Christopher Kimball: This is Milk Street Radio from PRX. I'm your host Christopher Kimball. With over a million subscribers on Tick Tock Alexis Nikole Nelson has turned her lifelong foraging hobby into viral entertainment. In her videos, she sings about the right way to eat a cat tail, and she hunts for mushrooms in the parks around her home in Columbus, Ohio. Today, she joins us to impart some of her foraging wisdom, including how do you see weed to make panna cotta?
Alexis Nelson: Yeah, I got a cooler of a cooler of seawater and seaweed home from Maine to Ohio. So, then I could use the seawater for pickling and the Irish Moss to set a panna cotta it works. It was very good panna cotta.
CK: Also coming up we recreate a 19th century recipe for flourless Italian chocolate cake. And j Kenji Lopez Alt reveals the science behind crispy French fries. But first, it's my interview with Kevin Fortey. He's the unofficial spokesperson for the giant vegetable movement, a subculture of gardeners who treat growing oversized produce like a sport. Kevin Welcome to Milk Street.
Kevin Fortey: Yeah. Hi, Chris. Thanks for having me.
CK: Or should I call you Mr. Giant Veggie. The other way of referring to you so but you have a sense of humor to you once paraded a giant cucumber around the serpentine in Hyde Park pedalo for a Japanese TV channel. So, I guess for some people, it's deadly serious to competition, but you have some fun with it.
KF: Yeah, we've got loads of ideas and try trying to get that giant cucumber through the tube without anybody noticing was with something else.
CK: So, your father's started some of these giant vegetable competitions, right? Is that how some of this got started?
KF: Yeah, so my dad started off the concept of giant vegetable growing in the early 80s in a pub in Cumbria in South Wales, and it was essentially just over a pint and a bit of banter with the pub goers. And after one season, they decided to have a pumpkin ___ contest. And what what happened then is literally the pumpkins couldn't get through the pub doors, they had to get a bigger venue.
CK: So, one of the things I noticed in doing a little research is, it wasn't too long ago, when 200-pound pumpkins might win a competition and today we're talking, you know, pumpkin is getting close to being a ton, you know almost 2000 pounds. So, what are some of the techniques that have driven the giant veggie community to go from a few 100 pounds to over 1500 pounds in some of these items?
KF: Yeah, I think that's more about the genetics and the sharing of ideas and seed sharing throughout the world. Records are being broken all the time and vegetables are getting, you know, even bigger, and it's more of a challenge each year to to try and get those prices in the shows. We've had three world records, you know, short growing career well it's getting longer as I get older, but we've grown the world's heaviest beetroot, which weighed just over 53 pounds. And for us that seed took seven years to develop.
CK: What are some other world records right now?
KF: Yeah, so we've grown you know the UK’s biggest zucchini, which was just over 203 pounds. We've had the world's longest radish it wouldn't be any good for cooking but it probably be good for flossing. But that measured just over 2.2 meters long. We've also had the world record for the heaviest chili pepper as well. And every year we’re trying to secure Guinness World Records as a family. And if you do come across a heavy vegetable then you get your place on the record books and your place in history.
CK: Let's talk about the competitions you mentioned occasionally there's cheating you say men can lose their morals when trying to grow the girthiest marrow in the room. I guess one guy years ago, tried to pass off a shop bought cantaloupe. And he got caught because the residue from the price sticker gave them away. So, it's kind of amusing and onion filled with putty. Carrots with orange floor polish to disguise the fact their rotten. Injecting with water I would think would be a pretty common, I mean, if you're going to cheat that would be the obvious thing to do just add weight through water.
KF: Yeah. So back in the early 90’s there was a grower who allegedly pumped his pumpkin full of water. What my ethos really is, if you're going to cheat, you're only cheating yourself. And if you haven't grown it, then why cheat yourself.
CK: So, do you have to build platforms while let's say a giant pumpkins growing? I mean, what are some of the other techniques you've developed?
KF: Yeah, so some of the pumpkin growers will grow on pallets. They'll grow on huge bags of sand. Our marrows our zucchinis are wrapped in duvets they've been shielded from the sun with fishing umbrellas. Some of the other things are bras for giant tomatoes. The bigger the better. And tights, you know, ladies’ tights are used for suspending cucumbers in so, they don't fall off the vine.
CK: So, your garden, you have, you know, undergarments, you have platforms, you have bags of sand, it must be kind of a wild looking place.
KF: Yeah, it's it's quite unique.
CK: You must have I mean, everybody in this competition has their secret formula for feeding plants, right?
KF: I think giant vegetable growing used to be quite a secretive sport and I call it a sport because we're all like any sport, you know, we're trying to be the best in our game. I don't think there's many secrets anymore because they're all on our large vegetable community Facebook page, because years ago used to be seen as a hobby. And the community really is one that helps and supports and grows it’s really intergenerational. So, we've got youngsters on there, we've got some of the old guys who are imparting their knowledge and wisdom.
CK: Okay, so you have a 2000-pound pumpkin or a giant cabbage. Do people eat these? Do they just rot? What happens?
KF: Yeah, a lot of the vegetables that are grown are perfectly edible. So, we collaborated last year with a chili grower and developed a chili sauce with the world's largest beetroot and the giant cabbage that went to a show in Aberglasney Gardens down in in West Wales. That cabbage there went to the school were fed over 1000 school kids and the school children learns the math lesson, a science lesson and also a cookery lesson. It just shows you potentially how the vegetable’s can be eaten. Some of the the US guys have told us about making zucchini bread, so I'd love to try and get some recipes from you, Chris on that if you're able to share those.
CK: I’ve got to tell you my worst nightmare is someone shows up with a 300-pound zucchini who wants to make zucchini bread. I'm sorry, I just can't. You know, I can do zucchini bread once a year, but 500 loaves of zucchini bread might be a bit much but but if you want recipes will help you, Kevin, it's been a pleasure and good luck on this season's competitions.
KF: Thanks for your time, Chris. Thanks for having me.
CK: That was giant vegetable grower Kevin Fortey. Now it's time for my co-host Sara Moulton and I to answer some of your cooking questions. Sara is of course the author of Home Cooking 101 and star of Sara's Weeknight Meals on public television. Hi, Sara.
Sara Moulton: Hello Chris.
CK: I've said on this program many times my favorite cocktail’s the old fashioned. I know you have a glass of wine while cooking dinner. Do you have let's say warm weather cocktail? Do you change up cocktails for the summer versus the winter, or you don't drink cocktails. You just drink wine. What?
SM: Oh, well. I maybe switch more heavily to Rose. But I'll tell you the one cocktail I will break for that I love is a margarita. And I like also when it's spicy around the edge. That's absolutely my all-time favorite. Yeah, with fresh lime juice. I mean I'm horrified. I won't say who it was who came over to make you know big batch of margaritas and they brought that bottled lime juice. And I was like nooo you know there's so few ingredients you have to use the fresh stuff, but it's margaritas I love them.
CK: So, with all your friends trading they'll aperitif never stuck with you?
SM: No, you know maybe way back when I did work in France briefly, I fell in love with the Kir you know the cassis with dry white wine, yeah, but no, no actually not and for a very brief period when I worked at a local restaurant here The Harvest I was into Lillet and then they do the orange peel where they'd run the match underneath it and then that was pretty yummy. But again, I'm I'm not a fan of sugar, although wine is a sugar just doesn't taste sweet. So that's why I think I'm not a big cocktail person.
CK: I think the idea of the aperitif which is a low alcohol (yeah) sort of appetite inducing, (right) five o'clock between work and play. That very nice light, refreshing, slightly alcoholic drink. I think that's a great, great thing.
SM: Yeah, actually, I do agree. Maybe I'll have to check it out. Thank you.
CK: Alright, so it's rose for you and its gin for me in the summer. There we are. (Okay) let's take your call.
SM: Welcome to Milk Street. Who's calling?
Caller: This is Jackie calling from San Clemente, California.
SM: Hi Jackie. How can we help you today?
Caller: I make Australian meat pies. About three or four times throughout the year I make batches of 70 to 80 pies, and these are like hand hand pies like five-inch pie tins and trying to make it easier when I do these. So, the last couple of years have been trying to make like, four or five batches at a time. And every time I do that, I lose the flavor. Is it even worth trying, or should I just do batch by batch?
SM: First of all, let's just define what an Australian meat pie is. They're filled with, isn't it usually a ground meat mixture?
Caller: Yeah, some of ground. There are all different varieties of meat, but I typically use chuck steak. It's basically like a stew wrapped in puff pastry.
SM: I would say this is a trial-and-error situation.
Caller: The three times that I've tried it, I've written down what I don't get out of it. I crush up fresh peppercorns. I crush the coriander seed, I crush the celery seed myself in a mortar and pestle. But when I made it in the big batch, I think I did it by four batches. It tasted blander than what it should. In the pot that I was using, which was big. And maybe that's got something to do with it. I found the meat dried out a lot more, it wasn't as tender.
SM: If you're using a wider pot for sure it's going to dry out faster because the liquid is evaporating faster. Do you cook it at a bare simmer covered?
Caller: Yes, I do the onion first and the garlic and then oh, I put the meat, run it through some flour. And then I braise that if you will, and then add all the spices and then the stock and the soy. And then I leave it on a simmer. So, my gosh, most of the day about four or five hours.
SM: Oh, that might be the problem right there is cooking too long,
CK: I would do it totally differently. I think I would use a page out of like an Italian stew. I would not brown the meat. I would not flour the meat. I do your sofrito your onions, whatever right? Put the meat in right but a small amount of liquid and get it up to simmer put the top on, throw it in a 350 oven for like an hour, and then take the top off. So, you’re really braising it. Some of the meat will not be submerged, it'll brown nicely cook it until the meat is tender. I'll be do an hour in a 350 oven take the top off. If you need to add more liquid at that time, you could add more liquid, but that'll concentrate the flavors. (Yeah) and I would leave the spices you know if you double or triple the spices do that again, they’re a lot of things you can add at the end right to punch up the flavor. You can add acid like lemon juice or vinegar. You can add fresh garlic or ginger you can add a little more soy sauce. Adjust the flavor at the end
Caller: Before I put it into the pastry to bake. If I don't do the flour, how do I get that, like bloggy gravy?
CK: You can do the flour on the meat or you can add flour to the onions when you cook the onions as a base.
Caller: Oh, I see
CK: Then add the meat in the liquid.
SM: You've always used the same kind of chuck?
Caller: Always yeah,
SM: I was wondering if it might have something to do with the fat content too. But that's constant.
Caller: You know, I cut the fat off.
SM: Oh, let me make another suggestion. Cook it with the fat on. But make sure you never let it boil and then when it's done cool it the fat will go to the top you can skim it off,
SM: Fat is a conductor of flavor.
Caller: Okay. All right. That was awesome. I appreciate that. Thank you so much
CK: Take care Jackie.
Caller: Okay, bye. Bye.
SM: Bye. Bye.
CK: Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?
Caller: Hi, this is Hannah ___ from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
CK: How can we help you?
Caller: I feel like I'm a pretty good cook. Like, when I have a recipe and things go well, the flavors are good. But when things go wrong in the kitchen, I just feel like my intuition is really bad. An example of this was recently I had some friends over. And I was making pizza and it had asked for like a low moisture, mozzarella and one of my friends accidently brought like, regular fresh mozzarella. And instead of thinking it over, I made this pizza. And we basically ended up with poached pizza. I had heard you had mentioned maybe sticking to 12 recipes, but I love cooking lots of different things. So how can I improve my intuition?
CK: What I do in the kitchen is when I'm confronted with that, I step away, I'll actually leave the kitchen sometimes and walk around and come back. Because my first thought is always the wrong thing. You know, I see something going wrong. I go Okay, I'll do this. And then if I take in 10 seconds to think I would have made a better choice, not to get too personal. But does this only happen to you in the kitchen or when you're confronted with a decision does this happen a lot outside of cooking?
Caller: I am a classical musician. And I feel like most of what I do is I have to see what's on a page and translate it into sound that's musical. And so, I feel like it's one of those things where it's happening in the moment, and you do have to make a split decision. Like if something goes wrong,
CK: Right, what instrument do you play?
Caller: I play trombone.
CK: So, you're playing are their times when things go wrong? Or you have to make a split decision in a performance?
Caller: Oh, oh absolutely. So, let's say somebody plays something that you're not expecting, like maybe somebody else makes an error. And then you have to decide, do I go with that person, or do I go with the rest of the group? You know when in doubt, layout is usually my. So that actually matches what you said about cooking as well.
CK: Well, okay, here's my suggestion when that happens, walk to the front door of your house and back to the kitchen, and then then make a decision. I'm serious actually, I just find 10 or 15 seconds, makes all the difference. And I've trained myself to do that sometimes not all the times. Sarah, do you have advice you seem younger, a more thoughtful person than I am?
SM: Well, let me just first start by saying some of the best things we have in food were mistakes. Julia Child used to say never apologize, never explain, just sort of reposition. And nothing is irretrievable unless you burn it.
CK: Julia's first choice is don't fix it. Just restate it,
SM: Reposition it. So, if your souffle falls call it pudding cake.
CK: You know, the other thing I will leave you with is, you know, I've cooked a lot of bad food in my time. No one remembers 24 hours later. And that's the great thing about food. It just disappears from the memory. And so, unlike a piece of art. So, you know, when I've served something that just wasn't very good. I just didn't worry about it. Because I knew two days later, nobody's going to remember. So, you know, pause for five seconds, we'll pause for 10 seconds.
Caller: Thank you so much.
CK: Yeah, and thanks for the information about the trombones too. That was great.
SM: That was interesting bye.
CK: This is Milk Street Radio. If you need a hand in the kitchen, give us a ring anytime. 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: Pam Silka.
CK: How can we help you?
Caller: I am trying to figure out how to do a recipe that I remember from my childhood. My sister's 60th birthday is coming up. And it's actually her favorite cookie, the hermit cookie, not a bar, but we got at a bakery on Cape Cod. And I remember it very particularly as being very chewy and brown with raisins, but it had kind of like a brownie top.
CK: Now the regular hermits tend to be a little on the cakey side, and they're bar cookies.
Caller: This is not like a bar cookie. It's a little more like a brownie cookie, but there's definitely no chocolate.
CK: Yeah, I think probably to get a different texture. It depends on how you deal with the butter and the eggs and the sugar about whether you whip them together or you melt them.
CK: So, my guess is the regular hermit's that I have made too deal with that very differently. And these maybe use more melted ingredients like melted butter, for example. So instead of taking butter and sugar and whisking it until it gets very light, you probably melt the butter. And that's how you get a moister cookie with a shiny top more like a chocolate drop cookie.
Caller: So, would you blend the sugar and the butter kind of like a brownie and beat the butter and sugar to ribbon stage.
CK: I think I put the dry ingredients in a bowl, you know with the eggs and sugar, and you know in a mixer, and then I would add melted butter and then fold in the dry ingredients. That's what I would do.
CK: Melting butter is what's going to give you what you want versus you know, beating the butter right Sara?
SM: Don't you think it also has something to do with beating the eggs and sugar and getting some volume there.
Caller: That was my thought and that's what I tried. But the recipes that I've found so far only have one or two eggs and I couldn't get the volume with only one or two eggs.
CK: It's also a matter of sugar too, right? Because the more sugar that's in it the moister it can be. So, my guess is they're higher sugar than a regular hermit because they're regular hermits not as sweet. I would think also. Does this have molasses in it?
CK: Take a recipe for hermit melt the butter. That's the first change I would make is to melt the butter.
SM: But I would also up the eggs and beat the eggs and the sugar and the molasses together till they're thick and creamy. I would do that.
Caller: Okay add the molasses there. (Yeah) I do make a brownie cookie that you add white sugar to the eggs. Would brown sugar act the same way because my inclination is to use brown sugar.
SM: I would use white sugar and also molasses.
CK: If you have molasses you don't have to worry about the brown sugar.
SM: Yeah, because really brown brown sugars is nothing more than granulated sugar with molasses in it.
Caller: Okay. Oh, that's a lot,
SM: but you want the straight molasses taste anyway. I think it's both. I think it's both what Chris said and also the beating of the eggs in the sugar.
CK: Best of luck.
SM: Okay, Pam, we're rooting for you. Good luck
Caller: Bye bye.
CK: You're listening to Milk Street Radio. Up next, we go foraging with Alexis Nikole Nelson. That's right up after the break. This is Milk Street Radio. I'm your host Christopher Kimball. Right now, it's my interview with foragers and tick tock star Alexis Nikole Nelson, also known online by the username black forager. Alexis, welcome to Milk Street.
AN: Oh my gosh. Thank you for having me, Chris. I'm so excited to be here.
CK: I've always wanted to forage. I do ramps by the way.
AN: Oh, very proud of you look at you and your Allium trichomes.
CK: That sounds like some of you wear
AN: Or a Harry Potter spell.
CK: Yeah, or that. So, before we get to the plants, and how to cook them and what to do with them. What is the deal in terms of being able to forage in national parks, in city parks I guess the rules and regulations are all over the place right now?
AN: Oh, they vary so much. Even within park systems the rules vary a great deal. I know here in Columbus, you can't forage in the metro parks, you can't forage and most of the city parks, except one Metro Park has like a hunting area where you're allowed to forage but then it's like, ooh, what if someone thinks I'm a turkey, are these ramps worth it? I don't know. It's a lot of like very unsexy research that you have to do before you get to be like the cool kid with your pants tucked into your socks, just pulling things out of the ground.
CK: So, they’re two sides of this one is you want to conserve the parks. If you had 1000s of people running around digging stuff up. That would be problematic.
AN: Oh yes
CK: How do you balance not destroying the parks with too many people digging stuff up versus having the opportunity to to forage if you live in a city?
AN: Absolutely. It is all about being what I like to call future minded with your foraging. It's about taking a step back and asking yourself if I do this and say a handful of other people forage this in the exact same manner that I am, well, someone 10 years from now 50 years from now still get the opportunity to do exactly what it is that I'm doing. And of course, there are exceptions to those rules, because we have a lot of invasive and naturalized species. And I mean, oh my god, those guys pull them up.
CK: And then on the flip side of that are like ginseng, which would be like the top of the pyramid, right?
AN: oh my gosh, yeah, exactly. I know here in Ohio one of the only places I know you can gather it is down in Wayne National Forest, and you have to have a permit. Now I know there are a lot of rule breakers. I know because they're all in the same Facebook group.
CK: Are you about to sing?
AN: I did sing a little bit. It's usually when I'm talking about something a little uncomfy I feel like singing makes it a bit better. It's just like, yes, I do know of people doing illegal things because they post about it on Facebook.
CK: So, I've watched a lot of your videos, which I love, but you know, you're going like, well, this is dogbane, this is milkweed. Okay, I guess I see the difference. But you know, if you look down at the root, it's a little bit reddish and if you look at the leaves, the the spines of the leaves are different. How much experience do you need to really get the difference between let's say, a dogbane and a milkweed?
AN: Well, there are some plants in terms of look alikes that I think a beginner could absolutely get maybe something a little bit lower stakes like a young pawpaw sapling and a young spicebush very easy to key out and then you do have like milkweed versus dogbane. And then after that you have Queen Anne's lace and poison hemlock, where you have to go through a very specific checklist. The entire carrot family is just full of hooligans. Some of my favorite foraged foods and also just a ton of things that are out here trying to hurt you but there are so many plants that do not have lookalikes that I don't think you have to have all of this like botany knowledge right off the bat to start foraging.
CK: How much of foraging goes back to being medicinal? I know a lot of people think about wild plants primarily as medicine, was that very much part of the history of this?
AN: Oh, I think so much of the history of foraging and so much of what foraging still is for a lot of people does link back to health and does kind of link back to this idea that 1000s and 1000s and 1000s and 1000s of years ago, before agriculture was really established globally humans did have this constantly rotating diet of things coming in and out of season, pretty much with like each passing week, and a kind of feeling that eating that way and having that kind of variety helps health wise. I have my like handful of plants that I love for what they do medically, but for me, I just really like food. I love food. I love the constant variety that foraging brings into the kitchen. And I love the connection to place that you have to foster to kind of be a foraging cook.
CK: You talked about the best meal you've made with chicken of the woods or hen of the woods mushrooms. You also mentioned you you dehydrate them make jerky.
AN: Oh yeah. I love mushroom jerky.
CK: Do you use any seasonings with that like you would with meat jerky?
AN: Oh, absolutely. Otherwise, it's just going to taste like a hunk of forest. So, I used wild grape vinegar that I made myself a little bit of soy sauce, a little bit of olive oil. And then just a ton of forage spices some bladderwrack seaweed salt, which I put on like everything savory that I make, some spicebush berries, which are just like a little Midwestern delicacy. And it was so good.
CK: But what about some of the odd, odd in in the best possible sense plants? I mean, Irish Moss I I ran into in Jamaica, you have a video about it. Could you just describe where you got it and what it does?
AN: Absolutely. So Irish Moss is chondrus crispus for anyone who's getting down with the binomial nomenclature. It just washes up on the beach a ton. And historically, it has been used to thicken a lot of milk-based desserts because it has carageenan in it and it's a really good thickener when it is exposed to protein. And I thought it would be really fun to make a panna cotta with it. And yeah, I got it off the coast of Maine took a cooler of, a cooler of seawater and seaweed home from Maine to Ohio. So, then I could use the seawater for pickling. And then I could use bladderwrack seaweed as a spice and use the Irish Moss to set a panna cotta it works. It was very good panna cotta
CK: Were people staring at you on the beach while you were harvesting the Irish moss?
AN: We went on a rainy day specifically so that wouldn’t happen
CK: Now what about cattails? What, I saw you did have a video of cattails. What do you do with cattails?
AN: Oh, what don't you do with cattails? I'm just going to turn into a cattail commercial. They call them the supermarket of the swamp for a reason. So, during the winter when not a whole lot else is going on you can go and dig up the rhizomes, they're very starchy, so you can cook them up like you do with your your other starchy, more tuberous veggies this time of year they are sending up shoots, and so you can pull those shoots out and eat the cattail hearts. I think they taste a lot like sweet corn so I will make like little cattail fritters like you would make corn fritters and then before the first hot dog turns brown. The kids on Tik Tok hate this they want to eat it when it's brown. You can't you have to harvest it when it's still green. If you eat the first hot dog when it is brown, all of those compacted seeds are just going to just get into your mouth, and it will not be a pleasant experience. Don't do it. This has been a PSA.
CK: What about weird names? Hairy bittercress? What's hairy bittercress?
AN: Hairy bittercress is cardamine hirsuta. and I hate the name hairy bittercress because it is not a hairy green and I think it is phenomenal. Makes a great pesto I want to talk to who is naming the plants. Please bring them to me. I promise it'll just be a conversation, but I would like to talk to them.
CK: I think it's going to have to be a 19th century graveyard. That's where you're going to have to go for that
AN: Bring on the seance.
CK: Light a candle, hold hands and you can sing. So, okay, I walk out my backyard. Let's assume I live in suburbia but I have a little bit of wildness going on somewhere I haven't mowed over. Dandelions. What else is likely to be out there, they're the most common things people could forage for?
AN: So, I would say if you were trying to do some lawn foraging, there are a lot of plants that we've given this banner, title of weeds, your dandelions, your garlic mustards, you're creeping Charlie's and your pokes. I know golden rod is coming up on the edges of a lot of people's yards right now and I think they are delicious. It's free food growing in your yard. And you're just going to go ahead and spray Roundup on them.
CK: So, I should bring you to Vermont, because we have acres of goldenrod in August and they are considered weeds. I mean everyone wants to get rid of goldenrod
AN: Which I think is insane. One they're beautiful. Two, the pollinators love them. Three, they make a killer tea I know tea isn’t exciting. The children get very mad when they're like, why is everything that you're making right now a tea in the middle of winter? And I'm like, I don't know if you've noticed Billy, but everything outside is dead.
CK: I mean, when you say children, you're referring to your Tik Tok followers?
AN: To my Tik Tok followers, which honestly, the average age is not that much younger than me, I really have to stop calling them children.
CK: So practically speaking, when people watch your Tik Tok videos, which are incredibly entertaining, do you expect people to go out and forage? What do you hope is the result from all of this?
AN: My hope is that after watching my videos, they go for a walk in their neighborhood. And even if they don't necessarily see the plant that I was talking about, they start noticing different plants. I have a lot of New Yorkers who are just like my world isn't fanciful and magical, like yours in Ohio. I'm a New Yorker. And I'm just like, have you been to the northeast corner of Central Park? Have you seen the sumac? Have you seen the blackberries?
CK: One of your fans wrote, because of you while I was out walking, I recognize this plant. And it made me feel like my neighborhood was a cooler and happier place. I think sort of brought me up short because I didn't think about forging as making you rethink the neighborhood you live in
AN: Yeah, I think. I mean, I always got a little emotional when people say that to me, because it does really help you develop a relationship with where you live. Sometimes I'll be like, oh, yeah, you're developing a relationship with a specific plant, and it feels a little a little hoochie poochie. But you do get to know the plants and kind of similar ways that you get to know people and like, you know, you learn to recognize a person when their hair is up and their hair is down, you learn to recognize a plant, how it looks in the springtime versus how it looks in the summer versus how it looks in the fall. Like I think, as you get to know a person, you know, you see, you see more value in them. And the more you get to know these plants, you also see more value in them, and you get more excited about them. And when you're more excited, your day is brighter, and your life is happier so the fact that I've done that for anybody mind blowing, fantastic. We can already chalk this up as a win.
CK: Alexis it’s been a great pleasure and I learned a bunch of stuff too. Thank you so much.
AN: Oh my gosh, thank you. This was so much fun.
CK: That was for forager Alexis Nicole Nelson. You're listening to Milk Street Radio. It's time to chat with Lynn Clark about this week's recipe. Italian flourless chocolate cake. Lynn, how are you?
Lynn Clark: I'm great. Chris.
CK: You know about a year and a half ago I was traveling in northern Italy in Bologna. And we traveled outside of Bologna and on one Sunday we had lunch at a small restaurant, ___ actually we had some lovely soup and some meat and some other things. But dessert was a chocolate one-layer chocolate torta called a torta barozzi and it really struck me because was simple, but I really loved the texture. It wasn't too dry. It wasn't too wet. It was chocolaty, but not overly so. It turns out, this is a dish, I guess, invented in the late 19th century, and made by a bakery in another town Vignola, not too far away. But it's one of those dishes that we don't know about here. But it's so simple and it's so good. It just seems like something that should be, you know, part of our repertoire, right?
LC: Exactly. This recipe from the source is a closely guarded secret. So, there are tons of kind of copycat or imposter recipes out there. So, we had to go on those and your memories to kind of create what we thought was the same delicious chocolate cake that you had in Italy. So, we start by melting butter, adding some chopped bittersweet chocolate, Dutch processed cocoa powder, and really important to use the Dutch process here sometimes we say either natural or Dutch process will work. here you want the Dutch process not just for the flavor, but also this is sometimes called torta Naira, which means black cake, and the Dutch process cocoa will make it nice and dark, just like that. And then a little bit of espresso powder, which we always use in chocolate desserts to really amp up that chocolate flavor. That just gets melted. Egg yolks and sugar are whisked together until lightened. Don't want to whisk it too much. We don't want to incorporate too much air. And then those two things just get combined and mixed together.
CK: But one thing that's interesting about this recipe is it calls for almond flour, right?
LC: It does. Actually, the original recipe we think has peanut flour and almond flour. But peanut flour is a little bit hard to come by around here. So, we wanted to see if we could make it work with just almond flour, which it worked great. So, we add almond flour, salt and some rum, which adds some nice spiced notes to the cake as well.
CK: So, this goes into what a moderate oven a typical eight-inch square pan?
LC: So, we found that we wanted to actually whip some egg whites as well to fold in there just to soft peaks kind of loosely fold it in just to give a little bit of lightness, so it wasn't so dense. And it actually goes into a square baking pan which was one of the things that I found kind of unusual I usually see these as a circle, or you know in a spring form but it's a square cake goes in the oven for about 30 to 40 minutes. And this is true of all chocolate desserts, but you just want to poke it with a toothpick and still have some sticky crumbs on there. You don't want that toothpick to be dry or it's going to be overcooked and the cake will be dry.
CK: That's right you know chocolate dessert should have some of the batter on the toothpick because it keeps cooking when it comes out.
CK: Also, when in the kitchen you start to smell chocolate. That's really a good indication that's probably just about done as well. Lynn, thank you very much. This is a simple chocolate recipe everybody should know Italian flourless chocolate torta made with almond flour. It's rich. It's simple. It's absolutely perfect. Thank you, Lynn.
LC: You're welcome. You can get this recipe for Italian flourless chocolate torta at Milk Street Radio.com.
CK: This is Milk Street Radio. Coming up J Kenji Lopez Alt delivers a lesson on spud science. We'll be right back. I'm Christopher Kimball and 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 is calling?
Caller: Kate from Des Moines, Iowa.
SM: How can we help you today?
Caller: My mom and I we enjoy watermelon salads. But the watermelon hasn't really been great. It's been kind of mushy and mealy and I have seen on a couple of different websites that you can firm up the texture of watermelon with an acid like a citrus or I would assume a mild vinegar. And I thought it might be something akin to pickling, but I don't really know I haven't seen it anywhere that I would trust like a cookbook or anything. It's just been on a couple of websites you're in there.
CK: Well, I guess you know, pickled watermelon rind is popular in Vermont so, I grew up with that. But if you're going to use this in a salad, a mushy watermelon’s a mushy watermelon, there's nothing you can do.
CK: Now the question, obviously is, are you buying watermelon in season when they're grown locally or are these being flown in from somewhere else?
Caller: See, that's part of the issue we’re kind of down to supermarkets watermelons, and the quality is going to be iffy at best.
CK: Yeah, I would definitely only do it with a good local watermelon. Because the stuff I won't mention store names but in some fancy stores, everything looks great, you know and then you taste it and realize like, I just had some carrots, my kids, we just cut up some carrots for them before dinner. And I put one on my mouth and spit it out because it was orange but that was about it. With a blindfold you I could never have told you what it was. One tip with fruit, especially watermelon is it should be very heavy, and you know, it should feel heavy and then it's going to be good. Same with like grapefruit. I go through a lot of grapefruit. You want the ones that they just feel heavy for their size. They don't feel light. That's just a buying tip. But for a salad I would do it at the end of summer when you have watermelons locally. I mean, Sara?
SM: Another question I had is I'm assuming that you buy it whole, right? You don't buy it cut?
Caller: Yes. I mean, it's always a big popular idea, but in practice, it just hasn't gone very well.
SM: When I used to have a show in the Food Network, we did a segment with the watermelon council. And they said one really important thing when you're buying a watermelon is to make sure there's a huge yellow spot somewhere on it. That's the side of the watermelon that was on the ground and didn't develop any chlorophyll because it wasn't exposed to the sun and that means it got to full ripeness so it should be heavy. It should have a yellow spot. You should buy it whole. I agree with Chris a mushy watermelon is a mushy watermelon, you know, turn it into a smoothie, make it into watermelon ice cubes, but I wouldn't use it in a salad.
CK: It's like don't make strawberry shortcake in February right?
SM: Right yeah.
CK: It's just not going to work out too well.
CK: Kate, thank you so much for calling.
SM: Yes, thank you.
Caller: Thank you.
CK: Take care.
Caller: You too.
CK: This is Milk Street Radio. If you're stuck in a cooking rut, give us a call our number is 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: Hey, this is Colin in Miami
CK: How can we help you?
Caller: A problem I've run into is sourcing an ingredient. I really enjoy eating braised boneless beef short ribs. But when I go to the store, I can't seem to find them. In fact, today I went to the store, I asked the butcher and he said we only get those occasionally. And it's not something we can order and pointed to me to leave short ribs with the bone in and I'm wondering, should I just buy those and cut the bones out which is a lot of work? Or is there something else I should be doing to get these things?
CK: Unfortunately, you stumbled into the most confusing cut of meat ever. Let’s start at the beginning. The chuck is the forecourt of the animal, and it contains the first five ribs then you get to the rib section, right and then you go down to the loin. Sometimes boneless short ribs are just the meat, sort of at the chuck end, the front end of the rib section. And they're not really ribs per se. They're just cut from all that extra meat that's sitting on top of the ribs. There's probably four or five ways to cut short ribs, some of which really are not ribs at all. So, what you're really looking for is a particularly fatty cut of meat, right? The point about short ribs is you cook them low and slow. They're incredibly meaty have great flavor, you can substitute something else, which has a tremendous amount of fat, like a chuck eye roast for example. You could almost take a cut from there as a boneless short rib because it's going to be very similar. But if you can't find boneless short rib that's what I would do. I would go to the butcher and ask him about chuck eye roast and ask if that's close because they can certainly find that Sarah?
SM: First of all, I wanted to ask you Collin, why don't you want to cook them on the bone?
Caller: I was just following recipes. For example, the pasta Genovese recipe and our recent issue of the magazine, which called for boneless beef short ribs.
SM: Well, okay, I got that but let me just say that if you cook them low and slow, the bone falls out anyway.
CK: I think in that recipe, which is lots of onions with short ribs, the way you prep the recipe the bones don't really work.
CK: You have to prep the meat ahead of time.
SM: I cook short ribs all the time, and I always cook them on the bone and last week I went to buy some, and I noticed they had something called boneless short ribs. I was like what the heck is that and he said it's a Denver steak. And I said, oh, where's that come from? He said the chuck, you know, pretty much like what Chris was just saying. I said, what's the difference? Why would you cook a Denver steak versus a short ribs? And he said, the short ribs on the bone tend to be fattier.
CK: That's why in the Genovese you you would not want bone in because all that fat is going to ruin the sauce, which then goes over pasta, a chuck eye roast would be my vote, because that would be about what you want.
Caller: If I do the option for the bone in, if the recipes by weight, I would need to go to a higher weight. So how much higher weight would I go with the bone?
CK: If you just want to make short ribs it's fine. But if short ribs are an ingredient in the sauce with lots of other things going in it and that extra fats going to be problematic. But to answer your question, which we didn't do, the bones are going to be about what 25%
SM: Yeah, that sounds about right. So, you'd need to order that much more.
Caller: All right.
CK: All right. Take care.
Caller: Thank you very much I appreciate it.
SM: Okay, bye bye
CK: Bye. This is Milk Street Radio. Now it's time for some culinary wisdom from one of our listeners.
Caller: Hi, my name is Kim. I'm calling you from Cincinnati, Ohio. I do a lot of cooking. And I have a lot of company at the same time. Sometimes when I'm preparing my dishes and because I'm right-handed. If I'm adding ingredients to a bowl, I put everything I've not used on the right side. Then as I've entered it into the bowl, I put the jar or container on the left side of the bowl, so that if I get caught up in conversations or questions from my kids, I don't get sidetracked and what I have and have not entered into the bowl. Enjoy Bon Appetit!
CK: By the way, if you'd like to share your own cooking tip on Milk Street Radio, please go to 177 Milk Street Com slash radio tips. Next up, its food science writer j Kenji Lopez Alt. Kenji, how are you?
Kenji Alt: I'm doing good. How are you?
CK You’re probably going to tell me I'm doing something wrong in the kitchen. But I'm a patient man. So go right ahead.
KA: Well, I thought we would talk about potatoes today. There was a test I was doing for mashed potatoes for Serious Eats a number of years ago and, you know, I was testing out boiling potatoes cut into different sizes. So, whether you boil them whole with the skin on cut them into chunks, and eventually I was getting to smaller, smaller pieces, and in my head was like, alright, so the smaller you cut it, the faster it's going to soften up, which is generally the case until you get to really sort of paper-thin slices that are sort of shredded on a box grater. And what I found then was, if you shred potatoes on a box grater or cutting paper thin on a mandolin, you can boil them for like 45 minutes, and they never soften, which I thought was really sort of fascinating. You know, I looked up a bunch of sort of research papers on this. And it turns out, there's a couple of reasons for this. The main one is that there's this thing called pectin ethylesterase, which is an enzyme that's released from potato cells. And when you have this enzyme plus calcium ions, what it does is it actually firms up pectin, you know, which is sort of the carbohydrate glue that holds plant cells together. But it'll actually firm it up so that it won't soften even when you boil it. And so, you know, this is actually quite useful in some situations. So, for example, the reason people soak their French fries, you cut your potatoes, and then you soak them in water, and you soak them and soak them, soak them. And what you're actually doing is, first of all, you're removing some of the starch so that they don't over brown, but you're also rinsing off this enzyme and some of the calcium ions so that what actually happens is that the exterior of those potatoes is a sort of a surface treatment, they stay firmer as they're frying. So, if you take potatoes and just fry them straight in oil, they'll come out a little soft, but if you rinse off the potatoes say overnight in clean water or just rinse them until the water runs clean and then fry them, they stay much firmer. You know, similarly for dishes like hash browns or, you know, in China and Korea, there's stir fried potato dishes, and you know, so what you do with those is you shred the potatoes and then you soak them in water to wash all the starch away and that way you can sort of stir fry them and even though they're fully cooked, they get this sort of crisp cucumber like texture. And that only works if you soak them and with American style hash browns you know one thing I realized after learning about this was that you know I go hunting every year at this cabin in Michigan. And we always make hash browns there and we use this well water so it is this really high mineral content well water and the hash browns are always coming out super crispy and really good. And so now I'm like after learning this, I realized the reason that was happening is because that well water is so full of calcium ions. So, if you have particularly soft water at home, you can either use some bottled mineral water to rinse or the other thing you can do is actually add a little bit of acid to it. So, a little bit of vinegar into the water will have a very similar effect on strengthening pectin, if you're making like latkes or hash browns or stir-fried potatoes, anything where you want your potato to sort of retain its texture, slicing it thin and then soaking it in hard water is the way to do it.
CK: So, let's go back to French fries. So, we're still learning maintaining soaking them after cutting them, or would you also add vinegar to the water?
KA: The way I do French fries, I actually do a sort of triple cooking process. And this is how I do my restaurant. It's a triple cooking process. So first we boil them with a little bit of vinegar in the water. And so that actually has a very similar effect, it firms up the exterior of the potatoes. So, you boil them a little bit of vinegar in the water and then you do the standard double fry process that gives you that sort of like glass like really crisp, smooth surface texture. If you want something like roast potatoes, you can do the opposite, and actually add a little bit of baking soda to the water when you boil them before you roast them. And what that does is it really breaks down the surface of potatoes faster than the interior does. So, you end up with this sort of like almost like mashed potato like slurry that coats the surface of the potatoes so that when you roasted them it gets a lot more texture, it adds a lot of sort of surface area because you have all that broken up matter that's coated on the outside of it. So, depending on what texture you want, you know, if you want sort of a crispy glass like structure, then you would do a little bit of vinegar. And if you want it to be crunchy and more surface area, then you would do a little bit of baking soda.
CK: Or just you know, buy a plane ticket to Michigan, and do your hash browns there.
KA: or hunt camp. Yeah,
CK: Kenji thank you. You've taken something simple a potato and made a complicated thanks.
KA: Its complicating things is my specialty. Thanks.
CK: That was J Kenji Lopez Alt. He’s the chief culinary consultant for Serious Eats. He's a food columnist for The Times and also author of the book, The Food Lab. If you tune in too late or just want to listen again. You can download and subscribe to Milk Street Radio on Apple podcast, Spotify, or wherever you find your podcasts. To learn more about Milk Street please go to 177 Milk Street com there you can download each week's recipe. Watch the latest season over TV show or order our latest cookbook Tuesday Night's Mediterranean you can also find us on Facebook at Christopher Kimball's Milk Street on Instagram and Twitter and 177 Milk Street. We'll be back next week 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. Theme Music by Toubab Krewe. Additional music by George Brandel Egloff. Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio is distributed by PRX