Saturday, March 24, 2012

Must-Have Gadgets for the Kitchen? Think Again

by William Grimes

EVERY kitchen has one. The ingenious asparagus peeler. The automatic paper-towel dispenser. The whiz-bang electric pepper grinder. 

These are the tools that Gail Simmons, a judge on the Bravo series “Top Chef” and the author of “Talking With My Mouth Full: My Life as a Professional Eater,” calls “the skeletons in the kitchen closet.” Unlike the preposterous gadgets that turn up uninvited beneath the Christmas tree, they were purchased with enthusiasm and high culinary expectations. Now they languish in the drawer or take up space on the counter, where they eventually die of neglect. 

Sometimes the fault lies with the equipment, which is too often overengineered, overdesigned or overspecific. Does anyone really need a kitchen torch with a fuel gauge or a miniature circular saw for cutting pizza? 

Just as often, the buyer is to blame, a victim of unrealistic expectations. The kitchen can be a realm of fantasy, after all, and even seasoned professionals can be seduced by a sexy piece of equipment, especially if it has an exotic accent. 

“When you travel you get caught up in the moment, and taken with the idea that in this particular place a certain tool is really important,” said Christopher Koetke, the vice president of the school of culinary arts at Kendall College in Chicago. 

Fifteen years ago, on a trip to Italy, he bought an automatic polenta maker. Italians use them all the time, but Mr. Koetke has not gotten around to plugging his in. His trips to Japan have yielded nearly a dozen handmade knives, purchased at great expense in tiny shops. Most are in mint condition. “The truth is, only if you’re slicing fish for sushi and sashimi eight hours a day is the investment worth it,” he said. 

Jack Bishop, the editorial director of America’s Test Kitchen, the parent company of Cook’s Illustrated, still regards the French escargot tongs in his kitchen in Sag Harbor, N.Y., with puzzlement. Likewise his authentic Mexican molcajetes.  “I suppose they serve the purpose of reminding me of that wonderful time I spent in Oaxaca,” he said. 

There’s something about a kitchen tool suited to a single task that casts an irresistible spell for many cooks. The Williams-Sonoma catalog, to cite a highly visible example, is a Venusberg of culinary charms, but temptation lurks everywhere.

Dennis Nyback, a film archivist in Portland, Ore., bought a commercial butter slicer at a thrift store. At the time, it seemed like a brilliant acquisition. “It was green enameled metal with stainless blades and had a sort of mass guillotine action,” he said. “A solid one-pound block of butter could be made into a few dozen pats with one fell swoop. I didn’t expect it to change my life, but I did expect that if I ever encountered a one-pound block of butter I would be prepared. That day never came.”

It never does. Meredith Smith, an editor of the food blog Serious Eats, once invested in a pasta-drying rack but has managed to avoid setting it up in her kitchen in Somerville, Mass. “I just don’t make fresh pasta enough to merit a drying rack,” she said. “I’d rather use the back of a chair.”

Julia Collin Davison, of Natick, Mass., the executive food editor of the book department of America’s Test Kitchen, had high hopes for her salmon poacher. They were dashed. “They’re troublesome to work with,” she said. “It’s an odd-shaped piece of equipment that straddles two burners. I’m married to a fishmonger, so I have access to the best, and still I don’t use it.” 

Sara Moulton, a cookbook writer and the host of the PBS series “Sara’s Weeknight Meals,” bought a pressure cooker 15 years ago and soon became disenchanted. High-heat, high-intensity cooking robbed food of nutrients, a knowledgeable colleague advised. Not good. Then fear crept in as she considered the explosive potential of the device in her Manhattan kitchen. “I always told my viewers, ‘This is not your grandmother’s pressure cooker,’ but it still made me nervous. I kept worrying that starch might build up in the vent hole and clog it.” It went into early retirement. “I hold on to it just in case,” she said. “But I really don’t think I’m going to use it again.” 

Ms. Simmons of “Top Chef” acquired the skeletons in her kitchen closet by badly miscalculating the realities of her daily schedule. In pursuing the perfect cup of coffee — just one cup each morning — she acquired a professional-grade espresso maker and a stove-top drip coffee maker for Vietnamese coffee. 

Unfortunately, she forgot to consider the end user. “It’s sad, but the truth is, I almost never make coffee at home,” she said. The dazzling coffee makers are now culinary sculptures in her Manhattan kitchen. 

That quest for the transcendent cup led Sarah McColl, the food editor of the Shine blog on Yahoo, to buy several generations of milk frothers, including a hand-pump model and at least two electrics, before facing facts.

Read the complete article here.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Recipe: Loaded Potato Soup

by request, here's the recipe for my version of Loaded Potato Soup:

(Yield: 8 servings)

¼ cup Vegetable oil

2 cups small diced yellow onions

8 cloves garlic, minced

4 Tablespoons All purpose flour

2 quarts vegetable stock or water

2 cups dry white wine

1½ Tablespoons dried thyme

3 pounds Russet potatoes, peeled and diced

2 bay leaves

2 cups heavy whipping cream (may substitute half and half or milk to reduce fat content)

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

For Garnish:

Sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded

Sour cream

Bacon, cooked and chopped

Scallions, sliced

In a heavy stock pot, heat the oil over medium heat

Add the onions and sauté until soft, around five minutes.

Add the garlic and sauté one minute
Add flour and cook, stirring constantly, for one minute.

Control heat so that the flour does not brown.

Add the stock and wine, whisking to make sure lumps do not form.

Add potatoes, thyme, bay leaves, salt, and pepper, and bring to a boil over medium high heat.

Lower heat and simmer slowly for two hours.

Remove from the heat, remove bay leaves, and stir in whipping cream.

Season to taste with salt and black pepper.

To serve, ladle hot soup into a serving bowls.

Top with shredded cheese, sour cream, bacon, and scallions.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Vegan Chef Wows with Meatless Meals

By Patricia Reaney

NEW YORK, March 13 (Reuters) - For chef Chloe Coscarelli preparing vegan meals is more about being creative and adding variety with new ingredients and flavors than simply not using animal products in her recipes.

Coscarelli, who stopped eating meat while still a child, is a classically trained chef who shot to fame after winning the U.S. cooking TV competition "Cupcake Wars" in 2010, after impressing the judges with a variety of vegan cupcakes.

In her first cookbook "Chloe's Kitchen" the 24-year-old California-based chef dishes up 125 recipes and proves that vegan food can be exciting, delicious and creative, as well as healthy.

Q: What made you decide to become a vegan chef?
A: "My love for animals inspired me to choose a vegan way of eating and cooking. But once I went to college I just decided I wanted to intern in a restaurant and learn more creative ways to prepare vegan food because a lot of the old-fashioned notions are that it is dry or bland or boring. It was my mission to break those stereotypes and find delicious creative ways of eating vegan."

Q: How do you dispel the belief that a vegan diet is bland?
A: "For me as a chef, flavor is the most important thing. It is not so much about taking away ingredients and making this a restrictive diet, but instead opening it up to more creative possibilities and adding more flavors and relying on a more varied array of produce and vegetables and spices and herbs. And it is really making sure that no flavor is sacrificed when you are taking out the animal fat."

Q: How difficult is it to cook without butter and milk and cheese?
A: "It is much easier that you think. With just a couple of tricks you can veganize almost any traditional recipe. For example, when I make my cupcakes I rely on a very simple technique, and that is using just a couple teaspoons of vinegar in the batter. I know that sounds disgusting and I promise you won't taste the vinegar actually in the cupcake. It is just a chemical trick. The vinegar reacts with the baking soda and it binds the cupcake and makes it rise, so it replaces the egg. That is an extremely reliable technique."

Q: What are the main sources of protein in a vegan diet?
A: "It has been proven that vegetarians and vegans actually consume more proteins than people who follow a traditional diet because if you are following a healthful vegan diet you are eating vegetables, grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, all these different sources that you may have never consumed before and they are packed with proteins."

Q: How do you develop most of your recipes?
A: "I have been cooking for a while. My mom is the one who taught me how to cook before my whole family was vegetarian, and we took a lot of old family recipes and actually veganized them. We used some simple techniques that I developed to make them vegan. I like to get a lot of my inspiration from things that are not vegan and turn them vegan."

Q: What would you advise to someone who is thinking about switching to a vegan diet?

Read the chef's answer and the rest of the interview here

Monday, March 12, 2012

Chile Pepper Institute Studies What's Hot

By Monika Joshi, USA TODAY

John Hard, owner of CaJohn Fiery Foods, was not expecting to strike any deals when he visited New Mexico State University's Chile Pepper Institute six years ago.

But what started as a kind gesture — creating a hot sauce and donating some proceeds to the institute — turned into a collaboration that is a key ingredient in his company's success. Located in Las Cruces, the Chile Pepper Institute is a non-profit, science-based organization dedicated to everything chile pepper. It conducts research on disease resistance, higher yield and better flavor of the crop. It also fields hundreds of questions a week from growers, producers, researchers and home gardeners.

 "We get a huge range of questions, from fertilizer for a specific variety to culinary questions about what type of chile pepper is used in what dish," says Danise Coon, senior research specialist.

In 2007, the institute declared the Bhut Jolokia the world's hottest pepper, and Guinness World Records certified it. Upon hearing the news, a few others claimed there was an even hotter chile, prompting many in the spice industry to ask the institute to settle the dispute. "I received at least 500 e-mails about this alone," says institute director Paul Bosland, a renowned pepper expert and professor at New Mexico State.


In February, the institute proclaimed the Moruga Scorpion the hottest chile pepper in the world, and already, the title has proven a draw for chile enthusiasts and the spice industry. Hard has created a salsa and hot sauce using the pepper, and the institute has sold out of seeds.

For the study, Bosland and his team planted several super-hot varieties of chile peppers, including the Moruga Scorpion and Scorpion, native to Trinidad; the 7 Pot and the Chocolate 7 Pot, hailing from Tobago; and the Bhut Jolokia, found in Assam, India. Ground-up samples of each variety were run through a high-performance liquid chromatography machine that counted capsaicinoids, the heat-causing chemical compound unique to chile peppers. A mathematical formula was then used to generate a number in Scoville heat units (SHU), which translates to heat intensity.

The Moruga Scorpion rated up to 2 million SHU, unseating Bhut Jolokia, which can be as hot as 1.58 million SHU. During handling, researchers wore gas masks, goggles, full-body Tyvek suits and two layers of latex gloves. Still, the Moruga Scorpion's heat seeped through to their hands, says graduate student Gregory Reeves, who was a part of the study.

For most chile lovers, including Bosland, a small sampling of the Moruga Scorpion was all they needed.

Read the complete story here.