7 Things My Kitchen Can’t Live Without

An open electrical appliance next to a plate of baked goods

Electric cooking utensils and display II. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

7 Things My Kitchen Can’t Live Without

In no particular order…

1. A metal ice cream scoop. Sure, I could just say “big metal spoon”, but there’s something appealing about the heft and power of a designated ice cream scoop. Good for any scooping-like task, I especially like using it to parcel out muffin batter into cups or scoop some clarified butter out of its mason jar home.

2. Mason jars. Speaking of mason jars, I love them and use them for everything. Obviously they’re good for storing leftovers, but I also like keeping a jar of leftover egg whites in the fridge, using them to store homemade baking mixes, and make refrigerator pickles.

3. Cast-iron pan. I cook virtually everything in a cast iron pan. Never having had the pleasure of a sparkling new stove, cast iron helps more evenly distribute the heat from rickety old ranges. And in my opinion, no other pan can give you quite as satisfying a crisp on grilled cheese sandwiches.

4. Chef’s knife. Some people say that a well-sharpened chef’s knife is the only knife you need in your kitchen, and I’m inclined to agree. I still haven’t gotten around to using to using such specialty knives as boning and paring knives, but I suppose that tells you more about the types of meals I cook more than anything else.

5. Crock pot. Gasp! A unitasker! Well, in my opinion, not really. There really is no limit to the number of meals you can make in a crock pot. My laziness is acute enough that I love the idea of just putting ingredients in a pot and letting them simmer away, and I have a terminal fear of letting a pot sit on the stove; I’ve let enough pots boil over or boil dry to know that I’m just slightly too distractable.

6. Rice cooker. Another device in the “set it and forget it” school. Rice cookers make it about 500x times easier to make rice. As a person who eats rice several times a week, its usefulness cannot be understated.

7. Flour sifter. For many years, I avoided sifting flour. It’s tedious, it’s annoying, and is there really a difference? Yes, there is a difference. I’m glad that I picked up a small, serviceable flour sifter on my latest thrifting adventure.

 

I always find it fascinating to discover what other people consider “kitchen essentials”. What are your favorite kitchen tools? Is there something you can’t live without?

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Hydroponic Tomatoes: +10 to Tastiness Factor?

A green tomato

Green Tomato. Courtesy of jddl50.

I’ve pretty much decided that when my boyfriend and I get our own place, I’m going to have a hydroponic garden. Now that it’s on the official bucket list, I keep seeing it everywhere.

Proof in point? A recently published article by NPR that claims hydroponic tomatoes may soon be tastier than regular ol’ dirt tomatoes.

What do you think? Are you tempted by hydroponics – or its somewhat lesser known brethren, aquaponics? Or do you think hand grown “dirt” produce will always reign supreme?

Fluffy Wonder: Mom’s Quiche with Local Eggs

A slice of quiche on a plate with fork.

Slice of quiche. Original photo. June 2014.

Two things happened recently that have elevated my quiche game to unheard of heights: I learned how to make homemade pie crust, and I incorporated local chicken eggs.

Quiche is a dish I have made dozens, if not hundreds of times. It may seem like a somewhat esoteric recipe for someone outside of the dinner party set, but my mother makes a very good quiche, so it fatefully ended up in my repertoire. And, of course, I have come to appreciate any recipe that can be boiled down to “cut stuff up, pour eggs and cream over it, put in pie shell and bake”.

The stumbling block was always that last part: the pie shell. Pie crust, being part of the pastry family, has always intimidated me. Cookies, brownies, cakes – all of these are friendly, painless little things. But stories of finicky pastry are legion, and I didn’t want to be added to the body count.

In the name of this blog, I gave it a shot. And the results were mind-blowing.

My homemade crust was leaps and bounds more tender and flaky than store-bought crust. When I attempted to tear off bits of crust to snack on, the crust would twist just a little before yielding with an elastic-like snap! – something completely lacking in store-bought, which has a tendency to immediately splinter into a million, dust-like pie shavings. And the flaky quality was lovely, too; when I accidentally rolled my second crust too thick I was actually able to pull apart multiple layers with my fingers.

It turns out that making pie crust is not especially difficult, just time consuming; I spent most of my time trying to keep my work space cold and letting the dough chill, but even that wasn’t much of an imposition. What else are Netflix queues for?

And the eggs.

This quiche was easily the fluffiest, most cloud-like sculpture I have ever made, and there is no doubt in my mind that it is the result of fresh eggs.

So, here is the recipe for my mom’s quiche. The type is my favorite, Swiss cheese and bacon, but quiche is endlessly adaptable and you can put in practically anything you’d like.


Mom’s Quiche

1 frozen 9” deep dish pie shell – pierce thoroughly and bake @ 375 degrees for 7 – 10 minutes

3 eggs slightly beaten

1 pint cream*

½ tsp salt**

1 T butter

½ cup finely chopped onion

½ lb swiss cheese

½ lb bacon – fried and crumbled

Directions:

Mix eggs, half & half and cheese; sauté onions in butter 5 minutes and add to eggs with remaining ingredients.  Add a little nutmeg*** and cayenne pepper.  Bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes.  Reduce to 325 degrees and bake until done 40 – 45 minutes.

Note:  Be careful when pouring in liquid – the pie shell will hold slightly less than the total liquid this recipe makes.

*A pint is 2 cups imperial, if you can’t remember, which I never can. Also, any high-fat liquid should do the trick: half-and-half, whole milk, evaporated milk. I always use cream, but the idea of using shelf-stable evaporated milk is quite appealing.

**You may wish to omit the salt if you add in a salty cheese such as Parmesan; taste the batter before cooking if you’re worried.

***I never use nutmeg, as I almost always despise it outside of molasses cookies; mustard goes better with the cayenne in my opinion. But to each their own. 

How Cats Appeal to Our Inner Masochist

A cat laying in the shade on cement

Original photo. “Cat at the Market.” June 2014.

Like most cat admirers, my adoration for felines is intense and mostly likely pathological in nature.

Why do we love cats? My current theory is that they tie in to our innate need for selective approval. It feeds the ego, to love something as temperamental as a homemade hollandaise. It is as Heather, the farmer’s market manager that greeted us today on our visit, so succinctly said about the market tabby, “This is Bruiser. If he likes your attention you should feel special, because he doesn’t like everyone’s attention.”

Dogs love everyone. They are bright and bouncy balls of energetic life. They wrap everyone around them in their zealousness. Come on! they say through tail wags and barks, let’s go out and play! Whereas a cat would rarely say such a thing, if they could talk. Cats judge and determine if you are worthy. Which seems absolutely bananas to a dog person — but the masochistic undertones are, in my opinion, an integral part of the appeal of cats.

It was a nice surprise to find a cat among the tomatoes. In fact, we found a small, vibrant orange cat hair resting on the surface of one ripe red fruit, and the boyfriend immediately declared that we had to buy it.

That is the kind of cat freaks we are – buying a cat-hair tomato.

We met Bruiser because all of the other local farmer’s markets were either closed for the day or not open for the season, and my produce basket had finally run dry. Thus the handling peppers and eyeing bargain baskets of tomatoes and strawberries while also counting the paw prints engraved in long-dried cement.

I bought the most produce from a pleasant woman named Alice, who valiantly weighed our selections three separate times on an apparently faulty scale. From her we purchased four lemons, three cucumbers, six tomatoes, and a heaping bag of string beans. Later we would snag a bag of spinach and white sweet corn from the stall next door, and even later than that, when we were starting to get hot and sticky, I treated us to some handmade vanilla ice cream and lemon sorbet — the former for him, the latter for me. We both bought an extra scoop that we could barely finish. But it was nice to pick at the shaggy ice with my spoon and talk about nothing.

We were easily the youngest people there, other than children forcibly detained by their parents. On of the shops was actually a diner with simple printed menus taped to the door, and when we peered through the curtains, you could see elderly couples sitting down to a meal. I wondered what their stories were as we passed by.

All in all, a nice day. We’ve already made plans to return.

 

Are you also a cook that likes cats? Or are you more of a dog person? Would you ever buy a cat-hair tomato? What do you think about businesses that own pets?

A Thousand Things

a stack of old cookbooks next to a silver serving vessel

Books for Cooks by macinate.

Sometimes life is delightfully serendipitous. You start out looking for one thing, and end up with something entirely unexpected but perfectly fitting.

I’m talking about thrift stores, of course.

After watching My Fair Lady, I was struck by the urge to make angel food cake (don’t look too hard for a segway there; I got nothing… maybe it was the light fluffy outfits Hepburn was wearing?). Sadly, I was lacking a bundt pan, and while I could have made the cake without one, I refused on principle. So, naturally, I dragged my boyfriend thrift shopping.

I found a rather beat-up but earnest looking bundt pan for $2.25 within the first ten minutes or so. I’m a bit concerned about the fact that it is a two-piece pan; I’ve had similar pans leak in the past. But for under $3, I figured I could line it with tin foil if I needed to. I couldn’t just leave it there.

As you may have guessed, I have a tendency to anthropomorphize objects. Particularly old things, like old cookware, old books, and old electronics. (The boyfriend says he doesn’t want old plates, which spells trouble for my love of secondhand china. But we’ll see.)

Being the conniving thrift shopper I am, I kept browsing, and that was when I came across my serendipitous wonder.

A 1961 edition of The New York Times cookbook.

I couldn’t believe my luck. The dust jacket is tattered beyond any semblance of real use, but the hardcover underneath is richly colored and practically perfect for its age – there are a few faint stains on the edges of some pages, and some slight worrying along the bottom portion of the cover – but that’s all.

Confession time: while I do love modern cookbooks and all their beautifully photographed glory, vintage cookbooks are what I like to line my shelves with. Books from the late 50s to early 70s are my genre of choice. There’s something delightful about them, a sort of cooking perfect storm: many people regularly cooked at home during these years; “convenience recipes” featuring canned soups or packaged goods are present but not predominant; there’s a wonderful balance of the familiar (spoon bread) and the unknown (tarragon eggs in aspic); and there’s a sense of bright culinary adventurousness inspired by cooks like Julia Child and James Beard.

I am over the moon about my find and can’t wait to apply these classic recipes to my local foods basket!

What kinds of cook books do you have at home? Do you prefer new cook books or old, digital or print? What inspires you to get cooking with your local offerings?

From the Rooftops

Image of a food cache, 1978, library of congress

Food Cache. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

As I become progressively more interested in local food, I also increasingly find myself wondering if I will have to move to a more rural area to accomplish my goals.

As a kid, I always wanted to live somewhere urban – someplace where there was always something going on and new people to meet. I was comforted by the idea of slipping into anonymity in a strange city.

But now, I wonder if that drive is contrary to my local food goals. I want to get involved in my community, and get to know the farmers and ranchers that make the meals on my plate possible. After meeting Shelly and Pearl, I’m severely tempted by the idea of owning my own chickens. And daily the list grows longer: I want my own citrus trees (especially lemons, which are my favorite); I want to grow herbs and tomatoes; and I want to can and preserve produce that I grew myself.

All of these goals seem to require land. But an article published recently on NPR’s blog, The Salt, contradicts that assumption.

As Maanvi Singh points out, more and more urban dwellers want in on local eating, too, and they’re coming up with innovative ways to make that happen. One technique is that of the rooftop garden, something that has already seen a lot of action overseas in densely populated cities like Singapore and Hong Kong. But going beyond that are start-ups like Mini-Farmery, that aims to grows herbs, produce and other eatables in a store that is, literally, a shipping container.

What do you think about urban initiatives surrounding local food? Do you think rooftop gardens, hydroponics, and micro gardens are the wave of the future? Would you shop at a store that operates out of a shipping crate?

Which came first?

A farmer holding eggs

Sonoma County, California. Freshly laid eggs. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The instant I held a fresh brown chicken egg in my palm, marveling at its perfection and precociousness, I decided to start a food blog.

That’s the simple version.

In reality, the idea of starting a blog had been rattling around in my head for weeks, and I had been attempting to keep it at bay by sampling reality television and catching up on my never-ending pile of reading material.

I’ve always liked the idea of having a blog — my generation being the generation that grew up alongside the AOL dial-up ringtone of death, you understand, and the days of wide open Internet prairie country that seemed perfectly suited for public introspection — but I’ve lacked direction. Or voice. Or commitment of any kind. It’s much easier to think of yourself as the kind of person that would have a blog than it is to be the kind of person that actually writes for a blog.

I tossed around a few ideas — a book review blog, a rant and rambles blog, a social justice blog, a history blog centered around my unnatural fascination with Victorian era morality, who knows? — but nothing seemed to stick. Safely wrapped in indecision, I continued with my daily life as a “nontraditional” (read: missed the boat) college student in coastal Virginia.

But unfortunately for me, a few weeks ago I met the chickens Shelly and Pearl.

Shelly is sweet, quiet, and has feathers of a orangey-brown variety. (The internet suggests she is an Orpington, which apparently are known for being pushovers, a characteristic that certainly fits well-mannered miss Bessie). She likes to follow around her coop-mate, Pearl (who is as white as her name implies), while cooing to herself in a self-soothing manner and avoiding a pair of yippy small dogs.

I had not intended to meet chickens. I had intended to visit my boyfriend’s mother.

But, as these things turn out in life, my boyfriend’s mother had recently moved into a pleasant but ultimately chaotic household full of half a dozen animals, which included Shelly and Pearl – and, by extension, their eggs. Which, apparently, no one in the household really cared to collect, much less eat. The pair aren’t there to provide sustenance at all, and apparently they are free to wander the yard, eat as many bugs as they like, and provide free heart palpitations to any hapless newcomer who attempts to drive up the house while simultaneously avoiding their cute little feathered bodies.

I have never been an egg eating person, but this untapped treasure trove was too much to resist.

Because I do cook, regularly — almost obsessively. And I attempt to buy as much produce and other grocery goods as locally as I can afford on my (alas, wafer-thin) wallet, because I believe it is always good to know where your food is coming from. It is much harder to throw away food when you can picture the person that grew it for you, as opposed to the food materializing, origin-less and anonymous, on grocery store shelves. Local food connects you not only to the land but to the people around you, people who eat, breathe, and live just as you do. Eating locally connects me to dozens of people, from farmer to neighbor, and even to creatures like Pearl and Shelly.

And so, as I tenderly washed and dried each miraculous little oval for the first time, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I would soon be a blogger.