This isn’t exactly a story about romance, but it is about affection, and I’m writing today about the favorite objects that I use almost every time I cook. Call them tools; call them gadgets. I call most of them “essentials,” as they give me the confidence to plunge into new and old favorite recipes. Of course, I’m singing “My Favorite Things” as I write this, mangling the words to fit the item in question.
It was while I was standing at the sink washing my favorite wooden spoon that I got the bright idea to write about my treasures. The spoon is one I picked up years ago—probably at a yard sale and most likely for a buck at most. I could tell at a glance that it was handmade with a nice deep rounded bowl. It had a few discolorations as evidence of its use over the years. (My mom, the antiques lover, would call it patina. She pronounced it pat-in-ah and gave me “the look” when I’d say pah-tina.) Nonetheless, I cherish this and some of the newer helpers equally.
Next there are the wooden spoons or spatulas I set aside for incorporating garlic, onion, and other strong flavors. I mark the handle with colored pen. e wooden tools without the color go to- ward sweetness and light—soufflés for instance.
Worth Every Penny—to a Cook
I might point out that none of these treasures are pricey. Take the two Microplane zesters/graters in my kitchen drawer; more often, one or the other are waiting patiently on the counter for me to almost instantly create a little pile of citrus zest (using the shaft with the tiny holes) to brighten most any culinary creation. Or the one with the larger holes to produce the small shreds of hard cheese to add a finishing touch to pastas, salads, slices (or croutons) of toasted bread, or maybe a topping for a cooked vegetable—the uses are endless.
I love serving good old-fashioned creamed (or simply boiled and buttered) spinach. But even when I cook the rinsed leaves in the microwave (in a Pyrex bowl with a glass pie plate on the top to produce steam), I want to get out the excess water before serving the dish. So I grab my shiny stainless ricer. Out streams the excess water (save it for soup!). It’s indispensable for turning cooked and drained sweet or regular potatoes, or rutabaga or turnips or carrots (and the like) into mounds of smooth-fluffiness just waiting for the butter or the gravy that makes them a perfect accompaniment to a marvelous main dish. And just a reminder: use a potato masher if you must for spuds, but never the processor. You’ll end up with glue if you do. Trust me. Get a ricer.
I love those heat-resistant rubber spatulas for moving the puree around. I have a large, medium, and small version. It seems to me you’ll need all three. And I have a series of peelers, some shaped like a Y—you pull the peel toward you—and a serrated version of a straight peeler that removes tender fruit or vegetable skin—tomatoes, for instance. No need to par-boil these love apples, love.
And I marvel at TV chefs who continue to try to scoop up chopped herbs or onions with their hands then add them to a pot. “For heaven’s sake,” I yell in frustration to the figure on the screen, “get a pastry or bench scraper!” They make quick work of gathering errant bits of tarragon, chives, scallions, shallots, nuts, and what have you.
My Favorite Squeeze
My grandmother didn’t leave any stocks, bonds, or precious jewels. But I treasure the cast iron citrus squeezer from her kitchen. It’s so simple: zest the lemon or lime (oranges probably would be too big), then get the juice by cutting the fruit in half, placing it in the squeezer and squeeze one side into the other. The pips stay in the holder and there is your acidy elixir. Grannie’s treasure also has a prong feature and it flips out the used fruit half.
For getting fresh orange juice with no seeds, see if you can find a similar juicer to the two-piece plastic thing-y I’ve had for years. It doesn’t hold much, but I cheerfully empty the juice a few times because the seeds and pulp are corralled in the metal rim. And while I love the shape of wooden reamers, you just have to put the juice into a strainer before using.
My un-favorite squeeze? The chore of opening bottle caps, jar lids, and the like is formidable, thanks to my slightly arthritic hands. They just don’t work that well anymore nor does running the offending cap under hot water to soften the sticky stuff like syrup or jam, or bashing it at on the counter or floor to break the “seal.” That’s why I love my handy, dandy multi-sized opener. Small or large, this tool opens all. What a thrilling feeling to hear that “snap” or “pop,” and it ain’t cereal.
Cup o’ Spoons
That’s what I have on my counter. Spoon holders/warmers were a Victorian table necessity (check out eBay) but I saw this simpler idea at a friends’, and I played copycat. Right next to my coffee maker I have a small container (actually an antique English cup) of coin silver spoons that I’ve picked up over the years in antique shops. I think these thin and very lightweight (and still very inexpensive) objects are almost sculptural when you hold them in your hand. There are shapes whose handles mimic coffins; others have a shell design on the tip, or a bouquet of flowers or sheaves of wheat (the decorated spoons cost more, however). Since they are lightweight, I use them for soft desserts, pureed soups (especially the larger coin dessert spoons), or vegetables, sauces, or finely cut fruit salad. And, of course, they make great stirrers for hot chocolate or coffee and tea. I love the way they conduct the heat. (I am easily fascinated.)
To illustrate how I use some of these treasures why not try this terrific dish to make in small ramekins? It can precede a grilled meat main course or perhaps roasted chicken. I would be tempted to serve larger portions as a main course, perhaps on a bed of that pureed spinach I mentioned—fresh from the ricer. Can’t you picture a highly polished coin silver spoon at each place setting? No heavy lifting involved.
I sometimes use that curved and serrated tool that burrows into the shrimp knife that facilitates shelling and removing the vein. And as for separating egg yolks from the whites, look no farther that your palm. Roll the egg gently and let the whites slip through your fingers.
This—in small portions—can serve six to eight (or, as a main course, plan on four servings). Of course, you can double the recipe. The fishes won’t mind. The spinach puree is optional but delicious.
- 1 c. chopped fresh clams, with liquid, or 1 can (6 1⁄2 oz.) minced clams, with liquid
- 1/3 c. dry white wine (try Finger Lakes Rieslings)
- 1 lb. sea scallops (cut in half if large) or bay scallops
- 1 c. half-and-half
- 2 Tbsp. butter
- 2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
- 2 eggs, yolks only (see head note), well beaten
- 1⁄2 lb. shrimp, shelled and cut in half so they maintain the curve, then deveined
- 6 Tbsp. freshly grated (see Microplane, above), Parmesan, preferably Parmigiano Reggiano from Italy (splurge!)
- 1 heaping tsp. lemon zest (see Microplane)
- 2 Tbsp. lemon juice (see lemon squeezer)
- 2 Tbsp. finely chopped chives (see bench scraper) and maybe some dill or fennel fronds, if you like those flavors (I do)
- 1⁄2 c. Panko or plain dried bread crumbs
- 1 c. cooked and pureed spinach, tossed with 1⁄2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg (or to taste) (see ricer and Microplane)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Drain the juice from the fresh or canned clams into a 2-quart saucepan. Add the wine and the scallops. Cook over low heat until the scallops just turn white, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the scallops with a slotted spoon. Reserve.
Measure the cooking liquid. There should be 3⁄4 cup. If more, pour the liquid back into the saucepan and reduce by boiling. Now add the half-and-half and warm this liquid over low heat. Melt the butter in another saucepan or in a large Pyrex measuring cup in the microwave. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly with a heat-resistant spatula (see article). Gradually add the half-and-half mixture and cook, stirring constantly, until the sauce just reaches the boiling point and thickens.
Beat about 1⁄2 cup of this hot sauce slowly into the eggs yolks and then pour this back into the saucepan. (Still with me? Good.) Add 4 tablespoons of the cheese and cook for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat; gently stir in the clams, scallops and shrimp along with the lemon zest and juice.
Spoon equal amounts of the spinach puree, if using, into 4 buttered 10-ounce ovenproof dishes (for the main course serving) or 8 smaller ramekins for a hors d’oeuvre version. Top the spinach with equal amounts of the seafood. Mix the remaining 2 tablespoons cheese with the herbs (if using) and sprinkle over each dish.
Bake in the preheated oven for about 8 to 12 minutes until the shrimp is pink and the mixture is bubbling hot. Check: you might need less time for the smaller portions and a minute or two longer for the main course serving. Don’t overcook, as the ramekins will continue to cook for a bit out of the oven.
Although I’m writing this in my book-lined office, I feel like I’ve gone to some culinary confessional. I’m sure I’ve missed a few dozen more favorites with visions of little pullers for strawberry leaves and cores, and how could I forget my Silpat silicone baking mats? Brace yourself: I’ll be back with more can’t-do-withouts.