Le Creuset or Lodge?

If you are stumped about what to give a loved one who is a cooking enthusiast this holiday season consider Le Creuset or Lodge cookware. You cannot go wrong with either companies products. To learn more – read on!

Ample Bites loves to make one-pot dishes, such as stews or gumbos, and braise meats and vegetables. The best vessels to use for these cooking methods are the enameled cast-iron pots made by Le Creuset and Lodge.

These types of pots are also sometimes referred to as Dutch ovens – in fact. Le Creuset, which is a French word meaning crucible, refers to some of their products as “French Ovens”. Both companies manufacture pots spanning a wide range of sizes, shapes and colors. Enameled cast-iron pots can be used on a cooktop or in an oven. These heavy pots hold and efficiently radiate heat during the cooking process. When properly cared for Le Creuset and Lodge can be used for decades or even generations.

Neither Le Creuset nor Lodge cookware is inexpensive with products starting just below $100, for the smaller Lodge models, and going upwards of $400, for the largest Le Creuset pots.

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Lodge is an American company based in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, where one of their outlet stores is also located. Lodge makes both enameled cookware and plain cast-iron items, including traditional Dutch ovens which are designed to be used in a fire, as well as a full array of accessories like insulated handles and spoons.

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Le Creuset is a French company based in Fresnoy-La-Grand in the North of France. Le Creuset also produces a vast catalog of accessories but all of their cookware is enameled.

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Regardless of whether you choose to acquire Le Creuset or Lodge cookware you simply can’t go wrong. Your decision is likely to come down to what size pot and what color to select. Happy shopping!

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Flav’our Cooking School

Ample Bites journeyed to Forest Park, Illinois, a near west suburb of Chicago, to participate in a cooking class at Flav'our Cooking School. Our route from the far west suburbs during rush hour was circuitous but when we arrived in Forest Park we were pleasantly surprised by the updated downtown area on Madison Street where the school is located. There is a nice array of restaurants and boutique stores covering about a 5 block stretch. We arrived early enough to take in a glass of wine and Bruschetta con Prosciutto at Francesca Fiore, which was located a couple doors down from Flav’our Cooking School.

Upon arriving at Flav’our I was immediately impressed by the bright, open design of the store and cooking demonstration area. The high, ornate ceilings and tastefully displayed modern cookware give Flav’our an elegant and clean feel. The Chef/Owner, Denise Norton, and her staff do a very nice job of creating an inviting atmosphere for hobbyist cooks, like Ample Bites, to learn culinary techniques.

Our class consisted of Ample Bites and two friends along with nine other patrons. We were split into two 6-person teams with three on each side of two large butcher-block tables. These tables served as prep surface and dining table. As we cooked, we enjoyed a selection of wines by the glass, craft beers and complimentary water, tea and coffee. Ample Bites thoroughly enjoyed a couple pints of India Pale Ale.

Our teacher, a formally-trained Chef who is now a personal chef and culinary instructor, guided us through a Thanksgiving “Lite” menu that included Harvest Grain Salad with Orange Dressing, Turkey Potato Stew, Cranberry Compote, and Pumpkin Pie Pudding. At the end of the three hour class, we would enjoy the meal that we had prepared.

Our instructor facilitated the cooking process by organizing the needed cookware and ingredients for each of the four dishes. Our task was to read the recipes, follow the instruction and assemble each of the dishes. Along the way we were treated to some tips about preheating Dutch ovens, such as Le Creuset cookware, use of Silpat silicone pads for baking, and a slick – though not terribly safe – trick for mincing garlic.

I will not bore you with the details of each of the tips but I must comment on the value of understanding how and why to brown meat. The caramelization of the meat gives flavor to dishes like stews, chili, and braises. Three important tips to good browning are 1) preheat your cooking pan while it is dry, then add the oil to be used for browning, 2) space the meat with room to allow the juices to release and evaporate, even if you must do your browning in batches, and 3) be patient and allow the meat to brown, checking occasionally, and release from the pan.

Once our food preparation was complete and we began to eat our meal, the students in the class seemed to most enjoy the Harvest Grain Salad with Orange Dressing and the Turkey Potato Stew. You can find Ample Bites adaptations of the recipes for each below.

After years of being self-taught and learning from friends, family and The Food Network I thoroughly enjoyed my first formal cooking school experience and I expect to go back for more “training” after the holidays.

Turkey Potato Stew
(Adapted from recipe courtesy of Flav’our Cooking School, 2012)

Serves 4-6

3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 pound ground turkey
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp ground sage
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp dried oregano
1 large onion, diced
2 carrots, cut into coins
2 celery stalks, diced
1/4 cup dry white wine
3 Tbsp flour
2 cups beef or chicken stock
1 cup crushed tomatoes
4-6 medium red potatoes, cut into wedges
2 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup fresh parsley leaves, roughly chopped

Heat a large heavy pot with lid on over medium high heat. After about 5 minutes, add 1 tablespoon oil and swirl to coat the cooking surface. Add the turkey and season it with salt and pepper and brown. Flip halfway through and break the meat up with a spoon. Add the sage, fennel and oregano and cook for about 1 minute. Remove the browned meat from the pot and set aside.

Return the pot to medium-high heat. Add the remaining oil and swirl to coat the cooking surface. Add the onions, carrots and celery to the pot and season with salt and pepper. Saute until aromatic and tender, about 5 minutes. Add wine and deglaze the pot, scraping bits from the bottom of the pot. Add flour and stir to incorporate into the vegetables, stirring constantly for about 2 minutes to cook off flour taste. Add the stock slowly, stirring to incorporate into the roux and bring to a simmer to thicken. Add the tomatoes and potatoes to the pot and then add the browned meat. Add the thyme, vinegar and Worcestershire sauce. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for about 30 minutes. Stir several times during braising.

To serve, ladle into large bowls and garnish with parsley.

Harvest Grain Salad with Orange Dressing
(Adapted from recipe courtesy of Flav’our Cooking School, 2012)

Serves 4-6

1 cup uncooked wild rice
5 cups water
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/4 pound asparagus, ends trimmed
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil plus more for drizzling
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp orange zest, finely grated
1/4 cup orange juice freshly squeezed
2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1 shallot, finely diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup dried tart cherries or cranberries
1 Granny Smith apple, diced
4 cups mesclun greens

Put rice and water in a medium pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until rice puffs and is tender, about 30 minutes. Drain and reserve the rice.

Preheat oven to 350F. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Put the pine nuts on the pan, place in the oven and toast until lightly browned, 8-10 minutes.

Heat a grill pan or grill until hot. Brush asparagus spears with oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill until asparagus is al dente, about 1-2 minutes per side. Remove from heat and cut the asparagus into bite-sized pieces.

Put zest, juice, vinegar, mustard, shallot and garlic in a medium bowl. Whisk to combine the ingredients. Drizzle in oil while whisking constantly. Taste and adjust seasoning and oil to vinegar level.

Put wild rice, pine nuts, asparagus, berries and apples in a medium bowl. Add a portion of dressing to lightly coat the ingredients. Toss to mix and add more dressing, as needed. Put mesclun in bowl and coat with some dressing. To serve create a bed of mesclun on each plate and top with the grain salad. mixture.

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Thermapen – The Best Kitchen Tool Ever!

The Thermapen is the best tool AmpleBites has ever acquired.

After going through dozens of old-fashioned dial thermometers, cheap instant read thermometers, and timer-thermometer units, I finally made the decision to invest $100 in the Thermapen. I could not possibly be happier with a kitchen tool than I am with the Thermapen.

Problems with all the other thermometers included a lack of accuracy, poor battery life, and a lack of durability. Of course, the most significant of these problems is accuracy and, unfortunately in Ample Bites’ experience, the lesser thermometers tend to understate the temperature. There is nothing worse than buying a nice roast, piece of fish or poultry, cooking it to the desired temperature according to the thermometer only to find that the food has been overcooked. Once the meat is overcooked salvaging a decent outcome with gravy or au jus is possible but the essence of the center piece of the meal has been unalterably changed.

The Thermapen is a durable, versatile, extremely simple to use, and – most importantly – highly accurate instant read thermometer. The thermometer reads the temperature of the air or the food as soon as the probe is hinged away from the body of the Thermapen. The body of the unit fits ergonomically to the human hand and the probe folds into a tap when it is not in use. The temperature read-out is very easy to read, even for those with vision as poor as Ample Bites. The long-life battery fits easily into the handle. The entire unit is designed to by moisture resistant but, like almost any instant read thermometer, it cannot be submerged in liquid.

Some instant read thermometers can take as much as 2 or 3 seconds to reach a final reading. The Thermapen reads an accurate temperature instantly. This may seem trivial but it is it not. Most roast and grilling recipes work best when the oven or grill are closed for the highest percentage of cooking time. The longer you wait for the thermometer to come up to a final temperature the more the integrity of the recipe is compromised. Quickly getting an accurate read from the Thermapen has tremendous value, especially for recipes with shorter cook times.

Because of the simplicity of its design, the Thermapen is quite versatile. In addition to the Thermapen’s ability to quickly check meats and baked items, the Thermapen can be used to produce consistent quality foods. Ample Bites uses it to the temperature for water for doughs just right. Setting and maintaining the temperature of cooking oil for frying and pan frying is critical to producing multiple batches of consistent foods.

As you can surmise from my glowing review, Ample Bites thinks that the Thermapen is the best kitchen tool ever. You can get your own directly from ThermoWorks or through retailers like Amazon. Ample Bites recommends that you throw away the rest of the thermometers you have amassed over the years, buy the Thermapen, use the heck out of it.

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