Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Gift List for the Home Gormet

There are a lot of gift lists out there in blogs and magazines, and since they are a entertaining to look through (and since I know not everyone has time to make all of their Christmas presents), I thought I would share a gift list containing some of the specific items that have been really fun or helpful for me to have in the kitchen.
     I am not a fan of unnecessary gadgets and appliances, but if you invest in kitchen products for yourself or a friend I think they should be frequently used quality wares that will last you a really, really long time. Even if quality is a little more expensive, it is less wasteful (of your money and of our natural resources) to own products that do not need to be thrown away and replaced every couple of years. We received  most of our versions of these items as gifts or found them on ebay, but here they are listed by increasing retail cost and linked to Amazon or another distributor. Your kitchen dwelling friends may also enjoy a few handwritten recipes as an accompanying gift to any of these.

Oxo Silicone Sink Strainer
Ours was: from Amazon.com
Why I like it...       
  •  As with most apartment dwellers, we handwash all of our dishes and have no garbage disposal. I don't know what is the great difference between the mouth watering food on the table that you can't wait to get your hands on and the little bits of the same food that you don't want to touch your hand, but even as a biologist, emptying the sink strainer was not on my favorite activities list. This strainer is silicone and allows you to push the food into the garbage can from the bottom, which usually flicks out most pieces without scraping.
  • The holes on the strainer are large and plentiful enough to let water through even if there is a lot of debri, but small enough to catch a water soaked grain of rice. (We aren't fill-the-sink-with-water type dish washers here, we just use a sudsy rag and then rinse.)
  • Lastly, the bowl of the strainer is deep, this combined with the plentiful holes greatly reduces the collected food from splashing back out of the strainer once it has rested there.

Chef'n Switchit All-Purpose Silicone Spatula 
Ours was: a gift (from a kitchen store sale)
Why I like it...
  • Since most of the other cooking utensils in our kitchen are wood or bamboo, our Chef'n switchit (an earlier and slightly differently shaped model) is in constant use as our only spatula. Since it is made of food grade silicon it is heat safe up to 650 degrees Fahrenheit, which makes it useful for frying eggs, stirring fudge, and just about anything else you do in an average kitchen. I have had mine for 6 years and it looks the same other than some turmeric stains.
  • The switchit is available in seven colors, and has a hardened steel core, which gives it a nice weight.
  • Since the entire spatula is coated in silicon it is very easy to clean. In contrast to many other spatulas, you don't have to worry about scorching a wooden handle, melting a plastic one, or being burned by a metal one.

Large Stone Mortar and Pestle
 Ours was: a gift, and we have also purchased many to give as gifts. We have frequently seen them for the best price ($9.99-$12.99) at Marshalls, T.J.Maxx and Ross.

Why I like it...
  • Being able to crush your own spices and herbs makes you feel powerful.
  • Stone is easy to clean (unlike wood), you don't need to worry about cracking it while you pound (unlike some sad personal experience with a porcelain m and p), and the natural weight of the pestle does some of the work for you (unlike both wood and porcelain).
  • I use my mortar and pestle daily, and you may have noticed it make some appearances here on the blog crushing fresh ginger, cloves, and fennel seeds. A selection of whole spices would make a good accompanying gift (the aforementioned or cumin, coriander, black pepper, cardamom or anise).

Zevro Spice Mill
Ours was: a wedding gift (from Zevro website)
 Why I like it...
  • I enjoy having fresh ground pepper available right at the table, and salt over which you have excellent quality control. If I were a food snob I might say fresh ground sea salt is invaluable, but I can't say that I notice a large flavor difference from crystals. While I was growing up my parents had salt and pepper mills, but since then this was the first stylish version I had encountered. They come in five colors and are very simple and space efficient.
  • Despite having a plastic exterior, the grinding mechanism is ceramic, which should allow it to last a very long time. The adjustment knob also allows exact specification of how much you want your pepper or salt ground, from powdery to very coarse. 

Rösle Garlic Press  Ours Was: Nathanael's first Christmas gift to me (he found it on ebay) Why I like it... 
Garlic presses should not be something you have to wrangle to the ground in order to get your garlic squished. This garlic press can crush garlic (or peppers or sliced ginger) as though there is nothing there at all.
  •  The grate does not come out, but swings open, making it easy to clean without losing any pieces.
  •  The entire press is stainless steel, which not only prevents most appearance of wear, but also removes the smell of garlic from your hands automatically.


Helpful Free Bits

Library card  Alright, this one is not linked to Amazon, but this free item is essential for the creative cook, because you just can't buy all of the cookbooks containing fun recipes. You would either run out of money or space. 

Measuring Cup is a free database that is like itunes for recipes. This is where I store all of the recipes I collect from  library books, friends, and relatives. There are even features which allow you to email all of your typed recipes to other Measuring Cup users, or to print out nicely organized recipes. Measuring Cup only works for Mac OS, but if you are interested and have a PC you may want to explore the many other free options out there such as Living Cookbook, Cook'n Recipe Organizer, Big Oven or Recipe Center (none of which I have tried, but I have been thinking about it). Why would this free software be a gift? Because even though downloading software is easy, typing or finding recipes online is sometimes time consuming. So, with a little time and no money, you could give a friend a customized cookbook of your favorite recipes, or recipes from their favorite ethnic cuisine.                                                                                                                                                 ...And just so you know my favorites are Indian, Thai and Mexican. 


* Note: Harmless Color can now be sucribed to by email! Just enter your address in the subscription box on the right side and google's feedburner will email you posts the instant I publish them.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Still November

Though the consumer Christmas season official begins today, this year, like last year (I, II, III), I am hoping that Nathanael and I will be able to make most of the gifts that we give to our family members. So, all logic would say that our creating season should have begun much earlier than one month before Christmas. And you know, I think I did begin thinking intently about what I wanted to make some time in July or August, but then we moved and vwoop! there went fall. This is not to say that I have not been making anything, but just that I am rather distractible and end up making things for household use, for new babies, or as gifts just because I like people.
    As it stands, Nathanael has completed one amazing gift for one of his brothers, and I have completed four projects which sounded like better ideas before I made them, but don't strike me as gifts for anyone in particular. But you know, it's still November. There are still 28 days to create things for our 14 family members.
I like a challenge.
I am not really short on time or fabric; the main problem is ideas. I never think that it is hard to sew things for guys until Christmas time, and then I realize that 10 of our 14 family members are guys. So do you readers have any ideas you've stumbled across that would make a neat ( and useful!) sewn or simply knitted gift for a guy? Have you seen any handmade items on a blog or on etsy that you think would be neat for a brother, father, friend or yourself?
 I can't show you what I have already made for Christmas presents, but I can show you a couple of the handmade gifts I gave during the past year just for fun.

The first one is a painting I did for the one and a half year old boy I nanny-ed from Feb-Aug this year. I spent two days a week with him, and one of those days was garbage collection day. We did a lot of things together, painting, snacking, playing in the park, splashing in the pool; but the highlight of his week was seeing the garbage truck. No matter where he was, even in the basement, he would hear the creaking of the truck as it entered the development and get very excited. We always ran outside (even when covered in paint) to wave to the garbage man and watch him empty all of the bins with the giant mechanical arm of the truck. Since Nathanael and I were moving at the end of the summer, I made this painting in acrylics to hang in my little friend's room. 

A bit more recently one of Nathanael's brothers, who has a fine collection of friendship bracelets, asked me to make a friendship bracelet for him. I had been telling him about an amazing bracelet one of my friends made me before I went to college, and how it reminded me of fractals. After much searching, I came across a pattern for something like the one my friend gave me, and though it is still not quite as amazing, I was pretty happy with how it came out and how simple it was to make.

 One funny thing is that I ordered the supplies for the bracelet online to save money. Thinking I may want to make more eventually, and that I would have other uses for embroidery floss, I ordered a pack of 105 skeins on Amazon. Unfortunately, when it arrived I realized that I had not been observant enough and they had actually sold me craft floss. It is a fine material for bracelets, but does not work for embroidery. Then two weeks later, they sent me the same product again and the company does not answer the phones at their service center. So now I have 210 skeins of craft floss, and so far I have made one bracelet...but I will think of a way to use it all yet.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

New Textures and Tastes

 A number of weeks ago, an acquaintance of mine from our apartment complex and I began walking together on weekday mornings. Since our route is a six mile loop, it takes us just under two hours to complete, and we have quickly become good friends. She is from China, and we both love to learn about the traditions, foods and other differences between our two countries, so we have hardly a moment of silence.
    It has seldom rained in the morning here, but usually at night, so we have only had one rain cancellation on our walk. However, we decided to turn it into a grand occasion. She came to our apartment to play games and have tea with me, and carried with her these neat little pumpkin shaped snacks. They were molded out of a dough composed of sweet potato puree mixed with sticky rice powder. As the stem and as a filling, she used red bean paste. They are a bland little snack of an uncommon texture around here, but it was fun to have them with our tea. (She said I could roll them in sugar if I wanted them to be more dessert-like.) In exchange for this treat I taught her to play Pass the Pigs and Phase 10. Perhaps not the most iconic of American games, but we had fun nonetheless.

Another new thing I have tried lately is bitter melon, also known as bitter gourd. I had seen it at a few different Asian markets, but finally purchased it at a produce stand with a wide selection of mostly local produce. I had a recipe for preparing bitter melon from my favorite Indian food cookbook (Cooking with My Indian Mother-in-Law by Simon Daley).

My recipe instructed me to empty out the seeds and pith, cut 1/2inch pieces, and layer them with salt in a colander for 30 minutes in order to reduce the bitterness, but I have to admit I was still surprised by the intensity. The vegetable reminded Nathanael and I of a cucumber, but dense instead of watery, and the flavor was very reminiscent of a bitter cucumber skin. However, unlike the bitterness of a grapefruit or some cucumber skins, the flavor dissipated quickly and did not disrupt the enjoyment of the other flavors in the dish. I would not prepare bitter melon often, but it would be a neat side dish occasionally. Nathanael will be growing some in his garden during the coming season. (He probably liked it a little more than I did.)

And if nothing else, they are fascinating to look at.

Finally, during our Thanksgiving focused grocery trip, Nathanael and I picked out three Mexican grown mirlitons. They looked familiar, but I neither of us had ever tried one, or heard that name before. When we eventually looked them up we recognized the Spanish name, chayote, which they are more commonly sold under elsewhere in the United States, but here in Louisiana they go by their Cajun name, mirliton. Another cucurbit (member of the cucumber, melon, squash family), the mirliton can be eaten raw or cooked, but either way, it has almost no flavor. Inside there is a single seed, but not a pit, but a very soft squash-like seed, which is also edible and essentially flavorless. 

   We ate our mirliton raw, and it reminded me of a zucchini or summer squash, but very very crisp. Nathanael wasn't a big fan, but I enjoyed it very much, purely for it's interesting crunch. Eventually I had some pieces with salt on them, and ate the others with strawberry-rhubarb jam. I recommend the jam especially.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Dark Chocolate Traditions

 In March I posted one of my family's favorite cookie recipes. This one is the other favorite, and was also passed down to my mother from her Italian maternal grandmother. These chocolate cookies are perhaps a little less suitable for breakfast than the fennel seed ones, but that may not stop you (or me) from eating them for breakfast when they are available. I made them on Monday night because Nathanael and I had a long car ride in front of us on Tuesday, and not only did I want to eat them all the way there, but I also wanted to share them with the family members waiting for us on the other side. As it turned out there was more than enough food when we arrived, so we still have most of the cookies, but that is alright with both of us.
  I remember making these cookies with my mom, sisters, and a family friend one year when we had an all day Christmas cookie bake. There are no eggs in these cookies and the dough is quite delicious; I ate so much of the dough that even our family friend told me to stop. I tried, but I think I ended up still having a few more bits of it. I recall we also made some kind of sugar cookies where you mix 2/3 of the dough with pistachio pudding and they ended up looking like little green UFOs with tan domes.
This cookie recipe has you do some unusual things, which might dissuade you if you are picky, but I would recommend that you be brave and branch your chocolate cookies into this new and gourmet realm. (Just make sure you read the recipe from start to finish before beginning. You will need almost a whole box of cocoa, and probably most of a bag of confectioner's sugar to frost.)

 You will chop not only the nuts, but also the raisins. This will keep them from cracking the cookies as they bake. The recipe calls for coffee, and even though I don't EVER drink coffee, these cookies are one of my favorites. The coffee will not only give richness to the chocolate, but since it is warm it will soften the raisins and melt the shortening. These cookies are the only reason I brew coffee (well, them and Nathanael).
These cookies have no eggs, and the original recipe calls for vegetable shortening, so in their traditional form they are vegan. However, shortening is falling out of style because of hydrogenation, so if you are an adventurous vegan go ahead and try some combination of oils. I typically use some butter and some oil. 

  Sifting your dry ingredients will ensure the cocoa is mixed well with the flour.

 I roasted my cloves in the oven to make them slightly easier to grind with the mortar and pestle, and it made our house smell wonderful until we returned from our trip three days later. However, roasting is not necessary.
 The dough is a scrumptious mixture that is easy to work with and not dangerous to eat. What more could you ask for?

The only thing missing is the almond frosting. Then they will taste really Italian.

Italian Chocolate Cookies  yield 4 dozen
Wet ingredients
1 cup of hot coffee
1 cup shortening (I usually use 3/4 butter, 1/4 canola oil)
1 cup raisins, chopped
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cup sugar

Dry ingredients
4 cups flour
1 1/4 cups cocoa
3 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cloves (you can add up to 1 1/2 tsp, but my family usually keeps it on the low end)

Later addition
3/4 to 1 cup of chopped walnuts
1/2 to 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (optional and not in original recipe, try to balance them out with the walnuts to equal no more than 1 1/2 cups so that the cookies don't crumble)

 In a medium glass bowl pour the hot coffee over the shortening/butter to melt it completely. Once melted also add raisins (to soften them), vanilla, and sugar. In a separate bowl sift together dry ingredients. Mix wet and dry mixtures together and add walnuts and chocolate chips. Mix with your hands until all ingredients are mixed evenly. Let dough rest for 5 minutes. Roll into 1 inch balls, place on greased cookie sheets, and bake at 375°F for ten minutes only. Remove carefully to a wire rack and cool fully. If desired (and you will desire it once you taste it) frost with confectioner's sugar frosting.

Confectioner's Sugar Frosting
2 cups powdered sugar (sifted if possible)
1/2 tsp pure almond extract (or vanilla if you must, but almond is better)
10 tsp milk (2% or whole)

Place sugar in a bowl and add flavoring. Measure the first 5 tsp of milk into the bowl and then stir the mixture into a paste (this reduces lumps). Slowly add the remaining milk, one teaspoon at a time, stirring after each addition. You will probably use all 10 tsp, but it may depend upon your sugar. Resulting frosting should be somewhere near the thickness of Elmer's glue. Dip cookies in completely, scraping off excess, and set on a wire rack to dry. Allow frosting to harden before storing cookies.
This will frost about 2 dozen cookies, more if you scrape up the drippings.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Pecan Weekend

On Saturday Nathanael asked me whether I had any plans for the day. When I told him I did not, he responded, "Good. Because I do."
We got out our tandem bike and rode a short distance to an area beside the road where a few pecan trees grew and spent the morning collecting pecans. I thought it was the most wonderful fall activity. The light was beautiful  in the shade of the trees, and we were usually not too far from each other, which allowed us to talk while we collected. And, unlike berry picking, with pecan collecting there is no danger of squishing what you collect or eating them as you go.

     Pecans are prevalent in Southern desserts, none of which I have yet attempted, so our efforts were not only recreational, but also a bit frugal. Shelled pecans from orchards are ordinarily sold for six to nine dollars a pound depending on the size of the nut pieces (halves, chopped or ground), but pecan trees are sprinkled in along roads and sidewalks. On Saturday, each tree we encountered had nuts that were a slightly different size or shape; some being too small to seem worth it, and some being long and narrow. Most of the nuts we collected were just a little smaller than the ones you can purchase at the grocery store, but the meats have a soft golden skin instead of the chestnut brown one that is classic in stores. I think they also have a better flavor, but it might just be their freshness ringing through.

After about two hours, we collected around 6 quarts of nuts. One huge bowlful. If you look closely you can see a few of the different shapes and sizes we came across. Later in the day we went out and purchased a super duper nut cracker for ourselves. It will take a little practice to consistantly achieve unbroken nut meats, but attempting to do so is an addicting challenge.

  The next day our Sunday school class was kindly invited for a riverside picnic at one of the member's homes, followed by nut collecting beneath their 20 pecan trees. Nathanael and I thought it not only sounded like fun, but that we might learn something from the locals about how to collect and crack the nuts more efficiently. We entered the address into google maps, and seeing that it was only three miles away, hopped on our bike and road off to another adventure. I am not sure why we momentarily disregarded previously being told, "You will see cows," and rode straight downtown looking for the address. When we failed to find the farmhouse downtown we headed the other direction on the road, hoping the numbering would start over soon and we would come to the same address not too far away. Strangely, that single road re-numbered itself more than four times in the same city and we still did not encounter our destination.
We saw a lot of cows. I waved and said hi.
After a while I just assumed we must have missed it altogether, but there were always intriguing bends ahead, so Nathanael drove us onward....onward....onward. When we hit a new county we decided to stop and eat our picnic lunch on top of the levee and then attempt to find a more direct route home, but some kind passersby informed us there were some houses just a little further down the road.

And so, after biking just a few miles further, we found it!
Our hostess was impressed with our excursion (just short of two hours), and also sorry she had forgot to mention the address was in a different city. After a second lunch, we spent just half an hour collecting pecans and came away with a stash even larger than the one from the day before! We received a ride home, which was definitely a relief, and our bike was returned to us a couple of days later. We enjoyed our bike ride, but if I had known we would be pedaling so far I would not have worn sandals or allowed Nathanael to carry so heavy of a backpack. When we mapped out our route that evening we discovered we had gone 26.3 miles.
Phew! It was quite a memorable weekend. 

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...