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The quest for the perfect onion ring. March 7, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Maybe it was posting about comfort foods the other day. Maybe it was relaxing with the latest issue of Cook’s Country last night. Maybe it was just skipping supper (our friend Ben was away) and getting hungry. But for whatever reason, I found myself thinking about onion rings.

Actually, I think it was because the issue of Cook’s Country evaluated various brands of boxed and frozen macaroni and cheese, that other classic comfort food. (The winner was Kraft Homestyle Macaroni & Cheese Dinner, in case you’re wondering.) The tasters’ comments were a scream, ranging from “It was as if the mac and cheese was depressed” to “the flavorless, ‘rubbery, mushy mass’ of ‘hideous orange elbows'” for the less-favored brands.

Thanks to my slow cooker and my friend Delilah, I make my own delicious mac’n’cheese at home. (Check out “The ultimate mac’n’cheese” in our search bar at upper right for the recipe.) Mac’n’cheese that isn’t creamy and flavorful, with lots of custardy body and plenty of crunch, just doesn’t cut it with me. Oooey, gooey, soft, runny, orange, Velveeta-like mac’n’cheese… please.

Thinking about this reminded me that onion rings, one of the most divine, decadent foods known to man when cooked right, often suffered the same humdrum fate as mac’n’cheese, even in restaurants where it ought to fare better. The perfect onion ring needs three things: First, there must be a sweet ring of onion—none of that biting, sulfuric tang allowed—that’s cooked through, not raw, but still has plenty of body to stand up to the crust. This is an onion ring, people: the onion must shine through. Second, there must be a flavorful batter, not a deadening, smothering coating of bland gunk. And finally, the coating must be crispy-crackly, not mushy or tooth-cracking hard.

I should also mention the balance of crispy-crackly coating to onion, because this too is all-important: In the best onion rings I’ve found, you can actually see the big ring of onion through the pieces of crust. Yes, there’s plenty of crust for crunch, but not enough to suffocate the onion. 

I have encountered great onion rings that meet all these criteria in restaurants across the country, both beer-battered and buttermilk-battered. But all too often, I’ve instead encountered those mushy, slimy, flavorless excuses for onion rings that were obviously shipped in from some frozen-food wholesaler: Too much batter. Where is the onion? Eeeewww, a nasty metallic tang if you do find some onion. A tough layer of onion skin?!! Shriek!!! Maybe the deep-frying has managed to give the outside a certain amount of crunch (or gone wrong and hardened the crust to tree-bark status), but the inside remains mushy and flavorless. Yuck!  

That’s why I’ve never even considered buying frozen onion rings from the grocery: Stick ’em in the oven and eeewww, please don’t tell me I’m supposed to think these are onion rings! I don’t know if there are boxed onion-ring batter mixes on the market, like boxed mac’n’cheese, and frankly, I don’t plan to find out. I’d much rather make my onion rings from scratch.

There’s just one little problem with my homemade onion-ring scheme: I hate touching grease. As a result, I refuse to deep-fry anything, no matter how much I enjoy that fried-food crunch. And I refuse to compromise and eat mushy baked pseudo-French fries or whatever while pretending that they bear any resemblance to the real thing. From a health perspective, this is a good thing, since I probably eat onion rings and French fries about once a year each. But from a culinary perspective, it’s a tragedy.

Our friend Ben and I love onions and eat them at least once a day, cooked and/or in salads. So unfried but crispy, crunchy, sweet, full-bodied onion rings seemed like a worthy challenge. After finishing my perusal of the issue of Cook’s Country, which, like its parent magazine, Cook’s Illustrated, specializes in testing and retesting recipes until they’ve developed the perfect version, I determined to think through how they would go about creating delicious unfried onion rings and try to duplicate the process myself.

My first thought was to slice a big, sweet onion like a Vidalia into rings, then briefly saute them in butter until they clarified but weren’t soft. Next, dredge (coat) them in all-purpose flour seasoned with Trocomare or salt and pepper, and maybe a little ground cumin or curry powder for kick. Finally, return them to the pan and cook briefly, flipping as needed, until the coating crisped up.

But before attempting this, I decided to go online and see what I could find by way of homemade onion-ring recipes. Hmmm. It seemed like most of the recipes divided into a dairyless beer-batter coating or a buttermilk-and-egg coating, but they all called for deep-frying. I finally found a recipe for “oven-fried” onion rings that required only 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil, hallelujah! Not surprisingly, it had originated at Cook’s Country!

In case you’re wondering why I didn’t just head to the Cook’s Country website (http://www.cookscountry.com/) and search for onion rings, the website is subscription-only. Even folks like yours truly who subscribe to the magazine must pay for an additional web subscription to access the site. Thanks, but. I could have signed up for the “FREE 14-day trial membership” and looked for an onion-ring recipe, but it’s a matter of principle: I’m already a paying subscriber; you’d—or at least, I’d—think I could have free access to the website. To be fair, Cook’s Country and Cook’s Illustrated don’t accept advertising, the financial backbone of most magazines, and are entirely subscriber-supported so that, like Consumer Reports, they can give unbiased product reviews. Still, let’s just say they’re not the only ones on tight budgets.

But I digress. My search for the perfect unfried onion-ring recipe took me to a surprising site I’d never have conceived of, even as a parody: Cooking for Engineers (http://www.cookingforengineers.com/). As the site (mercifully, open-access) explains, it’s for people with analytical minds who like to cook. And sure enough, Michael Chu, who wrote the “Oven-Fried Onion Rings” post, provided tons of specific details and techniques, excellent color photos of the steps, and even a (to me, incomprehensible) chart at the end which seemed to graph the entire process.

Michael’s writing was excellent—colorful in the intro, precise in the instructions. And sure enough, the photos of the finished onion rings looked good: You could indeed still see the thick, yummy-looking onions through the crunchy coating. His analysis: “The rings were amazing—the best oven-fried recipe I have tried to date. The coating had just the right amount of crunchiness (although not really crispy like the deep-fried variety) and was full of flavor. Best of all, the onions had been cooked just to the peak of their sweetness.”

Jackpot, right? Well, I dunno. The recipe, which serves four, calls for a total of 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil, a very far cry from the quarts used by the typical deep-fryer. Great!!! But to get that non-crispy crunchiness, you not only need flour, buttermilk, and an egg, but also 30 Saltines and 4 cups of kettle-cooked potato chips. Seems like you’re gaining clean-up convenience but not losing calories, and at the end of it all, your onion rings still don’t really measure up.

Now, those of you for whom calories don’t count are probably wondering what the big deal is here: You’re making onion rings, for God’s sake, not health food, so who cares? But for folks like me, who have to walk an extra hour to burn off even one onion ring, every calorie has to earn its keep.

Yes, I’ll indulge in two or three perfect, luscious onion rings (or some even yummier onion “petals”) once in a blue moon (our friend Ben helpfully takes care of the rest). But no, if I order them and they’re disappointing, I won’t eat them after the first bite (fortunately OFB is less discriminating, so at least they don’t go to waste). Damned if I’m taking that kind of calorie hit for no payoff! For the same reason, you’ll never catch me eating either Saltines or potato chips: empty calories, and plenty of ’em. So the thought of loading both of them onto onion rings gives me plenty of pause.

Geez. Maybe I’m just not cut out for this quest, and should leave the making of perfect onion rings to the pros. Might I have better luck with my other great love, sweet potato fries? Not likely. But folks, if you happen to hold the secret to great homemade onion rings (or sweet potato fries, for that matter) that aren’t fried, please share it with me. Where there’s life (and an ample supply of Vidalia onions), there’s hope.

                  ‘Til next time,


The best mayonnaise. May 29, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Because I subscribe to Cook’s Country, my favorite cooking magazine, I receive an e-mail of cooking tips and ideas every week from its parent magazine, Cook’s Illustrated. This week’s featured a comparison of different brands of mayonnaise, and there was one clear winner in their taste test.

Being a native Southerner, nobody had to tell me what it was. It just had to be Hellman’s Mayonnaise, the only brand of mayo recognized as such in the South. All other brands are dismissed as sadly inferior imitations, and the presentation of Miracle Whip in lieu of mayonnaise is considered as egregious as the appearance of margarine under the guise of butter. Eeeewww! If Cook’s Illustrated didn’t present Hellman’s as the winner, they were going to hear from me.

Fortunately, they did. What they didn’t do was taste-test Hellman’s against homemade mayonnaise, something I’ve never tasted. I suspect it would taste quite different from any prepared mayonnaise, and that the texture would be different, too. I’d be interested to see what people raised on store-bought would make of homemade.

But for those of you who avoid mayonnaise because of its calories (in the case of Hellman’s, 90 per tablespoon), for health reasons (high fat and cholesterol), or because you’re vegan and don’t want to eat something containing eggs, there’s good news: I’ve found two alternatives that taste as good as Hellman’s, and they’re both widely available.

The first, for the calorie-conscious, is Hellman’s Low-Fat. At just 15 calories per tablespoon, it’s amazing how similar it is in both flavor and texture to the real thing. But don’t be fooled: Hellman’s also makes a Light Mayonnaise, which only has 35 calories per tablespoon but definitely does not taste like Hellman’s Mayonnaise. It’s easy to get confused at the store. I find it easier to remember to buy the jar with the bright green cap, not the pale blue cap.

One reason Hellman’s Mayonnaise may taste so good is that its ingredients list is remarkably free from additives and unrecognizable ingredients. The list is short and sweet, which is good news for those of us who prefer to recognize what goes into our food without having to keep a phone-directory-sized lab manual at our side.

But if you’d like to up the health factor while still enjoying the flavor and texture of mayonnaise, I recommend Vegenaise. It’s made from grapeseed oil, that much-touted healthy oil, rather than soybean oil like Hellman’s. (Hellman’s has canola oil and soybean-olive oil mayos as well, but I’ve never tasted them and can’t comment. Anybody tried them? What do you think?)

Vegenaise is also preservative- and cholesterol-free. It contains no eggs or dairy products, so vegans can enjoy mayonnaise that tastes like mayonnaise, unlike so many vegan substitutes for standard foods that bear scant resemblance to the original product. I love Vegenaise and am happy to put it on my sandwiches. The only downside: It, too, has 90 calories per tablespoon. You’ll also probably have to head to a health food store, or at least a supermarket with a big healthy foods component like Whole Foods or Wegman’s, to find it. But—thank God—these days, that’s no big deal.

Now that we’ve gotten the mayo review out of the way, let me share a recipe for a summer favorite where mayonnaise is one of the key ingredients. It’s an easy, perfect spread or dip to take along to a summer picnic or backyard barbecue. Mind you, if you grew up with adults serving pimiento cheese from a jar or a can, you probably feel, as I did, that it’s one of the nastiest foods on earth. But once I tried my father’s girlfriend Alice’s homemade pimiento cheese, I discovered that pimiento cheese can actually be, gasp, good. Even yummy. 

I’ve tweaked the recipe a bit to make it even easier and, to our taste, better. The one thing I left in that we normally avoid is orange cheese (officially called “yellow,” but you know what I mean, that dyed orange color). Generally we go for the undyed (“white”) cheeses, but in this recipe, the mix of orange and white makes for a warm, inviting color, so I bend our house rules just this once.

Like so many spreads, this one is flexible. Our friend Ben and I love bold, sharp Cheddar flavor, but Alice prefers a mix of sharp and mild Cheddars and you might, too. You could add another flavor note with chopped scallions (green onions) or diced red or sweet onions (like WallaWalla or Vidalia). You could substitute diced red bell pepper for the pimiento for more freshness and crunch, or mix the two, or use roasted red peppers instead of pimiento peppers. Minced black, green, or kalamata olives are delicious in this. You could add matchstick or shredded carrots or radishes. You could go for the vegan version with Vegenaise, soy cheeses, and soy sour cream, maybe adding a splash of tamari or a tiny bit of miso for a deeper, more complex flavor. So be bold! Experiment and see what you like best. But trust me, the basic recipe is oh-so-good! It keeps well in the fridge, too.

                Homemade Pimiento Cheese

1 bag shredded sharp yellow Cheddar

1 bag shredded extra-sharp white Cheddar

small jar chopped pimiento or roasted red peppers, 1/2 liquid drained, minced

Hellman’s Mayonnaise

splash hot sauce (we like Pickapeppa and Tabasco Chipotle)

ground black pepper or powdered paprika, cayenne, or chipotle pepper to taste

salt (we like RealSalt) or Trocomare to taste

1 tablespoon sour cream

Whisk together all ingredients, adding enough mayonnaise to bind everything together into a thick sandwich spread/dip consistency. Unlike storebought pimiento cheese, this version will have a lot of texture, especially if you add fresh veggies. (If you’d prefer a smooth dip, use your blender or food processor to smooth it out. But we love the texture of the whisked version.)

Let your pimiento cheese spread sit, covered, for at least 1/2 hour for the flavors to blend. Then use it as a sandwich spread on toasted multigrain bread with Romaine lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and/or bell pepper rounds (our favorite way to enjoy it). Or spread it on crackers (we like Triscuits and flatbreads), or as a dip with crudites like broccoli and cauliflower florets, bell pepper strips, baby carrots, celery sticks, snap peas, or radish slices. Or make rollups with Belgian endive or radicchio leaves stuffed with pimiento cheese and arugula or watercress.

This pimiento spread would be fantastic on hot dogs, burgers, and baked potatoes. It might make the ultimate mac’n’cheese, flavorful and full-bodied. There are wilder possibilities, too, like bacon-pimiento rollups, warmed pitas with pimiento spread and scrambled eggs, pimiento quesadillas, pimiento omelettes, even pimiento pizza. English muffins with this pimiento cheese spread and Canadian bacon, bacon, sausage, or ham.      

Let me know what you try and what you think of it! And thanks, Alice, for a great basic recipe. If it weren’t for you, I’d have never tried pimiento cheese again.

               ‘Til next time,


The spoon wars: Dish it up! March 26, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Longtime readers know that my favorite cooking magazine—the only one I’d actually be willing to pay for—is Cook’s Country. (Fortunately, I receive a subscription every year for Christmas. But I would pay for it. Really.) Cook’s Country is a spinoff of Cook’s Illustrated, which I also enjoy when I have the chance to see it. And both magazines contribute content to an e-mail of cooking tips and recipes that I receive (free) on a regular basis. Which brings me at last to the point of this post.

I expect that every serious (read: interested and enthusiastic, not humorless and clinical) cook has a favorite style of stirring spoon. These are the spoons you use to cook with when creating a dish, be it a pasta sauce or a curry, a stir-fry or refried beans. As seasoned cooks know, a good spoon can make or break a dish as easily as good ingredients can. The spoon is your partner, your assistant, your sous-chef, as it were, in perfect preparation, keeping ingredients moving, blending, and not burning or sticking as you prepare each dish.

A bad spoon can mean burned food, and if you cook from scratch and spend lots of time and money getting your ingredients just right and combining them just so, this is a culinary tragedy of, if not epic, at least depressing to enraging proportions, depending on your basic personality. I don’t know about you, but mine tends towards the enraged end of the spectrum; just ask our friend Ben. But I digress.

My own stirring spoons tend to fall into four basic categories:

* Historic. I own some truly gorgeous wooden spoons that have come down through five generations of my family. I love to look at them, but I wouldn’t dare use them. Somehow they’ve survived thus far, but God help them if I cooked with them.

* Wooden. My beloved Mama always used long-handled wooden spoons for stirring, be it batter or spaghetti sauce. I grew up assuming that wooden spoons were the way to go, and have bought many, from store models to gorgeous artisanal hand-crafted spoons. But now I don’t use them. Why? Because I’ve found that they crack, splinter, shred, and take on off-flavors. Eeeewww, I’d rather not eat wood shavings in my food, thank you, and I certainly don’t want my anise-mushroom pasta to reek of spaghetti sauce or curry.

* Silicone. I have a couple of big, deep silicone spoons. They’re great for serving, but not, in my view, for stirring. The bowls are simply too big. I’ll often use another spoon for stirring, then switch to a silicone spoon for serving.

And the winner is…

* Bamboo. Having stumbled on Joyce Chen bamboo spoons in a department store at a time when I desperately needed a new stirring spoon, I took a deep breath, paid the $3.99, and have never looked back. Bamboo spoons are just the right size and weight for stirring. Unlike wood, they don’t crack or pick up stains or off-flavors. (Though, as a precaution, I always keep my baking spoons separate from the ones used for savory dishes.) They wash up in a heartbeat. Mind you, nothing’s perfect. I used my original bamboo spoon every single day for about six years. I finally consigned it to the burn pile last week, since the edges had begun to fray a bit. But unfailing service for 365 days a year for six years for $3.99 still sounds like a bargain to me.

Anyway, I was just scrolling through my latest e-mail from Cook’s Illustrated when I saw that they’d done one of their famous tests comparing wooden spoons. Too bad they didn’t compare wooden to bamboo spoons, I thought, but clicked on the link to see what they’d found out.

Turns out, they did include one bamboo spoon in their test—the very Joyce Chen model I’d been using all these years. And guess what? It scored dead last in their ratings. What?! This is war!!!

Mind you, I’m not about to diss the winner, a Mario Batali-branded wooden spoon. Not only have I never had an opportunity to try it, but it’s so affordable, at $5.95, that I certainly think anyone with access to it should give it a try. The testers had lowered the ratings on many other wooden spoons for the same reason I’ve stopped using them—they cracked after a single use and (hand) washing. And they found, as I have, that wooden spoons tend to take up flavors and refuse to ever let them go.

So why did poor Joyce Chen’s spoon land in last place? The handle apparently snapped when the tester applied pressure. Based on my experience, I respectfully beg to take exception to this. As noted, I had used a single Joyce Chen bamboo spoon every single day for six years. From frittatas to apple butters, from chutneys to chilaquiles, from black bean soup to mushroom-cashew Stroganoff, this spoon accompanied me in my culinary endeavors, without complaint or cracking. I was far more likely to snap on any given day than my trusty bamboo spoon.

I stand by my spoon. I defy anyone to produce a better spoon. Dammit, show me that spoon! Let’s see how it holds up after 2190 continuous days of use. As our current president said of a recent challenge to his health-care program, bring it on! I double-dog dare you. (And our black German shepherd Shiloh is prepared to back me up on this.) Let the spoon wars commence!

Grillers listen up! July 19, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. My favorite cooking magazine is “Cook’s Country.” But sometimes I get promotions for two other great cooking magazines, “Cook’s Illustrated” and “Cuisine at Home.” Free magazines with the promotions, and more to the point, good free magazines. All right!

So okay, I haven’t actually broken down and subscribed to either one. But that doesn’t mean I don’t read them, with great interest, from cover to cover when they arrive. This week, a copy of “Cook’s Illustrated” arrived with a promotion. I don’t know about you, but I find the mindless pleasure of cookbooks and cooking magazines a great way to relax before bed, so I was reading this issue last night when I came on something truly timely. I thought, yikes, I’d better share this tip with everyone while we’re all still at peak grilling season. So here you are.

One reason I love “Cook’s Country” and its parent publication, “Cook’s Illustrated,” is that their test kitchen is determined to try out products and see how they compare and if they live up to their promises. Then they share their findings with the rest of us. If you love cooking like I do, and don’t want to waste time, effort, or money on bad products, these magazines are worth their weight in gold. They really do their homework, and they’re not afraid to give the thumbs-down to any product, however prestigious (or the thumbs-up to the cheapest snob-derided product if it turns out it’s actually the best for the job).

All of which means that when I saw their enthusiastic endorsement of Grate Chef Grill Wipes ($2.99 for a pack of six), I sat up and took notice. The test kitchen team found that these Grill Wipes “clean and grease grills better than any homemade method.” “We got clean, slick grates and better grill marks” on fish and meat than by any other method, the test kitchen declared, after using their metal grill brush and one of these wipes to clean and grease a hot grill. Drawbacks? “These small wipes are flammable and can slip between the small rounded bars of a charcoal grill. Keep long-handled tongs on hand as a safety measure.” Well, okay.

If you do a lot of grilling and want to simplify the process, here’s something that can do the job for just $2.99 a pack. That works for me! And, er, if anybody can tell me why you have to wait ’til the grill heats up to clean and grease it, risking burns and incineration, rather than doing the job before you heat up the grill, I’d love to know.

          ‘Til next time,