Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Fast Food At Home #2 The Proper Appliance

Now that you have had plenty of time to stock the pantry, the moment is ripe to talk about the equipment for manipulating all those ingredients. In our American culture we tend to stock our kitchen equipment based on two things: what our mothers had in their kitchens coupled with the trendy gadget of the moment being highlighted at places like Williams Sonoma. And in today's showcase kitchens (you know the ones-where the people remodel and get all the high end stuff and restaurant quality stove tops only to use them once a year to reheat the Thanksgiving turkey dinner bought in toto from AJ's) there are plenty of things worthy of envy, but are they really all that necessary?

When I remodeled my kitchen I knew I had to have three things: a gas cook top, a convection oven and instant hot water. As it turns out I came across a few other things that I did not know existed at the time that have direct application to having great and fast cooked food at home.

First is the wok ring. As part of my gas cook top options from Gaggenau a wok ring seemed unusual coming from a German company. I did a lot of wok cooking on my electric stove with the metal ring base that held the pan over the heat source. But this is a gas hob that can heat the center of the pan or circle the base about midway up with licking flames. Much more controlled heat. I just had to have it and I was not disappointed. Located smack dab in the center of my cooktop, the wok has taken up residence there where it is handy for whipping up all sorts of things. I use it for just about anything that can be sautéed. At least weekly I toss a batch of chopped greens (chards, mustards, beets) in a bit of olive oil with sliced garlic, some kosher salt and a bit of balsamic vinegar, or soy sauce or ¼ chicken broth and a dash of white wine. It is also ready and waiting to do a quick stir fry of Asian persuasion. I use it almost daily for lots of things. Wok cooking is meant to be fast and active. Once you get the hang of introducing the foods in the order of the longest cooking first, you can really do just about anything in there. And there is the steaming aspect as well. With a liquid in the bottom foods can steam on a rack balanced on the circumference with delicate results.

My second fave appliance, which admittedly is probably not very practical for most people is also from Gaggenau. It is a built in steamer. Word of caution, though, we have had some technical problems with this little gem that have been costly but I am now told that Wolf makes one that is much better. Too late for this kitchen, though. Despite all that, I still love the thing. The third component of my cook top, it is actually a large basin with its own drain. It comes with a perforated and a solid tray that perch above the reservoir that must always be filled with water. This is the method of steam cooking that is tremendous for vegetables, fish and egg dishes. It is also perfect for rice and seems to knock it out much faster than even a rice cooker. And the best feature is the pasta basket. Remember when everyone thought it was so cool to have a spigot coming out of your stove wall to fill pasta pots? I was always confused by this. Getting a pot of cold water to the stove was not the issue-bringing that hot pot of roiling pasta away from the stove was always the tough part. This appliance solves that problem. The reservoir accommodates enough water to submerge an entire metal basket full of pasta in boiling water. When done, you simply raise the basket and the pasta drains in the process. No scalding. No pot balancing on the stove. The risk of boiling water injuries is almost nil. And the best part, no dragging the pot to the sink to dump-remember it has its own drain.

My next favorite thing is the combination convection/microwave oven. This thing is amazing in that it has a setting for cooking meat with a probe to an exact temperature and holding it there until you are ready for it. And it even browns the outside. My mode is from GE. I am certain that in the last six years they have even improved these.

Another thing I love to do with it (apart from quick but accurate defrosting-which is definitely a plus for fast food at home) is somewhat unconventional in that it was not recommended in the handbook. The convection part of the oven has a preheating phase that I imagine is wasted by most people. I have found that it is perfect for roasting vegetables. Beets, radishes, fennel, potatoes, parsnips, cauliflower, any vegetable that takes well to roasting can be tossed in olive oil and kosher salt and thrown in the cold oven to begin roasting as the oven preheats. Starting the roast seems to speed things up a bit and the veggies seem to like the gradual temperature increase. It generally takes about 20 minutes depending upon the density of the particular food item, but the results are nearly always perfection-crisp exterior, al dente interior-tons of flavor.

One thing I NEVER attempt in a microwave is tortillas or breads, like pita. It just turns them gooey and gross. Instead, you get a tastier result by throwing a cast iron griddle over that gas heat and going from there. The griddle is also a must for pancakes, quesadillas and I find it an excellent way to roast corn kernels. The flip side of the rectangular cast iron griddle is designed for grilling, which might be fine on in a campsite, but I would think it would turn one's kitchen into a greasy mess.

Small appliances are near to my heart. I could not live without my stick blender which came with a small food processor attachment. This is one of the most ingenious inventions of all time and even better it is a cinch to clean. I have never owned a full size food processor and I get along just fine. The coffee grinder can double as a spice mill but I do love the act of crushing seeds with an old fashioned marble mortar and pestle. Somehow the flavors seem more genuine that way. Admittedly it is all probably in my head but interacting with the food in such an intentioned manner should not be underrated.

Another must have small electric is the cordless can opener (As Seen On TV-but fabulous nonetheless as it is hands free) and the [corded] heat-able ice cream scoop. The benefits of these are obvious.

I find using a scale is the most practical way for measuring flour and baking ingredients. Most recipes use cups rather than weight but weight is much more accurate and creates fewer items to clean. A scale should have the ability to account for tare weight (the weight of the empty bowl) so you are only measuring the ingredient. I use a postal scale which works great, although you can buy kitchen scales.

Everyone needs a toaster, of course. And I have a mechanical pasta machine that is fun to play with from time to time but certainly not essential.

Aside from an assortment of pots and pans (which I personally don't think you need to spend a ton of money on-go to the business Costco and stock up on single pieces, getting just what you need) the last can't live without appliance is the pressure cooker. This device is crucial to achieving the apex of "fast" cooking at home. And it has the added benefit of retaining the nutrients that are often lost in cooking. Today's pressure cookers are not your mother's pressure cooker—no rattling and spewing that sends children running in fear for their lives. Sure, the steam still escapes but the valves are now solid state in the lid and much more efficient and quite a bit quieter.

The uses for this treasure are endless. You can even cook beans in a ½ hour, which you would probably not often do except perhaps for throwing together a quick minestrone or chile.

Finally, there is the bread machine. You may think this little darling had gone the way of the hoop skirt by now. Although I never make bread in the machine anymore (first I rarely eat bread other than Ezekial and second the shape is not the best even if I did eat bread) this machine can't be beat for making dough. In about 1 ½ hours you can have a beautiful pizza dough with very little effort. I would not recommend going out and buying a bread machine for this purpose but if you already have one, you certainly should hang on to it and put it to use now and then.

With this collection of basics you are well on your way to enjoying healthy, fresh and fast meals at home.

Stay tuned for more about exactly how I put these items to use.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Spinach and Beets; A Health Care Treat

In a canny move, the Daily Beast is featuring an article on being healthier by eating certain food combinations. This caught my eye for two reasons. First, now that the slippery slope toward government run health care has been breached with the passage of the Health Care legislation last night, we should do everything in our power to make ourselves healthier in order to avoid the scary government- run health care system all together. This article is a great first step.

If you think I am nuts I suggest you look at just two things: the financial condition of Medicare/Medicaid and the pilot for the Jamie Oliver Food Revolution show that premiered on ABC last night. In it Oliver, British chef out to change the world, is thwarted in his efforts to bring actual food to a school cafeteria by a USDA requirement that 2 breads be served at lunch. Predictably, Jamie's offering of real food was shunned by the little kiddies who have been brainwashed into thinking the primordial chemical soup that is coaxed into tasty shapes resembling something mistakenly called chicken nuggets or a pile of mashed potatoes. Just watching the women "cook" the schlock in the school kitchen almost gagged me. No need for smell-sense-around--I could almost detect the disgusting odor merely from the visuals on the screen. Seriously, it nearly made me ill.

If this is the government telling us what to eat, can you even imagine what they are going to tell us to do with the ailments we acquire from following that advice? The skin crawls.

The second reason it caught my eye was the spinach and beets recommended in the article's first entry: one should eat spinach in combination with beets. This very subject came up Saturday night as we had an impromptu neighborhood bar-b-que in the front yard across the street. I made a Farmer's Market salad composed of spinach, chopped apple, carrot, navel orange and shallot in blood orange vinaigrette.

After his second huge plate of salad, Bob, the neighborhood biker (as in cyclist) said that a nutritionist once told him that if you eat spinach you should also have beets to counteract something or other. Doug piped in that maybe it had something to do with all the iron in spinach. I (the foodie) sat silent, except to offer that I did have some fresh beets in my fridge.

The next thing you know, here comes this article which explains that the intestinal processing of the iron in the greens is enhanced by the simultaneous consumption of high Vitamin C carrying foods, such as beets! Well, who knew? Those guys were really on to something.

Similarly, apparently, olive oil enhances absorption of the lycopene in tomatoes, protein such as beef helps absorb the Vitamin A in carrots, lemon promotes absorption of the antioxidants in green tea, fish oils and garlic together equal anti-inflammatory properties, the antioxidants in rosemary neutralize the free radicals in beef, oatmeal and OJ mediate cholesterol, red wine and apples fight blood clots, trail mix is easier to digest than nuts and dried fruits separately and blueberries plus grapes equals exponential levels of antioxidants. There are five bad combinations as well, ranging from eggs and coffee to milk and anything: I highly recommend you print it out the original article for easy reference.