Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Oh, Those Unexpected Guests!

With the holidays imminent, we all look to touch base and reconnect with old friends. Those couple of weeks of Christmas and New Year's bring a lot of drop-ins; 'tis the season in which the open house policy thrives. People make the rounds as they hop from home to home to pass along holiday wishes and spend a couple of hours catching up. If you're already cooking up scrumptious feasts for the actual holidays themselves, you don't need to add more cooking for these impromptu visits, on top of last minute gift shopping and wrapping. Take it easy and enjoy your company. Putting out some delectable delights does not necessarily require any slaving in the kitchen at all and can be very elegant nonetheless. Yes, I love to cook. It is my passion and I think nothing of spending hours in the kitchen creating a meal to top all others. However, I want to take part in the holiday festivities too. I want to have fun with my guests and enjoy their company, good conversation and a few laughs. You can as well, very easily, and it will require only minutes in the kitchen. All you need to know is the location of your nearest gourmet market, and where you last stashed those three or four serving bowls.

Decide ahead of time on a location to sit around and make that the designated "holiday visiting" spot. For us it's usually the living room where the decorated Christmas tree instantly provides festive lighting. I'll put some holiday tunes in the CD player, and I will have already worked out the lighting and music for a happy holiday ambiance. The food finds its way to the coffee table with the same ease. Depending on the time of day and number of people, I either put out four hors d'oeuvres and a fun mixed drink or a bottle of wine; or something just baked in the oven and freshly brewed coffee.

Try to have variety with the hors d'oeuvres, you don't want to be repetitive and give your guests a choice of a dip and, well, a dip. For minimal cooking, you could make one dip and serve with chips which will complement the dip, such as pita chips with a roasted eggplant dip, or tortilla chips with a homemade black bean dip or guacamole. One of my personal favorites is a baked crab and cheese dip, served with gourmet crackers. I do recommend making your own dip from scratch, however. Most store-bought dips are loaded with salt and taste artificial. Homemade dips are so easy to make, especially with the helping hand of a food processor, and they can be made ahead of time. Now that the dip is out of the way, we move on to the second and simpler hors d'oeuvre. For no cooking but merely minutes of preparation, try wrapping either fresh halved figs or honeydew melon balls with prosciutto and arranging the bundles on a lettuce lined plate. A cheese hors d'oeuvre would be a fine third addition, and the preparation becomes yet even simpler. Pick up a block of imported pecorino Romano or Parmesan reggiano. Take a very sharp knife and thinly slice the block. These cheeses tend to be dry and hard, so they will slice into perfect chip-sized shards, and with their salty and nutty flavors, no seasoning is needed. Place the shards into a nice little serving bowl, done! Now for one more item on the coffee table palette. How about something that requires no cooking at all? To complete this picture, pick up a pint of nuts such as pistachios or cashews, or a pint of good olives from the olive bar. These just get dumped right into another little serving bowl and voila, move over 30-minute meals, we now have 30-second munchies! Some other no-cook options to stock up on to keep on hand for those really last-minute unannounced visitors can include a bag of gourmet potato chips, Cheese Sticks (made by John WM Macy), gourmet crackers, nuts and olives. If you want to create a hot hors d'oeuvre, keep some frozen puff pastry on hand. With a quick trip through the express lane, you can pick up two or three ingredients to stuff into the puff pastry for baking, such as ham and gruyere or ham and blue cheese. Another quick hors d'oeuvre is shrimp cocktail, there are plenty of recipes for basic cocktail sauce and shrimp boils or roasts very quickly. Whatever you choose, balance out the menu: something hot, something cold, something with cheese, something with fruit or vegetable, and be sure to include a couple of things that require no cooking time at all. The above-mentioned ideas will be an elegant presentation, your guests will feel satisfied and indulged, and you will still have energy after they depart to hang more ornaments, engage in a gift-wrapping marathon, spy on your spouse's gift-wrapping marathon, or chase the scavenging dog or cat away from the remnants of those appetizers. If just one friend pops in earlier in the day, that can get even easier: put out some of those holiday cookies you baked, set up a coffee bar and you're all set.

When it comes to the drinks, keep them simple also. Simply uncorking a bottle of wine is perfectly acceptable. If you want something a little more festive to toast friendships and holidays by, champagne is also a fine choice. Champagne pairs well with anything you nibble. If you have discovered your inner chemist however and want to show off your mixology skills, I strongly recommend choosing one mixed drink combination and stick to it, making a large batch for everyone; or you'll be chained to the bar all afternoon while your guests are having fun without you. Some of my favorites for the holidays are sparkling martinis made with vodka, white cranberry juice and champagne; and cranberry blinis are also nice as they provide a lovely ruby red holiday hue. I always say that if only high school chemistry involved mixing substances that we would actually utilize in life, like vodkas and rums and liquours, I think we all would have aced the course hands down!

I hope that these ideas have lightened the frantic, overwhelmed cloud that can sometimes shroud our mental state when news of unexpected guests drops by. We are all busy throughout the year these days, even more so now with our holiday preparations. It's important to also make time for friends and family whom we don't see as often as we like. With a cozy location to sit around and share in celebratory exchanges, a little festive decor or lighting, some music softly emanating in the background and these oh-so-easy tasty tidbits, entertaining guests can be enjoyable. So have fun, eat, drink and be merry without the stress.

To all of my readers - raise those glasses, please - I bid you and your families a very merry and enjoyable Christmas and a happy and safe New Year!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Gifts to Cook By

I have now written two blogs of a three-part dissertation on equipping your kitchen. This blog will conclude the topic, timing perfectly with the holiday gift purchasing season. In the first installment I talked about knives, then moved on to pots in the second. In this closing segment I am going to discuss small appliances, perfect little toys - for the big girls and boys! - for presenting under the tree on Christmas Eve.

Just as with knives and with pots, there is a whole plethora of small appliances and gadgets available for our cooking havens, some of which you will absolutely need, some which are nice and helpful to have, and some which you will likely almost never use. Many of us have at one time or another given in to the temptation of buying a very task-specific small appliance because we thought it would be such a cool thing to have, only to use it once or twice and then, the novelty having worn off, relegated it into that hard-to reach cabinet high over the refrigerator and it's existence soon forgotten. In our case, it was the pasta machine. Years ago, knowing Brian loved to make his own red sauce for pasta, I thought it would be fun to make fresh pasta to go along with it. It was indeed kind of fun (and messy!) the first time. Alas, after two or three uses, it hasn't been touched since. That pasta machine joined our kitchen in 1997, which illustrates the reality of how much it has been put to use. Truth is, dry pasta is a much easier substitute and very nearly as good. Still, I do keep waiting for that day when we're snowed in by a blizzard, with the notion of spending a romantic day in the kitchen, him making sauce and us making the pasta together. That idealistic opportunity has yet to present itself.

Among the top six small appliances which are likely to be put to work regularly in your culinary preparations are the coffee maker, the food processor, the stand mixer, the blender, the citrus juicer and the indoor grill/panini press.

The coffee machine will in all likelihood greet you every morning to give you that proverbial shot in the arm to get you going for the day. There are a variety of models on the market, from single cup-at-a-time brewers to programmable machines that, at a designated time, automatically grind the coffee beans and then brew the pot of coffee. I have one of these, the Cuisinart Grind and Brew, and I could not survive a single morning without it. The benefits are that when you emerge from your slumber cave after hitting the snooze button on your alarm eight times, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee will magically beckon you into the kitchen and you didn't have to do a thing but set it all up the night before. Brewing the coffee which was just ground from the whole beans seconds ago will also yield the freshest possible coffee you can brew at home. Some of these coffee machines even come equipped with water filters. If you appreciate a fine cup of java, I would recommend one of these higher end machines. If you are purchasing one as a gift for the coffee lover in your life, add a couple of big mugs which match the person's home decor or color preference and a couple of bags of high quality coffee beans to christen their new toy with, and you will put a smile on even the face of the grumpiest of non-morning persons.

A food processor can be an excellent sous chef. It makes short work of slicing vegetables, mixing up dips and salad dressings, making fresh bread crumbs, even making doughs and grating or shredding cheeses. Stick to the top names in small kitchen appliances, such as Cuisinart or Kitchenaid. I have a Kitchenaid model which came with a variety of blade attachments for various tasks, as well as two different sized prep bowls. I also have a mini food prep version of the Kitchenaid which sports a three-cup work bowl. Believe it or not, I have been known on more than one occasion to have all three bowls and three or four blades end up in the dishwasher after preparation for one big meal or party! Remember that the more attachments and bowls the unit comes with, the more versatile your 'helper' will be.

A stand mixer, perhaps more typically known as 'a Kitchenaid' due to the fact that Kitchenaid is simply the prominent name in mixers, is a must for anyone who bakes. This little machine is a workhorse in your kitchen, able to whip cream, beat eggs, form doughs and mix batters. It allows the cook to multitask, as you can start whipping the cream for your dessert topping and walk away to pull the chocolate mousse out of the refrigerator and get that coffee machine going. Another nice thing about the Kitchenaid brand of stand mixer is that over time you can collect various attachments which are available for the model, allowing more versatility in the machine's use. And the colors, oh the colors! Kitchenaid mixers are available in just about every color you can imagine to strike your fancy and decorate your countertop.

A blender will get plenty of exercise both in the hottest days of summer and the blustery months of winter. In the summer, a blender is a valuable addition to your bar as you blend up some daquiris, frozen margaritas and pina coladas. It can also contribute to healthier breakfast choices as it transforms some orange juice, lime juice, strawberries and bananas into the perfect smoothie. In the winter, a blender is a must for creating soups. Be sure to stick with a higher end model, as you do not want a blender's motor to burn out after one season of ice crushing. I like Kitchenaid, Cuisinart is fine too; just be sure to purchase a blender with a powerful motor. If someone has a blender on their wish list this Christmas, add to it a pair of unique margarita glasses or a set of soup bowls and they'll be eager to fill those up with their first blender concoction.

Many recipes, such as drinks, salad dressings and marinades, call for significant amounts of lemon juice, lime juice or orange juice. This is where a citrus juicer comes in handy. When only the juice of one lemon is needed, then a hand-held reamer is just fine and easier to clean afterwards. However, when a recipe calls for a half-cup of lemon juice, that's a lot of squeezing to do! Even if this is your method of relieving stress, you'll then have to deal with more added stress of having to pick out all of the seeds from the juice! A juicer simplifies the task by allowing you to press down on a lemon half, the juice gets extracted - and the seeds strained - and comes out of a handy little pour spout right into your measuring cup. Leave the artificial Kool Aid lemonade mix on the store shelf, now you can make authentic lemonade without the physical strain of squeezing out all those lemons.

Okay, some of you may argue with me on the panini press. Truth is, I love paninis and so requested a panini press as a gift one Christmas. Brian bought me the Cuisinart version which comes with two different cooking surface plates and functions not only as a panini press, but also as an indoor grill and a griddler. I never thought I would use this machine as much as I do. I have made quite a few creative paninis on it (as has he), but I also find it a much better alternative to the broiler for grilling beef steaks and fish steaks indoors. That said, I probably use this appliance at least once a month, often times more than that. I have also made pancakes on the griddle plates and the results were better, more even cooking, than on the stove top griddle pan.

While the little helpful gadgets could provide enough topic for an entire blog in and of themselves, as they so make great stocking stuffers, they too deserve some praise. The absolute necessities in every kitchen include measuring spoons and measuring cups. Measuring spoons should be able to fit into a slender spice jar, and every kitchen should possess at least two sets, one for dry ingredients and one for liquid. Measuring cups should include both individual plastic 1, 1/2, 1/3 and 1/4 cups for measuring out dry ingredients as well as the Pyrex glass graduated cups for use in measuring liquids. Wooden spoons of varying sizes, as well as silicone utensils such as spatulas, tongs, whisks, and the like are also must-haves. Other useful gadgets which will likely be used frequently include a garlic press, microplane grater for zesting citrus fruits, vegetable peeler, jar opener, melon baller (a great multi-tasker, by the way, also useful in removing cores from halved apples or pears, seeds from halved cucumbers or plum tomatoes, etc.), ice cream scoop and bottle opener. For these items, I prefer Kitchenaid or Oxo Good Grips. I have an Oxo vegetable peeler which is ten years old and still able to peel the tough skin off of a butternut squash with relative ease. Every home cook also needs a set of glass mixing and food prep bowls in varying sizes.

There are other appliances, and gadgets, which an individual cook might enjoy, but are not must-haves for everyone. These can present excellent gifts when paired with some accompaniments. For example, if someone loves to make homemade pizzas on a regular basis, a pizza stone might be something that will serve them for many dinners to come. Present one with a durable pizza wheel and a pizza cookbook and they will be eager to start planning their next pizza party. Your film buff friend who lives in front of their DVD player would probably appreciate a popcorn popper, complete with a popcorn serving bowl, some gourmet popping corn, and a movie guide from the book store. Your sweetie with the sweet tooth may melt when you present her with an ice cream maker, an ice cream recipe cookbook, an ice cream scoop and a set of gourmet ice cream toppings. Believe it or not, I'm sure that there is that someone out there who actually would use that pasta machine every Sunday. If you know this person, wrap that up with a set of pasta bowls and a pasta cookbook, or a pasta pot with the strainer insert, a wooden spoon, a garlic press and a cheese grater.

In closing, as you contemplate which wine you plan to uncork at the holiday meal, I leave you with a suggestion for the wine lover on your gift shopping list. Last Easter, I was presented with a 'rabbit' as a gift. The Metrokane Rabbit is a wine bottle opener which makes the uncorking process effortless. I had seen advertisements for this nifty little gadget in cooking magazines and shrugged them off as an unnecessary frill. Then last winter I was visiting a friend and she proceeded to uncork a bottle of wine in no more than five seconds with no straining or grunting involved whatsoever. I was amazed and realized that I had now seen the light. Admitting my error in judgement, I then requested one and I have so appreciated it ever since. If someone on your "nice" list enjoys a bottle of wine, I highly recommend purchasing this little toy for them, perhaps with a couple of trendy wine glasses and a guide to wines. This little gadget also makes a perfect-sized stocking stuffer. If the wine lover happens to be you, well, tis the season. Treat yourself! I'll even justify it for you: a glass of wine a day is exactly what the doctor ordered anyway, for both mental health and heart health. Then uncork a bottle of wine for that Christmas Eve or Hanukkah toast and "Cheers!" Happy Holidays!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Meal Remix: Take Two

With Thanksgiving now behind us, I ponder the leftovers from our bountiful meal which were not left behind only to fill the raccoons' bellies on garbage day. After this evening, there will be very little of Thanksgiving dinner remaining. We enjoyed the full meal with all of the trimmings on our Thursday holiday. On Friday, I made a delicious classic turkey pot pie which utilized some of the bird's leftover meat. On Saturday, we enjoyed a Thanksgiving redo for dinner: hot open-face sandwiches comprised of more of the turkey covering slices of leftover bread, then smothered with the leftover gravy, accompanied by leftover stuffing, leftover vegetables and some leftover cranberry sauce. Brian and I agreed that the food was enjoyed more the second time around, as it required a lot less bustling around the kitchen beforehand since everything was already cooked. On Sunday, Brian made a delicious pot of turkey soup, starting with homemade stock which was made from the carcass of the turkey, plus veggies and lots of herbs. He then strained it, returned the pot to the stove with the strained stock and added more vegetables - some of which were extra celery and onions which he didn't need on Thanksgiving when making the stuffing - more herbs, the last of the turkey meat and some noodles. It was a warming and comforting close to the long holiday weekend, especially when served from an old family soup tureen and ladled into equally classic blue and white Currier & Ives soup bowls, all of which I inherited from a beloved family member. There is still soup left to be enjoyed for a couple of lunches this week. Finally, the last of the leftovers will be consumed in tonight's dinner: the cranberry sauce, with a little added rosemary, will cover roasted boneless pork chops and the last of the puree of celery root, apples and potatoes will be a perfect accompaniment. The conclusion to be drawn here: we have an extremely efficient kitchen!

At a time when holiday dishes are made in joyful abundance, when hard economic times are upon us all and we need to curb our spending, and when at this time next month so many will be making their resolutions to melt away pounds off of their girth, it is the perfect time to talk about leftovers. The unfortunate picture which comes to mind at the mention of leftovers is less than appetizing. Most of us envision a plate of cold basic meat which was cooked a day or two before, with very small mounds of the exact same vegetables that originally accompanied it. Even when warmed in a microwave, this presentation does little to beckon us to dinner. Let's face it, to simply place the exact same items from the previous night's meal on the table with no alterations made to them, you will not receive raving enthusiasm from those who hesitantly approach the dinner table. With some exceptions, most meals which are fabulous the first time around in their original state, fresh from the oven or stove, are just not as satisfying the second time around. Exceptions to this rule include stews, soups, chili, lasagna and a very meager handful of other entrees. The result: extra food either goes out with the trash to feed the local wildlife on their midnight garbage can raids, or it is tucked into the far reaches of your refrigerator and forgotten, unless your child happens to be performing a mold-growing experiment for their science class. With minimal time and preparation, you can turn most leftovers into a whole new dish, thus wasting very little food and you will probably find yourself resorting to calorie-laden, artery-clogging and blood pressure-raising take-out lunches a little less frequently.

As I've already illustrated, from our Thanksgiving feast we found ways to present most of the leftover components of the meal into whole new meals without too much extra effort. Granted, due to the overzealous nature of holiday cooking we did have a lot to work with. However, we utilize leftovers all year, not just at holiday time. It takes a little bit of planning, but very little preparation. For those of you who are fortunate enough to partake in lunch at work, leftovers can be a giant first step in eating healthier and keeping those extra pounds off. Brian takes leftover food for lunch every day and has managed to keep his weight under control, which also leads to enormous health benefits in the long run. The alternative would be to eat McDonalds and Taco Bell five days a week and look like many of the other patrons of these establishments. Sometimes these leftovers are just that, leftovers, because I simply made too much for two the night before. Sometimes the leftovers are planned, instead of making two chicken breasts when I cook dinner I'll prepare three with the intention of sending him off to work the next day with the extra one for lunch. When I cook vegetables for dinner, I purposely cook extra portions with the same intent. Other times the leftovers are the result of cleaning out the refrigerator: I'll go through the drawers and if there are some vegetables that I never cooked up because I purchased too many for my needs, and they really need to be consumed within the next couple of days, then I'll cut them up, toss them with olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast them. Then he has veggies for two or three lunches after that.

For dinners, which are likely to be more about savoring your food and less about healthier lunch time choices, you will need to be more creative to make the meal more enjoyable. You will want to present round two of the chicken from last night in a whole new light. If you made a roast chicken last night, shred any leftover meat off of the bones and it can be used in a soup, on a pizza, in tacos or enchiladas, in pasta dishes and in salads. If you are making spaghetti with red sauce and meatballs tonight, make extra sauce and meatballs to serve up heros the next day, and make extra pasta as well to serve with a pesto sauce on another day as an accompaniment for baked chicken or fish. Planning such as this will lead to dinner prep shortcuts and make the weekday dinner rush a lot easier. Always remember, soups and stews and salads were traditionally fabricated from whatever was on hand. If you keep a well stocked pantry and plenty of fresh seasonal vegetables in your fridge, the sky is the limit for what you can create. Even keeping a well stocked pantry will still be less costly in the long run than being forced to buy take-out for dinner several nights a week because your overworked schedule didn't leave you enough time to cook up a whole new meal. Make those leftovers work for you once or twice a week; you will see a difference in what you spend and you will also feel better about not wasting food. Have you scrutinized your grocery receipts lately? Good food is not cheap! Stretch the food, and you'll stretch your dollars, and with a little creativity you won't have to compromise on taste and visual interest in your dinner plate.

As I have mentioned in a previous blog, use your freezer. Make extra red pasta sauce, ladle the extra sauce into quart containers and freeze for a future quick weekday meal. It can be used not only on pasta, but also over baked chicken topped with some fresh mozzarella. Extra pesto sauce can be frozen as well, for future use in pastas, spread on pizza crust or in panini rolls, over fish or chicken, or tossed with vegetables. If you are making a soup from scratch, as Brian did, make extra stock and freeze it. The next time you want to throw a quick soup together, you've cut out the first step. Got leftover French or Italian bread from dinner? Freeze it. No, it will not make for a good bread as an accompaniment for next month's dinner. However, you will never have to buy breadcrumbs again. Next time you make a meatloaf, just thaw the bread, then pulvarize it in the food processor, and voila! You've got breadcrumbs. When making certain desserts such as quick breads, make an extra loaf and freeze it. You'll have a quick baked good to serve for that unexpected afternoon visitor, and any leftover will serve as a quick breakfast treat.

Next time you cook dinner, plan. Ask yourself: if I make a little extra of this meat and/or that vegetable, how can I utilize it later in the week? I've given you a few ideas, and I can even give you a few more suggestions on how to use up the Thanksgiving leftovers. Cranberry sauce makes an excellent topping for salmon steaks or filets as well as pork chops or a roast pork tenderloin. Prepare the meat with some savory seasonings, then top with the cranberry sauce for the last five minutes of roasting. A thin layer of mustard on the pork and a sprinkling of either fresh rosemary or thyme will marry well with the sweetness of the cranberry sauce. If you have leftover vegetables from the big feast, refresh them with the addition of one or two different newly cooked vegetables mixed in. Leftover mashed potatoes can be used as a topping for a shepherd pie; or, with a couple of additions such as cheese and scallions mixed in, a filling for twice-baked potatoes. Leftover stuffing can be used to fill large mushroom caps; once heated through, serve the stuffed mushrooms on a bed of salad greens and you have a perfect lunch. As for the desserts, well, I suspect that if you actually do have leftover pies, you will have no trouble offering them up for breakfasts or afternoon snacks, and no doctoring will be required!

This blog's recipe will allow you to utilize some of the leftover ham from the holidays, in a hearty five-bean soup. If you would like the recipe, send me your request in a comment. Don't forget to include an e-mail address, and I'll be happy to pass it along and help you get started in planning for leftovers. If you visited this blog through Facebook, you can simply send me a message.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Boil, Boil, Toil and Trouble

Boil, boil, toil and trouble! Okay, perhaps Halloween is indeed behind us, but as the autumn winds grow stronger and the days darker, shorter and colder for the duration of the next four to five months here in the northeast, nothing warms right through to the soul like an aromatic, bubbling pot of soup, stew or chili at the close of a long tough day. In this second part of a three part series on kitchen essentials, I'm going to focus on the second most important item in your kitchen: the pots.

Just as I emphasized in part one about knives, I am going to repeat myself (this is intentional, do not report me to the alzheimers treatment center just yet): pots are in the top two of equipment which your kitchen cannot thrive without, you will use them for life; buy quality now so that you will not need to do so later after wasting money the first time around.

There are a multitude of pots and pans available on the market. Let's begin with sizes and styles. As with knives, there are many styles, some which you need and some which you may not. A large sautee pan is perhaps one of the most frequently used pans in my kitchen. An extra large frying pan with three-to-four-inch sides and a cover, you would use this for sauteeing vegetables, browning pork chops, cooking shrimp or scallops, and preparing typical skillet dishes such as jambalaya or a paella. You will also use a frying pan frequently, particularly when preparing a nice weekend breakfast. For both of these items, nonstick is preferred, you don't want to have to get into a Sunday morning wrestling match with your sunny-side eggs to surrender them from the pan.

Nonstick pots and pans are very popular, as they need only simple cleanup and even with minimal use of oil or butter food slips nicely out of the pan into the awaiting serving dish or dinner plate. However, they will not last a lifetime. On a newlywed's budget, I started out with a set of inexpensive nonstick pots and pans. They worked well, at first; after five years, they were done. In fact, the frequently-used sautee pan had to be replaced after two. I then moved up to Circulon brand, which seemed a considerable improvement; although, once again, the most frequently-used pieces had to be replaced about two years ago. I have begun replacing some of the pieces with Calphalon, which I have concluded is the best. They are not cheap, however you can come upon very good sales prices when shopping on foodnetwork.com. Don't go searching for a particular pot or pan when visiting this website; simply browse occasionally and you will find different Calphalon pots and pans at deeply discounted prices. Avoid placing nonstick cookware in your dishwasher, hand wash them with mild dish detergent and a sponge, leave the steel wool pads under the sink as they will only scratch the nonstick surface of your cookware. When you purchase a nonstick pan, be sure that you also have some nylon cooking utensils to use with them, as a metal fork or spatula will also scratch the nonstick surface. Once that happens, the nonstick quality of your pan is compromised.

The next critical vessel in cookware is the Dutch oven, a cast iron piece of cookware named for the casting method originally implemented in the Netherlands and also for the use of such pots by the Pennsylvania Dutch settlers in the 1700s. These pots are used for moist cooking, such as a braised lamb shank dish, a beef or chicken stew, or chili and soups. It is essentially a large pot, traditionally made from cast iron, with a snug-fitting lid and either a bale handle or a pair of 'ear' handles on the sides. For those of you who have been putting off that daily trek to the gym, the guilt trip ends here: you will get your weight-training workout when carrying one of these pots, filled with the evening's fare, from the stove to your table; these pots are heavy! Perhaps the most prominent name in such cookware is Le Creuset. These pots are made from cast iron and sport colorful enamel coating to match your kitchen, give a seasonal burst of color to your table or just to satisfy your whimsy for a little fun color when presenting your starring entree. For my first Le Creuset pot I wanted one in kiwi green! One of these pots in a fun, bright color, is an attractive adornment to an open shelf in your kitchen. Le Creuset, made in France, are excellent pots. They are expensive, but they will last a lifetime, you absolutely will be able to pass them down to your children. I have a close friend who was married last year. Her in-laws gave the couple a pair of vintage-colored Le Creuset pots, still in respectable condition, from their own earlier years of marriage. These Dutch ovens can sustain the heat of the stovetop as well as the oven, which are commonly used in combination when preparing stews. I would recommend purchasing two of these pots, one in a five-quart size and another in seven quarts. These are the pots which you will utilize all winter long, allowing the aromas of warming soups and stews to beckon your family to the table promptly. I would also recommend acquiring a cast iron grill pan, also for the purpose of browning meat, such as a steak, on the stove and then transferring it into the oven to finish cooking. A grill pan is basically a cast iron skillet with raised ridges on the cooking surface to produce grill marks on your tuna steaks and also to allow the excess fat to drain from your Porterhouse. When purchasing cast iron cookware which is not enamel-coated, buy "pre-seasoned" if possible. Otherwise, cast iron needs to be seasoned by rubbing the cooking surface with a film of oil and baking it in the oven. This aids in producing a somewhat non-stick surface in your pan.

Add to your shopping list a couple of saucepans; these are the specimens which look like typical pots with long handles and lids. These are the pots in which you will prepare rice and boil eggs or vegetables. A good start would be to purchase a two-quart and a three-quart for your collection. I would also highly recommend such a pot with a steamer basket insert for steaming healthy vegetables. Lastly, if you prepare pasta frequently, a pasta pot is helpful. It is a large pot with small handles on both sides and a strainer insert with similar handles. Able to perform double duty, if you ever need a very large pot for another purpose, such as cooking a lobster or preparing a homemade stock for instance, you can simply omit the strainer and use just the pot. For all of these items, I recommend stainless steel. It is easy to clean, it will also transfer well from stovetop to oven, and it will last for many years. Beware, there are inexpensive stainless steel brands on the market - you get what you pay for in quality! When studying the pots in the store, pick one up; it should have some weight to it. If it seems as light as a nonstick pot, it is probably not the best quality out there. Also pay attention to the knobs on the lids and the handles of the pot; they should also be made of stainless steel. If they do not have the same appearance as the pot, they are likely made from plastic and will not withstand higher oven temperatures. Some stainless steel pots have a layer of copper sandwiched into the bottom of the pan, as copper is an excellent conductor of heat. There are exclusively-copper pots available, such as Bourgeat from France, which are wonderful for cooking, but if you find you have to make time to cook for your family every evening, are you really a candidate for finding the time to keep them polished? Personally, I would much rather spend that time catching up with my family at the dinner table. They are rather high-maintenance, unless you reap enjoyment from polishing metal, I would steer away from copper. You may also see pots made from aluminum. Those which are anodized, that is, finished with other metals such as stainless steel, are fine. However those which are not labeled as anodized tend to darken and pit, and impose discoloration and at times even a metallic flavor unto foods with acidic ingredients such as tomatoes. So what would I recommend in the way of stainless steel brands? The top of the line in stainless steel cookware is reigned by All Clad. If such a splurge is not in your budget, Cuisinart makes a line of perfectly acceptable stainless steel.

There are a few other pots and pans which, if your budget is limited because you are aiming for quality, you really don't need. One example is the double boiler. A double boiler is a traditional pot, plus an insert which rests on top and is used to melt chocolates, prepare custards and frostings and melt cheeses. The point is to be able to have enough heat to accomplish these tasks without the substance actually touching a hot pot which is sitting directly atop a scorching burner. You can accomplish the same task simply by using a regular pot and instead resting a large Pyrex mixing bowl on the pot, making sure that the bottom of the bowl isn't touching the boiling water underneath.

As with the knives, I have recommended the basic pots and pans which just about everyone needs and will use regularly. There are only nine, so try to save up enough to splurge on the better brands and they will last if properly cared for. If you find yourself desiring an extra pot in a different size, you can always build on to your collection at a later date. I don't recommend cleaning any pot in the dishwasher, all of the pots that I mentioned will clean relatively easily by hand. For tougher cleanups, soak the pot overnight and it will be ready to wipe clean in the morning. When washing your Le Creuset pots, use extra care not to bang them against the sides of the sink, as the enamel coating can chip. Try not to use metal utensils in any pots, as no matter what the pot is made of, metal can scratch. Lastly, avoid using nonstick pots and Le Creuset on the high setting of the stovetop. If you need high heat to bring water to a boil, use the stainless steel.

If you have not spent your full pot allowance after buying your pots and the proper cooking utensils to use with them, you might want to splurge your last few dollars on a soup and/or stew cookbook to inspire christening your new cookware. There are also excellent recipes for free on both foodnetwork.com and epicurious.com Mothers and grandmothers are also great resources for comforting old-fashioned stew and soup recipes. And then you can always seek inspiration from yours truly. Starting with this article, I will be offering a recipe for each blog, usually one which pertains to the subject matter. This blog's recipe is for Chicken Corn Chowder. If you are interested, make your request in the comments section and be sure to include your e-mail address; I will e-mail you the recipe. Now it's time for me to go and stir the cauldron, uh, I mean, pot; as I kick off the stew season with a chicken stew with mushrooms, shallots and wine.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Choose Your Weapons

Over the next couple of months, I will be writing about tools and equipment that are most essential in your kitchen. We have all given in to temptation and purchased very task-specific gadgets and/or small appliances for our kitchens; they were used once or twice and then the novelty wore off and they are now relegated to that hard-to-reach cabinet high over the refrigerator. Whether you are starting out in your first kitchen or revamping your old one, there are just a few key items that are critical in cooking, things that no home cook can live without, and today I am going to talk about the first of these items: knives.

Every kitchen should be stocked with a few very sharp, high quality knives. They should be easily accessible, such as in a knife storage block kept on the counter where you most often tackle your chopping, mincing, slicing and dicing. Hardly a meal gets prepared without some act of cutting involved. Most chefs consider their knives their most valued possession and care for them meticulously. A friend of mine had a son who was enrolled in one of the culinary arts institutes. Soon after beginning his education, he purchased his very-prized cutlery set. My friend would come home from work to find her son sitting in the kitchen, conscientiously sharpening his knives; a habit she found only mildly disturbing at first, until it became as familiar a site as coming home to her pouncing pooch who welcomed her at the door.

Starting with a little personal knife anecdote, my paternal grandfather was a professional chef. A few years ago I inherited a couple of his knives. They are impressive in appearance; one in particular looks like something you could pose with if you wish to be Jack Sparrow from 'Pirates of the Caribbean' this Halloween. It's very long and has a nice curve to the blade. It's huge. I only recently felt brave enough to play with it, on a night when I was not in any hurry to have dinner completed in a timely manner. I sharpened it, and it cuts incredibly well. Perhaps too well. I'm sure with practice I could grow to love it and make it my go-to weapon of choice when sparring with a butternut squash; but at this time it still feels very unwieldy. In the meantime, it's a nice sentimental piece that somehow makes me feel connected to my grandfather when I embark in our common interest of cooking. I only wish that he had lived long enough to taste some of my dishes and know that I inherited his talent and passion.

When selecting your purchase, buy something that you will actually feel comfortable using on a very regular basis, and buy quality. When Brian and I were engaged and I was stockpiling new things for our future home together, the budget was tight. I also hadn't yet embraced gourmet cooking and had very little knowledge about the different choices of knives and pots and such. I bought a cheap set of knives from one of the discount stores. I thought that they were adequate for my needs at the time, having never pulled a very sharp blade of a top-quality knife through a vegetable's flesh before. After four years or so, the knives were dull and they fell apart a year or two after that. Those were replaced with a set of J.A. Henckle knives, one of the most prominent names in cutlery. That is when I saw firsthand how much better they were. I would strongly recommend that if you can possibly make the investment, consider either Henckle or Wusthof. Both are respected brands of excellence; they will last for many, many years to come. Shun knives are also very respected in the world of slicing and mincing.

When you begin your field study of knives in the stores and chef catalogs, you will be faced with many choices even within the one or two above-mentioned brands. Which ones do you really need? There are sets containing as many as 8 to 10 different knives; and knives which are sold individually seem to offer up even more options. If you happen to be a career chef in a five star restaurant, perhaps there is the need for such a plethora of different blades. As an avid home cook foodie, you can relax in the knowledge that your budget and your storage space need not be compromised. One reason you can splurge on the more expensive, better quality brand of knives is that you need only purchase five to six of them. The critical must-have pieces of cutlery that I would recommend for all of your cutting needs are an unserrated 6-inch utility knife, a serrated bread knife, a paring knife, a chef's knife, a 7-inch hollow-edge Santoku knife, and a meat-slicing knife. The bread knife and the meat slicing knife are self-explanatory, used most commonly at the dinner table when serving the meal; the paring knife is used primarily for peeling and the chef's knife assists in tackling big jobs such as cutting up a whole chicken into pieces. The Santoku knife and utility knife are the ones that will be used the most in prepping ingredients for the pots, pans and salad bowls. A Santoku knife has a blade with circular indents along the side. It makes cutting even the toughest vegetable, such as a butternut squash, very easy; the blade slices right through its victim as though slicing through butter. These knives will also cut a very ripe tomato in half with ease, rather than merely squashing it into a mess on your cutting board. Those are the essential knives. If you see a set which includes all of these, plus a set of kitchen scissors, you will be all set to unleash your chopping and slicing urges. If the set also contains a set of steak knives, that will be something which you will benefit from at the table as well. Additional tools labeled as sandwich knife and tomato knife are really unnecessary. Same goes for the cleaver unless you're an avid hunter and bring home whole carcasses to butcher. Unless you perform the tasks of boning and filleting on a very routine basis, I would skip those as well. Many of the basic cutlery sets come with a wooden block which keeps your knives close at hand and safely tucked away. There are also magnetic strips which can be installed on the wall, and the blades of your cutlery magnically adhere to it. I would not recommend this option for households with younger children or pets.

When purchasing your knives, add a knife sharpener to your shopping list. It is important to keep your cutlery in sharp working order; and when you have had a tough day, the very act of sharpening your knives can be a satisfying stress reliever, provided that the intended victim afterwards is your onion or carrot and not your boss or your ex! There are sharpening stones, with which you sharpen your knife by repeatedly striking the blade along this tool. There are also electric sharpeners and there are manual counter top devices with a slot through which you simple pull the blade of your knife through a couple of times to sharpen and hone the blade. Whichever method you choose, be sure to use it correctly and keep your knives sharp at all times. As counter intuitive as this may sound, a dull blade is more dangerous than a sharp one. A sharpened blade means cutting with ease and precision; a dull blade means a struggle to get that hard vegetable cut through, resulting in a chopped finger or sliced thumb in the process. Been there myself, done that; save yourself a trip to the emergency room, nobody likes blood in their potato salad! Always keep your fingers bent out of the way nonetheless and use the proper knife for the specific job at hand.

One more item to cross off of your shopping list while you are purchasing cutlery: a surface on which to cut your veggies and meats. Unless you have a butcher block table already, I would recommend purchasing two cutting boards. The safety police have toggled back and forth between which is more sanitary, wood or polypropylene. Personal choice, I like wooden ones; Boos is a reputable brand. Be sure to buy two, preferably two of differing size or appearance so that they don't get mixed up. Designate one which will be strictly for meat alone. The second one can be used for all other ingredients. The idea is to avoid cross-contamination of bacteria from the meats to your produce. I have a wood butcher block table as well as two wooden boards for produce and a polypropylene board for meats. Be sure to thoroughly hand wash your boards after each use, as well as your knives. Do not place your prize Wusthofs in the dishwasher.

On your way home, you might want to stop at the supermarket for some meat and vegetables; you will want a good excuse to play with your new "toys" and the result can be a fabulous stew for your family's dinner. In summary, buy the best quality and if cared for properly your cutlery will last for years of family feasts. Only buy the basic pieces you really need and you can splurge on that better brand. The knives in your kitchen are perhaps the most critically important of all kitchen purchases, as you will use them in the preparation of almost every meal you cook. I'm feeling inspired now, I think I'll go take Grandpa's big knife out for a go on the butcher block.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Time to Pick On the Apples!

October is now upon us, the signs are evident: colorful leaves carried on the cooling winds that blow, autumnal hues popping up on every landscape, and hand-painted signs at local farms inviting us all to a day of fresh air, pumpkin picking and apple picking. We all participate in the annual pilgrimage to select the perfect pumpkins for our decorative ideas. These pumpkins are usually destined for a date with the carving knife in their quest to become jack-o-lanterns on our front steps and in our windows. While there are a few comforting dishes which call for pumpkin, such as pumpkin bread or pumpkin soup, the apple seems a much more versatile specimen.

Now is the season to celebrate the apple. The apple has held many bookmarks in literature and culture throughout the ages. Eve tempted Adam with the forbidden apple. Snow White took a bite of the poisoned apple, plunging her into history's record longest comatose state. The famous Halloween party activity is that of bobbing for apples. A proud father informs his much-adored daughter "You're the apple of my eye." The son who displays an inherited less than admirable character trait is declared as "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree." Finally, medical advice is prescribed through the old adage of "an apple a day keeps the doctor away." While consuming a daily apple may not keep the doctor away completely, it certainly is rich in vitamins and nutrients, qualifies as one of the government food pyramid's recommended daily servings of fruit, and can be enjoyed in so many different ways.

For those who live on Long Island, I would recommend taking a ride to the eastern north fork. There are several farms where apple picking is welcomed, and one location in particular which Brian and I visited last week was Woodside Orchards. A variety of apples are available for harvest at varying points throughout the season. If picking the apples yourself is not your thing, there are plenty of pre-picked apples available for purchase there as well. There are so many different varieties of apples, the orchard offers the opportunity to try something new and different from the usual supermarket red delicious and granny smith. We have sampled and enjoyed some macouns and honeycrisps. My personal favorite is the Arkansas black, a deep red variety which has an ever-so-slight hint of wine flavor to it. You can also find varieties such as empires, Jonathans and winesaps. Many apple orchards also vend their own apple cider, and for the childhood sweet tooth in all of us, candied apples, caramel apples, apple pies, apple butters and cider doughnuts are also offered.

There are infinite ways in which to savor the culinary delight of the apple. Baking is perhaps the first option which comes to mind with the classic apple pie. There are many ways to amp up the classic, which is basically apples with sugar and spices baked in a pie shell. I like to add a second fruit with the apple, such as cranberries. The tartness of the cranberries balances out the sweetness of the apple very nicely. My mother makes an amazing apple tart with a cinnamon custard-like filling. Last Thanksgiving I sampled an apple pie which someone had baked using five different varieties of apples. For those who seek an even simpler option, crisps are the answer. The filling simply gets poured into a pan, then topped with a crumbled streusel mixture. I like to make a crisp with apples and pears combined. I also make an applesauce cake from a very old family recipe. Baked apples are also a very simple yet elegant presentation, filled with a little brown sugar, cinnamon and butter and baked until tender and just starting to caramelize on the cut edges. Some people stuff baked apples with a streusel and raisin mixture. The apple is not fussy, you can pair it with just about anything you like. A single apple can also enhance many savory dishes. I make a fall chicken and root vegetable pot pie which also contains wild mushrooms, chopped hazelnuts and one chopped apple. I also make a mash of potatoes with a couple of root vegetables and an apple goes into that as well. The flexible apple also has the ability to take on a co-starring role in entrees. Pork chops baked with sliced apples, onions and acorn squash is a fall favorite in my house. Roasted chicken or Cornish hens take on a very nice flavor when basted with a glaze made from apple jelly. The simplest way to enjoy an apple is in its original form, either munched away to stave off the afternoon hungries until dinner, or cut into wedges and plated with a high quality cheese or two. However you choose to serve up the results of your apple picking expedition, your options are boundless.

Apples which are not destined for the baking pan can be a charming fall decor until consumed. Instead of relegating them to the refrigerator where they may be forgotten, find a container large enough to hold about eight or nine apples, such as a basket or an attractive galvanized container or decorative wooden box, all of which you can find in a craft store. Place a variety of apples in the container and leave it either as a centerpiece on the table, inviting diners to a healthy snack or dessert, or in any welcoming spot in your kitchen or living room. I like to display granny smiths, golden delicious and galas for an eye-pleasing color variety. A friend of mine displayed red delicious apples mixed with pine cones all in a big basket.

October is the peak time for fall festivals and harvests. Before we know it, Halloween has come and gone. Take advantage now of all of the produce that fall has to offer, such as acorn squash, butternut squash, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, pears and of course apples. Make a day of it, take the family out for brunch and then spend a leisurely afternoon of always-needed quality family time as you pay homage to your local farms, orchards and vineyards. When you return home, you will reap the tasty rewards and nutritional benefits of the bounty. By storing apples in ventilated wooden crates in a very cool basement or garage, you'll be able to treat yourself for anywhere from two to four months depending upon the variety of apple and the storage conditions. After that, it is back to the supermarket for your fruit purchases. So enjoy the not-so-forbidden fruit, and the pies and other culinary delights which result from the apple's versatile and delicious enhancement.

Happy picking!

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Harvest Moon: Ingredients for Quick Winter Eats

As the harvest moon brings cooling winds and falling leaves, you might be surveying the garden plots abundant with vegetables. It will soon be time to gather them all and whisk them indoors to safety from that first frost. Once you hear that foreboding prediction from your local meteorologist, you suddenly find your kitchen counter concealed by a blanket of freshly harvested tomatoes, squashes, basil, peppers and perhaps even fruits and pumpkins. This is a golden opportunity to stock up your freezer and your pantry. By cooking up batches of culinary delights from your garden ingredients, you will have the makings of some quick weekday meals to enjoy during the winter months.

When a frost is imminent, gather all of the tomatoes from the garden, even the green ones. Tomatoes will ripen indoors, simply place the green specimens into paper bags and place the bag into a cupboard or closet for several days, checking on them periodically. Once ripened, the best use for an overabundance of tomatoes is to make a marinara pasta sauce. Anyone with an Italian grandmother has a family recipe. If you are not blessed with such a relation in your family tree, there are so many recipes out there for the basic Italian red "gravy". The ingredient list usually includes, but is not restricted to, onions, garlic, tomatoes, basil, parsley and a splash of red wine. Cook a couple of large stockpots of the sauce; then ladle into quart-sized plastic food storage containers and freeze. When you anticipate a hectic day ahead, take a container out to thaw in the refrigerator during the day. When you come home on one of those cold, dark winter evenings, all you'll have to do is boil some spaghetti, heat the sauce and you have an instant simple pasta meal. All you'll need with it is a salad, some wine, and dessert. The sauce can also be used for other dishes, such as eggplant or chicken parmesan. While you are playing in the kitchen, you can also make up a couple of trays of lasagna using some of the sauce. Have one tray that evening for dinner and freeze the other tray for a future meal, lasagna is a very freezer-friendly entree.

Pesto sauce is also ideal for making ahead and freezing for a rainy - or, in this case, snowy - day. Pesto is simply basil leaves, parsley, garlic, olive oil, grated parmesan cheese and pignoli nuts whirred together in a food processor. Once again, make several batches of this, spoon it into plastic food containers, top with a film of olive oil before covering, and freeze. Once thawed, boil some fusili pasta and toss the cooked pasta with the pesto sauce, another quick pasta dinner that will make your Italian family sing for their supper. Pesto is also excellent spread on the inside of bread for a pannini, on top of fish before roasting, and stirred into soups.

Many soups also freeze well. One favorite is to make a soup with some cut up vegetables, freeze; then when you're ready to enjoy it, add a little pasta or some tortellini when reheating, serve with a spoonful of the pesto sauce on top. I would recommend adding any pastas to your soups only at the time of reheating, otherwise the pasta tends to absorb all of the liquid of the soup. You can also use some vegetables to boil into some water with salt, pepper and seasonings of your choosing, strain, and the result will be a base vegetable stock which you can freeze for future use when making soups. Adding chicken during the boiling process will provide you with chicken broth. There are recipes for every kind of stock you will ever need to start a soup with when that warming comfort food craving strikes.

Other things you can prepare for storage in your pantry will require the purchase of some canning jars. Bell peppers can be easily turned into roasted pepper salad. Roast the peppers, let them cool, remove the peel and the seeds and tear into strips. Toss them into a homemade olive oil-balsamic vinaigrette and divide into the jars. Close the sealing lids, and you'll have roasted peppers all winter for use as a small side-dish salad, tossed into larger salads or pastas, as a filler for sandwiches or a topping for pizzas.

If you have harvested berries from your garden, make some homemade jam. There isn't much to making jam, and it can simmer in a large pot while you take care of other household tasks (like laundry or catching up on your e-mails). Once the jam is done, allow to cool to room temperature, ladle into canning jars and seal. You'll have the best and most natural topping for english muffins or scones for Sunday breakfast with your family, only a pantry door away. Another nice use would be stirred into plain yogurt, or warmed to drizzling consistency and spooned over ice cream.

Turn zucchini and pumpkins into tasty sweet breads. I have a recipe for my grandmother's pumpkin-nut bread which yields two loaves. We eat one fresh and warm the day it comes out of the oven, the other loaf I freeze for when we want an afternoon treat one winter's afternoon in front of a DVD. Zucchini bread and pumpkin bread both freeze well. Of course remember to save a few pumpkins for fall decoration and jack-o-lantern carving, a festive seasonal sentry for your front door.

If you have achieved an enthusiastic green thumb, one aspect of kitchen gardening can be enjoyed all year from your kitchen window. Herbs are very simple to grow, and add a fresher, superior flavor to dishes than their store-bought dried counterparts. If you have a sunny window sill in your kitchen, plant four to six herbs which you use most often. You can satiate your gardening needs all winter long, and benefit from that fresh herb taste in your cooking.

Finally, you may as well cook up a batch of harvest for your dinner tonight. A ratatouille is essentially a French vegetable stew, the basic ingredients being eggplant, zucchini, onion, garlic, tomato and bell pepper, plus some herbs. It makes an excellent side dish accompaniment to any meat. It is also good as a main dish when browned chicken pieces then simmer in the stew with the vegetables. Serve ratatouille over a couple of grilled portobello mushrooms, or over pasta or couscous and you have an excellent vegetarian dish. You can also add any other ingredients to the basic recipe that your creative genius comes up with: chick peas, olives, Italian sausages, saffron, whatever you find in your pantry. It's a very flexible dish, and it's a colorful way to serve up some of those harvested late summer veggies.

By devoting an autumn day to harvesting and cooking, you can be rewarded into the winter months with some nutritious and flavorful treats, courtesy of your last summer's garden. You will know exactly what ingredients went into your pasta sauce or pumpkin dessert bread. Knowing this fact and knowing that you grew the vegetables and fruits yourself make all of the above ideas comfort foods in themselves that will warm your soul as the flavors transport you back to sunny days spent toiling in your garden. By the time you eat your way through that stash of harvest goodies, it will be time to begin reflecting and planning next summer's garden!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Farewell to Summer That Hits the Spot

Although the first official day of fall does not come around until September 22, the rapid approach of Labor Day signals that summer is coming to a close. The children return to school, the days grow shorter, the beaches start to vacate. Although we can enjoy barbecues as late as early November, the holiday weekend is a chance for one final gathering outdoors with family and friends to celebrate the end of summer. If you reflect on your favorite activities from the summer and choose a perfect spot for your festivities, you can create a perfectly elegant setting, and a short but well-thought out menu that will not have you laboring on Labor Day hardly at all.

First, say to yourself "Keep it simple, but nice." When we used to host any kind of party at home, I was always so stressed out as I scrambled to prepare several different appetizers, at least two salads plus at least two more side dishes, and two or three different desserts. I spent more time in a cooking frenzy and very little time actually having fun with my guests. We also had a tendency to try and invite all of our friends at once, which made the event even more hectic and more challenging for socializing with each and every one while trying to juggle platters and drinks. I lived and learned, and now I impart this life's lesson unto you. You can make more of a lasting impact if you stick to a much shorter menu, but make the few things really impressive. The choices may not please everybody you know, which brings us to the next simplicity. Keep the gathering small. In addition to yourself and your significant other, two to three couples, or three to five close friends, on the guest list is enough to share an enjoyable time without being overwhelmed. Finally, have a theme. In this case, in expressing a farewell to breezy summer days, think back and recall what you enjoyed doing the most over the past two to three months. Here are a few ideas to ponder.

I personally love the beach. Maybe you were among those who blissfully spent hours on the sand and in the surf till the sun went down. A beach party might be just the thing for you. Find a beach that permits campfires or grilling, then host a seafood bake. Have guests contribute different seafoods (clams, lobsters, mussels, etc.). You provide the other ingredients that go into the pot of this traditional New England fare: small potatoes and fresh corn on the cob are the basic classics. You can find recipes for all different variations of clam bakes on foodtv.com. Add to that the ingredients to mix up some sea breezes to sip while the food is cooking. Dessert can be a cheesecake from a really good bakery or, if you have a campfire going, you can all have some fun making s'mores over the flames. That's it. Three menu items, a fun way for you and your guests to all participate in dinner, all against the gorgeous backdrop of a sunset over the crashing waves.

Long Island is the place to live if you own a boat. If you spent your happiest weekends - and a few stolen "sick" days here and there - on the deck of your boat cruising to Fire Island and back, a boat picnic is a fitting tribute to summer's end. Again, a simple and short menu, think water. How about a Mediterranean repast? A hummus, eggplant dip or spinach dip are all easy to make. Whichever you choose, accompany it with some pita chips (also a snap to make). A nice bottle of Italian or French (or Long Island!) wine will be a nice accompaniment to this starter and can take you and your guests through dinner. Follow up with a Mediterranean seafood pasta salad, such as pasta with shrimp, cucumbers, red onion, plum tomatoes, crumbled feta, parsley and a lemon dressing. If one of your guests has impeccable taste, assign him or her the task of visiting their favorite bakery to pick up some good bread to have with the salad and a nice fruit tart for dessert.

For you hikers out there who like to wile away the day taking scenic walks through various parks, pick the most scenic site of your favorite park and have a simple picnic. Put together some traditional Lobster roll sandwiches, buy some high quality potato chips to accompany them. Bake up some cookies which travel well. Marinated vegetable salad is perfect for a picnic, it doesn't contain mayonnaise and can be served at any temperature. It's easy to make too: just cut up various summer vegetables, place them in a roasting pan, toss with salt, pepper and olive oil, and roast them for 20-30 minutes at 450-degrees. Once they have cooled to room temperature, toss them with a balsamic vinaigrette. This can be made a day in advance. Assign one guest to make a pit stop at a farm stand for some big, juicy fresh local peaches; have another guest visit a well stocked beverage store for some good craft beer to wash it all down.

I know some of my friends enjoy contemplating life as they toil in the soil of their beautifully planned gardens every summer. If you're one of these creative individuals with a gorgeous floral backdrop to be proud of, here's your chance to show it off one last time: the garden party. If you also grew a vegetable garden, use some of those vegetables in your menu. The above-mentioned roasted vegetable salad would be a good way to showcase your eggplants, zucchinis, tomatoes and peppers. A nice idea is to arrange a huge platter with a salad Nicoise, a traditional French salad platter featuring tuna (prepare a grilled tuna steak for each guest, or you can use salmon if you don't like tuna), small potatoes, string beans, tomatoes, black olives and hard boiled eggs. Be creative, that's just the basic salad, don't be afraid to play with it by adding your own personal touches when it comes to additional ingredients. The only other thing you'll need is dessert. Try extending your creativity toward some elegant ice cream sundae combination.

For traditionalists who vow to make summer's final curtain call a big backyard barbecue bash with a big family and lots of kids, that's great too. If you live on Long Island, definitely consider starting with a traditional summer seafood appetizer, such as baked stuffed clams or clams casino, both easy to make. Burgers would be a good choice for the menu, have two ideas in mind: plain ones for the kids with fussy tastes, and create something really elaborate for the adults. Let your imagination take you where you want to go. I love blue cheese, bacon, lettuce and tomato on a burger. Swiss, bacon, grilled red onions and mushrooms are another great combination. Accompany that with a salad which works well with the burgers, a unique potato salad with interesting ingredients in it, or a southwestern salad with black beans, corn, peppers and avacado with a chili-lime vinaigrette. For dessert, set up an ice cream sundae bar with two or three flavors of good quality ice cream, two or three homemade sauces, and a variety of toppings. That's a sweet summer's ending that the kid in all of us can have a lot of fun with. If you wish to make it even more fun, offer a prize to the adult who unveils the most original and best sundae (such as a bottle of wine) and also a prize to the kid who shows the most creativity (such as a gift card to Toys R Us).

However you choose to bid farewell to summer this holiday weekend, be sure to have fun doing it. The above ideas are just a spark to get your creative thoughts flowing with the confidence that it doesn't have to be so overwhelming that you feel overworked, overextended, and going so crazy that you can't enjoy any social time with your guests. These are your friends, or your family. It's all about the bonds you share with them. They are the stars of the show, the menu items are the costars. If you choose a location which holds the meaning of summer for you, that perfect spot will be the perfect stage. Since you'll need only a handful of place settings, abandon the paper plates and plastic cups. If your party is at the beach, on a boat or in the woods, naturally you don't want to risk your Royal Doulton either, but set an elegant table nonetheless. If you can splurge, pick up some placemats and cloth napkins in a color that works with your theme, and use real dishes, glasses and flatware. Add some embellishments to the table by putting some summer flowers to good use and arranging some lit candles for mood lighting. By planning your meal and keeping it small, you'll be able to cook fewer things and place the effort into making much more impressive dishes because you'll only have to concentrate on two or three menu items rather than a dozen, and this will also allow you a few splurges on the ingredients. By keeping the guest list more intimate, you'll be able to share the stories of the summer past and catch up with one another. Have a camera within arms reach, and you'll be able to capture memories of that enjoyable Labor Day party of 2009 to look back upon with a smile for years to come.

Happy Labor Day, enjoy!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Pantry Police

In my last blog I wrote about procuring your produce from the farm stands to enjoy maximum freshness and peak flavor from the season's fruits and vegetables. Several readers found my words to be encouragement for them in their quests to eat healthier. We hear so much in the media with regard to eating more organic foods. When it comes to produce, we really do not need pesticides in our diet, and so produce which is grown organically should not contain these things. Produce in any case, organically-labeled or not, is still much better for you when it is purchased and consumed fresh rather than when using canned versions. Simply put, it is a better quality food. With regard to meats, naturally the sound of "grass fed" beef sounds far more appealing than beef which was fed questionable diets, growth hormones and antibiotics. Thanks to increasing awareness, we know to buy free range chickens and Nieman Ranch beef. Once again, a better quality food. Fruits, vegetables and meats only account for three of the food groups which we take in daily, however. What about the rest? In fact, looking deeper, what about the manner in which all of our foods are prepared at home?

Does healthier eating and higher quality cooking stop with the produce and meats? What about your pantry? When you bake a cake or cook up an Italian pasta dinner, are you using the best ingredients? Even when you indulge in a snack, have you read the ingredient label? Perhaps you have tried and given up when half of the listed ingredients were vaguely reminicent of some formula from your high school chemistry course, a distant forgotten memory which you would prefer not to invoke.

The first thing to always consider when stocking up your pantry is quality. One way to clue yourself in to quality choices is to visit various gourmet and specialty food shops. Generally, in order for a big corporation to achieve high-volume production and yield hefty profits, short cuts have to be taken when manufacturing the product, and thus quality is compromised. Popularity of a product or brand name increases that likelihood. Our mega supermarkets stock these products in high volume because they too are only seeking a profit and thus must cater to the masses. While the trend is improving and many people are in fact turning their interests toward better and more varied foods in their diets, the majority in this country still just doesn't get it. They were raised on the flavors of salt, sugar and artificial flavors. They have no interest in trying new foods or darkening the doorway of a specialty food shop. They stick to the supermarkets which fill their carts and their pantries with all of the big corporate names and their bodies with artificial colors, artificial flavors, high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenized fats, monosodium glutamate, polysorbate, and sodium, sodium, sodium! The smaller shops, which cater to cooks and foodies, stock the good stuff. Let's take vanilla extract as an example. Why would anyone use something labeled "Imitation Vanilla Extract"? We have all seen it, we all know the bottle and the brand and even the label colors because until the food revolution, it graced the baking shelves in all of our pantries. Why imitation, why not the real thing? Thankfully, the real thing is now a very real option. I have yet to find it in the supermarket, I have to buy it in a gourmet shop. Vanilla extract should be labeled Madagascar Burbon Pure Vanilla Extract, and the brand of choice is Niesen Massey. For my Long Island friends, you can find it in Le Gourmet Chef in the Tangier Outlets and in the Williams-Sonoma stores. Another example would be balsamic vinegar. The best brands are generally not stocked in the big chain supermarkets. There are several high quality brands whose flavors are exquisite, including Fini, Manicardi and, my personal favorite, Delavignes which I can only purchase on-line. For olive oil, one taste test featured in Bon Appetit magazine several years ago resulted in Colavita Extra Virgin (first cold pressed, words you should look for on the label) being the better one available in just about all supermarkets. I agree, this is what I use for cooking and often even in salad dressings. For a superior experience however, some gourmet shops feature tasting bars where you can sample some of the best olive oils from Italy, Spain, France, Greece, etc. These I would recommend that you keep stashed, for use solely when dressing a salad or dipping bread, as the full flavor experience will be lost in the high temperatures of cooking. To sum up this point, the best quality ingredients tend to be those which are not big name factory brands.

Secondly when filling up your pantry shelves, read the ingredients. The general rule of thumb is this: less is more; the fewer ingredients that are used, the less processing was done to the food and therefore the better the quality. Even when you want to open up a bag of potato chips, buy the best. The biggest names contain the lengthiest ingredient listing of chemically created additives. Terra brand contains potatoes, oil and sea salt. It tastes more pure, more like a lightly salted potato, and even delivers that satisfying crunch that you won't get from the tissue paper-thin, salt-laden broken chips in the popular brand. Buying stock for those quick soups and stews? Kitchen Basics has an ingredient label listing all of the things that you would put into a stock if you were making it yourself, and not a single thing that you would not add. Try to avoid buying "flavored" items. Buy the plain couscous and add your own seasonings. It really doesn't take up that much more of your time and the flavor will be more true to what you want. Usually flavored stocks or rices only amp up the salt, and the so-called roasted garlic flavor does not taste like any garlic that has ever exited from my oven. Sometimes you can actually sense a chemical-like taste in these flavored renditions ... yuck! How lazy can anyone be not to want to add their own herbs or spices into some plain breadcrumbs? Keep a well stocked spice rack filled with good quality spices (I like Spice Islands, McCormick Gourmet line and Spice Hunter) and you can flavor anything you want with as much or as little seasoning as you crave. Buy fresh herbs, as the ones found in the spice section lose their flavors quickly, and who knows how long that jar of parsley flakes has been sitting on the supermarket shelf? Better yet, if you have a sunny window in your kitchen, grow your own herbs which you use the most often, you cannot buy fresher than that and herbs are foolproof to grow.

Stay away from artificial and processed foods wherever possible. I cannot fathom why anyone would insist on buying the day-glow orange plastic-wrapped, plastic-tasting and rubbery-textured stuff referred to by one big corporate giant as American "cheese". You know, that stuff will keep in the fridge for six months? Ever wonder about that? By definition, American cheese, even the better deli brands, is not cheese; it's processed scraps of cheese by-products, the refuse, like dyes, emulsifiers and stabilizers. Next time you make a grilled cheese, try making it with a good Swiss cheese such as a Gruyere, Ementhaler or Comte from a cheese shop. Alternatively, using a good cheddar with some bacon and tomato will be a revelation when you bite into that sandwich. Another one I get a kick out of is the so-called grated "Parmesan Cheese" in the green can, found on the dry goods shelf of the supermarket. Salted sawdust, I say! No good Italian cook would be caught dead with that in their kitchen. No, it has to be Locatelli or nothing else, found in the cheese section (imagine that!).

There are exceptions to every rule in life. There are some known name brands which have earned reputations of quality. One is Ghirardelli. If I am given the choice for my afternoon chocolate indulgence of either a few Ghirardelli squares or a bag of Hershey's miniature milk chocolate bars, I'll pick the Ghirardelli every time. Having had chocolates from some of the finest chocolatiers in Paris, I can honestly say that Hershey's tastes like ... well, let's just say that it doesn't make the grade when it comes to tasting the way good chocolate should. Therefore, Ghirardelli cocoa powder and baking chocolates and chips are what I bake with, as well as Lindt, another name in chocolate which actually does deliver quality. A few other big name items which I must confess to buying would be Hellmann's mayonnaise, Celestial Seasonings herbal teas, Bumble Bee tuna (the gold can albacore) and Jif peanut butter.

The last piece of advise to eating better: make your own dinner. Once you have stocked up your pantry with quality ingredients, you can feel good about preparing dishes yourself using those carefully selected items. Next time you or your child has a craving for a macaroni and cheese dinner, make it yourself. Leave the suspiciously orange product in the blue box on the supermarket shelf and instead buy some whole milk, some pasta, butter - real butter, please, not the so called healthy-substitute; they may boast being lower in cholesterol, but they are unhealthy in other ways, the proof's in the label - and a block or two of good cheeses from the cheese shop. It's such an easy thing to make and you'll know exactly what you are eating, no PhD in chemistry necessary. Even the simplest of dishes can be so much better tasting when you use the best ingredients. Making a sandwich? Pick up a loaf of freshly baked bread from the bakery, slice it thick and lightly toast the slices in the oven if desired. That will make a winning sandwich every time, so much more satisfying and better for you than that squishy stuff you buy in the supermarket that you can easily squeeze into a ball and throw around for your cat or dog to fetch. Need lettuce for that sandwich? Try using Bibb lettuce instead of iceberg which has very little flavor. Is the sandwich a BLT? Buy thick-cut bacon and vine tomatoes, or better yet, local tomatoes from your neighborhood farm stand. The simplest little improvements like these enhance the quality and dining experience of your finished dish. You will feel so much better in the knowledge that you made good choices when making your food purchases and then created the dish yourself.

Eating better doesn't have to be extreme, nor does it necessarily have to mean eating "organic" all of the time. Just follow the government food pyramid guide when planning your menus, and use common sense when choosing your staple ingredients or snacks. Ask yourself two questions. Are the ingredients listed on the label things I would use myself? Can I find a better version of this at the local (bakery, cheese, gourmet, Italian) shop? It is perfectly okay to allow yourself indulgences, such as a snack of potato chips or a few chocolate truffles; just be selective in which brand you buy. For those who live here on Long Island, some great shops to peruse through and stock up include Fairway Market (Plainview, also in Manhattan), Village Cheese Shop (Mattituck and Southampton), Aiello Brothers Pork Store (Centereach) and Uncle Giuseppe's (Nesconset). For those who are interested in organic pursuits, there is Wild By Nature in East Setauket. Happy shopping!

This concludes your introductory education in quality control at the pantry police academy. Now go out there and eradicate those quality-compromised foods from your kitchen at once ... and the only mace you'll ever need in in this quest is the one found on the spice rack.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Get Fresh with the Farm Stand!

A perfectly timed topic for my first blog: your local farm stand. August starts the peak of summer harvests and so now is the time to support not only your health and your appetite, but your local growers as well. The government food pyramid recommends consuming three-to five servings of vegetables and two to four servings of fruits daily. That's a lot of produce. What better way to take in all of those vitamins than to seek out inspiration at your local farm stand?

Here on Long Island, farm stands are plentiful all over eastern Suffolk County. Some areas in the country have farmers' markets instead, where local farmers come together to sell their freshly picked produce. Some of these local venues also have displays of honeys, jams and preserves made by local growers. Driving along the north fork of Long Island, nestled among the wineries, are farm stands which beckon us with their colorful cornucopias of mouthwatering fruits and vegetables. The abundance of color showcased through the summer and fall seasons make for beautiful scenery and then, ultimately, a treat for the senses as the produce makes its way to your table that evening. Hierloom tomatoes in an array of sunny colors, golden summer squash, bright green cucumbers, ruby red strawberries, sapphire blueberries, striped watermelons and gorgeous purple eggplants enhance any summer barbecue menu alongside the local corn, perhaps the biggest draw for the farm stands every year. In the fall, the displays turn to the flame orange hue of pumpkins, plus various apples and pears, and squashes of every shape, size and color to embellish your autumn table.

Fresh produce is best, and you cannot buy fresher than at your local farm stand. The produce was just picked and brought directly to the stand, unlike the produce you see in the supermarkets which have traveled sometimes far distances to get there. Fruits and vegetables are also at their peak - that is, at their best for flavor and texture - at different times. For example, you can purchase tomatoes all year in the supermarket, but in the winter months they are quite lacking in flavor and their color is less than appealing. Try a tomato at the peak of the summer tomato season, from a local stand or from your own backyard garden, and you will see and taste the difference. Eat with the seasons, and enjoy the best of the fruits and vegetables that the season has to offer. For those of you who may live in areas where your only shopping option is the supermarket, practice the same strategy. Take advantage of asparagus, peas, strawberries and spinach in the spring, enjoy tomatoes, summer squashes, cucumbers, berries and melons in the summer, and shift your repertoire of cooking to highlight butternut squash, apples, pumpkin and pears in the fall. Whether from a farm stand or the supermarket, try to make your purchases every two to three days as opposed to once a week. A zucchini which you brought home yesterday will certainly be fresher than one which was purchased six days ago. When you come home from shopping, refrain from tucking your produce away in the refrigerator. Instead, display it in a decorative basket right on your kitchen counter, where it won't be forgotten and will serve to inspire you when it's time to cook.

If you are one of those individuals who is daunted by a the appearance of a whole, fresh vegetable, unclear of how to approach it for preparation, relax ... you're bigger than the vegetable and you're the one armed with a knife! My belief when it comes to vegetables is that simpler is better. My favorite way to cook many vegetables is so easy and really brings out the best flavors of the vegetables themselves. You will need only three things from your pantry: good quality extra virgin olive oil, salt and freshly cracked black pepper. If the vegetable is one which needs peeling, such as butternut squash, do so with a vegetable peeler. Then cut the vegetable into one to two inch chunks and place them into a roasting pan. Drizzle generously with the olive oil, sprinkle with the salt and pepper, then give them a toss to coat all of the vegetable with the seasoning. Roast in a 450-degree oven for about 30 minutes (a little longer for very hard vegetables like butternut squash, beets, sweet potatoes or carrots, a little less for softer ones like zucchini, eggplant or yellow squash). That's it, it doesn't get any easier than that. If you want to add another facet of flavor, you can add a few cloves of sliced garlic to the vegetables before tossing them with the oil-salt-pepper mixture. You can also roast combinations of two or more vegetables mixed together, such as eggplant and red bell peppers or zucchini, yellow squash, red onion and red peppers. Grilling vegetables is another option. You can either thread the chunks of vegetable onto skewers, or cut the vegetable into slices instead of chunks to lay directly onto the grill. As the vegetables cook on the grill, brush them frequently with a mixture of olive oil, salt and pepper, plus a little lemon juice or balsamic vinegar (this acidic addition helps to cut into the oil and prevent flame-ups from the grill, nobody likes burnt vegetables!). Another way to easily eat your vegetables is encouraged by the heat of summer. Summer is salad season, and when it comes to salads, anything goes. Cole slaws, tossed garden salads, cooked-then-chilled roasted vegetable salads and even pasta salads with added colorful peppers and red onions are all refreshing ways to get your nutrients when the mercury rises.

So many people find fruits boring, particularly in this country where people are raised on sugar highs from processed sweets on a daily basis. In many European and Asian countries it is perfectly acceptable to place a bowl of fruit on the table for dessert. I enjoy a luscious home-baked cherry clafoutis, pumpkin-nut bread or apple pie as much as anyone and I do make these things occasionally. In between these treats however, I say nothing beats the tasty, juiciness of a big, fresh, ripe farm stand peach in the summer. Try it sometime. Another option is to cut up different fruit combinations and enjoy them as a fruit salad. Honeydew and blueberries work well together, as do pineapple, strawberries and blueberries, and of course combining four different varieties of berries is always a palate-pleaser.

With such an abundance of fresh produce available to us, there really is no excuse to ever present a dish of warmed-up frozen vegetables to the dinner table. The only time I ever use frozen vegetables is when I need them for an ingredient in a pasta, soup or stew recipe, and therefore the only frozen vegetables in my freezer are peas, corn and pearl onions. I have even abandoned keeping frozen spinach on hand, because to cook up a package of fresh spinach is so simple and quick and tastes much better. Canned vegetables should be left on the supermarket shelves altogether, no exceptions; most of the nutrients have dissipated from them. Whenever possible, most vegetables and all fruits should be enjoyed fresh. So go ahead, go get fresh with your local farm stand and help support your local growers. Getting in your daily recommended servings of fruits and vegetables has never been so easy and so appetizing.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Welcome to 'At Home In the Kitchen', my latest effort to bring all of you who love to enjoy good food at home back into the kitchen. As many people allowed themselves to get bogged down with work and with the demanding commitments that come with raising children these days, enjoying a home-cooked meal was becoming a thing of the past. Thanks to the increased availability of more and more diverse foods available in our markets and to the ever-increasing popularity of the Food Network, cooking has become en vogue once again. There are a few of us out there who never abandoned our stoves and cookbooks, such as myself; which is why I will be writing regularly to help those of you who harbor a spark of culinary interest hindered by trepidation to take on that apparently intimidating task of preparing dinner. Future articles will touch on helpful topics such as buying kitchen items, planning menus and ingredient shopping; as well as seasonal ideas on how to get the most out of the flavors that the season has to offer. I will also feature the occasional article suggesting seasonal decorative ideas for your home and/or garden, so that your environment will feel inviting when you come home to come face to face with your kitchen. This is not a recipe blog, I am in the process of writing a cookbook for that. I will however share just a few simple recipe ideas here and there along the way. The purpose of this blog is to give you some tips and inspiration so that you too can feel at home in the kitchen. My first topic will be posted in a few days, so be sure to check back soon.