No small part of the pleasure of being an enthusiastic cook is the scope it provides for acquiring and playing with wonderful toys. Oh, yes, these are tools that also make cooking easier and more efficient – but really, it’s playing with them that gives the greatest satisfaction. Here’s a rundown of the large and small devices that continually put happiness in my kitchen working days.
For the record, I have absolutely no commercial relationship with the makers of any of these things: I’m just an end-of-the-line consumer.
Wooden-handled three-pronged fork
This little “granny fork” is the single most useful tool in my whole kitchen, ranking right after the invention of fire in general help to the cook. Eight inches long for a comfortable fit in the hand. Three sharp prongs for impaling and gripping foods more efficiently than the more common two-pronged utility fork. A firmly riveted handle that never gets hot to the touch. No cooking day goes by that I don’t use one or both of the pair that I have.
Stove-top potato baker
I grew up with one of these, and never knew for years that you could bake potatoes in the oven. I still think it’s wasteful to turn on a big oven for an hour just to cook one or two potatoes. This handy cooker sits on a single stove burner and does the job at moderate heat. It’s old and made of good solid steel, not the flimsy metal that seems to be all they’re making them in nowadays. Totally reliable, it turns out perfectly baked potatoes every time.
Imperia pasta machine
This was one of the first home pasta machines available in the US. Tom and I bought it for $25 when we first set up housekeeping in 1968. We quickly found out how indispensible it is for every cut of pasta from broad lasagna noodles to the thinnest spaghetti. Shortly afterward, it was essentially displaced from the market by a wave of less-sturdy machines, some so poorly designed as to supposedly cling to the counter with suction cups, rather than a strong C clamp. The amount of stress put on a hand-cranked machine makes that idea ridiculous. The solid, sturdy Imperia is available again now (listed for $90), but I have every hope that mine will go on forever: Certainly it’s showing no signs of wear.
Pasquini espresso machine
Coffee at our house means espresso, from the first cup of the morning to the last after dinner. We’ve gone through a series of machines over the years, with varying degrees of satisfaction. The worst was the one that had the cute habit of violently throwing off the filter cup holder, which would smash the drinking cups and spew coffee grounds on the kitchen floor and occasionally scald the barista if he wasn’t awake enough to jump out of the way. So far the Pasquini is our best ever. It works perfectly with Illy’s pre-ground dark roast coffee, so we don’t have to grind our own beans. The pressure is high enough so the espresso comes out properly topped with crema.
Farberware open-hearth rotisserie
This is an appliance that’s been discontinued for decades, for reasons that we have never understood. It’s an excellent product and does perfectly the job it’s designed for. Today, rotisseries are only found inside large convection ovens. But this old, open type is often available on eBay. I love mine. It will spit-roast a large chicken or duck deliciously and never spray a drop of fat anywhere in the kitchen: All the drippings gather neatly in the pan at the bottom. The electrical element doesn’t throw a lot of heat into the atmosphere, either. When not in use, the whole machine strips down and tucks into a cabinet, not taking up any precious counter space.
Le Creuset grill pan
I saw this one day in a fancy kitchenware store in Portsmouth, NH, while visiting a friend there. I wanted it right away, but I thought I could probably find it at a lower price in a Manhattan store I patronize that discounts Creuset. No way! This oblong shape – perfect size to grill meat for two persons – had been discontinued and I could find only much larger square ones. This happens with so many good products! Doing well what you’re designed for seems to be the commercial kiss of death. So I begged my friend to buy it from her store and send it to me. She did. It was the last one they had in stock, and she snatched it from under the nose of another interested customer.
Kitchen-Aid heavy-duty mixer
I can’t imagine life without this faithful workhorse. I have a big food processor too (I’ve written about that elsewhere), and I like it well enough, but I really use the Kitchen-Aid more often. I rely on it for mixing batters, kneading dough, grinding meat, stuffing sausages, grating cheese, shredding vegetables, and whipping cream and egg whites. I even splurged on a full-sized solid copper bowl for whipping eggwhites. About the only things it doesn’t do as well as the food processor are slicing vegetables and pureeing tomatoes.
Norpro pastry frame
I received one of these years ago as a gift from my mother-in-law, who was noted for odd purchases. At first glance I was dubious, but it quickly made me a convert. It’s great for rolling pastry dough. The canvas cloth needs only a little flouring. It’s held taut by the wood battens and metal stretchers, which also hold it still on the countertop. The circles in the middle show how large a piece of crust you need for an 8 or 9 inch pan, and the ruler printed along the bottom helps you gauge other sizes. When you’re done, it all rolls up and slides into its own plastic sleeve.
I’ve sung the praises of this capacious pot in my post about making strawberry jam for long keeping. It’s a huge improvement in convenience over a water-bath canner, though it can’t handle every kind of preserve – only high-acid foods. I’ve also used it for putting up pickles, other kinds of jam, whole fruits in syrup, whole plum tomatoes, and tomato sauces.
This is hardly what one thinks of as a kitchen tool, but I can’t tell you how often it has earned its keep for me. For anything that needs a cleaver taken to it – such as solidly frozen foods, lobster shells, thick bones, big squashes – just positioning the item under the cleaver and bapping it with the mallet gives me more control and better accuracy than whacking away with the blade alone. True, that’s a very specialized kitchen activity, but a mallet is also unexpectedly useful for many other household tasks.
I was never any good at trussing chickens. My loops of twine over breast, wings, and legs made a bird look like a bondage victim. They left ugly marks on the cooked chicken too, but if I left it untied, the legs and wings would splay out in the oven. Tying a chicken for a rotisserie spit was even harder. Finally, I bought a trussing needle and learned to use it. What a difference that made! The bird above is snugly trussed, ready to hold together perfectly in the oven or rotate merrily on the rotisserie – and the string is almost invisible.