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.
Like any red-blooded American male, I greatly enjoy dead animal on my plate. Unfortunately, my hereditary genetic makeup dictates that due to a cholesterol level that once hovered around the Mendoza line, I chill out on the meat every once in a while. I know, it's terrible. What I'd like to know then, is what are some recipes that are A.) Primarily plant-based B.) Taste decent C.) Still healthy in that the recipe doesn't call for a salad covered in fried bleu cheese balls and D.) Something filling that won't leave me gorging myself on peanut butter in between two slices of American cheese two hours later.
Brendan, we'll get to your problem in just a second, but first, let's take a moment to consider its absurdity. Readers of my email inbox [stares daggers at the NSA] [is disappeared to Bulgaria] [resurfaces in 2019 with glazed expression and electronic dog-collar] will know that, evidently, this is a fairly common dilemma, out there: how do I not eat meat? Which, I mean, really? For virtually all of human history, people have consumed the vastest majority of their food calories from things other than meat; even now, unless you are an acid-blooded Atkins psycho or a Chicago Superfan, it's likely that a huge majority of the things you eat in a day are not meat. Even Wisconsinites get more calories from the breading on their deep-fried bacon-wrapped sausage-stuffed mayonnaise wads than they do from the meaty filling. You are not a carnivore, nor have you ever been.
So, please, don't play dumb. You go to a shitty Tex-Mex chain restaurant, and your beef-and-pork-and-chicken-and-muskrat-filled, Habenero-Tequila-Jack Sauce® smothered chimenchiluparacorrito comes with a side of black beans that, unless you are a dingbat, you scarf down merrily because they taste great. You go to a little family-run pan-Eastern Mediterranean joint, and they bring you a little dish of hummus and some pita bread—and again, unless you are the absolute worst goddamn person in the world, you fire that (figurative) shit down the hatch like it is the goddamn Elixir of Life, because you like things that are good.
Examples of tasty meat-free foods abound, because most foods are tasty meat-free foods. You already know that. Treating the directive to cut back on your meat consumption like it's this big onerous Thing you have to surmount is just a trick you're playing on yourself to make it cognitively easier to keep cramming your head full of greasy meat all the time.
Which, OK, we all understand and can empathize, except for the sociopaths, who are literally incapable of that. Greasy meat is delicious. But, c'mon. You're already an expert in eating Things That Are Not Meat. You do it all the time.
So. Make some hummus. Garbanzo beans, tahini (you can find this in jars in your local supermarket) or unsweetened peanut butter, olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, salt; in the blender for a few minutes, then into a shallow bowl, then sprinkled with smoked paprika, then onto attractive little wedges of pita or naan, then into your face. Make some black beans. Canned black beans, onions, garlic, maybe a chopped chili pepper, a small scoop of tomato paste, a splash of beer, a dash of oil, and a bunch of salt; simmer that stuff in a pot for a long time, then scoop it into a bowl, then top it with chopped cilantro and chopped fresh onion and maybe a tiny scoop of sour cream, then attack it with a spoon as though you have been subsisting off of hardtack in a whaleboat for the past seven months.
Or, hell, just eat some flaky white fish. That's not gonna ravage your body with artery-destroying cholesterol. The point, here, is that cutting back on fatty meat isn't hard. You just don't want to do it. You want things to be the way they've always been. It's OK to feel that way; it's just not OK to use it as an excuse to sandbag and drag your feet and act like a big weenie. And it's certainly not OK to eat peanut butter between slices of American cheese. You're a man, goddammit, not a fucking CHUD.
Why this hell should I put effort into making Clarified Butter for a recipe. Why the hell can't I just use butter.
Because regular unclarified butter burns at a much, much, much lower temperature than clarified butter, meaning you can't use it for as many food preparations as the clarified stuff. Also, because clarified butter has a vastly longer shelf-life than the unclarified stuff. Also also because, since the milk solids have been removed from clarified butter, it is a friendly butter alternative for the lactose-intolerant or milk-allergic among us. Also also also, if you care about such things, unclarified butter, when melted, has a bunch of white foamy milk solids floating on the surface, which, I dunno, I guess they're not all that attractive to look at?
Clarified butter is great. Make some. Melt some butter over lowish heat in a pot, then skim the floating milk solids off the top, then gently pour the clear golden liquid butterfat into a container, taking care to leave behind the heavier milk solids that have settled on the bottom (these can be discarded). Store the clarified stuff in an airtight container in the fridge, where it will solidify. Scoop some out when you want to sauté your food in something that will cause your heart to swell and pound from sheer unadulterated joy, and then cause it to stop forever from total arterial blockage.
I have some questions about how lazy I can be with certain ingredients (and God, I hope the answer is "extremely lazy.")
Will my final product be worse if I apathetically spoon-out the canned minced garlic from the supermarket instead of using freshly chopped garlic?
Is there any reason why I shouldn't do this?
Same thing goes for using dried herbs over fresh ones. I know fresh herbs taste exponentially better, but they are not always on hand. If that's the case, should I just use more of the dry stuff, or do I have to walk all the way to a market (oh please, no) for fresh herbs?
Let's clear up a common misconception, here, about the relationship between fresh herbs and dried ones. Dried herbs are not the cheapskate's or lazy bum's alternative to fresh ones; fresh herbs are not the fancy, privileged foodie nitwit's upgrade from dried ones. The two things have entirely different culinary uses. Fresh herbs can't stand up to long exposure to heat without losing their flavor and color; they should be added to food right at the end of the cooking process, or after the food has come off the heat altogether, to impart a bright, vivid herbal flavor to your dish. Dried herbs add nothing but distracting little chips of dehydrated plant fiber to your food if you don't cook them for a long time; they should be used in slow preparations (stews and braises and such) to impart a mild, well-integrated herbal flavor.
They're totally different things, cookingwise. No, you cannot make pesto out of dried basil, you fucking crazy person.
Are there any other common, yet lazy shortcuts in the kitchen that should always be avoided?
Here's an obvious one: You can't use higher heat to achieve the same result in less time. This is why so many pot roasts taste like gnawing on a Doc Marten.
When I try to pan-fry anything, we end up with a smoke-filled kitchen and a smoke alarm going off, even though the food itself hasn't burnt. I know different oils have different smoke points, but I've tried just about every kind of oil and also tried using a butter/oil mix, all with the same result. Is there a good rule of thumb for pan-frying that I am missing?
Make sure you're using enough oil. You're frying, not pan-searing. Also, if bits of breading are shaking loose in the oil during cooking, those will burn. Get them out of there.
Second question about pan-frying - is there a good way to flip whatever I am cooking so the breading doesn't get torn apart or fall off? I've tried tongs, forks, spatulas, spoons, etc., but end up with a piece of fish or chicken that is half-naked and seared and half-covered with the crispy, golden breading that I'm trying to achieve.
There's no special trick to flipping. Be gentle and decisive. You'll increase your odds of success if you
- A) coat your food with a thin layer of flour or cornstarch before it goes in the egg wash,
- B) shake loose any excess flour before the food goes in the egg wash
- C) don't try to coat your food with, like, all the breading, and
- D) give it a few minutes to sit in its flour-and-egg-and-breading getup before you get to cooking.
Do that stuff, and don't half-ass it, and you'll be helping yourself. Even so, the flipping part is still gonna be delicate. Use a very thin metal spatula for stuff like fish; use a pair of tongs for other stuff. Be gentle. Save the explosive violence for slapping some sense into your friend who eats a fucking peanut-butter-and-American-cheese sandwich.
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