Monthly Archives: May 2008

Cooking at Home: Caramel Corn

This is an old friend I hadn’t visited with for some time. The subject of caramel corn came up in a recent conversation and it set me on a nostalgic trip back to when I used to cook up batches of the stuff at home. So I dug out this yellowed, stained recipe from my files and reconnected with a favorite snack. I originally got the recipe from my cousin, who told me she can still picture her source: a recipe card that had come in the mail as part of a magazine promotion or something along those lines.  It’s a pretty standard combination of ingredients and a no-fuss recipe to make.

Here’s my tried-and-true method for making it (with thanks to cousin Pita for the original inspiration!):

popperPut about 4 quarts of popped corn (which I make in my trusty Whirley-Pop popper) in 2 large shallow baking dishes (I use the bottoms of broiler pans).

caramelIn a medium saucepan, combine 1 cup packed brown sugar, 1/2 cup butter (I use unsalted) and 1/4 cup light corn syrup and set over medium heat. Stir gently as the ingredients melt and blend. When it comes to a boil, time for 5 minutes and stir almost constantly. Take the pan from the heat and stir in 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda; the mixture will puff up and lighten in texture (good reason to not use a small saucepan). Fun culinary science going on, I wonder if Alton Brown has tackled this recipe on Good Eats!?

Pour the caramel over the popcorn in as even a fashion as you can. It’s rather pouring caramelgloppy at this point, but don’t worry. Stir to coat as much popcorn as you can (the popcorn invariably flips out of the pans; be prepared with clear counter space to easily retrieve it). Put the pans in a 250 degree F oven for 1 hour. Every 15 minutes, take the pans out and gently stir to distribute the caramel, including scraping up what’s stuck to the bottom of the pan. Switch pan positions at each interval.

popcornWhen done, let the caramel corn cool in the pans but stir every couple minutes to avoid the caramel corn bonding with the pan. Do your best to not eat one whole pan’s worth in the first half hour. I dare you.

This recipes makes for about 2 to 1 popcorn-to-caramel ratio. If you want more caramely corn, I’m sure a double batch of the caramel will easily do the job. I’m happy with this version, since my sweet tooth is a small one.finished

Although I’d always made the recipe in its pure and basic form, this is an ideal platform for variations. The one new twist I did yesterday was tossing French sea salt on the caramel corn after its last turn in the oven. Outstanding! You can certainly vanilla extract and any number of spices (from cinnamon and nutmeg to cardamom and cayenne) to the caramel mixture, and toss nuts with the popcorn and caramel. Maybe toasted coconut? Now that I’ve dug up this recipe again, I may have to do some experimenting.


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In My Kitchen: Tools

Not long ago, a friend emailed asking for some input on knives for his kitchen. He wasn’t happy with the last set that he’d bought and wanted to know what brand I might recommend for replacements. I suddenly felt that my “serious foodie” façade might crumble around me. I didn’t have a succinct answer, couldn’t rattle off the knife brand of choice and its most salient characteristics. Truth is, my knife collection is among the more motley you might find and I’m pretty happy with it. Have a look (sorry about the darkness):



In there you’ll find a mix of Viking, LamsonSharp, Ecko, Anolon, Sur La Table, Henckels, Sabatier, Flint Stainless and one or two of nonspecific origins. Of them, the knives I pick up most often include the Sur La Table bread knife, the Viking chef’s knife and my old Sabatier paring knife. But as long as they’re sharp, I honestly find any and all work well for the appropriate task.

When it comes to stocking my kitchen, I’m pretty much an independent type relative to brand-driven purchasing. There are a handful of branded items that I swear by. They include a number of Microplane items (a personal favorite is the nutmeg grater, super efficient), Mario Batali 5-Piece Measuring Prep Bowl Setand this Kyocera Adjustable Mandolin Slicer.

 nested bowlsnutmeg grater






But otherwise, I tend to be pretty much an anti-gadget person. It wasn’t a fully conscious decision to avoid clutter (trust me, I still have drawers and cupboards full of plenty of stuff nonetheless) nor to avoid spending the money on said gadgets. Just a proclivity toward max functionality with minimum of space requirements. Same reason I’ve never owned a coffee maker. I make coffee using a cone filter, brewing directly into an insulated carafe.

I still clearly remember a cooking class I was teaching in a local cookware shop; and no, it wasn’t Sur La Table. I was about to peel some garlic during the class, when the owner tossed one of those rubber tubes at me and said “here, use this!” I fumbled with the silly thing for the sake of her potential customers, but was hard pressed to make it look easy and expedient. I’d much rather simply lay the flat of my knife over the clove and smack the blade to help loosen the skin. A gentle rap leaves the clove whole, or a more aggressive whack mashes the garlic enough to take you at least halfway to chopped.

Which leads me to one of the tools in my kitchen I would surely put near the top of my “10 items for a desert island kitchen” list. The lowly paper towel. At about paper towels$1.15 per roll (Costco prices), I get more mileage out of paper towels than almost anything else in my kitchen, well beyond the standard “dry this” and “wipe up that” work they do. I use dampened paper towel to wipe down mushrooms and other vegetables.  When I’m not using my favorite no-skid KitchenAid Chopping Board, laying a damp piece of paper towel under the board will help avoid slipping around.

And when I’m doing mise en place, I lay a damp piece of paper towel over the chopped herbs, onions, mushrooms, whatever else might be appropriate to avoid drying out before I get to cooking. After I’ve cleaned a bunch of herbs, lettuce or other greens, I layer them in paper towels, roll up in a relatively snug cylinder and store in a plastic bag. I find this creates just the right amount of moisture–not too much (which promotes spoilage) nor too little (which risks wilting)–to keep well for a few days, if not a week.

And, honestly, while we break out the nice cotton napkins when guests come over, for most dinners at home my husband and I use folded paper towels for napkins. When you think about it, isn’t a package of paper napkins just a more showy version of the same product?

So there you have it, my starter list for the “101 kitchen uses for paper towels” project, which only just occurred to me. Do you have other favorite uses for the ubiquitous paper towel that I’ve missed? Always looking to get more use out of this and other kitchen workhorses.

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My National TV Debut

That may be a stretch. It’s not like I have a permanent gig or anything, but this is a change from the more regional snippets I’ve done for television in the past. I’ve got a small supporting role in episide 33 “The Inventors,” part of the second season of Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie, which airs on many PBS stations across the country. (The photo here comes courtesy of Zero Point Zero Production, Inc., Nathan and Cynthiawhich produced the episode.) I play something of the journalist sidekick to high tech guru  Nathan Myhrvold–a former Microsoft exec who’s passions lean toward innovation and invention, often blended with his love of cooking–as he shows off some of the state-of-the-art tools in his amazing kitchen. It was quite an honor to be asked to participate, and such a thrill to work alongside Nathan in his phenomenal kitchen.

I haven’t seen the episode yet myself (it’s not scheduled to air in Seattle for a bit), but a longtime family friend in Spokane called to say she’d seen it and gave a thumbs up. Depending on where you live, it may or may not be airing soon. You can see a quick preview of the show on the very cool revamped Gourmet web site (which currently includes a “first look” at the new Pike Street Fish Fry in Seattle, by writer pal Matthew Amster-Burton).

A couple of my favorite shows include the “H2O” episode which features good friend Jon Rowley out at the shore under a cold gray sky talking oysters. And the Raising the Bar show, not surprisingly, piqued my interest with innovators in the realm of cocktails, including some time with the cool Scott Beattie at Cyrus restaurant in the town of Healdsburg in Sonoma Valley.

Check out any of the episodes that you come across from this season or last, if you haven’t seen Diary before. Each episode follows a particular theme and visits with a few specialists to build meat around the bones of the theme. While these may occasionally be familiar faces of certain renown, more often than not the experts are from well outside mainstream channels, and from around the globe, which is refreshing. And we invariably end up back in the Gourmet magazine kitchens, where one of the editors–sometimes Ruth Reichl herself–offers an at-home recipe or tidbit to take away from the episode.



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Wine Pairing, Made Simple

I’m trying to keep an open mind about this….. I got a press release this morning about a new line of wines called Wines That Love™.  It sounds a bit odd at first, but read that as “Wines That Love [fill in the blank].” And you can fill in that blank with Pizza, Roasted Chicken, Grilled Salmon, Grilled Steak or Pasta with Tomato Sauce at this point (with more menu items to come). 

These new wines go down a path that nearly turns food and wine pairing on its head, selling the bottle based pretty much solely on what’s for dinner. No Wines That Lovethinking required. Chicken? Grab the bottle with the bird on the front. Novel, to be sure. But perhaps no more so than other labels that have taken any and all pretension or intimidation out of the wine-buying experience, such as the Mad Housewife label.

It might be easy to dismiss this as a sort of hokey operation, just skimming the surface of wine appreciation. Which, honestly, was my first reaction at reading the release earlier today. Interestingly, the Wines That Love wine director has quite a pedigree. Ralph Hersom is the former wine director from Le Cirque in New York, and before that he was at Windows on the World. He offers good tasting notes on the web site, discussing tannins, varietals, intensity, acidity. So for the initiated among those new wine buyers, there is a bit of an education to develop the future wine-lovers. And that’s certainly a plus.

I really am not a wine geek at all, nor do I consider myself to be a food snob. I did, after all, write a post about Tater Tots, and admit in another that I occasionally give in to a Domino’s delivery. More lowbrow disclosures are sure to come. On the subject of food and wine pairing, my MO is generally to not follow any particular rules but instead drink what I want with what I want. So I guess the whole guise of selling a bottle of wine tied to just one type of food seems more limiting than perspective-opening. After all that pizza may have goat cheese, artichokes and pine nuts, leaning more toward a moderately rounded white wine, maybe an unoaked chardonnay. Or it could be a pizza with lush tomato sauce, roasted peppers and coppa, calling more for a sangiovese or other medium to light red wine. The “drink this bottle with roast chicken and this one with grilled steak” premise just seems a bit simplistic to me. So much is variable.

But hey, if this is a means to make more people comfortable with buying wine, versus not buying it at all because they find it intimidating, I’m all for it. Maybe this is the right answer for a big cadre of new wine consumers. Company president Tracy Gardner states in the release, “My goal is to double wine consumption in this country by solving the most difficult issue consumers face, ‘what goes with what?’ Wine That Loves solves that problem.”

Perhaps it does. At suggested retail of $12.99, this certainly is an easy group of wines to experiment with. I’ll give a bottle or two a try when I can. Current distribution is limited to New York, Rhode Island, Michigan, Wisconsin, Maryland, D.C. and Massachusetts, according to their web site. If you live in one of those states, the site helps you track down a local retailer.


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A Food Life List

At the culinary professional conference I attended in New Orleans a few weeks ago, one of the most engaging and inspiring workshops I attended was called “Framing the Farmer: A Food Life List, Ten Food Experiences Before I Die.” The farmer in question was the eloquent, insightful, soulful Mas Masumoto-author of Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm, among other books, and owner of Masumoto Family Farm near Fresno, California. He had been a keynote speaker at our conference here in Seattle a few years ago and had us laughing, crying, doing some impromptu creative writing and generally feeling inspired about our day-to-day work. I’ll never miss an opportunity to hear him speak. He presented this year’s workshop with his wife, Marcy, and charming, talented daughter Nikiko.

I’ve not gotten on the whole “life list” bandwagon yet, so the idea of a food life list was a doubly new exercise for me. Masumoto spoke of the importance of setting these culinary goals for ourselves, in concrete, written, detailed form. He, naturally, used the perfect peach as an example, how mind-blowing it is to finally taste a juicy, aromatic, honey-like peach warmed by the sun after a lifetime of eating bland mass-produced fruit. It’s not about achieving perfection, per se, but more about the pursuit itself. It helps create dreams, goals, nudges us to want, and demand, more from the food we eat.

Before long the family was passing out sheets of paper they’d had printed up with “My Food Life List” across the top. Then, five minutes or so to start committing our own food life lists to paper.

I found my thoughts turning to destination related experiences: sitting in a small rustic chalet in an Alpine village, eating raclette that’s been warmed alongside a wood fire. Being in the north of Italy during porcini season (and I was specific here, it’s to be at a porcini festival for an all-consuming experience).

I guess my sense of these once-in-a-lifetime experiences is inextricably tied to place. In part, it’s geography. But more importantly about going to the source, changing my own surroundings so that I become more aware, more alert to the many dimensions of newness around me. Not just the bite of food going into my mouth, but the smells, the sights, the people, the mood and ambiance.

The thing that stymied me about completing my food life list that day-I only wrote down three of the recommended ten items, sensing that I’d failed an exam-was that I felt I couldn’t know yet what should be on my life list. I don’t really know what wonders of the culinary world I haven’t yet experienced until I cross them for the first time. It’s hard to know what we don’t know. 

What I did think about was the amazing food experiences I have had that would be life-list worthy. Near the very top of the list are bliss-out moments that include eating king crab on Kodiak Island in Alaska, crab that had been lifted from the frigid water not an hour earlier and cooked immediately shoreside in a gigantic pot over a propane flame. And strolling the bustling Via Tribunali in central Naples last spring, eating my first slice of honest-to-god true Neapolitan pizza in pizza’s birthplace. And I still have never tasted ice cream like that my girlfriend and I ate frequently (delicious, and it fit our limited budget!) on our 1985 trip to Turkey.

Only the pizza was a tangible goal I had on my mental “life list.” The crab and the ice cream? I didn’t know they’d be so rapturous, so delicious, and ultimately so fully burned into my permanent food memory until after the fact.

Near the end of their presentation, Mas Masumoto and his family handed out special little plastic covers for our life list notes, magnetized so to easily display on our refrigerator at home, proclaiming our goals for all to see. Because mine is just those wimpy few goals at this point, it’s on the fridge, but down low, away from line of sight. I’d like to proudly present all ten goals front and center some day.

So, here’s my proposition. Maybe we can all help each other with our food life lists by passing along a few of the life-altering, blissful, once-in-a-lifetime food experiences that you have experienced and know other food lovers would relish as well? I can’t wait to read your suggestions. I may add them to my own list and move it to a more prominent position on my fridge.

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I Scream, You Scream

Maria CoassinOk, it wasn’t really ice cream. It was amazing, rich, dense, creamy gelato that drew me downtown one early evening last week.

My friend Maria Coassin, who opened Gelatiamo in 1996 (my how the time flies!) was celebrating a recent remodel of her small, bright space at the bustling corner of Third and Union in Seattle. As a special guest for the festivities, her mentor in the art and craft of making gelato–Pino Scaringella–came from Italy to join Maria in the celebration.

gelato case

Her gelato case was a thing of beauty, as artful and jewel-like as any case we saw in Italy on our trip last year. I was trying desparately to not ruin my dinner later that evening at Dahlia Louge, but couldn’t resist sampling a few gelatos as an appetizer. I nibbled a couple longstanding favorites, coconut and frutti di bosco(mixed berry). But I also couldn’t resist trying the two flavors made exclusively for the celebration: gorgonzola and the limey-refreshing caipirinha.

pino scaringella

I loved the gorgonzola gelato enough to eat it unadorned. But Maestro Scaringella sauteed some pears as its accompaniment, which would make for a killer dessert to serve at a dinner party. In my case, it had to suffice as an amuse bouche before sprinting up the street for dinner.

Get yourself downtown for a taste of Maria’s amazing gelato creations, if you haven’t yet indulged yourself in that delicious artisan product. Or here’s a hint: next time you order a pizza from Pagliacci, add a pint of Gelatiamo gelato to your order. No more decadent way to cap off your AGOG primo than with a pint of primo ciaccolato!

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