Friday, December 28, 2007

What a Cook Got!

It's a Christmas Miracle!
Dear reader, Santa came for me this year! My lovely sister Jen and friendly brother-in-law P.J. are avid readers of my blog (God bless them!) and live in the Boston area. When I waxed on about Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge they went to check it out, and Hooray! sent me a fabulous selection of five French cheeses from the Western Loire Valley. They were divine; I had to use all my willpower to not polish them off before Christmas! And they arrived with smoked salt-- a few grains went a long way, and made each cheese really pop. The smoked salt was also superb on the roast beast I made for Christmas dinner (along with the fabulous spinach lasagna for the vegetarians!).
As usual, Brendan showed up early to work his magic with the green beans, and I pressed my dear friend LJ into service arranging the glorious cheese platter. That's some serious Christmas magic right there.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

What a Cook Wants, 20

The Way To Cook
I spent a summer on Nantucket as a personal chef for a grumpy, demanding woman named Mrs. Bingham who had a marvelous house~ with an untouched tricked-out kitchen!~ tucked deep into the sand dunes with its own private beach. Our neighbor was the Kennedy compound (if only they'd dropped by!), and my housemates were two very spoiled but sweet Scottish terriers.
The only problem? I didn't really know how to cook. Sure, I'd worked as a short order cook at college, waitressed at a place where we made Caesar salad tableside (I still make the best, baby!), and I'd nearly perfected the microwave Egg McMuffin, but it turned out this lady was able to get tables at NY's most luscious restaurants and loved poached salmon and crème brûlée.

I had no idea what crème brûlée was.

I had never poached a salmon.

After we discussed the first menu I stood in the kitchen alone, my heart clanging against my ribs. I knew I was a good cook, knew I could channel my Pop-Pop's palette and read a recipe as well as anyone else, but I was beyond my skills. I was screwed. My throat began to tighten, but then I noticed the shelf. There were books on it, and one of them was Julia Child's The Way to Cook. That title held promise, and Julia delivered. She was precisely what I needed, and as the summer continued I grew more ambitious with homemade tarragon mayonnaise (there's a reason the French call it a sauce!) and an apple crisp that made Mrs. Bingham the toast of the dinner party circuit.
Her style was so accessible and friendly, she was fearless as she dismantled raw ducks and shucked oysters; she wasn't intimidated by the thought of poaching a huge 4 pound salmon fillet. I borrowed her courage.
I suppose I borrowed it again when I started this blog. My title is an homage, even though no one gets it. I realized I could help people find the joy and fearless pleasure in eating, just like Julia did for me with cooking.
Which is all a very long-winded way of saying this cookbook would make a great gift. For anyone.
$26 for this 512-page tome. It changed my life. How many books do that?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

What a Cook Wants, 19

Exceptional Chocolate
One of the benefits of working with the Mean Girls was the obscene amount of fabulous chocolate sent to us. I now have a highly trained palette when it comes to good chocolate; I don't care much for sweets (give me salami any day), so my brain is not clouded with lust when I bite into a bar or truffle. Though with the good stuff, lust is often the result!
MarieBelle makes expensive and absolutely lovely chocolates. The artwork on the top is chic and fun, and the flavors! They're clean and intense, and the chocolate itself is powerful, rich and smooth. They're not meant to be gobbled, though I suppose you could, but savored. When I fantasize about being under a tree with a bottle of juicy red wine, runny cheese and a fine lover, this is the box on the blanket between us.
$24 for a box of 9 chocolates. Some flavors include Dulce de Leche, Champagne, Lavendar, White Kona Coffee, Caipirinha, and Cardamom.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

What a Cook Wants, 18

Her Very Own Egg McMuffin Machine!!!
We didn't eat a lot of fast food growing up. My mom realized it was crap with no nutritional value so it was Cheerios with wheat germ for us! However, once or twice a year when we went on vacation there would be so much pandemonium getting 3 kids ready and 5 people's stuff packed in 1 small red car that my folks kept it simple: we'd hit the drive-thru on our way out of town. Egg McMuffins taste like freedom to me, the promise of adventure mingled with the delectable saltiness of orange American cheese and rubbery egg white. Yum.
My sisters and I devoted a lot of after-school time to microwaving eggs in the small bunny dish (we had no ramekins, sigh) and carefully toasting English muffins in our attempts to recreate that masterpiece. It was tasty, but we only had white cheese and finding Canadian bacon in the fridge was rare. We managed to gobble down the results though.
In my fancy grown-up foodie life I still like a drive-by at the golden arches on my way to the airport, but today I discovered this ingenius product that might be even better. The Back to Basics Egg & Muffin toaster and egg poacher times it so the toast pops precisely when the egg finishes steaming. There's a compartment for heating up sausage and bacon, and I read a veggie burger will fit there too (ewww). Hmm, Canadian bacon is already cooked so it would only require a quick reheat...
$30 for the Back to Basics Egg & Muffin toaster/poacher (though technically it steams). Apparently it also boils eggs, do you think it does the dishes, too? I haven't had a chance to try it yet, but Amazon readers gave it rave reviews.

Monday, December 17, 2007

What a Cook Wants, 17

A Serious Pepper Mill for All that Pepper!
I realized today that a million fancy peppercorns are no good without a way to crush them! Though a mortar and pestle are great when I feel angry, most days I'm pretty happy and don't need that outlet. You probably don't either... right, dear reader?
A good mill makes a difference. A few years ago the awesome electric one with a light (for all your midnight peppering needs) my sister Jen gave me finally up and died. I was feeling broke at the time and bought a manual one at Crate & Barrel for around $17. Well, you get what you pay for: my mill blows. The pepper doesn't want to come out no matter how full it is, and I can't adjust the grind so there are enormous chunks of pepper in my scrambled eggs. Gross.
So be smarter than I was, and get this excellent model from our friends at Penzeys. I wish I had one!
$34 for an 8-inch tall peppermill with the crucial adjustable grind from Penzeys. And they send it full of Tellicherry peppercorns. Nice.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

What a Cook Wants, 16

Low and Slow is the Way to Go
Slow cookers, to paraphrase Mark Bittman, are basically super-braisers. I love mine with a passion that borders on weird. Most folks agree that slowly simmered stews and meat sauces, beans you cooked versus opening a can~ these taste much more delicious when made from scratch, but do you have 8 hours to spend stirring? Enter the slow cooker.
I make barracho beans, Cuban-style black beans, a pork and tomatillo stew, a Provencal chicken stew, Mung bean daal, and other fabulous dinners with very little effort. You can too.
Cook's Illustrated recommends an All-Clad slow cooker for $150; the one I have from West Bend is cheap and the folks at CI said stunk, but it's worked for me. They're all simple machines, I think the only thing that matters is how big they are: go with 5 quarts or more, that way you can easily fit an entire chicken. In the winter it's the most comforting experience to come home to a warm, fragrant house and know in the time it takes to make rice and a salad I have a homemade dinner for myself and any friends I invite last minute. It feels luxurious.
$150 for the All-Clad 6.5-qt. Slow Cooker with Ceramic Insert. It's programmable, has a stainless steel exterior, and will make you the envy of all your pot luck pals!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

What a Cook Wants, 15

4,000 Different Kinds of Salt
If you are not a cook or foodie, this will not make sense. You may think, Why would anyone need 15 different kinds of salt? Don't they all taste, well, salty? In a sense you'd be right. But then I'd respond, Are all home runs the same? Does each Steinway sound the same? Does each Bush presidency cause the same damage?
Of course not.
Let me show you, I'll get out my salts now... hmmm, Korean sea salt is smooth with a delicate flake. Trapani sea salt from Italy is intense and tough. Utah Lake Salt is mellow, pale pink and crunchy. Dead Sea salt from Israel is bright, kind of melts in the mouth, and should really call its mother. See what I mean? Sure, they're all salty, but there's so much nuance in the variations.
It becomes a game: what salt goes best on top of my crispy tilapia? Which should I rub into my Christmas roast? Which shade of grey or pink or black completes the still life painting on this plate? We grown-ups need to play more. And to be practical, it's one of a few ingredients that never goes bad.
$70 for Chef Stefan: Salts of the World sampler. It has 15 salts in cute little tins. I've had it for 3 years and there's plenty left. The exterior packaging is a little 80's, but it's still a super-fun present.

Friday, December 14, 2007

What a Cook Wants, 14

Ridiculous Amounts of Exquisite Cheese
I find cheese to be one of life's better pleasures, both satisfying and revealing. A bite of great cheese tells its own story: a beginning that delights, a middle that surprises and an end that soothes, much like a sip of lush wine. It's a decadent, sensual experience that requires no lover and only a bit of money. When I've been lonely and broke I'd buy a small piece of phenomenal cheese, and it reminded me that I was still ok, there was still new pleasure to be had and decadence within my reach.
Formaggio Kitchen is one of the best online retailers of superb cheeses, oils, grains and pastas. They're the real deal, with a retail store in Cambridge, MA, and the internet for the rest of us. The offer a Cheese of the Month Club in 3-month intervals; maybe, just this once, some money spent can bring you happiness. Or your generosity will.
$180 (shipping included) for each 3-month stretch, delivered to your door with special packaging to keep it pristine and fresh. What they send is determined by what's in season, but it'll be about 1.75 pounds each time. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

What a Cook Wants, 13

A Super-Expensive, Hand made Pie Server
Dear reader, I have a confession: I am writing this post inebriated. I've never done this before, but I had a bunch of martinis (some with rose petals and white tea!) at the holiday party for one of the super-nice magazines I do freelance work for, and now you're hearing from a drunk Tory. I was going to slack off entirely and not post at all, but my boyfriend, the love of my life actually, convinced me it was better to keept my commitment drunk than not show up. He's such a good man.
So anyway, if I were a rich lady, this is what I'd buy for myself. Janet Torelli is a real artist and, from my limited interactions with her, a truly nice lady. So if you have money to burn, why not? It's pretty.
$275 for the Catalpa pie server, sterling silver. If I were rich, I'd buy it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

What a Cook Wants, 12

Zee Schaschlik
This knife block is even more fun if you pronounce it like you're The Govenator; that's appropriate because it was designed by Martin Robitsch, a clever, free-spirited Austrian. It's made from European pine and bamboo skewers (how sustainably Gore-tastic!), and you can slide in your knives or other long tools whereever the heck you please. Which means all your venerable Santoku knives will finally have a home.
$125 for this handmade hipster conversation piece. And my goodness, it's functional too!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What a Cook Wants, 11

The Best Vegetable Peeler in the World
Leave it to the Germans. The Messermeister is sharp as hell and gets the job done with no complaints. I'd probably be nervous to let a kid use it, but Lord it'll have your cucumbers naked in about 10 seconds flat. The blade is serrated so it leaves pretty stripes on the vegetables.
You may be thinking, A vegetable peeler? Tory, that's a lame-ass gift. But you would be wrong. Any cook would be psyched to have such a well-made tool in her drawer. Who doesn't like using the best equipment~ it only encourages you to cook more.
$6 for the Messermeister vegetable peeler. You won't regret it.

Monday, December 10, 2007

What a Cook Wants, 10

The Sexiest Apron Ever!
I heard about the KitschN*Glam company just a month or two after Anna Michelle Wang got it started, and was so enamored by their sultry, flattering cuts and retro-cute patterns that I pitched it to the editor of the holiday gift guide at Bon Appétit magazine. A few months later their aprons had a national audience, and it's been uphill ever since. I don't want to take *full* credit for their success... and I can't, because these suckers sell themselves.
Each time I teach a class, cater a shindig, or make a video I wear one of these aprons with smashing results. I feel festive, foxy and fun, and it totally comes across!
$62 for the "Jubilee" apron~ be sure to check out other patterns and styles! They make them for kids, men and plus size ladies, because everyone should feel fabulous in the kitchen.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

What a Cook Wants, 9

To Smell Like Cake?
Since I'm on a baking streak, who doesn't want to smell like a delicious vanilla cake in the shower? The Jaqua sisters up in Santa Barbara have made a Pink Buttercream Frosting soap with shea butter, palm oil and glycerin that has such an enticing fragrance the package comes with a warning label: Do not eat!
Often I don't have time to bake a cake, but it's somehow comforting to smell like one.
$10 for a bar of fragrant, delectable pink soap!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

What a Cook Wants, 8

(I got sick of the Roman numerals.)

A Little Something To Go With The Vanilla Beans
Yes, dear reader, this would be the *perfect* accompanying gift for those lusty vanilla beans! Everyone wants a shiny KitchenAid on their counter, I don't care if you're Michelle Myers or Leona Helmsley (who only stomped into the kitchen to yell at the cook!), that gorgeous standing mixer makes all your gastronomic shenanigans legit, even if you've only got a packet of ramen boiling on the stove.
Furthermore, it turns out you don't have to get married to actually own one of these! I had no idea (the oppression of the patriarchy is so sneaky!), but it turns out the wedding police won't stop you at the store exit to check for a ring~ a week ago a bunch of us chipped in to buy one for our fantastic friend Nina's birthday. She's still working for the Mean Girls and is an amazing, exciting baker who wows our Cooking Club month after month. We got her a shiny red KitchenAid, it was awesome. And admittedly, a bit self-serving...
If you get one of these powerful workhorses for the baker in your life, what a fragrant and delicious new year awaits. Go on, get shopping!
$349 for the Artisan 10-speed Tilt-Head Stand Mixer in Empire Red. Comes with a flat beater, dough hook, wire whip, wide chute pouring shield and 5-qt. stainless steel bowl. It can make 4 loaves of bread, 9 dozen cookies, and 7 pounds of mashed potatoes... let me know if you need my number to invite me over :)

Friday, December 07, 2007

What a Cook Wants, VII

Real F***in' Vanilla
I am not a baker. Not even close. I can bake a chocolate cake with milk chocolate frosting for your birthday, the family brownie recipe, passable banana bread and this past Thanksgiving, God help us all, fancy pants biscuits that were nearly tender. But I am not a baker.
However there was a time in my life when I made crème brûlée once a week, during that Nantucket summer of love. I encountered a *real* vanilla bean during that first terrifying custard experience. It was weird. It looked like a shriveled up monkey finger a witch would throw into a smoky cauldron, but the scent! Totally different from my mom's small bottles of alcohol-drenched vanilla extract. The fragrance was creamy and rich, with a slight green vegetal note at the back and whispers of jasmine. I was shocked such a creepy object could smell suspiciously like the love of God. When I cut one open and scraped out the itsy bitsy flecks with the tip of a knife, I finally understood the value of the speckles in the "fancy" Breyer's French vanilla ice cream of my youth. Ahhhh.
So if you love a baker, spend the $7 for three beans at Penzeys (check out all their spices while you're there, they rock). Tahitian beans are on the fruity/spicy side, Madagasgar beans have creamy, orchid notes and Mexican vanilla beans are darker, woody and very mysterious. You really can't go wrong, and you might be rewarded with ambrosial delights!
$7 for 3 beans, or $27 for 15 beans. Be sure to take a sniff before you hand them over!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

What a Cook Wants, VI

Bacon Wrapping Paper
No seriously. Hear me out. This is so fantastically silly, who could argue? For all your freaky pork-obsessed friends (you know, the ones who wax on about speck versus guaciale), for the aspiring butcher in your life, for the cop you love, or if you're Jewish and feeling aggressive, what could send a better message than a gift wrapped in bacon? The only bummer is it doesn't smell like it too. But really, what in this life is perfect?
$8 for a set of two packages of 4 pages each. But can we put a price on gift-giving silliness? Do you hate the baby Jesus? I hope not.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

What a Cook Wants, V

To Go Nuts!
The Fastachi Nuts folk make delicious, fresh tasting nuts and mixes. You're probably thinking, Nuts? Who cares? Nuts are just nuts! But that only proves you don't know nuts, my friend. My grandmother always put out bowls of nuts for the holidays... I'm not sure what pistachios and walnuts and those awful Brazil nuts that take 8 hours to crack and then don't even taste good have to do with the life of Christ, but I'll tell you this much: I see a bowl of nuts, and all I think is "Christmas. Sweet."
$100 for the Epicurian Gift Tower shown, and then price varies according to type of nut or mix. If you're thinking, That's a lot for some freakin' nuts! well, I assure you Fastachi makes some of the tastiest in the business.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

What a Cook Wants, IV

A Happy Hanukkah!
Who doesn't love the story of Hannukah? The Maccabee brothers, who were small in number, fought for freedom from the big army of Greco-Syrians who had controlled them and put an idol of the Greek God Zeus in their Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Against all odds, the small but scrappy army defeated their oppressors after three long years of battle. At the end of the fighting there was only one small jar of undefiled oil left in the temple, enough to light the ner tamid for one day. But a miracle occured: in the seven days it took to purify new oil, the light continued to burn brightly. That's why Hanukkah is known as the "Festival of Lights" and the menorah is lit for eight days.
I take the story as a reminder: for those who fight for the right reasons, even if they are small and outnumbered, God (whatever that is) gives a helping hand. And for me, even when my battles don't work out the way I'd like, there are still small miracles to behold.
(But I'm no rabbi! Please check in with an actual Jewish authority for a legit take on this holiday.)

So what does this have to do with delicious circles of chocolate wrapped in foil to resemble coins? I have no idea. But I will tell you that See's Hannukah gelt contains the best chocolate of all the gelt I've tasted. And I've gobbled up a lot, trust me~ I don't let my gentile-ness get in the way of Hanukkah candy consumption, heck no! So get some good gelt for a friend or two; the box contains four mesh bags of milk chocolate "coins" that unfortunately never last as long as that holy oil :)
$15 for a 1-lb. box of kosher milk chocolate gelt, divided into 4 mesh bags.

Monday, December 03, 2007

What a Cook Wants, III

Popcorn That Tastes As Good As That Scratch 'n Sniff Sticker Smelled
In the 5th grade my favorite scratch 'n sniff sticker was the "Poppin' Good"~ it smelled fresh like toasty corn with a subtle buttery note. At the time I didn't understand the scent was high-tech food chemistry at its (frightening) finest, I just wanted MY popcorn to smell and taste as good. This was at the peak of microwave popcorn madness; it smelled tempting, but ultimately any corn taste was drowned out with those heart attack-oils that weren't very buttery. sigh We also had an air popper, which produced popcorn about as flavorful as stale cardboard. It took nearly a stick of melted butter to properly coat one big bowl's worth, which today in my healthy-wellness LA lifestyle is not generally a viable option. double sigh

But fear not, dear reader! I bring you glad tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people who have $25. For unto you this day, from the wise folks at Wabash Valley Farms, a Whirley Pop popcorn popper is now available in red!
My sister Jen sent me one of these years ago and it enjoys primo shelf space in my postage stamp kitchen. A spoonful of oil and couple handfuls of kernels makes a big bowl of crisp, fragrant popcorn. Turning the crank on the stovetop as the corn explodes is undeniably fun and goes pretty quick. There's enough oil evenly distributed that the salt sticks quite well, and you can even skip the butter without having that dreadful cardboard experience.
When I was quite small and my family lived on a limited budget we made garlands of popcorn and cranberries with a needle and thread to decorate our Christmas tree, which I would surreptitiosly nibble whenever I needed a snack. I would dance around the twinkly-lit living room with my doll Samantha to the Alvin and the Chipmunks 45 record, chewing tough dry popcorn. And I was happy.
Which is a long way of saying, Who doesn't want popcorn for Christmas?
$25 for a red, 6-qt. popper that comes with a wooden handle and crank, plus a 25 year warranty.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

What a Cook Wants, II

A Beautiful Table
I've been a fan of Lotta Jansdotter's design for a long time. Her work is mostly abstract and feels kind of timeless to me, but this tablerunner is festive for the season! This piece could be dressed up with silver candlesticks and a scattering of ornaments amongst your good china, or remain sleek and minimal adorned only with simple white plates. Either way you'll have a beautiful table for your feast.
$54 for the "Bunke" 12x70-inch linen tablerunner

Saturday, December 01, 2007

What a Cook Wants, I

Welcome to the Holiday Gift Guide, dear reader! 'Tis the season of giving AND festive eating, so this brilliant series is just in time! Each day I'll feature a fantastic gift for the cooks and foodies you cherish, because c'mon: if the cook is happy, odds are your belly will end up happy too.
For the last few months I've been writing a column full of hipster stuff to buy for 805 Living magazine, so my brain is in a bit of a shopping mode~ please, spend that holiday money! My dad would say you're helping the economy, and I say don't forget to get a little something for yourself too. You deserve it.

Have French Press, Will Travel

The Double Shot Travel French Press Mug
We can all agree that aside from an expensive espresso machine, a French press makes the best coffee. Well some wise, on-the-go fellow coffee fiend was clever enough to modify it for travel. Your lucky recipient doesn't have to suffer that office swill any longer~ s/he can now be the happiest commuter ever.
This mug not only fits most cupholders, but the bottom has room to store additional grounds for two more cups! Sweet. In theory you could also brew loose leaf tea in this sucker, but I prefer the black gold myself.
$29; it's made of 18/8 stainless steel with a baked enamel finish that comes in so many colors one might even match their car~ how clever!