Sunday, February 28, 2010

Pick of the Month: Cutting Boards

I know. Cutting boards are nothing new. Nor are they some sort of wish list item that I have been pining for in my kitchen. They do deserve some discussion though since they are a mainstay in any kitchen and consequently take a lot of abuse. It’s hard to have a conversation about cutting boards without talking about knives at the same time. In fact, a knife skills class is precisely what enlightened me on this topic.

First let’s talk about the importance of owning proper cutting boards. Mainly they protect your countertops but they also protect your precious knives. The wrong cutting board will unnecessarily dull any knife regardless of price or quality. Unfortunately dull knives are not only a waste of time, they also lead to accidents. You would think the opposite to be true, but dull knives slip or require unnecessary pressure to cut – perfect components for a nasty accident.

Cutting boards can also be dangerous from a cleanliness viewpoint. If you own plastic cutting boards, please retrieve them from your kitchen after you read this. Run your hand across the surface. Feel fuzzy? If it does, it’s time for a new board. All that texture resulting from hours of use and love is a breeding ground for bacteria. Hey, it’s an excuse to go shopping anyway.

Before we talk about type – wood vs plastic vs bamboo – let’s talk about a few other components. Best practice is to have three – one small, one medium and one large to fit any job. They should be soft enough so as to not dull your knife, double sided and anti-slip. Double-sided boards give you double the cutting surface by simply flipping them over. A simple for trick for making any cutting board no slip: shelf liner. Not flowery contact paper, but the rubbery no-slip lattice woven stuff. Cut it into squares that can be placed between your countertop and board et voila! No more chasing the board all over the counter as you chop. This simple trick is a serious time and sanity saver. Promise! Plus, the squares can be thrown in the dishwasher. Easy!

So now the obvious question. What type of cutting board is best?

Wood: Chefs everywhere will contest that wood is the best surface for chopping. I personally have a large wood cutting board in my kitchen and absolutely love it. Aesthetically they’re beautiful. They’re great for your knives since the surface is soft enough not to dull them. However they do have some downsides. They can be expensive depending on the size. They require hand washing – no dishwashers – and you can’t prep everything on them. Meat and fish are no no’s because the wood will soak up bacteria. Also, anything with a strong odor – think garlic and onions – will “season” your board.

Bamboo: While bamboo boards are beautiful, they’re not recommended. Mainly, the surface is too hard and will dull your knives more quickly. While we all know that often-used knives need to be sharpened weekly, who wants to expedite the process

Stone: Again, the surface is not recommended due to its density. It should be noted here as well that the incredibly thin flexible plastic cutting boards are not recommended either. I mention it here because laying one on a hard countertop – such as granite or marble – provides no protection for your knife. Plus keeping one of those in place is nearly impossible. I realize I keep circling back to the same point but where would you be in your kitchen with out your knife? Lost I imagine! The more money you spend on a quality knife, an entirely separate discussion, the more you should want to protect your investment.

Plastic: When it comes to ease and versatility, plastic boards have it covered. They’re dishwasher safe, don’t readily absorb strong smells or bacteria and come in a variety of fun colors. When picking out a plastic cutting board, it should be completely smooth, no visible texture, as the texture will only dull your knife. Also, just like with bamboo or stone, you don’t want the board to be too hard. Pick one that seems easily scratched with your fingernail, meaning it’s not too hard for your knife. It should be double sided – twice the surface area! The one I have featured in the photo here is actually a great no slip board. Manufactured by Oneida and available at Bed, Bath and Beyond, the rubbery grey handles successfully kept the board from sliding across a wet granite countertop as I was using it this weekend. I just bought this one for my parents for Christmas. I can attest that it fits the criteria.

So there you have it! Longwinded, but now you have an arsenal of information for your next trip to the kitchen store. You did just throw out your old fuzzy boards, right?

Saturday, February 27, 2010

mixed berry muesli

I am on my second trip in less than two weeks. Only this time instead of heading to the balmy desert to enjoy poolside mojitos paired with copious amounts of sunshine, I'm headed to the great white....East coast. Pittsburgh to be exact. While I have normally avoided the Steel City this time of year since my move to Seattle, my adorable newborn nephew pulled me homeward this February. And let me tell you, even 60 and sunny felt cold after Palm Springs. Now I'm stuck in a 27 degree snow globe with three - yes, three - feet of snow on the ground. Shivering yet?

All this cold weather left me looking for something a little more satisfying - and warmer - than my typical fruit and yogurt breakfast. Enter muesli. If you've never heard of muesli it's simply any mixture of cereals, dried fruit and nuts that is typically eaten for breakfast. I can attest that it's delicious and the perfect cure for a frigid Pittsburgh morning. Another bonus, the recipe that I'm showcasing here is reminiscent of a decadent berry crumble...but without the guilt. It's that good. Enjoy!

mixed berry muesli
makes 4-6 one cup servings

2 cups rolled oats
1/2 cup toasted wheat germ
1/4 cup toasted almonds, chopped
1 cup fresh or frozen mixed berries
1/4 dried cherries, chopped
1 tablespoon cinnamon
a dash of freshly ground nutmeg
1/2 cup low fat milk
1 1/2 cups low sugar mixed berry juice

Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl or container that will hold at least one quart. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Serve warm (can be heated in the microwave) or cold with yogurt.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

sweet potato leek soup

I may have to change the name of this blog to "for the love of soup" if I keep going at this rate. I just love soup! This weather is made for it. While it's beautifully sunny outside, it's amazingly brisk. The kind of weather that I think asks for soup. Or at least the kind of weather that makes me ask for soup?

Honestly, soup was something I was never very skilled at making. Just ask my college roommate about the french mushroom bisque debacle circa 2003. She can attest that debacle is the precise word to describe that sorry attempt at bisque. It seemed like it was going to be ok...but no. And all efforts to save the soup failed as well. I think the pot sat on the counter for two days before I even had the motivation to toss it. Gross, I know, but it was college. Dishes were hardly a priority. I have since risen to the challenge and now soup is something I love to make.

This recipe was originally pulled from Bon Appetit magazine and called for maple syrup in addition to the ingredients below. I never bothered to add it because the balance of leek and sweet potato was just too good. I think the syrup would dilute it. Also, don't skip the celery leaves. They're amazing!

sweet potato leek soup
makes 6 to 8 servings

2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
3/4 cup chopped onion
3 small celery stalks, stalks and leaves chopped separately
2 medium leeks, sliced and well rinsed (white and pale green parts only)
1 large garlic clove, chopped
1 1/2 pounds (about 5 cups) red-skinned sweet potatoes (yams), peeled, cut into 1 inch pieces
4 cups chicken stock
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1 1/2 cups half & half
salt and pepper

Melt butter in heavy large pot over medium - high heat. Add onion and saute 5 minutes. Add chopped celery stalks and leeks and saute until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and saute 2 minutes. Add potatoes, chicken stock, cinnamon and nutmeg. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered until potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes.

Remove cinnamon stick and discard. Working in batches, puree soup in blender until smooth. Return to pot. Add half & half in small amounts until soup reaches desired consistency. Stir over medium - low heat to heat through. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Ladle into bowls and sprinkle with celery leaves before serving.

Tip: Store celery leaves separate from soup when keeping leftovers.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

blueberry banana muffins

I've been out of town, and consequently out of my kitchen, for the past week soaking up some much needed sun in Palm Springs, CA. After five beautiful days filled with plenty of time by the pool, margaritas, loads of mexican food and the necessary supplemental peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I was excited to find my way back to the kitchen this morning.

The house was quiet when I awoke. I unpacked (ambitious), got dressed for a run (also ambitious) then set about getting my hands dirty in my favorite way. On the agenda this sunny Seattle Saturday - healthy blueberry banana muffins. I can't believe I made muffins this morning considering the onslaught of enchiladas, ice cream and tequila I tortured my body with in Palm Springs - but hey, what's a girl to do? These muffins were however inspired by a friend of mine who had stopped cooking for awhile due to a "disaster" he had with banana bread. Disaster. His words, not mine! For those of you who love to spend as much time in the kitchen as I do, you know that baking requires more attention to measurement than cooking. In fact, one mishap in this area can result in a "disaster" as my friend unfortunately discovered. Not only did he add extra bananas to his recipe (for that extra banana-y flavor - not recommended) he also included one whole CUP of baking soda. That's right. A CUP! I'll give you a moment to think about that. If you're conjuring up the taste of toothpaste, and having a good chuckle, you're on the right track. The muffins I made this morning have the correct amount of baking soda (powder actually in this case). Promise.

This recipe is considered healthy due to the minimal amount of sugar in it; most of the sweetness comes from the bananas and blueberries. Also, oat bran and very little oil and egg help. So in my friend's honor - banana inspired muffins. Enjoy!

blueberry banana muffins
makes 6 mammoth muffins (or 12 standard sized muffins)

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup oat bran
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup mashed ripe bananas (approximately 3)
1/2 cup low fat milk (or soy)
1 large egg
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen, unthawed, blueberries
1 - 2 tablespoons raw sugar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line 6 (or 12) muffin cups with paper liners. Combine dry ingredients in a medium bowl and whisk to blend.

Place mashed bananas in a large bowl. Stir in milk, egg, oil and lemon juice. Mix in dry ingredients; then fold in blueberries. Divide batter amongst the muffin cups. They should each be almost full. Sprinkle tops with raw sugar. Bake muffins approximately 20 minutes or until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Turn out muffins onto a wire rack and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.