Friday, September 24, 2010

Unicorn Magnum Plus Peppermill

I am taking a brief sojourn into the realm of product reviews. This is not the focus of this site because there are so many other sites that do equipment reviews so well, but there are a few items that I think are extraordinary, and I really want to share them with you.

The first of these is the Unicorn Magnum Plus peppermill made by Tom David, Inc.

Through the years, I have owned a number of peppermills. To me, peppermills are like fountain pens and old kitchen forks: they are both functional and beautiful and they are things to be collected. I can only justify two or, maybe, three peppermills at a given time, but given limitless space and money, I would likely have an extra pantry room devoted to them.

Of the mills that I have owned, some have been beautiful machinations, like the Peugeot mills, and others have been less so. Some have been utter crap too, but those don't warrant a post. Though not the most aesthetically pleasing of mills, the hands down best working one I have ever owned is the Unicorn Magnum Plus. It is a peppermill designed with the professional kitchen in mind, and, startlingly, I have never seen another with that design goal. They make two sizes of Unicorn Magnum – the Magnum Plus is the one that I own, and it is the larger of the two standing at 9". It is made of a very high impact plastic, and it is a polished jet black. My wife thinks it looks like the Darth Vader of peppermills. It is easy to fill, with a sliding ring at the top, and requiring no disassembly. The grind is adjustable, as it is on all good mills, though it comes set a bit fine for my taste. It holds a ton of black peppercorns – probably about ¾ of a cup, keeping most household cooks in pepper for a month or more.

But, the most notable thing about this mill, and the real selling point from my perspective is the throw. The throw is the amount of pepper that a mill grinds per revolution, and the Unicorn Magnum is unparalleled in my experience. It easily throws four to five times more pepper per grind than a typical mill, making seasoning at the stove top quick. I cannot tell you how many times I have had others grab my Unicorn Magnum to season a salad and be totally startled at how much pepper a single grind produced. It is fantastic.

I mentioned that the mill was made out of a very high impact plastic (or polymer, or whatever they call it now), and it is. I have had mine for a decade, and there are a couple of barely noticeable dings on the bottom rim where it hit the floor tiles, but it is otherwise unscathed.

I have read a very few negative reviews of this product anywhere, but among the complaints that I have seen are a) the huge volume of the throw, and b) that the filling hole comes open and dumps pepper when it is being used. In regard to the first complaint, that is something that you get used to and adapt to. Regarding the second, it has been called a design flaw, but I find that to be a bit harsh. I have experienced that, but, again, it is something that I am now aware of and it has not happened again.

There are very few truly wonderful things that you can have in your kitchen, and fewer still for less than $50. The Unicorn Magnum Plus is darned near perfect, and, for that price, it cannot be beat.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Visit with Dina Guillen, Michelle Lowrey and Maria Everly

At Borders Books in Folsom, California this mild summery afternoon, Dina Guillen, Michelle Lowrey and Maria Everly did a reading from their first book, The Plank Grilling Cookbook, and they had a book signing after. We will be reviewing The Plank Grilling Cookbook on this blog soon, but today we just got to visit with these passionate foodies and talk a little about their books.

When The Plank Grilling Cookbook came out in 2006 it was unique. Williams-Sonoma, Sur la Table and a hundred other gourmet equipment purveyors were selling cedar planks to cook on, and the planks generally included a slip of paper with a recipe, but that was about the limit of plank cooking. These ladies, and their fourth, Gretchen Bernsdorff, created a great collection of recipes as well as recommendations for uses for specific types of wood for particular applications. Though not in the book, they have even figured out a way to smoke-cure bacon on a cool grill using their wood planks.

If anyone deserves to have their cookbooks succeed, these ladies do. They are truly passionate about the food and about the community of dining. Their books are not books for beginners – they are complex, advanced books for people who love to cook, love to eat and love to celebrate over food with friends. We are looking forward to guest blog entries by Dina and Michelle and to their next book!

Book Review: The Bread Baker’s Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread by Peter Reinhart

Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Ten Speed Press (November 14, 2001)
ISBN-10: 1580082688
Rating (1 to 5*): *****

Many friends and acquaintances know that I have a fair collection of cookbooks. So, when gift-giving opportunities come along, often they want to contribute to that collection (something that makes me shudder), and they ask, "What sort of cookbooks do you like?"

When it comes to gifts, I generally respond that I like local color cookbooks – things like the recipes from the Presbyterian Ladies' Auxiliary form Baton Rouge, c. 1919. My secondary answer, and what I really prefer from generous gift-givers, is anything that is old. 19th and early 20th century cookbooks and receipt books are the best!

Finally comes the answer that I am most leery about. I am averse to giving it because this is a category of book that is best purchased for one's self because there are few, if any, people who know you well enough to pick it out. The category of cookbook that I refer to is the "advanced" book. Escoffier's La Guide Culinaire is a prime example, and Ali-Bab's Gastronomie Pratique is another. These are works that challenge the cook to advance his art. Techniques must be learnt and employed scrupulously for things to come out well – shortcuts are not part of the plan in these works.

Another exquisite example of the advanced cookbook is Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread. This is not Reinhart's latest work, but it is a wonderful volume because, much in the spirit of Pepin's La Methode, it teaches the technique of baking fine quality artisan breads. As an apprentice takes baby steps in learning the correct way to execute difficult and complex recipes, this book walks the novice bread baker through the steps. When the new baker has worked his way through the book, he will not merely be able to execute a handful of bread recipes, but, rather, will understand what makes bread work. As a result, the new baker is on his way to creating recipes of his own. Or, better yet, when he encounters bread recipes from a hundred years ago, he will be able to execute the sketchy instructions with confidence and a degree of expertise.

As with other advanced cookbooks, this is not for the "modern cook, on the go", or any such drivel. It may take a couple of weeks to get a good sourdough started. Once it is correctly started, however, it is a treasure to be kept for years to come, improving hugely with age. Not all the ingredients in this book are going to be found in the Mega-Lo-Mart, but they can generally be had locally, with a bit of looking. Reinhart discusses the virtue of specific ingredients and equipment, and offers numerous tips for those baking in household stoves.

Despite having a decent cooking education, and having worked in fine kitchens both in the United States and in Europe, I have never been much of a baker. Whilst I love devouring a really good chocolate cake, I have little desire to make it myself. I have, however, always been entranced by good bread. I love the textures of the crust and the crumb. I love the way a sharp bread knife shatters the surface, to open the treasures hidden within. I have, however, had little luck with baking breads myself for a variety of reasons. Peter Reinhart has changed that. I am still on my bread-baking journey, but I now have an expert guide to show me the path. I recommend this book without reservation.

I am not providing an isolated recipe from The Bread Baker's Apprentice because each recipe requires the foundations laid by Reinhart earlier in the book. You cannot, for example, use a package of Old San Francisco Sourdough Starter in lieu of the genuine article and expect a fine quality artisan loaf to result. Just get the book. You may likely find it in your local library for starters – once you have started, it will sell itself.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Book Review: The Nero Wolfe Cookbook by Rex Stout

The Nero Wolfe Cookbook by Rex Stout and the editors of Viking Press
Hardcover: 215 pages
Publisher: Amereon Ltd (June 10, 1987)
ISBN-10: 1848800575
Rating (1 to 5*): ***

Nero Wolfe is probably the greatest foodie in all of crime fiction. His collection of adventures will be handled in another post, but suffice to say that the novels that feature the rotund detective are filled with fine meals. The meals range from midnight snacks for late working associates to grand spa feasts for convocations of gourmand icons. The reader is assured of some fine quality and well educated food discussion in every novel and just about every short story too.

The reason for the high quality dining sequences is because Rex Stout, the creator of Nero Wolfe, was an authentic gourmet himself. He loved good food. Every dish described in the Nero Wolfe stories is genuine and authentic. And so The Nero Wolfe Cookbook was born. Though the back of my paperback edition claims, "Real recipes from America's greatest fictional detective," in the introduction Rex Stout says that he is responsible for none of the book's content with the exception of the excerpts from the stories that are included before most of the recipes. The full byline on the cover says, "Rex Stout and the editors of Viking Press," and Stout gives the credit for the recipes to Barbara Burn. In fact, most of the recipes included are very classical French and French style recipes. In the novels, the bulk of the cooking is credited to Fritz Brenner, Wolfe's French-Swiss chef, so the recipes are deeply rooted in the European tradition.

The recipes in this little work are not particularly original, and most of them may be found elsewhere. A modicum of cooking technique is a valuable skill in attempting the more difficult of these, but none of them are beyond the skill of a decent home cook. The Nero Wolfe Cookbook was first published in 1973, and it spans an era of Nero Wolfe mysteries that begin in 1934 and were still being written when this work was published, so many of the recipes are of an older style, and some may find that they appeal to older tastes. There is a good deal of cream and butter in here, and rich sauces and ingredients abound.

There are a couple of editions of The Nero Wolfe Cookbook currently available, though I suspect that the Cumberland House trade paperback that I have is out of print. It is an exceptionally nice edition because it is rich with black and white photographs of New York throughout the Nero Wolfe era, including architecture and restaurants from the 1930s. That adds a good deal of personality to this edition, and it draws readers into the world of Nero and Archie. The edition that is currently available is a great looking period style hardback that I rather covet, but it does not have the great photographs.

From The Nero Wolfe Cookbook [Cumberland House, trade paperback edition], p. 189

Roast Duck Mr. Richards

The roast was young duck Mr. Richards, by Marko Vukcic. This was one of Wolfe's favorites, and I was well acquainted with the Fritz Brenner-Nero Wolfe version of it. [Attributed to the fictional character, Archie Goodwin]

1 large duck, 4 ½ to 5 pounds
1 tablespoon minced shallots
2 sprigs parsley
½ teaspoon salt
Few grains cayenne pepper
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup strong chicken broth
½ teaspoon fresh tarragon (or ¼ teaspoon dried leaves)
1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley
½ teaspoon fresh thyme (or ¼ teaspoon dried leaves)
¼ cup cognac

Preheat oven to 500°. Remove giblets and liver from the duck, and chop with the shallots and parsley sprigs. Season with a little salt and cayenne, and put back into the duck, which has been well cleaned and rubbed with salt and black pepper. Truss carefully, pricking the skin in several places, and lay on a rack in a roasting pan in the very hot oven for 15 minutes.

Reduce heat to 400°, and continue cooking until the duckling is done, 70 to 80 minutes, and basting occasionally with the chicken broth, which has been seasoned with tarragon, parsley and thyme and from which the herbs have been strained. Also baste with the pan juice. There should be at least ½ cup or more of basting and duck juices in the roasting pan when the duck is done. Arrange the cooked duck on a hot platter, pour a little warmed cognac over it and set fire to it. As the flames die down, pour over it the pan juices, from which you have skimmed the fat. Carve at once. (Serves 4)