Cooking and Gadgets

ImageI LOVE risotto. It's one of the many things I had never eaten before I moved to California. Never even heard of it in my two decades of growing up in Western Massachusetts. I know that seems hard to believe, but I made my parents risotto when they came out to visit 5 years ago and they had no idea what it was. Seriously. Italian food growing up was lasagna, pasta with red sauce or pizza. I can't remember the first risotto I ever ate, but I know I was instantly hooked because it's the dish I always order whenever I see it on the menu...or hear it as the special. I just can't help myself. I love the creamy, chewy consistency of it, the homeyness, the endless possibilities. It's a dish I make at least 3-4 times a month, as it's fairly simple and hard to screw up. Or so I thought. Apparently, I've been serving it all wrong.

I got a hint of my wrongdoing when I watched a recent Top Chef All-Star show and Tre, one of the chef/contestants, got lambasted by Tom Colicchio and Anthony Bourdain, two of the judges, for making risotto that was too thick and sticky. Apparently, it's supposed to be more fluid and al dente, spreading out to cover the plate without any help – like a wave. He offended their risotto sensibilities and was sent home. It got me thinking. Clearly I had rarely eaten a "proper" risotto and never, in all my delicious attempts, ever made one either. Apparently, I was making an Italian rice bowl. I had to do better. And that's where another All-Star contestant comes in.

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canningWhen I was growing up my mom grew her own vegetables and fruit, raised chickens, canned tomatoes and made everything from bread to soap. I have not quite followed in her footsteps, but now and again I take on a project or two. I've made orange marmalade and lately I've been making batches of tamales. I've dabbled in window box herb gardening and last year I bought a kit to make cheese.

I'm not alone. Activities like preserving, canning, DIY, gardening and even raising chickens are all surging in popularity. Whether it's a desire to get back to nature, or to just feel the sense of accomplishment that comes with making something to your own taste, these experiences can be deeply satisfying. If you're not sure where to start, or if you are looking to take the next step, there are plenty of good resources out there to get you going. Here are some of my current favorites:

Williams Sonoma recently launched Agrarian, which is designed to get you up to speed in various foodie DIY activities, preserving, gardening and more. The carefully curated line of products includes everything from guides and kits to make cheese, kombucha and sprouts to garden tools, planters and even deluxe chicken coops and beekeeping supplies. As you'd expect, Williams Sonoma has sought out the best quality and often most stylish products.

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From the Huffington Post

charcoal-grill.jpgThe flame war between charcoal grill purists and gas grill hotheads burns brighter than the debate between Mac and PC users. You should read some of the slop slung on the barbecue message boards. On second thought, don't. Let me try to sort it out for you with a few inflammatory thoughts.

Grills are used mostly for three types of cooking:

1) High heat direct radiation cooking when the food is placed directly above the heat source for things like steaks.

2) Indirect heat convection roasting for things like whole chickens and roasts when the heat source is off to the side and the food cooks by warm air circulating around it.

3) Indirect heat smoke roasting for things like ribs when the warm air is heavy with flavorful hardwood smoke.

Let's see how each fuel performs at these tasks and all the other factors.

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chowder.jpgWhere I live, it is very, very cold. There are icicles on the trees, cars must be started at least 10 minutes before one actually wishes to make the first foray of the day, and everyone has boots with tread, a shovel, and backup pair of gloves. This morning, sidewalks and streets were covered with a sheet of ice, and we semi-seriously contemplated getting to church by sliding down the hill from our house. (Not that my life is all that Norma Rockwell-ian, but we actually do live at the top of a hill, and our church is more or less at the foot of said hill).

On a Sunday night when it’s been gray and cold forever, and the promise of the holidays is gone along with the first, unsullied snow, dinner needs to provide more than fuel. Demoralized persons (particularly those returning to school tomorrow after a blissful vacation) require something to lift the spirits in a way that cannot be accomplished with meatloaf or macaroni. Saving the demoralized requires something a little more interesting, a little more labor-intensive, and definitely farther outside the box.

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ImageI’ve been working in the kitchen like a galley slave for the last few weeks – since before the holidays, actually, and it’s time for a parole.

Don’t get me wrong, I love cooking – every aspect of it: I love schlepping the four heavy grocery bags (“Don’t forget – we need six bottles of San Pellegrino”) through the slush-filled rivers at each corner on Broadway; I love the insistent bump of the grocery cart into my Achilles tendon during the holiday rush at Fairway; I love the cutting, the chopping, the blanching, the browning. Oh God, do I have to make another battuto? I have battuto nightmares with hostile little cubes of celery coming at me brandishing Wüsthofs. I’ve got to get out of the kitchen.

Do you know battuto, by the way? It’s the Italian version of a mirapoix – onion, celery and carrot are the basics; sometimes you add parsley and sometimes even a bit of pancetta – and you cut them into small dice. A battuto is the beginning to many a good meal, the first step in recipes from pasta sauces to osso buco. A good rule to remember is that it’s always twice the volume of onion to each other veg. i.e. a half cup onions; a quarter cup carrots; a quarter cup celery; quarter cup parsley. You can’t go wrong. Put it all in a hot pan with butter and oil (or lard) and you’re off to the races.

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