Test Kitchen Notes rss

Notes from the Test Kitchen

Ode to Fat

Surely we’re not the first to tell you that fat is a vehicle for flavor, hence the reason cooking flavorful, low-fat food is such a challenge. Here in the test kitchen, our flavor vehicles of choice are those you can access easily and consistently: butter, olive, and canola oil. But when we start playing around with dishes that call for the less common fats, we don’t shy away, because the right fat for the right preparation—schmaltz for matzo balls being a prime example—is the right way to make it just like grandma.

This week, we’re elbow deep in ethnic recipes that require those other fats: chopped liver, tamales, braised lamb shanks, etc. Needless to say, flavor’s coming out of our ears at this point. So far we’ve played around with seven different fats, having already used olive oil, canola oil, unsalted butter, duck fat, lard, schmaltz, and lamb fat. But we’ll make it to number eight by week’s end, as we still have to zero in on some shortening. Glad to see we’re not alone in our love for the fatty stuff.

The Guest Chef Experience

I guess I’m a big dork but I have really good memories of my time in undergrad at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration. The program is half business, half hospitality, and it all comes together during the hours upon hours (around 800 in all) students are required to work, applying theory to practical experience. One of the most realistic tests of the students’ skills comes via a class known as Guest Chefs, in which invited chefs visit the school to supervise a high-end, open-to-the-public dinner that students market and run. Heavy hitters such as Daniel Boulud, Todd English, and Michel Roux are just a few of the talented past participants. So when I was invited this year I was in, as I love new experiences, especially if it means helping other people learn along the way.

Last weekend, fellow test kitchen cook Amy and I headed to Ithaca and oversaw the students for two days as they produced our four-course, 12-recipe, pan-Mediterranean menu for a group of 100. Featured were a few of our favorite recipes, such as our Smoked Paprika Prosciutto-Wrapped Shrimp, Charmoula Roast Pork Loin (made with rack of lamb on this outing), and Saag Tofu with Ras el Hanout subbed for the garam masala. Though the recipes were largely about clean flavors, straightforward preparations, and simple presentations, the students still learned plenty. One student told me they thought the recipes had so few ingredients that they’d be easy, but quickly realized that wasn’t true. Instead, it meant every ingredient had to be treated with good technique or the outcome would be subpar.

But we learned too. The most exciting discovery was that a flailing economy made the students fearful, yet unwavering in their desire to forge a career in the food world and dork out on food, just like we do every day here. The one thing I didn’t recall? Just how hard it is to get to upstate New York from the West Coast and how freakin’ freezing it is there in mid-February.

The Giving Kitchen

Just as the people who work in the CHOW test kitchen wear many hats (writers, scientists, food stylists, prop stylists, and of course cooks) our kitchen, too, must adjust to our daily whims. Like a passive-aggressive mate, our workspace has to succumb to all the wishes of the family around it. On any given day, the kitchen is our library, prop storage room, photo studio, and often much more.

Today alone our poor kitchen has served as a recipe testing ground, the food team’s styling headquarters, a location for both a CHOW Tip video and Passover photo shoot, and a conference room. Add the lure of free food, and it’s clear that this is the most traversed room for all of CHOW.

But sometimes we forget to give a little love back to the kitchen that provides so much. When that happens, a busted sink or broken garbage disposal will be bestowed upon us, as a reminder that we need to appreciate and look after our workspace. So now, not unlike the old man in the ending of The Giving Tree, I’m taking a moment to sit in our ol’ kitchen and give it a well-earned rest.

If You Can’t See It, You Won’t Cook It

After cooking for a while, you develop Recipe ESP, and know just from reading the recipe what the end product will taste and look like. But we’re well aware that it takes time to develop that skill, and we’ve heard over and over that if home cooks see a recipe and don’t know what they’re in for they won’t risk trying that recipe.

Enter photo shoots in the test kitchen. We spend one to two days each week working on food photos for the site, giving credence to the old adage that a picture’s worth a thousand words. This week we’ve concentrated on finally giving a visual ID to our numerous pasta recipes, so be on the lookout for a sexy-looking Lasagne alla Bolognese and an enticing Pasta with Arugula Pesto, along with many others.

Kitchen Dyslexia

I like to multitask. I enjoy having many things going on at once so I can accomplish as much as possible during the day, but sometimes I put too much on my plate.

Last Friday while my corned beef was simmering, and I was waiting for Chris (our photographer) to set up his lights for our photo shoot, I decided to go ahead and test the chocolate pot de crème recipe that we’ve been working on. So I measured, weighed, and whisked together the silky custard. Then carefully poured it into individual ramekins, placed them in a water bath, and popped them in the oven.

I returned 30 minutes later to check on my beautiful baked puddings only to discover a bubbling, chocolaty mess. In my rush to get them in the oven I set the oven at 352°F, instead of 325°F. A simple mistake, but ruinous when you’re dealing with delicate custard. Maybe one day I’ll learn to only take on what I can handle.

Thyme You Can Strip in a Zip

We go through a lot of herbs here in the CHOW test kitchen, but prepping them—especially the woody-stemmed ones like thyme and marjoram—can get to be a bit of a chore. Typically, you take those herbs and hold them by the tip with one hand while zipping your fingers down the stem toward the base. This technique is tricky with thyme, which tends to grow in branched-out, bushy clusters, but we’ve made a discovery: There’s thyme out there that grows in straight sprigs (pictured on the right), making stripping a cinch. Be on the lookout for it next time you’re shopping, if you have a dish with thyme in mind.

The Making of a Menu

Most of the recipes we develop here in the test kitchen are made as part of a menu. Recently we’ve done menus for the Super Bowl, Valentine’s Day and have a few coming up for Passover and the Kentucky Derby. A lot of thought goes into these menu compositions. Do the recipes combine well with each other? Is it do-able, and easy enough to execute all these dishes at once? Or even better, can they be made ahead? The question that always pops into my head after all this contemplation: Has anyone ever made one of our entire menus?

Thus I turn to you, dear readers. Have you ever made an entire CHOW menu, or an entire menu from any other food publication? If so, was it a positive experience? How did it turn out? We here in the test kitchen would love to know.

Blood, Sweat, and Tears in the Test Kitchen

The first test of a new recipe can be a mysterious adventure, like a first date. You never know exactly how it will turn out. You’ve done your research, spent time on preparation, and hopes are high. Either you will be sadly disappointed and head back to the drawing board, or you’ll go through the motions, find some redeeming qualities, then plan on a second date—or test, in this case. On rare occasions, it’s kismet. All of the stars are aligned and you couldn’t have planned better … but how often does that happen? (Hint: never.)

Each recipe we create here is tested at least three times, and some we try out as many as ten times. What we start with is often vastly different from what we end up with, so we don’t usually take on too many first tests at once—it can be tricky trying to monkey with every recipe at the same time. Lucky for us, Kate arrived this morning singing our fight song for the tough day ahead:

Our mystery ship of first tests (in-house corned beef, angel food cake with berries, cedar plank salmon, fish cakes, and bitter greens salad) were all successes! Thank you, Blood, Sweat & Tears, for the positive vibe cast over the test kitchen today.

Test Kitchen Cooks Have Dishpan Hands

At times I think we have the perfect job working in CHOW’s test kitchen. Our responsibilities are to cook food, eat food and occasionally write about food. But alas no job is perfect because, as anyone who has ever spent time in the kitchen knows, what’s left when the cooking and eating are over is a pile of dirty dishes. So many dishes that it sometimes feels as though we do nothing else.

So we decided to do a very unscientific study of how much time a week we spend standing over the sink. Some of us were more adamant than others about keeping a detailed record of our dish duty, but what we came up with was in general we each spent about six hours a week scrubbing away, making us possibly the highest paid dishwashers in San Francisco.

Go to Your Happy Place

It’s easy to get sucked into a busy day at work when there are 5,000 tasks staring you in the face. You may be the type who straight away freaks out, or you may be the type who has a list and checks items off one by one. I’m the kind of person who arrives very focused and tries to stay on task, but is not always successful.

There is something to be said for stopping and smelling the roses, or in my case staring into my empty measuring cups. Usually just when I need a laugh in the scientific recipe-testing process a little something unplanned diverts my attention, like a smiley face composed of fennel bits.