All Posts By J.M. Hirsch

J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is the author of the recent cookbook High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking. He also blogs at LunchBoxBlues.com.

Five-Spice Powder — Off the Beaten Aisle

by in How-to, February 9th, 2012

roast beef tenderloin
It’s all about harmony and yin-yang.

Which sounds tritely New Age-y, but really is the key to Chinese cuisine.

Because as with so much of Asian cooking, the blend of seasonings known as five-spice powder is intended to trigger a sense of balance in the mouth and nose.

How? A careful selection of spices that simultaneously hit notes of warm and cool, sweet and bitter, savory and searing.

Because that’s what you get with five-spice powder, a mix of fennel seeds, cinnamon, cloves, star anise and Sichuan peppercorns.

Like spice blends around the world, the proportions of those ingredients vary by region in China, but some variant of it is used throughout the country.

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Chorizo — Off the Beaten Aisle

by in How-to, February 2nd, 2012

roasted chicken with chorizo
Chorizo is a bit like pornography. You’ll know it when you see it, but it’s a bit hard to define in the abstract.

That’s because there are several hundred varieties of this sausage made across at least three continents and many bear little resemblance to the others.

Making matters worse, chorizo makers in the U.S. are a pretty freewheeling bunch. No matter what the packages say, you never quite know what you’re getting.

The good news is that you don’t need to sift through all that to understand why this meat is well worth working into your dinner repertoire.

At its most basic level, chorizo is a sausage made from chopped or ground pork and a ton of seasonings, often including garlic.

The flavors are deeply smoky and savory, with varying degrees of heat. Most are assertive and peppery, but not truly spicy.

Roasted Chicken With Chorizo and Root Veggies »

Flank Steak — Off the Beaten Aisle

by in How-to, January 26th, 2012

balsamic pepper flank steak
So you think you know steaks? Maybe you do.

But truth is, you probably only really know the particular cuts you buy over and over again. That’s good, but there’s a world of great beef out there to explore.

And many of those cuts (and by the way, butchers are creating new ones all the time) are far more versatile than you think.

You could spend ages learning the different cuts of beef and the various names for each (there isn’t nearly as much naming standardization as you would think). But I think it’s better to simply pick a cut you haven’t often prepared at home and start playing around with it. That’s how I learned to love flank steak.

First, the basics. Flank steaks are lean cuts from the rear side of the cow and are characterized by rich, deep, beefy flavor and a slightly chewy texture. Traditionally, London broils were made using flank steaks, though today any of the leaner, less tender cuts often are substituted.

Get the recipe for Balsamic-Pepper Flank Steak »

Hoisin — Off the Beaten Aisle

by in How-to, Recipes, January 19th, 2012

hoisin turkey meatball grinders
Mmmm … Nothing says good eats like soy residue.

Except that in Chinese cooking, it really can. And you very likely have enjoyed that soy residue. Many times and in many ways.

We’re talking about hoisin sauce, a classic ingredient for sauces — both for dipping at the table and basting during cooking — in China.

Hoisin is a thick, dark red-to-brown sauce that blends sweet-spicy-savory flavors, a profile not all that different from ketchup. It is made from the leftover mash of fermented soy beans produced when making traditional soy sauces. That mash is combined with sugar, chiles, garlic, vinegar, salt, sometimes five-spice powder and either flour or cornstarch (to thicken).

Though hoisin is widely used on grilled meats (as a barbecue sauce) and in dipping sauces, it’s best known for a starring role in Peking duck and moo shu pork.

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Crème Fraiche — Off the Beaten Aisle

by in How-to, Recipes, January 12th, 2012

croque monsieur
Not sure what crème fraiche is or why you should care?

Consider it a relative of sour cream. Except that while both are white, thick and creamy, crème fraiche is the richer, sexier and more talented relative.

Here’s the deal. Like yogurt, sour cream and crème fraiche are dairy products produced thanks to the miracle of beneficial bacteria.

But while yogurt is made by adding those bacteria to milk, sour cream and crème fraiche are made from cream.

So what’s the difference? Sour cream is made from cream that is 20 percent fat; crème fraiche sports an even more succulent 30 percent. That may not sound like a big difference, but it matters in both taste and versatility. That extra fat turns crème fraiche into a kitchen workhorse.

But first, taste. While sour cream tastes, well, sour, crème fraiche is rich and tart. And as a byproduct of the bacteria added to produce it, crème fraiche tends to make other foods taste buttery. But unlike yogurt, crème fraiche isn’t particularly acidic (so it’s not great for marinades).

Get the recipe for Croque Monsieur »

Almond Butter — Off the Beaten Aisle

by in How-to, January 5th, 2012


Most of us have plenty of ideas for using whole almonds. Eat them whole. Bake them into treats. Scatter them over salads or green beans.

But what about almond butter — toasted (and sometimes salted) almonds that have been ground to a peanut butter-like consistency?

After cranking out a few AB&J sandwiches, most people push the jar of almond butter to the back of the refrigerator. Time to pull it forward because almond butter is easy to use in all sorts of delicious ways in numerous cuisines.

Let’s start with the basics. Almond butter is what it sounds like: ground almonds, usually with a bit of oil and salt added for texture and taste.

It’s not the same as almond paste or marzipan, both of which are made from finely ground almonds (but with a fair amount of sugar added) and used in baking.

Get the recipe for Mole-Style Pulled Pork Buns »

Smoked Fish — Off the Beaten Aisle

by in How-to, Recipes, December 29th, 2011


Several thousand years ago, people discovered that exposing fish to intense amounts of salt and smoke was a great of preserving the catch for later.

Today, our smoking techniques are considerably more refined, and we do it more for flavor than as a means of preservation.

Which makes it a shame that more people don’t think to reach for smoked fish as an effortless way to add gobs of flavor to the foods they love.

But first, a primer on smoked fish. There are two ways to smoke: cold and hot. Salmon, trout, haddock and mackerel are the most common choices.

In cold smoking, the fish are brined in a heavy salt solution, then exposed to cool smoke (85 degrees F max) for up to several days, then frozen to kill parasites.

Get the recipe for Smoked Trout Noodle Soup »

Hominy — Off the Beaten Aisle

by in How-to, Recipes, December 22nd, 2011


Hominy is one of those foods you might think you’ve never tried, yet almost certainly have. Or at least a close relative of it.

That’s because the ingredient that starts as hominy can end as many different dishes across many cultures, from Mexican pozole to Southern grits to the corn nuts down at your neighborhood bar.

But first, the basics.

Hominy is the name given to whole corn kernels, usually white, that have been cooked in a lye or lime solution to remove their thick hulls. The result is a tender, somewhat bulbous kernel with a chewy texture and a clean, corn flavor.

In Latin America, these kernels are used most often in soups and stews such as pozole, a highly seasoned stew of hominy, pork and chili peppers.

The Southern staple known as grits follows a similar path. In this case, the hominy is dried after processing, then coarsely ground. The resulting meal then is cooked with water or milk to a porridge-like consistency similar to polenta.

Get the recipe for Pulled Chicken and Hominy Stew »

How to Use Nori — Off the Beaten Aisle

by in How-to, Recipes, December 15th, 2011

Nori Omelet
If you’ve ever had a California roll, you’ve had nori.

Now it’s time to learn what else you can do with this ubiquitous yet always overlooked paper-like ingredient made from seaweed.

Nori — also called laver — is a somewhat generic name for a variety of seaweeds cultivated for use mostly in Japanese cooking. I say mostly because the same varieties are added to oatmeal in Ireland. But Americans know nori best as the paper-thin black wrapping used in sushi.

It is produced by washing and chopping fresh seaweed to create a slurry. That mixture then is spread thin, dried, cut into sheets and lightly toasted. The result is a crunchy, dark paper with just a hint of ocean flavor.

Get the recipe for a Nori Omelet »

Polenta — Off the Beaten Aisle

by in How-to, Recipes, December 8th, 2011

spicy pork with polenta
Most people consider polenta a restaurant food. Because as good as this creamy, cheesy Italian staple is, few of us have the hour needed to crank it out.

But hidden on the grocer’s shelves is a shortcut that can help get polenta on your dinner table any day of the week in minutes: prepared polenta. Which is different — and far better than — a related product known as instant polenta.

But first, some polenta basics.

Polenta is a traditional starch in Italian cooking, an alternative to pasta, rice and potatoes that pairs deliciously well with robust sauces and meats.

Polenta is made by slowly simmering and stirring cornmeal with chicken broth or water. It’s usually also seasoned with Parmesan cheese and butter.

Get the recipe for Spicy Pork With Polenta »