Our very clever, very clothed Never Cook Naked columnists, Mark Scarbrough and Bruce Weinstein, are at your disposal, able to troubleshoot everything from questionable table etiquette to tricky cooking techniques (as well as, natch, proper cooking attire). Curious to learn more solutions to culinary conundrums? You may wish to peruse previously asked questions, starting with the last column’s answers pertaining to why toast always seems to land on the floor butter-side down, wine for cooking, and the shelf life of dried herbs. Or you can listen to Mark and Bruce answer your questions on the air when you listen to our new podcast, Talking With My Mouth Full, where they give you plenty to think, not to mention laugh, about.
Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: When I was growing up, my mom served lukewarm dinners. I was always irritated by this, but now I understand. It’s tricky to figure out how to keep several different things hot when you’re trying to serve a dinner with multiple components. What’s the best way to keep different dishes warm between cooking and serving?—Still In Therapy Over Other Things, Too
Dear In Therapy: Like your mother, your oven should not be taken for granted. You should give it a close look now and then. It has settings below 300°F (149°C). In fact, it probably goes down to 150°F (65°C) or 175°F (79°C). And for good reason. Mashed potatoes, meatloaf, or braised chicken will still be perfect an hour after they’re done so long as they’ve been kept covered and warm at a low holding temperature, in what used to be called a “slack” oven.
If you’re cooking a multi-course soirée and have only one oven, plan on a chilled component that can be made ahead and stashed in the fridge (say, a salad), a room-temperature course (say, roasted vegetables), a hot course (you pick), and so forth. This makes for less of a juggling act for you. And get this: a range of temperatures will also make the whole meal more interesting and satisfying than a singular palette of über-hot.
Finally, warm the dinner plates. You can braise some short ribs, set them aside, then bring them back to a quick simmer before spooning them onto plates kept toasty in said slack oven. Do this when you invite your mother over for a nice meal. And warn her that the plates are hot—unless you’re still working out more issues in therapy.
Spinach In Your Teeth
Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: Whenever I eat spinach, cooked or fresh, I get a filmy feel on my teeth. What is that? Is there a trick to cooking spinach to minimize the effect?—Gritted Teeth
Dear Gritted Teeth: You’re worried about teeth that feel filmy? We’re worried about gross green flecks in ours.
Here’s the deal: spinach is high in oxalic acid. When the leaf’s cell walls are broken down, the acid combines with naturally-occurring calcium to make calcium oxalate—essentially, little crystals. Voilà your filmy, gritty teeth.
You have three potential solutions:
1. Wilt spinach quickly over high heat. Do not “cook” it. You’ll still get a little grit, but not as much as (blech) canned spinach.
2. Eat raw spinach. If you chew spinach salad fairly quickly, you don’t have to worry much about this chemical fandango. But keep a toothpick handy to avoid that nasty aforementioned spinach-in-your-teeth situation.
3. Switch greens. Turnip greens, mustard greens, and collards are relatively low in oxalic acid. You can chow down and not worry about film or grit.
Oh, by the way, oxalic acid does one other thing: it inhibits the absorption of iron. Popeye never got as much as he thought. Seems like another reason to switch from spinach to another green to us.
Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: I couldn’t decide between white and black truffle oils at the store. The bottle of black truffle oil said it was milder, whereas the white said it was more robust. Which should I have bought?—Sparing No Expense
Dear Sparing: Neither. In fact, never trust advertising copy. Have you learned nothing from “Mad Men”?
Truffles are expensive. Ridiculously so. So it stands to reason that the oil would be, too. If you find the price on the bottle doesn’t make you gasp, take a moment to consider how that could be. As with most things in this life, you get what you pay for. So do a little research on some companies making honest-to-food-gods truffle oil, like the folks at Oregon Truffle Oil.
Very few truffle oils are made from truffles. Most are made from something the industry calls “truffle essence,” which can be little more than the water that truffles have sat in for an unspecified amount of time. It could also be made from a variety of unnaturally induced truffle extracts, some of which can bring a lovely chemical fandango to your meal, including various industrial solvents. Or it could be an outright chemical concoction that attempts to mimic said truffle essence.
If possible, sample a truffle oil before buying it. Many high-end markets have tasting events—plan on attending. Or scope out the truffle oils in your friends’ cabinets. You don’t have to poke around on the sly. Just try this as an entrée: “I was just telling So-And-So the other day that you’d probably never spring for a bottle of truffle oil.” Your friend will be forced to bring out the bottle and prove you wrong in order to not appear a cheapskate. Discreetly plop a drop in your palm and let it warm for a few seconds. Then slurp it and, if you’re impressed, whip out your iPhone and sneak a picture of the label.
For our money, black truffle oil has a muskier, though strangely more mellow taste, than white truffle oil, which seems a tad spikier and also more fragrant. Although we’d never trust ad copy that told us so.
Got more questions? Good. We do, too. That is, more questions AND answers. In case you missed the mention above, for more cooking etiquette and enigmas explained, you can take a peek at previous columns from our Never Cook Naked Guys. Anything pertaining to food or drink goes. Well, anything within reason. But first, those previously tended-to questions we promised….
Illustration © 2012 Eric Hanson. All rights reserved.