Saturday, May 22, 2010

Marinade Magic

Whether you are vegetarian or a meat-eater, marinades are one of the easiest and cheapest ways to enhance foods. These magical liquids not only impart flavour, they frequently reduce cooking times, and can also tenderize tougher cuts of meat.

Acid and oil are the basic ingredients, the yin and yang of most marinades, carefully balanced depending on the food and the purpose for its curing. Acid is not entirely accurate. Sometimes alcohol is used as the chemical component of the marinade but its cooking and tissue-softening effects are similar.

  1. The acid used most frequently is some form of acetic acid: white, red wine, rice, or balsamic vinegars; or, highly acidic fruits such as lemons, limes, and some tomatoes. Beers and ales, dry wines like sherry, and grain alcohols like Saki or bourbon work best in marinades for tougher, more robust-flavoured meat proteins. The alcohol will cook off, but its tenderizing effect and aromatic flavours remain.
  2. The oils can be anything from common corn or canola oils to specialty nut and olive oils. Herb-flavoured oils have delicate flavour profiles and are better suited to light-flavoured contrasts with vegetables, low-fat seafood or pale meats. Butter, though rarely used, should be clarified.

Generally, vegetables are marinated to impart flavour before grilling or braising and, because they contain no natural fat, their marinades often include a more generous ratio of oil to acid and marination will be brief (15-30 minutes.) Recipes intended to chemically-cook vegetables (e.g. sauerkraut) generally use marinades with a higher acid to oil ratio and require a longer marination – 24 hours, at least.

Seafood proteins which are low in fat – like cod, trout, or sole – will require marinades with more oil than acid and, because the delicate tissue is quickly affected by the acid, a short marination time (15-30 minutes) is best. Shell fish and other higher fat content seafood can handle a more acidic marinade but even these tougher fish proteins will breakdown and become unpalatably mushy if marinated too long.

Animal proteins are the costliest portion of many grocery budgets. Of the few ways to control this expenditure, one is to choose a tougher, so-called "lesser" cut of meat and treat it with a little marinade magic. Prime cuts might cook faster and without the aid of marinade, but there's a prime price to pay at the check-out for their convenience. Utility grades, however, can be transformed into melt-in-your-mouth good if allowed some quality time in a flavourful infusion. Beef and pork generally require longer marination – anywhere from 6 to 48 hours – but the savings will merely be the bonus to a very tender and tasty meal.

Marinades, themselves, cost very little to make. Depending on the type and quality of ingredients you choose, they can cost mere pennies to an extravagant few dollars. With a few culturally specific ingredients marinades can turn an ordinary meal into international cuisine: olive oil with red wine vinegar, garlic and oregano adds an Italian flare, while peanut oil with Saki, soy sauce, ginger and garlic brings flavours of the Orient.

Most marinades can be cooked after the soak is completed, to become a complimentary sauce for the meal. If the marinade is used on raw meat proteins it must be brought to a boil and cooked a few minutes to ensure safe eating. So, if time constraints prevent this cautionary step, simply set aside some of the untainted marinade for later use as a dipping sauce. If reducing your concoctions, be aware that concentrating the sauce will intensify flavours, including salt, so use high-sodium ingredients, like soy sauce, sparingly. If saltiness might be an issue, you can thicken the marinade with a little corn starch instead of reducing the sauce.

Whatever you're cooking, be it a vegetable medley or flank steak, marinades add a gourmet touch. Apply their magic and your grocery budget will gain value, too!

Thursday, May 6, 2010


It's been two months since the initial recalls of foods containing hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) were issued in Canada and the United States. During that time I've received several updates (via subscription) from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Their list of contaminated products grows with each bulletin. HVP is used in prepared foods as a flavour enhancer, so most of the affected foods are ready-made products such as soups, dips, sauces, dressings, snacks, and seasoning blends. For many households, the recall resulted in the loss of hundreds of dollars of groceries. Our damages totalled $3.69 – a seldom used taco seasoning which wasn't listed for recall but, because it caused symptoms of salmonella poisoning, was tossed just to be safe.

Simply because we don't buy ready-made foods anymore, our pantry was spared a great purge. Soups, stews, sauces, and gravies are made from scratch using home-made stock. We blend our own spices and rarely eat processed meats. We've sworn off most snack foods and prefer the recipes we've gathered for making dips and dressings. With complete certainty, we feel our home-cooking lifestyle is the reason our larder was scarcely touched by one of the biggest food recalls in history.

It began small but we've expanded our home-cooking repertoire over the last ten years. While I've always baked cakes, cookies and some bread from scratch, we once used "convenience" foods frequently. Having (literally) bought in to advertising hype, we thought they were "time-savers." It was my sensitivity to high sodium content that first spurred a change in our food purchases. Next, hubby's growing intolerance to lecithin (a common stabilizer in most bread and broad range of other prepared foods) became cause for concern and a few more items were dropped from our shopping list. Then "middle-aged spread" demanded we examine the sources and types of fats we were consuming, and that analysis led to another change in buying and cooking habits. Each modification resulted in fewer processed and ready-made food purchases. Surprisingly, the difference in our overall cooking time amounted to just a few minutes more. However, the return on our investment turned out to be a huge boost in flavours.

One completely unexpected result of eliminating our consumption of processed foods has been our increasing repulsion of them. This distaste grew in direct proportion to the number of prepared foods struck from our diet. Products we once enjoyed, that smelled fine and tasted good, now smell and taste awful, their odours and flavours repelling rather than attracting. For that reason, eating out has become a challenge, too. Smells wafting from fast food diners make us grimace and it's getting harder and harder to find family-style restaurants that use real, fresh ingredients. Fine dining establishments are one of the few places using good quality ingredients but, since their pricing keeps them on our "treat" list, we rarely eat out. Instead, we're learning to prepare gourmet dishes ourselves. The plates aren't styled as beautifully, but we eat fabulously and for much less cost.

Without getting into the nasty detail of age, I'll just say I was raised in a time when home-cooking was the usual way meals and snacks were prepared. Sure, my mother kept a boxed cake mix on hand just in case unexpected guests dropped in but, mainly, she made meals from scratch. Most mothers did. What really concerns me is that manufactured food is now becoming the norm. Home-cooking is the exception, not the rule. According to cooking shows I watch, fresh produce is unidentifiable by many children today. This can't be good for society as a whole. It seems corporate interests have overpowered government controls and the result is diminishing regulation of the food industry. And, "industry" is an apt description for the chemical concoctions on offer.

Is this recall merely a harbinger of worse to come? Is home-cooking in danger of extinction? Is the slow-food revolution merely a flash in the pan? Sorry for that pun but I truly fear a time when meals may come in pill form. Yum.