Sunday, December 18, 2011

Eating Canned Soup Significantly Raises BPA Levels in Your Body - The Atlantic

I'm a sucker for Journal-backed food news. This particular study found a marked increase in BPA levels eliminated (in the bathroom sense) after participants ate canned soup. Well done, kidneys!
Eating Canned Soup Significantly Raises BPA Levels in Your Body - The Atlantic

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Get Your Butter On: Inside the Christmas Cookie Jar

Good grief. My repertoire of Christmas sweets has really expanded.

For several years the staples were Rugelach, Russian Tea Cookies, and and Press/Cutout Cookies. A few years back I added Coconut Macaroons and  two recipes from my sister: Cornmeal Cookies and Amaretti. Maybe two years ago I started making Hazelnut Biscotti. I love having something chocolaty but still perfectly seasonal on the cookie tray. And last year I added Pralines and Peppermint Bark.

What I appreciate about these recipes is the variety when all are on a platter. Also, there are enough choices about fillings and what nuts to use that make it fun each year. Sometimes I use hazelnuts in my Russian Tea Cakes, other times I use pecans.

Rugelachis a hard one to pick a filling for because I like them all so much. Each filling incorporates cinnamon sugar but the varieties are apricot jam, raspberry jam, chocolate/almond, or currant/pecan.

I make  Press Cookies  because they're so kid friendly (espeically when you forego the press and simply roll out the freshly mixed dough, using cookie cutters to shape). I rarely make gingerbread men because I just love both snappy and squishy ginger cookies but gingerbread usually disappoints. Also, I'm a terrible cookie decorator.

Happy Holiday Baking!

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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

5 Reasons Your Knives Need Professional Sharpening (and where to get it done)

Heck, you don't need five reasons. If even one of the following is true then you simply must take your knives to a professional:

1. You've never had them sharpened.
2. You've been feigning competence with a sharpening steel.
3. You haven't been able to slice a tomato in years.
4. Your blades are bent or damaged from use.
5. You've made the mistake of trying to sharpen them with one of those scary electric sharpeners.

Knives thicken so slowly that it's easy to be complacent. Thicken? Yes - it's the same as becoming dull. A thin edge is what will grab onto the skin of a tomato. A dull, blunt edge is so dangerous because it slips instead of grabbing, often resulting you cutting yourself. When I lived in Seattle I had a great guy take care of my knives.* He was so great that for years after I moved away I shipped him my knives once a year. It was such a pain to do without them for 7-10 days, but they returned to me in such amazing condition that I put up with it (and always tried to send them away if we were going out of town to minimize the hassle).

A couple of years ago my guy retired from sharpening to focus solely on the production of his artisan knives. Amazingly, it took me until last week to find a place in Chicago I could trust with my blades. How did I find it? I asked the cooks at Topolobampo where they take their blades. The answer: Northwestern Cutlery.  The shop was easy to find and even had parking. I arrived with eight knives (2 chef's, 3 paring, one boning, one fillet, one serrated utility) and one pair of kitchen scissors. Twenty minutes later I was back on the road with all my blades, plus a new gyoza forming tool (ours bit the dust last week after about 15 years of active duty) and a new squeeze bottle for piping dessert sauces. I seem to lose one of those every year.

Not in Chicago? Just ask the cooks at your favorite fine-dining restaurant where they take their knives. Then call the shop and ask about their method. A smith who incorporates several different devices and stages of sharpening and polishing will do more precise work.

A few notes on the 5 Reasons:

1. The factory edge on your knife may seem ok but it's nothing compared with the edge a good bladesmith will create. Every time I purchase a new knife (not often anymore as my block is full and I have every knife I need) it goes first to the smith, then into my block.
2. A sharpening steel is a great tool for maintaining an edge, but they cannot sharpen a dull knife. Most people lack the precision needed to use a steel correctly and do more damage to their blades than good.
3. Not sure if you're blades are sufficiently dull to warrant a trip to the smith? It's dull if you have to exert pressure on your knife to make it cut.
4. I've had tips break, had visitors cram my precious blades into a overcrowded dishwasher, and I'm guilty of sometimes using the edge side to scrap veggies off my cutting board. If your knives look bad they cannot perform well.
5. Throw that thing away and spread the word among your friends to do the same. A good professional sharpening will employ an array of stones, buffers and belts. You just can't do that on your own, unless you're prepared to learn the trade and acquire the requisite equipment.

* If you live in New York, Houston or Arlington, VA, you can take a knife sharpening class with him, Bob Kramer, master bladesmith, at Sur la Table. See details here.

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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Aequalitate, Veritas et Citrus

The beginning of the citrus season is one of my favorite things about the tide between Thanksgiving and trimming the Christmas tree. Some people like to move from one holiday right to the next. I prefer when time moves more slowly. Sure, we bring out the advent calendar and some greens for our planters outside, but we've also set out in-shell nuts and big bowls of Cuties or satsumas. The dark afternoons are a lovely time for candles and jazz. In the ten days before Christmas and for the twelve days post we are pretty festive. But for now it's more about the pure change of season.

Citrus are not created equal. The individual varieties have not gotten the marketing blitz or branding that the apple enjoys. More than that though, it's the supply of sub-par citrus that surprises me. A generic clementine (and most tangerines) generally amounts to a sour mouthful of pulp waiting to sit stagnant in your gut and make you bloated. To be fair, even a perfect Cutie clementine will act similarly but will first skip merrily down your throat and make you forget all your troubles for at least five minutes post-mastication. Even the lowly lemon can disappoint, especially when you were counting on one to be juicy but the whole weight of it was in the skin.

Some citrus truths:

1. A good satsuma is hard to come by in Chicago. I used to get great ones when we lived in the Pacific Northwest. Not so much anymore. Whole Foods has them sometimes but they're not dependably excellent.
2. Cuties are the best clementine. Nothing Compares 2 Cuties.
3. Florida should stop sending forth its nasty grapefruit. They could use the the crop for bocce.
4. Ruby Red grapefruit from Texas is the only grapefruit worth eating. Last year the best foodie gift of Christmas (or perhaps tied with the case of Dave's Albacore Tuna) was a generous box of deep red Rubies from Bell's Farm. They were just perfect.

5. What's the best way to pick citrus? Weight and smell. Generally, it's heft you're looking for. A higher water weight generally means a more succulent piece of fruit. Get comfortable smelling your produce. If it smells delicious it's not going to disappoint. If it smells bland move on.

Finally, don't let another winter pass you by without trying something new. Not sure what to do with a Blood orange or a Meyer lemon? Start simply: Squeeze blood oranges and serve the juice or make a cocktail. Make a Meyer lemon curd and serve alongside a simple cake. It's citrus season! Enjoy it.

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