Sunday, August 12, 2007

On Jamie Oliver's Flavour Shaker

My normal policy is to steer clear of so-called "celebrity cookware" -- you know, the name-endorsed line of stuff like Emerilware(TM) pots and Rachael Ray pans and Alton Brown knives. Yes, they're expensive and some of the pieces even look pretty good, but deep down you have to ask yourself: does the name in question make any difference in the functioning of the piece in question? Most of the time the answer is no.

With one exception.

I wouldn't go anywhere near Jamie Oliver's T-Fal endorsed line of pots. Or his pasta-machine, or his ceramicware. But I do like his Flavour Shaker. (The product also has a Canadian site, but I've yet to locate the U.S. one.)

First off, it's a very unique piece of design that, if you believe Jamie's story, he came up with himself; no cookware company approached him to lend his name to something they just developed. That's fairly unique among celebrity chefs, claiming to have invented something.

Second, it's simple and functional. It's just a two-piece super-high-impact plastic bottle that holds a heavy ceramic ball. When you shake the thing, the ball spins and tumbles inside, crushing hard spices like peppercorns and cloves, pulverizing garlic and shredding leaves of basil.

The hard spice part -- yes, it does a pretty good job on that. Garlic -- well, that will depend on the size of the clove you load into it; smaller gloves can pulverize, larger ones not so much. (What does help is putting in a little olive oil prior to the vertical shake.)

As for the leaves: not really by themselves, it won't work. You need to add something like large crystal salt or peppercorns before larger leaves actually start to shred.

It's meant to replace the mortar and pestle that's traditionally used to grind spices, but because it's a bottle you can also emulsify liquids with it. So it's a little easier to make salad dressing: pop in your herbs and spices, shake, then add your oil and vinegar and shake again, open it up and take out the ball and pour over your prepared salad.

There are really only two major drawbacks to this. First, if you're working with liquids it can be a little messy fishing the ball out once you're done. Second, you're limited by volume so you won't be able to crush a huge amount. But these are really minor quibbles.

The major quibble is product quality. There've been reports round the Net that the plastic 'round the joining edges isn't as durable as it should be. Also the sealing ring can be prone to major deformation if you use the dishwasher to wash it.

The price? Around $35 CDN including taxes. Which is pretty heavy considering its low-tech mode, but if you think of it as a spice mill then the price becomes competitive with electric-powered mills. (Me, I'd like to see if I can grind coffee beans with this thing.)

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Going Dutch

Last month I decided to replace another stand-by of mine, an old Rival jumbo frypan with a non-stick coating that was definitely wearing out. Rather than get a second pan, I opted for a Dutch over. Specifically, a Lodge cast-iron Dutch oven with the Pro-Logic nonstick coating.

I wanted a Dutch oven because I thought it'd be a good idea to get something that could handle both stovetop and oven use, and I didn't feel like paying an arm and a leg for a Creuset casserole.

Now there are a couple of places around its lid where that coating's been slightly chipped (may have happened during shipping), but apart from that I'm finding cooking with it a relative hoot. Making niku-jaga (a sort of Japanese beef stew) and chili turned out to be a breeze, and the actual pot-washing afterwards was much easier than I thought. Mind you, I've yet to try baking or roasting with it, but I do have a couple of recipes that I definitely want to try out.

Taking it camping? Well, maybe next year ...

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Not Really Impressed By Pasta Express

The other day, I picked up a Pasta Express cannister at the local Linens 'N'Things. At $14 CDN, it seems like a reasonable price (and not all that much wasted if the product turned out to be a burn.)

Why did I buy this? Mainly because I spotted a virtue that those informercials don't seem to harp about. Pasta Express is actually a bit of a misnomer; it's not so much a time saver as it is an energy saver. It takes less energy to boil water in an electric kettle than it does on the stove, and that sort of thing's important if you eat pasta as often as I do.

So, does it work?

Answer: sort of. The cannister cooks pasta by keeping the water hot, letting that soak into the food item to be cooked. It's not a true vacuum bottle because heat still radiates from the container (which is why they provide an insulation sleeve), but enough of the heat is retained so that the dried pasta will go soft.

The main trouble with Pasta Express is that while water stays hot, it doesn't circulate around the food item as boiling water would. This is important because the circulating water rinses out some of the surface starches in the pasta, which reduces the stickiness. Since circulation doesn't happen in the Pasta Express, you can potentially wind up with a sticky mess, particularly with short pasta like macaroni.

There are two ways to get round this. The first is to stir the pasta with either a long chopstick or a long spoon for maybe 10 seconds before clamping the lid. The second is to add some oil to the pasta before adding water. While those two methods can reduce the stickiness, it still won't be the same as a steady boil.

The other concern with Pasta Express is that, while water will stay hot during the cooking process, the temperature will still decline, even though it's at a very slow rate. This means you have to remember to add a couple of minutes cooking time, compared with the steady boil.

So is it a waste of money? I'd say not, so long as you know what you're going to use it for. I do see this as a good way of cooking long vegetables like asparagus, so it won't go into the Salvation Army bin just yet.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Well, This Gives New Meaning to "Leftover Pasta"

From the Associated Press, via The Globe and Mail:

A 4,000-year-old bowl of noodles has been discovered at an archeological site in western China, possible proof for the argument that China invented pasta before Italy.

“These are definitely the earliest noodles ever found,” said Lu Houyuan, a researcher with the Institute of Geology in Beijing who studied the ingredients of the pristinely preserved pasta.

The discovery of the delicate yellow noodles in Minhe County in China's western province of Qinghai is reported in this week's edition of Nature magazine.

“Chinese people say Marco Polo brought noodles from China back to Italy, and Italians say they had noodles before that,” Mr. Lu said. “All this has been based on documentary material, on personal accounts and menus. But we've been unable to find any actual material – until now.”

The fist-size clump of noodles was found inside an overturned bowl under three metres of sediment from a flood that researchers suspect wiped out the Qijia Culture of the Late Neolithic era.

When researchers lifted up the bowl, they discovered the 50-centimetre-long noodles sitting atop an inverted cone of clay that had sealed the bowl, it said.

The noodles were made from a dough of two local varieties of millet – broomcorn and foxtail millet – rather than the more common wheat or rice. The dough was pulled into long strands before being boiled.

I've eaten pulled noodles before -- there are a couple of places in Burnaby, B.C. that specialise in fresh noodles made this way out of wheat flour.

Mind you, I'd hate to think what an accompanying egg roll would look like ...

Monday, October 10, 2005

Senate Bean Soup

Seeing as how it's Thanksgiving Day in Canada (Columbus Day in the U.S.), I thought I'd try out a new slow cooker recipe. (Not to do with turkey; as I've mentioned earlier, this is the only turkey I can handle on Thanksgiving.)

No, what I've decided to do is adapt an official U.S. government recipe for bean soup.

I hadn't realized that the U.S. Senate had an official recipe for bean soup, but here it is -- not one, but two versions. Note that both versions are meant to feed 100 senators, so I felt justified in cutting down some of the amounts a fair bit.

Senate Bean Soup (for Crock-Pot users)

2 cups dried navy beans
1 smoked pork hock
2 onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 stick celery, chopped
1 small handful fresh Italian parsley, chopped fine
1/2 cup instant mashed potato flakes

1. Soak the beans overnight in cold water.
2. In the morning, rinse off the ham hock and place in slow cooker. Rinse off the beans and add to cooker along with onion, garlic, celery and parsley. Stir and add enough water to cover the meat.
3. Cook on low setting for 6-8 hours.
4. Remove the hock and cut the meat off the bone. Raise slow cooker setting to high, return the meat to the cooker, and add potato flakes as well as additional water if necessary. Stir, cover and cook for another 10 minutes.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Wok Shopping

Last week I went shopping for a wok, to replace one I've had for 15 years. (I improperly seasoned it the first time out, by coating it with oil and baking it in the oven; I won't make that mistake again.)

I've pretty much followed the recommendations of all the experts and gone with a carbon steel wok. Cast iron's heavy and I don't trust any that come with directions saying not to heat too high; stir-fries require high heat.

Oddly enough, I couldn't find what I wanted in out local Chinatown. Woks can be arranged in two different ways: with a long stick handle like a pan, or with two wire handles like a pot. The latter design is actually more "authentic" in that it's what most Chinese restaurants use; but I like the idea of a wooden handle that's less likely to burn the hand. I wound up finding it at a cookware discount store in Billings Bridge Mall, for less than $15 CDN.

This time I've seasoned it properly, scrubbing out the protective coating and using oil on a portable gas stove top. (Note: trying to season a wok on an electric heat element doesn't work very well.) Seasoning a wok does 2 things: it's supposed to prevent rusting, and it adds a non-sticky surface.

So far it's worked out well--I've made fried rice and the seasoning seems to be holding. Just to be sure though, I plan to use only my portable gas burner when stir-frying (on an electric ceramic element, the wok tends to take too long to reach optimum temperature).

I fully expect to get 15 years' worth of performance out of this one.

Friday, August 12, 2005

On Tetra-Packed Wine

The LCBO is now selling French wine in tetra-packs, the type of packaging normally used with juice boxes and ready-to-use chicken broth:

This new container reduces packaging waste about 90% over bottled wine and costs much less to recycle than coloured glass. Also, it would take over 25 trucks filled with bottles to equal just one truck filled with empty Tetra Pak containers – just imagine the reduction in fuel and CO2 emissions.

With French Rabbit, only 4% of what you're bringing home is packaging (vs about 40% for bottled wine.) There's no glass, no cork, no label, no adhesive – just the wonderful wine and the pack. That's why the LCBO can offer a 1L Tetra Pak containers for $12.95, the same price as a 750 mL bottle – that gives you about 2 extra glasses of wine.

Actually, this isn't the first time the LCBO sold wine in a tetra pack. About fifteen years ago there was a brand called Vintner's Choice, which featured a litre of white wine in a tetra-pack that you opened by snipping a corner off with scissors. Which meant you had an open pack of wine in the fridge that couldn't be stoppered (unless you wanted to use Scotch tape).

Nowadays, though, these new packs have plastic screw tops, so limiting wine exposure to air is less of a problem.

I will say that I'm not completely convinced about the environmental argument -- how much energy does it take to make the tetra-pack, compared with the bottle? -- but I'm willing to try anything new at least once.

This past weekend, I tried the White Rabbit Chardonnay and Merlot. They're not spectacular -- you wouldn't necessarily try to impress a girlfriend or a client with 'em -- but the red goes well with cheese curds and the Chardonnay's just fine for washing down chicken stew.

Funnily enough, I can see a market for this: it's what I'd call cottage wine, or campground wine. It's the type of wine you'd take to a cottage or a campsite when you're not sure of the roads and you figure getting a bottle of wine out there's going to result in a broken bottle in the trunk of your SUV or in your backpack.

Which, considering that this is supposed to be cheap table wine, ain't so bad.