Sunday, September 27, 2009

Kitchen Tool Set – Four Basic Tools

There are several companies that bundle different basic kitchen tool sets. They can range from just a few pieces in the set, to more things that you can shake a rolling pin at. There are four basic kitchen tools that every set should have.

Ladle: Pouring hot liquids from heavy pans is not only difficult, it can be dangerous. Never forget, kitchens are places of fire and heat. Ladles are used for moving hot or cold liquids from on cooking pot to another, or for serving soups and stews. A good ladle will hold about 1/2 cup of liquid. I prefer a ladle that has a handle set at a bit of an angle. Those with handles that sit at, or nearly at, 90 degrees to the top of the ladle cup are a bit harder for me to control.

Serving/Basting Spoon: Essentially these are really big spoons. Some people say you should only use them for serving, because the handle can get hot if you use it for stirring things and leave it in the pot. My solution is simple. Don't leave it in the pot while you're cooking.

Spatula: I'm talking about the metal or plastic variety for turning food over, like flipping a hamburger on the grill, or lifting them gently from the pan to the serving plate. Again, I'm going with the hamburger example. They are nearly essential for flipping and moving more delicate foods, such as fish, that would have a tendency to break up under a set of tongs. I prefer slotted plastic ones to solid metal ones, to reduce the chance of it scratching my pans and to keep unwanted cooking liquids and oils in the pan, not on the serving dish.

Slotted Spoon: Perfect for removing foods from boiling water, either for serving or testing to find out if they're done. They're also great for skimming scum (schmutz) off the surface of liquids. Some are round, others are spoon shaped. Either way, I prefer a lot of smaller holes to a few larger ones. The spoon shaped ones can double as a serving spoon for some dishes.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Virgin Coconut Oil from Tropical Traditions

Not too long ago the Tropical Traditions company sent me a bottle of their Gold Label Standard organic virgin coconut oil. I was excited to try it. I'd never cooked with coconut oil before, but it could easily become a welcome guest in my kitchen.

Coconut oil is harvested from the meat of the coconut in much the same way olive oil is harvested from olives. You smash it to death in mill. While my Northern European ancestors relied more on animals for their oils and fats, in the form of butter and lard, coconut oil was a primary source of fat for tropical regions.

While most coconut oil is harvested from dried coconuts, virgin coconut oil is not. Instead, fresh coconuts are minimally processed, helping the oil retain a coconut flavor and smell. Virgin coconut oil is regarded as the highest quality coconut oil and is preferred for cooking.

Coconut oil is thought to be healthier than some other fat sources, possibly due to it's smaller molecular size and blending of both saturated and unsaturated fats. It is thought to help in weight management and preventing arteriosclerosis and heart disease. I was surprised to find that it has slightly less calories than other fats, 117 calories per tablespoon vs. 120 calories per tablespoon. Not a huge difference, I know, but it did surprise me.

Virgin coconut oil melts at 76 degrees Fahrenheit, resulting is some unusual opportunities for the home cook. When I first got the bottle in mail, it was a liquid. After sitting in my air-conditioned house for awhile, it turned into a something like soft butter. Putting some into the refrigerator created a very hard, almost waxy lump. After letting it sit on my counter for a time, it softened up nicely.

Cooking with it has been a joy, except in one case. The literature said it was great as an oil for frying, but I wasn't happy with it that way. I like frying with high heat and I think it may have gotten burned, much like butter can. It gave the dish a “cheap” flavor I wasn't happy with. I can't say it was the oil's fault, for sure, because I never tried it again when frying.

What I used it most for was as a condiment. I often used it as a replacement for butter on my morning toast, or mixed some in my oatmeal. Added to a peanut butter and honey sandwich it was remarkable. Replacing the olive oil with coconut oil in a mustard vinaigrette was interesting. It lightened the flavor and added a nice variation to my staple dressing recipe. It became so hard in my refrigerator, though, I started keeping the dressing in the cupboard. I don't like waiting an hour to dress the salad. Because it has a higher saturated fat content than olive oil, I think it helped extend the dressing's shelf life, though, and I never had a problem with rancidity.

Where I truly fell in love with it was in baking. It gave a richness of flavor to the breads I baked that I simply didn't get with butter or cooking oil. It's no wonder to me, though. The coconut flavor is light and creamy, compared to the heavier flavors imparted by something like olive oil. I think I like it even better than butter!

The downside to my new love is that, like any woman who is lovely, virtuous, and of good report, she ain't cheap. Tropical Traditions Gold Label Standard retails at $37.00 a quart, making it a hard choice for most budget gourmets. That's two to three times the cost of Extra Virgin Olive oil at my grocer. Tropical Traditions does sell it for less, $27.00 a pint, but that's still pricey.

In spite of it's price, I'm curious about it as an effective food storage item. It's said that virgin coconut oil can last up to two years without going rancid, and you can buy it from Tropical Traditions in both 1 gallon, and 5 gallon HDPE plastic buckets, just like the ones I use to store flour, grains, and sugar in. They sell the one gallon buckets for $70.00, and the 5 gallon ones for $230.00. That's got to be better than powdered butter.

Tropical Traditions Green Label Organic Virgin Coconut oil is slightly cheaper, but not enough to make a real difference to my budget. It's machine processed, not made by hand. I don't know what the difference in taste is. Tropical Traditions will sell you dried coconut in bulk, too, and not just that shredded stuff. We're talking lovely flaked coconut. I need to think more about this for food storage, that's for sure.

If you can afford it, you'll want to check out Tropical Traditions Gold Label Standard Virgin Coconut Oil. It's an amazing oil, and I want to thank Tropical Traditions for letting me try it. I wish I could give this product a higher rating, but because of the price, I'm reluctant. But only because of the price. The flavor is incredible, it's uses are amazing. I'm going to have to pick up more of it one of these days. Just not today.

3 1/2 zucchinis

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Home-Canned Tomato Soup

One of our readers, Donna, found that my family was from Redmond, Utah. She mentioned her Great Aunt Geniel Bowers participated in making a ward cookbook in Redmond. Even though I do have many of my grandmother, and great-grandmother's recipes, I don't have a copy of any Redmond Ward cookbooks. My immediate family hasn't lived in Redmond for well over sixty years.

Specifically she asked about a recipe for canned tomato soup. I scoured my family recipes, but I'm afraid I couldn't find anything. Looking through some older cookbooks, though, I did come across this recipe. I've updated some of the direction to suit the modern kitchen, and my own taste.

Donna, I hope it will be a good substitute until you can find your aunt's recipe. If you do find it, let me know. I'd love to share it, here.

Equipment Needed
kitchen knife
Either an immersion blender, standing blender, food processor, or food mill.
6 pint canning jars, with lids and rings
pressure cooker/canner

4 quarts peeled, cored, and chopped tomatoes (about 24 large tomatoes)
3 cups chopped onion
2 cups chopped celery
2 cups chopped red bell pepper (about 4 medium peppers)
1 1/2 cups carrots, sliced (about 3 medium carots)
Salt and pepper as needed.
1 teaspoon dried basil (or 2 teaspoons fresh chopped basil)
1 bay leaf.
cooking oil as needed (I like olive oil for this)

Add a little oil to a large, hot, stock pot. Add the tomatoes and a dash of salt, and cook until soft. Remove from the pot.

Rinse the pot, dry, and reheat. Add a bit more oil, the onions, celery, pepper, carrots, and another small dash of salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until soft.

Return the tomatoes to the pot, with the vegetables. Add the dried basil. Using an immersion blender, puree the vegetables until smooth. Alternately, you can puree them in a standing blender, food processor, or food mill, although you'll have to do it batches.

Bring the heat back up boil, and then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Add the bay leaf. Cover and cook slowly until the soup thickens, about 1 hour. Stir frequently to prevent sticking and to keep the cooking even. Add additional salt and pepper as needed - about 1 more teaspoon of salt and 1 teaspoon of pepper should do it. Make sure you taste as you go. You don't want the salt or pepper to overpower the vegetables. Remove from the heat, and remove the bay leaf.

Pour into clean, hot, pint jars, leaving 1/2 inch of head-space, and seal with canning lids and rings. Process in a pressure canner for 20 minutes at 10 pounds pressure.

Yields about 6 pints.

For more information on pressure canning and food safety, visit the National Center of Home Food Preservation.

Picture by David Sawford

Thursday, September 17, 2009

No-Cook Peach Pie

While most people think of zucchini when they think of Utah food, the reality is we have great peaches. Do I daresay we have the best peaches in the U.S.? Yes I do. They're so good, we even have peach festivals every year in Brigham City and Hurricane. This is not home town (home state?) bragging, folks. There's just something about our water and climate that makes an incredible peach.

I love peaches. They're my favorite fruit. After eating my fill of fresh peaches off the tree, the foodie in me wants to make something more with them. The choice is obvious. Peach pie.

The trouble with peach pie is that it's cooked. I don't know what it is, but peaches change so much when you cook them, they seem like an entirely different fruit. Cooked and canned peaches just don't compare to the bright flavor of a fresh peach. It's a shame to have to cook these yummy things just to make a pie.

Ah, but we don't have to. My mother used to make a wonderful peach pie that required no cooking. It's so simple she was embarrassed by it. I love all kinds of pies, but this is my favorite peach pie. What makes it work is another Utah food favorite – don't laugh – Jello.

Use only fresh peaches with this, please. Save the canned peaches for something else.

Equipment Needed
Tea Kettle or Saucepan
Mixing Bowl
Paring Knife
Cutting Board

1 cup fresh peaches (or more), peeled and sliced into thin wedges
1 cooked pie crust or graham cracker crust
cooking spray
3 oz. package peach flavored gelatin
2/3 cup boiling water
2 cups ice cubes

Spray the bottom of the pie crust with cooking spray. This helps reduce the amount of liquid that can seep into the crust from the filling. Place the peach slices into the pie crust. Place them decoratively, or just spread them around and random. As long as they're more or less evenly distributed, and completely fill the crust, you'll be fine. How pretty you want then to look is up to you.

Dissolve the gelatin in the boiling water. Add the ice cubes and stir for about 2 minutes. Remove any ice cubes that haven't melted. Pour the gelatin over the peaches, just to the top. Don't drown them.

Place the pie in the refrigerator and chill for at least 2 hours, or let it set up overnight. Serve with whipped cream, or all by itself.

You don't have to use peach flavored gelatin. Orange or apricot flavored gelatin will work great.

Makes 8 servings.

Picture by Alaina Cherup Isn't it pretty?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Ravioli with Bacon Blue Cheese Sauce

I came up with this recipe for a contest I found on FoodBuzz. Kraft foods was promoting their Buitoni ravioli line. I didn't win, but it got quite a bit of attention from the FoodBuzz community. My family certainly thought this sauce was a winner. I've modified it slightly since the contest.

This creamy sauce, inspired by bacon blue cheeseburgers, is quite rich. I have been warned by various recipe books not to make pasta sauce with blue cheese. The flavors are just too strong, they say so, of course I had to prove them wrong.

I'll admit, this is best eaten on the day you make it. Letting it sit in the refrigerator will make the blue cheese flavor too strong for pasta. But I love blue cheese. I love bacon. I love pasta.

Death to conventional wisdom! Bring on the flavor!

This recipe was designed with meat ravioli in mind, but I suspect it will work with any good pasta.

Equipment needed
Saute pan
Kitchen knife
Sauce pans, one medium, one large
plastic wrap
Measuring spoons
Measuring cups


1 lb. bacon
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup ricotta cheese
4 tablespoons blue cheese, crumbled (or more if you like)
1 cup heavy cream
1 /2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp dried chopped parsley, or 1 tsp freshly chopped parsley
1 /4 tsp ground black pepper
1 egg, beaten (optional)
2 tsp lemon juice
additional salt, pepper, and chopped parsley to taste
18 oz package of meat Ravioli, fresh or frozen


Remove the egg from the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature while you prepare the rest of the sauce. The egg is optional. It will add a bit more thickness and body, but you may find you don't need it.

Cook the bacon over medium heat until crispy. Chop into small pieces and set aside. Reserve 2 tablespoons of the melted bacon fat.

Add the melted bacon fat and the butter to a medium saucepan over medium low heat. Melt the butter. Add the ricotta cheese and 2 Tbl of the blue cheese, stirring with a whisk until melted and smooth. Add the cream and stir until smooth and well combined. Remove from heat and stir in the bacon, salt, parsley, and pepper.

Beat the egg, if using, and add it to the cheese mixture, mixing thoroughly. Return to the heat and gently cook, stirring constantly, until it thickens and starts to get bubbly, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the lemon juice and remove from the heat. Add more salt, pepper, and parsley to taste. Cover the sauce with plastic wrap, so the plastic wrap is just touching the surface, to avoid a skin forming on the top while the pasta cooks.

Cook the ravioli according to the package directions. Drain the cooked ravioli and add the sauce, mixing gently, and covering each piece with sauce. Pour the ravioli into individual serving bowls and garnish with the remaining bacon, blue cheese, parsley and additional freshly ground black pepper.

Makes 4 main dish servings

Picture by Dominic Morel

Thursday, September 10, 2009

How to Cook Dried Beans

Dried beans are great food storage items, but they do take a little bit of time and forethought to prepare.

Pour out the beans you want to use and sort through them. You don't want a small stone to ruin the dish, or someone's teeth.

Soaking the Beans

Ideally, you want to soak the beans in water, for at least 8 hours, or overnight. Make sure you're using a very large bowl for this. Dried beans will soak up quite a bit of water, increasing their size by nearly double in some cases. You don't want to wake up in the morning to an overflowing pot of beans.

There is a “quick soak” method, where you bring the beans to a boil for ten minutes, cover, and remove from the heat, and let them soak for one hour. It works, but I seem to get the most consistent results with an overnight soak.

Either way you soak them, drain and rinse the beans thoroughly, afterward.

Cooking the Beans

Put the beans in a large bowl and cover with a generous amount of cold water. Add a dash or two of salt and bring them to a rapid boil, boiling for ten minutes.

Reduce the heat to low, cover, and gently simmer the beans until tender. They should feel soft in the center when squeezed.

The amount of time you'll need to simmer them depends on the bean. Most dried beans, like Red kidney beans and black beans, take about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Adzuki beans will be ready in only 45 minutes, while chickpeas can take up to 2 hours.

If you want to prepare beans ahead of time, soak them, put them in a plastic freezer bag, and freeze them. You can thaw them, and finish cooking them, when you're ready.

I keep a stock of dried and canned beans on hand in my food storage. When I have time, I'll use the dried ones. They soak up loads of flavor when cooked over time in soups and sauces. On a weeknight, or whenever else I'm in a hurry, I'll use the canned ones.

Picture by Leonardo Borlot

Monday, September 7, 2009

Grilled Tofu – Soy, Spice and Smoke

I was recently perusing my copy of Personal Trainer: Cooking, for the Nintendo DS, and I came across an ingredient I'd never heard of before: grilled tofu. The program assured me that it was available in local Japanese markets.

I live out near the west desert in Utah. I don't have a local Japanese market.

It got me thinking, though. What would grilled tofu be like? Broiled tofu is pretty good, but it's really soft, even when you get extra firm tofu. Hmmm. With Labor day weekend coming up, and my foodie brain churning with ideas, I thought I'd experiment.

Tofu has a lot of water in it. The higher the water content, the softer the tofu. I wanted something a little meatier for the grill, so I'd have to get rid of some of the water.

Starting with a block of extra firm tofu, I wrapped it in a clean dish towel and put a weight on it. In just moments my dishtowel was soaked. I couldn't believe how much water I had gotten out in such a short about of time. Switching to a dry towel I repeated the process, a few times, actually. Once the deluge slowed, and I was satisfied that I'd gotten as much as I could out without destroying the tofu, I was ready for the next step.

I read somewhere that freezing tofu will get more water out so, next I wrapped the block in wax paper, then in foil, and then I sealed it up in a freezer bag, making sure to get as much air out of the bag as I could, and stuck the block in my freezer for a few days.

After removing the frozen tofu and allowing it to thaw, sure enough, I got more water out of it. A lot of water. The texture had become more dense and it reminded me of a sponge. Pressing out as much water as I could, I started thinking about how to flavor the tofu. Would marinating the tofu in soy sauce and spices pull the flavors into the tofu, like it does when you brine meat? I decided to give it a try.

I put the tofu block in a container for marinating. I didn't want to add a bunch of water back into it, nor use up a bunch of soy sauce, so I starting pouring some over the top, little by little. I was right to think of this as a sponge. It sucked up the soy sauce just like it was one. Still concerned with adding back too much liquid, I stopped with the soy sauce and spread a simple seasoning salt rub on the tofu block, just like I might for a steak, and set it aside while I fired up the grill.

After the grill was properly heated, cleaned and oiled, it was time for the tofu. First, I made sure I added some soaked hickory chips to add some smoke flavor. Next, I cut the tofu block into smaller slabs, each about 1/2 inch thick, and placed them on the grill. I was pleased at how easily the coveted “grill marks” appeared, and the tofu cooked up to a toasty finish with only a few minutes grilling on each side.

The texture was meaty, somewhere between firm fish and bread. The flavor was pretty good, too, but it could have had a bit more seasoning. The subtle smokiness was a nice touch. Interestingly, the flavor didn't improve much when I drizzled a little soy sauce on top.

By itself, I don't think the process was worth it, but I suspect that as an ingredient in some other dish, grilled tofu might perfect. A stir fry was my first thought, but now I'm thinking, why not smothered in mushrooms on a hamburger bun? Maybe I'll try that the next time.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

I Love You Food

Sometimes you just want to do something special for someone, just to tell them you love them. In my house, that can mean making a treat and leaving at a surprise for the intended victims of the love fest.

My latest food love prompting came from a change in my schedule. My kids have gone back to school and I've started working more night shifts, so I rarely see them, except on weekends. Just to let them know I was thinking about them, I made pudding.

I was lazy about the pudding, too. No making it from scratch this time. It was instant vanilla pudding from a box, all the way. We had a kiwi fruit left from our last trip to the grocery store so I sliced it up and decorated the top of it. I had to do something to take it up notch. To let them know it was for them, I wrote, “For my kids. Love, Dad,” on a piece of masking tape and stuck it on the side of the bowl so they'd see it when they got home from school.

There's no problem with leaving my wife out of this one, by the way. She hates pudding.

Could I have done more? Probably, but that's not the point. Telling you kids you love and appreciate them doesn't have to take a long time, or a huge amount of work. It can be simple, direct and sometimes even surprising. Kind of like instant pudding with kiwi fruit.

Picture by Dorota Kaszczyszyn