Friday, December 7, 2012

Gift giving for your favorite cook!

It's that gift giving time of year - for me, it's all year long. I'm not sure when or how I started doing this, but I find things throughout the year for Christmas and place them in a big tub in the attic. At the beginning of December I pull it out and survey it with Larry. It makes the whole buying situation so much easier!

People always ask me what they should get for the home cook. First let's talk about where to go. There are many places to find the perfect kitchen tool (in no specific order!): Chef CentralBed Bath and BeyondWilliams SonomaSur la TableBroadway Panhandler, and those just a few with retail stores. Google the name of anything and you can find loads of links to on-line warehouses, Ebay and Amazon. Seeing and touching things are key though, so hitting a store at the mall is your first line of attack. Then you can shop for the best price.

Small items are relatively the same, but when you start looking at food processors, stand mixers or Vita Preps, like the one I got last Christmas, shopping around is important. This was my "big" present last year. I pick one thing that is in the "over $200" category and Larry finds it for me. I love this blender. It's got various degrees of  power and creates one mighty smooth blend for soups and drinks. I think this one was actually found at Costco.

On the other send of spectrum I have three different food processors, the typical 11 cup Cuisinart, the Mini Chop, and a Kitchen Aid immersion blender. My little mini chop has to be at least 20 years old, maybe more. I think this might have been one of the first things I got a few years out of college. The bowl and blade were replaced through Amazon a few times over the years, but the actual machine still runs like dream.

My immersion blender base above is at least 10 years old and this past year I replaced the metal (stick) part, also through Amazon. Of all my kitchen electrics I would say the immersion blender is used at least once a week. I've given it as gifts and suggest it as a "must have" for every kitchen. The basic blender is under $50 and if you decide to get all the fancy stuff with it (which is really not necessary) it's in the $80 range.

Williams-Sonoma just came out with a super cool gadget that I picked up over the weekend. In fact it's so new that I wasn't able to get the entire set. Pictured here is the speaker. I was watching one of my  eHow cooking videos and the sound quality is amazing! The docking station is set to arrive in stores in a few days. Here is the link to see the whole set-up which retails for $199.


In the realm of small, but necessary, items there are so many to choose from: microplane graters of all sizes, juicers, meat thermometers, egg cooker, peelers and tongs. A few words on those: The ones I am showing are used pretty frequently when I am cooking at home. The small microplane and the "Y" peeler, constantly. Of all of these I would say the egg timer is the most clever. You place it in the pot of water with your eggs and it turns color to tell you when they are cooked to your liking.

Next up are stainless things. All-Clad is my favorite choice. Twice a year there is a factory sale just outside of Pittsburgh, in Cannonsburg, PA. I send my Dad down with a list and he picks things up for me. Pots and pans are a big investment. You want to get something that is excellent quality and going to last. Everyone has their favorite and All-Clad is mine. My pieces are all the basic stainless steel. I do have one fancy copper pot, but for the volume of cooking I do I want clean-up to be fast and easy. Copper is beautiful, but a lot of care and attention is needed to keep them looking lovely.

The 4-Quart pot I have above is my most used, aside from perhaps the frying pan. This one is taken off the pot rack at least three times a week, maybe more. It's the perfect size for soups, potatoes, rice .. you name it. I have lots of metal tools that are used frequently, but the ones on the right a little more than the others. Last year Larry's sister-in-law Lisa got me the stainless tool holder with my company name on it. Very cool!


On to wood. Yep, got a lot of those too. I use them all, rotating around to show the love. A few thoughts on these: I picked up the Epicurian model at the Wusthof Outlet Store (more on them later) in July and really like them. They are made from a nonporous wood based material and can withstand heat to 350 degrees and dishwasher safe.

I do like my regular wood too, but a little care in cleaning is necessary. They never go in the dishwasher. Some are kept just for light sauces and some for dark. The paddle was a gift from another of Larry's other sister-in-law Cynthia a few years ago and I love it! My holder for these tools is a beautiful ceramic jar from Edgecomb Potters in Maine. A favorite store of mine.

A few years ago we did a hiking vacation in Glacier National Park and came across a quirky little shop called Spiral Spoon, in East Glacier. Outside of the tiny store is a giant spoon which of course called to me! Inside the tiny shop hundreds of handmade spoons that fit the shape of your fingers. Aside from being comfortable to hold, they are really beautiful.

Last week I posted a comment on my Facebook page asking my friends to send me ideas on their favorite kitchen gadgets and I got an overwhelming response. Crock Pots and immersion blenders topped the list. In one of the comments my friend Brona Crehan said she makes a cake in hers. I was intrigued! So I put her to work this past weekend working up her special recipe that she makes for the little men in her life. (The recipe is below). 


She also included a few pictures of her yummy little boys enjoying the Pumpkin Spice creation!

Last, but certainly not least, are knives. I'm asked frequently about them too. Kitchen knives are another tool that elicits an emotional response. People that are longtime cooks have their favorites and won't deviate. Chefs are no different. There are many excellent brands like HenckelsWMF, and Shun, to name just a few; but it comes down to what is comfortable in your hand. Knives are a little like shoes, you need to try them on, work with them and give them a chance to dance.

For the most part I dance with Wusthof. I started using them in cooking school and never looked back. The Classic Series pretty much makes up all the pieces I have - and yes, I have many. The two above are used frequently, and in particular the 6" Chef. The 8" is the most popular, and I do use it, but I mostly reach for the 6" as it fits my had perfectly.

Knives, like pots and pans, are a big investment. The very last thing you need to be doing is replacing these year after year. Care is of the utmost importance. They NEVER go in the dishwasher. Hand washed, dried and back to the block. Sharpening is extremely important too. If you don't do it yourself with a stone then get yourself to a professional. During the summer a lot of Farmer's Markets have that service available. An unsharpened knife is more dangerous than a sharp one!


As luck would have it there is a Wusthof Outlet Store very close by in Norwalk, CT. 355 Wilson Avenue, to be exact. When I'm short on time I take a zip up there and have them sharpen my knives for me. In addition they, just like All-Clad, have  a semi-annual sale. Even luckier for all of us it starts tomorrow December 6 and runs through Sunday the 9th. Shopping times for the sale are December 6 & 7 from 10:00 to 6:00 and December 8 & 9 from 10:00 - 4:00. To top it off they are also having an additional 20% off their already reduced prices, on everything this weekend! If you get a chance to go make sure you tell them "Maria sent you!"


I took a run up earlier this week to scope things out for the sale and conferred a little with Store Manager Andrea and her assistant  Patty on a few ideas for knife gift giving. Both suggested two options: a 3 knife set for $109 and the 7 piece boxed set for $159; but there is just so much more! A trip up will be well worth your time.


I've literally scratched the surface for you, there are some many more gadgets and tools like mixers, pressure cookers, spatulas, measuring cups ... not to mention cookbooks of all kinds! The list is simply endless. Shoot me a note with any questions you might have and I will try to help you see the forest through the trees!

Happy shopping and buon appetito!

Brona's Slow Cooker Pumpkin Spiced Cake
Makes 1 cake

6 apples, peeled, cored and cut into chunks (3 Granny Smith & 3 Honey Crisp 
1 tablespoon sugar
2 cups of all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda 
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
3 eggs
1 cup brown sugar
1 stick butter, melted
1 cup of pumpkin puree
Trader Joe's Pumpkin Butter 
Whipped cream, optional

Place the apples and sugar in a heavy bottom pot with ¼ cup of water over medium heat and cook them until they are soft, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and cool for 5 minutes. Mash with a fork or potato masher and set aside. You should have 3 cups. 

Add the dry ingredients to a small bowl and combine with a whisk. 

Place the eggs in a medium size bowl and beat until foamy. Add the brown sugar, melted butter and pumpkin, mixing well. Add in the dry ingredients and beat on high speed for 2 minutes.

Butter the bottom and sides of your crockpot and place the mashed apples on the bottom. Pour the batter on top and cover. 

Cook on high for 2 hours. Remove lid and cool slightly. Run a knife along the edge and flip over on a platter. Glaze with pumpkin butter and serve with whipped cream.

Being creative with Potatoes

As you know, I try to come up with an interesting take on a traditional ingredient. Sometimes that's easy and sometimes not. It tends to be a little harder when you have a ingredient that is ubiquitous. That is definitely the case with potatoes. Really, what could I possibly do that hasn't already been done: baked, fried, mashed, creamed, roasted, sautéed?

Well, I did manage to come up with a soup that is just a little bit different than the usual ... but before I go there let's talk about some interesting facts about potatoes. I came across a fun little web site that is all about the spud. There are nearly 4,000 varieties of potatoes broken down into a few main categories: russet, red, white, yellow and purple. They are best stored in a cool dry spot in the basement, except for new potatoes or ones with a thin skin, those are best stored in the 'fridge.

The potato was first cultivated about 10,000 years ago in South American. Spanish explorers brought the potato to Europe in the 16th century. At first it was used mainly for livestock feed. In the 1600's, the potato was introduced into North America from Europe. It did not become an important food crop until the early 1700's, when Scotch-Irish settlers began potato production in New Hampshire.

Nutritionally they are a great source of protein, potassium, and fiber. They are also high in Vitamin C and B6, niacin and folate. Generally speaking potatoes are low in fat, it's the butter, cream and frying that give them a bad wrap.

You all know by now that creating soup is a favorite thing of mine. Especially since the weather has turned chilly. One of my favorite potato leek soup recipes to do is from Ina Garten where she roasts them before making the soup. It's a very tasty rendition, but a little time consuming, so I decided to take her idea and change it up a bit.

Instead of leeks I used scallions, and sauteed them with garlic.

While that is happening I was about to peel the potatoes and then remembered reading that most of the fiber is in the peel, so I decided to leave it on. Stop and Shop is now carrying a new collection of stocks by Rachael Ray. So a picked up the Vegetable and Chicken this weekend to give them a try. For this soup I'm opting for the vegetable version.

The other ingredient I came across this weekend in the produce aisle was watercress in a bag. I rarely see watercress, and like the peppery bite of it. In that went just as the potatoes were finishing up.

Once the potatoes finished cooking I let the pot cool down a bit and pureed with my stick blender and added a little fat free Half and Half to give it a little creaminess.
What could be simpler and more perfect on a chilly day?

Buon Appetito!

Potato, Scallion and Watercress Soup
Makes about 6 servings

2 cups chopped scallion, white and light green parts

1 clove of garlic, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 quart vegetable stock
1½ pounds all-purpose potatoes, cut into 3/4-inch chunks
2 cups watercress, lightly packed
¼ cup fat free half and half
¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan, plus extra for garnish

In a small stockpot over medium heat sauté the scallion and onion in the oil along with ½ teaspoon of salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Cook until soft and just turning golden brown, about 3 minutes. 

Add the stock and potatoes. Bring to a boil, and then lower the heat slightly. Cover and simmer for about 1o minutes, or until the potatoes are just soft. Add the watercress and continue to cook another 5 minutes. 

Remove from heat and cool for about 10 minutes. Using either a stand or stick blender puree the soup. Add the half and half, Parmesan and puree a little more. Check for seasoning.

To serve, reheat gently and top with a little more cheese. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving Leftovers

Every year we sit down and give thanks for all that is good in our lives. I am particularly thankful for many things this year: that my parents and Larry's are with us this year, and in relatively good health. The same goes for our respective siblings and their families. Larry and I are both thankful that our daughter Elinor has graduated from college and is striking out on her own in Denver. (Although we would be more thankful if she was in New York - but finding her own voice and path are important.)

I was thinking in this week's post it would be fun to come up with a couple of  ideas for your leftovers this weekend. Bear in mind that you should really try to use up your leftovers within 3 or 4 days. After that you run the risk of your food developing bacteria and making you sick. (We don't want that!)

I'm starting with three leftover ingredients: turkey (of course!), acorn squash and my sweet potato's from last week.  


Let's first talk about the binder I will be using: it's a Velouté Sauce. Velouté is one of the five Mother Sauces. It's made with a vegetable, chicken or beef stock and thickened using butter and flour. "Velouté" translated means "velvety" which is your goal with this sauce.

First up is my Tex-Mex Pot Pie. I have a recipe for this below as well, but you can add whatever ingredients you have on hand. (Use my list as a guideline for quantities.) Since I am using the sweet potatoes I created last week I wanted to use ingredients that would work with the base chipotle flavor.

First I sautéed the red onion and bell pepper; then added the black beans. At the last minute I remembered I had some frozen corn and added that too. Once the beans and corn were warmed up I tossed in the turkey, stock and chili powder. Tasted for seasoning and was quite happy. Before I go any further let me say that this concoction can be easily used in a warm corn tortilla and topped with a little salsa and cheese too.


After I placed the filling in an oven-proof ramekin I got to work on my topping. I simply placed the potatoes in the bowl of my mixer and whipped them with a little Fat Free Half and Half. No fuss!

Then pipe the potatoes over the filling and bake at 350° for 20 minutes. Every part of this works in unison - needless to say I was very happy when I dug into it!

My second idea is a play on Turkey Tetrazzini. After doing a little research on this dish I found a few fun facts about how the dish was created. The dish is named after an opera singer from the turn of the century named Luisa TetrazziniIt seems that a chef in San Francisco created and named the dish after her. I could not find definitive  information that the story was true, but I did enjoy reading a little about her.

With tetrazzini in mind I decided to go the vegetable route for this dish. (You can find any number of recipes on line and in cookbooks for the turkey version.) I used acorn squash, but this would work perfectly with any squash or even a vegetable like green beans or broccoli. The other ingredient of note is a relatively new Barilla pasta product called Barilla Plus. It's a multigrain pasta that has great flavor; unlike whole grain pastas that, in my opinion, taste like cardboard. The flavor of this is subtle enough that your family won't even know you are using it - and it ends up being a great option with it's legume/grain blend of flax seed, oats, barley, lentils and chickpeas. With it's "hint of nutty flavor" it works beautifully with this dish.

I added vidalia onion to the roux to give the sauce more flavor. In addition, the sauce is slightly thinner because you are going to finish cooking the pasta in it, and then it will thicken it up. The squash get's mixed in at the end and topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and parsley.

I hope you enjoy these leftover Thanksgiving recipes, and please consider passing along any others you have for me. It's always great to hear what people come up with from their table.

I wish you all a peaceful Thanksgiving filled with fun, family and good food!

Buon Appetito!

Velouté Sauce
Makes 2 cups

3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups chicken stock
Kosher salt
Freshly ground white pepper

In a saucepan, over medium heat, melt the butter. Whisk in the flour and cook for 2 minutes. Whisk in the stock, ½ cup at a time incorporating after each addition to keep it  smooth. Season with salt and pepper. 

Bring the liquid to a boil and reduce the heat to a low simmer and cook for 15 minutes. 

Remove from the heat and serve. If not using right away place in a bowl and cover with a layer of plastic wrap (don't worry, it won't melt!) to keep a skin from forming. Cool completely and place in the refrigerator until ready to use.  

Leftover Turkey Tex-Mex Pot Pies 
Makes 4 - 8 ounce ramekins

1/2 cup red onion, 1/4" dice
1/2 cup yellow bell pepper, 1/4" dice
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Ground black pepper
1/2 cup canned black beans, rinsed
1/2 cup frozen corn
2 cups chopped cooked turkey, or chicken
1 cup room temperature veloute sauce (recipe above)
1 tablespoon chili powder
1/4 cup roughly chopped cilantro
1/2 cup Mexican Blend Shredded Cheese (I like Sargento Reduced Fat 4 Cheese Mexican)

2 1/2 cups leftover sweet potato chunks
1/4 cup Fat Free Half and Half 
Toasted pepitas for garnish

Saute the onion, pepper and garlic over medium heat with olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of pepper. Cook until golden brown. Stir in the beans, corn, turkey and cook for 1 minute. Turn off the heat and stir in the veloute sauce and chili powder combining well. Add in the cilantro and divide evenly between 4 - 8 ounce oven proof ramekins. Top with 2 tablespoons each of cheese and set aside. 

Place the sweet potatoes in the bowl of a standing mixer with the cream. Whip for 2 minutes on medium speed to get them soft and fluffy. Scrap out and into a pastry bag or a 1 quart zip lock bag and cut off a corner. 

Pipe the potatoes over the turkey filling making a circular design. Top with a few toasted pepitas and place in a preheated 350 degree oven for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and cool for 5 minutes and serve. 

Squash Tetrazzini
Serves 8-10

11/2 cups of Vidalia onion, 1/4" dice, about 1/2 of an onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 tablespoons butter
Kosher salt
Ground white pepper
4 tablespoons flour
4 cups vegetable stock
1 box Barilla Plus Spaghetti
4 cups cooked squash, cut in 2" pieces
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese, divided
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

Sweat the onion and garlic with the butter over medium heat. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon of white pepper. Cook until the onions are translucent and soft, about 5 minutes. Add the flour and whisk to incorporate. Cook for 1 minute.

Add the room temperature stock 1 cup at a time, whisking to incorporate. Cook for about 5 minutes on medium heat, whisking frequently so the bottom does not burn. 

Meanwhile, put a medium pot of water on to boil and add 2 tablespoons of salt. Once it begins to boil add the pasta and cook for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes drain the pasta reserving 2 cups of pasta water and add to the sauce. It'e very important to save a little of the pasta water - you may need it to thin out the pasta later. 

Continue cooking another 4 minutes in the sauce and taste. The pasta should be al dente. Turn off the heat and add the squash and half of the cheese. Toss to combine. 

Pour the pasta into a shallow serving bowl and toss in the parsley. If the pasta seems a little stiff add a little of the pasta water to loosen it up. Top with remaining cheese and serve.