Tag: cooking references

The Food Substitution Bible


So, in the series of “cookbooks I use all the time”, this:

David Joachim’s The Food Substitution Bible

As the name indicates, it’s a list of ingredients vs. possible substitutions if say, you absolutely need rice wine but don’t have an Asian shop ready. It also lists cooking method substitutions: what to do if you don’t have a claypot or a barbecue grill. It’s not exhaustive (for instance, I couldn’t find an entry for potato starch), but it’s making a freakingly good attempt at being so: the list of ingredients includes various obscure French cheeses, panko, and a lot of the Asian ingredients I often find that I have to replace at the last minute (dropping an ingredient from a Vietnamese recipe is usually a bad idea, since they rely so much on the layering of flavours to achieve their effect–remove one, and the dish kind of lacks oomph). The substitutions are pretty smart, too (even though some of them seem a bit off to me at times). But mostly, they’re smart.

The thing I use it for most, though? It’s not the substitution list: it’s the little header besides each ingredient, which lists corresponding volume and weight equivalence (ie, 1 shallot=1 tablespoon chopped shallot=15 to 30g). Pretty much a lifesaver for all those recipes which call for ingredients by weight, whereas you tend to buy vegetables by units (well, I do, at any rate).

There’s also tables listing common ingredients such as apples, potatoes, vinegars and explaining their properties. It’s less useful for me, because they’re US varieties, and for instance, the apples list has about 20-30% varieties in common with the apples I can find here. If you live in the US, I’d imagine that section would be way, way more practical.
(and I do wish there was a section on the different starches and thickeners and their uses, but fortunately Cook’s Thesaurus has a great one).

Rice cooker update


So it’s been about six months, and I thought I’d report a bit on our experience with the rice cooker.

First, a word of warning: this isn’t going to be a post of great revelations about rice cookers–it’s mostly us discovering obvious things. If you already know about rice cookers, especially high-end models, you can probably skip this blog post. We feel very much like we’ve just discovered something half the world already knows about…

I was very ambivalent about the appliance at first, thinking it a big investment with little return–after all, I could already cook rice at home without too much trouble, so why pay so much for a dedicated machine? (I did want a rice cooker, but one of the cheaper models. The H was the one who convinced me to get a high-end, fuzzy logic cooker).

Rice Cooker

Our rice cooker. It’s a Philips HD4751 (yeah, I know. Philips isn’t a company you’d associate with rice cookers, but they’ve recently started expanding into Malaysia and Singapore, and their electronics are CE-certified. See below for why this matters)

The biggest pro by far is freeing space on the stove–it might not look like much, but so many Asian dishes require cooking ingredients separately, and the four spots on the stove can get crowded very fast–especially if one of them is a huge wok, which tends to eat into the space of the other spots…

Second obvious pro: cooking rice on the stove is fairly easy (as long as you’re not cooking glutinous rice or Japanese short grain rice, which I’m given to understand is a little more complicated), but it does require a bit of attention. By contrast, the rice cooker pretty much takes care of itself: once the rice and water are in, I can go do other things (like chopping up vegetables or preparing a marinade), secure in the knowledge that I won’t have a burnt mess at the bottom of the casserole dish. All I have to do is open up the thing when the timer runs out, and fluff it a bit so that the rice doesn’t stick together, and then close it again–and it stays inside snug and warm until the rest of the ingredients are actually cooked (I’m given to understand the long keep-warm function is one of the big advantages of a higher-end model like ours; the cheaper ones don’t work so great).

The thing also handles other kinds of rice: sushi rice (which was handy for our few forays into Japanese cuisine); brown rice (which is nigh-impossible to cook on a stove), and cháo (congee/rice porridge). Cháo can be made on the stove, but again, the rice cooker makes it much more convenient.

Also, it has a steaming setting! See, the H and I both love dim sum, in particular ha kau, cha siu buns and other classic Chinese dishes. Accordingly, we tried several options for steaming our dim sun. Metal baskets, bamboo baskets, baskets lined with baking paper or foil (and believe me, piercing dozens of holes in baking paper or foil in order to let the steam pass is one of the most soul-destroying activities in the kitchen)… The steaming bit worked great, but what didn’t work was the get-the-dumplings-out-the-basket-without-tearing-them-apart bit. In other words, the damn things tended to stick to the hot surface, which made it very hard to get some decent-looking meals.
Our rice cooker, on the other hand, comes with a plastic white basket which slots over the main reservoir–and things actually don’t stick to it. I’m in love. Plus, you can cook rice and dim sum at the same time (the dim sum get cooked by the steam from the rice). Win!

Cons: if you don’t eat enough rice, of course, it’s pretty much a worthless investment. On the other hand, I’ve found that our global consumption of rice in the household increased–rice suddenly became as lazy an option as pasta when we both came home knackered from the day job.

One thing I do miss is the burnt bits at the bottom (they have a special name in Vietnamese, but I can’t remember for the life of me what it is). When they’re not charred, but just the right shade of golden, they make for delicious eating, and of course you can’t get those with a rice cooker, which makes perfect rice every time…

One minor con: we did need to get hold of someone who spoke Traditional Chinese before we could use the thing. As you can see, everything on it is labelled in Chinese characters, which can be a bit of a drawback when the instruction booklet isn’t explicit: it did include numbered diagrams, but it also suffered from a flaw I’ve often seen in Philips instruction booklets, which is that there are numbers missing, rendering the system pretty much useless. Thankfully, an amazing number of people showed up here, on FB and on LJ to help us interpret the labels.

Last con if you live in Europe: getting hold of the %% thing in the first place. Most rice cookers sold in the 13th Arrondissement (our local Chinese/Vietnamese district) are simpler models–most high-end rice cookers are made for the Asian markets, and are not CE-certified, which prevents them from being imported in Europe. It took us a whole afternoon to find this one.*

So, overall, very happy with the purchase. Coming late to the whole concept (or, indeed, the whole cuisine thing :-p), but definitely a fan. We’re probably one of the few French households with a sophisticated rice cooker and no coffee-maker whatsoever…

* Yes, we could probably have asked one of our numerous friends living in Asia to buy one for us, and bring it back–the thought didn’t occur to us until it was far too late…

Nuoc mam grades


Nuoc cham

When I started up the cooking experiments, way back near the beginning of this blog, I had a heck of a time mixing up that basic staple of Vietnamese cooking, dipping sauce (aka nước chấm). My grandmother’s instructions went something like this: “a little nước mắm (concentrated fish sauce), a little lime, a little sugar, and mix everything”. Of course, she’s been mixing it her whole life, so she can do it by colour. I, on the other hand, am not very good at colour, and have a boundless capacity for screwing up proportions (ask anyone who participated in New Year’s Eve, where I cooked 40 spring rolls, and enough venison for 15 people–which would have been great had there actually been 40 of us at table instead of 9…)

So when I started mixing my own fish sauce, I went by the (cook)book. I filched recipes from Mai Pham’s Pleasures of the Vietnamese Kitchen and from Bach Ngo’s The Classic Cuisine of Vietnam, and used the same proportions. Invariably, though, the result ended up tasting really bad, and I ended up having to top up ingredients in a frantic attempt to get the taste and colour back into familiar ranges.

Fish sauce brands

I thought it was further proof of my lack of talents at cooking–until I read this article on Andrea Nguyen’s Viet World Kitchen blog, on how to buy fish sauce. Down near the middle, there’s a note that says that fish sauce sold in the US is single-grade–with an average of 20°in purity (ie, 20% pure fish concentrate, 80 water).

But, see, in France, unlike in the US, fish sauce comes in several grades–25° or 35°. And my mom, my grandma and I (and most Vietnamese) buy 35°. So basically, I’ve been trying to get proportions right with the wrong kind of fish sauce, and all the quantities of those recipes should be adjusted by 20/35 (which is about 60%).

No wonder those recipes all tasted really foul, and that the only recipe which ever worked was the one I picked up on a French blog…