I remember the Brazilian dish washer screaming, “Don’t take off your clothes!!! For God’s sake keep your pants on!” before he turned away and started muttering to himself in Portuguese. He was horrified because I was standing in the middle of the restaurant’s kitchen doing a strip tease. It wasn’t to entice the kitchen staff with what was under my apron, rather I was desperately trying to remove my polyester work pants, which I’d just spilled two gallons of boiling chicken stock onto, so that they wouldn’t melt into the flesh of my thighs. I kept shucking my clothes while I yelled for my sous chef to get some ice water – and fast. I could already feel the beginnings of a really bad burn. Continue reading
Category Archives: Favorite Tools
Spoons are an important kitchen tool. Stirring, scooping, ladling, serving – a spoon is often the first thing I reach for. On my kitchen counters, and in many drawers I’ve got wooden spoons, metal spoons, one funky yellow plastic spoon, as well as my blue and white enameled cup full of teeny tiny spoons which sits right next to the stove. Spoons are one of the habits I picked up from my Grammy Caldwell. Taste as you cook, but only use a spoon once to taste with. Grammy was soooo ahead of the curve. She was against double dipping before the phrase double dipping existed! I am sure they drilled all the Home Economics students at Syracuse University about cleanliness and proper sanitation in the kitchen. Grammy did her best to pass some of those ideas along.
What I loved about the Gram’s tasting spoons was you could always tell how close the pot of food on the stove was to being done when you looked into her white enameled sink. The more tasting spoons there were scattered across the sink, the more likely the food would soon be heading to the table. Below is how many spoons it took to adjust the seasonings in the quinoa tabouli I made the other night.
The cup of teeny tiny spoons in my kitchen is also a strange little three dimensional map of our lives. Baby food spoons from Isabelle and Russell’s first forays into solid food, porcelain spoons from a visit to China town in NYC, small espresso spoons from when my friend Eva introduced me to espresso with a twist of lemon peel and two cubes of sugar, bright plastic spoons from a photo shoot. It’s a cup full of history even though I’m probably the only one who remembers most of it.
The other thing teeny tiny spoons are good for is eating little bowls of yummy. Like the last vestiges of peach cobbler which our friend’s sons Mateo and Lucas are doing above. Little spoons make little bits of food last just a little bit longer.
Middle age has allowed me to hone in on more of what is essential – or at least what is essential to me. I spent the first twenty years I was a professional cook collecting hundreds of cookbooks and specialized cooking tools. For the last ten I’ve been divesting myself of both. It’s not that I stopped having kitchen lust for more, rather I’ve become aware of how much I am able to do with less.
In part it helps that I’ve always adhered to the idea of buying quality and taking care of it instead of buying cheap and needing to replace. The expensive knives I bought in my 20s are still lined up in my knife bag ready to slice and dice. Perhaps they’re a little thinner from all the sharpening, but if you don’t abuse them, a good knife should last a lifetime. My mandoline is an exception to this theory of high price as an indicator of high quality.
Back in the 80s I couldn’t justify the $300 price tag for the fancy French stainless steel version, even if it did come with the cool waffle cutting blade*. Instead I went for the inexpensive plastic Japanese model, which has turned out to be a real kitchen work horse. The blade is still incredibly sharp and it has sliced and julienned vegetables faithfully for years.
For those of you that don’t know a mandoline is a manual precursor to a food processor. Initially made from a slab of wood with a blade inserted in the middle and several perpendicular blades attached. One of the first reference to it was in an illustrated cookbook by Bartolomeo Scappi’s from 1570. It allowed the cook to slice vegetables into thin matchsticks. Of course y the same can be done with a knife, but the time required to get uniform slices is considerably more than dragging a few carrots, cucumbers or potatoes over the mandoline’s blades.
I find this tool especially useful when making vegetable sushi, Vietnamese fresh spring rolls, fall vegetable strudel or vegetarian lasagna. Bowls of identically sliced matchstick cucumbers appear in minutes. Paper thin ribbons of zucchini slide off the cutter with little effort. It may not be a tool I use everyday, but it is a joy to use when I need it.
A word of caution – be wary as you speed along and don’t forget to use the plastic finger guard. Since the plastic guard won’t allow you to slice the last 3/8″ or so of the vegetable either chomp on the scraps as you prep (cook’s prerogative) or give them to someone who owns chickens.
*The stainless steel versions are much less expensive these days, but still considerably more than the plastic japanese mandoline.
I am married to a man who does not know his own strength. He knows he is stronger them most mortals so he makes a concerted effort to be gentle. His handshakes are firm, but not bone crushing. His hugs envelope you rather than squeeze the air out of you. Where he sometimes forgets to be gentle is in the pantry. When it comes time to screw a jar lid back on he makes sure it is completely screwed on. With his bare hands he can screw a lid on as tight as it was when it was first sealed. I can always tell if Shawn was the last one to use the jam or pickles because I cannot get the jar open without help. Often he is around and will sheepishly undo the lid for me. Other times I am on my own.
My Mom is a huge fan of the Gilhoolie Jar Opener. Grammy Caldwell always had one in the enameled top kitchen table, but somehow I never owned that particular jar opening device. What I have instead in my kitchen drawer is a rubber band ball. Made up of hundreds of rubber bands which previously held together stems of broccoli, bunches of scallions or heads of napa cabbage, the ball serves many purposes. I de-stress with it by bouncing it around my kitchen (staying clear of the glassware and the dog). Sometimes my son and I play catch with it. And if Shawn isn’t around to open a too tight jar lid I simply peel off a thick rubber band, slip it around the locked lid, and twist. If a jar is particularly stubborn I’ll give it one good smack on my kitchen counter, which provides that extra bit of incentive to open, but usually the gripping power of the rubber band gives me the twist I need.