Do you have a cooking question burning a hole in your brain? Is there a technique or ingredient you have always wanted to know more about but were afraid to ask? Maybe it’s a kitchen itch that needs scratching, or a recipe debate that needs mediating. Or maybe you just need some words of encouragement, a few crumbs to keep you going.
Welcome to Front Burner, a new space for culinary conundrums of all sizes. If we have not yet met, I’m Kim O’Donnel, food writer for LNP | LancasterOnline, and I have been at this cooking thing for more than 20 years. In that time, I have dispensed culinary advice to readers at several publications, including The Washington Post, USA Today and Civil Eats. I have been teaching cooks of all ages in various settings, wellness resorts, cooking schools, farmers markets and community centers. I believe deep in my bones that cooking, which marries the practical with the magical, can be the greatest teacher of all, and that it’s never too late to learn.
I hope you’ll join me as we learn together, especially as we continue to spend so much of our time at home.
To kick things off, here are a few questions from my colleagues (and their families) at LNP | LancasterOnline, who like you, are finding their way in the kitchen.
What is the best/correct way to cut an onion, shallot, etc.? And is there any way to avoid the tears?
– Carter Arneson, administrative manager, client solutions
Whether you’re looking to slice or dice an onion, always start here:
Cut the onion in half through the root so that the two halves lay flat against a cutting surface. (The onion is more stable this way, making it safer for you and your fingers.) Trim the tip of each half to help remove the skin.
For newbie cooks, I recommend starting with the half-moon or crescent shape, which results in thinly sliced pieces that cook quickly.
Work with one half at a time. With the fingertips of your nonchopping hand, grab onto the root end so that you have something to hold onto.
Now look at your knife. The upper part of the blade is called the tip, the lower end is the heel.
From the nonroot edge, angle your knife so that the tip is pointing downward into the onion. Slice the onion, moving the blade from the top to the heel, in a rocking motion. Continue until you approach the root end, being mindful of your fingers. Take your time; with practice you will get more efficient and it will feel like second nature. (With your new skills, you may also notice fewer tears.) P.S. You can try the half-moon cut on other oblong vegetables, including cucumbers, zucchini and carrots. (Watch Kim’s how-to video here.)
How is tempura made? I love it when it’s part of my sushi dish, but I can never figure out how it actually is made.
– Carly McGettigan, lead generation specialist (on behalf of her dad, Chris)
Similar to onion rings (or the fish in fish and chips), tempura refers to the Japanese style of dipping vegetables and seafood in a batter and quickly frying for a light and crispy texture. There are many schools of thought on what goes into a batter. Some cooks prefer the effervescence of carbonated water (like seltzer) versus still water from the tap; many insist on it being ice cold. Flour can be all-purpose or something finer like cake flour. If you go with all-purpose, consider adding equal parts cornstarch, which helps with absorbing vegetable moisture, acting like a talcum powder. Adding an egg is cook's choice; it will certainly make for a richer batter but is unnecessary. You can start with 1/2 cup each flour and cornstarch in a shallow bowl. Gradually add 1 cup cold water of choice, whisking with chopsticks until a batter forms. Resist the urge to overmix.
But before you make the batter, get your vegetables in order. Make sure they are thinly sliced and no larger than two bites. Remember, this is a quick fry and you want to ensure that the vegetables will be tender.
Dip the vegetables in the batter, then drop into hot oil (about 350 F). Cook until golden brown on both sides, a total of about four minutes. Drain on towels or a rack and eat hot.
For deeper dives into tempura and other iconic Japanese dishes, I highly recommend books by Elizabeth Andoh and Nancy Singleton Hachisu, two American expats living in Japan. Another good bet is the work of the late Australian cook Charmaine Solomon, whose “The Complete Asian Cookbook” is a font of knowledge.
How do you fix a soup, curry or chili to which you’ve added too much hot pepper? Not everyone likes yogurt (or crying while they’re eating).
– Suzanne Cassidy, Opinion Editor
You can try correcting your hot pot with something starchy, like a potato or sweet potato or even winter squash, which act like a spicy sponge. Cut into bite-sized pieces and boil or steam before adding to your overly spiced dish. Cook over low heat and let the sponge do its magic. While I cannot guarantee success, I do think it’s worth a try.