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the post with the killer knife skills

August 30th, 2011 | 10 Comments »

Knife skills. It doesn’t just mean that you can hold a knife and cut an onion. It has nothing to do with being able to avoid cutting yourself. And it isn’t even about knowing the difference between chopped, diced and minced. (but do you know the difference??)

Knife skills are necessary in the culinary world. The proper grip, the best balance aside, knowing how to julienne, chiffonade and batonnet, make a brunoise and a tourné potato are de rigueur.   We spent hours in culinary school, hunched over cutting boards of vegetables, practicing our cuts until our hands were cramped and sore. We hissed streams of profanity sometimes at our inability to get it right, and many poorly constructed cuts were lobbed across the kitchen in frustration. We are, after all, a profession of avowed perfectionists. Knife cuts, and making them the right way is a big deal, as they are a requirement in many, many professional kitchens.

In addition to the requirements of our classes, I participated in a student culinary competition where part of our score was judged on a variety of knife skills. We practiced these skills for months, creating mountains of carrot batons in perfect symmetry, perfect little tournés of potato like tiny white footballs and enormous amounts of parsley, chopped to the consistency of sand. I never once expected they would ever benefit me until I spent a summer in the kitchen of an upscale golf club where my ability with a knife was held in high esteem. It may seem strange to always make my diced onions perfect when all they’re going in to is a soup, or to slice those carrots in perfect coins, the garlic to micro-thin slices, but this is what I know, and what I was trained to do. It doesn’t matter that it now only benefits my family (and readers of this blog). It’s a skill I’ll never unlearn, no matter what.

And it came in very handy when creating this Kale Slaw.

And this slaw was only for my eyes, really. I wasn’t making it for a magazine shoot, a fancy dinner or company at my house. But in creating something lovely, just for myself, I am raising the bar on my meals from a routine and mundane thing to a meal wtih some elegance. It didn’t have to be this good. I didn’t have to hone my chef’s knife before taking on the kale. I didn’t need to carefully slice the carrot and pepper. It didn’t have to be perfect.

But piled on a plate and dotted with crushed and whole peanuts, this Kale slaw, with it’s peanut dressing, was a thing of beauty. The dark rich green of the kale, the sharp orange carrot and pale white heirloom pepper, all snapped out from under the blade of my knife without much thought. And that’s part of the appeal. This wasn’t any special consideration. It just happens like this in my kitchen as a matter of fact. I’ve got amazing knife skills, and it isn’t something to hide, really. It’s something to share, to rejoice about and to say ‘Hey, look at that. Isn’t it pretty?’ Because it is. And it was worth all the pain in my hands, the stiff fingers and the endless amounts of hours put in to make it that way. It raises the bar on a simple meal, eaten at my patio table with a pretty basic glass of wine. It makes a Saturday evening alone just that much more fun and exciting.

Those of you who know me outside of this site know I am not very boastful. I’m not one to accept praise all that often, but you put a knife in my hands and I’m going to show you what I can do because this is a skill I am proud of, and one that didn’t come easily. I have pretty severe repetitive stress injuries in both my wrists, and learning to do this in school was torturous and sometimes left me in tears, with my pained hands resting in ice water to reduce the inflammation. My work at the golf club was often hampered by this affliction, but to hear the chef comment on how nice my vegetable trays looked made the discomfort worthwhile, even as I bit back the pain and went home to ice baths and Advil.

I love the earthy crunch to this slaw and the nutty flavor of the dressing. The kale isn’t cooked, but the dressing soaks in to it and softens the texture nicely. I used lacinato kale and loved the dark color against the carrot and pepper. I think some red cabbage in this would be very pretty too, or the lighter frilly green of Savoy. If you don’t care for peanuts or can’t have them, try using almonds, or pecans. One nice aspect of this recipe, and using raw kale is that even the next day there’s no soggy leaves. The sturdy kale can withstand an overnight, bathed in this nice dressing and still maintain good crunch for lunch on the second day. The overall flavor of the salad was richer, and more pronounced too.


Kale Slaw with Peanut Dressing

2 large bunches of kale, either lacinato or curly, washed and spun dry
2 medium red pepper, sliced very thin
2 carrots, peeled and sliced lengthwise
1 c. roasted peanuts
1/4 c. olive oil
2 T. apple cider vinegar
1 T. packed brown sugar
1/4 t. sea salt
Pinch of red pepper flakes

Fold kale leaves in half and tear out tough stems. Roll leaves tightly and slice thinly into very fine ribbons. Toss kale in a bowl with the pepper, carrot and half a cup of whole peanuts.

In a measuring cup, whisk the oil, vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper flakes. Using a food chopper or small food processor, chop the remaining half cup of peanuts into mostly fine pieces. Remove from chopper and add 2-3 tablespoons of them to the dressing, and whisk to mix. Pour dressing over kale, toss to coat and allow to sit for 10-15 minutes. Toss again and serve, sprinkled with remaining crushed peanuts.

moving on, with baking

November 1st, 2010 | 7 Comments »

“October gave a party, the leaves by hundreds came.
The Chestnuts, Oaks and Maples, and leaves of every name.
The sunshine spread a carpet, and everything was grand.
Miss Weather led the dancing, Professor Wind, the band.”

Goerge Cooper, ‘October’s Party’

That sums up our October, doesn’t it? A more glorious month has yet to be seen, if you ask me. This year has shown us some amazing weather, and I know that many, many people thought summer was too hot, too muggy, too much ‘Summer’, I guess, but to me, it was just what Summer should be. And then for our reward, the heat index fell, the nights became more comfortable and we got October. Blessed, glorious, magnificent October.

“Bittersweet October.  The mellow, messy, leaf-kicking, perfect pause
between the opposing miseries of summer and winter“
~Carol Bishop Hipps

For what it’s worth, Summer wasn’t miserable. Just normal. And Winter is only miserable if you choose to look at it that way. Several years ago, I took up Cross Country skiing again, having not touched the skinny skis since I was a young girl. I forgot how magical it is to slide over the snow, in a quiet wood or on the trails and I’ve loved the benefits it gives me from the exercise. So I tend not to dread Winter like I’ve done in the past. And of course that means I really pray for a good snow cover. My apologies to those who hate everything that happens between now and Springtime.

But here we are in November, and it’s often a fairly gloomy month. That’s just not my cup of tea. There’s no eye-popping color, no crunching through ankle deep leaves, or mind-boggling glimpses of cobalt blue sky. It’s just November, the countdown to holidays and crazy chaos and the beginning of the dark season.

So I do what any other sane and hardened Northern dweller will do to combat these coming days. I turn on the oven, fling items like flour, baking powder, cinnamon, milk and eggs all over the kitchen and come up with something comforting and slightly sweet, something to draw me back. To rein me in, so to  speak. Last year I made a big effort to try and embrace Winter and all it’s darkness, with it’s amethyst sunsets and opalescent snowfalls. It made a huge difference so I am hoping it works again this year.

Along with a heightened attempt to change my attitude about Winter, so my baking has taken on a new aspect, and changed so dramatically from when I was little. I balk at making baked goods laden with shortening, oil and tons of refined sugar. Delicious, yes. Healthy- not at all. So I’m always on the lookout for recipes that support that, yet offer abundant flavor and comfort.

Like Peanut Butter Banana Bread.

These are two of my favorite tastes, together in a moist, tender load studded with chopped peanuts. While it’s not health food at all, it’s created with a lean towards the ‘Better for You’ angle, using very little fat and only a small amount of sugar.

I’ve been experimenting with sugar content in a lot of my baking recently. Instead of using white sugar, I’ve subbed in maple syrup, or honey or brown sugar for my recipes, often reducing the amount drastically. The results have been wonderful- good flavor and texture without the item being so sweet as to cross your eyes. Now I am not ignoring the fact that subbing one sugar for another is actually better, but instead I am focusing on removing white refined sugar from my diet completely. Sugar is sugar, yes. The goal is to remove refined products, which also includes white flour. All my baked goods are also being made with whole wheat flour too, including this bread.

I love the balance of peanut butter and banana in this bread. The PB is a subtle undertone to the delicious banana taste, and the addition of chopped peanuts (in this case, they were honey-roasted which I can’t recommend enough) adds a nice textural crunch to the moist bread. This recipe calls for ground flaxseed, and while I often add that to my baked goods even when it isn’t called for, in this recipe it’s a vital component and adds a nice nutty touch. Here’s the original recipe, with my substitutions in parentheses.

Peanut Butter Banana Bread
from All Recipes

  • 1 1/2  cups  mashed ripe banana (I used 3-1/2 large bananas- more than it called for but delicious nonetheless)
  • 1/3  cup  plain fat-free yogurt
  • 1/3  cup  creamy peanut butter
  • 3  tablespoons  butter, melted (I subbed canola oil)
  • 2  large eggs
  • 1/2  cup  granulated sugar (I omitted this)
  • 1/2  cup  packed brown sugar (I increased this to 3/4 c. and it was perfect)
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour  (I used all whole wheat)
  • 1/4  cup  ground flaxseed
  • 3/4  teaspoon  baking soda
  • 1/2  teaspoon  salt
  • 1/2  teaspoon  ground cinnamon
  • 1/8  teaspoon  ground allspice
  • 2 T. chopped roasted peanuts

Preheat oven to 350° and spray a standard loaf pan with cooking spray. Alternatively, you could use an 8×8 baking pan too, with adjusted baking time.

In a large bowl, combine bananas, yogurt, peanut butter, butter, eggs and sugar and stir until thoroughly combined. In another bowl, whisk together flour, flaxseed, baking soda, salt, spices and chopped nuts until uniform. Add to wet ingredients and stir just until blended. Do not over-mix. Scrape batter into prepared pan and bake for 50-60 minutes or until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Baking time will be shorter if using the 8×8 square baking pan.

If desired, sprinkle chopped peanuts over the top of the loaf prior to baking. I loved how this added a nice crunchy touch to the finished product.

a slip of season

August 10th, 2010 | 8 Comments »

Well, hello August.

I can’t say I’m thrilled to see August because it’s sort of reminding me of all the summer that’s now past and how little I’ve been able to enjoy  a most fleeting time. I can count on one hand the number of farmers market trips I’ve made. Just yesterday I shook out my swimsuit from the drawer where it’s been buried and ignored. The sun goes down quicker, and with a more resigned feeling than just a few weeks ago. People are talking about returning to school. Somehow, August just feels different; it feels like a slow, warm denouement, like the last dance of a spirited, eloquent party full of flushed faces and sighs of ‘The next one will be just as much fun.’

But at the same time, August is abundance. Corn is everywhere. And the heat of July is making my tomato plants nearly burst with crimson globes of homegrown tomato glory. Like this…. in one day.

Yes, that’s one day of harvest. But those tomatoes need barely a thing on them save a dash of good sea salt and a few grinds of pepper to make their way eagerly to my mouth. My Rutgers and Bonny’s Guy plants are nearly 5 feet tall, and still loaded with potential. There are peppers galore hanging from the seven pepper plants and I am eagerly awaiting the ripening of the mysterious Italian Heirloom peppers of which I discovered late in the Spring. Four plants, fully adorned with long and cylindrical deep green peppers hold a bounty and so much more. I eye them, thinking of stuffing, or sauteing or simply slicing on a salad. I love the anticipation held within the tiny patch out my window.

The rain has been copious in Minnesota, and the resulting humidity oppressive, but what the rain has done is unavoidable. My tiny Japanese lilac bushes, which faded so fast after an untimely Mother’s Day frost, sprung back into a lush fragrant bloom in mid-July, bringing a welcome surprise amidst the waves of high summer heat. The Delphinium is on a second bloom too, and the yard has stayed a rich verdant green. I even find humor in the huge weed that’s formed in our neglected fire pit, it’s long stems sneaking up and over the walls, potentially snagging unsuspecting varmints. The toad population in my garden is copious. Mike even found a small frog clinging to our sunroom window one evening. Just about the same time, we discovered a tiny amphibian clinging to a baking pan in the midst of the kitchen at work. It was a moment of surprise, and likely shock for the poor little green creature, which I quickly captured and took outside to release in the grass. His legs were too miniscule anyway, as luck would have it.

This past week has been very simple around the house. The Teen is off an the adventure of his young lifetime, away in the mountains of West Virginia spreading his faith and employing his helping hands. He returns to our fold this weekend, and I’ve missed his smile. Mike and I have enjoyed some much-needed quiet time, and a reprieve from chauffeur duties. My schedule, and the last of the July heat has kept the cooking to a minimum. Good bread, some cheese and those wonderful tomatoes have really been all I crave anyway.

I did turn on the oven for one short burst of creativity when I came across this Chipotle Lime Roasted Peanut recipe on Susan’s site. I’ve been indulging in this delicious smoothie , utilizing the frozen blueberries from my yearly berry picking adventure, and upon seeing her quick and simple method for this spicy snack, I jumped into action. One food item that we always keep on hand for snacking is nuts. Our favorite is almonds, with pistachios and peanuts coming in close behind. I took Susan’s recipe one step further, using all three nuts when I made my version.

With the first nibble, I was hooked. The nuts aren’t spicy right away, but a bit of heat builds up in the back of your mouth as you crunch away, and a slight salty tang of  lime tangoes a little over your tongue. They’re utterly addictive. It’s a good thing I needed to run out to work soon after fixing up a batch of them, or I might have poured myself a cold drink, taken a book out to the patio along with a bowl of these nuts and settled in to satisfied munching. It would be nice of me to save some for Mike, don’t you think?