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.