Tips & Tricks

How To Open a Walnut Without a Nutcraker

This summer, Maxence and I took a little more time off than we usually do, and the three and a half weeks (three! and a half! weeks!) we afforded ourselves allowed us to embark on a mini-Tour de France to visit with friends and family: from Franche-Comté to the Vosges in the East of the country, then all sails South toward the Périgord, the Pyrenees, Toulouse, and finally Provence.

We ate like kings, as can be expected, and our luggage got heavier and heavier at every stop as we loaded up with various local treats.

The Périgord walnut wasn’t the least of them: about halfway through our trip, we happened upon La Maison de la noix, a shop entirely devoted to the brainy nut. In addition to all the walnut spreads and jams and terrines and cakes one could dream of, I loved that they sold four varieties of walnuts that you could sample — using their cool low-tech nutcracker — and compare.

“Oh, but you can just use any old knife,” she said, and proceeded to show me how, with a deft twist of the blade and very little force, she could tame the toughest walnut.

Most people think of the walnut as being a single thing — a walnut is a walnut is a walnut — but examining and tasting just these four side by side showed how wrong that is, as each displayed a different size and shape, and a different flavor profile, too. The one we liked best was the Lara, a jumbo walnut with a sweet, delicate flavor and very little bitterness. We filled up a big bag and went on our merry way, excited to share them with our friends at the mountain house we were renting together on the Ariège side of the Pyrenees.

But, as you might remember from my minimalist cooking kit, a nutcracker wasn’t part of my traveling arsenal, and the house kitchen — which was otherwise much better endowed than I’d feared — didn’t have one either.

When I shared my dismay with my friend Marie-Laure, she replied, “Oh, but you can just use any old knife!” and proceeded to show me how, with a deft twist of the blade and very little force, she could tame the toughest walnut.

Slip the tip of a knife at the seam

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Minimalist Kit for the Traveling Cook

I am going to be traveling this month, doing some simple cooking in a couple of rented kitchens, and I’ve had enough hair-pulling experiences with crappy, dull knives and flimsy plastic spatulas to be stashing a few key utensils in my luggage this time.

Because I am also traveling with a toddler who needs his own minimalist traveling kit — including such essentials as a firetruck and a stuffed donkey — I really need to make my kit as trim as possible, and have elected to bring along:

~ My paring knife, freshly sharpened: rented kitchens are notoriously lacking in this regard, and since half of cooking is cutting, trimming, slicing, dicing, chopping, and paring, this qualifies as an absolute must-bring. I will be following this tip on how to wrap knives for traveling.

~ My vegetable peeler because, again, anything that’s supposed to be sharp is going to be dull in a rented house, and a dull vegetable peeler is worse than no vegetable peeler at all. Also, a good vegetable peeler allows you to cut vegetables into tagliatelle and papardelle to make all kinds of pretty summer salads such as this zucchini noodle salad.

~ A pair of locking tongs because it’s rare (especially in France) to find it in a home cook’s utensil drawer, yet I rely on it heavily for handling ingredients, for stovetop cooking, and for grilling. As a bonus, it doubles up as a toy for the toddler, who uses it to catch imaginary fish.

~ My Earlywood scraper made of bloodwood, sturdy and smooth with a thin and sharp edge, and a fantastic multipurpose tool that can be used for stirring, cutting, lifting, and scraping. I have written about Brad Bernhart’s handcrafted utensils before, and they’ve become cherished items in my kitchen that get used every single day (including his latest creation, the adorable coffee scoop, which I use daily to serve my paleo granola).

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Meal Planning Tips and Tricks

I never dreamed I would one day become a meal planner.

For years and years, planning meals sounded achingly dull to me, and also pointless: I just kept a well-stocked pantry and fridge, and spontaneity was my middle name. In truth, I did formulate a plan for the fresh stuff I bought, but it was a fluid, unwritten one that was often altered or nixed when something came up, or I changed my mind, or I was short on time, or we felt like eating out.

And then, I had a kid.

I stuck to the same non-system for months, until I eventually realized it was no longer working for me. Rather than enjoying the delicious freedom of improvised cooking, as I had since my early twenties, I was feeling stressed trying to find time for meal preparation between work and child, and worst of all frustrated that I always seemed to be in a rush, cooking basic things that required no forethought and gave me no sense of accomplishment.

My cook’s soul was shriveling up, and meal planning was the obvious solution. A few months later, I am a much happier and more serene cook. I don’t plan our meals in writing every week — sometimes the mental plan is enough for me to wing it — but doing so regularly enough has helped me regain a sense of peace and control in the kitchen.

How I Do It

First of all, I only plan for meals I take with Maxence — my lunches are either simply assembled at home or eaten out — and in my household, breakfasts, desserts, and snacks can be trusted to happen satisfyingly without the need for planning.

I draw up my meal plan on Mondays, after I uncover the contents of my weekly vegetable delivery, and I also take into account:

  • A quick inventory of pantry or freezer items that I feel like (or need) using, plus leftover ingredients or dishes from the previous week (say, a container of homemade stock, some pesto, a few scraps of dough…),
  • The current list of things I’m inspired to cook,
  • A rough schedule for the upcoming week, to know when we’ll be eating in or out or having guests over, on which nights I’ll have time to cook, etc.

I give it a think, look through my recipe collections online and offline, do some research as needed for extra information or inspiration, and come up with:

  • A list of dishes and the days on which I plan to cook them, factoring in leftovers nights and wildcard meals (see below), and outlining what part(s) of those menus should work for our two-year-old,
  • A list of advance prep steps that can or should be done the day before (cleaning vegetables, soaking chickpeas, mixing the dough for a pizza or quiche crust, taking an item out of the freezer to thaw…),
  • A shopping list of missing ingredients, with the days I’ll be needing them so I know when to go to which shop.

This gives me a clear picture of what I need to do and when, so I can squeeze prep steps wherever they most readily fit in my schedule.

Read on for more on the 9 benefits and 7 “Yes, buts” of meal planning.

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How To Make the Most of Your Cookbook Collection

Notice how English titles are printed in reverse direction from French titles. It's good for stretching your neck when browsing.

Notice how English titles are printed in reverse direction from French titles. It's good for stretching your neck when browsing.

I’m sure your cookbook shelves are just as heavily laden as mine, and if I were to ask you how often you cook from them you might look away, embarrassed, and try to change the subject. Especially if your spouse, who regularly comments on the extent of your collection, is within earshot.

It’s not that you don’t want to cook from all these books; you do. It’s just that it’s impossible to remember what’s in them, and however well built their indexes (or indices), it would be pretty cumbersome to look up “Brussels sprouts” in every single one of them when you come home from the greenmarket on a chilly but sunny Saturday morning in March.

It does seem a shame to let so much knowledge and inspiration go untapped, and here are a few ways to avoid that:

  • Sticky-tab appealing recipes, and regularly leaf through your collection to refresh your memory.
  • In each of your cookbooks, list all the recipes you want to try, with page number, on a piece of paper. Place that custom-made index in the front of the book for quick reference. (This also serves as a good decision tool to see whether you should really keep that book.)
  • Take photos of (or scan, but that’s more time-consuming) recipes you want to try, and keep the image files, renamed with the recipe title, in a dedicated folder on your computer.
  • Keep a running list of dishes you most want to try on your computer or in a notebook, referencing the cookbooks they come from.
  • Pick a different cookbook every month or so, and challenge yourself to cook X number of recipes from it (make X realistic) before moving on to the next.
  • Use the Eat Your Books service.

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How To Transport Your Knives

When I went out and got my knives sharpened recently, I had to solve the question of how to transport them safely, and my intuitive idea was to roll them up in a kitchen towel.

When the guy at the shop handed them back to me to take home a week later, I was pleased to hear him say that this was the best method. I also noticed his fold was a lot neater than mine, so I thought I would share it with you.

Naturally, if you’re a traveling cook who has to carry knives around frequently*, it might make sense to buy a special carrying case such as this knife roll, but if you’re only transporting them a few times a year to cook at a friend’s house or to get your blades sharpened, you can definitely save the money and use a simple kitchen towel.

The trick, as you’ll see in the animation below, is to pick one of your thicker kitchen towels, and to fold it so that the tips of the blades push against a double layer of fabric, so they won’t just slice through.

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