Friday, April 30, 2010

Essential Kitchen Equipment: the iPhone?

I dropped my iPhone in the sink the other day. The sink was empty, save for a single 2-cup measuring cup that was full of water, and guess where the phone landed. Yep, perfect swan dive into the murk. Shorted out, temporarily brought it back to life, but eventually gave up its ghost.

Which is why I'm dubious of any iPhone app that claims to be a kitchen essential. Kitchen essentials are made out of Solingen steel, copper, silicone, or hardwood. Not chips and circuit boards and other hydro-adverse components.

But even though I know in my heart of hearts that electronics in the kitchen can be trouble, I keep finding myself dragging my MacBook or iPhone in there. Which results in a kabuki dance of jumping back and forth from the work space to the safe zone, from the floury counter top or water-filled sink to the corner of the bar where the directions lay.

Time saving? I can find the recipe I want in a blink of an eye, instead of searching through a shelf full of cookbooks, but I'm doing laps around the kitchen during the actual cooking process.

So I think the answer is, it's a given that modern technology is going to make our iPhones seem like extensions of our arm, something we didn't know we needed until we started using them, so we can fight it or embrace it.

Some apps like Grocery IQ have become second nature already. We love how it lets us sync the grocery lists, so M. can add stuff the same time I am, on different phones and in different stores. If I'm in the middle of shopping, she can add a couple of things and they pop up on my list, and if she's shopping for something but I just grabbed it, it disappears from hers.

It also has a very useful barcode scanner with thousands of items in its database. Every now and then it won't recognize something, but it usually surprises me by calling up a locally produced item.

But the recipe apps ... not so much. They all seemed okay, but never managed to impress me. One of them only recognized key words in the ingredients list and not in the title, so searches were always coming up empty. Most of them are poorly organized, so you're groping your way through their lists to find what you want.

I am very impressed, however, with the new How To Cook Everything app from Mark Bittman, courtesy the folks at Culinate and Wiley Press. Somehow they managed to cram nearly all of MB's 900 page opus into a $1.99, 23 meg app. I shouldn't say "cram," however, because HTCE is intuitively organized with a learning curve of about three seconds. While it seems most apps start with a good idea, then try to figure out how to minimalize everything to fit it onto a phone, the HTCE app looks like it started with the premise that we're talking about a hand-held device, then adapted the features of the book to this delivery system.

HTCE is in fact not just a recipe app but a guide on how to cook everything, just like the book. There are sections on kitchen basics, how to pick a chef's knife, food safety and produce selection, and the essential kitchen techniques. The recipes are organized in so many ways that it's easy to find what you're looking for, whether you're searching by ingredient, by MB's recommendation, or by preparation time.

And the recipes are the most interactive of any iPhone app I've ever seen. Let's take his Fried Chicken Made Easy. On the overview page, there's a sidebar showing different spice rubs, in case I have the time to play around with this.

The next page is the ingredient list, which has a couple of cool features. If there are ingredient substitutions for this recipe, I can pick the one I want by touching the adjacent button. Then I can export this list to my shopping list, which I can view by grocery store aisle, alphabetically, or sorted by the recipe to which each item belongs. And while it won't sync to another person's phone, I can export the list and send as an email.

Also impressive is the way that it handles recipe steps. In describing the steps, if there is a technique that requires further explanation, there's a link taking you to that page. And whenever anything needs to be timed, there's an embedded timer for each step. Let's say you're boiling the pasta while simmering the sauce. With this app, while you're reading the directions, you can also have multiple timers running, each labeled telling you what it's for. If the first timer dings and you can't remember which step that timer went with, the label clearly shows you.

And because they are embedded and pre-set, you're not bouncing back and forth between the app and the phone's built-in timers. That feature alone is worth the price of admission. And what's funny is, I never used a timer before, because I hate setting them. These are already set, so now I find myself using them when I don't even need to.

So, I'm hooked. But let's just wait and see for how long. The next time I'm trying to clean whole wheat flour out of the headphone jack or worse, heading to the Apple Store to replace a phone that just met the disposal up close and personal, we'll see what song I'm singing.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Braising Hell

Even the most die-hard vegan has to admit, you drive by a rib shack and the place just smells good. Might not be your cup of tea to actually eat, but the smell is like a slap of Vitalis, a cup of coffee, a good nap, and a favorite book all wrapped up in one. It's something familiar yet not boring, a little bit of everything but not too much of anything.

(Carnitas burrito, guac, and green salad with Mexican-ish dressing)

But smoking ribs is a lot of work. The really good joints, they start working 6-8 hours before the first meal is to be served. You have to get the right wood and charcoal mix, get the smokers up and running, prep your meat with a mop, rub, or sauce, and then let the smoke and time do their thing.

So it's always cool when you find a simpler way to do something that gets the job done almost as well. And I've had a ton of luck with this recipe from the folks at Spilled Milk, the foodie version of Car Talk.

(The entire Spilled Milk braising collection: braised scallions, Molly Stevens' braised cabbage, and carnitas.)

Braising seems like a winter way to cook. Slow cooking, aromatic, fills the house with warmth. But I'm not going to cut it out of the schedule just because the Weber is topped off and the sun is raining down its UVAs and Vitamin D on us. Because the Spilled Milk recipe for carnitas keeps turning out shredded pork as good as the places that pass out handi-wipes by the bucket.

We've made this three times now, with very slight changes to their recipe each time, and it's fool-proof, bomb-proof, and oh so versatile each time.

And while it's not exactly the same thing as good ol' barbecue, you do get a pile of tender pork that rivals the pulled pork from the most traditional of smokehouses.

The basic recipe is easy. Three pounds of pig (pork shoulder or country style ribs) and an onion go into the pot, all chopped. Then you pour in a mixture of one cup of chicken broth, 1/4 cup of tequila, and a few tablespoons of lime juice. Turn up to high until the liquid boils, then turn down to simmer, uncovered, for 2-3 hours. Right before you're ready to serve it, you can turn up the heat to evaporate the rest of the liquid.

The only thing I'd suggest is to do the whole thing in a Dutch oven. They called for braising the pig in a sauce pan, then moving everything to a skillet to slightly brown the meat before serving. If you use a Dutch oven, you can do the whole thing in one pot. Plus, let's say you've cooked the pig for two hours, but everyone is going to bet late for dinner. You don't want the carnitas to dry out yet, and you don't want to scoop it up and put it in the fridge. With the Dutch oven, you an turn the stove down to as low as it will go, cover it, and let it self-baste until you're ready to brown it up. Yet another example of how the Dutch oven rocks.

(Carnitas salad, cabbage, and scallions.)

The Spilled Milk recipe is for a carnitas salad, which I highly recommend. Your pork meat goes over chopped cabbage, and gets a dressing of hot sauce and lime juice.

Unless you're feeding the entire high school football team, you're going to have leftovers, and the carnitas is great in a quick burrito, taco, or sandwich. Here we mixed mayo with homemade salsa on a roll, with the carnitas, cabbage, and lettuce.

Like I said, we've made this three times now, as such:
1. No change to their recipe. The meat is tender and succulent, and the tequila gives it a brightness that goes well with the cabbage in the salad.
2. Left out the tequila and used either a Vidalia or Texas Sweet onion instead of a plain yellow. This produced a mellower carnitas, still very tender, with a stronger pork flavor.

(Left: braised carnitas with triple sec and hot sauce.)

3. The third time, I'm embarrassed to admit, we had failed to replace our vanquished bottle of tequila, so I intended to make it just like #2. But for whatever reason, at the last minute I poured a splash (2-3 Tbs) of triple sec over the pig. No idea why. Just did it. And then, because we were going straight to the burrito/taco phase and skipping the cabbage salad phase, I added the hot sauce to the liquid as it braised. Maybe 2-3 tablespoons of Texas Pete. I have no idea what the chemical formula for the reaction between triple sec and Texas Pete is, but the resulting carnitas had a tangy, slightly sweet BBQ flavor.

For the burritos or soft tacos, we warmed the tortillas in the oven, added the carnitas, some chopped cabbage, guac and salsa. Served it up with a side salad with a home-made version of a Mexican dressing (or, at least, what this haole druid thinks a Mexican salad dressing would taste).

Braised Carnitas

Around 3 pounds of pork shoulder or country style ribs
1 onion, diced
1 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup tequila (blanco)
Lime juice, from one lime or 2 Tbs

Carnitas Salad Dressing
Hot sauce (Frank's or Texas Pete) + lime juice (about a 3:1 mix works for me, but you'll need to play with that.)

Mexican Salad Dressing
1:1 ratio of mayonnaise to sour cream
splash of milk
splash of lime juice
dash of cumin, ancho chile powder (or other chile powder), Mexican oregano
(optional: finely chopped fresh cilantro)
Only make enough for the number of servings that you need, pour over a mixed green salad.


Happy Earth Day!

"God bless America.
Let's save some of it."
~ Edward Abbey

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A little military history diversion

This weekend the Spring Classics conclude with Liège-Bastogne-Liège, also known as La Doyenne, or "the oldest." The Classics start with a sprinter's race in Italy, Milan-San Remo, then move to the cobbles of Ronde van Vlaanderen (the Tour of Flanders), Gent–Wevelgem, and Paris-Roubaix (the Hell of the North). The month concludes with the Ardennes Classics: the Amstel Gold Race, La Flèche Wallonne, and finishes with Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Most of these races take place along the Belgian-French border, a region that saw it's share of combat in the 20th century. In sports, it's often poetic to describe competition as war or battle, but it is not very often that the match takes place on an actual battlefield. For many of these bike races, that is exactly the case.

Because he has already described this better than I ever could, I'll just turn it over to Belgian Knee Warmers and his post, The Monuments.

If you should catch L-B-L on the web this weekend, you'll hear a lot of the towns that were key points in Janice Giles' The Damned Engineers, the brilliant account of the 291st Engineers and their impromptu defense against Kampfgruppe Peiper during the Battle of the Bulge.

(John Pierce of Photosport International)

You can find the route for L-B-L here. Compare it to this map of the Battle of the Bulge here, on page 452.

Friday, April 16, 2010

When was the last time you ate outside?

In 1975, the average American went on five picnics. This past year, the average American went on two picnics. That's a 60% decrease in outdoor, communal, cole-slaw-based dining.

Just something to think about as we move into summer.

Fish Tacos and an Inordinate Fondness for Cabbage

I have a tendency to take things a little too far. I get into something, then beat it to death until I'm sick of it.

I think I might be close to doing that to the poor, innocent cabbage.

When I was first learning how to eat ... no, not how to use a fork and spoon, but how to really eat ... One of my first nutritional discoveries was that your basic iceberg lettuce is a waste of space, a weed that has found its way into the American kitchen thanks to fast food joints and crappy diet plans. (A discover, I should add, that, like most nutritional information, is only partially true.) Sure, it's low-cal ... and low-taste, low-nutrition, low-everything. But it's easy to grow and takes well to American soil, so we grow a ton of it ... five million tons, more or less, more than anyone but China.

But it's a waste of time, of space, of chewing, even (or so I was told at the time), and I moved on to heartier leaves and heads as one of my strides into a healthier and tastier way of living. Color means vitality, so more vibrant heads are the way to go, more often than not.

At some point on this journey, I decided that anything calling for lettuce would get either cabbage or spinach, two of the better choices from a nutritional standpoint. So I went a little nutty with the cabbage, forcing its way into every recipe until, as could be predicted, I got a bit sick of it, and off to limbo it went.

This past winter, thanks to the folks at Spilled Milk, I reacquainted myself with cabbage. But this time, it wasn't just a substitution for lettuce, but the centerpiece of a recipe. I made braised cabbage on more than one occasion, after listening to them go on and on about Molly Steven's recipe (and deservingly so!). Then for St Paddy's I made their colcannon. I made up a couple of other ways of making cabbage a side dish unto itself, and not an ingredient in something that inevitably tastes a wee bit too much like something that's trying too hard to be healthy. (Start with the SM colcannon, but cook the cabbage with onions and add a dash of balsamic vinegar before mixing it with the spuds. Delish.)

And in doing so, I rediscovered the veggie that I had over-done the first time around. Okay, it is one of the healthier things on the produce shelf. That doesn't have to be a bad thing. It has a pretty darn decent shelf life, making it a good item to keep around. It's cheap. And a little bit goes a long way.

For instance, just a tiny bit of finely chopped cabbage brings a little life and vibrancy to posole. Chop it up, put it in the bottom of the bowl, then ladle the posole over it, and it adds both brightness and crunch to the stew.

In the summer time, my favorite use of cabbage is in tacos. It just seems to go better with a soft, warm tortilla and succulent, spicy meat than your standard lettuce, which wilts under such scrutiny. Cabbage will hold its own, providing some crunch and texture, no matter how much salsa or fire you add to the mix.

Why don't people use cabbage more often? Mostly because if knife skills aren't your thing, it can look like a chore to chop it up. I've heard folks complain that when they're done chopping it, they have cabbage shrapnel all over the counter and even the floor. And because a little bit goes a long way, and folks think the rest will go bad before they get around to finishing it. Personally, I'm not buying either excuse. As long as you wrap up the exposed face of a head of cabbage, it won't mind a bit that you hacked off a quarter or an eighth and saved the rest for later. As for knife skills, all you really need is a good 8 inch chef's and a cutting board a little bit bigger than you thought you needed at first, to keep the occasional cabbage projectile from leaving the counter top.

And I can't imagine making fish tacos with plain old lettuce.

Not so much a recipe as just a couple or three tips.

Tortillas: wrap them in foil and put them on the warm (not hot) part of the grill for 10 minutes or so right before serving. Or after you're done with everything else, just throw them on the grill individually, unwrapped for half a minute or so per side.

Salsa: Take your pick. No wrong answer.

Rice: You can put it in your taco, or have it on the side. Put the rice in a sauce pan with a little bit of oil and a shake of Mexican oregano. Stir it around so the rice is evenly coated, then put it on the stove over medium-high heat for about a minute. Instead of plain water, add half water, half chicken broth. Cook per the instructions for your type of rice.

Other toppings: cheese, sour cream, cilantro, chopped olives, chiles.

Fish: Typically a white, flaky fish, like cod, mahi-mahi or tilapia. You can marinate it if you want, but I like a simple rub. Try one part Cajun blackening spice, one part ancho chile powder, with a dash of sea salt. Times vary, but fish cooks quickly so it's typically 4-6 minutes per side. As soon as you take them off the grill, give them a squirt of lime juice and let them stand for a couple of minutes before flaking them into your taco.

Sides: the aforementioned rice, grilled veggies, refrieds, or burracho beans. To make gringo burracho beans, either open a can of black beans or soak and boil dried black beans, as you normally would prepare them. Then, an hour or so before dinner, add 8 oz of a crisp lager (do not use an IPA or other bitter beer — will leave the beans with a burned aftertaste). Add a dash of cayenne and/or cumin and stir it all in. Bring to a boil, then simmer partially uncovered until the liquid is mostly gone.

Serve with a bright wheat beer, like Odell's Easy Street or Breckenridge's Agave Wheat.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Another brilliant piece from Jad and Richard at RadioLab.


How far can a person push himself? How much information can the human brain hold and retrieve? The answer is: a lot further and a lot more than you probably think.

Lots of amazing ideas in this story, but the one big idea that I thought was most powerful was: our muscles have very little to do with our endurance. It mostly comes from self-imposed limits, ideas of what it means to be tired or spent. Free the mind, and the body will follow.

Companion piece: one of my favorite articles from the now defunct New York Times Play Magazine.

That Which Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Stranger
by Daniel Coyle

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

How to Live to be 100

Dan Buettner shares the 9 common diet and lifestyle habits that are found in the world's longest living communities.

Now we've seen everything

The new KFC Double-Down.

I really thought this was just a publicity stunt, but apparently it's real.

Surely the combo meal comes with a tray of doughnuts, an XXXL Snuggie, and a bottle of Lipitor.