The Broiler: Your Kitchen’s Most Underutilized Appliance

by Michelle Rossi

Ahh, spring is in the air and grilling season is almost upon us. For those lucky enough to own or have access to a grill, grilling makes a homemade dinner seem so quick and easy! But what about those of us who don’t own a grill? And what about those chilly fall, winter, or spring months in Boston where all you want to do is stay inside and forget the crazy weather outside?

Enter: your broiler.

If you’re like most home cooks, you might only think of your broiler as a garlic bread-toaster, cheese-melter, or pizza-crisper. While you may have come across recipes that utilize the broiler as a cooking element, using this high-heat cooking style may seem intimidating. It’s okay, you’re not alone!

I consider myself an avid cook and baker, and I rarely use my broiler until recently. About a year ago, I stumbled upon a chicken recipe that required me to cook the chicken under the broiler and promised me grill-like results. Much to my surprise, my chicken cooked in less time than I thought possible. I was skeptical. I wanted to hate it so that I could prove that broiling was nothing like grilling. But I’ve fallen in love with my broiler, and now I just can’t stop.

For those of you without access to a grill, all you need for an almost-grill-worthy meal is a broiler pan.  You probably already have one, but its hiding in the forgotten drawer under your stove. Every oven comes one, yet no one seems to use it! If you don’t have a broiler pan, you can also use a rimmed baking sheet with oven-safe cookie racks, or purchase a new broiler pan here. Trust me, it is worth the investment.

Before we start, there are some things you should know about broiling:

  • Broiling uses the top heating element of your oven, cooking by radiation instead of convection (taking it back to high school physics here!). Broiling happens quickly—for any of you who have made garlic bread under the broiler, you know that it can go from delicately golden to incinerated in ten seconds. When broiling, it is a good idea to set your kitchen timer and stay in the kitchen!
  • Many oven broilers have a high and low setting—I almost always go with high. Don’t panic if yours only has one setting, just set it to broil and proceed.
  • There are debates on whether you should leave your oven cracked open when you broil. I usually do so that I can watch the broiling process (it happens fast). One source claims that electric ovens may need to be open slightly when broiling to avoid overheating; on the other hand, some gas models won’t operate with the door open. To further confuse things, The Kitchn recommends keeping the door open cracked to vent steam and to ensure cooking by radiation, not convection. Reading the comments on Food52 won’t help you much either, as it also offers varying answers. My opinion: consult your oven’s user manual if you have it. If you aren’t sure, leave the door open. If your broiler doesn’t turn on with the door open, try closing it. Whatever works!
  • Test to see how far your pan will be from the heating element before you turn on your oven. Put your cold (empty!) pan on your top rack and adjust the rack up or down until the cooking surface is 4-5 inches from the heating element (this is usually the top rack).
  • DO NOT use glass dishes under the broiler. Trust me on this one. Glass and rapid temperature changes do not mix.

Over the past few months, I have perfected a few recipes using my broiler pan.  Remember how I said the boiler cooks quickly? Well, I can have these recipes on the table in under 20 minutes. Happy broiling!

Grilled chicken broiler recipe

Photo: Author 

Almost-Grilled Chicken Thighs

This is one of my go-to recipes for a quick dinner with a vegetable, or as part of a fancy spread when friends come over. It can easily be scaled up, as the measurements do not have to be precise. Try experimenting with your own seasonings—I like adding smoked paprika, and a dash of cayenne for crispy chicken that is perfect for chopping up and putting on a pita with hummus and veggies.

Serves two for dinner, with lunch leftovers

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 lb boneless skinless chicken thighs (about 4 thighs)
  • 1 small (7oz) container full-fat plain Greek yogurt, about 1 cup (I like Fage)
  • 1 lemon, zest & juice
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin (more or less to taste)
  • Salt to taste

DIRECTIONS

  1. Combine yogurt, lemon zest and juice, minced garlic, and cumin. Season with salt, taste.
  2. Place your chicken in a large bowl or a ziplock bag and add the yogurt mix. Make sure the chicken is well coated. You can prepare the chicken up to 1 hour in advance (any longer will start to turn it mushy)
  3. Turn on your broiler to high (if there is a high/low option)
  4. Line the bottom drip-tray of your broiler pan with tinfoil for easy cleanup. Spray the slotted tray of your broiler pan with Pam or lightly coat with a high-heat oil of your choice
  5. Remove the chicken thighs from the yogurt mixture, letting excess drip off, while also keeping a good amount on the chicken (it acts as chicken “sunscreen”). Place them on your broiler pan in one layer, leaving some space in between pieces.
  6. Broil for 5-6 minutes, or until pieces of the yogurt start to char. Flip the chicken and continue broiling for another 6-7 minutes. Pay attention to which pieces are crisping quickest—you might need to rotate your pan or move the chicken pieces around a bit during the cooking process (just like grilling!)
  7. The chicken is done when it reaches 165­o on an instant-read thermometer, or you cut open the chicken and the juices run clear. Remember that chicken thigh is dark meat, and even when cooked may look slightly pinker than chicken breasts.

Serve over rice, or in a pita!

Not-Really-Fried Shrimp

This is a favorite meal from my childhood, that I recently re-discovered. Better yet—you don’t even need a broiler pan! Butterflying the shrimp can take a little bit of time, but this recipe can be made ahead up to 8 hours and kept in the refrigerator until it is cooked. I love making it for dinner guests because I can prepare it ahead of time and spend the majority of my party interacting with my guests!

Michele Evans Easy Seafood Recipes

Photo: Author

Adapted from “Michele Evans’ Easy Seafood Recipes”

Serves 4

INGREDIENTS

  •  1 ½ pound jumbo shell-off shrimp
  • 2/3 cup flour (plus a bit more, if needed)
  • 2 eggs, beaten (plus one more on hand, just in case)
  • 1 cup breadcrumbs (plus a bit more, if needed)
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • Juice from 1 lemon

DIRECTIONS

  1. Melt the butter in the microwave or in a saucepan and add the garlic and lemon. Set aside.
  2. Butterfly the shrimp by carefully by cutting each shrimp down the back (outer curve) without going all the way through. (For a quick tutorial, check out this article)
  3. Set up a dipping station, with flour on your left, egg in the middle, breadcrumbs on your right.
  4. Dip each shrimp in the flour, the egg, then breadcrumbs, lightly shaking off the excess of each. Place each shrimp on a rimmed baking sheet. (The shrimp can be stored in the refrigerator at this point for up to 8 hours)
  5. Turn your broiler on high. Spoon the butter garlic mixture over the shrimp. Broil for 6-8 minutes, until the shrimp are brown and no longer transparent on the inside when cut open.
  6. Serve with cocktail sauce

 

Simple Broiled Fish

This is the simplest way I know how to prepare fish without giving my apartment a “stinky fish smell” because it cooks so quickly! Choose filets that are less than 1/2inch thick, and keep an eye on them as they cook. As with all broiling, it will go quickly!

Serves 4

INGREDIENTS

  • 4 fillets of your favorite fish (I like Atlantic Char, Bluefish, or NY/PA Perch for their sustainability)
  • 2-3 teaspoons olive oil
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • Zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • Your favorite spices

DIRECTIONS

  1. Prepare your broiler pan by lining the bottom tray with tinfoil, and lightly greasing the grated tray. Preheat your broiler
  2. Mix olive oil, garlic, lemon and spices together, and lightly coat each fillet in the oil mixture.
  3. Broil 3-5 minutes, depending on thickness until fish is flaky and cooked through.

 

Michelle Rossi is a second-year dual-degree NICBC-MPH student who spends most of her precious free time cooking elaborate meals for herself and friends. She is a collector of cookbooks, and especially enjoys reading and re-reading “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat”, “The Smitten Kitchen”, the 1975 edition of “The Joy of Cooking”, and her 15-year collection of Cooks Illustrated Magazines. When Michelle’s not in the kitchen, you can find her teaching about the natural world at Mass Audubon’s Drumlin Farm, where she strives to find the connections between nature, nutrition and public health.

Cricket Pancakes (CrickCakes): A New Way to Eat Your Greens

by Jessica R. Manly

A growing movement of nutritionists, sustainability researchers, activists, and alternative foodies are calling edible insects the food group of the future. In America, one of the biggest hurdles remains how to get people to take a bite. These simple blender pancakes are an easy, delicious way to dip your toe into the radical world of entomophagy.

Before coming to the Friedman School, I taught nutrition, cooking, and gardening in several public elementary schools in northwest Montana. Many of the children I worked with were absolutely thrilled to try the kale, spinach, and carrots we grew together outside their classrooms. Others, no matter how many songs we sang, or smoothies we made, or stories we read about friendly vegetables, simply would not take a single bite.

What people choose to eat (and not to eat) is deeply personal, cultural, familial, and emotional. These daily choices are sometimes governed by necessity, ease, and are often immutable. When you really pause to try, it can be difficult to unravel the complicated web of nutritional knowledge, inherited tastes, cultural reinforcement, economic constraints, and effects of globalization that compose our plates. Why do you eat cows but not whales? Why kale now, but not ten years ago? Why lobsters, but not crickets? And what would it take for you to want to chew on an entirely new class of the animal kingdom?

Eating insects, or entomophagy, has many potential nutritional and sustainability benefits when compared to meat consumption. A two-tablespoon serving of ground cricket powder provides 55 calories, 7 grams of protein, 2 grams of fat, less than one gram of carbohydrate, and a hefty dose of B vitamins (23% of the Daily Value B-2 and 17% of the Daily Value B-12). Reported sustainability benefits include lower greenhouse gas emissions when compared to ruminants, pork, and poultry, low land and water requirements, high feed conversion efficiencies, organic by-product waste reduction, and potential utility as feed for livestock and in aquaculture. A 2013 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) assessment of insect consumption and global food and feed security reports that nearly two billion people consume over 1,900 species of insects as part of traditional diets.

So why are crickets and mealworms still such a fringy snack choice in America? As a friend said recently: “eating bugs is just gross.” In fact, many of us (the author included) were reprimanded against doing so as children. Cultural barriers remain the largest hurdle for expanding insect consumption in America, in addition to lingering questions about scaling production, the environmental impacts of cricket feed, and concerns about access and affordability.

I buy my cricket protein online because it is still relatively hard to find on shelves in Boston. A friend of mine who works for a ubiquitous natural foods grocery store says they don’t stock insect protein because they don’t yet know how to apply their animal welfare ranking system—apparently they “don’t mess around with cricket welfare.”

Another common objection is to the pungent, nutty flavor pure cricket protein powder can have. As a result, most products sold in the West attempt to mask the taste, and any evidence of actual insects, in high-flavor, processed snack foods with questionable nutritional profiles and plenty of added fats and sugars. Though I don’t personally find the taste or smell of cricket powder offensive, I understand the reluctance to consume it straight-up, especially as a novice. As we work towards culturally normalizing insect consumption in the U.S., experimenting with variations on delicious, familiar, and nutrient-dense recipes will be key. I think these easy blender pancakes are a great place to start.

CrickCakes (Photo: Jessica Manly)

CrickCakes (Photo: Jessica Manly)

CrickCakes

Serves 1

Ingredients:

1 banana

1/4 cup raw rolled oats

2 eggs

2 tablespoons cricket protein powder

1/4 cup blueberries (optional)

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

Pinch of salt

Directions:

  1. Blend all ingredients except blueberries on high in blender until smooth (approximately 15 seconds).
  2. Heat a lightly oiled (butter, coconut oil, or vegetable oil of choice) griddle or frying pan over medium-high heat. Pour or scoop the batter onto the griddle, using approximately 1/4 cup for each pancake.
  3. Add blueberries if using. Flip, brown on both sides, and serve hot as is, or with maple syrup or plain yogurt and additional cinnamon.

1/2 cup cooked sweet potato or winter squash can be substituted for the banana. If you want to get really fancy, add in a few pumpkin or chia seeds with the blueberries for extra protein.

Jessica Manly is a second-year Agriculture, Food, and Environment MSc student at the Friedman School. When she is not researching food and agriculture systems with the potential to mitigate climate change, she is most likely running in the woods with her imaginary dog, or trying to get people to eat her unusual vegetable (or insect)-based recipes.

Spring for Fresh Herbs

by April Dupee

After spending a long New England winter bundled up and hibernating from the cold, spring is finally here! As the days get longer, the ground begins to thaw and trees start to bloom. This is the perfect time to lighten up your cooking with fresh ingredients.

Next time you’re in the grocery store or strolling through a farmers’ market, grab some fresh herbs to brighten up any dish. Not only do these small greens instantly elevate your meal with vibrant flavor, they also provide numerous nutritional benefits. Using fresh herbs can reduce sodium and fat by enhancing flavor without the need for excess salt or butter. In addition, many herbs provide important nutrients, such as vitamins A, K, and C, and minerals such as potassium, manganese, and magnesium. Herbs also have a long history of both culinary and medicinal use, and many have been touted for their protective effect against various diseases. Research suggests this may be due to polyphenols, a large group of compounds that have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, and antimicrobial properties. However, more research is needed to establish therapeutic effects of dietary herbs, especially because they are usually consumed in small quantities. Nonetheless, fresh herbs are still an effortless way to lighten up your meals and boost your nutrition this spring.

How to Use Fresh Herbs

Don’t worry about fresh herbs rotting away in the back of your fridge after just one recipe. These greens can be used in a variety of dishes, including dips, soups, salads and much more.

Fresh basil healthy dinner fresh herbs

Image: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

  1. Basil 

Rich in nutrients and packed with antioxidants, basil has been researched for its anti-inflammatory, anti-aging,anti-microbial, and cancer fighting properties. One study found that basil even has strong antibacterial activity against widespread antibiotic resistant strains. And this popular herb isn’t just for your favorite Italian dishes. In addition to pesto, pizza, and pasta, basil can also be used in sauces, dressings, and salads. Mix things up with this Mediterranean chopped salad featuring tomatoes, peppers, feta, and basil.

 

Fresh parsley mediterranean meal

Image: Kalyn Denny

 

  1. Parsley

Just half a cup of freshly chopped parsley contains about 470% of your daily value for vitamin K. This versatile herb’s subtle yet fresh flavor is the perfect complement to any dish. Add it to soups, pasta, vegetable dishes, and salads. Next time you’re packing lunch, consider this protein-rich white bean salad with tuna and parsley.

 

Fresh chives in olive oil

Image: Hirsheimer Hamilton

  1. Chives

Chives belong to the allium genus, which also includes garlic, scallions, onions, and leeks. These vegetables contain allicin, an organic compound that may improve cardiovascular health by lowering blood pressure and reducing bad cholesterol. The bright onion flavor of chives is delicious in dips, creamy sauces, baked potatoes, eggs, or quesadillas. Perk up your salads with this simple healthy chive vinaigrette.

 

Fresh cilantro bowl

Image: Lee Hersh

  1. Cilantro

High in vitamins A and K and full of citrusy flavor, cilantro can be used for more than topping your tacos or mixing into guacamole. Add this herb to curries, Asian cuisine, and meat dishes. Meal-prep with this cilantro lime chicken recipe for a satisfying week night meal.

 

Fresh mint cucumber salad

Image: Jennifer Segal

  1. Mint

Studies have shown that peppermint oil extracted from mint may aid in digestion and help those with irritable bowel syndrome by relaxing muscles in your digestive tract and promoting the flow of bile to help you digest more quickly. Use this refreshing herb in both sweet and savory dishes, such as sauces, salads, or desserts. For an easy side dish or snack, slice up this cooling cucumber and mint salad recipe.

 

Fresh dill potato salad

Image: Faith Durand

  1. Dill

The fragrant flavor of dill is delightful with fish, lamb, sour cream dressings, cheeses, cucumbers, and eggs. If you have leftover dill lying in your fridge, then whip up this simple recipe for potato salad with yogurt, arugula, and dill.

 

How to Keep Herbs Fresh

To keep your herbs fresh and flavorful for as long as possible, it’s important to keep them moist and reduce exposure to oxygen. Try these storage tips next time you buy a bunch.

  • Soft Herbs: For soft herbs with tender stems and leaves, such as parsley and cilantro, trim the ends of the stems, fill a glass or jar with one inch of cool water, and place them in the glass. Cover loosely with a plastic bag and keep refrigerated. Change the water every couple of days for the best results.
  • Hard Herbs: For hard herbs with woody stems and leaves, such as chives and rosemary, wrap them loosely in a damp paper towel and store in a zip-lock bag in the fridge.

 

Grow Your Own

Use the coming spring as inspiration to start your own simple herb garden. Growing your own herbs ensures you always have a fresh supply on hand and you can snip off only as much as you need at a time. It’s easy! All you need is a sunny spot outside or on your kitchen counter. Pick out herb seedlings and plant each herb in 8-inch pots with potting soil. Get ready to cook!

 

April Dupee is a first-year student in the Nutrition Interventions, Communications, and Behavior Change program and RD-to-be. She loves trying new recipes and hopes to improve her green thumb with an herb garden this spring.

5 Breakfasts to Power Your Heart

by April Dupee

The month of February is all about the heart. Not only is it that time of year when stores are stocked with greeting cards, balloons, and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates to celebrate Valentine’s Day, but also it marks American Heart Month to raise awareness about heart disease and prevention. With 1 in 3 deaths in the U.S. attributable to cardiovascular disease, American Heart Month serves as an important reminder to take care of our hearts and encourage our communities to support heart health initiatives.

In honor of American Heart Month and school back in full swing, I have rounded up my favorite, simple, make-ahead breakfast recipes full of heart healthy nutrients. Whether or not you have cardiovascular disease, a heart healthy diet is one we can all benefit from. Loading up your plate with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean poultry and fish will give you all the fiber and important nutrients you need to protect your heart. In addition, cutting back on sugar, sodium, saturated fats, and trans fats will reduce cardiovascular disease risk factors such as increased cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, and weight.

Because these recipes can be made in advance, there is no need to compromise health for time when you are heading out the door in the morning. Give your breakfast a heart-healthy makeover that will power you through the day.

Breakfast Oatmeal Cupcakes To-Go

Baked oatmeal to-go, anyone? While many baked goods are filled with added sugar, refined flour, and saturated fats, these oatmeal cupcakes are loaded with fiber-rich oats to help keep cholesterol low. Make these even more delicious and nutritious with add-ins such as berries, flax seeds, and cinnamon. The best feature of this recipe is that it freezes well. Before you head out the door, pop one in the microwave and you will be ready to go!

Recipe and photo: Chocolate Covered Katie

Breakfast Oatmeal Cupcakes To-Go. Recipe and photo by Chocolate Covered Katie.

Chia Pudding

Don’t let their small size fool you—the chia seeds in this recipe are packed with nutrients including fiber, protein, and omega-3s. One ounce of chia seeds (about 2 tablespoons) has 10 grams of fiber, 5 grams of protein, and about 6,000 mg of omega-3 fatty acids! Low in sugar and saturated fats, this recipe is definitely a heart healthy alternative to your typical pudding.

Make this recipe the night before and get creative with flavor combinations and toppings. Some of my favorite add-ins and toppings include: Vanilla extract, cacao powder, cinnamon, bananas, berries, nut butters, coconut, and granola.

Recipe and photo: Nutrition Stripped

Chia Pudding. Recipe and photo by Nutrition Stripped.

Egg Muffins

Get your veggies in with this savory recipe! Vegetables are an important part of a heart-healthy diet by offering beneficial nutrients and fiber that keep calorie counts low and contribute to overall cardiovascular health. While the eggs in this recipe do contain cholesterol, current dietary guidelines indicate that dietary cholesterol does not affect blood cholesterol levels as much as we once thought. Rather, saturated fats are the main culprit. Nonetheless, these single serving cups will keep your portion sizes in check and your morning moving quickly as you head out the door.

Recipe and photo: hurrythefoodup

Egg Muffins. Recipe and photo by hurrythefoodup.

Overnight Oats

Wake up to a creamy bowl of oats that takes no more than 5 minutes to prep! No cooking required. If you like chia pudding but are looking for something a little heartier, overnight oats are a great option. The oats and chia seeds provide tons of fiber, which is thought to boost heart health by lowering cholesterol and helping with weight loss. In addition, the bananas used to sweeten and add a creamy texture keep this breakfast low in sugar and saturated fats.

Recipe and photo by OhSheGlows.

Overnight Oats. Recipe and photo by OhSheGlows.

2-Ingredient Pancakes

This recipe is as simple as it gets! Maybe not the traditional pancake you are used to, but with just bananas and eggs these pancakes are too easy not to try. With no sugar, oils, or processed flour that you often find in pancakes, this recipe is a quick heart healthy alternative. Plus, you can boost the nutrition with endless extras and toppings. I love to mix in nuts, berries, and cinnamon and top with nut butters. Make a batch and store the extras in the fridge or freezer when you need a quick breakfast.

Recipe and photo by The Kitchn.

2-Ingredient Pancakes. Recipe and photo by The Kitchn.

While we begin to gift our loved ones with flowers and chocolates this Valentine’s Day, let’s remember the greatest gift of all that we can give them—a long, healthy, and happy life. Use American Heart Month as motivation to take care of your heart and encourage your friends and family to do the same. With these simple and versatile recipes, you can start your day with a variety of heart-healthy fruits, veggies and whole grains. Make these recipes a part of your routine and trust that you are taking care of your heart as much as much as it takes care of you!

April Dupee is a first year in the NICBC program and future DPD student. With breakfast as her favorite meal of the day, she loves experimenting with healthy and delicious new recipes.

For the Love of French Fries

by Erin Child

 As a nutrition student, my unabashed love of French fries may seem out of place. But for me, they are just one delicious part of an otherwise decently balanced diet. They’re my go-to when out at a bar with friends, and my favorite accompaniment to a bowl of steamed mussels. So, I decided to finally try my hand at making some real deep-fried French fries. However, I can’t in good conscience let this story be all be about deep-fried food. And so, I also made a batch of oven fries to compare to the deep-fried originals. I recruited a couple Friedman friends to taste test, and we had a delicious Fry-day night.

The first time I attempted deep frying I wound up with second-degree burns. My college roommate and I had decided to make fried chicken for our then-boyfriends in our closet-sized kitchen. The moment I bent down to check on the root vegetables roasting in the oven, my roommate chucked the last piece of chicken into the hot oil, splashing it all over the top of my head and hand. Boyfriends arrived an hour later to find me on the floor, forehead covered in aloe and my hand in a pot of cool water. Never again, I vowed, would I deep fry anything. Leave that to the professionals.

A decade later, I have mostly kept my promise. I can count on one hand the number of times I have fried something, and it has always been using a relatively safe, contained, counter-top fryer. I’ve made donuts, pakora (an Indian snack food), and Flamin’ Hot Cheeto®–crusted chicken. (You read that right.) But I still have never attempted one of my all-time favorite foods, French fries.

Before my deep-fried adventures began, I did some shopping. I ordered a thermometer and splatter screen from Amazon for $25.81 worth of safety precautions. I then did some research. I consulted Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, and Serious Eats, and found that both recommend the double-fry method for crispy goodness. I had hoped to find a way to avoid deep-frying twice, but couldn’t find any source to persuade me that one fry was sufficient for the texture I desired. Smitten Kitchen had a recipe for single-fried fries, but I was not convinced; however, I did follow the recommendation of using Yukon Gold potatoes instead of regular Russets. They have similar starch content, and thus are both good for frying. And I liked the idea that because of their yellow color, Yukon Golds have more carotenoids, and thus were a smidge healthier. (But the potatoes were going to be fried, so who am I kidding.) For the oven fries I found a recipe on Eating Well that looked promising and instead used that as my reference for my “healthy” fries.

The day of my adventure, I purchased ten pounds (about five pounds too many) of Yukon Golds, as well as peanut oil and dried parsley—for a dash of green—at my local supermarket. The peanut oil was for frying, as everything I read kept pointing to peanut oil as the ideal oil due to its high smoke point. I already had salt, olive oil and ketchup at home. I was ready.

First, I rinsed and chopped five pounds of potatoes into relatively even batons. My knife skills are passable at best, so following the instructions found on Smitten Kitchen I was able to cut reasonably evenly sized fries. Recipes all recommended drying the potatoes first to ensure maximum contact with the oil—so I spread them out over paper towels. All told, almost an entire roll of paper towels was used in my frying adventure.

french fries evenly cut

My attempt at evenly cut fries (pretty good!) Photo: Erin Child

While the fries dried, I turned the oven on to 450˚F and then poured 4 1/3 cups of peanut oil into a heavy-bottomed pot before turning the burner to medium-high. I placed the thermometer into the pot and watched as the temperature slowly climbed to 325˚F. While I waited, I made the oven fries.

I dressed two and a half pounds of the potato batons with four tablespoons of olive oil, a heaping half teaspoon of salt, a half teaspoon of ground thyme, and enough parsley flakes to fleck them all with green. The potatoes went on an unlined baking sheet and into the 450˚F oven. Per the Eating Well instructions, the fries would need to be flipped after ten minutes. When I went to flip the fries, they all stuck to the pan. Panicked, I left them in for another five minutes. When I checked them again, the starches in the potatoes must have shifted, because the fries were golden-brown on the bottom and easy to flip. I left them in for another eight minutes. At this point, most of the fries had two golden-brown sides, so I pulled them from the oven. Once they were cooled enough, my friends and I dug in.

They required more salt than was in the recipe, and they were not crisp, but the flavor was good. As one friend put it, “they taste like a bite-sized baked potato.” Savory and satisfying, but not really a French fry. Next time I try oven fries (and there will be a next time) I may try hand-rotating them to get a better, crispier sear on each side and make them taste closer to the real (fried) thing.

At this point, my peanut oil was ready to go. The double-fry recommendations were to fry once at 325˚F for about 8-10 minutes, let the fries rest, and then fry again at 375˚F for 3-4 minutes. So, I put the full 2.5 pounds of potatoes in the oil. That was my first mistake. The pot was too small for all those potatoes, and the temperature dropped to below 200˚F. For the next ten minutes I essentially gave all the potatoes a warm oil bath. After nothing was noticeably frying, I took all the potatoes out and tried again. This time, I fried them in two batches at 325˚F for 10 minutes. Then increased the temperature of the oil to 375˚F. To my surprise, I did not need the splatter screen. At all. If I was mindful of my movements there was minimal splash back, and the hot oil did not splatter out of the pan during frying.

french fries frying

Warming up for the second attempt. Photo: Erin Child

The second fry at 375˚F also occurred in two batches, and was three minutes per batch. After removing them from the pot, I immediately tossed the fries in a liberal dash of salt. Crispy, golden, salty and warm—they were the clear winner of the evening. Not too shabby for my first batch of French fries.

oven fries and french fries

Oven fries (left) vs French fries (right). Photo: Erin Child

During clean up, I decided to remeasure the peanut oil, and found that I had four cups left. This mean than a third-cup went into the French fries. This is only about one more tablespoon of oil than I used for the oven fries, which was a smaller difference than I expected.

Overall, nothing quite beats the taste and texture of a fried French fry, but for my health and wallet (all that peanut oil was expensive!), I’ll keep homemade French fries to a very occasional treat.

Erin Child is a second year NICBC student in the dual MS-DPD program. She is also the social media editor for the Sprout. At this point in the semester she is frequently procrasti-cooking and cleaning—her belly is full, her room is spotless, and she always has a paper to write.

Pumpkin Spice: Fad or Fallacy?

by Sara Scinto

Would you want a watery pumpkin pie? A savory pumpkin spice latte? How about a stringy pumpkin bread? Yeah, I wouldn’t either. I adore pumpkin spice everything as much as the next person (pumpkin is actually my favorite food), but are pumpkin and spices actually in these products?

My mom and I enjoying real pumpkin whoopie pies

There has been an explosion of pumpkin spice products rolling out for fall in recent years and each season it starts sooner (apparently as soon as July in 2017). Fall flavors are creeping into summer because the consumer demand is there and food companies want in on the profits that have soared in the last 5 years. Tiffany Hsu from The New York Times article purports pumpkin spice sales “…surged 20 percent from 2012 to 2013, then 12 percent the next year, then 10 percent in 2015 and in 2016”.

Unfortunately, not all pumpkin spice products have either pumpkin or spice blends in them. Sugar is first on the ingredient list of both Pumpkin Spice Oreos® and Kraft’s Jet-Puffed® Pumpkin Spice Marshmallows; neither contain actual pumpkin NOR spices, unless they are hidden in the natural or artificial flavorings. However they do contain artificial colors to mimic that beautiful pumpkin orange. According to Wikipedia, pumpkin pie spice is usually “a blend of ground cinnamonnutmeggingercloves, and sometimes allspice”, but commercial pumpkin spice products typically include chemical compounds to simulate the taste of pumpkin pie. You are not only getting fooled by the absence of real pumpkin and spices, but you are not able to reap any of the nutritional benefits of these foods. Pumpkin is a rich source of carotenoids, vitamin C, and fiber; nutmeg contains multiple B vitamins; cinnamon is full of antioxidants; and ginger provides the essential minerals magnesium and copper. If you’d like to create your own pumpkin pie spice, here are the proportions recommended by Julie R. Thomson at the Huffington Post:

Natural pumpkin pie spice blend

  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 5 teaspoons ginger
  • 1 teaspoons nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • 1 teaspoon cloves

 

 

 

Seemingly healthier stores like Trader Joe’s are no exception to the pumpkin spice fallacy. Their Pumpkin Shaped Frosted Sugar Cookies and Chocolate Mousse Pumpkins don’t include an ounce of pumpkin (they are just pumpkin shaped). And although Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Joe-Joe’s and Gluten Free Pumpkin Bread & Muffin Baking Mix do contain pumpkin and “spices” on their respective ingredient lists, sugar comes first. This is something to be cognizant of if your body doesn’t handle sugar well.

Pumpkin may not be as straightforward as it seems either. As it turns out, the canned pumpkin that is so heavily used in pumpkin pies and other fall goodies often contains one or more types of winter squash! For example, the company Libby’s uses a Dickinson pumpkin, which is more closely related to a butternut squash than a pumpkin you would find in your typical patch. Dickinson pumpkins and butternut squash are both part of the Cucurbita moschata species, while a traditional jack-o’-lantern pumpkin belongs to the Cucurbita pepo species.

Before you start a false advertising class lawsuit, a couple things should be clarified. Jack-o’-lantern pumpkins actually taste pretty bad and would make a terrible pumpkin pie. They’re stringy, watery, and not that sweet. This is why canned pumpkin companies use a variety of winter squashes that are more vibrant in color, “sweeter, fleshier and creamier” than a classic carving pumpkin. It just tastes and looks better. And these companies aren’t technically breaking any rules, since the FDA has a quite lenient definition of pumpkin, which includes any “firm-shelled, golden-fleshed, sweet squash”.

The reason pumpkin spice mania has taken America by storm is that sugary pumpkin spice products taste good! Food companies know this and give consumers what they want, which may not always be the best for the health of our bodies or our food system. But do not fear: we can still enjoy all the delicious pumpkin spice goodness by being more aware of ingredients and making our own treats.

Here are some of my all-time favorite recipes that have real pumpkin and/or spice blends in them:

1-Bowl Pumpkin Bread (V, GF)

1-Bowl Pumpkin Bread

DIY Pumpkin Spice Syrup (can substitute stevia for sugar or reduce sugar)

DIY Pumpkin Spice Syrup

Overnight, Slow Cooker, Pumpkin Pie Steel-Cut Oatmeal (GF, can be made V)

Slow Cooker Pumpkin Pie Oatmeal

Pumpkin Curry (GF)

Paleo Pumpkin Curry

Pumpkin Dream Cake (for very special occasions)

Pumpkin Dream Cake

Lastly, a pro tip for making your own pumpkin pancakes: substitute pumpkin puree for some liquid (whether oil or water) and shake some pumpkin pie spice into the batter. Play around with how much you substitute until it reaches a consistency that you like-there’s no wrong way to do it! The end product will be a dense and delicious pancake that pairs wonderfully with some maple syrup and/or berry topping.

Sara Scinto is a second-year NICBC student, avid coffee drinker, runner, triathlete, and yogi. She has a love for rainbows and all things food/nutrition related. During the fall, there is a 100% chance she has made some kind of pumpkin food within the last week. You can find her on Instagram @saras_colorfull_life.

 

A Taste of Cooking in the Mekong Delta

by Eliot Martin

I’ve found that really good Vietnamese food is unfortunately difficult to find in the U.S. For that matter, Vietnam as a whole seems to be misunderstood by many. While the best solution would be to spend some quality time in Vietnam—something I would recommend to anyone—you can whet your appetite without going halfway around the world. Get a taste of Vietnam through my experience with bánh xèo.

When someone says “Vietnamese Food,” what comes to mind?

For most people, I would guess their answer is phở, maybe fresh spring rolls or bánh mì.

This was my impression before I stumbled across an incredible hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurant while driving through Louisville, KY, several years ago. It was only then that my eyes were opened to another iconic Vietnamese dish—bánh xèo (pronounced: BÁNH-say-òh. Roughly translated as fried cake). I was taken aback by the complex flavors and textures in the dish. It was a crispy, yet chewy, vibrantly yellow crepe; rich with pork fat, but tempered with light and pungent herbs and lettuce; served with sweet, sour, and spicy nước chấm (a lime juice and fish sauce blend that goes with many dishes in Vietnam).

Fast forward a few years and I found myself living in Vietnam as a student. One of the first meals I had in country was a bánh xèo that well exceeded my recollection.

If you’re like me, a large swath of the pleasure of travel is experiencing culture through cuisine. I made it my mission to try every new food I could get my hands on during my nearly four months in Vietnam. I made a special point to not only experience the food I could find on the streets of Saigon and restaurants around the country, but through learning what people eat inside their homes first hand with my homestay mom—by my reckoning, one of the finest chefs in the world.

My learning from her was done mostly through gesturing and the communication of individual food words using translation apps, notes, or my homestay brother’s translations—my homestay mom hardly spoke a word of English and my Vietnamese is atrocious. I couldn’t hope to achieve many of her sophisticated dishes and I wasn’t sure what ingredients I’d even be able to replicate.

If little else could be imparted, she wanted to at least teach me my favorite Vietnamese food, so I asked her to show me how to make bánh xèo.

On a trip to the Mekong Delta with my homestay mom and friends, the time had come for one of my most memorable food experiences. In the early evening, I joined my homestay mom and a close friend of hers under a dining gazebo situated in a picturesque field of palm and banana trees along the river to learn how to make bánh xèo.

Ingredient-by-ingredient, step-by-step, she instructed me without words. My culinary background enabled me to fill in the blanks in many instances, and acquire the necessary skills quickly—though with nowhere near the acuity of my mentor.

Google translate assisted in confirming my hunch that the crystalline salt added was MSG, but I was dumbfounded by what turned out to be the quintessential ingredient in this iteration of the dish—some damp, fibrous strips of white vegetal matter. After fruitless engagement with Google Translate, she eventually pointed at the top of a palm tree—it was fresh heart of palm, an ingredient I had never seen before and to this day have never seen since.

After several attempts of trial and error, we put together an array of bánh xèo in varying degrees of presentability.

As I sat down at the outdoor table in good company and the moist, cool air of the Delta in evening, I knew I had been granted a truly extraordinary opportunity. The bánh xèo came out exceptionally crispy on the clay burners we had used to cook outside. The fresh ingredients left us with unique flavor impressions—the density and light, sweet coconut flavor the heart of palm imparted to the crepes was exquisite. The exotic atmosphere and new family the meal was shared with made the experience truly memorable.

While I can’t share every detail of that night or adequately describe the finesse of my homestay mom in the kitchen, the recipe I have included is an adaptation of my notes from that very meal. The only alteration I have made is the recommendation of bean sprouts as an alternative to the fresh heart of palm—true to the way the dish is prepared just about everywhere else in Vietnam.

It may take some experimentation to get right, but skip ordering bánh xèo in a restaurant, make it right and write your own story in the company of friends and family with this recipe. And next time you order Vietnamese food, remember to look beyond the famous Hanoian street food, phở, and delve deeper into an incredible and under-explored cuisine.

 

Bánh Xèo Recipe

Servings—Makes enough for several people as an appetizer or a few as a meal

Cooking time—Allow up to a couple hours for prep time. Making multiple crepes on one burner can be time consuming.

 

Batter ingredients:

Approx. One cup rice flour

One can coconut milk

Approx. ½ cup chives (finely chopped)

Water

Approx. one tbsp. turmeric powder

Salt to taste (the original recipe calls for 50% table salt and 50% msg)

 

Filling ingredients:

A strip of pork belly, diced (Typically available at Asian grocery stores. Sometimes you can even get it at Whole Foods. Though not ideal, it could be substituted with a mild bacon.)

One large onion sliced

One package sliced mushrooms

A couple handfuls small shell-on shrimp (These can typically be found in the frozen section at an Asian grocery store. Substitution with other shrimp is possible, but not recommended.)

A couple handfuls of bean sprouts

*I wouldn’t recommend substituting canned heart of palm for the fresh heart of palm my homestay mom used because it neither contributes the texture nor light coconut flavor that were so nice with the fresh heart of palm. You could try experimenting with mature coconut flesh for a similar effect—but that’s probably more work than it’s worth.

**When available, sliced squash blossoms are a delicious addition as well

 

For frying:

Traditionally lard is used, though it works nearly as well with vegetable oil

A traditional wok is ideal for this recipe for the edges of the crepe to properly crisp. If you don’t have one, a large sautéing/stir fry pan will work fine—it is important to have a large cooking surface though.

 

For serving:

Mint

Vietnamese/Thai basil

Cilantro

Purple perilla/sesame leaves (Available at Asian grocery stores. Can substitute with mustard greens)

Lettuce (I’d recommend a head of red oak lettuce)

A rice bowl of nước chấm

 

Instructions:

Mix coconut water and chives. Refill empty coconut milk can with water and add to mixture. Add rice flour, mixing evenly, keeping the batter very runny (About the consistency of coconut milk. If it is too thick, the crepes will not crisp properly). Add enough turmeric to turn the light batter yellow. Salt to taste.

Stir fry briefly, in small batches, the onion, shrimp, pork, mushroom, bean sprouts, and squash blossom in frying oil in a very hot wok (it should be hot enough to vaporize any moisture that is released from ingredients).

Transfer mixture out of wok. Heat wok up again until very hot (retain the oil, adding more if needed).

Quickly pour a ladle of batter in a circular motion around the wok, tilting the wok as needed to fully cover the hottest portion with a thin layer of batter.

Carefully add a few large pinches of the filling mixture onto the middle of the crêpe (I know the mixture looks tasty, but resist the temptation to add more than a sprinkling of the ingredients in order for it to cook properly!) and cover for a couple minutes until the crêpe is bubbly.

Uncover and add lard or oil on edges to avoid sticking. Turn the wok over the flame on its sides to use the boiling oil to get the edges crispy.

When the edges are very crispy and it appears fully cooked, fold the crêpe in half.

Serve with nước chấm, herbs (typically mint and Vietnamese/Thai basil, and a little cilantro), purple perilla, and a variety of lettuces. Wrap the crepe in the herbs and lettuces and dip in the sauce (be prepared to get a little messy!).

 

Nước Chấm Recipe

Literally “lime water”—this sauce pretty much goes with an astonishing array of dishes in in Vietnam. You may also here it simply referred to as nước mắm  (fish sauce) as this is the typical way the traditional Vietnamese sauce of fermented fish is used.

 

Combine ingredients to taste (listed in order of quantity used):

Fresh lime juice

Fish sauce (nước mắm)

Palm sugar (cane sugar works almost as well)

Crushed fresh Vietnamese/Thai chilis

Crushed fresh garlic

(many places include grated carrot and shredded green mango too—though this are a good thing to skip when making it at home)

Eliot Martin is a first-year student in the Food Policy and Applied Nutrition program who, like many Friedman students, finds that much of his life revolves around food and travel. While the food-systems research he is most interested in pertains to behavioral decision making and its policy implications, he’s excited to share his personal experiences as well. He looks forward to contributing regularly to the sprout. Eliot can be contacted at eliot.martin@tufts.edu or on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/eliot-martin-52406289.