Sunday, May 31, 2009

Essential Small Kitchen Appliances

If a “do it by hand” tool isn't going to cut it for your latest kitchen creations, adding a power motor can sometimes help.

Hey, I'm a guy. I like to cook, but I have more fun if I can cook with an engine. (More power!)

Equipping your kitchen with all the latest small appliances can be pretty expensive, though, not to mention how much space they can take up. When buying a new kitchen appliance, think about what you cook, how often you cook it, and how much you really need to make, before dipping into your wallet. Having said that, there are few small kitchen appliances I think are pretty essential for most home cooks.

Handheld Mixer

Working much faster than a hand whisk, I use mine for all kinds of things. Have you ever tried beating egg whites or whipping cream to a peak by hand? I've seen people do it, but I think they must be mutants. I've never been able to pull it off without my hand mixer. I like that mine has a couple of dough hook attachments, as well. That way I use it to get bread and cookie doughs going without killing myself, or the motor.

Choose one that has at least three speeds and easily detachable beaters. It makes clean up much easier. And hey, who doesn't like licking the frosting off the beaters?

Standing Blender

A good blender can be used for all kinds of things, from creaming soups or pureeing vegetables for a quick vegetable smoothie. While some appliances have started to make it seem obsolete, I still love mine for crushing ice and making special drinks. Make sure to get one with low-set blades or it won't handle small quantities very well.

Food Processor

Food processors can sometimes eliminate the need for a free-standing blender, although I still like my blender for drinks. The metal blades chop and mix, but other attachments are available for slicing, shredding, and grating. Some come with different sized bowls to handle different quantities. As always, buy the best one you can afford. Expensive doesn't always mean it the best, but cheap usually means you'll be replacing it sooner than expected.

Handheld Blender

I am in love with my handheld blender. It doesn't handle large quantities as well as a standing blending, but it's perfect for pureeing soups and sauces while still in the pot. Without it I'd have to take the time to let the soup cool, transfer portions of it to the standing blender, and risk burning myself or making a mess in the kitchen as the hot liquid spews out the top of the blender an onto the ceiling. Clean up is easy and it saves on storage space as well. It's also a must when making foams.

Yes, at some point I will be blogging about my experiments in foams, or what one chef likes to call, “flavored air.”

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Better than KFC Buttermilk Biscuits

Next to their chicken, and perhaps their cole slaw, KFC's buttermilk biscuits are popular fair at my house. We always seem to fight over who can grab the last one. But I'm not content to buy biscuits when I can make them at home, especially if I can put my own tasty twist on it.

Last post I mentioned trying out a Todd Wilber's version of “KFC Buttermilk Biscuits” from his cookbook, “Top Secret Restaurant Recipes: Creating Kitchen Clones from America's Favorite Restaurant Chains” Making my own biscuit mix, I gave it a whirl.

How did they turn out? I think mine are better than the Colonel's. The addition of the whole wheat flour to my biscuit mix adds a nice nutty flavor. These are best eaten warm the day they're made, though. They still taste pretty good a day or two later, but they're certainly best just a few minutes out of the oven.

Equipment Needed
mixing bowls
pastry blender
biscuit cutter or glass
baking sheet
clean hands

5 cups biscuit mix
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
1 egg
3/4 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup club soda
flour for dusting
butter or cooking spray to grease the baking sheet


Preheat your oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a small mixing bowl, beat the egg and buttermilk together with the salt.

Place the biscuit mix in a large mixing bowl. Add the butter in small chunks and mix with a pastry cutter or by hand until it resembles pea sized crumbs. Do not over mix.

Make a well in the center and pour in the buttermilk mixture and the club soda. Mix with your hands until it just comes together, forming a soft sticky dough. Again, do not over mix.

Lay out some waxed paper on the counter top and dust it with flour. Flour your hands and press out the dough to a 3/4 inch thickness. Punch out biscuits with a biscuit cutter* or the top of a glass. If the dough gets difficult to work with, chill it in the refrigerator for a few minutes and that will help bring it all back together.

Place the biscuits on a large baking sheet that's been greased with additional butter or cooking spray. Place in the center rack of the oven and cook for about 12 to 15 minutes, or until they start to turn golden.

Remove the biscuits from the cookie sheet and allow to cool on wire racks.

Makes about 12 - 18 biscuits.

I'm going to experiment with different ways to add the butter to see if I can't get these biscuits to be even flakier.

*I made my own biscuit cutter by cutting the top and bottom off a can of water chestnuts. It works great. Reduce, reuse, recycle!

Monday, May 25, 2009

How to Make Your Own Biscuit / Pancake Mix

My mornings are busy to the point of not being able to make myself a decent breakfast before I have to trudge off to my day job, let alone eat it before I hit the road. Even cold cereal takes too long. I've started eating at McDonald's a few times a week just get something warm in the mornings, but I can only take their overly salted, rubbery, and preservative laden sausage and egg biscuits for so long. I decided to start cooking my own in advance, so I could microwave them before leaving, saving me money and heartburn.

In order to expedite the weekend biscuit cook-athons, I decide to follow a recipe from Todd Wilber's version of “KFC Buttermilk Biscuits” from his cookbook, “Top Secret Restaurant Recipes: Creating Kitchen Clones from America's Favorite Restaurant Chains” His recipe starts with a box of Bisquick. I didn't want to pay a ton of money for that, so I decided to make my own biscuit mix. I wanted a deeper flavor than the recipes I had had hand for such things, so I kicked things up by replacing some of the all-purpose white flour with whole wheat flour.

Making your own biscuit mix provides a fresh tasting shortcut when making biscuits, pancakes, waffles and muffins. No, it's not health food, but at least it doesn't have all the chemical preservatives you find in the store bought varieties.


6 cups all-purpose white flour
4 cups whole wheat flour
1/3 cup baking powder
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups vegetable shortening


Mix the flours, baking powder, sugar, and salt in a very large mixing bowl. Cut in the shortening until the mixtures resembles course crumbs. You can start with a pastry knife, if you've got one, but the best tools I find for the job are a pair of clean, dry, hands.

I chose vegetable shortening because most don't require any refrigeration. This way you can store it in an airtight container for up to 6 weeks at room temperature, or up to 6 months in the freezer.

Easy Pancakes: To whip up a quick pancake batter with this stuff, measure out one cup of the mix into a large bowl. Whip together 1 egg with 3/4 cup of milk. Add the milk mixture to the biscuit mix all at once and stir until blended. Pour about 1 /4 cup of batter onto a hot, lightly greased griddle and cook until golden brown, turning over when the pancake has a bubbly surface and the edges have gone slightly dry. Makes 4 -6 pancakes.

The “KFC Buttermilk Biscuits” I made with this mix turned out even better than the Colonels' original, but you'll have to wait until next time for that recipe.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Sostanza – Fine Dining Comes to Tooele

I know what you're thinking. "What food can be found in a small mining town in the western desert of Utah, outside of a couple of dives and fast food chains? Has John lost his mind?"

Maybe I have. It was certainly playing tricks on me during the meal. But oh, what a delicious insanity it was.

This last Friday, the Sostanza Restaurant opened its doors on Main Street in Tooele. Touted as “fine American Dining,” or “American Fusion,” I now have a new favorite restaurant. And it's only five minutes away from my house.

My wife and I were looking forward to this place since we started reading about it in the local newspaper, the Tooele Transcript Bulletin. I was a little leery, though. I mean, come on. This is Tooele! What are these two partners thinking? They were taking over a spot vacated by a long standing, but failed, Mexican restaurant. It goes against conventional business wisdom to do such a thing.

Then again, the head chef, Steve Berzanski, has impressive credentials. On the other hand, I've seen a couple of good restaurants with chef's of nearly equally impressive credentials open in this town and then close their doors all too soon, because they couldn't drum up enough business to stay afloat. Would this place be next?

MLW and I were planning on checking Sostanza out over opening weekend, but family events conspired against us. Knowing the following weekend would be busy, too, MLW and I went during the week.

Driving by the doors on the main street side, I wondered if it was even open. It looked dark and my inner pessimist started coming out of it's hiding place. Were they even open? Knowing we'd have to park in the back (there's no street side parking in downtown Tooele), we headed around to the dusty reverse of this section of Main.

“Okay,” I thought. “This doesn't look awful.” There was a nice enough entrance on this side and a lot of cars in the parking lot, too. Hmmm. That's a good sign.

The evening sun was to our backs as we walked through the parking lot and up to the front doors. From here, it didn't look like much, but I hoped that the outside was deceiving. Two sets of gray metal chairs and tables for outdoor dining blended into the surrounding concrete so much that I mistook them for debris left from cleaning out some other storage space.

Opening the doors was like moving into another world. The bright sun gave way to a comfortable, subdued interior. I could see rich olive tinted walls with dark paneling down the hall. Soft yellow lights blended with dark wood tables, beckoned to us. Beautiful prints, some abstract, some realistic, and the occasional mirror adorned the place. No element drawing attention to itself, nor allowing itself to be overtaken by another. It was in perfect balance.

I started to relax.

The hostess greeted us a little stiffly, politely probing to find out if we had reservations. We hadn't made any. I didn't think we'd need too. This was mid-week in Tooele, for goodness sake. It turned out I was right, but she did advise us to make reservations if we decided to come in on a weekend. Her unspoken, but mild chastisement had me wondering what the rest of the evening would be like. We were quickly seated.

(Note: I came to realize, later, that they had planned on reservations only for the first 30 days. No wonder the hostess was confused by us!)

The menu was smart and simple with just enough dishes to make you think, but not so many as to overwhelm either customer or kitchen. In my book, this a sign of a savvy restaurateur, not some crazy people opening a restaurant on a lark. The prices were certainly not the cheapest, but they were completely in line with other nice restaurants I'd been to in Salt Lake City and other places. In other words, quite reasonable for a fine dining establishment. On my middle-class salary I couldn't afford to go here every week, but I wouldn't break my wallet with an occasional visit, either.

All of the dishes intrigued me. Some were classics with small variations, while others looked quite original. I was looking to discover the signature flavors here, though, so I decided I would ask the waiter what he recommended.

That can be a nasty trick I know, and I pull it quite often. The wait staff should know these dishes, though. I don't expect them to know everything, mind you. But they need to have some ideas of what this food tastes like. I've yet to be disappointed doing it.

I wish I could remember our water's name. He had a bright disposition that immediately showed his excitement about the menu and was nicely attentive, but not overly so. I easily warmed up to him and started feeling even more comrotable as he took our drink and appetizer orders.

Appetizer Adventures

The nice part about checking out new restaurants with my wife is that we can each order different things, and then share them. That way we get to try twice as many dishes one outing. Other patrons may look at us funny as we feed each other samples of our meal, but what do I care?

Don't bother me, kid. I'm eating.

I decided to order an interesting sounding edamame dish with carrots and flash-fried beets served with a thick, Asian inspired dipping sauce. MLW asked what edamame was and, to be honest, the waiter couldn't tell me. (They'll need to work on that a bit, as they get going.) To his credit, he didn't try and fake it; he just described what he thought it was. Vegetables topped with a large number of peas still in their pods. I'd never had edamame before and the regions of my brain that hold obscure knowledge like “what edamame is” were ignoring me.

The dish was presented in what looked like a small cocktail glass, but these didn't look like any peas I was familiar with. I tried eating them, pod and all. Not a smart idea. “This is kind of leathery and not very good,” I thought. MLW agreed. She'd never had edamame before, either. She could barely pronounce it. “What is this again? Eed-a-maim?”

Something in the back of my grey matter started stirring and I began to wonder if I hadn't gotten it all wrong. “I wonder if I'm just supposed to eat the peas inside.” They certainly didn't taste like peas. They were nice, but was this really how you're supposed to eat this stuff?

One of the owners, Terri Ellsworth, came by to check on us and, after I complained that they were a little tough she asked, “Have you ever had edamame before?,” a little concerned. I assured her I hadn't and she got slightly worried. “Oh, no. I'm sorry. We'll have to work on explaining this better. This is a traditional Japanese dish. You're not supposed to eat the outside, just suck out the beans.”

After mildly embarrassing me, my brain finally gave up it's food trivia to my consciousness. Edamame is soy beans, you idiot. I'd have to have a talk with my long term memory, later on. I'm not happy when it plays practical jokes on me.

I started wondering about the dipping sauce, too. I kept wanting to pour it on top, but that didn't make sense if I was just going to discard the pod. It would just make them messy. Then inspiration struck. I dipped the pod into the sauce and sucked out the beans, taking the sauce along with them like a kid sucking ketchup off a French fry.

Ooooh. This was interesting. The mildly spicy sauce perfectly set off the subtle flavor of the toasted beans. Knowing I had unlocked the secret of this dish, I dug in.

Or rather, I sucked out.

I started adding some of the flash-fried shredded beets and immediately realized why the chef had included them. They added a slightly nutty, earthy perfume and light crunch, contrasting the soft texture of the soybeans. Nice.

Still, I wondered if this appetizer was just a bit too hard to eat for the average Joe, at least not without some explaining. The owner was right. They'd have to work on it a bit for this one.

Oddly enough, I hit a point of food satisfaction about 3/4 of the way through. I had just had enough. Not too many, mind you. I very much looking forward to the entree, which is what an appetizer is supposed to do. I was just ... content. Maybe it was because I'd shared my wife's appetizer.

MLW had ordered the house chips. They were four kinds of potatoes – sweet, yukon gold, russets (I think), and purple Peruvians – thinly sliced and crispy, with just a touch of salt. The seasoning was light and I welcomed eating a potato chip where I could actually taste the potato. They came with what I think was rice vinegar on the side.

I tried a few of the chips by themselves, but when I dipped one in the vinegar I had another food revelation. This was an ingenious re-visioning of the classic salt and vinegar chips, elevated from classic pub food to the world of fine dining. I was impressed. I highly recommend them.

Exciting Entrees

Next came the entrees. The portions were larger than I expected, but it occurred to me that may be a nod to the local patrons expectations of restaurant food. We're talking about a community that could easily be suckered in by quantity over quality, and may be disappointed if they don't take home a doggy bag.

My wife ordered pork medallions wrapped in bacon. They were served on a bed of garlic mashed potatoes and a mildly spiced gravy. By itself the gravy was okay. I couldn't identify the spices, which troubled my brain a bit. I thought my taste buds were better than that. The pork was cooked nicely, but it was a little chewy. By themselves they were good, but like the appetizers, mixed with the gravy and a bit of the mashed potatoes the flavors were transformed into something rich and meaty, taking the whole dish to a completely new level.

On our waiter's recommendation I had the pan-seared half chicken with a red wine reduction, and herb butter. This was served on a similar bed of garlic mashed potatoes and what I think were julienned parsnips. I'm a little unclear of some of my root vegetables.

The chicken had been brined before hand and was perfectly seasoned. The richness of the herb butter melded with the moist chicken. The smooth texture of the mashed potatoes moved the flavors through my mouth like a lover's caress, finishing with a fruity kiss from the wine to the back of my palate. This was the pinnacle of the meal. I had gone in planning to only eat half, and take the other half home. That should have a been a simple task. It was half of a chicken for heaven's sake! Once again, I was wrong. In the end, I gave in to gluttony and devoured all but a small bit of the mashed potatoes.

Now, I've not been to every restaurant in Salt Lake City. I've certainly not been to every restaurant in Las Vegas, but I have been to many of them. My old job used to send me there quite often. Because I don't gamble, and I don't chase any women other than MLW, the only thing that interests me in Vegas is the food. She and I have enjoyed several restaurants there. This dish alone beats everything I have ever eaten in Vegas, hands down. If it sounds like I'm gushing, I probably am, but even MLW agrees with me. After she finished her pork she made me share the chicken with her. I was happy to oblige. I like to share good food and besides, I wanted to leave room for dessert.

Delectable Desserts

Earlier in the meal, the other owner, Spiros Makris, had enticed me by explaining that he'd hired a pastry chef just for the desserts. I had planned on going all out this evening, anyway (hey, I wanted to review this restaurant, not just eat at it). Couple that with the very impressive food I'd already eaten, it wasn't a hard sell.

Our waiter came back out with a tray of desserts that included a tempting take on strawberry cheesecake, chocolate pot de crème, a beautiful bread pudding, a classic crème brulee, and an almond – marscapone tiramisu. MLW ordered the tiramisu, but I think I confused the waiter when I ordered the crème brulee. He had asked if we wanted to share and I think my answer of, “we'll end up sharing it anyway,” wiped the tiramisu from his mind. He only brought the crème brulee, and two spoons. I didn't mind, though. I was already full and MLW hadn't been sure she'd wanted to tiramisu, anyway. She had really just ordered it so I would have an excuse to try it.

After the foodgasmic chicken, I didn't think it could get better. I was wrong. A perfect capstone to the meal, this was the best crème brulee I have ever had in my life, and I've had a few. The very thin, perfectly caramelized sugar crust added just the right amount of crunch to the rich, cool, creaminess of the custard. The natural vanilla bean flavors were in perfect balance, not overpowering, but perfuming the dish with subtle tone.

And then it hit me. That was the key element in every dish we had eaten and enjoyed that evening. All the flavors were in perfect balance with each other. Just like the décor, where no one thing stood out on it's own - neither overshadowing, nor being overshadowed by, anything else - so it was with the food. Each ingredient, each flavor, a beautiful thing unto itself, and in perfect harmony with it's neighbors. Each contributing it's share and elevating the whole to something greater, and in some cases slightly sensual.

My wife and I did “guild the Lilly” a bit more than we normally would have, I'll admit, but we both left feeling wonderfully sated, and looking forward to our next visit. We didn't break the bank, either. Less than $70.00 for the two of us, with appetizers, drinks, and dessert. If we had been worried about the cost, we could have come away equally satisfied having chosen different dishes.

Get this. MLW and I once spent over $200.00 for dinner at the Paris in Las Vegas and didn't enjoy it nearly as much. I will never go to the Paris again. I have been spoiled by Sostanza.

So, if you're looking for amazing food off the beaten path, with hidden elegance behind the rough facade of a small desert town, come to Sostanza. Who knows? You might see me there.

4 1/2 zucchinis

Monday, May 18, 2009

Potato Wedges with Sour Cream and Chili Sauce

If you're looking for a warm snack or a side dish for a good hamburger, these deep fried potato wedges make a nice replacement for the regular French fry. They're relatively simple to make and cook up pretty quickly.

Popular in Australia, this dish is served with sour cream and a sweet Thai chili sauce. When I'm ready to clean out my sinuses, that's great. On other days, I prefer to make my own super secret fry sauce recipe.


1 medium potato per serving
salt as needed
oil for deep-frying as required

Equipment Needed

cutting board
pan for deep frying
kitchen knife
mixing bowl
heat resistant slotted spoon or small strainer
large plate
paper towels


Wash the potatoes, leaving the peels on. Cut the potatoes into wedges, about 3/4 inch thick on the outer edge.

Put the potato wedges into a bowl and cover with water. Let them soak for 2-3 minutes. This will remove excess surface starch and will result in a crisper potato.

Move the potato wedges to a colander and drain. Lay out some paper towels and put the potatoes on them in a single layer. Pat them dry. If there's any water on them when they get put into the hot oil, the oil will spit out of the pan and you may end up with a nasty burn.

A few years ago, this actually happened to me. I'll never make that careless mistake again. Trust me. I had small, painful burn marks on my face for a week, and the family photos to prove it. I looked like a guy with mutated acne.

Put out a plate and line it with a couple of paper towels. You'll use this plate to receive the potato wedges after they're fried. The paper towels will help absorb any excess oil.

Pour enough oil into a pan to just cover the potatoes. Place it over medium heat, heating it to about 350 degrees Fahrenheit. If you don't have a thermometer, drop a bread crumb in the oil. If if sinks about halfway before returning the to surface and sizzling, the oil's hot enough.

Using a heat resistant slotted spoon or small mesh strainer, put the potato wedges into the hot oil, one at a time so they don't stick together. Don't put too many potatoes in the oil at the same time. That will drop the temperature of the oil too much, and you'll end up with a greasy mess instead of a crispy fried potato. It's better to cook them in batches. Deep-fry until they start to turn golden brown.

Using the slotted spoon or strainer, remove the potatoes from the oil, letting the excess oil drip back into the pan, place them on the plate covered with paper towels. Immediately sprinkle a pinch of salt over the hot potatoes. If you wait, the salt won't stick to them.

Serve with sour cream and sweet Thai chili sauce, fry sauce, or any other dipping sauce you like. My wife likes to dip them in Ranch dressing.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Three Spice Mixes

Ready-made spice mixtures can save time, money, and are pretty useful in the kitchen. The problem is, there are more commercial spice mixes available than Brigham Young has wives. Or children. To compound everything, the quality and composition can vary considerably from one brand to another. What's a foodie to do?

Within the plethora of choices, there are three common blends that are used in a large number or recipes. With these three in your pantry, you're pretty safe when it comes to quick cooking.

Finding quality mixes is important, and expensive isn't always best. For example, I love the relatively inexpensive Sun Brand Madras Curry Powder (such pure and peppery flavor!), but can't stand the more expensive McCormick “gourmet” Madras (Yuck. Did I actually pay money for this? No link for you!).

Sorry. I haven't tried enough brands of the other two mixes to give you a recommendation. Maybe you'd like to leave your own recommendations in the comments.

Which brings us to:

Curry Powder

There are several curry blends, from Indian to Thai. Some are mild, others are quite hot. Curry powder gives curried dishes an authentic flavor that can sometimes be hard to match if you're mixing it yourself. My current preference most everyday cooking is the Madras curry powder from Sun. (It comes in a lovely silver and white tin, not a bottle.) Perhaps you have a favorite curry blend you'd like to share.

Garam Masala

Usually, garam masala is a mixture of cumin, coriander, cardamom, clove, cinnamon, pepper, mace and ground bay leaves. It's quite common in curries from northern India, giving the dish a mild, almost perfumed, quality rather than the more fiery and hot mixtures.

Pumpkin Pie Spice

A traditional mixture of sweet spices, usually allspice, cinnamon, clove, coriander, mace and nutmeg. As it's name implies, it's a common mixture for pumpkin pies, but it can also be used in sweet potato pie, cookies and cakes, to impart a mild kick to the otherwise sweet dish.

Photo by Piotr Bizior

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Bread Maker Recipes and Kitchen Stores

If you've been paying attention lately you probably noticed I'm building a kitchen store at Amazon. To top it off, I've started a spin-off blog for bread maker recipes.

Like I didn't have enough to do.

I've been using my bread machine like crazy, of late, and started wondering how I could use it make bread that wasn't part of the recipes that came with it. Things like sourdough bread (Yes, Virginia, there is a way). So, rather than litter this blog with tons of bread maker recipes, at the expense of everything else, I decided to open up another one.

Glutton for punishment, that's me.

Why the kitchen store? To put it simply, I need the money. Well, with all the time I've been putting into this blog, and now the new one, I've got to start justifying the work with more than a feeling of love and acomplishment. I need cash.

Don't worry. I'll never put an item in the store I wouldn't consider buying, myself. When I started this blog I had 5 goals in mind:

  1. To entertain
  2. To inform
  3. To develop my writing skills
  4. To help make cooking fun and show that you don't have to be a master chef to make good food.
  5. To help people bring their families together.

I will not abandon these goals for the sake of simple profit.

Besides, there's not much profit in kitchen stuff. At the same time, if you're in the market for a piece of cooking equipment, or a new cookbook, I'd be grateful if you check out the store, first.

Even if you don't, that's okay. Keep coming to the party. It's not as much fun without you.

Photo by the amazing Maria Colangelo. Used with permission.