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.

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 101: What a tool!

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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?

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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.

Kitchen 101: (Almost) Everything you knead to know about flour

Hiiiiiiiiiiiiii there. I took a three day weekend from work and it feels like I’ve been on another planet or something. I’m back on planet cubicle and wishing I could blast off again, but duty calls. Or something. I realized that we were overdue for a Kitchen 101 around here, and seeing as the Blogger Bake Sale for No Kid Hungry is this weekend and I’m about to be knee deep in it, I thought I’d give you a little lesson on flour.

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For those of us who didn’t grow up around/with prolific bakers, our first introduction to flour was probably good old All Purpose. My mom wasn’t a baker at all. In fact, I was more familiar with the yellow box of Bisquick and the Duncan Hines box than I was real flour, but we did occasionally make a batch of cookies. Sometimes, she would attempt my Granny Bea’s biscuit recipe, too. Generally speaking, though, I would have never known there was more than one kind of flour if I hadn’t spent time in my Granny’s kitchen. She introduced me to Self Rising flour, which is one of two ingredients in her “The Easy Way” biscuits.

Nowadays, even the regular grocery store will probably have a pretty overwhelming list of flours available. Not only will you see all the flours made from wheat, you’ll also find flours made from a variety of other grains and nuts. For the purposes of this post, we’re going to stick to the wheat flours for now. If you are  using alternate flours because of gluten sensitivity or other dietary concerns, my guess is that you probably know more than I do (almost nothing) about how to use them. If you have any specific questions about them that you’d like me to research for another post, feel free to leave them in the comments.  The Bob’s Red Mill website has a ton of good information, though, and they say it a lot better than I could.

Let’s do a quick review of wheat anatomy before we get started. We’ll use this handy dandy little graphic from breadpastry.blogspot.com.

anatomy_of_a_grain_of_wheat

A wheat kernel, the part we eat, is made of three components: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. Processed flour comes from the endosperm. If you see a flour labeled “whole grain,” this means that the bran and the germ are included.

All Purpose (AP) Flour is the most commonly used flour. As its name implies, this flour can be used in just about anything, from breads to pastries. Nearly all the AP flour sold in the US has been enriched, to add back the vitamins and minerals lost by removing the bran and the germ.

Self Rising (SR) Flour is literally just regular flour with baking powder and salt added to it. It’s great for biscuits (I promise to share my Granny’s recipe with you someday soon!), but because it already has a leavening agent in it, it gives everything bake with it a little bit of a lift. Take note that 11% protein Self Rising flours is the SR equivalent to AP flour, and the ones with 8% protein are the SR match for Cake flour. If you are using a recipe that calls for SR flour and you don’t have any on hand, just add  1 teaspoon baking powder and  1/4 teaspoon salt to each cup of AP flour and combine well before adding to the rest of your dry ingredients.

Whole Wheat Flour, or whole grain wheat flour, is made from the entire wheat kernel. Because bran is included, the gluten development is restricted. Baked goods made with this kind of flour will be denser and heavier than those made with AP flour, so many bakers use a combination of AP and Whole Wheat flour to get the texture they want.

Bread Flour is very similar to AP flour, but it has a higher gluten content. This makes it a better choice for making yeast breads. Why? The gluten helps the dough develop the elasticity it needs to hold on to the gas produced as the dough rises and the bread bakes.

Cake Flour is a much softer, more finely textured flour with low protein and higher starch than regular flour, making it ideal for pastries and cakes because it helps keep the final product tender.

Semolina Flour is the coarsely milled endosperm of durum wheat, a very hard wheat. It has a very high protein content, which makes it the perfect flour for making great pasta. It’s very rarely  used for pastries or breads all by itself, but it can be blended with AP or cake flour. This recipe from MarthaStewart.com is a great example of how to utilize semolina flour in a dessert. I’ve used it (with a few minor edits) and can vouch for it’s deliciousness. It’s still tender because of the cake flour in the recipe, but the semolina flour adds an interesting texture and flavor.

Those are the facts, kids. I hoped that helped sort things out! As I’ve mentioned in a previous Kitchen 101 post, if you have to make a choice about what flour to keep around as a staple, AP flour is the way to go. Any other kind you have on hand really just depends on the kind of baking you do.  If you keep some type of flour around for no other reason, you should have some handy to smear on your face and sprinkle in your hair when people come over for dinner so it looks like you’ve been slaving away all day, even if there isn’t a speck of flour in anything you’ve cooked. 🙂

P.S. I’ll probably remind you again on Thursday, but if you’re interested in learning more about the Blogger Bake Sale or the No Kid Hungry campaign, head on over here for the details.

Kitchen 101: It’s Crunch Time!

Happy Tuesday!

It’s the first day back to classes for me. This quarter I’m taking a Sustainable Purchasing class, as well as an American Regional kitchen lab. I’m pretty excited. I can already see from the syllabus that the menus are a little more complicated, and we’re going to get to work with more than just chicken. Yay!  In fact, it’s while I was glancing through the Deep South menus for this quarter that I got the idea for today’s Kitchen 101. I think a lot of people assume that all Southern food recipes pretty much end in “dip in batter and fry.” Restaurants that stake their claim on Southern Food typically feature things like fried chicken, fried fish, and chicken fried steak as menu highlights, and there’s no doubt that battered and fried items have a place in many Southern cooks repertoires. Of course, as someone who grew up in the South, I know there’s so much more to Southern food than that, and I’m pretty excited that we’ll get to explore those other elements this quarter. In the meantime… If you’re looking for a way to get that taste and texture of the breaded and battered South without ingesting enough fat grams for a third world country, I have a few tips for you.

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First of all, let’s get past the idea that coating food in breading is automatically bad for you. There are lots of ingredients you can use to lighten up the breading but still get that perfect crunch. If you’re avoiding gluten based breadings, of course you can use gluten free bread crumbs, but you might also try a low moisture cheese like parmesan, or ground nuts like almonds, or even rice flour. Crushed potato chips are another option, as well as crushed corn flakes.  Just let your imagination run wild! Try out a few different crunch carriers (or even combine a couple of them) to find out what tastes best and has the right texture for you.

We also have some options in cooking methods to help us get the crispy exterior we want.

If you opt for the traditional frying method, try using a healthier oil that is low is saturated fat like canola or soybean oil. The key to keeping any breading from absorbing all that oil is to bring the oil up to the magic temperature of 375°.  If your oil temperature is too cool, the breading will absorb the oil and you’ll get that soggy, greasy outside. Gross, yeah? Obviously, oil that is too hot burns the outside of the food before the inside can cook, and that’s no good, either. Oil at the right temperature will cause the moisture inside the food to boil, then push its way out to the surface of the food. As it does that, it puts up a barricade that keeps the oil from penetrating the inside. The end result is that golden, crispy crust with a nice, satisfying crunch.

If you want to avoid deep frying altogether, another option is to oven fry the food. Regardless of how you do it, frying, by definition, is done in oil or fat. The benefit of frying food in the oven is that you are only using tablespoons of fat or oil vs. the cups of them that you use when deep frying. The trick to getting that crispy outside for oven fried foods is to preheat both the pan and the oil in the oven. When you drop the food onto the hot pan, you’ll hear the sizzle that means that moisture barrier is being formed and a crust is forming.

Of course, you can also just bake the food. You’ll use even less oil, and can even opt for cooking spray instead of oil or fat. It’s still absolutely possible to get that crunchy texture when baking.

You know I’m not going to leave you without a recipe! I had some avocados in the bowl that were juuuuust this side of soft, so I needed to use them right away. Short of just digging in with a spoon (which I’m totally down for, by the way), inspiration was running short. Then I remembered these avocado fries that I had at a few weeks ago at this bistro in my ‘hood, and a serious craving started to kick in.

Equipment:
Cookie sheet/baking pan
three medium sized bowls
a fork or tongs (or you can just use your hands, but they can get kinda gunky)
measuring cup and spoons
knife

Ingredients:
Two medium avocados
1/2 C flour, seasoned to taste
1/2 cup ranch dressing (I used Bolthouse Farms Yogurt dressing)
1 1/2 T lemon juice
1 1/2 C bread crumbs (or whatever you want to use, really)
salt and pepper
other spices or seasonings as you see fit
cooking spray

Preheat the oven to 425°.

Slice the avocados lengthwise and season them with a little salt on both sides. Spray your cookie sheet with the cooking spray and set it aside.

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Set up your three bowls for a standard breading station. Your first bowl will hold the seasoned flour. I just used salt and pepper as the seasoning in this bowl. The second bowl will hold the wet ingredients. I think most people use an egg wash for this stage, but I didn’t have any eggs so I used the ranch dressing thinned out with the lemon juice for a little added punch. The third bowl will hold the bread crumbs. I just sorta randomly added some Zanzibar Curry seasoning to it on a whim. I don’t know if anyone on any planet would put Ranch dressing together with a curry seasoning, but I did. I was totally in “Let’s See What Happens If I…” mode.

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Dredge each avocado slice in the seasoned flour, shaking off as much of the excess as you can. Move it into the dressing mixture to coat, and then cover it on all sides with the bread crumbs. You can use a fork, or tongs, or your hands to move the avocados from one bowl to the next, but remember that if you stick your hand in the flour, and then in the wet stuff, and then in the bread crumbs, you will have probably succeeded in breading your fingers together. You could use the “one hand dry, one hand wet” method, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll forget which is which and end up with gummy hands anyway.

Once all your avocado slices are breaded and onto the cookie sheet, pop them into the oven for about 15-18 minutes, turning once about halfway through, and bake until they’re golden brown.

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The  nice thing about using the ranch dressing as part of the breading is that we didn’t need any sort of dip for these. They packed some pretty serious flavor all on their own. The outsides were crispy, and the insides were creamy and full of avacadoey goodness.  We snacked on these while watching a movie, but they could be served as a side with a burger or a sammich, or as an appetizer.

Enjoy!