Bob le Chef answers your most common cooking questions
Bob the Chef is known for his madcap yet ingenious culinary ideas. Read his savvy schemes to learn useful tips about avoiding needless waste, saving precious time and money, and making your meals ‘pop’ with flavour! New schemes each month.
Ways to save food
- Delicious Québec strawberries
- Don't let that broccoli go to waste
- It's canning time!
- Some Avocado Tips...
- Storing Tomato Paste
- What can you do with your Easter chocolate leftovers?
Ways to be a better cook
- A Saucy secret
- Dry Pulses
- Happy corn roast!
- Important about the fiddlehead ferns...
- One-side cooking
- The many uses of squash!
- Searing meat!
- The Joy of Grilling... All-Year Long!
- It’s Asparagus Time!
For special occasions
Asparagus are mostly made of water, and are therefore best when served freshly cut. Thankfully, they are also one of the earliest crops to mature in our climate, and so are easy to find at your local greengrocer as soon as spring hits. The best way to store them is to roll them up in a damp cloth or paper towel before sticking them in your refrigerator; they should retain their crispness for 2-3 days this way. I absolutely love asparagus, and I always keep some on hand at this time of the year to add to my favourite recipes.
Contrary to popular thought, thicker asparagus are not tougher; quite the opposite in fact, since thicker stalks means more flesh, which is what you’re looking for! No matter their size, their fibrous core remains hard to break down, however. You just need to break the stem at the proper place to avoid this problem. To do so, just use your fingers; the stem will naturally break at the point where the fibrous part gives way to tender flesh. You can keep the broken off bits in your freezer with your other vegetable scraps to make broth or soup. As for the stalks, you can peel them if you want, but it’s not necessary. There are many ways to prepare them: grilled in a skillet with a little bit of oil or butter, wrapped in foil and cooked in the oven, or steamed in a lightly salted water. Their flavour is subtle, so it’s usually best to serve them as is or with a little drizzle of oil, a bit of mayo, or even sprinkled with parmesan flakes.
On a lighter note, asparagus were considered an aphrodisiac by some because of their shape (not to mention that they are a good source of calcium, potassium and vitamin E); in fact, it was a traditional dish served to French couples before their wedding. Enjoy!
It might not be written on the packaging of your big chocolate egg, but you can use it to bake! In most cases, you will need to melt it down.
First, you need to cut the chocolate leftovers in small pieces so that it melts evenly. You could melt it directly in a saucepan or in the microwave, but if you do, you must be VERY CAREFUL, as chocolate overcooks very easily.
Personally, I recommend using a double boiler method: place the chocolate chunks in a heat resistant bowl floating in a pan of boiling water. This way, the heat is spread more evenly and the chocolate doesn’t overcook. Once you have a bowl of gooey chocolate, you can let your imagination run wild.
An easy recipe is making chocolate-covered nuts or fruits by simply dipping them in the chocolate sauce. If you are using fresh fruits, they should be cool so that the chocolate instantly forms a shell around them. You can also turn the sauce into a hot chocolate mixture by adding a bit of cream and milk (or even Bailey’s, if it’s for grown-ups). If you are counting calories, use an avocado instead of the milk or cream to create a delicious chocolate mousse.
There really is no limits to what you can do with your leftover chocolate. In the case of milk chocolate, I recommend adding a bit of cocoa powder, coffee or crystallized salt to bring out the underlying flavours.
Chocolate should be stored in a dry place at room temperature. You should never need to throw it out, because even if it turns white, it will all disappear with no effect on taste once it’s melted down.
While BBQing is typically a summertime activity in Quebec, there’s no reason why you can’t use your grill before the snow melts! If you’re not afraid of the cold, here are a few tips to help you enjoy your favourite cooking method all-year long! If you’re using gas, be prepared to use more fuel and to extend cooking times a little bit. Remember to keep the lid closed as much as possible to trap the heat in the grill. If you’re cooking with charcoal, then the cold weather will have little to no effect on your process. In both cases, however, we recommend protecting your BBQ from the weather: rain, snow, and especially wind. You should install it in or near a corner, depending on how well insulated it is and the thickness of the steel. If you’re a bit handy, you could even build a shelter for your grill. That said, no matter the season, safety should be paramount. Obviously, you want to dress warmly, but you should avoid trailing garments like a scarf that could catch fire! Ditto for the hands: use mittens designed for the BBQ, otherwise they could melt... Finally, it is even more important to be organized when you’re grilling during the cold season. For example, you can avoid having to constantly open and close your backyard door by preparing all your ingredients ahead of time.
So, what are you waiting for? Go ahead and grill to your heart’s content all-year long!
We’re all familiar with this situation: you buy a can of tomato paste for a recipe, but only use a few spoonfuls... what a waste, even though it’s not the most expensive ingredient in the world. You could buy tomato paste in a tube to avoid this problem, but it’s much more expensive. Here’s a savvy solution to this problem: cover a cooking sheet with parchment paper or wax paper, then empty your can of tomato paste by spooning a dollop at a time on the sheet, as if you were baking cookies. Once you’re done, place in the freezer for a few hours. Once the portions are solid, store them in a bag that you keep in your freezer. From now on, whenever a recipe calls for tomato paste, you can just take out the amount you need and keep the rest for later.
Because of their high protein content, pulses — the edible seeds of plants that grow in a pod like beans, lentils and peas — provide a host of benefits, including reducing our need for meat. While you can make do by buying them in a can, ideally you want to buy them dry.
Among other benefits, the dry version provides a lot of value, since it usually doubles in volume once cooked. It is also easier to digest than the canned version, and allows you to reuse the cooking water that is full of nutrients and quite tasty as a result.
Obviously, dry pulses (chick peas, yellow peas, white kidney beans, black beans, kidney beans, edamame, etc.) require a soaking period to make them ready for consumption, otherwise you would break your teeth trying to eat them! The best way to do that is to place them in a bowl of water overnight in the fridge. However, if you’re in a bit of a hurry, you can boil them for about 2 minutes then set them aside for an hour. And if you’re REALLY in a hurry, you could even cook them in the microwave... Here’s a final tip when dealing with pulses: wait until the end of of their cooking period to add in any acidic ingredients, because acid counteracts the softening effects of cooking.
They say you must learn to give before you can receive. For me, this adage perfectly encapsulates the holiday spirit. And you should also remember that hosting parties should be pleasant and not stressful!
I’ve found that being prepared is best way to ensure I can actually have fun with my guests rather than struggling in the kitchen. When you’re creating your menu, try to find recipes that can be prepared the day before and that can be served to your guests with minimal fuss. Take for instance my mother’s recipe for stuffed rolls: she prepares them a few days in advance and stores them in the freezer, and then she heats them up just before our guests arrive.
You also have to take into account that — most probably— you only have one oven. So if you want to avoid clashing priorities come dinner time, you need to do a little planning around cooking times and temperatures.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask your guests to give you a hand. Obviously you don’t want to stick them with some unpleasant chore like chopping up onions, but I’m sure everyone would be eager to pitch in if you ask them nicely. Try to divide up duties based on the guests’ abilities and skill. You’ll probably end up with creating memorable moments as a family, and at the end of the day, isn’t that what the holidays are for?
Soups and sauces set the stage for an appetizing meal: the better you are at preparing them, the better the overall results will be. At the risk of sounding cheesy, to this day, there is nothing that I find more comforting than the smell of simmering soup wafting through my apartment. Here’s a friendly tip: When preparing soups or sauces, do more than you need right away so you can freeze some for quick and easy lunches or meals later on.
The same goes for stock, even though it is never eaten by itself. It’s just a good idea to have some ready-made on hand so you can use it when preparing other recipes. I like to freeze my stock in icecube racks so I can easily “pop out” the desired quantity when I need it.
Pumpkins are much more than simple ornaments destined to get smashed by hoodlums come Halloween night. You can also cook with them... although I’m probably not telling you something you already know.
However, I’ll admit I’m surprised that its siblings in the squash family aren’t more popular in our local recipes. Soups are the obvious answer, but that’s only one of a myriad possibilities, and since they are easy to freeze, I feel it should become a staple of our repertoire. Take for example this recipe: we’re using a spaghetti squash as a substitute for noodles in a pad thai, but if instead you use some BBQ sauce and a few aromatics, you could make a delicious vegetarian “pulled pork” sandwich, or you could use it to perk up some egg rolls! Diced squash can be added to a vegetables au gratin, a risotto or a delectable mac ‘n cheese. Purée them, and you can use them in gnocchi, or also desserts like the classic pumpkin pie. However, if you’re feeling a bit adventurous, I can recommend using them to shape them into donuts, or even as a base in a caramel custard!
In short, just like your Halloween costume, a little creativity can go a long way with squash. There’s a reason Charlie Brown called it the “Great Pumpkin”!
September is without a doubt the month of the year when you’ll find the most variety in fresh local produce. It is the best time to enjoy and consume them by transforming them as little as possible. But how do you make them last for the rest of the year? The obvious solution is to make preserves out of them!
There are several methods you can use to create preserves. First, the sauces. You could prepare a big batch of homemade tomato sauce that you can then use as a base throughout the year; just add a bit of ground beef, some frozen vegetables and a few herbs and spices and you’re all set for the perfect classic spaghetti sauce. Surplus vegetables are also ideal for making homemade condiments. Relish, mustard and ketchup are much tastier homemade than their artificially coloured commercial version. And, bonus: you know exactly all the ingredients! The next classic preserving method is pickling. Use small gherkins, beets, onions or other vegetables from the garden, and marinate them in a sweet or bitter solution. You can them serve them as side dishes throughout the year.
Another method which is as old as the world but which has been gaining popularity lately is called lactofermentation. This very simple process, which our ancestors used before freezing and pasteurization were commonplace, involves marinating the food in water and salt, and then preventing contact with air. The eliminates all micro-organisms that could cause mold during fermentation. The most common lactofermented food is cabbage (used for sauerkraut and kimchi for instance), but this method can easily be used to preserve other types of vegetables, fruits and aromatic herbs. Enjoy your pickling!
Corn is one of the most versatile vegetable: it can be eaten directly on the cob, as separate kernels, creamed, or even “popped”, or use its flour, oil, starch, semolina, or syrup — in short, you can enjoy it at breakfast, lunch, dinner and even dessert! When in season, it is traditionally eaten on the cob after boiling it a few minutes in a large quantity of water. You can add a little sugar to make it sweeter, but unlike other green vegetables, you should never add salt, because that would toughen the kernels. A little trick to preserve the taste: add some of the leaves (not the silky threads) to the water.
As our Southern neighbours can attest, corn cobs are also delicious roasted or grilled. You just need to wrap them in foil and grill them in an oven at 180 °C (350 °F) for 25 minutes. You could also keep the leaves on the cob and soak them in water before grilling them for about 12 minutes, turning them halfway through.
As a last resort, you could also cook them in a microwave for about 90 seconds (but I don’t recommend it!).
This is good news for all strawberry fans, since they are notorious for spoiling quickly. Ideally, you want to eat them soon after buying them — or even better, after picking them. When you want to wash strawberries, do not soak them in water, but rather simply rinse them. Most importantly: do not hull or cut them before rinsing, as they will lose all their sweetness and flavour! You can freeze strawberries in a pinch, as long as you’re planning on making smoothies or jam with them after you get them out. That’s OK — Fresh strawberries wouldn’t be the treat they are if they were available all-year long, don’t you agree?
One-sided cooking involves searing fish or meat on one side without turning them over. This allows the skin to be crisp while keeping the inside soft and slightly pink. This grilling technique is perfect for fleshy fish like salmon. When shopping, you should ask your fishmonger to get your slices from the thickest part of the fish. Freshness is paramount, as it will be almost raw once you serve it.
Fiddlehead ferns can be toxic if they are not washed and cooked properly. To do so, flush them in running water for several minutes, or soak them in a bath of cold water at least 3 times (change the water each time). Once flushed, soak them in vinegar water for 5 minutes, then rinse thoroughly. To make sure fiddleheads retain their vibrant colour when cooking them, boil them in saltwater before rinsing them in cold or icy water.
Fresh crabs are obviously better than frozen ones, so don’t miss your chance to get some. You should start seeing the well-known snow crab in shops starting in April. By the time we reach the end of summer and early fall, these will be replaced by rock crabs and eventually blue crabs, the latter being more expensive and sought-after they have begun moulting, in which case they are known as “soft shell crabs”. When selecting a snow crab, you should look for large legs, as this is where most of the meat is found. For other species, the size of the shell and pincers provide a better indication.
Crabs don’t fare as well as lobster in captivity, so it is generally harder to find live ones. However, they share very similar preparation and cooking techniques. Immerse them in a large pot filled with boiling saltwater for about 15 to 20 minutes per kilogram. Crab, whether cooked or live, can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 48 hours. If you are squeamish, you can always go for crab that has been pre-cooked, frozen, or, as a last resort, canned.
Enjoy your meal!
You’ll notice that recipes often call for “searing” the meat before grilling it in an oven or adding it to a sauce, especially for slow-cooked dishes like stews or roasts. Searing a piece of meat in a pan over high heat causes it to release the sugars in its cells. These begin to melt and brown slightly to form a crispy “crust” which seals in the meat’s juices, as well as boosting its flavour. This process is called the “Maillard reaction”. Casually drop it in during your next table conversation to impress your guests with your culinary knowledge!
Are you in the mood for some guacamole, but your avocados are hard as concrete? No worries! You can force your avocados to ripen twice as quickly by placing them in a paper bag with another fruit (apple, peach, banana, etc.) and leaving them at room temperature for a few days. Check on your progress regularly — you wouldn’t want them to spoil!
Also, to prevent avocados from browning during a recipe, squirt some lemon juice, orange juice, vinegar or oil on them: this will create a protective film. Protect them as soon as you cut them in slices, and then either cook them immediately, or wrap them in plastic before placing in the fridge.
While broccoli will never win any popularity contests, especially among kids, I find it beautiful and flavourful. Generally, when people do eat it, they tend to only keep the florets and throw out the stems and stalks. If that’s the case for you, I implore you to stop immediately! Broccoli stems and stalks have the same nutritional value as the florets; you just need to know how to prepare them.
Use a vegetable peeler to shred the tough skin, then slice them, dice them or cut them into sticks. You can then use them in salads, mash them to add to your soups, or stir-fry or scallop them with some other vegetables! By using the whole vegetable rather than just the tip, not only will you save money, but I hope you will rediscover the delicious taste of broccoli.
It’s Asparagus Time!
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