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Kitchen tool of the day – microwave

Yeah yeah, I know – microwaves are cheating. Good cooks don’t microwave. Microwaves are the devil.

Well, I consider the microwave an essential cooking tool, even if I rarely use it.

First of all, how would I cook popcorn? I’m kidding about this, of course, but I actually do microwave popcorn on occasion. Clean, easy and quick for those lazy moments.

I also use the microwave to revive frozen bread and rolls that I save from the trash at work when we have a lot left over. I freeze them right in their bags. Then, when it’s time, I microwave them for about 30 seconds to get them warmed up from the middle and then toast them. Rolls come out perfect when you use the microwave to preheat them. Frozen sliced bread doesn’t really need to be microwaved first though.

I use the microwave to thaw out frozen stock, which I pack in gallon freezer bags. I don’t fill them up but I pour enough stock in them to freeze flat and not in a thick brick. They look like a 12’X12″ slab. This makes for quick rethawing in the microwave and helps save space in the freezer, where I can stack a bunch of perfectly portioned packages.

My most frequent use for the microwave seems to be reheating frozen pulled pork barbecue. Works great if you don’t just nuke it. I usually cook a bag for about a minute. Then I stop, break it up a bit, add some BBQ sauce and then cook for another minute or so. The goal isn’t to cook it more but to simply bring the temperature back up to where it was when I pulled it initially.

I know some people use it to cook rice, but I’ve never bothered. From what I’ve read, it really doesn’t save that much time and I have my stove top method down to a foolproof method.

Microwaves aren’t very efficient for boiling water either.

I really don’t use it for much cooking, per se. I might use it to reheat frozen food if I had a lot of frozen food that I put away, but BBQ and stock is about the only thing I ever put away that would be appropriate (and I only nuke stock if I’m going to use it for some quick soup).

I’m sure that people have some favorite uses for the microwave. These are mine.

Since I don’t use a microwave very often, I sprung for a cheap one. I got a Goldstar at the local pawn shop for around $25. It looks very similar to this one, only not as tall:

I’m guessing that mine is about 1.5 cubic feet at most. Perfect for the small tasks that I use it for. It sits right under my tabletop convention oven/toaster (previously raved about in this post of mine: https://teleburst.wordpress.com/2009/07/06/kitchen-tool-of-the-day-tabletop-convection-overtoaster/ )

So, if you don’t have a microwave because you’re a foodie snob, you should reevaluate. There are some good uses of the device that don’t compromise cooking quality and, in some cases, might actually be the best solution to a cooking problem. Do yourself a favor, get a no-frills microwave from your local pawn shop. They’re cheap and plentiful. And if you already are using a microwave for things like cooking meat from the raw state, shame on ya! Learn to cook, ya slob!

Kitchen tool of the day – coffee maker

I have three “coffee” makers (if you don’t count various pots and pans that can be used for “cowboy coffee”).

The first that I’ll discuss is my Krups espresso/cappuccino maker.

krupssteam

This is a steam-driven espresso machine and the biggest drawback is the fact that it just doesn’t have the “juice” to produce an acceptable crema. The espresso that it produces is just average at best. The crema is thin and doesn’t last very long. For those of you who don’t know, crema is the brown “froth” on top of a properly made espresso. A cheap, steam-driven machine will rarely, if ever, produce a great demitasse of espresso. It just doesn’t have enough “power” to drive a crema and the result is often anemic (that’s not specific to Krups but is a function of any steam machine). That’s what you get when you spend less than $100 for such a machine. To get a restaurant-quality product, you have to go pump or lever – it’s as simple as that. I recommend that you don’t even bother if you only occasionally like a cup of espresso or cappuccino unless you just have deep pockets and money to burn. Better to just wait until you’re in a cafe or restaurant that can produce a quality product.

Braun drip coffee maker.

Braun coffee maker

This is my second Braun coffee maker. I’ve also had a similar Krups, one that was identical to one that I used when I lived in Germany. I wasn’t unhappy with it – I just ended up with Braun for some reason. I prefer the German-made coffee machines. One reason is that Germans know coffee and have spent a lot of time maximizing things like proper water temperature, ease of cleaning and proper filter shape and design, clean, modern styling and eschewing bells and whistles that I don’t need (timers, clocks, etc.) This 10 cup model (actually only about 4-5 American style mugs) also offers a replaceable water purifier/filter. It’s attractive, simple to use and delivers a top-notch cup of coffee. Unlike some American models, the gold mesh filter that I use instead of paper filters is easy to empty and clean (who ever thought that a flat bottom filter performed better than a conical one, much less made it easy to clean a gold mesh version?). A conical shape creates the best way to deliver hot water to all of the grind. I highly recommend either the of the inexpensive no-bells-and-whistles Krups or the Braun, having used them both. they are similar in form and function. They usually run less than $40 and will last a long time.

Bodum Chambord 8 French coffee press (8 cup/ 4 American mug capacity)

bodum

This makes my favorite cup of coffee. many coffee purists feel that the French press delivers the most flavorful cup of coffee. It works by adding just-short-of-boiling water to a predetermined amount of grounds in the bottom of the flask. You add the top, which has a filtered plunger. You leave the plunger where it is for about 2 or 3 minutes and then you depress the plunger, which lets the infused liquid pass while keeping grounds and particulates stuck in the bottom.

This allows the grounds to steep in the water, allowing more of the flavor to remain.

There are two major downsides. The first is that the temperature of the coffee is a little less than when you use a drip or percolating machine. Couple that with the fact that there’s no burner for the coffee to sit on means that you need to drink up quicker. You can extend the time by putting the coffee in a thermos-type dispenser, but the coffee still won’t be as hot. The second downside is a deal breaker for coffee drinkers that are used to a “clean” cup of coffee. The filter on the plunger doesn’t completely eliminate particulate matter. There is almost always some very fine “grit” (almost as fine as talcum powder) left in the coffee. I actually like this, but I understand why some people just don’t like it.

Personally, I think that the quality of the flavor profile of the coffee overrides these considerations.

Oh yeah, there’s one other drawback and that’s the fact that it’s more labor-intensive to clean. You basically have to clean the whole thing every time. But it doesn’t bother me. It might bother you, though.

As far as drip machines go, both Braun and Krups have their share of “bells-and-whistle” models. I like the simpler machines. About the only bell-and-whistle that I might appreciate is an insulated carafe. But I can live without it.

I love a good cup of coffee. When I drink it black, I need to have a flavorful cup. both of the above coffee makers deliver. In spades. when I want an espresso, I just go to a place that has a “real” espresso machine.

Kitchen tool of the day – Cuisinart DLC-5 food processor

cuisinart-dlc-5_3297465 

Mine is about 15 years old. The plastic is a little yellowed from years of kitchen and household smoke. I’ve never had the need to upgrade to the rounder, “melted-look” newer models that Cuisinart offers. This puppy is built like a brick and performs like a charm. I’ve also got the “Primary Disc Set”, a set of 5 cutting discs that shred, julienne, slice both thinly and thickly and cut thin fries and other veggies. Along with my mandoline and chef’s knife, I can produce virtually any type of cut, but I can also use the food processor for doughs, sauces, purees and marinades.

The food processor completes the processing stable of essential kitchen tools – the blender, the stand mixer, the food mill, the mandoline and the mortar and pestle. If you have these five  items in your kitchen, you can do virtually anything, as long as you have a good chef’s knife. You can actually replace the mandoline and the blender with the food processor for most things, but I find both better at certain tasks, so I recommend keeping them around.

Cuisinart virtually invented the food processor. Initially sold under the Robot-Coupe (pronounced robo coop) name in France , it was brought it to America under the Cusinart name (the name had already been changed to Magimix when it hit the UK shores) where it became America’s first food processor. In fact, its name is almost of the stature of Xerox or Coke – used as a generic name replacement for the appliance – i.e. “She threw a cuisinart at my head”, even though it might have been a Waring that she threw. Robot-Coupe is still the manufacturer of choice for commercial kitchens everywhere. Conair is now the owner of the Cuisinart name and has been the manufacturer of record since 1989 (shortly before my own Cuisinart was made).

The cuisina…I mean food processor is perfect for cutting cold butter into flour for perfect pie doughs. It’s great for incorporating oils into sauces, and handy for blowing through heads of cabbage for slaw. Almost anything that you can do with a mandoline you can do with a food processor providing you have the proper cutting disk.

There are many brands of food processors and I’m not saying that Cuisinart is the only one you should consider. I have no familiarity with other brands, nor have I played with the new, modern-looking Cuisinarts. The model I have has virtually been around little changed  from the beginning and you still see them in commercial kitchens everywhere, sometimes under the name Robot-Coupe. You still will occasionally run across an original Magimix 1800, the model that became the original Cuisinart. The Cuisinart that I have is built like a rock and that’s a virtue with this sort of machine, because a good one requires a  lot of torque and needs to be able to handle a moderate amount of stress.

There are certain brands that inspire confidence because of their performance over a long period of time, even if folks grumble that “they aren’t made the way they used to be”. Kitchenaid, Braun, Krups, Waring – Cuisinart belongs in that echelon.

Kitchen tool of the day – electric coffee grinder

Many kitchens have one of these for grinding whole coffee beans. A true coffee mill (burr grinder) is better because a coffee mill doesn’t chop it, it truly grinds it between two sets of “burrs”, which doesn’t heat the beans as much as chopping, plus it allows for better extraction than what we normally call a coffee grinder because, unless it’s incorrectly calibrated, will grind more uniformly than a chopper. However, this is what we’ll be talking about today:

Braun%20coffee%20grinder

krups-fast-touch-coffee-grinder-black-20342

Actually, it’s a little misleading to call these ‘grinders”. They are actually “choppers” similar to small blenders (they operate exactly the same way as a blender in that they spin a blade at the bottom of a container which chops ingredients into bits).

My purpose in talking about them is to say that the savvy home cook will have two of these, one for coffee (if they don’t have a true coffee mill) and one dedicated solely for spices. They might even have an additional one for sweet spices if they do a lot of baking of dishes that use a lot of spice blends because they might not want their carrot cake to taste like vindaloo.

They are cheap and long-lasting and I find them almost indispensable for doing far-eastern or middle-eastern curries, Mexican dishes, making my own ground chile powder from dried chiles,and custom dry rubs of all descriptions.

You should never use one of these for both coffee and spice blending. It’s almost impossible to remove all of the aromas from the grinder, so you don’t want your coffee tasting like ras-el-hanout or vice versa (or maybe you do – if you do, then I say, go for it pilgrim!).

The Krups and the Braun are both equal and I recommend either one. They are both well-designed and about as cheap as any other off-brand, and less expensive than some of the more trendy brands. I don’t recommend buying a second true coffee mill for spices because it’s a waste of money and a pain in the ass to clean.

Having one of these enables you to roast your own whole spices and grind them to order. If you’ve only used pre-ground packaged cumin or coriander or mustard powder, you’ll be amazed at the vibrancy of quickly toasting those whole seeds brings to your cooking. and in the case of an Indian or Thai curry paste, it can really make a big difference in the outcome.  Obviously, I’ve extolled the virtues of a mortar and pestle in a previous post, but this little item can act as a complement to a mortar and pestle and save you a lot of elbow grease with little reduction in quality. I use this to create a powder and then I combine the result in a mortar and pestle with soft, more “liquid” items like fresh garlic or onions to create pastes. Saves a lot of time and sweat.

So, go out and spend an extra $30. Or find one in a thrift store for $4 as I did. You’ll be glad you did.