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...)