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Perfect popcorn, the physicist's way

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Tired of unpopped kernels and burnt popcorn? Sick of that yellow salty/greasy artificial "butter"? Upgrade your popcorn experience with these simple tricks and make perfect popcorn by understanding the basic physics behind it. You'll be rewarded by a healthy, whole grain and low calories delicious snack.

First, let's look at how a corn kernel pops:

Heat transforms the water content of the kernel into water vapor, and when the pressure is high enough, the kernel pops. That brings our attention on the two main parameters of our experience : water content of the kernels and heat transfer from the pan to the kernels.

Water content : soak it
If your corn kernels are a little old, chances are they do not pop properly. Soak them in water for 15 minutes, pat them really dry and pop them.

I tried this simple experiment : I popped 1/4 cup of kernels, then I popped 1/4 cup of soaked and pat-dried kernels. I ate the two popcorn bowls (joking -- I saved most of it for later) and counted the unpopped or half-popped kernels. The result? It's a tie : 10 for the dry kernels and 13 for the soaked kernels (the difference is not significant enough to draw a conclusion). My kernels are still really fresh, so I will have to retry this experiments with older and drier kernels to see if it really makes a difference (but according to Bill Nye the science guy, it does). So, if your kernels are still fresh skip the soaking step.  

Heat transfer : a little oil goes a long way
I learned this the hard way. I was tried to make a no-fat popcorn but it was a disaster. The kernels popped very unevenly, so by the time the last ones popped, the first ones were burnt. Also, they were smaller than usual, and often hard and half-popped. Disaster, I say.

Oil is essential to pop corn kernels on the stove top. Oil promotes an even heat transfer from the pan to the kernels. A heavy bottomed pan also helps for the same reason. I usually use 0.5 to 1 tablespoon of olive oil per 1/4 cup of kernels.

To successfully pop kernels on the stove top, heat the oil and the corn kernels on hi in a heavy bottomed pan with a lid on. Lift the pan, shake it and put it back on the stove top from time to time so that the kernels are heated evenly. Do that lift-and-shake maneuver more often when the kernels start to pop. When the pops are 2 seconds apart, remove the pan from heat and let it cool for a minute with the lid on. Transfer to a serving bowl and salt to your taste. Mmm...

popcorn.jpg Other tips
- Use very fine salt, such as the one you get from a salt mill. It sticks to the popcorn, as opposed to table salt which ends up at the bottom of the bowl.
- Olive oil is healthier than many other oils, but it doesn't withstand heat very well. Grape seed oil would do a better job here.
- Plain corn kernels are way cheaper than buying bags of microwavable popcorn. Buy organic ones if you can find them. They are 4$/kg at my local grocery store. Beat that, Orville Redenbacher! 
- 1/4 cup of kernels yield about 5-6 cups of popcorn.
- There are about 35 Cal per cup of popcorn, plus the calories from the oil (about 15 Cal per cup if you used 1 tbs of oil for popping), so it's about 50 Cal per cup of oil-popped popcorn.
- Pimp your popcorn with spices and herbs. I like mixes such as cumin-cayenne-allspice-cinnamon, or Italian herbs and grated Parmesan cheese. Be creative and share your favorite popcorn flavor in the comments below!

Making ice cream with liquid nitrogen is a delicious way to observe the phenomenon of phase transition, but the real reason physicists make ice cream that way is that it looks darn cool at a party. This is a discussion of my latest experiment with ice cream to clarify the process for people who might be interested in trying it.

1 - Get the liquid nitrogen. That's the toughest part. Liquid nitrogen (LN2) is cheaper than milk, but you can't buy it at the grocery store. We use it to cool down sensitive cameras for spectroscopic experiments in our lab, so we have an easy access to it at the university. It usually comes in big containers of 70 liters, so for the party we have to carry it in a smaller container. For the recipe, we will need 2 to 5 liters of LN2, which we can carry in special thermos-like bottles. Never, ever put liquid nitrogen in a closed container! The pressure will build up and the container will explode with LN2 flying everywhere (I know this by personal experience). The cap of our thermos bottle has a hole in it, so the pressure is regulated.

LN2_2.jpg 2 - Make the ice cream base. This is the recipe I used :
  • 1 liter of half and half (10% fat cream)
  • 0.5 liter of heavy cream (35% fat cream)
  • a pinch of salt
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • real vanilla extract, to taste (or other flavor)

Stir all the ingredients together until the sugar dissolves. I suggest you chill this mix in the fridge until you are ready to make the ice cream, unless you have plenty of LN2. Note that this recipe feeds 20 persons, feel free to halve it.

3 - It's time for the show. Pick an assistant and make her wear protective goggles and cryogenic gloves (or just mittens). While you slowly pour the LN2, your assistant has to stir constantly with a whisk or a wooden spoon. That's the key to make good ice cream : the ice crystals must be small for the ultimate fine-textured ice cream, so keep stirrin'! The mixture will boil, so be sure to use a big metal bowl to avoid spilling (some plastics might not resist those cold temperatures). When the mix is to thick to use a whisk, stir vigourously with a wooden spoon. Keep pouring slowly LN2 until it is the consistency you like.

LN2_4.jpgLN2_5.jpgLN2 boils at -196 degrees Celcius (77 Kelvin), and in order to change from a liquid to a gas, it has to absorb some energy (5.56 kJ per mole, to be exact). It thus takes this energy away from the cream, which cools it. By losing thermal energy, the cream will eventually turn into a solid, what we scientists call "ice cream". ;-)

4 - Taste test. Mmmm-mmmm! The recipe I used was totaly improvised and worked out beautifully. Try it!

Concerns about liquid nitrogen

Some people might have some questions and concerns about using LN2 for making food. For instance, Heidi from 101 cookbook (her blog is amazing, have a look at it!) details some of her questions on her post about the first time she made liquid nitrogen ice cream. Let's examine them.

  • "Will I die if I eat it (the ice cream)?"
No. Let the LN2 completely boil off (evaporate) and there is no danger for eating the ice cream.
  • Are those plumes of Halloween-looking smoke coming off the bowl going to gobble up all the oxygen in the room? Are we all going to go to sleep and never wake up?
No. The air we breathe is made of 79% nitrogen, so if you let a liter or two of liquid nitrogen evaporate in a room, it won't make much difference to what you normally breathe. But if someone spills a 4 foot high hardcore nitrogen tank in your kitchen, open the window.
By the way, the Halloween-looking "smoke" is nothing more than water vapor that condensates into small clouds. The same thing happens is you open your freezer on a hot and humid day, or when you exhale outside in winter at -30 degrees Celsius.
  • You need to treat it as seriously as you would a deep fryer filled with hot oil and the like.
Good point, you should be very careful when handling LN2.  But there is a big difference between hot oil and cold liquid nitrogen. If you spill hot oil on your bare hand, you will get burned real bad. If you spill liquid nitrogen on your bare hand, you won't get hurt. Why? The LN2 doesn't actually touches you : the droplets float on a small air cushion between itself and your hand. You can observe the same phenomenon if you spill a couple of drops of water in a very hot pan : the droplets float on a cushion of vapor. That being said, don't try to keep the LN2 in the palm of your hand, it will freeze your skin and that's not cool.

Montreal lemonade

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The sun is back and it makes me think soon enough Montreal will be steaming hot (OK, two months from now but let's be prepared). Refreshing drinks are a good way to cope with the heat, but when it comes to lemonade, some people are drawn back.

-"The sugar takes forever to dissolve", Marc said.
-"You put granulated sugar in there? Why don't you use maple syrup instead?"
-"Where do you think I can get maple syrup in London?!"

Unlike my Londoner friend Marc, I've always made my lemonade with maple syrup. Apart from the fact that maple syrup have become prohibitively expensive during the last year, it has many advantages :
  • Great taste
  • Great nutrition (more calcium than milk!)
  • It dissolves instantly (no waiting while you're thirsty!)
So step aside with your granulated sugar and let me show you how a Montrealer makes a quick and simple lemonade.

limonade.jpgIngredients (for 1 glass) :
  • Half a lemon or lime
  • Maple syrup (about 2-3 tbs)
  • Plain or sparkling water
  • 2-3 ice cubes
  • 2-3 fresh mint leaves (optional)
Press the half citrus directly over a tall glass. Look at the level of juice in there. Pour maple syrup in the glass so it's approximately the same quantity as the juice. Fill the glass with water and ice and stir. Add mint leaves if desired. 

Ginger tea

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I spent the night shivering under a pile of blankets, my skin piping hot and my stomach wanting to start a rebellion every minute. Yep, I must have ate something bad or catch some infection. Anyway, I'm taking the day off to take care of myself and I though I might as well share with you my recipe for ginger tea.

Ginger is renowned to be a digestive aid and cure nausea. (Gravol have a "natural" product line where they use ginger as the active ingredient) Other plants have also beneficial effects on the digestive system, notably mint and chamomile. Lemon has natural anti-bacterial properties (so has garlic), and contains vitamin C. Unpasteurized honey is also anti-bacterial. So if you combine these ingredients together, you have a great ally to fight your unsettled stomach and sore throat. And best of all, if you like ginger, it tastes really good!

This recipe is adapted from the "Sick Tea" published in Vegan on a Shoestring, made by the People's Potato project collective. (If you're into vegan cooking, get this book!)

Ingredients :
  • 2 cups of water
  • ginger, let say a 1 cm chunk
  • a handful of fresh mint
  • half a lemon or lime
  • 1-2 tsp unpasteurized honey

Put the water, ginger and mint in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Press the lemon (or lime) with your hands to extract the juice directly over the saucepan. Let simmer 5 minutes. Strain into a mug and wait until the tea is cold enough to drink (somewhere between too hot and lukewarm) and add the unpasteurized honey. The reason we wait until the tea is not too hot is to keep intact the anti-bacterial properties of the honey (If you use pasteurized honey, it doesn't have these properties anymore. Note that vegan can substitute honey for maple syrup). Curl up in your favorite sofa with your favorite blanket and sip.


What to do with a bucket of bananas?

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At the small outdoor market near were I live, ripe fruits are routinely sold for really cheap. So I bought a bucket of Granny Smith apples for 1$ and a bucket of bananas for 2$. The apples were a bit bruised, in fact, the best looking ones were evidently placed on top of the bucket, but it doesn't matter because I used them for apple-ginger fresh juice. But what to do with 10 bananas that threaten to ripe all at once?

1 - Give some of them to hungry friends after their soccer game.
2 - Turn some of them into banana-nut bread.
3 - Make a sweet banana-yogurt smoothie and freeze it in Popsicle molds.
4 - Chop the rest and freeze it.

Oh yeah, banana-nut bread :

banana_bread.jpgI found several banana bread recipes on the Internet and adapted them to what I had in the kitchen at the moment, and it turned out to be was something like this :

Ingredients :
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 3 bananas, mashed
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 cup chopped almonds, toasted
In a bowl, mix or sift together the flour, salt, baking powder and nutmeg.
In a big bowl, mix the mashed bananas, eggs and sugar. Add oil, milk, vanilla and mix well.
Incorporate the dry ingredients into the banana mix and mix well. Fold in the toasted almonds.

Pour the batter into a greased bread pan and bake for 45-55 minutes at 350°F.

Sushi feast

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Like I said earlier, Louis-Vincent's birthday dinner was a sushi feast crowned by a crème de marrons fondant. Here are some pictures and recipes from that delightful evening.

Allison of Sushi Day has a lot of great ideas for unconventional sushi. I made a variation of her summer breeze sushi, with tempura shrimps, avocado and cucumber. It was good, but since they were made one hour before we ate them, the tempura was no longer crispy, which is a bit deceiving. Fortunately,we ate sizzling hot and crisp tempura shrimps as appetizers, so we didn't missed them to much in the sushi. Besides, inside-out rolled maki never fail to impress.

inside_out.jpgBut my all-time favorite is the mango-avocado sushi with scallion and spicy mayo :

mango_avocado.jpgThe spicy mayo is actually mayo mixed with hot chili sauce and dried tomato pesto. Oh yeah!

The green sushi were straight from my imagination and contained avocado, sunflower sprouts, scallions and fresh mint leaves. I found them very refreshing and tasty.

green_sushi.jpgIt was the first time I made tamagoyaki (rolled sweet Japanese omelet) and I'm quite impressed with the results. The tamago-nigiri were a hit!

tamago_nigiri.jpgThe crunchy-spicy maki was also a favorite (well, everything was good, but this one was super-good). It contained mango, pickled ginger (gari, the kind that is served with sushi) and a spicy grilled coconut mix. MMmm!

coconut_sushi.jpgThe spicy coconut mix is a variation of an Indonesian condiment called serundeng. To make my version, coarsely chop shelled peanuts and mix with shredded coconut in a 1:2 peanut:coco ratio. Roast the nut mix in a skillet over medium-hi heat, and sprinkle with organic raw sugar (a tablespoon or two, omit it if you used already sweetened coconut), a couple of pinches of cinnamon, nutmeg, tumeric, allspice, cumin and cayenne pepper. The sugar should melt, the coconut should be brown and crispy and your kitchen should smell really good. Spinkle this condiment over virtually any dish that could use a spicy-crunchy kick, like thick lentil soup, salad, rice, curry, morning cereals and of course, sushi. (I'm addicted, really)

The inari-sushi were a nice discovery too. They're made of fried tofu pockets soaked in sweet sauce and filled with rice and toppings, in my case it's avocado, mango and crunchy-spicy coconut mix. I found the tofu pockets at Miyamoto, which is the only descent Japanese grocery store I know in Montreal.

inari_sushi.jpgWe made also hummus and red bell pepper maki. The texture contrast was interesting.

hummus_sushi.jpgWe also made 2-3 other rolls with the leftover ingredients. The key to good sushi (maki) making is, in my opinion, good sushi rice, fresh ingredients and texture contrasts. If you have good vegetarian sushi ideas, let me know by leaving a comment!

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