Friday, February 26, 2010

Friday Gear: Aprons

This is the first post in what I hope to be a weekly series about kitchen gear.

Up until about a year ago I didn't bother to wear an apron when I cook at home. Yes, I always wore an apron when I was cooking at medieval events, I can buy a week's worth of clothes for the money I spend on a complete 14th c gown, but my aprons would languish in the laundry room during the week. But I am now a convert to wearing an apron every time I'm doing things in the kitchen.

Why is an apron a tool? The best way to explain this is by detailing what I look for in an apron. Firstly, it should be a bib apron in that it should cover my front torso and calves. Most of the food splatter stains on my shirts are in the breast area and I want the length to protect me from splashing water when I wash dishes. Secondly, it must have pockets. Pockets...plural...not pocket...singular. A pocket is somewhere to put the timer, a bottle of water, tasting spoon/fork, notes, etc. Thirdly, I want the apron strings to be long enough to go around me and tie in the front. It's easier to tie an apron in the front and then you have something to tuck your towel into. I've tried tucking my towel into the tie on my hip when I have shorter apron strings and I don't find it nearly as convenient because I have to reach behind me to grab the towel. I also want my apron strings to tie in the front because I often tie my ring to the end and that isn't something that I want bouncing around behind my back. Finally, the neck strap should be wide and adjustable. Wide because it gives better distribution of weight and doesn't cut into your neck. Adjustable because everybody's torso is different and the apron strings should tie around the waist.

I've tried a few different apron styles and the above is what works best for me, your mileage may vary. The "mama-san" style apron offers very good coverage but there isn't anywhere to put your towel. The waist apron leaves the torso open to splashes and splatters so I'm not a fan.

How is an apron not a unitasker?
An apron can be stylish through customization and personalization so it can be viewed as an accessory in addition to protecting you and your clothing from splatter and splashes.You don't just have to wear aprons when working in the kitchen, they're also useful when cleaning the house. They've got pockets and you can hang things off your apron strings!

Happy cooking! - KP

Thursday, February 25, 2010

New Books

I was at Costco last night cashing in my check from American Express (3% cash back on gas goes a long way) and I decided to peruse the book section. I spotted a lone copy of Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals for $8.99 (it's $1 cheaper on Amazon) and a copy of The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World, also $8.99 ($1.89 less than Amazon). I first heard about Michael Pollan about a year ago when his article Unhappy Meals was referenced in one of the environmental blogs that I follow. What he was saying made sense to me: eat food not processed food stuff, eat mostly plants, eat local and be mindful.

So what's a budding foodie and environmentalist to do? I borrowed In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto from the library and only read half of it because I kept getting distracted. A few months passed by and I decided to try reading it again so I put the book on reserve, this was around the time that it was the library book club book of the month, and didn't finish it again. I liked what he was saying but I needed more than a library loan period to read and digest everything so I bought a copy. It took me about two months of off and on reading but I finished it. And you know what? The gist of the book is the Unhappy Meals article. But it's still a good read and "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." is a good mantra to eat by.

Happy Eating! - KP

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Popcorn Rig

I am a big fan of Alton Brown and Good Eats. We don't watch television at home, no cable/dish/FiOS or antenna, but we watch a lot of DVDs and Netflix. So I've got volumes 1-15 of Good Eats and seasons 1 and 2 of Feasting on Asphalt. I was watching the "Pop Culture" episode and decided that I wanted to make the Perfect Popcorn.

I followed the recipe and made my rig with the aluminum foil cover and tongs handle like Mr. Brown does in the episode but my hand got tired from holding the tongs closed and I didn't feel that I had adequate control of the bowl. In hindsight, I could have locked the tongs closed but I didn't think of it at the time. The popcorn was tasty, fresh, convenient and had very few un-popped kernels. But I didn't like the rig that he uses. In addition to the above mentioned problems, it's a waste of aluminum foil. So I thought about it for a few minutes and had the light bulb moment of "why don't I use my splatter guard?" It isn't quite large enough to completely cover the bowl but it does a serviceable job and there's a built in handle. I use wooden clothes pins to secure the guard to the bowl because that's what I have handy and in a few minutes I have fresh popcorn without using any disposable items. The other advantage of using the splatter guard is that I can easily see into the bowl. Yes, there is some cleanup because the splatter guard doesn't stop all the oil from escaping the bowl but I wipe the stove every night so it's not any extra work for me.

From my kitchen to yours. - KP

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Continuing Education

I've been thinking about this for a couple of weeks and I'm going to sign up for some cooking classes at Anne Arundel Community College. I'd love to take classes at Baltimore International College* but it doesn't look like they offer classes for non-degree or certificate seeking individuals. The Artisan Bread class happened last weekend so I'll have to wait for the summer or fall to take it again, putting the Bread Baker's Apprentice plan on the back burner again. The first one I really want to take is:

Your Sustainable Table
Reconnect with the food on your plate and learn about the latest trends in sustainable food practices. Define sustainable food and discuss issues ranging from local food sourcing, real foods, contemporary nutrition and personal food choices.

I'm very interested in the Slow Food movement, though I am yet to make it to a meeting, and I'm planting my first vegetable garden this year. I've been reading my Farmer's Almanac and I've got boxes of jars for canning. I'm working to be more aware of what I'm putting into my body and in my pantry. I'm already down by at least a third of the commercially processed pantry items (read: canned goods and convenience foods) compared to 3 years ago and I want to be at half by the end of 2010.

And the one that I've been eying for a couple of years:

If You Knew Sushi
Learn how the ancient sushi tradition is transformed into a culinary art form. Explore how color, texture, flavor and shape are masterfully combined. Learn to assemble your own sushi.

I discovered that I liked sashimi when I was 19. I grew up as a yonsei (fourth generation) Okinawan and sansei (third generation) Japanese American in Hawaii and I didn't appreciate my culinary heritage until I went away for college; I have a lot of catching up to do.

* I knew guy that had a PhD in philosophy and he said that his BS from BIC was the hardest and most rewarding degree that he earned. How's that for a recommendation? ~$9k/year for four years is a big commitment for something that I don't intend to use professionally, or even ~$6k for a one year certificate, and I need to sleep on it some more.

Never stop learning. - KP

Monday, February 22, 2010

Tactical Nuclear Penguin

Great googly moogly! A 32% alcohol beer?

A controversial Scottish brewery has launched what it described as the world's strongest beer - with a 32% alcohol content.

I can get my beer up to 8% alcohol on a GOOD day. I think I remember hearing at the 2005 American Homebrewers Association (AHA) conference that Redstone Meadery was trying to make some super strong mead using progressively stronger yeast strands but what yeast stands up to 32% alcohol?

As Charlie Papazian says, "Relax. Don't worry. Have a homebrew."

- KP

Hibernation Weekend

I have a friend that likes to say that she hibernates during the winter; she watches a lot of DVDs, takes naps, reads and basically turns into a homebody when she isn't at work. I'd say that that "hibernation" was a good way to describe my weekend. On Saturday morning, my phone woke me from a dream about cooking pasta as I was saying "there are some days when I wonder if I'm wasting my life in an office." That's something I've been thinking about a lot lately but that's for another post.

R picked me up to do some grocery shopping on Saturday; a new MOM's Organic Market just opened up and I wanted to check it out. R likes grocery shopping with me because I usually know some recipe that uses some ingredient that she's never seen. Then I get all excited because they sell bulk tofu. I picked up some bulk green split peas and yellow popcorn (I wish I could find other popcorn varietals locally). Everything was shiny and new but it's a smaller store than the David's Natural Market on the way home from work so there was much less selection. I had hoped to pick up some bulk almonds but they only had raw and tamari almonds, I wanted some unsalted roasted ones.

Then we went to Aldi's. R is still building her pantry so she got some spices and canned tomato products. I picked up ingredients to make meat loaf and salad for dinner. I'm not a huge fan of canned and processed foods but I love shopping at Aldi's. The quality is good and prices are even better. There are some canned products that I keep in my pantry for "emergencies": canned mushrooms (they're a quick and easy way addition to spaghetti sauce), corned beef (nuke a couple of potatoes, slice up some round onion and add an egg to fry up some corned beef hash patties), baked beans (add some yellow mustard, brown sugar and Vienna sausage then serve over rice), Vienna sausage (for baked beans or with breakfast), corn (usually purchased from Wegmans because they offer a salt free variety), and of course SPAM. There's some other things but I don't want to go through the list today.

But the end result of this story is that I made meatloaf, salad and rice for dinner last night after spending the better part of the day on the couch watching Netflix with R. And I repeated the process today while DBF had his friends over. Tonight's dinner was fresh corned beef (as opposed to from a can), potatoes, carrot and cabbage. DBF had purchased some corned beef while it was on sale last year and we needed to eat them before the sales start up next month.

It occurs to me that it'll be difficult to have a cooking blog if I'm not cooking...I'll need to work on that. I also need to work on getting some photos posted here.

Be Excellent to Each Other! - KP

Friday, February 19, 2010

French Press

I am now trying out my third coffee brewing device.

First I had a single cup brewer that I picked up on woot. It came with 2 travel mugs and the option to brew into one or both with the turn of a dial.
Pros: re-usable mesh filter and single cup brewing (DBF doesn't do coffee)
Cons: the travel mugs that had to be used with the machine were poorly insulated so I had to transfer the product to a different mug for consumption and transportation (more dishes and the base of one of the mugs was cracked) and the extraction was too fast despite multiple attempts using different grinds, quantities and spritzing the top of the grounds (it would only brew sex in a canoe coffee).

Then I dug out the camp coffee maker. It's a cone with a little filter basket on the bottom that the coffee grinds go into.
Pros: doesn't take up space on the counter, doesn't require an outlet, re-usable mesh filter basket and single cup brewing (do you see a pattern here?)
Cons: the extraction rate was too fast even when tightly packing the basket, wetting the basket, or trying different grinds (again, sex in a canoe coffee)

So I brought back my coffee press from Hawaii; it was a gift and I had never used it because both of my parents drink coffee so there was always drip coffee available in the morning. It's a small 12 oz Bodum Chambord.
Pros: doesn't take up space on the counter, doesn't require an outlet, doesn't need filters and single cup brewing
Cons: user error, I need to get better coffee

This is definitely not sex in a canoe coffee but better extraction means that better quality coffee is needed to avoid undesirable flavors.

Happy Eating! - KP

Thursday, February 18, 2010

For What It's Worth

I'm back. I ate way too much good food, if that's possible, and didn't do nearly as much cleaning/sorting of my stuff as I had planned. I miss living in Hawaii. I miss my family, I miss my friends (though most of them now live on the west coast), and I miss the food.

I truly believe that Hawaii is paradise for foodies. The growing season is year round so there's always local fresh produce available. Hawaii is a melting pot of cultures so there are many ethnic food establishments to choose from. We have real pigs, not the super lean "white meat" pigs on the mainland. There are little corner markets and restaurants everywhere; it's very easy to avoid eating at chain restaurants.

- KP

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

On Vacation

In Hawaii visiting with family; pictures and more kitchen adventures on Friday.

- KP

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Different Eyes: Champuru

One Penguin's sacred ethnic food is another person's breakfast bowl. I was all happy with my little bowl of rice, my tofu and Spam champuru and my takuwan. DBF made his bowl, sans takuwan because he doesn't like radish, then melted shredded cheddar cheese on top of everything. I screamed at him, "what are you doing? That's an abomination!"

He claims it was "munchy" but I couldn't watch him eat it. Well, the Pantry Chef experiment must have been successful because there was only a cup worth of leftovers and I cooked up 1 block of tofu, 1 can of Spam, 1/2 round onion, 8 oz of cremini mushrooms and 3 eggs.

Happy Eating! - KP

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Pantry Chef: Snowed In Edition

I need to cook lunch for DBF and myself but I don't have anything defrosted. The crisper is looking bare and the only protein in the fridge is blocks of tofu and eggs. What's a Kitchen Penguin to do?

Deploy the emergency Spam and make tofu champuru with Spam! What's champuru you ask? The literal translation is "mix" in Okinawan. But in this case it's a stir-fried mixture of tofu chunks, Spam, round onion (I don't have any green on hand), cremini mushrooms (they're getting close to EOL) and egg to hold it all together. Champuru is like Okinawan refrigerator Velcro. I'll cook up a pot of rice and have some of the homemade takuan on the side...good eating :)

If only I had some goya(bitter melon)...

Itadakimasu! - KP

Snowed In

We're getting quite a bit of snow in the DC Metro area this year. Being snowed in for the better part of the past week has taught me a few important things:

  • I need a better non-electric coffee brewer. I, sadly, rely upon other people to fuel my caffeine addiction and even the electric coffee machine is a POS. *Mental Note* Grab my French press from the parents' house. (I am done drinking "sex in a canoe" coffee.)
  • I miss having a gas stove. We lost power for 12 hours on Saturday and having an electric stove means no cooking. Fortunately, I have an indoor safe butane stove so I was able to keep DBF and I fed.
  • What I missed more than my oven and multiple burners was hot water on demand. Washing dishes, especially after cooking bacon, is not easy with only cold water and soap.
  • I miss grocery shopping. I haven't been to the store since Thursday and although I can feed the two of us for over a week out of the freezer and pantry, it isn't nearly as much fun.
  • The insulated pump thermos was one of the best investments I never made (free from work). We had hot water for tea and coffee and I didn't have to use extra fuel to boil water every time we wanted a refill.
For the record, I was one of the crazy people at the grocery store on Thursday trying to buy milk and eggs. But in my defense, I was actually running out and had planned to do some baking while I was snowed it.

To your health! - KP