Friday, January 31, 2014

Pimp My Chili

For me, the required element for a good chili is that when you finish a bowl, you want another bowl. I'm going to share a few ways to increase the umami or savoury aspects of your chili.

When I am talking chili, I'm not going to get into the merits of beans/no beans, Texas chili or bust or any of those great and valid debates. I'm going to assume the thing that you get when you go to a soup counter or at the local lunch time place is what we are talking about. Some of these tips apply regardless.

I'm not going to regale you with tales of the new Naga Scorpion hybrid that someone smuggled for me or the latest capsaicin extract or even the relative fruitiness of some of the mid Scoville range peppers. If you didn't understand the last paragraph, then I'm talking to you. Those other food nerds can go to Chile Pepper.

I'm going to share a few ways to increase the umami or savoury aspects of your chili.

Reduce the Water

The enemy of intense, rich flavours is water. For many of your ingredients, you want to get water out and maybe replace it with a different liquid.

Start by looking at the vegetables that you add but let's leave the onions until later. If you add carrots and celery, chop them (it reduces time) and try roasting them in a 250C oven until they have lost some water.

Roast or cook down tomato paste before adding. If you over reduce or find that you need to loosen up the tomato paste, add a liquid that will add depth such as stock, malty beer or that tomato water from the can of tomatoes you usually add.

Toast Stuff

If you are using chili powder, take a few seconds and toast it in a dry pan over a low heat. Keep mixing or swirling it around so it doesn't burn but there you go.

Be brave and make your own spice mixture. Toast the spices and grind them together. Last time I made chili, I took cumin seed and star anise (more on the star anise later) toasted them and then ground just the cumin. I toasted some ground spices; cinnamon, allspice, sweet paprika, sweet-sour paprika, and cayenne. This was my spice base.

Buy your own dried peppers and toast them. Ancho, pasilla and New Mexico are often available in stores. Any of the dry smoky ones are best. Leave the seeds in, if you like the heat. You can even improve these peppers by doing the next hint.

Use Dried Ingredients

This works especially well, if you are using ingredients to build umami. Dried mushrooms, sundried tomatoes and parmesan rinds work well for building flavour. Those are the quick fixes.

Beans. Take the time to soak and cook your own beans. That way, you can get the texture to your preference. Do up extra and freeze or make baked beans. Mix up the type of beans. Colour, texture and flavour differ between beans and these differences can add complexity.

Another great trick is to reconstitute these dried ingredients using warm stock, beer, or even excess bean water from cooking the beans. For instance, using a malty beer to make a mushroom tea and then adding that to the chili pot will definitely add a layer of flavour. You can use the reconstitution method along with the toasting method to compound flavours. Toast dry chiles, reconstitute them and use a blender to make a sauce and add it to the chili pot.


A little smoke can add depth. Anything from using smoked chili peppers, smoked paprika, liquid smoke or a bit of bacon can put another layer of moreness into the bowl.

Add Flavour Early

The earlier the flavour is added in the process, the more time it has to develop. For instance, if you sweat the onions, add the spices and the dried carrots. Drying the carrots before adding them is earlier than add the carrots later. I added star anise when browning the beef. Star anise has a slight liquorice flavour when noticeable. When added at a low level, it makes meat tastes meatier. I also toasted star anise with spices and when I took them out, added the stars to the tomato paste that I was reducing.

Cheats Are Additive

This time I added smoked sundried tomatoes that had been soaked in warm beer. I toasted smoked paprika and added them to the onions. You could use a rauchbier which is a smoked beer as the liquid for your peppers, tomatoes or extra liquid. 

You don't need to do all of these to make a chili with depth and umami. If you just do a few of these, they will improve it. There are other cheats but these are the ones that make me happy. Try a few out. Let me know how it goes.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Winter Vegetables

My son stated that he longer wanted sweet desserts during the week. He wants to eat healthier and worries about some winter weight. It seems that our family has fallen into a familiar trap for those who try to eat more organic, local and seasonal.

Our meals have become lazy. We use pasta, grilled cheese and comfort food to help us make it through the dreary winter. It just seems that there is a lack of passion around making supper in the winter. It is as if the extra clothes and dark mornings and nights have dragged us down into a perpetual stupor of the non drunken kind. (Thanks Ford for making that into our family lexicon).

One of the problems is lack of vegetables. Sure, we have the cruciferous veggies, beets and carrots but I miss the wide range of late spring to early fall. We can do much with broccoli, cauliflower and brussel sprouts that make them enjoyable - roasting, dry pan frying until lightly charred, raw with dips - but most preparations take time.

My sons eventually tire of raw carrots on their lunch and look for a little more variety. Cooked carrots in every way are always welcomed at the table. Once again, it takes forethought and preparation. Beets work well for the adults of the family but the kids still haven't taken a shine.

It is so strange that the simple task of peeling carrots or beets, trimming cauliflower and broccoli seems so much more onerous in the winter. In the summer, I think nothing of prepping peas, beans and tomatoes for a quick fry-up. The fifteen minutes to get a veggie tray ready with a dip for the kids and a quick chop salad for us seems like a inevitable and joyous task. Five minutes to peel some carrots and a few minutes in boiling water in the winter doesn't seem worth it.

The cabbages and turnips that reek of sulfur when cooked have never seemed to be a favourite of most kids. We have been able to dress up other members of that stinky family by frying with bacon, not the healthiest option. Dry frying broccoli and cauliflower until the ends blacken and then tossing them in olive oil and salt works well. Roasted squash works and I wonder if maybe roasting turnip and glazing it would provide the sweetness and avoid the stench? Then again, selling the smell as desirable may be easy to a couple of young boys. Maybe I need to work on the approach.

If you stretch the definition of your resolution of local, organic and seasonal, you can get other bits and bobs of vegetables that are not at their best in terms of flavour. Greenhouse produce sometimes lacks in flavour. The best way to boost and enhance the vegetable, other than bacon, is to remove water. Drying, roasting, dry frying, making a sauce or soup and reducing are some of the more common ways of drawing out the best of a bad batch. Not perfect for a weeknight when you have half an hour and no willpower.

I like to take time on weekends for these time laden processes. I mean, when you are outside shoveling the snow, yet one more time, you might have the oven do some work for you. Put a whole bunch of pans in the oven and get all sorts of stuff roasting. During the week, these can become lifesavers where you can quickly warm some up for a side, create a roasted vegetable salad, make a quick soup, add some to pasta sauce, create a sauce or dip for meat or raw veggies.

Hell, it is easy enough to put a bunch of vegetables into a soup on the weekend and spend some of the early part of the week reheating. Soup and chiles always taste better after a few days. I miss those hearty soups in the summer and it is too hot to make them. Baked beans work well as a low meat option. A bowl and a bread slice fills you up without adding a ton of winter weight.

You know, I think I may have just blogged my way out of winter vegetable blahs...

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Smell This, Taste Good?

It is that time of the year when colds and flues happen regularly. Sometimes it affects your ability to taste. It is one of my fears to lose my sense of taste. A couple of years back, I wrote about this and included some thought about Grant Achatz and a feeding tube that one of my wife's relations was using after cancer surgery. 

This year, another bunch of serendipitous moments got me thinking again about tasting and its relation to smell. 

One of the first bits floating around was a Human Rights Tribunal decision against Le Papillon on the Park where most media reports focused solely on the tasting of pork as the reason for the discrimination. I link to the full decision because although the reaction by many commentators centered around the pork issue, it appears that there were a lot more things going on in this case. It did bring up an interesting question for me. How many chefs/cooks don't taste their food? 

Watching many years of Top Chef and other sport cooking shows, I have seen many chefs not taste their food for a variety of reasons: religion, allergies, and veganism among them. Often, they get another contestant to try the food and adjust that way. I still would like the person making my food to try it and make sure it is what they want it to be. 

Then I come across Season to Taste by Molly Birnbaum. A young woman preparing to enter culinary school gets into an accident and loses her sense of smell. This greatly affects her taste. She can still taste the primary flavours of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savoury but all other nuances escape her palate. It makes me wonder if the additional taste sensations are, in fact, one of the extended senses. 

We often think of ourselves as having seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting but there is some disagreement about these. Other experiences that are up for nomination include balance, temperature sensing and pain. Other animals have an organ that sense chemicals in the air called a vomeronasal organ. Humans have the genes for this organ but not the architecture or expression of this gene. Is our linked sense of smell to taste an expression of this? I dunno.

This book wanders in the same vein as an Oliver Sacks book and in fact, Birnbaum consults with him several times within these pages. The meandering is what caused me to think more deeply about the connections between smelling and other stuff.  

Emotion is one of these things that scents can evoke. Early in the book, she talks about children learning to differentiate between good and bad smells. In turns out that sensing bad food may be learned. I have a story that I remember but I can't find it on the internet that underlines this fact. A horror writer, possibly Bradbury, defined horror as sitting on one's toilet wondering what that sweet, wonderful smell is and finally coming to the realization of what the scent truly is just before the disgust sets in. 

Another one of the other smell connections include partner selection. Maybe that is why, for me, food, sex and love are intertwined. There are some primal food smells that make me think about my wife or even lovers in general. The scents include vanilla, truffles, cinnamon and cocoa. I'm not sure how individual these scents are but I'm sure that some of these are universal and others are learned. 

In Birnbaum's quest to regain her sense of smell and by extension, her sense of taste, she works at training her sense of smell. She comes across this technique through perfume and food additives. She attempted to retrain watch she was sensing with a smell, to try and relearn what she knew. Reminds me of another book about coffee and teaching coffee appreciation called The Coffee Story that I reviewed. Smell differentiation needs to be learned. 

When we are eating supper at the table, I will often ask my family what they are tasting. This makes my wife upset and nervous sometimes. She often doesn't know or doesn't care to differentiate and therefore doesn't find any nuance. I think that sometimes she thinks that I consider this a defect. It isn't. Differentiating taste is a learned skill. In fact, there is an experiment that shows that if you are given two similar products that you will perceive one as better after repeated tastings solely based on the fact of comparing. That's what we do. I'm sure that this skill probably started as an evolutionary benefit to help us get the best bang for our buck which explains our like of sugar but I've got no proof.

Of course, Grant Achatz enters into the discussion as he has consistently had one of the best restaurants in the world for quite some time. He can't taste. He had tongue cancer and the treatment robbed him of his ability to taste. He relies on his underlings and the sense of drama and textures to make his food work. The way food "tastes" doesn't solely rely on the common flavours or the sense of smell but are enhanced by texture, setting, expectations and other external to the tongue sensations. 

As a veteran drinker who has started down the path of continuously drinking new brews, I find that my reference points for flavours sometimes gets out of whack. I keep thinking that I should revisit the basics of taste and smell. It goes with the suspicion that as I get older, I am either losing the acuity of my taste buds or forgetting the library of tastes that I used to have. If you read more books, you will begin to muddle or forget the ones that you have read. I feel that taste can be a little like that. There are kits and kits on the internet for keeping up. Maybe through constant reeducation, you can keep your neural connections strong.

It surprises me that on these cooking shows, the best palates in terms of sensory tests aren't always the ones who win but it seems that food is not only a matter of taste but also the other stuff that goes along with it. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Leftovers - January 2014

The following is a bunch of links that I couldn't be arsed enough to get a full blog post about. I'm working on a few posts but while I try to find the time, here are my leftovers served as an appetizer.

We are doing a Maker's Faire type thing in the next few months. I think that a fair amount of what is traditionally seen as home economics can fit under this category, especially when you throw in technology. This post from thekitchn talks about a 3D printer for food. That idea intrigues me that you would rather program or download a program for creating a meal than making it. Which is more maker?

Along the lines of the pseudo maker is the Make Your Own Gin kit. For those of us who like gin, I think we have always suspected that gin is only flavoured vodka. It begs the question on why flavoured vodka is not called gin but that is another discussion. Nobody would buy a chocolate gin.

The following two links are about bubbles, one carbonation and the other the miracle of frying. So, the science of carbonation and why you should get the right glass. It's from America's Test Kitchen and has all the inherent bias that comes from the ATK. I did post about their crock pot series here talking about the kinds of issues I have with ATK. The second link is pure unadulterated motorboating eggs.

Sometimes cooking is really an art. I loved these pictures from a sushi artist and might start looking into more of these pics. I could waste a whole day on this stuff.

And finally, a sad cookbook. That is all.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Friday Family Pizza Night

Over the past couple of months, we have had pizza on Fridays coupled with a movie. This past Friday, we collectively came up with a apple butter, smoked ham, brie and cheddar pizza. Everyone had a hand in coming up with it and helping prepare it. Serendipitously, the movie that we picked, National Treasure, had pizza in it. It was a fun night. 

 It got me thinking to how this pizza night thing has been with us throughout our growth as a family. In the early years, pizza was the easiest delivery when we had a baby in the house. Call up Pizza Pizza. Reorder last order. Hope the baby stays down long enough to eat it hot but if not, then cold pizza before falling into bed or even in the middle of the night. 

Plain cheese pizza and pepperoni pizza filled the toddler years when we were both back to work and couldn't cook at the end of the week. We would order one bland pizza and one more exciting pizza. Selfishly, it would often be a slightly spicy pizza as my wife enjoyed the regular pizza toppings.

As the kids got older, they would go through phases of specific likes, Hawaiian, plain cheese and pepperoni. Eventually, they wanted different pies. We were able to stave off ordering three pizzas by coming up with a compromise pizza which we called Pepperwaiian, a half pepperoni and half Hawaiian pizza. 

Once again, this worked for several years until once again they began experimenting. Granted, this was probably forced a little bit as I grew weary and discontented with Pizza Pizza and wanted to try some better places. This lead to developing a meat pizza description to cover all sorts of pizzas that the two boys could abide. Any pizza that was called Meat Lovers caught their attention. The order became more fluid depending on where we ordered from. Big House Pizza, for example, had several pizzas that could be sold as a meat pizza that would allow all of us to have a slice or two that we liked. The ritual was come home from school, forget about the backpacks in the hall, down to the PS3 and wait for the doorbell to ring. Right after the end of the last slice, up to bed. This meant that they had a slightly later bedtime than normal but it worked.

The other driving factor is growth. At some point two little boys turn into big boys and now just "the boys". It appears that the pizza size grows with them. We saw it move from small to medium to large. The bills go from a cheap meal to the same price as a restaurant cheque. The kids can now stand staying up until slightly past 9 o'clock without becoming a pile of misery the next day. We added movies and a new ritual.

So, in the last few months, we have made our own pizzas.  Sometimes the pizza crust is from scratch; sometimes bought dough or shells. There are always two pizzas. That has been the constant. The kids tend to want a meat oriented pizza and sometimes help with the second one. They always taste the second one. This approach has led to watching all the LOTR movies, the Hobbit, Elf, National Treasure and two chess documentaries. Second pizza has ranged as much as the movie choices: fig, prosciutto and asiago; apple butter, ham, brie and cheddar; chili and cheese and the always present pepperoni or meat pizza. 

It's been fun watching the kids suggest, make and try these pizzas. They have a loose structure to their week that they anticipate. They look forward to Fridays. It reminds me of how far we have come. From the days where pizza was just the easiest, most convenient filler food to something that we make as a family. I wonder what this ritual will bring as the family changes and the kids become teenagers. I hope that somehow the base notes of family meal time and relaxing together remains. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Did I just fall off the coffee wagon?

I have been off coffee for about two months. I stopped for a variety of reasons. Look, I was a heavy coffee drinker for years and wondered how much of an impact it had on my health and mental well being.

I have always been a high strung person which I guess is a euphemism for anxious, nervous and worrying. There have been studies... coffee studies really suck. One day it kills you and the next it cures you. The smell and taste of coffee are incredibly complex and not well understood. Making fake coffee like fake chocolate has been impossible so far. There are many compounds and only a few are even studied.

At the peak of my consumption as a twenty something year old, I was probably doing two pots a day. Eventually, I whittled down my habit to three cups--three twenty ounce cups. That can be a lot of caffeine, especially if you are drinking the light roast. Light roast and flavoured coffees tend to have more caffeine while your expresso has less. Seems counter intuitive but there it is.

In my late thirties, I started going to see my doctor regularly. With a family history of heart attacks, heart disease, diabetes and strokes, I thought it might be a good idea to see if I had any of the risks. Well, I did. Turns out that smattering of risk factors has a name, Metabolic Syndrome. Just a fancy way of saying that it appears that your body maybe shit at converting sugar to energy. They are not sure of the cause but know that reducing your girth is the best way to deal with it. Who are they anyway? There is evidence to show that these cluster of risk factors are genetic. There are things that can be done to reduce the risk.

So what does this have to do with coffee? Well. I have found that I am caffeine sensitive (duh, that's why I drink it) and my blood pressure rises more than average after a cup of joe. The amount of coffee that I was drinking may also cause issues with the ability to deal with the absorption of carbs.

When you are looking at studies, it is important to note that the results are taken at a population level. You need to understand the population under study and determine if you are a member of that population. Even then, it is important to note that the result is a general result and not necessarily going to affect you in particular. With that caveat, I can say that we know that caffeine has an effect on metabolism and it appears to differ between individuals based on a few criteria. The ones that seem to matter are weight, age and coffee consumption. I'm oversimplifying but hey, it's a personal blog. I fall in the bad side of the criterion categories. I was overweight, older and drinking too much.

I found myself wondering whether my high strungedness, risks for all that crap and metabolic issues could be tied to caffeine. I GP'd myself. Anyone remember Hammy Hamster? GP was the Guinea Pig. I stoppered the big caffeine pipeline into my body only allowing no more than a hot chocolate or two a day. This is waaaaaaay less caffeine than before. I don't even want to think about the numbers.

Now, after about two months, I am having my first coffee. It is of the type that I used to think of utilitarian or maintenance coffee. A Nescafe in the morning (or two or three) before getting my coffee at a local coffee shop on the way work. Note, I didn't consider the Nescafe as my morning coffee.

Half done the cup and already notice a slight rise in heart beat and the flow of brain chatter increasing. I know that if I have coffee every day, these small benefits recede into the background to be replaced with small withdrawal symptoms that feed the cycle. Eventually, we need caffeine to wake us up rather than push up past our normal. Science says that within three days of regular consumption, the average individual experiences these affects.

So, I will probably remain off caffeine until my yearly physical and see if the numbers improve. Even if they don't, I may limit my coffees to ones I really like no more than twice a week. But we will see. There will be more posts about this (mis)adventure.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Reading Cookbooks

I realize that I have come at this topic many times in my posts and wonder whether there is much to say about the topic. I own quite a number of cookbooks and rarely do I use the cookbooks for their recipes. Sometimes there is a germ on an idea or a technique, flavour combination or menu suggestion that starts me going. That is not to say that I don't rip off a recipe and make it my own, just that I rarely cook it as stated.

The question remains on why do I have so many and why do I continue to read cookbooks? Not so strangely, a cookbook that I was reading provided me with some insight into this compulsion.

I was reading Ivan Ramen and here are a few quotes that I pulled from it.
"I don't really open a cookbook to cook from it, and I don't know if many people do. I read cookbooks because I want to know why someone cooks the way they do, how they arrived at their recipes. It doesn't matter if the recipe is complex -- molecular, whatever -- or a simple one. It could be a pancake recipe, but I want to know why the author's excited about it. This book will teach you how to make an authentic bowl of Tokyo ramen, but I also encourage you to stray as much as you want from the recipes. This book is not intended to be a set of rules, but rather a window into a world I tumbled into years ago and have happily dwelled in ever since." p.3
If you can jack into the excitement of the author then you get an insight into the food and thought processes. Now, the only cookbooks that I buy are ones that make me think differently about the subject. Okay, not totally true. I sometimes buy them if they redefine what a cookbook is and does.
"Becoming a better cook is all about finding the best way to use what you've got on hand." p.135
This is really what I do at home. I don't care so much for going out and buying special ingredients for a particular meal only to have leftovers that just sit in the fridge. I'll boil extra potatoes for a Sunday meal so that I can make smashed potatoes in the oven for the week or use them as topping for a cottage pie. There doesn't have to be much in the fridge to make a meal.
"I generally find cookbooks that require a lot of specialty pantry items incredibly annoying, but the resulting dish is worth it, and you can always use components of this ramen in other dishes." p.165
Sometimes there is a recipe that calls out to me and requires extra effort. Mostly, I save those recipes for dinner parties. Nope, I don't try them before because I trust my ability to fix things. If it doesn't turn out, then it is an experience.

Ivan Orkin does point out that the reality of cooking other people recipes is that different kitchens and different cooks following the same recipe will get different results. I used to call this difference 'love'. When someone asked me why my recipe for whatever tasted so different than theirs, it was always the love I added. Flip, but an explanation. So, recipes might not be the reason for a cookbook.

To go back to Ivan Ramen for a second, in his actual recipe steps, he talks about his love of ketchup when discussing how much ketchup to add to rice. It's moments like these in cookbooks where you can begin to understand the author and by extension understand the cookbook. Another good example is the Joy of Cooking which has changed over the years from being a kind of compendium of what every good wife should know to feed her family and throw a dinner party to something of a replacement for home economics. In fact, many of the early cookbooks were aimed at the lady of the house to teach her home management, especially the training and maintaining of cooks and the kitchen.

Cookbooks have come a long way. They continue to evolve and continue to keep my interest. That makes me think of something else and when I have finally formed that idea, this might not be the last post on reading cookbooks.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Book Review: The Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook

I have been looking forward to reading The Canadian Craft Beer Cookbook ever since David Ort mentioned it on his twitter feed. 

This is a good base book for someone wanting to understand the intersection of beer and food and why it is a better choice. This is in contrast to wine. I'm not sure that wine is this versatile and I'm not sure that I want to use an expensive wine to figure out that I don't like a recipe. Give me a cheaper alternative like beer and then it is less of a barrier for experimenting, more latitude for making mistakes.

The introduction goes over some basics that will be familiar to those that are both beer drinkers and foodies. It covers subjects like beer styles, beer ingredients, and recipe ingredients. There is a pragmatic tone to most of the prose. Where you don't need a particular piece of equipment but it is nice to have, the note is there. This is not a dogmatic recipe book. It is not an over expansive section and that makes it accessible to those starting on this crazy journey. The basic information is there to act as either a guide for the novice or a set of crib notes for those who have already begun.

Sprinkled throughout are profiles of interesting craft beer people and places. This shows off David's blogging and magazine background. These are interesting little snippets to break up what could be the regular monotony of a cookbook. I appreciated these bits but his head notes are so thoughtful that I am not sure these were needed. Sometimes using specifics as a touchstone can date a cookbook but I have a further thought on that later.

Not all recipes have beer or beer ingredients as part of the recipe but all have recommended pairings. The pairings tend to have a Canadian element along with a more internationally available beer. This highlights Canadian beer while  recognizing that the beer might not be available across Canada.  This also makes the book relevant to a larger international audience for books about beer pairing and food.

There are many traditional recipes that are adapted to some brands of today. Classic beer culture countries are well represented with a few Asian treats. Some of the pairings intrigued me but it was always clear why the choice was made, largely because David Ort tells you why he made the choice and what the purpose was. Along with the notes in the front about beer styles, you can begin to approach your own pairings.

I was suprised to find two recipes that call for hop shoots. I never thought about eating hop shoots but in the space of a few weeks, I have come upon two other references. In Elizabeth David's, On Vegetables, there is great story on bruscandoli or loertis or brucelando or wild aspargus or luppoli. It turns out that this extremely limited seasonal ingredient is available all around Italy where it is available only for a short time in the spring. There is mention of how it was served and it is nothing like the recipes in David Ort's cookbook. Though there is something in his style that reminds me of her writing. There are other cultures that serve hop shoots, for example in Belgium, they are called jets de houblon. The second reference was in a bathroom type reader How to be a Better Foodie by Sudi Pigott where it was talked about as being a seasonal foodie treat like ramps or wild mushrooms.

This genius of this book is that with the continued proliferation of breweries and resuscitation of styles in Canada, there is definitely going to be an updated version at some time. As more restaurants take up the beer pairing, there are other options for a good blog on beer pairings and possibly a continuing series. Of course, that might be wishful thinking on my part. The recipes are fairly safe, standard and beer friendly. It would be nice to see a few more recipes that push the envelope but this is a good first book about Canadian Craft Beer and food. It would make a good choice for the budding beer geek on your list.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Book Review: Slow Cooker Revolution Series

These past weeks, I've been going through my tagged list of cookbooks to read and found these two on the list. Given the titles, I expected some mind blowing and earth shattering ways to use your slow cooker.

Slow Cooker Revolution and Slow Cooker Revolution Volume 2: The Easy-Prep Edition from America's Test Kitchen appear to promise just that. I used to read Cook's Illustrated quite religiously but found a few problems. Those problems that lead me to stopping my subscription are similar to the ones that I found with these books.

What I Like

The approach of trying different techniques, ingredients and brands without regard to tradition and dogma can be refreshing. Likewise, the recipes often have notes on what the testers and recipe designers were trying to achieve. It helps to understand their choices and can allow the veteran cook some latitude when they are trying to achieve or accent a different aspect of the recipe.

The timings tend to be accurate with notes on why they won't be. This is especially important when you are looking at non standard or non homogeneous cooking equipment like a slow cooker.

What I Didn't Like

The obvious one is that most of the recommended and tested brands are American. This means that there is very little relevance to me as a Canadian. The goodish news is that the recommendations sometimes come with descriptors that help define what was desired for the product. Unfortunately, without looking at the whole review, we are left taking ATK's word that this product choice  is best. I guess you could always search out the reviews in Cooks Illustrated or on their website. Still, not for Canadians.

The second is that very few of the recipes are useful for someone leaving the house in the morning and coming back at night. Many of the timings are well off the 8 hour mark with a note that chicken should never be cooked over 6 hours. I'm not leaving my chicken in a slow cooker with a timer for two to four hours before turning on. It seems... unsafe somehow. Those recipes seem to be fine for a weekend but I'm often available to turn on a braise and leave it simmer anyways. Not sure what is the difference.

And another thing...  a lot of the recipes use the microwave as a way to short cut time and provide a softer flavour especially for aromatics such as onion. Yeah, it's a way to develop flavour and I guess it is an innovation at best. But if you are doing all this other preparation and then throwing it into a slow cooker and claiming that it is shorter prep, then I am not so sure. I can't figure out what the is time and preparation savings from a traditional method.

The books on the whole fell short of the revolution moniker. I much prefer Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook for revolution. It introduced me to making cakes and stuff in the cooker. It also provided guidance on how to convert standard recipes into slow cooker recipes. I have lent this book to a beginner cook with great accolades. Not that ATK's are bad but they fall short. The two ATK books often share the same hints and similar recipes instead of providing templates and guidance. These are really recipe books rather than something more.

For people who just want a good wing recipe or a decent dip recipe then go ahead. For anyone wanting to be wowed and amazed by their slow cooker, just pass. No one ever gets fired for buying Microsoft and no one will be disappointed with ATK's recipes.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year Foodie Thoughts

I am not going to present another best of list or bore you with what I made for Christmas. Over the past year, I have found out a few things that I would like to share. They are not necessarily profound but they are meaningful for me.

In the latter part of the year, I find that I am turning back to food that is fun to make and fun to eat. We have made dinners based on internet songs, cartoons and whimsy. We eat with our fingers, silver cheese picks and chopsticks. I am looking forward to doing some other fun stuff like maybe doing a fondue with the kids and going to a sushi restaurant where the boats go by and you pick your meal.

While cooking is love, sometimes you need more. There has been plenty of hard times this year for myself and many of my friends. Cooking is one way to get through the bad times and it does help. Sometimes you need to get away from the kitchen so that when you get back you are refreshed. It is easy to get into a rut when you are already down. Shake it up.

Complex and/or expensive is not always the best. In the last year, I have surprised many people by some of the simple food that I love. I have always had joy in simple food but not always been expressive of it. This is not to say that there isn't appreciation with technical perfection but there is more to food.

I tend to be very critical of professional food. In the past, I have also been that way with my wife's cooking. When someone makes you a meal and they ask how you like it, they are not asking for criticism.  They are asking you if you like the taste of what they made for you and not how can I make this better. The answer is almost always "Thank you for making this and sharing it with me." Home cooking is a labour of love and you can't criticize love. I have learned to express my joy at the simple and the sincere.

I hope that I can continue down this path towards a good connection with food, family and joy for the next year. This is my only resolution. I hope that you can find the things that you love this year. This is my New Year's wish for each of you.