Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Taking the Easy Way Out in the Kitchen

It's the night before Thanksgiving and about to rain in San Diego. Our celebration tomorrow will be at my parents' house. A small gathering but for the first time I get to do the cooking since my mom recently had surgery and is still not quite up to the job. At least, that's her story. I've been doing some advance work at my house and the plan is to haul part of the meal or the makings of it there tomorrow morning, along with the dogs and dog beds. Well, you get the picture.

So far, so good (except for a major cranberry recipe mishap--it's not always a great idea to try out something new for a gathering and, really, beware of cloves!). I've got round 2, much improved, batch of cranberry sauce made; have boiled, peeled and chopped the chestnuts for the stuffing; peeled, cored and sliced apples for the pie; made a vinaigrette for the string beans. You get the picture. There's a lot to do tomorrow but it should be quite manageable.

One of the reasons why this has been fairly smooth going is because I have some great kitchen tools. None are particularly extravagant but they've made the job of chopping, slicing, storing and hauling pretty easy. So, I thought I'd share some of these with you and perhaps help alleviate some possible kitchen frustrations you might be having.

Chefs will always stress the importance of a great knife. I'm with them and my go-to, take-when-I-evacuate-for-the-fire knife is a Wusthof Culinar Santoku.

One of the reasons I so love this is because the size and shape of the handle perfectly fit my small hand. I feel a lot more in control than with other knives I've had in the past. I keep the blade sharp and it never lets me down. However, out of curiosity I've also just purchased a seven-inch Kyocera chef's knife and am really relying on that for some of my more precision slicing needs.

This ceramic knife--which may need to be sharpened in, oh, about five years--and two very cool Oxo tools got me quickly through the apple peeling, coring and slicing phase this afternoon. I'm now committed to a serrated peeler. There's no flat blade that dulls, no struggling with putting pressure on at just the right angle. It just goes and takes the peel with it. The corer is new to me and while not absolutely necessary, I liked the fact that I didn't haven't to waste cuts getting rid of the seeded part of the apple. Just shove it through the center and remove the inner stuff in one fell swoop. Then my Kyocera knife could do the rest.

The other knife my family and I rely on for the chestnut stuffing is a chestnut knife. My mom got one for each of us kids, mostly so we could help her. Having done the job myself this year, I totally get it. Peeling chestnuts is no fun, although Maureen Clancy introduced me to a technique that I'm all over: microwave the chestnuts. Don't boil them, don't roast them. The amount of time depends on your microwave oven's power. In my mom's it takes 4 minutes on high doing about half a dozen at a time. The nuts pop right out of the shell. As for the knife, sure, it's a one-function tool but its little beak-shaped blade really digs in to make a quick, accurate cut. A food blogger was complaining this week of the blood drawn when she was making cuts into her chestnuts. I suggested this to prevent further mishaps.

Plus, so long as chestnuts are in season, I buy them for roasting and snacking. So, my knife gets a fair amount of use during winter.

Everyone has a set of measuring spoons. One of my biggest irritations is needing one and having the rest dangle in my way as I'm trying to dig into a spice jar or bottle of honey. I discovered a set of measuring spoons from Progressive International that fit together magnetically but separate when you need to use one or the other. And, they have both a round measuring spoon and an oval to fit into narrow openings.

The one down side is that they are plastic, so go back to your metal spoons when you're dealing with something that could melt them -- like hot bacon fat. Don't ask. But for everything else, they're great; you only have to wash what you use and the magnet keeps them tightly together in a drawer.

One of the dishes on the menu tomorrow night is sauteed Brussels sprouts with shallots and chestnuts. These will need to be sliced fairly thin and I haven't decided if I'm going to just use a knife or my mandoline. I've had a couple in my time and the one I use now is also an Oxo. What can I say? They are good designers. I like its lightness, sturdiness and ease of use. And, it's done a good job of slicing for me.

For some reason it hasn't scored well on Amazon but I've had mine for several years and it's worked great. Be sure to use the food holder so you don't inadvertently cut yourself.

One of the most important tools you need if you're cooking poultry for Thanksgiving--or any meat at any time--is a good thermometer. I have a collection of them, mostly because they don't work well and I've been in search of one I can live with. After watching seasons of "America's Test Kitchen" I finally caught on to what they were using and did a search for it. This is what I use (it's called a Super-Fast Thermapen). It's sturdy, the needle bends out at any angle and is easy to insert into the meat. The digital face is easy to read and registers swiftly. Fold the needle back in and the thermometer's power shuts off. Plus, it comes in a variety of colors. I'm actually taking it with me to my folks' house tomorrow. Until it breaks down, it'll be the one I live and cook by.

The other tool I'll take to my parents' house is a Cuisipro collapsible roasting rack. This is very cool. You roast the bird on it and, because it has handles, you can lift it out of the roasting pan (I have a pair of turkey lifters and always stab myself on the pointed tines, so forget them). Once you set the bird on the platter or carving board, you pull a pin down the length of the rack and the two sides come apart from under the bird. So, you don't have to wrestle with it.

And, here's a turkey roasting tip in two words: high heat. Really high, like 450 degrees. No brining necessary. All you do is rub the bird down with olive oil, garlic salt and paprika (or whatever you prefer). Roast the bird uncovered breast side down until the internal temperature reaches 140 degrees. Then turn the bird breast side up until the internal temperature reaches 155 degrees (you'll stick the thermometer into the meatiest part of the thigh, keeping it from touching bone). For a 14- to 16-pound turkey, it probably takes just over two hours. Take the bird out of the oven and let it rest at least 20 minutes. It should continue cooking inside and reach the correct temperature of 175 degrees. You'll have moist meat and crispy skin. I got this idea from Gourmet Magazine and nothing could be easier or more fool proof.

Tomorrow morning I have to pack the car and one of the coolest little haulers I have is a collapsible red cloth picnic basket. It stores flat but when I need it, I can carry a lot around. It frequently goes with me to The Gourmet Club when I want to bring products to the studio for everyone to taste. I've already got the mandoline and a turkey lifter in it. I'll be adding a container of cranberry sauce, another of the vinaigrette, a bag of chestnuts, two bottles of sparkling cider, a huge pomegranate and the turkey thermometer. I used it over the weekend to take over my other provisions for storage in my mom's refrigerator.

What won't go into the basket? My apple pie. Transporting pies has been an issue with me for years. Usually I have more than one and I've done cardboard boxes, towels, plastic containers. You name it. I did finally find something that kind of worked: a series of plastic boxes that attached vertically and could be carried with a handle but I always worried it would break. I picked up a pie carrier by Sterilite at Target this afternoon that I'm pretty confident about since I already have the larger cake carrier.

Mine is a bright, happy red. It's got a very secure feel to it and the fit is so snug the pie won't slide around while I drive.

I could probably go on. In fact, I'd love to hear what others find as their essentials. This time of year we can all use as much help as we can get.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving and enjoy the people you're with. I'll be with these two...

And, a couple of friends will join us. As much as we're all about the food, really it's about being with our loved ones. With a mother recovering well from surgery and a father who looks pretty darned healthy, I'm very thankful. And, I'll be even more thankful to see my niece and nephews this weekend!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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  1. My Kyocera ceramic is my favorite, I just had it sharpened for the 2nd time, and it's as good as new.
    And thanks for the tip about the chestnut knife, it'll come in handy next year.

  2. I love to see comments and kitchen tools. I my latest book (Nov/08) I devoted and entire (short) chapter on Kitchen Tools to Keep, Kitchen Tools to Trash.There is no reason to keep any more than essential ones. See
    “Tried and True Recipes from a Caterer’s Kitchen—Secrets of Making Great Foods” (