Thursday, December 28, 2006

A smart new Crock-Pot

I am a novice when it comes to slow cookers. I didn't own one until recently, so I have to slavishly follow recipes (something I rarely do) if I want to make anything in one.

The first recipe I tried (for a chicken stew) instructed me to cook the chicken for the first hour on high and then reduce the temperature to low for the remainder of the stew's cooking time. This meant that for that first hour I was a captive and couldn't leave the house until I had turned the pot to low. Now, Rival (the company that came up with the name "crock-pot") has come out with a brand-new slow cooker called Smart-Set™.

The Smart-Set™ cooker has a dual-cycle timer that allows you to program in two cooking times and temperatures. It also has a temperature probe for meat so that you can set the pot to cook until the correct internal temperature has been reached (the temperatures for different types of meat have been pre-programmed into the system).

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Romanesco: a fractal vegetable

Say what? A what vegetable? A fractal?!?

OK, I have just the barest grasp on the concept of fractals, but here goes: A fractal (a term coined in 1975 by Polish-French mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot--whose last name means almond bread, by the way) is a fragmented geometric shape whose individual fragments contain mini versions of the larger shape. Phew.

This idea can actually be better understood if you look at a romanesco cauliflower. This green-tinted member of the cauliflower family is made up of lots of conical "florets," which are in turn made up of identical, but much tinier conical shapes. So when you buy it, you can first admire its incredible natural geometry, and then you can cook it and eat it. It will do fine in any recipe that calls for regular cauliflower (it tastes the same).

Romanesco cauliflower is available pretty much year round. Your best bet is to look in local greenmarkets (it doesn't have much of a presence in supermarkets at the moment) or contact the folks at to find out how to buy it from them. Or if you have a home garden and want to plant romanescos next spring, check out

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Mexican chocolate whisk

If you know someone who really loves cocoa (or if that someone is you), then you might want to improve your game and get a cool Mexican kitchen tool called a molinillo. The name translates to "grinder," but it's actually a whisk, designed specifically to make hot chocolate light and frothy. It is cleverly carved from a single piece of wood to leave several rings of wood captured in place.

Here's how it works: Place hot cocoa in a pitcher (the Mexicans actually have special pots devoted to this task) and put the molinillo in the pitcher. Roll the whisk back and forth rapidly between your palms until the cocoa froths up. Even if you don't ever use this to froth up your cocoa, it's a beautiful object for display and only costs $9.95 at Gourmet Sleuth also sells Mexican chocolate and chocolate pots (like coffee pots, only for hot chocolate).

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Here's a Hint: Just drink water

In October (2006), on the op-ed page of the New York Times, one of my favorite mystery/suspense authors, Harlan Coben, was on a rant about what he calls the "American Snack Tyranny." The rant was focused on what soccer parents [are required to] bring to games. He wrote "Do our kids need yet another...juice box with enough sugar to coat a Honda Odyssey? Can't they just finish playing and have some water?"

This point of view is echoed in the trademarked mantra of Hint, Inc., a San Francisco-based company that produces bottled water with just a "hint" of flavor and no sugar. (Oh, yeah, the mantra: Drink Water, Not Sugar™.)

Hint was founded by Kara Goldin, a mother of four who noticed that while there were a lot of bottled waters on the market promising to make you smarter or boost your energy or calm your nerves, there was really nothing that replaced all the thirst-quenching juice and soda that her family was drinking. An entrepreneur at heart (and a former AOL exec), Kara decided to fill this obvious gap in the market. This is how Hint waters were born.

When I got a number of their flavors to taste (there are 13 of them), I was skeptical. But they actually deliver on their promise. The Raspberry-Lime really tasted--and by tasted I mean smelled--like both raspberry and lime. I saved the Cucumber sample until last, because I was pretty sure I wouldn't like it. To my surprise, it was oddly refreshing and very true to the essence of cucumberness (so to speak).

Hint, which retails for about $1.69 for 16 ounces, is sold in specialty markets and some grocery stores. You can get a case of 24 bottles for $44 on the Hint website or 12 packs at Amazonfor $22.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Seduced by Bacon

In a way, Seduced by Bacon is kind of a no-brainer cookbook. I mean, really, who isn't seduced by bacon? (Although I knew a kid when I was growing up who didn't like potatoes, so.....) That said, this book goes beyond the simple seductive nature of bacon to explore its role in all sorts of dishes, including desserts.

Joanna Pruess--a food writer and cookbook author--created this ode to bacon with the able assistance (and tasting skills) of her restaurant critic husband, Bob Lape. In the preface to the book he wrote "This book has perfumed my life for months. Our home has been smoky with bacon's irresistible aroma and sweet with its power to conjure up delicious recollections of simpler times of yesteryear. Using bacon's succulent, salty crunch to create compelling new taste deposits for our food memory bank has been pure delight. (That's also true because Joanna cooks and I eat.)"

The book includes lots of interesting facts about bacon, including a bacon glossary. I was pleased to learn two new terms: gypsy bacon and ventrèche--the former being peppery, smoked pork loin, and the latter being what the French call pancetta. There is also a list of online and mail-order sources for specialty bacons. (How about Bacon of the Month Club at Grateful Palate?)

If the concept of the book weren't tempting enough, the photography in the book will send you right over the edge. Here are some recipes that have been calling out my name: Belgian Rabbit in Cherry Beer, Macattacaroni (mac 'n' cheese with bacon and panko), Ticino-Style Mussels with Bacon & White Wine, Barbecued Barramundi (grilled bacon-wrapped fish) with Greek Yogurt Sauce and Sweet Potato Rösti with Hazelnuts, Apricots & Bacon on Watercress.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Salt and obesity

It's the oldest trick in the book. Put out a bowl of complimentary peanuts or pretzels at the bar and people will order more drinks. It's simple logic: Make ’em thirsty and they'll buy more to slake their thirst.

This is the phenomenon behind the salt-soda-obesity connection. In a recent study, researchers in Finland have concluded that people who eat a lot of salt also drink a lot of high-calorie drinks (sugary sodas, mostly), which contributes in a major way to obesity.

The researchers have connected a lot of dots, of course, but if you look at the salt sales in this country, there has been a nearly 90% increase since the mid-'80s. And of course we all know about the obesity epidemic.

In poll conducted by The Wall Street Journal and the Harris Poll, concern over salt intake has finally sunk to fifth place, behind fat (still the top concern), calories, sugar and nutritional value. Parents are no longer checking food labels for salt levels. But maybe they should be. (Of course, if you ask me, they shouldn't even be buying those sugary drinks that are part of this salt-soda-obesity triangle.)

So other than a general recommendation to stop buying salty snacks and definitely stop buying soda, I would also suggest that you start looking at the salt levels of food again. Don't go crazy. Just keep an eye on what your kids (and the rest of your family) are eating.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Purple carrots?

Did you know that carrots weren’t always orange? Back in the day (wa-a-a-y back, in Roman times and well before), carrots were purple. It wasn’t until the 16th century, when Dutch growers bred carrots in honor of the House of Orange, that the carrot got its familiar color.

Flash forward to this century, and we find that there is a push to breed carrots (and lots of other vegetables, too) in anything other than their familiar color. There are red carrots and yellow carrots and white carrots and, making their comeback, purple carrots. Purple carrots called Maroons were developed a couple of years ago at the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center at Texas A&M. The Maroon carrots not only have the health benefits that come from their purple pigment (anthocyanins), but they were also bred to be extra high in beta-carotene.

Maroon carrots are available in some markets, but if you can’t find them locally, you can order them from a specialty produce company called Melissa's. Their mail order department (800-588-0151) can take your order or tell you what stores in your area carry maroons.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Peeling kiwifruit

I just learned the coolest new trick: how to peel a kiwifruit with a spoon. I watched this chef do it in about 5 seconds. It was amazing.

Here's what you do. Cut off the two ends of the kiwi (just about 1/4 inch of it). Then take a tablespoon--just a regular spoon from your silverware drawer--and push it up between the flesh of the kiwi and the skin, with the convex side of the spoon against the skin. Work the spoon gently around the whole fruit to loosen the skin. You can then just pop the kiwi out of its skin. Try it.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Unstoppable appetite?

Scientists. You gotta love ’em. In a December 2006 issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation, researchers at Yale University announced they are getting closer to figuring out why eating feels good (hmmmm).

It all has to do with something called ghrelin, which, though it sounds like it certainly must mean something in Yiddish, is actually the name of a hormone produced in the stomach. Its job is to tell the brain it’s time to eat. What the Yale researchers found out is that (in lab rats, anyway) ghrelin triggers the same neurons in the brain as sexual experiences and many recreational drugs. That is to say, it triggers the release of brain chemicals that provide a sensation of pleasure, and the expectation of reward.

What this research points to is a possible connection between ghrelin and eating disorders. There may lie somewhere in this intricate body chemistry an explanation for people who have unstoppable appetites.

If you have any interest, click here to see the full journal article.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The new new Joy of Cooking

In 1930, a newly widowed Irma von Starkloff Rombauer, realized she had to make her own living and decided to convert her considerable cooking talents and sizable personal recipe collection into a self-published book, called Joy of Cooking.

The rest, as they say, is history. And the history of Joy has just completed another of its chapters with the October 2006 publication of the cookbook's 75th anniversary edition.

Some of the attention that this new edition is getting comes from a very public feud between Irma Rombauer's grandson, Ethan Becker, and the editors of a 1997 edition of the book. That much heralded revamp of Joy was written by a collective of serious cooking authorities. In the process, however, all of the "casual culinary chat" (a phrase used in the subtitle of Irma's original book) had disappeared. It was replaced by a sort of dispassionate and anonymous editorial voice.

This loss of the quirky and the personal is what bothered Ethan so much. So his answer was to put back in this newest edition all the personality he felt had been excised. I could go on (and you may already be saying, "Stop. We don't care."), but instead I will show you the little intro written for a recipe called Welsh Rarebit (or Welsh Rabbit) as it appeared in 1) pre-1997 editions, 2) the disputed 1997 edition and 3) the brand-new Joy.

First I must preface this by saying that the name of this dish (basically melted cheese on toast) is hotly disputed. If you look up Welsh Rarebit or Welsh Rabbit on wikipedia, you will find a vicious debate going on about which of these names is correct.

From early (pre-1997) Joys: "Our correspondence is closed on the subject of rarebit versus rabbit. We stick to 'rarebit,' because 'rabbit' already means something else. We can only answer the controversy with a story. A stranger trying to calm a small crying boy: 'I wouldn't cry like that if I were you." Small boy: 'You cry your way and I'll cry mine.'"

From 1997: "Welsh rarebit--a British dish served on toast or crackers as lunch or supper--should really be Welsh rabbit. The idea is that melted cheese on toast is what the Welsh rabbit hunter has to eat when he comes home empty-handed. This is a traditional recipe, made with beer; some experts insist on stale ale."

And from the new 75th Anniversary edition: Word for word the same as in the pre-1997 editions.

And as a final P.S., for anyone who is still reading this, I would like to share a recipe from the 1931 edition of the book, because I like the name so much. I kind of wonder why it disappeared from later editions. It's a recipe for something called Cheese Monkey and it's a variant of Welsh Rarebit.

Cheese Monkey

3/4 cup milk
3/4 cup soft stale bread crumbs
1 tablespoon butter
3/4 cup grated cheese
1 egg slightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon salt
A few grains of cayenne

Over a slow fire, heat the milk and add the crumbs and butter. When they are well blended add the cheese. Stir until the cheese is melted, then add the egg and the seasoning. Permit the egg to thicken slightly, stirring constantly. Serve the Monkey while very hot over crackers or toast.

Monday, November 6, 2006

Jamie's Italy

I love Italian food. I love Italy. And I love Jamie Oliver. So how perfect is it that Jamie has written a new cookbook called Jamie's Italy? The book is chockablock with photographs of Jamie charming all of the local Italians that he communed with on his travels across Italy. Oh, yes, and there are wonderful food photographs too.

As for the recipes themselves, I really would like to make every single one in the book. However, I had to start somewhere, so I made Cauliflower Risotto (delicious) and Pork Chops with Sage (yum). The next thing I’m determined to try is a dessert called Gelato con Olio e Sale (or ice cream with olive oil and salt). In true Jamie-speak, he pronounces this unusual combination “bloody gorgeous!” If any of you try this before I do, please come back and let me know what you thought.