On the Road with Casual Kitchen: Asheville, North Carolina and 12 Bones Barbecue

We made our second stop on our Casual Kitchen tour of the southeastern US in Asheville, NC. This town has the same crunchy vibe as our beloved Ithaca, NY--except Asheville has much better weather and infinitely better barbecue.

We had some of the best barbecue we've ever had in our lives at 12 Bones, a small and unpretentious barbecue joint on the edge of town. We could tell this was going to be world class food before we even walked into the restaurant--you could tell from the dazed and contented looks on the outgoing customers' faces!

Mmmmmm, ribs, with a side of corn bread and mashed sweet potatoes:

Beef brisket, sliced onions, and a side of collards and corn bread:

Here's a happily sated and sedated customer.

Don't forget to bring extra dental floss!

One final note for those of you heading up from Asheville to the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia: Might I suggest skipping most of the sights north of Asheville? Here's Foamhenge, a must-miss destination:

Instead, high-tail it up to Shenandoah National Park and enjoy some of the glorious views from Skyline Drive:

Tune in a few days from now for a return to our regularly-scheduled programming!

Related Posts:
Paul Prudhomme's Barbecued Shrimp: The Most Glorious Meal So Far This Year
Carolina Barbecue!
Ten Strategies to Stop Mindless Eating

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
If you enjoy reading Casual Kitchen, tell a friend and spread the word! You can also support me by subscribing to my RSS feed, or submitting this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to bookmarking sites like del.icio.us, digg or stumbleupon.

On the Road with Casual Kitchen: Savannah Georgia

Have you ever taken a casual vacation where you have maybe a destination or two in mind but no strict schedule and no set route?

It's not normally Casual Kitchen's habit to talk about our travel plans. But our last vacation, a simple and low-key road trip through Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia, meshed so well with our passion for food, and the entire trip was so relaxed and, well, so casual, that I thought I'd share at least the food-related high points with you, which included visits to Savannah, Georgia and Asheville, North Carolina. I know I have a number of readers from Georgia and the Carolinas, so perhaps you'll know and be willing to share some of your own food stories from these towns as well.

Our first stop was to Savannah, a town so friendly and quaint that it feels like it's from the movies. Oh, wait, it is from the movies--most recently as the setting of the 1997 movie Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, starring Kevin Spacey, John Cusack and a young and weirdly confederate-looking Jude Law.

Here's the best-known landmark in Savannah, the Forsyth Park Fountain:

But let's get to the eating: we stopped into Paula Deen's store/restaurant and had a friendly visit and a booksigning of The Lady & Sons Savannah Country Cookbook with Paula's son Jamie....

...and then we basically walked the entire historic district by going from candy store to candy store snagging free samples of pralines and buying dark chocolate in countless forms.

It took every ounce of my personal discipline to stop myself from putting my head underneath this glorious river of liquid chocolate:

Our teeth kind of hurt at the end of the day, but it was a good hurt.

Tomorrow: Asheville, NC and Carolina barbecue!

Related Posts:
The Favorite Cookbooks of My Favorite Bloggers
Chocoholics Anonymous
Conclusions from the Chocolate Fast
Top Ten Most Popular Posts of Casual Kitchen

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
If you enjoy reading Casual Kitchen, tell a friend and spread the word! You can also support me by subscribing to my RSS feed, or submitting this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to bookmarking sites like del.icio.us, digg or stumbleupon.

How to Make an Apple Pie with a Perfect Flaky Crust

Sometimes the fall can be a bit of a depressing time of year for us here at Casual Kitchen. The summer is officially over, the days are becoming noticeably shorter, and darn it all, it's getting cold up here in the northeastern USA!

So it's at this time each year that we give ourselves a big happiness booster by making the classic autumn dessert: apple pie.

In today's post I'll share with you Casual Kitchen's own apple pie recipe, and I'll also share some bonus photos and instructions on how to make a flaky and delicious pie crust.
Apple Pie

Pie Filling:
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
dash salt
8-9 medium apples, preferably Macintosh apples

Combine sugar, flour and spices. Peel, quarter and core apples, then slice apples thinly (slices should be roughly 1/8 inch thick) into a large bowl. Shake sugar mixture over the apples and mix. Set aside.

Pie Crusts:
2/3 cup + 2 Tablespoons Crisco (vegetable shortening)
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
4-5 Tablespoons cold water

1) Sift flour and salt into a large bowl. Add Crisco. Combine Crisco and flour using a pastry dough blender. When the dough is in pea sized pieces, gradually add the cold water, one tablespoon at a time, while fluffing and folding the dough with a fork.

2) After you've finished adding the water, flour your hands and using your hands gently press the dough into a ball.

3) Cut the dough into two equal-sized balls.
Gently roll lower crust out and lay into a pie pan. Add sliced apples. Roll out the upper crust and lay on top of the apples, molding the two crusts together over the lip of the pie pan (see photos below for more help on making the crust).

4) Bake in preheated oven for 1 hour at 375F.

Since there are some unique subtleties involved in making the perfect apple pie, today's recipe notes will be a bit longer than usual:

1) On choosing the right kind of apples: An in-depth discussion of the ideal apple type for a pie is unfortunately beyond the scope of this post. But for the sake of brevity, I'll share our favorite type of apples: Macintosh--if you can get them both fresh and locally grown. With their complex and slightly acidic taste they make a delicious, tangy, and not-too-sweet pie. If you can't get your hands on fresh Macs, we've found Cortland apples and Rome apples (or even a mix of all three) work well too.

There are dozens of different kinds of apples out there, each with its own taste, texture and consistency. It can be a real joy to compare and contrast pies (as well as other foods) made with different types of apples.

2) Note, however, that certain apples might look pretty in your grocery store, but they can taste surprisingly bland and mealy. Some types of apples end up in your grocery store not because they are particularly delicious or good for baking, but because they can survive a long haul trucking journey without looking too beat up to sell once they finally arrive in your store. Macintosh apples, for example, don't keep as long and don't travel as well as the more cosmetic apple varieties like red delicious or granny smith.

But in my view these sturdier and more cosmetic apples can make for a disappointingly bland pie. If locally grown apples are available where you live, use 'em to make your apple pies. You won't regret it!

3) A few thoughts and pictures to help you make the perfect pie crust: First of all, pie crusts are an excellent example of how we divide up labor at Casual Kitchen according to our respective core competencies. Laura has developed over the years a divine gift for making pie crusts (which, by the way, means that most of the pie crust wisdom in today's post comes entirely from her). I'm faster and more effective at the prep work involved in peeling, coring and slicing the apples, so that's my job. And because we do these two tasks in parallel, we can make a pie extremely quickly and efficiently. If you cook with a partner, spouse or family member, try to divide and conquer your cooking labors according to each person's unique skills and interests. You'll be amazed at how applying these principles can make cooking much more time-efficient and fun.

4) You'll also note the use of Crisco in this crust, even though it's typically a forbidden substance here at Casual Kitchen. You can substitute butter or margarine if you prefer, but Laura has found Crisco to give her the best balance between having dough that's easy to handle and dough that tastes great and has an ideal flaky texture. Plus, we can feed this pie to our vegan friends. But hey, let's not confuse pie with health food.

5) Some dough-making process advice for pie crust beginners: Be sure to coat your rolling surface, rolling pin and practically everything else within reach with a liberal coating of loose flour. This prevents the dough from sticking to everything. It also provides the side benefit of preventing the dough maker from having a temper tantrum.

4) Gently roll out the dough. Try not to overwork the crust. The more gentle you are, the flakier and lighter the final crust will be.

5) Use a thin spatula to gently lift the rolled crust up from your rolling surface:

6) Lay the crust out and gently mold it into the pie pan.

7) Add the apples, place the second crust on top, and pinch the two crusts' edges between your finger and thumb for an aesthetically pleasing look:

8) Don't forget to poke a few holes in the top of the pie with a fork to allow air to escape during cooking:
9) Bake, remove from the oven, photograph, and then enjoy your work of culinary art! Be sure to let it cool a bit before eating.

Related Posts:
How to Team Up in the Kitchen
The Favorite Cookbooks of My Favorite Bloggers
How to Modify a Recipe: The Six Rules
Seven Rules To Ensure Mistake-Free Cooking

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
If you enjoy reading Casual Kitchen, tell a friend and spread the word! You can also support me by subscribing to my RSS feed, or submitting this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to bookmarking sites like del.icio.us, digg or stumbleupon.

CK Food Links--Friday September 19, 2008

Here's yet another selection of particularly interesting food-related links from around the internet.
Ten Spice Rack of Lamb at Chefs Gone Wild:
I had always thought of Rack of Lamb as a dish too far above my station, and I've never quite had the confidence to attempt it here at Casual Kitchen. But that was before I saw this exceptional post that clearly and deliciously explains exactly how to do it.

Easy Focaccia Bread at A Year in Bread:
I'm planning in the next couple of months to teach myself to bake yeast-based bread. Again, until now I've thought of it as an above-my-station kind of thing, but this simple recipe, from a blog dedicated to making a different kind of bread each month, might be the perfect one for me to start with. Readers, what were your first homemade bread-baking experiences? Were they successes or failures?

The Top 10 Food and Drink Hacks at Lifehacker.com:
Time to bring back an all-time classic article. This one taught me how to open a beer bottle with a piece of paper, and it taught me (at least on a theoretical level) how to start a fire with chocolate and a can of Coke. Is there nothing chocolate cannot do?

Food, Frugality, and Fighting Brand Loyalty at CheapHealthyGood:
I'm heading once more back into the archives to bring out one of Kris's all time best posts, in which she writes about why food companies want so badly for us to be blindly brand-loyal and how we can fight back. A real treasure of a post.

The British One Hundred at Food Stories: They say the British kill their food twice: once when they kill it and again when they cook it. Here's a list of 100 quintessential British foods in a list that you can copy on to your own blog. Mark the foods you've tried, the foods you haven't yet tried, and the foods that you'd prefer to die before eating.

One Hundred Pushups
While we're on the subject of things, uh, denominated in hundreds, here's a fun project I've taken on recently. It's a workout plan, for both men and women, to train to do 100 consecutive pushups. I'm up to 45.

Ten Tips to Save Money on Spices and Seasonings: The Spice Series, Part 2

Please see Part 1 of this series, where we discussed the market dynamics that drive the cruel and unusually high spice prices in your grocery store.

Today's post, Part 2 of this series, contains advice on how to beat these unfairly high prices and escape the spice industry's stranglehold on your grocery bill.


The spice industry has us between a rock and a hard place. Not only are most spices horribly expensive, but they are crucial ingredients in any recipe. Thus it seems like you have little choice but to pay through the nose for whatever spices you need.

In reality, however, there are lots of ways to spend less on spices and seasonings, and today's post contains ten tips to help you do just that. I'm sure this list is far from exhaustive, so readers, if any of you out there have additional ideas on how to save money on spices and seasonings, please share them in the comments section. Together, we can defeat the spice cabal!

1) Start With the Latin American Foods Aisle
If I had to give one commonality among today's tips, they all essentially involve running screaming from the traditional spice aisle of your traditional grocery store. But don't worry, you won't have to run very far (or scream for very long) to follow tip #1. In fact, you'll only run about 50 feet--to the Spanish/Mexican foods aisle! You can find many spices here at significantly lower prices than the regular spice aisle. Moreover, other foods, including dried and canned beans, can be found at discounts here too.

You wouldn't think your grocery would sell a product at one price and then 50 feet away sell a similar product at a totally different price. But it's just another of the many idiosyncrasies of the grocery store industry. Indeed, the Latin American foods aisle is dominated by an oligopoly of food manufacturers completely different from the rest of your grocery store. Some of these companies are big international firms like Goya which are trying to establish their own dominant market position in the USA, and as a result, these companies will often price their spices and other food products below market in order to gain share. That means extra savings for any consumer willing to travel a few feet to do a little comparison shopping.

2) Visit Local Ethnic Food Stores in Your Town
In most western countries, towns of even modest size have enough immigrants to support a wide range of fascinating ethnic food stores. But ethnic food stores are more than just places to visit to learn about new and unusual foods. These stores also fundamentally subvert the spice cabal.

I've already shared my experience buying a lifetime supply of guajillo chiles for only $2.50 in a Mexican food shop two miles from my home--heck, I even got the chance to practice my Spanish. And just a few months ago I was in an Indian specialty food store in Manhattan and found cayenne pepper at $3.99 for a 1/2 pound bag. That's less than a third of the price at my local grocery store.

Let's face it: there are some 35 million people in the USA who are either first- or second-generation foreign born, and many of these people buy much of their food items at smaller ethnic food stores. That is simply an enormous market opportunity, and best of all this market is widely fragmented and not under the control of large distribution or retailing oligopolies.

The companies that sell to these customers don't have the distribution clout to get onto the shelves of major grocery store chains, but so what? They can simply bypass the spice cabal by distributing to these smaller stores. And this is an opportunity for you as a consumer, because you can find spices and other products in these stores at prices that reflect true competition, not the faux competition of the spice aisle. Visit some of these stores in your community, and you may be shocked at the deals you find.

3) Speak Up
You might recall in Part 1 of this series how I suggested that the spice cabal keeps prices high in part because we as consumers tolerate these high prices. Let me a make a contentious statement: if only two or three companies control what's on our grocery store shelves, then we as consumers have an obligation to undermine this control. In short, we need to become intolerant consumers.

One way you can do this is by telling the store manager (or by writing to the store chain's management) that you're disappointed in the number of choices of spice brands in the store and as a result you're considering taking your business elsewhere. And when you see a new--and reasonably priced--spice brand in your grocery store, buy it, and be sure to tell the store manager. If enough consumers speak up, the store actually will offer more choice to its customers. Everybody wins this way.

4) Buy in Bulk...
The next time you're buying spices, compare the price per unit of bulk sizes to the price per unit of the smallest jars. Even at Penzeys Spices, a popular but relatively expensive spice supplier, you can buy a one pound bag of cayenne pepper for about 40% of the per-unit price of the smallest 2.1 ounce jar. That's a massive savings. And if you're ever buying a spice that's common to a lot of different recipes that you like to cook (spices like black pepper, cayenne pepper, cumin and oregano come to mind), always buy the largest container you can find.

Also, if your store has a bulk foods section, be sure to look it over. Many grocers carry spices in bulk, as well as other expensive foods like nuts, teas and even granola.

5) ...And Don't Worry About "Spice Fade"
Whenever the subject of buying spices in bulk comes up, there's always an immediate and predictable response from the spice snobs out there. They argue that you should never buy spices in volume, regardless of the savings, because spices lose their spiciness over time. In fact, a truly crazed spice snob might claim that you should throw out all your unused spices after no more than six months.

Bunk. Here's the real truth. Yes, some spices will by definition lose their efficacy over time. The real question is, how much time? If you are careful to store your spices in a cool, dark place in airtight containers, your spices will last for years, not months. You can even consider storing your spices in the freezer where they'll keep still longer.

A general rule of thumb for ground spices is they will last up to three years before losing a significant degree of their fragrance and flavor, as long as you keep them cool and dry. And if you can buy bulk spices in seed or kernel form rather than in ground form, you can extend their shelf life to four years or more, depending on the spice. We'll address grinding your own spices in more detail in Tip #7.

Furthermore, this alleged loss of flavor will be extremely gradual, and discernible only to chefs with the daintiest palates. I'd argue that the typical Casual Kitchen reader is more interested in striking a reasonable balance between spice freshness and cost rather than militantly throwing out all spices after six months.

Just in case, though, if you'd like to test your palate for spice snobbery, try making two versions of, say, my mole sauce recipe. Make one batch using nine- or twelve-month-old cinnamon, and make another batch using brand new cinnamon. If you can clearly tell the difference, then you should probably stop reading Casual Kitchen and resign yourself to a life spent paying through the nose for expensive spices.

Spices may not quite last forever, but they last a really, really long time. Buy them in bulk, and instead of worrying about spice fade, concentrate on cooking more.

6) Never Buy Spice Mixes--Make Your Own
If there's one rip-off even worse than store-bought spices, it's store-bought spice mixes. Regular readers of Casual Kitchen will recognize spice mixes as textbook examples of second-order foods, which contain extra manufacturing and branding costs imputed into the retail price. Worse, you don't have any control over what the manufacturer puts in these spice mixes, and many of them contain excess salt and MSG.

The solution here is to make your own. It's easy to find great spice mix recipes, and they're actually fun and quite satisfying to make. Start with Cheap Healthy Good's post on making your own spice mixes--it contains a well-researched list of sites for any and all kinds of spice mix recipes as well as some compelling math on how horribly overpriced these mixes can be.

You can also use your cookbooks as a resource. Many cookbooks make a point of including directions on how to make various spice mixes right alongside their recipes. I rely on Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen for my Cajun and Creole spice mixes, and for my Latin American spice mixes, I rely on Daisy Cooks.

7) Grind Your Own
It wasn't until Laura began experimenting with Indian food recently that we took our first tentative steps toward grinding our own spices.

There are quite a few advantages to grinding your own spices, and these advantages extend beyond simply saving money. First, as discussed in tip #5, spices will keep significantly longer in their whole form than in ground form. Thus you can confidently buy bulk packages of whole spices without worrying about spice fade. Furthermore, many spices (not all however) cost much less in their whole form. Thus, by buying whole spices in bulk you get a layer of savings on top of yet another layer of savings.

But the best advantage of grinding your own spices is culinary. Food tastes just a bit better when you go that extra step and freshly grind those spices just seconds before you put them in your recipe. However, there are limits to how much extra work we'll take on in putting dinner on the table. This blog is called Casual Kitchen after all, and by the way, didn't I just spend half of tip #5 mocking spice snobs? You'll have to decide for yourself to what extent it's worth it to you to experience the culinary and economic pleasures of freshly ground spices.

Let me share one final detail on this tip and then we'll move on. Here's a link to the spice grinder that we have in our home, which sells for a fairly reasonable $19 on Amazon (and for the old-schoolers out there, here's an elegant and even less expensive mortar and pestle for grinding spices too). If you regularly use spices like cumin, black pepper or other seasonings that are reasonably easy to find in whole form, it shouldn't be too long before you earn back the modest cost of an inexpensive spice grinder.

8) Dry Your Own
Let me share some math with you: a half-ounce jar of dried parsley flakes can cost anywhere from $2 to $3 in the traditional spice aisle. Yet you can buy an enormous bunch of fresh parsley in your produce section for as little as 99c. Heck, half the time when I use fresh greens or herbs to invigorate one of my recipes, I end up using 25% of the bunch and letting the rest of it go to waste. Why not make good use of those leftovers greens--and save a ton of money--by drying them for future use?

Drying your own spices and herbs can be done easily and with very little equipment. The method I've used successfully requires only an oven and a basic cookie sheet. Set your oven on warm, spread the herbs out on the cookie sheet, and place them in the warm oven for a few minutes. Then, turn the oven off, leaving the oven door closed, and let the herbs sit in there for the rest of the day. Note that some herbs are hardier than others, so keep an eye on them while the oven is on, lest they (speaking from experience here) burn to a crisp.

You can also air-dry your herbs, using nothing more than some paper bags and rubber bands. Bundle 4-6 branches of each type of green or herb with a rubber band, place the bunch upside down in a paper bag with several holes cut into it, and hang the bags upside down in a warm airy room. In two weeks or so you should have a wonderful bunch of dried spices that you can crumble into jars and keep for years.

9) Grow Your Own
Why stop at just mixing, grinding and drying? Why not take that last, final triumphant step and create your own seasonings entirely from scratch? You'll find herbs like oregano, basil, parsley, dill, chives, rosemary, sage and many others surprisingly easy to grow, and you don't need a big backyard (or even a yard at all) to do it. And it goes without saying that eating these herbs and spices fresh will give you a taste sensation you'll never get from the store-bought stuff.

Despite living in a small apartment, we've successfully grown chives and basil indoors with very little effort. One year, using seeds I got for free from my father's garden, I literally grew a lifetime supply of chives from a single medium-sized pot that sat on our windowsill. We nicknamed our little chive plant Beaker and we used to joke about giving him haircuts when it came time to harvest and dry the chives. How can you beat something that gives you an occasional laugh, takes almost no effort and helps you save money on spices?

If you're interested in pursuing herb growing further, here's another helpful post at About.com that can get you started (see especially the "suggested reading" and "related articles" links at the bottom of the page).

10) Use the Internet to Disintermediate the Spice Cabal and Your Grocery Store
Our final tip on how to save money on spices and seasonings comes from the same resource you're using right now to read this blog.

Yep, the Internet. It's the ultimate consumer protection tool because it has fairly low barriers to entry (after all, it's a lot cheaper and easier to set up a website than it is to set up a national grocery store distribution network), and because it allows consumers to compare prices from multiple vendors without even having to get out of their chairs. This means you get fierce competition among spice and seasoning vendors for your consumer dollars.

Here's a typical example: At Atlantic Spice Company you can buy one pound bags of cayenne pepper (at different hotness levels no less) at prices ranging from 23c to 26c an ounce. That's less than a third of Penzeys price for their one pound bag, and it's less than one-tenth the price of the store-bought McCormick brand. In fact, an entire pound of cayenne at Atlantic Spice costs less than a single 1.75 ounce jar of McCormick!

Where else but in the spice oligopoly can these companies mark up merchandise by a factor of ten (ten!) before selling it to the public? Preposterous.

In the "Related Links" section below, I share a list of well-regarded websites where you can buy spices at prices far below your traditional grocery store spice aisle. If you have a favorite spice site that you don't see there, please feel free to tell me about it.

I hope you've found this series of posts on spices helpful, and I hope you can successfully apply today's tips towards beating the spice oligopoly at its own game. I'm sure there are many more ways to save money on spices beyond the ten I've listed today, so readers, please share your thoughts: what ideas have I missed?

Additional Resources:
Online Bulk/Reasonably Priced Spice Sites:
Spice Barn.com
Atlantic Spice Company
Buffalo Creek Spices
The San Francisco Herb Company

Other Spice Sites:

Penzey's Spices: expensive but highly regarded spices and spice mixes

Advice on drying herbs from About.com
CheapHealthyGood's encyclopedic post on spice mixes

Related Posts:
How to Live Forever in Ten Easy Steps
Mastering Kitchen Setup Costs
Stacked Costs and Second-Order Foods: A New Way to Think About Rising Food Costs
Ten Strategies to Stop Mindless Eating
How to Write an Effective Complaint Letter

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
If you enjoy reading Casual Kitchen, tell a friend and spread the word! You can also support me by subscribing to my RSS feed, or submitting this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to bookmarking sites like del.icio.us, digg or stumbleupon.

Why Spices Are a Complete Rip-Off and What You Can Do About It: The Spice Series Part 1

One of the key cooking challenges everyone faces at one time or another is the shockingly high cost of spices.

Who hasn't had the experience of enthusiastically poring over a great new recipe, diligently writing down all the ingredients--only to have that enthusiasm utterly crushed when you find out it's going to cost you 20 bucks for four lousy little jars of spices?

You are not alone. Even the most experienced cooks get a little sick to their stomach in the spice aisle.

In order to help you understand and deal with the high cost of spices, I've written a two-part series on the subject. Today, in Part 1, I explain the market dynamics behind your local grocer's spice aisle, and show how those market dynamics conspire in various ways to keep spice prices artificially high. In Part 2, I'll give an extensive list of tips, advice and websites to help you save money on spices.

Let me start off by giving you a sneak preview of my conclusion--and it's a disturbing one: high spice prices have almost nothing to do with supply and demand. Instead, high spice prices come from an almost total lack of competition in your grocery store. And that lack of competition is a logical and deliberate result of two things: 1) the structure of the grocery and spice industries and 2) the willingness of the consumer to tolerate high prices.

Now don't let the above paragraph, as defeatist as it may sound, cause you to lose heart. Keep in mind: in order to defeat high spice prices, we need to understand what causes high spice prices. In just a few short minutes, you'll be well on your way towards understanding the rules of the spice industry's game. And once you know the rules of the game, it will be a lot easier to subvert those rules and escape the spice industry's stranglehold on your food budget.

Idiosyncrasies of the Grocery Industry
Globally, there are zillions of companies that sell spices, but there are very few companies that sell the branded spices that actually make it to your grocery store shelves. Why aren't there more companies in your local store competing in what surely must be a highly profitable niche market?

Well, it's unfortunate, but there are four idiosyncrasies about the grocery store industry that conspire to limit competition:

1) Grocery store chains have extremely thin margins--operating margins of only 2-3% are quite typical. Thus grocery chains will look for creative--even diabolical--ways to cut costs and squeeze incremental profits out of the business.
2) Grocery chains already deal with
hundreds--if not thousands--of vendors and suppliers. Adding multiple suppliers for every product would increase costs beyond reasonable levels.
3) If you are a vendor who hopes to sell to a large grocery chain, you must have
well-established and geographically extensive distribution capabilities.
4) Grocery stores will often charge slotting fees (extra fees paid to the retailer in exchange for prominent placement on your store shelves) in order to ration limited shelf space and help profitability.

These four factors significantly increase spice distribution costs and create artificially high barriers to competition for smaller spice makers. And those are the perfect conditions for the creation of a textbook oligopoly in the spice industry (a quick definition: an oligopoly is an industry with few players, a stable division of market share and little effective competition).

The Spice Cabal
Indeed, a spice oligopoly (or spice cabal, as I've started calling it lately) is exactly what we have. The spice aisle, as well as most other product areas in your grocery store, tends to be dominated by just a few key brands. When two or three companies control a market, even a market as small as your local grocery store's spice aisle, prices somehow magically seem to stay much higher than normal.

And of course your grocery chain doesn't want extra competition in the spice aisle either, since it also benefits from this industry structure because it can charge slotting fees, save money on vendor logistics and charge higher than normal markups. Regrettably, this industry structure serves the interests of everyone involved--except the consumer.

In our grocery store, we have an even more laughable situation: McCormick's is not only the dominant brand, but in a particularly sneaky example of faux competition, McCormick's also owns our store's #2 brand, Spice Classics! Not since Mr. Burns blotted out the sun in Springfield have I seen that kind of diabolical genius.

Inelastic Demand
Worse, because spices are critical ingredients for cooking, demand for them tends to be stable regardless of price (economists call this "inelastic demand"). If your recipe calls for cumin, you basically have no choice but to buy cumin. And even if you have the temerity to risk your recipe by substituting another spice, that other spice is still in the same spice aisle at a similarly preposterous price.

And that, my dear readers, is why your local grocery store sells cayenne pepper at unit prices approaching $45 a pound, and ground cumin at prices approaching $50 a pound. In short, if you limit your spice purchases to your local grocery store's spice aisle, the spice cabal simply has you over a barrel.

I'll say it again: don't lose heart--there's help on the way. In my next post I'll bring you several ideas to help you save money on spices. Together we will defeat the spice cabal once and for all!

Please see Part 2 of this series for a list of ten specific tips on how to save money on spices.

Related Posts:
Stacked Costs and Second-Order Foods: A New Way to Think About Rising Food Costs
How to Modify a Recipe: The Six Rules
A Rebuttal of "The Last Bite"
Two Useful Cooking Lessons From Another Cheap and Easy Side Dish
The Bhut Jolokia Pepper--The World's Hottest Chili

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
If you enjoy reading Casual Kitchen, tell a friend and spread the word! You can also support me by subscribing to my RSS feed, or submitting this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to bookmarking sites like del.icio.us, digg or stumbleupon.

A List of Corn Bread Recipe Modifications

In our continuing efforts to help Casual Kitchen's readers increase their powers in the kitchen, I'd like return to the concept of recipe modification and share a list of possible modifications to our cornbread recipe from the other day.

One of the most useful skills a cook can have is the ability to confidently modify a recipe. It enables you to improve recipes, change them to your liking, or if necessary, adjust them to match the ingredients you already have in your pantry. We've covered many of the concepts and rules behind modifying recipes in a three part series some time ago. If you're interested in more detail on this subject, please have a look.

When you make modifications to a recipe, there are elements of both art and science involved. That's why this discipline is, at least in my opinion, one of cooking's most unique skills. And cornbread is a simple and basic food that makes for a perfect blank slate for interesting modifications.

One reminder: whenever you make modifications to baked foods, there are certain relationships that you need to keep constant. The ratio of of dry ingredients to liquid ingredients, and the ratio of leavening agents to everything else, must be kept roughly the same. You can't arbitrarily add an extra egg to this recipe, or add more milk or butter, unless you increase the other ingredients proportionally. Just be mindful of this rule when you try baking modifications of you own.

That said, let's share a list of potential modifications that could really add some pizazz to what is ordinarily a simple and basic dish. Which of these sound most interesting to you?

1) Add a teaspoon (or more!) of cayenne pepper to the batter for a slight spicy kick.
2) Add finely minced jalapeƱo peppers (perhaps two tablespoons, more or less).
3) Add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of whole corn kernels to the batter.
4) Add a small amount (perhaps 1/4 cup) of other fruits to the batter, such as blueberries, strawberries, finely chopped apple pieces, dried fruits, etc.
5) Use wheat flour (we've tried this modification and suggest replacing half of the white flour with wheat flour, and then adding an extra 1/4 cup of milk to the batter to keep the batter texture consistant).
6) Add extra sugar to the batter for a sweeter cornbread (5-6 tablespoons rather than 4).
7) Add both extra sugar and minced jalapenos for a spicy/sweet cornbread (it may sound like a strange taste combination, but it really works)
8) Add a 1/2 cup of grated cheddar, or other mild cheese, to the batter.
9) Add 1/2 to 1 teaspoon cinnamon to the batter.

Obviously this is far from an exhaustive list--what are possible modifications that I haven't mentioned that you'd like to try?

Related Posts:
How to Use Leftover Ingredients
Seven Ways to Jazz Up Your Morning Eggs
Brazen Recipe Modification: How to Turn a Bad Recipe Into a Good One -- Lime and Chipotle Shrimp
The Granola Blogroll: The Ultimate Authority on Great Granola Recipes

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How to Make the Best Cornbread. Ever.

Corn bread.

It might be the easiest of all bread recipes. It's an unintimidating starting point for beginners who want to learn the pleasures of baking. And it combines simple, honest ingredients into a deliciously textured, not-too-sweet bread. Cornbread is almost like dessert, but with little sugar and even less guilt.

I've been making corn bread for years and have always liked it, but I'd never found a recipe that really knocked my socks off. Until now. I believe I've now found the perfect cornbread recipe, buried in a cookbook we've had on our shelves for more than ten years. A cookbook that I just hadn't properly exploited before.

And to any of my readers new to baking, this is an ideal recipe to get your feet wet. You might have a few startup costs for some baking or mixing tools, but because this recipe is so easy and so delicious, it is an extremely encouraging way for a novice chef to get started down the road towards baking other foods.

I guarantee that this cornbread will be a home run in your home.

Corn Bread
(very slightly adapted from The Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas)
PS: be sure to take a look at this follow-up post with several cornbread modification ideas!

1 1/4 cups white flour
3/4 cup whole grain corn meal (can use regular degerminated corn meal--see note 1 below)
4 Tablespoons sugar
5 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

1 egg
1 cup milk
2 Tablespoons melted butter

1) Preheat oven to 375F.
2) Sift dry ingredients together into a large bowl.
3) Beat the egg with the milk and add to the dry ingredients. Quickly add the melted butter and stir with a rubber scraper until ingredients are combined well.
4) Spread the batter into a buttered 9-inch pie dish.
5) Bake in oven for 30-35 minutes, or until it is lightly browned around the edges, or until a fork stuck into the center of the pan comes out clean. Serve hot.

Serves 4-6.
Five brief recipe notes:

1) A note on types of corn meal: This dish will come out well if you use regular corn meal, but it will have an even better texture if you use whole grain corn meal. If you can find Indian Head Old Fashioned Stone Ground Yellow Corn Meal in your store (see the photo to the right), get it--it's a steal at about $1.59 for a two-pound bag. In contrast, regular corn meal (Quaker is a typical brand), is both degerminated and is more finely and uniformly milled. Here's an instance where the "finer" product just isn't quite as good.

2) Try making this corn bread in a buttered pie dish rather than a more traditional square baking pan. A wider, flatter pie pan exposes more surface area of the batter to heat, so the cornbread cooks more evenly throughout. It was also quite easy to cut and scoop out pieces, and cleanup was a snap.

3) Laughable cheapness alert: This entire batch of cornbread can be made for well under $1.00. To put this in context, I used to pay $1.79 each day for a mediocre cornmeal muffin on the way into work--more than it cost me to buy an entire two-pound bag of corn meal. Yet again more evidence that you can cook food at home that is not only less expensive, but often much higher quality, than anything you can find in stores or restaurants.

4) A note to beginning bakers on start-up costs: To make this recipe, you'll need to add some tools to your kitchen: an inexpensive flour sifter, some inexpensive mixing bowls, measuring cups and measuring spoons, an electric mixer, and obviously, a pie pan. I'd guesstimate that you can get good-quality examples of all these items at a discount department store for around $50. That might seem like a lot, but keep in mind that this is a one-time expense that's well less than the cost of a nice dinner out for two. Also, all of these items will last for years--even decades! Heck, I'm still using an electric hand mixer that I bought for $19 back in 1991.

If you'd like some more ideas on how to save money on kitchen items like these, feel free to take a look at a post I wrote on managing kitchen setup costs.

5) Finally, a question for my readers: What do you like to put on your cornbread? Butter? Maple syrup? Strawberry jam? Let me know in the comments!

Be sure to take a look at our follow-up post with several modifications to try with this basic cornbread recipe!

Related Posts:
Blueberry Coffee Cake: Nostalgia FoodsCookbook Exploitation: How to Get More Mileage Out of Your Cookbooks
Eight Tips to Make Cooking At Home Laughably Cheap
More Applications of the 80/20 Rule to Diet, Food and Cooking

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Catalan Mushroom Soup (Sopa de Bolets)

For today's recipe, we turn to a brand new type of cuisine for Casual Kitchen: Catalan food.

We were the lucky recipients recently of Colman Andrews' exceptional book Catalan Cuisine: Europe's Last Great Culinary Secret. I've selected a recipe from it that is highly typical of this cuisine, yet still passes our five easy questions test.

We're always partial to any recipe that takes easy-to-find ingredients and combines them to make unusual flavors and tastes. And we were so happy with this dish that we can't wait to return to this cuisine for more of the same.

Finally, your guests will never guess that such a rich, hearty and amazingly delicious soup can be made from start to finish in under an hour.

Catalan Mushroom Soup (Sopa de Bolets)
(modified from Catalan Cuisine by Colman Andrews)

2-3 onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped or pressed
2-3 tomatoes (preferably fresh high-quality tomatoes), chopped
1/4 cup olive oil

Approx. 2 pounds assorted mushrooms, washed
4-5 cups vegetable stock or beef stock
salt and black pepper, to taste

French- or Italian-style bread, toasted or lightly fried in oil.

1) In a large pot, heat the oil to medium. Add the onions and saute for several minutes until they are beginning to turn brown and caramelize. Add the garlic and saute for 1-2 more minutes. Then add the tomatoes. Saute uncovered, stirring regularly, until most of the liquid has evaporated away and the tomatoes have completely broken down and have more or less melted into the onions (at least 15 minutes).

2) While the tomato/onion mixture is cooking, wash the mushrooms and slice or quarter the larger ones as you see fit.

3) Turn heat to medium-low, add the mushrooms to the pot, and saute for 10-15 minutes or until the mushrooms have begun to shrink a bit.

4) Add the stock, bring to a boil, and then simmer on low heat for about 15-20 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste.

5) A few minutes before the soup is done, toast or pan-fry (use a thin coating of oil and brown the bread on each side in a non-stick pan) thick slices of the French or Italian bread. Place a piece of the toasted bread on the bottom of each soup bowl, then ladle the soup over it.

Serves 5-6.
Let me close with one brief recipe note on mushrooms types: There are many kinds of mushrooms that will add character to this soup, including particularly flavorful varieties such porcini, chantarelle (available year round in dried form), portobello and shiitake mushrooms. Feel free to be flexible here and use any type of mushrooms (except poisionous ones) you can find that fit within your budget. We used basic button mushrooms in our recipe, but we cut them up in a variety of ways to keep the soup from looking to uniform and boring. Despite the simple choice of mushrooms, we were thrilled with the finished product:

Related Posts:
Braised Pork in Guajillo Chile Sauce
Paul Prudhomme's Barbecued Shrimp: The Most Glorious Meal So Far This Year
Cooking With Love: Farfalle with Mushrooms and Gorgonzola Cheese
How to Make Risotto
Shrimp in Garlic Sauce (Camarones Ajillo)

If you're interested in looking at the full collection of photos from the making of this recipe, I've posted them on my flickr page. Warning: there are lots of photos of mushrooms.

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If you enjoy reading Casual Kitchen, tell a friend and spread the word! Another way you can support me is by submitting this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to bookmarking sites like del.icio.us, digg or stumbleupon.

CK Food Links--Friday September 5, 2008

Here's yet another selection of particularly interesting food-related links from around the internet.
Food Budget for a Family of Four at the Simple Dollar
Interesting to read the firestorm of controversy (see especially the comments) that erupts when a frugality blogger offhandedly mentions that he spends $770 a month on food for his family of two adults and two toddlers. What do you spend per month on your food budget per person? Our spending typically runs about $200-250 per month for two adults.

How to Make S'mores, Indoors or Outdoors at Start Cooking
Summer might be winding down, but there's still plenty of warm evenings left to enjoy one of camping's greatest foods. An encyclopedic post on how to make s'mores, with instructions, videos and variations on the traditional recipe.

Spicy Eggplant and Yogurt Dip from 64 Sq Ft Kitchen
I recently started following this blog because I was fascinated by the delicious North African recipes featured by this Michigan-based Algerian author. Today's post is an absolute and delicious standout. Recipes are written in both English and French and they are always accompanied by exceptional (and drool-inducing) photographs.

Blueberry Chipotle Barbecue Sauce at Post Punk Kitchen
We are vacationing this week, taking a trip to visit friends in northern Virginia and then visit family in South Carolina. On our way home, we had some barbecued ribs in Asheville, NC that were to DIE FOR, and weirdly, they were made with Blueberry Chipotle sauce. Clearly this post from PPK was some kind of weird cosmic synchronicity. And for those of you who might be in Asheville looking for the best barbecue in town, stop into 12 Bones.

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
If you enjoy reading Casual Kitchen, tell a friend and spread the word! Another way you can support me is by submitting this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to bookmarking sites like del.icio.us, digg or stumbleupon.

How to Make Chicken Marsala

I'm going to share with you today Casual Kitchen's personal recipe for Chicken Marsala. Your guests will never guess you can make a recipe this good in roughly 30-40 minutes.

This recipe started out as a literal reading of the chicken marsala recipe in Better Homes, but over the years it went through several evolutionary stages, including, to stretch the metaphor, a few episodes of punctuated equilibrium. Eventually it became something entirely my own. It's now one of our most treasured recipes.

Don't get me wrong, the Better Homes version is adequate, but it just didn't go far enough. The flour mixture used to coat the chicken was a bit boring, so I revved it up. Instead of a mere 3 tablespoons of sliced scallions, why not use the entire bunch? Most significantly, I at first doubled, and ultimately ended up tripling, the most critical ingredient--marsala wine.

And that's how a recipe that started out like this....

....ended up like this:
Chicken Marsala

1 to 1-1/2 pounds chicken tenders, tendons removed
2 cups (roughly) sliced mushrooms
1-2 cups (roughly) sliced scallions
3/4 cup marsala wine (can substitute sherry)
1/2 to 3/4 cup vegetable stock, chicken stock or chicken broth
3 Tablespoons butter

Flour mixture:
1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon crushed, dried marjoram
1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1) Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in a large nonstick pan and saute the scallions and mushrooms on medium high heat for 4-5 minutes, or until tender. Set scallions and mushrooms aside in a separate bowl.
2) Dredge the chicken tenders in the flour mixture above, coating each piece of chicken generously. Be sure to save any leftover flour mixture (see below).
3) Melt the remaining 2 Tablespoons butter in the pan, and fry the breaded chicken tenders on medium high heat for about 2-3 minutes on each side, turning and browning them on both sides (if the breading starts burning or sticking too much on the bottom of the pan, you can add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil to moisten the pan for better frying).
4) After the chicken is done, leave the chicken in the skillet, turn heat up to high, wait 30 seconds, and pour in the marsala wine. Let the wine sizzle and foam for a 2-3 minutes, then add the broth, add back the vegetables, and add 1-2 tablespoons of the flour mixture to thicken the sauce to the right consistency. Let the sauce simmer for just 2-3 minutes and then serve.
5) To serve, place two pieces of chicken on a plate and then ladle a generous helping of the sauce over the chicken.

Serves 4-6.

A few recipe notes:

1) Don't be afraid to improvise with the flour mixture if the mood strikes you. An example: consider using a few generous shakes of cayenne pepper in place of--or even in addition to--the black pepper.

2) A note on chicken tenders: First of all, what is a chicken tender? It's the inner, and most tender, portion of the chicken breast. Your grocery store meat department will sell them separately, albeit at a slightly higher price per pound than regular chicken breasts. You can use regular chicken breasts for this recipe, but you will need to tenderize them, as untenderized chicken breast meat will be too tough for this recipe. Using chicken tenders eliminates this entire time-consuming step, and in our view is a good compromise between cost and efficiency.

3) Don't let me catch you using store-bought cooking wine in this recipe. Why spend $4.99 on a 16 ounce bottle of salty unpalatable wine when you can pay $10 for a cheap 750ml bottle of real sherry or Marsala wine? Another key advantage: you can enjoy the wine (and its pleasing analgesic side-effects) while you're cooking the meal.

4) Last, if there's any single step in this recipe that's most important, it's step 4, where you turn up the heat and, in an exciting rush of sizzle and steam, add the marsala wine to the browned chicken. Be sure to wait a couple of minutes before adding the rest of the ingredients. This process imbues the chicken pieces with a stronger wine essence and it will take the dish up several notches in flavor. You'll love it.

Related Posts:
How to Modify a Recipe Part 1: Basics
How to Modify a Recipe Part 2: The Six Rules
How to Tell if a Recipe is Worth Cooking With Five Easy Questions
Why You Should NEVER Use "Cooking Wine"

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If you enjoy reading Casual Kitchen, tell a friend and spread the word! Another way you can support me is by submitting this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to bookmarking sites like del.icio.us, digg or stumbleupon.