My Kitchen Gadget Addiction

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See how nice and neat these egg and avocado slices are? Because gadgets!

Confession: I have a kitchen gadget addiction. I hoard everything from the tiniest garlic chopper to counter-hogging “small” appliances like the air fryer. I have a particular weakness for the little plastic single-purpose thingies that are among those celebrity chef Alton Brown despises and rants against in this hilarious video.

He’s right. I know he’s right; all you really need is a great knife. It’s just that he’s coming from the perspective of someone who’s had years of training and experience wielding pointy kitchen utensils, probably drinks less wine than I do and is definitely not perimenopausal, which lends a charming unpredictability to all of my endeavors, kitchen and otherwise.

I used to be firmly anti-gadget, constantly battling clutter in my too-small kitchen. Somewhere along the way my resistance evaporated and here I am, contemplating a cake pop maker.

Here are my current favorite kitchen gadgets in order of favoriteness. (Note: These are just little handheld gadgets, the gateway drug to small appliances and mixer attachments, which are posts in themselves.)

OXO avocado slicer. Yes, I own the exact same gadget that appears in the above video. I eat a lot of avocados. They present varying degrees of cooperation ranging from mushy to underripe, and if you’re dealing with an uncooperative, underripe avocado, pulling the pit out and trying to peel the skin off with a knife can be time-consuming and, for me at least, dangerous. Enter the OXO avocado slicer. It has a perfectly adequate yet not life-threatening blade on one end—the kitchen version of kindergarten scissors—and a slicer on the other end that gets all of the avocado out of the peel in nice thin slices, perfect for toast. Even when you want chunkier pieces for a salad or smoothie, the pit remover in the middle is a great way to avoid accidental amputations.

KitchenAid egg slicer: This is basically the same thing as the strawberry slicer in Alton’s video. I saw the cute red gadget on the wall at Target and grabbed it mostly because it was cute and red. Then I realized how much fun it is to slice eggs and other things as well: Strawberries and olives are frequent flyers. Sure, slicing with a knife is not hard, but this is more fun and satisfies my obsessive-compulsive desire for neat, same-sized slices.

Lecue microwave omelet maker: I picked this up at Publix on a whim when we were eating low carb, which meant making a lot of mini “quiches” in muffin tins for breakfast. I was tired of cleaning the muffin pans, and sometimes we’d run out of mini quiches before the end of the week. I thought it would be nice to throw some eggs and veggies into the microwave for a couple of minutes. It’s been great for those (many) times that I don’t get around to advance go-breakfast prepping.

Genius Nicer Dicer: I own a much simpler, older version than the kit they offer now, but same principle. It’s another great gadget for OCD foodies because it cuts perfect little same-size squares, which make a beautiful mango salsa, for example. The smaller size is perfect for dicing hot peppers without getting the oil all over your hands. It also dices onion neatly (as opposed to the food processor. Or me.) and eliminates all the crying.

Avocado Toast

1 slice Ezekiel 7 Sprouted Grains Bread, toasted
1/2 tablespoon Chosen Foods Coconut Oil Mayo (or your favorite mayo; I just like this one)
1/2 ripe avocado, sliced thinly
dash Penzey’s Sunny Spain seasoning

Spread mayo on one side of toast. Slice avocado and fan across toast. Sprinkle with Sunny Spain seasoning.

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Eggless Zucchini Cannelloni

When I was single and lived alone, I ate a lot of frozen dinners. They had names that included “Lean” (because low-fat was healthy) and “Healthy” (because healthy was healthy), so clearly this was the right thing to do. I remember running into someone at the grocery store with my cart full of low-fat frozen dinners, low-fat snacks and diet sodas and they commented, “Wow, you eat healthy!” and they weren’t even being sarcastic.
These days I don’t eat a lot of frozen dinners, but I was recently reminded of one I really liked back in the day.
I got a KitchenAid Vegetable Sheet Cutter attachment for Christmas and was searching for things I could make with zucchini that my son would eat. I ran across a photo of beef-filled cannelloni with a white sauce and immediately recalled that favorite frozen dinner, and became obsessed with trying to create a zucchini version of it. I think this comes pretty close. It is not low-fat ’cause I’m not into that anymore. It is eggless, so you could probably throw an egg into the filling and make it more firm if you’re not trying to feed a teenager who’s allergic to eggs and suspicious of vegetables. He ate it all, so I’m calling this one a win.

Zucchini Beef Cannelloni by Laurie Sterbens

While my Vegetable Sheet Cutter cannelloni was in the oven, I cooked sweet potatoes in the air fryer because I like to use as many gadgets as possible.

Zucchini Beef Cannelloni with Bechemel Sauce

Cannelloni
1 pound large zucchini, sliced into sheets
1/2 cup minced onion
1/4 cup minced celery
1/4 cup minced carrot
1 tablespoons olive oil
1 cloves garlic, minced
16 ounces lean ground beef
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup beef broth
1 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 bay leaf
salt to taste
ground black pepper to taste
1 cup shredded mozzarella

Bechamel Sauce
1 1/2 cups low-fat milk
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1 dash paprika
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Slice zucchini using Vegetable Sheet Cutter. Cut into 4- to 5-inch sheets and place on paper towels. Sprinkle with a little salt and set aside, then press with paper towels to remove excess moisture before filling.

Heat the olive oil in a deep skillet. Add onion, celery, and carrot, and cook over moderate heat until softened. Add the garlic, and cook 1 minute. Add beef. Cook, stirring occasionally, until meat is no longer pink. Add wine, and reduce for 1 minute. Stir in broth. Add herbs, bay leaf, and salt and pepper. Bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes. Uncover, and reduce until almost dry. Discard bay leaf. Set aside to cool.

Transfer the cooled meat mixture to a large bowl. Stir in mozzarella.

To make bechamel sauce: In a small saucepan, add milk. While whisking, slowly add in flour. When blended, add salt, pepper, nutmeg and cayenne; bring to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking constantly. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and and stir in Parmesan.

Spoon 1/4 cup of the filling down the center of one zucchini slice, roll to enclose the filling and place in a buttered gratin dish. Repeat with the remaining zucchini slices and filling, arranging in single layer. Ladle the bechamel sauce over the cannelloni, and sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan cheese. Sprinkle with a bit of paprika.

Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes or until bubbling. Run under the broiler about 4 inches from the heat for 2 minutes, or until golden.

Adventures in Air Frying

Hello. Yes, I realize this is my first new post here in, I don’t know, years, but I recently got a new air fryer. You probably did, too. We need to talk.
I love my new air fryer. Loooove it. I immediately uploaded all (few) of the appealing recipes from the product website into my meal planner and went looking on Amazon for a cookbook. There aren’t many — this is a fairly new gadget and it’s apparently still kind of Wild West as far as recipe development and cookbook publishing.
Then I started looking around for things I already make that would be better in the air fryer. (At this point watch out; stand still for too long in my kitchen and I will air fry you.)
There have been more hits than misses, but here is what I’ve learned so far:

Holy salt shaker, Batman. The recipes I tried from the product website and cookbook I found had waaaay too much salt. Admittedly, I try not to use too much salt when cooking, but I also eat out a lot and I know the difference between well-seasoned and way overboard. My theory here is the early air-fryer adopters are people trying to reform unhealthy diets that probably included things like fast food and they’re used to a lot of sodium. Question the salt quantities in some of the recipes out there.
Everyone is right about the chicken wings. Some people don’t use this machine for much else and that’s understandable. You could keep yourself busy making all kinds of delicious chicken wings. The first time I made air-fried buffalo wings, my picky 14-year-old gobbled a whole plate of them and pronounced them better than his second-favorite wing purveyor. I guess that makes me tied for first, but since I’d never tried to make wings before, I was pretty happy. Skin-on chicken thighs are also amazing in the air fryer.
Fried fish is going to be a learning process. Or I may just respect the fish and throw it in the deep fryer, which I’ll have to drag out anyway for the hush puppies.
Vegetables can be strange. So far I’ve cooked two non-potato vegetables: Broccoli and brussels sprouts. Here’s the thing. I actually like these vegetables. Some people don’t, so for those people it could be an improvement to blast them to ashes, I don’t know. I found them … interesting as an appetizer, maybe, but I think I prefer my brussels sprouts roasted and my broccoli gently steamed or stir-fried. Maybe I should air-blast some beets. I hate beets.
The air fryer makes the best baked potatoes ever — crispy skin, fluffy inside, and they cook in under half an hour. We like the skins with olive oil and salt, but I found that with the air fryer the skin gets crisper if you do this after cooking them.
I also had great results with panko-crusted chicken breasts, which turned out nice and crispy on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside.

Air-fried, panko-coated chicken breasts.
The chicken breasts formerly known as oven-fried turn out crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside when cooked in an air fryer.

Air-Fryer Panko-Crusted Chicken Breasts

Cooking spray
1 1/2 cups whole wheat panko crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan (the powdery jar stuff)
2 teaspoons Penzey’s Northwoods seasoning
1/4 cup olive oil
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Combine panko crumbs, Parmesan and Northwoods seasoning in a shallow bowl and stir well. Add olive oil to another bowl.
Preheat air fryer to 375 degrees on the Air Fry setting. When preheated, spray cooking tray and multi-layer rack with cooking spray. Cut chicken breasts in half, then dip each in olive oil and toss in panko mixture. Arrange half of chicken pieces on bottom of the air fryer, add the multi-layer rack and place remaining pieces on top. Cook for 10 minutes, pause and carefully turn pieces over with tongs, then cook another 8-10 minutes.

Air Fryer Baked Potatoes

4 small or medium russet potatoes
Olive oil or butter
Coarse sea salt

Scrub potatoes and blot dry. Poke each three times with a fork.
Preheat air fryer to 390 degrees on the Air Fry setting for three minutes.
Put potatoes on the fryer plate and set timer for 25 minutes. Pause halfway through cooking and turn potatoes over, then continue cooking.
Remove potatoes to a plate. Brush skins with a little olive oil or rub with butter and sprinkle with salt. Serve with desired toppings.

Root Beer Pulled Pork the Hard Way

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Slow Cooker Root Beer Pulled Pork and sweet potato fries cooked in the air fryer because I like to use as many gadgets as possible. I didn’t have whole-grain buns this time, but I partially redeemed myself with broccoli slaw.

If you cook at home and are inclined to things like pulled pork, you’ve probably heard of root beer pulled pork. Easiest thing in the world: Throw a bottle of root beer in the slow cooker, plop a pork roast in, cook. So I don’t mean to be misleading with that headline. Slow cooker pulled pork is not difficult.

However, it’s not without its issues. For one thing, root beer. Option one is to buy a six-pack of pricey craft-brewed root beer, then figure out what to do with the other five since we don’t normally drink soda, and never with sugar. Hey, we may eat pork and throw chemicals on it, but we have some rules to live by.

The other option is to buy a 2,000-pack of diet root beer, and then we end up drinking diet root beer until it’s gone, which is even worse than drinking five fancy root beers.

I found my solution when I went to a party where a friend was drinking hard root beer. You see where I’m going with this. Huge epiphany. Root beer, pork, alcohol — there’s no going wrong here, and leftover hard root beer is not a problem because alcohol.

Actually there is one way to go wrong here. The first time I tried this, I used a pork loin roast. This is a lean cut and, of course, healthier. It made pulled pork with a nice root beer flavor, but it was not as tender as it could have been. Use a pork butt or pork shoulder roast instead.

Serve with whole wheat hamburger buns and sweet potato fries to try to maintain some nutritional dignity.

Slow Cooker Root Beer Pulled Pork

1 2-pound pork butt or pork shoulder roast
1 bottle hard root beer
Sea salt and and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Barbecue sauce
Hamburger buns
Shredded cabbage if desired

Place roast in slow cooker. Pour root beer over roast. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours or high for 4 hours.

Drain liquid from pan. Pull meat apart with two forks until all shredded. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and stir.

Serve on hamburger buns, topped with barbecue sauce and, if desired, shredded cabbage.

When Life Hands You Peppers, Make Salsa

I only have one little jalapeno plant, but it has kept me busy making salsa.

As I have mentioned in some of my earlier posts, I am a sort of a hapless gardener. I’ve been at it for about a year and a half, and in the beginning I even killed squash. I thought anybody could grow squash. Now I’m kind of hit or miss, but I have found that peppers seem to be pretty much Laurie-proof. I have a randomly planted collection of bells, hot bananas and jalapenos that just keep growing and going. Now I’m starting to wonder about the bell peppers. Maybe I should ask somebody about whether the plants are supposed to get as big as trees. I was sort of envisioning large-houseplant-sized units that would give me a few peppers over the summer and then die so I could plant pumpkins. Now I have a small pepper orchard. Not that I’m complaining.

I only have one jalapeno plant, but it is very energetic. Lately we’ve been eating lots of fresh salsa, which is a healthy snack, except that it goes on chips, which aren’t so much. We like Archer Farms Blue Corn Tortilla Chips with Flaxseed. Organic, whole grain, a little flax, not bad on sodium. We do what we can.

The great thing about salsa, besides being healthy, is that even if you start with a recipe, it’s almost impossible not to make it your own. And even if you end up with something different every time, it’s probably going to be good.

Speaking of variations, here’s a link to a recipe for Mango Salsa that I make whenever there is an occasion for mango salsa, such as fish tacos, grilled fish or grilled chicken. It’s good on chips, and I’ve learned that if you give me access to mango salsa and whole wheat Ritz crackers, someone will need to plan an intervention. My secret weapon for making this chunky salsa is my Genius Nicer Dicer, which quickly makes perfect diced mango and bell peppers, and has a smaller size that’s great for the  jalapenos. In fact, it’s worth the price of this tool just to avoid dealing with onions and peppers.

Fresh Tomato Salsafresh salsa by Laurie Sterbens

4 large tomatoes

1/2 bunch cilantro

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

1/2 bunch green onions or 1/4 sweet yellow onion (or combination of both)

2 cloves garlic

2 large jalapeno peppers with seeds, stems removed

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon stevia sweetener

Salt and pepper to taste

Quarter tomatoes and roughly chop cilantro, onions and peppers. Combine with remaining ingredients in the bowl of a large food processor. Pulse to desired consistency. (I don’t recommend a blender; the salsa will emulsify and turn beige. Tastes the same, just not pretty.)

Cranberry Compote is Quick, Delicious

A compote made with fresh cranberries is not only beautiful on your holiday table but is packed with antioxidants. It's also quick and easy to make.

I made it through a crowded grocery store with a 6-year-old in tow and was finally at the finish line — the checkout lane — with all the ingredients for Thanksgiving dinner when the cashier picked up my bag of fresh cranberries and asked me, “Did you know these are buy-one-get-one-free?” I did not know that. I hesitated a moment. I didn’t want to be one of those people who holds up grocery lines.

But I only hesitated a second before telling her, “I want those.” I still had a lot of items on the conveyor belt, so I was sure I could get to the cranberries and back before she was finished. Besides, you can only get fresh cranberries through December. It was worth the risk of social disapproval to score an extra bag. Actually, now I’m wishing I’d gotten more.

The thing about cranberries is that, due to their high acidity and naturally high levels of antimicrobial compounds, they’ll keep for a long time. Toss a bag of fresh cranberries in the fridge and they’ll stay fresh for up to two months. They’ll keep in the freezer for up to a year.

I have to admit I’m a fairly recent convert to cranberries. Growing up, I never could understand the purpose of that canned purple stuff that appeared at Thanksgiving. My mother made a cranberry mold with orange and walnuts, and that was a little better. But as far as I was concerned, cranberry sauce was an extra that took up valuable real estate that would be better used for more stuffing and gravy.

Then, a few years ago, I discovered how easy fresh cranberries were to cook and how much better a fresh compote tasted than that purple can-shaped lump. I also became aware that cranberries are a nutritional superfood. Cranberries have long been known for their ability to prevent urinary tract infections. According to the Cranberry Institute, cranberries have been shown to contain more antioxidant phenols than 19 commonly eaten fruits. These and other phytonutrients may help protect against heart disease, cancer and other diseases. They also have lots of vitamin C.

After I began making homemade cranberry compote, my husband and I discovered that, as good as it is with Thanksgiving dinner, it’s even better as a topping for pancakes. Some people eat it on sandwiches, though I haven’t gone there yet. However you use it, it’s so easy to make and so healthy that it’s worth stocking up so you have have cranberries throughout the year.

My favorite recipe is the Cranberry Orange Compote is adapted from “The South Beach Diet Parties and Holidays Cookbook” by Arthur Agatston, M.D. (Rodale, 2006). The South Beach recipe is sugar-free, calling for a granular sugar substitute, but I’m a little wary of artificial sweeteners. I’m also wary of the insulin-spiking effects of sugar, so I generally split the difference and use half sugar, half Splenda.

Cranberry Orange Compote

Prep time: 5 minutes   Cook time: 10 minutes

Cranberries simmer with orange zest and a bit of cinnamon.

2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries

1 tablespoon grated orange zest

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 cup water

1/2 cup granular sugar substitute

Place cranberries, zest, cinnamon and water in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stir to combine. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until berries have popped and compote has thickened, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in sugar substitute to taste. Serve at room temperature. (Can be made up to one week ahead and refrigerated in a covered container.)

Homemade Sweet Potato Chips: Baked vs. Fried

“If you want to make God laugh, tell Him about your plans.”

If this Woody Allen quote is true, then God has been having a jolly old time for the last six years watching me trying to raise a child whose diet in any way resembles the healthy way his father and I eat.

Things have not gone according to plan. The plan was that I would eat lots of fruits and vegetables while I was pregnant, introduce him to as many healthy foods as possible while he was an infant and by the time he was a toddler we’d happily gather around the table each night to feast on vegetables, whole grains and lean protein.

The reality was that by the time he was four I resorted to bribery. I hung a big yellow posterboard in the kitchen, upon which I’d drawn little pictures of all kinds of produce. I bought stickers that had stars or “Good Job!” on them. I’d read that it could take 10 exposures for a child to accept a vegetable, so the deal was that each time he tried an item he’d get a sticker, and when he had 10 stickers next to one fruit or vegetable, he’d get a prize. I kept that poster on the wall for nearly two years, and in that time we awarded two prizes, for apples (with caramel dip) and bananas (with chocolate syrup and marshmallows).

Sweet potato chips cool after being baked at 200 degrees for 50 minutes, turned over and then baked another 30-40 minutes.

I haven’t given up. I’m still constantly asking him to try new things, though I have also resorted to “Deceptively Delicious”-style tactics of hiding fruit and vegetable purees in kid-friendly foods such as mac and cheese. This is very high-maintenance, so I’ll be glad when he’ll just eat steamed broccoli like everyone else.

Lately I’ve been on a snack food attack, looking for ways to minimize the number of chemical ingredients in the lunchbox and even sneak in some vegetables if possible. I got lucky in the health food aisle one day when Trevor said he’d try Terra Spiced Sweet Potato Chips and Sweets & Beets. The ingredient lists on each were simple: Sweet potatoes, oil and some seasonings for the spiced chips; sweet potatoes, beets and oil for the Sweets & Beets. The oils listed were canola and/or sunflower and safflower oil. Turns out, it is apparently possible to manufacture food without corn syrup or hydrogenated fats! Amazing!

The chips barely made it through the night at our house, though partly because my husband is a big fan of sweet potatoes, at least in chip and french-fry form. We love Alexia Spicy Sweet Potato fries.

When I have time I’ll make spicy sweet potato fries myself because it’s cheaper. The sweet potato chips weren’t the cheapest thing in the store either, so if my family liked them that much, I thought I would try to make them myself.

I decided to try baked chips first, since that’s obviously healthier than frying. I settled on Martha Stewart’s recipe. It involved slicing the potatoes thinly using a mandoline, spreading them on parchment-covered baking sheets and baking them in a 200-degree oven, then allowing them to cool.

Since I don't own a deep fryer, I fried my sweet potato chips in a saucepan using a digital thermometer to keep the oil at 350 degrees.

I followed the instructions, and until the cooling part they looked pretty much like the store-bought chips. But after cooling they were still soft in the middle. I’m not going to blame the recipe here; I live in Florida, which for baking purposes would be ranked just under rain forest in humidity levels. I popped the chips back into the oven for another 10 minutes or so (I confess, at 400 degrees, because that was the temperature the oven was on when I was cooking dinner), then left them to dry again.

Throughout the process, my son kept asking if he could try one, so when they were finally cooled a second time I gave him one to try. He put it in his mouth and gave me the wide-eyed, open-mouthed, squishy-faced “yuck!” expression. “It’s hard!” he told me before asking if he could spit the chip into the trash.

He was right, to some extent. It wasn’t a potato chip texture; it was more the texture of those dried banana chips that you get in trail mix. Not inedible, but not what we were looking for.

So I decided to try another batch, this time frying them. My Internet search for recipes was not a difficult one. When frying, all paths lead to Paula Deen or the Neelys. When searching for recipes on the Internet, I usually look at a few recipes and try to arrive at a consensus, then put my spin on it. Paula’s recipe called for slightly thicker slices, fried in vegetable oil and seasoned with her recipe for House Seasoning. The Neelys’ recipe called for peanut oil and was seasoned with ancho chili powder, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Both recipes called for frying the chips in 350-degree oil for about three minutes.

I don’t own a deep fryer, so I used a medium-sized saucepan and heated the oil using a digital thermometer. I used a mix of Smart Balance oil and canola because that’s what I had. It took three batches for one potato, but when they were done they looked pretty much like the store-bought chips, and they were crisp. I tested a few seasoning mixes I had on hand and the clear winner was Cajun seasoning.

Fried sweet potato chips, left, were more crisp and colorful than the baked version, right.

The verdict: Since the whole point was to get my son to eat sweet potatoes and he spit out his first taste of the baked version, I probably won’t make those again, though I’ll eat the chips myself. My husband and I loved the fried chips. My son, so far, has not been persuaded to try them. He has been enthusiastically devouring shelled peanuts, however. Woohoo! A legume!