Good morning, munchkins….

Good morning, munchkins. Woke up in an intensely good mood this morning -- I hate to say it, but I think I sleep better when Kev's not sharing the bed with me. I get to sprawl over the whole thing, and more importantly, I can leave the bedroom door open, which allows airflow into the bedroom. Most days recently, I've been waking up too early, too warm to sleep anymore. Which is part of the point of the whole ceiling fan fiasco yesterday, trying to fix that problem even when he is here. I slept like a log last night. Very nice.

Not entirely sure what I'm doing today -- waiting to hear back from a few friends on whether they can help with the car thing. If they can't, I'll try my aunt, I guess. Roshani doesn't drive stick either. Clearly, I should just learn how to drive stick. But I don't think Kevin wants me practicing on his car when he's not around. :-) Though perhaps he would suffer less that way...

I'm sorting through some last bits of paperwork -- the pile has gotten quite small, yay, and I'm down to 52 e-mail messages waiting in my inbox. One more big push should take care of them, so that's probably the next thing I'll be doing. One of the items in the stack is a copy of Real Simple, a yuppie home magazine that I'm quite fond of (I'm afraid that I have to admit to strong yuppie impulses -- it's sad, but evidently true). The shtick with this magazine seems to be that they assume that your life is so crazy and busy and important that you desperately need to simplify and organize, and they tell you how to do it beautifully. Of course, even when your life isn't nearly that crazy and busy and important, it's nice that someone, even a magazine, thinks it is, so you buy the darn thing and imagine having that kind of life.

Anyway, the reason I mentioned it is that occasionally they run really good pieces. And one of them, I wanted to take notes on before I threw the magazine away -- they're talking about standard pantry items that upgrading will dramatically improve the results of your recipes (and it's not necessarily upgrading -- a few of these are as cheap as anything else you'd find -- they're just tastier). A bunch of these I already knew of from Cook's Illustrated, but not all, so I thought I'd list them here, with the magazine's and my comments. I'm thinking that when my sister moves here in a month, I'll make her up a housewarming basket full of these items -- if she likes them, she can keep buying them. :-) (Mirna's also getting plants. Possibly lots of plants.)

Mary Anne's Yuppie Guide to Improving Your Kitchen Pantry

  • black pepper -- Tellicherry, which you can find at Penzey's online. Penzey's has great spices; they have a branch near Roshani's house, and we stop in periodically -- it's intoxicating, hanging out in a good spice shop. Their Tellicherry black peppercorns are incredibly strong and tasty. Always grind them fresh for best flavor -- but I'll warn you that the Penzey's spice grinder, while very pretty, is somewhat more difficult to use than you'd expect. Not entirely sure why, actually.

  • salt -- they recommend Maldon sea salt, found at Williams-Sonoma stores. Lots of cooking shows recommend sea salt too, but we haven't gotten around to trying it. Right now we use kosher salt, which you can get in any grocery store, and is already a good upgrade from regular salt (though the crystals are bigger, which is fine for cooking, but not ideal for salting eggs or other food). I'll pick up some sea salt sometime soon and see what I think.

  • vanilla -- use pure vanilla (not imitation) extract; they recommend either Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract or McCormick Pure Vanilla Extra (in supermarkets). I use the McCormick, which works fine and is much much better than imitation vanilla. Never use imitation vanilla!! I don't even know why they sell the stuff -- it's hardly any cheaper than pure vanilla. Of course, if you want an amazing vanilla kick, you use actual vanilla beans, but they're quite expensive, so save them for special occasions. Penzey's has excellent vanilla beans too.

  • extra-virgin olive oil -- they recommend Lucini Italia or Bertolli Gentile (in supermarkets). There's a dramatic difference between a good olive oil (usually made by small producers) and a mediocre one (usually one of the standard big brands). These days, I mostly just go around the corner to the little Greek grocery store and ask them to recommend one for me -- they're just excellent.

  • canned tomatoes -- Muir Glen is the only way to go, which you can find in the organic section of most supermarkets and health food stores. Organic tomatoes come in enamel-lined cans, so there's no metallic taste. Cook's Illustrated turned us on to these, and we love them -- and in fact, in autumn, winter and spring, where there aren't good tomatoes to be had in the Midwest, you're better off using good canned tomatoes -- much more flavor. Muir Glen has also recently started making a fire-roasted-tomato line, which is incredibly yummy; they were just perfect in those enchiladas I made a few weeks ago.

  • chicken broth -- Swanson's, no question. Broth from bouillon cubes is overly salty and suspiciously yellow. Low-fat, low-sodium broth is ideal, and in the Cook's taste test, Swanson's was the clear winner. We like it a lot, especially the boxed kind that you can reseal if you don't use it all (though finish it up within a week or two -- and don't grab it without looking out of the fridge thinking that it's a box of mango juice and chug some, because I can promise that you will regret it. Cold chicken broth, yuck). Available in supermarkets everywhere.

  • peanut butter -- Smucker's Natural, because the kids' stuff is loaded with sugar. The natural kind contains only peanuts and salt, apparently. I didn't know about this one -- I don't normally eat peanut butter, but I do use it occasionally to make peanut sauce, so I'll give the Smucker's a try.

  • tuna -- they recommend Genova, and say that Italian-style light-meat tuna packed in olive oil delivers a double dose of good fats. It has more calories than the all-white-meat, water-packed kind, but it doesn't need a lot of mayo when made into tuna salad. We hardly ever eat seafood here ('cause Kev's allergic), and cooked tuna's not my favorite anyway, but good to know, I suppose. Might try sometime.

  • eggs -- they recommend springing for organic eggs from free-range chickens, which, talking to Roshani, she also recommends -- the yolks are bright yellow-orange, not a muted yellow, and the taste is apparently "full, rich, and downright eggy." Who knew? I'm going to try switching to these eggs and see what I think. They recommend Greenbrier or Trader Joe's.

  • butter -- they recommend creamy European-style butter, unsalted so you can control the sodium content. I do like creamy European butter -- it's denser and richer than our butter, and I buy it occasionally at yuppie food stores (my regular grocery here doesn't carry it, though the one in Utah did, oddly enough). Maybe I'll stock up next time I'm at Whole Foods -- butter freezes, after all. We use unsalted for cooking, for the most part, but I do also buy salted butter, because I like it better on bread (especially banana bread, fresh from the oven, mmm...)
And that's it -- hungry yet?

6 thoughts on “Good morning, munchkins….”

  1. another annoying thing about “kid’s” peanut butters (Skippy, Jif, etc) — I’ve heard the reason they have added oil is because the manufacturers take out the peanut oil to sell seperately. (I can’t remember the source for this info so maybe it’s just urban legend. but it sounds all too plausibly commercial.)

    Smucker’s natural is a good choice, but if you can get to local food co-op or a natural foods store or even one of the big chains like Whole Foods or Wild Oats, you can often find a grinder full of (often organic) peanuts that deposits fresh-ground peanut butter into your container. No added anything, and in my experience, the peanut oil doesn’t rise to the top as much as it does with the natural kind that comes in jars.

    Heather, who eats a LOT of peanut butter

  2. Note on olive oils, from my boyfriend’s cousin, the chef:

    No need to buy the more expensive extra-virgin olive oil if you’re using it primarily for cooking. The cooking process destroys the subtle flavors. Save the good stuff for salads.

  3. ooh, neat list.

    My roommate and I used so much olive oil we’d have to buy it in the gallon jugs. We’d pick something generic for cooking, and then have a little bottle of fancier olive oil for salads, bruschetta, the like.

    Our grocery store’s generic peanut butter was just peanuts and salt–the only peanut butter we got for years and years. I still think Jiff is too sweet when I encounter it.

    Oddly enough, Vanillin, the imitation vanilla stuff is also natural, just different. But I don’t for the life know why people use imitation stuff. It’s not that much cheaper, and the taste is so much better if you go with the real stuff.

    Chicken broth–My roommate makes soup alot. We bought almost as much chicken broth as olive oil. 🙂 But Swanson’s has MSG in it, so I get the generic stuff from Whole Foods.

    As far as eggs go, it’s really interesting the differences in yolk color. We used to have chickens and ducks (one acre of land with a stream running through it. We fed the ducks a straight diet of corn, as they’d forage, and the duck eggs that we’d collect would have yolks that were nearly orange. Our chickens were fed a more balanced diet, so they weren’t as yellow, but still, so much brighter–and so much bigger–than supermarket eggs that it was ridiculous.

    I’ll add something to your list–cheese, especially ricotta. We love stuffed shells and lasagne, and discovered through trial and error that spending the extra money on the nicer cheese can make a heck of a difference in the flavor (as can the oven ready noodles–they’re much thinner, and work *so* much better, as I like a very high cheese-to-noodle ratio in my pasta.)

  4. Okay, question… I’ve now seen two people claiming that artificial vanilla flavor isn’t that much cheaper than real vanilla. Where I do my shopping, an 8 oz. bottle of artificial vanilla is roughly the same price as a 2 oz. bottle of natural vanilla — in other words, the real thing is four times the price of the artificial. Is my local supermarket just weird, or do we just having different standards for “not much more expensive”?

  5. I don’t remember anywhere near that price differential from the last time I went shopping for vanilla, but it was quite a while ago (I don’t bake so often), so I can’t say for certain. I’ll try to check when I go to the grocery store on Wednesday. 🙂

  6. I spent summers on my Uncle’s farm, and remember eggs where the yolks were a rich orange, the whites were clear, and the shells were thick. Organic free range eggs remind me of my childhood!

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