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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!

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

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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 – Silpat

Silpat? What in the heck is that?

This:

Silpat-Silicon-Baking-Mats_7B60FC97

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a silcone impregnated plastic baking mat.  It starts as woven fiberglass and then it’s coated with a heat-resistant silicone-impregnated plastic.

It’s a true time-saver when baking. Nothing sticks to it; not cookies, not melted cheese, not dough, not anything. To clean it, you simply wipe it with a cloth. Occasionally you might feel better about using a little detergent and a good rinse, but it usually doesn’t even need that.

It’s great because you don’t have to use any oil on a baking sheet – in fact you don’t use any oil whatsoever.

It is good up to 482º so it’s good for any possible baking that you might do.

It isn’t usable for roasting or broiling, although you can use it for slow roasting things like tomatoes and you can use it almost as a dehydrator in a very slow oven. You don’t want to put any hot pans on it, nor do you want to ever cut it “to fit”. Fiberglass is hazardous to the health. They also say that you shouldn’t put it in the dishwasher. Just a quick wipe will do. In line with this, don’t use any metal scrapers, knives, cutters or spatulas. You won’t need them anyway. Cookies and baked goods slide right off. All you might need is a little nudge from a plastic spatula.

If you have a large enough Silpat, you can use it for rolling out dough. The bottom of the mat is tacky, so it sticks to the countertop. You really don’t have to flour the dough very much to keep it from sticking.

You use the mat with the writing side up.

It will discolor over time through the oil that’s emitted by things like cookies and cheese (remember, most cookies are mostly butter). But that isn’t a problem.

Don’t use it with insulated or air-type baking sheets. Always use it with simple one layer baking sheets. 

You can use it for reheating pizza but you shouldn’t use it for baking pizza because a baking stone works a lot better and you won’t get a good crust with it (plus, frankly I cook pizza at the highest temperature possible anyway). Personally, I wouldn’t use it for anything that sits in a baking dish because I can just as easily put those on a bare metal baking sheet.

You should always use it with a baking sheet and you should always store it flat. Never fold it up. I actually roll mine loosely, which the manufacturer doesn’t recommend, or even comment on, but I suspect that it’s fine, since that’s how it’s packaged from the manufacturer.

One thing about baking cookies on this mat – they tend to end up flatter than when you cook on greased metal. The manufacturer says that this is because of the extreme slipperiness of the silicone. The dough moves easier as it heats up.  So, you might find that you might not want to use the Silpat for certain types of cookies. Feel free to use a greased metal sheet if the result that you’re looking for requires it.

There are other brands and they are probably just as good. But this is the original. It’s been used since the 60s in French kitchens. I don’t dismiss the others by recommending this, but this is the only one that I can recommend, since it’s the only one that I use.

There are some people who have concerns about using the product as things have come out recently about heating plastics (especially in baby bottles). I have no such concerns about this product, but if you do, then only you can decide whether you want to take the “risk”. There are also some people that claim that they can smell a rubber-like smell, but I’ve never really noticed anything like that.

I find the Silpat quite useful because, I’m basically a lazy git.  Plus, I like innovative “gadgets”. Guess I’m a sucker for them.

silpat

Cookbook of the Day – La Technique

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La Technique

by Jacques Pepin

Publisher Times Books (December 12, 1976)

ISBN 10: 0812906101

ISBN 13: 978-0812906103

This is a companion volume to Pepin’s La Methode, which I will review in a future installment of Cookbook of the Day.  Both volumes can now be purchased in one volume, but I’ll discuss each one separately.

This was the first of the two volumes and it’s exactly as the title describes – all about technique. It starts with holding the knife and finishes with making Cheveaux d’Ange (angel hair). No, angel hair doesn’t refer to pasta, but rather sugar gossamer “angel’s hair” used to decorate elaborate desserts.

There are recipes scattered throughout but only recipes that require use of a technique to accomplish. Filled with step-by-step matter-of-fact black and white photographs, Pepin takes you through the basics of breaking down a chicken, shucking clams and oysters, making terrines, poaching eggs and even folding napkins.

This was one of the first really practical volumes on technique that clearly showed the American chef step-by-step how to replicate the results of the top chefs of the world. It, along with its sister volume, is really a foundation book for any kitchen library. You should pick up the new combined edition if possible, but you can also find the two books in both hardback and paperback in selected used book stores. My copy of La Technique is hardback, while my copy of La Methode is in paperback. I don’t mind at all. 

angel hair A confetti version of  Cheveaux d’Ange  – imagine that it’s made of sugar and sits atop some elaborately constructed gateaux.

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:

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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.

Kitchen tool of the day – tabletop convection over/toaster

Convection oven

This is my exact model of convection oven/toaster. There are larger capacity “ovens” but I’ve got a pretty small kitchen, so I wanted a pretty small footprint. Also, I got a refurbished model from Amazon for around $30.

These things are very handy. I still use a toaster for most of my bread slice toasting needs, but I use this for roasting quail, dehydrating peppers, cooking small pork tenderloins, roasting chicken parts and small chickens 3 lbs or less, and my most common use, toasting rolls that I’ve frozen, mostly brought home from the restaurant on Sunday night that are left over from the weekend and about to be tossed.

I’ve got a foolproof way to do this. I pop a frozen roll or two into the microwave for 30 seconds. This warms them up from the middle. Then I set the oven on “toast”, which I have preset for “middle dark” and I throw them in. If the oven hasn’t been on at all, the time is preset for 4min 30sec. I usually move the rolls around a little to keep them from burning on the top and as soon as they’re brown (usually around 3 and a half minutes), I pull them out.They come out just about perfectly toasted and hot and tender in the middle. I do this for frozen bread slices as well.

I like the convection feature for cooking things like chicken breasts and thighs. Quail is a little trickier because it stands so tall in the compartment and you have to be careful that you don’t burn the top part of the bird. It’s perfect for baking just a few cookies or reheating  pizza slices. It looks small, but is surprisingly cavernous for its size. It has a wide variety of controls, including a dehydrating function that works well. You can buy a special dehydrating tray but I find that I haven’t really needed it. I’ve only dehydrated fresh chile peppers with it though.

It’s a very handy device. It sits on top of my microwave, so it actually doesn’t take up any countertop space.

There are many good brands and a variety of sizes. You should get the largest size that your counter-top will accommodate, because some of them are large enough to roast a whole chicken larger than 3 lbs or bake a small pizza. The DeLonghi that I have has worked perfectly for over a year, and, even though it was refurbished, came packaged as looking brand new. I don’t think Amazon has them at the moment, but it’s worth being on the lookout of them being run as a special. Most decent brand new tabletop convection ovens run between $75 – $250, but even if you have to buy a new one, they are worth their weight in gold. They’re much more efficient than using your regular stove oven for many tasks.

delonghi

Cookbook of the day – Sauces by James Peterson

Sauces

Sauces: Classical and Contemporary Sauce Making

By James Peterson

  • Publisher: Wiley; 2nd edition (January 27, 1998)
  • ISBN-10: 0471292753
  • ISBN-13: 978-0471292753
  • Caveat – I have the original 1991 edition, which has a different cover and is about 100 pages shorter. It’s the edition that won the James Beard Award for Cookbook of the Year.

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    This is the book if you want all of the lowdown on classical sauces. If you ever wondered what the difference between a sauce and a glace is, this is the book for you. The first chapter is a history of sauces, the second, a compendium of equipment that you might need, the third a listing of ingredients. After that, he breaks down the various sauces and expands them to their variants as well. There are more sauces in classical cooking than you ever thought possible, many with French-derived names. And they are all listed in categories according to the basic recipe from which they spring. This book concentrates on classical sauces and there are essential tips scattered throughout, tips that will allow you to create sauces equal to those in the finest restaurants.

    I haven’t paged throught the more current addition pictured above, but I would hope that he’s extended his overview to Asian and other “non-western classical” offerings, as well as some of the new sauces based on more exotic ingredients.

    This is one of those “foundation books” that every serious cook should have in their cooking library. I’ll be reviewing his equally important book “Splendid Soups” in a future post. The books are a little dry, but they are intended to be reference works, not entertainment.

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    Kitchen tool of the day – chinoise

    Chinoise. French for Chinese. Sometimes also called China Cap. Why? Because it resembles a sort of chinese headgear. However, strictly speaking, a China cap has the same shape but doesn’t have mesh. Instead, the metal cone has punched-out perforations. Or, it can be smooth and just basically be a funnel with a narrow opening.

    Chinois. Essential for making velvet-smooth sauces. Needed for top-notch creamy soups like bisques.

    Chinois:

    gobel%20chinois%20strainer

    China cap:

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    A Chinois or China cap is a little different than a colander or other strainer. It’s shaped like a cone. A strainer can have mesh, but it’s usually bowl haped.

    A good Chinois is fairly expensive. Expect to pay from $25 – $50 for a good stainless steel one. They will last a lifetime if you care for them carefully. Always wash them out thoroughly and keep from rapping the mesh against a sharp surface. Make sure you dry them throughly after washing. Try to get one that at least has hooks on the lip for holding on to a container. You can also buy close-fitting stands for them, and some come with such a stand. You should also have a wooden muddler (a hand-held blunt wooden cone-shape item similar to the pestle in a motar and pestle set.) 

    If you’re serious about cooking, your kitchen will have at least one of these. You should also have colanders and strainers. Colanders are important for draining things like pastas, cooked potatoes or anything that’s larger and needs to shed water. They also come in handy for steaming vegetables if you don’t have a dedicated vegetable steamer. A strainer comes in handy for the same purpose, and it works well to pre-strain a course sauce or liquid before you hit the chinois. Always try to get stainless steel whenever possible to avoid rust issues and to make it easy to clean them. However, a plastic colander works OK if you never use it for sauces which can stain it. If it can stain, it can also retain odor.

    If you want the ultimate in straining for extremely fine sauces, use a cheesecloth with a Chinois.

    Cookbook of the day – The French Laundry Cookbook

    9781579651268

    The French Laundry Cookbook

    by Thomas Keller

    Publisher: Artisan

    ISBN-10: 1579651267

    ISBN-13: 978-1579651268

    So, you say you’ve got a $50 bill burning a hole in your pocket? Want to know how The French Laundry is able to get away with charging people $135 each for a prix fixe menu? Wonder why you have to make a reservation two months to the day from your desired dining day? Wonder what the fuss is all about? 

    Well, wonder no more. Currently, you can pick this $50 book for as little as $30 if you look around.

    If you pull the trigger, you’ll find a substantial, well-crafted book that’s just as home on a fancy coffee-table as it is on your kitchen bookshelf.  This is a large format book, so it’s not particularly convenient on your counter-top.

    When you get this book, you’ll find the very recipes for many of the dishes that Chef Keller and his associates put out on a nightly basis. Even more importantly, you’ll uncover his philosophy of cooking sophistication, attention to detail and the use of the freshest products. Even though he’s a serious technician,  he clearly lays out the techniques that you’ll find essential if you want to reproduce his famous dishes. This is as much a “how-to” as it is a recipe book. These techniques are often elaborate and time-consuming but well within the skills of a home chef. An example is his insistence that all sauces and stocks are strained and skimmed as often as necessary to get a pure product. This is what he says about the subject: “When in doubt, strain. Not a single liquid or purée moves from one place to another in the restaurant except through some sort of strainer. And you must always be skimming – skim, skim, skim”. 

    All of the recipes are based on single portions as they would be served from the prix fixe menu in the restaurant. You are advised that you can double them for larger portions.

    I can’t say enough about the look and feel of the book. It’s definitely art gallery quality. This is a cookbook that you will be proud to own, even at the listed retail price.

    In the tradition of Julie and Julia, Carol Blymire has cooked her way through every recipe in this cookbook. You can follow her culinary adventures at her blog:

    http://carolcookskeller.blogspot.com/

    Stay tuned for my recommendation of his companion volume, Bouchon.

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    Food Item of the month – the humble food mill

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    If you don’t have one of these contraptions in your kitchen, you should.

    “But I have a  blender”, I can almost hear you protest.

    And?

    The food mill have been around for years, but it’s fallen out of favor with the “plug it in and let it run” generations.

    The food mill isn’t cheap. A decent one will cost you $40 to $100. It doesn’t have a small footprint either. It takes up a bit of space due to its wide mouth.

    However, a food mill provides a texture that a blender or mixer just can’t provide. It retains more of the original texture, which is why old school mothers prefer it for making home-made baby food.

    Food isn’t chopped or beaten, it’s mashed and ground against various corrugated plates. Therefore, it will make a miraculous mashed potato dish.  And, if you want to make a truly authentic lobster bisque like you had on your visit to Provence last year, you’ll use a food mill to extract all of the essential oils from spent lobster shells. The flavor of a true lobster bisque doesn’t come from lobster meat, it comes from lobster “oil”.

    A food mill will give additional structure to creamy soups. It creates a velvety texture for sauces and it enables you to make purees without skinning fruits and vegetables. A food mill makes the absolute best apple sauce.

    There’s something primal about passing cooked vegetables through the mill, grinding as you go. Every decent cook should experience this every once in a while.

    There are a couple of types of manual food mills that you can get. They generally have the same form, the best of which have replaceable mill plates for different textures. The main difference is that the cheaper ones will be “tinned” – the inside will be coated with tin, and eventually, if you use one enough, it will have to be re-tinned eventually, like old school copper tinned pots. The more expensive models are 100% stainless steel. If you can afford it, get one of those. If not, do what I did and find a tinned version. Make sure you get the largest model that you can afford. A 4 qt or larger mill is recommended. there are plastic ones around, but I wouldn’t recommend them. I don’t really have any experience with them, but I suspect that they will eventually pick up flavors that you might not want to introduce to whatever you’re currently processing, plus, there’s the chance that eventually it might wear to the point of unusuability due to warping.

    So, what are you waiting for? Get yourself one of these contraptions. Now. so that you can do this:

     

    food mill