25 July 2010

Around the Kitchen

I'm on an organizing kick. Blame the outrageous amount of work I should be doing. Blame Liv who is moving and got me thinking about having to move myself. Blame my own foodie tendencies. But whatever it is, I'm tortured by thoughts of what I actually need in my kitchen and how to make better use of it.

I have a lot of crap in my kitchen.

A lot.

This photo belies the amount of stuff I actually have. This was shortly after I moved in. I have accumulated since then. I'm a foodie. And I'm a collector. Even though I have a big kitchen, it's getting overrun. I have one hell of a utensils drawer. And even my best efforts at organization are getting overwhelmed. It's seriously time to purge.

Anyhoo. I recently dumped recycled a lot of old cookware to Liv and other friends. And I have begun thinking about moving. I can't take all this with me. I guess I could, but I shouldn't. So, I'm trying to compile a list of things that a foodie's kitchen actually needs. Consider this a working list.

Cookware: at least one cast iron pan. Whether you get a preseasoned one from a discount store or find one in a junk shop or antique place, this is a must. Properly seasoned, cast iron skillets are virtually non-stick and are great for everything from searing meats to frying eggs. I currently have three cast iron skillets. The largest is big enough and deep enough to fry a entire chicken. Not that I fry chicken, mind you. It's much too dangerous. Someone might propose. I also have an All Clad non-stick omelet pan. I can't tell you the last time I used it. Must have been sometime before I discovered Poach Pods.

In the pots and pans department, I have found that I use three pans regularly. One is a 2 quart saucepan made of heavy aluminum. It was given to me and has no lid. Oh how I wish it did. I use a lid from another pan--which doesn't quite fit this piece--when I'm in need. Like when cooking rice. The other is a lighter 2-qt copper bottom saucepan with a glass lid. This is the lighter one. This is also usually the lid I borrow.

I think you need two medium sized sauce pans to make a standard meal. Think rice and vegetables. Yes, I do have another 2-qt. anodized aluminum pan, but I don't use it as my "second". I have no idea why. That lighter pan just fits the bill most of the time. My last pan is a cheapo non-stick 4-qt. pan that gets chosen because it has a colander built into the lid. Roughly $16 at Wally World. I gave the rest of my pans away. Oh, I think there is a stock pot in the back somewhere for when I am boiling ball jars for canning jam. It's about 25 years old. And that's it or my standard cookware.

I have several baking sheets, an embarrassing amount of cake/cupcake/bundt/angel food/coffee cake ring pans tins, brownie pans, and Pyrex casseroles, but then again, I'm a baker. I have three pie pans (two glass which are perfect for crustless spinach quiche and a ceramic one for making actual pies, assorted Corning ware that is only used for pot luck dinners, and don't even get me started on the specialty cake-deviled egg-and insulated carriers. Fancy Christmas serving ware and dishes could fill a series of posts on their own.

I really consider only a few utensils indispensable. A set of wooden spoons and spatulas. Chop sticks. A large, restaurant quality spoonula. A zester, potato peeler, a meat thermometer, a candy thermometer, and a high quality set of kitchen knives and knife sharpener. I don't own a steel, but I will one day. In my opinion, if you can't afford anything else in your kitchen, you should have the best possible knives you can lay your hands on.

Specialty stuff I couldn't live without: a dutch oven. Got this one at an antique shop.

I have two. One is a heavy aluminum and the other is an enameled cast iron. Workhorses. Go from oven to stovetop. Great for stews, breads, whole chickens, roasts, soups, and even boiling spaghetti and making stove-top popcorn. Yes, two is probably overkill, but I can't be expected to give away some of my favorite pieces. The aluminum one can double as a mixing bowl in a pinch. I like making my cookie dough in this thing because when you cycle it in and out of the fridge while a batch is baking, it keeps the dough nice and cool as you work. You wouldn't want to put a hand mixer anywhere near an enameled pan unless you had a mind to destroy it.

A George Foreman grill. Quick easy hamburgers, chicken breasts, veggie burgers, steaks, pork chops and grilled vegetables. It's a bitch to clean up and I'd probably have bought the kind with removable plates if I was buying it for myself, but it was a gift. Still, I use it. I have the $13 version. Big enough for two good sized hamburgers at a time. It's a champ. In fact, I think that's the name of this size grill. Brilliant.

A crock pot. Been around forever and still wicked popular. There's a reason. I love these things. Makes the best Italian beef ever. Chili. BBQ spare ribs. Man, the possibilities are endless. I love these things. Folks, don't get the kind that has a crockery liner you can't remove. These things are under $30 for the top of the line version. You don't want to have to work around that cord and heating element to try to clean out the crock. Crack open your wallet, because this workhorse is a savior.

Bamboo steamer. I bought mine about 25 years ago. It came in a stacking set of two. I forced myself to use just one of the two (logic was I would save the other for when #1 wears out). I'm still waiting for #1 to wear out. Who would have thought that bamboo would last so long. Only drawback? When steaming broccoli, it retains the smell. This is no way affects the taste of the food.

Put this over a boiling pot of hot dogs and you can steam your bun while your dog cooks. See? There are some perks to not using your microwave for EVERYTHING.

A high quality blender. My idea of a high quality blender is not one with a million different speeds. Mine is an Oster beehive blender with two speeds. Low and high. A high quality blender is one that can chop ice easily. Like this one.

Then there is the thing I never thought I wanted that, once I got one, I can't believe I lived without for so long.

It really is a time saver and it is a breeze to clean. If you ever have a $200 windfall, I can't recommend this highly enough.

I saved the best for last. The pizza stone.

Queue the Hallelujah chorus. The day you receive one of these, the heavens will open up and all things good will come to you.

I'm not kidding.

Seriously, I'm not.

The other things I have in my kitchen.....well, they are nice, but I don't consider them essentials. Sure, I depend on them now and again, but for the average cook, they would be superfluous. Yes, I have a Kitchenaid mixer. Do I use it a lot? Yes. Could I live without it? Probably not anymore, but I use it to knead bread. I also have a hand mixer that I should probably pass along, but it is a retro thing and I sort of like it.

So that's it in a nutshell. The backbone of my kitchen. The stuff I'd recommend. And if I had it to do all over again, I'd not buy any of the cheap crap (I'd pick it up second hand at Goodwill), and save my money for the really top quality stuff, added a bit at a time. Now I've just got to convince myself that I can live without the rest of that stuff.

11 July 2010

Take these wings and shove it

When I was a little kid, air travel was awesome. Not that I'd know, because I was about 20 years old before I stepped foot on a commercial airplane. What I mean is that air travel was a luxury. Only rich or important people traveled by airplane. My father would go on business trips on airplanes. Even going to our small community airport to see him off all the time never dulled my enthusiasm for air travel. My aunt was a stewardess for TWA and flew all over the world. She had exciting stories about meeting famous people and spending evenings in casinos in Morocco and dancing in Paris. Culturally, stewardesses were held in high esteem--along the lines of a fashion model. They were usually single, worldly, gorgeous, and sought after as the ultimate woman that men wanted to date. There was something very Hollywood about air travel. Something "That Girl". Something very Mary Tyler Moore. Everything that a kid stuck in Nowheresville, KY, wanted to be when they grew up.

I don't know if air travel changed before I managed to get on one of those big birds or if the reality was just always something so very different than my mental picture of the thing, but what amazed me from the very beginning about air travel was this: it struck me immediately as being nothing more than a Greyhound bus with wings. I won't lie and say there isn't a difference in the clientele on an air flight and a Greyhound bus, but the accommodations aren't all that different. Same crappy upholstered chairs. Same awful smells. Same mediocre level of customer service. Being a stewardess wasn't exactly the glamorous job I envisioned. They were older than I thought they'd be. They were usually crabby. They were basically flying waitresses. That is, until the airlines stopped serving food.

In any event, my bubble of "luxury travel" burst, I began to see air travel for what it was. A convenient time saver. Since then, my decision to travel by air has been influenced by the following criteria:

1) Who is paying for the ticket? My employer or myself?
2) How much will it cost me?
3) How important is it that I get there and back in a timely manner?
4) Is there alterative transportation that can meet my needs more cheaply?

Since 9/11, the glamour of air travel is gone. My opinion of air travel has changed drastically, and not because I am afraid of terrorism. I am not. Perhaps I should be, but I don't feel any safer for all the security measures that have been implemented, nor do I feel that terrorism on my flight from Po-Dunk Town to Po-Dunk Town is of any interest to the world's terrorism cells. For me, the benefits of air travel (convenience, time savings) have been outweighed by the drawbacks (exponentially increasing cost and invasions of privacy). I now have to get to the airport (which is already an hour and a half from my home) two hours before my flight. Takes about a half hour to park your car, wait on a shuttle, and get to the security check-in. I've got a 4-hour time suck before I've stepped foot on an airplane. Add to that the time wasted post trip (half hour to collect luggage, half hour to get from airport to car and then pay for parking and drive the 1.5 hours home), I've got 6.5 hours invested in non-air travel travel time. Suddenly air travel doesn't seem like quite the time-saving convenience it did before.

But air travel comes with an added drawback. Security. I sort of shrugged and accepted it when they started riffling through my luggage. For the common good, I have shut up and walked through the metal detector. I rolled my eyes and complied when they said I couldn't bring anything to drink on the flight, couldn't have shampoo, couldn't have nail clippers, couldn't have a small 1" pen knife for cleaning my nails and digging splinters out of my hands. I accepted all this. An inconvenience since I usually carry most of this stuff day in and day out in my backpack.

But now....NOW....they want to do full body scans of my person that allow airport security personnel to see my naked body, naughty bits and all, as a requirement to fly on an airplane.

Hell to the no, people! It's not that I'm overly prudish. It's not that I'm ashamed of my body. It is that they have no right.

Listen, airport security gurus. I appreciate your desire to keep Americans safe. I understand that this may deter terrorists, although it probably won't catch those who are hell bent on destruction. But I am not willing to let you demand an electronic strip search just to get on your fucking airplane. I've seen the quality of your employees. I don't think they could find their own assholes with a road map and a flashlight. I'm not sure these are the people I want viewing naked pictures of me on the x-ray scanner. It's not even the principle of the thing (although maybe it actually is), you just have no right. I'm not going to let you probe my vagina or anus for bomb materials either. Your stupid airplane flight just ain't worth it.

We have surrendered a lot in our quest for public safety. Kids can no longer bring peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to school. Smokers can only smoke in their own houses and have to listen to children wag their fingers at them in public places. (By the way, parents? Please teach your kids not to do that. It's insufferable. I had a kid admonish me once for taking pictures in my own yard because she was somewhere in the background in the park. Like taking pictures of my yard projects for my blog now makes me some sort of weirdo.) We are a culture that places ultimate emphasis on individual comfort, yet caters to the lowest common denominator. For me, the reality of air travel has always been a disappointment. But in the end, air travel is still a luxury. It is simply not luxurious enough, glamorous enough or convenient enough to overcome what they have done to it. I'd rather take my chances with the indigent, the newly released from prison, and the too poor to consider air travel on the bus or the train. Or I'd rather drive myself.

So I'm driving. And if I can't drive, I probably won't go. So thanks Mr. and Ms. Public Safety Officers for making sure that I use a private vehicle to do what I could use public transportation to do. I feel so much safer now.

08 July 2010

Oscar Grant did not get justice

I've written about Oscar Grant before. Shot in the back while handcuffed and lying on the subway floor on New Year's Eve 2009. Another officer had his knee on Grant's neck at the time of the shooting. Oscar Grant was a grocery store worker and a father to a 4-year-old son. I have rightly called his murder one of the worst cases of professional misconduct imaginable.

The man who shot him was a cop. Johannes Mehserle. That man was convicted of involuntary manslaugher today. I must be behind the times, because I thought the word involuntary meant that you had no control over the events leading to the crime. Involuntary. There is a certain lack of responsibility in that word.

There is a certain lack of responsibility in Oakland.

Someone is responsible for Oscar Grant's death. It most certainly wasn't Oscar Grant. I'm so sorry for his family that they lost a son and father, but still they couldn't even get justice. I'm beginning to wonder about California altogether.

Photo courtesy of Advance The Struggle.

05 July 2010

Things I learned this week

Wonder can be found in the most unlikely places.

Happiness is only a few steps outside my front door.

Sometimes I think these should be edible.

This one likes to lounge pool side.

I still got it.
But keeping it is a lot of hard work.

This is a really cute couple.

This guy will never grow up. Ever. I mean it. You just try and make him.

This guy doesn't like fireworks, but he does like thinking he is the first one EVER to have thought of staking out the real estate "under the wheelchair ramps".