03 September 2018

There's always questions about what cookware to get, and how much to spend. There's a reason that more expensive doesn't always mean better. Let's consider the law of diminishing returns. Let me give you an easy example.

With wine, there will be crap wines. You're talking your Franzia, your Fetzer, and the vast majority of stuff sold as "white zinfandel". It's fine for making sangria, but you're not going to notice much except sugar, and whatever additives they've thrown in the vat to mask the shitty quality.

Then you've got your low rent ones, like Fetzer, Turning Leaf, that Kangaroo one. They're like $7 - $10 a bottle. Nothing to write home about, but it'll do to cook with, or with people who aren't huge wine drinkers, but can't really afford much better.

Then you get your /good/ wines. These vary by region and by brand, but you're looking to spend between $12 and $15 a bottle here. When served in a decent wine glass, you'll notice all kind of cool little subtle flavour profiles, and it won't be harsh on the way down.

If you've got some cash to spend, then there's those boutique wines that run you about $15 - $25. Around here, you're hitting very complex flavours and aromas. You don't want to pair it with anything that will challenge the wine, and you take care to serve it at the proper temperatures.

Once you cross this threshold however, you're looking at diminishing returns. The difference between boxed wine and the $25 wine is VAST. We're talking leaps and bounds of difference in experience, quality, and taste. But then once you've crossed about $28 - $32 a bottle, the difference between a $100 bottle and the $35 bottle isn't really that huge. Yes if you're in the top 5% of sommeliers or wine makers in the world, you'll notice subtle differences, and it's a nice intellectual exercise to figure out what those differences are, but the vast majority of us aren't really going to get that much more enjoyment or taste difference between the two. Then you start hitting the $200 and $300 bottles with pedigrees and all kind of marketing buzz, and you're like "I'll stick with the $15 bottle if it's all the same to you."

Think of your cookware the same way. The crappy TV Celebrity Chef set from the Walmart versus a standard brand is going to be massive. And the thin-bottomed dollar store pots compared to the standard brands will also be a huge huge difference. But once you hit about the $30 - $70 per pan range, you're not going to notice that much of a difference in your cooking experience to have warranted spending $300 on a freaking pan. I see you, Le Creuset.

Go into a store, and pick up as many pans as you can. If it's not comfortable in your hands, you won't use it as much. Look for something that has a good weight to it, but isn't too heavy for you to pick up. Look for something that has a nice balance to it. This has been my issue with a fair few of those restaurant cookwares: they're so bottom heavy that when I have to tip it over to get from cookware to serving dish, it's very awkward.

Get one piece at a time, not a set. Getting a set means that you'll have pots that you never use. Not good. Start with one piece (for example, an all-purpose pan).

https://www.amazon.com/Simply-Calphalon-Nonstick-Jumbo-Deep/dp/B001ASBBSG/ I reach for this thing every day. I'd consider it an all-purpose pan. I can cook pretty much anything in there. I've cooked pasta, curries, stir fries, rice dishes, delicate things that need the nonstick, potatoes, breakfast things, stews, soups, veggies, the list goes on. I've had it for a few years now, and it's been a champ. However, after having it a while, I realised I wanted a small pot for making ramen, or reheating leftovers, or small amounts of daal. That's when I sprung for a small saucepan. I got their 1-1/2 quart pot from the same line, because I liked how it felt in my hand.

Then, I saw that I wanted something in stainless, because when I make dosa, or other things, I wanted to use my Indian stainless steel utensils, and I couldn't do that on the nonstick. So I got myself a https://www.amazon.com/Tramontina-80116-007DS-Fry-Stainless/dp/B00JAP44MQ/ stainless steel pan from Tramontina. Then, I saw that I needed a stock pot, because if I'm using that 12" thingy on the stove, I don't want another large pot cluttering up the stove. I went to my restaurant supply store, and picked up the most squat 6 qt stock pot they had. I wanted metal handles, and a metal lid. Why? In case I start something on the stove, and want to finish in the oven, I want that to be seamless. I got something like this guy:
https://www.amazon.com/Cuisinart-MCP44-24N-MultiClad-Stainless-Saucepot/dp/B009W28RPM/

Point is that you don't have to spend like a millionaire to have cookware that's a joy to use, and that will produce good results, and you don't have to worry about getting a full set. Build as you go.

29 April 2018

Weekly food prepping

I was going to make a soup. I had some lovely leeks that I found at the market, along with these adorable little tiny white and red potatoes. I had some kale that needed using up. I had a couple of heads of garlic that would go in there too. Come to think of it, there were also like 3 lbs of large white potatoes that had been there for three weeks already. 

However, once I started chopping the leeks (3 of them, with the tough green parts removed), I noticed that I had a LOT of leeks. What if I wanted leeks in something else? Also, two heads of garlic is going to be such a waste if I use it in one soup. What if I need garlic for something else? I don't really have a ton of time during the week to go grocery shopping. 

FINE. Message heard, universe. I'll do that thing where I prepare myself for making a bunch of different dishes by doing the preparation of the individual ingredients, then cooking them separately. That way, I can use my prepared ingredients during the week when I want something fast. Bear in mind that I do also have some canned beans, some frozen veggies, and (as always) rice, ginger, onions, and coconut milk knocking about in my kitchen, so I can augment whatever I prepare here to keep things varied and interesting.

First I set a large pot of water to boil. I was going to boil, then roast the baby potatoes. It seems a shame to lose them to a soup when they're so cute. I also set my electric kettle on the boil with 1 1/2 litres of water. Then, I separated out the stems from the leaves of the kale. The leaves went into a bowl, and the stems I chopped into thin cross-wise slices. That went into a separate bowl.

I made a garlic confit. Not only does this allow me to be lazy, and use pre-peeled garlic in large quantities if I want (because whenever I buy pre-peeled garlic, I can never get through the entire amount before about 1/3 of it goes off on me. I'm one person. I like garlic, but not to that extent. But, in today's case, I had only the garlic inside the skin, so I peeled it, and submerged it in room temperature olive oil in a cold pan. I set it over medium low head (like a 2 on a 10 point scale), and got to the business of slicing the leeks. Since I was going to want a fair bit of sauteed onion product, I augmented the leeks with 2 medium sweet onions (I used vidalia, but you can use whatever you keep in the kitchen). 

  
Here's a picture of the garlic in the pan. It's ready to go on the stove, over the heat. The leeks and the sweet onions are also pictured here. They go in a pan, with about 3 - 5 tablespoons of olive oil (or however much you need to coat the bottom of your pan. By the time the garlic head was peeled, the electric kettle had boiled the first kettle full of water. I dumped it over the kale leaves, and put in another litre of so of water to boil. 

While I was chopping the leeks and peeling the garlic, I was already boiling the mini potatoes. Once the leeks were starting to sizzle in the pan, the potatoes were cooked to my liking (firm, but cooked through). 

 
I set the mini potatoes into a large bowl, and tossed them with garlic powder, onion powder, plenty of salt, olive oil, and za'atar.


By this point, the leeks were starting to smell nice. I went and gave them a quick stir. 

 
Once the potatoes were thoroughly combined with the spices, I laid them out onto a baking sheet to go into the oven at 425 for 20 minutes.
 The leeks took a few minutes to soften. The garlic was starting to bubble. I kept stirring occasionally.
 

By now, the kale had cooked through, so I strained out the water, and poured cold water over it. I used the rest of the boiling water to cook the stems. They needed to set in the boiling water for 10 minutes. The kale leaves needed like 5 minutes or so. Meanwhile, once the baby potatoes are in the oven, wash out the stock pot, and put it back on the stove with more water. 

I set the kale leaves to drain in the colander, and went to chop up the white potatoes into little cubes. I had around 3 lbs, give or take. 

If you aren't rushing and going quickly, but are taking your time like I was, go ahead and submerge the chopped potatoes into cold water, so that they don't turn weird colours. Once they're all nicely chopped up, your water should be boiling fiercely. Dump them into the cooking pot, and watch the boiling come to a screeching stop. It'll take a few minutes to come back to the boil. This was when I added salt to the cubed potatoes.

Once the water came to a boil, the kale was as drained as it was going to get. I squeezed out as much water as I could, because I planned on keeping the kale for about a week or two in the fridge in its cooked state. I chopped the kale leaves into very very fine pieces.

 

I wasn't going fast, just kind of taking my time. By the time I was done chopping up the kale into fine pieces, the potatoes in the oven were roasted, and the potatoes in the pot were cooked through (because they were little cubes of potato).

I put away the kale immediately, while the cubed potatoes were draining. I slipped in a dry paper towel and squeezed out as much air as I could. The paper towel will absorb any excess moisture, and keep the cooked greens fresher for a longer time.

 
I rinsed off the cubed potatoes with cold water, and bagged them up as well. The roasted potatoes cooled, and I put them into containers. My garlic was soft, and golden brown. I strained the garlic into a deli container, and saved the oil in a bottle. 


 

The onions and leeks were softened, and very light brown. They had considerably shrunken in size. I've been doing dishes as I've gone along, but they do pile up quickly!

Pictured here are clean dishes. If I had to face this amount of dishes during the week, I'd have to call a cleaning person to help me get it under control, because I don't have time on weekdays. However, since this is a weekend, I don't have to worry. 

26 March 2018

Depression Prepping

I used to live in Florida, and we'd get hit with hurricanes quite regularly. I can guarantee you that every dyed-in-the-wool Floridian has their own plan for hurricane preparedness, whether it means batteries and bottled water, or vodka and pop tarts. In the Frozen North (New Jersey now, but New York before) we get hit with massive amounts of snow every now and again. Apparently in NYC, that means that you must buy kale. I'm not even kidding. Go into any store in the five boroughs before a snow storm hits (OK, maybe not Staten Island, but nobody counts Staten Island) and you'll see the shelves emptied of kale, down to the last scrap of a leaf. In Jersey City, it's eggs and bread. The freaking bodega sells out of eggs and bread.

The point is that when we know disaster is about to hit, we prepare for it. Why is it that we don't treat mental health predictable disasters in the same way? I do. I know that every winter, the sun is going to be overcast (if not outright missing) when I leave for work in the morning, and be gone by the time I leave work 8 hours later in the evening. It throws me into a horrible spiral of depression, which then means that basic things that I normally do are impossible to sort out. This winter, I literally had a giant suitcase with all my laundry piled atop it from Christmas through about two weeks ago.

Again, because I knew this mess was headed my way (and always will head my way), I do a few things to prepare for it.

FOOD

I love to cook. I wrote a freaking book about it. However, when I'm in the throes of depression, I'm going to lack the motivation to /eat/, much less to cook. I need to stock up on certain easy things that I can get into my system, so that I don't get hit with malnutrition on top of the depression.

- Frozen "steamable" veg. At my local grocery store, they sell these 12 - 16 oz packs of frozen veg that you can throw direct into the microwave, hit it with 4 1/2 minutes of heat, and it's steamed to perfection. I stock up on these guys big time before the winter hits, because sometimes I can't eat handle another stack of carbs (potato chips, bread, plain rice with salt), because that's all I've had the motivation to make. On those days, I can throw a steaming pack into the microwave, and get it down.

- Tofu & spice mixes. When I'm particularly too sapped of energy from being a sobbing mess on the floor, I sometimes don't have the energy to sort out even the 4 1/2 minutes in the microwave. Also, I've not had the energy to eat anything of substance in way too long. Also, I actually /do/ need a spot of protein, because I've been subsisting on potato chips and steamed veg for about three days. Enter tofu and spice blends. I will take a block of tofu out of the fridge, and liberally sprinkle on salt and a spice blend. Mrs Dash works. Berbere works EXCELLENT. And then I'll take a fork, and chomp away.

- Potatoes & margarine. Not to be funny, but there are times when I want something that'll fill me up, but not be too challenging to eat. I don't want al dente pasta. I don't want crunchy veg. I want something that's easy to chew, that doesn't taste too strongly of anything, and that I can bolt down quickly. I always have at least 5 lbs of potatoes on hand, because a microwave baked potato is 4 minutes flat. I'll pile on some margarine and salt, and go to town. If I have the energy for it, I'll also throw on some of my leftover steamed veg.

- Broccoli and/or cauliflower florets, chopped kale, chopped collars. The Trader Joe sells these veg already chopped and prepared. I have a hot water kettle. On nights where I am not in the mood for steamed frozen veg, and want something with more substance, I'll use these prepped veggies for a quick snack. 1 lb of veg takes about 1 1/2 litres of boiling water. I fill up my electric kettle, and let it come to the boil. While that's coming to a boil, I'll throw the veg into a large bowl in the sink. Once the water boils, I'll dump it over the veg, and let it all sit together for five minutes. I drain off the water, and then toss the veggies in olive or sesame oil, garlic powder, salt, black pepper, and sesame seeds.

- Nuts. Before the winter hits, I'll grab a few pounds of nuts, and toss them in oil, garlic powder, salt, and ground red chilies. I roast them at 350 for 8 - 12 minutes (depending on the nut), and store them in jars after they cool. There's times when I need a snack that has some fat, and some protein, because yesterday's meals consisted of steamed corn, seasoned tofu, and a saltine cracker. This ensures that I hit my calorie mark.

- Disposable plates. It seems obvious to me, but I'm stating it here: when you're too depressed to cook, you're sure as heck too depressed to clean. There are times when I've avoided eating anything, because I know that the cleanup is going to not happen, and I'm surrounded by enough mess that I can't handle adding any more mess to the growing pile of cleaning I need to do.

CLOTHES

- Extra socks. Before the winter hits, I'll make sure to buy about 2 months worth of socks. Underwear I can figure out. Shirts I can re-wear. Jeans and pants, I /will/ re-wear. But socks are a different story. If they're not clean, I won't wear them. And unlike the summer, where I'll throw on a pair of sandals and move on, the winter /requires/ shoes. If I'm in a bout where I cannot do laundry, I'm going to need socks for sure. Not to mention, if I'm too poor to afford to heat my home, I'm going to need to get socks on my feet before I sleep, so that I'm not too cold at night.

- Black t-shirts. I'll buy about 12 - 15 black t-shirts as well. You can wear a black t-shirt with anything, and dress it up or down as necessary. Also, they don't show stains that much. Trust me, it's worth having a few on hand. By the time winter is done, I have to throw out a fair few pairs, because they've got holes in them from being worn so many times.

- Pyjama pants. In the winter, I'm not going out. In fact, I'm not even leaving my bed on my free time. I make sure that I have at least a few pairs of pyjama pants, so that when I'm too depressed to go for a full on shower, I can at least have a fresh clean bit of clothing on.

There are definitely other aspects that I prepare with, but I'm not remembering them at the moment, because my depression has cleared properly, and I'm happy right now. If someone has any requests, let me know, and I'll add to the list.