Sunday, June 19, 2011

Worth the Dough: How to Spend a Few Bucks in the Kitchen

An ISO-oops on my part ruined the photos I took of the meal I meant to blog this week.  I promise more cooking next week.  In the meantime - look, toys!

It's pretty easy to cook great food with a limited budget for kitchen equipment.  Yeah, it's great to have top-of-the-line everything, but most of us just can't afford it.  Sometimes, though, it's really worthwhile to spring for something special.  Here are a few of my favorite items in the kitchen: ones that are "worth the dough."

Yeah, I groaned too.

First, the flashiest item - knives.  Sure, the good ones can be pretty costly, but you really only need a couple of top quality knives.  When it comes to cutlery, here's what you really need: A Chef's knife, a paring knife, and a decent honing steel.

My best and absolute favorite knives are the ones pictured above, which came as a gift from my dad (thanks dad!).  They're Wusthof knives, a top quality German brand with a nice range of cutlery lines from budget-esque to absurdly expensive.  The blades are the same among the lines, though - the big difference is in handle materials and styling.

If Wusthof is out of range, though, take a look at Victorinox's Fibrox-handled kitchen set.  The chef's knife can be found under $30 and outperforms just about anything else up to twice its price.

Now if you have good knives, you'll want a trustworthy cutting board.  No need for special technology here - I just like plain old wood.  Avoid cheap plastics and especially avoid glass and ceramic boards, which can do awful things to the blades of knives.  Bamboo is a great material and tends to be both cheap and lightweight.  In any case, spending $15-20 on a good cutting board will help keep your knives sharp for a long time.

If you want to have one great pan, it probably ought to be a skillet.  And if you want to have a great skillet, I think it ought to be cast iron.  Cast iron is infamous for being difficult to deal with, but the horror stories are vastly overrated.  Sure, you need to pay attention to it, and not just throw it into the dishwasher like a Teflon-coated pan, but the benefits in cooking quality are immense.

Cast iron far, far surpasses the ability of thinner, non-stick pans to hold heat.  When these things get hot, they stay hot.  And they can stand much higher temperatures, so they move from the stove to the oven without difficulty.  Well taken care of, a cast iron skillet is just as non-stick as pans marketed as "Non-Stick," but the cooking experience is night and day.  Best of all, a cast iron skillet can last generation after generation and can be had new for around $20.

If you get yourself a good cast iron (or stainless) skillet, you're freed from the tyranny of non-metallic kitchen tools.  When you deal with Teflon, it's important not to use metal kitchen tools that scratch the non-stick coating off the pan.  With Teflon off the table, it's worth getting your hands on some metal implements.  I use this spatula and slotted spoon for 90% of my cooking, and never have to worry about them bending, melting, or any other such nonsense.  Both were under $10.


I've lost count of how many crappy can openers I've thrown out after owning for just a few months.  Cheap ones are just plain awful.  Can openers only marginally more expensive are marvelous, though.  My girlfriend Kristin introduced me to the wonders of this OXO-brand opener, which works smoothly every single time.  Better yet, though, it uses vastly superior can opener technology to remove lids in such a way there are absolutely no sharp edges.  It's practically magical.  It's also only about $10.

This last kitchen gadget is probably the least helpful in actual cooking, but I think it's the most stylish.  This is a hand-made mechanical pepper mill, custom built by a local woodworker.  I found him selling a few of these Steampunk-esque beauties at the Black Swamp Art Festival this past summer and couldn't say no.  It cost about $40, but I do love it so.  If you're not using freshly-ground pepper in your cooking, you really ought to be.  And why do it from a disposable plastic "pepper-mill" when you can do it in style?

All in all, you should never be afraid to spend a few bucks to really improve your kitchen quality-of-life.  Sure, you could make perfectly good meals using cheap made-in-China stamped knives and open cans with a pocket knife, but there's something to be said for streamlining the process.  Oftentimes, a really superior implement is just the tiniest bit more expensive.  If you're looking for a way to spruce up your own kitchen or a gift to give to a cook, any of the items I've mentioned can really be great to have on-hand.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Outside-the-Box Brownies

This is an unconventional recipe born out of desperation.  If you're anything like me, when it comes time to bake, your heart is really set on the finished product.  When I decide to bake brownies, I really, really want some brownies.  Usually, this isn't a problem, as an hour later some brownies have been baked.  But when it's a snowy February and I discover halfway through mixing ingredients that I don't have all the relevant parts...that's a problem.  Rather than brave the dark, snowy Ohio night, I made some (perhaps questionable) substitutions in my recipe, instead.  The results?  The best brownies I've ever baked.

It all started with a nice, normal brownie recipe: flour, sugar, cocoa, eggs, butter, oil, baking powder, vanilla, water, and salt.  Nothing scary there.  Until I realized I didn't have the full quantity of butter.  No worries, we can substitute a bit of margarine.  Then I found I didn't have enough cocoa powder.  Thankfully, I had some chocolate chips.  Thankfully, I had exactly enough eggs.  Until, that is, I dropped one right on the floor.

Now, you can substitute applesauce for eggs in baking.  Or bananas, sometimes.  I had neither.  So it was time to try something terrifying: Mayonnaise.

I know, weird.  But it turned out so good that I don't dare go back to my old recipe again.  You'll just have to trust me and give it a try yourself.  These are dense, chewy brownies with plenty of complex chocolate flavor. It may be a Frankenstein's monster of a recipe, but it's one that I trust.

Start by mixing up your dry ingredients: flour, baking powder, cocoa powder, and salt.  All go into a large bowl.

Baking recipes aren't exactly the most exciting to photograph.  I promise the finished product will look prettier.

In another mixing bowl, melt the butter and margarine and cream together with the sugar.  Add the rest of the wet ingredients: oil, water, (beaten) eggs, and vanilla.

Then it's time for the secret weapon.  I don't even like this stuff on sandwiches, but in it goes.

The mayo probably won't play nicely with the rest of the wet ingredients.  Don't fret, it mixes just fine once we combine with the dry stuff.

Moments ago, we had one bowl of boring powder and one bowl of ugly liquid.  Add the wet into the dry and mix well, and next thing you know we have rich, thick brownie batter.

Now for the chocolate chips.  Just a cup, don't try to go over-the-top on these.

Mix well once again, making sure to get any stubborn dry ingredients off of the side of the bowl.

Now pour into a well-greased 9"x13" pan.  It won't look like enough to fill a big pan like that, but they'll grow while they bake.  It's a tiny, chocolatey miracle.

If you're in need of some brownie points (see what I did there?), present a brownie-batter covered spoon to a loved one at this time.

Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes.  They'll usually be closer to the 30 minute mark, but play it safe.  Overcooked brownies are a travesty.

Poke a toothpick or a knife into the center to test doneness - when it comes out clean, you're set.

Despite the fact that your entire home now reeks of chocolatey goodness, you'll need to let these cool a solid 15-20 minutes if you want any hope of getting them out of the pan cleanly, let alone avoiding burning yourself. They'll be all the tastier for the wait, or so I like to pretend.

No need to tell any skeptics about the mayo before they try a bite.  Afterward, they won't care any more, except to ask for another brownie and maybe a glass of milk.


Recipe: Outside-the-Box Brownies

Prep Time: 10-15 minutes   |   Cook Time: 25-30 minutes  |   Difficulty: Easy   |   Servings: 12-16

  • 1 cup All-Purpose Flour
  • 3/4 cup Baking Cocoa
  • 3/4 tsp Baking Powder
  • 1/2 tsp Salt
  • 1 cup Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips
  • 1.5 cups Sugar
  • 3/4 cups Butter, melted
  • 1 tbsp Margarine
  • 1 tbsp Mayonnaise
  • 2 whole Eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1.5 tsp Vanilla Extract
  • 1/2 cup Canola Oil
  • 1/4 cup Water


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt.

In a second mixing bowl, melt butter and margarine.  Cream together with sugar.  Add oil, water, mayonnaise, vanilla, and eggs.  Mix well.

Add wet ingredients into dry ingredients and mix.  Batter will be slightly lumpy.  Add chocolate chips and mix well.

Pour batter into a well-greased 9"x13" pan.  Bake 25-30 minutes at 350 degrees.

Cool 15-20 minutes before serving.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Bacony Baked Beans

This is another of those "I don't usually like this stuff, but this version is delicious" posts, much like I did with fries a while ago.  My stepfather particularly liked (in fact, he still does, now again) because I "won't eat a bean!"  In general, I'm not a big baked bean person.  As a kid, the only beans I would eat were green beans, and I'm not sure those really count.  The exception was my mom's baked beans.  As she describes them, her recipe is really more like "chili that tastes like baked beans."  I wasn't the biggest fan of beans in chili either, growing up, but I've since reformed my ways.

This recipe grew out of my attempts to remember mom's recipe, despite having not experienced them for years and years.  Hers involve ground beef and some different kinds of beans, but the spirit is there.  And, really, these ended up quite tasty themselves.

These beans come from humble, relatively simple beginnings, but have met with rave reviews both times that I've brought them to a get-together.  Give them a try!

Here's what you'll need: Some Pork and Beans, plenty of bacon, a large sweet onion, a green bell pepper, some barbecue sauce, a little vinegar, some good mustard (Not yellow!), brown sugar, salt, and pepper.  Some hot sauce and/or cayenne goes great in these, too.  I like a healthy squirt of Sriracha just to give a little pep, but it's entirely optional.  Ratios and flavorings are definitely adaptable depending on how much you want to make and your preferences.

Start by dicing both the sweet onion and the green pepper.  If you like a bit of varied  texture in your beans, chop fairly large chunks.  If you're going more for flavor than texture, dice down smaller.

If you really want to play along at home, this is also the ideal time to slice your thumb open as a result of using an unfamiliar knife.  Whoops.  Stanch the bleeding before you move on to the next step.

Mmm, bacon.  Trim away the really fatty bits and give the rest a rough chop.  It seems a bit like sacrilege not to cook bacon in strip form, but it really makes more sense to cook it at the size we want it in the end.  Better yet, this lets us cook it together with the veggies.

Toss the bacon into a medium-high heat skillet.  Give it a minute or two all by itself, until its released some fat to coat the bottom of the pan.

That bacon fat is just the thing to cook up our peppers and onions in.  This way we don't need any added oil, and can impart plenty of flavor to the veggies.  Get them in the pan, too.

Cook everything until the veggies are tender and the bacon is cooked through.  Your bacon won't get particularly crispy this way, but that's okay.  We don't want it to end up overcooked after the beans go into the oven shortly.

At this point, it will smell more like you're making a Denver Omelet than baked beans.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Let's make some sauce.  Into the skillet of bacon and veggies, add plenty of barbecue sauce, a healthy squeeze of mustard, a dash of vinegar, and a small handful of brown sugar.  Careful measurements aren't particularly important here.  Give it a taste and use your best judgment.  Now is also the time to add hot sauce or cayenne, if that's your thing.

Let that cook over medium heat for a couple of minutes.

At this point, you're probably starting to wonder when we'll see an actual bean in this baked bean recipe.

Well, it's bean time!  Open up your can(s) of beans and empty them into a large baking dish.  Pour out the contents of the skillet into that same dish and mix, mix, mix.

Now, you could just eat them this way.  If you're in a hurry, go ahead and do so.  But if you really want the flavors to marry, it's time for the "baked" part.

Bake your pan of beans uncovered in a 350 degree oven for approximately 45 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened.  Compare this picture with the unbaked one above, and you'll notice that the unbaked has a much thinner sauce, but color-wise there's not much change.  Don't look for much in the way of browning.

Do resist the urge to dip a finger or spoon right in and start eating.  Baked beans right out of the oven are basically napalm.  Give them a little time to cool, preferably in the car on the way to a shindig.  Yeah, I said shindig.

Serve as a side to accompany burgers, brats, hot dogs, or pretty much anything else grilled.  Or just eat them.  I'll let you decide.


Recipe: Bacony Baked Beans

Prep Time: 10-15 minutes   |   Cook Time: 1 hour   |   Difficulty: Easy   |   Servings: 16-20.

  • 2 28 oz cans Pork and Beans
  • 1 pound Bacon, fat trimmed
  • One large Sweet Onion
  • One large Green Bell Pepper
  • 1/4 cup Dark Brown Sugar, packed
  • 1/4-1/2 cup Barbecue Sauce
  • 1-2 tbsp Apple Cider Vinegar
  • 2-3 tbsp Dijon Mustard
  • Hot Sauce to taste
  • Salt and Pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Chop onion and bell pepper.  Trim extra fat from bacon and chop to bite-sized chunks.

Fry bacon in a skillet over medium-high heat for 2-3 minutes.  Add vegetables and mix well.  Cook mixture until vegetables are tender and bacon fully cooked.

Reduce skillet to medium heat.  Add barbecue sauce, vinegar, mustard, brown sugar, and hot sauce.  Mix well and cook an additional 2 minutes.

Add Pork and Beans to a 9x13" baking dish.  Pour contents of skillet into dish and mix well.

Bake 45 minutes until sauce has thickened considerably.  Let cook 10-15 minutes before serving.