October – Amazing Croutons

October – Amazing Croutons

Ok, I know…croutons are those little crisp squares you buy in bags at the grocery store. Mostly boring, right? What if I told you how to build a better crouton? A crouton that would elevate your salads or stews or soups to an entirely new level. Our house is famous for this crouton. The crouton jar is always the first stop for visiting teenagers, or used to be when there were teenagers in the house. I was forced to make these almost every day, there was not a stale baguette to be seen anywhere that wasn’t turned into croutons. These croutons have crispy peaks, and valleys, yummy extra virgin olive oil, and sea salt. That is all. They have a crisp exterior and a softer interior (not too much though). I once found my son eating the leftover crumbs left in the pan with his fingers. That batch never even made it to the crouton jar.

What is the secret? Tearing, that’s all there is to it. Who knew it could be so simple?

The best ever croutons

Don’t ever cut your croutons again. These are torn, not cut. No bread knife needed.

Take a look at the wonderful crispy crouton pictured above. Can you imagine how it would be in a caesar salad? The dressing would melt itself into all those little cracks and crevices, but the edges would stay crisp. That salad would be memorable. These croutons are not going to get soggy in soup, at least not right away, and are perfect for soaking up a sauce but staying crips on the edges.

You can make them with any kind of leftover stale bread (although any kind you slice yourself is best). Sourdough is very nice. What about rye or walnut bread for pumpkin soup or a salad with cranberries?  Pumpernickel anyone for a salad with goat or blue cheese? Brioche bread makes wonderful croutons to use in your Thanksgiving stuffing. Tear the bread into small pieces or really big pieces, your choice. I once had a caesar salad at a restaurant in Seattle that had one very large crouton, torn not cut. Delicious, different, and inspiration.

Croutons

I don’t really have a recipe. Simply tear your bread, stale is good but not required, into pieces. Place on a large baking pan, coat with a generous slug of olive oil and use your hands to make sure the pieces are coated (but not swimming in oil), sprinkle with sea or kosher salt, and bake. I use 375 degrees F for 10 minutes, take the pan out and turn the pieces, then return them to the oven for another few minutes. How long will depend on the size and type of bread, but not usually more than another 5 minutes. They can burn easily at this point. You don’t want the croutons to be completely dried out, there should be some difference in texture within each crouton.

croutons – before

before baking

After baking

Once they cool, you can put them into an airtight jar and they will keep for a few days, if they last that long.

April – Basic Kitchen Equipment

April – Basic Kitchen Equipment

What items in your kitchen do you consider essential? I thought it would be interesting to explore what is considered “basic” as far as utensils and equipment. Where do you start if you are setting up a new kitchen? What do you keep if you are downsizing (something I will be doing this year)? I’ve compiled a list of equipment I find essential with a little help from Mark Bittman (How to Cook Everything) and Cal Peternell (Twelve Recipes).

What we have in our kitchen is often very personal. Much of my own was inherited from my mother and grandmother. Cast iron skillets only get better if they are properly cared for, and my wooden spoons still retain the stains of my mother’s tomato sauce or pickled beets. I have casserole and gratin dishes given to me by friends over the years. They retain the memories of special meals and the loved ones with whom they were shared. One casserole dish in particular screams Swedish meatballs at me every time I pull it out of the cupboard. It was my younger brother’s favorite meal, always served on his birthday.

So here goes:

  • 2 wooden cutting boards, reserve one for fruit so it doesn’t become flavored with garlic or onion
  • 1 plastic cutting board for chicken (not glass which will damage your knives) – that can go in the dishwasher
  • 8 quart pasta and/or stock pot
  • 1 1/2 or 2 quart saucepan

    Sauce pans from Ikea

  • 3 or 4 quart saucepan
  • 8 inch cast iron skillet
  • 10 inch skillet (stainless steel if you can afford it)
  • 12 inch skillet (ditto)
  • Lids for skillets
  • Mixing bowls – large, medium and small
  • Big wire mesh strainer (my preference) or colander
  • Salad spinner
  • Tongs – several pairs
  • Metal spatula
  • Wooden spoons
  • Vegetable peeler
  • Box type cheese grater
  • Whisk
  • A bamboo-handled spider or other sieve

    Spider or hand held sieve

  • Slotted spoon
  • Potato masher
  • Rubber spatula
  • Can opener
  • Soup ladle
  • Small bowl or container for salt
  • Peppermill
  • Timer
  • Instant read thermometer
  • Measuring cups and spoons
  • Kitchen scissors

    Joyce Chen kitchen shears – sharp enough to be used as poultry shears

  • Knives – 8 inch chef’s knife, 2-3 paring knives, serrated bread knife
  • Knife sharpener
  • 9 inch cake pans
  • Baking/casserole dishes – a 13 x 9-inch casserole is often called for in recipes – pyrex, you may also want an 8 x 8 inch
  • A casserole or gratin dish you can bring to the table – clay is very nice
  • Large roasting pan if you eat meat
  • V shaped rack for roasting pan
  • Baking sheets for cookies and roasting vegetables (I like the large jelly role pans, line with parchment paper)
  • baking pans if you bake cupcakes
  • Cooling racks for cookies or cakes
  • Blender

Then there are those items that I find indispensable and use almost daily.

  • A microplane grater – for hard cheese, ginger, garlic, and zesting citrus
  • 10 inch non-stick skillet for eggs
  • Fish spatula for turning delicate things
  • Silicone baking mat
  • Cheese slicer – for thinly slicing cheese (grilled cheese sandwiches or cheese platters)

    cheese slicer

  • Serving platters, bowls
  • Tea pot
  • Coffee cone and filters
  • Rice cooker (you don’t need a fancy one, my own is over 35 years old and going strong)
  • Mortar and pestle for grinding salt and spices – buy a larger one so you can make pesto sauce in it

You don’t need all these items at one time if you are just starting out. And don’t go out and buy a set, you may not need everything that is included. Start slowly and consider each purchase. Most of what is in my kitchen has been in use for many years. One skillet and one pot will do nicely at first, buy the larger sizes to give yourself more flexibility. Second hand stores are great places to find cast iron and many of the utensils. Check out garage sales, many of us our downsizing right now. Visit a restaurant supply store for real bargains plus high quality, they are also wonderful sources for glassware and crockery. If you have an Ikea close to you, it can be a source of good bargains. The larger pot pictured above has a wider opening and is perfect for making preserves. Similar pots at Williams Sonoma are many times the price.

What do you consider essential that I have not included? I would love to have your input and will update the list.