Hooks for Cooks™

Wild Alaska SalmonAs many of you know, I am a big fan of Alaska seafood. When we lived in Anchorage, I had the wonderful opportunity to cook and catch numerous species of fish from the region’s icy waters.

Without a doubt, I had some of the best and freshest halibut one day when I purchased it from Arctic Choice Seafoods at the South Anchorage Farmer’s Market. I vividly recall that when I cooked that halibut, my neighbors started coming around and banging on the door to try some! Everyone thought it was the freshest cleanest fish they had ever eaten. In fact, it remains the benchmark by which I judge all other halibut!

Yesterday, I was honored to act as one of the judges for the annual Alaska Symphony of Seafood. This was my second time sitting in the hot seat, and again it was my pleasure to be there. Overall, there were ten judges and we sampled about fifteen items. I can’t reveal any details regarding our opinions, but I can tell everyone to stay tuned for next week when the winners will be announced at a gala event in Anchorage. The winners will be sent to the International Boston Seafood Show in March where they will have a booth and serve samples of the winning product.

StonehengeFeeding kids at home can be hard, but feeding kids while traveling can be a nightmare. I know this first hand because I have three kids, ages 15, 13, and 8.

We have traveled far and wide with our children,
and I can now declare with confidence that my Garmin Nuvi 265 WT plays an important role in our quest for local budget friendly road food.

Two years ago this February, we visited England for two weeks. The prices on British Airways nonstop flights from Seattle to Heathrow were outrageously low, and we decided it was time for the kids to meet my husband’s extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins.

Even though the airfares were cheap, I knew I had to keep a strict budget. Before we left, I reserved a two bedroom, two bath apartment for five nights at the Dolphin House in London and booked a “people mover” with 1Car1 for our stay at Auntie’s house in Oxfordshire. Once I locked in those prices, I calculated what was left…not much!! So, I created a food strategy. I told the kids we’d be eating lean in England and that they would be carrying brown bag lunches and water bottles in backpacks.

I also purchased a Garmin Nuvi 265 WT and loaded it with Garmin’s Plug and Play UK and Ireland maps, purchased separately while I was still in the States. Of course, I knew my Garmin would be helpful while traveling to Stonehenge, Blenheim Palace, and Salisbury Cathedral. I also sensed it would be crucial for nighttime navigation to the village pub or when tummies grumbled during the day. Indeed, my plan worked brilliantly!

Regarding food, we relied on our Garmin in two main ways. Before leaving Auntie’s house in the country, we’d plan ahead and plug in the address of the pub or the family’s favorite local farm shop called Millets. While on the road, if we needed food fast and spontaneously, we’d hit the “shopping” feature in the points of interest section. From there, it was easy to find the nearest location of my favorite UK grocery store, Waitrose.

At Waitrose, we’d stock up on McVittie’s digestive biscuits, yogurt, fresh fruits, and veggies for a quick and healthy snack. We’d also replenish the water bottles and choose some of the store’s top quality readymade meals and soups for easy inexpensive dinners back at Auntie’s.

Since that trip nearly two years ago, I’ve used my Garmin countless times and can attest to the fact that the Garmin Nuvi 265 WT makes it easy to fill more tank than one! While traveling the long road to Yellowstone this summer, our Garmin helped us quickly locate the Costco in Idaho and a grocery store in Montana.

–Melissa A. Trainer

The Bacon and Egg Sandwich…

January 5th, 2011

Bacon BanterWhat’s your idea of the ultimate bacon and egg sandwich? What is the best pan for the job? Should the bacon be thin and crispy? Should the egg be free range, organic, poached, or fried? What’s the best bread to use? Whole wheat, artisan, basic white, or a bagel? Are salt, pepper, and butter critical ingredients?

I have forever been a fan of the bacon and egg sandwich. When I was a child, my father would often make this breakfast sandwich for me. In order to do so, he’d use his favorite 10-inch cast iron skillet to fry the bacon and the egg. This simple sandwich remains one of my favorite comfort foods.

Now that my husband has started to craft his own bacon at home using pork bellies and our Cabela’s smoker, we have a lot of handcrafted bacon in the kitchen. I’ve been experimenting and am wondering what you have to say about how to make the ultimate bacon and egg sandwich…

Photo by Melissa A. Trainer

– Melissa A. Trainer

Easy Open Oysters!

December 31st, 2010

Oyster FarmIf you plan on serving oysters for New Year’s Eve, then you might seriously consider this simple barbecue method which avoids the tedious task of wrestling and shucking.

By placing the oysters over gentle heat on the grill, the oysters open their shells and can easily be brushed with a little garlic butter. We often use this method when we are camping out at the Washington Coast or on the Olympic Peninsula, where fresh local oysters are abundant and can often be purchased directly from the growers.

Our campground method requires a little improvisation because we are cooking over an open fire and we can’t close the grill lid. Nonetheless, the oysters taste particularly awesome when made that way.

I originally gleaned this recipe from Tim Salo, who owns Puget Beach Shellfish in Olympia, Wash.

Barbecued Oysters
Servings: 6 appetizers, 2 main courses

1/2 stick unsalted butter, melted

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

12 medium oysters

Preheat grill to medium high.

In a small bowl stir together the melted butter and chopped garlic. Set aside.

Place the oysters, cup-side (larger shell) down, on the grill. Close the grill and cook 4 to 5 minutes. The oysters will start to open. The shells’ fragile edges may sputter and snap, so beware.

Once the shells have opened, carefully remove the top shell, trying not to spill the juices inside. Gently brush the oysters with the garlic butter, then grill for another 2 minutes.

Tools For Making Mashed Potatoes

December 30th, 2010

Yukon GoldsMashed potatoes are the ultimate comfort food.

Rich and creamy, they act as a base and a foil for so many wonderful cold weather dishes. Thankfully, there are lots of ways to mash spuds. Over the years, I’ve tried many methods.

The Potato Masher:

These days, I generally precook peeled and quartered organic Yukon Gold potatoes in my Kuhn Rikon pressure cooker with just a little water. When they are soft, I drain the potatoes and reach for my basic hand held potato masher. With that tool in hand, I bang away at the steaming potatoes, adding milk, butter, salt and pepper as necessary. I think this method is the quickest and simplest way to crank out a good bowl of mashed potatoes. My children enjoy the potatoes made this way, and I find that the clean up is pretty simple and straightforward.

The Hand Held Mixer

When I was growing up, my mom used a hand held mixer to make mashed potatoes. This worked okay too, but I always thought the mixer spewed a few too many potato specks into the air while I was mashing…maybe it was just my technique at the time.

The Tamis

Back in 1999, when I wrote a cookbook review column for The Wall Street Journal, I tested a recipe for mashed potatoes using the method from The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller. The potatoes were cooked in their skins and ultimately passed through a tamis, or fine flat sieve, by hand. The end result was sheer smooth perfection, but the technique was a bit too time consuming for a family weekday dinner.

The Food Processor

As many of you know, I am a huge fan of the food processor. But, when it comes to mashed potatoes, this is the one time when I will emphatically tell you to stay away from the food processor. The high power of the motor turns the potatoes into glue!!

So, what are your favorite tools and methods for mashing spuds?

–Melissa A. Trainer

Hand Held Mixers and KitchenAids

December 29th, 2010

Even though I have a KitchenAid Stand Mixer, I also have a Hamilton Beach hand held mixer. I suppose the two can be used interchangeably, but I tend to use each for separate tasks. I like my KitchenAid for mixing cookie and bread dough. I keep the stand mixer on the kitchen counter, and it forms the backbone of my kitchen equipment. My mixer also has a lot of sentimental value to me, because my mother gave it to me as a bridal shower gift.

My very basic Hamilton Beach hand held mixer has less sentimental value and is kept in the cupboard. I spin it into action when I need to whip some cream for dessert or crank out a quick batch of Grandpa’s Cereal for breakfast. I do use the hand held mixer exclusively for making Hershey’s Perfectly Chocolate Chocolate Cake and the recommended Perfectly Chocolate frosting. For some reason, the hand held mixer seems easier at times, especially when I am making that recipe’s quick and liquidy chocolate batter.

When I started to make this cake while living in Alaska, I let my then 3-year old son help. He loved using the hand held mixer over the KitchenAid. I think James liked being able to hold the mixer and maneuver its every action. Was it like holding a power tool? I guess so. What are your thoughts on stand mixer versus hand held mixer? KitchenAid? Cuisinart? Hamilton Beach? Sentimental or practical?

–Melissa A. Trainer

Bradys OystersI like a lot of things about our travel trailer, but the thing I like the most is my kitchen.

Obviously, it isn’t fancy. It certainly isn’t large. Nontheless, as a food writer, I cherish having my mobile kitchen with me as we travel the highways, byways, and bumpy roads of the Pacific Northwest. In a way, I think my galley kitchen has definitely paved the way for culinary freedom, creativity, and exploration. When traveling and trying new foods, there is no comparison between staying in a hotel room and eating restaurant meals compared to having your own kitchen and crafting your own creations. Of course, a hotel room and restaurant meals are easier, but they are also more expensive and not necessarily better.

Because I love to try local and regional foods, I’ve found that my kitchen plays a key role in letting me prepare and cook those items that I’ve purchased, caught, plucked, or gathered in our travels. By having a stove, sink, oven, freezer, and fridge always at the ready and often chugging along right behind me (!), I can create and indulge with confidence. I’ve purchased fresh oysters a stone’s throw from the oyster beds at Brady’s oyster farm in Grayland, Washington and prepared them with ease in the kitchen. I’ve made pancakes with huckleberries plucked the day before at Fort Stevens State Park in Oregon. I’ve cooked local wild king salmon caught by my husband and sons in the rough waters off Ucluelet, British Columbia.

When purchasing and discovering these local foods, I also find myself learning about their history and their lore. I talk to the growers and ask questions. I often walk away with a few tips on how to prepare the items at hand. In essence, I always feel like I walk away with a true taste of Americana and a clear path to culinary freedom!

Sushi Solution

December 24th, 2010

zojirushiDo you ever crave something, but avoid the indulgence due to cost?

I sometimes do, but last week I decided to take charge. My teenage son had a cold and was craving some California rolls and wasabi. I was heading to Seattle’s Central Market. Will asked me to buy “two or three of those California roll containers from the sushi takeout department.”

When I got to Central I realized that each container was priced at nearly seven dollars and that I would be charged the 9.5% tax rate, so I purchased just one container for Will. I reasoned that $21 was a too pricey for a snack. Central Market also happens to have a great selection of Asian foods, so I restocked my supply of sushi rice, nori, wasabi, sesame seeds, and assorted veggies. I shifted into my vigilante mode and was determined to concoct my own California rolls that day as well.

At home, I immediately grabbed my trusty Zojirushi rice cooker, loaded it with a couple cups of sushi rice, and turned it on. When the rice was done, I seasoned it with a premade powdered vinegar mixture and spread it into a Pyrex pan to cool. I chopped some avocado and cucumber and located my sushi mat. I haven’t made a lot of California rolls in my life, but these came out remarkably well that day. I fiddled with the size and my cutting technique. I even made a few hand rolls thanks to the directions found on the back of the nori package. Will told me that my rolls were far better and tasted much fresher than the ones I had just purchased. Aha!

When my sushi session was over, I carefully stashed the extras in the fridge. The following day, I made something a little different. I didn’t have time for fiddling and rolling, so I spontaneously made a California stack in one of my tubular open ended molds. Working directly on a plate, I filled the bottom of the mold with rice and layered on diced avocado, cucumber, some cold smoked salmon, sesame seeds and a disk of nori. I served the wasabi and soy sauce on the side. My deconstructed stacked California roll looked gorgeous and tasted great when the mold was removed. Simple. Satisfying. Affordable.

–Melissa A. Trainer

The New KitchenAid Pasta Press

December 23rd, 2010

PastaI hadn’t made homemade pasta in years, but when I was offered a KitchenAid Pasta Press as a sample, I was anxious to test drive the accessory. Made in Italy, the heavy duty pasta press fits on all KitchenAid stand mixers and allows home cooks to crank out tubular pastas such as rigatoni, bucatini, macaroni, fusilli, and spaghetti.

After multiple rounds of experimentation in my home kitchen, I’ve concluded that the KitchenAid accessory is awesome. I’ve also concluded that it is important for cooks to experiment and follow their intuition when making homemade pasta dough.

For my first round of experimentation,  I decided to get everyone involved. I think of pasta as a family-friendly food, so  I invited my mother-in-law over to work with me and told the children that we’d be making pasta for the afternoon.

To get started, I readied my sixteen-year old KitchenAid Classic mixer and cleared the countertop. I then opened the pasta press box and reached for the owner’s manual.   I followed the assembly instructions and decided to make the Basic Egg Noodle Pasta, which is the first recipe listed in the recipe section of the booklet.  The dough is made in the bowl of the stand mixer and calls for 4 large eggs, 3 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour, 1 tablespoon water, and 1 teaspoon salt.

My mother-in-law has used the pasta press accessory before and warned me not to make the dough too wet or it would be difficult to feed through the disks.  Hence, I followed the booklet recipe exactly.  When I was mixing the dough in the KitchenAid, we sensed it was too dry, but we carried on as instructed. When I kneaded the dough by hand on the counter, it still seemed dry, but it was fairly manageable. 

The press comes with six disks—rigatoni, fusilli, spaghetti, bucatini, large macaroni, and small macaroni. I was in the mood for a rigatoni, so we started with that one.   As instructed by the manual, we formed the pasta dough into walnut-sized pieces and fed it through the press while the machine was running.  It was slow at first.   My mother-in-law eventually figured out that if she added a little water to her hands and rolled the dough in her wet palms, the dough seemed to feed through better.  Prior to that, the machine seemed like it was clogging and the dough wasn’t feeding through easily enough. We sensed that the issue was with the dough and not with the press itself.

We made rigatoni and fusilli that day. Even though my dough was a little too stiff and dry,  the pasta was very good once it was cooked.  Nonetheless, I wasn’t fully satisfied with the dough and the way in which it fed through the machine. I sensed that the dough and the extrusion process could be better. 

So, the next day I woke up early with a bee in my bonnet. I wanted  a better dough –a dough that was easier to feed through the press and that felt more malleable.  On a mission,  I ferreted through my cookbook collection and found the perfect recipe in Beard on Pasta by James Beard. Published by Knopf, the book is a treasure trove of information on pasta.  On page 33 in my 1987 edition, I found Beard’s recipe for Basic Egg Pasta.  I immediately knew that was the one.

The recipe only calls for four ingredients—1 ½ cups all-purpose flour, ½ teaspoon salt, 2 large eggs, and 1 tablespoon oil if using the electric mixer or the food processor.  Indeed, when I made the dough in the bowl of my KitchenAid, it felt right. It was malleable yet substantial. (When I was putting it in the fridge to “relax” as directed in the recipe, I had a brief flashback to my childhood, because the dough felt just like Play-Doh!) After I chilled it and broke off walnut-sized pieces, the dough fed through the machine like butter and held its shape once it was formed. I made bucatini that night. The long tubular pasta was sublime. I think the chilling of the dough and the little bit of oil made the difference in the finished product.

So, if you purchase the new KitchenAid Pasta Press, my advice to you is this:  Loosen up.  Have some fun. Try different  recipes.  Be prepared for a little trial and error.  Invite your friends over for a pasta making party.  Make the dough in advance and let it relax in the fridge before you get started. Set the table and enjoy some really delicious homemade tubular pasta made right in your own home!

Do you have any tips for making homemade pasta? If so, I’d love to hear them, because I am still tweaking, experimenting, and hunting for new ideas!

Photo by Carolyn B. Trainer

–Melissa A. Trainer

How Do You Clean Burnt Pots?

December 21st, 2010

copper potsOy.  Who wants to deal with a burnt pot at this time of year?

I readily admit that I’ve burnt many things over the years.  One incident that stands out as one of the worst was when I was making a large pot of split pea soup in my pricey Kuhn Rikon pressure cooker. As I recall, I got distracted by my children and forgot that the pot was simmering quietly on low. When I returned, the soup was history and my pot, which was a gift from my dad, seemed destined for the landfill.

 I spent  a lot of time hunched over that pot, scrubbing,  scraping, and  hoping for a resurrection. When I ran out of steam, my husband  muscled up and began to tackle it as well. We eventually turned it around, but it was never quite the same.

When I was reading Facebook the other day and came across a status update by Nancy Baggett, I chuckled. Baggett is a fellow food writer and the author of a wonderful baking book called, Kneadlessly Simple: Fabulous, Fuss-Free, No Knead Breads. I appreciated Nancy’s candor on that post, because she explained that she had burnt not ONE but TWO pots of rice and was worried about her copper clad stainless pots, which were obviously in a sorry state. 

Nancy’s Facebook friends stepped up and started offering advice on how to clean those pans—cook with tomato juice, use baking soda, buy a can of Bar Keeper’s Friend, get a pumace stone at the hardware store, try those metal scrubbing pads. Some folks, myself included, suggested getting a rice cooker for the future. Nancy spent a lot of time scrubbing those pots. The last status update indicated that they were looking better thanks to a lot of elbow grease.

So, what are your favorite methods and trusty tools for resurrecting a pricey or precious burnt pot?

Photo of vintage copper pots from France by Carolyn B. Trainer

–Melissa A. Trainer

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