Thursday, January 28, 2010

Kitchen Gadgets!

In this post, we’ll explore a few gadgets that can make cooking a little easier, more fun and will hopefully help you. Please note that the brands that we list here are only suggested because we have either used them ourselves and can personally vouch that they will work well or because they get good reviews. We do not endorse any particular brand because of any affiliation with that company. We wish we knew some folks in the cooking gadget business! If you have had a good experience with another brand of any of the tools we list here, please leave it in the comments below. The more information we share, the more we can learn about cooking!

Cheese plane (aka “slicer”): I was really surprised to find out that not everyone knows what this is and didn’t grow up with one in the house. While writing this blog post, I discovered that the cheese slicer I use often, especially for making grilled cheese sandwiches or cheese burgers, is actually called a cheese plane. Who knew!? Anyway, don’t waste your money on a cheapo version because you’ll just end up more frustrated than you were when you were trying to slice thin slices of cheese with a knife. A sharp slicer (planer?) with a comfortable handle is key. The one that I grew up with is the one that works the best, but unfortunately, I have no idea who makes it (if it’s even still made today). The one I own is made by OXO. It works fairly well, but if you know of a better one, please add it in the comments below. If you’re interested in adding a cheese plane to your kitchen gadget collection, it might be wise to visit a local cook’s shop and see if they can make a recommendation.

Immersion blender: This is one of the most used gadgets in our kitchen. I use it for pureeing our one year old daughter’s homemade baby food. ( Interested in making your own baby food? Contact Hannah through The Bitch Stopped Cooking contact form and she can give you lots of ideas.) We also use it for making pureed soups like Leek and Potato Soup or Tomato Soup (made from a can of diced tomatoes – yum!). Our morning smoothies are whipped up in a jiffy with our immersion blender. I love homemade hummus – the immersion blender makes it a quick and easy appetizer to make for pot lucks. The blender we own has a mini food-processor attachment. I used this recently when a recipe for Moroccan chicken called for ground fennel. I only had whole fennel seed, so I threw some in the food processor attachment, popped on the blender motor and viola! I had ground fennel! The regular blender rarely makes an appearance in our kitchen because of how convenient, easy to clean and space saving the immersion blender is.

There are a couple popular brands of immersion blenders out there. We have a Braun and have had it for years with no troubles and no need to sharpen the blades. My only complaint is that the blade area can be tricky to get really clean, but it’s not something that would keep me from recommending this to anyone. KitchenAid makes a similar model.

Here’s a Google search for immersion blenders so you can find one that fits your budget and needs.

Butter Bell: I love to use real butter on my toast or baked potatoes. Maybe the oil based spreads are a bit healthier, but the taste of real butter just can’t be beat. I also use less butter than I do the spreads, so maybe it’s better for me in the long run. Anyway, a butter bell is a useful and attractive way to keep butter at room temperature. No one knows the exact origins of butter bells, but they probably come from France. Back in the Middle Ages, people used to keep butter in salted water. The modern butter bell style probably came about at the turn of the 19th century.

To use: Fill the bell shaped part of the lid with room temperature butter. Put about ¾ inch salted water in the crock. Turn the bell upside down, insert into the crock and there you go! Change the water every three days. To salt the water, I just put a few shakes of salt from the salt shaker in there. Here’s the one we have at our home. Parsley not included :-) There are lots of designs out there, so you can find one decorated to suit your own style.

This company makes a variety of butter bells and has a page with instructions and drawings of how to use one.

Silicone spatula: A simple tool, really, but if you have a good one, it makes all the difference. The kind to get is one that has a very flexible head. This makes it possible to scrape out a bowl and pretty much get it looking clean. The one I use and love is from Crate and Barrel and made by Trudeau, but they don’t carry the exact spatula anymore, so I don’t have a particular one to recommend. Here is a similar one, also made by Trudeau, so it's probably just as great. If you know of one that you love, post it below in the comments section. Check out your nearest cooks’ shop for a great selection. I’ve also seen them at TJ Maxx and Marshall’s in their Home sections.

Kitchen Scale: A tool that you can definitely live without, but if you do have the means to stock your kitchen with one, go for it. I found one for about $5 at a discount store, so you certainly don’t have to spend a ton on one. There’s a great post here all about kitchen scales and how to use them. If you like to bake and are a bit of a nerd, Alton Brown has a fantastic and educational cookbook called I'm Just Here for More Food: Food x Mixing + Heat = Baking. This book talks extensively about the usefulness and importance of using a scale for measuring flour. Of course, your banana muffin or chocolate cake recipe will turn out great without one, but it’s possible to make them even better, and have consistency each time you make them, by using a kitchen scale to measure your ingredients.

Well, I could go on all day about kitchen gadgets, but for fear of boring you, our devoted fans, I’ll stop here. Happy cooking!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

We're famous!

The Bitch Stopped Cooking was profiled on the Business Page in our local newspaper, The Cape Cod Chronicle! Check out the article here.

We had a blast interviewing with Elizabeth Van Wye, a reporter for the Chronicle, last week on a four-way conference call. Thanks to modern technology, we were able to share our experiences in starting and owning a small online business. Julia was in New York, Maria in Boston and Hannah on Cape Cod! Elizabeth was a great interviewer and told our story well in the article. We are thankful to the Chronicle, Elizabeth and Tim Wood, the editor for writing about us.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Donation for Haiti

Here at The Bitch Stopped Cooking we have been deeply saddened by the devastation in Haiti. We have pledged to donate 50% of our profits through the end of January 2010 to Direct Relief International in order to aid the efforts in Haiti. We encourage you to keep this in mind when perusing our online store. For more information on the organization we have selected, please visit Direct Relief's website. One thing we like about Direct Relief is that 100% of money that is donated goes directly to programmatic expenses. They don't use our money for fundraising or salaries. They were given 34 million dollars to cover those types of expenses, so we know our money is going where to want it to go.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Science of Cooking: Part 1

If you’re just getting started in the kitchen – or even if you’ve been cooking for years or even decades – an understanding of the science behind cooking can make your adventures in the kitchen more interesting and can be very useful when creating your own culinary masterpieces. This is part 1 of a 3-part series on the science of cooking. The next two parts will appear over the next few weeks in our blog and will each investigate the science behind four culinary phenomena. This week we look at the browning of apples after they've been cut, emulsion, why onions make us cry, and the effects of adding salt when boiling water, and also offer some tips to enhance your experience in the kitchen.

Why do apples turn brown after they’ve been cut?

Apples and other produce items including bananas, potatoes, and avocadoes contain an enzyme that causes them to oxidize when exposed to air. This oxidation results in the exposed fruit turning brown, similar to the rusting of iron. Although the browned fruit is totally fine to ingest, it is not very appetizing! There are a number of ways to inactivate this enzyme, thereby preventing the unsightly color change. These include cooking the fruit, lowering the pH of the exposed fruit’s surface with lemon juice or another acid, reducing the fruit’s exposure to oxygen by vacuum sealing it or keeping it under water, or by using certain preservatives such as sulfur dioxide.

Eggs yolks as emulsifier

Anyone who has been to fifth grade knows that oil and water don’t mix. But what about recipes that call for both ingredients? Interestingly, egg yolks act as an emulsifier, or a substance that allows unblendable (or “immiscible”) liquids to stay mixed. Egg yolks contain proteins that have amino acids that attract water and amino acids that repel water, and also contain a protein known as lecithin, a fat emulsifier. Lecithin prevents tiny oil droplets from bonding with one another, preventing the oil from separating from the water. This is why eggs are an important ingredient in many recipes, including hollandaise and mayonnaise. Honey, gelatin, and mustard are also examples of emulsifiers, and soy lecithin is often used as a food additive in such items as candy bars and baked goods to aid in emulsion.

Why do onions make me cry?

Cutting an onion releases enzymes contained within the cells of the onion, which then react with sulfenic acids that form when the onion is cut, resulting in a volatile sulfur compound. This compound reacts with water from your tears to form sulfuric acid, which burns your eyes (and triggers the release of more tears). It’s possible to inactivate the enzyme by cooking the onion. You can also decrease discomfort by cutting onions underwater, chewing gum or bread while cutting the onion, refrigerating the onion prior to use (this slows the reaction), or by not cutting the root off, as the enzyme is most concentrated in the root. Using a sharp knife will also reduce the amount of the sulfur compound that is released.

Boiling water with salt

Adding salt to water before you boil it increases the temperature at which it boils. This allows food to cook at a higher temperature than 212°F, thereby decreasing the overall cooking time. Of course, the amount of salt you add will affect how drastic the change in cooking time is, and many scientists argue that the effect of adding salt to water before boiling it is negligible and that salt should be used solely as a flavor enhancer. Because adding salt increases the amount of time it takes for water to start boiling, the overall time required for your meal may be unchanged.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Spices are the Variety of Life!

As soon as I started stocking my kitchen with a wide variety of spices, I found that it was much easier to cook. Instead of passing by a tasty looking recipe because I didn't have a certain spice for it, I was able to make it! I have also found that I am less afraid to try an unusual dish because I now have the spices for it. We here at TBSC encourage all cooks (bitches who still cook, too!) to explore spices. You never know what you might find!

If you’re just starting out as a cook and have a sparsely stocked spice cabinet, filling it can be overwhelming and can get expensive. But, having a wide variety of spices allows you to cook dishes from a variety of cuisines. In exploring spices and building up your spice arsenal, you’ll discover which spices you like and which are most useful for you. The more spices you have, the more you can cook and the happier you'll be (and maybe you can even get your bitch back in the kitchen by inspiring her with your culinary variety). Many spices cross cuisines, such as cumin and ginger.You can start with the following spices and expand as you come across spices that you are curious about. This list was borrowed and adapted from Real Simple’s Basic Spice Checklist.

Bay leaves. Choose whole leaves that are rich in color.

Black peppercorns. Always pick whole peppercorns over ground versions and grind your own—the flavors of freshly ground pepper far outweigh the slight inconvenience of preparation.

Cayenne pepper. For more intense heat from this spice made from ground dried chilies, look for a lighter color. Most likely the pepper was ground with the seeds, boosting the spiciness.

Chili powder. Typically a blend of dried chilis, cumin, coriander, and oregano. Medium to hot chili powders go heavier on the chilis.

Cinnamon, ground. Use this warm, aromatic spice for holiday baking, as well as stews and curries. I like Indonesian Cassia from The Spice House.

Cloves, ground. A staple in holiday baking, especially gingersnaps.

Ginger, ground. Ground ginger has a more intense and astringent taste than fresh and is often more convenient. Ginger’s popularity has increased in the U.S. because of its supposed benefits to the digestive system.

Kosher salt. Use in place of table salt for seasoning recipes.

Nutmeg, whole or ground. Nutmeg's sweet, spicy flavor is great in savory and sweet dishes alike. Real foodies say you have to use whole nutmeg and grind it yourself, but if you don’t want to, the pre-ground nutmeg is tasty, too.

Oregano. Its Mediterranean form is often sprinkled on pizza, while the pungency of Mexican oregano complements spicy dishes.

Paprika. Hungarian varieties have the highest quality, with a rich red color and smooth texture. There are two types of paprika: sweet and hot. If the packaging is not labeled as either, the paprika is sweet.

Red pepper flakes. Use the flakes of crushed red chili to spice up pastas and stir-fries.

Rosemary, dried. This herb, with an aroma of lemon and pine, can be used in an assortment of Mediterranean dishes.

Thyme, dried. Add this herb to Mediterranean, Cajun, and Creole dishes.

White peppercorns. These are peppercorns that have been ripened, had the skin removed, and then dried. They are not as strong as black peppercorns. White peppercorns are used in light-colored sauces where black pepper specks would stand out.

Other spices I personally think are good to have on hand:

Cumin – Cumin is the second most used spice in the world behind black pepper.

Coriander – The seeds of the Cilantro plant, coriander is used in African and Indian dishes, as well as other cuisines.

Curry Powder – Good to have on hand for easy recipes like Curried Rice or Curry Chicken. Also, if you want to venture into Indian food, curry powder is a common ingredient.

Marjoram – sweeter and milder than oregano. Tasty in pasta dishes.

Allspice – If you like to bake, it’s good to have allspice on hand. Also used in some BBQ sauce recipes.

Dill – Great for dips, soups or pasta dishes.

Celery Seeds - If you like making cole slaw, get yourself some of these!

What are your favorite staple spices? Add them below in the comments section!

Okay, so where do I get all these spices? I like to order my spices from a company that grinds and prepares weekly, so I know I'm cooking with fresh ingredients. There's no way to know how long the spices in the grocery store have been sitting on the shelf. While they taste good and are absolutely fine to use if that’s what you have already in your cabinet, the flavors are so much richer in freshly ground spices and herbs. I was truly shocked at how amazing and wonderful freshly ground cinnamon smells and tastes. You won’t believe that you’ve been using the store bought stuff when you smell the fresh stuff. In addition, the prices are much, much cheaper than the grocery store. Shipping can add up, but even with that added to the total cost, spices purchased online will be cheaper than the store. Or, maybe you’re lucky enough to have a local spice shop that grinds their own spices. I usually order from The Spice House in Chicago. I like their website because it's clear, easy to understand and there are lots of suggestions for recipes and ways to use different spices and herbs. The spice prices are very reasonable and the quality can’t be beat. There are other excellent spice companies out there, too. Here is an incomplete list. Please feel free to add your own favorite spice stores in the comments section below.

Atlantic Spice Company in Truro, MA
Whole Spice in Petaluma, CA
Penzey’s Spices has locations in larger cities all over the country.
World Spice Merchants in Seattle, WA

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year!

As the dawn of 2010 is here, the crew at The Bitch Stopped Cooking would like to offer you a resolution: eat at home more! Eating at home frequently is good on the wallet and it's good for you!

One thing that I love to do is make a big batch of soup, chili, or lasagna, and freeze single portions in pyrex in the freezer. Then, on a day where I have nothing to bring for lunch or don't have time/food to make dinner, then I can just grab it out of the freezer and heat up. This way, I don't eat out for lunch or order in dinner as much. Also, the food I make is good and I know what went into it!

Another good tip is to have a handful of go-to recipes that you always have the ingredients for so you don't have to plan to make them. We like to do this with tacos, which are the PERFECT thing to make when there's "nothing to make for dinner". I like to get the taco kits with the hard and soft tacos and then we keep ground beef in the freezer or beans in the cabinet, and we generally have salsa, lettuce, shredded cheese, and sour cream on hand. On our website there are some recipes in the forum that are good go-to recipes. Try the mustard crusted chicken! Once you have your handful of recipes, keep them together for easy reference. I have a bookmarks folder on my computer with my favorite recipes in it, and I also have post-it notes on certain pages in my cookbooks. has some cool features for saving recipes and adding notes to them if you register (it's free).

If you're not bringing your lunch to work already, I suggest investing in a lunchbag and some small glass pyrex bowls with lids. Whenever I cook dinner I make about two servings extra so that we both can have lunch to bring the next day. I put it in pyrex dishes when cleaning up after dinner so that I don't have to do anything in the morning.

Another great thing about eating at home is that it can be more close of an experience than going out or ordering food. Cooking can be a fun group experience (unless the bitch refuses to help) and you can even involve kids, if you have some on hand. If I had them on hand, I would employ them to do things like cutting up fresh herbs (using kid scissors), flattening chicken breasts (using a rolling pin), or mixing things. If they get in the way, have them set the table instead. To make it fun have them make placetags! Having another (grownup) to do "prep work" like chopping peppers or measuring out ingredients can be really helpful. If they get in the way, have them take over. Eating dinner at home is also an experience that can bring people together. You can laugh louder than you do in a restaurant and you can do it in your pajamas! Turn off the tv, though. In my house we have a rule where the TV can't be on when we're eating dinner, and we always eat at the table. We do make exceptions to the rule, but only when there is something on that we really really really want to watch, or if the kitchen table is really really really messy. If you start running out of things to talk about with your family, look up a riddle online before sitting down to dinner and then have everyone try to figure it out.

Hopefully these tips will be helpful! Please feel free to add any additional tips that you use or know of!

Stock your pantry and let's all have a great 2010 around our kitchen tables.