17 January 2011

Top Tools of the Trade

There are very few tools I use in my kitchen on my daily basis. I'm not one for having excess gadgets or running to find the latest must-have culinary technology if what I already own is working just fine! There are a few methods and ideas, a few tools I've tried in my years at Williams-Sonoma that are impressive and fascinating, such as Sous Vide cooking or small countertop food-smoking guns and chips, but they aren't things I would ever have in my home kitchen.

My favorite tools are some of the same tools I grew up using in the kitchens of my mother and grandmother. They are tried, true and the classic best.

Here are my Top-10 Kitchen tools!

1. Wooden/Bamboo Spoons in varying sizes: They can be used in any type of cookware, and used for serving, folding, stirring, mixing and more. They are inexpensive, readily available and now with choices like bamboo, are environmentally friendly and extremely sturdy. My oldest wooden spoon is going on 15 years! NOTE: wood utensils cannot go in the dishwasher!

2. Whisks: I have three. Some people might think that odd, but I use every single one. Though if you are going to own one whisk, I recommend a medium sized french balloon whisk with a nice sturdy handle. They can be found at a variety of kitchen and department stores, and when you find a good one it will last you years. Whisks can be used for everything from whipping to mixing dry baking ingredients, stirring perfect sauces, creamy gravies, soups and stews.

3. Good knives + honing steel: There are 3 knives I use on a regular basis, and they are good quality German knives. I feel if you have a good chopping knife like an 8" Chef's knife (or Santoku, a popular Japanese style with a thicker blade and more cutting room), a 3-4" paring knife and a serrated knife for breads, cheeses and tomatoes, you're set in the knife department. I also know, though, that you can often buy a great set which will include a steel and shears for nearly the same price as buying open-stck cutlery. When you're shopping for knives there are a few things you must keep in mind. You should never put knives in the dishwasher, ever. It can dull the blades very easily and they can cause damage to the dishwasher, as well ruining the finish and warping the handles. You also need to feel and try out knives before you buy. Weight plays a big part in how you chop and cut, how much pressure you apply. Lastly, a honing steel is needed for daily maintenance of your knives except the serrated, which should be professionally sharpened, along  with all your knives about once a year. For tips on how to properly use a honing steel or for great knife advice please visit your local Williams-Sonoma and ask about having a quick demonstration! A lot of WS stores also have occasional knife skills classes, which are a huge benefit if you aren't comfortable with your technique or want a few tips.

4. Shears: A good pair of kitchen shears (to be used ONLY in the kitchen) is extremely handy for the kitchen to use for opening packaging, trimming herbs, cutting poultry bones and if you find a pair with a bottle-opener built in,  even better! You can find a good pair, that pull apart for easy thorough cleaning, for $20-30 but if you want a full stainless-steel pair, designed especially for poultry (if you butcher your own chickens, turkeys, etc.) they can run a lot higher in price.

5. Glass mixing bowls: A good set of 3-4 glass mixing bowls will serve you well, last years and can tolerate a lot of use every day.  They can be used for "mise en place"/prep, mixing, serving, as a  double-boiler bowl, can go in the microwave and dishwasher. Try to find a nice sturdy set that are heavy, level, and come in a nice variety of sizes. My set is made up of 11 bowls that range in size from huge, probably about 6 quart to the tiniest bowl which holds about 2 ounces. Glass will serve you a little better than melamine or plastic because they're a little more long lasting, won't warp or bend, and can go in the microwave. Metal is another good option, but I love being able to see all around my bowl to really ensure all my ingredients are well-blended.

6. Wood cutting boards: They are safe, they are durable, they are very easy to maintain and the are easy on your good cutlery! Wood boards, if cleaned and kept properly, will serve you long and well. Depending on the type of wood you choose, prices will vary as will proper handling. The main thing you must keep in mind, as with any cutting board, is to avoid cross-contamination. Never cut raw meat, then cut fruit/veggies, etc. without washing the board in between or changing boards all together (and never use the same knife without washing in between, either!). Wood boards are never to go in the dishwasher! Typically you want to wash the board with warm soapy water, dry it, and then do a weekly food-safe mineral oil treatment by rubbing oil in with a cotton or paper towel. This prevents the wood drying out and cracking, and provides a bit of a seal on the wood.  I have no major issue with plastic boards, though they usually wear out faster than wood, and do not recommend cutting on glass boards. They are mainly for serving and decoration, and not really meant to be cut upon and the same goes for marble, granite, any hard stone. They will damage knives beyond recognition! NOTE: While there has been hesitation to use wood boards with meats in the past, there have been studies conducted showing, if properly cared for and maintained, wood boards harbor less bacteria than plastic/melamine boards.

7. Microplane: This is such a fun, useful tool to have and can turn you into a gourmet cook in no time! Microplanes come in different shapes, sizes, and cut-types, but when you get down to it, the fine-grater style is the most useful for this blogger! This can be used for grating hard cheeses, shaving chocolate, zesting fruit, grating ginger and even cinnamon! By using a microplane, you can add beautiful subtle flavors to your dishes, and  to your presentation. After all, we eat first with our eyes!

8. Instant-read Thermometer: Available at a variety of kitchen and department stores, this is an essential tool for ensuring your roast meats are cooked to the proper (safe) temperature. Many of us depend on the dainty red pop-up timers implanted in our Thanksgiving birds, but frankly, they aren't accurate. You may not use this tool on a daily, or weekly basis, but come holiday time or the fall and winter comfort-food months when a nice roast hits the spot, you'll be glad you have this handy, simple thermometer in your drawer! NOTE: There are many types of thermometers, some with remotes or voice-activation, but a classic, simple instant-read does the same job without the need for batteries and a higher price-tag.

9. Vegetable peeler: This is another item you can find without spending a fortune, that you'll use all the time, and not just for peeling! Veggie peelers are great for, of course, potatoes, apples, carrots, yams, etc. but they are also great for shaving chocolate, making carrot and zucchini ribbons for salad or sautéing, and making your very own citrus twist ribbons for the bartender in you! Peelers range in price from $3-40 depending on the material and type of blade, among other things. My favorite peeler (small plastic handle with a nice sharp, but very thin blade) was around $4 and at that price, why not get a few to have on hand! Nowadays you can also find special peelers for julienne and ribbon garnish cuts!

10. Clean hands: The best tools of all, some would say! With clean, steady hands you can make perfect knife cute, you can mix beautiful biscuits and knead love into delicious breads and rolls, you can mix meatloaf and roll cookie dough, create perfectly coated truffles and much, remove the skin from poultry to create healthier meals for you family, and so much more! In my home, the cost of clean hands is no more than a few dollars for a bottle of good, unscented and all natural,  biodegradable hand-soap and a few lovely pure cotton kitchen towels.

Well, my friendly followers, there you have it, my Top-10 tools! The tools I use most in my kitchen may vary greatly from yours, or not at all, but I hope the information along with this list has provided some insight and a few new ideas for what you may want to invest in to make your kitchen and your cooking experiences fun, efficient and memorable.

NEXT WEEK: Comfort Foods then and now!

06 January 2011

Give Bark a Chance!

Alas, the time for extreme indulgence and over-eating has come and passed, and I'm guessing most of us enjoyed every moment of it filling up on peppermint bark, rich cocoa with whipped cream topping, egg-nog heavy on the spike, and dozens of glorious other sweets, treats and once-a-year snacks to beat the band. I know I did! The green bean casserole I mentioned in my Thanksgiving post made an appearance at Christmas eve dinner, along side a glazed am, candies (very candied) yams and a beautiful fresh salad of mixed baby greens, nuts and dried cranberries tossed with roasted sweet potatoes! My contribution to the evening was a beautiful pumpkin spice Bundt cake made with whole-wheat pastry flour and agave nectar. It was lovely, light and incredibly moist. 

The holiday time of year is usually a big time for baking and sharing food in my family, but sadly this year seemed to get away from us leaving little to no time for goodies and giving. I did, however, get the chance to share a couple of special new treats with my acting class classmates and a few friends at various impromptu gatherings. The most fun day for treats and sweets was having over a few of my favorite moms to decorate sugar cookies with all sorts of candies, crunchies, sprinkles and sugars. The children all had a blast and decorated a ton of cookies using the blue, green and red royal icings and, even covered in more candy and icing than there was cookie to support the sugary weight, they tasted amazing! There was also one ridiculously easy treat I whipped up on a few occasions for sharing at meetings, classes, and family events:Bark!

Barks are the easiest possible treat to make as long as you have the time to let them set/chill properly and firm up enough to break easily. All you need is the chocolate of your choice and a few things to mix in! The three varieties I made this year were Peppermint Marshmallow, Cherry Marshmallow Crunch and Salty Snack Crunch. 

To give you an idea of how easy it is, I've posted a recipe for you below. Really you can use anything you enjoy along side chocolate, and whatever strength and variety of chocolate you prefer will be great! I'm not a huge white "chocolate" fan because it has little flavor, aside from sweetness, thought it's good for a drizzle on top. It adds a little flourish and elegance to the presentation! Instead, I normally prefer a chocolate containing about 60-70% cocoa. Some bark recipes will call for melting chocolate or chocolate bars, but chips work best for me and they are the least expensive option while you still have plentiful options for high quality. (Tip: If you're a WinCo shopper, they have the best deal on Guittard chips and usually have 4-5 different varieties!)

You may say you can't make candy, you've never made anything like this, there's no way, but I promise you, it's so easy and anything goes! It's a budget-friendly, delicious, always-a-hit treat with endless possibilities for flavors and mix-ins. For example, my Salty Snack Crunch was made with extra-dark chocolate chips, potato chip and pretzel bits! 

My message to you in this start of the fresh, new year:
Give Bark  a Chance! 

Minty Marshmallow Peppermint Bark!

First, line a half-sheet pan with buttered wax paper 
(butter-side up) and set aside
In a double boiler, melt:
12 oz semi-sweet chocolate
12 oz extra dark chocolate
1/2 tsp pure mint extract
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
After the mixture is completely melted and smooth, add:
1/2 cup crushed peppermint candy
and spread out on the lined pan in an even, fairly thin, layer
Sprinkle chocolate layer with:
1 cup crushed peppermint candy
1 1/2 cups mini marshmallow
and set aside
In a double boiler melt:
1 cup vanilla chips
1/2 cup mint chips (found green ones by Guittard at Bartell Drugs, WinCo has them sometimes, but chocolate mint would work also, just wouldn’t be green)
After the vanilla and mint chips are completely melted, quickly drizzle with a spoon or fork, on top of the chocolate layer and sprinkle the top with one last layer of:
1/2 cup crushed peppermint candy 
Cool in the fridge until very hard, break apart and enjoy! Store in airtight container in the fridge for best results. 
(Courtney Rose Calkins December 11, 2010)

A few other perfect mix-ins are:
Chow-mien noodles
Nuts (Toasted, whole, halved, and/or chopped)
Chocolate and other types of chips (Cinnamon, peanut butter, etc.)
Dried fruits
Cookie bits
Bacon crumbles
Whatever you enjoy along side chocolate! 

I hope you all had a beautiful holiday season with family and friends, and had fun trying new things in the kitchen! 
Enjoy this recipe, share with the ones you love, and I wish you and yours a very happy new year full of love, food, time shared in the kitchen and around the family table. 

NEXT WEEK: My Favorite kitchen tools!