The wired kitchen

My kitchen, as some of you know, is filled with cookbooks – in fact, I can’t help but picture my overloaded shelves of cookbooks anytime someone seems skeptical about a vegetarian kitchen. Believe me, there’s plenty to do without meat!
Some of those cookbooks are indispensible – the Rose Elliot Complete Vegetarian, the Moosewood collection, and the The Bread Lover’s Bread Machine Cookbook, for instance, all of which are consulted almost weekly. Others are great to have on hand for “special” occasions, and others are, sadly, very rarely cracked open.
We’ve been experimenting with the Jamie Oliver, finding ways to un-meat his recipes, and with great success. The chicken tofu chow mein is great, and tonight we’re trying his British beef ground round and onion pie.
Despite the ridiculous number of cookbooks, or perhaps because of it, we’re also trying to go digital in the kitchen. We are wirelessly online, and thanks to the vast array of cooking sites, it’s pretty easy to crack open a laptop instead of a book. One of my favourite sites is Epicurious, which features recipes from a decade of Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines, and has a great search engine, as well as members’ recipe boxes, excellent commenters, and mouth-watering photos, not to mention wine pairings and elaborate – or not so – menus.
My most recent Epicurious experiment was Chilaquiles – the tomatillos required are a green version of the yellow ground tomatoes* that are readily available this time of year at our local market. The recipe instructions for this one are misleading, though, so if you make it, read through first. I suggest blanching the tomatillos and the sweet potatoes while frying the tortillas, for instance; the instructions make it sound like everything has to be done one step at a time, which would mean a much longer process.
*Another fantastic site is the Cook’s Thesaurus; thanks to CT, I knew what to get for ‘tomatillos’! Half my cookbooks are from the UK, and the terms are not always the same as we use in Canada or the States (courgettes/zucchini, for instance). I also love Indian recipes, and frequently find myself consulting CT for insight into the required ingredients. CT is also a wonderful resource in a bilingual city – it’s often very handy to know alternative names for products when the grocer’s first language is not English.
Any cookbooks and/or cooking web site you can’t live without?

See the world through multicoloured glasses

Sometimes cheap ends up being brilliant – for instance, my latest (and only) party tip: if you’re serving cocktails, hit your local charity shop(s) ahead of time and buy an assortment of glasses.
The key is to deliberately mismatch the glasses – there should be no two the same. Come partytime, each guest gets to choose a unique glass, and keep track of it all evening.
Once the party is over, you can store the glasses for another time, or simply bring them right back to the charity shop. Either way, you can feel (a) brilliant for finding a simple way to tell everyone’s drinks apart and (b) virtuous for reusing someone else’s cast-off glassware and supporting local charities.

It is easy, right?

As I tossed a handful of chopped fresh cilantro into the hot and soup soup I’m making for tonight’s supper, the thought crossed my mind that this soup, like so many of my stand-by recipes, is really easy. In fact, when I posted the recipe, I called it Hot & Sour & Easy.
Then I started to second guess myself. Not about the cooking that was actually underway, but about the casual “oh, that’s easy” attitude I have to most of the things I cook. Initially, I thought, well, it’s really just a matter of having a well-equipped kitchen and a well-stocked pantry – and these are certainly essential to the process, as I have mentioned in previous ramblings.
But then I thought about baking.
I have a well-stocked kitchen – a whole cupboard, in fact referred to in our family as “the baking cupboard”, filled with different flours, different sugars, different rising agents, different baking pans, and different dried things to throw in to one’s cookies/breads/muffins/cakes.
I have a well-equipped kitchen – a Kitchenaid stand mixer, a large oven with convection, whisks in a variety of shapes and sizes, a digital scale, and so on.
Yet the thought of baking, while it does not, perhaps, fill me with dread, certainly does not appeal to me the way cooking does. I love to cook, but I barely like to bake. My cakes are not spectacular. My cookies tend to be on one side or the other of ‘just right.’ My bread is great – but that’s because I let the Ferrari of breadmakers take care of it.
I do not bake to relax (which is probably just as well, at least as far as my waistline is concerned). Baking is not easy.
And custard is just plain mean.
So, when it comes to cooking, I wonder if the things that I think are easy are, in fact, not, really, or at least not for everyone.
And that led me to wonder two things about you (i.e, the two or three people who actually read my posts all the way to the end):
1. What do you find easy that other people might not?
2. What do you find perpetually not so easy?

Double-edged sword

It occurred to me, following the potimarron post, that I have a kitchen tip:
This is a grapefruit knife. It is, as you may know, serrated along both edges, and curved at the tip, which makes it easy to cut the wedges out of your half-grapefruit.
That’s not my tip.
I use my grapefruit knife to deseed squash – works a treat! Just halve your squash and insert the blade into the flesh and saw around the seed/pulp pocket. For a squash with a small pocket, like a butternut or potimarron, you should be able to get the whole pocket in one go, and pop it out intact.
You can use a similar technique with larger squash, like pumpkins, working in sections.

Recent acquisition #1: Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution

In the past week, three new and exciting things have found their way into my kitchen: a book, a machine, and an ingredient.
The first of these is Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. I am a Jamie fan. Although I’ve never watched any of his television shows (I think I caught ten minutes of one), I have eaten at his Italian restaurant three times, and loved the experience – Not just the food, but the ambience, the great balance between old-school cookery and high-tech gadgetry, and one of the best Pimm’s & lemonade I’ve ever tasted. (Of course, I do object to the title The Naked Chef. There is no nudity – it’s a crock-tease.)
I also like his philosophy, and how he puts his money where his mouth is. He believes that low income is not an excuse for bad food; nor is no time, no skill, no experience, and so on. He goes to schools in the UK and teaches the children about nutrition, and teaches the cooking staff how to make better, more nutritious food on the same budget.
One of the best meals I had at the restaurant was his Penne Arrabiata, which I’ve mentioned before. I liked it so much that I went and found it online, and from there, discovered some of his other recipes, many of which are from his book Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food, which supplements his television show of the same name.

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Recent acquisition #2: the Ferrari of breadmakers

Before we bought our first breadmaker, we hemmed and hawed, because (a) breadmakers are not cheap, (b) they are large and take up a lot of space, and (c) we weren’t convinced that we’d use it. After all, we’ve all come home with a fancy new kitchen appliance, like a juicer or yoghurt maker, used it once or twice, and then relegated it to some underused corner of the kitchen, resenting the space it occupies as it gathers dust.
We have now owned at least five breadmakers.
We make bread often. Dr. T uses the machine to make the dough for his awesome pizzas. I make our hamburger buns from dough made in the machine.
So when our old reliable breadmaker finally stopped being so reliable, I did some research into the best bang for one’s buck, breadmaker-wise. Based on consumer reviews, I found Zojirushi, a brand I had never heard of before, and fell in love.

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Recent acquisition #3: It’s a what?

Our lovely friend Darie is visiting from Switzerland, and she brought me a new ingredient (the fact that Darie knew that bringing me something to cook with would be well received is one of the things that makes her so lovely).
She brought me a potimarron.
I knew it was a squash, at least! The name ‘potimarron’ apparently is a portmanteau derived from the European French word for pumpkin, ‘potiron,’ and ‘marron,’ which means chestnut.
I used it in an Indian ratatouille (recipe from the Moosewood collection, naturally) that also features eggplant and orange juice, flavoured with coriander and cumin. The recipe calls for zucchini or yellow squash, and I have made it more than once with my favourite squash, butternut. The potimarron was an interesting switch – I didn’t peel it, as per Darie’s instructions, but the peel was tender and unresistant. The flesh was slightly nutty, and definitely reminiscent of pumpkin, so clearly the potimarron is well-named.

As long as everything is apple-based, we’re fine

Next week is the 16th edition of Pointe à Callière’s 18th Century Public Market in the Place Royale in Old Montreal.
Markets are enjoying a renaissance in Montreal, it seems, and there’s a growing number of truly local, seasonal markets. Of course, we have our big, wonderful, stalwarts, like the Atwater market (walking distance from home) and the Jean Talon market, but it’s interesting to see that in many neighbourhoods, tiny local markets are springing up. Most are weekly or even monthly, and most are only open from May to September, but it’s nice to see.
In places like our borough of Verdun, for instance, lower incomes usually mean a vicious circle of low quality produce – people cannot afford high-end supermarket prices, so we end up with low-end supermarkets, which naturally stock the second or third-grade produce, not to mention the cheap junk food. More calories, fewer dollars – this is how low-income families end up not eating well.
So local markets, stocking local, seasonal produce, offer cheap, good food. Yay!
Now, the downside to this is that we’re in Quebec. This is not a political statement, it is a geographical statement. The sad fact is, there isn’t much fresh local produce for at least four months of the year, unless we count apples (which apparently, and weirdly, grow year-round).
We love the idea of eating local, but we’re also committed to our weekly menu strategy – every Saturday, while we sip coffee and read our electronic paper, we plan the supper menu for the week, then compile the grocery list based on that menu. This means we only buy what we need for the week, rather than getting to the end of the week and regretfully chucking what was once a really lovely fresh vegetable.
So my quandary with the local market idea was that the menu-based shopping list means NOT being seduced by the prettiest vegetables, but knowing ahead of time what we need – but local means that what we need isn’t necessarily on hand…
Then I found SOS Cuisine, one of a few sites that list what’s available when, according to the growing and harvesting season. The SOS Cuisine site has the added advantage of links to recipes for all the produce, as well as a ‘forecast’ of what’s going to be in season over the next three weeks.
Tada! Now we can check out what’s likely to be on offer at the local market, plan the menu accordingly, and prepare our list as usual. We’ll try not to be too smug 🙂

Of penne, Parmesan and planes

Tonight, supper is Jamie Oliver’s Penne Arrabiata, which, I think, epitomizes Jamie’s nakedness: good, simple, food. Preparing this dish is really no harder than opening a jar of prepared sauce, as long as you know how to chop an onion (although I have to admit I am not impressed with the actual writing of the recipe – it’s not clear whether or not the tomatoes are meant to be drained (assume no, given 25-30 minutes of simmering), and the order of the ingredients does not match the order of instructions. Mind you, I spent today discussing how to grade essays with my colleagues, so it is remotely possible that I am hypercritical at the moment).
While the sauce simmers and the penne al dentes, I’m taking a few minutes for some blogging directly from the kitchen – which kind of brings me to my point.
It was while I was planing the Parmesan that it occurred to me that (a) I rarely discuss kitchen equipment, if ever, and (b) this is because my kitchen is perfect. I have cooked in other kitchens, and I have decided that one’s kitchen is an incredibly personal space. No one else’s kitchen really satisfies me – there’s always some key tool missing, or some organizational decision that leaves me baffled. But in my kitchen, every thing I need is there, in the place it most logically belongs. I even designed the actual space – our house is over 100 years old, and the original layout of the kitchen was, frankly, ridiculous. So around the same time that Robert (son #2) came along, we invested what seemed like an astronomical amount of money in the kitchen – and it’s truly perfect.
I assume that people who don’t cook, or who do, but reluctantly or resentfully, don’t have the same relationship with their kitchens. My kitchen is, I think, more intimate a space for me than my home office or my bedroom (certain moments naturally excepted). It makes me a little anxious to have other people cooking in my kitchen. It really grates on my nerves when certain husbands who shall remain nameless play the wrong kind of music in the kitchen.
Part of what makes my kitchen so perfect is that I am, it must be said, (probably) over-equipped. The Parmesan? Once upon a time, we used pre-grated Parmesan (oh the shame – yes, it was K-word brand). Now, in my perfect kitchen, our penne will be topped with freshly planed Parmesan, thanks to my microplane grater. I have two knife blocks, because that’s how many knives I have – and most of those are Henkels. I have a big microwave – big enough that it required a custom-built cabinet. Ditto the fridge – which has a bottom-mount freezer, another of my must-haves.
I could go on and on (and you may feel I already have). Suffice it to say that I love my kitchen, as a cooking space and as a living space.
Now it’s your turn – what makes your kitchen your kitchen?

New link

For Christmas I gave Nicole the Food Substitutions Bible, which I think is a great book (which I don’t yet own, hint, hint), even if it does seem to include many, many things for which I doubt I’ll ever need a substitute, such as kangaroo meat.
Today I discovered an online equivalent (yes, a substitute for the substitute book). Next time you’re at a loss, check out The Cook’s Thesaurus.