Friday, December 30, 2011

The Most Important Tool in Your Kitchen…

I'm very fortunate to possess a well equipped kitchen. While I don't believe in "unitaskers" (gadgets that have only one limited use, like hot dog warmers, or miniature fruit pie bakers), I do have quite a lot of equipment. First and foremost, I would be lost without my Kitchen-Aid stand mixer. Not only is it wonderful at beating egg whites (who wants to invest in an unlined copper bowl and lots of muscle power to do it by hand?), but it excels at quickly kneading up a huge batch of pizza or bread dough, as well as creamy cake batters. But I'll bet you never thought of using a mixer for meatballs or meat-loaf! However, drop the ingredients into the bowl, let the Kitchen-Aid go at it with the flat beater, and seconds later you have a homogenous mixture without having to take your rings off and get your hands all yucky! You do have to be careful if you decide to use it for mashed potatoes, though--the high speed can quickly cause gluten to form, making the potatoes gluey and gross. I also have a couple of attachments for the Kitchen-Aid: a food slicer/shredder (which is nice because it dispenses into a bowl or pot, making continuous processing of large amounts of food easier than in the food processor, which needs to be emptied frequently), a food purée device (which handily removes fibers from any soft, fibrous food, leaving only the delicious soft stuff behind), and a meat grinder, (which allows me to make my own fat free ground chicken for stracciatelli meatballs).

I also love my Cuisinart food processor, a 30 year old model which is still going strong, despite a couple of cracks in the pusher tube. The newer ones have larger bowls, leak proof center tubes and mini-processor attachments, but mine still works well, grinding chunks of Romano or Grana Padano cheese, or blending chicken livers and sautéed onions into a smooth paté. When I first set up my kitchen I thought I had no need for a food processor, but that was before I'd ever used one.

Same thing with my microwave. I didn't think I'd ever want one (after all, what was the hurry?) but now I can't imagine being without it. It's an invaluable friend in my kitchen from my cup of tea and bowl of oatmeal first thing in the morning, to handily defrosting a batch of soup for dinner when I forgot to take it out of the freezer until 4 PM! I do think of it as a "re-warmer" more than a cooking device, though I will admit to steaming my share of potatoes or veggies (again, when I suddenly looked at the clock at 4 PM and thought, "whatever am I going to make for dinner?"), adding them to eggs for a quick and nourishing omelette.

A few years ago, I got an immersion blender, something I find myself using way more often than I ever imagined. Not only does it purée large pots of soup quickly and without dirtying seven other gadgets, but it has a mini-food processor attachment which I use to grind up small amounts of food, like a bunch of parsley, some lemon rind, a clove of garlic, some rosemary and a little olive oil for a delicious under the skin rub for roast chicken. It's also great for puréeing baby foods, should the need arise.

There are workarounds for pretty much all of these things, a sharp knife and a good cutting board for some, a whisk or a wooden spoon and a strong arm for some of the others. But with all my equipment and gadgets, there is really only one tool which is absolutely indispensable, irreplaceable, should be in each and every kitchen and used at virtually every meal. That item is the tasting spoon! Whenever you cook, whatever you prepare, the final step before presenting your creation to the table should be a quick taste. It is at this point that you can adjust seasonings, punch up the flavors with a shot of lemon or a sprinkle of some herb or spice, or even sometimes, return the food to the stove or oven for more reduction of a sauce. I've been guilty more than once of omitting this step in my rush to get the food served to a roomful of hungry guests, only to sit down and realize at the first forkful that the dish is severely lacking in salt (which alone is enough to shift a dish from delightful to disappointing). Of course these things can often be corrected at the table, but my goal as a cook and host is to put my best food forward and present something that is as delicious as I can possibly make it for my friends and family. They shouldn't have to correct my mistakes or omissions! So here is a recipe for Turkey Soup. The ingredients are variable as are the quantities, but this fact makes the tasting spoon even more indispensable. So keep a pile of spoons next to your stove or oven and use as directed!

Turkey Soup
Serves: 6 to 8

1 leftover turkey carcass, broken up
any leftover pieces of turkey, like the wing tips or drumsticks
any leftover turkey or chicken gravy or drippings
1 lb. carrots, fresh or frozen, scrubbed
4 stalks celery, broken in half
1 large onion, cut in half
14 oz. can whole tomatoes, diced
1 tablespoon whole peppercorns
2 teaspoons poultry seasoning
cold water to cover, about 4 to 6 qts.
2 or 3 potatoes, scrubbed and diced
frozen mixed veggies, peas and carrots, corn or any other veggies you like
salt to taste
alphabet noodles, acini di pepe, orzo or any other pasta shape, or brown or white rice

Begin day before serving. Over medium-low heat, bring turkey carcass, turkey pieces, gravy or drippings, carrots, celery, onion, tomatoes, peppercorns, poultry seasoning and enough water to cover everything slowly to a simmer (may take 1 to 1-1/2 hours to reach simmer). Skim foam from top of soup and discard. Simmer on low for two to three hours or until vegetables are cooked and meat is falling off the bone. With a slotted spoon, remove all the solids to a large roasting pan to cool, then strain the broth through a sieve into a clean pot or large bowl. Carefully remove all the meat from the bones, shred or dice into bite size pieces and return to broth, discarding bones and skin. In a blender container, or with an immersion blender, purée the cooked carrots, celery and onion with a little of the broth, and return to soup pot. Refrigerate all.

Next day, skim the congealed fat off top of soup. Bring soup to simmer over low heat, add potatoes and cook until tender. Add whatever veggies you like in whatever quantities you prefer and simmer just until tender. Taste and add salt to taste, stirring well after each addition. You can also add additional poultry seasoning or pepper if you feel the soup needs it. At this point, soup can be divided into containers and frozen for future meals. When ready to serve, cook pasta or rice separately in boiling salted water, drain and add to soup just before serving. Serve with grated Romano or Parmigiano cheese.

Notes & Pointers:
By keeping the soup always below a boil, the turkey poaches and remains tender and moist instead of getting tough and dry. Tasting is vital in this recipe, since the quantities are indefinite! You don't want to end up with a huge batch of flavorless soup, so taste before freezing. Also, before serving the frozen portions, taste them again, as freezing can sometimes change the proportions of various flavors, requiring some fine tuning.

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