Do you need an Instant Pot? In a word – Yes.

Every year on my birthday, I buy myself a gift, often kitchen-centric. This year, after resisting for quite some time, I bought an Instant Pot Ultra. Monica was a bit dismissive at first, thinking it’s just another toy, and said as much. After we’d used it a few times – enough to experience what it’s really capable of – she said, and I quote, ‘Why did it take you so long to buy one of these?’ 

Instant Pot - Do you need one?
Instant Pot – Do you need one?

Do you need an Instant Pot? In a word – Yes.If you cook and you honestly don’t know what an Instant Pot is, then I’d kinda have to believe that you’re living in a cave and singing your fingers over an open fire. Instant Pot is a brand name for a Canadian designed version of an electric, programmable pressure cooker. That said, comparing this to your gramma’s old 500 pound aluminum behemoth is like equating an AMC Pacer to a BMW. Yes, these things claim to do a bunch of things well, and with most consumer goods of that ilk, it really isn’t the case – But with the IP, I’m here to tell you it’s all true. 

Instant Pot was formed in 2009 by a bunch of Canadian tech nerds who cooked – That synthesis lead them to brainstorm a cooking device that would genuinely do things well, but faster than many common alternative methods. They state their ultimate aim as, ‘to enable busy families and professionals to prepare quality food in less time, promoting better eating and reducing the consumption of fast food.’ I’ll  go so far as to say they’ve achieved that, in spades.

The Instant Pot Ultra - Not the top of the heap, but there isn’t much it can’t do.
The Instant Pot Ultra – Not the top of the heap, but there isn’t much it can’t do.

There are several iterations, of course. The Ultra model we have claims a raft of functions, with settings for Soup/Broth, Meat/Stew, Bean/Chili, Cake, Egg, Slow Cook, Sauté/Searing, Rice, Multigrain, Porridge, Steam, Sterilize, Yogurt, Warm, and Pressure Cooker – It’ll even do a pretty damn good job of sous vide. Then there’s what IP refers to as the ‘Ultra’ program, which in essence just gives you a very wide margin of adjustability for most parameters of the various functions mentioned above. In other words, instead of being stuck with the maker’s idea of perfect for cooking beans, you can go in and tweak the settings to your needs, and for the record, this is, for my mind, actually important. Say you cook a lot of beans – You’ll quickly learn that they do not all do well with one cooking time – so being able to adjust that makes the machine very good instead of just OK at that task. For those that really don’t care for the extra bells and whistles, there are simpler models with less of that kind of thing aboard.

At the heart of these things is, of course, a microprocessor, so yeah – in essence, it’s computer controlled. With multiple sensors monitoring temperature, pressure, cooking time, and food volume, the IP takes a lot of the guesswork out of cooking, and has so far performed flawlessly for us – Take those beans again – From precooking, to sautéing ingredients for the final dish, to cooking all that thereafter, everything can be done seamlessly, in one pot.

Loading up an IP for the final run
Loading up an IP for the final run

And as we’ve known for a long time, pressure cooking – the heart of these things – seriously cuts down on cooking time for dishes that traditionally take quite a while. A primary impetus for my purchase was the fact that almost every posting member of the Vietnamese cooking group I belong to has one, uses it regularly, and swears by it. Even for something as sacred as broth for Pho, these folks go almost universally with an IP, and swear that you can’t tell the difference in the finished dish, vis a vis traditional low and slow methods.

sautéing in an IP
sautéing in an IP

Pressure cooking also does great things for flavor, because all that you add is sealed in, and relatively little escapes. Add the ability to slow cook, or do fairly tightly temperature controlled souls vide, let alone all the specialty settings, and you’ve got a seriously powerful kitchen tool.

These things come in a range of sizes and versions, and the Ultra, as lux as it may sound, isn’t the top of the heap. They range from 3 to 8 quarts, and $45 to $200, as of a quick check today. If you cook a bunch, and you appreciate what these things can do, you really can’t go wrong with picking one up – The scary part is how many people own, and use, more than one IP – I’m not there, and frankly, I’m cool with that.

Now, final caveat – No, I didn’t get an IP for free, or less, or any other version of paid BS endorsement. I bought mine, fair and square, for market price, just as you’ll do. We don’t do the endorsement thing here – Never have, never will, OK? OK.

Printing Restored

Yet another alert reader let me know that the print function for posts seemed to have disappeared, further noting, ‘I’m pretty sure you used to have one…’

Glad somebody was paying attention, ’cause clearly I wasn’t, and yeah, I sure did have one.

Anyway… Print services have been restored. There’s a little green button at the bottom of each post. Click that, and it’ll give you options to print, convert to PDF, email, and such. You can also edit, pruning off my long winded harangues and just printing recipes and what not, too.

Sheesh…

Spring Cleaning Your Freezer

For 25 points, identify the following protein:

Didn’t think so…

Spring is the perfect time for deep cleaning. Shaking off the dust and cold and mold of winter, letting fresh air in – We do it to our homes, (hopefully), and we need to do it to our freezers as well. Whether you’ve got just a small one adjacent to your fridge, or a stand alone separate unit, it’s time to thoroughly clean that beast, inventory what’s there with a critical eye, toss what needs to be tossed and cook what must be cooked before it too goes to the great beyond.

This line of reasoning naturally brooks the question, “Can food go bad in the freezer?” The answer to which is a definite ‘Yup!’

Keep in mind that freezing does not kill bacteria, yeast, mold, etc –  it just pretty much keeps them from multiplying. In other words, if there was something funky prior to freezing, it could indeed reappear when thawed. Additionally, freezing does not do any favors for food quality, taste, etc; over time, great stuff will become good and good stuff becomes that image up yonder.

Before we abandon the ‘how long’ question for the stuff in the freezer, let’s review – When does quality starts to degrade? Depends on what it is, and how well it was packaged fro freezing, frankly. For answers to this and other burning freezer questions, (Sorry), hop on over to the USDA’s Food Safety site and read for yourself; there’s a handy chart at the bottom of this freezer article that details recommended freezer storage guidelines. You’ll also find the National Center For Home Food Preservation a wealth of good info, so scope that out too.

In general terms, when cleaning out your freezer, look for things like the pic above, the obvious victims of freezer burn, poor packaging, etc, and single them out for further inspection. If flesh looks substantially different than it usually does when thawed, (Darker, off color, dried out, etc), then you should give it the heave ho; trust me when I say if it looks funky, it’ll taste funky, and could be dangerous.

When you package for freezing, head back to the NCHFP site and read up on best practices.

The time to clear out your freezer is also the time to clean the bugger; this should be done at least annually,
and naturally, the best time do the deed is when stocks are low, AKA, the end of winter.

Pull everything out and put it into a fridge or cooler(s) while you clean.

Turn off, unplug, and thoroughly defrost your unit.

Once it’s to room temp, clean the insides thoroughly; I like Clorox cleanup for the job, but dish soap and water works fine too. Remove and clean all the shelves, racks, drawers, etc as well.

Do a rinse wipe with a solution of 2 Tablespoons of baking soda to a quart of warm water, then wipe that down with a clean, dry cloth.

Don’t forget the unseen parts! Pull the freezer from it’s normal locale and clean underneath. Inspect the back and clean that as well, (And the top), and dust the coils if your unit has exposed ones.

If you don’t already have one, buy a decent but cheap inside-the-unit thermometer and place in an easy to see spot. Our commercial units have thermometers on them, usually digital, but we don’t trust those; every unit, reach in or walk in, has a stand alone thermometer inside it. Optimal freezer temp for food storage is -15ºF to -5ºF; it should never go above 15ºF for any extended length of time.

Fire ‘er back up, let it get fully cold and then put your bounty back in. mark the calendar for the same time next year.

OK, that about covers it; now go have a celebratory beer or two, ya done good!

Oh, and stay tuned – Next post will cover building the perfect stew with all that lovely meat ya done kilt and gathered!

E & M

It’s Grill Cleaning Time!

Little Darlin’s, it’s been a long, cold lonely winter; fact is, here in the middle of April, I’m still seeing snow pics from friends in the Midwest and Canada. Well, have faith, gang, the sun is coming and with it, grilling, barbecuing and smoking season, so let’s get ready for it. Whether you use a simple pot grill like a Webber or a thousand dollar, high end gas rig, they all need TLC before the season commences.

Deep Cleaning
Chances are your equipment’s been more or less inactive all winter; you didn’t clean any of it before you put it into hibernation, right? Then it’s cleaning time, first and foremost. Here’s what you need to do.

Remove the grill grates and, if you’ve got a gas rig, disconnect the fuel from the grill, remove the flame deflectors and burners from the grill body.

First thing, remove all old briquettes, burned whatever, and scrape as much grease and char off as you can by hand.

For the deep cleaning, you’ll need a grill brush, a heavy duty sponge, a scrubby pad and steel wool, a bucket of hot, soapy water, another of hot, clean water, some rags, and some degreaser. I recommend Simple Green, it’s effective and environmentally sound, which is an attribute we should all be concerned with. Have at the entire grill with the degreaser first, allowing it some working time before you scrub. Move onto the soapy water, then the rinse, until your grill looks as close to new as you can get it. FYI, if you’re a heavy user, a mid-season cleaning won’t hurt. Thoroughly clean every component, including the grates. A seasoned grill is a good thing, but excessive grease and char build up can lead to flaring, burning and off-putting flavors in your food. A clean grill will last far longer than a dirty one as well.

Kick the Tires & Light the Fires
Now give your grill a point by point, detailed inspection of every component. Check grill and charcoal grates for rust, rot or missing and chipped porcelain. After they’re clean, dry, and inspected, you’ll re-season them. Check your framework and lid to make sure they’re all sound and there are no nuts, blots, struts, wheels missing or damaged. If you use a gas grill, check your tank, valve, line, regulator, burners and flame deflectors to make sure they’re clean and sound. Don’t screw around with gas parts; if they’re rotted or badly rusted, replace them. At the least, your grill will cook poorly; at worst, you could have a genuine explosion or fire hazard brewing. If you need parts, Home Depot carries quite a few, and of course there’s probably a local supplier not to far from most of us.

When you’re ready to rock, season your grates prior to first use. Soak some paper towels with cooking oil and thoroughly rub all surfaces of the grates. Turn on the gas or light a small charcoal fire and heat the grill to high with the cover open until the oil burns off, the. Turn the heat down to low and let the grill work for about fifteen minutes or, (or until your charcoal expires). Let the grill cool down, then wipe the grates down and reapply a thin coating of fresh oil; those last steps are always a good idea after grilling, to prepare for your next session and extend the life of the grates by making sure rust doesn’t form.

Flame On!
So now grill is ready to rock and roll but… Got fuel? It’s the first thing we need and the first one we forget on. Friday night when you step out the back door with a platter of steaks. Start by inspecting any charcoal, smoking or seasoning woods and pellets, and gas tanks left over from last season. If any of your briquettes or woods got soaked, you’re OK if they retained their shape and what soaked them was just water. Set affected fuel out to dry and repackage as needed after they’re ready to go. If the soaking is due to inadequate storage, now is the time to correct that issue; establish nice, secure dry storage and maintain it; a nice airtight plastic bin is perfect for the job. If you use gas, make sure you’ve got fresh stuff handy; consider acquiring a second tank so you never run out when the cooking counts.
While we’re on the subject of charcoal, it’s my advice that you avoid instant light products and charcoal lighter fluid like the plague. It’s bad enough that the stuff contains things you don’t want to feed your family, and even worse that they absolutely ruin the flavor of good food. Get yourself a lighting chimney that works off scrap paper and use that; it’s just as fast, far cheaper, and makes better food. And by the way, charcoal quality does count. Crappy generic charcoal is the equivalent of mystery meat hot dogs; you’ve got no idea what’s in there and it’s likely none of it is good. High quality lump charcoal heats better, longer and more consistently, and that too means better food.

Think Grilling:
When you go shopping and buy stuff in bulk, take the time to break it down to typical meal sizes for your family, and freeze or store some in that form; this’ll make things that much faster when you feel like grilling or make spontaneous meal plans.
The basics are great, but think about stuff you haven’t tried when you’re ready to grill; veggies, even romaine lettuce is great with a light grill to it, as are fruit like pineapple, peaches or pears for a desert, lemons to accent a grilled protein, or limes for guacamole. Try a savory note like olive oil or Rosemary for a great savory counterpoint to the fruit.
And speaking of that, give this smoked guacamole recipe a try.

Indoor Herbs

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Basil, Sage, Rosemary and Thyyyyyyyyyme,
And Oregano, too!

When it comes to great home cooking, herbs are the key to separating the ho-hum for the UH HUH! And when it comes to great herbs, fresh beats dried hands down.

Having what you love as indispensable herbs available year round means growing your own, especially when a sort-of-but-not-really little plastic thingy of herbs from the store runs $5…
Fortunately, it’s not hard to grow your own, doesn’t take much room, and is well worth the time and money needed.

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You do not need to make this a fancy or expensive venture, but you can get as elaborate as you like. Let your imagination be your guide on a cold weekend and have some fun: All you really need is a decent sized pot, some potting soil, and a few seeds or starts. You should also have a nice sunny spot, of course; herbs dig direct sun and warmth, just like us.

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You may want to go to a decent nursery to find a decent selection, and your chances are better for finding starters there, which have obvious speed of enjoyment benefits over seed.

Choose a variety of herbs that you like to use most. The five choices I opened with are our faves, but get what floats your boat; nowadays, you’ll not just find thyme, for instance, but varieties like lemon, lime, or lavender. Same goes for Basil, Oregano, Sage, Marjoram and a bunch more great herbs.

Buy a large, deep plant pot, 12″ to 18″ around and a good 8″ to 12″ deep. Keep in mind the growing habits of your choices when you select pot size; sage grows tall, basil and oregano fairly bushy, while thyme is a creeper. Make sure its got drainage holes in the bottom and buy a nice deep saucer to handle runoff.

Get a bag of decent quality potting soil big enough to fill your pot and have some left over.

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Scrounge some gravel, river rock, or pot shards to line the bottom of your pot; they’ll aid in drainage by making sure the holes don’t get clogged with soil.

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When you get everything home, fill the pot up with soil, stopping about 3″ inches from the top.

Moisten the soil lightly but thoroughly and mix it well by hand.

If you bought starters, make your holes about 1 1/2 times the size of the soil the plants came with. Gently pull the plant from its container and carefully loosen the soil around its roots. Don’t tear the roots, just give them some breathing room. Plant your starter, pack about 1″ of your potting soil over the dirt and roots and press everything down gently but firmly. Give each plant a couple of inches room from each other. Water thoroughly when you’re finished planting but don’t drown the little guys.

If you’re planting seeds, follow the directions for starting them, as to depth, water, germination time, etc.

Set your pot on its drainage saucer and pick your best growing spot; again, most herbs like full sun, and in the cold months, they’ll take as much of the weaker weak winter sun as they can get.

Don’t overwater; when your little buddies look parched, (droopy dull leaves are a sign), give them a nice drink. You do not want the soil saturated, nor should there ever be standing water in your drip tray. You can certainly give them a little plant food if you like. We find that herbs dig Superthrive, which is a great, well established growth supplement.

Speaking of growth, keep an eye on that and trim as needed for meals and to keep things fair in the jungle. When you want some herbs for cooking, cut top leaves first. If you trim to a junction rather than just in the middle of a stem, you’ll encourage better health and regrowth.

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Once it gets warm again, you can set plants outside or leave them in as you see fit. Personally, the closer the ingredients to the pot, the happier I am.

Enjoy!

Housemade Cheese Press

OK, so as mentioned earlier, we’re delving more into the world of homemade cheese. As we do, we’ll share our findings with y’all, and see if we can’t get some of our fellow cheese makers share they’re experiences as well.

We’ll cover soft and hard cheese, ingredients and equipment as we go.

First off, let’s talk cheese presses. Without a doubt, this is one of the priciest pieces of specialized equipment needed if you really decide to get into cheese. Now there are plenty of nasty, cheap versions out there, including quite a few homemade versions. Those seem to be equally split between cheap, thin plastic, or stuff made with wood. Neither of those simply ain’t gonna do. The plastic won’t take the pressure for long without failing, and the wood is a trap for nasty things to grow in.

On top of that, you’ve got to choose the type of press you want. The Dutch type has a long arm that presses the follower into the body of the press; you hang weight off the arm. The tomme style is basically a body with a follower tall enough to stack weight directly on top of; those require a set of weights to stack on top. Finally, you’ve got a screw press, often with an added spring. The latter are probably the most popular, due to their ease of use and no need for added weights; you do need to calculate accurate press weight with a screw press, but that’s not a big deal, so that’s the version I opened for.

Now, for the screw press variety, anything decent, made with heavy duty plastic or steel, and you’re looking at somewhere between $60 and $150; don’t know about y’all, but I call that a bit on the steep side, so I set out to see what I could DIY.

For reasons of ease of fabrication, I opted for mostly plastic, namely Schedule 40 PVC for the body of the press; this is a nice, heavy pipe with a smooth, food safe surface. For the base and followers, I chose 1/2″ UHMW Polyethlyene. For the main infrastructure I went with1/4″ thick, 1 1/2″ wide steel bar stock and 3/8″ threaded rod. A handful of washers, nylock nuts and a couple wing nuts finished things out.

The parts came from a really good local hardware store, with the exception of the pipe and UHMW; the pipe I got from a local specialty outfit that keeps a bunch of scrap around. It takes about a 7″ length of 6″ PVC for a single press. I got some 4″ too for smaller cheeses as well. The UHMW came from a recycled cutting board. I used a dedicated planer to work it nice and smooth prior to cutting out the base, followers and handle.

The bottom line is that construction was pretty simple. You’ve got to have the tools to be able to cut, shape and smooth plastic and steel, and a tap and die to thread the steel bar and clean up the threaded rod. I ended up with this.

Photobucket Pictures, Images and Photos

Photobucket Pictures, Images and Photos

If anyone wants the precise bore and stroke on building this press, just let me know.

Off we go, eh?!

21st Century Kitchen

Hey, tear yourself away from your smart phone/tablet/laptop long enough for me to ask a question: In this sleekly modern, ever connected age, do you use any of those things when you cook?

I admit to being a bit of a tech geek. I don’t own all the newest and coolest, but I do have an iPhone 5 and a 3rd Gen iPad and I use them extensively. In fact, I’m writing this post on the iPad, as I do most of what shows up here on the blog. I use the iPad extensively for recipe creation too; most of what I post here is stuff I do without a lot of conscious thought or planning, so when it comes time to covert them to usable recipes for y’all, I find this technology fits well in the kitchen and is resilient enough to handle that environment. And another truth be told, the cameras on phone and pad are far better than the $1000 first digital camera I bought some 14 years ago, so most of the pics for this site are done on them as well.

The point is, if you have this stuff and you cook, there are some tools that may make sense for you and are definitely worth a look. Here are a few I like.

NOTE: I’m not gonna post links to the apps themselves, since y’all may not use the same OS as I do. Whether you’re using Apple, Android, Windows, or something else, you can probably find the noted apps for your device.

Recipe Apps:
No matter how good the cook, Almost all of us use recipes regularly; even Mike Simon delves into his venerable copy of James Beard’s American Cookery for inspiration, as do I. Recipe apps can be a real help when you get the germ of an idea that needs fleshing out. I’d say first and foremost that the greatest resource in this. Regard is a simple Google search; with that, you’ll get links to the others in spades. So, that said, do you need any others? Probably not, but still I enjoy and use Big Oven, AllRecipes and Key Ingredient from time to time; they’re nice if you’re looking up, say, strawberry rhubarb pie and want to see some variations on the theme in condensed form. And doing that is completely kosher, by the way; see, Stevie Ray Vaughan really did cop licks from Albert King, and then made them his own, K? The other very useful function within these apps is the ability to accurately scale recipes up or down to your needs; the conversions aren’t always foolproof, but they’ll get you close enough for fine tuning.

Cooking Reference Apps:
How about al those handy apps telling you ow to do stuff? I think they do come in handy and I use several. Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio and Bread Baking Basics are two that provide simple, concise information in a very usable format. How To Cook Everything also may come in handy; resources like this can be a help when you’re looking for, as a for instance, alternative methods. for instance, if you always boil root vegetables, then you might look into roasting for a different take on favorite ingredients, things like that.

Shopping Apps:
Boy, are there a ton of shopping list apps out there, and let me tell you, a whole bunch of them are crap! I’ve tried many of these, so let e save you some time and energy; Grocery IQ is a very nice shopping list app that can sync to multiple devices, check your local store for deals, and post coupons and specials as you shop. Key Ring is a nice alternative to carrying all those annoying little plastic tags around, if you subscribe to various store’s shopper programs. Buycott, recently reviewed here, is an excellent resource for conscientious shopping. And finally Bakodo is the most robust bar code scanner that can come in handy for checking prices and comparative shopping.

General Cooking Utility Apps:
Now here’s a category where there is indeed a whole bunch of useless crap out there! Again, Ive slaved my way through the chaff to present only the wholesome kernels for y’all. Cooking offers a very useful batch of yields and alternatives for a myriad of ingredients, and some common conversions. KitchenUnits takes conversion to the next level, offering serious flexibility for your recipe tweaking. And finally, Timer+ is a very flexible, multi-source timer that’ll let you keep track of everything on one simple panel.

Cookbook Apps:
Now here’s a tough nut to crack; can and should a tablet or phone replace the venerable cookbook? My firm, unwavering answer is, yes and no. If you’re anything like us, some cookbooks are like art texts; they’re meant to be big, beautiful, almost coffee table tomes you want to feel the weight of as you revel at mouthwatering photos. No app will or cold ever replace those. On the other hand, The Joy of Cooking, American Cookery, Charcuterie, Julia Child, Harold McGee, or Claudia Roden are working titles, meant to be used as a textbook is in school; having those quick at hand, easily searchable, and custom printable is most worthwhile, and it helps your precious print copies last longer too!

Note and Writing Apps:
For the most part, almost every OS has a simple note taking app that will work fine for you. I use the native Apple app for quick ideas and a more sophisticated writing app for recipes and draft posts. I’ve tried several of the latter, and found iA Writer the best for my needs; it lets you title, search and print with ease, and that comes in very handy when you’re working up something good you don’t want to lose track of. If you don’t have a good native note app, there are plenty out there for your OS, guaranteed.

Truthfully, I’ve used dozens of apps for many moons now, and held off on writing this until I felt I had a solid suite of useful applications. Some or all of these may be of use to you, as they have been for me; and of course, if you have or find some thing cool, you just make sure you share it with the rest of us, hear?