Tuesday, December 4, 2012

All I Want for Christmas.....

Phew.  I'm tired.  So tired that I can't even put the proper exclamation mark after "phew".  It's been a busy fall, and it's really ramped up in the last couple of weeks.  A couple of weeks ago, on a Sunday, I told a friend that I had a pretty clear week.  That was a really good thing, I thought, because my house was trashed.  We had pulled out the Christmas decorations the weekend after Thanksgiving, as usual.  What was unusual, however, was that we are still working (very, nay....painfully slowly) on the entryway/eventual mudroom.  We found ourselves with a Saturday that Jeff wasn't going to go to work, and we decided to squeeze in a little time to work on the room.  Well, as projects tend to do, the task list multiplied, and we found ourselves at Home Depot a couple of times.  So that ate up more time than we thought it would.  On top of that, there was more decluttering to do than in normal years.  Have I mentioned that this entryway is right next to the kitchen?  The kitchen that is already too cramped and hard to work in?  Well, it is.  And since we have this long-standing project going on, the tools, materials, and other necessities tend to spill out to the surrounding rooms.  We had a shelf set up to hold most of the stuff, but it was right in the dining room window (our basement is only accessible through a trap door....in the floor of the entryway.....so keeping the things that we need there is not practical until this project is finished), and that window is where we put our Christmas tree.  Our house was a bit like those puzzles where there is one spot open, and you have to keep moving the tiles, one at a time, until you finally get all of them where they need to be.  The point is, the Christmas decorations didn't get finished that weekend.  That meant that the bins were taking up valuable space, things were getting moved from one inconvenient place to another, and basically, I was going mad.

Well, I was sadly wrong about my clear week.  Every single day, something came up that caused me to leave the house for several hours. Plus, we had some big decisions to make around here, which took up any mental energy that I had left in the evenings.  Fortunately, I am now beginning to dig out.  The decorations are almost all out, so the bins can go back into hiding soon.  The kitchen has recovered.  I still must address Mount Laundry, but I think that will happen tomorrow.

So that's why I haven't written anything since before Thanksgiving.  I really haven't cooked a whole lot, and the times that I have cooked, I was time-crunched.  Hopefully I will get back to cooking in the next few days.  I miss it.

In the meantime, though, I figured I could start on a series about kitchen tools and equipment that I can't live without.  Well, I could, but I wouldn't want to.  There are several tools that just make life so much easier in the kitchen, and I want to share.  I don't know about you, but there were lots of things that I registered for before I was married, that now reside in my basement.  Things that were all the rage, or just looked cool.  But knives?  Oh, whatever.....I'm sure I can pick a paring knife up for a couple of bucks at Target.  What more do I need?  Oh, I was young and foolish.  It turns out that making bread actually requires nothing more than a large bowl, a wooden spoon, and a stone or bread pan.  Those enormous, precious-counter-space-hogging, unitasking small appliances aren't actually necessary.  But I didn't know that back then.  I want to save anyone who reads this some money and frustration by sharing the things that I have found to be enormously helpful, fun, useful and/or beautiful in my own cooking experience.  And what do you know?  Christmas is coming!

So to start, I want to let you all know about some great seasonal deals at Aldi.  I was just there the other day, and I saw that they have their Le Creuset knock-off Dutch ovens!  I bought two over a year ago for $39.99 each.  I have used them quite a bit, and they are still in fantastic shape.  These Dutch ovens are made of cast iron that is enamel-coated.  So you have the heat retention of the cast iron without the leaching of iron into your food.  They are also easier to clean than uncoated cast iron.  You can't put them in the dishwasher, but they are generally easy to clean with soapy water.  You can't clean cast iron with soap, because the soap will absorb into the metal and make your food taste soapy.  That's not a problem with enameled cast iron.  Don't get me wrong.  I love uncoated cast iron.  I don't even mind the leaching.  I can use all the extra iron I can get.  Never the less, there are times when I use a fair amount of wine or tomatoes and cook them for a long time, and for that, non-reactive pots are the way to go.

As for the Dutch oven in particular, well, what's not to love?  They come in pretty red or blue, and they go beautifully from the stovetop to the oven to the table.  They work well for stews, soups, braises, and one pot meals, many of which can be started on the stovetop (searing meat, bringing liquids up to a boil, etc) and then placed in an oven to continue cooking in a more gentle environment.  It's what I always use for my arroz con pollo, and I never end up with burnt rice!  At this moment, I have some beef simmering in red wine to tenderize it before I turn it into stroganoff.

Now, to be honest, I put off purchasing one of these pots for over a year.  I wanted the real deal.  I couldn't imagine that Aldi carried anything as good as Le Creuset.  And maybe it's not.  I can't say, because I haven't used Le Creuset.  I probably never will, since one pot costs nearly $400.00.  So I could buy a new Aldi pot every year for ten years before working off the cost of one Le Creuset.  However, these pots have already lasted me over a year without showing any significant signs of wear, so they are certainly a good deal.  Of course, if you don't have an Aldi nearby...well, first, I am so sorry!.....but don't worry.  There are actually many knock-offs these days.  Lodge has its own line of enameled cast iron.  It costs closer to $80.00 for the 5-6 quart size, but it's still a bargain.  Whatever you have to do to get an enameled cast iron Dutch oven, I highly recommend that you get one of these pots into your kitchen soon.  I absolutely love mine.

Aldi also has their silicone baking sheets back in stock, just in time for the baking season.  If you have never used them, you will be amazed. Absolutely nothing sticks to them.  I have a Silpat (the brand name of the original), and there is really very little difference between the two. For some reason, the Aldi sheets seem to discolor a bit, where the Silpat sheets do not.  But no worries....you're not serving anything on these sheets.  They just keep you from ruining sticky cookies and the sheet pans which would adhere to them.  Don't imagine that parchment works just as well.  Would you make caramel on parchment paper?  I wouldn't.  But caramel peels right off of silicone baking sheets like wax paper peels off of butter.  I always put it on the sheet pan under homemade granola.  And just the other day, I made cookies that would have been a disaster without the silicone sheet.  Coconut macaroons, which "bled" sweetened coconut cream all over the sheet and would have adhered something fierce to my sheet pan, and lace cookies, which, if you've never had them, are pretty much doilies made out of toffee and nuts.  Both cookies slide right off of the silicone.  I also put the sheets under other foods that might make a mess of a sheet pan.  Anything breaded, and anything that may leak and leave a sticky mess, I put on top of the silicone, and the mess slides right off into the trash.  Wipe off the silicone sheet in your dishwater, and you're done.  Again, I love this product.

I also saw some microplane graters at Aldi.  In fact, I picked one up.  I haven't used it, but it is the type that has a wider, shorter grating surface.  I already had the long skinny type, and it is amazing.  I can't imagine zesting citrus fruit with anything else.  It removes the flavorful zest (the colorful part of the peel) without getting into the bitter pith (the white part).  And it doesn't so much grate parmesan and other hard cheese as it transforms it into a cheesey cloud, which then melts into alfredo sauce beautifully.  It also grates chocolate over desserts, and in a pinch, I even grate nutmeg with it.  However, there are times when the long grating surface is difficult to use, and I have to admit that I have grated my knuckles a couple of times.  So the wider surface and finger guard on the grater that I just bought at Aldi will hopefully help.

I saw a Wilton cookie press at Aldi.  I didn't get it, even though I have been wanting a cookie press for years.  I am just not at all confident that I will take the time to make spritz cookies this Christmas (see above), and I don't want to spend money on anything that I don't need in the short term!

There are several other items that Aldi is carrying right now for a good price, but those are the stand-outs in my mind.

Finally, there is an item on my wish list that is not available at Aldi, and I want to recommend it to the elves in your life, as well.  I am very much hoping to find a Thermapen instant read thermometer in my stocking this year.  It's another thing that I have wanted for years, but could never before justify, since it costs around $90.00.  However, this year's Thanksgiving turkey banished any doubts.

Thermapen is the favorite thermometer of Cook's Illustrated / America's Test Kitchen, which does product testing for kitchen and food items, much like Consumer Reports.  I've read and seen them rave about the Thermapen for years.  Its accuracy, quick register, and ease of use have all gotten high marks, consistently.  But how do you spend $90.00 on a thermometer when you can get one for $10.00 at Meijer?

Well, when your $10.00 thermometer that you thought was accurate  finally registers an internal temperature of 161 degrees in your turkey's breast, and you take it out of the oven, only to notice that the pop-up timer that came in the turkey has popped-up, which happens at 180 degrees, you start to see the sense in a $90.00 thermometer.  That's what happened to me.  Thank goodness I ignored all the current naysaying about brining your turkey, because it was still juicy, though not quite as juicy as what we have become accustomed to.

And here's the thing:  You don't brine beef, so there will be no such protection for the Christmas prime rib roast.  What good timing it would be to find the Thermapen under the tree on the very morning that I cook said roast!  Not that I am throwing out any hints, or anything (*cough* I like the red one because it won't get lost in the kitchen as easily! *cough*).

That's it for now.  Oh, there are plenty of other tools that I highly recommend.  After all, I refer to Sur la Table as my DisneyWorld.  I will try to get some other recommendations on here in time for you to drop hints of your own.

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