Monday, December 9, 2013

Chopped Withdrawal

A few months ago we made the decision to cut the cable and drop our home TV service. For the most part, we are very happy with the decision.

Cutting cable has freed us from a bill, although we subscribe to Hulu+ for about $8 per month. I'm no longer able to watch nearly every game that the Milwaukee Brewers play and I can't get all of the football games that I'm used to watching. While I miss these things, I'm generally happier that I don't spend all of that extra time watching TV.

However, the one loss that my wife and I are still feeling is that we no longer get our cooking shows. We can find many of them on Hulu+, but shows like Chopped are harder to find. I didn't realize how much I missed it until I was in the dentist's office a couple of weeks ago and watched an episode while getting my teeth cleaned.

I really miss Chopped! The stuff that those contestants are asked to do is just amazing to a home cook like me. The baskets that they get are just a crazy mix of things that most of us wouldn't dream of combining. Yet these highly skilled chefs can make gourmet dishes in just a few minutes of time.

I struggle with making things out of my own pantry. How much more difficult must it be when sadistic producers put together baskets with things like puff pastry, canned tuna, and pineapples. I have immense respect for the talent and creativity that it takes to put together a dish for such a critical panel of judges.

My wife and I have spent many an evening watching Chopped marathons on Food Network. Although we're happy with our new TV viewing habits, we really miss Chopped. Hopefully we can find a streaming source for one of our favorite shows.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Tasty Holiday Treats

Cookies are the lifeblood of the holiday season. This is the time of year when even people who are afraid of baking attempt to make their favorite treats.

We're no exception. Every year at this time we attempt to make cookies. Since baking is an art that has not been passed on to me, our results are mixed. We do occasionally hit a home run, but more often than not the result of our effort is sadly lacking when compared to the pictures with the recipe.

One of the few exceptions to this are chocolate chip cookies. For whatever reason, we can nail this recipe nearly every time. So, when we're bored and hit by the baking bug, we often turn to chocolate chip cookies to get our baking fix.

After picking my daughter up from work last night, we both agreed that it was a cookie baking night. She scoured the Internet for a good chocolate chip cookie recipe and came upon this Martha Stewart recipe for soft and chewy cookies. Winner, winner, chicken dinner!

Cookies baked while we watched Michigan State with the Big Ten title. We even riffed on the recipe a little bit. We didn't have any chocolate chips, but we did have a bag of mint and chocolate chips. We thought the mint flavor would give our cookies a nice holiday flair, and it did.

The results were sublime. Not only did we make very large cookies (the recipe was supposed to make 36 and we only got 24), but the mint really amped up the flavor. We'll definitely do this again, and now we've turned plain chocolate chip cookies into holiday cookies. I think that Martha Stewart would be proud. 

We heartily recommend this recipe as a go-to chocolate chip cookie recipe. Even non-bakers like us can knock this one out of the park. Happy baking!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Kitchen Beginners: Save Your Money and Buy Only What You Need

You do not need every kitchen appliance or gadget in order to cook well. You just don't.

So then, what do you need? Despite what stores like Williams Sonoma and Sur La Table tell us, a few basic pieces of kitchen equipment are all that you need. Over time you'll probably collect a plethora of stuff, but if you're just starting to cook like I did five years ago, save your money.

When I was divorced five years ago, I knew that I was going to have to learn how to cook better than frozen pizzas and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. So, I bought a couple of cook books that I thought would cover the basics.

That's a really good first step. The Joy of Cooking is a great book, although quite intimidating to the kitchen neophyte. Cooking for Dummies is really what got me going in the right direction. It's an easy read that explains the basics in easy-to-understand language while not making you feel stupid. Even if you don't like the Dummies series (I don't), I would recommend buying this book if you're new to the kitchen.

The next thing that I started doing was watching cooking shows. Celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay, Rachael Ray, Anne Burrell, Gordon Ramsay and Michael Symon were inspirational to me. However, the show that really helped me the most was Kelsey's Essentials. Chef Kelsey Nixon explains kitchen basics like no other TV chef does, which was extremely helpful to a beginner like me.

However, the one thing that the books and TV shows did was make me think that I needed a kitchen full of the latest cooking equipment. High end cookware, a Kitchen Aid Mixer, a food processor, expensive knives, and many, many other things filled a long list of what I thought were necessities. Big mistake!

Five years down the road, it's easy to see my mistake. Hopefully I can help you avoid the same problem. If you're new to cooking, you really only need a few things to cook a wide variety of meals for yourself and your family. Over time you will probably accumulate things as you need them. But to start, don't listen to the books or be enamored with what you see the chefs on TV use. Remember, the folks on TV don't pay for the stuff they use. Of course it all looks brand new - it is!

So, what do I think you need? Here's my list of kitchen essentials for the new cook. As you can see, it's not long. Spend your money on quality equipment that will last and not trying to fill up your kitchen cabinets with stuff you won't use.

  • Two quality knives - an 8" chefs knife and a paring knife. I like Wusthof knives because they are good knives that won't necessarily break the bank. It really is important to have good knives. Not only will it make chopping easier, it is safer because dull knives slip off of things such as onions. You will use your knives every day, so buy what you are comfortable with using. If you buy quality knives now, you'll never need to buy them again. 
  • Quality cookware. A couple of weeks ago I got a great deal on a set of Guy Fieri stainless steel cookware. I love it! However, I would recommend a decent set of non-stick cookware for the beginning cook. Non-stick cookware is easier to use and much more forgiving. This Rachael Ray set seems decent. The Guy Fieri non-stick cookware has also gotten good reviews. As a beginner, don't break the bank with your cookware. If you're like me, you're going to make mistakes and potentially ruin something. Buy a set that isn't too expensive to learn with. You can always buy that dream set of All Clad once you know how to use it. Think of it this way - would you buy your teenager a Porsche? Probably not. When choosing cookware, make sure that you have lids for the pots and at least one for the frying/saute pans. Most times the pot lids will fit on the pans.
  • Prep bowls are something you'll probably use every day. We have a nice set of Pyrex bowls that have covers. They clean up easily and nest for easy storage. Make sure you have at least one large bowl and one small one. In addition to our Pyrex set, I have a few small stainless bowls that we use regularly for things like scrambled eggs. 
  • Kitchen utensils are a must for every kitchen. We have a nice set of Joseph Joseph nesting utensils that we like as much for their look as their usefulness. Silicon utensils are also a good buy. Stay away from inexpensive plastic junk that litters the shelves of stores. You don't need too many utensils, so buy quality stuff. For the beginner, I'd recommend a spatula, spoon, slotted spoon, bowl scraper, and a couple of wooden spoons. That's really all you need to start with. Eventually you'll want to expand your arsenal, but you can do that over time as you find something you need.
  • Measuring cups and measuring spoons are essential to every kitchen. There are three categories of measuring utensils you'll need - liquid measure, dry measure and spoons. You really do need three different sets. You can't use the dry measure cups for liquid measure. Trust me, it won't work. A simple one cup liquid measuring cup like this Pyrex cup works well. A set of dry measuring cups that contain 1 cup, 1/2 cup, 1/3 cup and 1/4 cup measures will work for any type of cooking or baking that you do. Measuring spoons should contain at least 1 tablespoon, 1 teaspoon, 1/2 teaspoon, and 1/4 teaspoon. Other measurements are helpful. I've used many different types of measuring utensils, and they all work the same. Just buy whatever you like. You definitely don't need to break the bank with these utensils. 
  • You will need a cutting board to prep your food. A simple one like this foldable Joseph Joseph one is great for a beginner. You'll need at least two of these - one for meat and one for everything else. I would recommend buying a red cutting board for meat and another color for everything else so that you know which one is which.
That's about it. These basic items will allow you to cook a wide variety of meals. There are definitely other things that you'll eventually need, but for the beginner these basic items will give you a great start. You can always buy things like a food processor, blender or bake ware when you have a need for it. If you're just starting out on this culinary road, these basic pieces of equipment will definitely point you in the right direction.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Easy Pepper Chopping

Chopping bell peppers has always been a pain in the butt for me. The seeds go everywhere. No more!

This video by Gordon Ramsay shows a quick and easy way to chop a pepper without touching the seeds in the middle. He basically chops all four sides off while leaving the center seed pod in tact. After trying this method myself, I can assure you that it's the best way to break down a pepper that I've ever tried.Four cuts and you're ready to chop the pieces into whatever side you like.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Comfort Foods

Comfort foods are our friends. We eat them when we need an emotional boost because they make us feel good.

My favorites are fried chicken, beef stew, steak, grilled cheese and chicken noodle soup. Nothing too fancy and pretty common comfort foods.

The simple nature is often common theme among comfort foods. They are often things that we ate as a child, and eating them as an adult takes us back to those happy times in our life. Other than steak, that's true of my comfort foods.

Another common theme among comfort foods is that they are easy to make. I can make all of my comfort foods, and so could my culinary indifferent mother. I think the simplistic nature of these foods is what makes them so beloved to us.

What are your comfort foods? I'd like to hear.