Goodies for foodies

It’s that time, when we’re all searching for just the right thing to put under the tree, next to the menorah, at the Kwanzaa table, or whatever. If you have a foodie or two in your list, you’re in luck. There are a ton of gadgets and equipment for all budgets. Some must-haves I think belong in every kitchen include:

Sharp vegetable peeler

One the best pieces of equipment in my culinary school knife kit turned out to the Messermeister Serrated Swivel Peeler ($8). It’s light, nimble, and sharp. Even better, Sur la Table sells it in a selection of juicy colors.

Digital thermometer

I use my Taylor Commercial Instant-Read Digital Thermometer all the time. With a capacity up to 450 F, it’s  versatile enough to test the doneness of meat or keep track of sugar as it cooks for candy.

Kitchen scale

I’m hopeless at eyeballing ingredients, so I use a digital kitchen scale for everything from weighing out pasta to scaling ingredients for baking. My favorite is the Oxo Good Grips Food Scale ($49.99), which has an 11-pound capacity, removable stainless-steel deck (makes it easy to clean), and a light-up digital display that pulls out (nice when you have a large bowl overhangs). Of course, it also has a taring function and the option for Imperial or metric weight.

Good knives

Mac the Knife: These imported Japanese knives live up to the hype.

A good knife is a cook’s best friend, and everyone has their favorite. Mine is the Japanese-made Mac knife, which is lightweight, well-balanced, thin, and maintains a sharp edge. Their knives are also well priced (starting as low as $25 for a paring knife). Shop around online to find the best deals.

If a quest to eat cheap and/or local fare means spending more time in the kitchen breaking down whole chickens or filleting fish, a good boning knife is a helpful tool. These knives boast thin, super-sharp, flexible, 5- or -6-inch blades that make it easy to separate meat from the bone or skin a fish. Again, check out what Mac has to offer.

Stand mixer

A KitchenAid stand mixer is the workhorse of many professional and home kitchens. Why? It’s versatile. You can use it to mix a cake batter, knead bread dough, or whip up a meringue. Optional attachments extend its reach to include making ice cream, grinding meat, stuffing sausage, or rolling out pasta. (Hint: I’m asking for the pasta attachment this Christmas.) Mine mixer is from the tilt-head, 5-quart Artisan series ($299.99), and I confess I bought it because, well, it was apple green and went very nicely in a kitchen I had just remodeled. It still does a terrific job, but if I were buying a stand mixer know, I’d pay a bit more for the Professional 600 series ($399.99). It has a more powerful motor and 6-quart bowl for bigger jobs.

If someone already has a KitchenAid stand mixer, surprise them with a Beater Blade ($20), a paddle attachment with rubber bumpers so it scrapes the bowl while it mixes. KitchenAid, why didn’t you think of this?

Midweek snacks

Some bits ‘n’ bobs to break a long, dry non-blogging spell. Hey, man, I’ve been busy lately, so cut me me some slack.

Pumpkin time

Pumpkin CupcakesHalloween is right around the corner. Make these cute (and easy) lil’ Pumpkin Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting.

Pig parts

Picture 2I dubbed 2008 the Year of Bacon, and our love affair with all things pig continues unabated. Last week, Top Chef contestants were challenged to create fare for the Pigs & Pinot event in Northern California. Serious Eats contends you can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear–or at least a tasty snack of Crisp Fried Pig’s Ear (and I thought pig’s ears were only for dog treats…). On The Atlantic, Ari Weinzweig touts the pleasures of smoked pig’s jowls.

Make garlic even better

CIMG0952Here’s a cool trick I picked up recently: Place peeled garlic cloves (doesn’t matter how many) in a small saucepan. Cover with olive oil (be generous). Bring to a simmer, and cook until the garlic is very tender. Drain through a fine-mesh sieve, reserving the oil. The oil can be refrigerated and used for dressings, cooking, whatever. Mash the garlic with a fork. Use the mashed garlic to flavor all manner of things, from salad dressing to beans and legumes.

You fraiche thing

Creme fraiche: so easy to make, and so rewarding

Creme fraiche: so easy to make, and so rewarding

I recently bitched and moaned up a storm about about preparing a chicken galantine in culinary class, complaining that the thing was icky to make and, ultimately, nothing more than a deconstructed chicken. I also noted that a galantine is something no (sane) home cook would ever want to tackle.

Not so with creme fraiche, which we got around to making a few days later. Creme fraiche is a nothing more than thickened cream, but it’s wonderfully silky, rich, a tad sour, and just a little bit nutty. It’s amazing dolloped on fresh fruit, and you can stir it into soup as a thickener. If you want to elevate a humble baked potato to gourmet status, top it with creme fraiche instead of sour cream. My cat, Moe, likes the stuff straight up from a spoon. (Don’t judge me harshly–if I take it out of the fridge and don’t offer him some as a tribute, the little shit will. not. leave. me. be.)

So, creme fraiche is addictive and versatile (dress up a baked potato, feed the cat, whatever). It’s also a mucho premium ingredient to buy–about $5 for an 8-ounce container. “The expense seems frivolous when it’s so easy to make an equally delicious version at home,” the late Sharon Tyler Herbst wrote in the Food Lover’s Companion (if you don’t have a copy of this reference book, you need one). It’s so easy, in fact, that you do it in your sleep:

Combine 1 cup of heavy cream and 2 tablespoons buttermilk in a small bowl. Let it stand overnight at room temperature (yep, while you sleep). Then refrigerate the stuff and use it within a week.

That process yielded a cup of the luscious cream, which I took home and used to make a variation of Kerry Saretsky’s World’s Easiest Mac and (Four) Cheese with Zucchini and Thyme on Serious Eats. As she notes, using creme fraiche saves you the effort of making a stovetop bechamel sauce. I loved the tangy complexity the creme fraiche added to the mix of cheeses. A little diced prosciutto di Parma was a nice touch, too.

Will I make creme fraiche again? You bet. Heck, it’s so easy that if Moe had opposable thumbs, he’d make it.

Culinary school’s grossest day

A chicken galantine may look pretty, but it's not so pretty to produce.

A chicken galantine may look pretty, but it ain't so pretty to produce.

When I began culinary school in the spring, I noted that whittling potatoes into seven-sided footballs called tornes was the culinary equivalent of hazing. Now I know the real hazing comes in the form of a chicken galantine.

In its simplest interpretation, the galantine is nothing more than a deconstructed chicken. In practice, it is haute French fine dining. “A galantine is an elaborate pate that, instead of being baked in a mold, is wrapped in the skin of whatever bird–usually a duck–is being featured,” Jim Peterson writes in his wonderful book, Glorious French Food. He does not, however, include a recipe for making galantine in his book, probably because it is aimed at home cooks and the home cook who tries to tackle a galantine might swear off the kitchen for good.

Even our cheerfully fearless instructor was rather grim as she prepped us for the day ahead, admonishing us to “work clean.” I think it’s the worst day of the term for her, as culinary students struggle to contain raw chicken, which is handled in many forms. The shit flies everywhere. Here’s how it’s done–keeping in mind that we produced a somewhat simplified version as our first foray into galantine-making.

You start with a whole chicken, removing the skin in one piece so you end up with what resembles a little chicken-skin jumpsuit. Or maybe a chicken-skin hospital gown, since it opens up the back. The instructor likened it to undressing a baby. I commented that it seemed more Silence of the Lambs to me, which prompted classmate to pipe up, “It rubs the lotion on its skin…” Chef was unimpressed by our originality. Okayyyy, set the skin aside, ’cause the fun has only begun!

You start by removing the chicken’s skin in one piece so you end up with what resembles a little chicken-skin jumpsuit. Or maybe a chicken-skin hospital gown, since it opens up the back.

Next, you break down the chicken, removing the meat from the carcass and tossing the bones into a pot with mirepoix to make a stock. Nothing unusual there. The meat goes into a Robot Coupe (a restaurant-grade food processor) to be ground up, along with a splash of cream and an egg (more chicken!) to form a mousseline. The stuff looks finely ground, but it still has bits of carcass and other muck you don’t want, so you have to rub it through a fine-mesh sieve. “It’s like pushing an entire chicken through a window screen,” Chef told us. “Just accept it.” This process took me about an hour and yielded, oh, maybe a 2 cups of fine, sticky chicken mousseline that did not look appetizing to me, though my cat, Moe, who enjoys many of my culinary school efforts, would dig it. The odour of raw chicken that pervaded the lab would have driven him insane.

“It’s like pushing an entire chicken through a window screen,” Chef warned us. “Just accept it.”

Now you take three small portions of the sieved mousseline, mixing them with blanched, pureed carrots, spinach, and mushroom duxelles to form one orange, one green, and one brown mousseline sausage. Wrap each tightly in plastic and poach ‘em in the stock made from the chicken’s bones that has been simmering while you’ve cussed your way through pushing the chicken meat through the sieve. (I quickly fell into cussing, which is my default mode whenever frustrated or bored, and this was both frustrating and dull. But that soon gave way to singing stupid ditties to pass the time.) Plunge the parcooked “sausages” into an ice bath.

Now you’re ready to assemble the galantine. Lay the chicken skin on a work surface, arranging it into a neat rectangle. Top this with a skinless, boneless chicken breast  (not from the chicken you’ve just dismembered and ground to hell, but an extra breast–yep, more chicken!) that has been pounded into a thin rectangle roughly the same size. Smear it with a thin layer of plain chicken mousseline. Arrange your tinted mousseline sausages; smear with the rest of the plain stuff. Roll it up like a burrito. Wrap it tightly in cheesecloth and poach it in the chicken stock. Peterson aptly describes it as “bobbing up like something out of Loch Ness.” Once Nessie is done cooking, dunk her into an ice bath.

Sound good yet? Wait, there’s more. You have to gussy it up with a coating of edible chaud froid, which I can best describe as opaque aspic. I don’t love aspic on a good day; it isn’t any more appealing when it’s opaque. You unwrap the cooled galantine, set it on a wire rack, and slather it with a few coats of chaud froid. Chill it until it sets.

When it’s time to serve, carve slices from the galantine–taking care that the slices are presented so they match up to the gross piece, as the heel of this damn thing is called. And, of course, don’t forget to decorate the grosse piece. I crafted a coy little flower out of blanched oregano leaves and eggplant skin, and set it off-center, like a blossom tucked behind a coquette’s ear.

Of course, the logical question is, “How did it taste?” I can’t tell you. Because of scheduling issues, a long weekend separated assembling the galantine and presenting it, and, well, you know, food safety and all… So, sadly, this little girl was just for show. But I’ll bet it would have tasted just like…chicken.

Crepe maker

 

Homemade Nutella-Banana Crepes bring a touch of Parisian street life to our humble American abode.

Homemade Nutella-Banana Crepes bring a touch of Parisian street life to our humble American abode.

Neither my schedule nor my budget has room for a trip to France this summer. So if I want to enjoy my favorite Parisian street food–Nutella crepes–I’ll have to join the (very) long line for Acadie Crepes at the Sunday Santa Monica Farmers’ Market or make them myself. I generally avoid lines, so I was pleased when we covered crepe-making in culinary school last week. 

I’d never made crepes at home, and it’s easy–dumb easy–and fun. If I can do it, you can, too. I turned out a bunch of them for breakfast on Sunday, filled those puppies with Nutella (OK, Ralph’s cheapo house brand of hazelnut-chocolate spread) and sliced banana, and we enjoyed a touch of Gay Pareeeee in Marina del Rey. Hmmm, it went so well that maybe I could buy a catering truck and join LA’s current mobile food truck mania. So, in honor of Bastille Day, here are some crepes:

Nutella-Banana Crepes

You don’t need a dedicated crepe pan for this; any nonstick skillet will do. And use a rubber spatula to turn the crepe. The number of crepes you get depends on the size of the skillet. I used a 10-inch skillet and ended up with 9 (8-inch-ish) crepes. To freeze leftovers: stack cooled crepes between layers of parchment or waxed paper and place in a zip-top plastic bag.

4 ounces all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 large eggs

1 cup 1% low-fat milk (or any milk is fine)

3/4 ounce butter

Canola oil

Nutella (chocolate-hazelnut spread)–use a lot, don’t be shy.

Sliced banana

1. Combine the flour, salt, and eggs in a food processor; process until well-combined. With the motor running, add milk through food chute; process until the mixture is the consistency of heavy cream. Strain the batter through a fine-mesh sieve into a medium bowl.

2. Heat the butter in a nonstick skillet; cook until butter until is browned. Keep an eye on it so it doesn’t burn. Whisk the browned butter into the batter. Cover, and let stand 30 minutes.

3. Heat a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Soak a paper towel in canola oil; rub surface of pan with oil-soaked paper towel. Use a small ladle to add 2 to 4 tablespoons batter to pan (just enough to coat the bottom of the pan with a thin layer of batter), swirling the pan to coat. Cook about 2 minutes, or until the edges are brown and the bottom is golden (use a rubber spatula to lift the crepe and peek at the bottom). Flip the crepe; cook another minute or so until the other side is golden. Transfer crepe to a wire rack to cool. Repeat with oil and remaining batter. If crepes cool too much, you can warm them in a low oven.

4. To assemble, spread Nutella (how much depends on how generous you’re feeling) on half of a crepe; top with sliced bananas and fold in half. Garnish with additional Nutella and bananas. Bon appetit!

(Adapted from Professional Cooking, 6th Edition, by Wayne Gisslen.)

Smart scale

 

Sexy scale: Oxo's kitchen scales has many features to appreciate.

Sexy scale: Oxo's kitchen scales has many features to appreciate.

Personal scales, as in a scale to measure my weight, are a waste of time. Don’t care to step on one, thanks. Knowing whether my weight is up or down or holding steady has never influenced whether I’ll go in for a second (or third) cookie.

But kitchen scales are another matter. A few years ago a colleague sold me on the benefits of a kitchen scale and I became a vocal convert, blathering on about why everyone should have a kitchen scale to anyone who would listen (and a few who wouldn’t). Even before starting culinary school, I used one to measure ingredients for baking. If you don’t have one, you should. Trust me, it will make your cooking life easier and your food better.

For the most part, the culinary school I’m attending has awesome labs stocked with good equipment. But the scales, frankly, suck. They’re old-school spring models of questionable accuracy, thanks to abuse by students. So by the time we hit the baking class, I started toting my digital Salter scale to school. It’s does a great job. But it’s also made of glass, and I’m clumsy, so it’s only a matter of time until I drop the thing and it shatters into a million pieces.

Good thing I have an acquaintance at Oxo, who was willing to send me one of their top-of-the-line kitchen scales to test drive. This baby has several winning features that make it a keeper:

  • An 11-pound capacity. That’s a lot, but it came in handy when I needed to weight biggo hunks of meat in my meat fabrication class.
  • A removable stainless-steel platform. That makes it easy to clean without potentially damaging the scale’s electronics.
  • A pull-out digital display that lights up (!). That’s perhaps the sweetest of all, since the display on my other scale is often overshadowed by a bowl or plate. Not a problem with this one.

This model is $50, but Oxo also has a scaled-down (ha! pun intended) version with a 5-pound capacity for $30. Its display also pulls out (but doesn’t light up), and the platform can’t be removed. But for most home cooks, it will do the job quite nicely. So take your pick. Either way, it’s the kind of scale you’ll like to use.

A trend that makes the cut

 

The whole hog

The whole hog

Like many people, I’ve long been in the habit of purchasing parts–skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, pork chops, fish filets, and the like–at the meat counter. Many shoppers are willing to pay a premium for the convenience of prepped meat, poultry, and seafood. Also, we may not know how to break down a whole chicken or clean and filet a fish. Your grandmother probably could do it with her eyes closed, but could you?

Old-school butchery is making a comeback, and butchers are the newest stars on the culinary scene.

I certainly couldn’t–at least, not very well–until I took the Meat Identification and Fabrication class at culinary school. The three-week class was a crash course in understanding different cuts of beef, lamb, veal, and pork, as well as gaining loads of practice cutting up whole chickens and ducks, and filleting all kinds of fish.

Of course, despite that, I’m no expert. Butchery is an art and skill that can’t be mastered in three weeks. But I did enjoy the satisfaction of cooking fish that I’d cleaned and filleted myself, and sauteing the breast of a chicken I’d just broken down.

The class was also particularly well timed, since a do-it-yourself approach to meat, poultry, and fish is making a strong comeback, along with other budget-friendly, old-timey, back-to-basics kitchen skills like canning. Part of it is a desire to save some coin–whole or large cuts are cheaper than parts–but it’s also an extension of the local, know-your-food movement. In other words, pork chops come from an actual pig, not a tightly sealed Styrofoam tray. People are doing this in all kinds of ways, from purchasing meat and poultry from local producers at the neighborhood farmers’ market to raising their own livestock. In one elaborate experiment, an Alabama-based magazine editor raised and slaughtered a pig–and documented it in the fascinating blog Killing Dinner. Top-drawer chefs, like Blue Hill’s Dan Barber, are bringing butchering back to restaurant kitchens in order to take advantage of high-end animal products, like hazenut-fed pigs and grass-fed beef. The newest culinary stars are butchers, according to The New York Times.

Home cooks are jumping on the bandwagon, for quality and cost-savings. If you know how to clean and filet a fish, you can inspect the whole fish before you buy to ensure it’s truly fresh–i.,e, with bright eyes, intact scales, pinky-red gills, and a fresh scent (or no scent). Buying a whole chicken is cheaper than parts, and you can get a lot of mileage out of it. A pound of organic skinless boneless chicken breasts is $9 at my local supermarket; a 4-pound whole organic chicken is less than $8 (and that’s for a premium bird from Whole Foods). I roasted one on Sunday night. Two of us ate the breast halves on Sunday; I cut the meat off the thighs and drumsticks for tacos on Tuesday; and I’ll use the carcass to make stock this weekend.

And, of course, there’s the emerging trend of bringing locally raised/caught meat, poultry, and seafood directly from producers to consumers. NPR just reported on CSFs (community-supported fisheries) in New England, which will may help small-scale fishermen and whole fishing communities survive while bringing high-quality, local seafood to Boston-area residents. CSFs work just like CSAs. Can dedicated CSRs (community-supported ranching) or CSPs (community-supported poultry) be far off? In fact, many CSAs already include delivery options for local meat, poultry, and dairy products.

Of course, the trick for many of the Boston CSF’s new customers is what to do with the whole fish they get each week. And to help with that, organizers offer classes in the fine–and nearly lost–art of cleaning and filleting a fish.

My new love: semifreddo

 

Blueberry Semifreddo: a creamy treat just in time for summer

Blueberry Semifreddo: a cool, creamy treat just in time for the dog days of summer

A Facebook friend has been joking that she’s auditioning candidates for the role of her summer boyfriend. Well, I’ve found mine. He’s smooth, cool, and Italian. His name is Semifreddo. He’s a soft-serve style of ice cream that doesn’t require an ice cream maker, which in my opinion makes him an ideal low-maintenance lover.

Semifreddo requires nothing more than gently cooking some eggs and sugar on the stovetop, combining them with whipped cream and flavorings, and freezing the stuff in a metal tin. The result: A cool, creamy, rich dessert.

These days, I’m all about paring down kitchen tools. I gave away a lot of pans and gadgetry when I moved from Alabama back to Southern California. Not that my mate would believe me, given the amount of kitchen crap squirreled away in drawers and cupboards all over our crib. But, really, you can have too much of a good thing. I just jettisoned the curved torne knife (used to whittle annoying football-shaped vegetable tornes) from my knife kit, since a regular paring knife does the job just as well. Or, at least, not any worse.

Next up, I’m eyeing the ice cream maker attachment I purchased for the KitchenAid stand mixer last year. It works just fine, but I’ve used the thing exactly once. Ever. I’m not even sure I could find the bowl since I’ve moved. And in any case, there’s not really room for it to roost in the freezer, where it needs to chill for at least 12 hours before using it. That would involve moving the vodka, and why would we want to do that?

So on Sunday I was developing recipes for a story and ventured into the world of semifreddo, which requires nothing more than gently cooking some eggs and sugar on the stovetop, combining them with whipped cream and flavorings, and freezing the stuff in a metal tin. The result: A dessert that’s cool, creamy, and rich–just what you want on a summer evening. I’ll post my recipe for Blueberry Semifreddo when it goes live, but in the meantime, you can try Donna Hay’s tasty Raspberry Semifreddo.

Safe food is good food

 

Poultry tops the list of foods that cause foodbourne illnesses, but smart handling will ensure it's safe. (Photo by Robert Pikul/Dreamstime.)

Poultry tops the list of foods that cause foodbourne illnesses, but smart handling will ensure it's safe. (Photo by Robert Pikul/Dreamstime.)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report last week, noting that poultry (including eggs) tops the list of foods linked to foodborne disease outbreaks. Poultry accounted for 21 percent of single-food outbreaks, followed by leafy greens and fruits/nuts, in 2006, the year covered by the CDC’s report.

These days, I’m in the Meat Identification & Fabrication class at culinary school, which means food safety is much on my mind. Last week was spent breaking down whole chickens and ducks, as well as scrubbing scales off, gutting, and filleting whole fish. With that comes, frequent sanitation and carefully avoid cross-contamination. 

That’s because, like it or not, raw meat, poultry, and seafood harbors all manner of bacteria you want to keep out of your food. Common sense and diligence go a long way toward ensuring food is safe, and the same basic principles apply, whether you’re cutting up a chicken for restaurant service or or prepping ingredients to grill dinner in the back yard:

Clean

Make sure your hands, tools, and surfaces stay clean. Wash all three after handling any raw meat or seafood. Hot, soapy water will do the trick.

Separate

Cross-contamination is the big issue. Never use the same utensils and cutting boards for handling raw and cooked food (unless you wash utensils and cutting boards thoroughly after using them for raw ingredients). Also, be to use a bowl, tray, or plate to transport raw meat or seafood across the kitchen (or through the house the grill outside). Elizabeth Karmel, of Girls at the Grill, has a great tip for grillers: Invest in two pairs of long-handled tongs. Wrap red electrical tape around the handle of one, and green around the handle of the other. The red pair is for handling raw ingredients only, while the green pair is for cooked. Also take an extra plate or tray out to the grill for cooked food.

Cook  properly

Undercooked food can harbor harmful bacteria. Use a digital instant-read thermometer to ensure meat and poultry is cooked to the proper internal temperature. According to the USDA, poultry should reach an internal temperature of 165 F; roasts, steaks, and fish, 145 F; and ground beef and pork, 160 F. Remember that food continues to cook when removed for heat–called “carry-over” cooking–so pull meat from the grill or oven a few degrees early, and it will come up the proper temperature while it stands before slicing.

Chill

Get food into the refrigerator or freezer promptly after bringing it home from the store. Defrost frozen food in the refrigerator, never on the counter. And chill leftovers quickly (divide large amounts into smaller portions so they cool faster).

For more info, bookmark Fight Bac!, the site created by the Partnership for Food Safety Education. It’s a great quick reference for food-safety practices.

If you own a stand mixer, you want this attachment

 

Beat Blade scrapes the bowl of a stand mixer, so you don't have to.

Beater Blade scrapes the bowl of a stand mixer, so you don't have to.

I wrapped up the Intro to Baking Class at culinary school last week. As you might imagine, one of the most-used pieces of equipment was a stand mixer. The school has both super-sturdy Hobart mixers and fairly sturdy KitchenAid Professional bowl-lift models. I usually grabbed a Kitchen Aid because they’re lighter for me to carry across the lab and similar to the KitchenAid Artisan model I’ve used at home for years.

Professional culinary equipment often is superior to home versions, since it’s intended for high-volume use. But this was one case where I longed for something sitting in a drawer at home. (Actually, the second case, since I still prefer the Mac chef’s knife I use at home over the Messermeister version in the school-issued tool kit.) The school’s mixers use the manufacturer-issued metal paddle attachment. These do the job, but you often have to stop the mixer so you can scrape the bowl to ensure all the ingredients are combined. 

Professional culinary equipment often is superior to home versions, since it’s intended for high-volume use. But this was one case where I longed for something sitting in a drawer at home.

“Man, they need a Beater Blade,” I told my lab partner. The Beater Blade is an aftermarket paddle attachment with rubber “bumpers” that scrape the bowl during mixing. I discovered the Beater Blade about a year ago, and it works well with heavy cookie doughs and delicate batters. I have no idea how well a Beater Blade would stand up to the frequent use of a professional kitchen, but they are a must-have for home bakers who own stand mixers.

Beater Blades cost about $25, and they’re available for KitchenAid’s tilt-head and bowl-lift models, as well as Cuisinart, Viking, and Delonghi stand mixers.