Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year in the Tiny Kitchen

With the new year upon us, I wanted to update any of my readers that are still paying attention. Moving from a three bedroom house to a three bedroom apartment has been a challenge. Going back to college has put a damper on my blog output, as well, in case you didn't notice. Did you notice?  No? (whimper …)

 Self-pity aside, moving to a campus apartment has been an interesting challenge. We lost more than half our square footage, overall. I'd bet my kitchen lost half it's square footage and at least two-thirds of it's counter space. See that picture, up there on the right? That's extent of my built-in counter space, these days. The nice part is we still have quite a bit of cabinet space and room to put up a shelving unit on the wall, opposite the oven; that acts like our pantry.

A small kitchen doesn't mean we have to stop cooking good food. We've come up with a few solutions to increase our counter space and had to rethink the way we buy and store food, but it's working out pretty well so far. We brought an old aquarium stand with us that we turned into a table for the microwave, and we've stacked some of our flour, cereal, and sugar storage buckets in one corner. When not open, they provide temporary landings for bowls and such when I'm cooking, so that helps a bit.

For more counter space, we got a few sink cut-outs. These are the left over material when kitchen counter manufacturers cut a space out for of a new counter top to make room for the sink. You can often get them for pretty cheap from a cabinet shop or, if you're lucky, from a friend or family member who happens to be a finish carpenter. You could just buy some finished wood from a lumber yard or home improvement store, if you needed to, although I suspect it would be more expensive.

One sink cut-out sits on top of the microwave, turning that into counter space. We also have a larger one that we sometimes put on top the stove, to hold the dish strainer when we wash dishes and provide more space if needed. I just have to make sure I don't have the stove turned on at the same time.

 Speaking dishes, we have to do them completely by hand; we don't have a dishwasher anymore. Because of the limited counter space, it gets to be quite a mess if we don't keep up on them.

 Even though we've left a lot behind, I think things are going pretty well. We are all doing well in our respective schools and things are, mostly, settling in. One thing about going back to this school that appeals to my foodie nature is that it's an agricultural college. That means lots of college level food classes. Even though it's not part of my degree, the cheese making class has caught my attention.

I'll get back to my new years celebrations, now. You should, too. I made four different kinds of dip, including garlic-hummus and some bread sticks. I'll try to share the recipes later.

 Happy New Year and too all, good eating.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Kitchen Gadgets that Actually Work: Part 2

This is part two of a two part article about useful kitchen gadgets. Not the ones that promise to do everything for you, and then just take up space as well as wasting your money. These are “must haves” that actually do make life easier in the kitchen.

Kitchen Shears
Holy trimming tools, Batman! These are very useful. Many of things you used to have a hard time using a knife with, are easier with a good pair of kitchen shears. Trimming pie dough, snipping herbs, cutting kitchen twine, opening food packages, and even trimming and cutting up a chicken or two, while not impossible with a knife, are a lot easier with a pair of kitchen scissors. A good set of kitchen shears should come apart for easy cleaning and have non-slip grips.

Measuring Cups and Spoons
Pretty much a given, right? Back in my Mom’s day, they weren’t. She rarely uses the ones she’s got. While that’s impressive, considering what a good cook she is, inaccurate measurements are one of the most common causes of recipe failure. I find this is especially true in baking, where the ratios of flour to water, to yeast, and other ingredients can make or break you.

As for measuring spoons, I prefer a relatively deep bowl, making liquid measurement easier. The top of the bowl should be flush with the handle, making it easier to level dry ingredients. I also like slim, oval bowls, although most of mine are circular. Slim bowls make it easier to scoop things out of narrow spice jars. I like to have a spoons that measure 1 Tablespoon, 1 teaspoon, 1/2 teaspoon, and 1/4 teaspoon. Sometimes it’s nice to have a 1/2 Tablespoon and a 1/8 teaspoon measure, as well.

To measure dry ingredients, I like straight sided cups with flat bottoms. They sit on a counter better. As with measuring spoons, I want the top of the bowl to be flush with the handle so I can easily level ingredients. This is a big deal when baking. I like dry measuring cups in 1 cup, 1/2 cup, 1/3 cup, and 1/4 cup sizes. I’ve seen other, intermediate sizes, but I don’t see a need for them.

For liquid ingredients, I love my old Pyrex 2 cup measure. I don’t like the way the new ones are marked, though. They seem harder to read. I also have a 2 cup cylindrical one. I’d like to get a 4 cup one, similar to my Pyrex, but I’ve not broken down and purchased one, yet.

Microplane
I never thought I’d need one until I got one for myself. Oh how quickly wants become needs. Microplanes are small hand-held graters that can double as zesters. They can finely grate hard cheese in a hearbeat. They can also easily handle garlic, ginger, nutmeg, chocolate and citrus zest.

Oven Thermometer
I confess. I don’t have one of these, yet. I want one, though. I’ve did pretty well with my old electric oven, but this new gas one has got me stymied. I’m not used to it’s idiosyncrasies and, frankly, I think it’s got a hot spot or two. Researching the net, I’ve learned that home ovens can vary as much as 90 degrees between ovens. Ouch. I want an oven thermometer that’s easy to read, accurate, and won’t get knocked loose shifting pans around on the oven rack.

Pepper Mill or Spice Grinder
Pepper mills are probably better than spice grinders, for that truly fresh ground pepper taste. But so far my spice grinder has done well for me. The pre-ground stuff sold in the supermarkets has a lot less pungency than freshly ground. In some cases, the flavor profile can change over time, as well. A good mill is going to be able to handle a lot of whole spice in it’s canister, and be easy to fill. It should give a good yield and consistent grind, without wearing out your hands and wrists in the process.

Tongs
Once again, I didn’t realize how much I would use these until I had them. They can lift, turn, rotate, and flip almost any food that has some bulk to it. Bratwurst, chicken breasts, and even spaghetti can be more easily managed with these things. A good set will open wide enough to pick up large things, like a pot roast, but with tong ends that make it easy to pick up smaller items, as well. Most have simple locks that keep it closed for easy storage.

Vegetable Peeler
For years people have using paring knives to peel potatoes or carrots, but a dedicated vegetable peeler can do so much more. Summer squash, cucumbers, apples and pears can be quickly peeled with one of these. Get a vegetable peeler with a swiveling blade, rather than a fixed one, and a comfortable grip. Serrated versions are available for more delicate foods like tomatoes and peaches, although I do not own one.

Whisk
Put down the fork. For mixing eggs, batters and gravies a whisk will do a much better job. A good cook can use them to quickly whip cream and stiffen eggs whites, although I use electric beaters for those. You really only need one whisk, fairly long, with a tight radius that can reach into the smaller areas of a saucepan or bowl. Again, make sure there is a comfortable grip that affords a lot of control and extended use.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Kitchen Gadgets that Actually Work - Part 1

Walk down the aisles of your favorite kitchen or department store and you’re liable to find more kitchen gadgets that you can shake a stick at. Each one promises to be the device that will change your life, offering convenience and success in cooking. Unfortunately, most of them deliver disappointing results, taking up cabinet and drawer space that could be better used. There are, however, several gadgets I consider “must haves” in the kitchen. They really do make cooking easier. In other words, they actually work.

Box Grater
A sharp box grater is going to get a lot of use. From grating blocks of cheese to shredding vegetables, a box grater is far easier to use than a flat one. Get one that is razor-sharp, solidly constructed, and has a comfortable handle.

I will often use a box grater to grate carrots for salads, instead of the typical julienne cut. It’s faster and gives me more consistent results.

Colander
Fishing pasta or vegetables out of boiling water with a spoon is tedious work. Only a colander will do the trick, easily. Make sure you buy a large one with small perforations. A wide base is a bonus. That way, it can sit in the sink without tipping over.

Fine Mesh Strainer
Acting as a second cousin to the colander, a mesh strainer can help with all kinds of tasks. I have two of them, a large one for pressing cooked berries and other things through, to remove seeds or other unwanted bits when making sauces, and a smaller one for dusting powdered sugar over desserts. Make sure yours has a deep bowl and sturdy handle to avoid it bending and breaking over time.

I also use my small strainer to strain the solid bits from bacon grease. I refrigerate the rendered bacon grease and use it from time to time as a flavorful fat for cooking other dishes.

Garlic Press
I have a love-hate relationship with garlic presses. Crushing and mincing garlic with a chef’s knife is simple enough, but the pieces are rarely uniform and it can be hard on the hands. The way you handle garlic changes it’s flavor in dishes and a garlic press will give you a fuller, more evenly distributed, and less acrid, flavor. They can be difficult to clean, though. Get a sturdy one with a bowl large enough to handle two cloves at once. Make sure it has a simple to use cleaning attachment, as well.

Heatproof Rubber Spatula
I love these so much, I have three of them. You want a wide, fairly firm blade to make mixing and folding easy, but flexible enough to get into tight spaces when scraping a jar.

I’m constantly amazed how many people don’t use these to scrape out the last bit of peanut butter, mayonnaise, jam, and other bits in condiment jars. Just because the butter knife isn’t working so well doesn’t mean there’s not enough peanut butter to make a sandwich or two left in the jar.

Instant-Read Thermometer
More and more I’m using the temperature of foods to determine whether they are done cooking or not, instead of just a timer. Under-cooking chicken, or overcooking it and drying it out, has become a thing of  the past since I started using a thermometer. They’ll essential for good candy making. I like quick acting digital thermometers with thin probes, large displays, and wide temperature ranges. Unfortunately, the really good ones are also expensive. Don’t be shy about spending money on one of these, though. As always, buy the best one you can afford.

Kitchen Shears
Almost every application where a knife isn’t always easy to use is made easy with a good pair of kitchen sheers. Cutting and trimming chickens, pie dough, and parchment paper is much easier, let alone cutting open frozen food bags or snipping twine from roasts. Make sure yours are sharp with comfortable, slip-resistant handles. Being able to take them apart for complete and easy cleaning is important.

Measuring Cups and Spoons
How else are you going to accurately measure ingredients? Getting the wrong amount of a given ingredient in a baking is fatal to the food. I prefer dry measuring cups with straight sides, flat bottoms, and tops that are level with the handle. That way I can accurately scrape off excess flour when baking breads. I have 1 cup, 1/2 cup, 1/3 cup, and 1/4 cup measures. Some brands even have 3/4 cup and 2/3 cup measures, as well.

As for liquid measuring cups, I love my older model 2 cup glass Pyrex. Their new ones aren’t as nice and, frankly, are hard to read. 2 cup and 4 cup sizes, with good handles and a pour spout, are my favorite, although the ones that look like drinking cups are pretty good, too.

For spoons, again I like bowls that are flush with the handles. Deep bowls make measuring liquids easier. Slim, oval-shaped bowl designs are easier to get into small-mouthed spice jars than circular designs.

Next time, I’ll feature eight more kitchen tools and gadgets that really do work.

Photo credit: Marcelo Dias