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All posts for the month November, 2011

Desperately Seeking Season

Published November 22, 2011 by livinggraciously

This has not been the best of days. It’s two days before Thanksgiving, and I took the car in this morning for what was supposed to be a simple alignment. Turns out that instead we have a litany of repairs that add up to…well, our Christmas present will be a working car! We can put a bow on it and everything!

Additionally, we aren’t going to get it back until tomorrow afternoon. They hope. This is really bad, because not only haven’t we done our Thanksgiving dinner grocery shopping, we have guests for dinner tonight and tomorrow night, meals for which I was going to go shopping this afternoon.

This is even more bad because we’re a little on the “Old Mother Hubbard” side in the kitchen this week. Ferrett was out of town with the car over the weekend, and no shopping got done before he left because I was immersed in work stuff. What we had left for protein was three chicken breasts and some frozen ground turkey.

If things go drastically wrong, tomorrow night’s guests will get meatloaf, but looking through the cupboard I decided I could make Thai curry for tonight’s.

Now, this is a known favorite of mine, but has to be adapted when Ferrett is around since he doesn’t eat peppers.  He doesn’t really care for water chestnuts, either, but I decided that he would just have to live with those. I had some sweet potatoes, which I julienned, and onions, and some fresh basil. Once I stirred it all together with the curry paste, the coconut milk, and the fish sauce, it was…okay. The sweet potato made it sweeter than usual, so it had to be adjusted for a little more heat, but everything else was individually all right. But I wasn’t happy. My tongue was not excited.

The flavor wasn’t bad, it was just kind of…flat. I stood over the pot, stirring and frowning. It didn’t need more salt, and black pepper is not the right flavor profile for this dish. What was it missing?

Well, it was missing the bell peppers, but that taste was out of the question. I thought to myself, besides their our flavor, though, what do bell peppers bring to this dish?

Then I realized: acidity! I reached in the fridge for lime, and squeezed a couple teaspoons of juice into the pot. (None of this “try in a spoon and see if it works” business; I commit!) Sure enough, that brightened the flavor right up and made the whole dish “pop.”

It’s a lesson I need to remember: sometimes what’s needed is to increase the umami profile of a dish, not just to pursue more of what’s already there. The proper balance of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty really does make a difference, and it’s too easy to fall back on just salting something more instead of actually paying attention to what’s happening on my tongue. I need to keep working on that.

But hopefully not by making meatloaf tomorrow.

Living with a Small Kitchen: Food prep (gadgets)

Published November 8, 2011 by livinggraciously

Okay, you got the pots and pans, you got the knives, you got the small appliances. Now you gotta put stuff together. You know, actually cook stuff?

It’s kind of remarkable the number of other things you don’t need in order to put together delicious food: your stock pot and sauce pans can even double for mixing bowls.

But seriously. If you’re not in still in college or just gotten out of it, why would you live like that?

Well-made, well-fitted tools make life in the kitchen much easier and change cooking from a job to a joy. It’s possible to get by with cheap and flimsy versions of most tools, but I recommend replacing such tools with quality items when the opportunity arises.

Also, don’t buy stuff until you need it a couple times, but when you find yourself wishing you had it for the second time? BUY IT. It’s really easy to end up with a drawer full of stuff that you never use, but it’s equally frustrating to be continually makeshifting when the tool that would help you do this job quickly and easily isn’t in your arsenal.

So, where to start? How about with the most used items in my kitchen: mixing bowls.

I have a few…

This is two sets of metal mixing bowls, for a total of 8 (minus one second-to-smallest bowl that got left at my ex’s years ago), plus a set of glass bowls that go down to itty bitty. I’d been coveting those glass bowls for years and finally was given a set for my birthday this year. I was over the moon!

Now, some people might think this is a lot of mixing bowls, particularly of the metal ones – who needs two full sets? And yet I can report that today alone I used all but two of those bowls, and it wasn’t even a crazy-busy cooking day. And the nice thing about metal bowls is that they can stack well without worrying about chips and dings.

The glass bowls are exceptionally handy when setting up mise en place for a complex dish. It’s satisfying to go all Julia Child with those little bowls filled with prepared ingredients.

Who can resist a chance to play Food Network Star? Plus, it’s just doggone handy. I wouldn’t mind a second set of these bowls.

What next? Baking stuff! We’ve already covered cookie sheets (of which I now own four), and baking pans. But after that there are all the other things: cooling racks (I have three), a baking stone (I want a better one than I currently own), round cake pans (I don’t own any, but I don’t bake cakes), pie tins (I have one and never use it), springform pans (these I have, but have only used a couple times) loaf pans (I have one large, want one smaller). What you should actually own depends on what kind of baking you do. If you are a sweets fan, stock up; if not, don’t feel like you need to own these things. Remember, you can buy things as you discover you need them.

And then there’s all the tools for the alchemy of turning a pile of ingredients into a meal:

Due to the small size of my kitchen, I only have one drawer for kitchen utensils, so I keep an eye out for things that don’t get used and get them out of there. Even still, the clutter gets away from me at times and I have to sort it all out again.

Top of my list is wooden spoons. I have about half a dozen, three of which are high quality spoons I bought at Lehman’s in Amish Country. I remember as a kid my mom having one, only one, wooden spoon. I imagine she used it for cooking, but I remember it well as the source of paddlings. Mom had a lot of large, long-handled metal spoons that we used for most the cooking, and they were the source of many finger burns. I use practically no metal tools in cooking these days, and they are bad for cast iron surfaces and for the few nonstick items I have around. So the wooden spoons are wonderful for protecting cooking surfaces and being poor heat conductors.

Spatulas, ladles, serving spoons, have two or three of each around so that you don’t have to be continually running to the sink to rinse things off. I use nylon ones, preferring the OXO Good Grips brand as quality without the runaway price. There are some silicon ones out there, but they feel kind of…bendy to me, and I don’t trust them. Remember, though, that you can easily melt these in a very hot pan, so be careful with them.

You can only see one whisk in the drawer, but I actually have three: one large metal one, one large silicon one and the small silicon one in the picture. I have the silicon ones for use in my nonstick pressure cooker when thickening sauces. When I was a kid, whisks were only of the potato-masher variety, and I remember thinking that whisks were rather exotic things until I bought one. Now I wouldn’t live without one (okay, I would, but I wouldn’t be as happy). Also, tongs. If you grill meats, you should know never to turn them by stabbing them, which lets the juices run out. Tongs. Use them.

I also have two silicon basting brushes, and do a great job. I probably don’t need two, but they came as a package and are too shiny to just get rid of.

Those are the things in pretty much every kitchen. Let me point out a few that are a little more unusual. At the bottom right of the photo is a dough scraper, with a pastry blender lying on top of it. If you do any baking, I recommend both. The pastry blender makes easy work of cutting cold butter into flour for pie crusts. They come in two varieties, one like I have with wires from handle to handle, and one that has solid metal on the sides and blades just at the bottom. I prefer the latter, and don’t much like the one I now own as it feels flimsier and fussier to me (it does the job, though, so I keep it).

You use the dough scraper to do just what it says: scrape dough back together. It’s a godsend when working with sticky doughs. At the end of the baking process, you can also use it to scrape up stubborn leftover bits of dough from the counter. Care is required, though, to use the blade quite flat in order to avoid damage to countertops.

The bright yellow gadget is a lemon juicer, and I looked askance at Ferrett when he purchased it, but I’m a convert now. Fast and efficient juicing. To its right is a weird triangle thing with a round white label. It’s a jar opener. Not necessary, but handy.

At the bottom left of the picture are both a meat thermometer and a candy thermometer. Just get them. You will be grateful to have them at a moment when acquiring them would mean disaster.

What you don’t see in the drawer are measuring spoons and cups. My measuring spoons hang on a ring off the side of the fridge so they are at hand at all times. Measuring cups are tucked in another drawer. I have a set of dry ones, and two glass liquid ones, one 2-cup and one 4-cup. Two different sizes are handy to have around.

There are a couple other things that I recommend for any kitchen. First, these fabulous bowls that are available at World Market:

They are pasta-style bowls, wide and shallow, and about the circumference of a large salad plate at the lip. Not only are they great for eating out of, they are the best shape ever for dredging and coating foods with flour or breadcrumbs. I use them all the time.

Second is something I found at Costco. In the automotive section. A couple years ago I bought a package of white terrycloth auto-detailing towels like these, except it was a package of 40. They have been the handiest things ever. With these puppies around, you never are without a towel, and you’re never tempted to rinse out that towel you used to wipe up raw chicken and risk contaminating other foods. We use them as a substitute for napkins daily, saving paper waste. And spills? No worries! There are always plenty of towels available for sopping things up.

Third is parchment paper. OMG, parchment paper! This silicon-coated update of waxed paper is heatproof and keeps everything from sticking. I can’t believe it took me years to get around to buying a roll of this wonder, and I can’t believe it took me this long.

Finally, if you have stainless steel, you will thank me for turning you on to this:

My lovely All-Clad pan was coated with brown spatter stains that seemed to be permanently bonded to the pan. I was quite frustrated with the situation, and tried many solutions. Then I saw this wonder being touted by another stainless steel owner. It’s amazing stuff! I’ve seen the regular cleanser in grocery stores, but the stainless steel one is a little harder to find. I’ve seen it at Bed Bath & Beyond, and of course amazon.

That pretty much finishes up my kitchen. I’m sure others have different absolute musts, but this is what gets me through the meals I make.

Style

Published November 4, 2011 by livinggraciously

Ferrett and I both cook, and we’re both serviceably mediocre at it. I don’t mean that as either self-denigration or false modesty. We can both put a meal on the table that others will appreciate and enjoy, but we are not MasterChef quality by a long stretch.  There’s nothing wrong with being a serviceably mediocre cook: those of us lucky enough to have mothers who attained that level of ability were often the subject of great jealousy for those kids whose moms were terrible cooks.

And there are lots of terrible cooks out there. My paternal grandmother, lovely woman that she was, was a nightmare in the kitchen. My mother would threaten us with having to eat at Gramma’s if we didn’t behave. I remember actually bursting into tears more than once when I realized that we were staying at Gramma’s for dinner. Here’s how bad she was: the family were farmers, and when the itinerant workers came through for harvest season, they would bring their own lunches rather than eat the free meal provided from Gramma’s kitchen.

So I am aware of how much better a cook I am than that. But I’m also aware that compared to some of our local friends my skills are still rudimentary, and their skills don’t even begin to comprehend the skills of an actual sous chef. It’s a large scale, and one on which I would like to move up. But I don’t currently have the time or attention to devote to lots of kitchen practice, so my improvement is piecemeal at best. As is Ferrett’s, his time being even more occupied than mine.

One of the things we’ve both noticed his how different our cooking styles are. Ferrett cooks like a classical pianist. Sight reading, he can pick his way through a piece tolerably well on the first try, improving with each replaying. In the kitchen, Ferrett follows recipes carefully, scanning through cookbooks, writing detailed shopping lists, reviewing the recipe before starting to cook, and producing very tasty results. But he really needs that sheet music, that recipe, in front of him.

Whereas I tend to cook like jazz. I’m familiar with the tune, and can drop a sweet little riff into it and come up with something out of nothing. Most of my time, my approach to the cooking is “let’s see what’s in the fridge that I can throw together into a meal.” I keep the basics handy, grab the leftover bits of something else, and it comes together into something pretty edible most of the time.

Neither of these approaches is superior, and they both have their drawbacks. Ferrett makes some tasty, interesting food when he has planned for it, but if he doesn’t have a preplanned meal shopped for, he’s pretty lost in the kitchen. I can look in the fridge and see that we have an apple, a carrot, some anchovies and a pound of leftover chicken and think up a dish that will pull it all together, but left to my own devices I tend to buy the same basics over and over and we end up with meals that are kind of indistinguishable from each other.

But the really cool thing? These two cooking styles blend into an amazing synthesis. If Ferrett buys ingredients for a dish, there are often leftovers of those ingredients. Or sometimes he buys stuff to cook and then for some reason loses interest in cooking that dish. The combination of those two facts means that when I open the fridge to figure out something freeform, there are lots more choices available and I am encouraged to get more creative.

I suspect that as we go along, our personal styles will remain strong. He will always be the one looking for more unusual recipes and I will always be the one buying spontaneously and making it up as I go along. But I’m also certain that the two of us will continue to complement each other, our contrasting styles giving depth to each others dishes.

Hey, baby, let’s make some beautiful music together. And then eat it for dinner.

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