Secrets to the Perfect Pie

Over the last few years, I’ve gotten over my fear of making pie dough, thanks to practice, culinary school training, and a stint in a restaurant pastry kitchen. But you don’t need to be a pro to bust out a winning pie. As superstar pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini recently scolded a Top Chef contestant: “My grandmother wasn’t a pastry chef, but she could make a pie.” (Oh, snap!)

When we wanted a great all-purpose, slightly lighter pie dough recipe for NOURISH Evolution, we turned to food stylist Kathleen Kanen. She’s a home economist by training who worked in the Cooking Light Test Kitchens for 20 years and currently does freelance food styling and recipe developing for a variety of national outlets (including us!).

Her secret to great pastry? Keep everything cold. I asked her for other tips to ensure your pie turns out perfect every time.

What’s your definition of the perfect pie crust?

I love a crust that’s flaky and has some sugar for sweetness and some salt for flavor. I think many dough recipes don’t call for enough salt, and that makes them taste flat.

What’s your preferred fat for pastry?

A combination of butter for flavor and shortening for flakiness. Also, the shortening doesn’t harden, which makes the dough easier to roll so there’s less chance of overworking it.

What’s the best way to cut the fat into the flour–in a food processor, with a pastry blender, or with your fingers?

The easiest way is the food processor. Just pulse the mixture a few times so it doesn’t get warm and the fat melts into the flour. [Those little chunks of cold fat make the pastry flaky.] It should look like coarse crumbs.

What are your tips for working with a lower-fat crust?

Three things: cold fats, chilling the dough, and plastic wrap!

  1. Chill the butter and shortening for a flaky crust. For an even flakier crust, chill the flour, too.
  2. Add just enough ice water to moisten the dough. Add too much, and the dough will be soggy. Add too little, and it will be crumbly. Press a small amount of dough between your fingers to check the consistency. If it’s too crumbly, add another tablespoon of water.
  3. Handle the dough gently. Overworking it develops the gluten in the flour and makes the crust tough.
  4. Chill the dough to help relax the gluten.
  5. Roll the dough between sheets of plastic wrap [a trick Kathleen learned in the Cooking Light Test Kitchens] to prevent it from sticking to the counter. Chill the dough again after rolling it to make it easier to remove the plastic wrap. It’s not a step to rush.

Any tips for rolling out the dough so it’s even?

Begin rolling in the center and stop about 1/2 inch from the edge so it doesn’t get too thin and crumble. I start rolling in the middle of the dough vertically, then horizontally, then diagonally.

Which camp do you fall in: top crust or lattice?

I love pastry, so my favorite is a top crust. Lattice is very pretty, but not enough crust for me! [If you prefer a lattice crust, check out Saveur’s instructions to weave one.]

Here’s Kathleen’s recipe for peach pie with a foolproof dough. Use this crust for pies made with whatever fresh, seasonal fruit is on hand. I can’t wait to try it with apples in the fall, and for savory pies like quiches too.

Kathleen’s Fresh Peach Pie with Toasted Walnut Crust

By Kathleen Kanen

Ground nuts and a touch of whole-wheat pastry flour give this peach pie crust recipe a healthier edge. It also has less fat than traditional pastry, yet there’s enough to make it satisfyingly tender. As with any pastry, handle the dough gently (so it doesn’t get tough) and don’t skip chilling it for 30 minutes. That helps the gluten relax and makes a more tender pie crust. I use the chilling time to peel the fruit and assemble the filling.

For variety, you can substitute cherries and/or blueberries for half the peaches. Taste the fruit first and adjust the sugar in the filling accordingly. Same goes for amount of flour in the filling. Really juicy peaches may need an extra tablespoon of flour; not so juicy, use less flour. This peach pie is is the essence of summer!


Catch Lia on TV!

Lia was on San Francisco’s View from the Bay on ABC today talking about sustainable seafood (and cooking up our delish curried mussels). Check out the segment below … the very last live segment ever for View from the Bay! “It was both an honor and a ‘waaah’ for me–I’ve absolutely loved working with the team on the show. Hopefully, our paths will cross again soon.”

Farm Fresh Fish: All About Aquaculture

If you’re confused about farmed fish, you are not alone. Aquaculture — fish farming — is hailed by some as the saving grace to our future fish supply and called an ecological disaster by others. What makes it so complex an issue is that, depending on what they’re referring to, both parties are right. What’s not in question is that aquaculture is here to stay; half of the seafood eaten by Americans today is farmed, and the number continues to rise. And, done right, it can be part of a sustainable seafood solution. Here are four basic guidelines to clarify which farmed fish are best to buy and why:


  • Best choice. Mussels, oysters and clams. Why? Not only do these mollusks filter the water they’re raised in so that it’s cleaner than it was before they arrived (they feed on tiny, floating plankton), they are also an impetus for communities to conform to strict clean water regulations wherever farms are located.
  • Good choice. Tilapia, barramundi, catfish, striped bass, arctic char, trout and shrimp. Why? These fish are good choices for aquaculture because they are omnivores—they eat both plants and animals—or, in the case of tilapia, herbivores. Many experts view new technology, called Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS), as the gold standard in aquaculture, providing both a pristine environment for the fish and a completely closed system to avoid polluting native species nearby.
  • Worst choice. Salmon. Why? Primarily because the species itself is carnivorous—it takes 8 pounds of wild fish to make 1 pound of salmon—which makes it a poor choice for farming. But also because most salmon is farmed off-shore in net-pens, which can pollute the waters around them and cause unnervingly high levels of toxins, disease and parasites in the fish. What’s more, these farmed fish occasionally escape, spreading disease to native populations and putting the gene pool of wild species at risk.
  • Know your sources. With the Country of Origin Labeling Act (COOL ) enacted in 2005, the US government gave consumers the right—and the ability—to know where our seafood comes from. And that’s a good thing, given that there are no international standards for the sustainability and safety of aquaculture operations. There are laws governing the environmental impact for fish farms in the United States, yet in other countries, like Thailand and China, aquaculture has had a devastating effect on coastal eco systems. New international standards are being developed, but right now, your best bet is to avoid imported farmed fish and shrimp altogether unless from credible suppliers you know are committed to sustainability.

Grilled Fish in Parchment with Cherry Tomatoes & Corn

This grilled fish in parchment recipe is a NOURISH Evolution classic. Flaky white fish, like sustainable barramundi or catfish, are tough to grill, but that doesn’t mean they need to be left out of the summer repertoire. Just wrap them up in parchment (a classic French technique called “en papillote”) with a handful of summer veggies and you’ve got yourself a whole meal on the grill. Not inclined to fire up the grill? You also can cook the fish in the oven at 450  F for 10-15 minutes.



The Face of the Farmer

The farmers’ market is not Safeway, and if you shop the same way at both places, then you’ve been missing out. Look at the fingernails of the people behind the tables at the farmers’ market: They’ve been digging in the dirt, lovingly tending the vegetables laid out before you (although, I’ll admit, they do lack certain bagging skills). What an opportunity to connect with your food–and the farmer who grows it!

face-of-the-farmerAt the farmers’ market, I’ve learned about vegetables that were entirely new to me (kohlrabi, purslane, scapes). I’ve learned about different varieties of foods I was already familiar with (you should see all the different kinds of garlic Yael grows), and I’ve even had my mind reopened to foods I’d spent most of my life detesting (peas, beets, asparagus). Yet the conversations have gone both ways. I’ve also taught farmers new ways to enjoy the vegetables they grow, and come back from my travels with new varieties for them to try. The farmers’ market has become much more to me than a place I gather ingredients for a meal; it’s become a place where I gather with my friends.

And, as with any group of friends, it’s hard not to slow down and enjoy myself when I’m amongst them, no matter how rushed or preoccupied I am. When they want to know how their pork shoulder . . . Swiss chard . . . foraged wild mushrooms turned out, it’s tough to let an agenda rule. And it’s a great reminder that these interactions—and the frame of mind they create in me—are what is so precious about the experience. The weekend’s to-do’s will still be there and they’ll get done . . . at some point.

How does all of this help instill a mindful eating practice? Just try it and you’ll see. The cozy feeling of community you feel as you walk away from the market will last all through your meal; just watch how your food takes on more life, both in the kitchen and at the table. When I slice my peach, I see the smile of Gayle from Dry Creek Peach and Produce, and it makes me smile too. When I drizzle honey over the top, I see the earnest joy on the faces of Hector’s family as they prepared to go, en masse, to Italy to represent Sonoma County at the Slow Food Terra Madre event.

Get to know the farmer who grows your food and you’ll be nurtured in a whole new way. You’ll forge a real connection to real food.

Flour Power: Think Beyond Wheat

Mention “flour,” and I think of the stuff made from wheat. But if cooks don’t live in a wheat-cultivating region–or can’t eat wheat products–they rely on flour milled from rice, nuts, beans and other raw ingredients.

flour-power-think-beyond-wheatMany of those so-called “specialty” products are going mainstream, thanks to the growing ranks of consumers diagnosed with celiac disease (also known as gluten intolerance). The gluten-free market is projected to balloon to $6.6 billion in sales by 2017.

I’m not gluten intolerant, but I appreciate the increased availability of intriguing new ingredients turning up on supermarket shelves, in health-food store bulk bins and, as always, tucked away in ethnic markets.

But there’s a caveat to using these flours: The gluten in wheat flour gives baked goods structure, so you can’t simply swap out wheat flour for gluten-free flours in recipes and expect the same results. If you’re gluten intolerant you’d use a blend of gluten-free ingredients (or pick up a box of gluten-free baking mix) to mimic the qualities of wheat flour. Others without intolerance can sub some of the wheat flour in a recipe with one of these specialty flours (The Cook’s Thesaurus has a great guide to subbing specialty for wheat flours).

Here are three types of specialty flours. Please note: these are ideas for cooks like me, who aren’t gluten intolerant but are curious about what these ingredients can bring to our cooking. If you have celiac disease, check out Shauna James Ahern’s blog Gluten-Free Girl and The Chef.

Nut flour

These have a finer texture than nut meals, but they can be used in many recipes that call for nut meal. Almond flour is the most common type, but you’ll also see flour made with hazelnuts and chestnuts. They have a high fat content and can go rancid quickly, so store them in the freezer.

Try it: These flours add deep, nutty flavor and moisture to baked goods. Substitute for up to a quarter of the all-purpose flour. Nut flours also are a tasty way to thicken sauces.

Rice flour

Rice flour can be milled from white, brown, red or any variety of rice, and it has a long tradition throughout Asia, from India to Japan. Brown rice flour has a nutty quality whereas white rice flour is more neutral.

Try it: Rice flour lends baked goods a crumbly texture, which you can use to your advantage–in shortbread, for instance, which should be crumbly, or to create a tender crumb in cakes. Substitute rice flour for a quarter of the all-purpose flour in baked goods. Use starchy Japanese mochiko (made from glutinous short-grain rice) as a thickener.

Bean flour

Visit any Indian market and you’ll be blown away by the variety of flours milled from beans and other legumes, which are used in baked goods. These days, you’ll find chickpea (garbanzo bean) flour in many supermarkets, too. Bean flours add and earthy, well, beany flavor to food.

Try it: I used chickpea flour to make this socca, a Provencal street-food snack. It’s also a key ingredient in Middle Eastern cooking for falafel and is ideal for making a super-smooth hummus. As with nut flour, bean flour is a terrific to thicken a sauce. Robin Asbell’s terrific new book, Big Vegan, uses chickpea flour in a number of creative ways, including a sauce for terrific vegan mac ‘n’ “cheese.”

There’s a whole world of wheat flours, too, and we’ve tackled in The Whole Story on Whole Wheat Flours. In the meantime, try this simple socca. Viva la France!


No Room to Garden? Share a Yard

By Evangeline Heath

One of the big hurdles for an apartment gardener like me is finding a plot to plant in.

I was already growing vegetables in containers, but I longed for a real patch of earth to dig and roll around in. With a five-year waiting list for my community garden, though, some ingenuity was in order.

Then I heard about the concept of “yard-sharing” and immediately hoped this was the answer.

Yard-sharing arrangements connect those without land to neighbors with unused space. It’s a win-win situation. Property owners without the time, skill, or ability to work the land reap the benefits of partnering with local gardeners eager to get their hands dirty. It brings neighborhoods together and creates edible landscapes.

Gardeners and property owners find each other in many ways. You can post an ad on Craigslist, or your city might have a horticultural matchmaking service like the Garden Sharing Registry in Santa Monica, California. I tried the national social network Hyperlocavore, where I created a profile and found my neighborhood already had its own “pod” with several members.

I sent my profile to a few people in my neighborhood, but didn’t hear back. So I emailed my own circle of friends and pitched the idea of starting a garden for them. Artist Judith Brewer Curtis, mother to one of my closest friends, got in touch and said she’d love to have me give some TLC to her neglected back yard. Her house was just 10 minutes away. Bingo!

We arrived at our arrangement informally, but there are some important issues for yard-sharers to hash out:

  • What’s your gardening philosophy? Do you want to garden organically or conventionally? I’m a 100% organic gardener, and Judith honors that.
  • What do you want to grow? A gardener shouldn’t plant vegetables if the property owner expects flowers.
  • How will you handle the cost of supplies? Judith pays the water bill, while I purchase other supplies: soaker hose and attachments, potting soil, and compost bin. I buy most of the seeds and seedlings, though Judith makes the occasional nursery run.
  • When can the gardener use the yard? I have access whenever I want, though I always call or email first.
  • Can the gardener store equipment on the property? Judith has a full set of gardening tools I can use anytime.
  • How long are you committed to the project? Our arrangement is open-ended. But it’s a good idea to agree on the project’s duration if you’re yard-sharing with a stranger, at least in the beginning. If it’s successful you may decide to let it continue indefinitely.
  • How often will the gardener tend the yard? I go over a few times a week, and clean up before I leave. She makes sure everything is watered when I’m not there.

So far, it’s been a “patch made in heaven.” After a big rain made the soil soft, my husband and I double-dug a 100-square-foot plot and amended it with plenty of compost. We planted our summer crops in mid-April, and now we’re starting to harvest cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers, and melons.

We’ve both found so much satisfaction in transforming an unused piece of land into a green, productive food garden. I get a place to grow, experiment. and apply all my newly learned gardening knowledge. Judith loves taking care of the plants, but didn’t have to do the hard, physical work of setting up the garden.

Most importantly, we both share in the harvest!

Evangeline Heath is a freelance writer based in Santa Monica. She documents her adventures in yard-sharing and urban homesteading in her blog FarmApartment.

Spicy-Sweet Pickled Cucumbers

These pickled cucumbers are inspired by the spicy-sweet pickles served at Saffron, a popular Thai takeaway in San Diego. Use thin-skinned Japanese, Persian, English or pickling cucumbers, and slice them as thinly as possible. If you have a mandolin or Japanese slicer, this a good time to use it; otherwise, just use a razor-sharp chef’s knife. Serve these pickled cucumbers as a refreshing summer side dish, or use them as a condiment in sandwiches and tacos. They’d be delicious on a sandwich or tortilla with Grass-Fed Beef Bulgogi and Fiery-Sweet Peach Salsa.