Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Kitchen Essentials 1: The ABSOLUTE essentials

I recently had a conversation with a reader who was a little intimidated by some of the stuff we do around here.  The techniques are really not that advanced, even the occasional use of a double boiler can be duplicated with a wok and a saucepan.

My point with this blog has always been to make you think, not to intimidate you.  Please don’t be afraid of making good food.  You only need the most basic of implements to have the proper equipment to start your kitchen.  Fancy gadgets and expensive do-dads may be nice, but ultimately 90% of the time you use 10% of your equipment.  The rest of it will collect dust.  In my opinion, if it’s collecting dust it’s wasting your money.

With that being said, I did some rummaging around and came up with the bare essentials.  These are the items you need to have in your kitchen.  If you are just starting out, these should be the item you build up over your first few years.  Buy quality when you can, but money and necessity will always be the determining factor.  Don’t let some snob tell you that you shouldn’t get a pan because it didn’t cost you $800. That’s absurd.  Spend what you can afford to when you can afford to, but remember, the less you spend, the shorter it’s life span will be.  That $7 non-stick pan you buy for eggs in college won’t be around when you graduate, but at least you will have had the money to have bought the eggs to cook in it.

While you are at it, when you go shopping, don’t be afraid to check out Goodwill, the Salvation army, garage sales, or Craigslist.  If you are just starting out, there are things you will want new, like a non stick pan, but a colander or baking dish should be fine used.  And never ever pass up a deal on cast iron.

Let’s say you are starting off with NOTHING.  You are walking into your apartment / dorm / home / condo / extended stay hotel room / pop-up tent etc. and you have to start from scratch.

Start at your nearest discount retailer (Walmart, Kmart, Target, Dollar General, Dollar Tree, etc.) and look for a kit that contains several of the items you need.

Here's a list of items NO kitchen should be without broken up by "rounds"  What I mean by rounds are what you should buy each time you go to the store, assuming you were starting with absolutely zero and were starting with a limited budget.

Round 1 - the ABSOLUTE essentials:

These are the items that you can't survive without.
  • Flatware: forks, butter knives, teaspoons, tablespoons
In addition to being necessary just for eating, these are used in preparation of food, stirring, ladling, cutting, flipping, shredding, etc.  Some cheap flatware sets are very appealing as they feature colorful plastic handles and often come with a cutlery holder or caddy. Unless the metal is forged stainless steel, these types of flatware sets may discolor and become pitted. Although the cost of these attractive sets is usually low, they don’t tend to last long and oftentimes the plastic handles become detached or break.(1)  That being said this is a starter set.  You are getting what you pay for and are buying this with the intention of replacing it in less than a year.
  • 8” non-stick skillet
This is a good, small pan.  It is easy to clean because it is non-stick.  While you can't sear in it, you can still do almost anything in it: from eggs to vegetables to warming up cans of ravioli.  An inexpensive pan will scratch, so it's lifespan is limited.  To prolong the lifespan you'll want to use silicone spatula and avoid using metal in it.  This is a short term investment.  You will need to replace this pan in 12 to 18 months, however for your first kitchen or if you only cook eggs in it, this is a good pan to have.

  • High Temperature Silicone Spatula
To help prolong the life of your skillet, you should use a silicone spatula.  A high temperature silicone spatula is usually only a little more expensive.  This tool is an excellent all around tool and usually under $2.  As your kitchen expands, you'll get more of these in different shapes and sizes to meet different needs and jobs, but for your first kitchen, one should be sufficient.

  • Cutting Board
This is another piece of equipment that you will get more of as your kitchen expands.  For the beginning cook, you really need something just barely above disposable.  You can purchase multi-packs of flexible plastic, washable cutting boards for a small amount of money.  Flexible boards also have the advantage of being able to be used as funnels or scoops.  It's a good idea to have several different boards of different colors so that you can use one for raw meat, one for cooked meat and one for vegetables.

  • Butcher Knife
A butcher knife should be comfortable to use. It should fit your hand well, feel sturdy, and provide a secure amount of space between the cutting surface and the area in which you place your hand on the handle. It should be heavier than other kitchen knives and should have good balance. In general the blade should be between six and eight inches long.  While there are many options available that offer good quality without a high price tag, you may prefer to choose a set that includes a butcher knife, steak knife, and other knives and may include a butcher block.
  • Plastic Wrap
Plastic wrap is a kitchen essential?  Absolutely.  Plastic wrap can be used for many things, not just wrapping up leftovers.  If you want to flatten a piece of chicken,  place it between two sheets of plastic wrap and using the base of your skillet as a meat mallet.  For dry marinades, sprinkle or rub your marinade on your roast or chops, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate.  Including Plastic wrap does not negate the usefulness or necessity of aluminum foil, wax paper, or parchment paper, but for prep and for storage, I think plastic wrap is the one to start with.
  • Manual Can Opener
A manual can opener is about as simple a tool as you will ever need, and it also very commonly forgotten.  Personally, I dislike electric can openers. Manual can openers are usually dishwasher safe and if I don't have power available, it is still possible to open a can without difficulty.  Most manual can openers also have additional tools, like bottle openers, which make them extremely convenient to have around.

  • Plastic Grocery Bags
Plastic bags tend to accumulate.  Many people just throw them away. There are many uses for these bags.  Of course you can use them for small trash bags, lunch bags, overnight bags, etc.  They can be re-purposed too.  Instructables has several great projects.  As small trash bags go though, they're great.  I usually keep one on the counter as I'm working to accumulate scraps, egg shells, etc.


From Instructables: Make Your Own Plastic Tote Bag from Recycled Plastic Bags

  • Plates
My assumption was that you started with nothing.  So you could either go to Goodwill, the Salvation army, garage sales, or Craigslist for used, or you could get pieces or an inexpensive set from Walmart, Target, or K-mart.  You may also be near an outlet mall like Tanger where you may be able to find a kitchen store with low priced plates.

  • Saucepan
The last item you absolutely need is a small (1 1/2 to 2 quart) sauce pot. A pot this size will allow you to boil water for a small amount of pasta, or eggs, or potatoes.  You could make a sauce or vegetables or even tea or coffee.

There you have it folks.  The ten most important items in your kitchen.  Tomorrow, Round 2.

Quick update on Igor:  A couple of stirs today...  but I didn't feed him.

Until next time, here's wishing you peace, love, and hollandaise sauce!

(1) http://www.wisegeek.com/how-do-i-choose-the-best-cheap-flatware.htm

Monday, February 21, 2011

Adventures in Sourdough

I've decided it is time to raise my zombie army! I don't know if it's because I've listened to far to much of the Get It Done Guy, Stever Robbins, or if I have a hankering for brains. Maybe it is because everyone has been playing the Michael Jackson game on the Wii and I have been hearing far too much Thriller (and I know the Vincent Price rap by heart*).

Anyway, I'm going to start small. I think I'm going to start with bran instead of brain. But I need creepy... I know I'll start with an oozing slimy mass of goo! A gelatinous mass of yeasty bacterial power that will wreak havoc upon the world! Mwa-ha-ha!

Silliness aside, I want to give credit to Slice (all of their links to this project are below). I have wanted to make a starter for some time and they have given me the kick in the butt to try it. so here we go...

Meet Igor, the sourdough starter.

Igor was created with simple materials: A canning jar with a lid, Something to stir with, Flour, and Water

Did you notice that I didn't include yeast in the mixture? "Sourdoughs cultivated in different areas will result in different breads. Not only will the flavor be different, but the crust, crumb, and rise will be different. It's as far as you can get from the concept of nationwide mass-produced industrial bread."(1)

Igor is staring very small: One level Tablespoon on flour and one ounce of water, stirred in the jar and covered with plastic wrap. Igor is on the counter. I'll check back on Igor tomorrow and give you an update then.

Until then, Peace, Love, and Hollandaise Sauce!

For the entire collection of articles from Slice, check out the links below:

Day 0
Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5
Day 6
Day 7
Day 8
Day 9
Day 10
Day 11

*Darkness falls across the land
The midnight hour is close at hand
Creatures crawl in search of blood
To terrorize yawls neighborhood
And whosoever shall be found
Without the soul for getting down
Must stand and face the hounds of hell
And rot inside a corpses shell
The foulest stench is in the air
The funk of forty thousand years
And grizzly ghouls from every tomb
Are closing in to seal your doom
And though you fight to stay alive
Your body starts to shiver
For no mere mortal can resist
The evil of the thriller

(1) http://slice.seriouseats.com/archives/2010/11/how-to-make-sourdough-starter-day-0.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+seriouseatsfeaturesvideos+%28Serious+Eats%29&utm_content=Google+Reader

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Taking Back Your Life is The Key to Happiness

I gave the following speech at Toastmaster's on 2/10.
The ideas I describe her are directly derivative from Take Back Your Life!: Using Microsoft Outlook to Get Organized and Stay Organized: Using Microsoft Outlook to Get Organized and Stay Organized Copyright 2005 Sally McGhee.  I am not getting any sort of payment for this, nor would I accept it.  I find their methodology very logical and it has benefited my career.  I would highly recommend taking their course and using their consulting services.  Check them out at www.mcgheeproductivity.com.

Are you happy? It’s a simple question. Are you happy? If you’re not happy, why aren’t you happy?

To answer these questions we need to start with a definition. What is happiness? For each person happiness means a different thing. So the question should be what does being happy mean to you? What makes you happy?

Charles Schultz said Happiness is a warm puppy. John Lennon said Happiness is a warm gun.

Abraham Lincoln said that most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. With that in mind, I ask you is happiness even achievable? I think that it is.

Sometimes you can gain nuggets of wisdom from the most unlikely sources. For example, about a year ago a took a course at work called “Take Back Your Life”. This was a class about managing your Outlook Inbox. What does this have to do with happiness? On the face of it, absolutely nothing. But I took something away from this class that I didn’t expect. Today I’ll share with you with I learned and how I’m starting to apply this wisdom to my life.

Am I happy? No. But I’m on the path. The first step on the path is to identify the issues that are in my way. I need to know what kinds of issues I’m concerned about. What am I worried about every day? What keeps me up at night? Here’s a little exercise you can do. Take twenty minutes. Sit down in a quiet room at a table with a blank pad of paper and a pen. On that paper start writing down the things that you are worried about. There are no wrong answers.

Are you worried about your retirement? Write it down?

Are you worried about your blood pressure? Write it down?

Your child’s education? Write it down?

The economy? Write it down?

Afghanistan? Write it down?

Spiders? Write it down?

Groceries? Global Warming? Getting the Garden ready for Spring? Graduation? Write it down?

If you take longer than 20 minutes, that’s okay, this is your time. Writing down your fears and your issues does not get rid of them, it just identifies them. Once you have identified them them, you can better address them.

The second step on the path is to become accountable to yourself for the items you have identified. You have tools you can use for this. Take Back Your Life calls these tools the 4 D’s:

  • Do It Now
  • Delete It
  • Delegate It
  • Defer It

When you are managing your email, these become simple tasks.

Do it now - the request in the email will take less than five minutes, including answering it.

Delete it - no response required, maybe not even applicable

Delegate it - get it to someone that is either responsible for it, or that can get it done better or faster

Defer it - this will take longer than five minutes. Schedule work time to complete.

How can you possibly apply these to your life? In going through the Take Back Your Life course, they emphasize using your calendar to achieve a work / life balance. It’s recommended to combine views of your home and work calendars so that you don’t schedule work time on top of personal time.

I see your personal time is really two types of time: Personal project time and Down time. We all need down time. Down time is my favorite time of the day. It when I get to my favorite stuff:

I can spend time with my wife

I can play with my kids

I can watch TV

I can play on the computer

I can nap

Not my dog - from My Dog Violet (1)

I can do absolutely nothing

Basically, I can recharge

But you also have personal project time. Some personal projects are regular and recurring. These are known as chores:

Washing dishes

folding clothes

mowing the yard

paying the bills

taking out the trash

It’s the special personal projects you need to schedule personal project time for. Things like:

painting the house

filing your taxes

fixing your toilet

planning a party

The trick is to use the same tools that you use to schedule your work time to schedule your personal time. A pocket calendar is great, so is a BlackBerry, so is a 59 cent notebook. Just find a method that works for you and stick to it.

To see how the 4 D’s can apply to your personal life, let’s go back and look at that list you wrote of issues you were concerned about. These were the Items that were keeping you from being happy.

Look at each item on your list.

Can you Do it? In other words? Can you do it in five minutes, right now and cross it off your list?

Can you Delete it? Is it even doable at all? Becoming an astronaut would make me happy, but I’ve deleted it, or crossed it off my list.

Can you Delegate it? I sure would love to cure cancer. But I don’t have the time time to go back to school, become a doctor, and research the cure myself. Maybe if I delegate it to the American Cancer Society, but support their efforts, they can find a cure.

Can you Defer it? I want to open a restaurant. It’s going to take me more than five minutes, but I can do it. It’s going to take me some time to detail and plan the steps. I’ll set up an hour on my personal calendar to do some planning for this.

Once you’ve gone through your list you can now work towards fixing the things that make you unhappy. Will they clear up overnight? No. Will you become fabulously wealthy? Not without a lot of hard work? The important thing is, this system provides you the opportunity to identify the issues, a method to identify what you can fix, and the time to work on these personal projects at your own pace.

That sort of sounds like the Serenity Prayer (God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. )

Applied to real life, when issues come up from time to time that require your personal attention, you can also apply the 4 D’s to them. For example, if had an issue with your car you are probably already using this method.

If you’re low on gas, you’ll probably Do it now and go fuel up
If your transmission dies and your car has 240 thousand miles on it you’ll probably Delete it and junk the car
If your car needs minor repair, you’ll probably Delegate it to the local mechanic
If your car needs a new set of tires, you may decide to Defer it and schedule it for next payday.

Remember, The trick is to use the same tools that you use to schedule your work time to schedule your personal time. Use a pocket calendar, or a smartphone, or a notebook. Find a method to keep a calendar and keep it up to date. If you are comfortable keeping up with a checkbook, keep it with that. By taking control of your personal time and making it personally productive, you can take back your life.

What are the drawbacks?

You do need down time. You need to rest and recharge. Don’t let your personal productivity get in the way of that.

Do not over engage and do not over commit. Start small. As you see projects complete, add more.

Make sure your family and friends are on board and are helping. Unless they support what you are doing, you will be working alone.

My final recommendation is to be flexible. Ultimately with these projects, you are answering to yourself. Conditions change: weather, money, time. You need to be able to roll with it.

This evening, I hope I have given you a road map towards achieving happiness. There are a lot authors that have made a lot of money telling you how to be happy. I think that only you can discover what makes you happy and I hope through a little introspection, application of the 4 D’s, and some hard work, you can achieve happiness.

I quoted Abraham Lincoln earlier, “Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Am I happy? Not yet. But I’ve made up my mind to be happy.

Think Sideways is 95% a food blog... this is one of those other 5%. I hope you got something out of today's post.  More food next time!  Until then, I wish you Peace, Love, and Hollandaise Sauce!

(1) Not my dog... http://community.webshots.com/user/mydogviolet

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sandwiches, Sandwiches, Sandwiches, Eggs, and Sandwiches

We just returned from the annual Sweetheart's Dinner Theater at Wilkes Community College where the Editor in Chief and I celebrated her birthday.  We had a wonderful time.  The culinary department served a prime rib buffet while the drama we were entertained by several singers and three short plays.  We also got to meet several very nice couples.  All in all, It was a very pleasant evening.

During our dinner conversation with the other couples, the subject of New York City came up.  I love New York City.  Being a Native Floridian I naturally consider NYC a second home. Of course with us, any discussion must eventually come back to food, as this one did, so we related Phyllis's first experience with a real Pastrami Sandwich.
One of my all time favorite things to do is to walk down Fifth Avenue.  If you have never done it, put it on your bucket list.  If you live in New York, you probably just take it for granted, but I have never experienced another sidewalk like it in the world - not in London, Moscow, Washington, DC, or Miami.  So Phyllis and I are walking down Fifth Avenue, just enjoying it and being tourists when nature calls.  We ducked into a deli.  A real deli.  This is not the deli counter in your local supermarket, or the local butcher shop with three guys behind the counter.  This is a full fledged Jewish deli with ten guys behind the counter, people shouting back and forth, plates flying awesomeness.  Phyllis ran to the back, the kids grabbed a table and I placed an order: half a pastrami and swiss on rye.

Katz's Delicatessen

You may be asking, "Half a sandwich?"

Oh yes, have you ever seen a real sandwich? A real New York deli sandwich?  There is nothing in the world like a true Fifth Avenue Deli sandwich.  3 inches of thick Hot Pastrami Heaven.

This experience led me to building a system of defining sandwiches, these aren't recipes for individual sandwiches, but types of sandwiches.

Miss Birdie

This is my lowest ranking.  This comes from the book, The Rainmaker, by John Grisham.

"...A sandwich to Miss Birdie is a transparent slice of processed turkey between two thin slices of no-fat white bread.  Not a drop of mustard or mayo.  No thought of lettuce or cheese.  It would take four to knock off the slightest of hunger pains."(1)

The Squish

Any white bread sandwich that has gotten too moist for its own good, and then been wrapped up air tight becomes a squish.  This almost always happens to egg salad, or worse yet, scrambled egg sandwiches.  (I used to hate it when I'd get a scrambled egg sandwich for lunch, yet I have subjected my children to them, did I learn nothing as a child?)  The main problem with a squish is the effect that the moisture has on the bread.

Sometimes, leftover steak would be sent for lunch in a sandwich with two results: instant squish and the steak would come flying out of the bread because you couldn't cut it.  There is a solution.  Use good Italian bread and Cross cut both sides of the steak almost all the way though before placing on the bread.  Add a little oil and vinegar, oregano, salt and pepper.  Your kids will think you are the best parents, ever (or at least for the next five minutes).

Just Barely A Sandwich

Just Barely...

Oh Thank Heaven?  Really?
This is just what it claims to be, just barely a sandwich.  It is sufficient to be edible, but not much else.  I generally need two of these, a piece of fruit, maybe some chips and a drink.  It consists of at least 3 ounces of protein (which may or may not include cheese), and a flavoring (mayo, mustard, or ketchup).  If you've ever gotten one of those prepackaged sandwiches at the 7-Eleven, you've had "Just barely had a sandwich."

This is OK.  It tastes good. but not write home to Mom good.  It only takes one.  The bread isn't mushy, and probably isn't white bread.  There's some flavor here, but nothing spectacular.  There are no fresh vegetables on the sandwich.  You may have even had this with a completely forgettable bowl of soup.  When asked later in the day what you had for lunch, you'll be hard pressed to remember, but that's ok because it was nothing special.


The quality of the ingredients and the preparation brings this sandwich out of the ordinary, into the extraordinary.  You could expect to find this at Subway on a very good day, Blimpie occasionally, Jersey Mike's frequently, and John Smith's subs consistently.

  • Meat:  the meat is fresh, and there is a good amount of it
  • Cheese: It is a good quality cheese, if it's pre-sliced, it's a good brand.
  • Vegetables:  Fresh and crisp
  • Bread:  A good quality bread, possibly bakery quality.

    Like, Wow!

    These are the kinds of sandwiches you hear Guy Fieri talk about on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.  Spectacular sandwiches.  One of kind things that give cities reputations:
    • Miami and Cuban Sandwiches
    • New Orleans and Muffalettas

    • Philadelphia and Cheesesteaks

    • Chicago and Italian Beef

      But none of them compare to...

      The Fifth Avenue
      • Really good bread, freshly baked - the type you could eat without butter.
      • Cheese, that cows boast to other cows about.  
      • Meat, freshly sliced and tender, juicy, lean - yes, but with enough fat to have flavor, and enough of it to really stack up high - at least 2 or more inches

      • Good condiments - horseradish mustard, basil aioli, aged balsamic vinaigrette, fresh spices.  

        But sometime there can be too much of a good thing..

        The Dagwood
        A Dagwood sandwich is a tall, multi-layered sandwich made with a variety of meats, cheeses and condiments. It was named after Dagwood Bumstead, a central character in the comic strip Blondie, who is frequently illustrated making enormous sandwiches.  Though the actual contents of Chic Young's Dagwood sandwich remain obscure, it obviously contains large quantities and varieties of cold cuts, sliced cheese and vegetables, plus additional slices of bread. An olive pierced by a toothpick or wooden skewer usually crowns the edible superstructure. "Dagwood sandwich" has been included in Webster's New World Dictionary, and "Dagwood" (referring to the sandwich) has been included in the American Heritage Dictionary.(2)

        So what's my favorite sandwich?

        I've said it before, I'll say it again, I'm a simple person with simple tastes. Less is more.

        Grilled Cheese


        • 2 slices hearty sourdough
        • 2 ounces smoked gouda (substitute cheddar if gouda is unavailable)
        • 2 ounces cheddar cheese
        • 4 teaspoons butter


        • Place a cast iron skillet over medium high heat (don't use a non-stick skillet, we're going to be toasting)
        • Spread 1 teaspoon butter over one side of one slice of bread.
        • Melt one teaspoon of butter in skillet.  Place bread in in skillet, butter side down.
        • Lay cheese on bread.
        • Spread 1 teaspoon butter over one side of remaining slice of bread.
        • Place bread, butter side up on cheese.
        • After 90 seconds, or when golden brown, add teaspoon of butter to skillet and flip sandwich.
        • After 60 seconds, or when golden brown, remove from skillet.

        Grilled Cheese?  Really?  Yup, it's one of my favorites. And today, it's the only recipe.  But look at all of the great ideas above.  Come up with some recipes of your own.  Make something fun tonight.

        Thanks for sticking with today's blog.  I hope you had a great Valentine's day.  Until next time, I wish you Peace, Love, and Hollandaise Sauce!

        (1) The Rainmaker, Copyright 1995 John Grisham
        (2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dagwood_sandwich