Cutting Edge: The best little helpers in the kitchen
I have a perverse fascination with the sleazy world of advertising and marketing. There’s a none-too-subtle, but strangely admirable art, in persuading people of at least passable intelligence to buy things they don’t want, let alone need.
Nowhere is this art more accomplished than in the land of infomercials; that weird parallel universe where audiences gleefully gather to watch ex-boxers and women called Kathy-Lee cart out all manner of fat-free grills and freaky bench top ovens made of glass. With the possible exception of home gym equipment, no product genre is better represented in infomercial land and home shopping catalogues than kitchen gadgetry.
And oh how we love it! The proof is on bench tops and in kitchen cupboards the world over. All cluttered and crammed with dust-coated food-grade whims, and dishwasher-safe flights of fancy.
I don’t for a moment pretend to be immune to the enticing wiles of the gadget pushers; I was totally entranced by those rubber garlic peeler things a few years ago. Until I realised the heel of my hand worked just as well. I’ve had brief and unfulfilling affairs with waffle irons and electric pie makers too, both long since gone the way of the op-shop. Even the novelty of the bread maker wore off after a month or two.
When you stop to think about it, such items don’t make your life any easier at all. They just make you feel guilty about not using them. So these days my heart is quite hardened to the Ginsu and its kin. I very rarely buy anything new in the way of kitchen tools and accessories, and when I do more often than not it’s to replace some existing worn-out treasure.
I firmly believe that a few good quality, well balanced knives are they only truly essential kitchen gadgets. Without a decent blade, you just can’t cook. But having said that, there are a number of other odds and ends that, while not essential in the kitchen, sure as hell make life easier. No doubt feelings will be much divided here, so feel free to contradict; but for what its worth, these are my favourite pantry toys.
Mortar & Pestle
I have one of those super heavy-duty stone affairs. Its main function in my kitchen is the pounding of garlic, chilli and ginger into slick pastes. It’s extremely robust (as a careless drop onto a granite or glass bench top will attest), so can handle pretty much any job. Think pesto, think curry paste. It takes moments to use, moments to clean and doesn’t have a plug. What more could you ask for in a kitchen appliance?
Beware of pretty pretenders. I used to own a steel version which exuded industrial chic by the bucket load, but also rusted with gay abandon, making everything taste vaguely metallic. I also inherited a gorgeously mottled marble M&P from my Grandmother which sadly proved to be a far better ornament than a tool. Whilst bashing out a batch of garden fresh pesto ala Genovese, just as I had a hundred times before on other M&P’s, it rather spectacularly self-destructed. I guess it was because I was simultaneously engaged (multi-tasking is not a safe art in the hands of boys) in the very serious business of drinking wine and gossiping about in-laws that I failed to notice that the end of the pestle had broken off and been thoroughly worked into the sauce; a baffling and gritty disaster. I still don’t fully understand how it happened.
So take it from me, stick with stone.
This is the sort of thing that food writers really like to wax lyrical about in stretched private school vowels e.g.: Eh found this waarnderful old prosciuut-o knife in a gooooorgreous little ann-teeek shop in a daark little alley way in Firenze’
I’m middle class but not THAT middle class. I bought my factory fresh prosciutto knife from a VERY touristy (nestled between Lush and Prada as I recall) kitchen shop on Il Corso, the main shopping drag in Florence. At the time I was mad on curing meats and had great plans to make my own prosciutto (having had reasonable success with lamb legs) back home. So along with this fetching knife, I also bought a very heavy and fabulously impractical prosciutto holder. This is a sort of metal brace, a bit like a tamer version of a gin-trap, which holds your ham while you slice. Ooh-er. To this day I can still feel the bruises from the wretched thing jabbing me through my backpack all the way from Florence to Auckland. To this day it remains unused and an object of quite some ‘I told you so’ mirth to my best beloved
The knife however, turned out to be worth every jab (think carefully before cramming knives into your backpack). It’s very long, very thin and very sharp. Basically a great big carving knife. Because of its careful design and perfect balance it allows precision control and super thin cutting of pretty much anything. It renders potato slices so thin you can see through them and cured meats like overly literal communion wafers, it’s quite outstanding. You don’t have to go all the way to the touristy hell that is central Florence to get one either. Rather like the grappa glasses that I lugged back from Italy on another trip (I’m such a jet-setter) I discovered that they are conveniently available all over the place if you care to look.
Well I call it a tomato knife, but according to the kind aunt who tracked it done down for me as a Christmas present, nobody else does. Small serrated utility knife then if you must. I use my SSUK almost as often as my large chef’s knife. When it comes to slicing anything soft or shiny, it’s the only way to go. Even the sharpest regular knife is more likely to squash a ripe tomato than cut it. Not this little darling. It slices effortlessly through even the most burstingly ripe fruit. Also very good for slicing rare beef fillet and other tender, bloody cuts.
This is probably the only genuinely new idea that has caught my attention in the kitchen and held it for any length of time. These very nondescript black pouches look like little more than scraps of PVC. In reality they are made of some very clever space-age fabric composed of woven titanium or space shuttle upholstery or something. They don’t actually do anything as such. The beauty is in what they don’t do. They don’t, when slipped into a toaster, burst into flames, melt or smoulder and they don’t reflect heat. What this means is that you can assemble a sandwich of whatever filling tickles your fancy, slip it into the pouch, slip the pouch into the toaster, and 5 minutes later you have a perfectly cooked, crisp-on-the-outside, tongue-cauterising-in-the-middle toasty. Clean-up involves giving the pouch a bit of a shake and slipping it back behind the toaster. I wish I’d invented them.
People are weird when it comes to kitchen mixers. They pick a brand (usually whatever Mum used) and doggedly stick with it for life. God help you if you are heard muttering that this brand or that brand is a bit crap. Mixer devotees can be a nasty lot when their hackles are raised. Just in case anyone actually cares about my opinion, it’s probably best I don’t turn this into a free advertorial by naming my brand of choice. Suffice to say it’s an American brand and it’s a huge help in the kitchen.
I bought my beloved mixer a number of years ago as one of my first grown-up purchases after leaving home. It cost a small fortune but has proven its worth many times over. From whipped cream to meringue, from pasta to panetonne, it does the job every time. And the accessories! Oh my God, the accessories!! I use the sausage stuffer for making my annual batch of salami, and the pasta maker for making, well… pasta. This is true appliance love. A certain North Island news paper does a weekly ‘what would you save if your house was on fire?’ interview with various personalities de jour. It’s a bit of a naff question really, because surely the only sane answer would be ‘myself’, ‘my children’ or something else with a pulse. I must however admit, I’d give at least a moment’s thought to my beautiful, shining mixer.
Mini food processor
I remember way back in the early 80’s when the Kitchen Wizz was THE must-have appliance. Oh the things it could do! Cut, slice, grate whip, mix, blend, iron your sheets and so much more. We didn’t get one until many years later when the good old KW had been eclipsed by myriad other food processors. As I recall my father bought it for my mother out of guilt. His reasons for feeling guilty were legion back then, and I can’t recall which particular bout of marital rule-bending led to the purchase. After my initial glee at making various chilled milk concoctions (see previous article) I learned the one perennial truth about food processors; they are a total and utter arse to clean. Also, their capacity grossly exceeds any practical use, i.e. they don’t work properly with smaller volumes. So our first FP was relegated to the back of the kitchen cupboard and I didn’t bother with its kind again until quite recently. Nowadays you can buy very grunty, mini food processors. How novel. They work with piddly small volumes (the volume of choice for most small families), take up very little bench space and save one from a great deal of tedious effort. I use my mini FP practically every night, for chopping onions, puréeing tins of tomatoes and all those other dull little jobs that don’t deserve my toil. So what if they’re still an arse and half to clean? That’s what dishwashers are for…
Which brings us to THE greatest kitchen gadget of all time. The Dishwasher. No appliance is more profoundly life changing than this one. Seriously. We never had one when I was growing up, so dinner was always followed by the tiresome and often devious debate of whose turn it was to wash or dry. Not a day goes by that I’m not thankful that I have one now.
Now it’s your turn. Pots, pans, basic knives and all obvious ephemera aside, what do you regard as the essential kitchen gadgets?
PS. For sale: Italian prosciutto holder. Ill-advised impulse buy. Unused.