Chat Leftovers: Tamarind, Baking Stones, First Set of Pots/Pans

Bethesda, Md.: Can you recommend a substitute for tamarind concentrate? I found a yummy sounding recipe for a soba noodle salad with papaya and shrimp that calls for one-third cup. Where would I find tamarind concentrate and is it worth the effort? I don't want to make an investment in something I won't use again.

For those who are just getting acquainted, tamarind is the podded fruit of a tree native to Asia. The long barky-like pods (pictured, right) contain seeds and a pulp with a sweet-and-sour flavor. It’s dried into concentrate, either as a brick (usually frozen) or as seedless pulp, from a jar. Either way, the pulp needs to be diluted in water, as the flavor is intensely sour.

(Julia Ewan/The Washington Post)

Tamarind figures into Asian, East Indian, Middle Eastern and Latino cuisines, which means it’s readily available at any number of ethnic grocery stores in the D.C. area. Although you can substitute lemon or lime juice mixed with either brown sugar or molasses (according to Cook’s Thesaurus), I do think it’s worth tracking down just for the sensory experience.

Kate over at Global Gourmet does a fine job of explaining how to soften up a hunk of frozen tamarind, so as to extract the liquid and leave behind the sinewy pulp and seeds.

Over at Thai Kitchen, a supermarket brand of Asian sauces and condiments, Worcestershire sauce is considered a worthy substitute, which makes sense since it consists of tamarind, molasses and anchovies, to name a few.

U Street, Washington, D.C.: Here's another pizza stone question for you, Kim. I have one that I received as a gift and have really enjoyed using. The problem is that I never really know how to wash it properly -- maybe I'm being paranoid, but I always feel like it's not fully clean. Any suggestions?

Stoneware is porous, which means soap, as tempting as it may be, will be absorbed by the stone and make the next pizza pie a soapy pie. Much like a cast-iron skillet, all you need is hot water and a scrubbing sponge, with more emphasis on the sponge than the water. I’ve also heard of cooks making a paste of baking soda to help remove stubborn stuck-on bits. Whatever you do, wash your stone when completely cool!

San Francisco, Calif.: I'm learning to cook for the first time (even though I'm now 32 years old) and am starting to learn about the different types of pots and pans. I'm confused about whether or not I need an iron-clad pan. I was told that it's good to cook food in an iron-clad pan because it instills some iron in the food. But it seems so heavy -- and I don’t know how one bothers to clean it. Any advice on must-have pots and pans?

First thing’s first, San Francisco: Give yourself a high-five for embarking on your new adventure. It’s never too late to learn! As much as I love my cast-iron pans, I’m not sure that’s what I’d start out with as a newbie cook. Unlike other pots and pans, iron cookware requires a different kind of relationship, one of special care rather than uncommitted wash-and-go. Unless an iron skillet has been passed down to you in good, unrusted condition, it will need to be “re-seasoned,” which usually some scrubbing (and rust removal) and a hot oil treatment. But there’s more; to maintain its nonstick sheen, you must wash with hot water and a scrubber only, then dry on top of the stove and finish off with a thin layer of oil EVERY TIME YOU USE THE PAN.

For a first timer, this may sound overwhelming, but a cast-iron skillet, if well looked after, is a friend for life, and loves you back with the most wonderful non-stick finish (and without all those chemicals).

As for equipping your baterie de cuisine (that’s French for pots ‘n’ pans), I always recommend mixing and matching rather than buying a set. Different brands have different strengths, and it’s best to shop around for the pieces that speak to you and the kitchen projects you have in mind. You’ll want a pot deep enough for pasta, for example, and another lidded deep pot for soups, stews or beans, if those are of interest. I’d get maybe 3 or 4 pieces to start, try them out for a while, then expand if you’re still feeling jazzy about cooking and want to keep going.

Food Safety?: Are there ways to "fix" some safety issues, i.e., if food doesn't get refrigerated, does it help to then freeze it for a few days? Or to boil it for a while? Or should it just be pitched? (This obviously isn't foodstuff for sale/non-family consumption.) Are there guidelines somewhere you could refer us to? Right now I'm seen as "hypersensitive," "controlling" and "hurtful" in voicing my concerns and objections to food safety/handling. I'd like to be able to point to reference materials so it feels like information sharing rather than personal attacks on someone's cooking.

Generally speaking, there’s no “fixing” food that’s been stored improperly, regardless of the circumstances. A good place to start reading up on the basics of proper food handling is the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service site.

This week's What’s Cooking transcript in entirety.

By Kim ODonnel |  February 25, 2009; 7:00 AM ET Chat Leftovers
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Re: pots and pans. I was struck by the questioner's use of the term "iron-clad" and wonder if that doesn't merit a bit of clarification. The question clearly relates to cast-iron pans (as does Kim's response) but as the person is new to cooking and is shopping for pans, perhaps a note of clarification may be helpful. All these terms could get confusing when you're standing in a store looking at a lot of sales flyers-- e.g., cast-iron, steel-clad, enameled cast-iron.

The reader might be wise to look for a good online primer (glossary?) on terminology, or take a spin to the local library and see what you can learn.

Just a thought.

Posted by: Agathist | February 25, 2009 9:05 AM

For the tamarind sauce, I usually get a tamarind date sauce--its a lighter mix, and is great straight up (no dilution or anything). Great with samosas, but also easier to deal with in cooking. H-Mart would have it, and any indian grocery store, not sure if you can find it at a regular supermarket though.

Posted by: shhhhhh | February 25, 2009 10:13 AM

Regarding tamarind, do not think that the little bottles of tamarind concentrate (Whole Foods carries TAMICON brand) will achieve the flavor you are looking for; you may want to discard the finished product.

It's a lot of work to strain the block tamarind, but it's worth it for the authentic flavor, and you'll have tamarind pulp available for quite a while. I got mine at H-MART - it was on the shelf, not frozen.

Pim has another description of the process at the bottom of her Pad Thai post here:

Posted by: AmaliaAusten | February 25, 2009 10:19 AM

I also wondered what they meant by iron-clad. Perhaps they should start by assessing what they cook, then do some research into what pan is best for that. I would also veto the idea of purchasing a set. It makes so much more sense to buy different tools for different jobs. Plus you won't end up with orphan pans that you never use, just because they came with the set.

Posted by: margaret6 | February 25, 2009 11:04 AM

Hi Kim,
I received a great pizza stone last year, but somehow when I try to make pizza on it the crust always turns out soggy. I've tried to heat the stone first, and also used it cold, with the same result. Any ideas what I'm doing wrong? Should I parbake the crust a bit first? Use a different dough (I've been meanting to try yours...)? Thanks!

Posted by: cdragisic | February 25, 2009 11:30 AM

Cdragisic, I want to know at what temp you're baking the dough. At least 500? Oven's gotta be hot to draw water out of dough! Also, talk to me about how much sauce you typically put on dough as well as kinds of toppings. Are you lining stone w/ some coarse cornmeal? We'll figure this out.

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | February 25, 2009 12:36 PM

I also meant to address the last letter. I really can identify with what this person is saying. When we were first married, my husband brushed off my food safety concerns and would even go behind my back to do things "his way". The end of that finally came when he took a pan of manicotti back out of the refrigerator because he thought it hadn't cooled enough, then he forgot and left it sitting out all night. I was so furious when I put the whole thing down the disposal, I don't think he would ever question my judgment again!

The only advice I can give is stick to your guns, don't eat anything you feel has been compromised, and don't be too mean to them when they get food poisoning.

Posted by: margaret6 | February 25, 2009 3:05 PM

Must have pots & pans:
As KOD points out, you want to have at least one good dutch oven (5 or 6 quarts). This is a must have for cooking pastas, stews, soups, big-batch sauces. If you get an oven friendly one (such as stainless steel or enamel-coated cast iron), you will also be able to do a lot of roast or dual cook (stove-top and roast) meals.

I think having both a non-stick and a regular skillet is a must. There are some things that work better in one or the other. If you balk at two different pans get them in different sizes. Perhaps a 9-10 inch non-stick and a larger (12-14 inch) regular pan. My "regular" pan is a stainless steel All-Clad that is somewhat non-stick and definitely oven-safe (see comment in dutch oven).

Last is some smaller pot like a saucepan. These are good for just a few vegies, for making small batch sauces, cooking grains, boiling a few eggs, etc.

There are many other options out there, but you can wait until you find that you have a recurring need for one of them to decide to get them. The above pots and pans are ones that you will use regularly for most everyday cooking.

Posted by: DadWannaBe | February 25, 2009 3:22 PM

Hey Kim, Thanks for answering! I think the oven has been at more like 400-450. Maybe that's the problem... I did try cornmeal once, but it was very gritty. and I keep the sauce thin, as I like it. I've been wondering too if I should sautee the veggies first, so they dont let off so much water. Thanks!

Posted by: cdragisic | February 25, 2009 7:14 PM

It does help to saute veg like mushrooms, peppers and onions ,but not as necessary for greens. Hope this helps.

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | February 25, 2009 7:36 PM

I'm glad you posted the last one, Kim. I'm also in a household that is less than careful, and it freaks me out. Not only things left out, but also things left in the fridge (it's residual from coming from a culture where you had nothing, so you never let anything go to waste). I've only managed to voice my opinion to my husband, and he's closer to my opinion than my MIL's, but it's still a wonder that no one has gotten ill.

Posted by: alisoncsmith | February 26, 2009 8:44 AM

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