Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Nuts: The holiday slow food

Adapted from the Pinch archives

We always have nuts around. Of the already-been-shelled variety, almonds, plain and smoked, and peanuts (GORP is a favorite household snack) are in steady supply. There's always a small tin of nuts in my glove box. A handful of nuts has gotten my children (by “my children” I mean me) through many an episode of food anxiety.*

In the summer we eat a lot of peanuts in the shell - either at Wrigley or at home watching the game on WGN. Sunflower seeds, also in the shell, are a summer snack when we’re camping or on a road trip. But it’s the holiday nuts that I get really excited about. Each year, right around November 1, I pull down a pewter challis from its perch on the shelf above my cookbooks and fill it with mixed nuts - walnuts, pecans, almonds, hazelnuts, and brazil nuts - all in their pretty shells. We have a growing fleet of nutcrackers. My favorite is an olive wood screw turning one that I got my daughter out of a Montessori catalog.

Maybe it’s the excitement of the season, but something about cracking my own nuts and enjoying no more than five or six of them in one sitting makes for a delightful seasonal tradition. And this is what slow food is really all about - slowing down, enjoying our food more. It’s not about munching a handful of nuts between frenzied errands around town.

Slow down this season. Enjoy your food, whatever it may be.

*food anxiety - [food ang-zahy-i-tee] -noun
1. Distress or psychic tension caused by fear of one’s next meal not coming quickly enough.

Read Full Post

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Audacity of the Cookie Exchange

I have thoughts about cookie exchanges. See, this is why I have a blog. I'm more of a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell person. Some people are Tellers. They give you every life detail before you’ve even gotten a chance to introduce yourself or ask for directions. I have my Teller moments. My husband contends I'm guilty of sharing my hopes and dreams with the UPS guy. I wish I were making this up. So does the UPS guy.

In a regular conversation - as opposed to a blog post - I don’t tend to tell too much unless I’m asked. Then, the flood gates open. I’ve sensed your interest and intend to cure you of it, permanently.

What I’m trying to say is that no one has ever asked my opinion on cookie exchanges and it’s burning a hole in my esophagus. Pinch protects you and me both - me from maxillofacial injury and you because you can skip this post if you like.

But about the cookies.

I attend an annual Christmas cookie exchange that I’m partly responsible for. By partly, I mean that it wasn’t my idea, only that I set the date for the group. It’s next week.

I have nothing against cookies, Christmas or otherwise. One of my life goals is to produce a French macaron that rivals that of the amazing LadurĂ©e. I sampled macarons from Bouchon Bakery while in Napa last month. While quite good, I was surprised by their size. Thomas Keller obviously took notes from Alice Medrich regarding the enlargement of French confections. I don’t think of Keller or Medrich as part of the American supersizing problem, but the reality is that AM created the American truffle, in its gargantuan proportion, and TK’s macarons are close to four times the size of the French counterpart.

But I digress.

The point of the exchange is to expose yourself/family to different cookies than the ones in your repertoire. No point in everyone trading gingerbread men. It’s all about variety. Rugelach. Amaretti. Pfeffernussen. Biscotti. Shortbread. Linzer.

It is NOT about one-upping your friends. Indeed, the messgage, “Your sugar cookies are swell and all but my Pecan Shortbread are better,” is not at all in the spirit of Christmas.

Forrest Gump was wrong; life is like a cookie exchange. Some people will put lots of time into their cookies; some won’t. Some people will buy cookies at Safeway; some will buy them at LadurĂ©e (I’m going to Paris for THAT cookie exchange). Some will arrive empty handed and leave laden; some will bake for days and leave the spoils for their friends. Some people won't eat a single cookie this year and others will overdo it.

We know life is too short. It's simultaneously too short not to enjoy cookies and too short to complain that our bodies look like we've eaten too many cookies. But there’s something more substantial, too. Do we have friends who will send us home with cookies when we didn’t bring any to the table? Do we have a healthy diet and body image? Do we share our lives, time and talents with others? Do we endeavor to sweeten a life besides our own?

Oh, the audacity of the cookie exchange!

Favorite cookies for the season:
Chewy Ginger Cookies
Christmas Press Cookies
Coconut Macaroons (shown above)
Cornmeal Christmas Cookies
Triple Chocolate Cookies

Read Full Post

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Pinch Holiday Gift Guide

The holiday guide! Last year, readers admonished me for failing to produce a good list of ideas. Here they are. Many of these items are in the Pinch kitchen. If they're not, they're on my list of things that should be.

Thanks to AP for allowing me to photograph her hilarious kitchen plaque. I've been dying to feature it here.

Stocking stuffers or things to tie onto wrapped gifts
Fun cookie cutters - I just stuck some initial cookie cutters in my daughters' new advent calendar as a little gift.

Silicone spatulas and basters- The Rubbermaid spatulas are commercial kitchen compatible, and my personal faves. After shedding too many basting hairs into food, I've switched completely to silicone.

Kuhn rikon paring knife/sheath - These come in a variety of colors. I use mine for picnics and camping. The bright color will stand out in your carry on and serve as a reminder to transfer it to your checked baggage. And you'll be able to find it when you drop it in the grass.

Microplane zester - No one should be without one of these. I use mine for Parmesan and citrus zesting.

Lemon squeezer - I have the lime and orange versions. I only recommend the lemon, as it accommodates lemons and limes. You just don't need the orange one.

Zyliss Susi garlic press - Incredibly efficient, this thing will amaze you if you've been stuck with the kind of garlic press that requires you to exert tons of pressure yet yields no pressed garlic.

Cheese slicer - You can pick between the wire version and the plane

Foil cutter - I got one recently and surprised myself by using it all the time

Fluted Pastry Wheel & Ravioli Cutter - This is for the pie- or ravioli maker in your life.

Smaller ice cream scoops - Different sizes are so fun.

Good kitchen shears - So many kitchens lack shears. How else are you gonna trim your artichokes, people? You can spend a lot on shears. This is a pretty low-end model.

Nutmeg Grinder - This particular one is kinda spendy. I have a $10 model purchased at my spice shop. The upscale version I bought as a gift has a better design.

Food Mill - These are incredibly useful and require elbow grease rather than electric power.

Salter Electronic Scale - Every cook worth their salt should have an electronic scale tucked in their cupboard.

5-inch utlity knife - I usually don't advocate purchasing knives for people because they're so personal. But this is a knife that every tomato-lover should have.

Good cake pans - Every home baker should have two 8- and 9-inch round cake pans, a 10-cup heavy-weight nonstick bundt pan and an 8-inch heavy-weight cheesecake pan.

Nicholas Mosse Pottery - gorgeous Irish pitchers, creamers, sugar bowls and butter dishes.

Cookbooks - Cooks always enjoy new material. Faves that are not oft found in cookbook libraries are Rick Bayless’ Mexican Everyday and Madhur Jaffrey’s Ultimate Curry Bible.


Pepper Grinder - I have the Atlas but also like the wooden Peugeut models. Salt and pepper sets area also a great idea. Find some good ones with glass (no acrylic!) and metals - copper, stainless or pewter all are lovely.

All Clad butter warmer - Butter should be melted in a heavy bottomed pot - and this one is perfect.

Pizza Stone and Peel - You'll be a pro with this set. My stone resides in my oven almost permanently. It lends some humidity to the dry electric heat.

Really good gifts
Laguiole waiter’s corkscrew - The wine lover in your life will love you for this one. Some sites will engrave it for you, too.

Bob Kramer knife - Bob was my knife sharpener when I was a working chef in Seattle. Now he's expanded his operation and is selling knives through Williams Sonoma and Sur la Table. I normally don't advocate knives as gifts since they're so personal, but I'd make an exception for Bob's knives. I have a parer he made me 12 years ago and it's gorgeous.

Le Creuset - I love the 3 1/2 and 2-quart models and like everything else they make, save the fruit shapes. Who cooks in a blueberry?

Bad ideas
Cheap espresso machines - a Starbucks gift card would be a better gift.

Slap chop, egg separators, anything that screams, "I really have no idea what I'm doing in the kitchen." (For the person who really has no idea what they're doing in the kitchen - a plaque like AP's)

Cookware sets - usually contain unnecessary pieces

Knife sharpeners - have your knives professionally sharpened by someone who knows what they're doing.

Cool gifts you can present in a cute basket:

Gifts that don’t exist but should

Cast iron double-burner griddle. Not reversible. No reservoir. Short walls so you can cook breakfast potatoes, but not so high as to steam pancakes. I've been searching for one for like 15 years.

Read Full Post

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Why Do YOU Read Cookbooks?

Adam Gopnik has some ideas. Read them here, in the New Yorker's recent Food issue. I like anyone who echoes my opinion that if you eat out regularly you're eating a lot more salt and fat than you would if you cooked the meal yourself. Which makes it all the more important for the home cook to be a good cook. How else could you be expected to eat your own food? Cookbooks, I'd say, are around to encourage and excite us about food so that we'll do what we're itching to do anyway: TRY THIS AT HOME.

Gopnick puts cookbooks into categories: cookbook as dictionary (where recipes are written to remind the cook of the ingredients of a dish they already know how to prepare); as encyclopedia (which will enable the cook to master a particular cooking style); as anthology (enables the cook to prepare a culturally diverse menu than the encyclopedia approach). The final category, Gopnik calls "grammatical." By this, he means that the cook is not trusted to know anything about cooking or food preparation. Grammatical cookbooks offer extremely specific instruction.

In Gopnikese, Pinch is an anthology. I generally appreciate books written that way. I am always looking to broaden my repertoire. One of the reasons I'm always irritated by Cooks Illustrated is that it's SO grammatical. There are times, though, when I need this kind of instruction. Brining a turkey? Trussing a chicken? Filleting a whole fish? Cooks Illustrated is the perfect resource. I do have some dictionary-type reference books. Many times I just scan a familiar recipe just to make sure I'm not leaving anything out. And as for Mastery...well, I have other demands on my time right now. Also, I'm lazy. I'm not a bread baker because that art demands mastery and nothing less. Of course I just love to buy bread books. I just nabbed The Bread Baker's Apprentice at a school book swap.

I read cookbooks to learn new techniques, new ingredients, new recipes. It's kind of like listening to political pundits. Some get an Amen. Some make me change the channel. The good ones make me think.

How about you?

Read Full Post