Coffee Nirvana

So..................it's 2:46 on a Tuesday afternoon and I am buzzed.

Whoa.  Calm down.  It's legal.

It's coffee, in fact.

The addiction is coffee.  The culprit is the Chemex (pronounced like the "sh" in sheep).

The New York Times calls it "on of the 100 best modern devices" (although it's actually been around for quite a while), I call it coffee nirvana.

So what is it?  The Chemex, like so many of the most beautiful women (myself included) is hourglass shaped glass carafe.  It uses a conical neck where boiling water is poured over fresh grounds.  This process is called "blooming."  The result?  Every intriguing nuance of the coffee bean is brought to life.

The Chemex was invented in 1941 by a scientists named Peter J. Schlumbohn and is even used by James Bond for his breakfast coffee in London. (see?  All the cool cats are doing it!)

Renowned for its ability to flirt and draw out all the bold flavour of the coffee bean, it shows up its weaker, older-fashioned counterpart (the drip coffee-maker).

The Chemex will give your coffee a kick that will impress your most caffeine-savvy friends.

Need one now?  (I thought you might) pick one up at Dose at 4924 - 50th Street, Red Deer, AB, where you can get a quick lesson, pick up some killer coffee beans and pay less than 30 bucks (beans not inlcuded).
 

The Knife

The Knife - A good knife (kind of like a good wife) can make a happy life.  But, choosing a good knife can be a little more complicated.

Hopefully, I can help simplify the process for you.

Many people ask me "what is the best knife to buy?"  there is no simple answer to this question, as it is a very individual process.  I am going to focus on the "workhorse" of knives; the chef knife.  This is a great knife to start your collection with as it is suitable for about 80% of your jobs!

Here are three things you should consider:

1.  Weight - When picking a knife, think of it as an extension of your hand.  Grasp the knife as if you are shaking someone's hand.  It shouldn't be too heavy, nor too light.  Place your index finger on one side of the knife and your thumb on the other side (right where the blade and handle meet) as if you are pinching the knife.  Gently grip the knife with the rest of your fingers.  Your grip should be light but firm.  It should be comfortable and easy to handle.

2.  Balance - A balanced knife will not tip when balanced with one finger where the handle meets the blade.  When a knife is well balanced, you can work for hours chopping, slicing and mincing and your wrist won't feel tired or sore.  Generally, look for a wood handle, as plastic tends to be too light and metal tends to be too heavy.  Again, this is just a suggestion to get you started.

3.  Size - It is important to pick a knife that fits your hand (larger hand, larger knife).  There are several sizes of chef knives, 6", 8", 10", etc.  I have small hands, so I love my 6" knife.  You may need a 10".  This rule is not hard and fast, you may have large hands and love a 6" knife.  It's just a guideline.

Once you've selected a knife you love, you must keep it sharp. A sharp knife makes chopping and slicing easier and it is actually much safer to work with, as you are not using as much force when working.  Find a good sharpening service.  There are several that will come right to your home or place of business (if you are a keener and want to pack your knives to work) and sharpen all your blades.

Let's break it down.  Look for a knife with a wood handle where the blade goes all the way into the handle.  Check for weight, balance and size.  Looking to start your set?  Check out places like Big Bend Market.  They can give some expert advice and be sure to "try them on" to find the best match for you.
 

Simple Summer Entertaining

It's that time of year again!  I must say, I am not effected by the weather too much, however, I am beyond ready for the sun.  Bring it on.

Since it is a little overcast today, I thought I would get into the "all things sunny" mood; to me, that only means one thing:  parties.

I am an unashamed, unapologetic party animal.  I am going to share all that I have learned so that you can throw a party that will make you the envy of all your friends.

I really like the idea of easy and simple and I think this should be the main objective when throwing a grad party, a baby shower, a back yard barbecue or even just a small get together with friends.

I think there are three main components to a successful party: 1) food; 2) presentation of food and 3) ambiance (fancy word for decorations).

1)  Food:  Make food simple, easy and rustic.  Don't worry about having everything assembled and put together.  I love a table that is organic and I love lots of different flavors and colors on a table. For example, think about putting a large bowl of pulled pork (email me for recipe and I will be happy to send it) in the middle of the table and place several different simple fresh salads around it.  Serve it with tortilla chips or taco shells and fresh lime wedges; or a large platter of bison burgers with bacon and blue cheese with two kinds of bread and fresh fruit.  Serve large pitchers of homemade lemonade (spiked or not), make some fresh and light sun tea*.

2) Food Service:  I was out and about a couple of days ago and I was amazed with the selection of acrylic serving ware.  The Bay, Canadian Tire and Bed Bath and Beyond have a great selection.  Think about fresh patterns that can be mixed and matched.  Match bold linens with other bold linens.  Head over to Fabricland and buy a couple large pieces of fabric, tuck the rough edges in and use as a table covering or table runner.  Dress up the table with pots of fresh herbs or flowers. Also, throw a little texture on the table by layering a large wood or hemp placemat under a potted plant or candle arrangement.  Use inexpensive mason jars to hold long veggie sticks (carrots, zucchini, celery, etc.).

3)  Ambiance:  I love fire (don't worry, I have it under control).  Think about purchasing some inexpensive bamboo torches and place them around the outside space or think about using an outdoor fireplace with an arrangement of seats surrounding it or place sand in the bottom of mason jars and place a candle inside.  Music is a must.  Get a great play list together on your ipod and pipe it around your gathering area.  Or, think live music.  The area high schools have jazz ensembles that will come to your house and play live music.  I have used a jazz quartet from Lindsay Thurber and they were fantastic and comparatively inexpensive.

So many times, when we are planning these events, we get very stressed and sometimes too busy with details to really enjoy our party.  That should be a crime.  Prepare as much food as you can in advance (pulled pork can be cooked in the oven or a crock pot overnight), salads and dressings can be assembled separately and mixed together at the last minute.  Prepare a couple kinds of cookies or lemon squares one to two days in advance and pull them out when you are ready.

I hope these tips have helped and I will be waiting for the invite!

*Place 6 - 8 tea bags or the equivalent of loose tea (cherry blossom is wonderful or green tea and mint)  in about 15 cups of water.  Cover with plastic wrap and set in the direct sun for the day (about 5 - 6 hours).  Sweeten if desired with honey, maple syrup, agave or raw sugar.  This tea is best used within two days.
 

Spice it up!

In this months' installment of All About Homes, I am going to take my gadget article a little off roading.  But, hey, being in Alberta, I think everyone is pretty used to that.

I am going to talk about spices and dried herbs. Spices are generally the seeds, root, fruit or bark of a plant.  Herbs are generally the leaves and sometimes stems of a plant.

There are three main topics that I am continually asked about: 1) how to know if your spices are fresh; 2) how to properly store them; and 3) how to use them.

So here it goes:

1)  When purchasing spices, I would recommend purchasing whole spices whenever possible.  The shelf life for whole spices is generally 1 to 4 years. I keep an inexpensive coffee grinder in my cupboard and use it  for grinding whole spices as I need them.  Ground spices can stay fresh for up to 1 year.  Once a spice is ground, oils that are essential to flavor and aroma are released, as they dissipate the spice becomes less potent.  The shelf life for dried herbs is 6 months, but may be longer. Keep in mind that spice blends will age differently, as they have a combination of many spices that can go stale at different times. The only real way to test if a spice or a dried herb is fresh is to place a little pinch in the palm of your hand and gently rub.  If it smells aromatic, it is still fresh. Seeds, such as poppy, nigella (not to be confused with Nutella, which, incidentally, has no shelf life at my house, but I digress), and sesame seeds should be kept in the refrigerator as these can go rancid due to their oil content.

2)  When storing spices, you should remember to avoid these 4 things, air, light, humidity and heat.  I would recommend NOT storing your spices on a rack near the stove and oven as the temperature and humidity change often when cooking and this will cause your spices to deteriorate more rapidly.  Also, it is important to remember to not shake a spice container over a steaming pot, as this can introduce heat and humidity into the jar.  I would recommend that you store your spices in a cool, dark place, such as a cabinet door, a pantry or in a drawer.

3)  When using spices and dried herbs, it is a good rule of thumb to keep like spices from a particular ethnic region together in a recipe.  For example, mix spices with a Mexican flare in a nice pot of chili; cilantro, chili powder, garlic powder, cumin, coriander, etc. and Italian spices, like basil, oregano, Italian parsley and marjoram into a nice marinara sauce.  These are just guidelines for beginners.  Remember, also to measure your spices into a small dish before you introduce them into your recipe.  I cannot tell you how many times I have broken my own rule and poured right from the container into the pot and dumped the entire contents, ruining my recipe.

As cooking shows and interest in International food are becoming more and more popular, unique and interesting spices are becoming more readily available in area grocery stores.  My favorite place to purchase fresh spices is Silk Road Spice Merchant in Calgary.  They have an amazing selection of spices, broken down by region and their staff is extremely knowledgeable and helpful.  You can order online at www.silkroadspices.ca, or visit them at 1403A - 9th Ave. SE, Calgary, AB T2G 0T4, 403-261-1955.

Don't be afraid to experiment.  Throw a little fennel pollen on your salmon before you barbecue it or add a little sumac and pinenuts to update Lebanese inspired lamb kabobs!  Remember to be creative and spice it up!
 

Que the 'Cue

I'm not doing an article on barbecuing just because it's nice and warm outside, I am doing it because I barbecue all year long.  You can find me out there all winter long.  My neighbors think I'm nuts and they avoid eye contact whilst walking there dogs past my patio.  But most people barbecue while the weather is nice, so I thought it a perfect time to share some thoughts.

I barbecue everything. I recently attended a class at The Cooking Room, here in Red Deer, devoted entirely to barbecuing, grilling and smoking.  I learned a few things that I would love to share and I have a few tricks up my sleeve that I would love to share with you as well.

I am often asked if charcoal is better than gas and the answer is: it depends what flavor you are going for.  I use gas almost exclusively, because that's what I have; however, those dome barbecues that use charcoal are great and have been rated by several high end cooking magazines as the best way to grill.  It is a debate that I do not want to get in the middle of.  I am, however, willing to give you some very basic info on both:

Flavor - if you want truly authentic flavor, than gas isn't right for you.  Charcoal produces a smoky flavor that, some say, can't be beat. However, there are many ways to enhance flavor with gas, I will delve into that a little later.

Space - to determine which is better for you, consider where you will be doing most of your barbecuing.  It is very difficult to adjust and moderate heat with a charcoal barbecue, so, if you have a small patio, perhaps gas would be best.  It is easier to control flare ups, and, as much as I love fire, I hate carnage. Charcoal barbecues are great if you have a lot of space and a little more time to wait for the briquettes to get white.

Cost - generally, gas barbecues are more expensive than charcoal, however, you need to consider the cost of charcoal, it can cost up to $4.50 per grilling, whereas gas can cost as little at $0.25 per grilling.

Whichever method you choose, here are a few things you can do to enhance flavor.

Chicken - try brining your chicken before you put it on the grill. For a whole chicken or chicken parts make a brine of 2 quarts water to 1/2 cup table salt, if you are grilling  boneless, skinless chicken breast, the brine should be 1/4 cup table salt mixed with 2 quarts water.  Let chicken soak in the brine for 30 minutes - 2 hours.  Make sure to pat chicken dry before placing it on the grill. Brush with a mixture of olive oil, lemon juice and salt and pepper for a very simple delicious meal.  Make sure to let the chicken cook undisturbed flipping only once or twice.

Beef - if you want to get really fancy, purchase some wood chips (applewood, cedar or mesquite) and soak in red wine (if using chicken, soak in  a nice white wine), for about 1 hour.  Place wood chips in a foil packet, poke holes in the packet and place directly on the flames.  Season beef with a mixture of olive oil, crushed garlic, salt and pepper and place on grill.  Close the lid and let smoke on medium high heat.

For sliders (ground pork, ground chicken or ground beef), season your meat the way you like.  Spread on a parchment paper lined baking sheet.  Using a pizza cutter or knife, cut into desired size.  Invert tray right onto the grill and peel off the parchment paper.  Let sliders cook.  As they cook, they should pull apart to make it easier to flip.  If not, just use a knife to separate meat.

And last but not least, don't forget the veggies!  Very important and super healthy.  Try green onions drizzled with a little truffle oil and a sprinkle of Parmesan-reggiano cheese, or grilled avocado brushed with lime juice and olive oil.  Grill some bananas or cantaloupe and serve with a honey and vanilla bean drizzle and garnish with fresh mint.

Whichever type of barbecue you choose, don't be afraid to experiment and step out of your comfort zone!  If you are new to barbecuing, keep a fire extinguisher near by and don't be afraid to use it.