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.

Mirin — Off the Beaten Aisle

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

mirin short ribs
Mirin is all about getting sauced.

Because that’s where Japanese cooking wine really shines — in sauces.

But first, a misconception. The wretched American product known as “cooking wine” probably has you reluctant to try anything similar.

Relax and prepare for a delicious discovery. They are nothing alike.

Though once sipped similar to sake, today mirin is exclusively a cooking wine. The clear, viscous liquid has a clean yet intensely sweet-salty flavor.

Mirin-Marinated Short Ribs With Shiitakes and Egg Noodles »

Halloumi — Off the Beaten Aisle

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

grilled cheese salad
You’ll probably feel pretty stupid calling it “squeaky cheese,” but as soon as you take a bite you’ll understand why it makes sense.

Sometimes called Greek grilling cheese, halloumi is just that — a dense cheese that holds its shape and won’t drip through the grates when grilled.

And when you chew it? It makes a squeaky sound against your teeth.

Luckily, mouth noises aren’t the real selling point of this cheese. Taste and versatility are what will drive you to find this relative of feta cheese.

Traditionally made from sheep’s milk on the island of Cyprus, halloumi today often is made from a blend of milk from of sheep, goats and cows.

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Pomegranate Molasses — Off the Beaten Aisle

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

roasted pomegranate chickpea salad
Are you about over the pomegranate trend yet?

If so, you might want to revisit it one more time. But this time we aren’t talking about chugging the juice or turning it into fancy cocktails.

This time it’s pomegranate molasses, a thick, syrupy concentrate that is sweet and tart and as delicious as it sounds.

To explain pomegranate molasses, we ought to start with the fruit itself.

Pomegranates originated in Western Asia and the Mediterranean, with the best supposedly coming from Iran. The trees produce large, usually red orb-like fruits filled with edible seeds, each of which is covered by a juice-filled membrane.

Seven delicious ways to use pomegranate molasses »

Jicama — Off the Beaten Aisle

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

shrimp and jicama rolls
Imagine crossing a monster potato with a water chestnut.

That’s jicama for you. And while not much to look at on the outside, the crisp, crunchy texture and clean, sweet flavor inside make this veggie worth seeking out.

First, the basics. Jicama (pronounced HICK-a-MA) is a tuber — a big brown round root. A relative of the bean family, it is native to Mexico and South America.

Though most often eaten raw, such as chopped into salads, jicama can be steamed, boiled, sautéed or fried. And so long as you don’t overcook it, jicama retains its pleasantly crisp texture (think fresh apple) when cooked.

The flavor is on the neutral side, with a hint of starchy sweetness. It really is quite similar to water chestnuts, and can be substituted for them.

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Honeycomb — Off the Beaten Aisle

by in How-to, Recipes, August 25th, 2011

honeycomb brie english muffin
It’s time to think beyond the bear bottle. Because honey comes in way more forms than just plastic squirt bottles. My favorite? Honey in the comb, pure and simple.

And yes, the comb is totally safe to eat. People have been keeping bees — and eating the honeycomb — for several thousand years. But first, some honey 101. No, honey is not bee spit. But bee saliva does play a role.

When bees gather nectar from flowers, it is stored in a honey sac inside their bodies. During storage, the bee’s saliva mixes with the nectar, which (shocker!) is made mostly from sugar. Enzymes in the saliva convert those sugars into honey.

The honeycomb comes into play when the bee gets back to the hive. The comb itself — a network of hexagonal cylinders — is made from waxy secretions of worker bees. As these cylinders are filled with honey, they are capped with yet another layer of wax.

The bees do all this to create food for themselves. In fact, for every pound of honey gathered by people, the bees make and consume another eight.

Six delicious ways to use honeycomb »

How to Use Berbere — Off the Beaten Aisle

by in How-to, Recipes, August 19th, 2011

chicken burgers with berbere
Imagine the best Southern barbecue — cooked up in northern Africa.

That’s what this week’s ingredient — the Ethiopian seasoning blend known as berbere — tastes like. And it’s as good as it sounds.

Berbere is the flavor backbone of Ethiopian cooking, a cuisine built around heavily seasoned meats and stews served with a spongy flatbread called injera.

Berbere ties all of that together, doing duty as a dry rub for meats, a seasoning for stews, lentils and grains — even as a tableside condiment.

As with so many traditional seasoning blends, what goes into berbere can vary by region, town and by house.

But most versions begin with a base of ground chiles, ginger, fenugreek, cumin, cloves, coriander, cardamom, black pepper and salt.

Incorporate berbere into chicken burgers »

Off the Beaten Aisle: Anchovies

by in How-to, Recipes, August 11th, 2011

flatbread pizza with anchovies
If anchovies gross you out, know this: Compared to what people ate before there were anchovies, they’re practically cake and ice cream.

Because until about the 16th century there were no anchovies as we know them today. That is, small silvery fish that are boned, salt-cured and packed in oil.

Instead, there was garum — the juice of salted and fermented fish guts. Garum lost favor about 500 years ago when people learned how to make anchovies.

Can’t imagine why.

Anchovies, however, are not a singular fish. Most cuisines around the world have their own “anchovy,” most of which tend to be variants of one variety of fish, a relative of the herring.

Anchovies demystified »

Off the Beaten Aisle: Rainbow Chard

by in Recipes, August 5th, 2011

rainbow chard quiche
It’s a beet, minus the root.

Which doesn’t make sense. Except it does. Because it’s chard, one of a growing number of common yet often overlooked greens lurking at your grocer.

Chard — sometimes called Swiss chard or rainbow chard (when it sports brightly colored stalks) — really is a relative of the beet.

But unlike traditional beets — which put their energy into producing finger-staining roots, chard instead produces big, tender leaves and crunchy stalks.

Chard has been around for thousands of years and likely originated in the Mediterranean, where it was in heavy culinary rotation until spinach came along.

Find out what to do with rainbow chard »

Off the Beaten Aisle: Red Curry Paste

by in Recipes, July 28th, 2011

red curry chicken noodles
It’s red, but it isn’t red hot. And that’s why it’s the sort of curry the average American is going to love.

I’m talking about red curry paste, one of a literal rainbow of intensely flavorful Southeast Asian seasonings.

To be clear, curry pastes are not the same as the curry powders most people know, though they do share some ingredients.

Curry pastes — which are used in Thai, Indonesian, Malaysian and Indian cooking — combine dry spices with ground fresh herbs and roots, garlic, chilies and other ingredients to form thick pastes.

These pastes often are classified by color. Green curry paste, for example, is a fiery Thai blend that combines green chilies, lemon grass, garlic, shrimp paste and kaffir lime leaves. It’s usually blended with coconut milk to season beef, pork and chicken.

Get the recipe for Red Curry Chicken Noodles »

Off the Beaten Aisle: Capers

by in Recipes, July 21st, 2011

easy puttanesca sauce
This week, it’s flower power.

Because that’s exactly what capers are and do: They are the flower buds of a wild bush that lend serious flavor power to your cooking.

Our story starts several thousand years ago, when capers moved from simple would-be blossoms to culinary colossus.

That’s when the people of the Mediterranean realized that if they picked the buds of the caper bush before they opened, they could pickle them and use them to add a deliciously pungent flavor to their cooking.

And the pickling is key — fresh caper buds are insanely bitter.

Find out what you can do with capers »