Tips, Tools & Gadgets

Peeling Shrimp Made Fast

posted Apr 29, 2011, 10:53 AM by Kim Janik

Do you ever see the timings in my recipes and think, "How does she do it so fast?!?"  Well, over the years I have developed a number of time saving tips and tricks.  Today, I would like to talk about shrimp.  Here are some of my best tips for peeling shrimp fast enough to fit a recipe into 30 minutes.

  1. Organize your workspace!
    • It may seem obvious, but I find that organizing my work area speeds the process immensely. 
    • I divide the work area into 3 portions:
      • unpeeled shrimp (on my cutting board with a small knife kept handy)
      • peeled shrimp (on a plate and ready to use)
      • shrimp shells (thrown onto the empty shrimp wrapper for easy cleanup afterwards).
  2. Avoid frozen shrimp.
    • Invariably, something will go wrong with frozen fish and mess up your timing. 
    • The two most common mistakes I make are:
      • not remembering to pull the shrimp out of the freezer (adding defrost time to a recipe)
      • not allowing enough time for the shrimp to defrost in the refrigerator.  Peeling half frozen shrimp is not fun or fast.
  3. Buy the largest shrimp your budget allows.
    • Shrimp are usually sold by count per pound (i.e. how many shrimp you should get in a pound)
    • On average, small shrimp have 51-60 shrimp per pound while jumbo shrimp have 21-25 per pound
    • Buying jumbo shrimp instead of small shrimp means there's half as many shrimp you have to peel.
  4. When possible, buy shrimp labeled "easy peel". 
    • These shrimp usually have the back already split open and the mud vein is often removed, saving you valuable minutes.
    • To peel these shrimp quickly, pick one up in your left hand, pinch the shrimp by the legs and pull the entire shell down and off in one fluid motion.  With your right hand, grasp the shrimp and place it on a plate and toss the shell into the shell pile with your left.
  5. You don't have to throw away the shells
    • Shrimp stock is a flavorful addition to your cooking arsenal. 
    • If you don't have time to make stock right away, you can save the shells in the freezer and make stock later

Gadget Review: thefoodloop

posted Jan 15, 2011, 11:02 AM by Kim Janik

On rare occasion, I make something designed to impress guests.  Some of my preferred recipes include layering, rolling and stuffing ingredients to create a visually appealing presentation or an exciting mix of flavors.  However, I dread reaching the point in the recipe where it says, "wrap in cotton twine" before baking.  Why?  The reason is simple.  I just don't keep kitchen twine in the house.  I usually go out to the garage and eye the contents of my work bench for a suitable substitute.  I eye the duct tape longingly before considering the nylon cording, rubber bands and braided steel wires then slump my shoulders and head back into the house.

When I saw this particular gadget, I was actually pretty excited.  It was the answer to a problem that I don't often think about and it is a small enough gadget to not take up too much valuable space.  The small silicone loops will tolerate hot oven temperatures (up to 675 degrees F), are re-useable and are designed to completely take the place of kitchen twine!

I decided to give this a try with a stuffed tenderloin recipe that I've been wanting to try.  I pulled the ugly pink tentacles out of the box and examined them critically.  At 15" long, they seemed long enough to handle most kitchen tasks.  The decorative box insert showed elaborately wrapped chicken, fish, beef and asparagus.  I made the stuffing and cut open my beef for stuffing.  However, the beef was too small in comparison to the amount of stuffing the recipe made.  Now, I had two choices.  I could either fix it and make it look pretty or I could give those little loops a real challenge.  Obviously, I picked the latter.

Overall, thefoodloop loops works decently.  They did manage to hold together the 3 pound beef tenderloin with which I challenged them.  The design is simple but intuitively easy to use.  The loops will tolerate some pressure, but not too much.  I discovered that you wrap them slightly looser than if you were using traditional string and then the end piece will keep the loop in place over the notched body of the loop.  Not one loop popped off during the stuffing, moving or actual cooking process.

The loops are available for $10, on average, online and the package contains 4 loops and a small bag to keep them safe in your dishwasher.  Packages of 6 loops and 2 mini loops (10") are also available.  The loops work well as long as you are using them for standard tasks.  They adjust to hold large or small items and clean surprisingly well considering all the small notches along the loop.  I would recommend them if you also have a problem with kitchen string!

Gadget Review: Bamboo Steamer

posted Aug 3, 2010, 9:46 PM by Kim Janik

For years, I have flipped through the pages of my various Asian cookbooks and sighed at the delightful Dim Sum delicacies that I could never hope to make myself.  The cookbooks walk you through the various steps and end by stating that the tidbits should be steamed in a bamboo steamer.  Sometimes the pictures themselves even display the morsels inside said steamer.  Alas, I never owned a bamboo steamer.  Yes, I suppose I could have jury-rigged something up or perhaps even used a stainless steel steamer but that would just be wrong somehow.  Instead, I waited.  Not until recent events did I have an opportunity to acquire my very own traditional bamboo steamer.

The one I received was a Joyce Chen 10" Bamboo Steamer.  It had a very traditional look and feel with interlocked joints and a woven lid.  Small pieces of leather and a burned wooden symbol are the only, modest embellishments on an otherwise utilitarian piece of cookware.  This particular steamer has two tiers and cost just under $20.  You can, of course, get simpler models for less or more impressive for more.  An initial appraisal of the steamer shows a sturdy, well-constructed design with both tiers and the lid fitting comfortably.

However, I find that the only real test of any new equipment is to try it out.  I settled on a fairly simple recipe of wontons wrapped around a pork and water chestnut filling.  I got out my wok and barely filled the bottom with water.  The first thing I noticed was that the steamer was too tall for my wok to work with the lid on.  Only one tier would fit with the lid on.  I carried on using both tiers and no lid.  After filling the tiny dumplings, I lined the wok with Chinese cabbage leaves (to prevent sticking) and proceeded to steam the food.  As expected the bottom tier cooked a little faster than the top tier.  This is not a design flaw but is something to consider for delicate food.  The lack of a lid turned out not to be an issue for the cooking times or the food quality.  I did have to continually add water to the wok to keep it from drying out.

Overall, I was very happy with this steamer.  During cooking, I noticed small discolorations on the wood.  The joints soak up extra steam, turning them slightly darker during cooking.  They returned to normal once the steamer dried.  To clean the steamer, I only had to rinse off any stray food particles then let it air dry.  Over time, I will have to see if the fit of the tiers and lid change with continual use.

Gadget Review: Head Chef Kid's Spatula

posted Jul 26, 2010, 8:11 PM by Kim Janik

This is a cute spatula made by Head Chef.  It's actually part of a line of kid's cooking utensils and it retails for less than $10 online and less than $20 in stores.  It features suction cup feet for less mess on the counters as well as bendable legs and arms for cut posing action.

Here are the good points:
 - The silicone material is durable and can take high temperatures
 - Kids LOVE this design.  It just begs to be played with and cooked with
 - The arms can be bent such that the spatula does not fall into the bowl

Here are the bad points:
 - The suction cup feet are finicky and do not stick easily.
 - While the shape is great for kids, the spatula is a bit too short for an adult to easily maneuver

Overall, I was pleased with the design.  It's quirky and fun but still practical.  To get kids excited about cooking, there are several other items in this line including a spoon, whisk, pastry brush, sifter and measuring cups.

Hand Food Chopper

posted May 27, 2010, 9:14 PM by Kim Janik   [ updated May 27, 2010, 9:56 PM ]

I had
to chop up several cloves of garlic and I realized I had not yet shared one of my favorite gadgets.  If you have a large portion of ingredients, use a traditional knife but this gadget works great for chopping up small amounts of ingredients.  I have used it for garlic, onions, nuts, herbs, olives and vegetables. 

The one I have was inexpensive but has rotating blades, measuring lines and is dishwasher safe.  You should spend less than $20 for a good quality chopper.  I think I paid closer to $10 for mine and I've gotten several good years out of it already.

It only takes a few quick pushes on the top handle to produce coarsely chopped results with most items.  A few more pushes will yield finely chopped and, if you keep going, you'll get minced.  I find this faster than using a knife in most cases.  It works especially well for hard items (like nuts) and is easy to throw in the dishwasher when it's done.

Apple Slicer

posted Apr 29, 2010, 8:29 PM by Kim Janik

This is one of my most used gadgets.  As you can see, mine is so well worn that the logo is starting to wear off.  It is so simple that my children use it to chop up their apples for snacks.  Simply set the apple on the counter and push down by the handles.  The metal center will neatly core the apple and slice it into 8 even wedges.  It is actually very inexpensive to buy and fits nicely in a drawer.  Save yourself some additional time and get one that is dishwasher safe.  You can chop several apples in a few minutes and then coarsely chop them for a quick apple stir fry or add them to roasting vegetables.  You can cut the slices smaller for a quick and easy Waldorf or other fruit salad. 

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