Sunday, September 27, 2009

Gimme Some Sugar

Well, someone in Atlanta pissed off Mother Nature and she took her revenge. Flooding - and two years ago, drought. And when I was looking for someone to clean the gutters (24 inches of rain is a terrific way to find out if it needs to be done), I came across an ad that mentioned "French drain cleaning," which sounds really personal.

No progress on home maintenance and I'm working frantically on a Federal grant application for work, so I've been a smidge remiss wth updating stinkycheese. Oh, and I'm totally obsessed with home decor and furniture refinishing right now and it's more time-consuming than I realized. I'm the Martha Stewart of Spray Paint these days and I have fawning blogger-girl-crushes on Centsational Girl and whoever writes the DIY Showcase.


As mentioned earlier, Tat has a terrific opportunity to start from scratch and assemble a basic kitchen. Hair stylist, pinup model, tattoo afficionado - she really doesn't describe herself as "domestic." But we all gotta eat - even pinup models - and she wants to be able to throw something together without being dependent on the Lean Cuisine selection.
She asked for a What Tat Needs For A Basic Kitchen writeup, and here 'tis. I'm pulling pictures from Target because they're nationwide and usually have some very affordable options. If you have a Bed, Bath, and Beyond in your area, that's also a good choice and they constantly have 20% off coupons out there.


What's the deal with the "Gimme Some Sugar" title? It's this - get a 4- or 5-pound bag of sugar (or rice or flour or whatever) from the grocery aisle. You need to make sure that the handle(s) of whatever you're buying are firmly attached, so before you buy anything put the bag of sugar in the pot or pan and see how secure those handles feel.

Also, while you want pieces that have a nice heft, you don't want anything so heavy that you're in danger of dropping it while it's hot. My still-battlescarred dogs would agree. You also want a nice thick bottom on both a skillet and a saucepan. A thin bottom will scorch your food, and it will burn on the bottom and still be cold/raw on top.

A word about lids - clear glass or plastic lids steam up in half a heartbeat and, at that point, they're no different from a regular, opaque lid. Plus they're a pain to clean. Just sayin'.

A small skillet (about 8 inches across), also called a saute pan, is essential. You know, I use mine so much I may get a second.

Non-stick is often easier for cleanup; non-nonstick will give a better, browned crust if that's what you're looking for. Cast iron is probably more maintenance than you want to do if you're a casual, I-just-wanna-eat cook.

Expect to spend between $15 and $30 for a good one. DO NOT cheap out on a no-name non-stick skillet at Family Dollar or Big Lots, because the non-stick coating will, sooner or later, flake off into your food. The one pictured, which may be the one I have, is the Farberware 8" Professional Skillet for $16.99.

What can you do with one? They're perfect for fried or scrambled eggs, a hamburger, a pork chop or chicken breast, cooking some chopped veggies. If you cook for a one-person household, you've got to have one.

A large skillet - same as for the small skillet, and it's terrific for stirfry or making taco meat or a nice big piece of fish, but you don't need to spend the money unless you frequently cook for 3 or more people or cook extra to freeze. If you almost always cook for one, the purchase can wait.

A saucepan - also, as a guy on Amtrak once realized, called a "pot." These are perfect for
boiling water for rice or pasta, making hot chocolate, heating up tomato sauce or canned veggies.

My medium-size saucepan is a 2-quart, and it's the one I use most often. My li'l one-quart is fantastic for my new carb-conscious serving sizes of pasta, making oatmeal, or heating up soup for one. Be sure to get one with a lid so that you can trap the steam and cook faster.

Some lids have steam vents. Isn't "don't touch a hot pot on the stove" about as basic as it can get? I mean, my dogs know that - even the dumb one. And yet, what would you do with a steam vent? Poke it open and closed when it is clearly so hot it's producing steam. No thanks. You can just rest the lid mostly-on-but-a-little-offset to release steam.

Casserole dishes don't have to be for "one can of Campbell's Cream of Some Icky Stuff" dishes. They're for (yay!) baked mac & cheese, lasagne or ziti, and can even do a small roast (2-pound turkey breast, for example, or a small ham).

LEARN FROM MY MISTAKE and be sure to get one with handles! My very chic white casserole dishes are beautiful but terrifying when trying to get them out of the oven.

Searching Target's website for "casserole" brought up some really pricey options, and some less expensive ones that I wouldn't recommend. But searching for "Pyrex" brought up this terrific option for all of $8.50. I still have and use my grandmother's Pyrex dishes.

And a search for "Corningware", another have-it-for-life company, brought up this very nice 4-quart casserole; be careful with Corningware, though, because of the handle issue.
We're not going to get into baking or anything fancy just yet. There's a whole lot more on the market, but if you want the bare essentials, this is it.

As for gadgetry, most of which I'm pretty sure doesn't require pictures -

  • At least one wooden spoon. They never get hot and they don't scratch non-stick.

  • At least two pot holders - your mileage may vary, but I can't get a good grip on anything with those sheets of silicone, no matter how cute they are.

  • A decent chef's knife - it will be labelled "chef's knife" and it should be very, very sharp. It's actually more dangerous to cut with a dull knife, since you apply excessive pressure to it and can't control it. These can quickly get expensive, and I say they're worth every penny. I also like this Oneida knife, and its li'l buddy - $19.99 for the set. But if you have the funds and want to get a really good knife, go for a Santoku like this Henckels for $29.99.

  • A cutting board - never, ever, ever cut on glass. Spring for a bamboo cutting board; it doesn't have to be one of the ten-pounders, either. We have at least 4 in the house, and I use the little (4" x 6") quite a lot to slice one tomato or some herbs or strawberries or whatever.
  • A digital meat thermometer - tremendously important, especially if you're new to this world of "food" and you're afraid you're going to kill your dinner guests with improperly cooked food (I swear I still feel that way about canning - "Merry Christmas! It's botulism - I made it myself!"). The $10 to $15 you'll spend on one of these babies will be well, well worth it. And hold onto the card that says pork should be X degrees and turkey should be Y degrees and so on.

  • A few glass or metal mixing bowls - plastic can hold odors and stain (yes, I mean YOU, spaghetti sauce). If you go with metal make sure it's weighted at the bottom, or else you'll give it a stir and send it flying across the counter. From, um, what I've heard.

  • Measuring cups and spoons

  • Grater - I can't find mine on the Target site, but this is close - mine doesn't have a little boxy-thing on the top and for darn sure it wasn't pushing $20. It takes up much, much less room than a box grater, and I've been known to put mine on top of a saucepan full of pasta and drain the water into the sink. I LOVE things that have more than one use!

  • If you don't have one on your stove, a kitchen timer is essential. Many a would've-been-terrific meal took a Hefty vacation after someone said "Oh, I'll just remember to take it out in 45 minutes."

And since I PROMISED a recipe, and the sugar title has me in a mood for dessert (like I need any prompting) here 'tis:
Hazelnut Crinkle Cookies
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 11-ounce jar Nutella (also known as "nectar of the gods" or "chocogasm")
1/4 cup shortening (butter or Crisco)
1 1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2 eggs
1/3 cup milk
1/2 cup chopped, toasted hazelnuts
2 cups finely chopped hazelnuts
Powdered sugar
Stir flour, baking powder, and salt in a mixing bowl - set aside.
Beat Nutella and shortening. Add sugar, beat until fluffy. Add vanilla and eggs - beat until combined.
Alternately add flour mixture and milk. Str in 1/2 cup chopped hazelnuts. Cover and chill at least one hour.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Shape dough into 1- or 1 1/2-inch balls. Roll in finely chopped nuts, then roll in powdered sugar. Place 2 inches apart on lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake 8 - 10 minutes, or until cookie surface has cracked and set.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Stuff. Good stuff.

Tat, who cuts my hair (I'm naturally highlighted, of course... yeah), is broadening her cooking horizons. Namely she took a crack at making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, just 'cuz she's bold and sassy and reckless like that. Go, Tat!

She asked if I talk about What To Buy, and Where. LOTS of people, she told me, have no idea what kind of cooking basics and accoutrements and accessories they really need to get started. This was a really good point, and not just because she was waving a razor around my head.

So on the right-hand side, we have a new "Equipment" label - click on it, and you'll be treated - dazzled! - to a few previous ramblings about buying this versus that.

And coming up soon, we'll do The I Don't Really Cook But Want the Option kitchen and the I'm Getting the Hang Of This kitchen. Links, pictures, the works.