Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Good Sharp Knives and A Big Night

I used to brandish the dullest knives; you know, the steel ones with wooden handles that you can't keep sharp. Frankly, I didn't think I could afford good knives and was under the misapprehension that buying a whole set was mandatory. Man, I was wrong. You only need 3 knives, 4 if you want to go nuts. These are my picks: a chef's knife, at least 8 inches long, a paring knife, and a serrated bread knife. The fourth would be either a boning knife, which has a slender blade for slithering around bones, or a serrated tomato knife (one of my husband's faves) for slicing through tough tomato skins.

Quality is very important; a super cheap, light weight knife is a pain to work with. A chef's knife needs to be heavy enough to give you some leverage; I like the carbon steel knives by Wusthof and Henckels. Again, they have, last time I checked, a cheaper line. Run away!!! When I was still in school, the big buzz was on the Shun knives. I didn't get a chance to try one, but learned that you have to send your knife to Shun for sharpening when it gets dull. I learned this when some nitwits used another student's Shun to try to cut a stainless counter and dulled his knife. Why did he allow this? I can only shake my head. The lesson here is don't let nitwits touch your good knives.

Try not to spend too much on a bread knife; let me impart my experience. I bought a Wusthof serrated bread knife - a real beauty. Cut through crusty bread like hot butter, to be not too original. Eventually it became so dull it was maddening. YOU CAN'T SHARPEN A SERRATED KNIFE! Honing it with a steel helped some. I took it in to have new teeth put on, whatever that means, but it didn't help much. The moral of the story: don't buy a really expensive knife, it will only eventually break your heart and leave you high and dry (and dull).

To keep my knives sharp I use a honing steel (not as often as I should) and a Wusthof hand held sharpener (more often than I should). The sharpener was only about $20 and is really easy to use. I doubt it would help much with old steel knives which need to be retired anyway.

On to the Big Night - one of my favorite food movies. It's about two brothers from Italy, in what appears to be the 1950's. They have a failing restaurant, because the American idea of Italian food back then was spaghetti and meatballs. Period. Primo, the chef, is a fabulous cook who won't sacrifice his ideals. Secondo, the younger brother, wants to prosper, which would mean giving the public what it wants (spaghetti and meatballs). They get talked into a scheme to get the attention they need to bring in customers - which turns into a fabulous party, or Big Night. The story unfolds at its own leisurely pace. The food preparation scenes are inspiring as well as mouthwatering. The party, well, I just wanted to be there. Right in the middle, doing the mambo Italiano. Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub and the incomparable Ian Holm - need I say more, other than as Pascal so aptly put it to Primo: "your food is so good I want to kill you!" Rent it, then maybe buy it (like I did!).

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Deflatulating the Musical Fruit

Most of us have a love/fear relationship with beans. They taste great, especially cooked up slow with a nice ham hock or as chili beans and other endless variations. However, the inevitable trumpet calls later on make us back off from these nutritional powerhouses. The reason for the gas is we humans can't fully digest the carbs while they're in the small intestine, so when they are pushed on to the large intestine our friendly flora go to work, causing fermentation. Fermentation makes gas, kind of like beer and champagne, only not in a good way.

Here's a method for cooking our dried beans which greatly decreases the gas factor, using baking soda. First soak your dried beans. There are two methods: pour the beans in a pot and cover with cold water plus an extra inch, cover, and let sit over night. Alternatively, bring the beans and water to a boil, and simmer for 3 - 5 minutes. Turn off heat, cover, and let sit 1 hour.

Second, drain the beans and rinse in a colander or other strainer. Cover with water again, bring to a full boil and add 1/2 teaspoon baking soda or enough to make the water foam up. Simmer well for 5 minutes. Turn off heat and let sit uncovered until beans and liquid are completely cool. Allow 1 to 2 hours as needed. Drain and rinse well.

Add water again and cook at a simmer. They will be tender in about 20 minutes, depending on the type of bean used. At this point you can add your beans to whatever extravaganza you have percolating and hopefully can give them plenty of time to absorb flavors. My mom, who is a whiz at learning new tidbits gave me this method. She insists that adding any seasoning, especially salt, to these gems before they are tender will toughen the skins. I have read many contradictory declarations on this subject; I will say I used the above method and my beans came out tender.

While my 1 pound of pinto beans were being degassed on Sunday I used my crock pot to cook a nice all natural ham hock I picked up at Whole Foods. I threw half a chopped onion, 1 chopped clove garlic, a dash of cayenne, about 4 cups chicken broth, a teaspoon each soy and Worcestershire sauces and the hock in the crock and set it on high. By the time the beans had been worked over the hock was starting to get tender. I let them cook another 2 or more hours; my preference is that the meat is falling off the bone. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Using a crock pot in the summer is handy, it doesn't heat up your kitchen, plus it's hands-off. Pretty easy, right?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Salad I Get Excited About

I've always thought of salad as boring. Lettuce, tomato, cucumber, etc. Blah, blah, blah!!! And don't get me started on the dinner side salads in those restaurants that consider a baked potato a vegetable. Ok, it is a vegetable but it's not green or even orange.

Lately I've come around on salad eating on my own terms. My terms involve flavor, texture and nutrition. I like lots of good stuff on my greens - they're filling but don't make feel bogged down, especially with this summer heat. Sourdough bread has a relatively low glycemic index. Nuts and seeds are beneficial and of course veggies are the bomb! Here's what I'm doing:

Gently heat up a good quality nonstick pan over medium heat after spraying lightly with olive oil (NOT cooking spray). See if you can find a bottle with a pump that works well - it is a challenge, I know. Slice up some onion and add to pan. Cube up some sourdough bread (I used 1/2 a large slice per serving) and add to pan, along with 1 tablespoon pumpkin seeds. Spray olive oil over ingredients and saute until toasted - 5 to 10 minutes. Use your eyeballs and your judgment. You want some nice caramelization.

Meanwhile, cut up some red pepper, slice some carrot, green onion, thaw out some frozen petite peas. Take some oil cured olives, like Moroccan, and smash with the flat side of your good quality chef knife. Remove pits. Open a can of garbanzo beans (reduced sodium!?), break out the salad greens. Add feta - and I'm talking about the good stuff, made from goat or sheep's milk. Trader Joe's, if you're lucky enough to have one nearby, has the good stuff. I'm partial to organic spring mix and most currently machĂȘ (lamb's lettuce). So, here are the amounts - ok so I'm not writing in normal recipe format. This isn't a normal recipe!

1/2 cup sliced onion
1/2 slice sourdough bread
1 tablespoon pumpkin seeds
extra virgin olive oil spray
Saute as above

1/4 cup coarsely chopped red pepper
2 tablespoons sliced carrot
1 sliced green onion
1 tablespoon frozen petite peas, thawed
6 oil cured olives
2 tablespoons garbanzos
2 cups greens of your choice
1 oz crumbled feta - only the good stuff!
anything else you want

Dress with more extra virgin olive oil spray and balsamic vinegar or lemon juice or whatever else tickles your fancy. This is often my dinner and I like a big, filling salad. If you're on weight watchers, I count 7 points. This is just a guideline, do whatever you want. Using good ingredients will make this a satisfying experience. I just hope I got you inspired!