that have been parboiled, dried, and broken into pieces. That’s not something you can easily do at home, but since I keep wheat berries around but not bulgur, when I prepare a bulgur recipe, I typically break the berries up in a food processor, use a bit more liquid, and alter the cooking time a bit. I always get away with it.
WHITE CORNMEAL: It’s a Southern thing, and frankly I wouldn’t even mention it here were it not for the fact that the country has been overrun by yellow cornmeal, which is a very different thing indeed. I suspect the culprit is polenta, the popular Italian dish prepared from coarse yellow cornmeal. I also blame all that yellow corn bread served at “Southern” restaurants. Truth is, Southern corn bread is not quite as lily white as a biscuit, but it’s dang close, just as true grits are a heck of a lot paler than the aforementioned Italian porridge. Why this is important to me has to do with frying. Fine white cornmeal is absolutely superior to the yellow stuff when it comes to creating a fine, crisp, fried exterior on fried foods. Heck, I don’t think I even have any yellow cornmeal.
AND NOW FOR THE BAR…
A few of my favorite bar things. Spirits that I have on hand at all times and which are (mostly) used in the recipes herein.
Mainly for cooking but for cocktails too. Myers’s is the standard bearer and is typically blended from nine or so rums all distilled in pot stills so they’ve got a fair amount of complexity. To up the sweetness, some of the molasses these rums are distilled from are added back to the final product.
If I had to enjoy but one category of spirit for the rest of my days it would be digestifs, specifically, amari (plural of amaro). Designed to aid digestion, an amaro is fairly high in alcohol and full of funky medicinal flavors. Amari are all bitter to some degree, but Amaro Montenegro, which is the most readily available brand in the United States, is a relatively mild place to start. Not bitter enough for you? Try Fernet Branca.
Although I prefer drinking mezcals, which are made from agave, but not only blue agave, which is the rule for tequila, I keep blanco, aka silver or plata, tequilas around for cocktails. They’re straightforward and clean with none of the character of aged tequilas. The bottle pictured isn’t a brand I’m big on, it’s just what we had on hand and that’s sorta the way I feel about blancos.
COCCHI ROSA AMERICANO APERITIVO
This apéritif is a blend of wines punched up with various fruits, herbs, and spices, including cinchona bark, whose quinine provides Cocchi’s bark, so to speak. The white version is often used in a vesper in place of Kina Lillet, which was reformulated in the eighties. I prefer the red because it’s fairly bitter but not nearly as bitter as Campari. (In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve got a serious thing for bitter when it comes to beverages.)
Basically distilled wine or fermented fruit juice. There are hundreds of examples produced around the world, but I live in Georgia and we’re the Peach State, so there. I use this in my sangria, and nobody ever complains.
Hello, lover. This apéritif, whose bitterness is meant to stimulate appetite, is just the bomb. It’s what makes a negroni a negroni and a boulevardier a boulevardier (a negroni with bourbon, basically) and that’s good enough for me. Fruits, herbs, alcohol, water, and coloring. Originally the red came from carmine, made from crushed cochineal, a parasitic insect. Ah, those were the days. Pass the soda.
Look, we just don’t have the time or space here to go wadin’ into this pool. I have a lot of bourbon. Do you hear me? A lot. And yet, the one I reach for most often when mix-o-gizin’ is this straight bourbon whiskey (aged at least two years, no added coloring or other…stuff) from the folks at Bulleit. That’s not a paid endorsement, but if you guys want to talk, you can tweet me or call me or whatever.
American drinkers can go on and on about single malts, but when it comes to scotch for cocktails, I’m all about the blends. They’re balanced and flavorful and not so darned expensive. I actually love the Johnnie Walker Blue but couldn’t picture it because I was out…still am. Do you hear me, Johnnie!
Gin has had quite a renaissance of late, but this classic, still made in the heart of London, is what I reach for when a martini must be made. “Dry” means no sugar is added. Londons are typically around 90 proof and feature balanced, almost restrained botanicals with stronger hints of citrus. I keep mine in the freezer so that my martinis will require minimal ice.
The term “jack” used to refer to a process of freeze distillation that has pretty much been abandoned in modern times. This particular bottle contains apple brandy mixed with neutral spirits. It was made in New Jersey, a state that used to make so much applejack that the liquor was called Jersey Lightning. As far as I know, this is the last applejack made in the United States. I use it in cocktails (hot and cold) as well as meat glazes.