Cook On: spruce up the kitchen with modest utensils

Tool Stash

We may think we know our neighbors, closest confidants and even ourselves, but a more complete picture may be stashed on kitchen shelves and counters. It’s not the pantry — blushing with expired preserves or neglected boxes of dated pasta — that gives us away, but a cabinet or tool drawer, where we store, stuff and tuck kitchenware. Some kitchens bulge with too much, while others suffer the consequences of meager attention.

Last summer my family stayed in a home away from home for a few days during a gathering in Florida. Located in close proximity to the beach as well as the grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, the cottage exceeded our needs. It was one of those property agreements brokered through a third party. The owner secures personal items in a locked storage room and guests rent the rest of the space — kitchen utensils included.

Modest utensils may be the hardest workers in an everyday kitchen.

Modest utensils may be the hardest workers in an everyday kitchen.

The lush herb garden spilling over the back patio hinted that the owner invested real time cooking in the home’s kitchen. But it was the complete set of razor-sharp kitchen knives, cutting boards worn with use and a selection of pans of a certain quality that revealed details about the owner who stepped out for the week to generate a little income from the property.

The homeowner, subliminally, shared a philosophy: Stocking the right utensils helps hands in the kitchen. Some of us are wishful when it comes to essential tools designed for food preparation and table service. An ambitious friend has accumulated a colossal collection of the latest cooking and baking products but doesn’t cook much. The desire is there, but the pasta maker serves more as a decoration than a workhorse in the kitchen. It’s easy to fall for the latest gadgets on the market, but limiting acquisitions to items that justify their keep with frequent use can control kitchen clutter. My go-to cooking tools include the basics, a santoku knife, cast-iron skillet and a collection of assorted spoons, and occasionally the day arrives to retire tools that time and technology have improved.

One of my most reliable tools was purchased thanks to a neighbor who dropped by during dinner prep one evening. Artemis, born and raised in Asia, knows her rice and probably prepares it six days a week. She insisted that I surrender my old rice cooker. It was smallish, with two settings, but did the job. Politely, my friend questioned how it could possibly suffice, and most importantly, she mentioned the products she had avoided and suggested a few models to research. A rice cooker equipped with Fuzzy Logic technology — essentially a computer chip that adjusts time and temperature for precise and consistent cooking — soon replaced the old small appliance. The rice cooker has paid for itself in producing pillowy rice for the last few years, and it also turns out perfectly steamed vegetables.

Another practical tool is the mandoline slicer. Interchangeable blades offer a choice in creating everything from julienne slices to curly cuts to course grating and fine zesting. But do note: Absolute attention is required for those who want to keep all of their fingers intact. The blades are super sharp. Distracted slicing is not recommended.

Not everyone needs a lava mortar and pestle, but the three-legged bowl often used in my kitchen rocks. Also known as a molcajete, it’s an age-old cooking tool. The molcajete helps in the crushing of herbs and spices, and inspires the smashing of just-ripened avocadoes into a proper paste for guacamole. And when making guacamole, the lemon and lime squeezer is a must. Home-away-from-home guests peering around in my kitchen might be fooled by a small display of odd kitchen gadgets on a shelf. Among the items is a vintage aluminum citrus squeezer. Put it to work and it still fully extracts the juice and separates it from the seeds and pulp, but it’s no match for a contemporary hinged squeezer (kept at close reach in a drawer) that makes easy work of juice extraction.

Sweet and sour chicken with vegetables

Sweet and sour chicken with vegetables

A medley of knives, slicers, spoons and pans recently served as instruments to help prepare sweet and sour chicken with vegetables. Naturally, the task could have been handled with fewer gadgets, but when a kitchen functions well, even a slender slotted spoon deserves some of the credit. Modest tools — put into practice — minimize prep time, food waste and cleanup. The best utensils in an everyday kitchen may not necessarily be the most sophisticated, but they’re the tools that see the most use.

 

 

Sweet and Sour Chicken with Vegetables

Serves 6

Chicken

6 to 8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs

3 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 teaspoon sesame seeds

1 teaspoon grated ginger

1 teaspoon sea salt

twist of freshly ground pepper

Sauce

½ cup sugar

1 cup stock or chicken broth

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

¼ cup red wine vinegar

½ cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed

1 tablespoon lemon zest

1 tablespoon cornstarch

Vegetables

6 to 8 medium carrots, thinly sliced

(If you have one, use the mandoline food slicer.)

1 large green pepper, thinly sliced

1 bunch scallions, finely chopped

 

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Rinse chicken thighs and place in sealable bag or container. Mix soy sauce, canola, sesame seeds, ginger, salt and pepper. Pour mixture over chicken, seal container and toss to evenly coat chicken. Place container contents in baking dish. Bake uncovered 45 minutes.
  1. During the baking process, slice carrots and green peppers and chop scallions. Set aside.
  1. In medium saucepan, combine sugar, stock, vinegars, lemon juice and zest. Bring to a low boil and whisk in cornstarch. Remove from heat and stir in carrots, green peppers and scallions. Stir to warm through.

Place chicken thighs on platter or serving dish and smother with sweet and sour vegetable sauce. Serve immediately with fresh garden greens and steamed rice.

Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm

By Mary Ann Ebner

 

Getting wild about maple

Backyard maple syrup

Backyard maple syrup

Wild about maple? Let maple syrup be the perfect springtime transition on your table. Check out my latest Cook On food column and break out the syrup with me.

Humbled and Crumbled

Flatbread

Flatbread

From love to money, any number of agitators can disrupt life, and occasionally, life bubbles over in the kitchen. Some households claim a member who consistently burns the toast or shirks doing dishes. It wasn’t dirty dishes that rattled our harmony, but herbs and spices.

Sugar and spice have long conjured images of everything nice, while herbs turn out favorable buzz for taste, color and health benefits.

Why the fuss? I was prepping dinner for a small party and came up short on cilantro. My husband offered to pick up a bunch and he was soon out the door and on his way to the market.

Cilantro or coriander, Coriandrum sativum, is widely used in the Middle Eastern kitchen. We lived in the Middle East at that time, in a neighborhood with its own small food co-op stocked with essentials. Before long, Greg returned from the co-op with an enormous bright green bunch — of parsley.

Little in the produce section was labeled, and if the herbs had been identified they would have been marked in Arabic. No problem for those with a grasp of food group vocabulary but his was yet to develop. Even though the pungent herb cilantro belongs to the parsley family (Apiaceae), it reserves its own taste and aroma, and my initial reaction lacked any sort of sympathetic herbal understanding.

“Did you notice the difference in the shape of the leaves?” I asked. “How about the scent? Did you sniff it?”

If the story ended there, we would have settled on one of many uses for the parsley. But the same herb mix-up happened again, at least two or three more times. Purchasing cilantro went on to haunt us.

Use crumbled flatbread, eggplant and yogurt for this adaptation of fatta.

Use crumbled flatbread, eggplant and yogurt for this adaptation of fatta.

We weeded our way through the herb confusion, only to enter a new chapter tense on spices. At a women’s-only gathering where food pageantry was secondary to warm hospitality and engaging discussion with family and friends, a dish made with eggplant and crumbled bread called fatta (fatteh, fatha, or any number of ways to spell it to match the varied ways to prepare it) outshined its competition. Though it was served with platter after platter of colorful selections incorporating grains, vegetables and lamb, I wanted to limit myself to a spoonful of everything else to dedicate room for an indulgent tasting of the fatta (local custom shunned eating lightly). The hostess accepted compliments and insisted on second and third servings with no resistance from the dozen guests at the table.

Closely associated (by marriage) with the royals, she described her family’s preparation instructions. She didn’t exactly have hands-on experience making the dish, but knew expressly all ingredients (and quantities) required.

The ingredients soon made their way to my shopping list but one proved difficult to find. Greg and I shopped everywhere looking for suma’, as one of my friends wrote down for me in Arabic script. We passed up a perfect selection of sumac — which a spice vendor in Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili market insisted was what we needed. Greg wanted to close the spice deal — but I resisted. Finally, back in the Gulf, my neighbor shared a package of assorted spices. One of them matched that ground reddish-purple spice I hesitated to purchase and turned out to be a petite pouch of sumac which she and other locals pronounced suma’.

Finish fatta with a sprinkle of sumac.

Finish fatta with a sprinkle of sumac.

Regrets and forgiveness ensued, and we finally made fatta finished with sumac (Rhus coriaria, ground from the dried berries of a Mediterranean shrub). Fatta, loosely translated, refers to a dish of crumbled bread, and for this regional adaptation from the Gulf, it calls for a traditional flatbread.

Bake your own flatbread, purchase it at a Middle Eastern restaurant or bakery, or substitute with commercial pita bread, no pocket required. Tina’s Basket in Cornwall offers white and wheat traditional flatbread. Consider day-old bread as an ingredient as it’s destined for crumbling.

Fatta

Serves 8

2 medium or 1 large eggplant, rinsed

½ cup olive oil or light vegetable oil

2-3 pieces flatbread (or large flat pita bread)

1 large onion, chopped

2 pounds minced meat (beef or lamb)

salt

freshly ground black pepper

16 ounces plain yogurt

freshly squeezed juice from ½ lemon

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1/4 cup pine nuts (or preferred seeds as nut substitute)

1 teaspoon sumac

1. Remove stem and thinly slice eggplant no more than 1/8-inch thick. Sautée in oil. Remove from pan and set aside in warm oven. Fry flatbread on both sides until crunchy. Cool 2 minutes on paper towels, crumble bread into small pieces and set aside. (To avoid oil, toast bread 5 minutes in oven at 400 degrees or toss it on a grill for a few minutes.)

2. Mix plain yogurt with freshly squeezed lemon juice, pinch of salt, twist of ground black pepper and sesame oil. Set at least 10 minutes.

3. Cook chopped onion, ½ teaspoon salt, twist of ground pepper and meat until meat is browned through. If meat is high in fat, drain excess.

4. Sautée pine nuts or sunflower seeds in 1 tablespoon olive oil for 2 minutes.

5. In casserole dish or flat-bottomed pan, layer eggplant, meat and another eggplant layer. Top second eggplant layer with crunchy flatbread pieces. Spoon yogurt mixture onto top layer. Dust with sumac and sprinkle with pine nuts or seeds. Serve immediately with green salad and fresh flatbread.

Cook On: 1 part chaos, 2 parts calm

Text and photos by Mary Ann Ebner

 

 

 

Make these crab cakes and thank SpongeBob

Icing on the Crab Cake

by Mary Ann Ebner

Crab cakes with beet sauce

Crab cakes with beet sauce

Cook on with Egg Drop Soup

Egg Drop Soup

Egg Drop Soup

Dinner plans? Pick up a dozen eggs and cook on with this egg drop soup.

Saffron lifts humble paella

Darlings of the dining scene come and go, but the Spanish dish paella consistently holds its place.

Paella

Paella

Follow this simple recipe in my Cook On food column and transform rice into a flavorful meal.

Main cookie attraction

Sharing a cookie is about the most simplistic way to pass on a serving of sweetness. Satisfy your own little craving, say thanks, or let a certain someone know you’re sweet on them with the help of a cookie. Surprise the receiver (that could be yourself) with a new cookie of sorts. Here are three selections to purchase from the freezer section, order online, or bake yourself:

Macarons des Fêtes from Trader Joe’s

I recently tried these almond-meringue-filled cookies in the home of one who grew up with the best macarons in France, and as much as I love TJ’s savory products, this is my new favorite. Find these assorted macarons in the freezer section.

Otterbein’s Sugar Cookies

Otterbein's Sugar Cookies

Otterbein’s Sugar Cookies

If you’re from Baltimore, you know all about these crunchy crisp sugar cookies. We sampled a bag of Otterbein’s best from one of Baltimore’s sweetest daughters. Maybe it’s the ammonium carbonate listed in the ingredients that makes them so thin and crispy, but there’s an innocence to these sugar cookies that will keep you filling up your cup of tea so that you can enjoy the whole bag all at once. Order Otterbein’s and share the tradition.

Orange plus chocolate = blissful cookies

As these delicate cookies bring orange and chocolate together, all others may step aside.

Valencia Delights

Valencia Delights

I sampled these with a cup of the finest hot chocolate on a snowy night, and had to ask for a road map to return to this cookie bliss. The cookie’s baker was happy to share the recipe. Note that she uses dipping chocolate in place of chocolate glaze. Bake. Share. Repeat.