Jailhouse Sous Vide: Cooking Behind Bars | Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street

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Episode 523
August 27, 2021

Jailhouse Sous Vide: Cooking Behind Bars

Jailhouse Sous Vide: Cooking Behind Bars

Writer Daniel Genis tells us how he learned to cook in prison with limited tools and ingredients, from fried fish and dumplings to pasta cooked on a rewired hot pot. Plus, spirits expert Yolanda Shoshana reveals how cognac became a part of Black history, Dr. Aaron Carroll tells us why coconut oil might not be as healthy as we think, and we make chicken fricase from Puerto Rico.

This episode is brought to you by Sleep Number.

Questions in this episode:

"I recently took a tour of a citrus grove and left with a 20 pound bag of mixed citrus––lemons, oranges, grapefruits, pomelos, the whole bunch. What can I do with this variety of fruit?"

"I've been making my grandmother's fresh strawberry pie for years, but it hasn't been setting properly lately. It's just soup! What's happening?"

"I was chatting with my friend about crab legs and referred to them as "candy for dinner." He was taken aback because he doesn't think of crab as a sweet food. Are they sweet, or is it just me? And if they are sweet, what is causing that flavor?"

"I've been making burritos to keep in my freezer to eat when I don't feel creative in the kitchen. Lately, I've been making more vegetable burritos, but they all seem to fall apart. What can I do to help bind the filling in a delicious way?"

"I am very interested in your recipe for Ricotta Semolina Cheesecake, but I can't eat sugar. Can I use monk fruit as a substitute?"

"I bought a $100 bottle of balsamic vinegar that was truly amazing. It was more transcendent than I ever thought it could have been. Unless I win the lottery, I can't afford a $100 bottle of vinegar on my table every night. What should I look for in a middle-range balsamic vinegar?"

Daniel Genis 1

Christopher Kimball: This is Milk Street Radio from PRX. I'm your host Christopher Kimball. In 2003, Daniel Genis was arrested for committing robberies to pay for his heroin addiction. He then served 10 years in prison. During a sentence, Daniel began cooking his own food as an alternative to prison meals. Using impromptu cookware including jury rigged pots, he managed to fry mackerel and make dumplings. Daniel joins us today to talk about his methods, his recipes, and how good food was critical to surviving a long prison term.

Daniel Genis: You might think that that's pretty frivolous of a person to risk going into the box where you can be driven crazy, just to have a dumpling. But I'll tell you, taste is one of the real ways you can travel through time and go home for a moment.

CK: Also coming up, we learn how to make Chicken fricassee with tomatoes, potatoes, and carrots. And Dr. Aaron Carroll tells us why coconut oil may not be as healthy as you think. But first, it's my interview with culinary historian, Yolanda Shoshana about how cognac became the drink of choice in the black community. Yolanda Welcome to Milk Street.

Yolanda Shoshana: Thank you. I'm so happy to be here.

CK: Let's start with what is cognac. And where is it produced.

YS: Cognac is known as eau du vie, which is water of life in France. And it is produced in a cute charming little town Cognac. It's a brandy. It has to be produced in Cognac to be cognac. And it's made from a uni grape. There are white wine grapes. And normally it's aged two years and you have your four years and then as you get more expensive. Like that $2,000 bottle it'll it'll be a mix of eau du vie from years and years and years to get to that $20,000 bottle which could be drops from when a king may have had a little drop of that.

CK: What you've written about and talked about is the connection that the black community United States has with cognac especially Hennessy, which we'll get to. So how did this get started?

YS: Well, the soldiers were stationed in France, the First World War in the Second World War. And that's when they started drinking cognac, it became their spirit. And then they kept drinking it when they got back to the United States.

CK: And then, of course, between the wars, Josephine Baker and all the jazz in Paris and everything else. So that time I guess it also became part of that culture, right?

YS: Yeah. So, Josephine Baker, actually, this is kind of where Hennessy also came in. They did employ her as an ambassador. So, she actually would go and serve the cognac to people to say hello, and to show appreciation for the troops because she was living there. And she would serve them. And it was just like, I mean, what could be better than Josephine Baker handing you a glass of cognac?

CK: Nothing. You also said this was really interesting that, you know, whiskey in this country, a lot of the brands like Rebel Yell weren't designed to appeal to the black community. I mean, cognac, for obvious reasons, was was a better choice in many ways.

YS: Right. And so when the soldiers did come back to the United States, they after having sampled cognac, whiskey, bourbon had a habit of producing racially disturbing ads like they were racist, depicting slave serving owners and then showing slaves as lazy and then they would do blackface ads. So black folks weren't so thrilled about that. So, they kept drinking, cognac

CK: And then Hennessy starting in the 50s. Yes. Was very smart and started advertising and Ebony and Jet magazine. (Yes) yeah. They also hired not just Josephine Baker, but the hard people actually to, you know, they brought in black executives at a time when that was not common.

YS: Yes, they actually hired one of the first African American executives in the country. His name is Herb Douglas. And Herb Douglas actually used to be a runner, and he was in the Olympics. And he knew everybody. And that was a good move, because Herb can open doors like if Herb called people answered the phone, but Hennessy also, they looked at each other in a meeting and said, if we're really serious about being part of the African American community, we should put our money where our mouth is, and that's why they also decided to hire him. And then they also gave money to help form the NAACP, which was also crucial

CK: Then it gets into modern culture in a very big way. It was rap etc. as the culture changed. Hennessy kept up with the culture or the culture kept up with Hennessy depending on how you look at it. How did that work out?

YS: In the 90s you see cognac not doing so great. And sales were down. And this is when it became popular with rappers you had P Diddy and Busta Rhymes. They had a rap song called Pass the Courvoisier. Courvoisier saw their sales skyrocket. So, then all the other cognac brands said hold on, wait a minute. And that's when they decided to reach out to other rappers and say, hey, why don't we partner? Why don't you become an ambassador? And then you start seeing rappers mentioning Hennessy in songs, because it's what they were drinking. Because that's what rap music is rap music is about our culture. And it's about. it's our politics. But anyway, you should get to me any day. many ways to speak that our home just can't speak. …..”

CK: So, Hennessy, I guess, was one of the companies that pioneered this, this notion of thinking about different cultural groups and working with them. Is this now been taken up by everybody else in this is what everybody's doing today? And is it, is it morphing into something to the next phase, the next chapter of the story?

YS: Well, there's a piece of it where you can't find certain cognacs in certain places because people think it's too “urban”, as I put in quotes, and I know the Hennessy ambassador, and somebody asked him, Well, what does Hennessy think about not being in certain bars, people don't want them there? And he said, well, we really don't care. We're not here to please those people were here for the community. African Americans have been proven to be more loyal with their money. Same as the Latin community, we are more loyal with our dollars. And cognac, I think gets that.

CK: Yolanda, thank you so much. It's been just a great pleasure.

YS: It's been such a pleasure talking to you. Thanks.

CK: That was culinary historian Yolanda Shoshana. Right now, my co-host, Sara Moulton and I will be answering your cooking questions. Sara is of course the author of Home Cooking One on One, also star of Sara's Weeknight Meals on public television.

Sara Moulton: So, Chris, seeing as it's warmer weather now and we're going to be getting some really lovely tomatoes. What is your favorite way to eat a tomato raw or cooked, or both?

CK: I haven't had a good tomato in 20 years. So, everyone keeps saying this is the season for tomatoes. But even if I go to the farmers market, they're still not good. So normally, I mean, if it was really good, I would slice it. I just throw some olive oil on it, some sea salt and thinly sliced mozzarella and some basil leaves. I mean the classic combination and call it a day. I remember the time when you could do that and the flavor the tomatoes, you know was so great. You don't want to muck it up, right? I mean, what about you what do you do?

SM: I agree with you. There's nothing better than a really good raw tomato but a couple other things I like to do is to roast some maybe cherry tomatoes because sometimes they're the best ones. And then to puree them and use that juice in a vinaigrette which gives it sort of a robust with olive oil and sherry vinegar and a little bit of mustard, maybe a little bit of just rub the bottle with garlic that is a wonderful summer vinaigrette. I find that almost any tomato including the ones I wouldn't use a supermarket cardboard tomato out of season but in the summer almost any tomato if you slice it salt at 20 minutes ahead of time, it's just so much better than it was to begin with. So that really does help with these not so flavorful tomatoes. My favorite way to cook a tomato is in a tart. And again, I used to beef steak, I salt them 20 minutes ahead of time, half an hour ahead of time, slice them about a third of an inch thick. And I make a tomato and basil tart in a bacon crust. And there's ricotta and mozzarella and parmesan in there and I just love that whole baked combo. So that would be another one that I love

CK: Why don’t you come over make that and I’ll eat it, sounds good. Thanks a lot

SM: OK. All right. Sounds like a plan. Yeah. Pretty yummy

CK: Let’s take a call. Welcome to Milk Street Who's calling?

Caller: Hi, my name is Leo. I'm from Portland, Oregon.

CK: How can we help you?

Caller: Yes, I started quick question for you guys. I recently took a tour of a citrus grove in Southern California. And I left with about like 20 pounds of mixed citrus, like a giant reusable bag just overflowing with fruit, oranges lemons, ____ grapefruit, a whole bunch. I'm just looking for any suggestions for what I can do with all this variety of fruit. So, I was thinking curds are some sort of like simple syrup. But does anything else come to mind?

CK: Well, I squeeze my own either orange or grapefruit juice every morning. I buy bags of it right for, you know, juice oranges. And they'll keep almost two weeks, 10 days in the fridge if you keep a cold fridge like you know, 38 degrees. So, some of those if you like to start your day, that way, you can get through quite a few. I would say juicing them and freezing the juice would be my guess because you know, how much curd do you want to use? right?

Caller: Exactly.

CK: I mean, there's a lot of recipes. You know, we have a great recipe for caramel oranges, where you peel and slice cara cara oranges and you make a sauce for the caramel sauce. And but you know, you're going to use up four or five oranges. I assume you're talking about 30 or 40 pieces of fruit here, right?

Caller: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, at least.

CK: Yeah. So, I think juicing them and freezing the juice is the only thing you could do with that amount of it. Right Sara?

SM: Right. I mean, other than that, you'll have to do more work. You can also make marmalade. You can candy, the peels, you could make orange vodka, or citrus vodka, you know, again, the peels, cover it with vodka, but that's just the peels, you need to get rid of the juice, too. I agree with Chris, I think juicing them and freezing the juice is good. You can actually freeze them whole but then that takes up a lot of space in your freezer, the juice will still be good. I don't know how good the rind will be. You know what you might want to pick up the Ball Complete jar of home preserving. I'm sure they could come up with all sorts of other suggestions of things to do with all that citrus. That would be fun. If you're up for new projects.

Caller: Absolutely.

CK: One thing you could do is make preserved lemons. Right?

SM: Oh, God, yes,

CK: That's a good idea. Because those will last and those are fabulous.

SM: Those take a while.

CK: They take a while, but you can do that at home,

Caller: Right

SM: Or you could make you know candied peels for all your friends,

CK: For your 150 closest friends

SM: or yeah,

CK: just start your day with a really big glass of fresh juice for the next ten days.

SM: Yeah, go for it.

Caller: Yeah. Sounds great.

CK: All right, Leo. Take care.

Caller: Thank you.

SM: Yes. Bye bye.

CK: Welcome to Milk Street. Who's calling?

Caller: Hi, my name is Mina Cardinal

CK: How can we help you?

Caller: I've been making my grandmother's traditional fresh strawberry pie for years. And I have no idea what I've done wrong. The last couple of times I've tried to make it. The filling is really simple. It's a cup of sugar, a cup of boiling water, three tablespoons cornstarch, and three tablespoons of strawberry Jell-O powder. And for whatever reason, I can't get it to set its just soup.

CK: A couple things. The amount of Jell-O powder sounds a little scant. I would use you know, powdered gelatin would be the obvious thing to use to gel, clear liquid. Not corn starch, corn starch would be more for gravy or some other things. That was the original recipe was corn starch?

Caller: It's interesting. Not only is it the original recipe, but my mother at her home who has it was her mom who taught me how to make this pie, created it and said I got it tto set brought it over. We ate it. It was delicious. She said what you're doing wrong who can't make Jell-O? So the next time I made it I actually added an extra packet of gelatin. And it made it firm almost right to firm, actually quite gross. Actually.

CK: Let me ask a question. Have you made this recipe and it worked perfectly?

Caller: Yes, I have made it successfully in the past.

CK: And all of a sudden it stopped working. Is that right?

Caller: Yes. Bizarre,

CK: And nothing was changed. Like maybe you used a different kind of gelatin

SM: or different kinds of strawberries?

Caller: The only thing I can think of are the recipe calls for you to add the dry ingredients in a saucepan, add a cup of boiling water, right? Then boil that on the stove, and then cool it and then pour it all over the strawberries. One of the times I didn't let it cool very much and I thought well, you know who cares? It's going to go into the refrigerator, or several be fine. And maybe that's the problem. The second time around. I may have over boiled it. I understand sometimes corn starch can break down

CK: That's exactly yeah, that was about to say you can't get corn starch over 190 degrees or so. If you whisk it too much and cook it too much and heat it too much. It'll break down. I would look at other recipes and see if they use powdered gelatin instead of the corn starch is an outlier for me. I wouldn't use corn starch here. There's also there are two kinds of powdered gelatin. There's the low sugar version, which comes in a pink package and the regular one. Although this one seems like a fairly high sugar application. So, I would use powder gelatin and look on the back of the box to figure out how much

Caller: Well, thank you. I really appreciate this.

CK: I love this pie by the way.

Caller: Oh, it's so fresh and delicious. And the best part about it is even an ugly, soupy pie tastes good. Well, there

SM: Well, there you go.

CK: And then there's the version with pretzels and cream whip. Right? That version.

SM: Oh, you make that often huh Chris?

CK: Strawberry pretzel salad? No, I'm just telling you. When I had this 10 years ago, I laughed at it. I thought it was junk food. And I couldn't stop eating and we made it in milk straight about six months ago. Just for fun. It's so good.

Caller: It's disturbingly refreshing delightful. It's a perfect summer.

SM: Okay you guys might have convinced me

CK: Strawberry pretzels salad.

Caller: Sara Please try it.

SM: I will, I will

Caller: Give it a chance. Give Jell-O a chance. Thanks everybody.

SM: Bye.

Caller: Bye, bye

CK: This is Milk Street Radio. If you want to expand your pantry or maybe find a new favorite recipe, give us a call anytime. Our numbers 855-426-98431 more time 855-426-9843 or email us at questions at Milk Street Radio.com. Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: My name is Andrew Wood.

CK: How can we help you?

Caller: Well, I was talking to a friend of mine in Hilton Head, South Carolina not too long ago. And they were talking about how their daughter loves crab legs. And my comment was crab legs like having candy for dinner, because they're so sweet and delicious. And my friend was taken aback by this. The notion that crab legs might be sweet tasting, no one in their family can even taste it. And it made me wonder, are they sweet or is it just me? And if they are I know they don't contain any sugar or carbohydrates? What causes that sweet flavor?

CK: I have to preface my answer by saying anytime I’m asked a scientific question about food. And I'm not absolutely sure the answer. My answer is always amino acids. So, I'm going to tell you the amino acids, which I think is actually true, but the prevailing wisdom would be that it's certain types of amino acids which give it a sweet I mean shrimp is sweet, right? lobsters sweet.

SM: Scallops are sweet.

CK: You know, it's just a function of shellfish, I think many shellfish. One thing you said was interesting. Your family can't taste the fact that crab legs are sweet. They have no sense of it.

Caller: Right, which brings me to my next question, why can some people taste that sweetness and others clearly cannot?

CK: Well, it's a long story, but I'll make it short. It used to be the people thought that all of your ability to taste was on your tongue, right? And that there were certain sections of your tongue, salty, sweet, sour, etc. That's not true. There are different receptors on tastebuds that taste those fundamental elements. sweet, salty, sour, bitter umami. How many taste buds you have does vary from person to person, you can do a test by putting a blue dye on your tongue and someone takes a picture and they can count the number of buds. The problem is almost all flavor is perceived by smell. Because when you put some in your mouth, it goes up the nasal passage, the receptors there communicates that to the brain, most of what we consider to be you know, taste is us smelling. So, it could be a function of some people have fewer taste buds, literally, you know, on the tongue. And the other is some people perceive smell differently aroma differently than others. I mean, Sara?

SM: Yeah, you know, it's interesting, I think all three of us would agree that all the shellfish we just mentioned are sweet. So, we're obviously all in the same situation in terms of number of taste buds, or maybe we're more genetically disposed that way. It's like the anti-cilantro gene. Some people absolutely hate it that tastes like soap to them. And they've determined that that's something you're born with, you can't help. Yeah, well, there's

CK: Yeah, well, there's one other study. That's interesting. And that is, it's not so much your physical ability to detect aromas. It's how the brain processes that information. So, a lot of its training, and it's your brain's ability to process the sensory input from the aroma and from those sensors. Just practice is also part of taste, too.

SM: Yep.

Caller: Similar to how sommelier’s get really good at sensing wines,

SM: Or coffee tasters. It would be another category yeah

Caller: At least I'm happy to know I'm not alone in being able to taste the sweetness of crab legs

SM: no, yeah, we agree with you. Absolutely.

CK: Yeah. Just stop putting sugar on it. Okay, Andrew, thank you so much.

SM: Yes.

Caller: Thank you. Great to talk to you bye

CK: Take care. You're listening to Milk Street Radio. Up next. It's my conversation with writer and ex-convict Daniel Genis. That and more after the break This is Milk StreetRadio I'm your host Christopher Kimball. Right now, it's my interview with writer and ex-convict Daniel Genis. During the 10 years he spent in prison, Daniel used cooking and food as a mental escape from the realities of prison life. Daniel, welcome to Milk Street.

DG: Thank you very much for having me. Chris.

CK: You had a really interesting childhood, your dad, Alexander. Well known Russian writer but your home was visited by all sorts of interesting people from Baryshnikov to Umberto Eco. Do you remember those visits or that's just something that's vaguely in your history?

DG: My father who is something between a dissident a journalist and then eventually just an author is a very successful one in the in the world of Russian literature. So being the son of Alexander Genis, I was exposed to some of the best that there was in the late 80s and early 90s. In terms of cultural influences. That means I got to have dinner with Umberto Eco. When I was reading all of his novels, I mean, between appetizer and main course, I ran upstairs and got all the books and made him sign them, you know, I got I got to see Baryshnikov off and never realized how short he was. And I say all this perhaps to to point out what what a disappointment my later, bad decisions lead to. So, after a promising youth meeting, wonderful, interesting people. And even a start at a career in publishing. I acquired a heroin habit. And from there, it took a year to bring me to my knees. I went to Stuyvesant High School. I got a scholarship to NYU. I graduated with honors, and three years later, I was in prison.

CK: So, you end up in maximum security for many of the years. You're there,

DG Seven out of 10

CK: That's a lot. So how long did it take you to get acclimated to kind of figure out if you ever do the system and to feel like you have some sense of security? Or maybe you never have that?

DG: That's a great question. How long does it take to get acclimated to a system that's clearly meant to grind you down and expresses its hatred for you in every brick and every morsel of food, you know, and every sound you hear, but you never really acclimate because the the situation of a prisoner is so different from what humankind is, is is sort of intended to experience it's it's like being an astronaut, it’s abnormal

CK: How bad is the food? The regular food there is this all like surplus chicken parts and cheese and stuff that nobody else will eat? What is it?

DG: The state provides a diet for the prisoners that is perfectly composed by a nutritionist, it comes out of plastic bags, and it's heated in big vats of water, kind of like sous vide bags of chicken a la King, but the truth is, is that because the ingredients are so low grade, and because nobody even bothers to spice it for taste. The food is hard to eat. There’re things like boiled rice, which you would think are too simple to mess up. But even that is really hard to get down. Because what they do is they simply put a bag of rice into a huge metal bit of water and stick it in the stove for four hours. And what comes out, it's cooked, but you have to drain off the water. I mean it's nothing that really even resembles rice. They do the exact same thing was with pasta, they put they put 50 pounds of pasta into cold water and put it in an oven for four hours. And then they serve it with the water and got cooked in. That's the sauce.

CK: And but but food I would assume in prison becomes incredibly important stuff

DG: Food in prison is the stuff of life and your life often revolves around food for guys that aren’t drug addicts in prison or that aren't, you know, heavily invested into religion or, or gangs or something else they live to eat. I've seen plenty of men who go to the mess hall. And they easily get seven trays of fake mashed potatoes with fake gravy and soybean. And they slurp it down until they're full of two and a half, three pounds of this stuff. And they go back to their cell. And they lie down, and they fall asleep from being so full of the stuff. And you know, they just had 3000 calorie meal. But they didn't eat it because it tastes good. They ate it to feel full. And maybe to get a little comfort from it to get a little pleasure from feeling so full. You know.

CK: So, when you were in prison, you really wanted to learn how to cook even under very difficult circumstances.

DG: So, when I arrived in jail, there was the choice of going to the mess hall and eating very bland, bad food, or cooking your own food out of items from the commissary and foods that your family is kind enough to bring you. They sell tools for cooking that food. And there begins the quite common absurdity of prison life. They sell plastic hot pots, for a total of $18. I've spent probably $180 on hot pots over 10 years, because here's the problem. The hot pots have little thermostats in them that prevent them from boiling water. So, you can never get a properly hot cup of coffee and as for the spaghetti and rice that they sell you in the commissary. I have no idea how you would cook it unless you work then you're hotpot. So, within the first couple of months, I had guys teach me how to rig the pots and rigging them was not just the question of successfully getting that thermostat to stop bothering you, but to do it invisibly, because once the correctional officers, the guards, if they saw any alteration in the hotpot, they would take it away from you. And they could write you a ticket, you could be locked inside for 30 days just for having changed the thermostat on your hotpot. So, you had to do it cleverly enough so that that couldn't be seen

CK: And one of the classics of prison cuisine is jack Mac, I guess. (Yes) And what is that?

DG: When when you read about prisoner when you talk to prisoners about dishes that they really enjoyed or remember, almost always you hear about Jack Mac and that's because mackerel in a can is one of the cheapest sources of protein and prisoners have. I've never actually seen this stuff eaten in the real world. Although I have seen in 99 cent stores the same cans of mackerel, but I cannot imagine anybody in the free world eating this because the mackerel that comes out of the can has its skin still on it. Now fish skin is not you know, a bad thing. You know, I love salmon skin for example. But this skin is the macro has been boiled in brine, and also its spine has been left in as well as some of the innards. So, the liquid it's sitting in and the slime around it makes it a really unpleasant looking thing. But it is nevertheless a hunk of fish that you can fry. And that's why guys are into Jack Mac, because they know how to very gently take the skin off of the Jack Mac, remove the entrails and leave clean filets of white fish. They're the size of maybe three thumbs put together and they're battered by usually one of the best batters was broken up cereal, and we would use mayonnaise to derive oil. So, to get oil, you either have to freeze mayonnaise by putting it out on your window in the winter, or you boil the mayonnaise in the summer. Both processes will cause the mayonnaise to divide, and you can pour off the oil and then fry your battered fish. I mean, it's already cooked. So, you don't really need to fry it, but it tastes a lot better. And a serving it, you know, some guys would actually make a business out of this, they'd buy cans of Jack Mac, which were about $1 each, and they would fry the jack Mack all day in there to make little portions of it, which they would then sell for one pack of cigarettes. And and they did pretty good. But those guys they smelled like fried fish always. I mean, even if they weren't cooking that day, they still smelled like it. They just couldn't wash it out of yourself after a while.

CK: So, when you're frying the Jack Mac, what's the heat supply? How do you create a stove top?

DG: So, when you're a serious cook, even the altered hot pot is not enough. What you need to do as a serious cook is to build what's called an eye. An eye is the inner coil of the hotpot removed and mounted on a metal can and wired directly so can be plugged right into an outlet. And 60 seconds later, it's red hot, and you can put a metal dish on it and fry.

CK: So, you are also able to make dumplings, ____ pork rinds? How did you do all of that?

DG: So, what's interesting is that flour is hard to come by. So, there's a method for making both Asian style dumplings, which we used to make with a corned beef filling. Because corned beef can come in cans and Caribbean style dumplings, which have no fillings but are deep fried. So, the way to make the dough is by taking a bag of really cheap macaroni, we used to have 99 cents, two-pound bags that came from Egypt, and you would soak the macaroni overnight. And then in the morning, it would be very tedious work, but you would mush and mush and squeeze the water out until you made a paste out of it. And then you can roll that. And you know it never really stuck together too great the way real dough would. But it worked. It tasted like boiled dough when you made your dumplings.

CK: So, you spent a lot of time cooking all sorts of interesting food. You obviously took a risk doing that, I guess a lot of energy was that because food was central to your mental well-being in prison or some other reason?

DG: Chris, we all risk getting box sentences and getting our stuff taken away, and maybe getting beat up by the cops just to get us a decent meal. And you might think that that's pretty frivolous of a person to do all that to risk going into the box where you can be driven crazy, just to have a dumpling. But I'll tell you taste is one of the real ways you can travel through time and go home for a moment. And when I when I ate something like I had a Korean friend make me lo main once and it tasted just like Chinese takeout. And when you eat something like that you're not in prison for that moment.

CK: Daniel, thank you so much. It's been it's just been a real honor and pleasure having you on the Milk Street.

DG: Thank you for having me.

CK: That was writer Daniel Genis. You can read his article, The Fine Art of Cooking in Prison@thrillist.com. This is Milk Street Radio. It's time to chat with Lynn Clark about this week's recipe. Chicken fricassee with tomatoes, potatoes, and carrots. Lynn, how are you?

Lynn Clark: I'm great Chris

CK: One of the dishes I love are chicken fricassee because it's a stovetop it's in a skillet. You can vary the different components with what's on hand. But it's one of those dishes that I don't think people make as much as they should. We found a great version from San Juan, a chef called Jose Santaella. His book is Cocina Tropical. He also has a restaurant there. It's pretty standard, but it has just wonderful flavors and it's just a wonderful template for creating your own fricassee at home.
LC: That's right, this is not Julia Child's Chicken fricassee This is a very Latin American chicken fricassee and you can't really talk about Puerto Rican food especially without talking about a sofrito which is kind of the basis of all of the cooking in Puerto Rico usually has onions, garlic, oregano, sometimes tomatoes, sometimes chilies, cilantro, smoked ham is often added and you would just make up a whole batch of that keep it in the refrigerator and then add a half a cup or a cup of that to start your chicken fricassee and that's what we're doing here. Jose also adds some bright acidic elements. So, there's some capers in there and some pimento stuffed green olives as well which adds a little bit of freshness to this. It's very rich with some bone in chicken thighs. So, it kind of cuts through that richness.

CK: So, as you said, potatoes, carrots, chicken, but it also has what for me is a surprise ingredient, a half cup of

LC: Rum. So, in addition to some wine, which is very common in chicken fricassee, he adds some rum it really adds a very different flavor profile to this, that kind of elevates the dish to something very different than what you would expect from a chicken fricassee.

CK: Well, thank you. I mean, this is a recipe chicken fricassee with tomatoes, potatoes, and carrots from Jose Santaella in San Juan, but it's one of those dishes you can customize and play with leftovers, whatever's in the fridge. And that's one reason we love it. Thank you, Lynn.

LC: You're welcome, Chris. You can get this recipe for chicken fricassee with tomatoes, potatoes and carrots at Milk Street Radio.com

CK: This is Milk Street Radio coming up. Dr. Aaron Carroll explains why coconut oil may not be as healthy as advertised. We'll be right back. I'm Christopher Kimball, you're listening to Milk Street Radio. Right now. Sara Moulton and I will be answering a few more of your cooking questions.

SM: Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: This is Doyle from Eugene, Oregon.

SM: Hi, Doyle. What is your question today?

Caller: For a number of years, I've been filling my freezer with burritos, and I eat them when I'm not feeling creative or just am too tired to make anything more complicated. And the meat burritos go really well. But this summer, the challenge I took up was to start making vegetable burritos. And the problem is the meat burritos assemble really easily but the vegetables have a bunch of ingredients, and they tend to fall all over the place. So, I've been looking for something that goes well with vegetables. That's kind of maybe the consistency of peanut butter a little bit thicker though that will let me roll them up and get a shape on them. So, I'm looking for creative ideas.

SM: Okay, okay. First of all, I love the way you say when you're not feeling creative. You go and eat a burrito from the freezer. But the fact of the matter is you made that burrito in the freezer. So, kudos to you. That's impressive.

Caller: Thank you.

SM: You know, a way to go is roasted vegetables that you puree. Years ago, I did some mushroom enchiladas. I call them enchiladas. They were burritos I got corrected. And I use portobello mushrooms and I'm married and and blind juice and garlic and stuff. But then I roasted them, but I also roasted on a tray some garlic cloves, some onions and some tomatoes, plum tomatoes. And then what happened was those vegetables the other three not the mushrooms got pureed. And then the whole thing got combined with the can of green chilies. A small can you know there's little tiny cans and that really held together pretty well. I'm also thinking tomato sauce. Of course, any you know, like you said peanut butter a peanut sauce, tahini sauce, but I have another idea. Again, it's a little bit of work, which is any vegetable when roasted and pureed can make a beautiful sauce. I made a sauce out of cauliflower for pasta because I was trying to do a sort of lower fat creamy sauce and it worked really well. I roasted the cauliflower then I just pureed it. That could be a lovely binder. I'm sure Chris has some ideas

CK: I have two words black beans. Ah, yeah, I mean that's you know, like a bean burrito. I mean black beans are perfect. You can buy them in a can I would you know essentially fry them in a skillet. You could use a whole bunch of chilies, or you know sauce Colorado or whatever you want. Garlic, onions you can season any way you like but I think canned black beans will be the basis of my.

SM: Maybe you might mash them a little bit though

CK: No, no, yeah, mash them but do it in a skillet with whatever kind of sofrito you want or chilies or spices and nice chilies like ____or ancho’s I mean things that are not spicy but have a lot of flavor. So, I think chilies and black beans would be my combination.

SM: Yeah, I like that

Caller: At the farmers market here we have people who sell wonderful varieties of mushrooms and wonderful varieties of peppers. So, oh my heavens. I'm getting hungry thinking about it.

SM: All right. Well, you're impressive.

CK: Yeah, I wish your freezer was in my house.

SM: Yeah, jeez. I like I'd like one of your burritos.

CK: I want to open my freezer up at six o'clock and see a bunch of burritos. Thanks for calling.

SM: Yes,

Caller: Thank you very much.

SM: Bye.

CK: Welcome to Milk Street Who's calling?

Caller: Oh, this is Annette ___ from Chicago.

CK: How can we help you?

Caller: I was watching this show. And they were making this fabulous looking seminoma ricotta cheesecake,

CK: semolina’s that very good

Caller: correct. And I don't know if it had some sugar, and I don't eat sugar. And so, I had written in to find out if I could make it with monk fruit sugar, which is a granulated sugar substitute. And no one knew and suggested I call in

CK: In general, in baking with batters and cakes, and those sorts of things, you don't want to mess with sugar because sugar traps water holds on to it does a lot of things chemically that if you use a substitute, you're going to get into trouble even if you use honey versus sugar. It's prom, right? However, in cheesecake is not that delicate. I think you could probably put any kind of sweetener in cheesecake, and it's not going to separate. It's just a bunch of cheese and eggs sitting there. I don't think it's going to be a problem.

Caller: I prefer not to eat any sugar. But if chemically it needed, you know if I needed to put a quarter cup,

CK: So, you could cut the sugar back, let's say by half, I don't think it's going to affect the recipe. Maybe the browning a little bit and then you could if you wanted, put some sort of sauce on top just to give a little more flavor that doesn't have a ton of sweetener in it. Or you could sweeten it with something else. I would just cut the sugar in half. Cut it in half for two thirds. Besides what you have cream cheese in it, which is already, you know, and eggs and other things,

Caller: right

CK: Yeah, I think that's fine. Yeah, Sara?

SM: I think that's good advice.

CK: It is worth making this recipe by the way. Yeah. Okay. But anyway cut it way back, it'll be fine. And if it's, if you need some more sweetener, just put a little fruit coolie on top.

Caller: Okay, great.

SM: All right.

CK: Thank you for calling. This is Milk Street Radio, Sara and I are here to solve your culinary mystery. So please give us a ring 855-426-9843 that's 855-426-9843 or email us at questions at Milk Street Radio.com. Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: My name is Zach from Seattle, Washington.

CK: How can we help you?

Caller: So, I bought a $100 bottle of vinegar. And it was amazing. It was more transcendent than I thought it could have been.

CK: Balsamic, right?

Caller: Yes. Obviously, unless I went a lot. I can't afford $100 bottle of vinegar on my table every night. What are some things I could look for for kind of middle the range balsamic vinegar?

CK: Well, first of all, I have to ask, what did you do with this $100 bottle of balsamic vinegar? How did you use it?

Caller: You know, like put it on a little bread with some butter. That alone was mind blowing and I'd use in kind of my everyday salads and mostly as a dressing, as a topping.

CK: Okay, well, I actually won a little tiny bottle years ago, from a tasting $150 it was a tiny bottle. And the only thing you should do with that is probably drizzle it on like strawberries or put it on ice cream or put it on shavings of chunks of Parmesan. I would not use it a dressing because you're going to not notice how great it is in the dressing. You could use a cheaper version of that. So, if you still have any left, it's a drizzling balsamic, just don't mix it with anything. And that stuff is aged at least 10 years. It's from Medina in Italy up in the north area. It probably says you know Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale on the bottle that has that stamp which certifies it's from that region. The next step down is less aging, right? So, it's two or three or four years of aging, if you're going to use it in a salad dressing, you know Sara may disagree, but white balsamic for me is really inexpensive, you can get it anywhere now, it's not as acidic as a typical red wine vinegar. And it's great in a salad dressing. So, I would go for something much less expensive for salad dressings. But if you want something that is special for drizzling you know three to five years of aging would be fine.

SM: d o p is the top tier that most age that Chris just talked about. And then next one down would be condimento which is still good quality balsamic but not quite as good. And so that would be what you'd be looking for on the label to get that next tier down. And then the third one is IGP which is a more affordable one that you can use every day in salad dressings, look for condimento or IGP you'll find something I think that works for your salad dressings and you know, that's what birthdays and holidays are for is to ask people to buy you that

CK: He’s going to be so disappointed though after the $100 bottle

SM: No get them to buy you another $100 bottle

CK: but I mean if he’s going to drizzle that as you said on bread with butter, you know you're not going to put white balsamic on bread and butter so

SM: But you could get a condimento red yeah

CK: Anyway, glad you had that experience it gets. Yeah, Christmas is coming up sometime.

SM: Yes. All right

CK: Zach, thanks for calling.

SM: Yes Zach

Caller: Thank you.

CK: Bye bye. This is Milk Street Radio. Now it's time for this week's cooking tip from one of our listeners.

Caller: My cooking tip for me is to use a cast iron pizza pan and put it on the floor of the oven to cook my chicken parm. That way it replicates a salamander in order to give us a finishing crust that is needed for chicken parm because no one likes soggy. chicken parm and then the restaurants they have salamander ovens that get up close to a very, very high temperature that home ovens simply don't have. So that's worked very well for me to get a nice chicken parm that is not soggy.

CK: If you'd like to share your own culinary hack or secret ingredient on Milk Street Radio, please go to 177 Milk Street com slash radio tips. Next up, it's time to hear from Dr. Aaron Carroll. Dr. Carroll how are you?

Aaron Carroll: I'm doing well. How are you?

CK: You got to tell me that something else I shouldn't be eating or or something I should be eating?

AC: Well. it's funny because I feel like I'm always just sort of trying to drive us to the middle. And in this case, I wanted to talk about coconut oil, not in the sense that I want to tell you never to consume it, but that it's not the health food that everybody seems to think it is these days,

CK: Well can I ask you a question about that? I guess I do have coconut oil in my pantry. How did it become a health choice in terms of oils?

AC: It's always hard to pin these kinds of things down. But sometimes it becomes something that either you know, someone who's was influential in the sort of food or videos, starts talking about there's YouTube videos with lectures that have you know, a million views where where people extol the benefits or or go against it and say the coconut oil is pure poison. Coconut oil for some reason, I think really took off, especially with some people on the Keto diet craze, really trying to push some you know, when they talk about bullet coffee, or trying to put extra fats into foods, coconut oil seems to have become one of the oils of choice. People argue that it has all these antioxidants, and that it has all of these other benefits to it that can really help you. And it's it's not as if i think it's it's you know, terrible. Others will tell you it's terrible. And they'll point to the fact that coconut oil is is massively full of saturated fats. Now, I think sometimes the case against fats in general and saturated fats gets overblown. But having said that, I wouldn't go so far as to say that, you know, eating something, which is pure saturated fat in large amounts is good for you. You know, using butter using oils, these are things that you should use to properly prepare food to cook it well, even to flavor it in a variety of ways. But but we shouldn't start going cart launch and feeling that you know, putting as much coconut oil in our diet is going to be something that's really beneficial.

CK: The downside of coconut oil is it has a lot of saturated fat in it is that the only thing or are there other issues?

AC: On the harm side, that's what people would point to people also argue that, you know, it contains a fair amount of medium chain triglycerides or MCT's. And there have been studies that show that people who eat oils that contain more MCT’s have lost more weight than control groups say who ate more olive oil. But even off of that, I would hesitate to say that the studies that have been done, would really single out and say that this is something you should do, because it's going to help you lose weight. In general, trying to change any one nutrient in order to lose weight rarely works. So, you know, buying sort of extra virgin cold pressed coconut oil and starting to put it in everything you consume. It would be like doing the same thing with butter. You would never really think that the latter is something healthy that you would do but for some reason with coconut oil people do.

CK: Is there a difference from a scientific point of view or physiological point of view between animal fats, milk fats and vegetable fats?

AC: Well, most vegetable fats tend to be unsaturated. You can think of it in general that saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature and unsaturated fats tend to be more liquid. So, most of the vegetable oils, olive oils, canola oils, those are liquid, they're more likely to be unsaturated things like butter, animal fat, and even, you know, coconut oil will often be solid at room temperature. Coconut oil is one of the vegetable ones, which is more like an animal fat.

CK: My sister tells me I should be taking two or three tablespoons of Evo extra virgin olive oil. Okay. And I, I ask why? And I get a very murky answer. So, I'm going to ask you. So, is this a good idea or bad idea?

AC: So sometimes I've heard people do this because they're trying to address constipation or something like that. And I still would say, that’s not the way I would go about it. But for my health standpoint, benefit, no, there's really no reason to do it. She also could be thinking that perhaps it would satiate you. You know, some people have found that more fat in their diet does lead them to feel fuller. It's one of the big arguments of a Keto diet is that you know, if you really go with a low-fat diet, you wind up being hungry all the time and you wind up over consuming, but again, usually a well-balanced diet is going to be better for you almost any day of the week.

CK: Doctor Carroll another promise health food down the drain. Thank you very much.

AC: Always a pleasure.

CK: That was Dr. Aaron Carroll. He's the professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine and also a regular contributor to The New York Times Upshot column. That's it for this week's show. If you tuned in to later want to binge listen every single episode, you can download Milk Street Radio, on Apple podcast Spotify, wherever you find your podcast. To learn more about Milk Street, please go to 177 milk street comm there you can find recipes take a free online cooking course or order our latest cookbook which is Tuesday Night's Mediterranean. You can also find us on Facebook at Christopher Kimball's milk straight on Instagram and Twitter at 177 Milk Street. We'll be back next week with more food stories and thanks as always for listening.

Christopher Kimball's Milk Street radio is produced by Milk Street in association with GBH, executive producer Melissa Baldino, senior audio editor Melissa Allison, producer Sarah Clapp and Jason Turetsky. production assistant, Amelia McGuire, and production help from Debby Paddock, additional editing by Sidney Lewis, audio mixing by Jay Allison at Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The music is by Toubab Krewe. Additional music by George Brandl Egloff. Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio is distributed by PRX.