Thursday, December 30, 2010

So Much To Know, Even with a Slow Cooker

I still have so much to learn.  Being in the kitchen, sometimes, proves it to me.

Even with the simplest of kitchen tools, to know how to properly use the item is a must. Just when I think I've mastered an appliance, it becomes a mystery I wasn't even aware needed to be unraveled.  And so was the case with my Slow Cooker.

Who doesn't love their Slow Cooker?  Mine is put to work throughout the year.  Whether it's for a warm meal ready and awaiting my arrival home from work, preparing a meal for guests freeing me up to enjoy their company or cooking on a hot day while trying to avoid heating the kitchen any's my "go to" appliance.

I, like so many others, just plug in my cooker, dump the ingredients in the liner  and walk away not giving it a second thought.  Many, many times.  But not too long ago, as I was dishing out my tasty Mu Shu Pork in a fairly new Kitchen Aide Slow Cooker, I observed this particular preparation was drier than I had remembered.  Odd.  Not until I was transferring the leftovers did I discover there was a hairline crack in the ceramic liner.  All the moisture missing from the meal had leaked into the shell of the cooker.  What a mess!  What had gone wrong?

It's difficult not to ask myself, "did I do something to prompt its failure?"    The answer is maybe.  The liner should not be exposed to dramatic changes in temperature.  I'm guessing I'm not the only one to have left my warm leftovers in the liner and put it directly in the refrigerator.  A big no, no.  I'm also betting I'm not the only one to have put cold ingredients straight from the fridge into the Cooker as it's warming up.  Apparently, I've been testing fate for years. 

Lucky for me, the Kitchen Aide was still under warranty and the company promised a new ceramic liner would be shipped as soon as they had them back in stock.  About 8 weeks, I was told.  Really?  It turns out with this particular model the heating elements in the case surrounding the ceramic liner did not heat evenly.  Kitchen Aide was scrambling to replace hundreds, maybe thousands of liners across the country.  In waiting for my slow cooker replacement, I decided to do some reading and discovered not all slow cookers are the same. Learning from my mistakes, if you want to ensure a long life with your slow cooker I recommend following these tips:
  • Don't put really cold items in a warming slow cooker. The shock could make it crack.
  • To refrigerate your leftovers don't use the slow cooker ceramic or porcelain lining; alternately use a casserole or other container. Bottom line, putting your liner in extreme conditions could cause it to shatter.
  • Hand wash the lid and the vacuum seal. The seal could stretch out in the dishwasher lessening its effectiveness in future cooking.  It's probably overkill, I now hand wash my liner be on the safe side.
  • If following a recipe for a Slow Cooker with a specifically treated liner for browning on the stove top and you don't have that treated liner, don't brown on the stove top.  You will surely break it.
Speaking of browning meat, I've always wondered why crock pot/slow cooker recipes instruct the reader to brown the meat prior to starting the slow cooker.   I dug further to find out why.  It is so that one can achieve maximum flavor and texture since the slow cooker environment can't provide the same result.  This reaction I just described is named the Maillard reaction.  Maillard was a physician who discovered that cooking in a high temperature, low moisture levels, and alkaline conditions all promote the flavorful reaction by changing the sugars and proteins on the surface. Low moisture levels are necessary mainly because water boils into steam at 212 °F (100 °C), whereas the Maillard reaction happens noticeably around 310 °F (154 °C): by the time something is in fact browning, all the water is vaporized.  With too much moisture in the environment it actually inhibits browning and hence flavor.  If a recipes says brown the meat first, don't skip this step.  Do it!  You'll be so much more pleased with the outcome.

The more lessons I learn, even the small ones of learning about an appliance, reinforces the phrase I've appreciated recently from Elena Kagan, "with age comes wisdom."  Then bring on the age (just not too fast)!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Gift of Food

You may call it re-gifting, but I call it sharing with those not so fortunate.  My office received a lovely, extremely large gift of baked muffins, brownies and other tasty treats.  This basket could feed at least 50 people!

Because it is the day before most offices close for the holiday, my office is running on a skeleton crew of 7.  Even if we each sampled from the basket and took some home, we would have had food wasted.

As we all stood and stared at the beauty of this basket and marveled how we couldn't possibly consume it all, we came to the conclusion at the same time....let's donate it to a local food bank.  With the aide of Google and a couple of quick calls, we selected the San Fernando Rescue Mission where they are thrilled to receive such a donation.

In a time when they usually receive canned goods, baked items are really a treat.  Of course not every food bank would accept freshly baked items, so if you want to do the same call ahead.

I am so proud to be part of this group, who in their hearts believed the food would be most appreciated by those less fortunate than us.  Now that's the spirit!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Persnickety About Persimmons

I am usually not a picky eater.  Put most food in front of me and 20 minutes later you'll find an empty plate.  Of course, that hasn't always been the case if you ask my dad or my great grandmother if she were still with us.  My dad has a vivid memory of coaxing me into eating my peas by making a game out of how many peas we could spear on our forks.  As a 4 or 5 year old with my under-developed taste buds, my great grandmother clued me in that the way to down a glass of bitter grapefruit juice was to pinch my nose.  What lengths adults will go to get their young kids to eat healthy food!

Now as a grown up, I love all kinds of different food including the once despised grapefruit juice.  However, I still have a few holdouts I just haven't seemed to be able to overcome.  Persimmons being one of them.

If you are not familiar with Persimmons, they are most prominent in areas with mild winters and moderate summers (like Southern California).  There are several varieties.  The variety I had become familiar with, Fuyu, is considered to be the non-astringent type originating from Japan.  A non-astringent persimmon can be eaten when it is crisp like an apple or in a very ripened state where the fruit's consistency is almost jelly-like.  It's high in glucose, generous in fiber and in traditional Chinese medicine is thought to regulate ch'i.

On a recent visit to our home, my grandmother brought her pretty little bounty of persimmons from the tree she tends in her yard.  I did my best to graciously receive the gift.  If only I liked persimmons!  If only John liked persimmons!  I readily admit in visits past when she happily presented her persimmons, I would only use them as fall decoration.  Every once and awhile, I would slice one up in her presence and try it one more time.  Between the flavor and consistency, I was having trouble becoming a fan.

This year would be different.  I had decided I was going to give persimmons a fresh start -- wipe the slate clean, open my mind and set aside my persimmon prejudice.

Why the change of heart?  A publication released over the summer by the New Scientist, revealed that 16% of the energy consumed in the United States is used to produce food and that 25% of our nation's food is actually going to waste; a majority of it being dairy and vegetables.  In their estimation MORE energy is wasted in perfectly edible food being discarded by people in the US each year than is extracted annually from the oil and gas reserves off the nation's coastlines.  Based on this recent finding, Discovery's Planet calculated the average family throws out an average of $600 year in fruit alone!

In a time where so many are concerned with the energy it takes and the greenhouse gases added to transport and produce fresh, clean food along with the lack of fresh food access to so many, I couldn't help but examine my own habits.  How fortunate am I to live in a climate that provides so much for so little?  Very, I concluded.

It's time for me to change my ways.  I needed to start thinking like a parent.  Find a solution to help me consume those pesky persimmons.  Once I took on the new mindset, the path to eating persimmons was easy.  I found a cookie recipe that uses the ripe pulp of the persimmon.  When the first batch came out of the oven, I had to make sure they were edible (of course).  4 cookies later I determined not only were they edible they were actually very, very good!  John concurred by having just as many.  He's even asked when I'm going to make more!

Like anything new, it will take awhile for this mindset to become habit for me.  But I am determined.  And if all else fails, my food that has gone unused will still be put to good use in my recently installed garden compost bin for future generations of over-ripened fruits and vegetables.

If you have access to persimmons and want to try out the cookie recipe, visit the All site.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Turkey Now Speaks...

Thanksgiving has come and gone and I promise not to bore you with a detailed story of our wonderful day. Something did occur, or more accurately, occurred to me, worthy of reporting especially considering this blogs mission statement: Life lessons and food.
A Christmas Story [Blu-ray]
The task of cooking the turkey fell to me this year. Like Sylvia, I love to cook and look forward to tough challenges. Roasting turkeys, not so much. Why? Because the turkey is the center piece of the meal and if you have an epic fail, as depicted in the movie "A Christmas Story," there is nowhere to punt. For example, if we have invited friends or family over for a regular Saturday night dinner and there is a massive failure, we can load up the car and go out for sushi or a goose if you want to stick with the movie plot. But Thanksgiving? The expectation is turkey!

The Tuesday night before the big event, Sylvia and I reviewed an Alton Brown (of "Good Eats" fame) episode dedicated to cooking the perfect turkey. Basically, soak the bird in a brine, stick the turkey into a 500F oven for 30 minutes to brown, reduce to 350F and cover the breast with a triangle of foil as to not dry out the meat, cook until meat thermometer says 161F, rest the bird and eat. That is the highly condensed version.

So, there I was, after 30 minutes at 500F with a bird that is perfectly browned. Just ten minutes later the digital meat thermometer starts beeping -- it says the meat is 161F! Done if I'm to follow Alton's instructions. I had been careful to place the probe exactly where he told me to. You and I both know, this bird is nowhere near done after 40 minutes. Now what?

I decided to rely on my gut instinct and throw out most of the rest of instructions I had planned to follow. And throw out the digital thermometer -- I was going old-school on this turkey! Covering the bird completely with foil (based on a grilled whole chicken I have cooked that is stunningly moist when done) and pouring a 1/2 bottle of beer in the bottom of the roast pan. Mostly because I had already drank the other 1/2. Then I waited. When the bird "looked" done and a test pull on the wings felt about right, we pulled it out of the oven and let it rest. When it came time to slice it up, I was able to grab the drumstick and free it from the joint with just an easy twist and pull. No electric knife needed.

Ah, yes. The life lesson.

When I cook, I seem to have a sixth sense about when an item is cooked as I want it. Especially beef. Either on the grill, stove top or oven. When grilling, I can be in the house, chatting with friends, drinking wine and having lots of laughs when suddenly, a "virtual" timer bell will go off in my head and sure enough, the meat will be cooked to perfection, in my humble opinion. Also in my humble opinion, I am not the only one with this "skill."

I mentioned this to Sylvia the next day and started to think about the thousands of years humans have cooked over open fires and how it might be possible this "skill" has been passed down to me. I never knew my grandparents so the thought of having some connection to unknown ancestors going back thousands of years -- whether one believes it's possible or not -- is a nice little diversion. Trying not to get to "new age" on you, but maybe even a connection to the animal that has given their life to sustain mine?

And what about trusting my instinct? When I have suffered most in life is when I haven't trusted my instincts. Thanksgiving Day was a nice little test to confirm the software is working as expected.

Happy Holidays,


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