Archives for March 2011

Information that can help you when buying knives

The way knife makers talk about their knives you would think they were forged by magical elves in underground laboratories protected like Fort Knox. There is a lot of secrecy regarding the exact technique and formulation of their blades, but the specifics aren’t of too great importance when going to buy a knife (although learning even more won’t hurt you if you’re interested in such things).

A simple understanding of traditional materials and personal taste will usually be enough to guide you through the purchasing process:

Steel

Steel knives are an alloy of iron mixed with carbon. Most manufacturers use a few other elements, like nickel, silicon, manganese, and tungsten, that they typically keep under lock and key, like a secret recipe. There are different grades of steel, and the quality of the knife blade is dependent upon the grade, how it was forged (or, in some cases, cast), and how its edge was initially established. The less treated blades are more likely to rust (change back into iron oxide) and stain. Steel manufacturing has advanced a great deal in the past 20 years, so modern steel knives are less likely to rust than older ones. Steel knife blades can warp and their edges can dull quite easily (compared to other knife blade materials). However, they don’t break (like ceramic blades can) and are very flexible, which is great for some types of knives (like boning knives).

Stainless steel

Stainless steel knives are iron and chromium (an element that reduces the incidence of the blade rusting). If shopping for stainless steel knife blades, look for a martensitic stainless steel because that means there is also carbon in the blade that increases strength.

Carbon steel

Carbon-steel knives are a more accurate name for steel knives.

High carbon stainless steel

High carbon stainless steel is a type of stainless steel knife, but with more carbon than a standard steel blade. The benefits of a high carbon stainless steel are that these knives don’t rust like steel blades and they retain their sharpness longer than stainless steel blades. They tend to be more brittle than their metal peers, but they don’t typically break or chip like ceramic blades can.

Ceramic

Ceramic knives are usually made of an engineered zirconia ceramic, a substance more than four times stronger than stainless steel. As a result, they stay sharp significantly longer than all other blades and tend to cost more than their peers. Ceramic blades also don’t react with foods the way metal knives might. However, they cannot be washed in the dishwasher, as the mechanical washing process is likely to chip the knife or cause it to become more brittle. The blades do not bend and you can snap them if pressure is applied across the blade. They are very well suited for cutting fibrous vegetables that quickly dull other knives.

So what should I buy?

I can’t tell you which knives to buy because they really come down to personal preferences. I like a high carbon stainless steel knife for my 10″ chef’s knife and a ceramic knife to use on vegetables. I have a carbon-steel carving knife that I inherited from my grandfather that I love, but will probably replace it with a high carbon stainless steel one if I ever damage it.

Try out different types of knives in your friends’ kitchens to see what you like before buying. Also, I recommend buying knives online because you can usually get a better price than you might at a place like Williams-Sonoma. Also, check out restaurant supply stores and shops in New York’s Chinatown for good deals.

Customizable braised chicken lettuce wraps

Living in an RV means I don’t get to entertain guests very often. At the most, I’ve had a total of four people at once in my little home on wheels. However, it’s hard to ignore the joy I feel when I can help create a happy atmosphere of good food, kickin’ tunes, and drinks to keep the party going. A few weeks ago, I got to cook for a little get together at my friend’s place in Phoenix, using their kitchen to prepare dinner. I brought most of my own ingredients and the evening ended with wide smiles and full bellies.

Some concepts about entertaining began to flower in my head after that night, which is also where I got the idea to write about simplified menu construction for parties. Here are some more tips which have sprouted from that experience.

  • Get your guests involved and speed up the prep of vegetables by asking for help. Assuming you know your guests, it shouldn’t be too tough to round up some assistance. Using your own knife and cutting board first, demonstrate the size, shape, and cutting technique that your helper can copy. Give them a knife and cutting board and watch how quickly the prep gets done.
  • Demonstrate a technique or cooking process, stopping at important parts to show guests what’s going on in your pan. Talk about how you like to develop flavors in your cooking and what ingredient combinations you’ve enjoyed lately. Encourage guests to share as well.
  • Let guests taste as you go to whet their appetites and build anticipation for the finished product.
  • Create a meal with plenty of personal customizations so your guests can build exactly what they want. Recipes like tacos, fajitas, or lettuce wraps are all perfect for this because you can include a wide assortment of additions for endless adaptations.

This last point is directly related to the dinner I created for my friends a few weeks ago, which was when I put together some braised chicken lettuce wraps. I wanted to create a super moist and flavorful chicken filling with lots of optional additions to make the wraps customizable.

I accomplished this by including little bowls of diced cucumber, tomato, sliced green olives, and some hummus I whipped up earlier using a modified version of Erin’s recipe. My friends provided some of their own additional condiments as well, like some Sambal Oelek (a spicy chile and garlic sauce) which gave the wraps a welcome kick. The customizable nature of the wraps let us try different amounts of each ingredient which is something we all loved.

Braised Chicken Lettuce Wraps

(makes roughly 15 – 20 wraps)

  • 3 tsp coriander seed
  • 3 tsp cumin seed
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp pepper
  • 1 whole chicken, skin removed and cut into eight pieces (or 4 leg portions separated into drumsticks and thighs)
  • 2 tsp canola oil
  • 1/3 cup water or chicken broth
  • 1 head butter lettuce, washed and separated into individual leaves
  • 2 cups hummus
  • 1 1/2 cups diced cucumber
  • 1 1/2 cups diced tomato
  • 1 cup sliced green olives

Preheat oven to 375ºF.

Toast the coriander and cumin over medium high heat in a pan until fragrant (about two minutes) then transfer to a coffee grinder and pulse until powdery. Mix this with the salt and pepper then rub into the chicken pieces.

Heat a dutch oven over medium heat on a stove burner and add 1 tsp canola oil. Cook chicken pieces in two batches until each side is golden brown (roughly four minutes per side, flipping once), using more oil as needed. If using a whole chicken, cut into pieces, arrange dark meat as the bottom layer of the dutch oven, then add white meat on top. No specific layering is needed if you are only using leg portions. Add the water or broth, cover, than transfer to the oven. Allow to braise for 45 minutes, or until chicken is falling off the bone.

Meanwhile, gather and arrange all other ingredients using individual bowls, lining them up for easy lettuce wrap assembly. Leave a space at the beginning of the line for the chicken when it comes out of the oven.

When chicken is done, transfer it to a cold plate and roughly break apart the largest pieces using two forks. When it has cooled enough to touch, use your fingers to remove and discard bones and cartilage while further breaking up the meat. Return meat to dutch oven with braising liquid and place with the other lettuce wrap ingredients. Enjoy with friends.

Honing your knife skills

On the advice of a professional chef, I took a knife skills class about a year ago. The class was through a local recreational cooking school, and was targeted toward people who love to cook and want to learn to wield a knife like a professional.

The class was phenomenal and certainly worth the $80 I paid in tuition. However, like all new skills, you have to practice them to get better. I found myself wishing I could be a vegetable prep cook on a line in a busy restaurant so I could have a continuous supply of produce to use for practice. Obviously that isn’t the case, so I’m still working on many of the skills to improve my speed and accuracy.

If you have a local cooking school that offers knife skills classes, specifically hands-on classes instead of demonstrations, I strongly recommend taking the class. If you feel comfortable using a knife in the kitchen, look for a class like I took that moves beyond the basics and helps to improve speed and accuracy as well as advanced techniques.

In the meantime, or if you don’t have a cooking school near you, check out chef Roger Mooking’s video on basic knife skills. All home chefs can benefit from reviewing and learning these techniques:

If you can’t see the video automatically, check out the clip on YouTube directly.

I’m also considering getting a cutting board with measurements on it to help improve my visual accuracy while cutting.

How have you worked to improve your knife skills over the years? Share your resources in the comments.

Questions for Cooks: Open air fruit and vegetable storage

Reader Help (do you think it’s his/her real name?) submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

How can I properly store my non-refrigerated produce without forgetting about it so long it goes bad? I have individual bins in a dark place for potatoes, onions, and garlic. However, my counters are covered with winter squash, apples, oranges, bananas, avocado, etc. We go through it quickly enough that I don’t need to refrigerate it (no room in the fridge), but leaving it all out on the counter isn’t working.

My grandmother’s farm had a root cellar for exactly these types of foods. Fruits and vegetables seemed to last all winter down there, well, if we could keep the rodents and snakes from taking up residence. Since you wrote in with this question, though, I’m going to assume you don’t have a spare root cellar on your property you just happened to forget you owned.

If you’re a hardcore homesteader and live in a cold climate, you can build a root cellar in an unfinished basement or in your backyard. I didn’t get the hardcore homesteader vibe from you, however.

For those of us who regularly visit grocery stores and who live in cities or suburbia, fruit bowls on tables and a cupboard shelf dedicated to vegetables are probably more our style. Fruit bowls are great when left in areas where people gather and snack. And, a shelf in a kitchen cupboard is typically dry and dark, which are good for the vegetables.

Air circulation is really important for fruits and vegetables. They need it to dissipate the ethylene gas that they give off as they age. On a table, fruits shouldn’t have an issue since they’re in the open air. Rotate the fruits in the bowl, though, so a piece isn’t at the bottom for days on end. In a cupboard, vegetables will need some air circulation to stay fresher longer — so put them in a cupboard you access at least once a day. (Plus, you won’t forget about them if they’re in a cupboard you regularly open.) Also, line the shelf with fruit shelf liner to help air circulate beneath the veggies.

For both fruits and vegetables, if you notice anything rotting, immediately remove it from the bowl or shelf. The increased production of ethylene gas during the rotting process will make the foods around it ripen and rot faster than they normally would. Conversely, if you want a green banana to ripen faster, stick it in a closed paper bag with an older apple. Apples give off high amounts of ethylene gas and will help speed up the ripening process of the banana.

Thank you, Help, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. Check the comments for even more ideas from our readers.

Do you have any unresolved questions about cooking styles, methods, ingredients, gadgets, meal planning, or anything even closely related to resolving stress or confusion in the kitchen? If so, send us your questions and we’ll find you an answer. If we don’t know the answer, we’ll send it out to a specialist who can, and we’ll all learn something! To submit your questions to Questions for Cooks, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Questions for Cooks.” Share as many details as possible — the more information we have about your specific question, the better.

Simplified menu construction for parties

Ever been to a dinner gathering where some friends cook and you can choose what you want from a menu that they’ve created? I seriously love this kind of party. Back in the day, a friend of mine prepared and served up made-to-order sushi for guests at a New Years Eve party. Along with great drinks and a wonderful atmosphere, the occasion was made extra special by those little printed menus and his simple but beautiful food presentations. Giving guests an option seems to keep everyone happy.

That is, of course, unless your menu is overly complicated. It may sound appealing to provide your guests with a list of all of your favorites to accommodate as many preferences as possible, but if you include too many wildly different options you’ll end up going crazy with all the preparation and planning. But, there’s a solution to keeping it simple while maintaining the happy variety of a menu.

Plan out entree and appetizer ideas that could share a base recipe, providing the central ingredients used for all the menu options. Cooking a large quantity of the base recipe gives you a platform from which you will build variations and menu choices. Here are some examples:

The following dishes use roasted tomatoes and garlic

  • Penne with Parmesan Sauteed Zucchini and Roasted Tomato Sauce (vegetarian)
  • Crispy Baked Trout Topped with Yogurt and Dill on a Bed of Arugula with Roasted Tomatoes

These recipes are listed at the end of this post.

The following dishes use oven braised chicken

  • Linguine with chicken and mushrooms in a tomato cream sauce
  • Chipotle chicken tacos with tomato-lime salsa and sour cream
  • Braised chicken and and Monterrey Jack cheese stuffed enchiladas topped with red and green chile sauces

These three recipes will appear in an upcoming SimpliFried post.

Look to your favorite restaurant menus for inspiration when writing your own. Be descriptive, so your menu can build anticipation in your guests when they read a detailed explanation of the care that goes into your cooking.

My first example above benefits by accommodating a vegetarian option, so I thought I’d use it to show how these recipes come together. What’s more, the base recipe can provide a theme for your gathering.

Roasted Tomatoes and Garlic

(makes roughly 4 portions for use in either dish)

  • 6 large tomatoes
  • 6 large garlic cloves still in their peel
  • 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper

Preheat oven to 325ºF and prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.

Remove stem from tomatoes, then cut them in half across their equator. Scoop out and discard seeds and pulp. Arrange tomatoes on baking sheet cut side up. Scatter garlic cloves on baking sheet as well. Evenly drizzle olive oil on tomatoes, then add salt and pepper.

Bake for one hour, or until tomatoes are browned, wilted, and are starting to fall apart. Cool and reserve for further applications.

Penne with Parmesan Sauteed Zucchini and Roasted Tomato Sauce (vegetarian)

(serves four)

  • 1 lb box penne pasta
  • 3 large zucchini, cut into 1/2 inch coins (roughly 1.5 lbs)
  • 1.5 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 Tbs Italian seasoning blend
  • 3 cups roasted tomatoes
  • 6 cloves roasted garlic
  • 2 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper

In a large pot, bring some salted water to a boil and add the penne. Cook for nine minutes, or until al dente.

Meanwhile, combine Parmesan cheese with Italian seasoning blend in a bowl and mix well.

Bring a pan up to temperature over medium heat. Add the zucchini in one layer (working in batches), then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add a big pinch of the cheese mixture to the tops of each piece of zucchini. Cook for five minutes, then flip each piece of zucchini so the cheese mixture is touching the pan. Cook for another two to three minutes, then use a plastic spatula to remove zucchini from pan. The cheese mixture should adhere and become crispy. Slice each piece in half and reserve.

Strain pasta and reserve a half cup of the cooking water.

Add the roasted garlic, roasted tomatoes, and reserved pasta water to the pot used for cooking the penne and bring to a simmer over medium low heat. Using a stick blender, puree into a slightly chunky sauce. Turn off heat, adjust seasoning, then add the red wine vinegar.

Divide pasta between the plates, add the sauce, zucchini, and any remaining cheese mixture.

Crispy Baked Trout Topped with Yogurt and Dill on a Bed of Arugula and Roasted Tomatoes

(serves four)

  • 1 lb trout filet cut into 1/4 lb portions
  • 3 Tbl extra virgin olive oil
  • the juice from half a lemon
  • 3 roasted garlic cloves
  • 10 cups arugula
  • 2 cups roasted tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh dill, chopped fine
  • 3/4 cup unflavored Greek yogurt
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper

Preheat oven to 500ºF and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.

Evenly arrange trout portions on baking sheet, leaving a two inch gap between each. Liberally rub 1 Tbl of the oil into each trout portion, then season with salt and pepper. Bake for roughly 11 minutes, turning once, or until the fish flakes easily. The surface should be bubbling and crisp. Let cool uncovered for four minutes.

In a large mixing bowl mash the roasted garlic into a paste using a fork. Then whisk this with the lemon juice and remaining 2 Tbl olive oil and a dash of salt. Add the arugula, roasted tomatoes, and dill. Toss to combine.

Divide the arugula mixture between the plates then add the trout. Top each portion with a generous dollop of the Greek yogurt and garnish with more dill.

Embracing or ignoring the tradition of two sets of dinnerware

I went to a tea party this past weekend in honor of my friend Caroline who is having her second child. The hostess of the party took her china down from the top shelves of her kitchen cabinets for the event and said she was glad to “have a chance to use it.”

I know having two sets of plates is common practice in the U.S., one for using every day and one for using on special occasions, but I’m not a practitioner of this tradition. For starters, we didn’t have cabinet space in our previous home to store more than one set. And, the second reason is because I would rather use my china every day.

Our china is made by Wedgwood and is their White pattern:

The pattern has been produced by Wedgwood since 1920 (not surprisingly, around the same time wedding registries became popular through department stores), so if we need a replacement piece it is extremely easy to find one on Replacements.com. In 10 years, though, we’ve only had to replace one plate. It’s also dishwasher and microwave safe, and bone china is more durable than porcelain and stoneware. Plus, we’ve never had a problem with it staining.

Our 21-month-old son even eats off it.

Most bone china is similar and is made to be used every day. In fact, it can last many lifetimes. The exception to this is bone china with platinum, silver, or gold bands that have to be hand-washed and are unsafe in the microwave.

If you have china in storage, what keeps you from using it? Are you like me and have ignored the tradition of having two sets of dinnerware? I’m interested in knowing what resides in your cupboards.

Simple Green Chile Soup

Growing up in Kansas, the mountains of Colorado called to me from across the plains.

“Ski!” they demanded.

I couldn’t ignore their siren song, and so I drove across the state line and I skied.

During college, I once passed up the lodge experience and chose to house sit for a couple who lived near the resort. The couple made soup the night before they went on their trip, and they left a note explaining I was welcome to dine on the leftovers if I didn’t want to go into town.

Since I had just shelled out a hundred bucks for my week-long lift ticket and was ravenous after a day on the slopes, I was happy to save a few dollars and eat the soup.

It was the best soup I had ever eaten. At the time, I was convinced I was giving it such high marks because I was so hungry anything would have tasted incredible. I ate all of it. Every last, scrumptious drop.

After returning back to Kansas, I found myself still thinking about the soup. I was curious to know if the soup was really as good as I remembered it was, so I called the couple and asked if they could mail me the recipe.

There might be a little nostalgia in my taste buds, but it really is an incredible soup. It’s perfect after a day of skiing or any time you want a hearty soup to satisfy your hunger. Best of all, it’s a perfect soup for busy folks who don’t want to spend a lot of time in the kitchen.

Green Chile Soup

  • 2 to 3 lbs. chuck roast
  • 3 10-1/2 oz. cans chicken broth (or similar box broth equivalent)
  • 2 7 oz. cans chopped green chiles
  • 1 20 oz. can Ro-Tel brand diced tomatoes original style
  • 1 15 oz. can refried beans

Fill a crockpot with 1/4″ of water. On high, cook the chuck roast completely until it falls apart (in my crockpot, this usually takes three to four hours). Drain off the water, remove the fat, and shred up the roast. Pour in the cans of broth, the chopped green chiles, Ro-Tel tomatoes, and refried beans. Let the soup simmer on high for an hour, and then turn the crockpot to low until you are ready to eat (but I wouldn’t exceed five hours). We usually serve the soup with warm flour tortillas or tortilla chips, and grated cheddar cheese.

Staple secrets: Mashed potatoes

On a road trip during college, driving northeast about an hour out of St. Louis, I spotted a billboard that asked, “When was the last time you had real mashed potatoes?”

I repeated the question from the billboard aloud after I passed it and let out a big chuckle. I didn’t notice if the advertisement was for a restaurant or the U.S. Potato Board or exactly why it wanted to know about my relationship with mashed potatoes. It struck me as an odd billboard, though, and I’ve never forgotten the inquiry.

It has been more than 15 years since I saw that sign, and still it comes to mind whenever I’m making mashed potatoes. And, since I love mashed potatoes, I’ve thought about real mashed potatoes and that sign quite extensively.

Potatoes aren’t winning any first-place medals for nutrition (one large potato contains almost a quarter of your daily recommended carbohydrates), but they are rich in potassium, vitamin C, and dietary fiber. Assuming you aren’t eating mashed potatoes at every meal every day, I think they’re a great occasional side dish that fills you up, makes you happy, and gives your body energy. (You’ll also be able to answer the question about when the last time was you had real mashed potatoes!)

When I make mashed potatoes, I start by bringing a large pot of water to boil on the stove on high heat. Then, I peel three large Russet potatoes and cut them into 2″ cubes. The size of the cubes isn’t especially important — 1″ or 2.5″ or 3″ are fine — just make the cubes all the same size as each other so they can cook at the same rate.

Dump the potato cubes into the boiling water, turn the burner down to low, and cover. Twenty or 30 minutes later, you should have potatoes that a fork easily pierces without any effort. Strain the water and get out a large serving bowl.

I like to mash my potatoes using a ricer instead of a masher. I do this because the ricer takes extremely less effort than the masher, and because I think it makes the mashed potatoes lighter and less heavy. I put the mashed potatoes into the serving bowl temporarily at this point.

Once I’ve riced the potatoes, I melt half a stick of butter (salted) and 4 oz of cream cheese in the pot over low heat. When melted, I turn off the burner, add the potatoes back to the pot, and give everything a good stir. This is the point where I might also add 1/2 cup of shredded sharp cheddar cheese, crumbled bacon, two tablespoons of chives, and/or two cloves of minced roasted garlic. I usually let the eater add finishing salt instead of adding during the cooking process.

How do you make mashed potatoes? What are your favorite add-ins? I’m of the opinion that recipes and preparation styles for this prolific and yummy staple should be shared. So, tell us your mashed potato secrets.

Protecting your feet in the kitchen

If I’m in my house, I don’t usually wear shoes. This is fine if I’m sitting at my desk, but it’s not so great when it comes time to make a meal in the kitchen. I’ve started to realize that to avoid spills, slips, and back pain I need to change this behavior.

My first thought is to keep a pair of rubber soled Dansko clogs near the entrance to the kitchen:

These shoes are commonly worn by chefs in professional kitchens and nurses who spend a lot of time on their feet. I had a pair of them when I was a teacher and wore them most every day. They would certainly help.

The idea of having “kitchen shoes” is a little funny to me, though, so I’ve also been exploring getting an Imprint brand Anti-Fatigue Comfort Mat for the kitchen floor. I would wear shoes I already own, but have the added comfort of a gel mat under my feet.

Do you do anything like this in your kitchen? I’m interested in reading what you do — if anything at all — to protect your feet while you cook.

To cook or not to cook: When guests arrive

I greatly enjoy cooking for other people. I think a good meal has the ability to bring people together, tell a story, introduce new flavors, and can be a lot of fun. It’s my way of sharing a part of me with my friends and family.

Unfortunately, cooking for other people can be stressful if you are pressed for time and ideas. The demands of the task can especially feel overwhelming when a recipe goes awry or when trying to coordinate plates to come out at the same time. The first time I cook for someone also affects my nerves more so than the fifth or tenth time I’ve had someone to dinner.

I’m of the opinion that a host or hostess should be with guests during a dinner party instead of in the kitchen, tending to the stove. A gathering should be fun for everyone, not everyone except for the cook. So, before creating a menu, I ask myself questions such as:

  • Why are we having the party?
  • Can I make a meal that shares who I am with my guests?
  • Do these recipes work together, can I easily obtain the ingredients, have I made these items before, is this a menu everyone will enjoy?
  • Will I stress out so much that I won’t have a good time, too?
  • Will my guests be offended if I don’t make the meal?
  • Would a restaurant or carry out do a better job than I would in this specific situation?
  • What is my schedule like tomorrow? Can I stay up after guests have gone to clean up, or do I need to go to bed right away to get as much sleep as possible?

Most times I end up cooking the meal, but sometimes I let a restaurant take care of the heavy lifting. How do you decide if you will cook a meal or treat guests to dinner at a restaurant? I’m interested in reading your thoughts on this issue in the comments.

Elastic crispy cheese breakfast scramble

What comes to mind when you hear the term “grilled cheese edges?” Anyone who’s made a grilled cheese sandwich knows that the molten cheese often escapes the bread, oozing out to the pan with a distinctive sizzle. That little puddle of cheese will brown and crisp up, creating luscious new texture and flavor. Just ask Chef John from foodwishes.com who makes a grilled cheese sandwich that maximizes this entire idea. Genius.

But this recipe isn’t about grilled cheese sandwiches — it’s about breakfast scrambles. In the past, I used to take my eggs, scramble them, then add yummy flavor combinations with meats, cheeses, vegetables, and herbs. Normally, I’d just add the cheese at the end, sprinkled on top so it can melt over the eggs using residual heat. The cheese never touches the hot pan so it can’t develop flavor like it does in a grilled cheese sandwich. This made me want to try something new.

I started with a base of soyrizo (soy-chorizo). Breakfast sausage or diced ham would work just as well for what I wanted to try. I measured out what I thought would be a good amount of the soyrizo to go with two eggs, then shaped it into a flat little pile and cooked it over medium heat in a non-stick pan. As it cooked, I thinly sliced some pepperjack cheese and layered it on top of the soyrizo. It began to melt. With my spatula, I pulled the mixture in different directions, letting the cheese touch the pan instead of just using the soyrizo as a little life raft. This let the cheese develop that grilled cheese crust while holding on to the soyrizo so it wouldn’t become a sticky mess.

Three minutes later, I flipped it over in pieces, let it cook a few more minutes, chopped it up using my spatulas, then added my egg mixture to the pan. Salsa seemed like a welcome addition since I was using soyrizo, so I added some to the eggs as they scrambled.

The soft texture of the eggs combined with the crispy edges of the chorizo and cheese produced pure breakfast magic. I will definitely be using this technique again.

Elastic Crispy Cheese Breakfast Scramble

  • 1/3 cup prepared breakfast meat (cooked breakfast sausage, soy or regular chorizo, diced strips of ham)
  • cheese (enough to cover breakfast meat in one even layer)
  • two eggs, beat together with a little water in preparation for scrambing
  • optional additions: salsa, sauteed vegetables, herbs, hot sauce
  • salt and pepper to taste

Bring a non-stick pan up to temperature over medium heat. Add breakfast meat in a small, flat pile and cook for one minute. Layer cheese on top while breakfast meat is cooking.

When the cheese starts to melt, gently pull the pile apart so cheese drapes on to the surface of the pan. Cook for two to three minutes, or until cheese starts to crisp.

Mix your optional sauteed vegetables and/or herbs with your beaten egg mixture.

Flip breakfast meat and cheese and cook for another minute. Chop up contents of pan using two plastic spatulas, then add in beaten egg mixture. As contents of pan set, gently fold over as you would with scrambled eggs until cooked thoroughly (about three minutes).

Serve topped with additional add-ins like salsa or hot sauce.

Baking sausage

My Italian family makes sausage once or twice a year. It’s a lot of work assembling roughly 60 pounds of ingredients, but it helps to have lots of people there sharing in the experience and making the job easier. Laughter and happiness naturally mix into the event as we add fantastic flavors to the ground pork. The recipe we use has plenty of garlic, fennel, basil, and lots of provolone. When it cooks up, it is just pure goodness shaped into patties and links.

I recall the first time I made this recipe. I was coming home from visiting family with some frozen sausage all coiled up in a plastic zip-top bag. On a whim, I tried baking it. I took a 12″ x 12″ baking pan, added the thawed but still coiled sausage, two cups of white rice, some boiled water, and a little salt and pepper. After sealing it up with two layers of aluminum foil, I baked it for about 45 minutes at 350ºF.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I pulled out the piping hot dish from the oven, but I sure was happy with the result. The rice had become plump and infused with the rich flavors of the sausage. The heat worked to transfer fat and oils from the pork and cheeses to the rice, giving it body like a jambalaya. Precious flavors drip out of sausage when it is cooked on a grill, but the baking method seems to preserve them all.

I’ve made this dish a few times now, trying new things along the way — mixing herbs into the rice or changing up the cooking liquids. And, it gets a nice benefit from vegetables added right at the end. I tried throwing in some thinly sliced red and yellow peppers, which softened ever so slightly from the residual heat of the rice. They gave the dish freshness, balancing the richness of the rice and sausage. Fresh herbs work well at this stage, too.

Baked Italian Sausage

  • 1.5 to 2 lbs Italian sausage in casings
  • 2 1/3 cups boiling water
  • 1 1/2 cups white or brown rice
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • 3/4 cup any combination of finely diced red bell pepper, roasted red peppers, green onions, marinated artichoke hearts, or olives
  • optional: 1/2 cup chopped herbs (basil, Italian flat leaf parsley, thyme)

Preheat oven to 375ºF.

To a 12″ x 12″ baking pan, add whole sausage and surround with rice. Sprinkle the garlic powder, salt, and pepper over rice. When the water has boiled, add it to the baking pan and immediately cover with lid or seal with aluminum foil.

If using brown rice, bake for an hour. Otherwise, bake for 45 minutes, or until sausage is firm and rice is entirely cooked.

Uncover, then remove sausage to cutting board. Slice on the bias into thick coins. Add sausage back to the rice along with vegetables and herbs (if using). Let rest 10 minutes, and serve with a nice glass of wine. Salute!

Questions for cooks: Splatter free

Reader Nagle submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

I have always wondered how people avoid having a kitchen coated in splatter when using their stove-top griddles for cooking steaks, etc. It seems to me that the clean-up is not worth the “convenience” of cooking inside. So, I avoid doing it … Is there a trick I don’t know about?

When cooking steaks, frying something on the stove, or making a tomato-based sauce, I simply use a splatter guard. It significantly reduces the amount of oil, fat, and sauce splatter that makes it onto the stove, underside of the microwave, into the air, and on me.

Splatter guards don’t last very long — maybe six months — so I get the least expensive one with the smallest mesh I can find. I toss it into the dishwasher after a meal, and recycle it when it’s time to get a new one.

I also keep a damp sponge with a dollop of dishwashing detergent on it next to the stove as I cook. If I notice any spills or splatters, I clean them up immediately before they can dry and become difficult to remove. Cleaning as you go saves a lot of time over the long term. I also throw the sponge into the dishwasher at the end of the day to clean it. Then, after it has gone through the dishwasher, I’ll get the sponge damp again and throw it into the microwave for a few minutes to kill any remaining bacteria and germs — just be sure to let the sponge cool thoroughly before touching it again.

I have to say, though, that I like grilling and I think it’s fun to do even in the coldest of winter. If cooking outside is something you enjoy year round, by all means keep cooking outdoors. I especially like how it keeps the mess out my kitchen, too.

Thank you, Nagle, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. Be sure to check the comments for even more ideas from our readers.

Do you have any unresolved questions about cooking styles, methods, ingredients, gadgets, meal planning, or anything even closely related to resolving stress or confusion in the kitchen? If so, send us your questions and we’ll find you an answer. If we don’t know the answer, we’ll send it out to a specialist who can, and we’ll all learn something! To submit your questions to Questions for Cooks, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Questions for Cooks.” Share as many details as possible — the more information we have about your specific question, the better.

Finding zen by smashing garlic

Peeling garlic isn’t fun. I don’t really enjoy it because the cloves seem to come in varying degrees of difficulty where some shed their coats without any effort, yet others seemingly hold on for dear life. Flaky bits of paper clinging to a sticky garlic juice coated cutting board make me want to give up.

After years of watching Food Network, I’ve seen pretty much every host do the side-of-a-wide-knife smash technique. They all smile. They never get frustrated with the garlic peel while on camera. Am I missing something besides a lot of edited out rage face?

Maybe. Or, maybe I just wasn’t seeing the right pattern.

In the past, when I’ve tried to recreate the smashing technique of the professionals, most of the time I ended up with broken up peel incorporated into a mass of garlic pulp. Was my knife positioning off? Was I smashing with more force than the people on television?

I decided to watch the professionals more closely and see exactly what they did that I wasn’t doing. I figured it out, and decided to try my hand at the garlic smashing technique again.

First, I cut off the brown root end. Nothing new here. Next I tried positioning the other end just outside the edge of my knife and toning down the smash power. Would having that end intact during the smash cause the peel to hold together better?

I smashed.

The peel of the clove didn’t get mushed into the meat. I grabbed the clove by the sprout end and shook it a bit. With the peel mostly intact, the meat of the garlic dropped right out. I tried it with a smaller clove. It still worked, although some of the meat needed to be picked from the paper. Overall the success rate provided a level of kitchen zen akin to watching Bruce Lee practice kung fu in slow motion. Yes!

Check out CookingGuide’s step-by-step video instructions for more insight:

Keeping chaos out of your junk drawer

Most kitchens are similar in that they have a refrigerator, stove, oven, and sink. They are also typically similar in that they have a junk drawer.

The junk drawer usually contains stray batteries, rubber bands, paper clips, coupons, pens, pennies, matches, receipts, spare keys, and recipes torn off food boxes. At one time, the drawer was probably organized and uncluttered. Now, it might be disorganized and overflowing with clutter.

These catch-all drawers are useful when they’re orderly, but frustrating when they’re chaotic. I’ve found that a drawer organizer can help to keep the space organized longer than it will without one. Like a clothes closet, though, this drawer does need to be cleaned out a couple times a year to ensure it is best meeting your needs.

In my dining room, we use the two-level Madesmart Junk Drawer Organizer:

I also like the Expand-A-Drawer Desk Organizer that works with many drawer sizes:

The wood Axis Junk Drawer Organizer also looks nice:

Consider using a drawer organizer when looking for ways to keep chaos out of your junk drawer.

Moving — for real or pretend — as a way to reduce kitchen clutter

As I announced yesterday on Unclutterer, my family is moving. The kitchen in our new house isn’t much larger than our current one, but it does have the benefit of an attached walk-in pantry. I literally gasped when I saw the floor-to-ceiling shelving — it’s the equivalent of a walk-in closet, but for food and small appliances.

I know there are some people who love moving, but I am not one of them. I dislike packing, moving, and unpacking. I especially loathe moving kitchens. Everything in my current kitchen is where I can find it, where I want it, and is very comfortable for me. In the new place, it will take a couple weeks to get all of the stuff settled and I’m going to fumble for awhile as I become accustom to the new layout. As I have been packing up my current kitchen, I keep repeating to myself, “walk-in pantry, walk-in pantry, walk-in pantry.” It’s a weird mantra, but so far it has been a decent motivation technique.

Even though the new kitchen has the extra pantry, I’m still getting rid of any clutter I encounter as I pack. I found three pizza cutters, eight flower vases, some packaged food items containing nuts we should have purged when we found out my son was allergic, two lone placemats, and one stray bowl from our old dishes pattern. As I continue to pack, I’m sure I’ll find even more clutter that doesn’t need to be moved to the new place. I’m of the opinion that you never bring something along because you can, only move it because you use it.

If you’re not on the verge of moving, now is still a great time to pretend you are and get rid of the clutter from your kitchen. Clear off your dining table and put everything from your kitchen except for the large appliances and perishable foods on it. Give your kitchen a good cleaning, repair anything that needs repairing, and replace anything that needs replacing. Then, begin sorting through the items on the dining table.

Ask yourself:

  • Is this item expired? If it is, throw it away.
  • Is this item damaged? If it is, ask yourself if you’re willing to put forth the time, energy, and money to get it fixed or replaced. If you are, do it in the next three days. If you aren’t, put it in the trash or recycling (if appropriate).
  • Would I pay professional movers to move this item? If not, recycle it or donate it to charity.
  • Do I want this item in my kitchen? If not, recycle it or donate it to charity.
  • Have I used this item in the last year? If the answer is no, seriously consider getting rid of it.

When returning items to the kitchen, remember:

  • Store items where you use them. (Oven mitts should be stored next to the stove.)
  • Put the items you use most often in the most accessible spaces.
  • Group like items with like items. (Silverware should be stored with silverware, mugs should be stored near the coffee pot, bowls with bowls.)

Good luck purging the clutter in your kitchen.

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