25 January 2010

My tool box

I'm not a sucker for kitchen gadgets. It helps that I'm cheap, but I also have always followed a pretty good rule: There are very few kitchen tools you need that perform just one task.

I used to say there were no kitchen tools you need that were one-task wonders, and then a friend pointed out to me that a cherry pitter is a handy tool despite the fact that we couldn't think of another use for it. So, buy the cherry pitter, but think twice about avocado slicer, the orange peeler and the grapefruit knife.

In this food-obsessed world, it's no surprise that retailers have pegged us American home cooks as gluttons for FoodTV-endorsed gadgets. I do not need a George Foreman Grill, Rachael Ray's Bubble and Brown nor Emeril Lagasse's Deep Fryer.

What I do need, what every cook really needs, is a great chef's knife.

My knife is the one tool that gets used over and over again each day when it comes to everything from a whole chicken to an apple. It's a decent knife, but not the top of the line. I've had it for about seven years, and I'd guess I'll be using it for many more.

So I wanted just to share with you a few tips when it comes to your kitchen knives. Here goes:
  • Despite what the sales person told you, you do not need a different knife for every kitchen task. Spend your money buying just three good knives: A chef's knife, a paring knife and a serrated bread knife.
  • There are two types of metal knife construction, forged and stamped, and it's important to know the difference when shopping. Forged knives are typically heavier, sturdier and more durable. These are easily spotted as the type of knife where the blade and handle are all one piece, making the handle heavier and easier to use. Forged knives are typically more expensive but will last a lifetime if cared for since they can be professionally sharpened. Stamped knives are lighter in weight and less durable. These knives typically have a handle that is made of wood or plastic.
  • It's true that you are more likely to cut yourself with a dull knife than a sharp one, so get your knife professionally sharpened regularly. Home-sharpening tools help correct the beating knives take in daily use, but they simply can't as good a job as the pros. My local hardware store sharpens knives. Look for stores that specialize in knives. If they don't sharpen, they can tell you who can. Some kitchen stores have knife-sharpening hours as well.
  • A serrated knife can't easily be sharpened, but if it's used properly it should last a long time. Use serrated knives to slice breads, cakes and other soft, delicate food items. Because slicing breads doesn't take the same manpower as chopping a dozen onions, it's OK to go with a less expensive serrated knife.
  • If you use a block to store your knives, insert them upside down. This will keep the blades from dulling as they're pulled in and out. Other good storage options are magnetic strips mounted above a work surface.
  • Even though that granite you love won't be scratched, it's still not the place to chop and slice. Use wood or plastic cutting boards, not glass or other hard, solid surfaces, which will dull your knives. Also, knives can slip on hard cutting surfaces, making it way to easy to cut yourself instead of the food.
  • When shopping for a chef's knife, get your hands on it. You really need to actually slice something (think onion, not banana) to get a feel for how comfortable it is to work with. Specialty kitchen stores or knife shops sometimes give customers the chance to try out knives.

18 January 2010

An easy recipe

What makes a recipe easy isn't very simple to explain. Easy can mean fast, no-professional skills needed or maybe it means you've got all the ingredients in your pantry. But what can be most troublesome is that easy does not always equal convenient.

Take the recipe for no-knead bread I tried out a few days ago. I first tasted this homemade bread in the days after Jasper was born. Our friend Vickie brought a loaf over along with a boatload of Pasta Fagioli that was amazing. Although I could not remember to ask her for the recipe for nearly a year and half, I somehow remembered that she said it was baked in a Dutch oven. It was simple enough, she said, and sent along the link to this New York Times story.

The ingredient list is short: flour, salt, yeast and water. What isn't so short is the time. This bread takes time, and a lot of it. Thankfully, you don't have to do much to it, though, aside from let it hang out snug in a covered bowl for 18 hours. Then, simply turn it out, and let it rise for another two hours.

I have now made three loaves of this bread, and two of them have turned out delicious (the third went to my friend Eileen who has a brand new baby on her hands, and I have no expectations of a sleep-deprived momma calling me to discuss the crumb of my bread). The trouble was that the first loaf ended up bottomless because it stuck like glue to the pot I'd baked it in. The recipe just calls for a heavy-bottomed pot with a lid, and since I don't have a Dutch oven, I substituted my 6-quart soup pot. The second loaf went to the oven in my round, glass Pyrex with much better results.

On the third round, I learned that this bread was actually pretty easy to bake. It was a nice reminder that just because something doesn't turn out right the first time doesn't mean you shouldn't try it again. After all, I'd only really invested three cups of flour into this thing.

Here is the recipe as it ran in the New York Times with my baking notes to the side. Try it at least twice. It will get easier. Promise.

And a side note, a dead camera battery kept me from uploading photos from two weeks ago. Check out this post with photos now.

No-Knead Bread Published November 2006 in The New York Times Adapted from Jim Lahey, Sullivan Street Bakery
Time: About 1½ hours plus 14 to 20 hours’ rising
Yield: One
1½ pound loaf

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
¼ teaspoon instant yeast
1¼ teaspoons salt
Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed.

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees. I could not for the life of me figure out the 1 5/8 cup of water, so thank you Google. I used 1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons. Also, I rubbed the bowl lightly with oil, and I did allow mine to rise for the full 18 hours.

2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger. The generous coating of flour on both the towel and the top of loaf is very important so that it does not stick. Don't skip this step and be very generous. And next time I might even do a light coat of oil on the bottom and sides of the pan.

4. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack. The towel bit is important, I think. It helps get the loaf into the baking dish without disrupting it too much. My oven required only the additional 15 minutes after removing the lid. Be sure to check it early and remove when the top is browned.

11 January 2010

Happy plates

Sunday morning Seth walked down the street to buy the Sunday paper while I made some banana chocolate chip muffins for breakfast. When he returned, the three of us sat around the table enjoying our muffins while Seth flipped through the paper, and I thumbed through Parade. Jasper was busy playing with the chocolate on his fingers.

I absolutely hate that I love Parade. It seems like a fake magazine. I mean, if you wanted real news, wouldn't you just stick to the newspaper that it comes wrapped in? And even the celebrity gossip news is second rate. But I do love it. Always have, thanks, I think, to my mom. I love to read the celebrity questions on page 2, the Amish fireplace ads and the recipes that look like they're ripped out of Woman's Day. Yes, I know it's hardly the recipe as prose of Julia Child, but it never hurts to read 'em.

I noticed a recipe for a Maple Orange Chicken. It sounded simple enough, a close cousin to that Sweet & Sticky Chicken I love.

While trying to settle on a side dish for the meal, I remembered a can of coconut milk I had in the pantry. So I made coconut rice and added steamed, cubed sweet potatoes to it. We served the chicken and its sauce right over the top. We all cleaned our plates, and Jasper wouldn't stop eating until we gave him the last little bit of rice.

At my dinner table, we decided this was a keeper: A weeknight dinner recipe that was sure to please again and again.

Coconut & Sweet Potato Rice

1 16-ounce can of coconut milk
1 cup Jasmine rice (or other fragrant white rice)
1 large sweet potato, peeled and cubed

Combine coconut milk and enough water to equal two cups of liquid. Pour liquid into medium sauce pan, season liberally with salt and bring to a low boil. Add rice, stir and cover. Simmer for approximately 15 minutes or until rice is tender and most of the liquid has been absorbed. Add a dash of coriander and season with additional salt if necessary. In a separate pan, steam sweet potato cubes. Combine rice and sweet potato. This could be done ahead and reheated before service.

Maple Orange Chicken
Adapted from Parade

4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons orange marmalade
2 tablespoons water
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Salt and pepper
Olive oil

Drizzle enough oil to coat the bottom of a heavy-bottomed skillet and heat over medium-high. Season both sides of chicken and place chicken in a single layer in the hot pan. Cook until golden brown and chicken releases easily and flip to cook second side. Depending on the thickness of the chicken, the meat may need additional cooking. If so, transfer browned chicken to a baking dish and place in a 350 degree oven until chicken is thoroughly cooked. Remove chicken from skillet and place heat on medium low and combine the syrup, water and marmalade. Whisk to remove the bits from the bottom of the pan. Once sauce comes to a low boil, reduce heat and cook another couple of minutes. Turn the heat off, add the lemon juice and season to taste. Toss the chicken in the sauce and serve.

05 January 2010

An old gift

So you may have noticed I blew my deadline this week. If I told you that on Monday, when I usually make my post, I woke up at 3:30 am after about 4 hours of sleep, spent about 8 hours in airports or airplanes with my 15-month old, while battling a cold, would that be a good excuse?

Hope so, because I wanted to share a little gift I got while spending Christmas and New Year's with our families in Oklahoma. We all received so many gifts from our generous relatives. I have to say, though, one of the things I will treasure most wasn't a gift at all, but more like passing on of something that may have otherwise been destined for the recycle pile. It was a yellowed note card in my grandmother's handwriting. We call her Mom, and to the surprise of most everyone outside of the family, this has never been confusing. Mom was never an avid cook. She raised three Baby Boomer boys through an era of deep freezer foods, Jello salads and canned produce. She was always the hostess and made appetizers like celery stuffed with pimento cheese.

She and my grandfather, Pop, who are 83 and 85 respectively, recently moved out of their home of more than 40 years. It was a sad event to see them leave the house where they'd hosted those countless family holidays. And the magnificent, over sized lot where their ranch house stood. There was a magnolia tree in the front where, perched on various branches, my cousins and I spent lazy summer afternoons. And the backyard was a forest compared to my family's newly-built subdivision lot, and it made for the best Easter Egg hunts on the planet.

That recipe card was for a dish called Wild West Corn. It's a silly name for what I gather would have been a ubiquitous dish in its era. It's basically cream cheese, milk, corn and peppers, served in a casserole.

I decided to make it last night to go along with our pulled pork sandwiches, and while I was warming the cream cheese and milk, I began to think about how out of place this recipe seemed at the moment. The trendy cooks today look for non-GMO corn, preferably fresh and in season. Hiding it in cream cheese would seem inappropriate to say the least. But that's how recipes from another decade can seem. Out of context, they can be meaningless.

It comes from an era where weeknight dinners at Applebee's weren't even an option. And many women cooked for their families every meal, seven days a week. And these were Boomer families with several kiddos. It only makes sense that you'd depend on a few dishes that came from pantry staples, were cheap, fed a crowd and the kids would eat.

Obviously, Mom thought this recipe was good enough to copy and add to her recipe file. I don't know how much she actually made it, and I don't remember ever eating it at her house. It wasn't bad, but, not surprisingly, it tasted like corn and cream cheese. I sauteed chopped onions and red pepper instead of pimentos, and I left out the chilies in hopes Jasper would like the dish.

I'm passing this recipe on to you not because it's the latest thing to wow your dinner guests with. But read through it and think about what recipes you'll be passing on to your future generations and what they say about your family right now. And if you do want to make it, I suggest getting a little creative. Add some spicy sausage, cheddar cheese, frozen hash brown potatoes. Or make it in the summer with fresh corn and just enough cream cheese to hold it together.

I'll treasure this old recipe card, and not because of the dish, but because when I hold it in my hands, I'm linked to a kitchen so foreign and so close to me. It's a way to remember where I came from and a reminder of the cook I want to be.

Wild West Corn
Margaret "Mom" McFall

1 8-ounce package of cream cheese
1/2 cup milk
1 4-ounce can green chilies, diced
1 2-ounce jar of pimentos
1 teaspoon salt*
2 cans whole-kernel corn, drained**

Melt cream cheese and milk, stirring constantly. Add remaining ingredients. Pour into buttered casserole dish. Bake 30 minutes, uncovered at 350 degrees. (Double for a 9-by-13-inch pan.)

*If using frozen corn, add additional salt to taste.
** I used about five cups of frozen corn instead of the canned.