Friday, September 12, 2014

Kitchen Questions: Getting Comfortable Cooking with Meats

Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with Sarah Varland, author of Treasure Point Secrets. The conversation ranged over all the things (Sarah's super easy to talk to) before it turned to the kitchen. Sarah mentioned that she struggled with preparing meats. Either she worried that they were underdone, or cooked them until they'd turned to leather. 

I totally understood because as much as I enjoy eating meat, I reeeeeaaaaaally don't like preparing it.

How much? Let's see. I've never cooked chicken that I've not worried about it
having gone bad. Pork is probably the easiest for me, but I'm often at sea with most cuts of beef because I cook it so infrequently.

But over the years as I've continued to cook, I've picked up a few tricks to help prepare meats that are both safe and tasty.

1. A meat thermometer! I can't live without one. Danny gave me a digital one for Christmas (because he knows me), and I've used it often. You'll want to get a read from the center of the thickest portion, and most thermometers come with a sheath that will tell you the safe temperatures for a wide variety of meats, poultry, and seafood.

2. Use a slow-cooker. The long-cooking method will ensure that your meat will be both done and tender. One of my favorite recipes right now is this one from TheKitchn - pork shoulder is a fairly inexpensive cut, you wind up with a lot of meat, and it's very hands-off.

Also, it's extremely versatile. You can make tacos, or eat it over black beans topped with shredded cabbage, chopped radishes, salsa, and avocados. You could add barbeque sauce and make a really delicious sandwich with it. Did I mention you can freeze it in portions? So many options.

3.) Even out the width. Chicken breasts, in particular, can be a pain because of their uneven width - half of it can wind up dry, the other half underdone, and none of it appetizing. To make it easier, you could place the cut between two pieces of plastic wrap and pound it flat with a meat mallet or a household hammer. This is also a great way to get the most servings out of your chicken! Another, faster method is to simply cut the chicken in half laterally, with the thin side on one and the thick on the other. The thick cuts will take longer, of course, but at least they'll be even.

4. Make it small. With small portions of meat - like kabobs or meatballs - it takes very little time to cook through. With kabobs, by the time the meat browns, they're usually done just fine. And, if you use a metal skewer, the heat from the metal will help it cook from the inside too.

Meatballs are fun to make by hand too, even though the rolling part is a time investment. Whether you brown them on the stove first or simply bake them, they cook up quickly and evenly, and the binding ingredients help prevent them from drying out. I'd still take a quick read with the meat thermometer at the end, just to be sure. Meatballs are another great item to prepare and freeze for later.

5.) Have fun with it. True story: to get through the process of dressing a chicken, I narrate the whole process in my best Julia Child voice. It takes the edge off, and we get a roast chicken in the end!

6.) Freeze it. If you're not sure when you're going to cook up the meat, throw it straight in the freezer until you're ready for it. Thaw it in warm water or in a microwave before cooking unless you're planning to cook it in liquid - if that's the case, just add more cooking time and go for it. That way, you'll spend less time worrying if your meat's too far gone.

Those are my tips - what are yours? Do you have any Kitchen Questions you'd like answered? Be sure to leave a comment!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Kindle vs. Overdrive vs. Oyster - an E-reader Roundup

Shiloh the Cavalier King Charles with Book, by Hillary Manton Lodge
He's an accomplished reader, Shiloh.

I don't know that I've mentioned this on the blog or not, but I'm a complete e-book convert, and have been ever since we left Eugene.

When we moved, packed the books I couldn't live without and hauled them with me to Portland, to Memphis, to the corporate apartment in Richland. I got to reunite with my full library once we moved into the Richland house, but by then we'd been moving and traveling for nearly a full year.

By then, the full practicality of the ebook had set in. I loved having a library on my phone, a book that lit itself, a volume I couldn't lose my place in.

Once we settled in Richland, I got a library card and tried my hand at library downloads. I swapped between the library and Kindle books, sometimes buying books I'd gotten through the library loan because I'd highlighted so many things (Anna Quindlen's Still Life in Breadcrumbs). Between the lack of late fees and the end of hunting down stray library volumes, library ebooks found their place in rotation.

But I still bumped up against the limits of the two - sometimes libraries wouldn't have anything I was interested in, but didn't want to spend the money for a Kindle book as fast as I could read.

Enter Oyster.

And technically, enter Kindle Unlimited. Priced the same, same concept - a library of books to choose from with a single monthly fee. No wait times, no check outs, no expiration dates.

Since the price for both is roughly the same as the average Kindle book, I figured if I got two solid reads out of it per month, a book subscription service would make sense. So I checked out the offerings.

While things may improve, the Kindle Unlimited selection is thin. I looked up authors I enjoyed, and they were either missing or only containing volumes I'd already purchased.

Oyster on the other hand had a wider range of books I'd recognized and meant to read over the years - but hadn't. So - now that I'm using three fairly different reading apparatuses, here are my thoughts - 


Kindle App Screen
Simple to navigate, thoughtful design, and lots of features. You can organize your books into collections, search within books, bookmark, highlight, and look up unfamiliar words.

It's simple to move books in and out of your carousel, though getting a book permanently off requires some work on Amazon.

Really, it's the slickest of the three, and it makes sense why - you're paying for the content. Sure, you can stick to the free and discounted books, but otherwise it can add up quickly.

But if you're dying to read Rainbow Rowell's latest? Kindle is there for you.


Overdrive App Screen
There's a lot to like about library ebooks. First, it's free. Secondly, the catalog changes, and thirdly, you'll also find audiobooks.

So that's fun. It also includes many of the same features as Kindle, such as the ability to highlight text and change the page layout. And while most libraries put limits on the amount of books checked out, you do have the option of returning books early to make room for more.

The downside is that sometimes the library selection can be spotty, or you'll find yourself waiting an age for something that's new and popular.

Also, the app itself is occasionally buggy. Sometimes it'll forget which book you're reading, or start over in the same spot repeatedly, never mind where you actually left off.

But - it's free. So as long as you take the time to look through the catalog and get yourself on the right waiting lists, you'll have a long (but not too long) list of books to choose from.


Oyster App Screen
Don't get me wrong, there are major changes that need to happen. First, the search is clunky. If you're using "Paris" as a search term, there's no way to differentiate between title, author, or subject. 

Also, if you're searching through books for a while, there's no good way to get back to the original screen other than to page back several times.

Books you've been reading are kept in a separate list from the books to your Booklist pile, but there's no way to remove a book. So if you start it and hate it, you still have to look at the cover until it gets bumped far enough down the timeline.

In their promotions, Oyster talks a lot about its aesthetic appeal. And it's true - the navigation pages as well as the reader itself are all very nice to look at - colorful and crisp. But navigating within the book is clunky - you can skip from chapter to chapter, but you can't search for text within the book, or for a specific location or page number.

All of those issues aside, I'm still using it. The catalogue is varied with a nice selection of popular and literary fiction, as well as a number of non-fiction volumes. I admit I haven't explored them much, but I have been impressed with the number of cookbooks I've seen.

I reasoned that it was worth the subscription if I read two solid books a month, and so far I'm averaging three or four.

Overall? I'm using Oyster a lot, and enjoyed using it to read The Hundred-Foot Journey (QUITE different from the film, but certainly worth the read). The library is nice but takes more work, although I'm on the wait list for Gone Girl. And I'm mainly using Kindle to read previously purchased titles, but as soon as the new Susanna Kearsley comes out, you can be sure I'll be glued to it for a few days!

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel sleeping book
Shiloh, at rest. On my book.

What about you? What's your favorite method of reading? Do you prefer paper or electronic versions?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Birthday Giveaway!

Because it's my birthday, because I got to go see the awesome Tuileries Garden Exhibit at the Portland Art Museum on Saturday, because Saint Cupcake is again open for business, and because I want you to have nice things, there's a giveaway on the blog today!

The Prize: One signed copy of A Table by the Window, and one super adorable booklet of Paris-themed post-it notes.

 Note: cupcake for staging purposes only. Very soon, it shall no longer be with us.

Just kidding. It's all gone.

To enter: Please leave your name and a fascimile of your email in your comment, as well as your favorite thing to eat on your birthday. Winner will be chosen at random.

Best of luck! Off to celebrate with Danny.