After Hours: Gadgets GaloreBy Kathy Biehl, Published on January 19, 2004
"The kitchen is a country in which there are always discoveries to be made." -- Grimod de la Reynière.
Link to Kathy Biehl's cookbook recommendations here.
cook can resist a great gadget? Give us something that makes kitchen work
more efficient, swift, or just plain fun, and most of us react as if it's
catnip. This month's recommendations survey some classic gadgets as well
as a few noteworthy (and novel) newcomers.
Talk about no muss, no fuss. Break a clove off from a head of garlic and pop the piece into the cannoli-shaped E-Z-Roll Garlic Peeler. Apply pressure while rolling the rubber tube a few times across the counter. The motion breaks the peel off completely; all you have to do is lift it away from the clove. Amazon.com carries the peeler for $5.99, but note the several-week time-lag in shipping.
your now naked clove with the
reversible garlic slicer by Acea ($9.99). One side of this
stainless steel mini-mandoline has a single blade, for slicing; the other
side has three serrated blades, for grating. Slide the removable plastic
housing over the side of choice, drop the garlic in the well, insert the
plastic cap, and push. It's quick and easy to use and, just as
importantly, clean up.
If instead what you need is minced garlic (and need I stress that commercially prepared minced garlic has yet to surpass the taste of freshly minced?), the answer is the uncommon chopping control of Henckel's two-headed garlic press ($19.99). One attachment yields finely crushed garlic, the other coarse. The interchangeable heads are easy to use; simply pop one in, add a clove, and lightly squeeze.
A simple construction
of a stainless steel mesh basket lashed to a bamboo handle,
Joyce Chen bamboo skimmers combine ancient durability with
industrial strength. The bamboo does not conduct heat (and doesn't warp or
split as does wood), while the bowl-shaped skimmer will get whatever you
need out of hot water -- or oil or broth, for that matter. The skimmer
comes in 5" ($4.99) and 7" ($8.99) diameters.
Made from medical grade silicone, Le Creuset's spatulas are heat resistant up to 1000 degrees F, yet are pliable enough to adjust to the curves of a bowl or nooks of a pan. Since they do not scratch, they are especially suited for nonstick or enameled surfaces -- and, of course, to working in heat. Use for extracting the last trace of melted chocolate or butter from a double-boiler or sauce pan, or in place of a wooden spoon, for on-the-burner mixing and stirring. The heads are stain proof and colorfast and come in seven vibrant colors, including flame and citrus. There are three spatula sizes (mini, medium, and super), from 10 ¼ inches to 12 ¾ inches in length. Spatula spoons, which add a scoop base to the head, are available in two lengths (10 ½ and 11 ½) and also in a slotted version. Amazon.com’s Kitchen Store sells a wide selection of the spatulas.
In one swoop, the Kuhn Rikon ergonomic peeler removed decades of bad peeling memories for me. In one motion -- pulling down toward you rather than scraping away from you -- the two-inch wide blade cuts an enormous swath across a potato. The super-sharp blade is seated in a way that allows it to dance across the hills and valleys of a potato's surface, and it is angled to stay clear of fingers. Plus, it’s only $6.00. A pivoting blade is also the appeal (sorry) of Kuhn Rikon's stainless steel Julienne Peeler, which speedily coaxes long, slender slivers out of carrots, potatoes, squash, and other vegetables.
The Benriner mandoline may cause outbreaks of
love at first slice. This plastic Japanese variant of the popular and
often-pricey cutting tool is both cheaper and easier to use than high-end
models. A simple turn of a screw adjusts the thickness of cuts through the
stationary flat blade; a twist of a smaller screw controls the seating and
height of one of three toothy julienne blades (fine, medium, and coarse).
Only 3.6 inches wide, Benriner's smaller mandoline ($35) is big enough to
speed-shred vegetables for couples and small families. Cooks with larger
demands may appreciate the 5.1 inch model ($60).
Kitchenware sells both sizes. Caveat: Keep the finger guard
nearby every time you slice. Yes, the plastic guard is awkward to hold
(basically, you press it into the end of whatever you’re slicing) and slows
down slicing. That’s not a bad thing, given how sharp the blade is. When the
length of what you’re slicing hits an inch and a half or less, put on the
Get in Hot Water
I pooh-poohed an
electric teakettle ($34.95) when one was
first offered to me. Now it's one of my kitchen workhorses. This fixture of
UK households boils eight cups of water in five minutes, much quicker than
my gas stove takes, without taking up precious burner space to boot. (The
secret of its speed is a chrome-plated heating element.) And it shuts itself
off, to boot. Besides making beverages, I use it to kick start boiling large
quantities of water for pasta, potatoes, and corn.
Grasp a Rasp
Ever since a dissatisfied home cook
experimented with her husband's woodworking rasp, Microplane's long,
razor-sharp shavers have become kitchen tools of choice. The
zester/grater ($10.99) is a personal
favorite. It pairs a 12.75-inch grating surface with a sturdy, palm-length
handle. It's designed for hard cheese, citrus peel, and chocolate, which
fall out in snowflake shreds; I've had satisfactory results with onions,
too. A comparative newcomer to the line is a
large rotary grater ($17.95), which holds
the shaver barrel in a plastic casing and is ideal for cheese.
Take It Off
In my household, tightly sealed jars no
longer mean holding lids under running water, banging them against hard
surfaces, or seeking the help of stronger hands. Now I position
Oxo's Good Grips Jar Opener ($5.99) -- like
a wide plastic pie slice, with a handle -- so that its inner lips have the
top of a lid in a snug embrace. With one small counterclockwise tug, the lid
gives. The opener is part of Oxo's Good Grips line, named for handles that
are designed to be easy to hang onto, even when wet or covered with who
knows what. They're ergonomically wide, for comfort, and made of a
near-indestructible, non-slip substance called santoprene.
Kuhn Rikon's Safety Lid Lifter Deluxe Can Opener ($22.99) avoids two pitfalls of removing lids -- sharp edges with the power to cut fingers, and lids falling into (and potentially contaminating) the can's contents. This hand-cranked opener uncrimps the lid, in one easy rotation around the top, and maintains its hold on the lid until you lift and release. Because its spatial relationship to the can is different from more common low-tech openers, this gizmo takes a little figuring out, but once you do, using it is a snap. When following the directions (which are packed in the opener's tennis ball packaging-like canister), the trick is to place the opener so that the stainless steel handles lie flat and form a straight line between you and the can.
All it takes is one easy plunge for the OXO
corer ($6.99) to free a perfectly shaped
7/8" cylinder from an apple or pear. The shaft and blade are stainless
steel, while the ergonomically wide handle is surfaced with a
near-indestructible, non-slip substance called Santroprene, which holds a
grip even if hands are wet or covered with who knows what.
Want a Slice?
Don't be blinded by the name; the common,
unassuming egg slicer may have the most multi-tasking potential of any gizmo
in your kitchen. The only limit is your imagination (and, of course, the
size of the slicer bed.) If it can fit, it can split: mushrooms,
strawberries, firmish cheeses such as cheddar and Monterey Jack. The
Westmark Deluxe Egg Slicer ($14.99) is not
only durable (it's made of coated aluminum and stainless steel cutting
wire), but versatile. This slicer will produce round as well as oval slices,
depending on how whether you place the egg in the base's crosswise or
After setting out this tempting array of great gadgets, I now offer up a guide with a somewhat contradictory message. “Make do with less” is the thrust of Alton Brown’s Gear for Your Kitchen. His goal is not austerity, by any means, but ingenuity. Why crowd your kitchen with one single-purpose tool after another when, with a little inventive thinking, you can collect devices that are each capable of performing a variety of tasks? It makes sense, whether you’re suffering a kitchen space crisis or not, and it certainly makes for great reading. Brown has a rare knack for packaging solid, useful information in entertaining guise without diluting either. With a background encompassing theater, advertising, and culinary school, he’s the force of life behind the “Good Eats” cable series, which offers a consistently educational and imaginative counterpoint to the BAM!-bombardment that otherwise dominates the Food Network. In this book, he discusses every imaginable category of tool and appliance in down-to-earth, real-world detail, along with admissions of what he actually uses and why. The book’s big on charts that convey info at a glance (one rates blenders, food processors, and mixers for a list of cooking tasks). The recipes – oh, yes, there are plenty – detail not just ingredients, which he terms “software,” but all tools and equipment (“hardware,” natch). I’ve only tested one of the recipes so far (pecan sour cream waffles, which lured me into seconds despite not normally being much of a waffle fan). It bodes well for the other recipes, which include blowing up a balloon and covering it with foil to build a Jiffy-Pop-like container for making popcorn on the grill. (No, you don't heat the balloon. You pop it before adding oil and kernels, then shake the container pretty much continuously over hot coals for 20 minutes.)
Inventive as they may be, Brown's recipes are definitely minor players in this book. Unbilled in the table of contents, the recipes are pleasant surprises scattered throughout the volume. If you want to go back to a recipe later, don't go looking for it in the alphabetical index. The recipes are not in there, but listed separately at the end of the index.
ã Kathy Biehl 2003