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.

Garam Masala — Off the Beaten Aisle

by in How-to, Recipes, December 1st, 2011

smashed and roasted garam masala potatoes
First lesson of Indian cooking: Not all brown powders are curry powder.

Second lesson: Don’t confuse heat and warmth, especially in Indian cuisine, as they are wildly different concepts.

Third lesson: Indian cooking is a deliciously inexact science. Embrace its freewheeling approach and all of your cooking, Indian and otherwise, will be better.

And all of that is why I want to introduce you to garam masala, a widely available yet little used (in the U.S.) seasoning blend from northern India. Like so many Indian spice blends, there is no set recipe for garam masala. The ingredients can vary tremendously by region and cook. But in general, it usually contains a mix of spices that are at once sweet and warming — coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin and black pepper.

Get the recipe for Smashed Garam Masala Potatoes »

Sichuan Pepper — Off the Beaten Aisle

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

sichuan pepper meatballs
Any food that can make your tongue tingle has got to be worth a taste.

I’m not talking a seltzer-like zippiness or even a searing chili heat. I mean literally tingling because your tongue is at once numb and buzzingly alive.

That is the power of the Sichuan pepper (also called Sichuan peppercorn). But why would you want to (albeit mildly) numb your mouth? Because aside from the basic coolness of a tingling tongue, that sensation also changes the way you taste food seasoned with the pepper, adding a wonderful punchy vibrancy and warmth unlike anything else.

First, the basics. Despite appearances, Sichuan pepper is not a true peppercorn. It is the dried rind of the berry-like fruit of the prickly ash tree. And chances are, you’ve had it before. Sichuan pepper is a basic component of Chinese five-spice powder. As its name suggests, the spice has left a serious thumbprint on the cuisine of China’s Sichuan province. It also is used in Japan, where it is called sansho.

Get the recipe for Sichuan Pepper Meatballs »

Lemon Grass — Off the Beaten Aisle

by in How-to, Recipes, November 17th, 2011

lemon grass chicken stir fry
It may look and sound like a weed, but lemon grass actually is one of the most important ingredients in Southeast Asian cooking. And it can transform the all-American foods you love.

Lemon grass is a reed-like plant that grows as a thin, firm 2-foot stalk with a small bulb at the base. It varies in color from pale yellow to very light green.

True to name, lemon grass has a pleasantly assertive lemon taste and aroma.

Lemon Grass Chicken Stir-Fry »

Fresh Fennel — Off the Beaten Aisle

by in How-to, Recipes, November 14th, 2011

fennel egg salad sandwich
If ever there was a vegetable dogged by misunderstanding, fresh fennel is it.

Because while it may taste like anise and look like a bulb, it’s neither. And don’t let the grocery workers who love to label it that way tell you otherwise.

Fennel may taste like anise, and is a relative of it, but they are separate plants. And while the base of fennel is bulbous, that’s a shape, not its plant variety.

So now that we’ve cleared up what fennel isn’t, let’s focus on what it is.

Fresh fennel resembles a cross between cabbage, celery and dill. The taste is assertively (though not unpleasantly) licorice and sweet. The base of the fennel is round with tightly overlapping pale-green leaves. Sprouting out of that are long celery stalks topped with fine frilly leaves.

Fennel Egg Salad Sandwiches »

Wonton Skins — Off the Beaten Aisle

by in Recipes, November 4th, 2011

spicy pork dumplings
There’s nothing wrong with showing a bit of skin. Especially if it’s steamy.

Because while they may appear a rather mundane ingredient, wonton skins are an inexpensive and easy way to jazz up your cooking. And with the demands of holiday cooking barreling down upon us, anything that produces snazzy and simple company-worthy treats is worth taking notice of.

So let’s start with the basics. Wonton skins (also called wonton wrappers) are thin sheets of dough made from flour, egg and water. That’s basically the same formula as Asian egg noodles, and not all that far off from Italian pasta. Except wonton skins are cut into round and square sheets.

Get the recipe for Steamed Spicy Pork Dumplings »

Fresh Ginger — Off the Beaten Aisle

by in How-to, Recipes, October 28th, 2011

ginger orange chicken cutlet recipe
People have been eating it for thousands of years, yet still no one can tell me why it should be peeled. So I don’t peel it, and neither should you. “It” being fresh ginger, the gnarly brown root that lives among the grocer’s Asian produce. And the flavor is so much better than dried — you must get to know it.

Most of us think of ginger as the powder in the spice cabinet and use it mostly for baking. In Asia, where ginger originated, it’s more a savory ingredient. That’s because fresh ginger packs tons of warm, pungent, peppery flavor that works so well with meats and vegetables.

Though they can be used interchangeably, the flavor of fresh ginger is more pronounced than dried, sporting heavy citrus, even acidic, notes. In Asia, fresh ginger is an essential part of numerous classic dishes, including stir-fries, soups, sauces and marinades, as well as Indian curries.

Ginger-Orange Chicken Cutlets »

Agave Nectar — Off the Beaten Aisle

by in How-to, October 20th, 2011

agave bbq roasted chicken
Finally — a way to enjoy agave without the hangover!

That’s right: Agave nectar, the current darling of the alternative sweetener world, is made from the same plant that is used to produce tequila. And it goes down so much easier (squeeze of lime and dash of salt are optional).

But let’s start with some basics. Agave nectar (sometimes called agave syrup) is an amber liquid that resembles honey, but has a cleaner, sweeter, even fruitier flavor. Not long ago it was mostly unheard of in the U.S., existing primarily in the backwaters of the natural foods world.

In recent years, it has evolved into a booming $200 million industry. Suddenly, it’s being used in everything from ketchup and barbecue sauce to baked goods and ice cream. And don’t even get me started about the cocktail scene.

Agave-Barbecue Roasted Chicken »

Sage — Off the Beaten Aisle

by in How-to, October 13th, 2011

fried sage parmesan penne pasta
It’s hard to not love an ingredient that loves fat.

And that’s exactly what sage does — it partners up perfectly with foods rich in oils and fats. So why not give it a try? It’s nearly the holidays and time to indulge.

Actually, that’s part of sage’s problem — and why it has a relatively low profile in American cooking compared to other savory herbs, such as basil and oregano.

While we think of all manner of uses for other herbs in all seasons, we tend to pigeonhole sage as a Thanksgiving herb suited mostly for stuffing and turkey.

But the richly peppery-rosemary flavor of fresh sage can more than earn its keep year round. You just need to know how to use it.

Fried Sage and Parmesan Penne »

How to Use Coconut Milk — Off the Beaten Aisle

by in How-to, October 7th, 2011

coconut lime chicken tacos
Who knew coconut milk could be so confusing?

It shouldn’t be. At heart, it’s a delicious liquid made from coconuts (duh!) that can effortlessly add an exotically creamy richness to so many meals.

Except that grocers sell about half a dozen different products that go by the same or very similar names. And they aren’t interchangeable.

So let’s start with what coconut milk isn’t.

Coconut water is a hip new drink that is made from the liquid inside coconuts. Drink it, but don’t cook with it.

Coconut milk beverage is a sweetened drink made from coconut milk and sugar. It’s usually sold in boxes alongside the soy milk.

Coconut-Lime Pulled Chicken Tacos »

Star Anise — Off the Beaten Aisle

by in How-to, September 29th, 2011

cinnamon star anise sugar syrup
Pretty to look at, but what do you do with it?

That about sums up how most of us feel about star anise. And that’s why it’s mostly been relegated to the backwaters of spice cabinets in the U.S.

What most people don’t realize is that star anise actually is a deliciously potent spice that can do amazing things for your cooking, especially for meat.

But first, the basics. Star anise is the fruit — yes, fruit — of an evergreen tree native to southern China (where most of it still is produced).

When dried, that fruit resembles a 1-inch, rust-colored star, usually with six to eight points. Each point contains a small, shiny seed.

Get the recipe for Cinnamon-Star Anise Sugar »