No-Knead Bread

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Bread is my favorite food, but I’m no baker. I hadn’t been one, at least, before a friend showed me the well-known New York Times video of Jim Lahey going through the remarkably simple steps of the no-knead approach to breadmaking. Mix the ingredients; let the resulting dough sit for 18 hours; fold; bake. That’s it. The resulting bread has a crunchy, thick crust, soft, chewy interior and excellent flavor.

No-knead bread is baking for nonbakers, perhaps also for skilled bakers too busy to bother with more labor-intensive approaches. This process requires so little effort but yields a beautiful, satisfying, delicious creation. It’s really not much harder than making toast.

Since learning this technique, I’ve begun baking bread at least twice a week, finding the process as fun as it is a pleasure not having to buy inferior bread from the market. I’ve also used resources such as Breadtopia.com to refine my recipe and experiment with different ingredients. It’s given me the confidence to try more complex recipes.

Most, if not all, of the fundamental baking tools necessary for making no-knead bread will likely already be around your kitchen. If not, Breadtopia is one of many sources for the tools you’ll need to give it a try. I use a Lodge cast iron Dutch oven that’s been in the family for ages, a very cool tool. The web offers many resources regarding no-knead breadmaking, and I hope Cool Tools readers will share their favorites in the comments, but the NYT video is the best I’ve seen, especially as a starting point for novices, thanks to its utter simplicity.

-- Elon Schoenholz  

NYT recipe and NYT Video
Breadtopia

Lodge Logic Dutch Oven with Loop Handles
$30 (7 quart)
Available from Amazon
Manufactured by Lodge



Murray McMurray Hatchery

We’ve been buying baby chicks by U.S. mail from Murray McMurray Hatchery for 30-plus years. We’ll get a call from the postmaster, sometimes a bit flustered, because there’s a box there with peeping chicks awaiting pick-up. We’ll go get them and set them up with a light and feed and water, and lo and behold in three months we’ll have laying hens.

Minimum order is 25, so the chicks can warm each other in transit. We raise all of them and when they are teenaged, give or sell to neighbors. Raising 25 is no sweat.

Why get chickens by mail and not from your local feed store? McMurray has been in business for 90 years and their birds are of excellent stock. Lots of varieties to choose from. We’ve had not only Rhode Island Reds, Partridge Rocks and Auracanas for steady egg production, but exotics such as Cochins and Polish, as well as meat birds. They’ve all been top quality.

Get Murray’s hard copy catalog if you want to start a flock. Wonderful to look through. A few tips:
1. A dozen hens will give you plenty of eggs for you and your neighbors.
2. If you want fertile eggs, plan on ending up with one rooster for every dozen hens.
3. In more urban areas, get 4 or 5 hens, no rooster.

Once you have your own fresh eggs, you’ll never want store eggs again.

-- Lloyd Kahn  

Sample Excerpts:
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Red Cap
This Old English Breed with reddish brown feathers tipped with black spangles has a large rose comb covered with prominent points. They are white skinned and lay tinted eggs. Chicks (picture above) are a light reddish tan with black speckles and some stripes.

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Egyptian Fayoumis
These small, active, lovely chickens have been raised along the Nile River in Egypt for centuries, and even though quite common there, are practically unknown in this country. We got our start of this very rare breed from one of the state universities whose poultry department was using them for special studies in genetics. No other breed matures quite so quickly as these do and the young pullets are apt to start laying their small tinted white eggs at 4 to 4-1/2 months while the cockerels will start to crow at an unbelievable 5 to 6 weeks. They are attractively marked with silvery white hackle and white bars on black background throughout the body plumage. Leg color can be either willow green or slate blue. Baby chicks are highly colored in brown, black, and white markings on the back and a brownish purple head color.




LocalHarvest

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LocalHarvest is a comprehensive one-stop resource for finding locally-grown food in the continental U.S. The site provides a customizable search feature on its homepage, and a simple zip code input provides you with a description and link to your closest Community Supported Agriculture option. Other search options include farmer’s markets, grocery co-ops, and restaurants that serve food made with organic ingredients.

-- Elon Schoenholz  

Sample Excerpts:

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Shared Risk
There is an important concept woven into the CSA model that takes the arrangement beyond the usual commercial transaction. That is the notion of shared risk. When originally conceived, the CSA was set up differently than it is now. A group of people pooled their money, bought a farm, hired a farmer, and each took a share of whatever the farm produced for the year. If the farm had a tomato bonanza, everyone put some up for winter. If a plague of locusts ate all the greens, people ate cheese sandwiches. Very few such CSAs exist today, and for most farmers, the CSA is just one of the ways their produce is marketed. They may also go to the farmers market, do some wholesale, sell to restaurants, etc. Still, the idea that “we’re in this together” remains. On some farms it is stronger than others, and CSA members may be asked to sign a policy form indicating that they agree to accept without complaint whatever the farm can produce.

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Advantages for consumers

  • Eat ultra-fresh food, with all the flavor and vitamin benefits
  • Get exposed to new vegetables and new ways of cooking
  • Usually get to visit the farm at least once a season
  • Find that kids typically favor food from “their” farm – even veggies they’ve never been known to eat
  • Develop a relationship with the farmer who grows their food and learn more about how food is grown

It’s a simple enough idea, but its impact has been profound. Tens of thousands of families have joined CSAs, and in some areas of the country there is more demand than there are CSA farms to fill it. The government does not track CSAs, so there is no official count of how many CSAs there are in the U.S.. LocalHarvest has the most comprehensive directory of CSA farms, with over 2,500 listed in our grassroots database. In 2008, 557 CSAs signed up with LocalHarvest, and in the first two months of 2009, an additional 300 CSAs joined the site.

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Variations
As you might expect with such a successful model, farmers have begun to introduce variations. One increasingly common one is the “mix and match,” or “market-style” CSA. Here, rather than making up a standard box of vegetables for every member each week, the members load their own boxes with some degree of personal choice. The farmer lays out baskets of the week’s vegetables. Some farmers encourage members to take a prescribed amount of what’s available, leaving behind just what their families do not care for. Some CSA farmers then donate this extra produce to a food bank. In other CSAs, the members have wider choice to fill their box with whatever appeals to them, within certain limitations. (e.g. “Just one basket of strawberries per family, please.”)




Veganomicon * Simply Vegan

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Here are the two best vegan (no meat or dairy) cookbooks as suggested by many Cool Tool readers. Thanks to readers Charlotte, Scott Carlson, Chris, Jared, Terri Alice, Ryan Freebern and Ian Hall.

Simply Vegan

Simply Vegan is perfect for beginning vegans because it has specific sections on how to be a healthy vegan, as opposed to a “Fritos and Sprite” vegan.

It goes into sources for proteins, minerals, has ready-to-go weekly shopping lists, and daily meal lists, so if you’re getting into veganism you can do it safely and intelligently with a minimal amount of work (just buy the stuff on the shopping list and cook it). I went vegan at 14 (and have been vegan 14 years so far) and my parents made me sell them on the idea of being healthy sans animal products. At first the task seemed incredibly daunting, but once I found Simply Vegan I had all the answers. And these days my folks are mostly vegan as well.

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I won’t say the recipes in this book are the best ever – they certainly can’t hold a candle to much of Veganomicon — but if you know your way around some spices there’s no better book that I’ve found which covers the nutritive bases and really can set a new vegan on the right path to whole health.

-- Ian Hall  

 

Simply Vegan: Quick Vegetarian Meals
Debra Wasserman, Reed Mangels
2006 (4th edition), 224 pages
$11

Available from Amazon



Tiffin Carrier

As the name suggests, the tiered tiffin carrier is comprised of stackable tiers of storage which can be laid out for all to enjoy. When you are done, you just stack ‘em back up, lock the clasps, grab the handle and go. They are made out of a high quality stainless steel which makes them very sturdy yet quite light, and so easy to clean.

I am using the 4-tier tiffin, which holds enough food for my two kids, yet is small and light enough to carry everywhere. I also have a few 2-tiers which my kids take to school. Recently, I began taking my tiffins to pick-up my take-out orders. This beats using disposable items provided by the restaurant . My favorite take-out places are quite happy to oblige and love the concept.

Not all tiffins are the same. In my quest to find a stainless steel lunchbox, I tried a no-name brand tiffin sold through Amazon. It is poorly-designed, made from a poor quality stainless steel and it’s massive. This new one I have is a perfect size (6.75 x 4.25 inches) and you can see the quality in the steel and workmanship. It’s also less than half the price of fancier tiffins like the pyramid, which I’ll admit looks pretty neat.

-- Meeta Dhillon  

Tiffin Carrier
$20 – 4-tier
$15 – 3-tier
$12 – 2-tier
Available from Om Goods



Ready Meals

Self-heating meal packs give you hot meals without a stove. Developed by the US military for battlefield use, these 1,200 calorie food packages, known as Meals Ready to Eat (MRE), are also widely used by firefighters and emergency workers out in the field. In theory you could live off two per day.

Each meal comes in a complete package of two appetizers, main course, powdered drink, and desert. The main course is contained in a sealed pouch that you insert into another pouch that chemically reacts to produce an intense heat. The meal inside gets steaming hot, surprisingly hot.

There are 6 standard menus, like spaghetti or beef stew. The taste is okay. If you were hungry enough you might think it good. We’ve never had trouble finishing a meal. Sometimes just the fact they are steaming hot hits the spot. The other stuff in the meal pack is pretty much generic and always edible. Each of the seven parts in each meal is individually vacuum packed so there is a pile of litter generated. Also, all the food is ready-to-eat and hydrated; together with massive packaging, these are heavy dudes. Not ideal for backpacking, but one overnight wouldn’t hurt.

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Self-heating meals are great as easy car camping food. We’ve used them when we arrive late and are too lazy to set a stove up. Or at events like Burning Man when cooking is the last thing you want to do. I’ve used them canoeing, too, where weight is not an issue.

These self-heating MREs have an official shelf life of 3 years so that can be stockpiled in your pantry and rotated out as backup emergency rations. I have stuffed two meals for each person in our household into our go-bag.

Until recently all MREs were manufactured solely for military use. You could find wayward MREs on eBay; they may have been past their expiration date, or resold through gray markets, or missing their heater envelopes. Now the makers of MREs are selling directly to the public. The minimum order is a carton of 12, two units of each 6 varieties. They go for about $5 per meal. The brands are pretty indistinguishable. I’ve been using the A-Pack Ready Meals and am a happy camper.

-- KK  

[Here's a great informational site on MREs run by a dedicated enthusiast. -- KK]

Ready Meals
$70 per 12
Manufactured by A-Pack

Sometimes available from Amazon



Laptop Lunchbox

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Since I started using this bento-style lunchbox to take meals to work, I’ve become much more particular about what I eat. Never one to spend much time in the kitchen, I tend to eat too much junk food. Now that I present my meals in an appealing way, I’m eating better. The Mr. Bento Lunch Jar has good presentation capabilities, but I found it difficult to fill up in such a way I did not have way too much food or a lot of unused space. The Laptop Lunchbox is the perfect size: I carry a little under 600 calories, just enough to get through a work day (sandwich, nuts, apples, carrots, hummus). Unlike the Mr. Bento, this lunchbox doesn’t keep things hot, but the containers are microwave-safe.

The box is 9″ x 7″ x 2″ and holds four main containers, two that are 4.5″ x 3″ x 1.75″ (volume each: ~1 cup) and two that are 2″ x 3″ x 1.75″ (volume each: ~1/2 cup). There’s also a small dip container that is 1.5″x1″x1.5″, which goes into one of the other containers. Only the dip container and one of the larger containers has a lid, so you have to use mostly non-liquid foods. The lid of the outer box rests nearly flush with the tops of the inner containers, so small items don’t fly around even if you hold the lunchbox sideways. I usually leave out one large container and put a sandwich there instead (cut in thirds, it fits better and looks quite nice on display). It’s somewhat marketed for kids. I’ve seen reviews from users who send one with their 2-year-old’s to daycare — a bit surprising considering how much it holds — but the site sells more adult-appropriate bags and additional containers. They also offer an insulated Bento Sleeve with Ice Pack, which I would consider if I didn’t have a fridge in my office.

Having been pushed into the prepare-my-own-food mindset, I’m actually starting to cook more for other meals. I even bought a rice cooker and immersion blender. It’s been somewhat life-changing. I’m not the only one: There’s a Flickr pool for Laptop Lunches.

-- Maria Blees  

Laptop Lunchbox
$39 (user guide included)

Available from Amazon

Also available from the manufacturer Obentec, Inc.



Let’s Grow Mushrooms!

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I have Mushrooms Demystified and I just joined a local group so I can find my own mushrooms to start, but this DVD set my wife got me is all about growing mushrooms and is easier to get to grips with. It is two DVDs that start out from very simple (growing oysters/lions mains in a fish tank) to hunting in the forest and isolating your own strain. There’s also a great section on how to grow oysters in a laundry basket. Everything in these DVDs is all done step by step, so it’s easy to follow and understand — very hands-on with lots of little hints and tips.

The first DVD is great for novices or kids, but the second DVD moves in to agar work, which is more for the professional. I have been growing oyster mushrooms, but the DVD shows how I can move up production so I’m not just growing a couple of meals at a time. I had no prior experience with mycology, but my wife and I have a small garden and we’re trying to see how much we can produce to save on bills. After watching this DVD, I think this could help people start their own small business. I’ve actually looked into growing for local farmers markets for a bit of extra cash.

-- Jo Fas  

[The DVDs are not yet available via Netlflix, but you can preview sections of the discs on YouTube -- SL]

Let’s Grow Mushrooms!
$50

Available from Amazon

Also available from RR Video



Banana Bunker

Whether I’m hiking or commuting to the office, this sturdy plastic sheath never fails. The two ends connect in the middle, where a slight turn locks the unit in place. Even when the bunker winds up at the bottom of my bag, the two pieces stay united. The straw-like section gives only slightly, so curvier bananas are harder to fit; really long bananas are a tight squeeze, too. However, in time, you learn to spot bundles in the market that will fit just right. I use my bunker no less than three times a week. Based on all the smooshed bananas I used to toss out, this contraption has already paid for itself dozens of times over.

Banana Bunker
$14 (set of 2)

Available from Amazon

Or $7 for 1 via Cultured Containers



Zojirushi Electric Dispensing Pot

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Like the rice cooker, the electric dispensing pot is an appliance that EVERY Japanese household has. Its function is simple: It heats and dispenses hot water at just-below-boiling, as much or as little as you want. Perfect for a cup of tea or a cup of noodles. There’s even a “Keep Warm” feature for maintaining the water temp at 208F, 195F, or 175F for a set amount of time.

We picked up Zojirushi’s 3.0-liter US version when we moved back from Japan. It’s performed flawlessly for well over a decade. Lots of nice little touches: The “MagSafe” magnetic power cord featured in Apple’s laptop computers? Zojirushi did it first; makes it easy to move the pot to the tap to fill it up.

-- Robert Woodhead  

Zojirushi 3.0-Liter Electric Dispensing Pot
$127

Available from Amazon

Also available in 4.0- and 5.0-liter capacities (pictured).