Things I’ve Recently Learned in the Kitchen

So, the last few days have been a whirlwind of cooking, and I’ve learned a few interesting things. Let’s see:

1. When you make pesto, grind the nuts first. Then add the leaves, then the cheese. Oil and butter come later, along with salt. Nuts first allows the leaves to be ground up dry, which gets you a better grind. (I didn’t make the pesto, Mrs. Jiwaku did. It turned out really good!)

2. With homemade pesto, substitutions are the name of the game. If you’re unable to use pine nuts–say, because your spouse is allergic to them–other nuts are fine… but cashews, while wonderful on their own, don’t stand up to sesame leaf and basil, flavorwise. If you want that hint of nuttiness, walnuts are nice.

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Also, if you’re in a place where some other kind of leafy herb is available and basil isn’t–like perilla leaves (so-called “sesame leaves”) are in Korea–that’s also a substitution you can easily make. Basil’s very cheap here, so we make basil pesto, but substitute other nuts for pine nuts.

3. If you’re making a roux for a gumbo, and using gluten free pancake mix because you have no rice flour on hand, there may be consequences. Note that pancake mix usually has baking powder… and as we all know, baking powder is partly made of baking soda. Baking soda helps accelerate the Maillard reactions that we usually describe as “caramelization” in starchy, water-rich vegetables, like carrots or onions (and can significantly cut the time needed to caramelize them). In fact, there’s a killer recipe for caramelized carrot soup, developed by Nathan Myhrvold’s team and which appeared in Modernist Cuisine, that uses this trick. I mentioned making the soup a few years back, but I don’t think I rambled about how amazing it is.


(Note: the above isn’t a shot of the roux I’m talking about, but it looks about the same. It just took one-third the time that the one pictured above did to get there.)

I think it may explain what happened with the roux, too: I used gluten free pancake mix, and found that once the roux hit a certain temperature, it went from tan to very dark very rapidly, on the same rather low heat I usually use for rice flour. In fact, I had to toss the first roux I attempted, because it went too dark all of a sudden, and I wasn’t sure it hadn’t burnt. I’m not 100% sure about this one–after all, unlike vegetables, there’s no actual sugar in the flour, and as far as I know, the starches aren’t converted by cooking them; or maybe there’s something else in the science that I’m missing–but I certainly noticed the roux darker faster than usual. Until I get around to doing a side-by-side test, feel free to give it a try yourself.

By the way, the gumbo below is the one I made recently, but it’s warmed up leftovers in this picture, and so it’s a little drier than it originally was. That’s sour cream–okay, greek yogurt–to the left side.

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4. If you must slow-cook your gumbo for aeons, have some fresh stuff to throw in an hour before you serve it. Now, you probably don’t need to slow cook your gumbo for 20 hours, because why would anyone ever do that? (I think five or six hours is probably more reasonable, and less energy-wasteful. But I got very busy and it had lots of soup stock to keep it going anyway.) Still, if you end up doing so: especially try to put the okra in late in the process. If you put it in very early, it will completely dissolve into the broth, with seeds being the only visible remnant. Also: have fresh tomatoes and bell peppers to add late in the cook. (Adding them early is pointless, and tomato is just blah when you overcook it.)

Of course, if you hate okra: add it early, and slow-cook for ages. You’ll never notice it was there. Like, at all.

5. Chana Dal can be boring, or it can be wonderful, depending on little things. Same with any kind of dal: I found what I think was moong dal (the greenish kind) very common in Northern India, but the quality of its preparation varied from occasionally bland, to mostly okay, to once in a while absolutely incredible.


If you want your chana dal to be wonderful, and you happen to live where mangoes are incredibly cheap (as we now do), then adding a small amount of fresh, diced mango in place of mango powder in your recipe (a product I’ve never even seen!) is a great idea. Also, frying some fresh green peppercorns in the butter as you prepare the dal is nice because they’re slightly fruity and not too terribly spicy; they add a marvelous, if mild, flavor and kick without overdoing it. The peppercorns aren’t in this recipe, but I added them anyway.

The above is a little dense, as dal goes, but the flavor more than made up for it.

6. Don’t cook the chickpeas when you make Chana Vadas. These are Mrs. Jiwaku’s favorite new (to us) food. They’re basically Indian Falafels. I used this recipe. They had a nice, light, nutty flavor, and when dipped in the chana dal were actually pretty incredible. (And Mrs. Jiwaku usually hates fried food, but she loved these. Of course, we plan on roasting the frozen remainder in the over sometime, as it’s healthier.)


I suspect one thing that made them more wonderful was the fact that the chickpeas were soaked, but uncooked. Apparently this is how you’re supposed to do falafels, too, but I didn’t know that till now.

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7. Baking soda + garlic is… wow. I mentioned above that adding a tiny bit ot baking soda helps accelerate the caramelization of onions, and maybe flour. What I learned more recently is that it has an amazing effect on garlic, too. The garlic gets brown and the flavor leaches out into the oil, but it doesn’t burn. Add some onions, and a touch more powder, and you’re  in for a hell of a start on making something delicious.

I planned to use the garlic and onions in some burritos, but a slight change of plans followed and they ended up in these…


… and were none the worse for it.

Well, that’s about itfor things I’ve recently learned in the kitchen. Can I say I’m happy with how we’re eating these days? That’s unexpected,too, since we’re trying a (mostly, as much as possible) gluten-poor/gluten-free diet, for health reasons.

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