Catalyst Cooks

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Design a Kitchen: a Cook’s Countertop February 2, 2012

This is the first post in the “you help me design my kitchen” series — today’s installment: COUNTERTOP.

You’ve seen my countertop.

oh, that’s right, no you haven’t.  Because I’m always hiding it with my cool butcher block cutting board or taking pictures in the dining room on the table or sideboard.

Well let me just tell you.  It’s plain jane blah off-white ugly.  And tough to clean too.

Probably some sort of laminate that also functions as a backsplash.. yay!

Makes me miss my old house, where I replaced the laminate with some beautiful limestone tile.

Oh wait.  While that was really pretty, I found out the hard way that coffee, ketchup or any other acidic food/juice/condiment would leave a permanent mark on my countertop.  Not exactly the budding cook’s dream.  No amount of stone sealer could combat the juice of a lemon.

What countertop or work surface (s) do you have in your kitchen?

Do you like, love, or hate them?  Why?

What would you love to see in a house you purchased?

Some things I’m thinking are important in the decision:

  • Cost.  Looking for something not out-of-this-world expensive (where are some good places to shop???)
  • Practicality.  No plate-breaking, oops-don’t-put-your-lemon-there countertop.
  • Beauty.  But by gosh let’s not have the countertop be so ugly that I don’t even want to be in the kitchen.
  • Function.  Can I put my hot pasta water right on the countertop without fear?  Can I use it as a cutting surface?
  • Cleanability.  I don’t want to have to invest in some obscure, expensive counter cleaner to keep ‘er clean.

What say you?  What should I put on my short list, and what should I avoid???

 

3/8/12: Colette linked a great article on her FB page: http://www.houzz.com/ideabooks/1623075?utm_source=Houzz

 

Technique of the Week (be the Superhero of your Kitchen)- Knife Skills II January 27, 2012

Now that you are getting comfortable with your knife, let’s practice!

Get your potatoes out…

First- an easy multiple choice question.  Is it easier to cut something laying flat on a flat surface, or something rolling around?

Yes, that’s right.  It’s easier to cut something with a flat surface.  So if you’ve been trying to cut carrots, onions, or potatoes without first cutting a flat surface, you’re not doing yourself any favors!

Once you’ve got your flat surface (and yes, please, cut your carrot in half before you go any further, and please do cut your onion in half from stem to root before you try to dice it)- lay your potato flat on the cutting board.

And make sure that pesky index finger isn’t on top of the blade of your chef’s knife for pete’s sake!

Now, we’re going to go to more perfection land.  For those of you who don’t believe in that yet- and I was one of those- here are some reasons why chefs practice these cuts on bags and bags of potatoes (and onions) while they are in culinary school.  – and why you won’t see diced potatoes on a plate very often, because the Chefs got Sick of ’em.

1.  Food that is consistent and uniform is inviting to the eye.  Yes, beauty is one reason to practice knife cuts.

but if you are more practical like me, food beauty may not be compelling enough to practice these cuts.  So there are two better reasons to practice this….

2.  Practice = speed.  As you practice these knife cuts, your skills will get better and faster.  So will your prep to table time!

3.  Uniformity= consistent cooking results.  Where same size= same doneness, different size = different doneness.

If you believe that, please continue cutting your potato.  First, cut your potato into a 1″ square ended- rectangle.

(If it were 3/4″ square you’d be on your way to a Large Dice- but we’re not stopping here.)

Next, cut your 1″ square into 4 x 1/4″ ‘wafers’.

Next, cut the wafers into 1/4″ square-ended hand cut fries – otherwise known as Battonet

(bet you didn’t appreciate those hand cut fries before!)

As the last part of your practice, you can cut your Battonet into “Small Dice”- 1/4″ square pieces of potato, ready for your skillet.

My dice in the picture is not perfect… I diced the ends I had cut off to make my squares.  So this would not pass the Culinary Institute test.  But it’s great practice and I personally don’t demand perfection from myself.  My goal is to improve my speed and accuracy over time.

What to do with these potatoes?

Well, you can boil them and turn them into mashed potatoes…. or use them for a breakfast potato dish… or put them in soup… or deep fry them for mini-tots.  Practice more and you’ll get to try potatoes in fun new ways!

 

My mom says I didn’t eat eggs from the first time they showed up on my High Chair Tray. January 16, 2012

My food memories run deep.  From the homemade apple bread I didn’t like, because it had hidden cheddar cheese …

…to the Tortilla pie I did (and so did everyone else at the table- except for my mom- so she made it at least once a week.  She won’t touch the stuff now and never gets hungry for south-of-the-border flavors anymore).

Yes, I traded homemade chocolate chip cookies to a classmate for oreos- a win/win proposition at the time.

I’m sure we made it plenty difficult for my mom to feed us.  As the title implied, I rejected the easy-to-prepare and cheap and simple egg from age 18 months.

(I do practice making them and my lovely better half Neighbor Dave tells me if they’re good or not- I want to have those egg cooking skills in my repertoire!)

I read a short bit about getting kids to be interested in good food.  I have to say I don’t ever remember eating fruit with funny faces on it.

You, my friends, have a lot of cute kids (and perhaps some of them are now cute teenagers or adults).  Some of them are willing to eat just about anything, and open to trying what you put on their plates.  Some of them have a list of, oh, about two or three things they’ll eat.  Some of them are old enough now that they’ve changed over time (to become more selective, or more open.)

Some of you don’t worry about what will be for dinner because it’s a short list that you keep in stock.  Others of you don’t worry about what you’ll make for dinner because you can put anything on the table and it will fly.

Since I don’t have kids, but am teaching them how to cook… please tell me.

How is your kid at mealtime?

What kind of range/tolerance does your kid have for trying new foods?

Is your kid’s approach to food a function of nature or nurture?

What are the best tricks you’ve used to get your kid to enjoy mealtime?

What do you wish you had done, but didn’t?  What are you really glad you did?

Any other secrets to mealtime kids?

Curious Catalyst Cooks minds want to know!

 

Achieve the Perfect Soup! December 12, 2011

As soon as the first snowflakes fall and the temperature begins to drop, I am in the mood for some good comfort food- and the king of them all at my house is SOUP.  Here’s what you can do with all of that awesome turkey stock you have leftover from Thanksgiving (and only if it’s been in your freezer!)

The basic steps of making a great soup usually lead to a great result.  This is not a recipe but rather a set of 5 techniques that will give you creative license to make your own version of soup.  Put on your apron and get your creative juices flowing!

1.  AROMATICS.  Heat up some oil or fat in a Dutch oven (soup pot) over medium to medium high heat.  When it’s hot, add diced Onion, Carrot, Celery, Fennel, Leeks, Bell peppers (or any combination thereof).  Garlic is also an aromatic but is added last in the process (see step 2).

2.  CARAMELIZE  Allow the aromatics to soften and release their juices.  Onions and celery will become transluscent.  Add garlic after this has happened, as it only needs to be in the pan for up to 1 minute to release its oils, otherwise it may burn (which tastes bad!)  If you are adding raw meat to your soup (such as ground beef), you also want that to caramelize.  The key to great caramelization is to ALLOW THE VEGGIES AND MEAT TO SIT ON THE HEAT WITHOUT BEING STIRRED.  Put your spoon down and do something else for a few minutes while the veggies and/or meat get a nice brown crust.  Gray meat doesn’t taste good, but brown meat tastes GREAT!

3.  DEGLAZE.  Choose a liquid to add to your soup.  I usually use wine at this step, enough to cover the bottom of your pot and barely cover your veggies/meat.  Turn the heat up to high, add your liquid, and use a wooden spoon to release the nice brown bits on the bottom of your pan from the caramelization step.  This is called Deglazing and it adds immesurable flavor to your soup, and all in the matter of about one minute.  Reduce the heat to simmer and allow the liquid to reduce by about half.

4.  MAIN FLAVOR/SUPPORTING CAST.  Now your soup is ready for some flavor.  If it’s roasted squash, add that with some additional liquid (such as chicken or vegetable stock, or even water).  If it’s tomato, which are already quite liquid-y, add them and then see if you need to add more liquid (as long as it’s not milk or cream, as dairy will go in last).  If you’re doing a poultry/bean soup, add your cooked and cubed meat and softened beans at this step and some stock.   There should be enough liquid so that when you bring your pot to high heat, there is something to boil.  Once it’s at boiling, reduce to simmer (watch for the steam coming off the top of your soup).  This is also where you can adjust the texture of the soup by using a stick blender to create a “creamier soup” (by blending part of the soup and adding it back to the main pot or blending the entire thing).  Get your tasting spoons ready!

5.  SPICE.  This is bringing the soup to a finish.  Taste your creation and see what it needs  I always have salt, pepper, and an acid ready (white wine vinegar for a light colored soup and red wine vinegar for a darker colored soup, or lemon or lime juice).   I taste and add other herbs or spices a bit at a time as I go.  With practice you will begin to learn what flavor combinations taste great to you.  If you’re nervous, take a bit of your soup into a separate bowl and add a bit of spice and see how you like it before you commit to adding to the big pot.  Or you may smell the spice and then the soup to see if the smells go together.  I often taste and adjust, taste and adjust many times before I consider the soup finished.  This is really where you have the opportunity to hit a home run!

 

Now you’ve got the five steps… go forth and conquer and make a great soup!!!  (what flavor combinations sound good to you?)

 

Thanksgiving Tips and Tricks November 22, 2011

Thanksgiving is here!  Thanksgiving is here!

It’s my 10th anniversary hosting Thanksgiving… after ten years, I’ve learned a lot about cooking and hosting.  But even better, with a bit of age and more lessons under my belt, I’ve become even more thankful for the special people in my life, the fun times we’ve had, and all of those things big and small that brought me to this spot right here.  Thnaks to you for being a part of the Catalyst Cooks Story!!!

TEN TIPS for a FUN THANKSGIVING

1.  Hosting?  When you invite your guests, be ready with an answer when they ask what they can bring or how they can help.  My favorite response?  “Bring Wine!”

2.  Going to someone else’s house?  Ask what you can bring.  or, see above… “Bring Wine!”

3.  Cooking (at your place or to bring?)  Choose some great recipes.  Here are some of my favorites:

Turkey

Bread

Potatoes

Side Dish

4.  Make a list.  Lists are helpful for everyone, but especially hosts, and at my house the big list is:  what’s happening in my oven, when, and at what temperature?

5.  Know what you’re thankful for (refer to making a list, #4).  If you’re brave, share it at the Thanksgiving table.

6.  If some part of your preparations don’t go as planned- have the phone number of a kitchen hero at the ready.  Or, know when to cut your losses and move on.   (the best stories arise from situations that have gone awry!)

7.  A beautifully set table can erase any kitchen calamities.  And the table can be set ahead… so get out your best wares and make it fancy!

8.  My personal favorite, if you are hosting, make room at your table for Thanksgiving orphans.  Invite a friend who doesn’t have other plans.

9.  SAVOR and ENJOY your dinner!

10.  Last but certainly not least, if you are not hosting, DO THE DISHES.  Even if your host says no, butt your head right in there and get crackin’.  🙂

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

(do you have any favorite tips or tricks?  How are you celebrating Thanksgiving?  Leave a comment below, love to hear them!)

 

Now that you have that Meat Grinder, Here is a Sausage Recipe November 2, 2011

Picture this: Weekend morning. Coffee Brewing. English Muffins ready for toasting (at my house, in Great Grandma’s cast iron skillet- ever since the toaster broke a couple years ago, it has not been replaced).

What’s missing? My favorite breakfast meat: homemade sausage!

Catalyst Cooks’ Breakfast Sausage from Scratch
(can be cooked immediately, refrigerated overnight to cook the next day, or frozen on a cookie tray to be placed in a ziploc baggie to freeze for one month)

Serves 4 people (~1/4 lb. sausage patty per person)
1 lb boneless Pork Butt or Shoulder Roast
(alternative: 1 lb ground pork meat)
2 slices thick-cut raw bacon, with more fat than meat
(if using ground meat, then finely chop the bacon and add it to the ground meat)
1 tsp Kosher Salt (or to taste) – smoked salt also works well in this recipe
½ tsp Freshly ground black pepper (or to taste)

1.5 Tablespoon of other herbs/seasonings to your taste, such as:
• Toasted fennel seeds
• Fresh minced garlic
• Crushed red pepper
• Fresh minced jalapeno
• Finely chopped apple
• Dried or fresh: oregano, thyme, sage, rosemary, tarragon
• Experiment with your favorite flavors and combinations!

Directions
Prepare your workstation.
1. Prepare your meat grinder. I pop my metal attachments in the fridge as cold implements work best for grinding the meat. I choose to use a medium grind (plate with the round holes, not the triangles which result in a coarse grind or the plate with the small holes which makes a fine grind).

2. Prepare your bowls. I put ice cubes and a bit of water in a larger bowl, and nest a smaller bowl into the ice bowl. The bowls should fit under the grinder attachment, and this is where you will catch your ground meat. Metal or Glass bowls work best.

3. Prepare the meat. I reserve a plastic cutting board that I use for raw meat only. Cut the pork butt or shoulder into ~1 inch cubes, leaving the fat but removing tough tissue and silver skin if present. Cut the bacon into 1” lengths (it’s easiest to cut and grind bacon when it’s partially thawed from frozen.)

4. Evenly sprinkle the cut meat with your desired seasonings- when in doubt, under-season at this stage.

5. Alternately feed pork and bacon into the grinder.
Once the meat is ground, if you want to test your seasonings, make a small bite-sized patty and cook as directed below. Taste and adjust seasonings as you desire.

6. Shape the meat into four equal-sized patties, with even thickness and width. I like my patties to be ½ inch thick (flatter than hamburger patties) and about 2 ½ inches wide, so they cook evenly.

7. Prepare your flat griddle or pan by heating to medium-high heat. Once hot, Spray with cooking spray (or coat with a bit of butter for a richer taste).

8. Place your patties into the pan. If it begins to sizzle, the heat is perfect! Brown the sausage on each side, about 2 minutes for each side.

Enjoy with your coffee and some English Muffin…

 

I have a Meat to Grind: Meat Grinding and Meat Grinders October 17, 2011

Let me introduce you to one of my many favorite kitchen appliances… my meat grinder.

The backstory:  I won a gift certificate for doing a good job at work in 2005, and coincidentally on the same day made Swedish Meatballs with my favorite meatball combination: half ground beef and half ground pork.

Wouldn’t  you know that it was not the first time (nor the last) that I ended up with a  too-small-to-choke-on-but-too-large-to-ignore piece of who knows what in my meatball.  Thus the happy marriage of disgust and anger (about the ground meat from my favorite grocery store once again including non-meat mystery ingredient with bad texture) and a windfall (of $100 to spend at my favorite online store).  All roads led to the decision to grind my own meat, from then on!

(Not to mention some of the information that has since come to light about the prevalence of E Coli in large processing plants; the unsavory meat trimmings and by-products that are sometimes added to ground meat to increase its bulk; the chemical preservatives that are added to ground meat to preserve their color and appearance in stores.)

I did a bit of research online- much easier then than it is now, because there wasn’t as much information out there to choose from- and landed on the beauty pictured above, a Villa Ware 320 watt Power Grinder.  The attributes I like about it:

Parts disassemble for easy cleaning

Forward and Reverse direction (in case meat gets stuck)

3 grinding plates (for coarse, medium, or fine grind)

And, the piece that was missing in my Cooks of Crocus Hill Class yesterday, the Cutter blade (shaped like an X)-

which cuts the meat right near the grinding plate so it doesn’t get stuck.

I also like the fact that the grinding tube, plates, and cutter are stainless steel so that I can chill them in the fridge before using them.

 

Some secrets I’ve learned since I purchased my grinder:

*Start with a nice cut of meat.  I like to use a boneless roast (for example: pork butt or shoulder, beef chuck or round) that has very little connective tissue or “silverskin” (aptly named since it has a distinctive, silver-like sheen).  Good cuts will be nice and uniform, and I try to preserve the fat for my ground meat but certainly not any cartilage or silverskin that will plug the grinder or ruin the texture of my ground meat.

*Cut the meat into pieces no larger than 1″ cubed.  I’ve found that grinding pork is a bit more challenging than grinding beef, so if you are a new grinder, start with beef and move to pork once you’ve gotten some practice.

*Chill the meat before grinding- it does better if it’s really cold.  I have even put my cubed meat in the freezer for 10 minutees before grinding, which is easier for the grinder to handle.

*For beginners, you may choose to go with the largest/coarsest grind first, and then grind to the medium size.  The grinder has an easier time processing smaller pieces.

*Grind into a smaller bowl nestled into a larger bowl filled with a bit of ice and water.  I use glass or stainless steel bowls that can fit right under my grinder.  This keeps the meat nice and cold.

*Grind your meat when you will use it.  I don’t like to grind my meat to freeze it; part of the beauty of grinding my own is that it is very fresh.  However, if you are going to freeze some, make sure you keep the meat very cold; and put it in small ziploc baggies (expressed of air to minimize freezer burn) and flatten them before freezing.  Do not pile many of your baggies together, to ensure that your newly ground meat quickly freezes.

If I am making sausage, I typically add my seasoning (less than you think you’ll need, as you can’t take it out afterward!) on my cubed meat before I grind it, so the flavors really equally distribute.  I shape it into patties, thus eliminating the need to purchase casings and deal with that part of the process.  However, sausage links are easier to store so if you aren’t planning to use your sausage right away, you should consider casing your sausage (which is also a bit more technically difficult).

There are lots of great, inexpensive, well-rated meat grinders out there… are you tempted to start a grinding practice at your house?

(By the way, thanks to the Cooks of Crocus Hill class attendees from yesterday for the inspiration!  Now you get to see a GOOD grinder!)

Need recipes?  Watch for some fun sausage, meatball, and other fun recipes – coming soon!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cabbage au Gratin (or, Fall is Officially Here) September 14, 2011

What grills are to summer,

The oven is to fall.

I’ve officially started the “let’s turn on the oven so we don’t have to turn on the heat, yet” season.

Let’s begin with Cabbage au Gratin… a great way to use the late summer produce and have oven heat at the same time!

(It’s like lasagna- except much better for you.)

CABBAGE AU GRATIN

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Prepare a casserole pan by buttering the pan and dusting it with flour.

Dice:

1 medium onion

and

1/2 green pepper (optional- may also add other fun ingredients here if you’d like, such as shredded zucchini or carrots or whatever you have on hand)

melt a bit of butter in a frying over medium/high heat, add the above, and saute until browned & softened.  Add to:

5 Cups shredded cabbage (about 1 1/4 lbs).

Use about half of the above mixture as your first layer in the prepared casserole.

Then add half of this:

1 Cup shredded cheese (ideally a melting cheese – could be mozzarella, cheddar, parmesan, or a mixture)

Place the last of the cabbage mixture topped with the last of the cheese in the casserole pan, and top with:

2 Cups of stewed tomatoes (or use your Canned Tomatoes- ’tis the season!)

Bake for one hour, uncovered.

Remove from the oven and leave the door ajar to allow some heat to escape into your house.

Cover the casserole loosely with a bit of foil for about 10 to 15 minutes to allow the flavors to come together and the juices to be reabsorbed.

Enjoy.

Just try not to eat it all in one sitting.  Your digestive system will love you.

 

 

 

And What to Do with that Homemade Pasta? (a Quick Recipe) September 9, 2011

If you’ve experimented with the Homemade Pasta Recipe I posted yesterday, you probably want a quick sauce to go with it.

I got up this morning and prepared my lunch for this afternoon:

I took some bacon out of my freezer and ran it under cool water.  While it quickly defrosted, I put a cooling rack inside my jelly roll pan and placed my bacon on the top, leaving a bit of space between the strips.  I threw that in the oven and set the oven to 400 degrees.  (If the oven is cold when the bacon goes in, the bacon maintains its flat shape better.)  This cooks for about 20-25 minutes or until crispy.

I put my pasta pot on the stove to boil.

Then I prepared a quick sauce, by mixing the following (for 4 servings of pasta, about 1/2#):

  • 1/2 Cup half and half (or whole milk, or cream)
  • 1/4 Cup fresh basil, chopped (or chiffonade) – stepped outside into my ‘sunken garden’ to get this guy! **
  • 2 T softened butter (I use unsalted, and soften it by letting it sit out of the fridge- you can also soften in the microwave)
  • 1-2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 Cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
  • Salt and pepper to taste

After the pasta was cooked (I like mine ‘al dente’ or with a bit of texture), I tossed the drained noodles with the mixture above until the cheese and butter were melted (not too much, or it will make the pasta mushy).

I put a squirt of lemon juice over the top and dressed it with the cooked bacon, which I used my kitchen scissors to snip over the top.  Finally, I used a bit of basil for garnish.

Yum!

** A word about the sunken garden:

Last fall, Neighbor Dave and I got rid of our hot tub.  This is a long story for a different day (including the generosity of mom/Pam’s neighbors, marriage lessons in how to navigate the dismantling of a deck, and how to turn a bad thing into a good one).  End result: I now have a sunken garden on a very nice concrete slab right in the middle of my deck!

This garden has been fruitful, despite the cruddy spring and short summer.  Cherry tomatoes, basil, arugula, sage, thyme, rosemary, lemon verbena, and tarragon abound.  Makes for some great summer salads and herb additions to my favorite dishes… all by just going outside to the sunken garden!

 

Homemade Pasta Recipe – it’s Therapeutic! September 8, 2011

Homemade Pasta

Extra Extra, read all about it!

Catalyst Cooks is in the Star Tribune today!

To make the best homemade pasta at your house, here is the recipe I use:

1 part Semolina (durum wheat) flour

1 part whole wheat flour

2 parts unbleached All purpose flour

1 part water (give or take)

1 teaspoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil per cup of flour

1 egg per 1-3 cups of flour (optional)

Pile the flour on a clean, dry surface that is appropriate for kneading on and rolling dough on.

Create a well in the center (or what I call a ‘volcano’) and crack egg(s) into the center.  Add water, leaving a bit of a rim on the flour well.

Using one finger, begin to move the liquid in a circle, slowly expanding the well of flour and slowly incorporating flour into the liquid.

When the consistency of the liquid becomes more pasty, use your hands to pull the dry flour from the sides of the well over your paste.

Begin to knead.  Pasta dough is best when it is tacky but dry to the touch and cracking a bit but not a lot.  Meaning- not too wet but not too dry.

Knead for 10 to 15 minutes.  Add olive oil as needed to ensure an elastic, pliable, dry to the touch dough that has a nice sheen.

Cover with plastic wrap when finished kneading, and allow to rest for 15 minutes.

After resting, the dough is ready to roll.  You may roll on a large surface by hand using a dowel or rolling pin, flipping the dough to the opposite side occasionally.

Or you may use a pasta machine.  Cut the dough into slices, flatten, and roll through the machine starting on setting one and moving up one setting at a time until the dough is at the desired thickness.

When the dough is at your desired thickness, drape on the back of a chair or another drying surface and allow to dry slightly- 15 minutes or so.  Cut into desired shapes, and put into boiling water immediately until the pasta floats to the top- this only takes a moment!

Or use the sheets for lasagne- no pre-cooking required.

Enjoy your therapy!

 

 
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