Sunday, December 7, 2008

Cranberry-Lime Muffins (AKA Lemon-Blueberry Muffins, part II)

As you can guess from the title, this is not really a new recipe. But I think it's an important update, worthy of a brand new post. Since coming up with the lemon-blueberry recipe, I've been making them pretty constantly and have made a couple slight refinements. I've also learned a couple things about muffin-making; the main one being that the Cranberry-Lime muffins that I'm going to write about are by far the best muffins I've ever had. Even better than the original Lemon-Blueberry muffins that up till that point were the best muffins I've ever had. On average, I make these twice a week, every week.
Cranberry-lime muffins for breakfast every day! My family is so jealous. I don't share anymore; they're too good. Of course, they could just ask me for the recipe and I'd happily share it with them, but I think they're leaning toward holding me hostage and locking me in the kitchen to make them their cran-lime muffins every day instead. Seriously, you should see the look on Nathaniel's face when he knows I'm making these.

Ok, the recipe is mostly the same as the original, but after making these muffins a few dozen times, I've made a couple small tweaks and slightly streamlined my process for making them. Also, I learned something very useful that I never knew before, but always wondered about. Suppose your batter mix is too wet and you need to add more flour to it (or you just want to add more to increase the amount)? If it's only a tiny bit, then no problem, but if you're adding say, 1/4 cup, then obviously you'd want to increase the amount of baking powder as well, right? But by how much? Well, I was listening to The Splendid Table and they had the author of the new book Bakewise on. She said that the ratio of powder to flour is 1 tsp to one cup. More than that and you're asking for trouble. So 1/4 cup of flour, obviously, equates to 1/4 tsp of baking powder. I never knew that before. Very handy to know. She also said (and I'm grossly paraphrasing here since I can't remember exactly how it went) that how light and fluffy your muffins will be depends on how much air you whip into the butter. The baking powder doesn't react with an acid in the mix to form a gas and raise the muffins; basically it releases the air that's been whipped into the butter/sugar mix to raise the muffins. So you want to whip the butter/sugar mix very well before adding the egg because once you add that egg, the air intake basically stops right there.
Also very handy to know. Ok, on with the show...

Cranberry-Lime Muffins

1 3/4 c flour
1/2 c sugar
1/2 stick unsalted butter (softened)
1 large egg
1/2 c whole milk yogurt
1/2 c mayo
1 3/4 tsp baking powder
pinch of kosher salt
juice from 1 1/2 limes

Here's my routine for putting it all together (and if you check out the original recipe for L-B muffins, you'll see that this one is basically backwards from that one, which is good. I'm learning, I'm learning...)

Start by chopping the cranberries. I still don't have an exact amount, but generally use about 2/3 of a 12 oz bag. Also, if you're using just a knife and cutting board: they're much easier to chop when frozen. When they're thawed and you cut them, they tend to 'pop' and fly off the cutting board and table. They stay in place much better when frozen. (If you have some sort of kitchen-gadget chopper or are using a food processor, thawed is probably better. But I like the simplicity of just a knife and board, myself.)

Next, mix the mayo, yogurt, and lime juice in a bowl and set aside. (When you first open the yogurt, if you're using one of those large-size containers be sure and mix it well first, as the cream tends to sit on the top of the yogurt- don't want to use it all up on the first batch and then be left with a bunch of low-fat yogurt for the next round. That just wouldn't do at all.)

In another bowl, beat the sugar and butter thoroughly (remember, lots of air). I went out and bought a small electric hand mixer just for this purpose. Half a stick of butter and half a cup of sugar is not very much, and even doubling the recipe it wasn't enough to be able to mix very well in my brother's Kitchenaid stand mixer. And my arm was wearing out doing it by hand. I also recommend using a small bowl with steep sides, or even a small saucepan. Makes the mixing much easier, since the butter/sugar doesn't have much room to move around. Once it's as light and fluffy as you'd like it to be, mix in the egg, and then mix thoroughly with the yogurt/mayo/lime.

In another bowl, mix together thoroughly the flour, baking powder and salt. Next you're going to add in the butter/sugar/mayo/yogurt/lime goodness and the cranberries too (being careful not to overmix) but before you do that, I want to point out that the volume may vary due to the amount of juice in the limes. So you may want to hold back on adding it all at once so as not to end up with an overly wet batter. I definitely wouldn't cut back on the lime juice to just one lime. Just try 1 1/2 to start with on your first time, and tweak it from there. (I suppose if I was really devoted I'd just measure out the lime juice so I'd know exactly how much to add every time and wouldn't have to worry about it. Someday. Maybe.) Also, when I make these, I add about 1/2 the liquid and then 1/2 the cranberries, then more liquid, then more cranberries, so it all gets mixed in at the same time without getting overmixed.

(Oh, something else I learned in the process of making these is that if you forget to add the egg to the sugar/butter mix, your muffins will be totally fine- I almost couldn't tell the difference- but mixing the sugar/butter into the mayo/yogurt mix is much more difficult and does not look good at all. The butter doesn't want to emulsify and the whole thing looks like curdled milk. But don't worry, you'll likely not notice a difference in the way the final product tastes. Still, better just to not forget the egg in the first place.)

That's all there is to it. Bake on 350 until a knife comes out clean. Makes 6 large crazy-delicious muffins.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The four types of coffee drinkers

Well, it's food-related... sort of. Anyway, this was a paper I wrote for an English class about 11 years ago. Not the best stuff I've written (that was lost to a corrupt floppy disk shortly after school ended for me), but not bad either. Anyway, I keep losing this and finding it again, so I want to put it up on the internet somewhere so it won't get lost permanently like my other, better stuff. And this blog seems as good a place as any.

The Four Types Of Coffee Drinkers

There's an old saying that reads "I like my coffee like I like my women: strong and black," and that pretty much holds true for me. Sort of. I won't get into the part about the women, but the coffee part of it is pretty much accurate.

When it all boils down, there are really only four types of coffee drinkers: the strong-and-black, the cream-only, the sugar-only, and the cream-and-sugar type.

Let's start with the first one: strong-and-black. This is a type of person who is confident and bold; sensitive, yet manly. He projects an image that says "I drink coffee that's so good I don't need to add any of your "flavor enhancing" preservatives. To do so would only announce to everyone that either I'm a wimp who can't handle real coffee, or that I'm drinking really bad coffee that needs to be doctored up in order to be drinkable. This type of person is well-respected by others.

Then there's the cream-only type. This is a person who's really not sure of himself. He doesn't want to look like a wimp in front of his friends by adding sugar as well, but he's not confident enough to take the bold approach and go the strong-and-black route, so he compromises and takes a middle-of-the-road stance, trying to maintain a shallow image of respectability with other coffee drinkers.

The sugar-only type of coffee drinker has no credibility at all, in my opinion. They're mentally unstable. Nobody in his right mind would drink coffee like that, so insanity is the obvious explanation. If you do a background check on a person who's given to the sugar-only way of drinking coffee, you'll find that most of them have been committed to a mental institution at least once in the recent past.

Lastly, we have the cream-and-sugar type. This is the worst kind of all. These people have delicate tastebuds that can't be offended at all by the slightest hint of flavor. This type of person is usually over-sensitive and can't deal with raw truth. Everything must be sugar-coated and smoothed over to be acceptable to him. He tends to be immature and regressive in personality.

There you have it- the four basic types of coffee drinkers. Now if you'll excuse me, I believe my herbal tea is done brewing

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Tacos de Pollo (Dun Dun Dunnn!!)

I had to add that cheesy fake sound effect in the title in order to give a tiny little sense of urgency to this post. If I could have found a way to add in some floodlights and a dark stage awaiting a mega rockstar with thousands of screaming fans, I would have done that too, because the title Tacos de Pollo just doesn't quite communicate the awesomeness of what lies ahead. But I thought that "Holy-hell-these-are-so-amazing-that-I-will-totally-kick-Bobby-Flay's-butt-in-a-showdown-and-also-blow-away-the-judges-on-Iron-Chef-with-them" was a little bit much. Even if it is more accurate. So prepare yourselves...

...for a Taste Sensation.

And also for lots of me gushing and ooh-ing and ahh-ing about these tacos. About how awesome they are. About how they're in my top 3 of all-time best things I've ever eaten. About how if I ever found myself on Death Row, these are what I'd request for my last meal. But hey, don't just take my word for it- check out some actual comments they've recieved from real people who've tried them:

"...the best tacos I've ever had."

- my mom

"They're phenomenal."

-Ryan, who works at Sweeney's

"Wow, do you do breakfast, as well?"

- Some hot chick who came in to Sweeney's for lunch on Sunday, when I usually do these for the Daily Special.

" "

-Beth, my boss.

Ok, granted you could argue that my Mom is biased. You'd be wrong in this case, but you could still argue it.
And I think it's quite fitting that Ryan actually used the word "phenomenal," since I was originally planning on using that word myself, but thought it might be a little too much. But, hey, since he used it...
And lastly, I know Beth never actually got back to me about whether she liked them or not, but I'm pretty sure that's because they left her speechless. Yes, they're that good.

(Oh, and that comment by the hot chick? I totally made that one up. But that's the only one, I swear!)

Ok, enough jibber-jabber. Let's get cooking!

First, a rundown of Everything You Will Need. (And I'd like to emphasize the word "need". For the full experience, nothing here should be considered optional.) It's a big list, but don't be intimidated- it goes together easily and will be more than worth the effort. This recipe can be broken down into 3 basic parts- the chicken taco mix, the taco sauce, and the toppings.

Chicken Tacos

Boneless chicken breasts
Jalapeño peppers
Fresh, minced garlic
Kosher or Sea salt
Fresh cilantro
Vegetable/olive oil
Fresh lime juice


Soft corn tortillas

Taco Sauce

Regular mayo
Chili powder
Garlic powder
Canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
Guajillo peppers
Apple cider vinegar
Fresh, minced garlic
Fresh lime juice
Vegetable/olive oil


Black beans
Fresh limes
Colby jack, or cheddar cheese

Now, let's break it down a little more. First, the mix. I don't have specific amounts for any of this, but it's no big deal. For the mix at least, you can get a pretty good idea just by looking. I'll detail that a little more later, but first...
Take 1 or 2 chicken breasts and dice them up. They don't have to be minced (although that would be fine, too) but you do want a small dice. (Quick kitchen tip here: raw chicken is much, much easier to slice and dice when it's partially frozen.) Add in some finely chopped, seeded jalapeño, some minced garlic, and fresh, chopped cilantro. Sprinkle on some kosher salt, give it a squirt of vegetable or olive oil and a squeeze of lime juice, and mix thoroughly.
When I make these at home for myself, I tend to use 1 large-ish chicken breast, (8 oz. or so) 2-3 jalapenos, and 5-6 cloves of garlic. It's actually pretty difficult to use too much jalapeno, cilantro, and garlic. You want a good, even mix of green and white. If you're seeing mostly green, then you may have used too much cilantro/jalapeno, but it's not likely that'll happen. Also, with the garlic, your nose can give you a good idea of whether or not you have enough. Don't skimp, though. You want to add lots of flavor. Also, keep in mind that the heat of cooking will mellow the flavor of all of the above, so even if you do go kind of overboard, it's not like using too much salt- your tacos will still be fine. With the salt however, all you really need is just a pinch. Maybe a heavy pinch, but play it safe if you're not sure, as you can always add more later. As for the lime juice, maybe 1 wedge per breast? I find that 1/2 a lime can handle a couple pounds of mix, but it also kind of depends on how long the mix will be sitting before you cook it. Mostly you're using it to marinate the chicken, but it also contributes some flavor. I find that about 1 hour before cooking is good. If you think your mix may be sitting much longer than that, say 4 hours or more, you may want to use less, or even none at all. On the other hand, if you're going to be cooking it immediately, feel free to get a little more liberal with it. And as for the vegetable/olive oil, it's mostly just to lube the mix, make it less sticky and easier to mix in the bowl, and also possibly saving you from having to oil the pan when you cook it.
Before I move on to the Taco Sauce, I just want to comment on the use of the corn tortilla for this dish. Do not, do not,
DO NOT say what I think you're about to say. Don't even think it. As I mentioned before, nothing in this recipe should be considered optional. Nothing. Especially the corn tortillas. I don't care if you're allergic to them; this dish will cure that real quick.* So don't go substituting any stinking flour tortillas in their place. That is the quickest and easiest way to absolutely kill this meal. It's the equivalent of putting ketchup on a steak-

"¡No lo hagas!"

Once you have all of that prepped up and ready to go, I've found that 4 ounces of mix is just about the optimum amount for one serving. Or, depending on your appetite, maybe only 1/2 serving. Or maybe two. In any case, it will give you just enough for 3 tacos, which will fill an average person up.

Now the Taco Sauce.

There's kind of a lot of prep involved in this, due to the use of the guajillo salsa, (in effect, you're making two taco sauces) but it's really not as bad as it sounds. (And even if it was, it's worth it.) So let's start with the guajillo salsa first. Guajillos are becoming more and more mainstream. If you live in or near a large city, you should be able to find them at either your local grocery store, or a Co-op/Natural Foods store. And if not, they can be easily obtained online. Penzey's is a well-known outlet that carries them (although they're a little pricey there). I'm pretty sure Spice Barn and Gourmet Sleuth offer them too, (links to both are over on the right) at a reasonable price. It's worth the extra effort, it really is. The guajillo salsa is the one I blogged about earlier. There's a tag for it if you want to read that post, but I'll recap it here. This isn't meant to be a specific recipe, but more of a general formula-

1 dozen guajillo peppers, stemmed and roughly chopped (keep the seeds!)
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp crushed red pepper
1/4 c fresh, minced garlic
1/4 c olive oil
1/4 c apple cider vinegar

Add the peppers to a pot on the stove and cover with about an inch of water. Bring to a boil and then let simmer for about 15 minutes or so. You want the water level to go down by about a third, to boost the flavor of the liquid, as you'll be adding some of it to the salsa. Remove from the heat and let cool. Drain the liquid, but don't discard it. Add the peppers to your blender and add about half the reserved cooking water. Add the salt, crushed red pepper, garlic, oil, and 2-3 T of the vinegar. Blend it all up nice and smooth and give it a taste. You shouldn't need to add more oil at this point, but tweak the rest according to taste. I usually find I need to add the entire 1/4 c of vinegar and a little more of the cooking liquid, (it's for flavor as well as adjusting the consistency. I usually go for thick-ketchup-like) as well as more salt and crushed red pepper. None of the flavors should be overpowering any of the others. You want a good dose of the guajillo coming through up front, and an even blend of salt and vinegar right behind that, followed by the garlic and crushed red pepper. (I hate to sound all food-critic-like, but that's just what comes to mind when I taste this.)
Ok, that was probably the most difficult part of this whole project, and that wasn't even that bad. So just set that salsa aside, and let's get started on the rest of the taco sauce!
The only real "recipe" part I have for this is the Chipotle Mayo. I use it as the base for the rest. Chipotle Mayo in and of itself is very, very good. I never used to like chipotle flavored anything until I tried this. It goes very well on turkey burgers/sandwiches, as well as pretty much any other kind of burger or sandwich. To make Chipotle Mayo, simply take one can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (they're usually 7-7 1/2 ounces) and mix it with 4 cups of mayo. You'll want to either do this in a food processor or chop the peppers first either by hand or in a blender. If you blend all of this together in a blender, the mayo tends to separate, leaving you with an oily mess. (At least, that's been my experience. Not good.) So now you have Chipotle Mayo. And before we go any further, I realize that it may sound a little odd, using mayo in any form, on tacos. Banish that thought from your mind right now. Seriously. Do whatever it takes to make yourself believe that it's not really mayonaise, but taco sauce, that you're putting on your tacos. Have someone else make it for you and then lie to you if you must, but do not not use chipotle mayo. I tried it once using lowfat yogurt, and added some mashed up avocados to add a little fat, as well as flair, and the results were no good. No good at all. So hazme caso and just use the (chipotle) mayo.

Ok, just a recap on the ingredients, since the list at the beginning was for all the individual ingredients, including what was needed for the guajillo salsa.

-in no particular order-

Chipotle mayo
Guajillo salsa
Fresh lime juice
Chili powder
Fresh, minced garlic
Cilantro, chopped

The m.o. here is the same as always- start with the chipotle mayo as your base and add the rest according to taste. You may be thinking, "How will I know if I got it 'right'? Why can't you just make a stinkin' recipe for it? How hard could it be?" (That's what I'd be thinking, anyway.) But when I first made this, I had no recipe. I just threw a bunch of stuff in a bowl and stirred it all up, and a masterpiece was born. I never use a recipe when I make this. I like the idea of it being slightly different each time. But there's also a little bit of wiggle room in there too- even if yours tastes noticeably from mine, it'll still be great. In fact, I submit that any reasonable combination of the above ingredients will yield fantastic results. So just take a cup or so of chipotle mayo, toss in a tablespoon or two each of fresh minced garlic and chili powder, a few tablespoons each of guajillo salsa and cumin, (preferably toasted- just heat in a skillet over medium until nice and fragrant) a couple hefty pinches of finely chopped cilantro, and a couple squeezes of fresh lime juice. Maybe even a little bit of black pepper, even though it's not on the list. Blend it all up nice and well with a wire whip or other such utensil, and taste for doneness. Add more of whatever you think it might need, according to taste. You'll also want to let it sit for about an hour before using, to let the flavors really meld. And because this uses fresh garlic and lime juice, you also don't want to make up too much at one time. Partly because of the limited shelf life, but also because the garlic really sharpens up after a day or so. Some people like that, but if you're not one of those people, this is something to keep in mind. I briefly considered using garlic powder for large batches, but came up with a better idea instead. What I do at home is to just make up a large batch of chipotle mayo, which will keep just fine for quite awhile, and then just draw from that and add the rest to make the taco sauce as needed.

Time for the toppings...

Here's a recap-

Colby jack, or Cheddar cheese
Black beans
Fresh limes
Fresh cilantro

Personally, I think Colby-jack works much better than Cheddar for this. It seems to have a cleaner, less greasy taste to it, but I've used both, and both will fit the bill. As for the black beans, canned or dried, doesn't really matter. If you use canned, though, I recommend the less-is-more approach. Try to avoid the kind with lime juice/peppers/spices/tequila/etc. and go with just black beans, water and salt. There'll be plenty of flavor from the chicken and taco sauce to go around.
For the limes, you won't actually need more than one- just a wedge or two to squeeze some juice on the finished product. Avocados- when I first started making these, I would use thinly sliced avocado, then I switched to diced. Now I'm considering using mashed, with a little salt, lime juice, crushed red pepper, and a lot of black pepper mixed in. Sort of a guacamole, but I guess not technically one. I've been using that a lot lately on sandwiches anyway, and it just seems like it might be easier to work with on these than diced. Well, maybe not as easy to apply, but it might sit better in the shell, and not fall out so easily when I overload it, which I always do, no matter how many times I tell myself I won't do it anymore.

Alright, so you've got your mix, taco sauce, and toppings all ready to go. Let's get started. There's a couple different ways you could go about this. The ideal way would be to get yourself a huge flat-top grill like you find in commercial kitchens, so you can easily do everything at once in one spot. But those are very large and extremely heavy, and cost several thousand dollars, and don't run on electricity, so they probably aren't very practical for most people. So scratch that idea. You could try cooking the chicken, tortillas, and black beans all at the same time on your regular kitchen stove, timing it so that they're all hot and ready at the same time and all you do is throw it together. But I find that to be too much of a juggling act. So here's what I do. Throw some black beans in a covered, (and vented!) microwave-safe container and pop them in the reactor for a couple minutes. They'll be hot, but not too hot. They might need another 30 seconds or so later on, when everything else is done. Grab two non-stick pans (I prefer cast iron) one for the chicken mix, and one for the tortillas. Set one of them over about medium-high heat, and the other one over medium-low. The med-low one is for the tortillas. After a couple minutes, when the medium-high pan is nice and hot, drop in the chicken mix and start it cooking. After it's been thoroughly seared, turn the heat down to about medium and continue cooking until it's mostly done, (about 80-90%) then turn down to the lowest heat setting. Now you start on the tortillas. Make sure you've got a thin, flexible, metal spatula. The thinner the better. I picked one up at Target for about $5 that's basically just a heavy-duty piece of tin foil with a handle. It works great! It's sturdy, but flexible. (In fact, it was designed for delicate foods, like crepes and eggs.) Give the pan a light shot of pan spray, and then grab your first tortilla and run it under some cool tap water for a few seconds. Just long enough to give it a thorough soaking, soften it up a little. Shake off the excess water, and set it lightly in the pan. Lightly. You do not want to press it down with the spatula. Keep a close eye on it, and when it looks dry (no longer shiny) and a little puffy, that's the time to flip it. Immediately sprinkle on a thin layer of your cheese, and wait. When the cheese is soft and melt-y, it's ready!
A couple quick notes before we move on to the next step- you may have to experiment with different heat settings, as well as different tortilla brands, to find the combination that works for you. As far as heat goes, I've found med-low to be the optimum for my home kitchen, but at work, where we have totally different, commercial equipment, it's medium. And as for tortillas, I've noticed a big difference in quality with different brands. Some tend to fall apart way easier than others. I've thrown away many tortillas that just fell to pieces in the pan. It tends to happen when you go to flip it for the first time. (Which is why a thin metal spatula is key.) If you find you're having issues, here's a couple things I've found that help- using medium-high heat, drop the tortilla on the pan for just a couple of seconds before sliding the spatula quickly underneath it. You don't want to flip it yet. The idea here is just to sear it quickly, and then briefly lift it off the pan before it can stick. Then wait until it looks dry and a little puffy before flipping it. Another thing I've tried that can help, is to leave the tortilla on for a little bit longer before flipping it. The top part will start to peel and flake, but the bottom will toughen up, making it hold together better. You want to do this over medium-low. That's not my preferred solution, though, if I'm having problems, because I do want the tortilla shell to break apart easily- but in my mouth, not when I'm cooking it! If you try all of the above and still are having problems, don't give up! Experience helps, and your efforts will be greatly rewarded. If all else fails, just stop by Sweeney's in Saint Paul, and I'll be happy to make some for you!
Ok, next. Assuming you're doing these one at a time, you could just wait until you have all three shells with their melted cheese ready and then build them from there, but I have a really hard time doing that. As soon as one is ready, I make it and devour it before the next one starts. Sometimes I'll get the shell going while I'm eating the first one, but rarely can I hold myself back until all three are ready. Whatever you decide, here's the build process:

This exact order is very important. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. I've worked on these endlessly since day one, getting everything absolutely perfect, and this is it right here. (Ok, maybe not really, but just try it once this way before striking off on your own. It'll make my day.)

Lay down a thin layer of chicken first. I like to try and make everything in a line, since you're just going to be folding the shell in half anyway, in the traditional store-bought hardshell shape, to eat it. Just kind of makes them a tiny bit less messy. Next come the black beans, in a line on top of the chicken. (Make sure they've been drained, at least a little.) On top of that go the diced tomatoes. Next is the diced avocado. Then comes a line of taco sauce. On top of that goes a hefty pinch of fresh chopped cilantro. And then top it off with a squeeze of lime juice. Mmmmmmm.......

They taste best with a beer, but if that's not an option, Fresca works nicely too...


This will be my last post until I-don't-know-when (right when I'm getting ready to buy a good digital camera, too! No more waiting until the roll of film is all used up to get just a couple specific photos). Mainly because I've run out of recipes and ideas. Unlike a lot of food bloggers, I don't actively try and come up with new things, (with the exception of the muffins, maybe) and a lot of the things I have come up with have been basically accidental. I play around a lot with food or recipes, and every once in awhile I'll hit on something I really like, as was the case with these tacos. But it doesn't happen very often. I hope to be back with more good stuff to share, but who knows when? Since it could be awhile, I wanted to finish with a really good item. If you make nothing else I've posted about, make these tacos. And you really should make the muffins for dessert or breakfast, too; they're really good. Especially if you sub full-fat (8 grams per cup) yogurt for the sour cream. Ohhh yeah.
Anyway, thanks for reading; thanks for commenting. And maybe consider subscribing to the RSS feed and check back once a month or so to see if there's anything new going on here.

Chow, baby ; )


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Lemon-Blueberry Muffins

"If you want something done right, you've got to do it yourself."
That's my philosophy. But so is, "Why do something today, when you can put it off until tomorrow." Along with, "Tomorrow never comes." Kind of an odd mix, I know. But after countless attempts at finding a decent muffin recipe, I finally decided that tomorrow does come after all, and that tomorrow would be the day that I would at least attempt to come up with a muffin recipe that I really like and will want to make again, and can recommend to other people. That was two days ago, and I actually followed through, so last night I tried my hand at making Lemon-Blueberry Muffins.
I like to bake, but I'm not a baker; meaning, I really can't come up with recipes of my own for baked stuff since I tend to just throw stuff together based on how it looks and tastes, and you really can't add things like baking powder according to taste. But I gave it a shot, and I think I hit a near bullseye. I say "near" bullseye, because the recipe that follows isn't quite perfect, but it's damn close. Still needs some slight tweaking, but even as is, especially when they first come out of the oven, they are excellent. Best muffins I've had in a very long time. I can't believe this was my first attempt.

Based on past experience with muffin recipes, most standard recipes I've used or seen call for 1 T baking powder to 2-3 c of flour, and a cup of some sort of dairy, so that's the template I used. Here's what I came up with:

Lemon-Blueberry Muffins

1 1/2 c flour
1/2 c sugar
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1 large egg
1/2 c sour cream (For the love of Henry, not low-fat)
1/2 c mayo (See above)
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
pinch of kosher salt
zest from 2 lemons
juice from 1 lemon
vanilla (optional)

mix together thoroughly flour, salt, and baking powder

In separate bowl, cream sugar and butter, then add egg and zest and beat some more. (Add vanilla if you're using it.)

In yet another bowl, mix sour cream and mayo with lemon juice, let sit for 5-10 minutes. Add to butter/egg/zest mix, then add to flour. Be careful not to over mix.

Add in blueberries. Bake on 350 until a toothpick comes out clean.


Notice I didn't say how much vanilla or blueberries to use. As for the vanilla, it's because I forgot to use it, so I really don't know. I'm not even sure if it would go well in these muffins or not, but I like vanilla in almost everything, so I plan to try it again and find out.
I'd say 1/2-1 teaspoon.
As for the blueberries, I used about 1/2 pint. I just add them in until it looks like a good amount.

This recipe also ends up with kind of an odd amount of muffins. I used one of those large muffin pans and got a scant 6. So realistically, you'd end up with 5 large or ?? regular size. I just didn't want an empty spot in my muffin tin so I filled them all, even though I couldn't fill them all.

As for the tweaking I mentioned earlier, I'm going to try cutting the mayo and sour down to 6 T (1/4 c + 2 T) and see how that works. And maybe not grease the muffin tin with butter this time. But, as I also mentioned earlier, even just like this, these muffins are the best I've had in a long time. I'm sure you'll love them too. (If you try them out, please post a comment with your thoughts and any suggestions/tweaks.) Enjoy!

(P.S. Sorry I don't have any photos to post- still waiting for my digital camera- but they look like, well, blueberry muffins.)

(Tonight I'm getting ready to try Cranberry-Lime! : )


I've tried, and can highly recommend, making these as Raspberry-Lime muffins! The recipe is the same with a couple slight changes- 86 the lime zest, and use the juice of 1 1/2 limes.
I suppose you could use the juice of two limes. But the way I've been doing it, with excellent results, is 1 1/2.
Also, I've tried it with the lime zest, and I think it's far better without.

Monday, August 11, 2008

"Talkin' Dirty To Me" Crêpes

I tried and tried to think of a catchy and/or funny name for these crepes because they are sooooooo good and I wanted something appropriate for the title in order to get peoples' attention and have them at least read the post so they'll hopefully try the recipe. I'm not sure I've succeeded with the catchiness, but at least it's accurate. Remember that shampoo/conditioner commercial (I can't remember the brand) where the where the woman is in the shower washing her hair, but sounds like she's, well, doing something else? I had auditory visions of that in my head as I was eating these things.
I think you will too.
(Oh, and if you think crepes are difficult to do, or require a lot of prep, think again. The hardest part about these is refraining from eating most of the white chocolate mousse before the crepes are ready. I've only been marginally successful.)

A lot of foodies like to toss around the term "food porn"; my photos don't live up to that label, but since I've got the recipe, who cares? And trust me, once you get your lips around these things you'll feel like you're in the video.

The script is as follows:


1 1/4 c flour
pinch of salt
1/4 c sugar (superfine, if you have it)
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 1/4 c milk
2 T melted butter


White chocolate mousse

3 T water
3/4 tsp unflavored gelatin
8 oz. white chocolate
1/2 c heavy cream, plus 1 c

Place 3/4 t gelatin in 3 T water- let stand 5 min. to soften

Place 8 oz. chopped white chocolate in medium mixing bowl

In small saucepan, bring 1/2 c heavy cream to boil, stirring constantly

Remove from heat, add gelatin. Stir for 30 seconds to dissolve, immediately pour over chocolate and whisk until smooth. Refrigerate chocolate mix until cold and thick enough to fall from spoon in a heavy ribbon.

Beat 1 c cold heavy cream until it holds a firm shape, then fold into chocolate mixture.


Strawberry Sauce (or raspberry, or dark cherry, or a 3-way combo, if that's your thing)

This one I don't have a recipe for. I usually start off with about 1 c chopped fruit, 1 T sugar, and fresh lime juice, adding more of each to taste. Cook down in a small pan until it's to your desired consistency. Most recipes I've seen call for lemon juice, but I'm a huge fan of limes, and use them in place of lemons for almost everything that calls for lemons.

The Action:

Put flour, salt, and sugar in a bowl, making a well in the center. Pour the egg and some of the milk into the well. Whisk the liquid, gradually incorporating the flour to make a smooth paste. Whisk in the butter, then the remaining milk until smooth.

Add a few drops of oil to a hot frying pan or skillet (cast iron works well) - just enough to coat lightly. Pour a little batter into the pan, tilting until the base is coated with a light layer. Cook for 1-2 minutes or until the underside begins to turn golden. Flip and cook for 30-45 seconds, or until golden.

This is how I made them the first time, because that's how they had been made the first time I tried them (except the fruit sauce was on the side). But I've since found out that they taste just as good, if not better, and are much easier to make if you don't try and fill them with the cream filling...


Some notes and thoughts-
I like sweet stuff, but not too sweet, so I usually cut the sugar in the batter down to 3 T, to help offset the sweetness of the white chocolate mousse. Also, even though the recipe calls for beating 1 c heavy cream, I usually do 1 1/2 cups; partly to cut down the sweetness of that too, but also because I usually buy the heavy cream by the pint, so I'd just end up with a half cup of cream left over, with nothing to use it for until I buy more for the next batch of crepes. In any case, I like the taste and texture of the extra half cup in the mix. It's a nice balance of creamy sweetness- not overly creamy or overly sweet. Also, with the white chocolate, you want to use something of halfway decent quality, not those artificially flavored baking chips. I used Baker's and it came out great.

You owe it to yourself to try these crepes. Even if you're on a diet of some sort- take a day off. Just make sure you've got the willpower to get back on it, because these things will fight hard against you.

After you've made these a few dozen times, you may want to experiment with different flavors of mousse- today I tried it with some Andes mints chunks instead of white chocolate, and sprinkled on top some of the fresh mint I've got growing. I think maybe it was a little too mint-heavy, and I really missed the fruit sauce, but I think maybe I'll try adding just a little of the Andes candy in with the white chocolate next time, or maybe just sprinkling some of the fresh mint on top. I also have plans to try it with a little dark chocolate.

P.S. I got the recipe, with permission, from Paula, who doesn't have a website or I'd link to it. I'm not sure if she's the originator of the recipe, but I'm going to assume she is.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Basil-Tomato Soup

Ok, first of all, I finally, finally got around to changing the "about me" section to something that I think sums this blog up better. And it's shorter too, which I think is usually better. I tried many times before to come up with something I liked, but never could. Until now.
Yay, me.

I'm actually a lot more excited about the photos in today's post than I am the soup. Don't get me wrong, I love the soup, and it's very good indeed, but lately it seems that every photo I take, no matter what it's of, has been just plain crappy. Most of the time they need heavy Photoshop treatment just to look somewhat presentable. But these photos of the basil and oregano came out beautiful! No editing required! (Other than to resize.) All of the basil and oregano used in today's soup came from my little container garden out on the front porch. I also planted about 4 dozen tomato plants this summer (slightly too much), so there's a few of my very first tomato, too. The photo quality on those isn't so great, but I put most of the blame on the ISO 400 film I used.

Ok, since the recipe is pretty short and sweet, let's do that first, then the lovely basil/oregano photos.


Canned tomatoes (crushed, filleted, diced, shaken, or stirred. Whatever floats your boat.)
Half and half
Unsalted butter
Fresh oregano
Fresh basil
Kosher salt
Black pepper
Crushed red pepper
A lemon
Fish sauce

Now what I normally do is just throw it all in a pot and keep adding stuff according to taste (like most recipes tell you to do with salt/pepper, right? ). Well, except for the lemon- you're only going to need that for the zest. But tonight I actually came up with sort of a recipe for this one. As always, think of it more as just a list of ingredients to play around with, than an actual recipe to follow. But it goes like this:

1 28 oz can tomatoes (I like taking diced tomatoes, and partially whipping them up in the food processor. Some people like their basil-tomato soup chunky, others like it smooth. I'm in the middle.)
3/4 stick unsalted butter
Half and half (I don't have an amount on this one- not only did I forget to measure, but I didn't even have any half and half, so I used heavy cream and 2% milk. But it really doesn't matter, since you just add until you reach your desired lightness of color. Oh, and unless you really don't like dairy or whatever, I'd really recommend not skipping this part. Milk or cream isn't something I use in regular tomato soup [i.e. canned], but it works quite nicely in this.)
2 1/2 cups (pre-chop) fresh oregano
2-4 cups (pre-chop) fresh basil
Kosher salt
Black pepper
Crushed red pepper
Fish sauce
Zest of 1 lemon

Add the tomatoes, butter, and half and half to the pot, salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper to taste. (I used about a teaspoon each), a few dashes of the fish sauce (I never measure that stuff), and all that wonderful oregano. It seems like a lot, I know, but I really did use that much for this. It might have even been closer to three cups. Fresh oregano is a beautiful thing. Dried will work for this soup too, if that's all you have, but whatever you do, don't used dried basil- it's just not the same. While that's simmering away, chop up the basil and zest that lemon. I tend to go very heavy on the basil, myself, which is why I call this Basil-Tomato soup, instead of the other way around, like most people. Add the basil about two minutes before you pull the soup from the stove, and the lemon zest just after. I have to say, the crushed red pepper and lemon zest were not originally my idea- I read about a marinara recipe on somebody else's food blog awhile back, (at least, I think it was a marinara recipe- I can't remember), and that's what she did. So I tried it with this soup, and have been making it this way ever since. If I could remember who's food blog it was, I'd surely name it here, but I can't. I'd probably remember if I heard the name, so if that person happens to be reading this, let me know and I'll give you proper credit.

On to the photos!

and my first tomato...

The final product...

I don't know exactly how much basil I used for that garnish, but I really do use that much- it wasn't just for the photo- and was it ever tasty! : )

P.S. I wish I had the photos I took of the oregano when it first sprouted- you wouldn't believe how small those things are! (I took several pics, but for the life of me, can't find them anywhere.) Makes it challenging to water them, as the water tends to flatten the tiny sprouts- even using a spray bottle on fine mist. Normally I'd have watered them from the bottom, but I planted them in a self-watering pot that was about 7 inches deep, and I found it easier just to top-water them. The seeds themselves are so tiny you almost need a magnifying glass to see them. As I remember, they're about the size of the period at the end of this sentence.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Taco Seasoning

Just a quickie here. I remember when I was a kid, tacos were one of my favorite meals. And these days, they're one of the favorite meals of my two nephews. Maybe you loved them as a kid, or have kids of your own who love them now. I say ditch those little yellow packets of taco seasoning mix that you get at the store for $1 and make your own. It's just as good (I think it's better), quick and easy, and probably cheaper since you can make it from bulk spices, all of which you probably have lying around already.

You will need:

1/2 c chili powder
1/2 c cumin
1/4 c garlic powder
1/4 c dried onion flakes
3 T crushed red pepper
2 T kosher salt
2 1/2 T pepper
2 T onion powder

Frank's Red Hot
Fish sauce

Simply mix up all the dry ingredients thoroughly, and you'll have enough spice mix to handle 10 lbs. of ground beef. Make as you normally would, except that I highly recommend the addition of a little Frank's and a few drops of fish sauce, depending how many people you're feeding. Add Frank's to taste, but as for fish sauce, I make 10 lbs at a time at work and use maybe a tablespoon. (Depending on how thoroughly you drain your hamburger, you may have to add a little vegetable oil and/or water. I try not to drain it all the way, myself; fat is where the flavor is, right?)

No, I'm not kidding about the fish sauce. You won't taste a few drops, but you'll know it's there. I love the stuff anyway, but the other day I was listening to The Splendid Table, and they said adding a dash to different foods adds Umami. So now I've been using it in just about everything, not just Asian dishes. (Even before I started using it all the time, I was of the opinion that fish sauce could rightly be called a liquor. It really can be intoxicating, in a way.)

As I said, I used to love these as a kid. I rarely eat them like this anymore because I have a chicken taco recipe that is almost beyond words, so I try and eat those as much as possible.
That recipe is coming soon. You don't want to miss it, trust me.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Ooey Gooey Caramel Kisses

This recipe comes from my grandparents so you know it's going to be excellent. I mean, have you ever eaten something that was made using somebody's grandparents' recipe and not loved it? Well, even if you have, it wasn't one of my grandparents' recipes (remember the pickles?) and it most definitely wasn't this one.These things are good. Really good. And best of all, there's not a lot of ingredients and they're a cinch to make! (Simple stuff usually is the best, isn't it?)

Gather up:

3/4 lb butter
2 c white sugar
2 c brown sugar
1 16 oz bottle dark Karo corn syrup (light should be fine too)
1 16 oz can sweetened condensed milk (not evaporated)

Optional: 1 c chopped walnuts

Easy enough so far right? Let's keep going!

Melt the butter in a large pot (6-8 qts) add the sugars and corn syrup and cook over medium for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the condensed milk (and nuts, if you're using them). Cook until a candy thermometer reads Firm Ball. Remove from heat and pour into a
10 1/2 x 15 1/2 pan (or a mixing bowl that you can eat it out of with a spoon in front of a movie later...)

And that's about it! I mean, there's more to the actual recipe, but it mainly involves waiting until the caramel cools and cutting it up and wrapping it in wax paper, but that's a lot of work. A lot of unnecessary work. I mean, why wrap it up just to unwrap it again? It would make sense to do that if you were going to be giving some away to somebody, but you won't be doing that, trust me. You're going to keep all of this ooey gooey goodness to yourself. Not only that, but the way my grandparents' recipe reads, they actually say the yield of candy is between 250-300 pieces! I don't know how the hell they came up with that number- I got about 15...
I suppose if you really want to give some away or something, you can probably figure out the wrapping in wax paper part on your own. I just left mine in the pan and scooped it out by the spoonful. Like I said, simple=best. A couple notes, though: the original recipe says to grease the pan that you're going to pour the caramel into with butter. I did that, but found it to be unnecessary, especially in the summertime. Also, on my candy thermometer it says "firm ball" is 245-250, so I shut the heat off right at 245 and poured it into the pan. Well, the caramel turned out pretty gooey (hence the name). Perfect for eating with a spoon, but maybe a little difficult to eat with fingers. I was thinking that maybe next time I'd try heating it to a few degrees higher, when I noticed on the recipe that it said in parentheses after firm ball, (248).
(Probably should have read the entire recipe before starting, eh?)

P.S. I took some photos of my batch of ooey-gooey-ness. If any of them turn out, I'll post one or two in the next few days when I get my film developed.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Goody Goody Gumdrops. Er, Gumbo.

I remember when I was a kid I used to hate Gumbo. Hate it. Which doesn't make sense to me now, since I'd never even had it. I think I just hated the name. What kind of name is Gumbo, anyway? Sounds kind of like Dumbo. But at least Dumbo was an elephant that could fly, whereas Gumbo, well, that's just a dumb ol' soup. Well, that's what I thought, anyway. Thankfully I've smartened up a little and no longer judge a food by its name, else I never would've started messing around with making my own gumbo, which, as it turns out, is way better than any gumdrops I've ever had.

Like a lot of the things I've come up with that end up here, this one started at work. We had some andouille sausage and some shrimp on hand that we weren't going to be using for anything else, and I needed to come up with a soup of the day, so I got out the Professional Chef cookbook that we have on hand to see if they had anything I could use. Luckily, they happened to have a gumbo recipe that called for shrimp and sausage. (On a side note, I don't find that book to be very interesting at all. Seems very "clinical" to me, and the recipes aren't all that special.) Now for the record, my recipe is not theirs or even at all like theirs, as I think you'll see. I just read theirs over quickly to get an outline of what to do, then struck off on my own, like I usually do. Also, it seems there are as many ways to make gumbo as there are people who like it, so I highly recommend taking my recipe (for lack of a better term) and using it like I used the CIA's- just a rough guide, something to get your own ideas going, then head off on your own. I'll also post a link at the end for a great site I found for all things Cajun. It's absolutely mouthwatering.

Alright, let's get this party started. The first thing you'll want is a very, very large pot. Gumbo just seems to expand when you make it. You think you're only making enough for 1 or 2 people and next thing you know, you end up with enough to feed the neighborhood. Y'know, it seems like it was that way with my Pozole too. I guess now that I think about it, maybe it's just me and the way I cook. I'd still get a large pot, though. Gumbo is very tasty and you'll wish you'd made a lot. As for ingredients, it can vary widely. I say use whatever you think of when you think "Cajun", but here's a list of some stuff I like in mine:

Definitely Peppers, and several varieties. The more, the merrier. For my last batch I used Poblanos, Anaheims, and Jalapeños, as well as some green Bells. I plan on using those and several more the next time I make it. Canned roasted red peppers work well, too. And if you're feeling really motivated, you could take half (or more) of whatever peppers you're going to be using and roast them yourself on the grill. Yeeeeaaaaah, baby. (On another side note, if you take some jalapeños, sliced lengthwise and seeded, and grill them over open flame until they're mostly charred, mix in some kosher or sea salt, garlic powder, a dash of pepper, and a generous dose of fresh squeezed lime juice- totally delicious!)

Canned diced tomatoes (fresh will work, too, of course, but since they're getting stewed anyway, I just found the canned kind to be faster and more convenient)
Sausage (andouille, chorizo, or whatever else you like)

That's the bulk of it right there, for me anyway. A couple other things you'll need are flour, oil, chicken stock*, and Cajun seasoning (either a good store-bought kind, or something you made up yourself.) As far as the Cajun seasoning goes, what I've been using, and can highly recommend, is Chef Paul Prudhomme's Poultry Magic. First off, I know it's not considered a "Cajun seasoning" but I started using it because it's what we had on hand at work- we use it for chicken, blackened burgers and, occasionally, wings. And honestly, I didn't like the stuff at all. I'd had it on chicken before, and had tasted it straight from the container and was not at all impressed. I know some people think that it's mostly just salt, but I didn't find it to be overly salty- just not particularly good-tasting. But- then came the day that I made the gumbo and ended up using it because it was quicker and easier than making something from scratch, and lo and behold, the gumbo turned out fantastic! And the last batch of gumbo that I made, I couldn't find any at the store, so I ended up buying this stuff instead. Now that is mostly salt! Mouth-burning table salt too, apparently. Of course I tasted it before actually using it, so it never made it into my gumbo, but I did have to try and whip something up from scratch, and even though it wasn't bad, it was nowhere near as good as the Poultry Magic. Maybe I should have done an internet search for "Cajun spice". I might have found this Poultry Magic clone recipe. (I haven't tried it yet, but I'm planning to. I want to see how it stacks up.)

Alright, once you've got your veggies, protein, and Cajun spice ready to go, the rest is pretty simple. Take some flour and spread it in a thin layer on a baking sheet, then pop it into a hot (400-450 degree) until it's a nice dark-cinnamon-brown color, giving it a stir every once in awhile. Should take about 20 minutes if I remember right. As for how much- I'd do a lot. That way you can have extra on hand for the next time you make it. But as for how much to use in the soup, it's hard to say. Depends on how much soup you're making, and how thin you want it to be (or not to be). While the flour is browning, add your chopped fresh veggies to the pot with some oil and cook until soft. If I'm using andouille, what I usually do is cook that up first, and then use the fat from that to cook the veggies in. I know it sounds unhealthy, but don't be fooled- anything that adds that much flavor to the pot has to be good for you. When I use shrimp, I usually go for the raw kind and just cook it directly in the soup. If you're lucky enough to be able to find some smoked shrimp, they add some good flavor too. (Yes, I am aware they look like nasty cockroaches.
Nasty, tasty cockroaches, hehe.) Just simmer them in the chicken stock and strain out before you add it to the pot. If I use chicken, I usually cook that off separately and add it to the soup when it's done, but I suppose you could just cook it in the soup as well- I do that when I make Tom Kha Khai and it's always tasty. Either way. As for the ham, I actually just use either a very meaty hambone, or a couple hamhocks- again, straight into the pot for a long simmer.
Back to the veggies- once they're nice and translucent add in some of the flour until they're well coated. You may need to add more oil to the mix so it doesn't get too clumpy. Add in some of the Cajun spice. (Be generous with it- it's good stuff. Also, if you can find some smoked paprika, it's very good. I got mine at Spice Barn). Now, along with the meat, you can add your canned tomatoes and chicken stock and just let simmer for awhile. (There's no Right amount on the tomatoes, stock, or anything else, for that matter- "whatever tastes good to you" is my rule of thumb.) If you find you need to add more Cajun spice, you can probably just add it straight to the soup with no problems, but if you want to add more flour, it's probably best to mix it in with some oil first to avoid clumping. (I believe they call that a roux.)

That's pretty much all there is too it. A lot of people like to serve it over rice, but I like it straight.

*As far as chicken stock goes, you could buy it ready-made, but I think it's far better to just make your own. Besides, the ready-made stuff seems to have gotten pretty expensive, so it's not even really cost-effective.

Ok, for some real gumbo recipes, as well as lots of other drool-worthy Louisiana and Cajun recipes, music, and culture, check out the Gumbo Pages- a goldmine of Bayou goodness!

The Foodie Blogroll

I've added this little link thing-y called The Foodie Blogroll- it's over on the right, underneath the archive. It's a pretty cool way to find new food blogs, or if you have one of your own, to maybe get noticed by other people looking to find new food blogs (Stumbleupon being the other great way). Speaking of Stumbleupon, I just stumbled across this food blog called Laylita's Recipes (It's over there in the links section). An instant favorite of mine. If you like Mexican or any type of South of the Border food, this is the place you want to go. I totally love it.

Ok, I'm planning on a new food post tomorrow. Not sure what yet, but probably a soup recipe of some sort. I was hoping to get one up sooner, but it's been a really, really long last couple of weeks. Also, don't forget- I have a chicken taco recipe in the works that will completely blow you away. You and anyone within 15 feet of you. I think this is my new favorite food ever. I eat them an average of 4-5 days a week.

Stay tuned, it's going to be worth the wait.


Monday, May 19, 2008

Blades of Glory- Addendum

Ok, I thought I'd share my recent experiences with a couple chef knives that I've tried out recently. The first one was the Mac Mighty 8.5". Mac lists it for $155 on their website, others sell it for about $120, and I paid $95 for mine through someplace or other. Northwestern Cutlery, I think was the name. Anyway, here's what I think, in a nutshell- I'd say it's over-rated. Not that it's not worth buying- maybe it is, for some people. But Mac knives have gotten a lot of hype that I just don't think they live up to (at least not this model). The main thing for me was that it went dull after about a month of normal usage, which seemed rather quick. I don't mean that it just lost its edge and needed a good honing; honing did nothing for it at this point and it needed to be actually sharpened. Which my brother was kind enough to do for me on his 3-sided oilstone even though I have a Chef's Choice sharpener for asian knives that I've been wanting to test out. (Oh well, I think he just wanted to give his stone a workout.) On the plus side, the knife was apparently easy enough to sharpen. Also, I wish the handle was a little bigger- I thought it was pretty small, overall. Smaller, even, than the handle on my cheapo Farberware blade. Overall, I'd probably give this knife a B-. Maybe a C+. Somewhere in that vicinity. Wouldn't say it's a bad knife overall, but probably not something I'd recommend to someone.

Next up we have the RH Forschner Victorinox 40521 Fibrox 10-in. Chef's Knife. The good folks over at Cook's Illustrated (the Consumer Reports mag of the food world) did a knife review back in 2002 and gave the Victorinox 8-in. knife an Editor's Choice. And on their website you can find the following quote,

Update: January, 2007 During the last two years, we have published or updated four reviews of chef's knives. During this time, our recommended knife has been and continues to be the Forschner Victorinox Fibrox 8-inch chef's knife."

Which leads me to believe that the good folks over at Cook's Illustrated are a bunch of baloney-eating chumps.

I read the original article when it first came out, but being that it was about 6 years ago, I don't really remember much about it, so I don't know exactly what their testing methods were, but I'm pretty sure that they were not very much inline with "real world" usage.
I've been working in commercial kitchens for about 8 or 9 years now, and most kitchens use knives that are very, very similar looking to the Victorinox. Same type of handle, same style, same feel; pretty much the same knife, except with a different name. And typical restaurant knives tend to be pretty crappy in quality- they go dull in a couple days or so, are hard to sharpen, etc. They're like that because most restaurants are not in the business of offering a dining experience to their customers, as they would have you believe- the fact is, most restaurants are in the business of being penny-pinching tightwads, and they'll often do whatever it takes to maintain their death-grip on those copper Lincolns. And one of the most common ways to save some scratch is to get the cheapest knives they can. They don't say Victorinox on the handle, but they look and feel almost exactly the same. And I knew that before I bought mine. I knew I was taking a chance. But I figured, "Hey, it's only 30 bucks; if it works, great. If not, chalk it up to experience." And now I'm more knowledgeable and experienced than before, and it only cost me $30! (I'm going to try and return it, by the way, but I'm not sure if Amazon will let me- it has scuff marks on the blade from the constant honing I had to do.) Now, I can see why the guy over at Cooking for Engineers rated it pretty well because he described exactly what he did to test the knives. His tests were pretty good at guaging out-of-the-box sharpness, but don't really address real-world constant use conditions. Fair enough, he never set out to do that. But the good folks over at CI have been recommending the Victorinox for years (and still do!). Surely they have enough experience by now to know that that knife is a piece of crap. I'm serious- I knew in about an hour of light-duty use that this knife was not going to cut the mustard (and I almost mean that literally; it does not hold an edge. At all.). And I thought the knives we use at work were bad- at least they stay sharp for about a day and a half. Maybe two. (One hour with the Victorinox was all it took for me to know!) I still really hate those work knives. But my choices are limited, as I explained in the previous post- I want a 10-in. blade, at least 2-in. wide, no bolster, large handle. Basicially, I want a knife like the ones we use at work, but one that will stay sharp for a little while. Not that easy to find. I did come across this custom knife maker in Canada, but being custom-made, you know they're going to be pricey. I'm just not ready to spend $400+ on a knife. (I don't know that they actually cost that much, but I'm guessing it's at least that much.) I don't know, I'm seriously considering buying a bench grinder and just bringing a knife home from work each night or two to sharpen it myself (which I do not recommend anyone doing, ever). They may only stay sharp for a day or two, but seeing as how we only send them out for sharpening every two weeks, it'd be a big improvement. The search continues...

Hey, stay tuned for some good stuff coming up- it's been a busy, busy week for me with work and stuff, so I'm behind even more than usual (I normally try and post about every two weeks) but I do have some tasty stuff in store, including a chicken taco recipe that will
Knock. Your. Socks. Off.
Don't like tacos? I don't care- you'll love these. (I don't care if you're allergic to tacos- these will cure that allergy with just one bite.)

I can't say for sure when that post will be going up, but hopefully pretty soon.

P.S. Thank you so much for taking time out to read this.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Blades of Glory (Part II)

Since this post is going to be about chef knives, I tried and tried to think of a cutting-edge joke or jokes to throw into it, but it was a bust. Nothing. My wit is just not very sharp, dammit. Sorry.

Anyway, about that chef knife you're considering buying. Sure can get confusing, can't it? The choices are almost overwhelming. And it seems like there are more and more brands popping up all the time, especially with Food Network stars coming out with their own labels or endorsing some such brand or other. So where to begin? Which one should you invest your hard-earned cash in? Well, I can't decide that for you, but I have done a little research, as well as having a little experience of my own, having worked in commercial kitchens for quite some time now, so I think I can offer some general guidelines here to help you decide.

It's quite simple, actually, which means that it's often overlooked- you really have only two things to consider- Blade, and Handle. You want a good, sharp, quality blade to handle the business end of things, but you need to make sure the handle is comfortable in your hand too, or else you either won't end up using your knife, or you'll use it, but probably wince in regret every time you do. So basically, do not buy a knife at all without having previously handled it at some point, either in-store, or having used a friend's. Pretty much any kitchen store will have a cutting board for just such purposes and will allow you to slice and dice your air-vegetables. I was seriously tempted one time to ask the salesperson if they'd let me bring in some carrots or something to actually cut up, but I decided not to. Chopping invisible produce at the store is certainly better than nothing, but not the same as actual use. If you've got your eye on a particular knife and know someone who has that same one, definitely ask to try it out. Besides the hands-on, you can also get their opinion of the knife and what they like and don't like about it.

Different people hold their knives in different ways when using them. I tend to hold mine with my hand choked up on the handle, like this:

(not my hand)

How you hold your knife is something to keep in mind when considering the handle. (And the blade as well- if you often hold your knife like that, you want a blade wide enough to allow for that without having to decide between cramped or cut fingers.) I've found that most people who work in commercial kitchens, (whether you call us cooks, chefs, or just the greasy, sweaty grunts who serve up heart attacks on a plate) tend to hold their knives in this way. And what that tends to do is cause blisters and calluses on your hand, because the knife makers, with their hundreds of years of knife making experience and tradition, always decide to make the back edge of the blade nice and square, with rigid corners. And while that might look nice, especially when referring to my chin, it doesn't feel very nice on your hands. So one custom knife maker that I recently read about makes his knives with rounded edges on the back. And while a custum-made knife is not necessary for most people, you can customize whatever knife you do decide to go with by using some fine-grit automotive sandpaper from your local auto parts store. (The back edge of your blade probably won't end up being nice and glittery-shiny like it was when you bought it new, but if you tend to hold your knife in the manner described and are tired of the calluses, I think it's a trade-off in your favor. Your hands will thank you. Not to mention your significant other.)

Ok, so the handle aspect is pretty much taken care of- basically you want something that fits well and is comfortable in your hand- now on to the slightly less simple aspect of the Blade.

Knives can generally be categorized into two main groups- German-made, and Japanese-made. (There are others, of course, but these are the two biggies.) Now, from all the online reading and poking around I've done, the general consensus is that while German steel is good, Japanese steel is far superior. Which makes sense when you think about it. Take movies, for example. Who gave us the Samurai movie? The Ninja movie? The Japanese, of course! Now I haven't seen every single ninja movie ever made, but I'm pretty sure that in every single one somebody gets cleanly sliced in half from top to bottom with one fell swoop of the sword. One fell swoop! Clearly the Japanese take their steel very seriously. What do the Germans got? Das Boot? I haven't seen that one, but I'm pretty sure that noone gets cleanly sliced in half from top to bottom with one fell swoop of the sword. Noone. I doubt if there's even a sword in the movie. Possibly a knife, but no sword.

Score: Japanese 1, Germans 0

But maybe things aren't quite so cut-and-dried. Or maybe they are; I don't really know, since I haven't tried every single brand of knife out there. But I have done a lot of reading and poking around on the internet, and the general consensus of people who are really into knives is that:

Score: Japanese 1, Germans 0

(or actually, more like Japanese 5, Germans 1)

Plus, if you're of the opinion that you get what you pay for, and that more expensive=better quality, then clearly the Japanese win this one. I've seen prices for Japanese knives as high as $1,275.00 for a 270 mm (just over 10.5 inches) chef knife. (And that was on sale!) Ok, so those knives are all hand-made. Probably not a fair comparison, but as far as I know Misono knives aren't all hand-made and they have a 10.5 in. for $240.30. Yikes, this is starting to sound expensive, isn't it? Well, I'm generally of the opinion that you get what you pay for, but that doesn't mean you can't get a really decent chef knife for 100 bucks or less.

First off, a couple quick thoughts on Japanese knives. Many of them use Damascus steel (or at least Damascus-style steel) It has a distinctive pattern that looks like this Katana, by Calphalon. Apparently it rusts more easily than "regular" steel. Not really a problem if you take care of your knives anyway, and don't leave them wet or lying in a wet sink, but it does require a bit more attention to care. Also, I did try out a Shun knife at my local Williams-Sonoma store, and my first thought was that the blade felt a little brittle. Supposedly that Calphalon "Will not chip, crack or peel", but it's something to keep in mind when considering which knife to buy. Obviously, noone wants to drop their knives, but sometimes it happens- and if that blade is a little more brittle and does end up chipping, that can be a very expensive "oops". Other Japanese knives, like Mac and Global, do not use the Damascus-type steel.

Now, something very important to consider when deciding on a knife is:

Bolster? Or no Bolster?

What's a bolster, you ask?

I've highlighted it here- it's that extra thick part of the blade that connects to the handle. Not all knives have them. Many do. Why? And what difference does it make? Well, I'm not sure why knife makers add them- they're not necessary at all. A selling point, is my guess. They tell you things like it adds weight and balance to the knife to get you to think it's a good thing to have. Well, the knife makers at Global will tell you that a knife can be perfectly balanced without a bolster. And if the weight of my entire bronze-tanned, well-chiseled right arm pressing down on that blade is not enough to accomplish the task at hand, then I don't know what good a couple extra ounces of steel is going to do. But I know of something else that it will do, and that is hinder sharpening, as well as offset the curve of your blade when you do sharpen it. I admit bolstered knives do look nice, but the manufacturer must believe that you're never going to have to sharpen that knife, even once. Here's what Holley Knives has to say about bolstered knives:

"Nearly all forged German branded knives have a bolster that extends all the way to the blade. This is not a good thing for those of us who have to sharpen them. Every time your knives are professionally sharpened, the bolster must be ground back to the level of the knife edge. Some professionals skip this step. We don’t. Fixing the bolster can take as much time as sharpening the knife itself and if not done properly it will mar the knife or worse, interfere with it in use."

Indeed. Here's a photo of a bolstered knife I own after a couple sharpenings on an electric sharpener:

It's got that little groove in the blade now because the bolster gets in the way of the guard on the sharpener and the knife can't be insterted all the way in. Not as much of a problem if you sharpen by hand on a stone, but you still have the issue of that bolster not being in alignment with the rest of the blade- you need to grind that down as well, in order to keep it's edge even with the edge of the blade. Otherwise you'll have the same situation you see in the photo. It's not just a matter of appearance. If the edge of the bolster extends further than the edge of the blade, even slightly, then it will interfere with your cutting and chopping, and in a big way. Most people don't realize this. And of course, the knife makers aren't about to tell you. They want you to buy their pretty, shiny, "well-balanced" knives.

Just something to consider when considering a knife.

Something else to keep in mind is blade length and width. A minor issue, but maybe not for some. The average length for chef knives seems to be about 8 inches. Not sure what the width is, but I think the standard is slightly less than 2 inches at the widest point. For most people that works fine. But not everyone. Like me, for instance. The average 8 in. chef knife works well for me at home, but when I'm at work, I really, really need about a 10 in. blade. And it has to be a minimum 2 in. wide. Not 1 7/8. A full 2 inches. 2 1/2 would be best, but those are tough to find. Usually if you do find one they end up being the cheapo ones that you get in restaurant supply stores that go from razor sharp to butter-knife dull in about a day and a half, and are difficult to sharpen as well. Again, this is where some hands on usage proves invaluable. If you have very little knowledge about what you really need or want in a chef knife, something you may want to consider doing is buying one of those $10 restaurant supply store knives- just to try it out at home for awhile and get a feel for what you're really looking for in a good chef knife. And what you're looking to avoid.

Ok, time for some useful links, and then my final summary.

Cooking for Engineers tested and rated 11 different chef knives. It's an informative read. You get an idea of what's out there for knives and how they stack up against one another. Surprisingly, Henckels and Wusthof rated fairly low in all tests, never breaking out of the Serviceable category. Seems pretty objective, but I wouldn't rely solely on their results. Remember, hands on.

The eGullet Forums have a great page on Knife Maintenance and Sharpening. Covers the basics of Steel, Knife Edge, Sharpening, and Maintenance. Very thorough, but a very easy read.

And then for pretty much everything you ever wanted to know, and more, about all things knives, there's BladeForums. Very exhaustive. Maybe a little too exhaustive. Or maybe just exhausting. There's a lot of info there.

Ok, final thoughts.

Do some research. Check out reviews online, ask salespeople and friends what they use and recommend. Especially ask people who cook for a living what they use and recommend, as well as what they don't recommend. And ask why.

Try before you buy. (Unless you've got money to burn, because you might get burned if you don't.)

Generally, you get what you pay for, but more expensive doesn't always mean better. Depends on what your needs are. Note how well the $30 Forschner knife did in the Cooking for Engineers tests, not to mention that Cook's Illustrated (the Consumer Reports of cooking magazines) gave it high marks (Editor's Choice or some such thing).

Decide what it is you're looking for in a knife, and how you're going to use it. 8-in. chef knives are fine for me at home, but tend to hinder me at work.

Bolster? Or no Bolster?

Here's what I think- arm yourself with all the information you can, and in the end, when you decide you're ready, if you go with a reputable brand, at a reputable retailer, and pay a decent amount (not too much, but not too little either) - you'll be just fine.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Blades of Glory (Part I)

Our topic du jour in this installment of How's it Taste is knives. Ask any cook, professional or otherwise, and they'll tell you that the single most important item in the kitchen is a good quality knife. Ok, I just made that up. I actually have no idea what they'd tell you. I certainly wouldn't tell you that. I mean, a good knife is important, to be sure, but what good is the best knife in the world without a cutting board to go with it? Your "blade of glory" would get dull in no time flat, and then where would you be, Mr. Smartypants? And what about some good pots and pans to put the food in once it's ready to cook? Or a stove to cook it on? Or, or, or...? Uh, anyway, I guess the point I'm trying to make here is that while there really is no MVP in the kitchen, a really good knife is important. Very important. You really don't want to skimp on quality here. But have you checked out the knife section of your local Bed Bath & Beyond lately? The choices are almost overwhelming. How are you supposed to know what to buy? You could do a little online research. But be careful- there's a ton of information out there; some good, some bad, a lot of it conflicting. So I've done my own bit of research and I'm going to offer my-2-cents-worth here, and hopefully clear some things up a bit. More likely, I'll just add to the confusion, but whatever. Going to give it a shot anyway.

The first thing I want to look at is the ever-popular Knife Block Set.

Don't get one.

Seriously, do not waste your time or money on buying one of these things. They're popular because they're relatively cheap- if you were to buy each item individually it would cost a lot more than the entire set at once. So it seems like you're getting a good deal. In reality, though, it's like that old Andy Griffith episode where Aunt Bee went out and bought a freezer's worth of food that neither she nor anyone else would eat, just because it was so cheap. The key selling point here is "if you were to buy each item individually..." But you wouldn't buy each item individually because most of them you really don't need. And even if you did buy each one separately, you wouldn't need to get all of them from the same brand name. Let's take the
OXO Good Grips Professional 14-Piece Knife Block Set for example, found on Amazon for about $80.


8-inch chef knife
8-inch slicer
3-1/2-inch parer
5-inch utility
4-inch Santoku
8-inch bread
sharpening tool
6 steak knives
wood block

For starters, you should avoid those wooden knife storage blocks anyway because, while convenient, they're very unsanitary. Sure, you clean the knife before you put it in the block, but that doesn't mean dust and dirt and germs can't get in those little slots anyway. Just how are you supposed to clean inside of them? There are better, cleaner ways to store your knives- magnetic knife racks, knife sheaths, or even just in a large plastic container (like an open silverware tray) in a separate drawer, away from curious kids' hands.

Now let's look at the knives. Man, where do I start? In this set you have six distinct knives, plus six steak knives. Would you seriously need to buy all of these, separate or otherwise? Let's set aside the steak knives for a minute; I've worked in commercial kitchens for 7 or 8 years now, and 99% of the time the only two knives we've ever needed were a chef knife and a bread knife. Granted, commercial and home kitchens have different needs, so let's look a little more closely, starting with the top of the list.

8-inch chef knife. You do need one of these. For some people, like me, this is probably the only knife we'll ever need. Count this one in.

8-inch slicer. What exactly are you going to be slicing that you can't slice with an 8-inch chef knife? Count this one out.

3-1/2-inch parer. Do you make a lot of apple pies? If so, do you peel the apples? If you answered "yes" to both you can probably say "yes" to this knife, but- do you really need to pay more for an Oxo Good Grips 3-1/2-inch parer? Probably not. You can probably find something decent at the dollar store.

5-inch utility. What, exactly, are you going to be cutting, chopping, dicing, de-boning, etc., that you can't cut, chop, dice, de-bone, etc., with an 8-inch chef knife? Unnecessary. You can safely count this one out.

4-inch Santoku. This one is doubly useless. I honestly don't see why Santoku knives are so darn popular. I tried one once- hated it. The only good reason I can think of for their popularity is the hollow-ground edge, but guess what? They make hollow-ground chef knives too. You need a good curve on the edge to be able to rock the blade. Generally, the edge of a Santoku blade is too flat to do any real dicing or chopping (Oxo's isn't bad, but 4-inches? That's a toy, not a knife). Santokus are better for top-to-bottom slicing. But I don't want to slice. I want to rock. Can you imagine if Dee and the boys had sung "I wanna slice", instead of "I wanna rock"? I can't either. Y'know why? Because it's unimaginable, that's why. And so is using a 4-inch Santoku.

8-inch bread knife. Surely you need one of these, right? I mean, didn't I say myself we use them in commercial kitchens too? I guess I did say that. But- the main reason commercial kitchens use bread knives at all is because they generally use the absolute cheapest quality knives they can find- you can easily cut bread, even the crusty baguette kind, with a good, sharp chef knife. But restaurants don't often use good, sharp chef knives, so they need bread knives to help out. But do you, in your home kitchen, really need a bread knife? Do they even make bread that's not pre-sliced anymore? I'm pretty sure it comes that way, straight out of the oven, nowadays. Ok, so maybe you go for the good stuff, the artisan kind. Or maybe you're a rebel and make your own. Again, do you really need a bread knife? Wouldn't you rather get all primal and just tear it apart with your teeth?


Or you could do like Jesus and the disciples and break that shit.
Ok, so the bread knife is a possibility. But even if you do decide to "buy it separately", you probably don't need to go for same quality as for your chef knife. Again, dollar store to the rescue.

Sharpening tool. Ok, just to clarify, it's actually a honing steel. Or honing tool, if you get the ceramic kind. They don't actually sharpen knives, they just realign the edge. You do need one of these. But not one from the dollar store. Mainly, though, because those are too short. You want one that's at least 12 inches long. (12 inches referring to the length of the steel, not the total length.) Oxo has one on Amazon for $15. It says the overall length is 18 inches, so I'm guessing the steel is actually 12, with 6 for the handle. Check out this 5 1/2 minute youtube clip with Alton Brown that covers the basics of sharpening and honing. Just don't believe his lies about the best knife being the one that's the most comfortable in your hand. Normally he's pretty right on, but he really missed the mark on this one. You do want a comfortable handle, but you also want quality steel. And you can have both, for a reasonable price. (I think it's worth noting that he happens to use and recommend Shun knives on his show. I'm sure the handles are comfortable, but I've seen others that I think are more comfortable and cost less. And since Food Network never showcases brand names, what do you want to bet that he also didn't pay for his Shun knives?) When I hone a knife, I do it the way they show here, rather than the way they show in the video. I'm just a little nervous about sliding a knife towards my hand, slowly or not. (Oh, and you can sharpen knives yourself at home, despite what he says.)

Lastly we have the 6 steak knives. And again, you don't need to buy the best quality when it comes to steak knives. The dollar store may be a little too cheap in this case, but you can get a decent set for not a lot at your local department store. So what are we left with that you will actually need?

8-in. chef knife -- $??
Honing tool -- $15
Storage tray --$1
Set of steak knives -- $10

Bread knife -- $1
Paring knife -- $1

Minus the chef knife, you can get everything you really need (plus a couple extra you probably don't) for $28, leaving you about $50 for your chef knife. Even Oxo only charges $20 for theirs. So by not buying them in the block set you not only save money, but end up with more counter space and less clutter in your kitchen. The price difference is even more pronounced if you decide to go with a higher end knife set like this $350 18-piece "gourmet" knife set by Wusthof. Separately, their chef knife goes for about $100. So $128 instead of $350. (And c'mon, do you really need a separate knife for your sandwiches? And tomatoes? Hey, at least their Santoku is 6-1/2 inches. Incidentally, I've seen some sets that include a "boning" knife. Now when was the last time you found yourself saying, "Dang, now where did I put that boning knife of mine?").

Oh, remember when I said you should avoid those wooden knife blocks altogether? This one might be an exception worth making.

Coming up in Part II I'll have my thoughts on chef knives, as well as some useful links on knives and knife sharpening.