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?

Monday’s starters

Easy bake

(Photo by Alison Ashton)

(Photo by Alison Ashton)

Years ago, my mate and I called Costco the “$200 club.” And when I say years ago, I mean decades, back when Costco was still Price Club and 200 clams was  chunk of change. The place is stocked with cheap temptation, so that’s why I only visit once every few months. Yesterday was day. Because I visit so infrequently, it’s always exciting to push my supersize cart through the wide warehouse aisles. The best deal I spotted was Cuisinart’s Electric Pressure Cooker for $70 (it normally retails for $100). But I exercised some discipline, for the most part, stocking up on pasta, satsuma tangerines, cheese, and lamb chops. The two-pack of 26.5-ounce jars of Nutella for $8.47, however, proved irresistible.

“I’ll make crepes, or cookies, or something….” I said to justify the purchase.

Of course, I neglected to pick up a two-pack of La Brea Bakery bread, also sold at the emporium, which would have been the most obvious way to enjoy the Nutella. So when we got home and wanted some bread, I felt obligated to rectify the situation. I’ve touted the ease of this pizza dough many times before and figured it could make a nice bread. It did. My only modifications: double the recipe, let it rise for an hour, punch it down and let it rest five minutes, shape it into a loaf, and let it rest for 30 minutes. Bake on a pizza stone for 15 minutes in a 475 F oven. (Thanks, Josh, for creating this nice recipe.) And, yes, it was tasty with the Nutella.

Vintage cookware

saucepan1

Elbow grease and patience restored a rusted-out vintage saucepan.

All things old-timey are chic these days, and that includes vintage cookware. The Food Section notes that kitchenware retailer Sur la Table now is selling antique pots, pans, and utensils via their Web site. This is the place to go for an antique copper jam pot ($650) or, say, a marzipan tulip mold ($99).  If old-school kitchenware is your thing, also check out P.O.S.H., the Chicago retailer that specializes in vintage china, glassware, and serving pieces. Of course, if you’re willing to invest a little time and elbow grease in restoring the old stuff yourself, you can pick up antique cast-iron and other kitchen items at garage sales and flea markets for a lot less.

Chicken breast, yay or nay?

In a moment of sheer stupidity the other day, I picked up a package of skinless, boneless chicken breast. Chicken tenders, no less–I really wasn’t paying attention. As I noted on Twitter (follow me at EatCheap) and Facebook, these things are a dull, tasteless ingredient that I could skip eating for the rest of my life. This met with much agreement among my friends, but what’s your opinion?

Bits ‘n’ bobs + a chance to win a wine country getaway

No Sweat

Picture 3My obsession with pressure cookers continues. Really, if you want to include more whole grains, beans, and legumes in your diet, this stove-top appliance can be your new best friend. For more details, check out my story and soup recipe on Nourish Network. And while you’re there, be sure to join as a Nourish Network site member for a chance to win a three-day wine-country vacation for two to Healdsburg, CA. The prize includes round-trip airfare, lodging, winery and farm tours, and private cooking lessons with Nourish Network founder Lia Huber.

For more pressure cooker ideas, check out my recipes for the October issue of Vegetarian Times, including Spanish Wheat Berry Salad, Autumn Vegetable Tagine, Stuffed Cabbage with Brown Rice and Vegetable Sausage, and 30-Minute Marinara Sauce.

Apple Overload?

Apple Beauty

Photo by Alison Ashton

Apples are abundant–and cheap–these days. Check out my story on LifeScript.com for Apple-Walnut Torte, Apple-Stuffed Pork Tenderloin, and other recipes that spotlight America’s favorite fruit.

 

Better Brittle

 

Brittle

Photo by Alison Ashton

The James Beard Foundation’s biweekly Beard Bites e-newsletter is a great source of foodie news and recipes. A recent issue included a recipe for Pumpkin Seed Brittle from Guy Reuge of Mirabelle in St. James, NY. What sets this version apart? A smidgen of freshly ground cumin, which lends it subtle, smokey flavor. Delicious. It’s easy to prepare and makes a nice garnish for holiday desserts. It’s also pretty addictive on its own.

 

Secret to Great Gravy

Picture 1Just in time for Thanksgiving, The Food Section reports that British scientists have uncovered the ingredient for perfect gravy: umami. Now you know.

 

Tweet of the Week

From @RichardBlais: Save a dish. Why not consolidate and have our cereal in our coffee. Think green!

 

Thursday’s tapas

We covered Spain yesterday in our whirlwind world tour known as International Cuisine class, so I’m all about the little nibbles this week.

Quote of the week

The Roma “is truly the eunuch of the tomato world and doesn’t deserve your time.”–Lynn Rosetto Kasper, The Splendid Table

Picture 2Score one for the South

Last night’s episode of “Top Chef” restored my faith in the show, as the contestants cooked for some of the world’s top French chefs and demonstrated they have impressive culinary chops. I love Atlanta-based chef Kevin Gillespie, who wowed Daniel Boulud by serving escargot with Southern-style bacon jam and won the quickfire challenge. Gillespie’s red beard and wide-eyed enthusiasm remind me of a young Kris Kringle; he may look like a humble son of Dixie, but fellow contestants would do well not to underestimate him. The best quote of the night came from fellow Atlantan Eli Kirshtein, who affectionately likened Joel Robuchon to a “unicorn.”

Picture 3Cheap–and sharp

I love my Mac knives, but if I were in the market for a new one, I’d definitely check out the colorful, affordable Pure Komachi 2 knives from Shun. They’re made of Japanese carbon steel and cost less than 15 bucks.–Serious Eats

Picture 4The high price of health food

Peeps think healthy fare is too expensive in this economy, so they’re ordering junkier food at restaurants, according to Nation’s Restaurant News. In a previous story, NRN reported that $5 is the magic number of consumers, as eateries from fast-food outlets like Subway to high-end restaurants load menus with 5-buck fare to attract budget-conscious diners.

Picture 5Food safety clearinghouse

Have questions/concerns about food safety? Check out the new government site, FoodSafety.org. The site includes updates on food recalls as well as tips about food safety.

Picture 6Meat matters

Don’t know a ribeye from a T-bone? This handy chart can clear up the confusion.–The Food Paper (Gayot)

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.

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.

It’s the towels

 

Humble kitchen towels have turned out to be must-have items for culinary school success.

Humble kitchen towels have turned out to be must-have items for culinary school success.

When you start culinary school, your tuition covers a tricked-out knife kit, which includes, of course, various knives, a whisk, a fish spatula, pastry bag tips, and other tools. You’re also given five sets of uniforms–chef’s jackets, checked pants, beanie caps, aprons, and neckerchiefs. I’ve already written about the school-issued shoes.

But among the most useful and versatile items is a set of five white cotton kitchen towels, though I had no idea when I first rummaged through the haul of goodies. “Hmmm, how nice,” I thought, setting them aside to focus on sexier stuff, like the Messermeister knives.

Now that I’ve completed the first five weeks of culinary school, I’d say the towels are easily the most-used item, aside from my the chef’s knife. They’re certainly the most versatile.

That’s because the towels are pressed into service for everything from handling hot pans to wiping down work stations to drying dishes (yes, we have to wash all the dishes, pots, pans, and tools by hand, which makes me appreciate the dishwasher at home all the more) to scrubbing counters and stove tops. By the end of Day 1, I realized I’d need at least five clean towels each day. That called for a stop by Smart & Final to stock up on more towels. I’ve since been back to S&F for still more, since there’s the occasional towel sacrificed to the kitchen gods. My classmates have also stocked up at Costco, though my station partner scored the sweetest deal: a half-dozen thick, thirsty white hand towels for $4 at Bed, Bath, & Beyond.

I covet them.

Saturday starters

dreamstimefree_1149421It’s all about calories

Physicians and nutritionists have been saying this for years: To lose weight, you need to consume fewer calories than you expend. That’s a simple equation, but many of us still seek a magic weight-loss bullet. You know, the special diet that finally unlocks the key to shedding all those excess pounds. So what works best? High fat/low carb/high protein? High protein/low fat/low carb? High carb/low fat/some protein? A new study published in the latest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine compared four different weight-loss diets over a two-year period and found that what really matters is: consuming fewer calories, regardless of diet. So if you want to drop a few pounds, just eat less and move more.

Grow your own

lettucecloseupAs the terrific blog RecessionWire notes, when times get tough, people start planting. During the Great Depression, anyone with some spare dirt grew something; that was followed by the victory gardens of World War II. These lean days are no different, and the National Gardening Association predicts the number of households growing vegetables will sprout 40% this year. This can range from a few containers of herbs to full vegetable gardens. To help you get started, the editors at FineGardening.com have just launched Vegetable Gardener, a cool site devoted to growing and cooking with fruits and vegetables. Sunset.com is another good source of info. Finally, for glorious inspiration, check out Jeanne Kelley’s book Blue Eggs and Yellow Tomatoes: Recipes from a Modern Kitchen Garden, in which she shares delicious recipes inspired by her own home garden. Think of it as uber-local food.

duo10qt_large_horizontal_productTried it, loved it

Lately, I’ve been experimenting with pressure cookers, which cook food in less than half the time of conventional methods. You may remember those retro gadgets from your grandma’s kitchen–they rattled menacingly on the stovetop while pressure built up in the pot. They even exploded on occasion. Hmmm, why bother with them now? Today’s models are safe, sturdy, and easy to use. I recently picked up a 6-quart, stainless-steel Fagor Duo pressure cooker on Amazon for $80 (it typically retails for $120). It’s a solid piece of cookware–you can saute and sear in it before adding other ingredients and starting the pressure. It’s also simple to handle, quiet, and speedy. We enjoyed homemade split pea soup in about 20 minutes, start to finish. I also like to cook dried beans, but hate the long soaking and simmering time. The pressure cooker will speed that process up, too, enabling me to use cheap dried beans instead of pricier, sodium-packed canned legumes.

Kitchen porn, or what I learned from redoing my kitchen

 

A room of one's own: My dream kitchen involved color, ample storage and counter space, a decent range, and a working dishwasher.

A room of one's own: My dream kitchen involved color, ample storage and counter space, a decent range, and a functioning dishwasher.

If you’ve ever lived through (survived?) a kitchen remodeling project, you know it’s messy, intrusive, and expensive. But if you love to cook, the kitchen is your favorite room in the house, so you’re always looking for design inspiration. Even if your kitchen is “done,” it’s never really done.

Case in point: No matter what state your kitchen is in, it’s hard to pass up a chance to thumb through the pages of Kitchen Trends, the big-format, lushly produced book-azine published by TrendsIdeas.com. The print edition is $10.95, but the lavish kitchens featured within its pages are a great source of inspiration, even if you don’t have a big budget. Even better, the good folks at Trends Ideas have made the e-book version of the magazine available for free. I’m not usually a fan of digital versions of magazines–they tend to be clunky and slow to flip through–but this one loads quickly and smoothly. Bookmark or print out anything that catches your eye–it can be a great start to your own design idea book.

cimg1031I’ve moved across the country, but my heart still belongs to the kitchen I had remodeled my Alabama home. I couldn’t bring the kitchen with me, but I did pack up the spiral notebook of design ideas that inspired it.

The kitchen was not a selling point when I bought the 1930s bungalow. Counter space was virtually nonexistent, storage was minimal, the stove was ancient (but not in a cute, vintage way), and worst of all was the dishwasher. It was an outdated portable Kenmore that you rolled over the sink and hooked up to the faucet, which inevitably sprayed water everywhere but on the dishes in the dishwasher.

I lived with it for more than a year, to get a sense of what I wanted the space to become and to psyche myself up for the money-pit mess that is any kitchen remodel. But when mice started to invade through the rotting floorboards of the pantry, it was time to call my coworker’s contractor husband to start the project. (After calling the pest control company, of course.) Here’s what I learned from my project.

cimg10321Keep a design notebook. Design experts always suggest this, and it’s a great idea. Include anything that catches your eye–could be a color, a design element, a layout–noting what it is that you like. Themes will start to emerge. I quickly discovered a fondness for color and vintage-looking design that would suit my bungalow. I also found specific items that eventually ended up in my kitchen–Formica’s Citron Ice countertop and the Jenn-Air range.

Be flexible. I went the home improvement store all set to order white cabinetry. Then I spotted gorgeous natural hickory cabinets that I liked even better.

Gather samples. Home improvement stores have samples loan. Take them home and see how different materials work together. I spent a weekend looking at cabinet, countertop, backsplash, and flooring samples before I made up my mind.

Keep an eye out for special promotions. Home improvement stores often have special offers on materials, and it may be worth timing your purchase to take advantage. I put off ordering my countertops for three weeks in order to get a free integrated sink–and saved about $600 on a feature I wanted anyway.

Shop at different outlets. Although I purchased big items like the cabinets, floors, and countertop at Lowe’s, I gathered items from other sources. The appliances came from the manufacturer’s retail outlet. I bought a brand-new John Boos kitchen island on eBay, paying at least one-third less than I would have for a similar model at Williams-Sonoma; I also ordered the antique-bronze cabinet hardware through a dealer on eBay. The copper lights (made from converted antique Turkish bowls) were purchased on sale from the Sundance catalog. The result was a kitchen that looks personal, not like a catalog. More importantly, it wasa place where I loved spending time doing what I love best.

Time to stock up on kitchen items

The presents may be opened, but if Santa forgot something for the kitchen, now is a great time to treat yourself. I’m banned from kitchenware stores, since I’ve just spent weeks paring down my cluttered kitchen in preparation for a cross-country move. But I can still enjoy a little virtual window shopping. Here are some of the best buys I’ve found for you.

Sur la Table’s 9-piece stainless steel cookware set: $270 (regularly $350). If you’ve been waiting to invest in good-quality cookware, check out this bargain on the kitchenware emporium’s house brand. 

 

There’s no time like after Christmas to stock up on holiday-themed stuff. This Red cutwork table runner from Williams-Sonoma ($24, down from $60) is nice enough to become a family heirloom.

 

Find a 12-inch Calphalon One nonstick skillet for just $49.95, down from $114.95, at Cooking.com.

Find a 12-inch Calphalon One nonstick chef's skillet for just $49.95, down from $144.95, at Cooking.com.

Amazing deals on Calphalon nonstick cookware at Cooking.com. (I really need to visit this site more often–they have some terrific buys.)

 

 

 

 

 

Buy 8 Riedel "O" series stemless red wine glasses for $70 at Cooking.com.

Buy 8 Riedel "O" series stemless red wine glasses for $70 at Cooking.com.

Did a guest drop one of your favorite winegalsses? Restock with Cooking.com’s 8-for-the-price-of-6 offer on Reidel glassware.

 

 

 

 

 

I love Michele Cranston’s full-color Kitchen cookbook for inspiration and her inviting approach to cooking. Buy it for $19.95 (down from $34.95) at Crate & Barrel.

 

 

Plain white serving bowls are at home in every kitchen, and Chefs has lovely Portuguese-made bowls from $9.99.

 

 

I need dishes like a hole in my head, but I’m tempted to break ‘em all so I have an excuse to buy Chefs hand-painted Mocha-Stripe dinnerware set ($60 for the 16-piece set; $90 for 32 pieces, down from $130 and $260). It’s gorgeous.