Archives for August 2011

The evolution of my tea storage

Am I weird or does anyone else love the first few months after a move when it’s time to really grab a hold of the new space and make it your own? Like many of you, my kitchen is where I really dig in to achieve ownership.

I moved into a new place recently, and those first few meals in the unfamiliar environment came together with a side of confusion. Meal creation was accentuated with haphazard bumbling around boxes, making my way to the hastily put away silverware so I didn’t have to eat with my fingers. Which of these boxes had the bowls? Eventually things felt a bit normalized once the spices and major utensils were put away. This time I noticed something: organization seems to be weak on the first arrangement. In my new place there’s plenty of shelf space to store all my stuff, but once everything is put away the spaces felt cramped. I knew my organization needed revision.

I dig finding little storage and organization revisions, like the recent changes I made to my tea collection. I used to store my tea in a squarish wire basket while living in my RV, but I often poorly squished the tea boxes and pouches into it like an irritating game of Tetris. The basket kept everything together, but it was mostly a pain to use. With all the teas in one place I could at least grab the basket and rummage around to find the right flavor. Too bad it took up shelf space.

One day I went to make my morning tea and noticed there were just two bags left of Irish Breakfast tea. I decided to clip the front of the box and discard the rest of the packaging, combining it with the remaining tea into a little zip-top baggie. It’s funny how little space it took up without the clumsy container. I thought I’d try keeping the rest of my collection in plastic bags as well. This ended up saving even more space and cut out the hassle of trying to fit all the boxes back into the basket every time. Some of the tea bags have labels on one side, so I kept them facing outward and easily recognizable. It all fit MUCH nicer. Hooray for organization revision!

Lately I’ve been looking for more excuses to hang my kitchen utensils so additional shelf space will be freed up. So far I’ve hung all of my commonly used spatulas, spoons, and tongs under a cabinet, and used some hooks to hang my measuring cups and spoons. With a few boxes full of screw hooks and removable 3M hooks it’s easy to find lots of new places for storing your kitchen wares.

After some brainstorming I came up with this back of the pantry door tea tree. I remembered buying these nice shiny magnetic clips for another project that never happened and I had a great magnetic strip that I wasn’t using which would work perfectly as the base to hang all the clips and baggies of tea.

After installation I noticed the whole thing clanged around a bit when opening or closing the pantry door. To fix this, I squished some removable putty behind the magnetic strip to give it some sticky cushioning. Now it holds tightly as the door moves and doesn’t make a sound.

Now the teas are visually accessible, allowing for easier selection, and they’re off the shelf so heavier things that are tougher to hang can have a place to sit.

Got any fun little kitchen organization hacks to share? I’d sure love to hear more great ideas.

Crispy, spicy chickpeas

I really like peanuts, but since my son is allergic, I haven’t eaten them in years. I like the crunch, the smoothness, the salty finish. They’re also incredible when they’re coated with a hot spice mixture that makes you want to grab an ice cold beer.

I’ve been looking for a replacement, and have turned to dried wasabi peas on occasion, but haven’t found a perfect alternative until just recently (although, dried wasabi peas are yummy). My friend Don turned me on to crispy, spicy chickpeas, and I think this will be my substitution. Best of all, it’s a really nutritious snack.

Making them is simple and allows for a lot of wiggle room, which is great when looking for a simple, healthful snack.

Crispy, spicy roasted chickpeas (garbanzo beans)

  • 1 can (or more or less) chickpeas (your can may say garbanzo beans on it)
  • 1 tsp (or more or less) olive oil or canola oil
  • Optional spices: salt, pepper, chili powder, and/or cayenne pepper.

Heat your oven to 350ºF.

Drain the water off the chickpeas. In a bowl, mix the chickpeas, oil, and spices. Use as little or as much of the spices as you prefer. If you go too light, you can always add more later. Stir until the chickpeas are well coated with oil and spices.

On a cookie sheet, spread out the chickpeas in a single layer. Put the cookie sheet of chickpeas in the oven and bake the chickpeas until they are dried and look like walnuts (about 45 minutes).

Wait for the chickpeas to cool (it won’t take long), put them in a bowl, and serve with your favorite beverage. If you made the chickpeas as spicy as I like them, you’ll really want that drink.

Unfortunately, these do not store well. If there are leftovers, you’ll want to crisp them up in the oven for 10 minutes before serving them. They tend to get soggy in storage.

A well-seasoned wok

It ended up taking me seven rounds of seasoning, a total of 21 hours, to get my new wok the way I wanted it. I’ll admit, it is gorgeous and will likely never have to be re-seasoned. However, I still think 21 hours is a ridiculous amount of time to spend on the project. (See “The NOT simple way to season cast iron” for more details about this adventure.)

Before I show you the after photograph, let me start by showing you my inspiration. The following is an image from the phenomenal book The Breath of a Wok by award-winning cookbook author Grace Young. The image was taken by photographer Alan Richardson and is of Chef Danny Chan’s wok that he uses at home. Author Young admits that his wok is the “most extraordinary wok I have ever seen” and that its color is “a delicate teak tone reminiscent of the color often found in Chinese silk scroll paintings.”

My wok isn’t exactly teak colored, but it isn’t black. It’s somewhere between a rich golden wheat and the color of a glass of Bordeaux. It’s beautiful, and will hopefully serve me well over the next few decades.

Now, for comparison, this is where I began on Monday:

And, this is my wok now:

This photograph doesn’t do it justice. You can’t see the nuance of golden colors in it (the gold dots are a reflection of my kitchen lighting), you can’t feel its smooth texture, and you certainly can’t see the time I put into it. I am incredibly excited to cook with it this evening, but most importantly I’m thrilled the inane seasoning process is behind me.

The first five meals that I make in it will be stir-fry dishes with high oil contents. I may even fry up some bacon in it. I know from my experience with cast iron skillets that the iron continues to be very thirsty when you first use it, so I want to make sure I’m making foods in it that quench this thirst. I’ll wait to make rice in it for a month or two.

To clean a wok (or any iron cookware), I put water in it to soak while my family is eating dinner. After dinner, I’ll immediately wash it with a mild detergent and a soft sponge. Similar to what I do with my cast iron skillets, I’ll dry it with a towel and then pop it into a warm oven (roughly 200ºF) for 10 minutes. If I didn’t use my oven while making dinner, I’ll quickly heat up the wok over a stove burner on low for the same amount of time. I’ll take it out of the oven or off the burner, wait until it’s cool enough to touch (usually about the same amount of time it takes me to load up the dishwasher) and then I’ll wipe a very thin layer of olive oil or avocado oil into the inside of the wok with a paper towel. You don’t want it to be greasy, you just want a bit of protection for the iron while it’s in the cupboard.

The NOT simple way to season cast iron

Over the weekend, I decided that this week’s SimpliFried posts would be all about stir-fry. I love making stir-fry — it’s so incredibly simple and quick — and I knew it would be a great series. That is, it was going to be a great series, until Monday morning rolled around …

On Monday, I went to the cabinet where I keep our wok and pulled out this:

What you’re seeing here is a brand new, flat bottom, iron wok from The Wok Shop in San Francisco. You can see that it is silver in color, and a little shiny. Woks shouldn’t be silver and shiny. Woks should be black and matte.

Right before we moved into our new house in March, I tossed our old, nasty, inexpensive Teflon-coated wok and ordered this beautiful piece of craftsmanship. The only problem is that I forgot I had ordered the non-pre-seasoned version. To get it to its beautiful black and matte state, I would need to season it myself. (I have vague recollections of this decision, but can’t remember why I wanted the non-pre-seasoned version.)

Seasoning is not a difficult or long process, especially if you’re okay with using animal lard. In just a few hours you can have a nicely seasoned wok ready for your stir-fry. However, there is a slight chance my son might be allergic to animal proteins (because being allergic to peanuts isn’t enough of a burden), so I didn’t want to pick up some lard from my butcher for this project. I know enough about science to realize seasoning a pan in animal lard wouldn’t be much of an allergic risk to my son, but I still felt weird about it. If I could avoid using animal lard, I would.

In the February 2011 issue of Cook’s Illustrated, there was a sidebar to an article about cast iron cookware that discussed using food-grade flaxseed oil on cast iron pans. Cook’s Illustrated raved about the method and provided a link to an online article for how to reproduce the results of this method at home.

I dropped $20 on some filtered, organic, food-grade flaxseed oil at my local Whole Foods grocery store (you can find it with the vitamins in the small refrigerated section), and headed home to pull up the directions and start seasoning my pan. The article “A Science Based Technique for Seasoning Cast Iron” is thorough, and I most certainly did not read it well enough to realize that the process takes more than 18 hours to complete. EIGHTEEN HOURS.

It’s not difficult: You slather the pan in oil, wipe it down with a cloth diaper or paper towels, bake it for an hour in a 500ºF oven, turn off the oven and let it cool down inside the oven for two hours, and then repeat the process. The reason it takes so long is because the whole process has to be repeated at least six times. It’s noon on Wednesday and I have only made it through the process four times so far (12 of the 18 hours).

This was the wok going into the oven for the first time:

I found that putting a garbage bag under the pan during the oiling process helps to keep the mess at bay. I’ve also learned that cotton diapers, although much more environmentally friendly to use, leave little flecks of cotton on the surface of the wok, which creates little spots on the cure (they’ll all be gone by the sixth seasoning — they’re almost gone after the fourth — but it’s still weird to have a speckled pan). I have discovered, too, that although this process is extremely simple, it’s mind-numbingly tedious.

If you buy a new cast iron wok, get one that is pre-seasoned.

I don’t know how someone who doesn’t work from home could even season a pan in this manner. It would take more than a week to do it — one seasoning a night — assuming you had no where to go after work. Sure, I may end up with the world’s most glorious seasoning, which I expect I will, but this most certainly feels like overkill.

I’d show you an “after” picture, but I still have at least six more hours of seasoning to go …

Questions for cooks: Making sense of specialty butters

Reader Craig submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

Since you have been writing about butter lately, I wanted to ask about cultured butter. When I was an exchange student in Belgium, all the butter my host family served was “cultured butter.” I’ve never seen it for sale in the US, but I would like to buy some. Is it “compound butter”? I see that on restaurant menus sometimes. Thanks.

Compound butter and cultured butter are not the same thing. (I’ll explain the differences below.) And, you can buy cultured butter in the U.S., at least you can where I live. Organic Valley dairy makes it, and it is available at my local Whole Foods. As someone who has had the joy of eating cultured butter while in Europe, I understand why you want more of it. Mmmmmmm …

Compound butter: Just a way of saying butter with stuff added to it, like in our herb butter recipe. Compound butter can be sweet or savory.

Cultured butter: This butter involves a live culture being added to the cream before it is churned. I think of it as yogurt butter, because often people just add yogurt to the milk as the way to introduce the live culture. It has more fat than regular butter, is noticeably sweeter, and is easy to make at home.

There are other types of butter you might also see mentioned in recipes, and they are …

Clarified butter: This butter is just the butter fat. You heat and melt butter until the milk solids separate from the fat, strain off the milk solids, and what remains is the butter fat. It’s great for high-temperature cooking because butter fat has a very high burn point. Again, this is easy to make at home.

Ghee: Similar to clarified butter, except the butter fat cooks for much longer than with clarified butter. This process makes ghee able to be stored on the counter instead of in the refrigerator. Once again, you can easily make ghee at home.

Thank you, Craig, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. Now go out there and buy (or make) yourself some delicious cultured butter.

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How-to brown butter and a recipe for crispy sage brown butter cream sauce

While on a trip to New York City a couple years ago, I ended up taking refuge in a lovely Italian restaurant during an unexpected downpour. Once I realized the rain was going to be more than a few minutes long, I asked for a table and was delighted by my chance meeting with the restaurant.

My meal included a pasta dish that was topped with a crispy sage and brown butter cream sauce. At the time, I thought the “brown butter” aspect of the sauce was some kind of special butter, because the taste was magical. It wasn’t until I got home and did a Google search for “brown butter” that I learned it wasn’t a special kind of butter at all. It was simply butter that had been browned.

I was intrigued.

Browning butter gives it a nutty flavor, it erases the tang some butters have, and makes it delicious. All you need to do is melt butter in a skillet over medium heat and wait for it to turn a light brown. That’s it. Nothing else. You have successfully browned butter.

If you want to crisp up some fresh sage in the brown butter, remove the butter from the burner when it is brown and throw in some sage. The sage will fry in the butter and turn crispy. Again, that is all you have to do. It is really, really, really simple.

To make it into a cream sauce, whisk in some cream. If you want to get fancy, you can add a splash of lemon juice or dry white wine, but it’s not necessary. The sauce isn’t healthful, but it is really yummy and won’t give you a heart attack if you have it a few times a year.