27 September 2011

In praise of slow cookers

I have a confession to make: I don’t like cooking all that much. I strongly believe that I fall into a large, silent majority or take-out and frozen dinners wouldn’t be as popular as they are. But, as I make my income designing stylish and sensible kitchens for my clients, you might find this revelation surprising. It’s actually not, though… Hear me out on this.

Every client I’ve ever partnered with for their kitchen project has a different approach to meal creation and delivery. Some, like me, cook as little as possible to sustain themselves. Some revel in the culinary arts. Some cook the basics to maintain the health of their families. Some love baking.

My strategy is always to pair the best components and layout with that client’s cooking preferences, food storage needs, home style and budget. Not everyone is a Top Chef, and not everyone wants or needs the same kitchen gear.

My favorite appliance is the slow cooker. (Like Kleenex or Coke, slow cookers are often called Crock-Pots, a brand name for one popular manufacturer of these countertop appliances.) I’ve made delicious, healthy stews and meals for decades in a series of slow cookers I’ve owned from different companies. Over the years, they’ve gotten bigger and more feature-rich. I have a few in my sights for future purchases!

My current model has a terrific “keep warm” setting that turns on automatically when my selected cooking time has run out. This means I can turn it on in the morning, run around all day, and if I’m not home by the end of a six-hour entrée, it’ll keep my food warm when I’m ready to enjoy it, without over-cooking it. This is flexibility at its best!

Friends have questioned why someone who won’t run the dryer or dishwasher when she leaves the house would feel comfortable letting a cooking appliance run on the countertop all day. Here's why: I don’t have pets to chew on the cord and cause an electrical fire. I don’t have kids at home to burn their fingers on a hot appliance. My countertops are stone and aren’t going to melt from the ultra low heat generated by the slow cooker. I don’t overfill it and run all of my recipes on a low setting, so there’s no danger of the contents boiling over. Finally, while there’s no flame involved, I still keep the area around it clear of paper or fabric. I’m pretty confident that unless I get a defective machine, I’m pretty safe.

Here’s a very similar model to my current Crock-Pot brand slow cooker, which I bought at Target when I moved to San Diego last year. It was my post-marital hedge against the evils of fast food, frozen food and starvation -- as my ex did almost all of the cooking. This low-cost lifesaver has superbly addressed my desire for low-carb, low-fat and easy-to-prepare dishes. Its insert is dishwasher-safe, but it takes up so much room that I'd have to run (and empty) the dishwasher that much more often to accommodate it. I did use slow cooker liners with it until the box ran out, but that seemed like a ridiculous, eco-killer indulgence.

I spotted this Cuisinart slow cooker at Crate & Barrel last year. I like that it includes a bakeware rack, (to address my rare baking urge), and is also programmable, though four quarts is a bit small for those of us who like to freeze extra servings for future use.

This Breville is the Lexus of slow cookers, which I admire every time I walk into a Williams-Sonoma. Its nonstick insert can go in the oven for roasting or on a burner for browning, and is easy to clean afterward. (Chances are, I'm not going to use it for browning or roasting, but it's nice to know I can if I ever turn into someone who loves to cook.)

This large, seven-quart baby also has a dual setting that lets you start high for faster cooking, then switch to low for the classic slow-cook approach. One feature this luxury model appears to be missing, though, is the auto-warm setting. Maybe when I’m ready to upgrade, it will have been added in.

Here, by the way, is my favorite recipe for Slow Cookers Italian Herbed Chicken.

It’s healthy, delicious and super-fast to prepare. It was created by the McCormick spice company, but I’ve never found their preferred packaged seasoning mix in any of my local stores, so I shake-shake-shake my bottle of Italian Seasoning very liberally into the pot, add rosemary and a few bay leaves and it tastes great. I'm considering some variations with beef and sweet Italian sausage to keep things interesting.

Here are a few of the slow cooker cookbooks I own, though I often find recipes I like online, as I did with the one above. You can click on any of the book covers to read more about (or buy it) online.

PS: My second favorite cooking appliance is the microwave oven I use to reheat my slow cooker creations.

20 September 2011

Choosing a Stainless Steel Sink: Guest Post by Blanco

As many of my readers know, I’m a big fan of Blanco’s Silgranit II composite sinks and a member of the Blanco Design Council. Last January, the company brought me and four of my design writer colleagues to Germany to tour their factories and visit the Living Kitchen show. Watching their high-quality composite and stainless steel sinks being made was fascinating. So I asked them to share some insights on choosing a stainless steel sink.

This is the happy outcome from that request -- expert insights from Tim Maicher, Blanco’s US-based Director of Marketing, on selecting a new stainless steel sink and taking care of it.


Not all steel is Surgical Grade Quality: Blanco sinks are made from steel that is considered surgical grade: non-porous, hygienic and rust-free. If you’ve paid thousands of dollars for a countertop, it makes no sense to put a $50 sink in. If the sink rusts, dents or fails structurally, you will need not only a new sink, but a new countertop, too.

Many kitchen designers tell us that the sink is not a place to cut quality because it needs to last as long as the counter. Something to consider when remodeling or planning a kitchen renovation.

Understanding chrome-nickel content: Chrome is the component in stainless steel that gives it luster and durability, while nickel provides hardness and strength. The chrome-nickel content is reflective of the percentages of each element present in stainless steel. The chrome-nickel formulation 18/10 is typically the highest quality and means that such a sink is composed of 18% chrome and 10% nickel.

Cleaning and care of stainless steel: When cleaning and caring for stainless steel sinks, the most valuable tips come from learning what not to do. It is important to keep cleaners such as bleach, scrub pads and steel wool away from your sink. Such abrasive products will dull and tarnish the finish. Your sink should be rinsed thoroughly after every use and wiped dry with a soft and clean cloth to preserve the finish and reduce water spotting and mineral deposits in severe water conditions.

Check under the hood: It’s important to determine if the sink you are buying has a sound-deadening feature. This enhances your enjoyment with the sink, since it reduces unwanted sounds like the garbage disposal growl.

All of the sinks shown are by
Blanco and available everywhere the company's sinks are sold.


For more information on buying a new Blanco sink or faucet, please visit the company's web site.

13 September 2011

NIFTY NUGGETS – Lutron’s Maestro IR Fan/Light Control

I’ve decided to start an occasional Gold Notes series of small, helpful finds I come across on my design projects. Some will come from clients’ kitchen or bath redos. This Nifty Nugget launch post comes from my own Chez J townhouse updates.

When I bought my place in late 2010, I knew I would replace the hideous light fixture in the second bedroom with a ceiling fan. While I’m not generally in favor of fans with light kits, it was the simplest, most affordable solution to get both light and coolness for that space.

The challenge was to find a switch that would handle both fan and light kit independently. (Yes, I know I could have gotten a remote control to do the job, but I didn’t want one.) Lutron had the perfect solution.

The Maestro IR Fan/Light Control (MIR-LFQTHW) not only lets me turn on the overhead light and fan, (or just one of them), in the same amount of space as one switch, it also lets me dim the lights and adjust the fan speed on the same control… So, no more inconvenient pull-chain operation! Thank you, Lutron, thank you, wireless IR transmitter technology!

(Real version doesn't have a black bar on it)

This clever control came to the rescue again recently when I wanted to add a ceiling fan to my office, which only had four recessed can lights up to that point. A licensed electrician recommended by my go-to gal for all things lighting, Vicky Lodge of VML Designs, tied in the lighting wires to a Maestro control I bought for the office. He then made it work with the fan he braced and installed. The Maestro replaced the original light-only switch in the exact same spot to minimize work and expense.

This Lutron innovation proved to be a simple, affordable, elegant solution for two of my own projects, and one I wouldn’t hesitate to spec for a client job either.

06 September 2011

MOLTEN GOLD - Steamy Subject

A few years ago, I attended a designer training program that introduced me to steam cooking. I was super-impressed with the quality of the food that emerged from that small oven, and the versatility of the appliance. It does everything a microwave does, except for making popcorn, and it can multi-task pie with poultry or cod with quiche.

The biggest challenge of steam ovens is finding a spot for one in a normal-sized kitchen. The new Thermador Pro Grand Steam Range solves that quandary. It builds the steam oven into the body of a classic six-burner range, and its reservoir-based functionality means you don’t have to sweat a plumbing connection. Wow and double wow.

The Pro Grand also builds convection cooking and a warming drawer into its oven space. Both are great conveniences for busy families and happy bakers.

The range’s cooktop offers a griddle or grill option, simmer capability and a 22,000 BTU burner suitable for home wok cooking. Other than making microwave popcorn, (and who really cares!), I can’t think of a single thing this cooking machine won’t master.

The Thermador Brand

Thermador began making appliances in 1932, after operating for 16 years as an electrical products manufacturer, and has been innovating ever since. Julia Child created many of her famous PBS show dishes in a Thermador wall oven.

The company’s online Heritage page offers a fabulous timeline of introductions to the home appliance market: wall ovens and cooktops (1947), “pro ranges” (1948), warming drawers (1952), self-cleaning ovens (1963), speed cook ovens (1976), pop-up retractable downdraft systems (1978) and sealed gas burners (1987), among others.

Thermadors are sold through the same high-end appliance showrooms as their high-end competitors.

The Facts

Warranty: One year

Pricing: MSRP $13,995

Website: http://www.thermador.com/

All photos courtesy of Thermador.

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