Welcome to the Feedbag, where all the dumb questions about food, drink, cooking, eating, and accidental finger removal you've been embarrassed to ask can finally receive the berating they goddamn deserve. Also: answers. Send all your even-vaguely-food-related questions to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject "Feedbag." All of them.
My question - what the heck do I make for a potluck I'll be attending in a few weeks? The problem is that we're an even mix of carnivores, vegetarians, and some gluten allergens.
The other problem is that I love everyone and want to bring something to share with everyone, but the Venn-diagram of things everyone can eat encompasses lettuce and wine. We can't even have beer! What would you recommend I bring? Should I just bring something for me and mine and screw anyone who can't eat it?
Hang on a second. Let's clear something up, first. According to all reliable studies, wheat allergy (the gluten allergens to whom you refer) and celiac disease (the autoimmune disorder that causes some people to have an adverse inflammatory reaction to certain gluten proteins) are very, very rare. By the most generous credible estimates, celiac disease affects not more than 1 in 105 people (although the real number is likely somewhere between that and 1-in-1,700); wheat allergy is similarly uncommon, affecting something like 2 out of every 1,000 adults. Either your potluck is being held by your large city's Celiac And Wheat Allergy Sufferers' Support Network (which is a thing I just made up), or, more likely, its guest list includes at most one or maybe two genuine gluten-sensitive types, plus some number of people who have picked up on gluten-free fad diets out of some woefully misbegotten notion that wheat gluten is bad for you just because some people are allergic to it. Which, I mean, let's not get too far down the conversational rabbit-hole of American critical-thought deficiency and widespread scientific ignorance (we're here to talk food, after all, and not to induce suicidal depression in ourselves), but: these people are dumb dummies from Dumb Island.
Not that this will—or should—have too much bearing on how you deal with making food for a potluck that includes these people. Folks are entitled to their dietary choices, and decent people should endeavor to accommodate each others' dietary choices where it's not ridiculously inconvenient to do so. Your heart is in the right place, and if you have the time and money for it, you should go ahead and try to make something these people will allow themselves to consume.
Still. If, when you are going to annoying specialty grocers to spend ridiculous sums of money on expensive gluten-free ingredients, you want to feel annoyed at a buncha twerps who saw some bullshit about a gluten-free diet being good for your appendix or some shit on Oprah's cable channel and decided to uproot their entire approach to nutrition on that basis alone, that's OK. They kinda deserve it.
As for what to make, don't bag on lettuce. There ought to be any number of delicious salad combinations you can make without involving wheat gluten in any way. Salad is great. Bring the greens (and other raw veggies) in a big covered bowl, then wait until you're about to serve the salad before you add some freshly-cut avocado, some manner of nuts, and your dressing (which you smartly brought along in a sealed jar). Toss-toss-toss, then serve. They'll love it. Except for the people with the deadly nut allergies.
I only ever keep salted butter in the fridge. I generally just use butter when making eggs and potatoes, or finishing pasta and sauces. I don't bake any pies, cakes, cookies, etc and always figured unsalted butter was mostly for this purpose, particularly for sweets. Can you give me a reason to keep unsalted butter in the fridge (other than to make your bechamel sauce)? Please enlighten me.
Chris, unsalted butter is just oodles more versatile than the salted stuff. It gives you more control over the flavor of your food, because its use enables you to keep the salt content of your food independent of the butter content. We discussed this in a previous Feedbag, but: Butter's flavor tends to recede the longer it is cooked, which means that often, the best time to add it to a food preparation is right at the end. Suppose you add your salted butter and then discover that it has inadvertently made your food too salty? You're fucked. By the time you get things balanced again, your proteins could be overcooked, your sauce could have thickened too much—and, your butter could have receded too far into the background, making a waste of its use altogether.
Even in the case of foods like béchamel sauce, in which you're not adding the butter at the end but right at the beginning, if you discover that the end result is saltier than you'd like, you're pretty much fucked. You're not gonna add some potatoes to your béchamel and simmer them for a long time to draw the salt out: long before they accomplish that, the béchamel will have turned to concrete, and the worthwhile part of your life will have elapsed.
Salted butter is great for simple stuff: as a cooking medium for eggs, or a spread for toast, or melted to have crab dunked in it, or ... you get the idea. For use as an ingredient in more complex food preparations, though, the unsalted stuff is better. Control over the salt content of your food is a big key to making that food taste good; don't cede it to the sad factory-workers at Land O' Lakes. They don't know jack shit!
What's up with shallots? Are they interchangeable with onions? And there are like 1,000 different varieties of onions—in which situations are white, yellow, etc most effective?
I love onions.
Yeah, shallots are basically interchangeable with onions—and, in a few instances, they're interchangeable with garlic, too. They have a slightly milder flavor than onions, and are great when cooked just to fragrance (as in hot-and-fast Asian preparations) or used raw (as in salsa or guacamole or whatever).
As for the onion varieties ... man, onions are fucking great. Oh man. Onions. Anyway:
Yellow onions have a stronger, richer, more complex flavor than white; they'll stand up much better to long, slow cooking, as in sauces or soups, or caramelizing them to put on, like, pierogies or hot dogs or to just tilt your head back and put a huge pile of caramelized onions on your face as an offering to the Onion Spirits.
White onions are comparably mild and, like shallots, are best when raw or barely cooked, or when making something for onion-scared weenies. You'll find them a lot in Mexican cooking, which should not be taken as a comment on the onion-bravery of the fine people of that great nation.
The Vidalia onion of the American south, despite looking more-or-less like a big flat yellow onion, is actually the sweetest big onion of all. It's great in potato salad, or on a burger. They grow these in Georgia.
Red onions can be treated, basically, as pretty-looking white onions: they're not identical-tasting, but they're both milder and sweeter than yellow onions and are best when raw or barely cooked. Also, Scott Conant of Chopped fame notably hates red onions and is a fucking moron with an embarrassing Miami Vice beard.
There's also scallions and chives and the like, but those have pretty wildly different culinary uses from the ones listed above, or anyway that is the excuse I am using for wrapping this up because I am a big-shot with important things to do.
Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home, or in shorter form on Twitter @albertburneko. You can find lots more Foodspin at foodspin.deadspin.com.
Image by Sam Woolley.