A typical kitchen conversation between me and the H (a little bit of context first: we’ve been making biscuit Joconde , a moist sponge cake dough that is used as the basis for many fruit desserts. The recipe we have calls for 3 eggs and 3 egg whites, leaving us with extra egg yolks):
The H: “What can I do with three extra egg yolks?”
Me, googling and perusing a webpage of recipes “Er. Mayonnaise? Aioli? Pasta carbonara? Chocolate mousse?”
The H, paging through our big book of desserts; “Chocolate mousse. Ah no, that’s got cream.”
Me: “You can substitute coconut cream for cream.”
I really should have looked at the recipe before saying this. An hour later and the H is busy mixing eggs and coconut cream, and desperately trying to get the mixture to set.
The H: “Are you positive you can substitute cream and coconut cream?”
Me, getting up and finally looking at the recipe: “Er. Maybe not. And you know that next bit where you beat the cream until it’s solid?”
The H: “Don’t tell me. It doesn’t work with coconut cream.”
Me: “Probably not.”
The H, after another half hour of beating up eggs and coconut creams, staring at a very liquid chocolate mousse. “Hahahaha. Tell you what, I’ll throw it in the freezer.”
And that is how we ended up having chocolate-coconut ice-cream for New Year’s Eve (it does freeze beautiful, actually. The H says he’ll make a note of the recipe for future snakelet consumption).
Aaand part 2 of my 10 kitchen essentials (part 1 is here).
6. Wok: my multi-purpose frying pan. Woks, strictly speaking, don’t really work well on an electric stove–which means I didn’t bother to buy a carbon steel or aluminium or fancy one. Basically, I have a wok-shaped frying pan, which may not exude the breath of the wok but is darn handy for approximate sautéed noodles and various other preparations. The one accessory I did buy was a multi-format lid like this one , which basically fits all our sizes of frying pans. It’s handy for a number of uses, not the least of which is steaming food within the pan.
7. Rice cooker: not worth introducing this one anymore. We bought a really fancy one, but in the end what we mainly use is the rice cooker function, and the steaming basket (very handy for dim sum and bánh bao, which have a tendency to stick like limpets to a metal steamer. Though a trick I saw last Saturday at the Chinese restaurant was putting your dim sum on top of a large carrot slice, which served the double purpose of looking pretty and preventing stickiness).
8. Lemon reamer: I got my wooden lemon reamer from Habitat at clearance prices (my sis will, I’m sure, remember the time when I crossed Madrid on a metro just to buy it ). We have (or used to have) a juicer, but it doesn’t work very well on limes or lemons because they’re broadly longer than larger, and the juicer broadly made for oranges which tend to be as long as they are large. I ream a lot of limes because they’re a basic ingredient of the ubiquitous nước mắm dipping sauce; but never really more than a few at a time (otherwise I’d invest in a squeezer or something more appropriate), and it’s nice to have something which helps you get juice out of a lime in one minute flat. My reamer looks a bit like this.
9. Maryse: a maryse is a very particular kind of spatula; I’ve looked around a bit but haven’t found an English equivalent (if any reader of this blog knows, please speak up!) It’s a (flexible) rectangle which enables you to scrape from a pan or salad bowl. It looks a bit like this (the left-hand one; the right-hand one is what we’d call a “demi-maryse”). It’s invaluable for any kind of pastry, as it enables you to get almost all your dough from the bowl where you mixed it (or all your chocolate from the saucepan in which you melted it, etc.), but I’ve also found it handy for cleaning out pans with mashed potatoes or any kind of semi-tough preparation that doesn’t have the good grace to come flowing out of the pan. One of those tools that my husband doesn’t see the use of (he goes for a spoon or a normal spatula), but that I use all the time.
10. Pastry brush: very very handy for making xá xíu pork or for bánh mì chiên tôm (shrimp toast). I got a silicone one because there was no way I was hunting down for bristles in my barbecued pork. It’s one of those things that I don’t use often but that’s really handy to have in the kitchen when I do. Mine is a bit like this, but with a metal handle instead of a wooden one, which means I can chuck it in the dishwasher directly.
And that’s the end of my list. What about you? Other things I’ve missed that you feel should be on this list?
So… I thought it would be a nice addition to the blog to list those items that I use most in the kitchen. By and large, I haven’t listed the really esoteric stuff (and while I do use a food processor from time to time, the H hasn’t yet convinced me that my future lies in embracing it. Mostly because it’s a lot of hassle to clean…). I’ve provided links to amazon, not to endorse stuff, but mostly because short of taking pictures of everything it was the handiest way to show you what my appliances look like (I’m very peculiar about some stuff, as you’ll see).
(and yes, I haven’t been cooking enough to provide a recipe and needed a cooking post. How did you guess?)
1. 13-inch wooden chopsticks: very handy for anything from beating eggs to fishing blanched carrots out of boiling water. There’s much, much larger models for deep-frying and wok cooking, but I’ve always found them rather unwieldy for everyday cooking.
2. Garlic press: I know there’s a big debate on whether it’s a good idea to use a garlic press. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no debate at all. I need chopped-up garlic almost every evening, and I don’t need to make the taste of the garlic milder (who’d want to do that?). I could use item #3 on my list (mortar and pestle) to make a purée, but when I just have a few cloves to mash it’s just easier to reach for the press, which is much lighter and cleans more easily. I got my garlic press from the Chinese district in Paris for a ridiculously low amount of money, but if I had to buy one again, I’d pick one where the grid of small holes detaches (makes it way easier to clean up), and make sure that it’s sturdy enough and heavy enough. Mine looks a lot like this except not at that price point.
3. Granite mortar and pestle: handy for mashing ginger (which I do for about one meal in three or one meal in two), puréeing large amounts of garlic, or grinding spices. I used to have an olive wood one and basically never touched it; for some things you just need stone. I was told that the sound of the pestle hitting the mortar was one way families picked out their future daughters-in-law in Ancient Vietnam: it had to be regular, thereby proving that the owner knew how to cook. Makes sense, seeing how useful the thing is for everyday cooking! Mine is a 5″ model (I think it’s the outer diameter?), which is a nice compromise between being light enough for me to lug it to the sink, and large enough to handle what I put in it. Though if I had to buy another one, I might go for a 6″ model. Looks exactly like this (and probably was imported from the same place).
4. Chopping knife: my weapon of choice here is a 15cm-Santoku knife. The H and I differ quite wildly in our handling of kitchen knifes: he’s used to a chef’s knife, but for some reason the Santoku just sits more easily in my hand (I suspect it’s more congruent with both the shape of my hand as well as what I expect from a knife). I have a metal one; have to admit that if I
hit jackpot sell my novel, I might very well invest in a high-quality ceramic one.
5. Angled measuring glass: someone sold me on the 2-cup Oxo angled measuring glass a couple years ago, and I haven’t looked back. Compared to my old measuring glass, it has three advantages. One is that the angle makes it much easier to see what you’re measuring from above as well as from the sides; the second is that it’s handily graduated in imperial and in metric (my old glass, like many French glasses, was by weight of what you were measuring, like flour or chocolate or sugar); the third is that the metric scale indicates the first 10 mL (which is really useful for small amounts of liquid and avoids me juggling with tablespoons and teaspoons). I see, though, that the version for sale on amazon.com doesn’t really seem to have #3 on my list, which is odd?
And that’s all for this week–tune in next week for the next five items on the list
What about you? What items couldn’t you do without in the kitchen?
(part 2 of this list is here)
So… this weekend’s cooking experiments saw me invading the kitchen of my in-laws and making chả giò (fried rolls). It’s actually a lot more fun to have victims, er, helping hands I mean, to take on some of the work involved in making the rolls. Making the stuffing and wrapping the rolls is about 90% of the work, and for me alone it’s usually a good half-day’s work. Here we made short work of the 30+ rolls in under 2 hours; I understand now why making this (and making dumplings) is a communal activity!
We also got to try out my in-laws’ Philips Airfryer, which deep-fries food with a minimal amount of oil: in this case, the H kindly brushed all the rolls with frying oil (which was some work :p), and we then studied the problem of how to adapt the recipe to an Airfryer. First attempt was dumping rolls in the Airfryer basket and cooking them at 200°C for 20 minutes, flipping them once during cooking. This proved effective but time-consuming: the basket could only take 6 or so rolls, and 20 minutes is a long time when you’re already hungry. We then switched to an intermediate method: cook the rolls in a 200°C-oven for 20 minutes, until they just start to turn golden. Then dump them 6 by 6 in the Airfryer basket, and cook them at 200°C for 4 minutes on each side. Much, much more effective.
The final result doesn’t *quite* look like it’s been deep-fried, but I have to say it’s not too shabby, and the rolls tasted great!
(also, the H now wants us to do dumplings in the Airfryer. I think he enjoyed the entire thing a bit too much :p)
So… I’ve now finished reading How to Eat by Nigella Lawson, and I have a bit of a dilemma. I love Nigella Lawson’s style and her no-nonsense approach to cooking; and her advice and general tips, but… but the book itself has very few recipes I can use, mostly because so much of what’s in it requires either milk, buttermilk, cream, and/or alcohol, none of which my digestive system can bear (I do butter and cheese fine, and small quantities of milk in pastries that are well cooked, and that’s about my upper limit). Does she have any later books where the reliance on these ingredients isn’t as important? I got the impression that one of her later books (can’t remember which one?) drew a bit more from South and East Asian cooking? And Nigellissima is Italian food?
Ran a laundry; decided to make nước màu (caramel sauce) in my cast-iron enamelled pot (which was a welcome change from the bad saucepan I used the last time). The sauce is cooling as we speak; I’ll be hunting for a jam pot next. Have to say oven mitts are great for protection during the risky endeavour of heating up sugar…
Now I’m off to spread the laundry to dry. Ah, heady days…
(also bought a copy of Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat, and am currently reading it with fascination. She’s a smart no-nonsense cook and a lot of her advice resonates with me even though our cooking reflexes aren’t exactly on the same spectrum due to different sources).
1.5L of water, half an onion, 1 knob of ginger, a good teaspoon of five-spice powder, a good tablespoon of instant chicken broth powder, a LOOOT of fish sauce (1 or 2 tablespoons), a 1-inch piece of kombu, 8 shrimp with their shells, and 3 nests of egg noodles. And a dash of sesame oil before serving.
Broth heaven. Yum yum.
The amazing Fran Wilde has interviewed me for her series “Cooking the Books”–interviews focused on food and SF writers (you can understand why I was deliriously happy to be picked as an interview subject ). I wax lyrical about the power of food, lemongrass chicken in “Immersion”, and my recipe process here.
The weekend’s challenge: how to create a buffet for 25 guests in a day or less (I had intended to do some pre-shopping but ended up leaving work far too late on the Friday evening). Bonuses (or lack thereof): lack of the H during the morning (due to mysterious shopping activities aka getting my present), and a small Parisian kitchen.
I knew ahead of time that the choking point was going to be the oven: I had to cook 2×2 savory cakes and 60 chả giò, and I only had the one oven. On the day before the party (and rather late at that), however, I realised that I’d forgotten a very important item to be cooked in the oven: the dessert! There followed some slightly frantic twitter and FB queries for possible recipes. I got tons of good ideas, but a lot of them required advance preparation and/or lots of time and/or unfamiliar kitchen techniques; in the end, the H and I settled for waffles, which had the advantage of being a familiar recipe. (but I took lots of notes and fully intend to cook the suggestions–discovered lots of pastries I didn’t even know existed!)
I went to do some shopping in the morning, and came back with a full shopping cart; then I settled for the first of the savoury cakes (it started out as a chicken-and-tarragon cake, but I couldn’t find any tarragon, and ended up with chicken-ginger-mint cake. This is why you should never leave me in control of any recipe; I almost put soybean paste in the second cake but the H put his foot down). Then the oven basically worked overtime until 8pm or so (it turned out I’d drastically under-estimated the time it took for chả giò to cook–each batch of 15 rolls needed about 20 minutes near the heating element of the oven, which in turn meant quite a bit of attention from me…
I also had a lot of manual work to do (chopping carrots and putting spread on canapés), but a group of guests very kindly agreed to come ahead of time and help with that–we made such good time that we were basically ready ahead of the 6pm starting date.
The only surprise of the evening turned out to be our waffles: the H took the waffle recipe from the Larousse des Desserts , a venerable encyclopedia of French desserts which turned out to have quite a lot of embarrassing typos–specifically, when he popped the dough into the waffle-maker, it basically evaporated as it was cooking (you can imagine this didn’t really create satisfactory waffles). There followed about 1 hour of war councils between various guests to determine the best strategy to fix the dough; by the end, I think they’d tried adding everything to the dough, including but not limited to orange blossom water, corn starch, and 1.5kg of flour… In the end, we determined that the reason it wasn’t working out was the lack of a leavening agent in the dough (rather a grievous error for a recipe): basically, we’d been trying to make waffles with pancake dough… So they threw in baking soda, waited for a bit, and finally could start making decent making waffles.
I settled for making the chocolate sauce: turns out tablets of Nestlé’s full-bodied cooking chocolate works out marvels
In the end though it all worked out quite well, and (I think) the party was a success (as usual, mainly thanks to the guests for the company and the help). But I swear that’s the last time I trust a recipe from the Larousse…