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.

Off the Beaten Aisle: Farro

by in Recipes, July 14th, 2011

warm farro salad with italian sausage
The trouble with so-called “ancient grains” is that though they recently have tickled the fancy of restaurant chefs, they remain way under the home cook’s radar.

It’s an experience thing. Or lack of. Most of us aren’t even sure how to cook amaranth, quinoa and spelt, never-mind know how to serve them.

Which is too bad. They can be a delicious, creative and usually inexpensive way of working whole grains into your cooking.

So let me help you over that first hurdle by introducing you to farro, which I consider the easiest to cook and most versatile of the ancient grains.

Find out what you can make with farro »

Off the Beaten Aisle: Sambal

by in Recipes, July 7th, 2011

chili garlic roasted shrimp
Rule No. 1 about spicy ingredients: You don’t need to love spicy foods to love what spicy ingredients can do for the foods you do love.

That’s because foods such as chili peppers and hot sauces can do way more than simply add mouth-searing heat. Adding just a touch will heighten the other flavors of a dish without adding noticeable spiciness.

For example, whip up your favorite mac and cheese. Now stir in just a drop or two of hot sauce. Taste. It won’t be spicy, but it will be better.

Why am I telling you this? Because I want you to try a seriously spicy ingredient and don’t want you to be scared off by the heat.

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Off the Beaten Aisle: Kumquats

by in Recipes, June 30th, 2011

kumquat and red onion salsa haddock
There’s really no way around it: Kumquats are an odd little fruit.

Visually, they resemble diminutive oranges, but they technically aren’t citrus. And unlike oranges, it’s the thin skin that is sweet, while the flesh is sour.

You probably won’t find bushels of them at the grocer, but most stores will have a few pints (they usually are sold in the same containers as cherry tomatoes) tucked away among the “strange” produce offerings.

And they are worth looking for. Here’s why:

In a tiny (about the size of a large olive), bright orange package, kumquats pack a puckeringly intense sweet-tart flavor that complements both sweet and savory dishes. They also make a mean cocktail.

Find out what you can make with kumquats »

Off the Beaten Aisle: Pepitas

by in Recipes, June 23rd, 2011

grilled flank steak
Plenty of people have a tough time taking pumpkin seeds seriously.

Fair enough. Americans unfamiliar with (or lacking a taste for) Hispanic foods generally only encounter them in the glop you scrape out of jack-o’-lanterns.

But roasted, hulled pumpkin seeds (properly known as pepitas) are a delicious, nutty backbone of many Mexican dishes and well worth getting to know.

And thanks to the popularity of Hispanic foods, they are easy to find. Trader Joe’s alone sells several varieties — raw, roasted, salted and plain, among others.

Pepitas resemble long, narrow teardrops and are greenish in color (because their hard, white hulls have been removed). Don’t buy regular “snacking” pumpkin seeds still in their hulls.

Get the recipe for Grilled Flank Steak With Pepita-Cilantro Sauce »

Off the Beaten Aisle: Pancetta

by in Recipes, June 16th, 2011

pancetta hummus with balsamic tomatoes
Are you about over bacon yet?

Neither am I. In fact, our national obsession with cured pig has only made me all the more eager to explore lesser-known –- but equally delicious -– pork parts.

And there are plenty to choose from. One of the most widely available, yet often overlooked, is pancetta, a close relative of American bacon.

So let’s start there. Bacon usually is made from the belly or side of the pig. It is cured (either dry or wet) with salt, spices and sometimes sugar, then smoked.

Pancetta is the Italian version. Typically made from the belly, the curing process is the same, but the meat usually is not smoked. During curing, it often is seasoned with black pepper, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and herbs.

While most American bacon is sliced into thin strips, slabs of pancetta usually are rolled into a log.

Get the recipe for Pancetta Hummus after the jump »

Off the Beaten Aisle: Mint

by in Recipes, June 9th, 2011

feta mint penne pasta
It’s time to move mint beyond juleps and mojitos.

Because in the U.S., mint has struggled to land on the dinner table. We tend to associate it with sweets (after all, it does pair nicely with chocolate) and breath mints.

But elsewhere in the world, especially North Africa, the Middle East and Asia, mint is used to lend a crisp, almost peppery contrast to savory dishes, especially fatty ones (think lamb with mint sauce).

First, the basics.

You’ll find mint sold with the other herbs in the produce section, often in large bunches that you’ll never manage to entirely use. No worries — it’s cheap.

Most of the mint sold in American grocery stores is spearmint or peppermint, just two of the many varieties (that grow like weeds) available. It should have a mix of large and small leaves that are bright green and firm.

Find out what you can make with mint »

Off the Beaten Aisle: Marcona Almonds

by in Recipes, June 2nd, 2011

tomato sweet potato soup
Five years can make a world of difference for an almond.

That’s about how long it took for Spain’s addictively good marcona almond to go from obscure gourmet goodie to a Trader Joe’s staple with serious culinary cred.

Why do you care? Because marconas are not your average almond. These wide, teardrop-shaped treats are the filet mignon of the nut world.

Almost literally.

The flavor and texture of marcona almonds are entirely different than the more common California almond. A higher fat content helps explain the textural difference – tender-crunchy and moist.

As for flavor, think uber-savory and steak-like. And it doesn’t hurt that they typically are prepared by being fried in olive oil, then sprinkled with salt.

Once only a limited import, marcona almonds now are widely available, often sold near the cheese, olives and other so-called gourmet items.

Find out what you can make with marcona almonds »

Off the Beaten Aisle: Fig Jam

by in Recipes, May 26th, 2011

tomato, avocado and feta salad
A jam would seem an unlikely ingredient to be overlooked.

After all, legions of parents rely on the many offerings of the grocer’s PB&J aisle to maintain peace with the lunch-box crowd.

Except that when you peer past the usual suspects — strawberry, raspberry, grape, apricot — you find some seriously wonderful hidden jam gems that belong as much at the dinner table as they do slathered between slices of bread.

My favorite? Fig.

Fig jam has a thick, almost dense consistency and a rich, full sweetness that isn’t cloying the way many preserves are. My theory on that? Much of the sweetness comes from natural sugars; figs have one of the highest sugar contents among fruits.

Except they aren’t technically a fruit. Figs actually are flowers folded in on themselves. The tiny, crunchy seeds inside are the fruit. But I digress.

Find out what you can make with fig jam »

Off the Beaten Aisle: Sweet White Miso

by in Recipes, May 19th, 2011

miso mac and cheese
Fermented bean paste? Doesn’t exactly scream party in your mouth.

And yet we happily slurp it in that salty, savory soup doled out every time we sit down for sushi. That’s because miso really is a flavor bomb worth knowing.

So let’s start there. Miso is a broad term for pastes made from fermented cooked soybeans that are aged, sometimes for years.

Miso has origins in China, but is best known for its role in Japanese cooking, where it is used in soups, sauces, marinades, glazes and dressings.

There are many varieties of miso, which can vary widely in color and flavor intensity based on how long it is aged and which ingredients are added.

Sweet white miso, for example, is made from fermented soybeans and rice, then aged for just a few months. The result is a smooth paste with a sweet, salty, savory flavor and a light golden color.

Find out what you can make with sweet white miso »

Icing on the Cake: AP’s 2011 Stylebook Adds Food Writing Section

by in News, May 17th, 2011

ap stylebook 2011
Pop quiz time!

How do you make “petit four” plural?

When making pesto, do you add “pine nuts” or “pinenuts”?

And which is correct: bok choy, bok choi, pak choi or pak choy?

These are the questions I tend to spend too much time geeking out over. But then, as food editor for the world’s largest news organization, that’s part of the job. Especially recently, as we geared up for the release of the 2011 edition of “The Associated Press Stylebook.”

Unless you’ve done time in the news trenches, you may not be too familiar with the book. It’s basically an all-purpose spelling, grammar and formatting guide for journalists. We’ve been producing regularly updated editions of the book since 1953.

But the cool part is that this year we created our first standalone section of the book dedicated to food writing. In it, we cover the basics of recipe writing, as well as the proper spelling, capitalization and use of more than 400 common (and sometimes complicated) food terms.

Read more