Never Cook Naked: Blonde Coffee

If you’re wondering, “Why such an unusual name for a cooking advice column?” look no further. Actually, look away. For a very brief moment in time, I did cook naked. To whit, I have a terrible habit of getting about as much food on me as I do in the skillet when I’m in the kitchen. But I’d long ago sworn off aprons because they tug too much on the back of my neck, making me look more Quasimodo and less Rico Suave. So one night before guests arrived, I had an idea: I’d strip down, do the last-minute searing, sautéing, and such, and then pop into the bedroom to get gussied up. The result, I thought, would be impeccably grease-free threads. No one would be the wiser.

Lesson one: Oil burns when it splatters. A lot. Especially on tender, counter-high nether regions.

Lesson two: Food left on the stovetop burns when you ignore it as you run cursing around the kitchen rubbing ice cubes all over your, well, never mind.

Lesson three: Lesson learned.

The lessons don’t end there. We’ve more kitchen wit and wisdom to impart, believe it or not, and here to do it are our Never Cook Naked guys, Mark Scarbrough and Bruce Weinstein. Ask them anything. Anything at all, whether matters of ingredients, technique, or etiquette. (And we do mean anything, given that we hear they, too, have had their share of boxer-clad culinary mishaps.)—David Leite


“Blonde” Coffee

Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: I thought my love of strong black coffee made me something of an elite coffee drinker. But now that some coffee shops are professing the purity of lighter, or “blonde,” roasts, I’m starting to question everything. Was my sense of coffee superiority an illusion? Are my consumption habits about to become passé?—Nervous (But Not From the Caffeine)

Dear Nervous: Allow us a few guesses. You’re over 30. That tattoo you got in college is starting to fade. You find yourself buying sensible shoes. You’re afraid you’re no longer relevant.

Take heart: You’re not. Welcome to Adultlandia. Your resident visa will be ready in a few weeks.

In the meantime, sit back and sip your strong black coffee. Don’t be swayed by the marketing. All that advertising blather about ultra-light roasts was designed for the hipsters filling the ranks you’ve left behind. (We’ve seen what passes for coffee in some of those shops that tout their light roasts. A pumpkin mocha macchiatto with extra whip is not coffee. It’s Dairy Queen for the newly tattooed.)

Just relax. You’ve entered the blissful years of enjoyment without ego transactions. You’ll be nice and rested when you revisit this whole problem in your early 60s with the purchase of your first Corvette.


Dinner Party Diplomacy

Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: I’ve got a question about how to diplomatically decline foods you can’t stomach. The top of my ick list is dill. It ruins everything for me. So what do I do if I’m at a dinner party and am served an offending dish?—Dillphobic

Dear Dillphobic: First, you’ve got to decide how important the dinner is. If you’re being offered the position of executive producer on a Hollywood movie and you’re invited to seal the deal at George Clooney’s dill farm, smile and swallow. If you’re out to dinner with your future in-laws and they’re wondering if you’ll be a good guardian of Junior’s trust funds, smile and swallow. If you’re over for dinner at a friend’s house and the salmon comes with a dill sauce, you’re within the range of acceptable manners to ask that the sauce be left on the side.

Just be sure to ask, not screech. It’s the outrage, the horror, the eye-rolling, the if-I-eat-that-I’ll-convulse attitude that tends to set off hosts–especially hosts who’ve invested quite a lot of time, money, and love in that meal, and then graciously invited you to partake of it. So be decorous. Explain your dilemma. Tactfully. Better yet, explain your dilemma when you accept the invitation so your host has plenty of time to plan.

Bear in mind, there’s a hierarchy of intolerances at the table. We’ve been talking about preferences, not actual physical intolerances or allergies. You owe your host the respect of telling them about your specific needs. They’d rather know than have you push the plate away. And you need to respect yourself, too. There’s no reason to set yourself up for 24 (or more) hours of gastric distress just to be polite. Although, that, of course, is up to you.


Shrimp Shells

Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: What to do with shrimp heads and shells after you’ve extracted every possible morsel of shrimp and drop of juice? Compost them? Put them down the garbage disposal? Use them for stock?—Shell-Shocked

Dear Shell-Shocked: Here’s a rule-of-thumb we use in our house: Once a piece of food has been in someone’s mouth, it’s garbage. Feel free to adopt it in yours.

While we’re at it, here’s our off-the-cuff corollary: You can’t make stock out of table scraps. Those shells have been doused with herbs, spices, oils, sauce, maybe even spittle. Not even Martha can make stock for shrimp and grits out of them.

To answer your question, yes, you can compost shrimp shells. Many home gardeners swear by shellfish compost. (Caveat: Some public piles won’t accept shells owing to a desire for pristine vegan mulch.) Just make sure your personal pile is far from your house, as shrimp shells do indeed put up something of a stench in the hot sun– although that’s actually the least of your worries, because the more tasty things you toss on the pile, the more furry well-wishers you’ll attract. In our neck of the woods, we worry about bears. You may have to contend with raccoons or chipmunks. Consider yourself warned.

As for putting shrimp shells down the drain, they can–and will–clog the garbage disposal. They also make for an odiferous trash can. Our best advice is to stuff the shells in a zip-closed bag, stash them in the freezer, and save them for trash day, when you haul them to the curb—along with any of that stock you’ve made.


Spice Shelf Life

Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: I’m thinking of making the lemon soufflé  on your site. The recipe calls for 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar, although I can’t remember when I bought the dusty bottle that’s sitting in my spice rack. Can I omit the cream of tartar? Or substitute something else? Or should I just use my ancient powder?—Ye Olde Spice Rack

Dear Ye Olde: Short answer: Maybe, no, and yes. In that order.

Long answer:

Maybe. Whether you omit the ingredients depends on how much you value appearances. Cream of tartar strengthens the structure of whipped egg whites, ensuring they’re able to put under lock and key all the air that furious, high-speed beating imparts. Leave out the cream of tartar and you won’t taste the difference, although you may not have the loftiest soufflé on the block. Such scandalously shoddy attention to aesthetics might miff the foodies around you, but it won’t get you kicked off the PTA (unless you live within spitting distance of The French Laundry or appearance-obsessed L.A.).

No. Nothing will take the place of it, so don’t even try to substitute anything else for this ingredient. Unlike other items in your spice rack, cream of tartar is pure chemistry. It’s an acid salt known as potassium bitartrate, or, if you were paying attention in high school chemistry, KC4H5O6. Because it’s not thyme or oregano, you can’t swap something else based on perceived similarities or bottle proximity. You wouldn’t substitute Windex for Blue Curaçao, would you? (Well, unless your spouse really annoyed you.)

Yes. Use the old stuff. It has an almost indefinite shelf life provided—pay attention–the bottle has been sealed against moisture, in which case, see “Maybe.”


Measuring Accuracy

Dear Never Cook Naked Guys: Every once in a while I read a recipe that calls for a “heaping” cup of this or a “scant” tablespoon of that. What are they talking about?—Ill-Measured

Dear Ill: You’d never read a German or Italian or French recipe that calls for a scant cup of flour. It would ask for 220 grams of flour. Or 230 grams. In other words, it would call for precisely the amount you need. Precisely.

We here in the good, ole U. S. of A. still bake and cook in cups and spoons. (Just be glad we’ve moved away from rods and hogsheads.)  People elsewhere weigh. We dip. That’s what they did when they measured ingredients back in the day of Grandma. And Great Grandma. And Methuselah. And it’s not going to change anytime soon.

Practically speaking, these terms mean there was nothing between the 2/3 cup and 3/4 cup in someone’s measuring set back in the Fanny Farmer days. “Heaping” means that there’s a heaping mound of flour (or whatever ingredient) on top of the measuring cup. It’s a little more than “rounded.” “Scant” means that there’s a little declivity in the measuring cup.

So where does that leave us? With studied vagueness. But take heart. All this hoopla doesn’t mean much of anything when you’re frying, sautéing, roasting, and braising. A little extra oil or flour may not ruin the dish. But baking is about fussiness, aka chemistry. Cakes and cookies that call for such inexact measures can come out less than perfect.

Our advice? When you see “heaping” and “scant,” put down the recipe and instead find one that’s more precise. (May we suggest you seek a recipe from our favorite site?) And invest in a kitchen scale. It’s a lot cheaper than immigrating to Europe.

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