Gift ideas 2012….

STILL doing holiday shopping?    If you’ve got some last-minute shopping to do for your favorite foodie (that includes yourself, too), here are some of my suggestions based on some of the things that I use a lot.

Let me insert a disclaimer here and now–I do not receive any remuneration, discounts, or any other consideration for any products that I recommend on this website–it’s all based on my satisfaction from my use in my home kitchen! 

1.  Rice cooker, steamer, and slow cooker all in one

Krups rice cooker, steamer and slow cookerSomething that never gets put away is my Krups rice cooker–that is also a steamer (even while cooking rice), and a slow cooker.  It even cooks pasta! I’ve used all it’s features and once you understand that it quits cooking when water evaporates and the temperature begins to go above boiling point, you can get away from recipes and get it to do what you want it to do.

The recipes that came with the instructions will do for a start–but it lends itself to cooking things without much attention.  One of the recipes in the booklet that I do find useful is one for mac ‘n’ cheese (one of my favorite comfort foods).  I was really skeptical the first time that I tried this, but it’s become a go-to for quick comfort foods.   One of the rather neat things about this is that when the water has evaporated and the temperature starts to rise, you do get a brown crust on the bottom (that’s normal in rice cookers) which really makes the mac and cheese (with or without the ham).  I’ve even tried using cheddar to do this (adding some extra) and it doesn’t get stringy.  I think that it must be the starch from the pasta in the water that does that.

From the Krups booklet that came with the rice cooker, here’s mac ‘n’ cheese:

Ingredients

  • 200 gm or 1/2 pound macaroni (small penne or other hollow pasta also works)
  • 30 gm or 1/4 cup butter cut in small pieces (I’ve use less and it works fine)
  • 1 slice ham (or not, or more as you choose)
  • 20 gm or 1/4 cup Gruyère cheese (I like a bit more, or use another cheese that melts well)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (adjust according to the saltiness of the ham)
  • 500 mL or 2-1/4 cups water

Assembly & cooking

  • Cut ham into small pieces (if using)
  • Place the butter, macaroni, ham, Gruyère, water, and salt in the bowl and mix.
  • Close the lid, select the Rice cooking mode and press Start.
  • When the cooker switches to keep warm mode, let stand for 5 or 10 minutes, then dig in.

The rice cooker automatically switches to keep warm after about 20 minutes of cooking. You do need the stand time for the pasta to finish cooking.  But…how much simpler can you get?  I’m still playing with variations on this recipe, but it’ a keeper.  Admittedly, this is not a stocking stuffer, but it’s a useful addition to the kitchen and I don’t say that about many stand-alone appliances.

2.  Home espresso machine for the coffee lover

Krups home espresso machine with carafe

espresso in the making

No, I’m not talking about a huge price tag that you see in the Williams-Sonoma catalog.  I was wandering through Bed, Bath & Beyond one day and I saw this small espresso machine on display–with a very reasonable price tag.  It just had to come home with me (with the rationale that Frankie, the cat, needed to give me a Christmas present).

I’ve used the stove-top espresso pot for a long time, but it wasn’t an every morning thing–a little too demanding for my early morning mental state!  But this is simple, and you can froth milk with it, too!

It’s been used evey day since it arrived in the kitchen, to make plain unadorned espresso, cappuccino, or latte, or just a cup of regular strength flavorful coffee.  Since I’m not wild about very dark roasted coffee, I continue to use the Jamaica Blue Mountain Blend that I buy at Costco, grinding my own.

The only down side is that if you want to grind your own coffee, the whirligig-blade spice/coffee grinder won’t do it–you do need to have a burr grinder–but those are not that expensive.  So, if you’re a coffee fiend, this might be a good gift.

3.  Clever coffee dripper

drip-style individual cup coffee ffunnel

Clever Coffee Dripper

Until the espresso machine arrived, this was my gadget of choice for morning coffee.  It has the advantage of not requiring much effort–but making coffee that is close to that of a French press. (I decided to try this after it was recommended in Cook’s Illustrated–and was very pleased.)

This is in the stocking-stuffer range of gift, but does improve the quality of coffee over the usual drip machine or funnel-and-filter apparatus.  It uses the readily available filters from the supermarket, and it’s not demanding in terms of how the coffee is ground.

4.  The proper-size pan

petit brasier with lid

petit brasier from All Clad

If you, or the cook in your life, often prepare meals for one or two, an appropriately sized pan will make life easier and the food better.  One of my most often used items is the “Petit Brasier” from All Clad.

It’s definitely a useful addition to the kitchen.  It can go from stove top to oven; it can function as a skillet, too.  It has the same shape as what is sometimes called an “everyday” pan, but it’s sized for cooking for one or two.

5.  Cookbooks

cover of The Science of Good cookingFor serious cooks,  good cookbooks are always welcome!  We’re always looking for new ideas–especially those that get us away from feeling that we need a recipe for anything that we cook.

One of the stand-out cookbooks for this is The Science of Good Cooking from Cook’s Illustrated. This one supplies food science in a low-key useful way to go along with some great recipes.

For some great recipes and thought on cooking for one are in order, then here are two books that are likely to titillate that favorite foodie who cooks for one.

Cover of Serve Yourself

 

Serve Yourself is delightful reading with recipes for lots of condiments that make dressing up that second serving (also known as left-over) for a rerun–or just for dressing up any meal.

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Another for the cook who does single-serving cooking is The Pleasures of Cooking for One by Judith Jones.  It includes not only recipes but JonesFC9780307270726some food philosophy and thoughts on dining alone–from someone who does not view dining alone in a negative way.

…and just in case you’re wondering, giving serious cook a cookbook, no matter whether they are just beginning or are accomplished is not insulting…we LOVE cookbooks.

6.  Other miscellaneous stocking stuffers

Still undecided, or just need something small how about:

  • a gift certificate from Penzeys Spices–a chance to try some wild and wonderful herbs and spices that you won’t find in the grocery store.
  • a subscription to Eat Your Books–a search engine for cookbooks.  Yes–the ones that you or your favorite foodie have on the shelves.  You enter titles, and then you can search those books for recipes.  No more frustrating moments trying to remember just which book that recipe was in.
  • A new knife to complete or add to the set in constant use would always be welcome.
  • If you are still undecided see Kitchen equipment for small-time cooking, e.g. immersion blender, or other cookware alternatives for cooking for one or two.  There are other suggestions in posts from previous year’s gift suggestions.
  • You’ll also find some of my favorite books in the Bibliography.
  • If you love planning meals to showcase a great wine, then there’s a gift possibility–a special bottle of wine to anticipate and plan a great meal around.  Price doesn’t necessarily dictate whether a wine is special–there are lots of great wines just waiting for a meal to happen.  It’s always been my treat for myself on my birthday to go to my favorite wine shop (Wine Authorities) and buy a special (not necessarily expensive wine) and then plan a meal around it.  (If you’re from Durham NC it’s the Wine Authorities–and are awesome in helping coordinate food and wine.  Not local, they do ship.)
  • I’ll leave you with one final suggestion–a gift certificate for Kindle books.  A number of the books mentioned here are available for the Kindle, including The Science of Good Cooking.

I do hope that I’ve helped with any last-minute shopping dilemmas, and wish you and your favorite foodie (and the cat) another year of pleasures from the kitchen–good food, good wine, good friends.

A son goût! 

orange tabby on kitchen counter with mixer and knives

the sous chef

Cooking vegetables quickly

No matter how much you like to cook, sometimes you just want to prepare veggies quickly, but still want them to taste good.  One of my favorite ways to quick-cook vegetables is a technique that I learned from How to Cook without a Book by Pam Anderson, who really stresses improvisation and good food.

One of her techniques that I’ve found useful for vegetables is the “steam/sautéed” method.  It’s a very simple technique, using both “wet” and “dry” cooking in a single pan, without boiling or blanching and draining.  You can facilitate speed by how you cut the vegetables–smaller pieces cook more quickly than larger chunks.  This book is an excellent resource to help you learn to improvise and adjust quantities for single servings, doing away with leftovers. Recipes are simple, and presented in a manner that makes them very easy to adjust serving sizes, giving the necessary ingredients and there are variations given so that you get the feel of improvising.

To cook vegetables this way, you need vegetable, some fat, and flavorings.  The recipes in the book are presented starting with one pound of vegetables, but are easily down-sized to a single serving.  The basic ratio of these recipes is (p. 204):

  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon fat
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 pound prepared vegetable
  • optional aromatics (1/2 small onion, sliced thin, or 2 medium garlic cloves, minced)
  • optional spices (dried or fresh herbs and or flavorings)
  1. Bring the water, fat, salt, and vegetable, along with the optional aromatics, spices, dried herbs and/or other flavorings to a boil in a Dutch oven or a large deep skillet. Cover and steam over medium-high heat until the vegetable is brightly colored and must tender, 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the vegetable size.
  2. Remove the lid and continue to cook until the liquid evaporates, 1-2 minutes longer, adding optional fresh herbs and/or other flavoring at this point. Sauté to intensify flavors, 1-2 minutes longer.  Adjust seasonings, including pepper to taste and serve.

The cooking instructions are simple. I’ll give you an example of a recipe from this book, and of the technique (above):

Steam/Sautéed Carrots with Cumin (p.209)

  • 1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch coins
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley or cilantro leaves

Follow the Steam/Sautéed Vegetables recipe (p. 204), adding the cumin with the carrots and the parsley once the carrots start to sauté.

One pound of carrots is approximately 5-6 medium or 4 large, so it’s easy to adjust the proportions here for two medium carrots.  For me, 1 large carrot is about the right amount for a serving of vegetable.  The amounts of fat, spices, and water are easily adjusted (see Measurement Conversions), and they do not have to be exact–you can add a bit more water if the vegetable is not quite tender enough, and a bit extra will evaporate once the pan is uncovered.  You’ll adjust the seasonings to taste, as well.

You will need to consider whether your vegetable is “soft” (vegetables which normally give off water as they cook) may not need the steaming before the sauté step), but  vegetables that do not give off moisture as they cook, like the carrots, green beans, cabbage or broccoli, do need this step.  The amount of water will vary with the density of the vegetable–you will learn to judge that, always remembering that you can add more water a tablespoon or so at a time as needed.

Dried herbs and spices (except black pepper) should be added with the vegetable in order to have the flavors develop.  Because fresh herbs can lose volatile oils with heat exposure, these need to be added at the end so that the freshness is retained.  With this technique is easy to prepare vegetables for small-time cooking, keeping the big-time taste.