Cooking and Gadgets
I’m a pasta snob. I admit it and I don’t apologize for it. I believe that great pasta is an Italian cultural artifact that’s been given to the world. And when I talk about pasta I’m talking about DRY PASTA, that is, Durum Wheat pasta. Pasta made with semolina from exceptional (now, often North American) hard winter wheat.
Over centuries Italian artisans learned how to combine hard wheat with water, humidity and moving air into an easy to store source of calories and whimsy. High quality dry pasta is all about texture.
When properly made it is porous enough to absorb condiments or “sauce”, yet sturdy enough to withstand boiling in water and remain resistant while tender. Good dry pasta should be as satisfying to eat as meat. It is not easy to achieve and my favorites are all imported from Italy.
If you buy shell on shrimp or fresh shrimp with heads and shell you can make shrimp broth. It’s a very useful frozen pantry item to have for making risotto, fish soup or infusing a seafood pasta, or pan sauce with more flavor. And it only takes a half hour to make. In fact I never actually set out to make shrimp broth, it’s always a by-product of peeling shrimp for another dish, so it’s important to be flexible about what to put in the pot along with the peels in order to end up with a flavorful result.
With this batch I didn’t have any parsley in the house but I had carrots with tops. The tops taste like a combo of carrots and parsley so they’re perfect for any broth. I threw those in. Then I added a few peppercorns, some coriander seed (which for some reason I have in great quantity), a couple green scallion tops and some lemon zest and juice. I could just have easily added Italian parsley, red chile flakes, celery seed (I love the taste of celery in broths), chopped onion and some tomato sauce or fresh tomato instead of the lemon.
In my opinion a great gift for the little one is a wire push type egg beater. No, it’s not too early to get that little one comfortable with kitchen chores. I say chores because if you strip away all the baggage of cooking “celebrity” and gourmandise what’s left is the truth that knowing your way around the daily work of the kitchen is a big part of a satisfying personal life.
Learning how to cook at a young age is like learning how to drive. The younger you are when you begin the learning process the more ingrained and effortless the moves will be as you mature. I use myself as an example. I don’t even remember being taught by my mother. A woman, by the way, who wasn’t by any measure a great cook. However, she did get dinner on the table every single night of my childhood with very few exceptions. So I learned the moves incrementally, effortlessly and naturally.
It started with pot banging. Raised in a household where a “toy” was anything that would entertain me, I was encouraged to open the doors to the lower cupboard that held the pots, drag them out and bang on them with a wooden spoon made available to me for this purpose. I don’t imagine mom understood that she was making a cook. She was just trying to give me something to do where she could watch me while she made dinner.
My large yellow teapot never moves from my kitchen counter. The inside has never been washed as long as I have had it and the brown build-up inside it is beautifully, perfect from years of steeping Darjeeling. If only Miss Sexton could see it. She would appreciate the years of brown stain from calcification build-up on the inside and be so proud that she is the reason it’s there. The inside of my teapot looks just like Miss Sexton’s teapot and it makes me happy and proud to have known her and I appreciate how she taught me to love tea as much as her.
I didn’t always drink Darjeeling. Miss Sexton and I drank loose Red Rose tea steeped in her English bone china teapot decorated with pale blue flowers and sparkling highlights of gold. It was beautiful and she used it everyday like it reminded her of someone.
Before I met our neighbor, Miss Sexton, I drank tea alone not wanting anyone knowing how much tea I drank when I was three years old. I told my mother so often how much I loved tea she began to worry. She lecture me constantly, “you’ll stunt your growth and be short all your life,” like being short was a bad thing caused by excessive tea drinking and not genetics. I was more willing to be short then to give up drinking tea. I continued to brew my Lipton tea, buying my own boxes with my allowance, drinking it behind my closed bedroom door. I loved the bright orange color. The taste was delicate with a rainbow of flavor like nothing else and all my dolls liked it as much as me. They always asked for seconds.
I was never a fan of the omelette until I tried the one at Petit Trois, Chef Ludo Levebvre’s LA-based French bistro. It is quite rich and intense - thanks to a very generous helping of Black Pepper Boursin cheese - yet light and creamy, just melting in your mouth. What other cooks call an omelette is just a dry, tasteless, overcooked travesty compared to this version. It is a simple plate of food perfectly crafted each and every time. Chef Ludo has exacting standards in the kitchen and he expects his cooks to make it the same, classic way plate after plate.
We aren’t overly talented in our kitchen, so we figured this dish would be relegated to our sporadic visits to the restaurant. Lucky for all of us, in his new video series, Ludo à la Maison, he shares the recipe and shows you how it’s done. Now you don’t have to live in LA to enjoy the Perfect French Omelette. The Boursin is a must - though thankfully widely available and inexpensive - and most kitchens should readily have the other ingredients on hand - butter, eggs, salt, pepper and chives. Only six ingredients. Totally easy, right?
After watching the video a few times - he talks you through it, but it’s still sort of freeform - we gave it a try and did, for two amateur cooks, a pretty good job. Yes, it took two of us. There were some tense moments in the middle when it looked like it was too wet and was going to color before it set, but we managed to keep it from browning (a super big no-no) and properly wrapped it. While not perfectly pretty, it disappeared from our plate as quickly as the true version does. Success!
“I was thinking… when we get back, we could make homemade ravioli”, Francis nodded to the pasta roller on the counter and pulled a box from his kitchen cupboard. It was a ravioli press. A Raviolamp 12, to be exact, in a slightly worn box. I was breathless. This was ringing all the right bells – crafty, foodie, flea market finds. Francis and I have cooked a few times together, very successfully, in fact, but I still get performance anxiety. Present me with a brand new $300 pasta machine, with all the bells and whistles, and I know what perfection is expected of me. But a used ravioli press with a piece of packing tape holding the box together? Well now, you just wanna play. THAT, I can do.
The day before, we had hiked through the woods near a cabin we rented in Rhododendron, Oregon, and had seen people gathering mushrooms. They weren’t tourists, they were definitely pro-shroomers. I say that because they were small and bent, wearing waterproof boots and ponchos with bags to contain their findings. They stayed targeted on their tasks, not looking up to say hi to wanderers. They were like fungus gnomes, trekking through the misty woods with determination and focus. That’s not judgment you hear in my voice, that’s jealousy and admiration. Their collection sacks were full. They were magical mushroom hobbits and I was in awe.
I recently received a package in the mail at KCRW. Opening it up revealed a thin, long package of wood strips of differing thickness held together with a loop of chain called Pastry Wands. I was immediately intrigued.
I tend to be a chaotic cook who forgoes attempts at perfection for simply making food that tastes really good, so often my dough is uneven when I roll it out. That never worries me.
If it did I would have bought one of the few items marketed to bakers who want perfectly even crusts or cookies. There are adjustable rolling pins, thick rubber bands to attach to your pin, even sunken boards with height adjustable edges.
They’ve all seemed a bit gadget driven for me. But the Pastry Wands combine usefulness with beauty.
A well designed package of simple strips with measurements burned into the wood edge. They have a distinctly tactile appeal. So I took them home and put them to use. A great holiday gift idea for your favorite baker.
It feels like Week 19 of the heat wave. Seriously, ridiculous. It’s too hot to stay in and cook. Baking seems ludicrous. Even making a pot of chili in the afternoon (to serve later with grilled hot dogs or hamburgers) feels like too much – which reminded me of the Cuisinart. It sits on the counter every day and we rarely use it. Why did I forget about the Cuisinart?
I love the Cuisinart. I particularly love the slicer. And having remembered it, I’m now on a cooking and no-cooking cooking binge, if you know what I mean. Last night I threw little red potatoes into the Cuisinart (using the slicer blade), poured them into a porcelain casserole dish, drizzled them (understatement) with grape seed oil, salt, pepper, and a little bit of fresh rosemary.
Catastrophe struck the other day. My kitchen drain backed up into the bathtub. Unfortunately the last thing I had cooked and washed down the sink was beets. Do you know what a white bathtub filled with red beet juice and bits of floating beet looks like? Let’s just say what follows will NOT be a recipe involving beets.
I’m truly dangerous with power tools (even the Cuisinart is off limits for me), so I called the plumber. The guy who showed up looked like your typical plumber—clean cut, with a baseball hat and sturdy boots. He began snaking the kitchen pipe, and I went into the next room. Minutes later, I could hear emanating from under the kitchen sink: “Nothing you can do cause I’m stuck like glue to my guy, my guy.”Is he singing “My Guy”? “No handsome face could ever take the place of my guy, my gu-y-y-y.” Yup. He sure is. The rendition continued replete with the backup chorus.
Now, I’ve heard of The Singing Detective but not the singing plumber. I got to talking to him, and it turns out he’s more than a singing plumber. I learned that he really wants to write science fiction novels and that plumbing just pays the bills. That’s the thing about L.A. -- so many people here aren’t what they seem. You think the plumber is just the plumber, but he’s an aspiring writer. Or take my cable guy who told me that his real vocation is poker and that he had even appeared on ESPN in a championship poker series. Then there was the shuttle bus driver who animatedly described attending a Donald Trump seminar. He said driving allowed him to pursue his real career goal: real estate.
I'm sure somebody has done this already, but there should be a book solely filled with lentil recipes. A lentil bible. And every kitchen should have one. The lentil is an edible pulse and part of the human diet since Neolithic times.
I inherited a bias towards lentils. Growing up in a conservative (Tory) household, the unspoken idea was that people who ate lentils didn't shave their armpits, wore hemp and hung out in muddy trenches at Greenham Common. I was so, so wrong. (I am also now a bleeding heart liberal who favors Birkenstocks, mu-mus, progressive education and sheep's milk yogurt).
I would argue for the elegance of the lentil - a simple, beautiful, shiny little bead packed full of nutrition and deliciousness. They are cheap, adaptable, adept at picking up flavors. Lentils are gloriously comforting and most cheering. For so long lentils have been the back-up singers. I'd like to make a case for them as the star of the show.
Amanda Hesser's single girl's salmon with lentils from the lovely "Cooking for Mr. Latte" is one of my favorites, a recipe I go back to again and again, with or without the salmon. My friend Marta's lentil soup gets a ringing endorsement - warm, homely, soothing perfection.