Why ‘moist’ shouldn’t make a cook cringe

Gretchen McKay
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Want to make people uncomfortable? Just say something is “moist.”

Studies show that many people don’t like the word, in large part because of its association with sweat and other types of moisture we’d rather not talk about.

Yet when it comes to cooking, moist is a good thing, both when it comes to texture (who likes dry cake?) and basic techniques such as simmering, braising, steaming or stewing.

Moisture — the presence of a liquid — is what makes breads spongy, vegetables tender, watermelon juicy and pastries so wonderfully silky. Moist-heat cooking methods like poaching and frying, meanwhile, keep foods from drying out, resulting in tender, flavorful meat and seafood dishes.

New Castle, Lawrence County, native and cookbook author Kathy Hunt can’t understand why so many people bristle at “moist.” But she sees it, especially among younger adults and kids who either giggle or gag (and sometimes both) at its mere mention.

Even her publisher found the word too titillating a name for her latest cookbook, which aims to explain and demonstrate, with more than 70 recipes, why moist is so important in the culinary world. While they loved the idea of a technique book, the marketing department nixed using the word in the title.

They found a happy compromise with “Luscious, Tender, Juicy: Recipes for Perfect Texture in Dinner, Desserts and More” (Countryman Press, $30), all of which are important elements of delectable (and moist) foods. The book was published in December.

‘Rebellion and survival’: Hunt’s authority on the subject is years in the making. Even though she grew up with a mother who viewed cooking as drudgery, she couldn’t help but embrace it once she arrived at Grove City College to study history and secondary education. It was one way to guarantee she could find something good to eat in a tiny college town.

“It was an act of rebellion and survival,” she says with a laugh, noting that “The Joy of Cooking” was her bible.

She only grew more passionate after moving to New York City in 2000 to pursue a graduate degree in journalism at Columbia University. The many restaurants she explored there inspired her to enroll at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. She ended up taking just eight classes, deciding she’d rather write about food than be a professional chef.

With the help of a friend, she was soon writing stories and creating recipes for major publications and online magazines such the now-defunct Zester Daily. She also drew on her educational background to teach cooking classes, often with a focus on sustainable eating. She is particularly invested in seafood, with two cookbooks on the subject — 2017’s “Herring: A Global History” and “Fish Market” in 2013.

Everday tools: In the technique-focused “Luscious, Tender, Juicy,” Hunt says it’s not about chasing trends but instead focusing on the everyday ingredients and techniques that keep food tender and flavorful.

Written for both the novice and experienced cook, it includes everything from snacks and sides to cakes, pies, pastries and breads. You’ll also find lists of baking and cooking tools. All aim to bring moisture back into the kitchen with simple, easy-to-find ingredients.

Many of the 70-plus recipes are globally inspired, reflective of 51 countries on six continents she’s visited over the years with her husband, Sean Dippold. Others were influenced by the multicultural meals of her childhood. Her best friend growing up was Greek, and she also ate lots of Italian-American, Syrian, Indian and Polish foods as a kid.

“It really made me interested in how food was made, especially since my mom hated cooking,” she says.

Hunt calls the book her “pandemic baby” because despite the many challenges of COVID-19, the entire project — from writing to testing to photographing and layout — came together in a whirlwind in 2020. Not that she’s complaining.

“It was a nice way to try out recipes on people” who were otherwise stuck at home, she says.

These light and airy popovers marry the sharp tang of blue cheese with the woody flavor of fresh rosemary. (Gretchen McKay/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)

Satiny Rosemary-Stilton Popovers

These light and airy rolls are so easy to make, and they’re an elegant alternative to sliced bread. Made from an egg batter, they’re fluffy and light, with a perfectly hollow center when torn open. Fresh rosemary adds a wonderful woody flavor that’s perfect for winter.

I was lucky to find a $5 popover pan — which are deeper than traditional cupcake pans — at the thrift store, but you can also use a mini muffin or regular muffin pan.

  • 11/2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter plus more for greasing pans
  • 3 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
  • 11/2 cups milk, at room temperature
  • 11/2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
  • 1/4 cup crumbled English stilton or other rich blue cheese

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Grease the popover pans with butter. Place in the oven for 2-3 minutes to preheat.

Whisk together the butter, eggs, milk, flour, salt, pepper, rosemary and cheese until smooth. Pour the batter into the preheated pans, filling each cup to less than half full.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, until golden brown and puffy. Serve hot.

Makes 12 popovers.

— “Luscious, Tender, Juicy” by Kathy Hunt (Countryman Press, $30)

This hearty pasta salad is full of Moroccan flavors, and is a perfect side for scallops or Caribbean jerk chicken. (Gretchen McKay/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)

Give-me-more Moroccan Couscous

Kathy Hunt developed this salad recipe after traveling through North Africa. It’s a hearty side that makes good use of peppers and canned tomatoes, with the pearled couscous adding a toothsome texture.

Try as I might, I could not find the small balls of toasted semolina flour at my local grocery. But I discovered a great substitute in a bag of Sardinian fregola pasta. I used kalamata olives and lemon-infused olive oil for extra zing.

  • 8 ounces pearl couscous
  • 15-ounce can chopped tomatoes, drained, 2 tablespoons juice reserved
  • 2 red peppers, diced
  • 2 scallions, white and 1-inch green minced
  • 1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, quartered and diced
  • 3 tablespoons Moroccan or oil-cured black olives, chopped
  • 1 cup chickpeas
  • 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon curry powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • Pinch of saffron threads, optional

Cook couscous according to package instructions and place in a large bowl.

Add tomatoes, peppers, scallions, cucumbers, olives and chickpeas. Toss to combine.

In a small bowl, whisk together lemon juice, olive oil, reserved tomato juice, cumin, curry powder, cayenne pepper and optional saffron. Pour half the dressing over the couscous and stir until evenly to coat, adding more to taste.

Refrigerate couscous for at least 1 hour so it can absorb the dressing. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Serves 6-8.

— “Luscious, Tender, Juicy” by Kathy Hunt (Countryman Press, $30)

From left, popovers, couscous and sea scallops show the power of moisture to make amazing meals.

Buttery Sea Scallops

With its warm, nutty flavor, brown butter makes these soft, plump bivalves even more succulent. I paired the seafood with a green salad dressed in a citrus vinaigrette.

Consider odor, color and luster when shopping for scallops. They should smell mildly sweet and never fishy, with a pale pink to light beige hue and a glistening sheen.

  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
  • 12-16 sea scallops
  • Sea salt, to taste
  • Ground black pepper, to taste

Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Once butter has melted, start swirling the pan over heat. During this time the butter will foam and then slowly settle, 4-5 minutes.

Continue cooking and swirling the pan for another 2-3 minutes. Once butter turns golden in color and brown specks begin to form, remove pan from heat and set aside.

Season scallops with salt and pepper.

Melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter in large frying or saute pan over medium heat. Once butter has begun to bubble, add scallops.

Cook for 3-4 minutes, until bottom has browned. Using a thin spatula or fish turner (I used my fingers and a fork), gently turn scallops and cook until other side is brown. Remove scallops from pan, place on a large plate and cover with a heat-proof lid.

Reheat brown butter over medium heat for about 30 seconds.

Place equal amounts of scallops on four dinner plates. Drizzle brown butter over the scallops and serve immediately.

Serves 4.

— “Luscious, Tender, Juicy” by Kathy Hunt (Countryman Press, $30)