Kitchen 101

Kitchen 101: Choose your Weapon

If you aren’t plugged directly into a chef’s brain, you might not understand the special relationship we have with our knives. They’re not just another kitchen tool, they’re an extension of us. They’re how we get almost everything done. The right knife not only cuts, chops, dices, and fillets; it can make us feel invincible. Most chefs have more than one knife, and even more than one “chef’s knife,” but we all have a favorite–the one we reach for more than any of the others.

However, loyalty to “the one” isn’t exclusive to chefs. I know plenty of home cooks who are just as attached to their knives. Whether you’re a chef or a home cook, finding that perfect blade comes at the end of a lot of trial and error. The right weight, the right balance, the right size for your hand, how well the blade keeps its edge, and let’s face it, the price (knives can get expensive, yo!)… all of those factors go into finding your sharp-bladed soul mate.

Occasionally, I get questions from friends and readers, unsure about where to start looking. My honest answer is that your first step should be to go into the store and try some out for yourself. The kind of store that will let you do that… well… let’s just say, Target and Walmart aren’t going to be too pleased if you come in with a potato or a carrot and start cracking open all the plastic clam shell packages to test out their knives. No, you need to go to a place where they not only expect, but encourage you to play with their knives.  Of course, you’re going to walk in there and see that huge display of knives, in all sizes, brands, and blade styles, and maybe get a little overwhelmed. Thankfully, we have some help in that department. The kind folks over at Reviews.com have done quite a bit of work for us, having their team of chefs, cooking instructors, and knife experts test out a whole bevy of knives to come up with a list of recommendations to help get you started.

The team at Reviews.com took 11 of the best selling chefs knives on the market and put them through their paces.  A good chef’s knife does more than just chunk up potatoes–it’s a multi-tasker. So, they chopped and minced herbs, sliced carrots, sliced and peeled tough butternut squash, and butterflied a lot of chicken breasts to identify the five that stood up to the rigors of a real kitchen. They range in price from $45 to right around $200, and in experience level from starter knives all the way up to the kind that’ll tackle the workload of a pro.

One of my personal favorites, the Wusthof Classic 8″ chef’s knife, made the top five, I’m happy to say.

If you’re on the hunt for The One Knife to Rule Them All, or just looking to add some great quality to your growing collection, I recommend checking out the full review over at Reviews.com.  As an added bonus, they’ve also generously included some great tips on how to take care of that beautiful blade once you’ve brought it home. If you treat it right, a great knife can last you a lifetime.

Happy shopping!

P.S. Don’t forget, my new cookbook, Recipes for a Revolution: A Practical Guide to the Care and Feeding of Activists, is on sale now for Kindle over at Amazon.com. A great knife would come in super handy to prep any of the 50 recipes you can find in there.

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Kitchen Tech Saturday: Online Cooking Classes

Happy Weekend, my lovelies!

The big grocery store chain in the Chicago area, Jewel-Osco, is running a Monopoly game promotion right now. The cashier hands out game pieces according to how much you spend at check-out, with some items in the store being worth bonus pieces. Of course, we’ve probably all played a Monopoly game like this before. I know that the big prize, in this case, $1 million dollars, is likely not going to happen for me. Buuuut, since they’re handing me those game pieces anyway, I always pop them open to see if any of them are instant winners or have any good coupons. So far, I’ve won a free tub of potato salad, a free Shutterfly photo book, and two online cooking courses from Rouxbe Cooking School.

Kinda crazy, right? I’d never heard of Rouxbe, so of course I went poking around the interwebs for some reviews (here, here, and here, to name just a few). Turns out, Rouxbe has a pretty good reputation for offering great classes that cover a broad range of topics, from a beginner level plant-based cooking course, to basic knife skills, to food safety. A lot of the courses for home cooks are definitely things we covered in culinary school, but for home cooks who are looking to step up their game in the kitchen, I can definitely see the benefit in investing the time and money to really dig in. If you’re interested in checking out Rouxbe, they do offer a free trial, so you can see what you’re getting into before you drop the cash for the membership fee.

Obviously, this became a big ole rabbit hole for me, and I started looking around at other online cooking schools. A lot of the big names you’d expect to see came up in my search… Allrecipes.com, Sur la Table, America’s Test Kitchen, and one of the newest, Gordon Ramsay’s Master Class. Of the first three, Allrecipes.com and America’s Test Kitchen both offer some sort of free trial period, and Sur la Table provides a short preview of each class. The Rouxbe classes, as well as the other three mentioned have discussion boards available to bounce ideas and questions off of fellow students, and the Rouxbe classes offer instructor feedback, quizzes, and an actual grade at the end, which is nice if you really need the accountability to stay on track. All of them are self-paced, which means you can fit the classes into your week at your convenience. The Gordon Ramsay version is a set of 20 lessons for one set price, but the likelihood of getting direct feedback from Ramsay himself seems pretty slim.

If you’re ready for a little more of a challenge, want to dive deeper into a particular style of cuisine, or you’re looking to fine tune your basic kitchen skills, online cooking classes might be the next step for you. I guess my advice, as someone who’s shelled out a LOT of money for culinary school, would be to really do your research to find the online classes that best fit your budget, your learning style, and the amount of time you’re willing to commit. Some programs offer full access to all their classes for a membership fee up front that let you see the full course catalog, and then an additional cost associated with each class. Others will let you pay for classes as you take them. Some will provide a good amount of instructor feedback, and for others, the feedback comes primarily through discussions with other students. This can be a great way to really hone your skills, as long as you choose the program that’s right for you.

If you’ve taken any online cooking classes in the past, I’d love to hear your feedback. What site did you use? What class(es) did you take? What the experience beneficial? Do you still use what you learned?

I’d also like to offer one of my readers the chance to take a Rouxbe class, using one of my Monopoly prize codes. You’ll have to use the code by May 30th, and then you have 60 days from redemption to complete the course. To enter the giveaway, all you need to do is leave a comment here on this blog post telling me which one of the three available courses interests you most:

The Cook’s Roadmap

Wake up! Becoming a better cook doesn’t have to be a nightmare of sifting through endless online and offline content. Let Rouxbe’s guided instruction open your eyes to understanding the “world of cooking” — a set of puzzle pieces that can be rearranged to unlock the code to tastier, healthier and more nutritious food.

Plant-Based Cooking: Level 1

As kids, we’re told to eat our veggies as an important part of a healthy lifestyle. But what about quality and taste? Don’t panic. Take a step back and look at the big picture of cooking and health. This course will guide you through essential techniques and ingredients to help you incorporate more high-quality and surprisingly delicious plant-based dishes into your life.

Knife Skills

Start chopping! Learning to use a knife will radically change your kitchen experience and your health. The more comfortable you are cutting food, the more you will cut. The more you cut, the more you cook. The more you cook, the better you feel, so get chopping and change your life.

I’ll draw the winner on Friday, March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, and announce it both here and on Facebook (So make sure you follow me there, too!) on Saturday, March 18th by Noon, Central Standard Time. The winner will have 48 hours to contact me, or the prize is forfeit.

I’ve just signed up for the Plant-Based Cooking class. We’re headed into Spring, and that means all those delicious seasonal vegetables are about to start showing up in grocery stores and farmer’s market. What better way to get in that veggie state of mind?

Good luck to everyone who enters!

Kitchen Tech Saturday: New York Public Library Digital Collections

Normally, when we’re talking technology, we think of the future, as in, new technology. The latest digital, computerized whatchamacallit that will change the way we cook, or shop, or go out to eat.

But today’s Kitchen Tech Saturday is actually kind of a time machine… one that only goes backwards.

A few years ago, the New York Public Library put all of it’s digital collections online, for free, and available to the public. The collections grow all the time, and you can look up everything from old political campaign pins to pin-ups, but today, we’re talking about a couple of search terms I’ve been using lately: recipe and cookbook. I’ll warn you up front– this website can become quite the rabbit hole.

searchpage

Right off the bat, the word “recipe” will get you not only cool, old images from, oddly enough, a tobacco company, but also their corresponding recipes. Decades ago, tobacco companies were the source of a lot of collectibles… things like baseball cards, and obviously, recipes.

lemonbuns

lemonbunrecipie
But as you dive deeper into the search results, you’ll see everything from old advertisements for a variety of products, handwritten recipes, snippets from old cookbooks, recipe collection brochures and their covers.

tabletalk
For a real treat, also add “menu” to your list of search terms. You’ll see some really great menus from restaurants, events, and even hotel room service menus!

roomservice
If you’re a big culinary history nerd like me, you’ll find that this time machine also has the odd effect of also speeding up time. You sat down for a quick little poke around in the archives, and before you know it, it’s 2am, your tea’s gone cold, and some random infomercial for people who have a hard time with pancakes is playing in the background. Seriously. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Online digital archives are a real treasure trove of information, and the NYPL collection is definitely my favorite. There’s material in there on a huge array of subjects, although, obviously, this is the one I come back to time and time again for not only a NerdyFunGoodTime, but also some serious culinary inspiration.

Kitchen Tech Saturday – Reduce food waste with the foodkeepr app!

I’m going to try this cool (?) thing for Saturdays, and I’d love some feedback. Every Saturday, I’m going to introduce you to a piece of tech designed to help you out in the kitchen, doing your shopping, keeping track of recipes, etc.

I’m not so clever with the names. If you can think of a better name for all this *waves hand around the post*, please speak up! I haven’t designed a graphic to go with the series because I’m sincerely hoping someone far more clever than me can help.

Anyhoots, this week’s technological wonder is the foodkeepr app. It’s a simple little app that helps you create a shopping list, then, once you’ve made your purchases, keeps track of the expiration dates of all perishables and will remind you to use them up before they go bad. It’ll even connect you to Food Network to help you find recipes to use up those last little bits of things before they’re past their prime.

foodkeepr
$200 BILLION (!) dollars worth of food, or about $1100 per household, is wasted in this country… Thrown away because we didn’t get around to using it before it went bad. That’s both horrifying, and preventable. Little things, like shopping lists based on what you really need, meal planning, and getting over that weird fear you have of leftovers (ok, maybe those of you who have been subjected to 4 day old tuna noodle surprise might not find that so easy) can help.

Join me in the fight against food waste by using foodkeepr grocery list!

Android: http://goo.gl/t0QBZJ

iOS: http://goo.gl/zMIWLq

Kitchen 101: What a tool!

kitchen101

Folks, let’s take a minute to talk about tools. For those of you who haven’t been reading this blog for long, I’ll tell you right up front that I’m not a tool snob. I don’t care if you have the fanciest equipment, or the latest doo-dad, or a drawer full of gadgets. If you don’t have a tart pan and want to use a plain old brownie pan or casserole dish or some thing you fashioned out of aluminum foil and cardboard, I will never tell you that’s wrong. Let’s face it, outfitting a kitchen can be expensive. I don’t have the best equipped kitchen, but over the years I’ve learned how to make what I do have work for me. If there’s one thing I don’t have that I deeply, intensely, desperately wish I did, it would be a stand mixer. Otherwise, I’m doing ok.

However… (You knew there had to be a however.)

There are some tools that are just imperatives for cooks, including our knives. Very little gets done in a kitchen without them. If we have a good, comfortable in our hand, sharp Chef’s knife, we can get a lot done. If I was going to add one more “must have” knife, I think it’d have to be a paring knife.

I’ve used a few of those over the years. Do these look familiar?

oldschoolparing

I feel like everyone I knew growing up had three or four of these simple, little plastic handled paring knives in the drawer. These were the go to tool in our house for peeling potatoes and apples. In fact, I’d never even seen an actual peeler until I was in my late teens. I had no idea there was such a thing because any time something needed to be peeled, we’d just dig around in the drawer for one of these little babies. That sounds totally safe, yeah? Feeling around in a drawer for a knife… Genius!

Last year at the International Food Bloggers Conference, I met the lovely folks from Crisp. I had picked up the 4-in-1 zesting tool I told you about last September in the SWAG room, but the next day I got a closer look at the whole line of Crisp tools and I was intrigued. They sent me home with a paring knife to try out.

I’m going to try very hard not to sound like a commercial, here. It’s super important to me that you know that I will never, ever tell you that you must go out and buy something, or that the brand I use is the only brand in the world that will ever work. But, let me just say… I love this paring knife.


crisp paring

I use it in class, at home, and at work all the time. If I had to choose between this little $12 knife and the semi-fancy looking one that came in the knife kit from school, I’d take this one every single time.

First of all, it stays sharp. That’s important. It might sound counter-intuitive, but you’re actually more likely to hurt yourself with a dull knife than a sharp one. Plus, see that little notch thing in the knife cover? That’s a built in sharpener, so if you need to sharpen your knife, it’s not a big ordeal. Just a few swipes through the sharpener and you’re back in business.

Second, it’s comfortable to use. Maybe at home you don’t really use any single tool long enough to experience hand and wrist fatigue. But, in a kitchen lab for four hours, or at work in a professional kitchen trimming 20 pounds of radishes, the tool in your hand becomes about more than just the job it’s doing. It has to be comfortable to hold or your hands and wrists are going to get tired and sore pretty quickly– another contributor to potential injury.

I’m telling you I like this tool because I use it almost daily so I know it’s good. I’m also telling you about this tool because it’s affordable, as are all the tools in the Crisp line. They also sent me the vegetable peeler and the bird’s beak paring knife to try, and I love them, too. I love them because they feel good, they work well, and they are something I feel comfortable telling my fellow students and you about because buying them will not break the bank. There’s not a single tool on the Crisp website over $20, and most of them are under $15.

And guess what? They were nice enough to send a paring knife along for one of you! I love that they were willing to do that for me, but truth be told I would have been willing to buy one to give away because I like this paring knife that much. And, well, I just love sharing finds like this with all of you. It makes me happy.

For a shot at your very own Crisp paring knife, all you need to do is answer this question in the comments:

What new kitchen skill or technique would you like to learn this year?

 

I’ll draw the winner next Wednesday and announce it in all the usual places. Good luck!

This giveaway is sponsored by Crisp™, but all opinions are my own. One winner will be selected at random and will be announced in another post and all applicable social media accounts on Wednesday, January 21, 2015 no later than 12pm MST. Winner will have 72 hours to respond to notification of win or the prize is forfeit and a new winner will be chosen. Prize will be sent via US Postal Service so you’ll need to provide your mailing address if you win. Please allow 6-8 weeks for delivery. Open to US residents only including APO & FPO addresses, must be 18 years or older to enter.