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After Hours: Gadgets Galore

By Kathy Biehl, Published on January 19, 2004
Kathy Biehl is the food writer for Diversion magazine and the former longtime dining critic for the Houston Business Journal. She has reviewed restaurants as well for the Houston Press, Time Out New York, My Table and the TONY guide Eating & Drinking 2000. Her food writing has received awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Houston Press Club. She is also the author of the LLRX Research RoundUp and Web Critic columns, a member of the State Bar of Texas and co-author of The Lawyer's Guide to Internet Research.

"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.

What 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.

Garlic Buds

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.

Prepare 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.

Hot Stuff

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.

 
A-Peeling

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.

Blade Runner

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). Bridge 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 guard.

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.

Core Concept

All it takes is one easy plunge for the OXO Good Grips 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 lengthwise indentation.

Book It!

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