Essential Tools



Throughout my youth and into college I thought I wanted to be a visual artist. I had a talent for drawing as a kid and I got much joy from it. The prospect of being able to parlay that enjoyment into a career seemed, to my earnest young mind, a forgone conclusion. But the subtle, and not so subtle, urging of the adults in my life undermined my self confidence and by my sophomore year in college I abandoned the idea.


I’m not bitter about that because they were right. I wasn’t hard enough to suffer the rigors of artistic training. At best I would have turned out an insufferable poseur. How do I know? Because my favorite pastime in those days was to wander the aisles of Alabama Art Supply looking at and sometimes buying fancy art supplies. Technical gee-gaws, the bugbear of the neophyte, enthralled me - kneaded erasers, mechanical pencils, bound sketchbooks, technical pens. The stuff of art had more pull than the making of art.


Making art was hard and sometimes, often, I sucked at it. I lacked vision and purpose and sought the praise of doing something good more than I did the doing of something good.


Every discipline has this pitfall. The collecting of gear supersedes the doing of work. And why not? Getting stuff is cool. It’s fun and exciting and instantly rewarding. It’s also easy, just hand over some cash and there you go. New shiny thing.

In the gym there’s no shortage of new shiny things. It’s easy to find yourself distracted by the latest toy or newest training regimen. Even though there’s really nothing new under the sun - it’s all been done before.


I have to admit it’s a powerful trap and I’ve been caught in it more than once. In the gym those transgressions are easy to identify. They’re the pieces of gear tucked off in the corner and covered with dust.


The same goes for the kitchen, except, to my credit, I am rarely the guilty party - anymore. The thingamajigs I’ve collected are usually gifted by well meaning friends. I find, the more I cook the more refined my tool set becomes and the less stuff I use. Such that, at present, my current toolkit consists of just a handful of essential tools.


At this point I should point out that I am not a baker. Baking can call for a number of specialty tools that apply only to baking and since my repertoire of baked goods can be held in one hand (cornbread, biscuits, pancakes, and an occasional waffle) I do not need nor am I tempted by any of those tools. My daughter, Thalia, is an excellent baker and since she is currently living with us many of those tools do reside in our kitchen. I have no idea what to do with them.


Here’s what I use on a daily basis:


Cast Iron Skillet Chef’s Knife

Paring Knife

Economoix

Butcher Block

Fish Spatula

Silicone Spatula/Wooden Spoon

Mixing Bowls

Tongs


And here’s what gets pulled out at least once a week:

Cast Iron Dutch Oven

InstaPot

Whisk

Potato Masher

Measuring cups/Spoons

Cheese Grater/Micro Plane

Stock Pot French Carbon Steel Skillet

Casserole dish

Cookie Sheet

Aluminum Foil Butcher Paper/Butcher’s Twine


And that’s pretty much the sum total of my cooking gear. Sure, I’ve got more stuff. I’ve got a CuisinArt food processor and a blender I hardly ever use. I find my immersion blender to be more practical, but even then it only gets pulled out occasionally. My InstaPot gets more mileage but only because it makes a foolproof rice cooker. I like these lists. There’s room to expand on them, not by adding more gear but by going into more detail about what I use each thing for and why. Most of this stuff I’m sure you’ve got and some I’m pretty sure you don’t.


Glaringly absent, I know, is the ubiquitous microwave. We just recently had our kitchen redone and a long awaited fume hood was installed over our stove. The cabinet and over the range microwave that came with the house were relegated to trash and the scrap yard.


When the fume hood went up my mother-in-law, whose bedroom happens to be just off the kitchen asked, “What about a microwave?”


“Nope, don’t need one.” was my perfunctory reply.


She instantly went out and got one for her room.


Not to be a blog tease, but there’s a good story here. I’ll save it for the next post.


Until then, enjoy this meal.


Aldi’s New York Strip, Baked Potato, and Arugula Salad

A while back I started using the hashtag #aldisgourmet I thought 1) it was funny and 2) surely someone else was using it. A quick search and I found that of the 8 posts tagged #aldisgourmet 4 of them where mine. So, I’m claiming it as my own. Since one of my consistent sources of groceries is Aldi it’s safe to assume that every meal I make has at least one tie to this unsung gem of grocery goodness.


Right before Christmas Samantha picked a beef loin from Aldi. It cost about $75 but I was able to cut a good 10 New York Strips from it. Each one was well over an inch thick with a nice fat cap. I wrapped them up in butcher paper and put them away in the freezer. The night before I planned on cooking them I pulled three of the steaks and left them in the sink to thaw.


When it came time to prep for dinner I unwrapped the steaks, patted them dry and sprinkled them liberally with kosher salt on one side. I set the oven to around 425 and began to prep the potatoes. A baked potato does not need much, but what it does need is, in my opinion, non-negotiable.


First, scrub the potatoes. Just a rinse of cold water and simple pot scrubber will do. Scotch Brite has a nice flat pad made from coconut hulls. That works great. Dry the potatoes and then rub the skins with butter, sprinkle with salt, and then wrap in foil. Once the oven comes to temp pop them in the oven on a cookie sheet and then go do something else.


This evening my something else was to saute mushrooms. Samantha loves mushrooms with her steak. I like them too, but I’m usually so preoccupied with the steak sides don’t matter much to me. Invariably, she asks me about mushrooms about the time I’m starting to cook the steaks, which is too late. You’d think I’d learn and plan ahead, but like I said, I get distracted by the steak. Anyhow, we were both in luck as she asked about the mushrooms in plenty of time,


We like those little brown button mushrooms, basically baby portobellas. Sure there’s a wide spectrum of mushrooms available, but there’s also a wide spectrum of pricing as well. If I’m not willing to spend more than $10.99 a pound for steak, I’m certainly not willing to pay more than that for mushrooms. You did notice the hashtag #aldisgourmet? That means good, but cheap. Budget gourmet.


Slice up those baby bellas. Go ahead a slice the whole half pint container as they’re going to shrink when you cook them. Heat up some oil in your cast iron skillet. The same one you’re going to sear the steaks in. I save all of my rendered fats. Pork and bacon fat go in one jar and tallow goes in another. These sit by the stove just waiting to be pulled into to whatever I happen to be cooking at the moment. If I run out of either of these there’s always a bottle of olive oil on hand. I highly recommend you avoid all seed oils. They are simply not good for you.


With a good tablespoon or more of oil/fat in the skillet cook the stew out of those mushrooms. Hit them with a sprinkle of salt and move them about in the pan as needed but cook them until all the liquid has come out and then evaporated. Cook them until they’ve shrunk to nearly a quarter their original size and they start to develop a nut brown crust, then pull from the heat and set aside in a bowl.


Put the skillet back on the fire and add more fat. Be sure to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the steaks, salt side down, to the skillet. An 8 inch cast iron skillet should hold two New York strips. Sprinkle the unsalted side with kosher salt. I’m not going to tell you how to cook your steak, but anything over medium rare is ruined. I cook mine to where I’ve got a good crust on one side and then flip. Once the second side has a crust it goes to the plate to rest. If you like black pepper now is the time to add it. That’s it. If you must cook it beyond med-rare you can pop it in the oven for a few minutes to finish, but really you shouldn’t need to do that. There a few things in life more enjoyable than a good steak with a nice crust on the outside and a cool center. Don’t deprive yourself of life’s pleasures.


Once the steaks are done and resting add the mushrooms back to the pan. Hit them with a splash of balsamic vinegar, a few cranks of fresh cracked black pepper, and a knob of butter. The pan should be hot enough that the balsamic reduces very quickly and the butter melts right away. Stir to marry everything together and remove from the heat.

We’re almost done. Take that arugula and put it in a bowl. Sprinkle liberally with extra virgin olive oil (not the olive oil you cook with, I’ll go into that later) and a pinch of salt. Squeeze in the juice of half a lemon and toss to coat.


By now the potatoes should be done. They should take 45 minutes to an hour depending on their size. Mine were those medium sized yellow potatoes from Aldi and so were done in about 45. Plate the steaks, give each person a potato, and let them serve themselves salad and mushrooms. The mushrooms are good on the steak or in the potato. I’m not going to tell you how to live your life (well, at least not outside of the preparation of a good steak.)


In my world this is a perfect Friday night meal. It’s a great reward for making it through another week and saves me the aggravation of being frustrated by the restaurant I foolishly thought to order a steak from. I mean, how hard is it to season a steak???

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