The Root Beer Hover

“Enis,” my Sous-Chef de Cuisine, Merrill, began the other day while we were deciding how many black truffles we could pack into a Rock Cornish hen, “I’ll bet you can’t find a way to improve upon the root beer float.”

Now this was a fair assertion as I’d previously challenged Merrill to innovate with the classic American hot dog—in fact, my staff tends to fill down-time with cook-offs or brainstorming sessions rather than the usual debauchery. Merrill’s hot dog solution had exhibited frank genius, so I took her challenge quite seriously and went to work. Ultimately, it was voted that my creation had to be disqualified for its name change, but the Root Beer Hover was otherwise well-received and continues to be a favorite on our kids’ menu.

A delicious Root Beer Hover

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Holiday Spice Cookies

Although the holidays are just behind us, we still face a few more winter months. Nothing’s better on these cold days than a warm cup of tea and a nice, spiced cookie. In this spirit, I’d like to share with you my great-great-grandmother’s recipe for Holiday Spice Cookies.

Holiday Spice Cookies

My grandmother, like her mother and her mother’s mother, had a peculiar penchant for lavender. Every day she would pluck a fresh spring from her garden and tuck it into a buttonhole on her yellow knit sweater. She always told us, as children, that her mother did the same; however, her mother’s sweater was more of a chartreuse than a pure yellow. Her mother’s mother had a blue knit sweater, but did the lavender thing all the same. My mother hates lavender and won’t have anything to do with it, so she wears a black cashmere-blend shrug with no buttonhole to adorn. In any case, my great-great-grandmother enjoyed lavender and other aromatic herbs. She experimented with an unusual recipe that resulted in one of the most distinctive spice cookies I’ve ever tasted. The recipe is quite simple and follows: Continue reading

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How to Sort Lentils

So, you’re about to follow a recipe involving lentils, but the recipe unhelpfully suggests that you must first sort the lentils. Of course, this leaves you wondering: how do you sort lentils? What happens if you sort lentils incorrectly? Why are all of these lentil recipes so assuming?

Actually, sorting lentils is quite simple and rewarding. Properly sorted lentils yield a fuller, richer flavor and have a more consistent texture than unsorted lentils. Also, unless you’re allergic to them or fall victim to an unlikely accident, sorted lentils will not kill you. This article describes the minimal procedure you must follow to guarantee that your lentils are properly sorted. It should serve as a solid fundamental technique that you can extend with your own refinements as you pursue your culinary career.

Before sorting the lentils, wash them thoroughly and allow them to dry completely. Once they’re dry, begin the sorting process by distributing your lentils over a flat surface about 1 lentil deep.

Unsorted Lentils

You’ll notice that your lentils vary greatly in size, color, and shape. You might even find misshapen lentils and small pebbles. Remove imperfect lentils and anything that’s not actually a lentil. Set these bits aside for fun or other recipes.

Lentils with crap removed

Some improperly-formed lentils have obvious color differences or look unappetizing. Others may simply be chipped. Be sure to remove these as well.

Crappy Lentils

Lentils tend to have a broad color range–even within the same lentil family. The lentils in these photos are green lentils; however, you’ll notice they range from a brownish color to a deep green. Continue sorting your lentils by dividing the lentils into two piles by color. In either pile, no lentil’s color should be more than one standard deviation away from the pile’s mean. If a lentil does not fit in either pile without violating this rule, it should be discarded. You’ll find that a good spectrophotometer can help improve your accuracy.

Lentils grossly sorted by color

Larger, unripe lentils take longer to cook than smaller, ripe lentils. To ensure that your lentils are evenly cooked, you need to sort the lentils by size and color (color being the indicator of ripeness) so that you can quickly accommodate the varying cooking times. Size is slightly more important than color, so proceed to measure each lentil in both of your piles with recently-calibrated digital calipers. Lentils are metric, so be sure your calipers are set correctly.

Starting to sort lentils by size

Arrange the lentils by size and color on a cutting board that you can easily lift and carry to a boiling pot of water. Ideally, you will have large brown lentils near one edge of your cutting board, and small green lentils (assuming you’re making green lentils) away from the edge, with a progression of colors and sizes in between. Again, size is more important than color, so prioritize size and worry only a bit if you are unable to achieve a pleasing color gradient.

Sorting lentils by color and size

Continue arranging by size and color until the lentils are completely sorted. If, after your first pass, you think you can improve the color layout without affecting the size ordering, you should probably go back for another pass. Just watch that your zeal does not cause you to place a larger lentil further away from the cutting board edge than a smaller lentil.

Sorted lentils

Now that your lentils are completely sorted, you may proceed to follow your recipe. When it is time to add the lentils to boiling water, use a sharp knife to slide each row of lentils off the cutting board and into the pot. Your sorting pays off when you compensate for lentil variance by adding the lentil rows at 150 millisecond intervals. No kitchen is complete without a NIST-traceable stopwatch.

Cooking sorted lentils

During cooking, dead lentils will float to the top of the pot. You’ll want to carefully remove these and discard them.

Skimming dead lentils

Continue cooking and serve as your recipe directs. You should be pleasantly surprised by a robust, differentiated flavor and the even texture that distinguishes this process. If you are not, you probably did it wrong.

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