Sunday, August 18, 2013

Kitchen Tips & Ramblings

I'm getting ready for Vegan MoFo, having already prepared for one post (a miracle to actually be ahead of schedule for at least one thing, for one day, on any subject in my life!) That being said, I'm also striving to get used to writing more regularly, as I used to, in preparation for the commitment.

I've been working so much in the kitchen this summer, an inordinate amount of time for the "slow season." I thought I'd get a quick post up here for you about some tips which seem so obvious, yet I had to figure most out for myself.

My first tip is to buy the best quality you can on any kitchen utensils and tools. If you are serious about cooking or baking, even as a "home" cook, you spend a lot of time in the kitchen, and you shouldn't be bogged down by inferior equipment. Something as simple as measuring cups matter. I use stainless cups for dry measurements. I have several sets, and they are all relatively good quality (sturdy handles, good welds on the handles) but I never thought about them before, until I bought an inferior set. What makes it inferior? Well, sure they're stainless, but the handles are thin. So much so that when I fill a cup with sugar or flour, the handles will actually bend from the weight of just one cup. I use them, but that big 1 cup measure is the last one I ever go for in my drawer.

I buy multiples, and I mean multiples! I have approximately 10 sets of teaspoons. Most are stainless (the ones that are not are very old before I had this business, but still functional and I will use them until they  break). This becomes important when you have thoughts of "cross-contamination." If you dip a measuring spoon into flour, it immediately becomes contaminated with gluten. If you are baking or cooking for someone with Celiacs disease, this becomes ultra important. I never use any measuring item, spoon, bowl, cup or otherwise for anything other than it's one time use. This may not be as important in your home use, but for me it's non-negotiable. I see people with allergies to nuts, gluten, soy, nightshades, and so much more. Even if I am making something that is not allergen free, I still use my safe baking and cooking habits; this is part of my training and I make good use of said training. You can see why having multiple sets of certain things can become pretty helpful.

I also have about 10 glass measuring cups. I no longer buy measuring cups with handles that are "closed" handle style. I need my cups to stack in my cabinet. If you have cups that have a rounded, attached handle, they obviously will not stack. Space saving is also ultra important in my teeny galley-style kitchen. I've also amassed a decent collection of stainless steel mixing bowls. I put the same practices into place when using bowls as I do with spoons. When I make 2 baked items in the morning (for example mini-corn muffins as a side dish, and regular muffins as the 1st course) typically you'd see 4 stainless bowls in the sink when I'm done, because I've used one large bowl for the dry ingredients, and 1 medium bowl for the wet ingredients on each recipe. I have no time to wash bowls in between recipes, and truth be told most of my bowls go into my dishwasher as a sanitation issue because my dishwasher is superheated due to Board of Health regulations. I think I have about 20 (maybe more!) stainless bowls, ranging from absolutely huge, to the teeniest you can imagine. I've purchased them in restaurant stores, auctions, our local thrift shops, and other places. Anytime I see a stainless bowl, I grab it and assess if I have enough of that size already, or will it be a good one to add. Mostly I realized how important this was when I took a class with Rita Romano when she lived in Key West. She had a back building on her property (maybe it was a converted large garage, I'm not sure) which was absolutely a cook's dream. Front to back stainless counters with shelves underneath absolutely LOADED with stainless bowls. She tore through bowls making recipes like nothing I'd ever seen before, it was impressive how fast she made her recipes. The last thing she needed to do was stop and wash a bowl, ugh! I wish I had her bowl collection (bowl envy, imagine that).

Always do as much prep ahead of time as possible. I've never regretted doing too much prep ahead of time, EVER, because there's simply no such thing as too much advance prep. It takes time, boy does it ever, but it will pay off on the days you find yourself rushed, or simply not wanting to spend hours in the kitchen. I have some recipes I make over and over, so I've come up with ways to really streamline. This includes my herb & spice mixtures. In the fall, pumpkin muffins, scones, cookies & cakes get really popular everywhere (even in the beautiful tropical Florida Keys). I make a large jar of my pumpkin pie spice mix ahead of time, and have it on hand instead of measuring every ingredient separately. I also do this for large quantity recipes I make on a regular basis. I know what my most popular recipes for special orders, so I keep my empty glass spice jars (I order a lot of things from Frontier), run them through the dishwasher, and then fill them with herbs or spices for the large batch recipes I make. It doesn't sound like that's a timesaver, but it truly is. If I opened my cabinet right now, you'd see about 30 bottles of pre-mixed, ready-to-go, spice jars for my different types of hummus. Some of my recipes have over 12 different seasonings in them, that's a lot of jars to be dragging out of the pantry or cabinets. Instead now I just pull one out, it's ready to go.

For gluten free considerations, the biggest "tip" is to avoid cross-contamination. If you're someone like me who does not have a gluten free kitchen, yet does a lot of gluten free cooking & baking, it's essential that you have the ability to separate tools and equipment from that which will contact gluten items, or if you cannot have separate tools and utensils, that you have proper equipment to sterilize the equipment before coming into contact with gluten free ingredients. When I have orders to fill, I always do my gluten free things first. This is about minimizing risk. If I do my regular baking first, there is a chance there will be flour dust in the air, or something remaining on the counter. Not likely, but possible. So I eliminate that risk by doing the gluten free first. Also, it's imperative if you are offering someone gluten free, that it really IS gluten free. Gluten free is trending right now, some of it is because of false information (like people think they'll lose weight by going gluten free), but for some people being gluten free is a life long way of living due to profound health issues. Oats generally by their nature are gluten free, but they become non gluten free when they are processed on shared equipment. This is why, for example, if I want to offer a gluten free oatmeal cookie, I have to buy certified gluten free oats, not just oats. Soy sauce and tamari is another big offender, very often having wheat as an ingredient. I have a designated special area in my fridge for gluten free storage. I've also made sure that it's on the top shelves so no cross contamination could occur by something possibly dripping or falling down into that storage that may have gluten in it. That may seem extreme for some, but for me it's simple enough, so why NOT do it?

Living gluten free used to be kind of a pain for many people due to lots of reasons, not the least of which were mislabeled products, unlabeled products, or lack of decent products. One of the products that has really been a wonderful addition to my gluten free collection is from a company called Coconut Secret, it's called Coconut Aminos. They're soy free, gluten free aminos. When I bought them the first time I thought "this will be crap, they will taste like coconut" but I was so wrong. They taste like soy sauce. This product has been a saving grace for me with so many of my recipes when gluten free guests or soy free guests come through my B and B. I also keep that gluten free condiment separate from the bins that house my conventional vegan condiments, just to be extra safe with cross contamination issues. In my fridge I have Bragg's liquid aminos, soy sauce, tamari, gluten free tamari, and Coconut aminos. Some of the bottles look similar, I don't want to grab the wrong thing in a brain fog one day, right?

Don't be a slave to gadgets in your kitchen. I've covered this before, so won't go into depth here, but rest assured you really CAN live without a lot of those cool one trick ponies the kitchen stores try to tell us we need. Again, this goes to my opening tip... buying good quality. A good food processor will multi-task, as will a high end blender (like a Vitamix). I have an exception to my rule on this, and that is a garlic press. I have one, it's a good one too. I press pounds and pounds of garlic with my little garlic press. Some chefs will say crushing it with the side of a knife is enough to release the cellular compounds we want (cutting doesn't do the same thing on a cellular level by the way). When I was shopping my hummus samples to new accounts, for example, I had some serious feedback from business owners who really know hummus, and knew what they wanted. Crushing garlic with a knife vs. crushing garlic with a press resulted in different flavors in my hummus, and for someone with a palate that discriminating, I wanted to oblige. My garlic press is the only one trick pony in my kitchen at this point (hm.... I DO have donut pans.... whoops!)

Here's a few more, that really don't need elaborating:

Get an oven thermometer, and use it.

Cast iron cookware is your friend and can be purchased used. You can clean it, it will be like new, and last several generations.

Always use a kitchen timer (not that Facebooking ever causes us to lose track of time....., right?!)

Stay hydrated while cooking and baking. It took a pastry chef to point this one out, how foolish of me!

Weigh your ingredients when baking. Yup. Do it.  Remember "the art of cooking, the science of baking."

Take good care of your equipment. You deserve the best equipment you can get (which, by the way doesn't need to always translate to the most expensive equipment!), so you better take care of it. Respect your tools and equipment. Clean things well, and have proper space to store your items so you don't have an avalanche of crap coming at you when you open your equipment cabinet.

And, last, try to minimize the "science experiments" in your fridge. You put all that effort into your food prep, cooking and baking, why let something languish in the fridge? Rotate your stock properly, clean your fridge weekly, and expect a deep clean about once every four to six weeks. If you let things go too far past that schedule, you'll find yourself being a slave to your kitchen, that's never a good thing.

That about does it for now, see you soon!

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