Foodie Blogroll

Great Review from Om-Nom-Nomnivore

I’m sorry I missed this when it first came out, but better late than never. This is a great review from the website Om Nom Nomnivore.

This book is quite bluntly, amazing. Chad has done such a good job in demystifying the whole world of professional-grade cutlery. The entire book is written to be the ultimate guide for foodies. Chad’s point of view is entirely biased toward the enthusiast cook who just needs to know what they’re talking about regarding the single most important tool in the kitchen.

Read the rest of the review here: “An Edge in the Kitchen” on Om Nom Nomnivore. Thanks, LazySumo!

Steeling Your Knife

Proper technique for steeling your knife, keeping the edge sharp

That metal rod thingie that came with your knife set is called a steel or honing rod. Unless you purchased your steel separately, you probably ended up with a medium grooved steel. That’s okay, but a finely grooved steel is better. A completely smooth steel or high grit ceramic honing rod is even better still. Whatever kind of steel you have, using it regularly is the best way to keep your knives ticking along at peak performance. The simple act of swiping your edge down a steel once a week or so will keep your edges sharp for up to a year before they need sharpening again. Whenever you use your knife, especially softer kitchen knives, the edge can roll over a little. It is still sharp, it just isn’t pointing straight down any more. Using the steel or honing rod realigns the edge of the knife, forcing the rolled spots back into line and making the edge useable again.

The edge is still sharp, it just isn’t pointing straight down any more

Be aware that the medium grooved steels that come with knife sets must be used with a very light touch. A grooved steel acts as a file when used with a heavy hand, knocking microscopic chips out of your edge.

The standard image we all have of steeling a knife involves a chef with his knife in one hand and steel in the other, blade flashing and ringing as the chef clangs it back and forth. If you’re particularly adept at this type of swordsmanship, have at it. It impresses the tourists. A more effective method is to stand the steel straight up with the tip resting on a folded towel to keep it from slipping. Why? Geometry.

Place the knife edge against the steel with the blade perpendicular to the steel and you have a 90 degree angle between the edge and the steel, right? Rotate your wrist so that you reduce the angle by half to form a 45 degree angle. Reduce that by half for 22.5 degrees, and you are exactly where you need to be to steel your knife. Most factory edges are somewhere between 20 and 25 degrees per side. You generally want to steel your knife at the same angle or at a very slightly steeper angle than the edge bevel itself.

You can also use the Paper Airplane Trick to make a guide to prop against your steel so you know you are hitting the proper angle. Take a piece of paper and fold one corner over to the opposite side. Line up the edges and smooth down the crease, very much like making a paper airplane. You’ve just created a 45 degree angle. Fold the creased side over to the far edge again and you’ve created a 22.5 degree angle. Sound familiar? Twenty-two and a half degrees is pretty close to 20 degrees, at least as close as you can generally hold a specific angle by hand. This folded piece of paper can serve as a guide for steeling your knife, setting an angle on a sharpening stone or just checking that you’re keeping your angle steady as you sharpen. The paper edge guide is especially handy when you are learning to steel your knives properly. It helps build the right angle into muscle memory so you can do it without the guide when you have some practice.

When you’re steeling, lock your wrist and stroke the knife from heel to tip by unhinging at the shoulder – it’s your pivot point. Slowly swipe the knife down the steel by dropping your forearm. The key is to maintain a consistent angle all the way through the stroke. By locking your wrist and elbow, you will keep your angle stable from top to bottom. Follow all the way through the tip but don’t let the tip slide off the steel or you’ll risk rounding it over time. You don’t have to press very hard to realign the edge. Steeling requires barely more pressure than the weight of the knife itself. Alternate from side to side, keeping the same alignment and angle on both sides. It really only takes five or six strokes per side to keep your knife ready for more work.

Gifts for Cooks Part Deux

Still searching for that perfect gift for the cook in your life? I ran my list by some of my favorite professional chefs and ardent home cooks and they made a few additional suggestions.

Le Creuset Dutch Oven

My wife thought I was insane when she discovered what I spent on my first Le Creuset Dutch Oven. She quickly became a convert. I have two of them now, the 7-1/4qt shown and a 6-3/4qt wide version and we wouldn’t part with them for anything. The heavy cast iron makes for great heat retention and the enamel coating allows for easier cleanup. Mine see action at least once a week. If you really love someone, say it with cast iron.

Heavy Duty Sheet Pans

Most cookie sheets and jelly roll pans are way too flimsy for regular use.  Commercial sheet pans, on the other hand, are made of heavy gauge aluminum and make a world of difference in your baking. Not the most glamorous Christmas gift ever, but sure to be appreciated, especially if you accessorize as I recommend. A residential oven won’t fit a full size sheet pan, but 1/2-sheet pans are just about perfect. Add in a non-stick Silpat baking mat and a fitted wire rack and you’ve got an unbeatable combination. The Silpat makes cleanup amazingly simple. Nothing sticks to it, so even problematic items like Parmesan crisps (frico) release easily. It can withstand temperatures up to 480° and can be reused thousands of times. A simple wipedown after use is usually all it needs. The wire rack is sold as a cooling rack, and it’s fine for that too, but the real magic comes when you use it to make bacon in your oven.  Yes, in your oven. Lay your bacon strips on the rack in the sheet pan, slide the pan into a cold oven and set the temperature to 400°. Set a timer for 20 minutes. Flip the bacon when the timer goes off and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes or so. Done. Your bacon stays flat, is perfectly cooked, and has conveniently drained all of its grease into the sheet pan below for easy disposal. You are a freaking genius. As an added bonus, it is hands-off and frees the stovetop for everything else.

Stocking Stuffers: Microplane grater, a bench scraper, and the perfect spoon

Now they come in a variety of configurations and handles, but it’s hard to beat the classic Microplane grater/zester. Zest citrus without getting into the bitter pith, create clouds of fluffy parmesan, grate numeg — hands down, this is the best tool for the job.

The Oxo Goodgrips pastry scraper is the deluxe Coupe de Ville of bench scrapers. I love mine with an inordinate fervor. Comfy cushioned grip, a solid, straight blade (bench scrapers with cheap wavy blades are miserable) and a slight bevel to the edge make this one a standout for scraping dough off your counter, bashing garlic cloves or scooping herbs off your cutting board.

And finally, the Gray Kunz spoon

For the cook who truly has everything, or simply insists on the best of the best, the Gray Kunz sauce spoon is a unique and thoughtful gift. I have two. The deep 2.5-tablespoon bowl,  extra long handle, and perfect balance makes them great not only for saucing plates, basting, and forming quenelles but for serving as well. There is a smaller 1.33-tablespoon size for more delicate work. I know chefs who have adapted their recipes to measure wet ingredients in 1.33 and 2.5 tablespoon increments simply because of them. There’s even a long-running eGullet discussion about the Kunz spoons. Makes a great stocking stuffer.

Did I miss anything? Please add your suggestions if you’ve got the perfect gift for cooks.

‘Tis the Season: Gifts for the Cook

Stuck for the perfect gift for the cook in your life? Here are a few suggestions.

A Good Chef’s Knife

You don’t have to break the bank to provide your favorite cook with some serious hardware. While Wusthof, Henckels and Shun get all the shelf space down at the Towels-’n'-Such, there are are better bargains to be had, knives that are fully equal to or better than the big names but with more reasonable price tags. If you like the heavier German style of knife, the Messermeister Meridian Elité series has very comfortable handles and comes with one of the best factory edges I’ve seen. If you like the thinner, lighter western-style Japanese knives, the Mac Professional series is always my first recommendation for people getting into high performance knives. They feel great and can take industrial levels of abuse before losing their edges. Global knives have a “love ‘em or hate ‘em” handle style, but these are the knives that started the Japanese knife revolution, convincing professional chefs to abandon their heavy German knives in droves. These three knives redefine the modern chef’s knife.

Modern-Chefs-Knives-WEB

One of my favorite online vendors is ChefKnivesToGo.com. They are running specials on all three of these knives, including some good deals on starter sets that include an 8″ chef’s knife and a high-quality paring knife, all with free shipping.

Mac Professional 2 Piece Starter Kit

Messermeister Meridian Elité Starter Kit

Global 2 Piece Starter Kit

Instant Read Thermometer

Yes, these things are expensive, but once you use a ThermoPen instant read thermometer you’ll be spoiled for life. I have two, an older version and the new splash-proof model. I use them every time I cook. I know my chicken is juicy and perfectly roasted when I pull it from the oven at 165° and that my bread is going to come out exactly as I expect it to because it has hit the target 200° threshold. No guessing. No confusion. No archaic subjective tests for doneness. I know with absolute confidence that whatever I’m cooking is right where it should be, and I know it immediately. No interminable waiting with the oven door open for a dial thermometer to register.

Digital Scale

My favorite Soehlne Futura digital scale has been discontinued, so I couldn’t replace it when it took  dive off the kitchen counter. The Soehlne would weigh up to 11 pounds or 5 kilos with fraction of an ounce accuracy. If you bake, using a digital scale rather than measuring in cups and teaspoons is the difference between using your new high-tech laptop and writing in the mud with a stick. Luckily my wife gave me the MyWeigh KD-8000 for my birthday. This scale is amazing. It even allows you to measure using baker’s percentages, the method bakers use to weigh ingredients in proportion to the flour weight. That’s just freaking cool. This scale can handle up to 8 kilos or 17.5 pounds of ingredients with 0.1oz accuracy. It’s reasonably priced, too.

A World Class Cutting Board

You may not be able to get one in time for Christmas, but David Smith at The BoardSmith is making some of the finest cutting boards available today. When I was writing “An Edge in the Kitchen” I got to test drive just about every type and manufacturer of cutting board available. These are the cutting boards that I use, recommend, and give to friends and family.

Give David a call or drop him an email to see what he has in stock.

In the interest of full disclosure, my main cutting board, an 18″ x 24″ maple beauty, was provided by The BoardSmith as a demo unit for my classes and videos. I have purchased all the others. My board can be seen in my YouTube videos, most notably Dicing Onions: Classic & Cheat Techniques

Knife Sharpening

A subject near and dear to my heart. While I believe that everyone can learn to sharpen his or her own knives, I recognize that most cooks just aren’t going to. That’s fine. Be that way. See if I care. However, a sharp knife is a cook’s best friend, and too many of us suffer in silence, continuing to use a dull knife even as it gets harder and harder to cut cleanly and safely. Give the cook in your life the gift of a revitalized knife. Many places offer knife sharpening services, but I will say that if your cook has decent knives, give Dave Martell a try. Dave’s service, JapaneseKnifeSharpening.Com, is an offshoot of his brick and mortar business, D&R Sharpening Solutions, outside of Philadelphia. His mail order sharpening — for both Japanese and standard European style knives — is the secret weapon of an embarrassing number of high end chefs. He offers gift certificates, so you’ll have something to put in the stocking.

Pizza Stone

A heavy pizza stone in your oven can make a world of difference. I keep mine in at all times. The temperature in an average residential oven can swing as much as a hundred degrees as the elements cycle off and on. The thermal mass of the pizza stone helps keep the oven temperature much more stable, and it helps hearth breads and pizza crusts crisp up just like you want them to. I realize that a big hunk of tile is not the most glamorous gift you can give but the baker in your life will appreciate it.

The World’s Best Peppermill

Not like I’m biased or anything, but the Magnum peppermill is truly badass. This is the six inch model. For the truly pepper obsessed there is even a Magnum Plus nine-inch model. The Magnum holds a cubic boatload of peppercorns, has an infinitely variable grind screw on the bottom and delivers astonishing amounts of pepper with a single turn of the top. I’ve used mine for years and wouldn’t trade it for anything. Tom David, the creator, must be some sort of peppermill savant. His Unicorn brand peppermills, including the Magnum, have one of the best grind mechanisms I’ve ever seen. And check out the travel size MiniMill. I keep one in my knife kit. I’m one of those obnoxious people who, if you invite me to dinner, brings my knife roll just in case you need help in the kitchen. And I’m certainly not going to put up with the dessicated powdery substance that used to be pepper tucked away in your spice rack.

Heavy Duty Blender

If you want to spend some serious money, you can’t go wrong with a super powered blender. There are really only two worth mentioning, the BlendTec and the Vita-Mix. These things run between $400 and $500 dollars, so you’d best be sure your relationship is strong before whipping out your credit card, both to ensure that your sweetie is worth it and to make sure he or she won’t blow a gasket when the bill comes. There’s a great comparison between the major high-powered blenders in the article Big Time Blending from the Washington Post that covers their relative strengths and weaknesses. I ended up with the BlendTec for the very simple reason that it will fit under my overhead cabinets. The Vita-Mix is almost 21 inches tall and won’t fit under standard overhead kitchen cabinets, which are usually 18 inches from the countertop. That limits where you can put the blender when it’s not in use. The BlendTec is just under 16 inches tall and fits just fine next to the stove. Both the BlendTec and the Vita-Mix blenders have loyal followings, and both are excellent machines. I use my BlendTec not only for the usual smoothies, soups and sauces, but also to make peanut butter (where it’s a little less capable than the Vita-Mix), prepare foods for canning, purée root vegetables, and grate hard cheeses for pizza toppings. You could just about chip your Christmas tree in one of these things.

and finally . . .

A Good Book

Obviously, those of you who don’t already own An Edge in the Kitchen should purchase a copy immediately. In fact, buy several and give them to all your friends. Give them to strangers. I don’t care. Just buy them. Please? I’ve got a kid in college. While you are ordering, though, also pick up a copy of Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking. It’s a best seller for very good reason.

Ward_edge-WEB

Ratio isn’t a cookbook or recipe book, it’s a thoughtful breakdown of how ingredients relate to one another to create foundation recipes. A basic shorbread cookie is 3 parts flour, 2 parts fat or butter and 1 part sugar. Remember 3:2:1 and you’ve got not one cookie recipe but hundreds of cookie recipes. You can add just about anything you want, but if you stick to that ratio your cookies will come out great. Same thing with mayonnaise and other sauces, sausages, doughs and batters, and even desserts. If you’ve ever wondered how to get away from cooking with recipes and learn to improvise in the kitchen, this is the gateway. Now Michael even has a Ratio iPhone app. I don’t have an app. I’m not that cool.

If you’ve been floundering, looking for that perfect gift for the cook in your life, any one of these will deliver the holiday magic — guaranteed.

NOTE: Except where specifically mentioned, every piece of gear in this review has been extensively tested, used and abused in my kitchen. All of the vendors linked are reputable, reliable dealers from whom I’ve purchased kitchen gear and can personally recommend. I have no business relationship with any of them except as a satisfied customer.

Faster than a Speeding Chef’s Knife

Coleslaw for a crowd and gratin by the cubic yard are not a problem if you have a mandoline in your arsenal.

Top to bottom: the mighty Shun mandoline, a Borner V-slicer, a Kyocera paddle slicer and my battered Matfer mandoline

Top to bottom: the mighty Shun mandoline, a Borner V-slicer, a Kyocera paddle slicer and my battered Matfer mandoline

What you need to know

1) You don’t need one (but they’re damn handy)

A mandoline (French spelling to distinguish the culinary tool from the musical instrument) is part of every working chef’s toolbox. But do you need one in your home kitchen? Not really. If you have even modest knife skills and don’t do a lot of entertaining, you can do anything and everything you ever need to do in a kitchen with just a chef’s knife and paring knife. That gets tedious, however, if you need to turn out large quantities of fine julienne or produce a boatload of precisely sliced vegetables in a hurry. That’s where a mandoline comes in handy. You can produce pounds of matchstick carrots and heaps of uniform potatoes or apple slices in a fraction of the time it would take to do it by hand. Coleslaw for a crowd and gratin by the cubic yard are not a problem if you have a mandoline in your kitchen arsenal.

For example, not long ago our CSA box yielded more sweet potatoes than any family could reasonably eat. While a pot of oil heated on the stovetop I adjusted the blade on a heavy-duty mandoline, taking a couple of test swipes with a sweet potato to get the slice just slightly thicker than whisper thin – a feat not readily repeatable with a chef’s knife, no matter how much practice you’ve had. While the first double handful of sweet potato chips were crisping up in the oil I ran a couple of more sweet potatoes across the blade of the mandoline, slicing the next batch as each pot full cooked to golden brown. The net result was about four pounds of sweet potato chips in barely more than the time it took to heat the oil. I’ve got decent knife skills, but there is no way I could have done that as quickly or uniformly as I could with a mandoline. Whether you are frying potato chips or julienning vegetables for a side dish, consistently cut vegetables cook more evenly, ensuring that everything reaches doneness at the same time. And, yes, for the skeptics, mandolines cut more precisely and uniformly than even the most expensive food processor.

2) Three types fit all budgets

While they all are built on the same basic pattern, a fixed blade set into an adjustable ramp, mandolines come in three basic varieties. At the top of the pecking order are the all-metal, French or French-inspired traditional mandolines with interchangeable blades. These are expensive and sizeable enough to require dedicated storage space. On the upside, they are sturdy, tend to have well-designed hand guards, and the blades can be resharpened or replaced if they become dull. Expect to spend $150 to $200 (and in one special case, $300). Most come with a crinkle-cut blade that will allow you to make gaufrettes, waffle fries, something lacking in most of the cheaper plastic varieties.

Next up are the inexpensive plastic-bodied mandolines and V-slicers. Some don’t have the fold out legs of the metal French-style mandolines and instead hook over the lip of a bowl. Some don’t even have adjustable platforms. The center section of the ramp is reversible, one side producing thicker slices, the other thinner. On the plus side, these mandolines are lightweight and don’t require a lot of storage room. If you only occasionally need a mandoline, an inexpensive plastic model will do everything you need with relatively little outlay. Most are in the $30 to $40 range. Most can be run through the dishwasher for easy cleanup.

The third type is the relatively recent paddle-style mandolin. These are small, plastic-bodied slicers with a ceramic blade set into a short platform at the end of a handle. There are indentions to hook the far end on the lip of a bowl. The depth of cut is adjustable to multiple settings but there is no julienne blade. For whipping out sliced cucumbers for a salad or a single tart’s worth of apples, these sub-$20 slicers are hard to beat, and they’re small enough to keep in a kitchen drawer. The hand guards are rudimentary at best, though. They are completely dishwasher safe.

3) These things are dangerous

Just as working chefs invariably have a mandoline in their kits, they also have scars on their knuckles — and every one of them has a mandoline horror story. You are, in fact, sliding your hand toward a sharp blade. The best mandolines have a workable hand guard, one that holds the food in place while keeping your precious digits from ending up in the Cesar salad. Some even have the hand guard on rails so you can’t screw up. Treat your mandoline with the same respect you treat your chef’s knives, possibly even more. After all, you rarely swipe your hand directly into the blade of your chef’s knife. Which brings us to …

4) Use the hand guard

Use the hand guard. If the hand guard isn’t big enough to hold the product or doesn’t grip securely, invest in a cut-proof glove or use a folded side towel to grab the veggie in question before slicing and dicing. Some chefs freehand it, but see the previous note about scars. They all have them. Watch your fingers. Don’t try get every last slice out of the vegetable. Stop while you still have something to hold on to. Save the leftovers for the stockpot instead of trying to get the last chip from a potato or shred from a carrot. That’s a recipe for pain. If you must eke out the last bit of vegetable, take a tip from the pros. Don’t grip the veg with your fingers. Lay your palm flat on the food with your fingers arced upward to ensure that everything is well above the blade when you slide that last bit through.

5) You get what you pay for (mostly)

Having spent several years researching kitchen tools I have some firm opinions about what makes a good mandoline, and, more important,  who makes a good mandoline. While Bron and Matfer are the classic examples of the traditional French-style mandoline (and both are very good), the Mack Daddy of heavy-duty mandolines comes from Shun, the kitchen knife company out of Oregon. Shun’s mandolin is big, it’s heavy, it’s expensive . . . and it is freaking awesome. The Shun mandoline is everything a mandoline should be. The VG10 (modern supersteel) blade is head and shoulders above the crap steel used in most mandolines. The chassis is so much sturdier and safer than the traditional French mandoline that there is truly no comparison. The hand guard is on a rail so each stroke is precise and safe. The only downside is storage space. The Shun mandoline takes up a lot of room. If you have a small catering operation, a deli, or even a church kitchen, the Shun is hands-down the best mandoline on the market. It’s overkill for most home kitchens, though. Owners will struggle to figure out where to put this beast.

In the next tier down we find the inexpensive mandolines most used by home cooks.  Readers might be surprised to know that these are also the most used mandolines among professional cooks, who rely on the Benriner Japanese mandoline to knock out restaurant quantities of precision vegetables with remarkable speed. Benriner is also my recommendation for home cooks. At this price point it is hard to beat. The blades are razor sharp and the ramp is finely adjustable. Chefs love this thing for its ease of use and portability, which translates to easy storage for the home cook. Be aware that the instruction booklet reads like it was translated by a third grader. Luckily, the mandoline itself is reasonably self explanatory. Usually comes with three julienne widths but no waffle-cut blade.

If you only have the need, budget or storage space for a small paddle mandoline, Kyocera makes a perfect slicer for you. It is small, fits easily in a standard kitchen utility drawer and does yeoman duty when called upon. Just don’t expect to slice butternut squash with one and you’ll be happy.

Conclusions

There you have it.  If you need to deliver large quantities of vegetables – even if only occasionally—you need a mandoline. Doing the same thing with a chef’s knife is a pain. Pay attention to what you are doing. Keep your speed steady and reasonable. Use the hand guard, cut-proof glove or side towel to keep your fingers out of harm’s way. Be smart. Be safe.  Keep these tips in mind and you can turn out restaurant quantities of precision vegetables in record time.

A version of this article, titled The Chef’s Secret Weapon, appears on The Hungry Beast, the food section of The Daily Beast, Tina Brown’s online news & gossip site.

Apple Cinnamon Granola

Granola-2

When we began our cooking from scratch experiment I knew I was going to have to find a replacement for commercial breakfast cereal. My kids were only going to put up with so much toast & peanut butter or yogurt before demanding something they could put in a bowl and pour milk on. Puffing my own rice was not really an option, nor was making some kind of extruded Cheerio type thing. The equipment and baking techniques are too specialized. Granola was a remote option, but the commercial stuff I’d had wasn’t that great, and doing some basic research revealed a lot of earnest but bland recipes. Neither was going to inspire breakfast passion or make anyone eager to sit down to a heaping bowl. It was more the sort of thing you ate out of obligation to your colon. You could feel good about eating it, but you probably wouldn’t feel happy about eating it. Most recipes relied heavily on dried fruit. I wanted something with a brighter, fresher, more immediate flavor. I needed something kid-friendly, a little sweeter and less brutal on the dental work.

There was a glimmer of hope when I ran across Michael Ruhlman’s blog entry on the Banana Strawberry Granola he makes. Adding a puree of fresh fruit not only delivers a more immediate fruit flavor but also helps distribute the sugars and spices more evenly. By the way, definitely subscribe to Ruhlman’s blog. He’s a good writer. I hoped his technique would deliver the fruit flavor I was looking for. Strawberry might work in my house, but my wife is allergic to bananas, and I wanted something with a little more punch. Apples did the trick quite nicely. Cinnamon, honey and brown sugar are all natural apple companions. Sneak in some wheat bran and flax seed for added nutritional benefit and you’ve got a winner. It took a couple of iterations before getting the amounts nailed down, and they’re still a little loose. I generally eyeball amounts when I’m at the bulk bins at Whole Foods. Lately my regular grocery store has started carrying most of the ingredients in the baking aisle. They are packaged in plastic tubs, so I can’t just scoop out what I need, but I don’t mind having a little leftover, especially if I can avoid the self-rightous bastards who seem to patrol Whole Foods just waiting the chance to tell you about how Big Food is ruining the universe or how going vegetarian changed their lives. Jesus, people, just because I buy organic rolled oats doesn’t mean I share your world view or even want to hear it. This is a grocery store, not group therapy.

Ahem, back to the recipe.

You want crisp apples. Mushy Red or Golden Delicious just don’t have the flavor this requires. Remember, you are spreading all that apple goodness over a large quantity of absorptive material. Some of it gets lost. Lately I’ve been enthralled with the Mutsu apples that were recommended by a grower at the local farmer’s market. They are wonderful, bright and crisp. Fujis, Johnagolds, Cameos, etc. will all work, too. I usually toss in a Granny Smith for added tartness.

  • 6-8 apples, cored and cut into chunks that won’t choke your food processor or blender
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 1 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup water (optional)
  • 2.5 to 3 pounds rolled oats
  • .5 to .75 pounds (about two cups) wheat bran
  • .5 pounds flax seed (about a cup to a cup and a half)
  • .5 to 1 pound sliced almonds (depending on how much you like almonds)
  • .5 to 1 pound unsalted sesame seeds (ditto)
  • 1 pound dried cranberries (these are added after everything cools)

Quarter and core the apples, cutting them into cubes or chunks that won’t cause your food processor to seize up. I use a Blendtec blender, but if you have a VitaMix or even a reasonably powerful food processor you’ll be fine. Puree the apples, adding the 1/4 cup of water if necessary. Sometimes you need a little liquid to help slip the apple chunks down into the blades rather than remaining packed in the upper portion of the bowl. Add the brown sugar, honey, cinnamon, salt and canola oil to the puree and pulse to combine.

Mix the dry ingredients (except for the cranberries) in a very large bowl or container. I mix in a 25lb tub that I also use for sausage making. It’s just a 21″ x 16″ x 7″ Rubbermaid container. Pour the puree over the dry mix and stir (or just use your hands) to make sure that all of the dry ingredients are evenly moistened and coated. This volume of granola requires three half-sheet pans or jelly roll pans. You can squeeze it onto two but you have to turn the mix more often. Bake at 275° for two and half hours or so. Yes, this recipe takes a long time. We need to evaporate a good bit of liquid without burning the granola. Burned, or even overly browned, granola has an acrid, unpleasant bitterness. Turn the granola with a spatula every half hour or so to break up clumps and move the granola at the edges of the sheet pans in toward the middle so that everything browns evenly. You are looking for medium golden brown. The granola will continue to dry out as it cools, so you don’t need to bake it to rock hardness.

Allow the granola to cool to room temperature and mix in the dried cranberries. Stored in an airtight container it will keep for several weeks.

Through the Seasons with Cap’n Danger, Stunt Monkey

Capn Danger

It was early fall last year when I first started thinking about this project and whether a suburban family really could make everything it eats from scratch. For us now, fall is the time to make sausages. To brew beer. To put up the last summer vegetables and horde the strawberry jam from early summer while getting ready to make apple jelly from the first small apples of the season. Time to start thinking about a winter garden. But even before starting all of this we knew it was truly fall when we saw the first hints of bright blue and white parachute emerge from the leaves as Cap’n Danger, Stunt Monkey, made his annual reappearance.

The Cap’n is like our own Old Farmer’s Almanac. Just as some old timers claim to be able gauge the severity of winter by the band of lighter color on a wooly bear caterpillar, we can track the seasons with a parachuting primate who laughs in the face of fear. No, really, it says that right on the package, “parachuting primate who laughs in the face of fear.” Cap’n Danger is a maniacally grinning 4-inch plastic ape with a big blue and white parachute. He’s strapped into the parachute with a heavy rubber harness. Unfortunately, for him at least, that harness is securely lodged about 25 feet off the ground on a long limb of an oak tree in our front yard. He has been hanging there for nearly three years. Hurricane winds, snow storms – nothing has been able to rid him of that crazy smile or get him out of the tree.

Mcphee

Jack and I got Cap’n Danger from Archie McPhee, purveyors of fine crap. If you need a rubber chicken, gorilla costume, gloriously tacky smoking baby figurine, Carl Jung action figure, or an electronic yodeling pickle, Archie McPhee is the place to get it. I had introduced Jack to their website and he took to studying it intently. One day, not long after we had moved to North Carolina he called me into the TV room, where we keep the kids’ computer. “Can we get it?” he asked, sounding just like a kid picking out a puppy. He was pointing at Cap’n Danger on the monitor. Looked like fun, so we did a little damage to the credit card, also picking up Señor Misterioso, a suave international mystery man in a glowing suit (“In some circles, the elimination of Señor Misterioso and his atomic suit is of the utmost priority; to others, he is a sought-after dinner speaker”) to complete my wife’s office. Cap’n Danger, Stunt Monkey, lived up to his billing. Unlike too many cheap toys, the parachute is sturdy and popped open exactly the way it should. Jack had a great time throwing him as high as he could, watching the parachute  snap open and carry Cap’n Danger down the hill into our front yard. The first time he got stuck in a tree Jack and I were able to rescue him by throwing a tennis ball at him until we knocked him loose. The second time we succeeded only in wrapping the harness more tightly around the branch, leaving Cap’n Danger in his bright blue jumpsuit dangling like one of those WWII paratroopers they would find years later, hanging in the South Pacific jungle.

It took a while to realize that despite the loss of a great parachuting monkey we had gained a unique weather vane and harbinger of the seasons. In the winter his parachute is visible from the top of the hill above the house. You can see him hanging there as you drive down the street toward our driveway. Sometimes, if the wind is just right, you can make out the bright yellow lightning bolt on the front of the parachute. As spring approaches and the leaves start to bud, Cap’n Danger begins to disappear. When he is fully engulfed by leaves I know we have passed the last frost of the season and I can put out my containers of peppers to get a head start on the growing season. He stays hidden during the bounty of summer, but this afternoon, even before the autumnal equinox and the official beginning of fall, I caught a flash of blue out of the corner of my eye when I went to the mailbox, and I realized that tomato season will be over soon. Time to start thinking about root vegetable recipes, stews and soups, the stuff of winter.

KitchenAid Just Doesn’t Give a Damn

If you own a pre-2006 KitchenAid Professional 600, be aware that it will probably come to a grinding, screeching halt if you make a lot of bread. When it crashes you will be assaulted by one of the most painful and soul-crushing sounds you are likely to hear in a kitchen. Your beautiful mixer is dead. What is worse, KitchenAid just doesn’t give a damn.

My Professional 600 was a gift from my wife, who thought she was buying her bread-crazy husband the biggest, baddest mixer on the block. It is certainly marketed that way.

The overachiever of the stand mixer family, it has a Flour Power rating of 14 cups. That means it can mix enough dough for 8 loaves of bread or 13 dozen cookies in a single bowl … Powerfully churns through yeast bread dough and triple batches of cookie dough.

So why did my 8-cup soft sandwich bread recipe kill it? As it turns out, the Professional 600 mixers made before August of 2006 have a plastic gear housing that is completely inadequate for the size of the motor. Put a strain on the mixing head — bread dough, for instance — and the housing flexes, throwing the whole gear train out of alignment. When that happens the gears strip, locking up the whole assembly and causing an ear splitting shriek that will be etched in your memory forever. It is a horrible sound. Kitchenaid redesigned the gear housing in 2006, replacing it with a metal housing capable of taking the load put out by the motor. They repaired the Professional 600s that died under warranty but didn’t put out a service bulletin or recall notice for the others. We were left on our own. You see, the mixer doesn’t self destruct the first time you use it, the problem is cumulative. The flex gets worse with time until one day the gearbox flexes just far enough to cause a train wreck. It happened often enough that the KitchenAid engineers built a new gearbox. They just didn’t tell the rest of us. It took an engineer with a dead mixer to find out why the gears stripped the way they did.

My mixer is out of warranty so I wanted to see what my options were. I did a little research and found dozens of other Professional 600 owners who experienced exactly the same symptoms and mixer death. One of them was an engineer who took his mixer apart. It was he who discovered why the gears stripped the way they did. There was a detailed analysis with photos on his website, but it is no longer available.  Given that this was a known design flaw — one that KitchenAid admitted when redesigning the gearbox — I asked them to cover the repair of my mixer. They refused, charging me $150 to replace the gears and gearbox housing. Their condescending customer service representative claimed A) that mixing 8 cups of flour for seven minutes, rather than the recommended five, was responsible for the lockup that killed the mixer, and B) that while the gearbox did indeed crack, the gears stripped first, so the gearbox couldn’t have been the problem. I pointed out that the gearbox flexes, causing the gears to strip before the housing cracks but she didn’t want to hear it. The problem was obviously my fault, and her tone suggested that I was probably lying about only mixing 8 cups of flour. It was an infuriating conversation. In short, Kitchenaid markets the Professional 600 as a heavy duty mixer designed to knead bread dough knowing that 90% of their customers are going to be making cakes, cookies and meringues, which put no strain on the motor. It’s the 10% of us who do bake bread (or use the meat grinder) on a regular basis who are screwed because KitchenAid won’t stand behind its products.

The Dirty Truth About Cutting Boards

I have a new article up at The Daily Beast, The Dirty Truth About Cutting Boards. They went with a more lurid lead than I would have, but the article itself is a solid primer on cutting board safety and selection. Who knew food safety could be fun?

A recent report found that 80 percent of all grocery-store chickens in the U.S. are contaminated with Salmonella, Campylobacter or both. You don’t want that in your salad or on your strawberry shortcake. Cutting a head of lettuce after butterflying a couple of chicken breasts is just playing Russian roulette with your gastrointestinal tract. You might as well lick the raw chicken. It will catch up to you sooner or later.

It looks like the articles for The Daily Beast will be a regular gig. I’ve got some great topics lined up. I’ll keep you posted.

Low Budget Knife Skills Videos

Two videos on basic knife skills. Felini they ain’t, but The Pinch & The Claw are your keys to making precision knife cuts with speed, safety and style. The Onion Cheat is a quick and easy way to dice an onion.