Monday, November 29, 2010

Tools of the Trade: the Immersion Blender

In my Soup post yesterday, I suggested taking the Potato Soup and putting it in batches in a blender to puree it. The smoothness of the soup is really nice. But there's an easier way to puree soups and that is to use an immersion, or hand, blender. It's shaped like a long wand with a little blade at the bottom end that blends the contents of your soup. It's very handy. When you don't feel like taking a ladle and scooping soup into a blender in batches (because most likely you will have too much soup for your blender) and then having to empty the blender into yet another vessel until you've emptied your soup pot completely, all you do with the immersion blender is immerse it into the pot and hit "go" and whirl away, moving the blender around the pot to catch everything. It's also easy to clean and tucks away into a drawer when you're done.

Prices vary considerably and they are made by all sorts of companies, including Krups, KitchenAid and Cuisinart, to name a few. Here's an article that rates various brands.

Though the immersion blender might be one of those appliances you don't have to have, it might be nice if you like to puree and blend a lot of things. Not only is it good for soups, but you can also use it for making sauces and dressings.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Tools of the Trade: Knives

A good knife makes all the difference when cooking, and it is by far the most important tool in the kitchen. You don't realize how much you are missing if you have a set of old, dull, bad knives. Your cooking experience will be all the more joyful with the proper tool. If you haven't already, go out and buy the best knife you can afford and DO NOT SKIMP. Like a good set of cookware, a good set of knives should last you quite a while, provided you take good care of them.

Good knives should NEVER go into the dishwasher. This is Enemy No. 1. Hand-washing will preserve them like nothing else. Ideally, after washing, they should be dried and put away.

Knives should be stored in their own drawer, in little slots meant just for knives, or in a butcher block type of thing that sits on your counter (see photo, right). There are also metallic strips that you can mount on your wall where the knife blade sticks to it like a magnet. This is cool if you have the wall space.

What kind of knives to get? You can get a "set" that contains a variety of knives used for different purposes, or you can get just a few single ones. There are only about 3 or 4 knives that you will really need: a few inexpensive paring knives for peeling, a 6-inch knife that's small enough to use for paring but large enough for some slicing, and a 10-inch chef's knife for chopping and slicing. A heavy cleaver is helpful for cutting into heavy dense winter vegetables, an inexpensive small serrated knife is useful for slicing tomatoes and a larger serrated knife is great for slicing bread. That's it!

Most of the knives commercially available are constructed out of stainless steel, high carbon stainless, carbon steel, or titanium. Some are made out of ceramic or plastic. For a description of each, you can read this article. Naturally your budget and preference will dictate which you choose, but stainless steel is the most common type available and probably the easiest to maintain. Another consideration is the handle and how it feels in your hand. You want a good grip on it. The handle materials also vary: wood, plastic, steel. Lots to choose from, but again, buy the best you can afford and what you like.

Mostly importantly, knives should be sharpened frequently. Dull knives will tear and rip food. You want to easily slice through the food, not rip it apart. I've read that professional chefs sharpen their knives each time they begin work. While that may be a bit too frequent for the "home chef", I would do it at least twice a week, if you're cooking daily. Obviously the more you cook, the more often you'll want to sharpen. If you buy a block, there is usually a sharpening tool included, otherwise you can buy manual or electric sharpeners  that you slide the knife through. They are really easy to use and do a fair job. If it's been some time since you've sharpened your knife, find a professional knife sharpener to do the job for you.

You are only as good as your tools, and to do a good job in the kitchen, you should have the proper tools that not only make life easier for you but do the job well. If you find your kitchen in need of a new knife, Christmas is coming, you know!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Thanksgiving Recipes

Thanksgiving is coming! It's my favorite holiday. Not only does it take place during this fantastic time of year, but it's the colors....of the sky, the leaves and the sun that are the most amazing part of November. The sunlight that filters through the trees in the late afternoon, casting long shadows, brings forth incredibly rich colors. These images are brilliant, sometimes so beautiful they stop me in my tracks as I walk my dog through the park each day. Being able to see these images is really something to be thankful for. And that's my favorite part of this holiday, the message: being thankful for all that we have.

Thanksgiving is essentially a harvest-related festival and it celebrates communal harmony.  In America, the first Thanksgiving is said to have taken place on December 4, 1619, and it was to give thanks for the Pilgrims having survived their first winter in New England. The feast lasted 3 days providing enough food for 53 pilgrims and 90 Native Americans. I often wondered what was served at that first Thanksgiving and I have researched this and found that the feast consisted of "fowl, venison, fish, lobster, clams, berries, fruit, pumpkin, squash and turkey". Though we often think it originated in America, a number of other countries celebrate harvest-related festivals. They are observed with different names and in different seasons. Canada celebrates thanksgiving on the second Monday in the month of October. India also has a number of harvest related festivals in different regions. Other Asian countries such as China, Malaysia, Korea celebrate the festival on different dates. Each festival has folklore attached to it but ultimately harmony, peace, and a feeling of gratitude is the underlying theme of the celebration all over. What I find so beautiful about this is that despite where we live, people around the world celebrate having something to be thankful for.

Do you take the time to ask yourself this on Thanksgiving - what are you thankful for? Ok, other than the food! I know, who can resist the Thanksgiving meal?

What are you making? I am still weeding through the November issues of the cooking magazines I've collected from bygone years to find something that knocks my socks off. I'm getting closer. I'm fairly sure I know which recipes I'll be using for the sweet potatoes and the cranberries, but I'm still searching for a "green" (vegetable) recipe. Someone else in the family is bringing green beans so I can't do those this year. I'm thinking spinach or swiss chard or something similar.

I spend Thanksgiving with my in-laws and over the years we've developed a nice tradition. Where my mother-in-law would normally have everyone over at her house and do ALL the cooking herself, a few years ago I realized this was becoming too much for her and asked my brother- and sister-in-law if they would help me in making all the side dishes, to take a bit of the burden off her. They agreed and it's been a lot of fun being part of the process of preparing the Thanksgiving meal. My mother-in-law still makes the turkey, but we divvy up the sides that need to be made. This year I again offered to make the sweet potatoes, in addition to the cranberries and a vegetable. A few years ago when we started this, I found a sweet potato recipe that has now become a favorite. The sweet potato recipe of my youth and probably yours as well (you know the one: with marshmallows) has fortunately become a thing of the past.  If you love sweet potatoes, you will absolutely die when you taste this one. I think it's fabulous. I can find nothing that tops it.

Rum-glazed Sweet Potato, Apple & Pecan Gratin

3 pounds sweet potatoes, pricked several times with a skewer
3 Golden Delicious apples
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 cup chopped pecans
3 oz. (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup honey
2 Tbsp. dark rum
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp. ground mace (I don't have any so I omit it or use a wee bit of clove)

Preheat oven to 400F.
Bake the sweet potatoes in the middle of the oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until tender. Let them cool. Peel them and cut them diagonally into 1/4 inch slices.
Peel the apples and cut them lengthwise into eighths.
In a bowl toss the apples with lemon juice and arrange them with the sweet potato slices in a buttered 14 inch gratin dish. Sprinkle with the pecans.
In a stainless steel or enameled saucepan, cook the remaining ingredients over moderate heat, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Spoon the mixture over the sweet potatoes and apples and bake the gratin in the middle of the oven, basting occasionally, for 30 minutes, or until the apples are just tender and the sweet potatoes are heated through.
The uncooked gratin can be assembled 1 day in advance and kept refrigerated, covered. When ready for it on the Big Day, bake it uncovered, basting occasionally, for 40 minutes, then put the gratin under a preheated broiler for about 4 inches from the heat until the edges are lightly browned.

Makes 8 servings.

Cranberry Sauce

2 cups cranberries
Juice and chopped zest of 1 orange
1/4 cup port wine
1/2 cup sugar or more if needed
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 Tbsp. cornstarch

In a small saucepan combine cranberries, orange juice and zest, port, sugar and cinnamon. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and cook until cranberries are tender, stirring occasionally. In a small cup make a slurry with cornstarch and 1 Tbsp. water. Whisk cornstarch mixture into cranberry sauce and cook, whisking, until sauce thickens. Taste and add more sugar if necessary.

Makes about 2 cups.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Though we often associate pumpkins with Halloween, they are not just for carving into scary faces. Pumpkins offer loads of vitamins and nutrients, are low carb and high in fiber, and their seeds are considered anti-inflammatory. So this is just the right time of year to fill up on them both.

The large variety we carve are usually jack-o-lantern pumpkins which don't make for good eating because they tend to be too watery. There are other varieties that are far better to cook with, such as the Sugar Pumpkin and the Cinderella Pumpkin. The reason for that is that their flesh is denser and richer making them ideal for baking and roasting.

When selecting your pumpkin, you want one that is heavy for its size, weighing about 2-5 pounds. Anything larger is harder to handle and cut, and is usually less tasty. The little ones are loaded with flavor, and that's what we're after!

Despite its size, one way to avoid a watery result is to roast your pumpkin. In fact, if it's small enough, you can roast the thing whole, no joke. Just make a few slits in it with your knife and pop the thing whole in the oven. What relief, because it is far easier to take apart a pumpkin that's been roasted than to cut one up that's raw. For more information on how to prep and roast, click here.

I get a monthly email newsletter from a local chain called Sprouts, in which this recipe was listed last month. I just made it for dinner this evening and it was a tasty side for my roasted chicken. It calls for a unique combination of spices that are usually found in sweet recipes, but it's actually a savory dish.

The recipe calls for cutting up a raw pumpkin, so I advise buying a small one to make life easier. I actually cut mine in half and roasted it a bit first, making removing the flesh from the skin a bit easier, but you don't have to.

Pumpkin and Sweet Potato Mash

1 stick unsalted butter
3 shallots, peeled and sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
3 inch piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
2 cinnamon sticks
1 Tbsp. brown sugar
5 sprigs fresh thyme, stems removed, finely chopped
2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2 inch cubes
2 pound pumpkin, peeled, seeded, and cut into 2 inch cubes
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 cups milk (cow, soy, rice or almond)
pinch nutmeg
1 tsp. salt
chives, finely chopped

In a deep pot on medium heat, melt the butter. Add the shallots, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, sugar, thyme, and cook stirring, until  the sugar melts, about 3 minutes. Throw in the sweet potatoes, pumpkin, stock, and milk and bring them to a simmer. Reduce heat and cook until the potatoes and pumpkin yield to your fork, about 30-40 minutes.

Drain the pumpkin and sweet potato, saving 1 cup of the liquid. Throw away the ginger and cinnamon. In a large bowl, mash the sweet potato/pumpkin. Add nutmeg and salt. Taste. Season more, if necessary. Splash in a bit of the cooking liquid and stir, for an even texture. Before serving, sprinkle with the chives.

Serves 6.

NOTE: I cut the recipe quantities in half and it looks like I will have enough leftovers for 2 more meals (as a side dish), so unless you have an army to feed, or you want to freeze some for another time (which isn't a bad idea), I would advise making 1/2 the recipe. The seeds I removed and washed, and tomorrow night I will sprinkle them with a little olive oil and salt and roast them for a few minutes until they just turn a bit golden. They will be the perfect snack for the office the next day.

Recipe courtesy of the food blog, adapted from The Soul of a New Cuisine.

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