Thursday, August 10, 2017

No, Your Eyes Won't Go Square

Once in awhile, I like to take a break from food and talk about general home maintenance, housekeeping, or parenting.  Today is one of those days.  :-)

When you become a parent, you suddenly find that there's no shortage of people, organizations, and "experts" who are right there telling you what's good or bad for your child, whether you asked them or not.  This is even worse today thanks to social media, which also carries a lot of misinformation.  One of the loudest organizations in this shouting match is the AAP.  And while their research and recommendations are very helpful and valid, I find that oftentimes, they're a bit over-the-top and they tend to flip-flop on subjects that frankly, they just don't have enough scientific data yet (or ever) to make good decisions about.

One such topic is the subject of "Screen Time."  This is a modern parenting buzzword for the amount of time that your child spends in front of a screen (Tablet, Cell Phone, TV, Computer, etc.).  If one were to follow the recommendations of the AAP and other experts to the letter, a child shouldn't be exposed to screens until at least 18 months old and for children 2 years and older, limit screen time to an hour a day.

An hour a day?  Seriously?

Don't get me wrong.  I'm all for setting limits and encouraging good habits early-on, but few adults are going to have less than 8 hours of screen exposure a day in the modern world, and that's assuming you work with a computer at your daily job and watch a couple of hours of television at night.  Expecting a child to restrict his or her screen time to just a single hour (equivalent to two episodes of PBS programming) is akin to teaching them screen time is off-limits and "bad for you."  In my opinion, it's not setting them up for a lifetime of healthy digital consumption habits.

My main complaint is that not all screen time is bad.  In fact, there are lots of great opportunities for screen time to be a great learning experience and it's a great opportunity to teach your child about good and bad behaviors when it comes to the digital world.  Setting limitations should be less about quantity and more about the quality of the screen time, provided you do set SOME sort of time limitations to encourage plenty of time for non-screen play and learning.

Here are some great, educational, tablet-friendly ways that I like my daughter to spend her screen time:

  • Real Educational Games - There's no shortage of great age-appropriate educational games in the App Stores and many of them are inexpensive.  One series we like in particular is the "Endless" Series from Originator.  These are perhaps the most complete reading/spelling/phonics and number/math apps I've seen for the toddler+ crowd.  They ask your child to recognize letters and sounds (letter recognition, phonics), put them into words (spelling), use the words in a sentence (word context, reading), and encourage building vocabulary by using "bigger" words than most other apps.  Plus, the animated monsters and the letter sounds are absolutely adorable.  These apps are worth spending money on and are better than any free ones out there.
  • Kids Podcasts - Podcasts are a great way to have electronics time without actually staring at a screen and they've come a long way with kids content recently.  NPR and Tinkercast have teamed-up to create a fantastic show called Wow In The World that that's geared towards the Kindergarten+ crowd.  It chooses a topic from the current world of science and explores it at an age-appropriate level with a heavy dose of goofiness and fun.  My daughter will literally sit in the backseat of the car giggling as we drive to school listening to it.  Another great show geared towards slightly older kids is Brains On.  There are also a bunch of podcasts where the hosts read popular books and fairy tales, including book adaptations of popular Disney movies.  I consider this akin to reading because it helps develop imagination (as opposed to movie-watching, which shows you what you should see) and it's great for long car trips.
  • Read-Along Digital Books - There are many of apps and services that provide books with accompanied audio so your child can read-along as the narrator reads the book to them.  Once your child begins to read, you can disable the audio to encourage them to sound out the words on their own.  The Disney Story Central app is a great one.  The app is kid-friendly, easy to use, and the books are inexpensive.  You can either pay for a subscription or buy batches of "tokens" that you or your child can use to purchase books.  Amazon also offers read-along children's books that can be used with a Kindle Fire or the Kindle App for iOS.
  • Puzzles - My daughter has loved puzzles ever since she could wrap her hands around one of those chunky wooden ones.  Now, she likes to play the Magic Jigsaw Puzzles App, often with her Grandfather who also loves puzzles.  This particular app has crappy navigation and a lot of in-app ads and purchases, but the features make it worth the aggravation.  You can choose a photo (many free ones), choose the number of pieces you want in your puzzle, and set whether you want them to be rotated or not (for an extra challenge).  If you purchase one of the feature packs for about $5, you get a pile of extra photos and the ability to make puzzles out of your own photo library.  My daughter loves this feature.
  • Familiar Board Games - Sometimes, when we're somewhere where there's a long wait and coloring books aren't available, quick and challenging strategy and board games are appropriate.  Plus, they can be played against the computer instead of Mom or Dad if you need some adult conversation time.  Most of your childhood favorites are available as apps, from Checkers to Hungry Hungry Hippos, Connect-Four (for when you're tired of Tic-Tac-Toe on the back of a restaurant place-mat), Solitaire, Chess, Scrabble, etc.
Things to Discourage:
  •  No-Longer Age Appropriate Apps - Once an app is no longer appropriate for your child, remove it from the device.  Kids tend to keep playing things over and over out of familiarity, even if they're mind-numbingly unchallenging.  You can discourage this by removing old apps and downloading newer more challenging ones.
  • Kid's YouTube - I'm going to be honest...I put this on our family tablet figuring it couldn't hurt and maybe she could use it to learn new things.  What I discovered was that there are plenty of video bloggers out there who are making content designed to sell toys to kids (and probably getting kickbacks from toy manufacturers in the process).  We're talking 20-something women playing with dolls and talking in high squeaky voices.  If you thought watching hours of cat videos was a great way to rot your brain, this is a new an innovative way to rot your kid's and he or she will want ALL OF IT for Christmas.
  • Wandering About Netflix or Amazon Video Freely - Sadly, the parental controls on most video streaming apps are quite minimal.  Netflix, for example, lets you set-up a kids account but only lets you select certain age ranges, not specific content.   You can't even create a watch list.  Generally, there's nothing "bad," but there's a lot of "rot your brain" content (like physical humor cartoons with no educational message) and I'd prefer my child make better choices of what to watch.  Also, they don't use passwords, so there's nothing stopping your kid from using your "adult" account anyway.  Even though I trust my daughter to make appropriate choices most of the time, I'm usually aware of what she's watching and will say, "Don't watch such and such.  How about this instead?"  Oftentimes, I'll switch something to the big TV so I can watch a long and gauge whether it's appropriate or not.  There's no substitute for good parenting.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Carbon Steel Pans - A Replacement for Teflon?

About 6 months back, there was a lot of hub-bub on the web and in various food media about Carbon Steel (sometimes called Black Steel) pans.

Carbon steel pans are nothing new, actually.  Traditional round-bottom woks are carbon steel and many commercial kitchens use carbon steel saute pans.  Carbon steel has also been a beloved material for chef's knives, though not so much in the home kitchen because it tends to turn a blotchy black-brown color.  But for some reason, carbon steel became visible to the home cook and suddenly, everyone was talking about them.

If you've never seen or worked with one, it's a heavy-gauge steel pan, often with a long steel handle (instead of plastic or silicone).  New, they have a dull gray polished finish.  Once well used and loved, they develop a dark black patina of carbonized polymer that's virtually nonstick, just like your favorite cast iron pans.  The difference is that they're lighter and thinner than cast iron, allowing you to do much of the same things you do with your trusty nonstick skillets like flipping the ingredients around or pouring them out onto a plate without the use of two hands (depending on how large your skillet is).

Interested in this new fad, I put a large one on my Christmas list and sure enough, Santa Claus came through and put this one, recommended by America's Test Kitchen, under my tree.  Around the same time I received mine, I happened to hear a podcast segment on Local Mouthful about how to season, use, and care for them.  There was also quite a bit of advice being put-out by Milk Street, including one tidbit about heating oil in it and discarding the oil before adding new fat to cook with.

So what's the verdict?

After using my pan for several months, I'm happy to report that it works well and has all but replaced my nonstick (ceramic or Teflon-coated) pan.  However, it wasn't without quite a bit of trial, error, and some frustrated fowl language.  Here are my thoughts on the matter:


This pan was by far more difficult to season than even an unseasoned cast iron pan.  With cast iron, you can jump-start the seasoning by generously coating the pan in vegetable shortening, placing it upside-down on the rack of your oven, placing a tray to catch drips on the rack below it, then removing the smoke detectors (an important step) and cooking the crap out of it.  Wash, rinse, repeat until you have a nice initial layer of seasoning.   You can also roast-up chickens and fatty meats in it.

With the carbon steel pan, not so much.  I tried this method and all I got was a pan coated in a sticky, blotchy mess.  I then had to get out a steel-wool cleaning pad (Brillo or SOS) and scrape all the gunk, goo, and blotchy seasoning.

I also tried this method with the potato peels, which is endorsed by America's Test Kitchen and also came on an instruction card with my pan.  I can't say it worked particularly well for me, but I didn't have standard brown potatoes.  So that may have been a factor.

Unfortunately, the best way to season this pan is to use it and baby it.  The advice Milk Street gives of heating it with some oil, discarding the oil, then adding fresh oil to cook with goes a long way towards this process.  When you're done, immediately scrub it with soap and water, heat it again, and rub a thin layer of oil on it...preferably flax seed oil.  Let it heat a bit more til it smokes, buff out the finish, then store.  If you do this for dozens of uses, it'll gradually build-up a nice seasoning.


I'm not going to lie.  This pan is going to look ugly for a very long time before it gets to that nice dark patina all over.  For some reason, it seasons in a very blotchy way, so you get areas where it looks like you've damaged the pan and areas where it still looks new-ish.  Keep at it and it'll eventually all start to blend into a muddled brown/black.  But it might take up to a year or so.  Mine still isn't there, yet.  I do think part of this problem is that I have a glass-top electric stove and the pan heats very unevenly.  If you have gas, you may not have as much of a problem with this.

Nonstick Ability 

I think the turning point was when I realized that this pan is not nonstick on its own.  You can't just spray it with cooking spray, toss in an egg, and fry it up like you can with Teflon.  This pan works in conjunction with a fair amount of oil to provide its nonstick properties, even after it's fairly well seasoned.  Check-out this video I did early on of eggs sliding around on a nice thin grease slick.  I don't think I could do this even in my best-seasoned cast iron pan or my Teflon pan.


What it DOES do over time is start to release caked-on gunk easily when being washed.  For example, I often make "cheesy eggs" for the family (scrambled eggs with American cheese melted into them).  If you've ever made these, you know that the cheese and egg protein bakes-on hard to the pan surface...even Teflon and needs to be soaked to get it off.  Once my pan had been sufficiently seasoned, this is what it looked like after cooking a batch of 6 eggs with 3 slices of cheese in them:

Not a lot of soaking or scrubbing to be done there.  I like to use one of these blue Scotch-Brite scrubbing sponges, which are specifically made so they won't scratch Teflon coatings.  They don't scratch my hard-earned seasoning, either.  Any regular dish soap will work fine as long as you don't use an abrasive scrubber.

Be sure to dry the pan well and re-season often (using the oil, heat, buff method above) before storing.  If you don't dry it well, it will leave rusty rings on whatever surface you put it on, which isn't good for your pan or your counter top.


What Not to Do

One of the selling points of carbon steel is that it can safely go from stove top to oven.  While that's technically true, I wouldn't recommend doing it with anything that has a sticky finish or anything that will overbrown on the bottom.  I did it with a honey-based glaze and I ended-up ruining my finish trying to get it off and had to re-season the pan all over again.

If you're going to use carbon steel in the oven--especially before it's entirely black, stick to thin pieces of meat, fritattas, and other things that will be in there a short time and don't have a lot of sugar.


The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that I have grown to love this pan.  It takes some getting used to and a bit of finesse to get it seasoned-enough to work with, but once you get it right, you'll love it and keep reaching for it over and over again.

Disclaimer: I'm now a member of the Amazon Associates program, in which Amazon will share a small portion of their profits with me if you buy anything on Amazon from one of the above links.  All of the products I've linked to, I've purchased or received as a gift and my opinions are my own.  I fully support your seeking-out a local source for all items, but if you do choose to purchase from Amazon, it helps support this blog and I thank you.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Turkey Galantine - aka A Boneless Whole Bird with Stuffing

Every so often, I like to do a more complicated food project, just for fun.  This Easter, I wasn't hosting the actual event...just contributing a main dish, so it seemed like an opportune time to tackle such a project.  So I decided to debone a whole turkey, pack it full of stuffing, then roll and tie it back up into a bird-like shape.

Sound crazy?  Maybe.  But let's take a step back for a moment...

I first saw this technique about a year ago on an old PBS Special, Cooking in Concert, with Jacques Pepin and Julia Child.  If you've never seen the two of them cook together, it's a real treat.  They had a great friendly relationship kind of like an old married couple and they liked to jab at one another and crack jokes.

"Are you going to put garlic in that?" Julia would quip, disapprovingly.
"Yes, of course.  I'm going to put garlic in it," Jacques would retort, as he chopped 3-4 cloves and dumped it in.

Jacques is, of course, a bonafide trained French Chef (he once served as private Chef to Charles De Gaulle) and Julia is...well...Julia.  But nobody can beat Jacques' knife skills (except maybe Martin Yan, but I digress).  So in this particular episode, they decided to have him demonstrate how to debone (or as he calls it, "bone-out") an entire chicken in under 3 minutes using nothing but a paring knife.  Julia timed him with her watch--all the while, taunting him.  Once he'd finished, she walked to the back of the set, pulled something out, then unceremoneously plopped a 15-pound turkey on the board and asked him to debone it.  The audience laughed.

Here's a YouTube video of Jacques expertly deboning a bird:

Anyway, I found that episode so inspiring because he made it seem so easy to take the entire carcass out of a bird, fill it with something tasty, then roll it back up jelly roll-style and roast it.  Of course, it takes a lot of practice to be able to do it as cleanly and easily (and fast) as he can, but it was fun to try.

Fast-forward to this Easter.  I decided I needed a challenge and I'd just finished reading Jacques' auto-biography and I was reminded of that Chicken Galantine.  I knew just what I was making.

First, I purchased a 15-pound bird.  You don't really want to go any bigger than that or it'll take forever to bone-out and cook.  In fact, I'd go smaller like a 12-pound.  Watch Jacques do it a few times and then get out your sharpest paring and boning knives, roll-up your sleeves, and get to work.

Above is a turkey minus its bones with the exception of the drumsticks, more or less done with Jacques' technique (I didn't re-watch it beforehand, so it was a bit harder than it maybe would have otherwise been, but I succeeded.).  For flavor, I generously coated the meat with some olive oil, salt, pepper, and crushed garlic.

The filling I chose is made of 50/50 farro and short-grain brown rice, chopped drained spinach, finely chopped preserved lemon, chopped fresh tomato, and cubes of feta cheese.  If I had to do it again, I'd add an egg to bind it a bit and allow the bird to stay together in nicer slices.

Fill it up, though not too thick or it'll just push out.  Roll it, then tie it like a roast.
Coat generously with butter, salt, and pepper and roast it at 425 degrees until it reaches 160 degrees in the center.  Remove it from the oven and let rest, tented with foil for 15-20 minutes (the temp should coast to 165).  Remove the legs and string and slice as best as you can for serving.  If all goes well, it'll look like slices of jelly roll.

Overall, this was a delicious experiment.  Chickens are definitely easier to do and hold-together better, but the turkey was quite impressive coming out of the oven, so there's a trade-off.  And this stuffing was absolutely delicious.  I'll probably be using variations of it in the future for other purposes.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Doritos-Crusted Chicken...Wait, What?

I have a confession to make.  I've never eaten at a Taco Bell.  The truth is that I just don't like Mexican style food all that much, so we never went as kids and I don't really eat a lot of fast food as an adult.

That said I do love fried chicken and there's something oddly alluring, if not downright creepy, about these new "inside-out" tacos they've been advertising where they've basically wrapped taco condiments inside of a rolled-up fried chicken patty.  There's something equally alluring and weird about the Doritos-flavored hard taco shells they've been hawking.

And then it hit me...  DING!  Doritos-coated chicken.  OMG.  YES.

I'm going to be honest with you...  It didn't have quite the familiar Doritos-flavored punch I expected it to have.  It turns out that the frying process mutes the seasoning quite a bit.  However, it turns out that crushed tortilla chips make a fantastic, super-crispy coating, so it was a big win anyway.  I think if I were to do this again, I'd probably just use plain tortilla chips (preferably low-salt) or I would use the Doritos and try to bake them instead of frying them.

Doritos-Crusted Chicken Cutlets

1/2 of a large bag of Doritos Chips
1 egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon of water
1 pound of boneless skinless chicken breast or tenders

  1. Place chips in a large zip-top bag.  Close the bag, removing as much air as possible.  Using the smooth side of a meat mallot, the bottom of a heavy pan, or a rolling pin, pulverize the chips into uniform crumbs.  Alternatively, you may wish to use a food processor.
  2. Pound the chicken pieces flat so they are uniformly about 1/2 inch thick.
  3. Bread the chicken pieces by placing them first in the egg wash, then into the crushed chips.  Place each piece on a rack to prevent it from getting soggy.
  4. Shallow-fry in oil or bake in a 375 degree oven until golden brown and chicken is cooked-through.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Pork "Beef" Stew

A couple weeks ago, I had a hankering for beef stew.  It had been cold and snowy and beef stew was one of my Mom's specialties when I was growing-up.  Unfortunately, my wife doesn't like beef.  In fact, she doesn't eat much in the way of red meat at all.  One of the few red meats she will eat is pork and only when prepared in certain ways.  She happens to really like the Halloween Stew that I make, so I thought maybe I could just try to make a beef stew and substitute some pork butt (boneless shoulder) meat instead of the beef.  And that's how this recipe was born.

It turns out that pork is an excellent and economical stand-in for beef in a beef stew recipe.  It also turns out that my wife doesn't much like this stew.  Oh well, more for me...

Pork "Beef" Stew

2 pounds boneless pork butt (aka "Boston Butt" or Boneless Shoulder Roast)
1 large onion, cubed
3-4 carrots, sliced into thick coins or half-inch cubes
2-3 stalks of celery, sliced into half-inch pieces
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
2 quarts beef broth or prepared beef bouillon
1 pound red bliss potatoes, washed and cubed
1/2 cup red wine, un-oaked like a Merlot (optional)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
olive oil
salt & pepper

  1. Cut the pork into 1-inch cubes and season generously with salt and pepper.
  2. In a large pot or dutch oven, working in batches, brown the pork and remove it to a plate.
  3. Adding fresh oil to the potk, saute the onions, carrots, and celery until they begin to soften.  Add the garlic and saute briefly.
  4. Add the wine (if using) and scrape-up any bits on the bottom of the pot.  Allow the wine to simmer a few moments until the strong alcohol flavor dissipates.
  5. Add the potatoes, broth, meat, and any meat juices collected on the plate.  Scrape-up any remaining bits on the bottom of the pan.
  6. Bring the mixture to a boil and reduce to a simmer.  Simmer gently until the pork and vegetables are tender, 30-45 minutes.
  7. Prepare a slurry of 1/2 cup of flour and approximately 1 cup of water.  Stir it well or shake it in an airtight container.  It should be smooth and the consistency of a pourable cinnamon bun icing.
  8. Drizzle half of the flour slurry into the hot soup, stirring constantly so that no lumps form.  Bring the stew back up to a slow boil and check the thickness of the broth.  If you prefer it thicker, add more slurry.
  9. Serve with crusty bread and butter.
Pressure Cooker Variation
Prepare as directed in the base of your stove-top pressure cooker up through step 5.  In step 6, close the pressure cooker and bring it up to full pressure.  Cook for 25 minutes.  Quick release the steam and return the pot to the stove.  Finish the rest of the recipe steps to thicken the broth.

Slow Cooker Variation
Prepare pork and vegetables as described.  Instead of browning the meat and sauteing the aromatic vegetables, place the vegetables in a microwave safe bowl.  Coat with olive oil and a pinch of salt.  Microwave on high 3-5 minutes until they have started to soften and the onions lose their pungent odor.  Place the vegetables, meat, and broth into the slow cooker, omitting the red wine.  Cook on low for 8 hours or high for 4 hours.  Remove 2 cups of the broth to a saucepan and thicken it into a stiff gravy using the instructions in steps 7 and 8.  Stir the gravy into the slow cooker.  Alternatively, it can be left as liquid and tastes delicious.