Life's too short to eat bad food - Me

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic - Arthur C. Clarke

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Service Contracts

I don't generally buy them, but I did for our range. My parents had problems with electronic cooktops so we bought the contract. It has more than paid for itself. It was set to expire today, so I renewed it for 3 years at a cost of $186/3 years a week or so ago. The oven started acting up, so we called for service. Without the contract the cost would have been over $200.

If you choose the right products, these contracts are OK.

Meditations on a Recession.

Like many folks, we are hunkering down a bit in this economy. We are in as stable a position as we can be in these uncertain times. Trish works for a bank, but it isn't being hit by what's going on very much at all and she just got a raise, but we are cutting back. The credit cards have been shredded, and we are just paying them down. Any excess is going into a new joint savings account. Yes, we know that runs counter what is needed in this situation, but it works for us.

The thing is that this account isn't for long term savings and we have not stopped buying or planning to buy, we are just saving up the cash first, as we just did for a new KA stand mixer. Still the current state of affairs makes us unsettled.

As I reported a little over a month ago, our beloved 6 Qt, has been ailing - the head was pulling off the neck. Now, it could have been something that simple that needed to be tightened, or it could have been something that broke. We bought it, a refurbished model, about 7 years ago or so and it has taken at least one walk off the kitchen counter. With the loss of local repair shops and my lack of knowledge of the inner workings of such a device, we started shopping for a new one.

We appreciated the web postings and e-mails giving us advice pro and con for various options (and there are pros and cons for all options these days), but we settled on a new 6 QT at a great price and with some great incentives including no shipping or other charges. It also works with our existing grinder stuffer attachments. It arrived quickly.

Then I got the testicular diameter to crack the lid on the old one. There were three connecting bolts - one out of reach without removing the motor, two I could kind of get to. I tightened them and it fixed the problem. I tried a soft "Italian" bread, a stiff multi-grain bread, and grinding pork butt for Salume. It worked just fine.

In the past we would have said "oops", opened the new toy, and given the old one to a family member or friend, sold it, or kept in in reserve for those times when a second mixer would be a godsend.

But this isn't the past, and the box stood unopened for a couple of weeks at the top of the basement stairs, serving as a convenient perch for stuff we needed to remember to take downstairs. And we contemplated.

After the incentives were deducted, the real cost was about $150 less than the actual cost - under $200, some of which was nice but not essential. Still, it was an an output in excess of$300 at a time we are watching our costs.

So, we decided to return it. I called, got a return authorization number, and downloaded the return form. But, when I was filling out the return for I noticed that there was a 15% restocking fee. Combined with shipping costs it was $75 lost.

So we contemplated again.

And we opened the box.

The old one? It now lives with another dedicated food nut. Our friend Andrew is forming a new home, and this was our housewarming gift. I will teach him how to use it well.


Monday, March 16, 2009

Simple Gifts

"'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free" - a Shaker Dance Song

I'll let the image speak for itself:

Monday, March 9, 2009

George Will on Agricultural Policy

Without other comment on issues that might divide, here is a link to his cogent, Pollan citing, critique of corn policy. It traces everything from the leftover munitions of World War II being used for fertilizer and pesticides to subsidies and sweeteners and corn ethanol and the obesity crisis in our kids.

It's a must read.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Advice is like castor oil, easy enough to give but dreadful uneasy to take. - Josh Billings

Thoughts whilst oiling a cutting board:

I vividly remember the my first cutting board. I made it my 7th grade shop class at Brookside Middle School in suburban Rochester (shortly before I was suspended for my first and only time for saying f**k you to the shop teacher). It was made of hardwood 1x2, alternated oak and maple as I recall, glued together with Elmer's® Carpenter's Wood Glue, trimmed to 12x8, and sanded silky-smooth with care. It needed to be - it was a gift for my Mother. She died a couple of months later, a major contributing factor to my explosion with the shop teacher, an event that followed a few weeks later.

I don't mention that for the purpose of pathos, but rather to point out that the shop teacher was a rectum. One his many pearls of wisdom was to use salad oil (at that time it would have been Wesson Vegetable Oil) to treat and protect the wood of the cutting board. It took years, the purchase of a cutting board of my own, and the commencement of a commitment to the study of cookery, to realize how really bad his advice was - vegetable oil goes rancid.

The answer is mineral oil, found by the pint or quart in, of all places, the laxative aisle of your local pharmacy. So here is the reason I bring this issue up - over the years we have acquired two bottles of products that claim to be specifically designed to protect and preserve wood surfaces. No, we didn't pay for them. I probably should have just used them up, but I always thought there might be a lesson to be learned from them.

On the left is a 4 oz. bottle of "Wood Preserver" from Fox Run Craftsman. I don't know what it was purchased for, but today it would be $3.49. The ingredients list a mineral oil base, but nothing else. It has no taste or aroma, so my guess it's just mineral oil.

The middle option is Tree Spirit Mineral Oil. My bottle was 8 oz. for $2.99, but the best price I can find now is 12 oz. for $4.99. It is just mineral oil, but it also carries the claim that it is food safe. I cannot think of anything that would be more food safe that a product sold in a pharmacy for the purpose of being ingested by a human being.

That's the point - it's a scam. It may not be deceptive or misleading in a legal sense, but it's a scam. I don't care that it is targeted at people with more money than brains because each time the trust of people is abused by the food and cookery industry, it makes it harder for those who care to make a case.

Bottom line? Fox Run $.87/oz. Tree Spirit $.41/oz. Mineral oil from the local megamart $.11/oz!

Caveat Emptor!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Without Bread All Is Misery - William Cobbett

Part of me has been dreading this post, there is no way to complete it and not feel crumby. Have I become so old and set in my ways - dare I say it: crusty, or perhaps a bit stale? Well, I may come off as a heel, but I think I knead to get this off my chest.

OK. Enough of that.

The topic is the famous no-knead bread. My first knowledge of this, as with most, came from a New York Times article by Mark Bittman in November, 2006. Now I frankly consider Mr.Bittman to be one of the best modern resources to the home cook. It has since been touted by many, including the over-analyzing folks at Cook's Illustrated. I had avoided it mostly because I find kneading neither oppressive nor time-consuming.

Now my wife will tell you that 99% of my bread is no knead anyway. I use the KA stand mixer or the food processor a la Charlie Van Over. (I think that, along with Shirley Corriher I prefer the results from the stand mixer). In either case, I do usually prefer to follow a lesson from my first cookbook dedicated to the making of bread - Beard On Bread - and finish the kneading by hand. In Jim's words:

I rather enjoy taking the dough from the mixer and finishing it off by hand. It seems to me that it gives the bread a better texture, but this may be my imagination.

I think so to, and I like kneading a bit. More importantly, the girls enjoy what they have called "pushing the bread" for years.

So why try this method now? Because the BuffNews just ran an article on it, an article written by my friend Andrew Z. Galarneau of the News. If Andrew found value in the process, it was worth a shot to me.

What you are dealing with in this concept are two separate processes: The development of gluten via hydration, pretty much alone, and the baking in a pre-heated enclosed space.

Look, if you want a detailed description of gluten development you can get it from Alton, or Shirley, or for scientific precision and cool graphics Harold McGee, but in essence there are three ways to develop gluten in a dough: 1) Hydration, 2) Leavening and 3) Physical Manipulation. This process relies primarily on 1 and a bit on 2, but pretty much eliminates 3. Now anyone who has worked with a pre-ferment like a sourdough starter, biga or poolish has seen the development of gluten. It is the basis of the use of autolyse in the bread baking process.

The other concept is cooking the bread in a pre-heated, confined environment - a casserole or Dutch Oven type thing. I find this of interest because the home bread baker spends much of their time trying to recreate a commercial steam-injecting oven. My current practice is hot water in a pan at the top the oven, in a manner best described by Bob del Grosso at his blog (with pictures).

Now I had tried closed environment bread baking with a clay oven, but that needs to be put in a cold oven with the temperature slowly raised. The results were not satisfying. I should say that the use of a pre-heated vessel was intriguing, but also a bit scary. It has not been easy, but I have to a relationship with fire, and playing with getting a slack dough into a hot pan was my biggest concern. Wasn't a problem.

So, to the test. I followed the directions precisely. Measuring was done by the "scoop and level" process - scooping the ingredients and leveling with an icing spatula. The flour was plain old all-purpose; the salt non-iodized table salt, the water Chateau Erie County Water Authority, and the yeast Fleischmann's instant (I buy it in bulk, but it's the same stuff that comes in the brown jars labeled Bread Machine Yeast). The cooking vessel was an enameled cast iron round oven by Nomar, every bit as good as La Creuset, but half the price at a T.J. Marshall's

Mixing was gentle and easy. I actually expected a wetter dough, but I knew that the fermentation process would exude more liquid. The next day proved that right - a loose batter-like dough pocked with bubbles and holes from fermentation - as the girls would say "yeast farts". I love those girls.

Getting the dough into the pre-heated dutch oven was a lot easier than I expected. Just a bit worse than getting a loaf from a peel onto a preheated stone.

Observation #1 - No aroma. Andrew quoted me in an article last month saying: “There’s nothing in the dead of winter that’s more comforting than the smell of soup cooking on the stove, or bread in the oven.” Even when you finally remove the lid, whatever volatile compounds that created aroma had dissipated.

Observation #2 - the crust was as described, and the crackling sounds of a really well made crust cooling were audible throughout the room.

Observation #3 - after cooling, the flavor of the bread was surprisingly bland. It was not as bad as that loaf that I forgot the salt in a few years ago, but there was no character. Salted butter helped, but not enough.

Observation #4 - the texture of the crumb was unusual - my best description is that it reminded me of the interior of a french cruller.

Observation #5 - The recipe warned: This additive-free bread is best enjoyed within 24 hours. I'd say eat it immediately. It was decent as toast the next morning, but just sliced . . .

So was I, as suggested by my wife, looking for this to fail - I have to say no. As much as I love doing things the old fashioned way, I adore new takes that save time while preserving flavor, such as Jacques Pepin's method of "braising" in a pressure cooker in well under an hour.

However, I had heard stories of high failure rates, and problems with the taste. A quick web search turned up comments by the Kitchenmage: It tastes like...not much. It's not even bad enough to be notable. Flavorless, gummy, and an hour out of the oven the crust starts to toughen. Bread to make you believe in the Atkins diet, and David Lebovitz, whose comments disappeared under mysterious circumstances recently (The People for the Ethical Treatment of No-Knead Bread, I am sure) but he replaced it with this comment: I wasn't all that thrilled with the taste, which I found very flat.

This loaf just didn't make the cut, but that doesn't mean I will abandon it. Perhaps a bit more salt, with a longer fermentation to make up for the retarding of yeast action. But Cook's Illustrated in its January 2008 issue also noted problems with the flavor and texture. In their anal way, they tested many possibilities to solve the problems. The texture was solved with a bit of kneading - just 15 seconds.

But they solved the taste problem with the addition of white vinegar and lager beer. All these additives to simulate the flavor or bread made the traditional way?

My conclusion: The part of this process that intrigues me the most is the baking in the enclosed space. So, what if I took a standard bread dough, by any traditional method, and just left it hydrated and slack, but cooked it in a Dutch Oven? Worth trying?

I'll let you know!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

It may not be Robert del Grosso at the CIA,

but I got to do a presentation for my daughter's 3rd grade class.

Bob del Grosso, chef, teacher, charcuterier, and bricklayer, recently had the opportunity to return to his old haunts at the CIA in Hyde Park to do a presentation on his work at Hendricks Farm & Dairy. You can see some photos here with a brief message from Mike Pardus, a Chef/Instructor at the CIA, and Bob's own thoughts here.

Well, I not sitting around waiting for that invitation from the CIA, so I accepted one from Mrs. O'Neill, Alison's teacher, to address the class as part of their unit on China. I brought a variety of cooking implements and utensils, serving pieces, and chopsticks for everyone. I brought condiments and seasonings - soy sauce, red vinegar, oyster sauce, five-spice powder, fermented black beans, etc. - for them to see and smell.

I discussed the foods of China and why and how they were eaten. I discussed the variations between regions. I grossed them out describing bird's nest soup, and had them giggling over my chilli pepper hat! I talked about the Kitchen God, Zao Jun, and where he lives in our kitchen (my wife is convinced that my failure to replace him was the cause of a dinner malfunction last night). I did research, but found the best source for the 8 to 9 year old crowd to be early Martin Yan, when he was still trying to expose us barbarians to things other than Cantonese Cuisine.

Of course there was chopstick lesson. And Mrs. O'Neill ordered out, one from column A and one from column B.

I speak often of cooking with my kids. This was that multiplied by 25. 26 if you count Mrs. O'Neill. I cannot wait until they do their France unit!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Cooking or Death I : The Tongue is ever turning to the aching Tooth - Benjamin Franklin

Cooking with kids always carries the risk of a mess of biblical
proportions, but the rewards are so great that the risk is irrelevant. In fact the debris fields become the subject of merriment.

So it was when the girls insisted that they make Sunday dinner with little or no supervision. Ellie picked a recipe for pie crust, and combined it herself (debris at left), but shortly thereafter some friends came by, and they forgot about cooking the rest of the day. We ate hot dogs.

But, yesterday, while was out they decided to proceed. Ellie blind baked the crust, made lemon pie filling and meringue from scratch. Alison trimmed green beans, mepotatoes and made a peach glaze for the ham. Ellie made biscuits. The waited for my return to surprise me.

Only one problem. I was at the dentist thinking to get an antibiotic scrip and schedule an extraction of a busted tooth, but they went ahead and yanked it. All I wanted from that hame was the bone to make split pea soup!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Western New York Local Restaurant Week

An event worth supporting, and many friends are participating, especially in these times. I plan to.

Find out more here and here.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
- Arthur C. Clarke

Life's too short to eat bad food -