Monday, November 2, 2009

Windy City Cooking: Week 14

(Ed.'s Note- Every Monday, Chicago's only Jason Hissong writes Windy City Cooking, a column whose title says it all. Enjoy! -Max)


by Jason Hissong
2 November 2009

       I get suckered in, too. They're so pretty- images of complete kitchens with all the gear. Racks of pots and pans. Blocks and blocks of knives. The advertisers are so charming in their made up world of perfection. I fall for it all the time. I think: if only I had the entire pot and pan set I would be a better cook.

       And it's not true. I'll be a better cook when I cook more, and better. The thing with gear is that there's so much of it that it's hard to know what's vitally necessary and what's advertisers' attempts at selling product. And it's difficult to discern.

       Alton Brown has a book on kitchen gear. It's worth a library check out. I enjoy Brown's thought process when it comes to food- exploring the why of food as much, if not more, than the how- and his approach to gear is no different. One of his main points is to make sure you go after gear that can be used for more than one task, instead of buying a single item for a single task. It makes complete sense. Brown also does a great job of exploring the differences between metals and why different metals do different things in pots and pans. Or knives. Or why garlic presses are useless.

       I don't have a lot of kitchen gear, personally. But I am, of course, always wanting more. So what do I have? What do I love that I think helps me cook well?

       It starts with my 8" chef's knife. It's from Chroma, and designed by F.A. Porsche. Yes, that Porsche. You can see it in the picture above. It's a delight to hold. Light. Well balanced. It's made from a single piece of molded steel. Most importantly, of course, it's sharp. It's going to last a long long time.

       Knives, more than any other piece of kitchen gear, I will shell out top dollar for. Why? Because it's the piece of equipment I use most often. I use it every day. For everything that needs, dicing, slicing, chopping. It cuts through vegetable, herbs, and meat. It's the backbone of any cooking process, really, as few things are rarely cooked as they are at the time of purchase. Buy a knife- again just one, not the entire block- that will last. It's worth the money.

       The second piece of equipment that is indispensable in my kitchen: my 12 inch cast-iron skillet. I always joke that if there's a day I didn't touch my cast-iron skillet I didn't cook at home. Cast iron is indestructible. It's going to be here long after I'm in the ground. My great grandchildren could use this skillet. Cast iron is such a great tool for cooking because of its heat retention and even distribution thereof. It can also withstand huge amounts of heat, so I can take it from my stove top to my oven no problem. Another great benefit of the cast iron skillet: it's relatively cheap. I paid about $20.00 for mine.

       There are other, ancillary items I use frequently. My wooden cutting board for one. Wood, or bamboo, are much better surfaces for knives. Granite, marble, ceramic, glass, and plastic are all going to destroy knives in due time. Wood and bamboo are the way to go.

       I also have to have a spatula for my skillet. I use one made by Zyliss. It's made with silicone, so it can withstand super high temperatures and just fits my hand perfectly.

       I also use a paring knife for smaller tasks, but it's not essential. Again, when I look for knives I look for molded knives, not stamped. Molded last longer. They're stronger. Everything about them is better.

       Do I want more? Of course. If my budget were unlimited I'd have it all. Cast-iron Dutch oven. Green Egg. A complete set of copper pots and pans. Not that I need them. I do hope someday to own a home. And there's no question that I'll be paying the most attention to the kitchen. But just because I lack a lot of kitchen gear right now doesn't mean my food suffers. In fact, just the opposite. I used to think that becoming good at something meant having all the stuff that the people who are good at that something have. But that's a consumer-centric, advertiser-driven logic. The truth is that I'm good at something, and become better at those things, because I do them. Cooking is no different. Are there a couple of essential pieces of equipment necessary to cook well? Sure. But not a lot. You just have to use what you've got.

What I've Cooked, What Others Have Cooked For Me, Where I Ate

       It's been a super busy week, and I once again failed at keeping a detailed map of what I've eaten. I do know this:

       On Monday I went to Panda Express for the Orange Chicken for lunch. I knew it was a mistake even before I went, but I went regardless. Sure enough, my afternoon was spent inhaling that inescapable smell that is Panda Express Orange Chicken while my stomach worked overtime to digest that ball of food. Why do I do these things to myself? I have no clue. For dinner I had a bowl of Honey Bunches of Oats cereal. Sometimes it's just one of those days that cereal for dinner is the way of things.

       Tuesday I treated myself slightly better with a chopped salad from Corner Bakery followed by a steak burrito from Tony's Burrito House. It's that cheap, ubiquitous fast Mexican that's the most incredible meal ever when drunk at three a.m. For dinner, while sober, it's serviceable.

       Wednesday had me at Jimmy Johns for a Club Lulu with cheese. I didn't eat dinner on Wednesday. I'm not sure why.

       Here's where my note-taking fails. I have zero clue what I had to eat on Thursday.

       Friday I went to Orange Garden with Ashley. She had the combination fried rice and I had the sesame chicken.

       Saturday I don't remember eating much until dinner. I spent most of the day sleeping and and trying to get over my sugar-induced coma. I did, however, go to Julius Meinl for dinner with some Friends. I had the turkey and avocado sandwich that came with a small garden salad and a cup of coffee. There were some desserts our table shared. They were good. But I don't remember exactly what they were. They were delicious. I'll tell you that.

       Sunday was a caloric feast. I had an English muffin for breakfast. After running a 5K I had hot chocolate and chocolate fondue with bananas, pretzels, graham cracker, and apple slices. Sunday afternoon I met with some friends and everyone brought dessert or a dish: Ashley made her incredible crab dip. Laura made cookie bars. Kara made a pudding dish called Ghost in the Graveyard. Erin made a pumpkin mousse. Dan and Larissa made a carrot cake with buttery cream cheese frosting. I contributed my Gruyรจre crisps.

       Another amazing, expensive week for food. It's a good thing I run.

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