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.

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