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Too much of a good thing

beef stew 

When it comes to beef stews and braises, long cooking at low temperature is the way to go, and many recipes call for hours of cooking. Even though you may think longer is better, beware of extended cooking times, says indexed blog Serious Eats.

You might feel that if three hours is good, four must be better, to allow all of the connective tissue to break down. While that does take some time, there are undesirable changes that occur when the meat is cooked for too long. J. Kenji López-Alt explains that there are three distinct phases that the meat passes through during long cooking sessions: what he calls primary, secondary, and tertiary breakdown.

In the first phase, "large swaths of connective tissue that run through a piece of stew beef break down and convert to gelatin. Individual cubes will still hold their shape very well, but will show tenderness when you bite into them." The second phase occurs "when the tissue holding together individual muscle fibrils (the long, skinny bundles of muscle cells that give meat its distinct grain) breaks down and the fibrils easily separate from each other. At this stage, the beef is very easily shredded." The final phase "is when those individual muscle fibrils themselves break down, turning from distinct, juice-filled strands into pulpy mush."

In Kenji's experiment, he noted that cooking times that went beyond four hours ended in meat being extremely dry and resembling the "pulpy mush" described above. He cautions that the slow cooker recipes that call for eight hours of cooking may be overdoing it, although he does offer the caveat that the cooking temperature and cut of meat also play roles in how long it takes for a stew to be done. That means there are no hard and fast rules. Kenji recommends that you begin "checking your meat when you hit around 80% of the total recommended cooking time, and stop cooking as soon as it reaches the stage at which the meat is tender, but not falling apart-so, if a recipe says to cook the stew for 2 1/2 hours, start checking it around the 2-hour mark."

Photo of All-American beef stew from Serious Eats by J. Kenji López-Alt

Oysters and their taste of place

baked oysters with tender leeks

Writer Cynthia Nims is a lifelong resident of the Northwest US who reveled in growing up surrounded by great food. After studying cooking at Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in France where she received the Grand Diplôme d'Etudes Culinaires, Cynthia worked on numerous cookbooks with the school's president, Anne Willan. She is the author of ten cookbooks and was previously editor of Simply Seafood magazine and food editor of Seattle Magazine. Her most recent cookbook, Oysters: Recipes That Bring Home a Taste of the Sea, is fresh off the presses. (Enter our contest for your chance to win a copy of the book. And check out Cynthia's book tour dates.) We asked Cynthia to expound on her enthusiasm for the book's subject. Here's what she had to say:

Something about oysters elicits passions that run mighty deep for members of their fan club. Which may have a lot to do with the fact that oysters-beyond being delicious and intriguing creatures-represent  a taste of place as few other foods do. Even other seafoods. Oysters don't just live surrounded by seawater, they are voracious consumers of that seawater. As filter-feeders, they draw through their gills many gallons of water each day, filtering out nutritious phytoplankton and other minute particles that impact their flavor. The salinity of the water does as well, plus how active the tide, the water temperature, and other environmental factors that contribute to the taste and texture of the meat tucked between the distinctive shells.

This conglomeration of natural influences has come to be known as meroir, a sea-going version of terroir. And as terroir was uniquely linked with wine grapes initially, so is it that meroir comes about with a distinct link to oysters. The evidence of this is easy enough to discover when you slurp different oysters side-by-side, the better to distinguish their unique characteristics.

The two key species of oyster grown in North America are the Eastern oyster (sometimes known by its Latin name, Virginica) and the Pacific oyster. They have some species-specific features: Pacifics' shells are more fluted and ruffled than Easterns and Eastern oysters tend to taste brinier than those on the Pacific, to name a couple. But because of that meroir factor, within each of those species are countless variations in size, shape, flavor and texture that reflect the specific waters where the oyster grew. Which explains why you rarely see these oysters sold simply by their species name, instead it will be Fanny Bay, Judd Cove, Hama Hama, Cedar Island, Malpeque.

So you can have quite an oyster adventure without leaving your seat at the oyster bar, which is one of the joys of this beautiful bivalve. The three other species grown in North America which you may see on the menu are the popular Kumamotos (an ideal 'starter' oyster), the Olympia (the only oyster native to the West Coast) and the European Flat (grown in very small volumes on both coasts). Add them to the mix when available. As you slurp your way through the half-shell selections, some will be briskly-briny other mellower and almost sweet, some cucumber-y while others more toward earthy or mineral flavors. Even their shells have stories to tell whether covered with barnacles or smooth from the tumbling tide, or simply esthetically striking with lovely stripes or frilly ruffles. The fascinating exploration perfectly emphasizes the distinct taste of place that oysters provide.

Cookbook giveaway - Oysters

Oysters cookbookOyster lovers, rejoice! The new cookbook by Cynthia Nims, Oysters: Recipes That Bring Home a Taste of the Sea is brimming with recipes, shucking instructions, and the local farming success story of the many delicious oysters from the Pacific Coast. In addition, the book is filled with gorgeous photographs of the beautiful areas where oysters are harvested. You can learn more about the book and its subject in our informative author interview with Cynthia. And check out Cynthia's book tour dates.

We're delighted to offer two copies of Oysters to EYB Members. The contest is limited to Members in the USA and Canada only. One of the entry options is to answer the following question in the comments section of this blog post:

What is your favorite way to eat oysters?

Please note that you must be signed into the Rafflecopter contest before posting the comment or your entry won't be counted. If you are not already a Member, you can join at no cost. The contest ends March 8, 2016.

Learn to love your slow cooker

 Slow cooker chicken tikka masala

Chowhound recently proclaimed that this is "the age of the crockpot." The "golden age" term has perhaps been bandied about too often, but hyperbole aside, the once forgotten slow cooker has found new life in modern kitchens. As Chowhound points out, the machines have improved in recent years. But while the slow cooker is among the simplest appliances to use, the site correctly notes that "not all crock-pot dishes are created equal. What you cook, how you assemble it in the cooker, and how long you let it simmer - these are all crucial points in winning at slow cooking."

The article provides a brief history of the appliance. While the concept of passive cooking has been around as long as fires have slowly died, the slow cooker itself can be traced back only about 50 years. While initially marketed as time savers for the busy working woman who wanted to feed her family, Chowhound stresses that slow cookers "do not eliminate the need for prep or preliminary steps such as browning meats and soaking beans (though you can certainly just dump a bunch of raw stuff in a crock pot, it doesn't yield optimal results)."

However, when properly used, slow cookers can assist in time management because they don't need to be constantly monitored. Top food bloggers and cookbook writers have elevated the slow cooker by crafting recipes that take advantage of the gentle heat of the appliance while adding a much needed flavor boost to the bland recipes of yore. In addition to providing tips and recipes, Chowhound offers a guide to purchasing a slow cooker, exploring the varied features that have emerged in recent years like programmable timers. Most of the many factors that go into choosing and using a slow cooker are also covered, and the site offers a comparison of three top models.

Once you purchase the perfect appliance, try one of the highly rated recipes from the EYB Library specially adapted for the slow cooker. There are also categories for other small appliances or specialized cookware, specifically for the rice cooker, pressure cooker and microwave.

Photo of Slow cooker chicken tikka masala from indexed blog The Kitchn

'Low and slow' works for more than just meat

 baby carrots

Read any modern vegetable recipe and you're likely to see words like char, sear, and roast - all high heat methods. This reflects the current emphasis on treating vegetables like meat as many people embrace a more vegetable-centric diet. But just as many meats benefit from 'low and slow' cooking, so can vegetables, says indexed magazine Bon Appétit.

Don't worry, the magazine isn't advocating boiling your vegetables to death. Instead, they suggest "dry roasting that veg with a little olive oil, a good sprinkle of salt, and a sprinkle of chile flakes for good measure-in a 250° degree oven until the exterior gets all shrivel-y and the interior takes on a delicate, custard-like texture." The goal is to concentrate the natural flavors of the vegetables instead of adding flavor with char. 

Just as with braises and stews, patience is rewarded. It may take an hour and a half to slow-roast fresh carrots, but you end up with a "beautifully concentrated sweetness." Likewise, it can take up to two and a half hours for a halved head of cauliflower to become tender, "but the result-moist, rich, deeply satisfying-is worth the wait."

The problems with food media


I'll admit it; I'm a food writing junkie. A significant portion of my free time is consumed by reading about food in print media (albeit less and less frequently), in cookbooks and, of course, on a plethora of websites and blogs. There are definite trends in the discourse on the web. Some of that revolves around seasonal items like holidays and weather-driven foodstuffs, but other trends seem to be picked up just to echo popular sites or to drive clicks. The website First We Feast discusses this phenomenon, and also criticizes food media for additional perceived flaws.

The article notes that over the past several years, the food media landscape has been in a state of flux, with big names like Bittman, Parsons, and Cowin departing the scene, among other changes. "Yet through all the ups and downs," they note, "something rankled: Food media has felt, for lack of a better word, soft. The most interesting and challenging stories are told from outside of the industry, and the appealing feralness of early food blogs has been neutered as websites settled into their role as the new establishment."

Specific fault-finding includes the theory that food writers are too scared of losing access to be critical. This seems to be belied by the recent takedowns of the Mast Brothers and the disparaging review of Per Se by food critic Pete Wells. But even those negative articles are problematic, says First We Feast. "While food-media outlets are quick to pull punches, they can also be opportunistic bullies at times, switching from boosterism to bashing only when it suits them best," they say. If it feels safe to do so, they posit, websites will gleefully tear down once-revered idols, but only after someone else (like an obscure blog) gets the ball rolling. 

On recipes, First We Feast is even more critical: "We've hit peak recipe, and too many of them are bad." The site laments the shift from cookbooks written by homecooking stalwarts like Diane Kennedy and Madhur Jaffrey to more chef-driven books, saying that "too many new cookbooks are little more than vanity projects, packed with elaborate recipes that require obscure ingredients and full brigades to pull off correctly." 

Some of the criticism may be fair, like the fact that gatekeepers are too homogenous, leading to lack of diversity. Other parts of the article seem to be attributing to food writing the same changes that all media has undergone as the world has shifted from print media to an online platform. And for its complaints, the site offers few suggestions for what should be done differently. Perhaps this introspection will lead to changes, but ideas on how to improve would have been welcome.

Featured Cookbooks & Recipes

At Eat Your Books we want to bring you the best recipes - our dedicated team searches out and finds online recipes excerpted from newly indexed cookbooks and magazines. New recipes from the best blogs are indexed daily and members index their favorite online recipes using the Bookmarklet all the time.

Below you'll find this week's recommendations from the EYB team.

Remember you can add any of these online recipes to your EYB Bookshelf - it's a great way to expand your personal recipe collection.

Happy cooking and baking everyone!

From magazines:

Goat Cheese, Bacon and Olive Quick Bread by David Lebovitz from the February issue of indexed Food & Wine Magazine

From UK books:

3 recipes from Chicken: Over Two Hundred Recipes Devoted to One Glorious Bird
by Catherine Phipps

26 recipes from Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook: 200 Fab Fish Dishes by Gee Charman,
indexed by an EYB member

From AUS/NZ books:

91 recipes from Masterclass: How to Cook Perfect Pasta by The Australian Women's Weekly, indexed by an EYB member


Julia Child's home in France is sold

 La Pitchoune

Last fall we reported that Julia Child's home in France, La Pitchoune, was for sale. Speculation abounded as to what would become of the house, which Child built on land owned by her best friend, Simone Beck, who co-authored Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Recently we learned that Makenna Johnston, an alumnus from Smith College (the same university that Child attended) purchased the home and has plans to turn it into a culinary retreat center. Johnston grew up in a family of Francophiles, and she herself is a big fan of Julia. "I watched reruns on PBS, and I used to imitate her voice," Johnston says.

When she saw the article announcing that the house was for sale, Johnston was intrigued but didn't think it was in the cards. However, after she and her family learned that Paris was under attack, she decided to seriously consider purchasing the home. "When [that] happened, I started thinking about how Julia Child was a total peacenik. She worked for the government, and the best word from back then is she was very democratic. She was very involved in improving communities through food," Johnston says.

She and her wife, Yvonne, conceived of a "project devoted to Child's legacy of joy, compassion, and sharing the love of food." Yvonne, who left her full-time military career in 2014, enrolled in culinary school. The pair gathered together a few investors and made an offer on La Pitchoune, which was accepted. After closing, they plan to make the house "a cooking retreat with excursions in yoga." It "will be a home base for a center on culinary exploration, peace, and community," Johnston shared with the Smith College community.

Chefs create culinary award that goes beyond the kitchen

 books by chefs

A group of the world's top chefs recently announced a new global culinary prize aimed at rewarding cooks who use their skills to make an impact beyond the kitchen. The award, created by the Spanish Basque Culinary Centre, is slated for cooks with "an initiative in the gastronomic area that will be strongly engaged with society."

Top chefs Joan Roca of famed restaurant El Celler de Can Roca, Heston Blumenthal from The Fat Duck, and Peru's Gaston Acurio will be on the jury of the award. While these chefs hail from fine dining establishments, the award won't be limited to chefs from those types of eateries. "The key of the award is that it doesn't necessarily have to be haute cuisine," Roca told AFP.

Celebrity chefs have frequently used their fame and skills for charitable work, like Jamie Oliver who campaigned for healthy school dinners and Gaston Acurio, who has opened a culinary school for underprivileged children in Peru. But until now, there hasn't been an award aimed at such philanthropy. "Every year the prize will go to a chef who demonstrates how gastronomy can translate into a transformative force," said Joxe Mari Aizega, general manager of the Basque Culinary Centre. "It will help to highlight the work that is being done the world over -- projects linked to cultural themes, social responsibility, sustainability or economic development."

To be considered for the prize, chefs must be nominated online by a professional from the gastronomy world. The winner will receive 100,000 euros ($109,000 USD) that he or she will have to reinvest into a project "that demonstrates the wider role of gastronomy in society."

Celebrate National Carrot Cake Day

 carrot cake

The short month of February doesn't have a lot going for it in the celebration department. Valentine's Day gets a lot of attention but if you aren't in a relationship that date can be rather depressing. Plus, residents in the Northern Hemisphere have grown weary of the month's old, dark days and are pining away for the spring weather. Before you get too depressed, take a few minutes out of your schedule and get ready to celebrate National Carrot Cake Day.

Like most of these national food days, the date is rather arbitrary. The good news about this day is that you can count your celebratory cake as part of your vegetable servings. According to the lore surrounding this food holiday, carrots have long been used in sweets, dating back to the Middle Ages. Then, sugar and other sweeteners were rather scarce, so naturally sweet carrots were substituted in desserts and puddings.

There is no shortage of carrot cake recipes in the EYB Library. Try one of these Member favorites:

Vegan carrot cake from Tinned Tomatoes by Jacqueline Meldrum
Carrot layer cake
from Australian Gourmet Traveller Magazine by Christina Tosi
The ultimate carrot cake
from Delia's Cakes by Delia Smith
Spiced carrot, pistachio and almond cake with rosewater cream
from Persiana by Sabrina Ghayour
Bill's big carrot cake
from Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan (pictured top)

Seen anything interesting? Let us know & we'll share it!