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WRITTEN BY CATHERINE M. ALLCHIN
ILLUSTRATED BY SUSAN JOUFLAS
There's a device for every kitchen need. All you need is time to use it.
WHATEVER HAPPENED to the Veg-O-Matic?
Remember the multipurpose kitchen tool that could slice, dice and practically alleviate world hunger? "But wait! There's more!"
Things have changed. Gone are the days when one kitchen tool could handle all your needs. In the new millennium, it's all about specialty tools: high-tech, state-of-the-art gizmos that purport not only to save you time in the kitchen, but also to transform you magically into the talented chef you've always dreamed of being. I don't buy it.
In the kitchen, less is often more. Don't get me wrong: I couldn't live without certain basics in my kitchen, such as All-Clad cookware, a great set of knives, a marble rolling pin, a coffee grinder, an OXO peeler and an industrial-strength Austrian garlic press. These things are simple, easy to use and easy to clean. But I have to draw the line when it comes to inventions such as a lemon squeezer shaped like a fish, or a vacuum-seal "marinade dish" that supposedly opens the pores of meat while it marinates.
The few times I have given in to the allure of expensive specialty gadgets, I've regretted it. While I use my knives every day, I have yet to open the box to the $175 fancy French mandoline I bought last year. The box claims I can "slice waffle and crinkle cuts easier than ever before." Like I do it now? When am I going to have the time to watch the instructional video and give myself a tutorial in making waffle potato chips or julienne zucchini? If I were cooking for 20, it might be worth learning to use it. Many people swear by it. Martha Stewart calls the mandoline essential; she also has an entire staff to set it up, clean it and spend hours perfecting the one-eighth-inch matchstick cut.
For years I've pureed soups in my old Krups blender, despite cookbook warnings that the texture will be wrong, soups will be starchy or other horrible outcomes. Last year I finally caved and splurged on a beautiful stainless steel $75 food mill. The first and only time I used it my favorite butternut-squash soup - usually thick and rich - came out thin as milk. I stuck the food mill in the back of a cupboard and went back to my trusty blender.
If new gadgets often disappoint me, some of my oldest tools delight me. In my 20s I scored at Goodwill an old-fashioned glass juicer and a tin hand-crank sifter. I just couldn't bring myself to buy a new plastic juicer or a sifter that didn't have a handle to turn. And I cherish the big wooden spoons from my mother's kitchen, still stirring strong. In many cases, the older and simpler, the better.
My friend Graciela has an interesting theory about innovations like pretty brass scissors that cut off the tops of hard-boiled eggs. She thinks these glitzy gadgets are invented by noncooks for noncooks to give to people who love to cook. She swears by her Kitchen Aid mixer but doesn't use her large food processor. She says its slicing and shredding are imperfect and "by the time you pull it out, it's easier to do it by hand."
My other serious cook friend, Linda, doesn't use her food processor, either, because she has put it and its sharp blades out of reach of her 2-year-old and, consequently, out of her reach as well. I love trying to figure out Linda's buying habits. Recently she couldn't walk out of a kitchen store without snagging a $4.95 "olive-picker-upper." I have yet to see a demo of this bug-like invention that puts toothpicks and fingers to shame by plucking olives out of dishes. Linda also has an arsenal of garlic presses (six, at last count), but when she was pregnant she couldn't stand the smell on her fingers, so she temporarily retired all the presses and bought jars of minced garlic instead.
My friend Don had a vast collection of wine openers acquired over the years, and finally got so sick of the mess, he threw them all out except for a traditional metal corkscrew.
I happen to be infatuated with my Screwpull wine opener and have given them many times as gifts. It pulls a cork out as effortlessly as a hot knife goes through butter. It's not big or bulky, and it's relatively easy for a nonengineer like me to assemble. I am fast at opening a bottle of wine. My husband, who is an engineer, knows how much I love this corkscrew, so I was very surprised at Christmas when he gave me (us?) a fancy Metrokane Rabbit corkscrew. It looks like a black drill and comes with a foil cutter, carrying case and instructions such as "giving your rabbit a bath." I have to admit that it works like a dream, but opening the box and getting the contraption in and out takes longer than the Screwpull.
I love my knives probably more than anything else in the kitchen. I am amazed at all the state-of-the-art slicers on the market. People must love them, because they reportedly sell quite well. There's one for everything imaginable and more: a bagel slicer, tomato slicer, butter slicer, apple slicer, bean slicer, mushroom slicer, even a cornichon slicer!
Why would you need a slicer for a tiny pickle no more than 2 inches long? It is naturally bite-size! The slicer itself is seven inches. The few times I've actually served cornichons, they have been whole. However, if your life mission is to serve cornichons in a pretty fan shape, why not use a knife? My knives occupy prime real estate on the counter; I always know where they are. Where would you keep a cornichon slicer? You need an entire "slicer garage" next to your appliance garage these days to park these various contraptions in.
Jeff Blanchard, gadget guru for Sur La Table, tried to convince me that I'll never get perfect slices without a slicer or mandolin, but I'm siding with Seattle chef Bertrand DeBoutray on this one. I've taken a few of Bertrand's French cooking classes, and he believes that all these gadgets are marketed for people who have poor knife skills. I could cut an entire bag of mushrooms before I could find a specialty slicer buried in some drawer.
Besides, everyone I know is so busy and hectic that cooking in and of itself is either a luxury or a burden. Some people - probably without small children - may have more time to experiment with tools in the kitchen. But my friends and I want what gets the job done fast and efficiently. I don't know anyone who would actually examine my vegetables to see if the slices were perfect matchstick cuts. Most are thankful just to get a good home-cooked meal these days.
Our biggest home-cooked meal of the year is on Thanksgiving. Last year, we hosted all of our family at our house. My sister-in-law makes a tasty and fruity sweet-potato casserole every year that calls for fresh ginger. We were working side by side in the kitchen and I was showing her where things were.
"What do you use to mince your ginger?" she asked, expecting a mini-food processor or perhaps a ginger mincer.
"A knife," I said. She looked surprised and asked enthusiastically if she could watch how I mince ginger with a knife.
Our mother-in-law piped in: "Oh, me too!"
Catherine M. Allchin is a Seattle writer. Susan Jouflas is a Seattle Times news artist.
|Cover Story||Plant Life||On Fitness||Northwest Living||Taste|