Category: blog

Nov 17

How to Organize Your Kitchen

For some, organizing a kitchen may seem a no-brainer. Put all your stuff wherever there’s space. But without some planning, your kitchen will not be a comfortable place in which to work. Instead, you’ll find it as irritating as having a tiny pebble in your shoe.

The first step is to take a few moments and look at your space. I mean really look at it. Try to see it as if it were the first time. Note first where the large appliances are. Is each situated in the ideal spot? Should they be moved to accommodate a more convenient arrangement? Do you have empty wall space where racks or shelves can be mounted to create more storage, if needed?

Now, think about how you use your kitchen. One popular organization technique is called the kitchen triangle. It involves setting up designated work areas for the three regular tasks performed—prepping, cooking and serving and cleaning, all typically done in the area between the refrigerator; stove/range; and sink and dishwasher. Effectively, the fewer steps you must take, the faster you can work. And that makes for a happier cook!

Kitchen Organization

Now make a mental list of what you have to store: pots and pans, utensils, small appliances, non-perishable food items, dishtowels and other cloth items, and your remaining household goods. Frequently used items should be at closest reach, waist-high and above, while rarely used items should be stowed away in lower cupboards and uppermost spaces near the ceiling. Seasonal and bulky/infrequently used items can also be stowed in a garage, basement or other out of the way storage area.

Ideally, you want to store items logically – for example, dishtowels should have a storage space right by the sink so you can reach for one when your hands are wet without having to cross to the far corner of the room.

Dishes, flatware and other table-setting items should be situated either next to the sink and dishwasher or near the dining table itself. Linens, candles and holders, matches and such are best stored in or adjacent to the dining area.

Pots and pans will be happiest near the stove along with oven mitts and perhaps a utensil jar containing only those utensils – spatulas, slotted spoons, tongs, etc. – that you use regularly. A mounted bar for hanging utensils is also a good option for this area.

Non-perishable foods, if not stored in a proper pantry, will reside near your preparation work surface. Work knives and cutting boards should also be stored next to each other adjacent to the work surface.

Do you bake? If so, then you’ll want a space near your work surface for frequently used items like flour and sugar, salt and spices, mixing bowls and measuring spoons and cups. Consider what items you reach for regularly, where you are when you need them, and store them so you can grasp them while working without stepping away from your work area.

Unless you have no other option, avoid storing items inside the oven. Not only will you have to remove them every time you want to use the oven but you have to find someplace for them to sit until you are ready to store them again.

Now it’s time to get to work. Empty each cupboard and drawer one at a time, taking a moment to clean the interior after you empty it. As you go, put to one side all items to be discarded – stuff that’s broken, excessively worn or never used. Set aside any knives that need sharpening, too. Jot down items to replace. Also note what needs to be repaired, such as a cabinet door that hangs crookedly or the handle screws on your pots and pans that need retightening. You can return to these later.

Assess what you have and divide it into what you use regularly, what you use occasionally and what hasn’t seen the light of day in years. If space is at a premium, consider parting with the ice cream or pasta maker that’s been hibernating since Day One. Find it a loving home with a friend or charity shop.

Take your regularly used items and begin storing them with the kitchen triangle in mind, in cabinets and drawers at waist height or higher. Reserve lower spaces for less-used items to reduce future bending. If work surfaces are limited, consider storing a large cutting board or other flat surface below the sink that can be placed temporarily atop it in order to expand workspace at a moment’s notice.

Don’t store spices and oils near the stove or in warm, brightly lit areas, which can dramatically shorten their lifespan.

Resist the temptation to clutter your work surfaces with small appliances and knickknacks. You want to make cleaning your counter area as easy as possible. Small appliances, except those used daily, should be stored close to the floor and out of sight. Use twist ties to bundle appliance cords to keep them neat. Tip: twist the tie first around the cord base before bundling the cord and tying off. This way, whenever you untie the cord, the twist tie will remain attached to the cord and you’ll be more likely to tie up the cord after each use.

Locate the best spot for your garbage can. Between the cleaning and prepping areas is ideal; it’s important to ensure it doesn’t impede traffic. If the space beneath the sink is sufficient, there are cans available that mount to the floor of the cabinet and automatically emerge when the door is opened. (Make sure it comes with a lid that also automatically opens.)

Are your work areas adequately lit? Consider mounting light strips beneath cabinets or spotlights to shine downward instead of in your eyes. Make sure you’re not standing between the light source and your work surface!

A well-organized kitchen is a dream to work in and you’ll find yourself actually looking forward to prepping and cooking food for a change!

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Oct 03

Seafood: Wild vs. Farm-Raised

The merits of wild versus farm-raised seafood have been hotly debated since the Norwegians first began farm-raising salmon. At first, farm-raised seafood seemed to be the responsible way to prevent over-fishing in the wild and protecting endangered species.

Yet, as with so many other ventures which began with good intentions, profit-seekers exploited it and the industry as a whole began to, well, stink a bit.

Farmed fish are those raised for commercial purposes within tanks or manmade enclosures. The most commonly farmed fish include carp, catfish, cod, salmon, sea bass and tilapia.

Farmed Salmon

Much like cattle pens and poultry cages, farmed fish are cultivated in far more cramped quarters than in the wild. These congested conditions have given rise to several problems. For example, fish abrade their fins and tails against the cages as well as each other, dramatically increasing rate of disease and infection.

Sea lice have become particularly pervasive among fish farms, decimating populations by as much as 50 percent, and adversely affecting nearby wild fish species as well. In order to offset the damage of pests and disease, some operators rely upon strong doses of antibiotics to cut the mortality down to about 30 percent. This, by itself is controversial, as much has been made about the presence of antibiotics in our food supply, yet another potential contributor to the rise in antibiotic-resistant “super” bacteria. It also results in antibiotics being released into the water supply.

The argument for fish farming as a way of reducing stress on wild populations has been laid to waste particularly in the farmed salmon industry. Salmon are carnivorous and therefore require protein, often being fed fish oil and fishmeal from wild sources. As a result, farmed salmon actually consume nearly two-and-a-half times their own body weight in the equivalent of wild salmon, according to Rosamond L. Naylor at Stanford’s Center for Environmental Science and Policy. Hardly an effective conservation argument! There is also pressure to permit the cultivation of genetically modified fish, which terrifies some scientists who perceive these “frankenfish” as they’re now known, as an even greater threat to wild fish populations.

Add to this the fact that farmed fish often contain as much as 10 times cancer-causing PCBs, mercury (a neurotoxin by-product of the coal-burning industry) and other toxic dioxins in their systems than fish existing in the wild. These pollutants make their way into the ocean, are absorbed by marine life and stored in their accumulated fat, the same fat later distilled into the concentrated fish oil that is a primary ingredient of a farmed salmon’s diet.

Even those labeled as “organic” farmed fish are packed tightly into confined spaces, and pumped full of chemicals and drugs to fend off disease as well as speed up their growth rates and reproductive systems. Artificial colors are fed to all farmed fish because they are otherwise often an unappealing grey color due to their unnatural living conditions and food supply. Farmed salmon, for example, is deliberately custom-tinted varying shades of pink, chosen by the farm operators, to avoid revolting consumers.

If that wasn’t sufficient argument to choose wild over farmed fish, the overcrowded living conditions result in excessive amounts of fish waste and feed collecting beneath the pens, destroying nearby shellfish and other marine life.

Yet, demand for seafood is rising higher than ever and is estimated to double by 2040, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Much of this supply will no doubt have to come from fish farms because virtually half of the wild fisheries on our planet have been over-fished and natural supplies are exhausted.

The commonsense alternative to farmed fish would be to eat wild fish, but this once healthy food source is no longer as safe as it once was because they are subject to the same water polluting toxins, PCBs, that all fish are, even those labeled organic. Arguably, the safest fish supplies are Alaskan wild varieties certified by the Maine Stewardship Council but even these may soon be in danger if farms in British Columbia keep encroaching on Alaska’s southern border. Wild fish, particularly salmon, from Scotland and Ireland are also considered to be among the safest to consume.

The sad truth is that, in general, fish is no longer the health food it was once touted to be and should be consumed in moderation, and avoided completely by women who are pregnant as mercury is a neurotoxin that can affect the unborn child.

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Aug 16

Introduction to French Macarons

New: Macaron Cooking Class being offered at Elle A Cooking. Sign Up Today!
New: Order Macarons – Now you can buy our delicious, handmade French macarons from our new online store!

Trust the French, and particularly their patissiers, to raise cookie making to an art form.

First off, let’s make it clear that the French macaron resembles the standard, slightly sticky, coconut-chewy confection commonly known as a macaroon in only two ways—they are both cookies and they are both round. That, however, is decidedly where the resemblance ends.

French Macarons - Cooking Classes Los Angeles

Macarons Au Jasmin from our French Macaron Cooking Class.

The original macaron is thought to have originated in Italy, perhaps imported to France via the chefs of Catherine de Medici during the 16th century. In its most fundamental form, the macaron consisted of naught but ground almonds, egg white and sugar. Over the years the macaron has morphed into one of France’s most beloved and prized confections – the almonds are now ground so finely and sifted as to give the cookie a silky texture.

It was in 1930, however, when they were first formulated into a sandwich cookie by grandson, Pierre, of the founder of the esteemed Parisian purveyor, Ladurée. Today, the name Ladurée has become synonymous with macarons, arguably the first and foremost macaron maker in Paris today. The consummate macaron possesses a delicate crisp crust barely encasing a soft almond meringue center, complemented by a sandwich-like filling, most commonly a rich buttercream, a creamy chocolate ganache or a jam, marmalade or citrusy curd. Even a soft caramel works wonders on the taste buds.

One of Ladurée’s more contemporary patissiers, the now famed Pierre Hermé, went out on his own and elevated the elegant macaron to even loftier heights. Subsequently dubbed the “Picasso of pastry” by Vogue magazine, Hermé began experimenting with very unusual flavor combinations, lacing macarons with his myriad, delicate and exotic cream fillings that regularly send his devotees into fits of ecstasy. His most famous and eagerly sought after macaron is the Ispahan, a rose-flavored macaron cookie encasing a center of raspberry gel surrounded by a rose and litchi (lychee)-flavored cream. Hermé, himself, dubbed this classic his “Chanel suit.”

Pierre Herme

Pierre Herme's shop at 72 Rue Bonaparte, 75006 Paris, France.

The making of a French macaron is certainly achievable by any home cook but it does take considerable preparation and is by no means a cookie to be made on the spur of the moment. French pastry chefs will warn you that the process needs to begin as much as five days before the actual baking occurs. For example, the egg whites must be separated and left to sit for several days, as fresh egg whites will not produce the desired height and texture. The making of a macaron is more about the precision of your technique than the casual combining of ingredients and baking them. Unforgiving of inconsistencies such as varying oven temperatures (a convection fan oven works best) and precise piping, making macarons is quite labor intensive. It is also well worth the effort, as anyone who has tried them will tell you.

Nowadays, many home cooks can easily acquire or even already have the necessary professional equipment on hand to make conjuring up a batch of these almond meringue delights easier. These include a flour sifter to ensure the finest almond powder with no lumps, quality parchment paper liners for easiest cookie removal, air-filled cookie sheets (you can also sit one plain cookie sheet inside the other) to prevent burning the bottoms, a pastry bag with a plain piping tip to form the cookies and, if you are making your own filling or using a recipe which calls for Italian-style “cooked” meringue, a precision-style candy thermometer. Oh, and don’t forget! Our favorite templates to use when piping these delicate little cookies: Ikea Ljuda place mats!

Macaron Cooking Classes

Jasmine, olive oil, and salted caramel macarons made at our French macaron cooking class.

Whether you try your hand at baking macarons yourself or prefer to let other, more experienced hands do the work, French macarons are a delicacy everyone should try, at least once. Although consider yourself warned — you can’t try just one!

To learn more about making French macarons, sign up for our Macaron Cooking Class or if you have been searching for cooking classes in Los Angeles, please check out our cooking class schedule!

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Jul 12

Basics and Essentials for Equipping Your Kitchen

Making sure your kitchen is well equipped is not the same as buying every gadget and appliance that’s available. Most professional chefs will tell you that there are certain staples, such as a few good quality knives, that they could not live without. The trick is to learn the difference between what really is essential and what is simply convenience.

In fact, it’s amazing how basic the list of equipment is for a kitchen to function efficiently.

Kitchen Knives

Knives are something you should never cut corners on. There’s nothing worse than a dull knife when you’re trying to slice something. High quality knives, ideally carbon steel with the tang (opposite end of the steel blade) visible throughout the entire length of the handle, are usually the best way to go. Hold it before you buy. A well-balanced knife should feel solid, have a good heft, but not be tiring to hold. (If it feels tiring or difficult to grip, try a different sized handle.) A sharp knife is safer than a dull one so always keep your knives sharpened. Store knives in their holders, or make a cardboard sleeve if your knife doesn’t come with one. And never put your knives in the dishwasher as it dulls the blade. At minimum, purchase a:

  • Three- or four-inch paring knife
  • Eight- or ten-inch chef’s knife—more than 80% of all kitchen chopping can be done with this.
  • A serrated knife, ideally long enough to slice bread

Pots and pans can be a major investment but there’s no need to buy a complete set unless you can afford it and have sufficient storage space. Aim for heat-resistant handles that are oven-safe and won’t burn you when heating the pans on the stove. Handles that permit you to hang them from hooks or overhead racks are a plus for storage purposes. Non-stick offers convenience but also health risks when heated too high or scratched. Cast iron or le Creuset brand coated cast iron are a better option, if you can handle the heft, and are both oven and stovetop safe. The absolute necessities for a frustration-free kitchen include:

  • A 10- or 12-inch skillet with lid for frying and sautéing
  • A 3-quart saucepan with lid for boiling
  • 10-quart stockpot/Dutch oven with lid for pastas, soups and stews
  • Heavy duty roasting pan for roasting meats and vegetables

Other helpful utensils include:

  • Kitchen scissors/shears—invaluable for just about anything, including snipping herbs and meats like prosciutto, cutting fish, even slicing pizza! There are special shears for cutting poultry, but a standard sharp scissors can be used in myriad ways. Buy one with a distinctively colored handle and use it only for food.
  • Tongs—these are great for grabbing slippery items out of boiling water, even eggs. Some come with silicone tips to reduce slippage.
  • Silicone spoon-style spatula—these spatulas are incredibly heat-resistant, typically up to 500°F, and do a great job scraping a bowl clean of batter.
  • Flat spatula—both slotted and solid designs. Extra long ones with thin blades are excellent for fragile foods such as fish; slotted ones allow liquids to drain.
  • Wooden spoon—extremely practical, from stirring tomatoes (reactive to some metals) to safely dislodging items jammed in the toaster. They are heat resistant except against flame and the natural enzymes in the wood kill bacteria such as salmonella so they’re actually safer in that regard than plastic.
  • Cutting boards—the same applies to wooden cutting boards versus plastic—wooden boards are surprisingly safer to use. Don’t put them in the dishwasher unless the manufacturer says you can or the heat may warp the boards. Clean with lemon juice or white vinegar. Glass boards can dull knives, as can marble or granite. Plastic boards, particularly dark ones, are handy for vegetables that can stain, but wooden boards should be used for meats. Some people recommend different color boards for different uses, as it’s easier to keep them separate.
  • Can opener
  • Corkscrew
  • Vegetable peeler—make sure it doesn’t slip in your hand.
  • Box grater with handle—for shredding and grating cheese, chocolate, etc., and even for making fine breadcrumbs
  • Kitchen timer—go digital for greater accuracy. Simple timers will give you up to 99 minutes typically; magnetic backing means they won’t take up valuable counter space. Newer versions span one second to 99 hours and may permit you to set up to three or more different alarms in one unit, handy if you’re cooking several things at one time.
  • Trivet/hotplate—essential if your work surface will scorch. Cork trivets are handy, lightweight and easy to store standing on end; heavier items such as slate, metal or wood may be more awkward to store.
  • Oven mitts—don’t go bargain basement here, as mitts that don’t adequately protect you from the searing heat of a 500-degree surface defeat the purpose. Silicone mitts permit you to dip your hand into boiling oil or caramel but try them on before buying to ensure they don’t slip too much; otherwise, a heat-resistant fabric should be sufficient.
  • Colander/strainer—one with big holes for potatoes or large pasta; steel mesh for finer pastas such as capellini and small vegetables and fruits. Mesh strainers can double as sifters and sometimes come with expandable handles, which permit them to sit suspended across a sink.
  • Storage containers for leftovers—if you use the microwave for reheating, consider glass versus plastic so chemicals don’t leach into the food. Pyrex is just one brand of glass storage containers that are microwave, oven and freezer safe and come with sealable lids.

Optional equipment includes:

  • Whisk or hand mixer (a sturdy fork is often a suitable substitute)
  • Electric hand mixer
  • Food chopper/processor
  • Measuring spoons (a must if you bake; optional if you cook—a standard teaspoon is a fine substitute; a soup spoon is roughly a tablespoon)
  • Measuring cups for both solids and liquids (they really are different)—glass cups are handy for using in the microwave as well

Most beginner cooks will make out just fine with the basics and can add as their particular needs dictate. Buy quality when you can. It’s best to buy fewer, good quality pieces that will last instead of falling apart after a few uses. Make do with the minimum rather than try to buy too much with too little.

To learn more about equipping your kitchen or if you have been searching for cooking classes in Los Angeles, please check out our cooking class schedule!

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May 29

Do You Really Need To Buy Organic?

To buy organic or not to buy organic—that is the question. The answer is perhaps a tad more convoluted. Nietzsche, after all, wrote, “…there are no absolute truths.”

There are those who believe the government’s first job is to protect its citizens, and that includes food safety. And there are those who argue it isn’t even on the job description.

Regardless of which group you fall in, it boils down to choice. You have a choice as to whether to protect your own health and safety or trust in someone else to do it. That said, there are still no absolutes.

Buy Organic or Not

First off, even the moniker “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean a product is 100% organic. Government regulations, due to heavy lobbying by the commercial food industry, have become far more relaxed than you might realize. Processed foods in particular are suspect—corn is virtually always genetically modified in the USA nowadays, second only to soy, and therefore not organic. Check the list of ingredients and you’ll see it is used in virtually every prepared food, whether it claims to be organic or not. It takes many forms, including corn syrup, the most commonly used sweetener. If you buy prepared foods, it’s a fair bet that you’re eating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) daily even if you don’t realize it. Whether it’s safe long term remains to be seen. Even if you see an item that is labeled USDA Organic, it only means it consists of at least 95% organic ingredients; the other 5% is either nonagricultural or approved non-organic ingredients on the USDA’s national list.

So, if you’re going to spring for the potentially heftier price tag associated with the organic label, stick to items that really are 100% organic—eggs, fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, oils, dairy products (milk, butter, cheese, ice cream, yogurt) and other items that have one or few ingredients and all certified organic.

Organic fruits and vegetables are a healthy option when you consider the fact that no toxic pesticides are utilized in their cultivation, however, it pays to do your homework. Many fruits and vegetables are thick-skinned and peeled in the preparation process. Most thick- or hard-skinned produce do not absorb significant amounts of pesticides and a good wash before using is sufficient. In fact, you should always wash your produce—the fact that it’s organic doesn’t mean it hasn’t come into contact with bacteria from being handled. Even pre-washed vegetables benefit from another rinse before putting them in your mouth.

USDA Organic Label

… an item that is labeled USDA Organic, it only means it consists of at least 95% organic ingredients; the other 5% is either nonagricultural or approved non-organic ingredients …

Washing and peeling aren’t enough, however, to remove pesticides from highly absorbent fruits and vegetables not grown organically. Peaches, nectarines, apples, strawberries and other berries, cherries and grapes (that includes raisins) rank high on the pesticide-laden scale. If your kids drink fruit juices, most of which contain grape juice, you might want to consider organic juices, which means they also won’t contain GMO corn from added sweeteners.

Pesticide-absorbing vegetables include all types of peppers, tomatoes (including the cherry and grape varieties), green beans, carrots, cauliflower and celery. Leafy greens of all types, particularly spinach, can also contain high levels of pesticides. That includes collards, mustard and turnip greens, and kale. Potatoes often get a double-dose—pesticide sprays on the foliage and soil-drenching fungicides.

If you have to make a choice between local produce versus organic that’s been imported, choose local because it’s fresher and therefore more nutritious. If your choice is between non-organic versus organic produce that’s all grown locally, the organic is a healthier choice.

It’s important to remember that off-season items and those imported regularly from outside the USA often come from countries where regulations are not as stringent. Limiting purchases to in-season or USA-grown organic sources are your best bet. Imported organic coffee beans are another good choice for that reason.

Smart organic choices extend to livestock, too. Organic cuts of meats derive from animals raised on organic feed and exposed to fresh air, but also haven’t been shot up with antibiotics and growth hormones. The standard practice today of factory farming pens animals in so tightly that animals cannot even turn around in many cases. As a result, diseases are rampant. Those animals, therefore, are routinely administered heavy doses of antibiotics as a preventative. Organically raised livestock are not permitted to be dosed up with preventative antibiotics and thus must be raised in healthier environments. Plus, organic feed cannot contain meat by-products. Feeding animals meat by-products caused the massive spread of mad cow disease.

The same goes for poultry, those used for eggs as well as meat. Organic eggs are bred from chickens free of antibiotics and added hormones; chickens that are raised on organic feed. Additionally, organic eggs are not subject to the obligatory chemical washes given to ordinary eggs that leach through the permeable shells. Buying free range isn’t sufficient; when it comes to eggs, buy organic. White or brown, it makes no difference.

Dairy marked “rBGH-free” means it comes from cows not dosed with growth hormones designed to artificially beef up production, something for which the USA does not require a warning. If you want to avoid these and antibiotics, stick to organic dairy products, including yogurt, cheese and ice cream, particularly for children whose development is far more sensitive to the effects of additives.

Budget is an issue for all of us these days. So, when choosing organic, stick to items that you know really are organic—100% Organic—including fruits and juices, vegetables, oils, eggs, meats, and dairy products.

Buy smart. Live smart.

To learn more about organic food and cooking or if you have been searching for organic cooking classes in Los Angeles, please check out our cooking class schedule!

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