Tuesday, January 31, 2006

A Healthy Non-Stick Skillet

Do Teflon coatings on cookware cause cancer or not? That's a hot question right now. A news report from yesterday says that a chemical used to make it is likely a carcinogen. A friend who has kept birds for years told me that if Teflon is heated too high, it gives off a gas that can kill them. I think I've ruined every Teflon skillet I've ever had, because I've heated them too high. I didn't learn that until recently.

So, Teflon skillets are picky about heat, they're made with nasty chemicals, and when they get hot they can release other nasty chemicals.....Doesn't sound like something I want to cook with. But nonstick skillets are so much easier to use, right? Do what I do, use an old cast iron skillet! As long as no one in your family has problems with too much iron, cast iron is safe to cook with, it's lots easier to use, and it's a good way to get extra iron.

I said old cast iron, and here's a picture that shows why.

Old cast iron pan inside a newer one


See how the old iron is much smoother than the new skillet? That's what you need to make sure your cast iron can be nonstick. I've read that you can make a new skillet nonstick by using it, and seasoning it, alot, but I've never been able to do it. Maybe I just don't have enough patience since the food makes a big mess because of all those bumps!

I have several old cast iron skillets of different shapes and sizes, and I love them. I use them every day, and I don't let anybody else clean them because if they're cleaned wrong the seasoning (that's what makes them nonstick) gets ruined. Here's how my mom taught me to clean my cast iron. It works great and is so easy!

First, clean the skillet while it's still hot from cooking. Here's a picture of my square iron skillet, just after making a huge batch of meatballs.

Dirty cast iron skillet, still hot


Using an oven mitt and being very careful not to get it wet, carry the hot skillet to the sink and put enough hot water into it to cover the bottom. It has to be hot water! Cold water could make your skillet crack, which would ruin it.

Hot water deglazes the iron skillet


The hot water added to the hot skillet deglazes it, just like making a sauce or gravy. I let the water bubble for just a bit, then pour it down the sink, and then add fresh hot water, but less this time.

A sponge without soap will get off stubborn food


Using a sponge with no soap in it, I gently scrub out any stubborn food bits. Notice that the cast iron is still so hot that the top of my skillet is evaporating the water away. Then that water goes down the sink.

Clean skillet just needs a final rinse and wipedown

Now the clean skillet gets a final rinse of hot water to wash away any remaining residue. Then I use a paper towel to wipe the skillet dry. If it looks like it needs it, I'll get another paper towel and put a bit of oil on it, and wipe all the inside, and outside bottom of the skillet with oil. Not enough to leave a sticky residue, just enough to cover the surface and get absorbed as the iron cools. That helps keep the skillet seasoned and nonstick. Here's my pan all ready for another use, and still pretty warm!

Clean, seasoned cast iron skillet


Its seasoning still looked good, so I didn't oil it. If it looks "dry," not as shiny as normal, then I oil the skillet after it's clean.

Researchers have found that increases the iron in the food. As long as there's no rust in the skillet, the food shouldn't taste funny because of the extra iron. For women, too much iron generally isn't a problem until maybe after menopause. For men and young children, as long as they're not getting a lot of it in vitamins or other sources (like cereals and breads which are often fortified with it), a little extra from your cookware shouldn't be a problem either. , so if you're not sure if you're getting enough, do some research and maybe see a nutritionist about it. Most people can probably use cast iron cookware. Why not give it a try?

Friday, January 27, 2006

Queenie Rants on Food Hygiene

{Before I get started though, an explanation's in order on my nickname. I want the focus to be on food, not on me, and I don't want to be dooced. That's why there's no name here. I chose the nickname because I liked the way it sounds (I'm a big sucker for alliteration), and because I feel most comfortable in the kitchen. I'm pretty handy for a girl, but the kitchen is the domain where I do my best stuff. Also, my mom describes people who are really mad as "royally pissed," and believe me, when I see people doing unsanitary or idiotic things in my kitchen, I get royally pissed!}

Okay. So yesterday afternoon I was running some errands with my children, and I decided to treat them by stopping at one of the fast food places that has a play area. The plan was to let them play some while I got organized, and maybe to get them dinner there. I bought drinks for everybody, then went to the restroom.

When I went in, an employee, a high school girl by the looks of her, was fiddling with her hair. I went in a stall and did my business, and heard her go in the other stall and do hers. She flushed, opened the door of the stall, and then walked out of the restroom.

Without washing her hands.

Ewwwwwwwwwwwwwww!!!!!

I was totally grossed out. Even if all she was doing at the job was getting drinks for customers, all the germs on her hands could still be transferred to other people! How could she just ignore the big sticker on the mirror that reminds employees, in no less than two languages, that they have to wash their hands before returning to work?!

It's true that my kitchen isn't always the cleanest place, and that some things that are okay with me would probably revolt others. (If the food isn't too gooey or obviously contaminated with gross stuff, I let the kids wipe it off and eat it if they drop something on the kitchen floor and pick it up immediately.) A few germs among family are part of the package. But when it comes to handling food when cooking, and especially when guests are eating with us, I am queen of the kitchen, and woe to anybody who doesn't practice good hygiene! Especially when they're dealing with uncooked foods like salads. I am a cleanliness freak then.

Even my six-year-old knows that if she wants to help me with anything in the kitchen, she has to wash her hands. With soap. And dry them well on a clean towel. And if she touches her hair or sticks her fingers in....well, in the places kids inevitably do, she must go through the drill again. And again, every time she does something that could contaminate the food. She doesn't like it, but she understands why it's important, and she sees me washing my hands frequently when I cook, so she knows it isn't a rule I take lightly.

Back to the fast-food place. When the kids came running to me asking if they could get their dinners, I told them that we wouldn't be eating there and that I'd explain why once we were outside. They were a little disappointed, but when I told them what I'd seen and heard, and not heard in the bathroom, they didn't argue. They understand that nobody should go from a bathroom to cooking without washing their hands.

So when we got home I made homemade hamburgers for dinner. That's a big treat for them, I usually try to limit how much meat they eat (and also stretch it for economy's sake). Here's how I do them.

I use good quality ground beef, but not a lowfat type. The higher fat helps keep the burgers juicy and flavorful, which is really important when there's just the beef. I try to let the meat warm a bit before forming the patties, because it's easier to handle that way, and overhandling beef leads to tough burgers. I grab a chunk of beef and gently press it into a fairly thin patty, just enough pressure to hold the burger together. I lightly season each side with salt and pepper after all the burgers are formed.

I cook them in a cast iron skillet that's been preheated on medium-high heat. Once it's hot, I put in a dollop of butter and a squirt of olive oil. They help the patties brown, and add a bit of flavor (they're not absorbed much by the patties). You could do just butter or oil, I use a combination because I like the flavor of butter and the oil helps keep the butter from burning. Once the butter is sizzling, I add the patties, leaving plenty of room around each (which means I usually have two skillets going to cook burgers for our whole family).

Once the bottom side is nicely browned (3-5 minutes), I flip the burgers and cook the other side to brown too. Then I turn down the heat to medium or medium-low and turn each burger twice more, to make sure the inside is cooked as desired (this could take just a couple more minutes for rare burgers, which I don't recommend because I don't trust mass-produced ground beef, and around 5-6 minutes for medium burgers).

How I tell if they're done the way we like is by touching them. The softer they are, the less done they are. Yes, you can really tell this even through the crunchy browned exterior! Test for yourself by touching a burger right after you've flipped it after browning both sides. It'll have a lot of give (unless it's a very thin burger). After you let the interior cook some, turn it again and feel it; that side will be firmer. With practice you'll be able to tell how cooked the interior is, without cutting a peek-hole into a burger or cutting one completely in half to tell if they're done.

Have everybody at the table and ready to eat when the burgers are done. They dry out and get tough if they're allowed to sit.

Now you probably know the other reason I don't make these very often. They use a lot of ground beef, but they also require me to wash my hands practically constantly! Sorry there's no pictures, but surely you know what a delicious, homemade hamburger looks like.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Blame it on Blog Envy

I meant to add to this blog much more regularly than I have. When I started it, I had no idea of all the time it takes to create a good blog entry! Plus taking pictures of the creations in progress....and editing the pictures....and don't get me started on trying to edit a Blogger template to create a unique look! It's overwhelming. Especially when I visit sites like the ones in my blogroll, and see so many beautiful things. How do you people do it, when you have jobs and kids and gardens and friends, and all the other joys and challenges of life to see to?

So, blame my absence on blog envy. I am trying to learn, though, and have taken lots of pictures for two upcoming blog entries. Both will focus on two passions of mine, good meatballs (that are also gluten-free!) and cast iron cookware.

Here's one picture I took that relates back to my Penzeys post. I mentioned that nutmeg is very easy to grate, unlike some spices (has anybody found a good way to grind cloves?). I use an inexpensive hand grater, which I've shown along with my bag of nutmegs from Penzeys.

Whole nutmeg and handheld grater


The bag shown is Penzeys' 4-ounce size. I know I've used up a few whole nutmegs from it, but I didn't keep count. Even with some missing, that's a lot of delectable nutmeg for under $4!

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Spice up your life with Penzeys Spices

I don't work for and don't get any money for recommending them. I've been a very happy customer for over twenty years - that's why I recommend them!

Penzeys is a great company that goes out of its way to find the best, freshest spices from all over the world. The selection is wide, from a nice fines herbes to wasabi and anywhere in between. Asian, Scandinavian, Italian, Mexican, Indian, Caribbean, African - if you like to cook it Penzeys has a spice for you.

In addition to selling pure spices and herbs, and the expected spice blends, Penzeys has developed many of their own combinations too. My family likes the Chicago steak seasoning for steaks. I use their regular taco seasoning (they make four different kinds) a lot, and rely on their chili powder as a basis for my own, more seasoned chili.

Obviously, a company that sends its people around the world learns a lot about their products. They like sharing that information with their customers, too. Look at this gorgeous display of dried chiles:
Varieties of chiles

A bigger image, and lots of information on different kinds of chiles, their uses, and a very handy Scoville chart for comparing their heat can all be found on the chile peppers page.

I have come to rely on Penzeys' herbs more than anything else. I still remember the first time I ordered from them - a small test that included Italian oregano, thyme, and sage. They were a small outfit then (this was pre-internet), with a typed catalog and a space on the order form for additional comments. I asked some questions in it (never can stop myself), and was very surprised - and delighted - to find a handwritten note answering each question tucked amongst my jars of herbs! And the flavor in all the spices - it was divine! Much, much better than any brand I've ever bought at a supermarket, and cheaper too. That's usually the case even with shipping figured in.

Penzeys also introduced me to the rapture of freshly ground nutmeg. I've loved that spice as long as I can remember, but hadn't had the real stuff until their catalog tempted me to buy it whole and grind it myself (which is easy, I do it with a small handheld grater). A whole page describes how nutmeg and mace are grown and harvested. Here's a picture (not from the Penzeys site) of nutmeg and mace still partially encased in the peachlike fruit they come from:

There are so many wonderful things at Penzeys! Aside from the herbs, I have two other Penzeys must-buys. One is their peppermint leaves. They're very flavorful, versatile, and make the cheapest peppermint tea I've found. I also rely on their soup bases - beef and chicken mostly, but I love their ham too - to flavor sauces and gravies. No msg, and not a lot of salt either - you get lots of rich meaty flavor.

I don't use their dried onions, garlic, and citrus fruit peels. I have never found a dehydrated product that I like for those items - it's worth the time to me to get the full flavor and health benefits from fresh onions and such. But if you don't have the time to chop onions every night, or are okay with the reduced flavor of dehydrated spices, you might like them.

Great products, very good customer service (in person, by snail mail, and on the internet - I've done all three), and excellent prices from a dedicated and knowledgeable group of people: Penzeys has it all. I almost forgot to mention - along with the fun stories in the catalog, you can find some wonderful recipes. They even have older catalogs available so you can get recipes from them. But if you can, find a Penzeys store close by and visit it. They have "sniffing jars" of everything so you can smell the wonderful stuff you'll be taking home. I dare you to go to Penzeys and come out empty-handed!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Obligatory Blog Launch Introduction

Hi, and welcome to my food blog. I'm a fairly accomplished home cook, blessed to be from a line of very good home cooks. I learned a lot from my Swedish gramma, and my mother and her sisters. With so much more food and fresh produce available now through the internet and wonderful stores like Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's, I've been able to experiment with many more flavors and combinations than they could. It's been fun and frustrating, but I love learning about cooking, and I enjoy both the process and the results.

With my blog I plan to share recipes, offer tips that I've learned over my years of kitchen patrol (that's what "KP" stands for, in case you didn't know it), talk about my love for good food and drink, rant about kitchen frustrations and failures, review products and services, ask for advice from others -- in other words, share all kinds of things food related.

I'm not afraid to try to cook just about anything, if it sounds at all appetizing to me. I've tried colonial American recipes, have developed my own recipes, and love exploring other cuisines. A year living in Mexico gave me a much better appreciation of the variety of that country's wonderful food, so look for good Mexican recipes from me. A child with a gluten allergy means that I often modify favorite recipes so she can eat them; I'll be sharing those too. I enjoy cooking with my children, and have tips and recipes for other cooks with kids. I love good coffee (not the burnt stuff that seems to be so popular), and am constantly looking for ways to improve my home brew, plus good dessert recipes that feature its wonderful flavor. I'm also a chocoholic, and have hopes of becoming a chocolatier some day ... look for me to talk about the trials and tribulations of chasing that dream, too.

Even though this post is all about me, I believe that good cooks have a lot to offer each other -- we can't spend all our life in the kitchen, after all! -- and I welcome feedback from others. So again, welcome, and let's get cooking!

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