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Archives for Equipment

Neccessary And Essential


In a blog entry that I’ve only just now discovered, one of my favorite writers and the author of The Elements of Cooking, Michael Ruhlman, raised the issue of favorite kitchen gadgets. It’s a great question, particularly for those of us in love with gadgets.

Ruhlman writes, “I’m not the first to suggest that a tool that has only a single use is just as useful in the garbage as it is in your drawer. A mango slicer, please. An egg separater – Jesus, an egg separator! We are born with the perfect egg separators, right at the end of our arms! Why would anyone be moved to invent one?” And he’s mostly right, Alton Brown has been lecturing for years on avoiding specialty tools, what he calls, “single-use gadgets.”

But there is something that has been bothering me about this philosophy for a long time and, as he often does, Ruhlman managed to cast the issue in way that illuminated what I had problems with.

It seems to me that a knife is a single-use gadget — it’s only good for cutting things. Yes, it can cut multiple things, but then my deep-fat fryer will fry multiple things. And sure, I could open cans using my paring knife but it would be hard on the knife and wouldn’t work very well, instead I turn to a can-opener, a device only good for opening cans. Admittedly I could make coffee in a skillet, but I’m also sure I’m happier with the single-purpose coffee maker I use every day.

This brings up what I think are the real issues when considering a gadget: how essential is a given tool and how ubiquitous is it? My coffee maker is essential because it’s ubiquitous — I use it every day. And my coffee maker is perfectly designed to do its one job supremely well. I also use my chef’s knife every day, but only use my paring knife perhaps once every three weeks. I use my can opener every two weeks or so, but what else would I open a can with?

I’ve moved seven times in the last 12 years and I’ve been ruthless about pairing down books, gee-gaws, and kitchen gadgets with each move. Nevertheless, I still have a 15″ by 20″ roasting pan that I only use about three times a year. The problem is, when I need to roast two large pork loins or cook a dozen creme brulees I have to have it. So although it’s not ubiquitous, it is essential.

On the other hand, I’ve never seen much use for a special pasta pot or a salad spinner or a boning knife. A dedicated tagine pot doesn’t make much sense to me and I agree with Ruhlman that an egg separator is a pretty silly invention.

At the moment I own (in order of purchase) a Cuisinart Food processor (1977), a Krups mini food processor (circa 1987), an electric hand mixer (purchased in 1988 to replace one that had quit), a 1960 Oster blender (given to me around 1990 by my mother when my parents moved), a Kitchen Aid stand mixer (1996), and a KA immersion blender (2004).

That’s a lot of tools that do the same thing: chopping and mixing. On my next move I’ll get rid of the hand mixer (the stand mixer is great for big jobs and the immersion blender for small ones), the mini food processor, and the blender (again, the immersion blender can replace them). But note that both the KA stand mixer and immersion blender are relatively new tools for me and are designed to perform multiple tasks — and because of that they have become ubiquitous and essential.

As for the deep-fat fryer, I’m reserving my decision on it. I use it no more than twice a year, but it works well, is easy to clean up, and minimizes the frying odors that are so appetizing when fresh and so unpleasant when stale. And there’s that yearly “allotment” of tasty perfect fries, potato skins, and homemade fish and chips to consider. Because while we may all love gadgets, it’s cooking – and eating – that’s what’s really important here.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 8:00 AM | Permalink

A Cook’s List


Cash: the register is ringing
Time to buy a bunch of stuff.
“Plastic taken,” stores are singing
Now the season’s getting rough.

~ to the tune of Hark the Herald Angels

During my 20s I managed a pair of Pier 1 Imports stores and a Kirkland’s Gifts and I loved the Christmas season. By the time the day after Thanksgiving rolled around, the hard part was done and you were committed to your choice of merchandise and quantities — for better or worse. The only thing to do by then was settle into your shoes and have fun helping people with their Christmas shopping while racking up obscene daily sales totals.
That was a less cut-throat era and we really did try to help people. For years afterwards I would dream about working in a store at Christmas and although some of the dreams weren’t pleasant, many were.
Harkening back to those days, I thought I would offer some shopping suggestions for the foodie in your life or for you to put on your list. And given that you’re reading this online and today is the peak online selling day, I thought this would be the perfect time to help “stress” the online retailers’ systems. A saint, I’m not.
PeelerNeed a stocking stuffer? The Messermeister serrated peeler is the coolest cheap kitchen gadget I’ve bought in years. Although you can use it to peel anything you’d use an ordinary peeler for, its claim to fame is peeling thin-skinned produce like tomatoes and peaches. It does an absolutely amazing job and saves you the trouble and time of blanching these delicate items in order to peel them.
Gift CertificateNot quite as cheap, but still stocking-sized is a Chefsline gift certificate. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m one of the 20-odd chefs available live on this call-in/online advice service for home cooks so this may seem self-serving, but having just spent this past Thanksgiving helping people with their turkey (and side dish) questions I can know from the responses I got how worthwhile the service is. By my count I saved (or seriously improved) over 30 dinners on Thursday. Best of all Chefsline is offering a 15% discount for gift subscriptions.
Kitchen AidAt the opposite end of the price scale is a Kitchen Aid stand mixer. I’ve had mine for eight years and can’t imagine how I got along without it. I use it for making cakes and cookies, stuffing sausage, grinding beef, shredding cheese, whipping eggs and cream, and, best of all, mixing and kneading bread. I love this thing!
Loaf PanBack when I started baking bread regularly I got fed up with the cheap, poorly-shaped, loaf pans I had, so I bought a pair of pro-quality loaf pans. They were amazing. I was surprised at how they affected not only the actual quality of my loaf bread, but my confidence in baking it. So I bought a pair of commercial grade baking sheets. Again, I was amazed. Instead of having one of those cheap, thin, Walmart sheets buckling under the weight of a pair of roasted butternut squash, or cookies burning on the bottom while remaining raw on top, they handled both chores with ease and aplomb — again my confidence went up. Never underestimate the value of confidence in the kitchen as a contribution to success. And while you’re at it, consider these heavy-duty cake pans.
Cuisinart CookwareHigh-quality bakeware isn’t glamorous and it’s unlikely you would think to buy it as a gift or ask for it, but it will change the serious cook’s life for the better. What’s more likely to be asked for or plan to ask for is new cookware. I’m generally in favor of cookware collections — and an assortment of other pots and pans for specific tasks. And the cookware set I chose when I got fed up with my first set was this one from Cuisinart. I’ve been extremely happy with it. It’s reliable, durable, and handsome. Recommended.
Elements of CookingBooks are a perennial gift and I have two suggestions. First is Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking.This 800+ page tome was published three years ago, but is an essential reference in any serious cook’s library because it covers everything from boiling eggs to the dangers of using lead-glass decanters. The other is a new book by Michael Rhulman, The Elements of Cooking. Rhulman’s inspiration and template for this book was Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. I’ll be reviewing the book next week, but from this recommendation you can assume I was impressed.
Wine GlassesAs Woody Allen noted, “Man cannot live by bread alone, frequently there must be beverage,” and so I suggest these glasses. My father, a wine enthusiast and physicist specializing in the physics of glass has a set and is pleased as punch. Made of magnesium silicate, they’re elegantly shaped with no lip, dishwasher safe, and durable. I can agree they’re a pleasure to drink from.
SmokerI thought immersion blenders were silly, until I bought one. Specifically this Kitchen Aid blender. This thing does indeed replace a standing blender ot food processor for pureeing, thus reducing the number of dirty dishes. But the whisk attachment on this little gadget is better at whipping cream than anything I’ve ever used. The mini-food processor isn’t great, but if you don’t already have one, it’s good enough.
SmokerAnd last, despite my initial doubts, I’ve become quite fond of my Cameron stovetop smoker. I smoked duck breasts in it for this past Thanksgiving dinner and the flavor was perfect. It’s a great way of getting a good smoky/grilled flavor when there’s 12 inches of snow on the ground.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Quality Matters


I know some chefs, quite a few actually, who argue that details such as the carbon content of a knife or the construction of a skillet don’t matter. What matters is the chef’s knowledge and skill. It is the culinary equivalent of the old saw that, “It’s a poor craftsman who blames his tools.”
Click to view larger versionIn point of fact, these chefs are correct. A cheap knife skillfully wielded, a thin aluminum pan properly used, even a half-rotten carrot carefully encouraged can yield an exceptional meal. Knowledge, skill, and technique matter most. But even a skilled chef can develop sepsis from a dull knife that slips on a half-rotten carrot and cuts a finger to the bone, and even a technically expert chef can be distracted and allow a thin aluminum pan to burn a trout fillet when the station next to him suddenly billows with ten-foot flames. The problem with cheap tools is they give you no leeway.
This was brought home to me as I prepared a dinner party for a client the other night. Although I’d brought some equipment, I decided to be lazy and rely on the client’s pots and pans for the most part. I was making a gastrique and began by melting some butter in a small sauce pan — a thin, stainless steel sauce pan. I turned my back on the pot for a few moments and when I turned back the butter had already burned. No big deal, I wiped the pan out and started over. But this never would have happened with my cookware, at least not that quickly.
A few months ago Mark Bittman, a food columnist with the New York Times, published an article about outfitting a kitchen cheaply. Bittman is correct in his premise that you don’t need to spend $500 on a set of All-Clad cookware to turn out great meals, but you do need pots and pans with thick bodies to minimize hot spots. And you need at least one heavy stainless steel or enameled cast-iron skillet for producing pan-sauces. This is because a good pan-sauce requires that bits of food stick to the skillet (this is called fond). You can’t get a good fond in a non-stick skillet. Additionally, aluminum, cast iron, and ordinary steel aren’t good choices for cooking anything acidic in. I use a set of multi-clad, stainless steel pots and pans by Cuisinart. They cost about half as much as a similar All-Clad set and cook beautifully.
The other big issue with pots and pans is how the handle is attached. Having had pans with spot-welded handles, I guarantee you want handles that are connected with rivets. And please, examine the rivets closely; some no-name brands aren’t as careful about snug joints and food can build up in the crevices — not sanitary.
As for knives, I have to disagree with Bittman. He recommends the Dexter-Russell knives, and writes, “Go into any restaurant kitchen and you will see most of the cooks using this same plastic-handle Dexter-Russell tool.” Of course you will, line cooks are cheap and easily replaceable and so are these knives.
But I’ve used similar knives and I don’t like the feel of them in my hand, don’t like their balance, and find them difficult to sharpen: dull knives are dangerous, uncomfortable knives are dangerous. I’ve probably got over 20 knives from various makers of which I regularly use four at home and four others when I’m cooking elsewhere. My favorite is a nameless 7″ chef’s knife from Spain that feels like an extension of my hand. Most of the others I use are Wusthoff. They also feel good in my hand and are relatively easy to sharpen. They aren’t cheap, but they’ll last at least 20 years and if you amortize their cost over that length of time the price is reasonable.
My point here is that quality matters both in ingredients and in tools. A good tool won’t make you a good cook, but it will make your cooking easier and allow you to cook more effectively by concentrating on ingredients and not tools. If my house burned down and I had to re-outfit my kitchen from scratch it would cost $1000. I know this because this is roughly what I spent three years ago to equip a portable, professional kitchen for me to use at client’s homes. The second point is that quality isn’t necessarily equivalent to expensive — but it may be.
If you’d like advice on kitchen equipment, drop me a note. I’ll respond directly and post the questions and responses in a later column. (You can read more on this topic at a previous column, “Tools of the Trade”.)

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 7:15 AM | Permalink

Fire Builder


Unlike most folks, I learned to grill meat over wood. I grew up on a small farm in Eastern Tennessee within sight of the Smoky Mountains. Only about half of the 40 acres we owned were cleared, the rest was forest. This meant we had a ready supply of wood for grilling — including that southern king-of-smoke, hickory.
Dad built the grill out of concrete block, which sounds ugly, but the block was “faced” for architectural use and looked more like hewn granite than concrete. The firebox was about 3 x 3 feet square and Dad had an iron grate made to fit that the actual cooking was done on. Even for a family of six, the pit was overkill, but at least once a summer my parents would have a big lawn party and invite 30 or so people, and that’s when the grill came into its own with three or four chickens and half a dozen sirloin steaks (from our own grass-fed cattle) going at once.
But party or family, the fires were built the same way, and one of us kids usually built them (under Dad’s supervision). We’d begin by collecting twigs ranging in size from something the size of a match to larger pieces 1/4 inch or more in diameter. Using these we’d build a teepee with the tiny stuff in the center and progressively larger pieces stacked on the outside. The initial result was a teepee about four inches in diameter and six inches tall.
This was fire-starting as art. The goal was to start the fire with a single kitchen match. If you failed to choose the smallest pieces correctly (if they were too green or moist from lying on the ground) you needed more matches or — sin of sins — newspaper. But one match or several, once the flames were going we’d add larger and larger pieces of wood. Timing and fine motor control became critical as you built the fire up; too much big wood too soon or carelessly added would crush the flaming teepee and you’d have to start over. But not enough wood added soon enough and the fire would burn out on its own before the larger wood ignited.
Within an hour and half, though, you’d have small logs burning away, a bed of coals perfect for grilling over, and a deeply satisfying sense of accomplishment. Not to mention the atavistic joy that comes to every boy’s heart when something is burning.
To go along with whatever was being grilled we’d often have potato salad, which I loved, or cole slaw, which I ate but never cared much for. As they became available we’d have homegrown tomatoes and cucumbers, corn on the cob, green beans, and okra. Homemade ice cream made in one of those old hand-cranked ice cream makers was a fixture, although sometimes Dad would fix his buttermilk/pineapple sherbet. The sherbet would be frozen rock-solid so you had to let it melt to eat it — which pretty much defeated the purpose.
These meals were a fixture of our summer weekends, eaten outside under the trees with two or three dogs keeping an attentive eye out for anything that fell to the ground.
As I grow older I become less inclined to cook fancy dishes composed of long lists of ingredients, difficult techniques, and subtle nuances. Instead, I turn more often than not to simple tastes laid against each other like kindling and fanned into bright crackling flavors.
You can leave comments, thoughts, and observations here.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 6:20 AM | Permalink

Tools of the Trade


As a cooking instructor, the single most frequent question I’m asked is, “What kind of pans do you have?”
Click to view larger versionAmericans are probably the most brand-conscious consumers in the world. They care about their brand of car, they wear labels on the outside of their clothes (Polo, for instance), they buy Tide detergent when the store brand comes from the same factory, and foodies look for status in the cookware they choose. This isn’t to say that the cookware you use can’t make a difference in your cooking, but it is to say the importance is over-rated –— and choosing a single brand is often a bad idea.
So my answer to the question is, it depends.
I think it’s worthwhile owning a set of cookware because it’s important to understand how your pots and pans behave. This “set” could be Mauviel copper at a list price of $1,400 for a seven-piece set or Revere at $75 for a seven-piece set. The point is that in a set all of the pots and pans will tend to have the same strengths and weaknesses and once you know those strengths and weaknesses you’ll use the cookware more effectively.
Cutting to the chase, my current set is Cuisinart MCP. I got a deal on a set several years ago. It’s probably the least popular of the name brands (All Clad, Calphalon, and Le Cruset) and it’s also the least expensive, even without a deal. But like All Clad it has an aluminum core that extends up the sides of the cookware (as opposed to a single aluminum disk on the bottom or pure aluminum). This design conducts more heat into the contents of the pan. Frankly, I consider that a minor issue, but my set has proven to be durable and has long, comfortable handles that stay cool.
Handles matter. Comfort in your hand is important, not getting hot is important, and being able to put any pot or pan in a hot oven without the handle melting is important. You also want riveted and not welded handles, even though cleaning around rivets is a hassle.
I also like stainless steel interiors and exteriors. Although stainless will stain, it resists staining and with a bit of care will continue to look pristine for years. It’s also largely non-reactive (a claim aluminum and copper can’t make) and so won’t impart off flavors to your food. However, stainless steel is a poor heat conductor, while aluminum and copper are great heat conductors. So if you pair aluminum with stainless steel, you’ve got an excellent pot. But not a perfect pot for every purpose.


Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

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