cook + dine

The Coffee Break- A Vaunted Worker Tradition

coffee cup cozy available at Handmade Coffee's Etsy store

coffee cup cozy available at Handmade Coffee’s Etsy store

 

The lunch break has all but disappeared under a mountain of emails, but the coffee break seems inviolable.
It’s a highlight of the workday, the favorite employee benefit even at perk-heavy companies like Google with their ping pong tables and free haircuts. The Department of Labor even gives it special status—lunchtime can be off the books but coffee breaks have to be paid.

Some of us need more coffee than others.
Every year Dunkin’ Donuts teams up with CareerBuilder to survey Americans about their workplace coffee habits. The most recent survey ranked the top 10 heaviest coffee drinking professions:

  1. food prep and food service workers
  2. scientists and lab technicians
  3. sales reps
  4. marketing and PR professionals
  5. nurses
  6. writers and editors
  7. business and finance executives
  8. K-12 teachers
  9. engineers
  10. IT managers and network administrators

Even if your profession didn’t make the top 10 you’re probably drinking coffee on the job. Optimize the habit with these apps for coffee breakers:

coffee-break-app

Caffeine Tracker monitors the body’s metabolization of caffeine. Just provide a few body specs and record your consumption and it displays the current level of caffeine in your bloodstream in a color-coded pie chart.

Are you the one making the Starbucks run? Skip the post-its and keep all the no-foams and half-cafs straight with Coffee Order.

Up Coffee correlates your coffee drinking with your sleep patterns. Give it a few days of your habits and it can tell you how long you’ll feel wired from that last cup and when to cut off the caffeine so that you can get a good night’s sleep.

Take a real break with the Coffee Break AppIt darkens your computer screen for a pre-determined duration, guaranteeing the pleasures of a work-free cup.

 

 

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Kids Are Drinking Way More Coffee. So What?!

babydrinkingcoffee

A new report published in the medical journal Pediatrics found that 73% of children and young adults in the United States have a regular caffeine habit, and more than ever they’re getting their jolt from coffee. In 2000 just 10% of their caffeine came from coffee; now it’s nearly 25%.

Of course kids are drinking coffee.
What else is left? Not soda with all that nasty high fructose corn syrup, and diet soda, we’re now learning, is even worse. Sports drinks and juice boxes are not much better, and there’s too much lactose intolerance going around for milk to make a comeback. 
Coffee it is. And what’s so wrong with that?

It’s not going to stunt anyone’s growth. postum_ad
That old chestnut? Generations of children grew up hearing it but it turns out to be linked to nothing more than early 20th century pseudoscientific ads plugging Postum, a once popular coffee-alternative.
The grain-based, caffeine-free drink—still much-loved in Mormon circles where coffee is banned—achieved early mainstream success with ads touting Postum as a kid-friendly beverage while vilifying coffee with claims that “It robs children of their rosy cheek sand sparkling eyes. It lowers their vitality, lessens their resistance to disease, and hampers proper development and growth.” The message took root in the country’s cultural consciousness and persists to this day.

A few more inches might have been nice, but don’t blame your early coffee habit.
The medical community has found virtually nothing to support a link between coffee and height. The myth makes much of the fact that caffeine has an adverse effect on the body’s absorption of calcium, but that bit of ‘common knowledge’ originated with a single bone mass study of elderly people with osteoporosis whose diets were lacking in calcium. For everyone else, the impact is so negligible that a couple of cups of coffee a day can be offset by a splash of creamer or the foam on top of a cappuccino.

Of course you don’t want to be revving their little engines with caffeine.
Tolerances and responses to caffeine differ widely among individuals, and it can cause jitters and sleeplessness in children just like it can in the rest of us. But there is a growing body of evidence that coffee can actually have a calming effect on some kids. If you’re familiar with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) you know that it’s typically treated with pharmaceutical stimulants—it seems counterintuitive but they work on the brain’s chemistry to calm and focus an overactive mind. New research suggests that the natural stimulants in coffee have the same effect, and findings indicate that caffeine can also work as an anti-depressant in children.

When it comes to kids and coffee, the real problem isn’t the caffeine.
It’s the vanilla syrup, the caramel drizzle, and the whipped cream. It’s all the sugary, frozen, and blended concoctions that masquerade as coffee, some that hover in burger-and-fries territory in terms of fat and calories. For a child, that can add up to breakfast, lunch, and dinner all in a single to-go cup, and there aren’t many kids who take it black.
And then there’s the cost: at four bucks a pop for a fancy latté drink, unless you want to give a serious bump to your child’s weekly allowance, no one should be in a hurry to cultivate an early coffee habit.

hellokittycoffee

 

 

 

 

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New Snacks Get the Junk Out of Junk Food

Snacking gets a bad rap.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with it. A well-chosen snack will stave off hunger, boost your energy, and supply your body with important nutrients. What’s wrong is that we reach too often for the empty calories of junk food.

Lucky for us that there’s a new generation of healthier snack foods that mimic the crunchy, creamy, sweet, and salty foods we crave but without the fat and sugar overload.

ohsoHealthy chocolate
Lots of the new snacks are pushing the functional properties of chocolate. When the cacoa content (or cocoa, which is cacao in its roasted, ground form) reaches around 70 percent, it crowds out the milk, sugar, and butterfat, and you get a big, healthy dose of antioxidants and heart benefits. Look for Wellness Cacao, a fruity French line, the probiotic Ohso bars, and IQ Superfood Chocolate.

Green Wave Smoothie Pops

 

Kale lollies
Will nothing stop the march of the kale evangelists? Forget Good Humor bars; it’s all about kale ice lollies like Greenway Smoothie Pops.

 

WheyThins-SourCreamChive-960x960Not Wheat Thins. Whey Thins.
Whey is the liquid remaining in cheese making after the curds are strained out. A serving of Wheat Thins crackers delivers 2 grams of protein in 140 calories. A 100-calorie pack of Whey Thins packs in 10 grams of protein, and it comes in snacky flavors like sour cream and chive and barbecue.

 

Chia_Pod_foto_3Chia snacks
Chia is an ancient grain that is a great source of protein, omega-3, fiber, and slow-release carbohydrates. Look for it in new on-the-go healthy snack foods like Chia Pods and Chia Shots.

EPIC_Bars_520_668_85

 

The new jerky
It’s not just beef anymore. EPIC bars are high protein jerky snacks made from turkey, bison, and beef. The animals are all grass-fed and the bars combine lightly-smoked jerky with nuts and dried fruits.

ips

 

Egg-white crisps
Intelligent Protein Snacks are air-puffed chips of egg white and corn that are much higher in protein and lower in fat and sodium than traditional chips. Since the term ‘egg white crisps’ doesn’t have much of a ring to it, the company is hoping they’ll become known by the nickname ips (rhymes with chips).

blue-hill-savory-yogurt_600x900

 

 

Savory yogurt
Who said yogurt has to contain fruit? Premium brands are losing the sugary flavorings for naturally sweet vegetables like butternut squash, carrot, tomato, beet, and parsnip. Yogurt makers are betting that there’s still room in the refrigerator case among all those Greeks.

 

We are truly a nation of noshers with most Americans skipping meals but snacking so frequently that we have pushed daily eating occasions up to an average of 10 a day. You can read more about the snacking phenomenon at Gigabiting’s Life has Become One Continuous Snack.

Stay on top of the latest snacking trends with a subscription service like Nature Box. Choose a box size of 5, 10, or 20 snacks, and then customize your snacking preferences with dozens of taste and dietary options, and every month you’ll receive a selection of all-natural, high quality snacks.

 

 

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Dinner Party Wars

image via MissOmniMedia

image via MissOmniMedia

 

There’s a show on the Food Network in Canada called Dinner Party Wars:

Dinner Party Wars invites you to enjoy a deliciously hilarious hour of wining, dining and undermining as three couples go head to head in a ruthless, no-holds-barred dinner party competition. Hidden cameras capture every detail as testy guests come to blows and taste buds are either tickled or tortured.

A Canadian chef and a British etiquette expert serve as arbiters of taste and style by mocking, critiquing, and choosing an eventual winner from competitions like Gnocchi Knockdown and Chicken Bingo.

This is home entertaining as a full contact sport.
It’s soulless competition, a manifestation of our over-heated foodie-ism that has turned dining into an emblem of status and lifestyle. And it’s a far cry from the simple pleasures of sharing a hand-crafted meal with friends.

It’s easy to see where we lost our way. 
It started with Martha—the one we love to hate and hate to love. Martha Stewart taught us to sweat the details with her asparagus bundles braided with strands of chive. She instilled in us her mania for perfection and armed us with stencils, X-acto knives, and a carpenter’s level to decorate cookies.

Then the foodies took over. We learned to critique every morsel, abandoning genuine gustatory pleasures as we vet the preparation and provenance of each locally-grown, artisan-crafted, bee-friendly bite. Entertaining is fraught with political correctness and one-upmanship knowing that you’ll be drummed out of polite society if you serve the wrong coffee.

Dinner party perfection should be at most aspirational. We shouldn’t expect to reproduce the slick pages of Bon Appetit or Martha Stewart Living any more than a reader of Playboy expects to date a Playmate. 
And in any case there’s always a lot of air-brushing going on.

Our current favorite antidote to dinner host anxiety is Kinfolk. 
It’s a magazine, dinner and workshop series, online journal, and film series that celebrate the soul of the dinner party. It’s about artistry, but it’s scaled back to a simple elegance. You’ll find recipes, table settings, and shopping resources, but it’s more inspirational than instructional. There’s nothing super-human about any of it. Feet on the ground, sleeves rolled up, and you’ll get there by dinner time.

 

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The Coffee Break

image via Visual Photos

image via Visual Photos

 

The coffee break is a highlight of the workday 
The 2013 Workonomix Survey of workplace spending reports that 50 percent of the American workforce has a $20 weekly coffee habit. That’s a $1000 a year on 9 to 5 coffee. Most consider it money well-spent.
Younger workers (ages 18-34) spend almost twice as much on coffee during the workweek as their older colleagues ages 45+: $24.74 vs. $14.15; men outspend women: $25.70 vs. $15.00.

The coffee break is a vaunted worker tradition. Legend has it that the world’s first coffee break took place around 1000 A.D. in Abyssinia, today’s Ethiopia. Long before the power and pleasure of the coffee plant had been discovered, a goatherd noticed his goats dancing around after eating its red berries. Following the goats’ lead, herders began indulging in the berries to stay awake during the long, boring stretches of watching the herds.

The coffee break first appeared in the U.S. in Stoughton, Wisconsin (home to the Stoughton Coffee Break Festival held every August) when the wives of 19th century Norwegian immigrants agreed to cover their husbands’ work shifts on the condition that they be allowed morning and afternoon breaks to go home to tend to household chores and brew up coffee. It was formalized as a workplace ritual in 1902 at the Barcolo Manufacturing Company of Buffalo, NY (rather appropriately, the manufacturer of Barcalounger recliners). In 1964 the coffee break was etched into U.S. labor history when negotiations between the United Auto Workers and the big three automakers nearly broke down over the practice. Other issues at those historic negotiations included health insurance, retirement benefits, and a 5% raise, but it was the coffee break that nearly brought about a strike. 74,000 workers at Chrysler came within an hour of walking off the job when the company relented and agreed to a 12 minute daily coffee break.

Did you know…
the espresso machine was invented in 1901 by an Italian factory owner as a way of speeding up his employees’ coffee breaks?  The first espresso machine, the Tipo Gigante, used a combination of steam and boiling water forced through coffee grounds to make a cup of coffee quicker than any other method in use.

Take a real break with the Coffee Break App. It darkens your computer screen for the duration, guaranteeing the pleasures of a work-free cup.

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Things To Do with a Freezer During a Polar Vortex

 

Move over, freezer. You’ve been replaced by a polar vortex.
The weather phenomenon has spawned an online craze for homegrown science experiments that exploit the frigid temperatures. There’s the boiling-water toss (I’ll spare you the frozen urine iteration), the frozen egg on a New York sidewalk, the shattering frozen t shirt, and everyone’s favorite frozen bubbles.
How can a household appliance compete with that?!

Here are some alternative uses that will restore your freezer appreciation:


burned_pot

Clean a pot
Stick pots and pans in the freezer to remove stuck-on, burned-on messes. It works even better than soaking.

 

Beeswax-taper-candles

 

 

Extend the burning time of candles
Frozen wax burns more slowly.

 

top-secret-envelope

 

Open an envelope 
A minute in the freezer and a sealed envelope pops right open. Snoop with impunity with none of the telltale rippling marks left by steam.

 

Harddrive on Ice

 

Revive a hard drive
A few hours in the freezer can be a temporary fix. It won’t bring a crashed drive back to life but it will buy you a few precious minutes to copy files.

 

gum

Unstick gum
Sticky gum and candy will flake right off. Freeze the host object—clothing, shoes, upholstery—long enough for the gum to harden.

 

booksale

Eliminate musty smells
A day or two in the freezer kills molds, mildew, dust mites, bacteria, and other nasties that come along with old books and attic-stored clothes.

 

Even in a polar vortex your freezer can come in handy. Anyway, winter can’t last forever.

 

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What to Drink in a Polar Vortex

polar vortex photo via nasa.gov

polar vortex photo via nasa.gov

 

That nice hot cup of tea could actually be making you colder.
Alcohol? It might feel warm going down, but it’s just about the worst thing you can drink on a cold night. And these nights are really, really cold.

The frigid air holding us in its stinging embrace is the ominously-named polar vortex that slipped away from its arctic perch. It’s shown us how woefully unprepared we are for the record cold temperatures we’re experiencing. We’re particularly misinformed when it comes to choosing winter warmup drinks. It seems to defy logic, but a cold beverage can help you hang on to body heat better than a hot one.

When you drink a hot beverage on a cold day, you feel warmer at first because the hot liquid increases blood flow to the skin, but the body’s regulating mechanisms kick in and quickly turn things around. A hot drink tells the nerve receptors in your mouth that things are getting hot in there and it automatically turns on a cooling response. Basically it makes you sweat, which is a welcome response in warm weather when the perspiration carries heat out of your body and into the atmosphere. But right now, the goal is to keep that body heat tucked away in your core.

A cold drink has the opposite effect. There’s some brief chilling while the liquid is going down, but instead of opening up the sweat glands on your skin, the cold causes blood vessels to contract and your surface skin actually tightens up. Less blood flows through the constricted outer layers of skin, which leaves more to circulate through critical core areas. You might get shivery from the surface chill, but that’s not a bad thing; it just means your muscles are trying to balance the cold surface by creating even more core heat.

If constricted blood vessels protect your body’s core temperature, it follows that beverages that can dilate blood vessels are a bad idea in freezing weather, which is what makes alcoholic beverages so dangerous. Drinking increases the blood flow to your skin; that’s why your cheeks are flushed and you have a warm glow inside and out. It’s deceptive though, because all of that peripheral heat comes at the expense of your vital organs. And the body has no need to shiver because the muscles near the surface are warm. If you venture outside, the shallow surface heat dissipates quickly and your core temperature, which is already lower than it should be, will continue to drop. It’s a surprisingly narrow margin between a safe core temperature (the standard 98.6°) and hypothermia (95°), and alcohol gives you a big head start. Just a few boozy minutes spent outside in polar vortex conditions can get you there.

Can a couple of billion subcontinental residents be wrong?
Remember that most of the world drinks hot tea in hot weather, and Alaska leads the nation in per capita ice cream consumption. It’s counterintuitive but true—hot drinks cool you down and cold drinks warm you up.
In the midst of a polar vortex, when you hear the clink of ice cubes in a tall glass, you know you’re about to get toasty.

 

 

 

Posted in beer + wine + spirits, food knowledge, Health | 2 Comments

Could This Be The World’s Most Perfect Coffee Mug?

 

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coolclips__peop4110coolclips__peop4109

 

 

 

 

Scientists call it the Goldilocks Principle.
It comes from the children’s story The Three Bears in which a little girl named Goldilocks finds a house owned by a family of bears. Each bear has its own porridge bowl, chair, and bed. Goldilocks tests out all three examples of the items, always finding that one of them is too extreme in one direction (too hot, too large) or the other (too cold, too small), and the one in the middle is just right.

In science, the Goldilocks Principle states that something must fall within certain margins, as opposed to reaching extremes. Astronomists call Earth a Goldilocks planet because it’s not too near or too far away from the sun, but it’s just right to support life. In medicine the Goldilocks Principle defines the ideal dosage of a drug—too small and it’s ineffective; too large and side effects will harm the patient. And now a chemical engineer and an industrial designer have applied the Goldilocks Principle to coffee cup technology. They’ve created what could be the world’s most perfect travel mug.

The Temperperfect mug makes use of a phase changing material sandwiched between thermal walls. It alternates between a liquid and a solid as it absorbs, stores, and dissipates heat. Dean Verhoeven, one of the mug’s inventors who spent the last 15 years making, testing, and improving prototypes, describes its groundbreaking temperature regulating mechanism:

This project was born of my frustration with not being able to drink my carefully-brewed, but too hot, coffee right after I made it, and it then getting cold before I had time to enjoy it. I wanted it just right.
I thought about this problem and had an inspiration: why not take the excess heat out of the too-hot coffee, store it in the wall of the mug, and then use it later to keep the coffee at a pleasant drinking temperature? I realized that this could be done simply by adding an extra layer of what I call active (“Temperfect”) insulation to a standard mug. This extra insulation layer absorbs the excess heat from your drink, and brings it quickly to a comfortable temperature. Later, it slowly releases that heat back into your drink to keep its temperature just right.

It seems that the world has in fact been waiting for hot—but not too hot—coffee.
The creators found an enthusiastic audience when they turned to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. They were hoping to raise $23,500 to cover the cost of the production tooling that’s need to manufacture the mugs. Instead, that amount was pledged 10 times over by more than 4,000 backers and it’s allowed them to move straight from tooling to production.

The first Temperperfect mugs are planned to ship next summer. The company’s website can hook you up with a pre-order.

Temperperfect: a prototype

Temperperfect: a prototype

 

 

 

Posted in appliances + gadgets, coffee, Science/Technology | Leave a comment

Standing Out From the Crowd With the $450 Starbucks Metal Card

status mug available at Zazzle.com

status mug available at Zazzle.com

 

The Starbucks card is the most ‘gifted’ item in America.
Last December, 1 in 10 adults received one as a holiday gift. This season, the company expects it will be closer to 1 in 5. And then there’s the Starbucks Metal card. For the second year in a row  Starbucks is rolling out an ultra-limited edition gift card just in time for holiday giving. For the low, low price of $450 the card gets you $400 worth of coffee.

That’s not a typo. $450 gets you a card preloaded with $400 in store credit. Oh, and you also get a gold-level Starbucks card membership, a frequent buyer perk that gets you some freebies like drink refills and a birthday frappuccino, but those benefits are already free to regular customers who sign up for the My Starbucks Rewards program. Still, they plan to sell 1,000 of the cards through the luxury goods website Gilt.

Why stop at 1,000? Did they forget that there’s one born every minute?
Starbucks calls it the Metal Card and it really is made of metal. Watching someone pay for coffee with a slab of etched steel is a little like seeing Fred Flintstone buying his brontosaurus burgers with a stone credit card issued by the Bank of Bedrock. Conspicuous? You bet. Isn’t that the point? Last year’s Metal Cards sold out in less than a minute and then immediately popped up on sites like eBay and Craigslist where they were flipped for as much as $1,000. It was a tidy profit for Gilt shoppers while the new buyers ended up with a couple hundred dollars worth of vastly over-priced lattés. Clearly it’s not just about the coffee.

5,000 Metal Cards were sold in 2012, but this year Starbucks plans to limit the offering to a mere 1,000.
While that just about guarantees that the next guy in line won’t have the Metal Card in his wallet too, it’s hard to see how the card confers some kind of insider status. Starbucks lost its aura of exclusivity the minute it opened its first shop outside of the Seattle city limits. You can’t be an insider to something that you can buy on every street corner, turnpike rest stop, and hospital cafeteria.

It might not be exclusive, but the Starbucks Metal card will be scarce. But who really wants a $12 cappuccino anyway?

 

 

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The Family Dinner. It’s Not Just for the Holidays.

Dinner with the Andersons: Jim, Margaret, Princess, Bud, and Kitten

Dinner with the Andersons: Jim, Margaret, Princess, Bud, and Kitten; via Screen Gems

 

The reality of a family dinner bears little resemblance to its mythical counterpart.
It’s the rare household with mom, dad, and kids sharing the events of the day over meaty roasts and noodle casseroles. There is probably more texting to outsiders than sharing with family. And a weekday roast? In your dreams.
But that’s okay because family mealtime is not just about the warm and fuzzies of the cultural ideal.

A regular shared meal can pay huge family dividends.
Study after study points to the same thing: regular family dinners lead to happier and healthier kids. They’re less likely to smoke, drink, abuse prescription or illegal drugs, or develop eating disorders, obesity, or depression. They watch less television, delay sexual activity, and get better grades in school. 
Clearly there’s something to this.

Whatever it is, it’s not just about the food.
The ‘secret sauce’ of a successful family dynamic is not in Mom’s meatloaf. Obviously there are plenty of other factors that contribute to a family’s well-being and anchor its values. A common mealtime is just one piece, but it seems to be the bellwether.

Go heal the planet, but don’t be late for dinner!
Since producing the environmental crusade An Inconvenient Truth, Laurie David has been advocating for family well-being. The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time doesn’t have Al Gore’s narration, but it does have child-care experts, writers, artists, and chefs sharing their personal dinnertime rituals. Participants include Maya Angelou, Jamie Oliver, Mario Batali, Alice Waters, Arianna Huffington, Nora Ephron, Judge Judy, Michael Pollan, and Sheryl Crow.

The differences between families that eat together frequently (defined as eating five or more family dinners per week) and infrequently (fewer than three times per week) are striking. The definitive studies have been conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. Read the full report: The Importance of Family Dinners VI.

Try it, even if it’s just a takeout pizza and nobody has anything to say.
There’s no guarantee that the food is any healthier just because we eat together as a family. It doesn’t guarantee meaningful conversation, much less moments of genuine intimacy.
But the ritual of the family dinner at least makes these things possible.

 

Posted in cook + dine, home, kids | Leave a comment

A Hacker in the Kitchen

image via Beauty Through Imperfection

[image via Beauty Through Imperfection]

 

Hackers have a bad reputation.
We think of disaffected teenagers looking to circumvent security measures and wreak a little havoc on society, and of bottom-rung hoodlums in former eastern bloc countries trolling online for passwords and credit card accounts. 
Actually, that kind of nefarious tampering is not hacking. It’s more properly referred to as cracking.

Hacking is in fact a higher calling.
In the classic sense of the term, a hacker is a fixer, a tinkerer, a lover of processes. The original Internet Users’ Glossary defined a hacker as ‘a person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular.’ Wikipedia’s definition goes so far as stating that ‘Hacking entails some form of excellence.’

Hackers are everywhere.
The term has been co-opted by groups outside of the tech community to describe any kind of clever, non-traditional improvement to process and productivity. Pick a noun, follow it by ‘hack,’ Google the combination, and you’re bound to find a community sharing tips and hints and suggestions.

Kitchen hackers are hacking in the pure sense of the word.
They devise elegant solutions to clumsy processes. 
The following is a sorted, selected, and edited list of websites offering food, cooking, and kitchen hacks. Think of it as a kind of list hack.

Life Hackery claims to ‘hack your life into shape.’ It offers up time-tested kitchen wisdom with its list of 50 Amazingly Helpful Time-Tested Tips for the Kitchen.

Tip Nut has 34 Handy Kitchen Measurement Hacks & Tidbits that free you for improvisational cooking.

Instructables offers step-by-step instructions for esoteric projects like making rainbow vodka with Skittles and edible shot glasses from gummi bears.

DIY Life will whip your kitchen into shape with its instructions for things like stove top tuneups and new uses for aluminum foil.

Cooking for Geeks and Cooking for Engineers are full of clever cooking shortcuts. Both are pitched toward the seriously enquiring mind as they delve into the why along with the how.

Food Network Magazine rounds up the best hacking advice from the network’s roster of television chefs.

Did you know that you can make perfect hard-boiled eggs in the oven or that a rubber band can keep apple slices from turning brown? Kitchen Hacks is brimming with pragmatic saves and shortcuts about buying, growing, cooking, preserving, and eating food.

Table Matters hacks into kitchen appliances and equipment, breathing new life into muffin tins, crockpots, and immersion blenders.

The granddaddy of life hacking sites is, of course, Lifehacker, which tackles a wide range of food, cooking, and kitchen topics.

Posted in appliances + gadgets, cyberculture, food knowledge | Leave a comment

Rice Cooker Owners: What do they know that you don’t?

 

image by anomalous4

image by anomalous4

 

Few things divide the cooking community like the rice cooker.
If you don’t own a rice cooker…
You can’t imagine why any self-respecting home cook would. We’re talking about rice– boil water and you’re there. Why squander precious counter space on a single-purpose appliance that takes over such a basic function? And doesn’t even do it any faster than the stovetop?

If you already have one...
You smile knowingly, patiently. You remember when that was you.

It’s true, it’s a glorified water-boiler.
Manufacturers add in all manner of functions and features and upgrades, but at its core, every rice cooker is a bowl to hold rice and water that’s set inside a housing with a heat source and thermostat. The cooker heats the water to boiling, and when the temperature reaches 212° F, it switches to  a prolonged simmer. The thermostat recognizes a second temperature change when all of the water has been absorbed, and it switches to a lower setting that holds the rice in a perfect state at the perfect temperature for serving.

Perfect rice?
Perfect. Short-grain, long-grain, sushi, and brown rice; grains like quinoa and barley; beans and lentils; all perfect. In countries like China and Japan, where they know a thing or two about rice, you’ll find a cooker in every kitchen. Every Asian restaurant everywhere has a huge commercial version in its kitchen. You can even get a travel rice cooker that plugs into a car’s power sockets.

Rice cooker advocates will speak of its versatility in the kitchen, its ability to cook so much more than rice. Think dumplings and fish, custards and hot cereals, soups and stews. They’ll praise its safety and ease of use, with no open heat source and an automatic shut-off, so well-suited to children, seniors, and dorm rooms. They’ll tell you how it doesn’t heat the kitchen in the summer, humidifies it in the winter, and is easy to clean.

All true. But that’s not why I love my rice cooker.
There are so few certainties—in the kitchen as in life. Cakes don’t always rise and toast can burn. Phone calls aren’t returned, cars don’t get the mileage they should, and children don’t always listen.
But I can always count on the rice that comes out of my rice cooker. It might only do the one thing, but it does it perfectly.

 

Posted in appliances + gadgets, cooking | 2 Comments

The More We Spend On Our Kitchens, The Less We Cook In Them

Julia Child in her pegboard kitchen

Julia Child in her pegboard kitchen

 

Are you looking or are you cooking?
According to Remodeling Magazine, the average cost of a midrange kitchen remodel in 2013 was $53,931 and the average upscale project cost $107,406. For all that expense, we’re not cranking up the six-burner Viking rangetop very often. About half of our food spending is in restaurants, and as incomes rise, cooking drops off even more. Just 11% of Americans eat two hot, home-cooked meals a day, and in households earning more than $120,000 a year, a mere 2.4% have those two hot meals at home. And presumably the higher earners represent the households with the pricey remodels.

We salivate over acres of gleaming granite and stainless steel and 22-slot blocks of Japanese knives from a hot new bladesmith, even when the dual door Sub-Zero is stocked with nothing more than red-boxed Stouffer’s, Trader Joe’s burritos, and pints of Ben & Jerry’s. Kitchen square footage has doubled over the last 30 years to give ample space for high-end appliances and specialized cookware. We spend giddy hours online drooling over the design possibilities on display at Houzz and Pinterest, and we’re consumed by choosing among the 55 different shapes and sizes of whisks for sale at Sur la Table. We love everything about our kitchens except for the actual cooking.

We love to watch others cook.
There’s a tv set in 35% of American kitchens and it’s probably tuned to a cooking channel. When it comes to our own cooking, we spend an average of 27 minutes a day on food preparation —less than half the time it takes to watch a single episode of Top Chef. Even when we do cook, the Viking’s 30,000 BTUs of firepower are sitting idle. In fact the stove is only our second favorite kitchen appliance with first place going to the microwave. Entrées are prepared from scratch just 59% of the time, down from 72% in the 1980′s, and we’ve even decreased the number of ingredients per dish, from a 1980′s average of 4.4 to a current 3.4. One in ten adults will literally never turn on their stove or oven.

Who wouldn’t want a spacious, good-looking, well-equipped kitchen? But real cooks know how to make the most of whatever they’ve got, and some of the best cooks work their magic with the least impressive batterie de cuisine.

Author, cooking tool expert, and home cook extraordinaire Michael Ruhlman shares his equipment recommendations in My Essential Kitchen Tools
Food writer Mark Bittman, formerly of the ‘Minimalist’ column in the New York Times, gives us the flip side, sharing his picks for 10 non-essential kitchen items in A No-Frills Kitchen Still Cooks.

 

 

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Barrel Aging is This Year’s Pickle

ManWearingBarrel

Put the jar down. Step away from the beets. 
Pickling is so over. Sauerkraut and kimchi can stick around, corned beef and herring are forever, but trendy pickle plates on every menu and dare-you-to-try-it pickleback cocktails need to go. A mason jar and a vinegar cure are not always the answer. Today’s overzealous briners remind us of the We Can Pickle That! duo spoofed by the sketch comedians of TV’s Portlandia:  “Too many eggs? We can pickle that! Dropped your ice cream cone? We can pickle that! Broke a heel on your shoe? We can pickle that!” Before the opening credits had rolled on the segment they had pickled an old CD jewel box case, Band-Aids, a parking ticket, and a dead bird.

Barrel-aging is the latest down-home technique to get a hip, upscale boost.
Barrel-aging is usually associated with wine and whiskey, and sometimes beer and vinegar. The contents mellow and mature during the aging period and they take on some of the compounds found in the wood. In the case of whiskey, it actually goes into barrels as a colorless liquid with just a hint of flavor and fragrance from its grain and alcohol, but emerges with its aroma, color, and flavor transformed.

Mixologists have latched on to the technique to create barrel-aged cocktails.
Essentially these are pre-mixed drinks that spend some time in a small cask. Fruits and juices, sodas, bitters, and other mixers are all in there, which puts a lot of neighborhood bars on shaky legal ground with both the local liquor authority and the health department, but craft cocktail fans are swooning.

Barrel-aged condiments were the buzzed-about category at this summer’s gathering for the specialty food industry.
Salt, pepper, paprika, teriyaki sauce, salad dressings, soy sauce, fish sauce, worcestershire sauce, and especially hot sauce are all getting the barrel treatment, picking up complexity, a hint of smokiness, and even boozy notes if they spent their time in recycled wine or whiskey barrels. If you balk at the premium prices charged by the boutique condiment producers, you should know that good ol’ Tabasco is, and always has been, aged in oak for up to three years.

There are hints of a We Can Pickle That!-style frenzy that threaten to turn barrel-aging into the next culinary cliché.
The process turns sweets like cane sugar, sorghum, vanilla extract, and maple syrup into a bitter, charred, sticky mess. Barrel-aged milk and ricotta cheese are sour, smoky, funky-smelling abominations.

And most troubling, mostly because of its self-referential gratuitousness, is the appearance of whiskey barrel-aged pickles.

 

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McDonald’s: Savior of Diverse Food Cultures?

mcdonaldsglobal

I’m the last person you’d expect to praise McDonald’s.
I hold the fast food chain responsible for childhood obesity, animal cruelty, environmental degradation, union busting, and the decline of the family dinner. 
Not a bite has crossed these lips since I read Fast Food Nation, and short of a gun to my head, it’s unlikely that one ever will again.
Still, credit where credit is due.

McDonald’s first steamrolled its way into overseas markets as an exporter of American culture. Its standard-issue menu of burgers and fries famously transcended boundaries and borders so that customers everywhere were assured of the same Quarter Pounder whether they were in a McDonald’s in Mozambique, Malaysia, or Minnesota. It was seen as the worst form of globalization, corrupting cultures, adulterating diets, and trampling on local culinary traditions. And it did those things. The hamburger has truly become a global food, and you can find them not just at McDonald’s but on menus everywhere, from Greek tavernas to Egyptian mataams.

McDonald’s is truly a victim of its own success. Now that you can find burgers at cafés, cantinas, brasseries, and biergartens, their own version doesn’t register the same excitement it once did. When McDonald’s brought its first restaurant to Kuwait in 1994, the opening day line of 15,000 customers stretched for seven miles; when the 70th Kuwaiti outlet opened this year, it elicited a yawn.

McDonald’s has shown itself to be surprisingly mutable.
They’ve abandoned their goal of standardized globalization for one of internationalization. Instead of bringing the same cookie cutter menu items to every foreign locale, the chain adapts its offerings to local tastes, preferences, and available ingredients.

While America’s McDonald’s adhere to a proscribed menu of commoditized, mass-produced burgers, foreign franchisees are only required to stick with a short list of standard items and are encouraged to tinker with the rest of the food. Hamburgers come on patties of sticky rice in the Philippines and on flatbread in Greece. In India, where much of the population doesn’t eat beef, there’s a potato-patty McAloo Tikki burger and Israel has the kosher McFalafel. You can order cheese quiche in Brazil, red bean pie in Hong Kong, and traditional Caldo Verde soup (made with cabbage, kale, onion, potato and chorizo) in Portugal.

The overseas McDonald’s are often held to a higher standard.
They conform to local laws and sentiments by sourcing GMO-free ingredients, and beef is often lean, grass-fed, and hormone-free. They source locally, buy cheeses with no artificial dyes, soft drinks with no added corn syrup, and grill meats over charcoal fires. Even the workers’ pay is often better than in the U.S.

Ironically, McDonald’s, the world’s best exporter of American culture has become a champion of global food cultures.
But make no mistake about it, this is still fast food. It’s loaded with sodium, preservatives, and cheap fats, pre-cooked and kept wiltingly warm under the glare of heat lamps, and served in an excess of packaging. 
It’s a cold comfort to think that the world’s culinary traditions are being preserved at food court kiosks. 

The 26 year old Canadian author of  McDonald’s Around the World has eaten at McDonald’s outlets in more than 50 countries (the trick, he says, is to cram as many layovers as possible into every travel itinerary). His blog chronicles the highs and lows of global eating at the Golden Arches.

 

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Eat Your Veggies–For Dessert!

image via A Thousand Words

image via A Thousand Words

 

Sweets lovers, you may want to avert your eyes.
Vegetables are sneaking away from your dinner plate and landing on the dessert menu. Carrot flan, eggplant tiramisu, black olive madeleines, and celery sorbet are charming and confounding us in equal shares, and forcing us to recalibrate our tastebuds.

Forward-thinking chefs have been playing with a sprinkle of salt and the bite of hot pepper for a while now. Chile-spiked chocolate barely raises an eyebrow anymore and sea salt caramel has become a culinary cliché. Bacon desserts have gone so far past outré that even Burger King lards up a vanilla soft-serve sundae.

The vegetable-based dessert trend has a certain logic.
It takes diners along the same continuum as the salty-savory sweets, but at the same time, they’re new enough to dazzle. And it taps into all things seasonal and farm-to-table.

Vegetable-based dessert are hardly a new invention.
Think about sweet potato pie, carrot cake, and corn pudding. But where the classic vegetable desserts are intensely sweet, the trend is toward fresher, vegetal flavors. The sugar is toned down to play up the ingredients’ natural sweetness, and savory tastes are front and center.

As an added bonus- you can forget the old adage about finishing your vegetables before you get dessert.

The Centers for Disease Control have a Nutrition for Everyone tool that calculates recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables for your age, gender, and activity level.

Condé Nast Traveler rounds up 20 of the most interesting vegetable-based dessert menus around the country.

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Welcome to the Grocerant

supermarketmenu

 

It’s 4 PM. Dinner is just a few hours away. Do you know what you’re having?
Studies show that 81% of Americans aren’t sure.

A Hungry Man Salisbury Steak dinner? Mac and cheese from a box? Those days are gone. Today you can kick things off with a cup of Panera’s broccoli cheddar soup or maybe some of Hooters’ chicken wings. Are you in the mood for a burger? Choose from T.G.I. Fridays sliders, L.A.’s  famous Fatburger, or the cultish White Castle. And don’t forget to save room for a slice of the Cheesecake Factory’s Oreo Dream Extreme.

Eating out while staying in.
Restaurant brands are gaining traction in the supermarket. Ready-to-eat or heat-and-eat meals that bear the name of your favorite casual or quick-serve outlet are blurring the line between eating in and dining out. The industry’s name for this hybrid is grocerant, where grocery shopping and restaurants collide.

Restaurant, supermarket, and consumer trends have all pushed us toward grocerants.

Restaurants were hit hard during the recent economic downturn.
Customers weren’t coming to them so they developed products that they could bring to the customers. Franchisees worried that the grocerants would cut into their dining-in sales, but the restaurants learned that if they developed licensed supermarket products that were a good fit without seeming identical to menu items, it could actually help the brand.

Supermarkets have also embraced the grocerant model.
They’ve been scrambling for years to keep up with the ever-expanding category of prepared foods. Shoppers are looking to bring the restaurant experience home. Grocers have tried to replicate that experience by installing pizza ovens, rotisseries, and stir-fry stations, but it’s quicker and easier to relinquish the space to licensed grocerant products. For all the effort it takes to create a store brand from scratch, they know that consumers are more likely to purchase a brand they already like over one they don’t know.

Consumers are cash-strapped and time-crunched. 
The supermarket might be a necessary downgrade from dining out, but restaurant-branded grocerants help soften the blow. They know that a frozen or pre-made version of the freshly-served restaurant counterpart is an inferior product, but for the savings and convenience it’s a compromise they can live with.

 

 

 

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Éclairs: A Choux-In as the Next Dessert Craze

Eclair-de-Genie-1-Paris-Select

image via L’Éclair de Génie

 

You heard it here first.
At least that’s true if you don’t follow the international food publications.
There’s plenty of buzz in Asia and Europe where éclairs are shaping up as the latest ‘it’ dessert, and the trend should land on these shores by winter.

The éclair is actually an unlikely candidate for fashionable status.
We think of it is a rather highfalutin treat, but to the French, it’s the first thing they reached for as a 10-year old in a patisserie; a beloved taste of childhood that as adults they’d rarely choose, and then mostly out of a sense of nostalgia.

There’s nothing wrong with the classic recipe of feather-light choux pastry, vanilla pastry cream, and a swipe of bitter chocolate, but the new éclairs have gotten a modern makeover. Stylish restaurants and boutique bakeries are creating innovative versions that bring some 21st century ingredients to the table. In Paris you’ll find éclairs with colorful icings and imaginative fillings flavored with fresh fruits, exotic spices, and varietal coffees and chocolates. Bakers are experimenting with mini savory versions stuffed with smoked salmon and dill or foie gras and fig jam, and even full-sized main course éclairs.

Éclairs are crossing the Atlantic to give us our next sugar high.
We’re already teed up for the next food frenzy. Donuts, whoopie pies, and especially cupcakes have all had their pop culture moment. First the trend watchers chased them down in gentrified urban enclaves, then outlets sprouted up in suburban malls and neighborhoods, and pretty soon they were on the menus of such cultural forces as Starbucks and Applebees.

Each has had a good run, but we’ve had our fill.
What was trendy is now passé. Macarons, cupcakes, cake pops, et al. have become too eye-rollingly common. Our greedy, sugar-riddled souls have already begun casting about for the next treat, and here come the éclairs. If they follow the familiar progression of food faddism, by this time next year éclairs will be on every menu from Michelin-starred restaurants to airport food courts, and trendy brides will be opting for éclair towers in place of wedding cakes. By then, we’ll probably start to look longingly at rice pudding and bundt cakes, but for now it’s éclairs. And if I’m right, pretty soon we won’t have to look very hard to find them.

 

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Nose to Tail Starts With the Head

HeadCheese

 

Let’s start by getting the ‘head’ and ‘cheese’ business out of the way. 
Yes, it’s made with a head; usually that of a pig, but sometimes from a calf, cow, or sheep (good to know if you keep kosher).
No, there isn’t any cheese involved (the lactose intolerant can relax). The name evolved from the Latin word forma—a basket or box used as a mold—most often to compress and form cheese curds but also for meat terrines; as forma, and then fromage, became the word for cheese, the molded meats were swept along.

Said head is plucked and shaved, the earwax is cleaned out, and it’s simmered for hours— skin, snout, eyeballs, tongue, and all. The cooked meat is seasoned and packed into a mold along with the collagen-enriched stock (from all the bone and cartilage) which gels as it cools.

Looking at a well-constructed slice of head cheese can be like peering through a stained glass window with its mosaic effect of shimmering aspic dotted with suspended jewels of braised pork bits. At its finest, a slice of head cheese is tender meat and wobbly gelatin that melts on the tongue. Bad headcheese can be grayish, dry, and pasty, studded with the occasional bristle or tooth missed in straining, but that’s another story…

Any cuisine that cooks with pork has a version of head cheese, since when it comes to the pig’s head, it’s pretty much head cheese or toss it. In Germany it’s called sülze, it’s queso de puerco in Mexico, giò thủ in Viet Nam,and formaggio di testa in Italy. The Brits call it brawn and in the southern U.S. it’s known as souse. You probably eat more head cheese than you realize a slice can be snuck into a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich or served as a salumi alongside its charcuterie cousins.

Your kitchen will look like the set of a slasher flick, but it’s otherwise not that difficult to make your own head cheese. So if you ever find yourself in possession of a whole pig’s head and a dozen or so friends willing to share in the results (that’s why they’re your friends), you’ll be amply rewarded with pounds of the stuff.

London chef Fergus Henderson’s cookbook The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating was an instant classic of  ‘nose to tail’ cooking. The book inspired the blog Nose To Tail At Home documenting the efforts of home cook/blogger Ryan Adams as he bravely cooks his way through the book, one pig knuckle or rolled spleen at a time.

 

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Chicken. Just Chicken.

image via BuyingChickens.net

image via BuyingChickens.net

 

Nobody buys just lettuce; it’s Romaine or arugula or Bibb. Beef is Angus, salmon is Sockeye, and a Granny Smith apple is never mistaken for a Honeycrisp. But we buy chicken, just chicken.

Bland, mealy supermarket tomatoes just don’t cut it once you’ve had the juice of a just-picked, perfectly ripe Brandywine running down your chin, and freshly-dug Russian Banana fingerlings are a potato revelation after mass-produced russets. Heirloom fruits and vegetables are old-time varieties grown from seeds that are saved from season to season and handed down through multiple generations of growers. They’ve been saved, sometimes for centuries, because they taste so good .

Modern large-scale agriculture relies on hybrids. Commercial growers have breeding programs that focus on high yields and ship-ability. They need varieties that perform well in the field, can be picked green, travel long distances, and be gas-ripened when they reach their destination. Flavor and nutrition take a backseat to shelf-life and hardiness.

Breed makes an enormous difference to the taste of chicken, just as it does for other foods.
Most of us have yet to discover this difference because we’ve gone our entire lives eating just one chicken: the Cornish X Rock hybrid. The U.S. poultry industry, which cranks out eight billion of them a year, selectively bred the Cornish X Rock to grow quickly while eating as little as possible, and to carry a high ratio of white meat to dark with its giant breasts perched on stubby legs.

Just as tender heads of Little Gems lettuce will ruin you for iceberg, once you eat a heritage chicken, there’s no going back to Perdue.
These birds are more complex, more savory, just plain more chicken-y than what you’ve been eating. Even an organic, free-ranging Cornish X can’t come close. It will always be a flabby prisoner of its genetics, maturing too quickly, and too top-heavy to move. The meat never has a chance to develop any real character.

Each heritage chicken breed has its own ‘personality.’
It’s like apples— there are sweet ones and tart ones, apples for sauce and apples for pie. It’s not the worst thing if you bake with Red Delicious, but Pippins are a better choice. Same with the chickens: a Buff Orpington is a great fryer while the oil would overwhelm the delicate flesh of a Marans, and a meaty Speckled Sussex cries out for a slow braise. There is none of the multi-tasking versatility of Cornish X Rock, but each breed has its own distinctive textural and taste notes and even a sense of terroir. 

Heritage recipes for heritage birds.
Dust off the old cookbooks- you need to go all the way back to the 1950′s to find recipes that don’t presume you’re cooking a Cornish X Rock.
Contemporary cooking of old fashioned chickens is alive and well at Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch, a pioneering breeder and online seller of heritage chickens. The farm sponsors a heritage chicken recipe competition attracting hundreds of entrants. You can find winning recipes and more at The Heritage Chef.

 

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