Category Archives: Favorite Tools

Rubber Bands to the Rescue

"Rubber Band Ball"

I am married to a man who does not know his own strength. He knows he is stronger them most mortals so he makes a concerted effort to be gentle. His handshakes are firm, but not bone crushing. His hugs envelope you rather than squeeze the air out of you. Where he sometimes forgets to be gentle is in the pantry. When it comes time to screw a jar lid back on he makes sure it is completely screwed on. With his bare hands he can screw a lid on as tight as it was when it was first sealed. I can always tell if Shawn was the last one to use the jam or pickles because I cannot get the jar open without help. Often he is around and will sheepishly undo the lid for me. Other times I am on my own.

"opening a jar with a rubber band"

My Mom is a huge fan of the Gilhoolie Jar Opener. Grammy Caldwell always had one in the enameled top kitchen table, but somehow I never owned that particular jar opening device.  What I have instead in my kitchen drawer is a rubber band ball. Made up of hundreds of rubber bands which previously held together stems of broccoli,  bunches of scallions or heads of napa  cabbage, the ball serves many purposes. I de-stress with it by bouncing it around my kitchen (staying clear of the glassware and the dog). Sometimes my son and I play catch with it. And if Shawn isn’t around to open a too tight jar lid I simply peel off a thick rubber band, slip it around the locked lid, and twist. If a jar is particularly stubborn I’ll give it one good smack on my kitchen counter, which provides that extra bit of incentive to open, but usually the gripping power of the rubber band gives me the twist I need.


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Favorite Tool #7 My Wooden Stirring Stick

It’s curves are perfect. It is narrow enough at the tip to fit into the edges of pots and the handle flairs out to just-the-right size for my hand to grasp. This stirring stick has been in my kitchen tool pot forever. If I ever pare down my all the items in my kitchen (which, if I’m being honest, will probably never happen) this tool would always stay. I can’t remember where I picked it up or if someone gave it to me. Perhaps I’ve had it since the cradle or since I first started collecting kitchen gadgets.

"Favorite wooden spoon"

Wooden spoons and stirrers can be so personal. If you want to see some amazing ones click here, they’re pricey but delicious. I look forward to seeing Herriott Grace’s new inventory every few months just so I can drool. You can often find a nice selection of wooden spoons at your local craft fair. My suggestion is to pick up one that catches your eye. See how it feels in your hand. Close your eyes and stir it in an imaginary pot. Is it a keeper or should you try others? You’ll know when you’ve found the one.

I would love to know what your favorite wooden spoon or stirring stick is. Send me an email* with a picture attached and I’ll feature them all in a future post.

*Wordpress is trying to protect me from spammers by not making my email clickable. You’ll need to copy and paste it into your mail program if I’m not in your address book.

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Paper Love

"parchment paper"

One “tool” I can’t live without is parchment paper. They should advertise it as having a 101 uses because it really does. A piece under pies (and don’t forget today is Pie Day) makes cleaning up the juicy overflow a breeze. Parchment allows cookies to slide off the baking sheet and onto a cooling rack with one gentle tug. You can wrap fish and vegetables up en papillote and cook your dinner in a “bag”. Trimmed to a circle I often put a round of parchment under most of the cakes I bake, ensuring there are no chunks of cooked cake stuck to the bottom of the pan. Some cooks even use it in place of pastry bags for drizzling on chocolate or piping. I like that it cools down almost instantly, unlike my silpat mats which seem to retain heat and are hard to slide off a baking sheet while hot.

"Parchment paper beneath pie"

Most grocery stores around me sell rolls of parchment. If you do a lot of baking you can buy it in precut sizes that fit a half sheet baking pan or a round cake pan which is what many restaurants do. Parchment traditionally comes in white, although now there are several companies that make an unbleached version. So give your kitchen some lovin’ and buy a roll of parchment today. Then let me know how you use it as a cooking “tool” in your kitchen.

"parchment paper beneath biscotti"


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Burn Baby Burn (favorite tool #6)

I’ve been listening to Erasure’s version of Cole Porter’s Too Darn Hot from the Red, Hot and Blue tribute/benefit CD.

“I’d like to sup with my baby tonight,

Refill the cup with my baby tonight

but I ain’t up to my baby tonight

’cause it’s too darn hot.

It’s too darn hot

It’s too darn hot.”

And that pretty much sums it up around here as of late. It is just too darn hot.

"cooling off in the kiddie pool"

At least our feet our cool….

To combat the heat Shawn has pulled out the kiddie pool so we can cool off our tootsies. I’m making pitchers and pitchers of ice tea, and most nights we’re firing up the grill to keep from overheating the kitchen. Pizza, grilled chicken and tofu marinated in Teriyaki glaze, and an amazing grill-roasted lamb with tapanade which I read about on Elissa Altman’s blog.

To help with all the grilling there is one essential tool needed for a charcoal grill – a chimney fire starter. All that is required to get it going are three sheets of newspaper, a bunch of briquettes, and a match. It could not be simpler. Wad up the newspaper and shove them in the bottom part, flip it right side up and pour in the briquettes, then light a match. No starter fluid, no watching and waiting to see if your fire will catch. It works every time. If you want a very thorough and thoughtful way of getting that baby smoking hot read here or watch this video. Otherwise take a gander at these instructional images:

"paper first"

Shove some paper in the bottom

"charcoal in the top"

Next flip starter over and fill top with briquettes

"lite it up"

Add match and you’re almost there…

"grilling time"

Time to grill – lamb anyone?

Thanks to our friends Lisa and Lee for grilling  and posing for these instructional pictures. They thought they’d been invited to Tuesday dinner not to come and work for their supper!.

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Snip, Snip (Favorite Tool #5)

I remember the first time I used a pair it was a revelation. You may ask how scissors can open your eyes, but you only ask because you have not cut things up with a pair of Joyce Chen scissors. They were recommended by all my food styling teachers and mentors, each of whom had multiple pairs in their kits. Twenty-five years ago $20 seemed like a lot to pay for a small pair of scissor, but I quickly learned these scissors more than pay you back for that investment. They can clip herbs from the garden as well as cut apart a chicken. They’re handy when I need to snip the end off a disposable pastry bag or trim a leek so it is ready for its closeup at a photo shoot. In my opinion there really is no need to have another pair of scissors in your home kitchen (though I do have additional scissors in my food styling kit the ones I reach for most often are my Joyce Chen’s).

"joyce chen scissors"

They come in different colors, but since the tools in my food styling tool kit are marked with red I bought the original red handled ones. When my children were younger I found these brightly colored scissors had the extra bonus of being easy to find when “by accident, Mom” they were sometimes left behind in the herb garden and I needed to retrieve them by flashlight. These days we keep two pairs in our kitchen drawer ready for whatever may need a snipping.


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Cool Corks

I’ve been told I have asbestos fingers. Years of cooking will do that to you, however, I still can get burned. With a little pre-planning (which involves drinking a few bottle of wine) lid burns can be avoided.

"cork pot holder"

Corks for coolness

One of Shawn’s friends showed me his trick for not singeing your hand on a pot lid if you didn’t have a pot holder handy–just jam a few leftover wine corks under the handle. Brilliant.

"no burned fingers"

Easy lifting

Since I don’t pop this cover in the dishwasher I never bother taking the corks out. In my opinion it’s worth a Merlot or two…

Update 2/10/12: I just got back from a photo shoot and was regretting that I didn’t have any spare corks with me to add to our pot lids. So when I got home I went to add them and found it was nearly impossible to jam the corks under the handle of the lid due to it’s curved surface. Finally Shawn managed to wedge a few in there but thought I’d point out how much variation there can be in lid handles.

"domed lid with cork coolers"

Domed lid with a few corks jammed in


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Epiphany Fèves

Today is Epiphany. Since I’m often running late for things I find it comforting to think about the three kings being tardy for baby Jesus’ birthday. If I’d been around back then (and more significantly if I’d been invited) I probably would have been late too.

"feve boxes"

Old Burdick's Chocolate boxes I keep my fève collection in.

More importantly in my mind than gold, frankincense, and myrrh the kings brought as gifts is the Galette des Rois or Kings Cake which is made to celebrate their arrival.

"angel gabriel fève"

An angel Gabriel fève

"village feves"

Village people fèves

I have heard the dessert called either Gâteau des Rois or Galette des Rois though my French isn’t good enough to describe the differences between the two, and while there are many recipes for a Kings Cake, the two variations I’ve had are puff pastry confection filled with creamy almond filling and topped with a gold crown or a Louisiana style version which is cinnamon dough shaped like a wreath and frosted with sugary icing and lots of purple, green, and yellow sugar. Inside of either version there is a fève or bean.

"holy family fèves"

Holy family fèves

"plastic fèves"

Plastic baby fèves

I’m sure that originally the bean was a bean, but today it is often a small porcelain figure that is baked into the cake, though sometimes it can be a little plastic baby which is inserted after baking. The person who is lucky enough to get the slice of cake with the fève is then crowned King or Queen for the a day or in some instances for the year. Finding the fève not only bestows upon you the title, but in some places also means you need to buy the Kings Cake the following year.

"olive oil fèves"

Olive oil fèves

"lucky feves"

Lucky fèves from Laduree

Fèves come in all shapes, styles, and finishes which you can see if you do a google image search for fèves. It’s probably lucky I don’t live in France or New Orleans because if I did my fèves collection would fill much more than a few chocolate boxes.

"modern feves"

Modern fèves

"vintage fève"

Vintage fèves

My favorite Gallette des Rois recipe comes from my college friend Alexis who has been living in France since graduation. I can’t share it with you though because A. I haven’t asked her permission (this is no ordinary recipe–she won first prize in a cooking competition with this recipe) and B. because I put it someplace very, very safe; so safe that I can’t quite remember where that safe place is right now. When I find the recipe I will be baking our Kings Cake and hiding a fève in it, it’ll just be a little bit late.


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