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Thursday, Dec. 9, 2010 09:55 am

A few of my favorite things

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If you’re looking for gifts for the cooks on your holiday shopping list, here are a few suggestions. They range from inexpensive stocking stuffers to items a bit more substantial, but still moderately priced. All have become indispensible in my kitchen and are things I’ve given as gifts to my kids, relatives and friends.

Kitchen Scissors – I use scissors during food preparation almost as much as I do knives or other implements. From snipping herbs to cutting excess fat off of meat, they’re in use practically every day that I’m cooking. Kitchen scissors, like knives, are one of those things that can be very expensive or very cheap. I’d used a more expensive version ($80, if I remember correctly) for years. But when I started giving cooking classes, I needed to find a less costly option for the 12-person class. Surprisingly, I found them on a sale table at Ace Hardware for $2.99. Even more surprising was that I ended up preferring them to my more expensive ones. They were sturdy, with a serrated edge inside the handles that was useful for opening jars. Those cooking class scissors got heavy use and eventually wore out. However, if you’re on the lookout for good, inexpensive kitchen shears, they’re out there waiting to be found; earlier this year I found exceptionally good ones at Big Lots for just $4.99. Unfortunately, those particular ones are no longer in stock, but other sturdy versions are sure to be available.

Microplane® Graters – When, in 1994, Lorriane Lee of Ottawa, Canada became frustrated with her old grater while making an Armenian orange cake and picked up a new woodworking tool that her husband had brought home from their hardware store, Lee Valley Tools, she undoubtedly didn’t realize she’d created a culinary breakthrough. The inventors of the Microplane® rasp, Richard and Jeff Grace, who jointly own Grace Manufacturing in Russellville, Ark., didn’t realize it either. The company had been making photochemical machined parts for the high-tech printer industry for almost 20 years before they decided to use their expertise in making sharp cutting surfaces for a different purpose. “We etched a series of holes in the metal and then we started trying it on things,” says Jeff. “You can tell every desk in the plant that Richard has ever used by the fact that the corners have all been planed away.”

Those who don’t cook or haven’t used a Microplane® may well wonder what the big deal is. After all, isn’t a grater just a grater? The difference is that Microplanes®’ tiny razor-like edges are made with a completely different process: they’re photo-etched, which means that the holes are dissolved with a chemical solvent so that the edges finely slice instead of tearing or shredding as do the holes in conventionally made graters, which are punched out. The result is an airy, lace pile of citrus zest or grated hard cheese, such as Parmesan, or whatever else is grated. The only thing to be aware of is that because the gratings are so feather-light, that one and a half to two times as much should be used than the amount called for in a recipe.

I got my first Microplane® from a hardware catalogue, back when it was still primarily sold as a woodworking implement and didn’t have a handle. The cutting edges faced downwards (culinary graters’ tines face up) and I suffered several episodes of bloody knuckles. Even so, the Microplane’s® superiority was so incredible that I kept at it until I got the hang of it. Then I bought one (with handle) made for culinary use with the tines facing upwards, and went through scraped knuckles again. Still I hung on.

These days there are Microplanes® available from fine to coarse gratings. There are soft, easy-grip handles in a variety of colors, and even a line of spa products. But I still use the original (culinary, with handle) most frequently. It sells for a little over $10; the others go up from there. Microplanes® are available at many cooking supply stores, regular and online.

Benriner Mandolins – No, they’re not the instruments used in medieval or roots music. But if you’ve seen a cooking show in the last decade or so, you’re sure to have seen one of these Japanese takes on a classic French cooking implement. A mandolin (mandoline in French) is a slicing device: A sharp blade mounted into a cutting board that makes consistently-sized slices, especially paper thin ones. It wasn’t called a mandoline, but when I was a child, a plastic boxy version with a cheap blade was hawked every year at the Illinois State Fair by faintly suspect men. My mom and grandmother got two each year (the blades were only good for one season), primarily to cut the kernels off the dozens of ears of corn we put in the freezer, but also to thinly slice cabbage for slaw or to put in crocks for sauerkraut.
I was given one of the classic French models years ago for Christmas (almost $200). Though it’s efficient, its tripod design is clumsy and difficult to clean; I almost always prefer using the far less expensive (ranging from just under $25; more for wider versions), hand-held Benriner, as clearly do TV chefs of all stripes. I use it for much more than cutting corn off the cob and slicing cabbage: for potatoes, carrots, onions, and a host of other vegetables and fruits; it’s another thing that’s in use more days than not in my kitchen.
In 2008, Cook’s Illustrated Magazine compared it with 10 other mandolines, and rated it as “Highly Recommended” and “reasonably priced.” The website www.consumersearch.com calls it “the Best Mandoline Overall.”

Cameron Stovetop Smokers: My Cameron Stovetop Smoker may not be in daily use in my kitchen. But it’s still something I regard as invaluable. About 2 tablespoons of wood chips (actually sawdust) are placed on the bottom of the heavy rectangular pan. A drip tray goes on top of the pan, and then a nonstick rack inside that. A lid slides onto the pan and seals it shut. Putting a heavy skillet on top ensures the seal. Because it’s sealed, the kitchen smells pleasantly of smoke but not overpoweringly so. The inside will darken with use, but because it’s made for smoking, it’s OK to let it age, much as would an iron skillet. Rather than put the sawdust directly onto the pan, I like to sandwich it between folded aluminum foil. If you line the drip pan with foil, the only thing needing cleaning is the nonstick rack.

One of the Cameron Smoker’s best features is that the seal makes the food smoke with moist heat, making it especially good for anything that would dry with grilling or conventional smoking unless they’re brushed with some oil or fat. So it’s an ideal way to compensate for holiday indulgences or just keep an eye on fat and calories.

There’s no sacrifice of flavor: The smoked trout and salmon I’ve made are as good as those I’ve purchased for high prices in specialty-food shops. Shrimp smoked in the Stovetop Smoker are fantastic.

The Stovetop Smoker isn’t just for fish and seafood. I’ve smoked vegetables and garlic as well as meats and poultry. But know that the smoker isn’t a grill: it doesn’t provide grill marks or the browning/caramelization that comes with sautéing or grilling. It’s easy enough, however, to quickly brown foods once they’ve been smoked.

The full-sized Cameron Stovetop Smoker (including an assortment of smoking chips) costs a little over $50; there’s a mini-smoker (perfect for two) that’s around $30. Their full line of products can be seen at www.cameronscookware.com.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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