Author: James Cooper

Sous-vide cooking with our new Anova Cooker

Sous-vide cooking with our new Anova Cooker

Sous-vide cooking amounts to putting your food in a sealed plastic bag and immersing it in a temperature controlled water bath for an hour or so. Until recently, sous-vide cookers had cost several hundred dollars, but the latest models are about $100 and suitable for Christmas presents. Our new Anova Nano Precision cooker is just such a device, and we report here on our first experiences with it.

The essence of sous-vide cookery is immersing your food (meat, fish or some vegetables)  in a water bath at just the temperature you want the food to reach. For example, if you want a steak to have an internal temperature of 130˚ F, you put your steak in a vacuum sealed bag in a temperature-controlled water bath at 130˚ F for about an hour. The entire steak will have an internal temperature of 130˚ rather than just the middle. You finish the steak with a quick browning in a pan to give you the outer crust you’d expect.

The Anova cooker is a well-made, compact appliance that you clamp to the side of any fairly deep pot. It comes with minimal documentation (a tiny 5-page leaflet) directing you to download the Anova app for your smart phone.

This app immediately connects to the Anova via Bluetooth, allowing you to manage the settings from your phone. Use of the app is not entirely transparent: you would think that you could adjust the temperature and time from the app, bit you can actually only select times and temperatures associated with various recipes within the app: Beef Poultry, Eggs, Fish and seafood, Lamb, Port and Vegetables (Carrots and Corn only).

Steak

We bought some on-sale prime sirloin steak for our first experiment, placing the seasoned steak into a gallon zip lock bag with some seasonings.

We set the Anova for 130˚ using the app. This took a little fiddling, as it was not obvious at first ow to switch from Rare to Medium Rare. You just swipe right to move to the next temperature setting, but there was no indication on the screen that it was swipe-able. You should bring the water to temperature before putting the meat in. Since you can get tap water at 130˚, this is not too difficult. For high temperatures, you need to use your stove to heat the water, as the Anova takes quite a while to get to higher temperatures.

You slowly lower the bag into the water, letting the water pressure force out the air, and then seal the bag. It should sink in the water if you got most of the air out. We started the cooker, and an hour later had cooked, steak but with a gray exterior. We browned it in a cast-iron pan and then served it.  It was as good as the steak, which in this case was modest, but the cooker worked like a charm.

Chicken Breasts

We also followed the recipe provided with the cooker for chicken breasts.

Nearly all of these are by noted food writer Kenji Lopez-Alt. In those case, we put each of two breast halves in a separate 1 quart zip lock bag with a little oil and a sprig of rosemary and cooked them at 150˚ F for one hour. Then, we browned the chicken skin on a fry pan and deboned the breast easily. We sliced each breast up for serving and ate it with gusto. The breast was perfectly cooked and juicy, unlike nearly all other chicken breast recipes and an simple evening meal. It was great.

sliced

Carrots

carrot bag

To cook carrots, you cut them into 1-2 inch pieces, bag them and add a bit of sugar and butter, and seal them for immersion. We simply were not able to get all the air out of the bag because of the irregularity of the carrot pieces. We tried weight the bag by clamping a spoon to it, but the bag leaked and the carrots were not fully cooked. You also have to raise the water bath to 183˚ and this is beat done on the stove. You probably need to invest in a vacuum sealer to do carrots, but since we have a number of recipes for carrots already, this is not that urgent.

It’s not clear how often we’ll use our cooker, but it is very easy to use with the smartphone app and the results are really impressive. We have it in our stove drawer now for easy access.

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Why homeopathy is hokum

Why homeopathy is hokum

There are lots of faux drugs on the shelves of many shameless drugstore chains that are labeled “homeopathic.” These are useless nostrums marketed to the gullible.  Usually they are labelled as something like “200C.” This is not a temperature, but the number of dilutions of the original substance.

The completely unsubstantiated hypothesis behind homeopathy is that “like cures like,” and that a very small diluted amount of some “natural substances,” such as plant extracts can stimulate the body to repair itself. There is no evidence that this 18th century idea actually works.

The way homeopaths work is that they select some substance or substances they believe might be helpful and dilute them with shaking, which they call potentization. The word has no actual meaning. Then after many dilutions and shakings, they sell some to you for treatment.

Well now, how much is “some”?

Let’s assume that table salt is a substance that can be used for treatment. It has a molecular weight of (23 + 35.5) of 58.5. We know, from the work of Loschmidt and Avogadro that if you weigh out the molecular weight of any substance in grams (in this case 58.5 g) it contains one  mole of particles, or 6.02 x 1023 molecules.

1 mole saltSo let’s dissolve that mole of salt on one liter of water. Now we have a one molar solution containing those 1023 molecules.  And now, lets dilute 10 ml of that liter by 100, to again make one liter.  This new liter will have 1/100 as many molecules in it, or 1021 molecules.

Well the “C” in that “200C” designation means that has been diluted by 100. And the 200 means that this has been repeated 200 times!

So lets see what happens after each dilution:

  1. 1021 molecules
  2. 1019 molecules
  3. 1017 molecules

…..

  1. 105 molecules
  2. 103 molecules
  3. 101 molecules

 

After 11 dilutions, you have only 10 molecules of salt left in your solution.  What happens when you dilute it 100:1 another time? If you take 100 10 ml samples of that last liter, 10 of them could have one molecule of salt!

And after that, the chances of there being even one molecule of our “medicine” are vanishingly small. All of the salt (or any other substance) is lost in the dilution process! There isn’t any left after 12 or so dilutions. And by 200 there is absolutely no chance you’ll encounter even one molecule!  It’s gone down the drain, just as the entire homeopathic hypothesis has. There are no active ingredients at all!

Taking homeopathic preparations can act as a placebo, or if they dilute the substance in alcohol instead of water, a quick drunk, but there just can’t be any benefits in the absence of any medicine.

Unfortunately homeopathic preparations are poorly regulated, and some dangerous substances may remain in significant quantities. In some cases, heavy metals have been found.

513minrbq9l._ac_us436_fmwebp_ql65_Studies of the famous quack medicine oscillococcimnum have shown no significant effect. And studies of some 68 treatments have found that they have no effect either.

These are quack medicines that improve the bottom line of unethical pharmacies, but can’t do you any good. Any they may do some harm.

Sifting and measuring flour

Sifting and measuring flour

If you look at nearly any baking recipe, you will see something like “sift together the dry ingredients,” usually flour, baking powder and maybe sure and salt. Why do they do that? Well, because someone clear back to Fanny Merritt Farmer, in her Boston Cooking School Cookbook (you can read a digital copy here) said to. Flour in 1896 was probably much lumpier than today, and she said to sift all ingredients before measuring them.

Nowadays, flour isn’t usually very lumpy and we usually use it right out of the bag.

But we thought we’d try sifting some paprika into flour to see how well it mixes. This is about 1.5 Tb of paprika in 2 cups of flour.

 

 
 

As can see, it doesn’t really mix all that well. In fact, you could do better just using a wire whisk. But, if you are making a batter for baking, the mixing of the dry ingredients with the liquid will distribute them just as well.

Now about that cup

A measuring cup measures 8 fluid ounces: it is really for measuring liquids like milk or water. Flour, not being a liquid can be a little variable about how much fits in a cup. Fanny Farmer said you should scoop out the flour and level off the cup with a knife, and that works for 1 cup of flour. But for 2 ½ cups of flour, it gets messier and it soon becomes easier to weigh out the flour. We have an inexpensive kitchen scale, Ozeri kitchen scale (it cost $15.95), we keep right with our bowls and dishes, and can easily weigh anything we want.  If you don’t have one, ask someone to give it to you for Christmas.

So how do you weigh out flour? We found that 1 cup of King Arthur All Purpose Flour weighs 142 g (see above). We use grams because then there aren’t any pesky decimal pl aces to confuse you.

weighing



But what about sifted flour? The only thing sifting commercial flours does is to aerate them a bit so a cup of sifted flour weighs less. Sifted King Arthur flour weighs 126 grams, or about 8% less.

Cake Flour

Cake flour is made from a mixture of lower protein wheats that will give a light and tender crumb in cakes. According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, all purpose flour has about 11-12% protein (mostly gluten) and cake flour about 7-8% protein. And U.S. cake flour is bleached as well, which causes “the starch granules to absorb water and swell more readily in high sugar batters.” Need less to say, cake flours weigh less per cup:

 All purposeCake flour
Scooped142 g120 g
Sifted126 g112 g

These weights are useful when you need some off amount of flour. For example, my waffle recipe requires 2 ¼ cups of sifted cake flour. It’s easiest to just quickly weigh about (2.25 x 112g) or 252g in a dish and mix it into the waffle batter. I keep this table posted inside my cupboard door, and write the weights into any recipes I use frequently.

So, get your scale out and you can do your baking quickly without getting a lot of measuring cups dirty. Happy holiday baking!

Tuscan Chicken Pasta: Instant Pot or Not

Tuscan Chicken Pasta: Instant Pot or Not

This simple and delicious chicken pasta dish is a breeze in an Instant Pot, but since the cooking time is so short, you could just as easily make it in a 3 or 4 qt saucepan with a lid. We got the idea from this online recipe, but a quick search will bring up dozens of variations. Our recipe varies from that link mainly in we use fresh garlic instead of garlic powder, and we avoid the mysterious “Italian seasoning.”

  • 1 lb boneless chicken breasts (2 lobes of a single chicken breast)
  • 2 Tb olive oil
  • 2 tsp half-sharp paprika (Ours came from Penzeys)
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 tsp basil
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 2 12-oz cans chicken stock
  • 1 ¼ cups milk
  • 12 oz penne pasta (we used tricolored)
  • 6 oz cream cheese
  • 1 ½ cups freshly grated parmesan cheese
  • 3-6 oz sun-dried tomatoes, cut up
  • 4 oz baby spinach leaves

  1. Set the Instant Pot to Sauté, press adjust to set it to High.
  2. Sprinkle the chicken with salt, pepper and paprika.
  3. Sauté the chicken breasts for 2 minutes on each side and remove to a plate.
  4. Sauté the onions for 1-2 minutes, until softened, adding more olive oil if needed.
  5. Mash the garlic with the side of a knife, remove the skin and chop them up.
  6. Add the garlic to the sauté and cook until fragrant.
  7. Turn off the sauté heat.
  8. Add the chicken broth, basil, oregano, salt ant pepper, milk, pasta and chicken breasts to the pot.
  9. Close the pot and set to Manual and 5 minutes.
  10. When the 5 minutes is over, do a Quick Release and remove the lid.
  11. Remove the chicken to the plate and cover with foil to keep warm. It will continue to cook on the plate, so be sure to cover it.
  12. Cut up the cream cheese and stir into the pasta liquid, until it has melted and the sauce is smooth.
  13. Cut the sun-dried tomatoes into quarters or smaller and add to the pot.
  14. Add the parmesan cheese and spinach.
  15. Cut the chicken in to cubes and return it to the pot.

Serve warm, garnished with more parmesan if you like.

in bowl

In a saucepan

The recipe is pretty much the same, except that you should cook the penne pasta and chicken in the stock, covered, for 10 minutes. You may have to add more water if the stock boils down too much. It is also easier to reheat it, when everything is combined, but as it cools the sauce does become thicker.

The Barn Door: a great family restaurant in Branchville

The Barn Door: a great family restaurant in Branchville

signThe Barn Door has been at 37 Ethan Allen Highway in Ridgefield (Branchville) for about two years now, and it looks like they have found a winning formula. The service is fast and gracious, and the food way better than you’d expect at a “family restaurant.” Everything we had was extremely good, and most of it excellent.

They started us with some delicious bread, served with a tomato coulis, in a beautiful presentation.

bread

Our appetizers were their crab cakes with corn relish and chipotle aioli, which seems to be a recurring special that one staff member told me was one of their most popular dishes. It’s easy to see why: it is full of crab and sufficiently spicy (mostly with mustard) to compare favorably with benchmark Baltimore carb cakes. And the two cakes give you quite a lot of crab. If you were planning of having a substantial main course, two people could split these crab cakes!

crab cakes

For one entree we had an excellent Lemon Chicken. It consisted of chicken breasts with pasta and Meyer lemon, sweet cherry peppers and a sweet, lemony sauce, decorated with parsley. This was an absolutely outstanding dish we recommend highly whenever it’s on the menu.

lemon chicken

Out other entrée was classic Fish and Chips, served batter fried with hot, fresh French fries, coleslaw and tartar sauce. Like all of their other entrees, the portion was substantial and some of the best fish and chips we’ve had anywhere recently. This one is on the standard menu and you can order it anytime. We will certainly have it again.

fish and chips

The Barn Door is a wonderful discovery for us: the prices are reasonable, and the food is outstanding. We are probably going to start going there whenever we want a moderate night out, because the service, atmosphere and cuisine are excellent.

Parking sometimes is crowded at the Barn Door, but if their lot parking is full, there are usually spaces in a lot across the street. The Barn Door is located on Route 7 just south of the intersection with Rte. 102 and pretty much across from the Branchville train station.

See you there!

bar

 

 

Where to have breakfast in Wilton

Where to have breakfast in Wilton

While our kitchen was being remodeled, we had ample opportunity to try various breakfast spots on the area, and all of them have things to recommend them.

Orem’s

Of course, Orem’s would be on our list since it is a well-regarded diner, recommended in Jane (and Michael) Stern’s Road Food. We have been going there for years, and have had quite a number of their breakfast items, from eggs, to pancakes, to French toast to omelets, and just about everything has been well prepared and served amazingly quickly. The wait staff is unfailingly friendly and soon recognizes you when you return. These photos show eggs and sausage, and blueberry pancakes.

Village Luncheonette

We had forgotten what a gem the Village Luncheonette is. It’s right there on Old Ridgefield Rd in Wilton Center, just across the driveway from Village Market. The staff is friendly and the food excellent. Our eggs were perfectly prepared, although they accidentally made us 3 instead of two and of course we had to eat all 3 because they were delicious. We liked the fact that they split the link sausages in half so they heated through. We’ll certainly go back more frequently. But beware: they don’t take credit cards.

Connecticut Coffee

bagel ct coffee

Connecticut Coffee and Grill does a brisk takeout business for their bagels and breakfast sandwiches, and they both conventional coffee and about 8 specialty coffees on tap all the time. Jimmy and his staff work quickly to hand you your order, and if it is the same every time, they may already have it for you in a bag when you walk in the door. We think their bagels are top-notch, and when we went there for a sit-down breakfast, we ordered them, buttered with cream cheese, and they were amazing. The French Toast the people at the next table had also looked fantastic. Their menu is extensive.  You can order breakfast sandwiches, eggs and pancakes and an huge array of lunchtime sandwiches. The place always seems busy, and has been for all of the 15 years they’ve been in Old Post Office Square, 16 Center St.

Uncle Leo’s

Uncle Leo’s Coffee and Donuts opened in Wilton (17 Danbury Rd) just a few weeks ago, and already has a substantial following. “Uncle Leo” is Leo Spinelli and the nephew is making excellent donuts and bagels using his recipes. The bagels are comparable to the ones at Connecticut Coffee but the donuts are far superior to anything else in the area. They have around a dozen tables where you can eat your breakfast, and their menu is the same as in the Georgetown shop, with breakfast sandwiches, Danish, muffins, turnovers, giant breakfast plates, omelets, eggs, toast and home fries. They also have a substantial lunch hot and cold sandwich menu.  Beware of their Boston Crème donut which is so full of custard you’ll need a spoon to manage it. But it is delicious!

 

Thursday night Prix Fixe at the Schoolhouse

Thursday night Prix Fixe at the Schoolhouse

The Schoolhouse at Cannondale always serves delicious, creative food, but Thursdays are a real bargain when you can get a 4-course meal for $49. If you want a different wine to accompany each course, it costs $85, but if you just order some wine by the glass the whole evening is an astonishing bargain.

Last night’s menu gave you two choices for each of the four courses, which explains why the menu is so inexpensive: there are only eight dishes to prepare.

For the first course, one choice was a Kale and Cabbage salad with almonds, pickled shallot, golden raisins and Umami vinaigrette. While it looked pretty salad like, it was a bit more like a fruit salad, with the raisins cutting the bitterness of the brassica, and quite tasty.

The other first course was a Curry Carrot Soup (above) with a coconut-peanut granola and Black Sheep Yoghurt. This was a spectacular success, and I can’t wait to try to duplicate it as it was utterly delicious, with the smooth carrot soup and curry contrasting with the nutty granola and swirled with the yoghurt.

For the second course, you could choose Torches French Raclette Cheese, with Currant-Apricot Mustardo and Wave Hill Toast, or Pork Rillette, Pickled Fennel, Raisin Verjus, toast and watercress. Eating the warm Raclette by spreading it on the toast with a little of currant-apricot mixture was an unexpected experience, and the Pork Rillette was a smooth spread that also nicely set off with the Raisin Verjus and Fennel.

pork loin

For the third course you could order either Bronzini with toasted farro and Juilienne vegetable en Blanc, Fennel-Tomato broth and Kalamata Olive tapenade, or Roast Pork Loin with Horseradish Spätzle, Brussels Sprouts and Caraway-Beet Coulis. We both ordered the pork loin, so you get only one picture. We particularly were pleased with how tender and juicy the pork was, as many other restaurants tend to overcook it. This was just right, and the Spätzle were a really great idea and went well with the Brussels Sprouts.

bread pudding

Finally, we could order either Bread pudding with salted caramel sauce, peanuts and cinnamon whipped cream, or Maple Panna Cotta with cranberry chutney. We both ordered the bread pudding which was apparently made from Wave Hill bread, too, was a lovely finish to the meal.

We couldn’t have been happier, and now that we know their “secret,” we’ll come back on Thursdays in the future!

 

Salted caramel chocolate tart

Salted caramel chocolate tart

Here is a great holiday pie recipe that takes only minutes to make, although it does take several hours to chill. Warm it back to room temperature when you serve it, to make cutting caramel easier, and use a warm knife.

Depending on whether you make this in a tart pan or a pie pan, this is a tart or quiche, but is simple and delicious. And, for holidays, it is easily transportable. Save the Maldon salt until just before serving so it doesn’t dissolve in the ganache.

Crust

  • 3 cups crushed chocolate cookies
  • 4 Tb unsalted butter

crust

  1. Crush the cookies in a food processor. Lacking simple chocolate cookies, we tried chocolate biscotti, chocolate chocolate chips cookies and thin Oreos with the filling scraped off. All worked well.
  2. Melt the unsalted butter in a microwave for 1 minute at 50% power and mix in with the cookies.
  3. Press the crumbs into the bottom of a pie pan or tart pan.
  4. Bake 10-15 minutes at 350˚ F, until fragrant.
  5. Cool or chill until ready to fill the pie.

Caramel filling

  • 1 ½ cups sugar
  • 1/8 tsp cream of tartar
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 6 Tb chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt

  1. Mix the sugar and cream of tartar and add the water.
  2. Bring the sugar mixture to a boil, with stirring to dissolve the sugar.
  3. Reduce heat to medium and let the sugar solution cook slowly (8-10 minutes) with swirling until it is deep amber, and wisps of smoke start to come from the pan.
  4. Remove from heat and add the butter, carefully, a piece at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon, to avoid foaming up.
  5. Add the cream slowly with stirring.
  6. Add the salt.
  7. Pour into a glass pitcher to allow it to cool
  8. Pour into the piecrust, cover with foil and refrigerate, an hour or overnight.

caramel in pie

Ganache

  • 4 oz semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • 1 Tb honey
  • ¼ tsp coarse salt
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • Flakey sea salt

  1. Place the chocolate in a heat proof bowl
  2. In a medium saucepan, combine the cream, honey and salt.
  3. Bring the cream to a boil and pour over the chocolate.
  4. Let stand 5 minutes, to melt the chocolate.
  5. Whisk until smooth
  6. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until stiff, usually a couple of hours, (depending on how many cocktails you drink in the meantime.)
  7. Spread the ganache on the chilled filling.
  8. At the last minute, sprinkle with Maldon or other sea salt.

Serve pie at room temperature.

 

Want to drink Margaritas with a bunch of soused seniors?

Want to drink Margaritas with a bunch of soused seniors?

 

Margaritaville is a 1977 Jimmy Buffett song that despite its simplicity became a huge hit for Buffett. It’s essentially a mournful break-up song set to what Buffett himself calls “drunken Caribbean music.”

Cashing in on what turned out to be his biggest hit, Buffet franchised a series of Margaritaville restaurants, serving middling but undistinguished American food and less than distinguished service. There are now about 30 of them, mostly in the South, but there is one at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, CT.

Not to stop there, his company has franchised Margaritaville Resorts, mostly in the South and Caribbean, but there is one coming to New York City as well. These are hotels with pools and the Margaritaville restaurant featured, along with some sort of entertainment.

But now, we learn that his franchising organization has formed a new business for “55 and over”: senior living. The first of these is in operation in Daytona, call Latitude Margarita. Another has also opened in Hilton Head. We learned about these from an article in this Sunday’s Times Magazine. This is a development for the 55 and over crowd of homes ranging from $200K to $300K in a senior living community for “active residents,” which is or will include a Town Center with shops, concerts presumably other activities.

One Yelp reviewer said it was like being on a permanent Carnival Cruise with noisy neighbors! And a real estate expert said “I see the appeal, but it has a good chance of wearing out quickly.”

The problem I have with all of this is that even though we fit their age demographic (and then some), the idea of an age-restricted community with no young adults or children sounds stultifying. You keep young by interacting with younger people, not getting snockered on salted Tequila drinks every night.

And just how much activity is there really? Are there singing groups you can join? Are there wood working and other crafts available? What about community theater, where seniors really tend to thrive?  And to tell you the truth, we prefer gin and tonics!

Oh, and that beach they show in all their brochure. It isn’t on the property. It’s a shuttle ride away.

Pork chops and applesauce in an Instant Pot

Pork chops and applesauce in an Instant Pot

The Instant Pot is the ideal way to make pork chops without drying them out. This is a problem since most commercial pork is very lean. Even when you use a premium product like Chairman’s Reserve, you have to take care not to overcook the pork. Your pork will be juiciest if you remember that it need only be cooked to 137˚ F and not to the ridiculously high temperatures of yore.

We bought two large double chops to illustrate the technique.

  • 2 large pork chops
  • 1 Tb olive oil
  • 6 oz apple juice (one small drink box is enough)
  • 3 apples, cored and sliced (you don’t have to peel them)
  • Salt, pepper

  1. Set the Instant Pot to Saute (high) and add the olive oil.
  2. Dry the chops, season them and saute them until slightly browned.
  3. Turn off the pot and pour out the oil and any rendered fat.
  4. Add the apple juice and the sliced apples.

with apples

5. Close the pot and set to Manual for 10 minutes
6. Let the pressure reduce slowly (NPR) and open the pot.
7. Remove the chops and keep them warm
8. Pour out the apple juice and any other juices.
9. Puree the apples using an immersion blender. This also chops up the peels into the applesauce.

Serve the chops with a side of applesauce.

It is important that you let the pressure reduce slowly so that the meat juices don’t boil off. In this case, the pot was back to normal pressure in about 10 minutes.

The resulting chops were very tender and juicy. We measured the temperature of the two chops: it was nearly 165˚ F, so we suggest that for these large chops, 8 minutes would have been enough, and for smaller, single chops, 5 minutes is probably plenty.

The applesauce is very good with the pork chops, but is probably a bit porky to eat later by itself, so don’t overdo it.