Category Archives: Favorite Tools

Toaster vs. Toaster Oven

For many years my friend Jessica collected toasters. They were fun and often inexpensive to buy, plus toasters seemed to satisfy the curator in her since they were objects where form followed function. I grew up with a toaster, or rather a series of toasters. I even had a toaster when I was first married, but years ago I traded in my two slot chrome classic for a toaster oven.

toaster oven

The thing about toasters is you have to put them somewhere. Certain kitchen appliances can be cleverly stowed. I remember my sixteen-year-old mind being blown the first time my friend Marisa pushed a button in her Mom’s kitchen counter which triggered the mixer to majestically rise up from somewhere below. It was as if Judy Jetson and Marcella Hazan had designed a kitchen together where space age met Italian American. It was beyond cool.

For most of us we have to choose. Food processor up or down? Stand mixer tucked into a corner or sitting on a shelf in the pantry? The decision often follows this equation –

How often you use it + How much the dang thing weighs = Where it lives

My husband and I don’t drink coffee anymore so all our coffee paraphernalia is tucked away. We do not own a microwave (which I’ve been told is somewhat un-American of us but I really don’t feel the need) so that is not a contender for the limited amount of counter real estate. However our toaster oven is a major appliance in our daily lives so we gave it its very own counter.

Honey & toast

I love this toaster oven. In fact it is so great that in conjunction with a two burner hot plate I once made a lovely Easter dinner of asparagus, creamed potatoes, and a tiny glazed ham the year our kitchen was being remodeled. Toaster ovens take up more space than a regular two slot toaster but in my opinion the added functionality more than makes up for their larger size. I can reheat a bit of last night’s lasagna, toast a thin slice of bread as easily as a bagel half, or make my favorite late night snack of toasted bananas and cheese. Not having to worry about possibly electrocuting myself as I extract a burning bagel which wedged itself too tightly in the slot is a bonus. Think of a toaster oven as the Easy Bake Oven for grown-ups.

I was introduced to toasted bananas and cheese when I was living in Scotland. There were many things I loved about Edinburgh – getting mail twice a day, incredible scones, milk delivered in glass bottles to your doorstep, the smokey peat of single malt whiskey, haggis (yes I really do love it), hard cider on tap, plus the proliferation of tiny stores for various edibles. Without a car I almost never went shopping at a big chain supermarket, instead doing my shopping by foot. There was a fruit and veg store a few blocks away, several good bakeries, as well as a fish shop for swimmy things, plus a lovely Italian store on Leith Walk which had a delirious assortment of pastas as well as regular shipments of fresh ricotta and mozzarella. Two things that didn’t seem to exist back then were central heating and large fridges, at least not in any of the apartments/houses I lived in. The lack of central heating meant I drank gallons of tea plus found myself acquiring an extensive selection of jumpers (sweaters). Meals were planned on a daily basis to accommodate the limited amount of fridge space.

Cheesey bananas on toast

On nights when we’d go out to the pub we’d walk back home after last bell and if we were feeling peckish but didn’t have enough money to stop for fish and chips we’d go home and make ourselves something to eat. Between the teeny dorm size fridges and our limited income we often didn’t have much more to work with than part of a loaf of  bread, the end of a chunk of cheese, and some bananas. I just had no idea the three could be combined.

The first time my friends Alan and Sid offered me one of these late night sandwiches I was pretty sure it would be disgusting. Toast topped with banana slices and cheese melted on top? Ick and double ick, but I knew after my first bite I was wrong. It is good, in fact better than good. Put away your prejudices (if you have them) and try it. I truly can’t remember if we made these in an oven with a broiler or not, but they are perfectly suited to a toaster oven. In less than ten minutes you have a crunchy-melty-sweet-savory late night snack. Good before going to bed but you don’t have to save them for when the moon is out, they’re also yummy in the morning.

Bananas and cheese on toast

Toasted Bananas and Cheese doesn’t really need a recipe. You toast a piece or two of bread for each person, then top each piece of toast with slices of half a banana, and slivers of some sort of melty cheese – cheddar works a treat. Once you’ve piled everything together pop it into a toaster oven (on a small tray or piece of aluminum foil) and bake until the cheese starts to melt and drip down the sides. Take it out then wait a few seconds so you don’t burn the roof of your mouth when you gobble it up. I’m pretty sure you’ll want more. You may even decide to get a toaster oven just so you can make these.

Photos – Toast and Honey by Jim Scherer

All others by Cynthia Allen

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Jeepers Peepers

One of the facts about middle age is that your body changes. You can’t eat as many calories as you once could – unless you want to live at the gym. Staying up all night becomes impossible, even if you could do it with ease and caffeine in your 20s. And if you’re like me your eyesight eventually deteriorates enough so that you need glasses.

I did not grow up wearing glasses, other than the occasional groovy pair of 70s mirrored sunglasses, but I always wanted to. There were three things I desperately wanted when I was younger – curly hair, braces, and glasses. Strike one, strike two, strike three. Sometimes I would mold my gum up over my teeth to pretend to myself that I had braces, which in retrospect was completely lame. For years my mother assured me that if I ate all of my bread crusts my hair would become curly, but it didn’t. Occasionally she would wind my hair up in strips torn from old pillow cases to give me rag curls, probably because she felt guilty for lying to me about the bread crusts. I owned a curling iron for a short period then in my 30s I broke down and got a perm, which was frightful. I went back to straight hair and curly hair envy. Finally in my late 40s one of my dreams came true and I got glasses. I loved them.

The trick was I only needed to wear my glasses sometimes. My husband has worn glasses since he was two and because of his eyesight he wears them from the time he gets up until just before he goes to bed. It’s hard to lose your glasses when they’re always on your face. At first I would have the kids help me find my own glasses, offering cookies as a reward. Often they were on top of my head where I used them like a headband to keep my hair back. Eventually my friend Rick told me that his eye doctor had a solution for people like us who only need glasses for certain tasks. His doctor recommended having a pair of glasses everywhere you might need them. So now I have a pair next to the computer, by the side of my bed, in my car, in my purse, in my food styling kit, and most importantly in my cupboard next to the vanilla.

chocolate, vanilla and reading glasses

Yup, I’ve got them in the kitchen because while I can cook without my glasses on, I can no longer read recipes without them. Turns out I can’t even go to the grocery store without glasses because while I can tell the difference between an apple and a tomato I can’t read the ingredient list on most boxes or discern the code numbers you’re supposed to write when you’re bagging up bulk items. One time, before I succumbed to the glasses-in-every-nook-and-crany school I forgot to bring my glasses to a photo shoot. I could not see the food I was styling well enough to work. The photographer loaned me a magnifying glass from his prop room just so I could see to put all the nuts in place with my tweezers on the hot fudge sundae we were shooting. Talk about embarrassing.

reading glasses

Looks like I got one of my childhood wishes in multiples.

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Fight the Fire with Some Green

I remember the Brazilian dish washer screaming, “Don’t take off your clothes!!! For God’s sake keep your pants on!” before he turned away and started muttering to himself in Portuguese. He was horrified because I was standing in the middle of the restaurant’s kitchen doing a strip tease. It wasn’t to entice the kitchen staff with what was under my apron, rather I was desperately trying to remove my polyester work pants, which I’d just spilled two gallons of boiling chicken stock onto, so that they wouldn’t melt into the flesh of my thighs. I kept shucking my clothes while I yelled for my sous chef to get some ice water – and fast. I could already feel the beginnings of a really bad burn.  Continue reading

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Teeny Tiny Spoons – Favorite Tool #12

Spoons are an important kitchen tool. Stirring, scooping, ladling, serving – a spoon is often the first thing I reach for. On my kitchen counters, and in many drawers I’ve got wooden spoons, metal spoons, one funky yellow plastic spoon, as well as my blue and white enameled cup full of teeny tiny spoons which sits right next to the stove. Spoons are one of the habits I picked up from my Grammy Caldwell.  Taste as you cook, but only use a spoon once to taste with. Grammy was soooo ahead of the curve. She was against double dipping before the phrase double dipping existed! I am sure they drilled all the Home Economics students at Syracuse University about cleanliness and proper sanitation in the kitchen. Grammy did her best to pass some of those ideas along.
teeny tiny spoons

What I loved about the Gram’s tasting spoons was you could always tell how close the pot of food on the stove was to being done when you looked into her white enameled sink. The more tasting spoons there were scattered across the sink, the more likely the food would soon be heading to the table. Below is how many spoons it took to adjust the seasonings in the quinoa tabouli I made the other night.

small tasting spoons in sink

The cup of teeny tiny spoons in my kitchen is also a strange little three dimensional map of our lives. Baby food spoons from Isabelle and Russell’s first forays into solid food, porcelain spoons from a visit to China town in NYC, small espresso spoons from when my friend Eva introduced me to espresso with a twist of lemon peel and two cubes of sugar, bright plastic spoons from a photo shoot. It’s a cup full of history even though I’m probably the only one who remembers most of it.

boys with small spoonsThe other thing teeny tiny spoons are good for is eating little bowls of yummy. Like the last vestiges of peach cobbler which our friend’s sons Mateo and Lucas are doing above. Little spoons make little bits of food last just a little bit longer.

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Slice and Dice – Favorite Tool #11

Middle age has allowed me to hone in on more of what is essential – or at least what is essential to me. I spent the first twenty years I was a professional cook collecting hundreds of cookbooks and specialized cooking tools. For the last ten I’ve been divesting myself of both. It’s not that I stopped having kitchen lust for more, rather I’ve become aware of how much I am able to do with less.

In part it helps that I’ve always adhered to the idea of buying quality and taking care of it instead of buying cheap and needing to replace. The expensive knives I bought in my 20s are still lined up in my knife bag ready to slice and dice. Perhaps they’re a little thinner from all the sharpening, but if you don’t abuse them, a good knife should last a lifetime. My mandoline is an exception to this theory of high price as an indicator of high quality.

inexpensive mandoline

Back in the 80s I couldn’t justify the $300 price tag for the fancy French stainless steel version, even if it did come with the cool waffle cutting blade*. Instead I went for the inexpensive plastic Japanese model, which has turned out to be a real kitchen work horse. The blade is still incredibly sharp and it has sliced and julienned vegetables faithfully for years.

For those of you that don’t know a mandoline is a manual precursor to a food processor. Initially made from a slab of wood with a blade inserted in the middle and several perpendicular blades attached. One of the first reference to it was in an illustrated cookbook by Bartolomeo Scappi’s from 1570. It allowed the cook to slice vegetables into thin matchsticks. Of course y the same can be done with a knife, but the time required to get uniform slices is considerably more than dragging a few carrots, cucumbers or potatoes over the mandoline’s blades.

slivered cucumber

I find this tool especially useful when making vegetable sushi,  Vietnamese fresh spring rolls, fall vegetable strudel or vegetarian lasagna. Bowls of identically sliced matchstick cucumbers  appear in minutes. Paper thin ribbons of zucchini slide off the cutter with little effort. It may not be a tool I use everyday, but it is a joy to use when I need it.

A word of caution – be wary as you speed along and don’t forget to use the plastic finger guard. Since the plastic guard won’t allow you to slice the last 3/8″ or so of the vegetable either chomp on the scraps as you prep (cook’s prerogative) or give them to someone who owns chickens.

*The stainless steel versions are much less expensive these days, but still considerably more than the plastic japanese mandoline.

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