Archive for the ‘Cooking’ Category

101 picnic dishes, mayo safety & food memories

July 16, 2008

Here’s a quick look at a few food-related things I’ve read recently:

The New York Times’ Mark Bittman calls himself the Minimalist. But he’s anything but minimal when it comes to his popular lists—his favorite number seems to be 101. Take, for example, his latest list, just in time for summer picnics, “101 20-Minute Dishes for Inspired Picnics.”

As with all his lists, these are not 101 full-blown recipes; Bittman just gives you the basic idea for a dish and leaves you plenty of room to make it your own. Here is the complete entry for combining tomatoes and peaches for a lively sounding salad: “TOMATOES AND PEACHES Toss together sliced seeded tomatoes and peaches, along with thinly sliced red onion and chopped cilantro or rosemary. Dress at the last minute with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper.”

It’s a long list, but he helpfully breaks it up into 10 bite-sized chunks, including Raw Vegetables, Fruit, Seafood, Sandwiches and Desserts. There’s even a Printable List of all 101. I don’t know about you, but I’m planning to mine this list all summer long.

Mayonnaise: It’s not part of the problem, it’s part of the solution.

Summertime is a time for potato salads, chicken salads and other yummy foods all calling for mayonnaise. And with all the aforementioned picnicking going on, with it’s relaxed approach to refrigeration, it’s also a time to worry about food safety.

For just about forever, mayonnaise has been thought to be a culprit, a germ factory promoting and accelerating all kinds of nasty bacterial growth. Well, according to a recent article by Anahad O’Connor in The New York Times [brought to my attention by a post on SnagWireMedia—thanks!], mayo can actually help fight the growth of bacteria. That’s because most commercial mayonnaise contains vinegar and other acidic ingredients which may help protect against spoilage. According to the Times article, “One prominent study published in The Journal of Food Protection found, for example, that in the presence of commercial mayonnaise, the growth of salmonella and staphylococcus bacteria in contaminated chicken and ham salad either slowed or stopped altogether.”

That’s not to say that you should set all your perishables out in the full sun, then head off to play beach volleyball for hours [I’m personally opposed to playing beach volleyball under any circumstances]. But you don’t have to treat dishes containing mayonnaise like hazardous waste. If anything, it’s good to know that the mayo’s got your back.

Food: Eat, Memory

If food were only about fuel and sustenance, there wouldn’t be chefs or home cooks. Or food blogs, for that matter. There would just be armies of nutritionists creating vacuum-packed, vitamin enriched food cubes.

But food is much more than fuel. It is, as renowned food editor Judith Jones so rightly said, “one of the greatest gifts of life.” Ann over at A Chicken in Every Granny Cart first made me aware of the above quote. I immediately printed it out and stuck it on our fridge. I read it almost every day. And I believe it thoroughly every time I do.

Marion recently shared an article in The New York Times Magazine with me that absolutely shows the power food has to evoke memories, to reach down inside us and to open us up to new experiences. Allen Shawn’s moving essay, “Food: Eat, Memory—Family Meal,” isn’t a saccharin Norman Rockwellian remembrance. It begins with a very non-sugar coated statement: “For my sister, Mary, who has lived in a Maryland institution for the mentally retarded since she was 8, there’s no hiding the fact that food is central.”

Shawn goes on to tell of Mary, now 59 and suffering from autism, mental retardation and elements of schizophrenia, anticipating and reciting the menu of the birthday lunch she expected each year, unchanged since her teens. In 2005, their mother was near death and unable to travel to the summer home that had been the unchanging venue for the birthday lunch. So Mary was brought to the family’s Manhattan apartment for the first time since she was eight, and in addition to the expected menu, some new dishes were added. Everyone prepared for the worst. Instead, they got what Shawn called a miracle. He was right. Read this wonderful article.


Small Bites: Drink, eat, look and watch right

July 2, 2008

Need a reason to drink more tea? How about 33 reasons?

One of the cool things about food blogging is that you don’t always have to find stories. Sometimes they find you. Recently, Fiona at NursingDegree.Net wrote to tell me of an article that had been posted on their blog, “33 Health Benefits of Drinking Tea.” Their impressive list includes some of the usual suspects, like the fact that teas contain antioxidants and can create a calmer but more alert state of mind. But did you know that tea can lower stress hormone levels, protect bones, lower cholesterol and help keep your skin acne-free? I didn’t.

Read all 33 reasons to drink more tea—you’ll find some big surprises and even bigger benefits. Then go drink some.

Breaking news from The New York Times: We don’t eat as healthy as we should.

In Monday’s Health section, Tara Parker-Pope tells us about The 11 Best Foods You Aren’t Eating. This is a short list compiled from nutritionist Dr. Johnny Bowden’s The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth: The Surprising, Unbiased Truth About What You Should Eat and Why. And while the list includes hardworking choices like cabbage and beets, it contains some fun foods, like pumpkin seeds and cinnamon.

Look good while you cook, eat and drink right.

For no reason I can think of, we only just discovered the Chicago Antique Market last weekend. Held the last Saturday and Sunday of each month May through October, it offers an amazing array of antiques and collectibles at reasonable prices. It’s also home to the Indie Designer Market, where we met Peg of TAYGA. They say successful companies find a niche. TAYGA’s niche is aprons custom tailored from designer fabrics. A more fashion-savvy eye than mine [Marion’s] recognized some of the fabric as being from designer Amy Butler.

These are no Auntie Em aprons here. They have cleavage, for crying out loud. And they’re reversible, so you get two looks for the price of one. I’m happy to report they also make cleavage-free versions for men and kids. You can check them all out here.

Emeril returns with a “Bam!”

Being quite possibly the last person in the known universe who doesn’t have cable, I didn’t know that Emeril Live had been cut from the Food Network last year. But now Sienna from Fine Living Network has written to let me know that Emeril is returning to TV—”Bam!” and all. You can catch new episodes seven days a week starting July 7. In the meantime, you can catch some preview clips and videos right here.

Heart health, safe tomatoes and a broth shortcut

June 18, 2008

Mice get all the breaks. Scientists have been testing the benefits of red wine on them. Again.

In this latest study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, results indicate that “the chemical resveratrol, commonly found in red wine, can help keep heart tissues young and delay aging—and at levels lower than previously expected.” In fact, researchers “believe that a glass of red wine a day might provide all the resveratrol the heart needs.”

Delaying the effects of aging on the heart is huge; the aging process itself apparently causes more health issues than age-related diseases. In tests on middle-aged mice [did that phrase make you smile too?], the hearts of the mice on resveratrol stayed stronger and the tissue maintained its health longer.

Resveratrol has been known for some time to offer significant health benefits, but previous studies involved levels of resveratrol found in hundreds of bottles of wine. If this latest study is correct, one or two glasses of red wine a day could actually prevent changes in heart cells that lead to aging.

Red wine-based pharmaceuticals are suddenly becoming big business, as heavy hitters like GlaxoSmithKline aim to cash in on these findings with resveratrol supplements. They’re already commercially available. Personally, it sounds like an answer for which there was no question, to quote a former boss. I mean, a nice glass of Cabernet versus a pill? No contest, as far as I can see.

Tomatoes and salmonella scare update

Last week I wrote about an outbreak of Salmonella serotype Saintpaul linked to consumption of certain kinds of raw tomatoes in the United States. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration [FDA] has not yet pinpointed the source for the tainted tomatoes, but they have cleared the tomato crops in 39 states and the District of Columbia as well as Baja California [Mexico], Belgium, Canada, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Israel, Netherlands and Puerto Rico. To see if your state’s tomatoes are safe to eat and for the latest updates on the outbreak, visit the FDA’s website.

Better Than Bouillon: Good broth, good and fast

Yeah, broth or stock made from scratch is best. No argument here. But often, we don’t have time to make it. And just as often, it’s playing a supporting role in a dish and, quite frankly, the time and effort to produce a cup or less of homemade broth just isn’t worth the payoff, at least not in my kitchen.

The good news is that choices for store-bought stock have gone way beyond the soup can and the bouillon cube. Reduced fat and reduced sodium options abound. And at Trader Joe’s [as well as other places], you can even buy organic chicken stock made from free range chickens. One of our favorite “stock options” is the Superior Touch line of Better Than Bouillon bases. They now offer an amazing 18 varieties in all, but what first caught our attention is the mushroom base. We first discovered it at Fairway Market in New York. And we loved it so much, we pestered the Chicago chain Treasure Island to add it to the varieties they already carried.

What makes Better Than Bouillon bases, well, better is that the main ingredient in whatever variety you choose is the name on the label: Beef, chicken, mushroom, lobster… not salt. That said, they do pack plenty of sodium too, so it’s good to taste whatever you’re adding it to before adding more salt. But by way of contrast, bouillon cubes can deliver anywhere from 38 to a whopping 56 percent of your DVA for sodium in a single one-cup serving! Superior Touch does offer reduced sodium versions of their beef, chicken and vegetable bases too.

And you can’t beat them for convenience or value. A single teaspoon makes a cup of broth; an 8-ounce jar makes 38 cups of broth. And it keeps in the fridge for up to 18 months, ready to grab at a moment’s notice when you need a little liquid for a dish. The mushroom base remains our favorite, but we also keep chicken and vegetable on hand. If your local store doesn’t carry Better Than Bouillon, you can order it at or direct from Superior Touch.

Small Bites: Drinks, a cool tool and a sharp blog

May 21, 2008

Worst drink on the planet?

According to Men’s Health magazine, it’s the Heath Shake, part of Baskin-Robbins’ Candy Bar Madness promotion. The Baskin-Robbins website describes it tantalizingly thus: “Toffee and coffee have never been better! This blend of Heath and Jamoca ice creams, chopped Heath Bar pieces and caramel, are layered on top of caramel, then topped with whipped cream and chopped Heath Bar pieces.”

Their nutritional chart on the site tells a different story, though. The medium-sized 1,420-calorie drink [more than 2/3 of your daily calories needs, by the way] delivers 103% of your Daily Value for total fat and a whopping 200% for saturated fat. If that’s not enough of a fat bomb for you, they have a large size that packs an amazing 2,300 calories!

And the best drink? White tea is the new black.

Black tea is by far the most popular tea in the world. I’m a big fan of black tea myself, but lately green tea has been getting loads of press for its antioxidants. We all know by now that antioxidants fight cancer, reduce the risk of strokes, heart diseases and diabetes and generally slow the aging process.

Well, it turns out that white tea not only outperforms black tea when it comes to antioxidants—it blows the doors off everybody’s darling green tea in this regard too, delivering three times the antioxidants found in green tea. What’s more, According to ScienceDaily, white tea outstrips green in fighting germs, including Staphylococcus infections, Streptococcus infections and pneumonia. And studies by Oregon State University show that consumption of white tea can fight colon cancer, actually reducing tumors.

Is there anything white tea can’t do? Well, it doesn’t have the satisfyingly robust, slightly bitter taste of black tea. On the other hand, its somewhat subtler taste doesn’t carry any of the grassy aftertaste of green tea. And as an added bonus, its pale gold color is far less likely to stain than black tea. For everything you’d ever want to know about white tea, visit White Tea Central.

This cool kitchen tool can really take the heat.

Heat resistant, nonstick silicone has been showing up all over kitchens these days. And one of the best uses we’ve seen of it is these handy Cuisipro Silicone Locking Tongs.

They’re made with commercial-quality stainless steel, and the nonstick silicone ends are heat-resistant to 575°F [300°C]. Pull on the hanging hoop and you lock them closed for easy storage in a drawer. Pop the hoop against your hip or the counter and you can open them with one hand—a useful feature in a busy kitchen.

But what really makes these tongs for me are the silicone tips. You can flip chops or chicken breasts or whatever in a hot nonstick pan without fear of scratching. You can grab green beans or asparagus spears or other cooked vegetables without bruising them. And best of all, as far as I’m concerned, they’re ideal for handling cooked pasta. You get a sure grip without breakage, and the pasta can’t get stuck in them the way they can with open metal tongs [am I the only person bugged by this?].

Cuisipro Silicone Locking Tongs come in a dazzling array of sizes and colors. Whichever you choose, they’ll make life in the kitchen just a little bit easier.

A sharp new blog. Seriously.

The first rule of blogging if you want to build a loyal readership of more than just friends and family is to specialize. Your readers need to know that each time they visit, they’ll find something on a topic that interests them. Well, I recently heard from a blogger named Ken who has carved out quite a specific niche for himself.

The blog is called Only Knives. You’ll find plenty of useful information about kitchen knives—including this exhaustive article called The Best Kitchen Knives For Any Budget. You’ll also find posts about hunting knives, survival knives [did anyone else shudder just then?] and even swords!

Besides thorough, helpful product information, you’ll find plenty of articles on the industry and history of knives and blades. Like this post on The Rise and Fall of The Great Kitchen Knife-Makers. So if you’re in the market for new kitchen knives, check out Ken’s blog. And if you’re in the market for a survival knife, I’d just as soon not know about it.

Putting food in its place

July 11, 2007

nyt_food_sections.jpgFirst, let’s be painfully honest here. Part of the joy of cooking is the ooohs and ahhhs our efforts produce in others when we do it right. It just is. But going through a backlog of New York Times food sections the other day, I came across an amusingly disturbing [or perhaps disturbingly amusing] article that got me thinking about achieving a balance between food as showmanship and food as, well, food: Dinner at the Foodies’: Purslane and Anxiety.

The thrust of the article is summed up beautifully by a history professor who lives in Harlem and admits to being both a victim and propagator of culinary anxiety: “It becomes less about having people over and more about showing off your foodie credentials.” The lengths some home cooks go to to impress their guests are appallingly detailed in the article. It’s a good read, so I won’t spoil it for you here [other than to say one story involves a divorce in progress].

But in the end, cooking for others isn’t about showing off [well, okay, maybe it is a little]. It is about having people over. Yes, we work hard [or at least try to give the impression of having done so] to create delicious, exciting meals. And yes, there is a certain amount of performance anxiety inherent in entertaining, especially as things come together at the last minute—if there isn’t, you’re probably being lazy or complacent. These are your friends, your family. You want them to feel welcomed and well fed—to feel that they’re part of a special moment. Once you reach a certain level of goodness, though, you have to ask yourself if you’re cooking for your guests or merely for their accolades.

As a bit of perspective, not all that long ago in polite society, complimenting your host or hostess on the meal was considered rude. It was assumed that the help had prepared it, and it was expected to be very good. Otherwise, the help would be seeking opportunities elsewhere.

Personally, I’m just as glad to not be living back then [and besides, I would have probably been the help, not the host, and not even very high up that food chain]. I do like to hear how delicious everything is, best of all in the form of a delighted moan from a mouth still full of the first bite. I just also like to hear about a new movie, book, band or art exhibit. And about someone’s vacation plans, job, kids or take on alternate side of the street parking. You know, conversation.

So how do you achieve that balance of serving wonderful, memorable food without letting the food take over the entire evening? A couple of guidelines. First, when putting together a meal or a party stops being fun for you, it’s probably no longer fun for your guests.

If, on the other hand, on the way out the door at the end of the evening, a guest turns to you and utters a heartfelt, “Everything was wonderful!”, you’ll know it was—and not just the food.

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Welcome back, old friend. Now get to work.

June 6, 2007

The first semi-serious cooking tool I ever got was a Sabatier chef’s knife. Since the 1830s, these fine knives have been made in the town of Thiers, the capital of French cutlery. Turns out there have actually been two Sabatier families making knives there all this time, one from upper Thiers and one from lower Thiers—how French, right? And no, I don’t know which I have, but it had served me well.


But through years of neglect by me and gross abuse at the hands of an alleged professional knife sharpener, it had gone to hell in a handbasket, and I had stowed it away. Occasionally, I would find it deep in some drawer and guiltily pledge to take it to a reputable knife sharpener to either get it ground down into some semblance of a decent knife again or have them give it a decent Christian burial.

northwest_cutlery.jpgThis past weekend, I finally made good on my word. I wrapped the old Sabatier in a towel and a plastic bag and headed to Northwestern Cutlery, tucked under the noisiest el line in Chicago [the Green Line] on Lake Street, just west of downtown. Historically, this whole area has been the city’s meat, produce and restaurant supply district. Increasingly, trendy restaurants, condos and other signs of gentrification have been reshaping the neighborhood, particularly along Randolph Street. But there’s still plenty of heavy-duty food handling going on in the area. Amusingly [for me, anyway, since I don’t own one of the pricey condos there], much of the action takes place in the pre-dawn hours and involves trucks and forklifts and guys who have to yell to be heard over trucks and forklifts. Take that, hipster homeowners.

Northwestern Cutlery is an orgy of cutlery and other cool, serious kitchen stuff. Because it caters mainly to chefs and culinary students—the URL on the awning takes you to a culinary students-only site—you get that rush of sneaking backstage, seeing stuff you’re not authorized to see. But they clearly welcome “civilians” too. They cheerfully took care of the Sabatier for me, cleaning it up and returning it to razor sharpness. While I waited. For five bucks.

It’s not quite the same knife it once was. They had to grind away a fair amount of metal to undo the bent point [my fault] and the wavy blade [thanks to the so-called professional knife sharpener]. But it’s the knife I find myself reaching for now, as much out of nostalgia as utility [for the record, though, it’s scary sharp]. And already, its pure carbon steel blade is taking on the patina of a hardworking kitchen tool that’s seen it all. Welcome back, old friend.

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