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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August 2014 Desktop Calendar

At the beginning of every month in 2014, I am offering a new wallpaper to apply on the desktop of your computer, with a food-related picture and a calendar of the current month.

As a new feature this year, the desktop calendar is available in two versions: a US-friendly version that features Sunday as the first day of the week, and a French version (shown above) that complies with international standards, featuring Monday as the first day of the week.

Our calendar for August is a picture of this marvelously quenching, easy, no-cook gazpacho that I recommend you make with the ripest and most beautiful tomatoes you will find this month.

Instructions to get your calendar are below.

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July Favorites

Artichoke rosettes with olive oil, as served at L'Arpège and shared on Alain Passard's twitter feed.

Artichoke rosettes with olive oil, as served at L'Arpège and shared on Alain Passard's twitter feed.

Some of my favorite finds and reads for this month:

~ Food quotes, illustrated.

~ Change your life one password at a time.

~ An artist from Nantes, in the West of France, is stenciling the names of wild plants growing on sidewalks.

~ How Andrew Hyde hosted 138 dinner parties in one year — such an inspiring perspective.

~ My interview on Gourmandize US.

~ About Alain Passard’s Twitter account and how his assistants shoot the gorgeous pictures for it (in French).

~ Planning to eat your way around Paris this month? Check out this list of what’s open and what’s not.

~ The 2014 edition of the sustainable seafood guide for French food professionals has been released. (The poster is a good cheat sheet.)

~ A delectable look at Goodnight Moon.

~ Nine questions you should ask yourself to unclutter your recipe collection. Plus: how to make the most of your cookbooks.

What about you, any memorable link to share this month?

58 Ways to Use Cucumbers

The summertime often means a glut of cucumbers, or at least it does for me and my weekly vegetable basket. If you are in the same cucumber boat and in a bit of a rut with them, I have compiled this list of recipes and ideas for you and me to draw from.

As always with these lists, I am grateful to my inspired readers on Twitter and Facebook who contributed their own favorites!

Choose smaller cucumbers, smooth and evenly colored, that feel firm throughout — when they get older, they go soft at the tips so that’s a good thing to check. I find that the varieties I get from my grower or from the organic store don’t have a hint of bitterness, so I always keep the peel on, but that’s up to you — peeling in alternate stripes is a pretty compromise.

And if the varieties you have access to are indeed bitter, some people recommend cutting off the stem end of the cucumber and rubbing the cut surfaces together vigorously until a slimy froth comes out: wipe it away and, supposedly, all bitterness is gone.

Cucumber pairings

– Cucumber + tomato
– Cucumber + feta cheese
– Cucumber + red onion
– Cucumber + vinegar
– Cucumber + herbs (esp. mint, dill, basil, chervil, chives, cilantro)
– Cucumber + garlic
– Cucumber + sesame
– Cucumber + seaweed
– Cucumber + yogurt or cream
– Cucumber + avocado
– Cucumber + fish and shellfish (esp. crab, tuna, and anchovies)

Cucumber salads

– Bite-size cucumbers and tomatoes with red onion and feta, sprinkled with balsamic vinegar.
– With baby spinach, strawberries, and cubed feta coated with Herbes de Provence.
Panzanella (Italian bread salad).
– Peel and dice cucumbers about 2 cm (1/2 inch), add diced tomato, avocado and slivered red onion. Serve with fresh greens and a light dressing.
Greek salad.
– Salade niçoise (though some say that’s out of the question).
– Tzaziki.
– Cucumbers and sour cream, the Polish version of tzatziki.
Sweet and sour cucumbers with fresh dill.
– Thinly sliced with a lemony vinaigrette, sprinkled with poppy or sesame seeds.
– Thinly shaved slices of cucumber and red radish, with vinegar mixed with half a teaspoon of brown sugar and fresh red chilies.
– Toss with still-warm roasted fennel and a dressing made with mashed roasted garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and plenty of parsley.
– Ottolenghi’s cucumber salad with smashed garlic and ginger, or the one with chili, sugar, rapeseed oil and poppy seeds.
Crab and cucumber salad.
– With lime and Tajin, Mexican-style.

Asian-style cucumber salads

– Thinly sliced or match-stick-sliced cucumbers with seaweed flakes, rice vinegar, sesame oil, and toasted sesame (pictured below).
– Chopped cucumbers tossed with shredded shiso leaves, pitted and chopped umeboshi (sour plums), and a dressing made with soy sauce and juice of a citrus like yuzu.
– Malay cucumber and pineapple salad, with vinegar, sugar, and chilies.
– Use a vegetable peeler to slice the cucumber into long ribbons, then toss lightly with a simple dressing of rice vinegar and neutral-flavored oil (3 to 1 or so), salt and pepper, and a dash of red pepper or garlic to give it a little kick. Prettier than the usual half-moons, and a great side for peppery or Asian-influenced grilled meats or fish.
– Spicy thai cucumber salad.
Oi-sobagi, or spicy stuffed cucumber kimchi.
– Raita.
– Lebanese Fattoush salad

Cucumber Salad with Sesame and Seaweed

Cucumber Salad with Sesame and Seaweed

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Perfect Madeleines

Madeleines have long eluded me.

I have spent a good portion of my baking life collecting various recipes and giving the promising ones a try every now and then, but my efforts were only ever rewarded with ho-hum results, pale and dense little pucks that stuck to the mold like nobody’s business and flatly refused to form a bump.

Granted, if my temperament as a baker was to latch on to such challenges and tweak and tweak tirelessly until I unlocked the secrets of this or that pastry, I would probably have solved this one some time ago. But the way I deal with baking hurdles is more along the lines of “try, fail, forget about it and move on; try again, fail again, move on again, etc.”

As they baked and I stared in through the oven door, hardly believing my eyes that the centers slowly rose to form the oh-so-elusive bumps, I heard a deep voice echoing through the kitchen, saying, “Your Quest Stops Here.”

This time, the nudge to try again came from my two-year-old, who developed his own brand of madeleine obsession, one that is more centered on the eating of said madeleines. We were going through packs from the organic store at a rapid clip, and at 3.50€ ($4.80) for ten, I thought I might as well bake them myself.

I decided to put my fate in the hands of Fabrice Le Bourdat, owner and pastry chef of Paris pâtisserie Blé Sucré, using the recipe for his signature madeleines — plump, golden, fist-sized, and lemon-glazed — as shared on video for the Fooding website*.

It’s a beautifully straightforward recipe that is easily (and best) made by hand — I first made the mistake of using my stand mixer, and let’s just say pouring in hot melted butter while the motor is running is not pretty — and it yields absurdly perfect madeleines: buttercup yellow, softly sticky bumps, lightly crisp edges, and fluffy, moist hearts.

As they baked and I stared in through the oven door, hardly believing my eyes that the centers rose slowly to form the oh-so-elusive bumps, I heard a deep voice echoing through the kitchen, saying, “Your Quest Stops Here.”

Looking at the recipe, I think the key elements that make it so astonishingly successful are these:

  • Refrigerating the batter overnight and preheating the oven to high is what creates the temperature shock that causes the bump to form.
  • Using a piping bag to fill the madeleine molds may sound fussy, but it is in fact immeasurably easier than using a spoon — the batter is pretty sticky — and it ensures the madeleines are neatly formed and evenly sized, which in turn makes them bake evenly.
  • Carefully buttering and refrigerating the madeleine tray, then assertively banging the tray sideways on the counter right out of the oven prevents the madeleines from sticking — they pop right out! — and the moisture from building up on the madeleines’s underbelly as they cool.

A few parting comments and words of advice:

  • Overfilling the molds will get you duck-billed madeleines (see picture below) that your toddler may recognize as such and specifically request (“Madeleine canard !”) but may not meet your own standards of aesthetics.
  • I altered Le Bourdat’s recipe slightly, reducing the amount of sugar (from 300 to 250 grams), adding salt, using a mix of baking soda and baking powder, and adding lemon zest as a classic flavoring. Feel free to omit it, or substitute the zest of another citrus, or vanilla, or orange flower water.
  • You can certainly dream up all kinds of wilder flavorings, but I encourage you to try these simple flavorings first, to experience the beauty of the plain madeleine. You can always eat them with alternating bites of dark chocolate.
  • The madeleines sold at Blé Sucré are topped with a lemon glaze, which is quite lovely, but messier for little hands to deal with. Up to you.
  • Watch your madeleines closely as they bake — especially your first batch — to determine the exact baking time that works for your own oven’s idiosyncrasies. Since madeleines are small, it can be a minute between perfect and overbaked.

Join the conversation!

Have you had success baking madeleines in the past? Or is this the nudge you needed to give it a go? Are you an advocate of plain madeleines, or are you just dying to add in chocolate chips and blueberries and bacon bits?

* Here’s my own grainy video baking my chocolate and zucchini cake for that same website.

Duck-billed madeleine: this is what happens when you overfill the molds.

Duck-billed madeleine: this is what happens when you overfill the molds.

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