A finicky guy's exploits in finding gustatory (and other) satisfaction in his kitchen, his neighborhood, and beyond.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Q-U-*-L-I-*-Y    *-F    L-*-F-E

Sometimes, all it takes is the spin of a wheel to improve your quality of life:

That's not what I meant!  I'm talking about a SALAD spinner:

You'll understand where I'm coming from if you've ever tried to blot washed lettuce dry using paper towels — an environmental nightmare, as it takes about 54 of them — or a tea towel.  "Tea towel" — that's such a dainty name for what in our home tends to look like something your auto mechanic used to wipe off your carburetor gasket valve tubes.  (I know: it's not pretty when a cook attempts a sentence in car-talk.  I'm trying to refer to those little greasy metal doodads coming out of the doohickey.)

Mind you, this schmatte (Yiddish for "rag") or shonda (Yiddish for "embarrassingly stained tea towel") is a CLEAN towel, straight out of the linen closet.  Why do our tea towels look like this?  Well, whereas most cooks value a tea towel under the "indispensable" rule for their dish-drying faculty, around here we value them under the "wide-applicability" rule.  Not content only to dry dishes with them, we find them equally useful for wiping up spills, cleaning the table after dinner, and wiping our hands.  Not "drying" our hands, folks, wiping them clean.  Don't ask what kind of schmutz (Yiddish for "don't ask") we have on our hands; just be glad we don't use the tea towels to blow our noses.  

In any case, you wouldn't want to daub your salad greens with this rag, would you, not even if that were an efficient method.  (You're not blowing your nose on the tea towels, are you, Sweetie?  God forbid.  Even Yiddish doesn't have an expression to cover that.)  

Oh dear, I seem to have gotten side-tracked.  I was getting ready to propose the salad spinner as an exemplar of tools that qualify for a place in my kitchen by virtue of their food-quality enhancement.  A salad spun is simply better than a salad left damp.  (And more hygienic, in our house, than a salad daubed with a shonda.)  Dressings don't cling well to damp greens and bacteria cling TOO well to shonda'd greens.

Salad spinner = better food = higher quality of life.  A keeper!

▢ Q.E.D.


A tool qualifies for retention under this test if it performs a task that improves the quality of food beyond what would be possible without the tool.  Such tools may not be indispensable — I have, after all, produced edible salads without spinning them — but they enable me to raise the quality of my food a notch or two.  This is important when you are as finicky as I am about food.

Here are a couple of my prized quality-enhancing tools:

I was skeptical at first, but you know what?  This thing really works!  My Vacu-Vin wine bottle pump, by removing the air from the partially drunk bottles before storing them, really does keep the wine fresher.  There is often no noticeable degradation of quality even over 2 to 3 days or more of storage, even without refrigeration, if it's not too hot in the room.  The only downside is that now I can't use short shelf life as an excuse to polish off the rest of an opened bottle.
Except that this decidedly non-ergonomic garlic press sets off a neuropathy in my right hand every time I use it, I love how easy it makes adding crushed garlic to a dish.  Chopping garlic with a knife doesn't release the juices in the same way and results in detectable pieces of garlic rather than a paste.  Grating garlic produces a very nice mush, but said mush usually ends up containing bits of my DNA, since holding on to something as small as a garlic clove puts my fingers perilously close to the teeth of the grater.  So hooray for this lovely gadget, which increases the quality of my cooking and my fingertip health!  (It's self-cleaning, too.)

Background cloud of tulle courtesy of Male Pattern Boldness
Well, that about completes my week-long analysis.  I have appreciated getting some clarity around why my kitchen is equipped with its particular assortment of apparatus, and I hope you have enjoyed reading as I figured this out.  Many of you wrote in generously about your own favorites and not-so-favorites — it's been fun comparing our experiences and discovering our differences of opinion as well as a few common threads.

A number of us, it seems, put a lot of stock in our cast-iron frying pans.  No, no, not the soup kind of stock— that would be silly — I meant that we use these pans a lot and have developed a certain fondness for them.  And it tickled me to find out that I was not the only one with an underemployed baster on hand!

Getting clarity this week has included recognizing a few items not qualifying under any of my rules that I have been holding onto for various (or no) reasons.  Two extra sets of flatware underneath my counter await a dinner party for 30 that probably will never happen, unless one of the Chihuahuas gets married.

Don't tell Peter I borrowed his practice tulle ruffle for this bit of animal abuse.
A few things I suspect I am keeping around because they seem like things a serious cook should own.  But I have not zested a lemon in decades, so perhaps I could let that little tool go.  (But it takes up so little space!)  And — sigh! — is it time to bid farewell to my pretty little double boiler?

I picked it up at a Salvation Army a few years ago because it matches my favorite all-purpose pot, which I use several times a week:

Isn't this a gorgeous object?  I just love the graceful loopy handles and the copper-toned lid.  I think I paid 50 cents for it at a Salvation Army in New Paltz, NY, in about 1998.  
Well, maybe I'll hang onto the double boiler just a bit longer.  If I do decide to take up baking again, I'll need it for custards and for melting chocolate.  And everyone is entitled to own an object or two for which no explanation is forthcoming and no apparent function exists.  (Sounds like some of my former boyfriends.)  Do you have anything in your kitchen that you never use but can't bear to part with?

The double boiler may have earned a reprieve, but I have definitely determined that this preposterous tool is going back to the recycling room for someone else to take pity on:

The G.G.S. did serve a function — it inspired the thought process that led to this week's series of blog postings — but now I'm afraid its usefulness is at an end.  I'd have to be a schlemiel (Yiddish for "shlep" or "schmegege") to continue to dedicate space in my kitchen to such an inferior tool.

Have a great weekend, everyone.  I hope you are looking at your own kitchen tools with new appreciation.


  1. So, I'm afraid I'm a little off-topic, but your salad spinning got me thinking about a nifty gadget I picked up at Williams recently: http://www.williams-sonoma.com/products/rosle-multi-chopper/?pkey=e%7Cr%25C3%25B6sle%7C13%7Cbest%7C0%7C1%7C24%7C%7C12&cm_src=PRODUCTSEARCH||NoFacet-_-NoFacet-_-NoMerchRules-_- (I should really learn how to do those tiny URLs sometime.)

    It's like a salad spinner but instead of that Model-T crank you've got going, there is a lawn-mower-startingesque-rip-cord! Are you jealous of my mechanical jargon prowess? Thought so. As much as I love a good little paring knife, it's just so easy to throw in some tomato, onion, whole herbs, whathaveyou and be done. Plus, it's great for garlic and getting a very fine mince on things like shallots before they go into a vinaigrette. Heck, this little bad boy can emulsify that vinaigrette, too! Would also work on an individual salad, though I've yet to try it. Truth be told, I was far too busy using it last weekend to make margaritas to think of stuffing it with salad. Perhaps quality of life isn't the best fit for this widget, but pulling that rip-cord is quite satisfying.

    I LOVE TEA TOWELS! My mother has a knack for finding bags full of them at estate sales. We probably have at least a hundred in the linen closet - most of them still stiff with starch and pressed, ready for action. So many women put countless hours into these beautiful, hand-embroidered towels. Now they are cheaper than new ones - sad where priorities lie, sometimes. Anyway, I certainly have my fair share of shondas, too!

  2. 100 starched, pressed tea towels in your linen closet? I am reeling with envy, disbelief, and a little towel-lust.

    I admire a man who can be equally delighted by dainty embroidery and yankin' ripcords.

  3. I have a copper aspic mould. There is a very low probability I will ever actually use it, although I do go so far as to imagine making an aspic. I can't part with it because it is a lovely thing, and it reminds me of the aspics served at children's birthday parties in my childhood. You know, the ones organised by Betty Draper and her friends. Imagine expecting a bunch of eight year olds to eat an ornate aspic these days!

  4. Today's 8yo's would just titter as they contemplated what an "ass-pick" was used for.

    If you need any lemon zest for your aspic, let me know, and I'll imagine zesting a lemon for you.

  5. I just read Little Hunting Creek's comment from yesterday, saying she loved her baking stone. I can't figure out how they work. I bought one, and followed the instructions to preheat it in the oven and then put my pizza on it. I hadn't thought through the process of spreading the dough, covering it in sauce and toppings, and then trying to lift the whole gooey thing on to the hot stone. What a mess! Any advice?

  6. Oh Michael, I'm not inviting you to my birthday party!

  7. Pleeeeeeeease, Mae? I'll try not to act like an 8-year-old at your party. But if you serve a pupu platter, I'll likely snort milk out my nose.

    We will have to await pizza stone assistance from someone who has used one.

  8. I love my salad spinner and cast iron. I inherited a 9" pan when my college housemate melted a plastic spatula to it and threw in the trash. All the seasoning came off with the plastic-schmoo, but it recovered nicely. We used to use a vac-vin all the time until we switched over to 3L boxed wines. whee! and less packaging. We are off the grid (solar-electric), so no electric appliances need apply. No microwave, no electric toaster (think camp-toaster), no bread machine. That said, we have loads of space and a rocking masonry heater as our main heat source that bakes fantastic breads, pizzas (assemble the pizza on the peel and then slide it onto the hot stone!), brownies (I'll take the double-boiler when you need it gone!), romertopfs. My recent kitchen joy is new (salvaged) drawers that slide open and shut so smoothly. Ahh, lovely.

  9. Kimbersew has it right, assemble the pizza, then slide it onto the stone with all the toppings. I used a rimless baking sheet until I got my pizza peel. Sprinkle it with cornmeal before putting the pizza dough down and it will slip around like gangbusters.

    The items that improved my cooking most are my Cooking Illustrated magazines. They teach me why you get certain results from various techniques and ingredients.

    Single purpose gadget. Hmm. Toaster probably, I don't have a toaster over. And I like toast and tea. But everyone knows what toasters do, so it's not a cool gadget.

  10. Perhaps I misspoke. Those tea towels are still pressed and starched from decades ago and we just happened to latch onto them at garage sales and the like. As much as I love freshly starched and ironed linens, I just don't have that kind of time in my life! But, maybe someday. :)

  11. I also have a salad spinner that was purchased while I was in college. At that time it was not used to spin salad but was used to do my laundry. It was very large and would accomodate several pairs of panties or two t-shirts(my uniform back then). Jeans still had to go to the laundramat but it helped me save my quarters at a time when every quarter counted.

    I also have an item I can't bear to part with but I rarely use. When I was married my favorite aunt gave me a 30 cup soup tureen. I have never used it for soup but we did have a turtle who lived in it for many years. It has also been used to grow herbs in the kitchen. Sadly, it now sits empty on the basement stairs and taunts me everytime I go to check on the hot water heater.

  12. @pikojiko: Most entertaining comment of the week! Thanks for the giggles and the intriguing image of you in your college-days uniform of multiple layers of panties and t-shirts.

  13. I have one: a set of various glass and ceramic refrigerator dishes from the 30's/40's you know those food storage dishes that folks used before Tupperware. They were made by Pyrex, Hall, Westinghouse,etc and they have either ceramic or clear glass lids. I like to use them as serveware for things like taco filling or veggies because if there are leftovers I can just plop on the lid. I like the retro colors too.

  14. Mae you also need a pizza peel:


    or a cookie sheet. The pizza is assembled on the peel or cookie sheet and slid onto the hot stone. The peel or cookie sheet removes it too when the crust is baked. A stone really needs to be totally heated up for it to work well; we let ours go for an hour at 500 degrees before baking the pizza.

  15. My husband likes to bake chocolate cake. The frosting is smooth as glass without any marks from it's application. Why? Because he blow dries the cake with his hairdryer after frosting it. Not your everyday kitchen appliance.

  16. @Phyllis: We have some of those glass containers too. I would replace all my Tupperwares with those beautiful things if only their lids sealed tight.

    @Carol: That's a clever and unexpected tip!

  17. OMG preheat the stone for one hour at 500 degrees! No way! I live in tropical Australia, near the beach, and we're becoming oh too aware of climate change. I also own land on a hill in Nova Scotia but prefer never to need it...

  18. Things that I don't use but cannot part with:
    ~a twenty cup (give or take) manual drip coffee maker. It's all metal, not that plastic stuff. I've only used it once for a holiday dinner. I love old percolators, too.
    ~ashtrays. They aren't a kitchen gadget but I used to love to visit my neighbor lady and we would sit and smoke in her kitchen. I miss the eighties.
    As for a salad spinner, my oxo spinner broke over a year ago and i now just put the romaine in the dish drainer thingy to air/drip dry.
    If anyone has an idea on how to fix an oxo salad spinner i'm willing to try.

  19. I adore ashtrays too. They are often so stylish and mod — I have several times considered taking up smoking again just to have an excuse to buy the cool accoutrements: ashtrays, lighters, holders.

    But probably it's not worth throwing away 16 years of freedom from nicotine, just to create a "look"....

    Maybe we can at least console ourselves with a hefty dose of percolated coffee!