Category Archives: Favorite Tools

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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Sometimes Skinny is Better


It’s true, sometimes skinny is better. One of my favorite spatulas is a flexible metal spatula. Does it lift the heaviest slice of pie? Nope. Can it lift a whole cake? That would be a bad idea. Should I use it in my non-stick pans? Probably not. However if you get past what it cannot do you can then focus on what it can do, which is a lot. Its many uses are why I find myself reaching for this spatula more often than any other spatula in my kitchen tool jar.

rosemary roast potatoes

It’s thin blade can slide under anything – from a turkey burger which has caramelized onto the sauté pan to some rosemary oven roasted potatoes which have crisped themselves to a lovely golden brown. The spatula’s edge is so sharp it can slice through things like a piece of cheese or an apple so you can use it as a knife in a pinch, which also means you can cut yourself with the edge so be careful! It is as bendy and flexible as if it has been doing kitchen yoga all it’s life. The flexibility makes it the perfect spatula for sliding under even the most delicate cookies and transferring them to a cooling rack (yes I know these oatmeal-cherry-dark chocolate-apricot-almond-raisin cookies are not delicate but you get the idea).

cookies and flexible spatula

A while ago one of the rivets attaching the blade to the handle popped out. Shawn came to the rescue and re-riveted it for me. Now I’m good to go for many more hours (dare I hope years?) in the kitchen. Oxo and Ateco both make flexible metal spatulas and you should be able to find one for less than $10. So do yourself a favor and make sure you have one of these great spatulas in your kitchen tool jar!

flexible metal spatula


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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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