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Here’s a book that may have passed you by this year. Lyons Press launched a series of small cookbooks from up-and-coming chefs.  The books aren’t flashy, but there are some real treasures in them – like this one.

We’ll be taking a break for Thanksgiving after this post–Happy Turkey Day, everybody!  And stay tuned for more Best Recipes after the holiday.

The book:  Comfort and Spice, by Niamh Shields (Lyons Press, $19.95)

The recipe:  Crispy Pomegranate Molasses Chicken Wings with Tahini Sauce

Why I tried itI think the name says it all.  Like most people, I dislike and avoid deep-frying.  But there are some times when there’s just no other choice, so a few times a year I just go for it.  Also, I have a real weakness for both pomegranate molasses and tahini.  I’d never seen them paired before.  Could it be as good as it sounded?

Why I loved it:  Because it’s wings we’re talking about and not breast, the spices and molasses really penetrated the meat overnight.  The seasoned flour coat doubles down on the cumin anyway, and then you crisp it up in the fryer. Do not Skip the Dip.  When the crisp, sweet, spiced wing meets the cool, tart, creamy dip, sparks fly.

Estimated preparation time: 20 day-before minutesovernight marinade + 30 day-of, messy minutes.

Crispy Pomegranate Molasses Chicken Wings with Tahini Sauce

Recipe excerpted from Comfort & Spice by Niamh Shields, Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press.

Seives 6—8 as a snack
For the marinade
1/3 cup pomegranate molasses
1 tablespoon cumin seeds, toasted and ground
1 tablespoon coriander seeds, toasted and ground
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 garlic cloves, minced
5 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon sea salt

For the chicken
2¾ pounds chicken wings, cut in half at the joint
2 whole eggs, or 3 egg whites, beaten
light oil, to deep-fry (peanut or sunflower)

For the seasoned flour
2 heaping cups all-purpose flour
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted and ground
½ teaspoon chili powder

1.  Combine all the ingredients for the marinade and massage into the wings.
Cover and leave in the refrigerator for at least two hours, preferably overnight.
2. The next day, pour all the ingredients for the seasoned flour into a large plastic storage bag. Add the chicken, close the bag, and toss.
3. Place the eggs or egg whites in a large shallow dish. Transfer the chicken to the egg, coat thoroughly, then repeat with the flour.

4. Heat 2 inches of oil in a very large pan, or a deep fat fryer, until it reaches 35o°F on an oil thermometer or a cube of bread froths the oil immediately. Fry the chicken in batches, ensuring the pan is not crowded. Drain on paper towels and serve warm.

For the tahini dip:  chop 3 garlic cloves and crush in a mortar and pestle with a pinch of salt and 1 teaspoon of toasted cumin seeds. Add ¾ cup tahini, ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, and 5 tablespoons of water. Add the juice of a lemon until the taste and consistency suits you.  Stir in chopped cilantro and serve.


Poivrade artichokes.  Veal kidneys.  Gilt-head bream.  Mastic crystals.

These are a few of the ingredients I’ve seen as I page my way through hundreds of cookbooks on my long, slow path to holiday roundup.  And, though I try to be level-headed when judging cookbooks, each of these made me see red.

What is it about unannotated obscure ingredients that’s so very annoying?  you may ask.

Well, it’s not their obscurity.  As cooks, our lives are enriched and our horizons expanded when we embrace diverse ingredients and unfamiliar cuisines.  When a Caribbean or Cambodian grocer opens in the neighborhood, it’s a reason to celebrate.  When you can count on finding guajillo chiles as easily as you can find bananas, that’s cause for joy.

So that leaves the other half of the equation: annotation.  A cookbook is fundamentally a teaching tool–you wouldn’t need it if you knew how to cook everything in it already.   So when a cookbook author uses an ingredient that’s a little tricky to source, I think they have a responsibility to reach out to the reader and help.  There are so many ways to do this–here’s the ones I can think of, in order of preference:

  • Headnote:  In that critical part of the recipe at the beginning, authors have a chance to share important tips and insights with their readers–and it’s a perfect place to explain where you can buy pig cheeks and what to substitute if you can’t.
  • Sidebar:  See above.  A great place to put the information if there’s no room in the headnote.
  • Glossary: Some ethnic and regional cookbooks make an extra effort to define their less well-known ingredients.  This is always welcome, and often the glossary is an education in itself.  But it still pays to also have the information next to the recipe.
  • “See Sources/Resources”.  “Resources” seems to be the preferred term for bakers; “Sources” for restaurant chefs (I don’t know why).  I don’t particularly like this workaround, because you have to go look in the back matter to find the Sources/Resources section, and then more often than not order something online, paying shipping and waiting a week before you can try the recipe.  But it’s better than nothing.
  • “(optional)”.   With that one little word, a cookbook author  demonstrates thoughtfulness, compassion, a sense of shared humanity! with his or her reader.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been able to try a great recipe I’d otherwise have skipped just because the one ingredient I couldn’t get was “(optional)”.

When an author doesn’t use one of these easy tools, it sends a message: “if you can’t get this ingredient where you live, don’t make this recipe.” So why am I buying this cookbook?  Or it might be saying, “If you can’t get this ingredient where you live, you’ll just have to come and eat it here, where it’s available.”   If I could go and eat it there, you again have to wonder, why am I buying this cookbook?

Each of us has a different approach to kitchen equipment.  Some of us–whether because we’re just starting out as cooks, or we live alone, or because we’re minimalists or purists–have a fairly austere selection: a couple of good knives of different sizes, cutting board, measuring tools,  a few good pots.

The rest of us tend to accumulate.  Some of us love quirky little gadgets, like lemon zesters and olive pitters and gnocchi boards and butter stamps. Some of us have a weakness for electric appliances, like crockpots and blenders and waffle irons.  Some of us like vessels from elsewhere, like tagines and iron nailhead teapots.

Every apparatus weakness a cook can have, I have.  I have to struggle with myself every time a kitchenware store has a “$25+ free shipping!” sale.  Yet over time, I have come to realize that some of the things I acquired  impulsively have become treasured, multi-use members of my kitchen.

So, without further ado, here are 5 things I’ve learned to love.  They aren’t essential in the way a knife or a bowl is essential.  Yet I can’t imagine doing without them.

1. OXO Good Grips 2-qt Batter Bowl.  You wouldn’t believe how often you end up needing a huge bowl with a pour spout and a small footprint and a no-skid base.  Just a few examples: pouring soup into a blender.  Rapid-cooling ice cream base (sealed ziploc bag in ice  water).   Storing a leaky bag of marinade and meat in the fridge (or just holding a lot of marinated meat period).  And, of course, making pancake/waffle batter.  The measuring marks are just a bonus.

2. High-heat silicone spoonula.  These are unbeatable–as heat-resistant as wood, as flexible as rubber.  They don’t hurt non-stick pans or anything else, and they won’t melt (up to a point).  You can cook caramel with them.  You can scrape out corners and wipe out bowls with them.  You can spoon out sips of soup to taste for salt.  Mine was a wedding gift from Williams-Sonoma.  It’s 14 years old and still going strong though a bit stained and charred on the handle.

3. Cuisinart SmartStick immersion blender or “stick blender” A friend gave me one of these a couple of years ago and I am still wondering how I managed to do without it my whole life.  It’s not just a better replacement for most applications of a traditional blender, where you have to pour and scrape and wash multiple containers.  It’s also perfect for smoothies, or for beating eggs when your kid absolutely, positively won’t eat eggs with visible white.  You can even get an attachment that whips cream in no time flat.

4. Bench scraper.  I’d never heard of these before cooking school, but once I got one I never looked back.  In a kitchen you’re constantly needing a small, flat, rigid plane  for stuff: cleaning off your counter, dividing dough, cutting up gnocchi, transferring small chopped stuff to the stove.  I like the kind with the ruler printed on it, which makes it easy when you need to make sure your cookies are coming out exactly 2″ in diameter, or your dice are really 1/4″.  And any time something sticky/gooey/spready/crumbly lands on something flat, and you wish it hadn’t, it’s a lifesaver.

5. Spiral skimmer.  I had seen these in Chinatown for years before deciding it was OK for me to get one, and even then I feared I’d end up never using it.  Wrong!  Although these are really for deep-frying, there are so many times you want to strain things out instead of pouring things through a colander.  You end up using a slotted spoon (too small!) or worse, your hands (ouch!).  If you blanch vegetables or boil ravioli or dumplings or soak dried mushrooms, you can pull them out of the bowl/pot super-fast with a 7″ skimmer.  The spiral design is better than mesh, which traps water through surface tension.   Plus, although I’ve never done it,  I bet you could separate eggs really easily with a spiral skimmer.

Yes, recipe testing is part of my job.  But you don’t need to cook professionally to make your life just a bit easier in the kitchen.  None of these things is terribly expensive–I think the blender is $35.  Everything else is $5-15.  Go for it! indulge yourself.  (Or make a cook you love very, very happy.)

Now cooking

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