A Thrify Good Cooker

The new kitchen in the new house is nice. It has a new stainless fridge. A new stainless dishwasher. An ok stove. Plenty of cupboard room. Decent work space...and zero decoration. For countless years my kitchens were bedecked with a hot pepper motif. I had hot pepper everything from pepper cookie jars to pepper pitchers, strings of ceramic peppers and little ornamental glass peppers, a pepper cat, pepper hot mitts and pepper pot holders and even pepper salt and pepper shakers. Maybe it was the move to the country. Maybe I outgrew hot peppers. Or became allergic. Who knows. But with the move in, the peppers moved out. (I did keep the pepper cat). Hence, my new kitchen is naked and bare and awaiting adornment of some sort or another.

Now, I’m not a thrift store shopper by nature - in fact, I regularly take bags and boxes TO thrift stores in an effort to declutter and downsize - but the area where I live sports a dozen or so very cool, closer to antique store type thrift shops. A couple months ago, I was browsing in one and found an aluminum percolator coffee pot with a black Bakelite handle complete with the glass top. The chord was missing (I didn’t really plan to use it anyway), but it was in great shape. As a child I loved watching the coffee grow darker and darker as it peeped through the top of the percolator pot brewing on my grandmother’s stove. Maybe it was a sentimental moment of weakness, but I bought it – sans chord – for three bucks.

For a while my antique coffee pot sat on the back of my stove next to my new stainless tea pot while I mused about the potential old cooking implements might have as embellishments for my au naturel kitchen. Today I found myself, oddly enough, browsing in the very same store when I spied the most beguiling spun aluminum flour canister with a black Bakelite handle. I tentatively picked it up and peeked inside. Nested inside “FLOUR” was “SUGAR” then “COFFEE” and finally “TEA” - all with lids. I couldn’t believe my luck and carried them around the kitchen section for a while, put them back (partially because of the twelve dollar price tag and part due to the fact I’m trying to purge - not acquire), walked around some more all the while keeping my eye on the set to make sure no one else snatched my lovelies. Finally, I realized it was meant to be, grabbed my prize, paid the lady, and headed home.

Some sleuthing on ebay found similar sets selling for more than twice what I paid. Apparently, they hail from the 60’s and also are available in “COOKIES” and…certainly to authenticate the age, complete with strainer insert is…”GREASE.”

Maybe “Retro Culinary Chique” is in the future for my kitchen – maybe not. In the meantime I’m keeping my new old canisters…and maybe I’ll keep my eye out for more.


My AeroGarden must know it is spring. It is growing with a fervor I’ve never seen before. The basil, thyme and dill are going well. The parsley, so-so. And, technically the chives never came up - not that they would have had a chance to grow in the shade of the mint monster that is taking over my kitchen. Easily half the space in my seven-pod garden is full of mint - which would be nice if I knew what to do with it. So, last weekend I decided to make mojitos. Traditionally one would muddle the mint in the glass, but I had a different idea. I made a mint simple syrup and it was wonderful. I used it to make fabulous mojitos and foolproof iced tea (ala Cook's Illustrated).

Mint Simple Syrup – combine 1 cup sugar (refined white or raw), 1 cup water and 1 packed cup mint leaves in a small sauce pan. Heat over med heat and stir frequently until sugar is completely dissolved (do not let the mixture boil to better preserve the mint essence). Remove from heat and let sit until cool. Strain syrup, mashing the mint leaves against sides of strainer before discarding. Use as needed (refrigerate the unused portion).

Mojitos – combine 2 oz mint simple syrup, 2 oz golden rum, 1 oz fresh squeezed lime juice, 4oz club soda. Serve in a tall glass filled to the top with crushed ice. Garnish with additional mint leaves and enjoy!

Cook’s Illustrated iced tea – combine 5 tea bags with 32 ounces (1 qt) water in a medium sauce pan. Heat 10-15 minutes over medium heat until instant read thermometer reads exactly 190 degrees. Remove from heat and let steep for exactly 3 minutes. Remove tea bags (don't squeeze them) and combine tea with 32 ounces of ice cubes. Stir until ice is almost completely dissolved. Add Mint Simple Syrup to taste. Pour into ice filled glass and enjoy.

All of the above were exceptionally delicious…but I had a question. My inquiring mind wasn’t happy with the vague use of the term “mint.” Which kind of mint did I use? I know there must be dozens of types, so I decided to do a little research. I learned mint belongs to the family Lamiaceae (which, oddly enough, includes a bunch of other aromatic herbs including basil, lavender, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, sage, savory, thyme and more) and the genus Mentha. The Mentha genus is further divided into many species the most common being peppermint, Mentha peperita, and spearmint, Mentha spicata. Good to know, but which made my ice tea so cool and refreshing and my mojito so minty? I went to the AeroGarden website. It said I had “mint.” The catalog said “mint” as well, so I called the company. The lady who answered said I am growing…"mint." Ug.

Cook’s Illustrated uses mint throughout its many recipes, so I decided to check there. The 2004 annual has a beautiful “field guide” (above) illustrating ten different species including pineapple mint, orange mint, apple mint and chocolate mint. But, it was in the 2003 annual where I found my companion in confusion. A equally agitated colleague questions which of the many mints is meant in a recipe for asparagus salad. Cook’s Illustrated answers as such:

“It may sound rather simplistic, but, like most recipe writers, when we call for mint as an ingredient, we are thinking of the mint that is available in the grocery store, which is often labled only as ‘mint.’ After doing a little research, we learned that supermarket mint is in almost all cases spearmint (Mentha spicata) rather than peppermint (Mentha peperita). While peppermint certainly can be (and sometimes is) used in cooking, it is more commonly used as a flavoring or scent in commercial products…”

The article continues by explaining the differences in the leaf and stem colors and aromatic oils flavoring each (peppermint gets its taste from menthol and spearmint, from the “light sweet flavor” of carvone).

I concluded, because my mint has pale green leaves and green stems (unlike the darker leaves and brownish stems of peppermint), I have spearmint...tons of it. All for my own enjoy-mint!  

I-Love Olives!

Until I traveled around the Mediterranean and Middle East, my primitive passion for olives was limited to brined black olives from a can (which I learned are actually picked green and oxidized to give them their ebony color – yes, even the so-called “ripe” ones) as well as those little green olives stuffed with pimento strips and served on every Midwestern holiday relish tray snug between the baby dills and the radish rosettes. (There was the occasional garlic clove stuffed green olive if I felt particularly fancy). However, my globe-trotting adventures opened a whole new olive world to me – dozens upon dozens of different varieties. Who knew!

In Crete I was treated to Megaritiki olives in both their black, salty, oily, dried form (reminded me a little of prunes in appearance) and the unripe, slightly sour, cracked green variety along with rich blackish purple Kalamatas with and without pits, giant green Gaidourolias, and more. In the UAE I was served a bowl of cashews, almonds and pistachios and a second dish filled with nearly every shade and size of olives imaginable each time I sat down to eat - before I even ordered. I was in olive heaven!

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and I returned home. While I smuggled in tins of olive oil from Crete and Malta, I didn’t bring any olives. To my surprise, I began to notice olives everywhere. Maybe they’d always been there, but I soon discovered a wide variety of choices available in delis and on grocery store “olive bars.” I was delighted to have found my fix of these foreign fruits.

Fruits? What? Yes, olives (Olea europaea) - their large pit frequently removed to make room for almonds, anchovies, feta cheese, or fingers - are fruits (specifically they are drupes which are fruits with large pits or stones like avocados, cherries and peaches).  Olives are available in thousands of different cultivars and are fruits of an evergreen tree or bush grown in generally warm, dry areas of the world like the Mediterranean, parts of Africa…and California.

I was vacationing in The Golden State when I was fortunate enough to find a tasty place by the name of the Olive Pit. Located in Corning, California – just off I-5 exit 631 – this little shop is a full service olive stop. Alongside a mind-blowing inventory of pickled vegetables, vinegars, sauces, dips, nuts, oils and spices sit well over 100 breeds, variations and flavors of olives – including a magnificently monstrous 15 pound can of Musco Family Black Pearls fit for fingertips large and small. Especially special, though, is my hands-down favorite…the fabled Graber Olive.

Graber olives are unique in the fact that they truly are tree-ripened before brining (unlike the aforementioned black olive). These large, almost round, globes of goodness sport a variegated green/reddish brown color and a soft, mild flavor that is…well, it is indescribable. Even at $6 a can, I can say without reservation these succulent beauties are worth the price.  I guarantee it.  They are always the first thing eaten when I feature them on an antipasto platter.

My hands are much bigger than when I delighted in sticking black olives on each finger and there are so many more kinds of olives to love, but I was glad to find the Olive Pit Super Colossal size fit exceptionally well on my grown-up fingers – and even thumbs.

Here are a few random olive facts courtesy of http://www.olives.com/
~It is generally believed that the first olive trees came from countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.
~The Bible refers to the olive tree as the "king of trees" and the "tree of life." Indeed, the cultivation of olives predates any written language.
~Spanish Missionaries brought the olive tree to North America in the 1700's.
~California boasts 1,200 olive growers growing approximately 35,000 acres of olives.
~Each extra large olive only has 7 calories 
~Olives are cholesterol free and contain large amounts of monounsaturated fat which is thought to lower artery clogging LDL-cholesterol and raise beneficial HDL levels.

(Graber Olive can picture courtesy of the Olive Pit website)

Make a pit stop at the Pit: http://www.olivepit.com/  
Grab a Graber: http://graberolives.com/