Kitchen Stuff We Can’t Live Without—Part 6: Pans & Baking Equipment

As with utensils, few people are as passionate about pans as they are pan’s bosom pals, Pots. So few people, in fact, that none (read: “not one”) of my contributing friends and relatives listed any baking equipment they couldn’t live without. But I’d be willing to bet they are wrong.

Pans & Baking Equipment. Along with various appliances, such as food processors and hand mixers we have already addressed in “Kitchen Stuff We Can’t Live Without— Part 4: Appliances,” gadgets like the measuring cups and spoons described in “Kitchen Stuff We Can’t Live Without— Part 3: Gadgets,” and silicone basting brushes and whisks described in “Kitchen Stuff We Can’t Live Without—Part 5: Utensils,” you will need the following:

—Mixing bowls. Two sets of nesting tempered glass, like the Pyrex Prepware 3-Piece Mixing Bowl Set, Clear and Duralex Lys Stackable 10-Piece Bowl Set, at least one stainless steel one for use as a double boiler top or for beating eggs, like the Fox Run 1.5 Quart Stainless Steel Mixing Bowl, as well as one extra large ceramic for big doughs, rising bread, and salad tossing, like the Waechtersbach 10-Quart Extra Large Serving Bowl, Cherry.

—Baking pans. 9″ x 12″, 9″ x 9″ square, and loaf pans in tempered glass, like Anchor Hocking Oven Basics 3-Piece Baking Dish Value Pack and a metal of each of the above sizes plus metal (usually, aluminum) pizza pans (with and without holes), a large jelly roll pan, a cookie sheet, and two stainless steel wire cooling racks.

I can’t really recommend anything in particular for the metal components in this list. They can usually be found pretty cheaply at restaurant supply stores, but you must feel them to know if they are any good.

The quality you are looking for is heaviness for the size. Such a pan is less likely to bend or warp while heating and is more likely to evenly distribute heat. But price has no relation to quality so be sure to get your hands on the actual item you are considering before you buy.

And remember: just because one pan is good doesn’t mean the entire line is. In this instance, buying pans sight unseen makes about as much sense as buying shoes without trying them on.

—Cassaroles with lids. Corning makes good glass and composite ones, like the Corningware SimplyLite 6-pc. Casserole Set. This set also comes with handy travel/storage lids.

—Rolling pin. Use it to roll out dough for pie crusts, cookies, or even pasta. You and your significant other can even reenact your favorite “Punch and Judy” moments with a simple one made of hardwood, like the J.K. Adams 10-1/2″x 2-1/8″ Maple Bakers Rolling Pin.

—Parchment paper or silicone baking mats. At some point in your life, you will want to bake, broil, or roast something that might stick to your pan (like anything containing protein). You may want to have a barrier between your food and your pan, just then, if you prefer removing the same amount of food from the pan that you originally placed in the pan.

If you’re like me and have discovered that oil, lard, butter, and even crumbs of various types just don’t give you the kind of food removal capabilities you may want, you should reach for the good stuff—a sheet of single-use silicon-impregnated paper (a/k/a, parchment paper) or a virtually indestructible, multi-use silicon mat, like the Silpat Non-stick Baking Mat in three sizes—full, half, and quarter. This is way better than non-stick pans, which use mystery chemicals to earn their lack of adhesion and have an unfortunate tendency to flake or become “not non-stick” after just a few uses. The only caveat when using a mat on the bottom is that the sides of pans may need a light coating of butter to aid later separation.

—Bowl and board scrapers. There are three essential kinds of scrapers/spatulas you will want—a nylon or silicon one for the bowl, like the Rubbermaid Commercial Products 9-1/2″ High Heat Scraper for stirring, folding, and scraping, even hot pots, and the MIU Silicone Bowl Scraper for quick, clean dough removal from a bowl (you will likely want both), as well as a metal scraper for removing pastry from the board or counter, like the OXO Good Grips Pastry Scraper. The OXO Pastry Scraper can also be used for some light chopping and removing other sticky stuff from counters or cutting boards, like candy or herbs.

—Ramekins. I was on the fence about this one, but went ahead and included a set as these can be used for baking single-serving things, like individual soufflés, or for serving sauces, melted butter, dressing, etc. Try this set for your basic needs, the Progressive International Porcelain Stacking Ramekins.

So that concludes our list of what you need to outfit your new or recently refurbished kitchen of your dreams. After ruling out the superfluous, the needlessly expensive, and the overly ambitious, what remains is precisely what you need.

Go ahead and add muffin pans, springform pans, mezza lunas, crème brulee sets, and other odds and ends later, as needed, but only then. Until such time, cook the basics and own the equipment you need to do so now. And even when you decide to buy something new, follow the Alton Brown rule to the extent possible—no “unitaskers.”

Bon appetite!

Have I Told You Lately How Much I Love Chipotle?

I won’t lie to you. Chipotle is a weird operation. And I was aware of its existence long before I actually tried it. But now having tried real food in Chipotle’s revolutionary fast-food context, I know there is no going back to the crap the passes as lunch at any other national chain restaurant.

My love affair with Chipotle began, innocently enough after listening to a recording of “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” on one of my three-hour trips back and forth between Birmingham and Atlanta. The message of author Michael Pollan really resonated with me, especially given my upbringing in a farming family. I remembered what real food used to taste like and, post-Pollan, finally got why the stuff I ate after leaving home was never, ever as good.

After that, my husband and I did everything we could to identify sources of locally-raised and/or organic food. We learned that “organic” isn’t the end of the inquiry, especially when it comes to animal products, like beef, pork, chickens, and food produced from their milk or eggs.

One day, my husband mentioned Chipotle to me. He told me, even though it was a chain, the founder, Steve Ells, was some kind of fanatic who had figured out a way to bring locally-sourced food into a fast food context.

“No way,” my skeptical mind objected. “Mexican fast food? Like Taco Bell?” As it turns out, the answer is “yes” to the first question; and to the second, “perish the thought!”

Then, I watched THE video.

Then, I visited my nearby Chipotle.

What a revelation!

The organic, modern décor certainly was unexpected. Wood and corrugated metal are the predominant design materials, but rather than looking like an old shed, it looks like a really nice place to eat—down to the corrugated relief of a South American native on the wall and the stainless steel topped tables.

Meticulously clean but not aseptic; standardized yet unique, the ambiance underscored similar ideas I found incorporated into the food. Each store obtains its meat and produce from local farms and ranches. Therefore, the precise flavor of the carnitas in different locations may vary slightly, but the way in which it is prepared is the same. (And it is prepared entirely on site in the open kitchen at the back of the store.) And it is fabulous.

According to a message on one of the cups, Chipotle’s apparently simple menu conceals something like 66,000 unique combinations of ingredients. But I usually get the same delicious thing—a carnitas bowl with no rice, small amount of black beans, peppers, hot and mild salsa, sour cream, cheese, guacamole (yes, I know there is a small up charge), and lettuce.

To place my order, I talk directly to the person building the bowl, and I get to see what is in each bin from which each ingredient is removed through a glass barrier before committing. And none of the food is ever not perfect. In fact, nothing is ever not perfect—from the restrooms to the drink station.

Even the “tap” water served from beneath the Minute Maid Lemonade spigot tastes like good water, and not some horrible chemically-tainted liquid found in far too many restaurants. That’s because they actually clean the fountain nozzles on a regular basis. If every restaurant did that, I wouldn’t live in fear of ordering ice “water”! (Strange phobia, I know. Whatever.)

Bottom line is Chipotle has done what I heretofore thought impossible: fresh fabulous fast real food served in a warm, relaxing environment where you can actually look forward to eating. If you haven’t tried it, you simply haven’t lived. Vive la difference!

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RATING:

Overall:

Food:

Ambiance:

Kitchen Stuff We Can’t Live Without—Part 5: Utensils

Let’s face it. Unlike their first cousins, Gadgets, utensils are pretty hard to get excited about, yet equally difficult to do without. We’re talking spoons, here people! Not too sexy, I’ll admit.

Rather, I think items in this category are the unsung heroes—the workhorses, if you will—of our respective kitchens. The kind of things we would only miss if they weren’t there.

So let us now enter the bland world of seriously fundamental kitchen equipment, and sing its praises. I’ll just acknowledge right now that this will be a solo performance, as my friends and fellow reviewers had absolutely zero to say about any favorites in this category.

Utensils.

—Spatulas. You know, for lifting, turning, or otherwise moving food from Point “A” to Point “B.” I believe you will need six of them.

For example, I use two small nylon spatulas, like the OXO Good Grips Nylon Flexible Turner for things like pancakes, a large nylon one for eggs, like the OXO Good Grips Large Nylon Flexible Turner, Black, and one sturdy metal one for wedging out and lifting baked things you want served in one piece, such as lasagna, brownies, or baked mac and cheese. I like the MIU 15-Inch Polished Stainless-Steel Perforated Turner or the OXO Good Grips Brushed Stainless Steel Turner.

Unlike the stiffness required of metal spatula above, in fish turners, you are looking for just the right amount of flexibility. Too little flex and the device will cause delicate filets to break; too much and it will bend and drop the fish before you can get it to your plate. A thin profile, an angled tip, a slightly bent front-end for wedging under delicate food (I prefer the bend to be nearer the end of the spatula than the middle), and a really smooth finish are also musts so the food will slide easily up the face of the spatula. I like this one, the OXO Good Grips Fish Turner.

You will also enjoy using the Littledeer Pan Paddle from Williams-Sonoma for making everything from scrambled eggs to oatmeal.

—Ladles. Try using your hands for this job! Then you will realize how convenient it is to use this one, the All-Clad Stainless Soup Ladle. I use the All-Clad for transporting all manner of liquid-y things from large pots into serving dishes. Everything from beans to gumbo will fit nicely in its bowl. And its rather large 6-ounce capacity will minimize the number of mind-numbing trips from pot to dish and back.

—Skimmers, Spiders. To lift food out of a deep fryer or boiling water, you could use a skimmer, like the OXO Stainless Steel Skimmer or the All-Clad Stainless Skimmer. But for my money, I prefer a spider, like the WMF Profi-Plus Wok Strainer.

A spider uses wires to support the food instead of sheet metal with holes punched in it. That distinction is worth noting if you want to remove food quickly rather than standing around with your first of three scoops of food, waiting for the oil or water to drain while the rest of the food continues to cook. In short, speed is your friend, my friend. That’s why I prefer a spider.

—Cheese knives. Nothing screams “I am not a redneck,” like using the right tool for the job, such as theSwissmar Stainless Steel 3-Piece Cheese Knife Set. You’ll not only discover how easy cheese serving can be, you will finally learn why a butter knife is better for butter and why a steak knife is better for opening junk mail.

—Cooking spoons. I enjoy having two nylon and two metal cooking spoons—one slotted and one solid of each material, as well as a good wooden one. They are handy for food or for inflicting pain without the ugly bruising that can result from riding crops.

For the nylon, I go for the Calphalon Nylon Spoon and it’s matching counterpart, the Calphalon Nylon Slotted Spoon. And metal, you ask? I like the OXO Good Grips Brushed Stainless Steel Slotted Spoon and the OXO Good Grips Brushed Stainless Steel Spoon.

And check out the wooden Littledeer Serving Scoop. Yeah, I know it says “serving,” but I love using it to make beans. So arrest me.

—Cooking fork. Bid burnt and missing fingers adieu. Cooking forks are the “now” thing for pinning down that hot roast whilst giving it a good carving. I like the OXO Steel Fork.

—Basting brushes, basting bulbs. Silicone basting brushes for cooking and baking are a lot easier to use that you might think, and they sure beat picking off all the little hairs that fall out of the natural ones. As an added bonus, they come in pretty colors, and you can toss them into the dishwasher, from which they will emerge in more or less their original condition.

I like the Orka 10-Inch Stainless and Silicone Basting Brush.

For your basting bulb, you want to avoid a metal tube. It burns when full of hot liquid. (Found that out the hard way.) I go with the semi-clear nylon ones, like the Heat Resistant Nylon Baster with Rubber Bulb. Just clean with a small brush and count on having to throw it away at some point. Neither the metal nor the nylon ones last forever.

—Whisks. You will want three types—a large stainless balloon whisk, like the Best Manufacturers Balloon Whip 14-inch, a small stainless French whisk, like the Best Manufacturers 12-inch Standard French Wire Whisk, and a silicone flat or sauce whisk, like the Rosle Silicone Flat Whisk. If you want to get fancy after that with balls and whatnot, that’s your business.

—Potato masher. Which masher is best is a decision most of us make by feel. The goal is to obliterate a large, cooked root vegetable. The tool of choice has to work for you. To that end, you may have to try a couple of styles.

My favorite is the bouncing spring variety, of which the Dreamfarm “Smood” Kitchen Masher is a good example. My husband, on the other hand, prefers the “grate” style, like the Cuisipro Potato Masher. One thing we both agree on though, is that the metal squiggle style is a waste of time.

—Pizza cutters. These handy rolling dealies aren’t just for dissecting meat and veggie topped flat bread, anymore. Sure, try one the next time you need to mince some herbs. You’ll put away your chef’s knife, PDQ! I love this one: OXO Good Grips 4-Inch Pizza Wheel.

—Splatter guards. They won’t catch fire and are better than nothing. That’s about all I can say, as I have yet to find one that blocks grease spatters completely. Try this one, though: OXO Good Grips Splatter Screen with Folding Handle. At least the handle folds for easy storage.

And for the record, I don’t like pasta ladles. For long pasta, I prefer silicone-tipped tongs; for short, I use a spider or skimmer. Your call.

Next time, we will take a trip down the baking aisle. Until then, Happy Eating!

VitalChoice.com–Better than Fresh When It Comes to Fish (Really!)

The Internet is rife with stories about the high mercury levels found in fresh and canned tuna, including sushi-grade and ahi-grade tuna steaks found at otherwise fabulous restaurants. And while concerns about high levels of heavy metals in tuna and other large predator fish mount, the FDA hasn’t exactly done a great job alerting consumers about such dangerous levels of heavy metals, refusing even to require notices of the type you see on menus serving raw or undercooked eggs, oysters, meat, etc.

Add that to concerns that “Big Tuna’s” use of nets in fishing operations is killing large numbers of dolphin bystanders, and it’s enough to turn you completely off of an otherwise wonderful source of healthy fats and protein. So what are you to do the next time you want your tasty Omega-3 fix? VitalChoice.com.

My husband found Vital Choice as part of his effort to increase the amount of fish in our diet, particularly as we had recently moved inland away from the abundant supplies of seafood to which we had grown accustomed. Endorsed by such luminaries and pioneers of the holistic and complementary medical movement as Andrew Weil , M.D., Nicholas Perricone, M.D., and Stephen Sinatra, M.D., Vital Choice’s wild, line-caught tuna and salmon ranks at the very top compared with fish sold anywhere else for low mercury content and sustainable fishing practices.

And I can tell you, all of the Vital Choice seafood I have tried are delicious both in canned and frozen form. Check out other products too, such as Omega-3 rich fish oil capsules, including salmon and krill oil, as well as minimally-processed canned mackerel and sardines. There is also ample literature and many white papers available through their website to help you learn why the practices of Vital Choice and its partners are different from many other purveyors of fresh and canned fish.

Bon appetite!

N.B. I have been enjoying Vital Choice seafood for more than two years now, fully-endorse the company, and stand by everything I have said about them in this post. My family and I have been nothing but impressed by every aspect of our interaction with the company from their ability to successfully deliver as promised (notwithstanding our hot summer weather) to the taste of the seafood itself. In the interest of full-disclosure, however, I have also recently become an marketing affiliate of the company, which provides income to this website for sales of its various products.

Kitchen Stuff We Can’t Live Without—Part 4: Appliances

Appliances can make your life a heck of a lot easier, but only if they work as expected. Sometimes the price of an appliance has no relationship whatever with the quality or reliability of it, however. Sometimes the price only reflects the marketing strategy of the manufacturer. So how can you tell which product is right for you? Read on.

Below is the list of items we think are critical to a new kitchen. If we don’t use ’em ourselves, we at least did some research to find out which were best reviewed and which didn’t seem worth the cost.

Appliances.

—An immersion or “stick” blender. Unless you plan to start a night club in your garage or are a masochist, skip the countertop model and go for the stick. Why would you want to puree your soup by pouring it batches into a hard-to-clean glass pitcher, when you can do the job in half the time by putting your immersion blender right in the pot? Ditto smoothies, shakes, whipped cream, mayonnaise, or just about anything else. I got rid of my big one years ago and have never looked back! We like the KitchenAid KHB300 Hand Blender. Actually, we liked a Braun stick blender from the early 2000s, but they don’t make that one anymore. This one seems nice too, though.

—A food processor. With these devices my view is that bigger really is better—motor, the bowl size, etc. After all, hearing a grinding noise or smelling smoke while making a heavy dough isn’t any kinda fun; nor is having hot soup seeping from every crevice of an overfilled work bowl.

Fortunately, they now make 14- to 16-cup models with garbage-disposal-grade power. I am thinking about upgrading from my old 10-cup Cuisinart myself, so I did some research and found this review by A. Chandler, which I found highly enlightening. Mr./Ms. Chandler’s very detailed analysis is a little aged by now and some of the models he/she refers to are now unavailable and more have come on the market, but I liked the selection criteria he/she used to compare the various models and suggest you use it as well to ensure you are comparing apples to apples.

All things considered, however, I think I’m going for the Cuisinart Elite Die-Cast 16-cup Food Processor at Williams-Sonoma. It is currently among the largest on the market. It is on sale for $299 (and has been for months). There is no shopping around on this one, however; it is a WS exclusive.
If I had big money, though I would definitely consider what may be a very top end model sold by WS—Magimix by Robot-Coupe Food Processor, 16-Cup on sale for just under $500.
Or I might go with the biggest, baddest Cuisinart I’ve seen for household use—the Cuisinart Classic DLC-XPBC 20-Cup Food Processor in Brushed Chrome—for $750. On the very plus side it features, well, 20-cup capacity and a 1-1/2 hp induction motor. On the downside, the motor is only warranted for 5 years, and the dough blade appears to be made of plastic.
Clearly, any of the above would be a serious upgrade from the little, weak Cuisinart I am getting by with today, however. So c’mon ya’ll, and buy some t-shirts! 😉

—Hand mixer. Use the force. In other words, get the most powerful unit you can find. The most powerful ones I found were 250-watt models, and the one that looked the best to me was the Viking Manual 5 Speed Hand Mixer, Metallic Silver. Maxed out power, three-year warranty against manufacturers defects, two sets of beaters, and retractable cord. For heavy dough, you are going to want to use your food processor anyway, so what more could you want?

—Coffee pot(s). Many of my friends mentioned this but didn’t come up with a specific brand or type, so I am going to take it from here as I just ditched my automatic drip machine for two, simpler devices that just so happen to rock.

The first, for any bean grind except “fine,” I run to my Bodum Chambord Coffee Press. You operate by putting in your ground coffee, pouring in your boiling water, and letting sit for four minutes before “pressing.” The result is consistent yumminess without having to do that whole vinegar cleaning nonsense. You can also store it in your cabinet. Look ma, no cords!

The second is for fine ground coffees like espresso—my Bialetti 6800 Moka Express 6-Cup Stovetop Espresso Maker. Goes on the stovetop, on high (ignore the directions about heating at medium or it will take an ice age to get a good steam going), and is even simpler to operate than the French press. Get this: almost fill the bottom with water, put in the bottom filter (metal, easy to clean), fill the filter with coffee, heat. When you hear the gurgle, the top is probably full and once it’s full, it’s pretty much done. I bought the 6-cup version which makes a couple of American-sized mugs or 6 demitasse cups.

Medelco Cordless Glass Electric Kettle. For boiling water before you can get your burner hot on an electric range. It’s fast as a microwave oven and produces better tasting for tea, coffee, and cooking.

—Milk frother. Great for blending powdered shake mixes into liquid or, you know, frothing milk is the Aerolatte 5 Milk Frother, Satin Finish. Easy to operate, battery powered, and powerful enough for the jobs described above and can sometimes whip a little cream. If you need more RPMs, just switch over to your immersion blender.

Breville BOV800XL Smart Oven 1800-Watt Convection Toaster Oven. Why wait for your big oven to heat up when you could be cooking already? Forget stand up toasters and go versatile with something you can use to make 13″ pizzas and much more!

—But wait, I hear you cry, didn’t you leave out the —stand mixer?! The STAND mixer!? Please rest assured. I did. And not by accident.

But, I hear you whine, stand mixers come in pretty colors, and when I look at them, visions of Christmas, hot, steamy loaves of homemade bread, brownies, cakes, cookies, and pies dance before my delusional eyes.

Oh, yeah? I retort. And just how long do you suppose it will take the Keebler Elves to give up their tree and start working at your house, Betty Crocker?! In other words, snap out of it already! That’s just the Kitchen-Aid marketing department talking.

Contrary to what you’ve been lead to believe, you are not going to start baking like a mad person, catering out of your back door, or shooting a cooking show in your kitchen, just because you buy one of these things. They will not make you hotter, stronger, faster, smarter, or richer. I promise.

Further, there is virtually nothing an expensive, counter-space monopolizing, dust-gathering stand mixer does that you cannot perform just as well (or better) with a hand mixer, a few good whisks, an immersion blender, and the above-referenced food processor. Further, these few items are far more versatile and/or easier to stow out of the way than that hunk of whirring red metal you’ve got your eye on.

And, if you are harboring some fantasy about what you can do with a meat-grinder/sausage maker attachment to such a stand mixer. I would say, get a STX Turboforce 3000 Series – 1800 Watt 2.4 HP Rated Electric Meat Grinder with Sausage Stuffing Tubes for better results. Pasta machine attachment? Whatsamatterwitha clamp on the counter hand crank unit? What? You are too good to turn a crank? Even on a Imperia SP150 Pasta Machine?

Other stuff you may want to consider are: (1) an Oxo Good Grips Salad Spinner— can help when trying to dry your rinsed greens or even lingerie. Of course, you could also just drain and air dry your herbs on paper towels (and for goodness sake, get your lingerie out of the kitchen!); (2) a Hamilton Beach Premiere Cookware 5-1/2-Quart Slow Cooker—useful on a party buffet for serving Swedish meatballs or jambalaya and for cooking stuff that requires low and slow heat, like soups and braises; and (3) an electric rice cooker like the Zojirushi NS-LAC05 Micom 3-Cup Rice Cooker and Warmer, Stainless Steel if you want the very best, have a lot of cash to pay for it, and don’t need a lot of rice at a time, or else buy the larger, nearly as well reviewed, and substantially less expensive Aroma 8-Cup Digital Rice Cooker & Food Steamer instead. These things would only be useful, however, if you routinely run out of stove top space when preparing meals and would like to use that burner for more than rice. Otherwise, in my opinion, any rice cooker takes up too much space for too little utility.

N.B. This list assumes you have a refrigerator-freezer, dishwasher, and oven/stove/range. If not, those should be your first priority (obviously). A microwave isn’t on this list for a reason. Please refer to my earlier post of March 29, 2011, “Ditch Your Microwave (and Rediscover Flavor)” to learn why.

Next time, kids, utensils!

Kitchen Stuff We Can’t Live Without—Part 3: Gadgets

Besides the plates, flatware, knives, pots, and such, every new kitchen needs gadgets and lots of ’em. These are the gadgets we believe are critical to the basic outfitting of a new kitchens:

Gadgets.

—Two or three Microplane graters. I have a Microplane 4-Sided Box Grater as well as a Microplane Classic Black Spice Grater and Microplane Grater/Zester. Do NOT buy any other kind. They suck. Trust me. (NOTE: Do NOT put your grater in the dishwasher regardless of any representations by the maker to the contrary. The black plastic “box” of my Microplane box grater cracked immediately, but even so we are still using it—albeit gingerly.)

—Vegetable peelers, both a “vertical” type like the Oxo Good Grips i-Series Swivel Peeler and a “horizontal” type like the Oxo Good Grips i-Series Y-Peeler, preferably this brand Good Grips by OXO.

—A variety of good cutting boards for different jobs. Today, more than ever, cutting boards come in a wide variety of materials from hardwoods, to renewable bamboo, to polypropylene boards you can toss harmlessly in the dishwasher. As to size, you will want a large one with a channel to catch drippings for your cooked meat carving board, such as the John Boos 18″ x 24″ Au Jus Board in Maple or the J.K. Adams 20″ x 14″ Traditional Carver. You will also want separate boards to handle raw meat and veggies, such as the Grande Epicure Polypropylene 10″ x 13-1/2″ by 8-1/2mm Utility Board or the Progressive International 17.5″ x 11.25″ Cutting Board. Be sure to clean them quickly, though, and keep your wooden ones oiled (olive oil will do) lest your apples end up tasting like your garlic. (Learned that one the hard way.)

—As to can openers, I believe going electric for most of us is way overkill—kind of like using a riding mower to edge your patio. I mean, is it honestly THAT much more effort, for those of us without a joint condition, to turn a large cushy knob than press a large cushy lever? As a result, can openers go in the drawer and cost less than $20. I like sideways, smooth-edge can openers, like the Oxo Good Grips Smooth Edge Can Opener, although my sister liked one by Pampered Chef. You won’t regret the extra cost the first time you DON’T have to dig a lid out of a can of tomatoes!

—Pyrex tempered glass wet measuring cups. Two Pyrex Prepware 1-Cup Measuring Cups and one eachPyrex Prepware 2-Cup Measuring Cup and Pyrex Prepware 1-Quart Measuring Cup.

—Set of dry measuring cups, like the MIU Stainless-Steel 7-Piece Measuring Cup Set.

—Set of All-Clad Stainless Measuring Spoon Set. I know, ridiculously expensive compared with any other ones you find, but you really can get a level measurement using these better than any others I’ve tried. 1/4 teaspoon, 1/2 teaspoon, 1 teaspoon, and 1 tablespoon are the only ones necessary. Those “pinch,” “smidgeon,” “dash” ones are stupid.

—Strainers. Who cares what kind. You will only need them every so often so don’t go more than about the size of a “cup” or two, like these Oxo Good Grips Double Rod Strainer. But do be sure to have them ’cause when you need them, you will really need them!

—Colanders. OXO Good Grips Stainless-Steel Colanders are awesome in two sizes, 3-qt and 5-qt steel.

—Pepper grinder. I have one like this one a William Bounds GP TW Pepper Mill, American Black Walnut, and I adore it in my short shelves. The only drawback is how often it must be refilled, but it works very well. I have often heard good things about ones like these, though—Pepper Mill Imports, Atlas 7″ Brass Pepper Mill, Pepper Mill Imports, Atlas 8″ Brass Pepper Mill, or Pepper Mill Imports, Atlas 8″ Chrome Plated Brass Pepper Mill.

—Reamer. To help you squeeze citrus juice and fend off random intruders (not really), the Oxo Good Grips Wooden Reamer.

—Thermometers. At the very minimum, you need a digital meat thermometer like this one, the Taylor Digital Instant-Read Pocket Thermometer and a glass frying/candy making, like this one, the Polder Glass Candy/Deep Fry Thermometer. You may also consider an oven thermometer for monitoring the temperature of your roast without having to actually open the door, like the Taylor Digital Cooking Thermometer/Timer, or just ask Santa to bring you this one in a few months—the Maverick Laser Surface Thermometer. [Please note when researching this entry, I ran across another Maverick Laser Surface Thermometer used by automotive mechanics that was significantly cheaper. I am considering going with the car repair one. I mean, how different can they really be? And, it’s not like you actually TOUCH the food with the thing….]

—Serving platter. You will need one at some point, so get it now and avoid the holiday rush. Try this set—Tag Whiteware Porcelain Dinnerware Serving Set of 3, White Platters .

—Corkscrew. There are basically two kinds of screw pulls that work easily—a cheap, fool-proof one like the Metrokane Two Step Waiter’s Corkscrew that never fails (trust me, go “two-step” on this one); or the expensive, “rabbit-style” that requires first reading an instruction manual like these– Metrokane Houdini Lever-Style Corkscrew or Pinzon Matte Chrome-Plated Corkscrew. I own two of the cheap, “waiter” ones and none of the second.

—Vinturi Wine Aerators. Who needs decanters when pouring wine through one of these brilliant babies will make everything all better in a jiffy? Be sure to get Vinturi Essential Wine Aerators, Red Wine and White Wine, Set of 2—one for red and one for white—and don’t get ’em confused.

And in the optional but really cool category are: (1) a Stone (Granite) Mortar and Pestle, 7″, 2+ cup capacity—useful for marinades, pestos, salad dressing, curries, and more; and (2) an inexpensive carbon steel wok from an Asian grocery store like this one 14″ Carbon Steel Hand Hammered Wok (including wok ring)—useful if you like high-heat sauté and have a very powerful, hot burner that can really make use of it.

Next time, we’ll talk about appliances we can’t live without! Bon appetite!

Kitchen Stuff We Can’t Live Without—Part 2: Knives

Knives. Unless you are planning to file a spoon down to a razor sharp edge, another big item you will definitely need is actually a lot of little ones, that is, knives. They can be pricey depending which ones you choose, so this would be another good item to get others to buy for you, Brides.

When choosing a knife, be sure to actually hold each one you are considering. If it isn’t comfortable in your hand, keep moving.

The best material for most kitchen knives is high-carbon stainless steel, as opposed to just stainless or surgical stainless, which is not very good in kitchen knives. Titanium is also good for knives where flexibility is preferred, such as boning knives. Ceramic blades are extremely hard which means they hold an edge well but require special equipment to sharpen. Ceramic knives must be used only on a cutting board and never on a plate, countertop or other glazed surface.

Regardless of the materials used, there are fundamental differences in the way Asian-made knives and European or American knives are constructed, so be sure to learn about the care and sharpening requirements of the knife you select before you buy. As with everything there are pluses and minuses.

Given all of that, the following knives were recommended by our friends:

—At least one Santoku of any of the following brands— J.A. Henckels Four Star Series 7″ Santoku Knife , J. A. Henckels Professional “S” Hollow 7″Santoku Knife , or Wusthof Classic 7-Inch Santoku Knife, Hollow Edge, although of these brands, I generally prefer the Wusthof Classic line. Santokus are different than regular chefs’ knives because the little gouges along a Santoku blade help release food. This is a good thing because we all know cling-ons suck—especially when chopping vegetables.

—A J.A. Henckels Twin Pro S Chef’s Knife. If you follow the above link, you will be given a choice of sizes. I would go with the 10″ version.

—I also rely on my paring knife, my utility knives, and my serrated slicer.

—You will also need a honing steel such as the Chef’s Choice 10-Inch Oval Diamond Sharpening Steel and either a natural stone sharpening or honing block such as Smith’s SK2 2-Stone Sharpening Kit, or sharpeners for regular, serated, and sankotu blades such as Chef’s Choice M4623 Diamond Hone 3-Stage Manual Sharpener for Euro-American/Santoku/Serrated Knives, and instruction on how to properly use all of the above.

Now, notwithstanding all of the talk above concerning Wusthof and Henckels, I will confess, I am a fan of a Chicago Cutlery’s Insignia Steel line. (I can hear my foodie-friends’ groans already.) Here’s the qualifier—if you have pro-style chopping speed, you probably already have knives you like to work with. But for us mere mortals, pricey knives may be overkill.

Foodies may snicker because CCs are a heck of a lot less expensive than the German stuff. (A whole set CCs can be had for the price of just one of the larger-size German knives). As a result, they may not be considered all that sexy, but they are good enough for 85% of home cooks in my opinion.

My collection started with a Santoku, and later expanded when I bought a block including something like seven kitchen knives, kitchen shears, and eight steak knives. (Okay, so shoot me!)

Here’s why: I find them well-balanced and easy to sharpen. They hold a nice edge and are very comfortable to hold even during lengthy prep jobs. I saw some negative reviews on Amazon about rust, but I don’t leave them underwater for longer than it takes to hand wash them so I haven’t had that a problem.

I have since gotten rid of the block in favor of a MIU Magnetic, Stainless, 20″ Knife Holder, but have kept all the knives along with my Wusthof Classic 4-1/2″ Utility Knife.

Remember with any of these big-boy knives, whether one of the German brands or the Chicago Cutlery, your days of tossing them in the dishwasher are over. Piling them in with the stainless in the cutlery basket will stain them and dull the blades extra quick. I also never leave them in the bottom of the sink for safety reasons and to prevent dulling and the rusting mentioned of above.

Well, that concludes today’s installment of Kitchen Stuff We Can’t Live Without. Join us tomorrow for Gadgets!

Kitchen Stuff We Can’t Live Without—Part 1: Pots

Spring is a time for new beginnings—and loads of pollen. Every Spring I end up hunkering down inside my house, doing my best “girl-in-the-plastic-bubble” routine. You know, hermetically sealed for my protection.

But some people get out there, pollen notwithstanding, and do terribly meaningful and important things. They get married, buy new houses, complete educations, and move away from home (sometimes voluntarily and, frankly, sometimes involuntarily).

Many of these life transitions require these go-getters to set up a kitchen, possibly for the first time. Especially in the case of brides, however, I have seen some stuff on registries that my many years of marriage advises me is stupidly impractical. Meanwhile, the same registries omit very necessary things.

It is especially crucial in economic times like these that you strategize to make your friends’ and relatives’ dollars go as far as possible toward getting you the kitchen of your dreams. I mean, get with it! Your first marriage may be the last chance you ever have to pick out really pricey gifts people will actually buy for you. Don’t blow this opportunity imagining you will be hosting tea for the Queen and her court!

What do I mean? Here’s your first clue: if your dining table only has seating for four, you probably don’t need formal service for 12. You also may consider skipping formal place settings entirely *gasp* if a crawfish boil is your idea of a dinner party. Just get a really nice informal pattern instead and use your relatives’ wedding gift budget on awesome pots, pans, knives, appliances, and other stuff you can really use but that cost and arm and a leg.

Besides, if you play your cards right, you won’t have room in your kitchen for a second set of plates. You are going to need that space when you score all of these cool cooking gadgets!

But whether you are having to pony up yourself or are relying on the generosity of others, fear not! For I have consulted my friends and among us we have compiled these tips for scoring items you need for cooking and entertaining you will really do.

(Please note—this list is not complete if you are a Cajun or live in South Louisiana. In that case, you have a whole set of additional outdoor cooking implements you will also require like boiling pots that double as turkey fryers, propane burner rings, fire extinguishers, large industrial fans to chase off the mosquitos, etc.)

Category #1 Pots. Obviously, you are going to need something to put the food in when you cook it. But maybe your eyes glaze over when confronted by the dizzying array of expensive metal things with handles on them. Here’s what our panel said you need:

—A Le Creuset enameled cast-iron 9-1/2-quart oval French oven. It is amazing for braising (a skill you should learn if you don’t know how to do it yet). Cheap meat comes out tender and tasting not-of-iron. And the enameling makes clean-up easier, and keeps your pot rust-free.

—A Lodge Logic L10SK3 12-inch pre-seasoned skillet, at a minimum, but I might go for the Lodge LCC3 Logic Pre-Seasoned Combo Cooker for even more versatility. I use mine to deep fry and make roux. You will have to pry this from my cold, dead fingers before I give it up.

—The Le Creuset Enamel-on-Steel 12-quart covered stockpot also rocks for soups and stews. Oh, and all Le Crueset comes in pretty colors. Wheeeee!

—I can also recommend All-Clad Stainless Steel series including 1-1/2-quart saucepan with lid and a 4-quart saucepan with steamer insert, a 10-inch fry pan, a 14-inch fry pan, a 6-quart saute pan, a large roasting pan with rack, and an 8-quart stockpot OR a 7-quart stockpot with pasta insert, depending on how much you love pasta.

I would definitely evaluate whether you will come out ahead by getting deals on sets that have almost all of the above and then filling in the rest. You may be able to save a bundle but you also may end up with pieces you never use.

You will also note I didn’t recommend the All-Clad Stainless double boiler insert. That’s what a tempered glass or stainless steel bowl on top of the 1.5 quart sauce pan is for! Duh. 😉

P.S. My sister loves her Emeril Stainless Steel 10-Piece Cookware Set, though. And truly, they look a lot like All-Clad Stainless but for a fraction of the price.

So that concludes today’s post on pots you really need. Be sure to check us out tomorrow, when we will address the question of knives—and possibly more!

Nabeel’s Café & Market—Traditional Greek-Italian

It’s easy write reviews of restaurants such as Nabeel’s.   For more than 20 years, the Krontiras family has delivered outstandingly authentic examples of the food of their respective homelands, Greece and Italy.  Today at lunch I was reminded once again why I keep coming back to this fixture on Oxmoor Road in Homewood, Alabama, just south of Birmingham.

When I visit Nabeel’s, I must confess I tend to focus on their classic Greek dishes.  In the nearly 14 years I have dined there, the quality and taste of the dishes has never varied.  My favorite appetizer is a Greek feta wrapped in foil and baked with EVOO, garlic and oregano called Feta Theologos.  It is served with the foil twisted in the shape of a swan but the flavor on the inside is even prettier!

For an entrée, I love the Moussaka served with a Greek salad and slice of yeasty white bread made from scratch.  The meat of this dish is spiced with mint, cinnamon, and allspice—an admittedly freaky combination for a savory meat dish if you have never eaten Mediterranean food before.  But the spices in this example are balanced and so subtle I don’t even think a newbie would be offended.  The bechamel top layer is perfectly proportioned and fluffy giving the overall dish a creamy flavor and delicate texture. 

The only component of the dish that always surprises me is the cold tomato sauce on the plate surrounding the cassarole.  I’m not talking room temperature, here.  I’m talking right out of the refrigerator and onto the place.  But the sauce is delicious and, if used strategically, can take each bite of Moussaka from molten to palatable by the time your fork reaches your mouth.

Nor is the ubiquitous tag-along salad a throw-away.  Today, the last day of March, I was surprised by the garden-ripe flavor and smooth, slightly firm texture of the included tomatoes.  Where did they get such tomatoes in Northern Alabama at this time of year?!  And frankly, who cares?  Tomato snob that I am, I gobbled ’em up along with the rich feta, Kalamata olive, cucumber, and dried mint and red wine vinegar dressed lettuce.

I even adore the fact that iced tea here is not some tropical-fruity-flavored nonsense (gag me!), but is laced with mint.  Mint.  I love that in tea or even as tea.  And their wine selection is pretty darn good too.

This meal is just one representative of the fabulousness of everything I’ve ever eaten here.  The décor isn’t fancy, but it is warm and charming.  And after dinner, make a point of strolling through the market next door to find everything from dried meats to Jordan almonds.   You won’t regret it!

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RATING:

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Food: 

Ambiance: 

Dornenberg, Andrew and Karen Page, “The Flavor Bible”

The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America’s Most Imaginative Chefs is not really a cookbook in the traditional sense of recipes-divided-into-chapters-by-type-of-food-and-indexed-by-ingredients.  What it is is an amazing resource! 

You’ve got watermelon?  Wanna know what other ingredients love watermelon?  Then this is the book for you.

Once when I was making Julia Child’s Steam Roast Duck, I had rendered duck fat.  THE BOOK suggested cauliflower, garlic, and dill were good friends.  I sauteed the garlic and cauliflower in the duck fat and topped with dill at the end.  Magic!

Or that seedless watermelon I mentioned earlier. Guess what? Feta, mint, and mint-infused balsamic vinegar.  Sounds crazy.  Tastes awesome.

Point is, THE BOOK will set you free from what is written and will help you go your own way, without going too far out of bounds, by giving you a clue about time-tested taste combinations you might not otherwise consider.

Give The Flavor Bible a spot in your cookbook collection.  You won’t regret it.

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