Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Romano beans

Whenever I am at the farmer's market, I always see people reaching for baskets of green beans, but rarely for their larger flatter cousins, Romano beans.  So I thought I'll give you an idea for what to do with them -- braise.  This means cook for a long time on low heat with some liquid (or wet ingredients like tomatoes) until the beans are very tender.  They won't be crisp or green, so your initial instinct might tell you to panic that you overcooked them.  Don't fret.  Take a bite for yourself and see just how good they are.  They'll be even better next day and will taste great both cold and reheated.  I wrote about this recipe before and mentioned Kentucky wonder beans as a good bean to use, but Romano work just as well (maybe even better).  You can, of course, use regular green beans, and feel free to improvise with additions like potatoes, chickpeas, white beans, etc.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The cure for a sticking door?

Jason here again. I've become the BlueStar liason since Helen has had more important matters to deal with. She has chronicled our oven door troubles and I'm back to continue that story. But, for once, I think we have some good news to report.

We're currently on our 3rd door, which was installed 2 1/2 months ago. Recently, we found it more difficult to open than when we originally got it. "Oh, no," we thought. "Here we go again..." I emailed Michael, our new customer service contact at BlueStar, to let him know. After talking with his engineer, he mentioned that we should keep the hinges lubricated as indicated in the user manual. Lubricated? The only lubrication advice we had received was to use cooking spray such as PAM, and it hadn't worked very well for our first two doors. But, wait, neither of us remembered the range manual saying anything about door lubrication. Michael sent me a PDF of the (revised) manual saying we should apply a thin layer of high-temperature, non-flammable grease every few months. But, where does one obtain high-temperature, non-flammable grease? Michael suggested Home Depot. After spending 30 minutes in the store with my daughter asking 3 different associates, I discovered Lucas X-Tra Heavy Duty Grease. It clearly indicated it was intended for high temperatures and didn't give any flammability warnings like spray lubricants do. I took home a tube and asked Michael. He indicated it should do the job.

The next day, I sat down in front of the oven with my tube of grease and a paper towel. I noticed some build-up on one of the hinges, so I wiped that off before applying the grease. I think the tube of grease will outlast the range since the tube is 14.5 ounces and I'd be surprised if I applied 0.05 ounces of the stuff. I dabbed the paper in the grease and rubbed gently on the top and sides of each hinge, only leaving behind a thin layer. The door felt better after I was done. But, I was unimpressed---the real test was how it opened after the oven has been running for an hour. We got that test this weekend and the door is still opening and closing smoothly. I hope the $5 tube of Lucas X-tra Heavy Duty Grease is the secret to a working BlueStar oven door that we had been missing all along!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Almond Butter

I have to warn you, this post is out of character for me.  Almond Butter?  Seriously?  It smells a bit too organic, vegan, good for you, convenient, and politically correct.  That's just not what I do here.  I usually write about edible things that had parents, labor intensive techniques, dishes that contain a healthy amount of saturated fat and cholesterol, and fish that "threaten" me and my children with high levels of mercury.

My addiction to almond butter started innocently enough in the bulk isle of Whole Foods a few months ago.  I was 7 months pregnant and heard that almonds are a good thing to eat to help with heart burn due to their high calcium content.  I was also looking for something very calorie intensive that I could gobble up right before teaching my evening cooking classes since 6pm was the latest I could eat.  Almond butter seemed to fit all the parameters.  My only worry was that it would taste awful.  I have a very serious aversion to peanut butter.  I believe you had to be born in the US to like this nasty spread.  It has the consistency of mud mixed with a bit of Elmer's glue.  I don't mind it in sauces, but absolutely hate eating it straight or spread on bread.  I expected something similar from almond butter, but it turned out to actually taste good.  It is way less sticky (particularly if it's refrigerated first).  I also find the flavor of almonds to be more pleasant than peanuts, but that's just my personal preference.

I should probably specify that the almond butter I get is the one you buy in bulk at Whole Foods by pressing a button on a machine filled with roasted almonds to get them pressed.  It's a little chunky, is not homogenized like most nut butters sold in a jar, and doesn't have any sugar added.  The stuff in a jar might be very good too, but I haven't tried it yet.  Forget the jelly.  Here are some good almond butter pairings:
  • a chunky preserve (apricot and orange are my favorite)
  • nutella -- I don't think I need to comment on how good this is
  • thinly sliced apples (particularly honey crisp)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What's for dinner?

Most of you can make an educated guess that I am a bit of a kitchen nazi.  As Jason would put it, a really cute kitchen nazi, but still...  I love making dinner and don't relinquish that responsibility easily, that's why Jason barely gets to cook.  But in the last couple of weeks, Jason has been the king of the kitchen since I've been spending most of my time feeding our freshly baked second kiddo (now 2 and 1/2 weeks old).  I have to say, it's an incredible feeling to walk into the dining room and find the table all set and a wonderful meal waiting for me.  The trouble is now Jason knows that putting dinner on the table every day is actually quite easy, while I still have no idea how to do taxes, take care of the yard, or do any of his chores.

So what have we been eating?  All the usual: protein + vegetable + bread.  That's our dinner formula, and it has served us well through late nights in the office, hosting guests, and now having a toddler and a baby to take care off.  Here are some sample dinners:
  • Bluefish and green beans
  • Rack of lamb and beets
  • Steak and spinach
The only seasoning we use is salt and pepper.  Even our preparation method is almost always the same: sear the protein, and if it's over 1 inch thick, start it or finish it in the oven.  It's the same meal every night, so we can get it on the table with our eyes closed in about 20 minutes of active time.  The beautiful thing is that a rack of lamb will never taste like bluefish, and beets will never taste like green beans.  So even though our seasoning and preparations are the same, every dinner tastes different.  Did I forget to mention the starch?  No.  That's what bread is for.  If it's a good loaf, it's the best starch in the world, requires no prep, no dishes, and is perfect for mopping up the sauces and juices from the fish and meat.

I am sure someone will point out that my 20 minute meals are not particularly egalitarian.  Not everyone has access to fresh fish, not everyone can afford a rack of lamb and halibut for dinner on regular basis, not everyone's kids are willing to eat spinach, and not everyone wants to get their floor splattered every night while searing.  Let me save you the trouble and accuse myself of being an elitist snob.  There.  Now everyone feels better.  If Gourmet magazine was accused of such snobbery, I am in good company.  Despite what Rachel Ray wants you to think, there is no one-size-fits-all quickie meal.  Everyone has their concerns and limitations.  But if the following applies to you, I think my quickie meals might fit you better than Rachel Ray's:
  • you have access to decent fishmongers and butchers (or even Whole Foods)
  • you have a good bit of money to spend on food
  • you are concerned with tastiness and healthiness of your meals rather than calorie per dollar ratio
  • you don't mind getting the kitchen a little messy
  • you like to learn basic cooking principles rather than follow the recipe
A quick word about the cost.  Say, you buy a relatively pricey protein at $20/Lb, spend $5 on a vegetable, $3 on bread and another $2 on basics (butter, oil, salt, pepper).  That's $30 for a meal for 2.  Can you think of a dinner out that would be $30 for a meal for 2 with tax and tip?  I bet it's not likely to include a prime rib-eye or halibut.

If you want to give this a shot, here are some tips:
  • Bread freezes very well.  To avoid going to the store every day to buy fresh bread, but a ton, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and freeze.  Take it out in the morning before going to work and you'll have bread ready for dinner.
  • If you are very concerned with your floor getting greasy, buy a drop cloth (like the ones you use when painting a room) at home depot and put it in front of your stove when searing.
  • Learn to test proteins for doneness.  This makes or breaks your meal.  If your protein is 1/2 inch thick or thinner, it will be done by the time you brown both sides.  If your protein is 1 inch or thicker, you'll need to start or finish it in the oven.  Here are some tips on doneness and basic cooking principles for fish, chicken breasts, chicken legs, tender cuts of meat (this applies to beef, lamb and veal).  For tender cuts of pork, use the same principles as for beef, but slow roast to a slightly higher temperature of 115F before searing.
  • You will need good cookware and a meat thermometer, but I warned you -- this is for people who love to cook.
  • What proteins go with what veggies?  In my opinion, all proteins go with all veggies.  So I could reshuffle the above ingredients and serve green beans with lamb, and beets with bluefish, and nothing terrible would happen.  Of course, some combinations work particularly well, but it's not worth worrying about when trying to put dinner on the table on a Tuesday night.  
That's pretty much all there is to it.  Luckily, you have an opportunity to practice this stuff on daily basis -- you have to eat, right?  Substitute your food TV watching with dinner making and you'll be amazed how much your cooking skills will improve.

P.S. The plate in the picture was one of our dinners last week.  It's a salad of watermelon radish (sliced on a madoline), honey crisp apples and parsley.  We dressed it with lime juice, olive oil, salt and pepper; then topped it with leftover salmon.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

How to Fix a BlueStar Igniter

First, a little context. This is Jason, Helen's husband. Helen is currently getting some extra sleep so that she'll be conscious for the next 2am feeding :) This morning, Paul, from Vesco, came to fix a burner igniter problem we've been having with our BlueStar range. Paul discovered the problem and showed me the easy fix, so I wanted to share it with all of Helen's blog readers.

We had our BlueStar range installed approximately 1 year, 1 month ago. Since then, we've had six problems and repairs ("jet engine" noise, 2 stuck doors, broken oven bottom, failing oven glow bar, intermittent igniter), all under warranty. Vesco is the local service company BlueStar uses for warranty repair. Our latest issue, which is the topic of this post, is burner igniter trouble. July 16th, Helen noticed that our high-intensity burner would occasionally fail to light, even when she held it in the "lite" position for a while. When I looked at the problem, I noticed that all other burner igniters were firing (I could see sparks arcing between the igniter and the burner), just not the high-intensity burner igniter. Clearly, something was wrong with the high-intensity burner igniter.

The next day, we emailed BlueStar about the problem. They sent us a replacement igniter and installation instructions. Once the igniter arrived, I was able to replace the igniter without much trouble. At first, the burner came on fine. But, a few days later, we noticed that the problem was recurring---sometimes the igniter would spark, sometimes it wouldn't. We let BlueStar know the replacement didn't fix the problem and they set up an appointment with Vesco, their Boston-area warranty service company.

Like I mentioned before, today was the day that Paul from Vesco came to fix the igniter. We know Paul quite well at this point. I think he's been to our house 7 times now. He's quiet, but knows his stuff. It didn't take long for him to identify and fix the problem. I demonstrated that the igniter wouldn't spark. He took off the burner grate and bowl and immediately pointed-out that the transparent igniter connector plug was touching a metal pipe. "There's your problem," he said. He turned the burner knob to "lite" and, sure enough, we could both see that the spark was coming from the transparent igniter connector plug rather than from the tip of the igniter. "You just need some electrical tape," he said. He got out his roll of electrical tape, wrapped around the transparent igniter connector plug and fired the burner. It worked like a charm. I don't think I'll ever understand why BlueStar doesn't simply design their ranges to avoid these sorts of problems. But, it's certainly nice to know that if we have trouble with the other igniters, a fix could be as easy as a few inches of electrical tape.

Before writing this post, I emailed Michael, our new BlueStar service rep, to let him know the source of the problem and the electrical tape fix, suggesting that they add this to the igniter replacement instructions. He said that he thought that tip would be helpful and asked his supervisor to add it to the instructions.