- These days, restaurants are hungry for business, especially those in the higher price brackets, even in New York and other major cities. As a customers, you have the right to be greeted cordially, shown to the table promptly, and served graciously with food that meets your (reasonable) expectations. Anything less than that is cause to let the management know why you’re not satisfied.
- Almost all restaurants treat their “regular’s” better, so it pays to become a habitué of a place that you enjoy. It’s a good idea to recommend a favorite restaurant to friends and have them mention your name when making the reservation or when they arrive at the podium.
- If the server doesn’t mention the price of the specials, don’t order them or you might get a real surprise. This happened to me recently while dining with a friend in a well-known restaurant. The price of the special (a small portion of suckling pig and a few roasted potatoes) turned out to be $35.
- Order “local water” and you’ll save money and help the environment. Bottled water is a big money-maker in restaurants going for $6.50 and up per bottle. I’d rather spend my money on food and wine.
- To really learn about a restaurant, check out the trash area around back. If the staff cares enough to keep the trash area clean and organized, where no one usually sees it, they probably have enough pride to keep the kitchen (and bathroom) clean too. Also, if you see lots of processed food boxes (like frozen french fry boxes), avoid the place. On the other hand, boxes left from fresh vegetables, and, even better, from local growers, are an excellent sign.
- The standard tip these days is 20 percent, which is a lot easier to compute than 15 (take off a zero from the total and double the amount). If the service is less than adequate, by all means leave 15 percent. Even better, ask for the manager and tell that person why you’re not satisfied (being reasonable of course). If the service has been exceptional, make sure to tell that to the manager also.
- When eating lunch or breakfast, leave a bigger tip if possible, because prices are much lower so that these servers don’t make much money and will really appreciate your generosity.
- To help save the planet, avoid ordering critically endangered fish like Chilean sea bass and bluefin tuna, orange roughy, swordfish and shark, letting the restaurant know why. If you’re not sure, ask the server. In good restaurants, environmental awareness and menu knowledge is part of their training.
- Restaurants that are open on Monday may be selling fish that arrived last Thursday (the markets are open on Friday but stocks are low so most restaurants get their biggest order on Thursday). So, that special of the day could either be the freshest fish or the leftovers that need to be moved out quickly. (I know because I used to sell those less-than-fresh fish myself when necessary.)
- Choose a chef-owned restaurant over one that features a well-known chef who is an employee. With today’s merry-go-round kitchens, the chef may well be gone the next time you dine at the restaurant and your experience may be completely different (not in a good way). When the chef is the owner, even if they happen to be off the night you’re dining, with their personal investment in maintaining standards, you’ll still enjoy your meal. In my chef years, the newspaper restaurant reviewer deliberately came in on my day off to make sure that my staff was well-trained enough to prepare the food up to my standard even when I wasn’t there. (We got four stars.)
Cast-Aluminum Bundt Pans
I have two plain cast-aluminum Bundt pans, which I much prefer to the newer dark nonstick coated pans, which tend to yield cakes with an overly dark crust. My pans are at least 20 years old and show no sign of wear at all. Go to www.nordicware.com to see all their offerings. I use their Original Bundt Pan in the 12-cup size.
A 9-inch cast-iron skillet or (for a splurge) I prefer Wagner for cast-iron ware, simply because I find their shapes to be more elegant and useful. Go to www.wagnerware.com for more information and to order. I sometimes find good, seasoned (though usually slightly rusty) cast-iron skillets at yard sales and flea markets. After using a cast-iron skillet, rinse it out and then immediately wipe it dry. In the beginning, you’ll need to rub the pan with a thin coating of oil to protect it. After you’ve used it awhile, the pan will begin to get seasoned and won’t need this step.
Chicago Metallic Loaf and Muffins Tins
For loaf pans and muffin tins, I prefer the heavy-duty ones made by Chicago Metallic in many sizes. These pans never wear out, they don’t warp, and are an all-around pleasure to use. I mostly use a standard, medium, or 1-pound loaf pan, 81/2 x 41/2-inches and prefer one that is light aluminum not dark. This company’s 13 x 9-inch baking pans are also excellent. Go to www.cmbakeware.com for a complete listing. Their products are available online from www.amazon.com and from www.chefscatalogue.com.
Culinary Butane Torch
It’s a whole lot easier to brown a meringue topping or glaze a crème brûlée with a culinary butane torch. I used to use a larger propane torch of the type found at hardware stores. Now, I go for the smaller, easier to use and control torch that uses the same can of butane fuel made for the portable burner called a Cassette Feu. Buy the top, which fits on to a standard can from www.surfasonline.com.
Disher or Ice Cream Scoop
I use several sizes of universal stainless steel dishers, available at many good cookware stores, to quickly scoop even-sized portions of cookie batter. Look for a complete line of beautifully made Vollrath universal dishers at www.surfasonline.com, which lists the size (based on the number of scoops per quart) and the actual contents of each scoop by the ounce. Because I am left-handed, I avoid the type of disher where you must use a tab built for righties to squeeze the scoop. There are knock-off inexpensive scoops for sale that I’ve found break much too quickly to be worth their lower price.
Disposable Pastry Bags
I have a 100-bag roll of plastic disposable pastry bags that I find quite useful. In Europe, for good reason, it is illegal to use cloth reusable pastry bags, because they are almost impossible to clean thoroughly. You can buy a roll of 100 (12-inch) disposable bags from www.surfasonline.com for about $15.00. An alternative is to use a quart or gallon-sized ziplock freezer bag (heavier than the storage bags) and cut out the corner to the correct size.
Enameled Cast-Iron Dutch Oven
An enameled cast-iron pot, such as a 51/2-quart Le Creuset casserole, is really useful for baking crusty bread. I love the 6-quart Italian Essentials pot made by Copco for Mario Batali. For product information go to at www.italiankitchenstore.com. It is available at www.chefsresource.com for about $100, quite a bit less than the equivalent made by Le Creuset. I found the persimmon color irresistible as I’m a sucker for all things orange (also Batali’s signature color, although I’d been wearing orange clogs for years before I saw his). See the recipe for Greek Country Barley Bread on page 000.
Foley Food Mill
For straining fruit purees, I use a 20-year-old Foley food mill that never seems to wear out. For finer straining, such as removing the seeds from a raspberry puree, I put the purée through a fine metal China cap (of a kind and quality that is hard to find nowadays) or a fine wire sieve.
The larger the capacity, the better. I have both an older commercial R2 model and a smaller home Kitchen Aid food processor. I’ve seen the R2 for sale on E-Bay for about $800, which is admittedly a lot of money. With its powerful motor, it will, however, last a lifetime. I find the food processor to be indispensable in baking, for making doughs, grinding nuts, chopping chocolate to fine bits for easier melting, smoothing out pastry creams, mixing fillings like frangipane almond filling, and for chopping praline chunks into small bits.
French Composite Plastic Cutters
I have switched from the old-time tinned cookie cutters, which tend to rust, stainless cutters, which tend to stick, and copper cutters, which are great but high-priced, to the newer Exoglass cutters from France. These strong, sharp, and rigid composite plastic cutters produce even cuts and prevent rust and bacteria growth. They are also heat resistant and dishwasher safe. Buy the cutters from Previn in Philadelphia, a great resource for serious chefs looking for the best in European and American cookware and bakeware (www.previninc.com)
This is a handy tool for smoothing out lumpy pastry cream and pureeing fruits to sauce. Buy the largest one you can find. Mine is a Kitchen Aid model that also comes with a handy whisk attachment, useful for beating small amounts of heavy cream or egg whites.
Also known as bun pans, these heavy-duty 18 x 13-inch pans are a standard in my kitchen. They bake evenly, don’t warp, have a bigger yield, and hold a standard silicone baking mat. I couldn’t bake without them. Buy them at any restaurant supply store or from many online suppliers. Note that some older ovens may not be large enough for this pan. Frustratingly for this baker, my old ovens were too small for this size pan. Luckily, my newer standard American oven is fine, as are most ovens produced today for the home.
For mixing, I use my trusty 5-quart Kitchen-Aid mixer, the NSF-approved Pro Model, which has a somewhat more heavy-duty motor. For back-up and for my wonderful assistant, Betty Kaplan, we worked with my 25-year old Kitchen-Aid K5A mixer, which takes a licking and keeps on ticking. I also invested in an extra bowl, making it much easier and faster for separated egg cake batters. I use the meat grinder attachment to grind the fruit and nut filling for cookies like the Cuccidati (page 000) and for chunky salsas. It is a better choice than the food processor, which tends to chop things into a paste. Instead, the mixture grinds into small, evenly-sized chunks.
I use my heavy-duty (that word again) red scissors for all sorts of tasks in the kitchen, from cutting parchment paper to fit to trimming off the ends of disposable pastry bags or ziplock bags to fit a pastry tip.
Although many professional chefs prefer using an old-fashioned three-sided stone for sharpening, I’ve found that I’m not particularly skilled at doing this, so I’ve become a big fan of the knife sharpener made by Chef’s Choice. Go to www.chefschoice.com to see their different models. I have the top-of-the-line electric pro model, but then I sharpen a lot of knives. The smaller, electric home model 120 that comes in different colors will probably work fine for you.
Magic Line Cake Pans
For cake pans, I prefer the removable-bottom spun aluminum pans made by Magic Line rather than springform pans, because there is nothing to break or lose here. I mostly use 9-inch cake pans though there are a few recipes that call for 8- or 10-inch pans. The pans are nice and heavy-duty so they bake cakes evenly and never wear out. They are available from many online retailers, including Amazon and Target.
This is an indispensable tool for me, because I use aromatic citrus zests in so much of my baking. See page 000 for more information.
Natural Bristle Brushes
It is best to have a few sturdy brushes. While those made with silicone bristles are easier to clean and don’t break, they don’t work nearly as well as the old-fashioned brushes made with natural bristles. Avoid brushes with nylon bristles, which will melt instantly if they get too hot. I find that a 11/2-inch brush size is the most useful.
Parchment and Wax Paper
Both these baker’s aids are useful in the kitchen, although now that I’ve been using my Silpat silicone mats, I don’t use nearly as much parchment paper. It is useful for baking things like bar cookies that you’ll want to cut into individual portions, because you can’t cut on the silicone mats. Wax paper is an old stalwart that works for many of the same applications.
Ring or Tube Pan
Some dense cakes bake up better in a ring or tube pan that is 10-inches in diameter. If you use a standard round pan, the outer portion will get overdone before the inner portion is ready. As always, I recommend buying the heaviest, best-made pan you can find. Cheap pans, especially those with spring clips will break all too quickly. Because it seems that plain tube pans are not that common anymore, you may substitute a 10-inch Bundt pan, an angel food pan, or a Turk’s head mold traditionally used to make Kugelhopf cakes.
Make rolling doughs easier and more effective by choosing a heavy rolling pin. I prefer my well-seasoned straight French wooden rolling pin to the standard American ball-bearing rolling pin with handles on the ends, because I get a better feel of the dough being worked. This is purely a matter of taste. Use whatever works best for you. For an inexpensive 201/2-inch French pin similar to the one I use made from hard birch or maple, go to www.fantes.com, which has a large selection of rolling pins with useful explanations of the different types.
To roll out dough, I invested in a 24 x 18-inch Roul-Pat, a large fiberglass-strengthened silicone mat perfect for rolling as absolutely nothing sticks to it. It is the same material in a larger size as the Silpat silicone baking mats so popular among professional pastry chefs and now available in half sheet pan size for home use. The only drawback here is that you can’t cut the dough on the mat.
Sharp Chef’s Knife
I use several different knives, all about 8-inches in length, although probably my favorite is made by the Japanese company, Mac Knives (www.macknife.com) and has an 81/2-inch blade. It is perfectly balanced, easy to sharpen, and not overly heavy. I find that for smaller hands, it’s easier to control a knife of this size than a standard 10-inch chef’s knife.
A sharp paring knife for paring fruits and vegetables with a 2- to 3-inch blade is most useful.
The rubber spatula is on the short list of indispensable tools invented in America (another is the swivel peeler). Note that rubber spatulas will melt when immersed in hot liquids, while those made from silicone will not. I have at least half a dozen in both the smaller and the larger size, which are perfect for delicate folding and to scrape every last bit of batter out of the bowl (although dedicated bowl-lickers may not be too happy about this).
Silpat Silicone Mats
These are the original silicone mats from France that fit a standard half sheet pan. You’ll never need to butter and flour a pan again! There are other companies making silicone mats but I haven’t liked any of the other ones I’ve used nearly as much. Buy the half sheet pan size mat from Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Buy one that fits a 15 x 10-inch jelly roll pan at www.surlatable.com. Just be careful never to cut on the mat (as I found out the hard way the first time I used mine).
I prefer using stainless steel bowls, again, the heavier the better, and they’ll last forever. You can place a stainless steel bowl on top of a pot full of boiling water when making heated egg batters for sponge cakes. You can quickly cool hot fillings over a second bowl filled with ice and water. I have at least a dozen different sizes of bowls, though you can probably make do with three of four. My favorite is an old (at least 30 years) 13-quart rolled edge stainless steel bowl made by Vollrath, which is the perfect size and shape for folding together light cake batters like angel food cake. There are many cheap, light stainless steel bowls now coming in from China and India, which will tend to quickly get dented and warped, so I would avoid them. Go to www.vollrathco.com to see their listing of American-made heavy-duty stainless steel bowls. Buy a good selection of the bowls online from www.surfasonline.com.
Thermapen Instant-Read Thermometer
The Thermapen, a wonderful instant-read thermometer, can be used for custards, caramel, and deep-frying and to test whether bread is done. (See page 000 for more information or go to www.thermoworks.com).
I use whisks for many tasks when baking: whisking together the dry ingredients so they are evenly combined (this works as well as sifting unless you are combining very light cake flour, starches, or cocoa, which tends to form lumps); lightly beating eggs and sugar when making custards and pastry creams, where you don’t need to incorporate air but just need to combine them evenly; combining melted and unmelted chocolate bits so the hard bits melt evenly; beating air into sponge cake batter as it is heating over steaming water; and many other tasks. Invest in several different sizes of sturdy, well-made whisks. It is worthwhile to buy one large balloon whisk to incorporate as much air as possible when making sponge cakes.
Wire Cooking Racks
It’s best to buy several stainless steel wire racks for cooling pans of cookies and cakes. If you get the heavy-duty type, they will last a lifetime. I also use the racks to drain deep-fried foods, placing the rack over a pan to catch the drips. This way I can put the pan containing the drained foods right into a low (200°F) oven to keep warm while I fry up the rest of the batch. Because there is air circulation all around, the fried bits don’t get soggy as the bottoms do if they are drained on paper.
DATE: November 5, 2008
TIME: 8:30 am
LOCATION: KATU-TV ABC, Portland, OR
Aliza will be appearing on ABC television’s AM Northwest to talk about Starting with Ingredients: Baking, great holiday recipes, and making baking easy with a digital scale.
Chocolate Cherry Biscotti with Cocoa Nibs
ABC’s The View From The Bay
36 Quick Soups
The Washington Post – February 20, 2008, Page F04