Happy Valley Chow

gour-mand (noun): one who is excessively fond of eating and drinking

Kitchen Gadgets - What deserves the space?

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The kitchen can easily turn into one of most disorganized spaces in a house. There are so many one trick pony devices out there, tempting you with their shiny stainless steel exteriors that might seem awesome at the time of purchase. But then, they unveil their true colors when we discover that we only use them once every other month and they are hogging up precious cabinet space. For example, I love waffles, they are delicious, but I am not going to buy an electric waffle iron because I don't foresee myself making waffles that often (Would love to find a vintage cast iron waffle iron though!)

This little list I have compiled is mostly stuff I have in my own kitchen or have used at some point, but don't have in my kitchen...yet. Prices will range from inexpensive to expensive, but I feel they are worth the investment. Let me know what you think in the comments, what is your favorite kitchen tool? 

Sous Vide Equpiment

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I own two different pieces of equipment for sous vide. Both, of which I use quite regularly. The first is the Sous Vide Professional™ CREATIVE SERIES immersion circulator by Polyscience. Which means you take the device and immerse it into a tub of water and it regulates the temperature and circulates the water. The second sous vide device I have is called the 
SousVide Supreme, which is classified as a water oven. It is a metal box that holds the water and it heats and maintains the water to your desired temperature. 

Both of the machines work fantastic and have a solid build quality delivering superior sous vide results. If you haven't tried food cooked sous vide you are definitely missing out! Both of these machines range between $400-$500, but totally worth the price in my book.

Food Processor 

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This machine can be classified as a kitchen work horse. It just does it all and deserves a spot in anybodies kitchen. I have had this same food processor for a long time and it has been through a lot of abuse. Not once has it given me problems and it always delivers exactly what I want. Chop, puree, shred, slice, knead dough....there isn't much that this thing can't do. Highly recommend buying one for your kitchen, specifically the on by Cuisinart ($99).

Immersion Blender

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This may be one of my new favorite kitchen gadgets. I got it for Christmas this past year and have used it so much. It's really nice to be able to just puree something right in the pot while it cooks and it comes with a small food processor bowl which has proven to be very handy. I don't have the whisk attachment, but would love to pick that up at some point. This is my first Calphalon product and I am really impressed with the build quality. I originally wanted to get the cordless, but read a lot of reviews saying they lacked power compared to the plug in. If you don't have an immersion blender yet, I highly recommend getting one. Calphalon 3 in 1 Immersion Blender ($79)

Thermapen

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I feel like I have gone through my fair share of kitchen thermometers. They either melt or get water damage and at $10+ a pop, that can add up quick. When I first saw the Thermapen, I knew that would solve all of my problems. The thing is built like a tank and will give you an accurate reading within 3 seconds. There is lots of freedom and creativity in the kitchen. But precision is also crucial to being the best cook you can possibly be. Thermapen gives you that percision and is definitely worth the investment. Thermapen ($96)

Kitchen Scale

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Keeping with the theme of precision, every serious cook needs to own a kitchen scale, especially for baking. Think about it, 1 cup of water is not going to be the same as 1 cup of flour, which in baking can completely ruin a recipe. Not only does a kitchen scale give you the perfect measurements, but it also makes life easier. You can just place one bowl or pot on the scale and measure out each ingredient into the container, zeroing after each addition. You don't have to use every measuring cup and tablespoon/teaspoon in the kitchen anymore! Check out the 11 lbs OXO Kitchen Scale ($50) and for smaller quantities check out the Extreme-Precision Digital Scale over at Modernist Pantry ($25). 

Baking Steel

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If you are a pizza lover, this one is a MUST. For years, I have become very frustrated  over the results I was getting from making pizza at home. Sure they weren't bad, but they weren't perfect. Finally, somebody has come up with the best solution yet, a 15 lbs piece of steel *man grunt*. Just throw this puppy into your oven, crank up the oven as high as it will go and you'll be popping out pizza's faster than you can say Amoré. Pick up your Baking Steel ($79) today.

Blender 

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I know the title of this one is blender, but specifically I am talking about Vitamix. Currently they are the best blender on the market and finally they are becoming more popular in the home kitchen. Not going to lie, they are on the pricier end, but they are totally worth the investment. They are extremely durable, very solid build quality, have a fantastic warranty, and are extremely versatile. The big thing I notice about the Vitamix compared to other blenders is it's power and the vortex it creates. It does an extremely good job of making smooth purees and blending any ingredients you put into it. It may be expensive but it is the best. Vitamix ($449+)

Crockpot 

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If you don't own a Crockpot yet, you seriously need to get with the times! Or you just need to visit my Grandma's house because she has about 20 of them in her basement. Nothing beats throwing a bunch of stuff into a crockpot, plugging it in, and coming home to amazing smells and dinner all done. There are about 10 billion crockpot recipes out there and they just make life so much easier. Definitely in the top of things you need to have in the kitchen. Right now we have an old, hand me down one that works just fine. But, this is the Crock-Pot ($79.99) we have on our wedding registry.  

Pressure Cooker

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Pressure cookers have been around for a long long time. Their popularity went down for a little while, but they are slowly starting to gain popularity once again. They are amazing devices that are capable of producing extreme depths of flavor and can cut cooking times down by 70%. Stocks that can take all day to make, can be cut down dramatically. There are electric pressure cookers, but I prefer the stove top kind because I feel like I have more control over the cooking process AND you can use it for a regular large stock pot. I chose to go with Fagor because it was rated as one of the best by Consumer Reports and it didn't break the bank. So, print out your 20% off Bed, Bath, and Beyond coupon and go pick up up a Fagor Duo 8-Quart Pressure Cooker ($109.99)

Stand Mixer

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Well I don't necessarily have a stand mixer yet, mainly because I don't have the space for one right now. But, this is the one we decided to put on our registry. I know, I know, it's not a Kitchen-aid. But, I like to be different, I really like Breville appliances, and I just think this stand mixer looks sexier than the Kitchen-Aids. The only downside with the Breville is that they don't have attachments like the ice cream maker, meat grinder, etc. But, I am ok with that, because I honestly don't see myself using those items. The Breville stand mixer has a significantly larger motor, 12 speed electronic control, and what they call "planetary mixing action" which covers 360° of the bowl. Once I get one I will definitely let you know what I think! Breville Die-Cast Stand Mixer ($299.99).

Of course this list is mainly kitchen electronics, but that is what I wanted to show because they tend to take up the most space in a kitchen. I could probably write a whole post about the importance of owning at least one really good knife. Then there are also things like cutting boards, pots/pans, etc. that could be talked about as well. Let me know what you think! What are some of your must have kitchen toys? Anything on this list you want to go out and buy?? Let me know in the comment section below!

Cast Iron Care & Maintenance

I was thinking the other day that I don't post enough how-to posts, actually none. Over the holiday break I decided that I needed to re-season my cast iron pan. I only have one and I love it. Cast irons, in my opinion, are the best cooking pans out there. The only down fall with them is that they are heavy, they take a little longer to heat up and you have to take care of them. 

The thing that separates a cast iron pan from the rest of the pack is its ability to retain heat. Once you get it heated up (Usually takes about 5 minutes) it will hardly cool down when adding food to the pan. A standard aluminum saute pan, when adding a half-pound rib eye steak, can drop by 300°F. Where as a cast iron pan will stay around it's original temperature, which makes for a thicker, crisper and more evenly browned crust. This is also true when frying in oil, which I use my cast iron for all the time. Not only does frying help keep the pan nice and seasoned. But, when you add your chicken to the fry oil in a cast iron, the heat retention from the it is going to keep the oil to temperature. You can also braise and bake in them (Check out my Jalapeno Cheddar Cornbread). Breads, pies and pizza comes out beautiful when baked in a cast iron. 

Another advantage to having cast irons is that it is probably the only thing in the kitchen that gets better with age. They are extremely durable, even a rusted 80 year old cast iron that you bought from a garage sale can be brought back to life. The very best of pans have been passed down over multiple generations, their well-used surfaces worn as smooth and nonstick as Teflon-coated pan, without the toxic chemicals. 

But, in order to get the most out of your cast iron, it HAS to be taken care of properly. It is very much like taking care of a puppy, they both require some work, a little patience and most of all...loyalty. If you take proper care of your cast iron it will pay back your investment with golden-brown fried chicken, sizzling bacon, corn bread, apple pies, perfectly seared steak and bubbly pizzas....ahhhh satisfaction indeed!

How do you season a cast iron pan?

  1. Scrub your pan by pouring a half cup of kosher salt into it and rubbing it with a papper towel. This will scour out any dust and impurities that may have collected in it. Wash it thoroughly with hot, soapy water and dry it carefully. 
  2. Oil your pan by rubbing down every surface with a paper towel soaked in a highly unsaturated fat like corn, vegetable, or canola oil. Unsaturated fats are more reactive than saturated fats (like shortening, lard, or other animal-based fats), and thus polymerize better. It's an old myth that bacon fat or lard makes the best seasoning agent, probably from the fact that those fats were very cheap back in the day.
  3. Heat your pan by placing it in a 450°F oven for 30 minutes (it will smoke), until it's surface is distinctly blacker than when you started. An oven will heat the pan more evenly than the stove top will, leading to a better initial layer of seasoning.
  4. Repeat the oiling and heating steps three to four times until your pan is nearly pitch black. Pull it out of the oven, place it on the stove top to cool. Your pan is now seasoned and ready to go. 

Until you've got a good layer of seasoning built up, avoid excessive use of soap or cooking acidic sauces. Both can make the seasoning process take longer. 

How do you properly maintain your cast iron?

There seems to be a irrational fear of cast irons because people don't want to take care of them. But, truthfully, once you build up a good layer of seasoning, they are quite tough. You can't scratch it out with metal utensils. You can't destroy it by using soap (To days dish detergents are very gentle on everything except grease). To maintain and build on it, all it takes is to follow these few points:

  • Use it often.A good layer of polymers should build up slowly in thin, thin layers. This means using your pan as much as possible—particularly for oil-based tasks such as frying or searing. Avoid cooking liquid-based dishes in the pan until it has acquired a reasonably good nonstick surface
  • Clean it immediately after use.Removing food debris is much easier from a hot pan than from one that has been allowed to cool. If you clean your cast iron skillet while it is still hot, chances are all you'll need is a tiny bit of soap, and a soft sponge. I'm particularly wary of this at dinner parties when a well-intentioned guest may decide to chip in after dinner and get a little too generous with the elbow grease, potentially scrubbing out some of my seasoning
  • In most cases, avoid tough abrasives.These include metal scrubby scouring pads, and cleaners like Comet or Bar Keepers Friend. The scrubby side of a soft sponge should be plenty for most tasks
  • Dry thoroughly, reheat it, and oil it before storing.After rinsing out my pan, I replace it on a burner and heat it until it just starts to smoke before rubbing the entire inside surface with a paper towel lightly dipped in oil. Take it off the heat, and let it cool to room temperature. The oil will form a protective barrier preventing it from coming into contact with moisture or air until its next use
None of which are for self defense.

None of which are for self defense.

1) Made of Iron. This thing is sturdy. You can drop it and it won’t be damaged. You don’t have to worry about scratching it or discoloring it (it’s black already you see). It’s possible that it can rust, but you can easily clean it. Cast iron skillets will take any and all abuse and still last forever. In fact, your skillet will probably outlast even you.

2) It Can Take The Heat. Most cookware comes with heat warnings. Even most stainless steel cookware isn’t supposed to go over 450/500 degrees in an oven. Cast iron? I mean… yea… eventually it’ll melt. But seriously you can cook on an open campfire with this thing. Try that with a nonstick pan. Oh wait. Don’t. I don’t want any lawsuits.

3) It’s Nonstick. Speaking of nonstick, cast iron skillets are nonstick if you season them correctly. Season your skillet by wiping it down with a thin layer of canola oil and then baking it in a 250 degree oven for about 90 minutes. Let it cool and wipe it down and this will be as good as any nonstick pan out there. Go ahead. Try a fried egg on it.

4) It’s a Grill. For us city folk, having a yard is not always an option. But because you can get a cast iron skillet really hot, it can effectively be used as a grill. For example, I cooked this steak in my cast iron and it was just as good as if it’d been cooked on a grill. Perfectly medium rare with a really nice crust.

5) It’s Economical. I think some people are actually turned off by cast iron because they think it’s cheap as in low quality. But the reality is that they just happen to be cheap to make which makes them economical, but not cheap. If you pay more than $40 for one, you are getting super-screwed. Not to mention that a lot of people sell perfectly good cast iron skillets at yard sales just because they don’t know how to season them.

6) It’s Versatile. You can make hundreds of completely delicious things in this one pan. You can make really good french toast. You can brown chicken in it for a salad. You can even fry in it. I’d guess I’ve easily used it for a few dozen recipes on Happy Valley Chow.

7) Save on Soap. Once your skillet is seasoned, it actually hurts it to wash it with soap. The soap will break up the tiny oil molecules that are embedded on the pan and make it not-so-nonstick. It’s also possible that the next thing you cook it will have a slightly soapy taste to it! So save on the soap. If you need to scrub your cast iron pan, use salt!

8) It’s Vitamin Rich. This is a stretch, but since it’s made out of iron, a little bit of mineral iron does get transferred over during cooking.

9) Heat Distribution. This is maybe one of the most important reasons you should own one of these guys. People spends thousands on pots that evenly distribute heat. A cook’s nightmare is a pan with a really bad hot spot on it so half of your food is burned and the other half raw. Cast iron does such an amazing job of evenly distributing heat that you’ll never have this problem.

10) It’s Sexy. Call me crazy but I find these things kinda hot. There’s something rustic about them. Like a guy with a great beard. When you see someone working with a big heavy pan, it’s a turn on. Or at least… that’s what I tell myself.

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