If you’re going to be a successful home cook, you’ll need the right tools. An assortment of pots, pans, knives, mixing bowls and utensils such as wooden spoons and a sturdy spatula ought to cover the basics.
As you get cooking and baking, you’ll learn plenty, burn some and, let’s hope, absolutely nail a recipe more often than not.
But sometimes you’ll find yourself fumbling and fussing over a dish that calls for 12 cloves of peeled garlic, or weeping and gasping as you attempt to mince your third successive onion, and you’ll eventually start to wonder if there’s an easier way, a better tool.
Of course there is.
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There’s a $3 silicone gadget that makes peeling garlic nearly effortless. There are “onion goggles” that will call a halt to the tears. And there’s an old-fashioned thing called a pressure cooker that now seems tailor-made to make your hectic modern life much more efficient.
Kitchen gadgets fall into two basic categories: ones that solve a basic problem and are used often, and those whose function is so specific that they’re practically destined to get stuffed into a cabinet or relegated to a shelf in the garage.
Acquiring gadgets can be fun. Some of them are brilliant. But you can easily get in over your head if you’re not careful. To avoid, there are four questions you should ask yourself every time you think about buying a gadget:
▪ Do you have a penchant for buying too many gadgets?
▪ Where are you going to put it? You can’t make every drawer in your kitchen the “junk drawer.” If you buy a new gadget, think about jettisoning something else to make room.
▪ How often will you use it? The best gadgets are used all the time. A paella pan, on the other hand, is really big and, unless you plan on eating this rather time-consuming rice and seafood dish twice a month, it’s a bad idea.
▪ Does it actually solve a problem? We all get caught up in those great sales pitches, whether it was Jack LaLanne shilling for juicers or Ron Popeil touting his Veg-O-Matic. But do you even like juice made with kale? That avocado slicer you covet? It solves a problem that doesn’t exist. And why would anyone want to “slice a tomato so thin it only has one side?”
Gadgets are a personal thing and acquiring the right ones largely depends on your goals in the kitchen, but here are recommendations by local cooking instructor Paulette Bruce of Good Eats cooking classes; Jess Milbourn, executive chef of Broderick Restaurant & Bar; and Howard Cantrell, store manager at East Bay Restaurant Supply; and some of my own favorites.
Silicone spatula, $10 and up: For basic tools or gadgets, this is my favorite. It is versatile and works so well. It stirs, it scrapes. It lasts for years. Use it to get the last of your cake mix out of the bowl, and you’ll never turn back.
Microplane/zester, $10 and up: It’s the hottest gadget at East Bay Restaurant Supply, says Cantrell. “They’re super easy to use and there are different sizes.” Bruce has two – one for citrus, another for ginger. Some box graters have a microplane on one side.
Thermapen, $96: Yikes! The price! For taking the temperature of your roast chicken or New York strip? Yes. There’s no turning back once you try it. It’s the best $96 you can spend – not counting the next gadget.
Pressure cooker, $100 and up: Get the book “Hip Pressure Cooking” by Laura D.A. Pazzaglia, bang out a few recipes and wonder how you ever made it this far in life without one. A stove-top pressure cooker is smart, efficient and a major time saver. Many dishes pack more flavor than traditional methods.
George Foreman Grill, $30 to $130: This is no joke. Never mind the low-budget infomercials or that the pitchman was a pugilist best known for blocking Muhammad Ali’s punches with his face. “We had this certified master chef at (Culinary School of America) who said there’s nothing better for searing beef heart,” said Milbourn. “It’s one of those underrated gadgets. It’s inexpensive and you can use it for a lot of different things. I don’t have one now, but come to think of it, I might have to get one.” (See questions 1 and 2 above).
Onion goggles, $22: “I always have them in my cooking classes,” said Bruce. “I can go through 10 pounds of onions and never shed a tear.”
Aeropress, $30: It’s one of the simplest and best ways to make a great cup of coffee. Even the coffee snobs agree on this one. It’s less ideal if you’re brewing coffee for more than one person.
Kitchen scale, $30 and up: As an avid sourdough bread baker, I use mine all the time. Weighing ingredients like flour is much more precise than scooping with measuring cups. If you want to bake well, this one is a must. Note: If you’re going to be doing artisan bread, be sure your scale has a capacity of at least 5 pounds.
Bench scraper, about $5: What a simple but versatile tool, says Bruce. Here’s a tip from her: If you’re chopping a bunch of, say, parsley, hold the knife in one hand and guide or corral the parsley with the scraper in the other hand. It’s great for working with dough. It also scrapes up tough little messes on solid countertops.
Mandoline, about $40: The large ones can be expensive and unwieldy. Much better to get one you can fold up and tuck away. Cooks Illustrated rates the Swissmar Borner V-1001 as the best and safest inexpensive mandoline. It’s a quick and easy way to do large slicing and prepping tasks with vegetables.
Cast iron pan, about $30: These clunky old things have made a serious comeback because they last forever, conduct heat well, are versatile and you get cool points for their timeless aesthetics. “Most chefs will tell you the best way to make a steak is in a cast iron pan,” said Cantrell. “There are so many cast iron pans out there now. They all come pre-seasoned. You just have to maintain them properly.”
Silicone garlic peeler, about $3: Bruce is not a fan. She wants her students to smash the clove with the side of chef’s knife. Me? I can’t get over how well these things work. It cuts down my garlic-peeling time by 90 percent. Concedes Bruce, “My students love it.”
Cherry pitter, $12 and up: This is a seasonal item, but if you use cherries in many recipes, it’s a no-brainer. Removing those seeds any other way is, well, the pits.
Vitamix, $450-$650: Before you pull the trigger on this blender, you’d better mull those four key questions above. This is your Mercedes 500 series in the kitchen. Serious home chefs and professional cooks swear by them, including Milbourn. “If you can afford one, it’s worth it,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve seen one break down in a restaurant with heavy daily use.” If you want to spend $100 to get 80 percent of the functionality, go for the Ninja Professional blender.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter
Spaghettini with oil and garlic
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
From Alice Waters’ “The Art of Simple Food” (Clarkson Potter, $35, 416 pages).
1 pound spaghettini
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 sprigs parsley, stems removed, leaves chopped (or more, if desired)
Pinch hot pepper flakes
Salt, to taste
Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions until al dente. Meanwhile, in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-low, heat the olive oil. When it is just warm, add the garlic, parsley and hot pepper. Cook until the garlic is soft, turning off the heat just as the garlic starts to sizzle. Don’t let it brown or burn.
Drain the pasta, reserving some of the cooking water. Add the noodles and a pinch of salt to the skillet and toss. If needed, add a bit of the reserved cooking water to loosen the sauce. Serve immediately.
Per serving: 583 cal.; 15 g pro.; 86 g carb.; 19 g fat (3 sat., 14 mono., 2 polyunsat.); 0 mg chol.; 154 mg sod.; 3 g fiber; 4 g sugar; 31 percent calories from fat.
Pan-seared salmon with dill sauce and sautéed asparagus
From Al Hernandez with the Vine Times. The Sacramento River is California's largest river, and boasts runs of king, steelhead and other types of salmon. Freshly caught wild salmon makes a luxurious and healthful meal. This decadent fish is perfectly paired with another local favorite, asparagus. For this recipe, Al Hernandez, the food and wine editor of The Vine Times, gives us his recipe for lightly sautéed asparagus as the perfect accompaniment to pan-seared salmon.
4 (4- to 6-ounce) skin-on salmon fillets
2 pounds asparagus (preferably thin or medium-thick)
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons olive or grapeseed oil
1/2 cup crème fraîche or sour cream
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
Freshly ground black pepper
Season the salmon fillets liberally with salt; set aside
Take one spear of asparagus and, using both hands, one at each end of the spear, break it in two. It will naturally break at the right spot. Then cut the rest of the spears using the broken one as a guide. Discard the woody ends.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil a 12-inch cast-iron skillet over high heat until hot. Place the salmon, skin side down, in the pan. After about 1 minute, reduce the heat to medium. Cook the fillets another 5 to 8 minutes, depending on their thickness.
While the salmon cooks, whisk together the crème fraîche, dill and granulated garlic in a small bowl until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
Turn the fillets over and cook to medium or medium-well doneness, whichever you prefer, another 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate, cover with aluminum foil, and let rest for 10 minutes.
To the same skillet, still over medium heat, add the remaining 2 teaspoons oil and the asparagus spears, season to taste with salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the asparagus are tender, 7 to 10 minutes.
To serve, arrange asparagus in the center of each plate, set a salmon fillet, skin side down, on top, and spoon dill sauce over the salmon.
Wild rice, mint and pomegranate salad
In a standard saucepan, wild rice would cook in as much as 50 minutes. Here we use a pressure cooker, which cuts the time roughly in half while preserving the grain’s pleasantly chewy texture and nutty taste.
The vibrant colors make this a beautiful-looking salad, and the pomegranate-driven dressing is a standout. Recipe from The Washington Post.
For the salad:
2/3 cup uncooked wild rice (4 ounces)
3 cups cold water
Freshly ground black pepper
2/3 cup soft dried apricots, peaches or mangoes, soaked in hot water for 10 minutes
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted (see note blow; may substitute shelled pistachios or pumpkin seeds)
2 medium carrots, cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 3/4 cup diced)
3 scallions, white and light-green parts, roughly chopped
Large handful fresh mint leaves
1 small bunch baby arugula (about 4 ounces, 3 1/2 to 4 loosely packed cups)
For the dressing:
1/4 cup pomegranate molasses
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, crushed and finely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
2/3 cup fresh pomegranate seeds
For the salad: Combine the rice and water in the pressure cooker. Lock on the lid and bring to high pressure. Lower the heat slightly, but maintain high pressure, and cook for 22 minutes. To cool, use the quick-cool method suggested by the manufacturer of your pressure cooker; or place the pressure cooker in the sink at a slight angle and run cold water on the top of the cooker and down the side, being careful not to let any of the water run over the pressure-release vent or valve.
When cool, unlock and remove the lid, taking care to avoid any steam that is released as you open the cooker. Pour the rice into a fine-mesh strainer and rinse under cold water. Allow it to drain, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to a large mixing bowl.
While the rice is cooking, drain the soaked apricots, peaches or mangoes and roughly chop. Add to the mixing bowl along with the pine nuts, carrots, scallions, mint and arugula.
For the dressing: Whisk together the pomegranate molasses, olive oil, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste in a medium bowl until incorporated. Stir in the pomegranate seeds. Pour over the rice-vegetable mixture and toss to coat the salad evenly with the dressing.
Note: To toast pine nuts, place them in a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat. Toast, stirring constantly, for 3 to 4 minutes, until the nuts become a light golden-brown. Transfer to a small bowl to cool.
Manchego, dried apricots, fennel and radicchio salad
Time for color and crunch, but no time to cook? This winter salad hits all the right notes. We’ve added prosciutto for protein and a soft saltiness; feel free to swap it for cooked cannellini beans, or just leave the extra component out altogether. The salad’s just as satisfying. Serve with warm, crusty bread.
Manchego cheese is available at grocery stores with a good cheese department. We used a young one here; aged manchegos are firmer and saltier.
Adapted by The Washington Post from “Salad Love: 260 Crunchy, Savory, and Filling Meals You Can Make Every Day,” by David Bez (Clarkson Potter, $25, 304 pages).
1 medium head radicchio (may substitute 2 small heads)
1 small bulb fennel
1 1/4 cups dried apricots
2 ounces manchego cheese (may substitute asiago or Gouda)
1 ounce good-quality, thinly sliced prosciutto
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
2 teaspoons dark or full-flavored honey (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup whole roasted, unsalted almonds
Leaves from a few sprigs mint
Core the radicchio and discard any outer leaves that have wilted. Cut the head(s) in half, then into quarters. Cut into thin slices.
Core the fennel bulb and remove the outer layer if it’s thick and tough. Cut the fennel in half, then into quarters. Use a mandoline or a chef’s knife to cut into very thin slices.
Cut the apricots into slivers. Cut the manchego cheese into 1/2-inch cubes. Tear the prosciutto into thin strips; loosely roll each one, if you like.
Combine all those elements in a mixing bowl.
Whisk together the oil, vinegar, the honey, if using, and a good pinch each of salt and pepper in a liquid measuring cup until emulsified. Pour over the ingredients in the bowl and toss to coat.
Divide between wide, shallow bowls. Scatter the almonds over each portion. Garnish with the mint leaves. Serve right away.
Per serving: 710 calories, 21 g protein, 66 g carbohydrates, 45 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 820 mg sodium, 12 g dietary fiber, 49 g sugar