Kitchen Intermediates: Griddle

As we continue our series on intermediate level kitchen equipment, things that are useful but not essential, we take on one of my favorites — the griddle.

A griddle is a flat surface, usually metal in the developed world, that’s used for cooking all sorts of foods. It’s kind of like a large, flat fry pan. You’ve seen the big industrial models in restaurants and diners. There, it’s called a flat top. In the underdeveloped world, a griddle can be a flat stone or brick tablet over an open flame. Flatbreads are a common item cooked over this type of griddle.

When I was a kid, we had a two-burner cast-iron griddle that was used almost as often as the cast iron skillet. Believe it or not, those are still available. In fact, if you can afford it, this is the preferable model because it has the weight to sit flat on the stovetop.

Another variation is the griddle pan. Most in this country are square with a single handle. The problem with these is they lack the weight to sit even on the burner. I have one of these. I like it and I use it quite a bit. But without food on it, the handle weight causes the other end to rise up off the burner. Also, it doesn’t heat as evenly as I would like.

This is a variation on a Welsh griddle, which is cast iron, round and has a single handle. It looks like a crepe pan, for which it is ideal. A griddle typically has either a short rim or a shallow trough for grease.

Another type is the tappan, a Japanese griddle you may have seen in robata restaurants like Beni Hana.

You also may have seen an electric griddle, similar to an electric skillet or grill. The problem with these is uneven heating.

Costs for a griddle or griddle pan can range from about $15 to well over $100.

Kitchen Intermediates: Food Processor

Food processors were invented in 1973 as a replacement for all that detailed knife work. Unfortunately, while it has saved many cooks a lot of time, it hasn’t been quite as dependable as most of us hope for taking up that very valuable countertop space. And they can be very expensive. You can spend up to $900 for one of these machines. Of course, you can also spend at little at $40, but you might find that all you get for that price is an underpowered wide body blender that either doesn’t do anything or turns whatever you put in it into a paste before you can blink your eyes.

One problem with a food processor is that it either goes too fast, minimizing your control, or it requires a lot of advance preparation, making the time-savings moot. In my own experience, a food processor has very limited uses. I never use it for chopping, mincing or other functions I can easily achieve with my trusty chef’s knife. But I’ve tried making hummus or cutting butter into flour or sugar without a food processor and it’s a pain. So, you should think carefully about whether you want to add this appliance to your kitchen. I strongly recommend you do a little research before making a decision. That should include a lot more than just price, power and attachments.

On the whole, I’ll stick with my knives and my box grater (which does pretty good even slices) and my own elbow grease. An immersion blender does a better job of pureeing foods, especially soups in the pot. A stand mixer is much better at making and handling dough. About the only thing I like a food processor for is making hummus. But that’s just me.

Kitchen Intermediates: Dutch Oven

There are basics every kitchen should have to cook and feed yourself. That’s one of the goals of this blog — to show singles that you don’t have to have a big kitchen or a lot of money to make some great food. We also have to think about what’s the minimum equipment we need and what we can do without. We also have to think about things we’d like to have, useful items that are a bit more than a basic but still won’t overrun your small kitchen.

The single most useful pot or pan in your kitchen is the trusty cast-iron skillet. It’s cheap and durable. You can even expect to pass it down to your children, grandchildren or other members of future generations. It’s precisely this durability that has made this an American cooking basic for centuries.

The skillet’s cousin is the dutch oven. There are three basic types of dutch ovens, only one of which is a true dutch oven. Most dutch ovens are really just big pots.

Of the big pot variety, there are two basic types which are defined by their materials. The most common is the enamel-covered metal pot with a lid. When choosing this style, make sure the handles on the sides and the lid are oven-proof. This can be made from steel, cast iron or aluminum.

A newer version of this style is the all-aluminum pot, also called a stock pot. These are high quality pots that can go from stove top to oven easily with even heating and easy cleaning.

The traditional dutch oven is made of cast iron and has a upward-lipped lid and short legs on the bottom. This is where this pot gets its name. Back a few centuries ago when most European and American settlers still cooked over open fires, the dutch oven was the only way to bake. It would be placed over hot coals, with more coals placed on top, which is why the lid looks sunken into the pot. This type of pot should be treated just the same as a cast iron skillet. These are also the least expensive models.

Dutch ovens are larger and heavier than the skillet to handle larger cuts of meat and cooking liquids for braising. They also are commonly used for deep frying because they hold heat well and are taller than the skillet.

Dutch ovens can range in price from as little as about $30 up to nearly $300 for the stainless all-aluminum model. Look for the widest you can find.

Never use soap and water on a cast iron dutch oven. Cure it the same as with a skillet and clean it the same way. Not only can it be used for cooking soups, stews and other large-pot items, but you really can bake in the cast iron model.

Kitchen Intermediates: Saucepans

After you have considered and stocked your kitchen with the basics, you can begin expanding your kitchen equipment. Your basics, the minimum one needs to cook a meal, include a cast-iron skillet, a baking dish and a medium-large saucepan. By medium-large, I was referring to something around 4-quart size. This was large enough to do rice, soups and stews, side dishes and even single servings of pasta.

When you feel you can afford a few more things in your Bachelor’s Kitchen, you should look for cookware that you might actually use or find almost a necessity. I call these the Kitchen Intermediates. Most of these items are going to be pot, pans, tools and maybe an appliance or two. Don’t get me wrong, I do like a good and useful appliance. But they can really clutter the kitchen, leaving you no room to cook when you want to. And I don’t like a bunch of them gathering dust in a closet or a rarely used cabinet.

It’s a saucepan; no, it’s a pot

Saucepans, also called pots, are sized by volume (how much liquid they hold). Usually, in the U.S., that’s in quarts. A saucepan usually has straight sides, flat bottom and a single handle. It may or may not have a lid. Some also have pour spouts. The difference between a saucepan and a pot is the number of handles. Pots usually have two handles close to the sides of the pot. Pans have single handles that extend away from the body of the pan. Some large pans have a small handle opposite the large one to make them easier to handle when full.

In addition to the medium-large saucepan, I recommend having at least one other size. A small saucepan, about one to one-and-a-half quart size, is very useful for warming single servings and for making some sauces and heating liquids. I use mine all the time. It’s perfect for heating broth when I make risotto.

It’s probably a good idea, when you can afford it, to get a range of sizes in saucepans with lids. But there’s no need to go overboard. Three or four pans will do for most jobs.

Curiously, the standard saucepan is not that good for making sauces. Two other types of pans are better suited. One is the lesser known Winsor pan, which has sloping sides. The other you’ve probably heard of — the saucier (pronounced saw-see-ay), which has rounded sides. These allow for better evaporation of liquids for reductions and more easily accommodate a whisk or spoon.

As you expand your kitchen knowledge and skills, a good set of saucepans are a good and useful addition to your equipment.

Wonderful Indoor Barbecued Ribs

Who says the best barbecue baby back ribs come from a grill or smoker? Okay, maybe that’s true, but it’s not the only way for an apartment-dwelling bachelor can enjoy really good, succulent barbecue ribs. 

Indoor Barbecue Ribs

This recipe is one of our favorites. It includes making your own barbecue sauce, which is always better than out of a bottle. One of the problems with most apartment living is that outdoor grills are not allowed because the smoke gets into other apartments. For some, an indoor grill or a grill pan is the solution. But when it comes to ribs, all you need is a sauce pan, a large pot like a stock pot, a cookie sheet and an oven broiler. 

Ribs and sauce.

From the store, you need about three pounds of pork baby back or spare ribs. When you get those home, you will cut them into individual servings, about three ribs each. 

For the sauce, you probably already have what you need in your pantry. This recipe is open to lots of personal variations, so don’t go out of your way to get all of the ingredients here. As long as you have ketchup, vinegar, sugar and liquid smoke, you probably have everything you need.

Place the ribs into a large pot and cover them with water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce it to medium or medium low to simmer for about one hour. You know they are done when it looks like the meat is pulling away from the bones. 

Indoor BBQ ribs for dinner.

While that is cooking, mix together in a small saucepan a cup of ketchup, 1/4 cup of apple cider vinegar (You can use another vinegar, but it will change the flavor quite a bit.), 3 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce, 3 tablespoons of brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and one teaspoon of liquid smoke. You can find that last item either with the spices or with the barbecue sauce in the store. Read the labels, not all brands are the same. Some really are make from real smoke while others get their flavor from chemicals. This seldom used seasoning can make a big difference in making your ribs taste like they just came out of the smoker. But use a gentle hand because too much can make your sauce go from smokey to nasty. Mix the ingredients well over medium high heat until it starts to simmer. Lower the heat and allow to simmer for about 30 minutes, until thickened. Stir it frequently. 

Pork ribs

When the ribs are done, drain them and place them in a single layer on a foil-lined baking sheet. Preheat the broiler and set the oven rack about six-inches from the heat source. Brush your barbecue sauce liberally on the ribs. You should probably have the meatier side facing up first, but it’s not totally necessary. Put the baking pan or cookie sheet under the broiler until the sauce has turned sticky and browned, about six or seven minutes. If you start to see black spots, your rack is probably too close to the heat. 

Turn the ribs over, apply the rest of sauce and put back under the broiler for another seven minutes until the sauce is thick and sticky. 

This is a fool-proof method we use all the time in The Bachelor’s Kitchen. We think once you try it and see how easy it is to get wonderful barbecue ribs without a grill all year long it will be a favorite of yours, too.

A Late Night Snack Like No Other

Some of you may have worked or now work in a restaurant or some other late night job. cacio-e-pepeThe last thing you want to do is cook dinner when you get off work. People in the restaurant industry face this dilemma most evenings. Fortunately, they also have people around who know how to cook. If that’s the case, you probably have eaten Cacio e Pepe, or Pasta with Black Pepper and Pecorino Romano.

Like rice, this is a dish that is very simple, but also takes practice to get right. On the face of it, it looks like one simply cooks some pasta, usually spaghetti or other thin noodle, then tosses it with extra virgin olive oil, freshly ground black pepper and some grated Pecorino cheese. If you get it right, it is delicious and loaded with protein and carbohydrates, just what you need at the end of a long night. But if you don’t get it right, it turns into a clumpy, greasy mess.

Another thing we like about this recipe is that it can be dressed up if you have some left over meat or other protein, or it is good on its own the next day if just take the chill off after spending the night in the refrigerator.

So, if your first try at this dish fails, keep trying, it’s worth it.

Start with medium skillet over medium-low heat. This recipe only makes two large servings, so you won’t need a big pan. Heat about three tablespoons of olive oil in the skillet. Add a teaspoon or more of freshly ground black pepper. You can just use the grinder over the pan until you see a good amount in the oil. You just want to warm it up so it becomes wonderfully fragrant. A little sizzling is to be expected. Take the pan off the heat and let it sit.

Next, you need either a large skillet or a wide saucepan. Place the spaghetti or pasta in the pan and add just enough water to cover. Season with a pinch of salt. Over high heat, bring the pan to a boil. Give it a little shove around the pan from time to time to keep it from clumping. Follow the package directions for al dente, pasta, usually about one minute less than the recommended time.

Take two to three tablespoons of the pasta water and put them in the medium skillet containing the oil and pepper mixture. Add two tablespoons of butter to that and stir it all together. Take tongs and transfer the pasta to the smaller pan. Add about one cup of grated Pecorino Romano. Use a fork to stir in the cheese until it is all melted. Use a little more pasta water if needed to get a creamy sauce that coats all of the pasta. Taste to adjust seasoning, adding a bit more salt and pepper if needed. Then take the whole pan to the table and serve directly on to plates. If you have a guest, be sure to offer extra grated cheese and black pepper.

You might not be familiar with pecorino cheese. If so, you will find it very similar and sold along side of the more well known Parmigiana Romano. And please don’t think that means the stuff that comes in an refrigerated canister. That not only tastes like salty sawdust, it contains sawdust, or cellulose, to keep it from clumping. Pecorino is made from sheeps’ milk rather than cows’ milk. That gives it a tangier flavor and a lot less fat.

This dish does contain a lot of carbohydrates. But if you are an active person, this is an easy and fast meal suitable for making after a long day at work.

Making Time to Cook Worth It

Having time to cook when you’re single is a matter of strategy. If you plan ahead you can eat better without being tied to the kitchen. You have to set aside a little time to do cooking, which can be for the whole week if you work it out right. You have to know what you need, make meal plans and use grocery lists. Instead of trying to make a tiny meal for one, make a regular size meal and put the rest away for later in the week.

During the week, you want to begin working on what you’ll eat, what groceries you’ll buy and what dishes you’ll cook. Here’s how that would go:

  1. With the help of your nutritionist or dietician, you’ve made a general meal plan that outlines what sorts of food you need for each meal: which meals need vegetables or fruit, which will be vegetarian, and which will be open for things like eating out, meals with friends and so on.
  2. Review the grocery store ad for the week to see what’s on sale. Pick out some foods you’d like to get and some recipes or cooking ideas to go with them. Don’t be afraid of large quantities, your freezer is your friend and that’s less you have to buy later.
  3. Once you know what you’re going to buy and cook, make a grocery list to be sure you don’t forget something. While you’re at it, use a calendar or some other grid to show what you plan to eat for each meal. This is not written in stone. Things will change through the week and that’s okay. What you don’t eat today can probably be eaten tomorrow or some other time. It doesn’t have to be detailed, just some general ideas.

Now you’re ready to shop. Plan on no more than two stops. If you like shopping in a mega supermarket, fine. Or you might want to consider, depending on where you live and your situation, stopping at the farmers market in the morning and in the afternoon go to the supermarket. Whatever works best for you.

If you’ve chosen Sunday afternoon for your cooking, you should be armed with your recipes and your meal plans. Not everything has to be done at once. For example, you can put together the ingredients for a salad and make a dressing, just don’t put them together. If you’re making a pizza, make some extra dough and make an extra crust or two, top them all but bake only one. Wrap up the others and store in the freezer for later.

You can make breakfast sandwiches or burritos while your dinner is cooking and pop those in the freezer for quick breakfasts during the week. Make a meal that offers flexibility, like a pot of soup, stew or chili that can be portioned into containers for later. Use those entrée containers to make your own frozen dinners. Just put in the plate components and stick in the freezer to be microwaved later. All of these things can be done while your cooking a main meal or right after. That way, everything, or nearly everything, gets done in one day, leaving little for you to do when you get home from work.

Also consider making components to various meals like a pot of rice, a pot of beans, a loaf of bread, a saucepan of mixed vegetables. All of these can be placed in containers for use later. You’ve already got everything you need for a tasty stir-fry or meatless dinner or lunch.

With just a little thought and planning you can reduce your cooking time enormously while still allowing you to eat good, healthy, homemade meals all week long.

Berry Buttermilk Cake

This recipe is a great use of frozen fruit. We used a berry medley in our version. But you could use any combination you like. We recommend letting the thawed fruit drain in a strainer for a few minutes before putting them into the cake batter. The recipe is here. IMG_20160125_194833630

Preheat your oven to 400 F with the rack in the middle position. Make sure you remove the half stick of butter a couple hours before to let it soften. Like all baked goods, start with the dry ingredients, mixing together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a large mixing bowl, use an electric hand mixer to cream the butter into the sugar. Remember that in baking sugar acts as a liquid. Beat until pale and fluffy. Add in the vanilla and the egg and mix until fully incorporated.

Then, with the mixer on low, add a third of the dry ingredients and a third of the buttermilk. Continue alternating until it is just combined. Don’t overmix it or the cake won’t be nice and fluffy. Pour into a greased and floured cake pan and bake for about an half hour until it is golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean from the middle.

Now comes the tricky part. If the cake is not cooled correctly, it will fall apart. It will still taste good, but it will be in little pieces. Let the cake cool in the pan for about 10 minutes. Then turn it out onto a wire rack to cool the rest of the way. The cake will be upside down at this point. After 15 or 20 minutes, turn it over onto a plate. You’re ready to cut and serve.

You DO Have Time To Cook

One of things you hear from people who don’t cook much, who engage in typical bachelor eating behavior, is that they just don’t have time to cook. But that begs the question: do you have time to write out a check for your rent or mortgage? Do you have time to shower in the morning before work? Do you have time to put gas in your car?

The answer: of course you do. Well, maybe we should say you make the time because you know those are things you have to do. And you should think of cooking in the same way. Cooking food and eating should be about more than just fueling your body the way you put gas in the car. It’s just as important if you want to do the things you want to do.

When you’re single, or even if you’re not, you have a busy life. You have to do everything yourself. And sometimes it just doesn’t seem worth the effort. But I can assure you from personal experience that it is worth it, no matter your age, your environment, your income or your living situation. Food is important. That’s why every human culture on the planet has traditions and activities revolving around food. And humans aren’t alone in that. Many animals have lives directly related to eating.

The key to cooking at home is strategy. No one wants to spend hours in front of a stove when you get home from work. No one wants to make multiple trips to the store (unless it happens to be convenient because you pass right by it on the way home). That means you need to do a little planning, put a little thinking into the effort. That’s what this blog is all about.

First, you need to realize that you can get a lot of cooking done in just one afternoon or evening a week. In that time you can make a pot of soup, put together a salad without the dressing, cook a pot of rice, beans or potatoes, all while cooking a healthy and nutritious meal. You might call this multi-tasking. A lot of cooking is waiting. That gives you an opportunity to take care of other things while you’re in the kitchen.

Next, if you have special nutritional needs, like diabetes, heart disease or a food allergy, meal planning is even more important. That means you need to have some general guidelines about your meals. Those elements include calorie counts, carbohydrates, fat content and similar nutritional values. Also, you need to make sure your meals are balanced and contain plenty of fruits and vegetables in addition to starches and protein. As we said above: food is more than just fuel. Having all of these elements under consideration will allow you to have a healthier life. And that means fewer expenses, longer life and being happy. Yes, happy. Food can greatly affect your mood. You might think that means sweets and chocolate. But actually, good nutrition makes your body happy and your brain chemistry in better balance.

A good place to start is at a nutritionist or dietician. You can probably get a referral from your doctor. He or she also might have some material to get you started. You need to take into consideration your nutritional needs. That’s where your doctor comes in. Then you have to take into consideration your tastes, how much money you can spend on food and how much time you devote to other activities. You may have to consider making some changes.

You might find the figures you come up with are rather restrictive. But there’s an easy solution to that: get moving! Exercise, even a daily walk around the block, can make a big difference in so many things. It will burn up more calories. It also burns up built up adrenaline which causes high blood pressure and tension. I know finding the time for that can be a challenge, but it’s worth the effort.

Meat Magic In A Pan Sauce

If you want to elevate any meat to restaurant quality, just add a simple pan sauce. The meat should rest for a few minutes before serving. That leaves you time to create this lovely addition that will knock your socks off. 

Making a pan sauce.

A pan sauce uses the fond, or the browned bits left on the bottom of the pan, as the sauce basis. There is a lot of flavor left in that pan. Once you have removed the meat from the pan, add a flavorful liquid, like wine or broth, and use a spoon or spatula to scrape up those bits on the bottom of the pan so they are loose in the liquid. Use enough liquid to barely cover the bottom of the pan. Put the pan on high heat and begin reducing the liquid to a thicker sauce. You can add in some more flavor using spices, herbs, sliced mushrooms, finely minced garlic or capers. After about five minutes, the sauce should be reduced and ready to pour over the meat on your plate. 

Those are the basics for any pan sauce. From there you should vary the ingredients in the sauce to complement your dish. Here are some ideas. 

Steak

Steak with mushroom red wine reduction.

Wine is one of the best liquids to use for a pan sauce. For steak, you want a hearty red wine, like a Cabernet. And, as I’m sure you’ve heard, you should never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink. That is especially true when making this sauce. After using some to make the sauce, you can drink the rest of the wine in the bottle with the meal. Start by adding enough wine to barely cover the bottom of the pan. Use a spoon to spare up all the bits sticking to the pan. Place over high heat and bring to a boil, stirring occassionally. Add in sliced mushrooms, about a cup, and cook for about five minutes. Lower the heat and let the sauce simmer for a few minutes. If you think the steak has gotten cold while you make this sauce, you can put it back in the pan now while the sauce thickens. 

Pork

Boneless pork chops in
Marsala wine sauce.

Pork chops remain a favorite in many homes. It is cheaper than beef and more flavorful than chicken. A Marsala wine sauce is ideal for pork, or most other meats. You might have to hunt a little for the wine, but it will be worth it. Add a cup or two of Marsala to the pan about 15 minutes before the meat is done. The sauce will be created while the meat finishes cooking. Again, throw in some sliced mushrooms to cook with the sauce, adjust the seasoning and let it reduce. When seasoning, remember to use a light touch so it doesn’t overpower the rest of the dish. 

Chicken

Chicken in cream sauce.

The standard rule says white wine should be served with fish and chicken. But we don’t accept that. A good wine is the one you like, whatever it is. The reason behind that rule is based on French cooking. Usually, a white flesh is more delicate tasting and thus requires a more delicate wine, which means a white wine. Red meats usually take a strong red wine to complement the meat. But in this case, a white wine would work best.  You can also use chicken broth. For our pan chicken sauce, remove the chicken when it’s done. Add minced garlic and onion and then the wine or broth. Allow it to cook on high heat for about five minutes, until the sauce thickens. Then add two or three tablespoons of butter or ghee and melt it into the sauce. This will make the sauce rich and a little creamy. Pour that over your chicken and be prepared for a “Wow!” 

A quick note about wines

Never use a cooking wine or sherry. They are just awful. Get the real thing so you can have a drink or two while you cook. It really helps. As for what kind of wine, if you don’t have much experience with them, go ahead and follow the standard rule of red wine for red meat, and white wine for white meat and fish. For white wines, I like a Pinot Grigio (or Pinot Gris if French) or a buttery Chardonnay without too much oakiness, depending on the season and the dish. I like the fruity Pino Grigio in the summer and the heavier Chardonnay in the winter months. For reds, a Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvingon or Merlot are the best choices for the novice. The first two are very strong flavors that go better with spicy dishes. Merlot is more mild tasting for lighter dishes. Feel free to consult a wine shop keeper for advise.

A Cream Sauce for Fish

Fish with cream sauce.

A quick sauce is called for here because the fish will not need to rest as long as other meats. When the fish is done, remove it from the pan and add a cup of white wine, a couple teaspoons of lemon juice and about a quarter cup of heavy cream or half & half. Let the sauce thicken and then add a handful of capers and some herbs, fresh if you have them. Then just spoon the sauce over the fish and serve.