Kitchen Tip du Jour: A Timer & Post-It are Your Friends in the Kitchen!

A kitchen timer, especially the timer on your stove is your best friend in the kitchen. Especially when you are working on multiple dishes (or tasks…). You set the timer (maybe on the bit shorter side, in case it cooks faster than you expected), and you can focus on other task without worrying about burning your food.

Jot down what you need to do on a small post-it, place it on the timer, so that you know what to do when the alarm goes off.

No more ruined dishes, or extra clean up, plus it really sets you free, mentally.

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Storage – Labeling: Masking tape and a waterproof pen

Have you ever wondered “What is this?  Do I need to use it soon?” when you opened your fridge?

I have…  I’ve always had many containers of leftovers, tried to figure out what they were, and more so, how old they were and if we needed to eat them soon or … if it would be better to throw it away.

One of the key secrets of Kitchen Wizardry is storage strategy, in particular, packaging and labeling.  Since we have been talking about the kitchen tool box, let’s talk about labeling first.

This guessing game was a huge waste of time. First of all, if the container is not see-through, I had no clue what was inside.  Clear containers are definitely helpful, yet very often, they required me to open to confirm what they really were, and often I even had to taste, ending  up eating that chopped cilantro I don’t like by mistake, thinking it’s parsley.

Of course the worst thing was figuring out when I made it.

I used to have a great memory, especially when it came to food, yet I can’t quite remember exactly how many days ago I made something, especially since I tend to make so many different things, it gets confusing!  I often asked for my husband’s help just like many other things, but he doesn’t cook, so his memory is even more vague.

Once I started doing this Kitchen Wizardry thing, I started to have even more containers and bags (and many raw pre-chopped things) so I couldn’t rely on my fading memory any more.

So, I started to label everything.  A long time ago, watching Martha Stewart labeling her linen closet shelves with P-Touch, such as “Bath Towels”, I thought “Oh, my God!  It’s too much! I would never do that!” 

But now I know Martha knew better. When everything is labeled, it’s much easier to find things… especially in the fridge and freezer.  (Now I’ve never seen Martha labeling things in her fridge on her shows or magazines.  But it doesn’t mean that she didn’t teach about it… I just don’t have time to watch her shows any longer.)

Since I’m more into practicality and efficiency than perfect aesthetics, all I use is good old masking tape and a water-proof pen. (Sharpie Ultra Fine.) It’s much more clear than a regular pen, yet fine enough to write in small letters, even on very small, 3 oz containers.  Masking tape is great.  It sticks well to any surface, and can be removed easily.  After dinner, I make all the labels for the leftovers, cut them and stick on each container.  That’s it. (I use regular scissors, not my kitchen shears for this task.)

Most of the time I just write what it is (recipe name, or how it’s prepared, like “sautéed zucchini with lemon zest” and the date I made it , that’s it.  When I make individual size packages of leftover ground meat, rice, etc, then I also add volume.  In that case, a label looks like “Steamed brown rice, 5/4/09, 125g. (I grew up in Japan, so metric system is always easier for me…  Use whatever easiest for you to figure out the amount, such as 1/2 C, 4 oz, or 1/4 lbs…)

Make sure to face all the labels to the front, so that you know exactly what everything is, and how soon you need to consume them (or if they are past-prime) at a glance.

If you have anything that needs to be used quickly, put it at eye-level or at least where it’s easiest to find.  Because it’s out of sight sight, out of mind happens really quickly in the fridge, and actually it should be called “out of sight, out of date.”

You can pretty much use the same labeling system for freezer too. Yet for freezing, there are a few tricks you need to follow to make your life easier, not the other way around…  We’ll talk about it on our next post.

I found this system easy to follow and fun – even to an organizationally challenged person like me. And I found we eat what we have on hand, in the right order, helping us spend less time in the kitchen.

Kitchen Wizard Tool Box Part 4: Kitchen Shears

Another handy tool that is underutilized, yet saves you a lot of time is a pair of Kitchen Shears.

You can do a lot of things with them…

  • Cut through packages,
  • Cut long skinny things like green onions and chives,
  • Cut through chicken bones,
  • Cut up a whole fish,
  • Cut through crab shells and crack crab legs,
  • Cut soaked dry Chinese bean threads right in the bowl, before draining the water,
  • Cut whole tomatoes right in the pan, or can,
  • Cut up ribs and barbecued meats,
  • Cut just about any food, just like at your favorite dim sum restaurant,
  • Cut flowers and herbs from your garden,
  • and more….

Especially if you don’t feel too confident with your knife skills, they will make your life easier.

My Wusthof shears is about 10 years old and don’t come apart, but I love them and never had any problem cleaning. It was about $50 (got it as a wedding gift.)

Now there are many come-apart type for $20-25, including Wusthof. Here’s the link to cooking.com’s kitchen shears review.

Just make sure that your children will not borrow yours for their craft projects!

Kitchen Wizard Tool Box Part 3: Electric Kettle — How to Boil Water Fast for Pasta, etc.

Have you ever tried to boil a large pot of water for pasta (especially in a high-altitude area?) and wished it was quicker?

Then read on… This will guarantee to save you a lot of time and frustration.

Get an electric kettle.

It’s so much faster to boil water with an electronic kettle than in a pot, or even a normal kettle. It only costs about $20, so it’s really worth it.

It’s also handy if you like to drink tea or powdered hot drinks like cocoa. In tea-drinking countries like the UK and former British colonies, you’d find one in almost all homes and hotel rooms – even at budget places.

Also use an electronic kettle when you want to:

  • Make a quick, individual portion onion gratin soup (<- click here for recipe!)
  • Make Ochazuke (Japanese rice soup),
  • Blanch spinach quickly,
  • Run the hot water over oily food like bacon or fried bean curds for healthier eating,
  • Wash out grease residue on pots and pans from oily foods for easy clean-up, etc.

The only draw back is the capacity is normally about 1-2 qt.  Now I use the double-potting trick (below) to boil a larger quantity of water.

How to Boil Water FAST — Kitchen Wizard double-potting trick!

  1. Use the pan with the widest bottom on the largest burner (or highest BTU).
  2. Add about 1” (or 2” if you need more boiled water) of water in the pot, close the lid and boil at high heat.
  3. In the mean time, boil water in the electric kettle near your stove (so that you don’t have to run back and forth with full kettle of boiling water). Once it’s boiled, simply add to the pot.
  4. If you need more boiling water, just do another batch in electric kettle.  Make sure to keep the lid closed until the desired amount of water is completely boiled.

These kettles are available at places like Target, Bed Bath and Beyond, and Macy’s.

Once you start using it, you’ll wonder why you waited so long!

Kitchen Wizard Tool Box Part 2: My Top 10 Time-saving Tools

Besides your trusted Santoku or Chef’s knife and a large chopping board, what should be in a Kitchen Wizard’s tool box?

It all depends on what type of food you cook. Having a small kitchen, mine is pretty minimalistic.  I don’t even use a garlic press any more. (I mince it with my Santoku.)

In addition to the regular things that most people have, my top 10 items I  can’t live without are:

  1. Magic wand (Immersion/Stick blender)– especially great for pureed soups.Stick right into the pan and puree.  No wait, no mess.
  2. Toaster Oven (large enough to allow a round or square 10″ baking pan)  – No need to pre-heat, or even if you choose to do so, much quicker.  Shortens baking/roasting time significantly and saves gas/electricity.
  3. Microplane — grates everything, especially works well for hard Italian cheeses.
  4. Good vegetable peeler — OXO and Kuhn Rikon are my favorites — Good ones are so much easier to use. You can also use it to shave vegetables thin and add to salad, quick Japanese style stir-fry (kimpira) etc.
  5. Oven-proof Skillet/pans (min 400F, including handles!) — saves time changing the pan to an oven-proof  dish etc.  Great for tarte tatin, frittata, etc.
  6. Oven-proof dishes/plates — you can make single portions, stick right intothe oven and eat from the same dish.
  7. Mesh colanders and strainers:  Drain water a lot more effectively and keeps the food inside — even angel-hair pasta.  Choose colanders that are elevated, so that the drained water doesn’t touch the food inside. I have many different sizes, stand alone, with a handle for different usages, etc. A mesh tea infuser with a handle is very handy for flouring meat.  (Saves a lot of flour!)
  8. Spider strainer:  great for scooping up anything from water or oil: ravioli, vegetables, flitters, etc. You can buy one for cheap at hardware/cookware stores in Chinatown.
  9. Tongs:  for mixing salads, grabbing spaghetti, and of course for grilling. Makesure to test them before you buy. Some are much easier to use than others.
  10. Food processor: Especially for pizza dough and slicing and chopping large amounts.  For smaller amounts or very fine work, I use Benriner slicer, instead.

Thats’ about it.  I have other tools and I barely use them…  Growing up in Tokyo, and living in a relatively small house, I needed to be selective with my tools (and I love things that make things efficient and versatile. )

Please post what your must-have tools are, and why you can’t live without them.  We can all benefit from each other’s expertese!

Kitchen Wizard Tool Box: Chef’s Knife and Large Cutting Board

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8" Chef's knife and Santoku knife

Do you feel your knives are your friends?  Or enemies?

As Harry Potter has his trusted tools in his tool box, a kitchen wizard has some must-have items in hers or his.

A good Chef’s knife is a must in an efficient kitchen.  I’ve cooked in other people’s kitchens, and the No. 1 stress-inducer and time-killer in these unknown kitchens is a lack of good knives, specifically a decent Chef’s knife.  In many American kitchens, I’ve seen too many small, dull or strange-shaped knives which tends to cut fingers instead of food. Not good.

Every kitchen needs a good chef’s knife. Period.  I know they are not cheap,  but it’s well worth the money if you plan to cook — even periodically.   These knives actually make cooking easier and more fun.  You’ll save time and most of all, your daily headache. Spend some time to find what feels good in your hand, and don’t skimp on cost.  A good knife is literary your life-long friend in your kitchen, and makes you a better cook too.

So if you don’t have one, get a Wusthof or Henckel, Santoku or Chef’s knife. Plan to spend about $100.  You may find a better price at a commercial kitchen supply store or on-line.  I love my Wusthof Santoku (the kind Rachel Ray uses.). It’s a hybrid of Santoku (Japanese style chef’s knife) and serrated knife, so the scalloped side allow you to cut through soft veggies like tomatoes and releases better.  A chef’s knife requires a rocking motion, and  with Santoku, you can cut thinner and smaller, but it’s a personal preference.  Pick one that feels good in your hand, and ask the store clerk if you can at least mimic the chopping and slicing motions of all of your options.

If you don’t have a honing steel, get one to keep the edge sharp.  If you have one in your set, use it regularly, if possible, daily.  That alone will make your chopping tasks so much faster and easier.

Jacques Pepin once said in his show that all you need is a Chef’s knife and a paring knife.  I agree.  I have other knives, but I barely use them, except for a serrated knife for bread, once in a while.  Spend most of your knife budget on Chef’s knife or Santoku.

Now the knife cannot do it’s job properly without a cutting board or mat.  One of my pet peeves cooking at other peoples homes in the US is that their cutting board is often WAY too small! You need at least a large (18X24) or larger chopping boards for cutting things like a  bunch of Swiss chard.  Think about the time you waste on clearing and cleaning your chopping boards, or rolling rounds of carrots falling into the sink or floor! Pure frustration!

Now you can buy these cheap, flexible cutting mats everywhere.  One advantage of these mats are, you can use several and don’t have to wash any till you are done. And carrying it over and putting the ingredients in to the pan is much easier, because it’s flexible.

Once you have both, you’ll be surprised how much easier it is to cook and prepare food. And cooking IS fun.

A first huge step toward becoming a Kitchen Wizard in your own kitchen!