A few weeks ago I was in a kitchen store and saw some All-Clad pans that were a nice size for kids. Of course, little chefs don’t need high-end All-Clad pans, but the 1/2-quart butterwarmer, 1-quart sauce pan, and 1-quart saucier were perfect for little ones. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of small pans on the market that cost a lot less, so I wouldn’t recommend this cookware just for kids.
With that said, I wanted to try one out as I already cook with All-Clad and could see using the pan myself. So I went onto eBay and found a used 1-quart stainless pan for $38. It was in excellent shape and by comparison, a new one with a lid will cost a whopping $120 right now. I am sure that price will come down at some point, but I could never imagine paying that much. The 1-quart saucier from All-Clad is $55 right now and a much better deal.
The small size, however, does have limitations, but I can definitely see it being used for heating up soup, warming butter, making balsamic reductions, and melting chocolate. For children, the size is easier to handle too, and the pan sides are nice and low for easy stirring and watching food cook.
Some reviews on Amazon did mention that the saucepan lacks a rolled lip, which means that pouring liquids directly out of the pan can be messy. I would definitely be careful if using this for hot liquids and kids are around. The 1/2-quart butterwarmer, however, does have pouring lips, but reviewers also note that it still doesn’t pour that well. Too bad.
Below are some of the smaller All-Clad pan options if you don’t mind spending a bit more. And of course you can always buy used ones on eBay as I did. Another option is to go through Cookware & More. They sell All-Clad irregulars at a discount, and if you wait for the 20-percent-off sale, you can get really good deals. They charge for shipping though, so be careful if buying only one pan.
A cheaper option yet is to buy the Emeril Pro-Clad pans, which are also made by All-Clad. The Emeril Pro-Clad Stainless 1-Quart Sauce Pan will cost $40 and comes with a lid. This pan is reportedly good for pouring liquids due to the lip design and also has a glass lid so kids can see inside.
For a non-stick option, the Cuisinart GreenGourmet Hard Anodized Eco-Friendly Nonstick 1-Quart Saucepan looks interesting. It gets good reviews and only costs $25, so if you want a non-stick surface without worrying about non-stick coatings, this pan might work.
There are also a couple of options from Calphalon. The Calphalon Triply 1-Quart Sauce Pan sells for $35 and the Simply Calphalon version is $30. The Simply Calphalon line also has silicone gripper handles for ease of handling and heat resistance – a nice feature for kids.
The cheapest option after eBay would probably be IKEA though. They offer a 1-quart pan for only $9 and a 20 oz. one for $8. If you are purchasing some cookware exclusively for your kid, IKEA would probably be a fine option, but the quality of the above pans will be much better. I personally like the idea of quality products that can be used well into adulthood, and I can’t say for sure that IKEA cookware will last as long or that you won’t want to replace it with something better down the road. Regardless, there are plenty of small pans if you want something for your kids to use.
I have been a fan of Paul Smith’s iconic colorful stripes for a while, and now you can get some expensive bone china to bring that color to the table. To the right is the breakfast cup and saucer of his, and one setting will cost $135. You can check out his coffee and tea service sets at paulsmithusa.com. Just click on the online shop and you will be redirected to the UK online shop. A set of four coffee cups, creamer, and coffee pot will run you $900+.
A couple of weekends ago I was at the International Housewares Association show in Chicago and got a chance to check out the SousVide Supreme. Richard Blais from the 2008 season of Top Chef was giving demonstrations and plugging the product. If you remember that season, Blais was big into molecular gastronomy and sous-vide cooking so it is no surprise to see him associated with this device.
Essentially, this appliance is a home version of the expensive immersion circulators used at some restaurants, whereby food is cooked in a controlled-temperature water bath. Before this, enthusiasts wanting to experiment with sous-vide cooking (which means ‘under vacuum’ in French) had to search eBay for used laboratory equipment or purchase the SousVideMagic which is a temperature control mechanism that you can use along with a rice cooker, crock pot or other water-worthy vessel to create your own water oven set-up.
Sous-vide cooking is all the rage these days, but it is still a rather costly endeavor. The SousVide Supreme will run you $450 and then you will also have to pay extra for food-grade cooking bags and a vacuum sealer to remove the air. Beware that the SousVide Supreme vacuum sealer retails for $129. The SousVideMagic is cheaper at $160, but then you also need (or have to buy) a rice cooker or crock pot of some sort. And once again you will need bags and a way to vacuum seal them. Though I must admit that some people just use zip-lock bags, press the air out by hand as much as possible, and use a straw to remove the last little bit.
With that said, resources on the web are plentiful if you want to learn how to cook sous vide. The eGullet society has a thread called Sous Vide: Recipes, Techniques, and Equipment that has a staggering 115 pages with 3,400+ replies dating back to 2004. Good luck reading that. They should give you a diploma in sous-vide cooking if you read through the entire posting. For a more manageable post, eGullet has a thread on just the SousVide Supreme that has around 100 replies. A lot of that discussion revolves around how well the temperature is maintained, water circulation issues, and a comparison to the SousVideMagic set-up.
When cooking sous vide, food safety is also an issue. This type of food preparation uses lower temperatures to cook food (often meat) for a longer period of time. When meat is cooked at a higher temperature it kills all the bad stuff very quickly, but the proteins also shrink and expel moisture. That is why overcooked meat is so dry and tough. By cooking at lower temperatures, however, the meat retains its moisture and stays soft and moist. But there is a fine line between creating a heat that cooks the meat and kills the bacteria and also creating a warm, moist environment where bacterial growth is actually promoted. Remember, bacteria also like dark, warm, moist places. In fact, botulism is still a concern with sous-vide cooking and anyone attempting it should take care to learn proper, safe techniques. Douglas Baldwin’s A Practical Guide to Sous Vide Cooking is a good place to start when learning how to safely cook using this method, but the document can get a bit technical. Just make sure to look up preparation times and temperatures or follow instruction manuals with your device of choice.
Serious Eats also has a good post on cooking steak sous vide, and they provide nice visuals for a range of cooking temperatures so you can see how much moisture is being lost at which temp. Just reading that article alone will give you a fair understanding of what is at play with sous-vide cooking and if it is the right method for you. Just keep in mind that sous vide is a great way to prepare short ribs, so if you are fan of that cut of meat, you might want to consider it.
The Steamy Kitchen blog is also a good resource if you are thinking about buying the SousVide Supreme. The author tested the machine out on meat and eggs and has a lot of photos of the device in action. By the way, Richard Blais said the SousVide Supreme cooks onions perfectly. It isn’t just about meat, you can also use it for eggs, vegetables, and even some sauces.
I don’t have this machine yet, but I will probably consider it after grilling season is done. Even then I need to evaluate whether I would use it enough to justify the price or if I want a big appliance taking up room in my kitchen.
If you are interested, you can buy the SousVide Supreme 10-L. SousVide Supreme Water Oven at cooking.com and the SousVideMagic is sold at Fresh Meals Solutions.
Thomas Keller also has a book out called Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide but is more for a professional or very serious cook.
Good luck cooking at low temperatures.
This ‘Patrician’ champagne goblet from Lobmeyr is quite possibly one of the most elegant glasses I have ever seen. It was designed in 1917 by Josef Hoffmann for Lobmeyr and has an elegance that makes it stand out. This glass is often used in cooking magazines to display drinks, just as Food & Wine did in the February 2010 issue. See the picture to the right by David Lauridsen.
Lobmeyr is a historical fine glass maker from Austria and their glass does not come cheap. A set of six of these goblets will run you close to $800 and per stem they will cost $148. They are mouth blown in a wooden mold and made from fine muslin glass.
Alessi has teamed up with Berti Cutlery producers from Italy to create their La Via Lattea cheese knife sets. There is one set for hard cheese and one for soft, and each set sells for $400. The sets also come with a nice cotton carrying case and a guide for cutting and tasting Italian cheeses. It is a great looking set even if the price is rather steep.
Berti Cutlery is an established knife making company from Tuscany now in its fourth generation of knife making. Founded in 1895, the company still adheres to old-world tradition and quality. Every Berti knife maker goes through an 8-year apprenticeship to learn the company’s bladesmith techniques, and the knives are guaranteed for life. What is also unique is that each individual knife is hand forged by one person from start to finish and ultimately signed by its creator.
You can purchase Berti knives from several US retailers to include: Unica Home, Tabula Tua, Napa Style, Shop Style, and The Italian Art Shop. If you want to know more about this renowned cutlery company, Tableware Today has a good article about the firm’s history.
First of all, true Damascus steel doesn’t exist in modern knife blades. Yes, you can buy knives with a Damascus look, but this metal is not what is considered Damascus steel or its predecessor, Wootz steel. The craft of making Damascus steel disappeared sometime around the mid-1700s, but this doesn’t mean that people haven’t tried to recreate it.
Damascus steel was first encountered by Europeans during the crusades where Arab swords were legendary for sharpness, flexibility, and their unique wavy blade patterns. Originally, the steel making process came from India and it was ore from the subcontinent that was used to make the famous swords that came out of Damascus.
The pattern on modern knives that gives the appearance of a Damascene blade comes not from the ancient forging process, but through a type of welding called ‘forge welding,’ where sheets of high and low carbon steel are welded together to produce layering. Etching is then used to reveal the layers in the wavy pattern that you see in modern cutlery. See the photo above.
Now, I must caveat this post slightly because even though the art of making Damascus steel did disappear about two centuries ago, it very well may have been resurrected here in the United States. Master bladesmith from Florida, Alfred Pendray, in conjunction with a professor of metallurgy from Iowa State, John Verhoeven, have scientifically recreated steel very close to Wootz steel using similar materials and techniques. It really is quite amazing, but the mystery of how to produce Damascus steel may actually be solved. You can read an article from Scientific American back in 2001 that details this discovery.
Alfred Pendray and Professor Verhoeven filed for a patent on their Damascus steel process in 1992, and if you want to see a Pendray Damascus steel reproduction, click here. That Pendray dagger was sold for $2,500. Another knife by Pendray is currently available for sale for $4,495, and If you want to order one directly from the bladesmith, the wait is apparently 4+ years. I think it is safe to say that true Damascus steel will never be in the kitchen.
A few nights ago, I dined at a fabulous restaurant in Chicago called Alinea. I am not going to review the restaurant as it is well known as a great place to eat, and in 2006 Gourmet magazine named it the best restaurant in the country. It is good; very very very good, and I am not going to be able to contribute to that discussion.
What I will say is that the eating experience at Alinea under Chef Grant Achatz was a singularly amazing experience. And even though Chef Achatz’s style is often termed molecular gastronomy, I didn’t feel that to be the defining style. If I were to describe it I would say it is the foodie equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. It was haute cuisine, molecular gastronomy, a gourmet theme park, and a food fantasy land — it was essentially food cabaret at its finest.
Even when you enter the restaurant, it is whimsical and amusingly confusing. The entrance is angular and narrows and the ceiling height also drops as you progress down the hallway. You are part of an illusion. In fact, it is very much like the part in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when they approach the tiny door entrance to Wonka’s factory. But here, as you walk towards the illusory small entrance, a motion sensor opens the real door to reveal a bustling restaurant full of food, diners, and wait staff. You have entered culinary Wonkaland.
But before describing the food, I have to say something about the service. It is impossible to compare the food service at Alinea to that of a regular restaurant; it is a different breed altogether. They take care of you in micro dining rooms within the restaurant, and their every move contributes to the wonder of your meal. At one point, a waiter asked, “I see you are drinking your wine with your left hand. Would you prefer to have your glass on the other side?” And that sounds absurd and made me chuckle at first, but once you eat there it makes sense. The staff setting the table were more akin to an architect drawing up plans or an artist constructing a mosaic. The placement of every dish was important and precise, so the placing of a wine glass was no less important. In other words — it made sense.
So now for the food. As opposed to most American restaurants, you cannot order off a menu. There is only a choice between a smaller ‘tasting’ menu and a larger ‘tour’ menu, and the menu changes about four times a year. The price and courses are set, and frankly the cost is not for the faint of heart, but save up and go at least once in your life if you take food seriously; the experience won’t disappoint. You can order wine from a wine list, but they also have a wine pairing menu that is amazing. It comes at a pretty steep price though, so be prepared to budget for it.
With that said, here are some of the wonder food highlights:
- A lightly breaded pheasant ball pierced with a small oak leaf twig and the leaves were smoldering to give a burning leaf aroma. You eat it like a twig skewer.
- A passion fruit injected with ingredients to make it taste like the famous New Orleans drink: a hurricane. The waiter uses a scissors to open the passion fruit top and you scoop out the fruit as it sits on a glass tube.
- A plate comes out on a pillow that is filled with nutmeg-air that slowly deflates and spreads the aroma of nutmeg as you eat.
- A gulp of potato soup in a small waxen dish comes with an acupuncture needle piercing the wax and suspending some butter, Parmesan, a potato ball and truffle shaving above the soup. You pull out the pin to drop the garnish into the soup and gulp it down. (This dish is pictured above.)
But I think the most amazing dish came at the end. A waiter came over and said, “Can I please remove your water glasses; it will be better that way.” So they clean off the table completely, and you are left to wonder what will come next. Then they place in the center of the table a silicon tablecloth, and two staff unfurl it to leave you with a rubberized table top. Yes, a rubber table. And you just sit there waiting expectantly for the next food wonder to arrive.
Next a young attendant comes out and organizes a set of dishes with zen-like precision on the far end of the table so we can’t see inside. Again, food and wonder are key. Then a chef comes out and proceeds to construct a desert that is placed directly on the rubber table top. He takes broad utensil strokes with a sauce here and there; dribbles tiny droplets; and describes each stroke in the process. It is more like a painting than a dessert. Then they deposit some chocolate that was chilled with liquid nitrogen right in the middle along with other ingredients in piles. That is dessert, and you eat it directly off the table.
At this point we were the first in the room to have dessert, and all eyes were looking at our table. People laughed, stared, and wondered and then did it some more. We were part of the entertainment, and it was an amazing dessert.
So that is Alinea: it is food and entertainment in the best of unimaginable ways, and you are part of it. Chef Achatz will almost literally bring out the snozberries and everlasting gobstoppers and you play your part and eat with amusing surprise. And though the staff aren’t Oompa Loompas, they provide just as much whimsy and wonder as they convey the food to your table. To this day it has been the most amazing eating experience of my life.
For those interested, there are a several online resources focused on Alinea. Two sites: Alineaphile and Alinea at Home are dedicated to all things related to the restaurant’s food and reproducing the dishes at home. They are great resources if you want to experiment with this style of food.
You can also visit the the official sister sites to Alinea such as Alinea Mosaic and Alinea Oenophilia. These sites will give recipes and information about the wines and equipment that accompany the restaurant’s food. You can even subscribe to a wine club where they will send you the wine-pairing bottles for each quarterly menu.
Lastly, if you want to know more about Chef Grant Achatz and his recent battle with tongue cancer that left him temporarily without the sense of taste, there is a good NPR story on him. It is very interesting.
Recently I wrote a post about the domestic truffle industry in the US, and in my reading about the new truffle growers, I found that there is a lot of confusion about truffles. On one level you have a good portion of the country that thinks they are round candies. Yes, those are called truffles but they are not actually natural truffles — they are chocolate. Others know it as a fungus, but not much more. And even if you know there are edible truffles for cooking, the different types can be confusing too.
Well, the simplest way to understand a truffle is that it is an underground mushroom that grows attached to tree roots. It doesn’t have a stem and its spores are enclosed in a lumpy-roundish sack, but it is still very similar to a mushroom. The fungus is actually not the round truffle that cook’s use — that is the fruit of the fungus, much like the fruit on a tree. The fungus is actually the web of filaments attached to the tree roots. These filaments help collect nutrients for the tree to grow, and the tree in return provides carbohydrates to the filaments, which then become underground truffle masses. Truffles are often found along with oak trees but also with poplar, willow, Douglas-fir, and hazelnut trees among others. And the traditional areas where truffles are found are in France, Spain, and Italy. Here in the US, they are also found in Oregon.
So think of a truffle as an underground sack of spores. That sounds tasty, right? Well, there are over a hundred varieties of truffles but only a dozen or so are kitchen worthy. The reason why we love certain ones in food is because of the aroma and delicate flavor they can pass on to the food. Truffles have dozens of chemicals that create a unique and powerful aroma.
But the reason truffles smell so strongly is because they reside underground. Mushrooms living above ground can rely upon the wind to spread their spores and help them reproduce, but underground truffles need some help. That is where the smell comes in. The aroma attracts deer, raccoon, mice, squirrels and other animals so they can eat it, digest it, and then deposit those spores somewhere else through their excrement. (Yes, I said ‘excrement’ in a cooking blog.)
So the reason a truffle smells so strongly is so it can reproduce, but it needs an animal digestive tract and some little furry legs to help spread its spores.
Traditionally, female pigs have been used to hunt for truffles as the smell of some truffle varieties mimics the male pig sex hormones, but more recently dogs have been trained to locate truffles. Dogs are easier to train, feed, transport and won’t eat the prize. Truffle hunting dogs are trained by putting truffle oil on their mother’s nipples when they are young and then they progress to playing with truffle-oiled rags which will then be buried to complete the training.
But even if you are foraging in the Pacific Northwest for Oregon truffles, you can often identify where truffles are hidden without a dog. You just have to look for the places on the forest floor where mice and other animals have dug up the ground. It may be that they are looking for their truffle dinner.
So what does a truffle smell like, and why is it attractive to so many chefs? Well, most varieties don’t smell good and even those that do can be an acquired smell or taste. The aroma varies depending upon the soil, moisture, tree roots, climate, the type of fungus and a host of other factors. Common descriptors of truffles include musky, rustic, garlicky and they might compare the aroma to soil, forest floor, cheese, nuts or turnips. But truffle aroma can even vary from tree to tree within the same small area, so there is no one answer. They just smell natural.
Truffle flavor is very delicate and most of its qualities come from passing on aroma and not through taste, though the French black Périgord has better flavor and is used more in the cooking process than other types of truffles. Any truffle cooked too much will lose its flavor. The most expensive type of truffle is from Northern Italy (and Croatia) and is called the white Alba truffle. This truffle is very pungent and not meant to be cooked. Chefs will often just shave the truffle onto some risotto or mix in a dressing or sauce. These are the truffles that are in season right now, and it will cost you about $180-240 per ounce.
But the key with all truffles is that you should eat them quickly and when they are at their freshest. The aroma only become strongest when the spores are ready to release and then it fades quickly. Don’t let them sit for a week in the fridge or you may risk disappointment.
Because of the delicate nature of truffles, they are traditionally used with certain ingredients and in certain dishes. Truffle aroma actually binds well to fat molecules, and that is why you often see them mixed with butter and put into oils. You also see them a lot in egg dishes and with pasta sauces.
The famous French Chef, Eric Ripert, loves to put truffle slices on buttered country bread, warm it slightly in the oven and sprinkle with coarse salt and fresh ground black pepper. The American truffle grower, Frank Garland, chops truffles into a sour cream mixture and uses it to fill an omelet. You can see his video below from the Martha Stewart show. And on the Piedmont Valley Truffles website there is a list of very tasty sounding recipes that use truffles.
If this post inspires you to try your hand at cooking with truffles, in my next truffle article I will be listing various online sources to purchase truffles and give more information about when they are in season and the different kinds you can use in the kitchen.
There was a discussion recently on the Chowhound forum about why you have to pay so much for a meat carving fork. The knife is where all the value is, but it isn’t uncommon to have to spend quite a lot for a knife-fork set, or even worse, buy a stand-alone fork to match your existing knife. In the end it is probably not worth buying the companion fork unless you really think it necessary to have a matching set.
Personally, I use OXO cooking tongs instead of a fork, and I think it works much better. It doesn’t poke the food unnecessarily, you can grip and pull the meat (not just cut it), and they are usually more comfortable and functional.
With that said, this carving set is really beautiful. It is a custom set made by Canadian chef and knife maker, Thomas Haslinger. The knives that Haslinger makes are simply gorgeous, and this carving set is no exception. Again, I am not one for spending a lot on carving sets, but if I had $975 to blow for Turkey Day, I’d consider this one.
You can buy the set from bladegallery.com and browse Haslinger’s site at haslinger-knives.com. He really does make beautiful knives, so take a look and admire. I love this maple-handled 10-inch chef’s knife.