Digging up treasures in a culinary tool chest

April 15, 2001|By Rob Kasper

What is the most valuable tool in your kitchen? The quick answer, of course, is the one you can't find.

Recently, that would be the slotted spoon, a crucial instrument in dyeing Easter eggs. This spoon allows you to lift an egg from the dye with a minimum of mess. This spoon also regularly goes into hiding a week or so before Easter. You end up trying to fish the eggs out of their inky lagoon with tablespoons, soup ladles or forks.

The longer answer is that the most valuable kitchen tool is the one most frequently used. For chefs, that implement would be a knife. The relationship between a chef and his or her knife is deep, long-lasting and a little scary. Chefs will change jobs, houses and spouses much more frequently than they change their knives. They carry their knives with them, in dark cases, wherever they go.

While chefs go bananas if someone lays a finger on their prized blades, they also use their knives to take on almost any kitchen task. I have seen chefs use their knives to pry open lids, stir sauces and transport mounds of ingredients from the chopping block to the pan. Inch-for-inch, I think, chefs tote more stuff on their knives than backhoe operators carry on their shovels.

Home cooks, on the other hand, have different favorite tools, depending on their moods. Some days, for instance, as I stand in the kitchen I feel a desperate need for a corkscrew. (If you can't find one, you can use a hammer and nail and a pair of pliers. Or you can track down a chef, who will open the wine bottle with a knife.)

But on a day-in, day-out basis, a metal spatula is my most valuable indoor cooking tool. It is great for scraping things off the bottom of pans, especially things that are slightly stuck. When you cook the way I do, with high heat and a low attention span, you never call any of your resulting creations "burned." Instead, you refer to "the blackened cheese sandwich." Or the "griddle-seared pancake" or the "extra-crisp hamburger."

My most valuable tool for outdoor cooking is a pair of tongs. With a good pair of tongs in his hands and with nobody looking over his shoulder, a fella can defy the rules of physics and combustion while tending his backyard barbecue grill. He can flip burgers, rearrange slabs of ribs, sashay chunks of tuna closer to the coals so they are a little less likely to end up as sushi.

Using his trusty tongs, a fella can corral a herd of rogue asparagus. He simply remembers that if the openings on the grill rack are running north-south, the asparagus herd must always face east-west.

Should a spear go kamikaze on him and dive to the coals; he can use the tongs to rescue it.

This, of course, has never happened to me. But I have read books about it. To save supper from the fire, you first have to build a temporary resting platform for the grill rack. You grab a few loose bricks and set them a couple of feet apart on the ground near the cooker. You put an insulated mitten on one hand and grab one side of the grill rack handle with that hand. You use the tongs to grab the other grill rack handle and you carefully lift the grill rack out of the cooker and set it down with its edges resting on the bricks, You want to keep the rack level to prevent any more food from taking a dive.

Using your tongs, you snare the fallen food from the coals and place it on the nearby grill rack. (You might want to wipe off any dust with a paper towel; some folks can be real sticklers about particles on their "charcoal-seared" entrees.) Using the tongs and your gloved hand, you return the grill rack and its sizzling fare to the cooker.

If some busybody asks, "How's dinner looking?" You scare them back in the house by snapping your tongs at them. A chef taught me that trick. He used it to intimidate waiters, but instead of tongs, he waved a knife.

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