Veal Cheeks, Soy Sauce and Cheap Choppers

There were lots of extra unanswered questions from yesterday's What's Cooking discussion. Below, a sampler, plus a lil' extra sumpin' from a cherry-loving reader...

Silver Spring, Md.: Are veal cheeks exactly what they say they are? I always assumed so (though I've never ordered them, nor do I plan to), but others told me recently that they were a different cut of meat.

If the word cheeks is a facial reference rather than a posterior, one then yes, you're on the right track. Just like human mammals, cows (baby cows) have two cheeks on each side of the face, a muscle responsible for controlling the action of the mouth. Because it is a muscle, the cheek requires slow cooking on low heat (also known as braising) to coax it into rich, tender meat. Usually, you'll find them on menus during colder menus, when people are hankering for stews.

Arlington, Va.: What is the difference between light and dark soy sauce, and which is more commonly used in Asian cooking? Also, what can I use as a substitute for fish sauce for my vegetarian guests at a South East Asian feast this evening?

I know, it gets confusing, as there are so many soy sauce choices.

"Light" soy sauce is also known as "thin" and sometimes labeled as "premium." Do not confuse this with "lite" or reduced sodium soy sauces, which most Asian cookbook authors tend to steer away from.
Light/thin soy sauce is the kitchen workhorse, used commonly in the cookery of China, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. In other parts of the region, fish sauce is used in its place, but that's another story for another time.

"Dark" soy sauce is also known as "black" and you may even see some labels refer to it as "soy superior." Darker, thicker, richer and slightly sweeter -- I've read that dark/black soy sauce is sweetened with molasses. Don't confuse this with "sweet soy sauce," a mixture of palm sugar and soy sauce that is used like a table condiment in Indonesia. Totally different beast. Although dark/think soy sauce is used less frequently, it still has its place in certain sauces.

As for a vegetarian-friendly fish sauce, you can try using a thin sauce in its place, but I'm told you'll be missing out on some of the fermented characteristics of fish sauce. I'm still looking.

Appliance: I am a recent grad who cannot afford to spend tons on her kitchen just yet...specifically, I don't have a food processor, though I do have a hand held mixer. Do you have any suggestions for ways to compensate? Typically, I just avoid recipes that require food processors, which is a bit of a bummer.

If the hand-held mixer is a beater you use for cakes, you're out of luck in the pureeing department. The good news is that there are lower-cost alternatives to a food processor, but knowing what you want to accomplish will help you decide which suits you best.

First, you can always go with a regular old blender, which is helpful for making veggie purees, and of course, the all-important fruity cocktail. With it come a few caveats: Blenders are not really meant for chopping, and they do a just-okay job at pureeing. Because of the blender's tall, narrow shape, food gets stuck at the bottom by the blade, and you'll have to stop and dig the stuff out (with the blender in "off" position, naturally). The funny shape also makes cleaning the bowl an interesting challenge, and if you don't get that blade clean, it starts to get funky.

If less fuss and muss is more your thing, consider the hand-held immersion blender, a baton-looking thing with a blade on one end that does a bang-up job of pureeing -- right in the middle of a pot or bowl. That's right; you can stick that immersion blender in a pot of boiled potatoes and leeks to make a zippy potato-leek soup, for instance, and it takes all of a few minutes. Caveat: Spattering, which can be highly unpleasant if the mixture is hot. Like the blender, it too is limited to pureeing, so if you're looking for a chopper...

Consider the mini-chopper, essentially a "Mini Me" of a standard food processor, at a fraction of the size and price. Many home cooks like the mini-chopper to save time on large amounts of onions and garlic, but its utility is limited to... chopping.

If you've got 75 bucks to spend, you probably can get both a hand-held immersion blender and a mini-chopper. This will cover both your pureeing and chopping needs and more importantly keep you inspired in the kitchen.

And the final word on pitting cherries...

When I was newly married close to 40 years ago, we visited my grandparents-in-law and went cherry picking in Door County, Wis. I pitted about a bucket of cherries using the paper clip method.

Take a standard size paper clip and take the inner J and bend it up to that the clip is S-shaped. Insert the large loop in the stem end of the cherry and hook the pit and pull it out. I don't want to suggest it's easy or not messy but it works. I have never had pies as good as from that batch of cherries. Heavenly.

By Kim ODonnel |  August 1, 2007; 8:34 AM ET Chat Leftovers , Discoveries
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I was reading the soy sauce/fish sauce part, and wondered if adding some vegetarian worcestershire sauce either alone or with some soy would help. I've never used it, but have wondered if they've replicated that anchovyness there. I can't really think of what worcestershire sauce tastes like right now...

Posted by: eggplant20008 | August 1, 2007 11:56 AM

For the chatter without a food processor: Many immersion blenders now come with a mini-food processor attachment! I have a full size processor, but I hardly ever use it any more. The mini processor is big enough for small servings of salsas and sauces, and even hummus if you do it in two batches. And as Kim said, the stick is much better than a processor or regular blender for purreed soups, smoothies, etc. AND you can get one for less than $40 on Amazon. It's SO worth it -- I use mine at least twice a week.

Posted by: Immersion Blender: Best Appliance Ever | August 1, 2007 12:15 PM

Look hard at the immersion blender. I got a Cuisinart as a gift, and it came with an attachment that is basically a small food processor. So you might be able to pay once and get both the immersion blender and the chopper that Kim is describing. Looks like $50 at Crate & Barrell.

And do save up for the food processor. My Cuisinart has been running for a decade, so it's a great investment when you have the savings or someone who wants to give you a nice gift.

Posted by: Maryland | August 1, 2007 12:20 PM

For a inexpensive, non electrical alternative to a food processor/immersion blender one could use a hand cranked food mill. It will work on soups, and as a bonus, it will remove any stringy bits or skin left from vegitable peel. If the food processor is being used to make any kind of dough, hands work well, take longer but in the end are more satisfying anyway. For chopping nuts, use anything heavy against nuts in a plastic bag.

Posted by: Newton, MA | August 1, 2007 12:57 PM

I agree with Maryland above, save up for a GOOD food processor. My mom had her Cuisinart for about 20 years and only replaced it because the bowls were getting old and cracked, and also because bought her a newer bigger one for Christmas...the old blades are still in great working order and the motor was still going strong. Obviously you can only spend what you can spend, but while it may seem like an extravagance, it really is a fairly sound investment.

But necessity is the mother of invention and I've found in my college days (strange days those, we made popcorn on the stove and french-bread weekly) and as a post grad in a tiny NYC apartment that no recipe is off limits, so long as you are willing to experiment with the tools at your disposal.

Posted by: BBNotes | August 1, 2007 1:44 PM

My family grew up cooking/ eating Chinese food and my mum used both light and dark soy. She said light soy was used for flavouring (it's saltier and less rich than dark) while dark was used for colour (it's less flavourful but 'stains' more).

Posted by: Cat | August 1, 2007 4:17 PM

For the person who asked about the fish sauce subsitute -- there are oyster sauces made from mushrooms that serve as a pretty good substitute. Try looking for Lee Kum Kee brand vegitarian oyster sauce -- I've tried that one, and it is pretty decent.

Posted by: jlm3737 | August 2, 2007 9:22 AM

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