Cranking out good things as the cook keeps control

With a food mill, it's easy to choose the texture of the ingredients you process

February 07, 2007|By Russ Parsons | Russ Parsons,Los Angeles Times

Modern mechanics has brought any number of kitchen marvels - the electric mixer, the food processor and the blender. But sometimes progress doesn't offer the best answer. Consider the food mill. It may be mechanical and marvelous, but it is resolutely unmodern. It's not as basic as a mortar and pestle, but it's not far behind.

There are only three parts: a big bowl with a hole in the bottom, a perforated disk that fits into that hole (most come with three disks with perforations of different sizes) and a rotating blade attached to a handle that you turn to press the food through the perforations.

There is nothing to plug in; the food mill is powered by "elbow grease," as my dad used to say. Yet for a lot of kitchen jobs, it works better than newfangled contraptions.

Control is the biggest difference. Food is never mashed or over-processed. And with three sizes of disks, you can make a fairly fine to slightly coarse puree.

Boil potatoes and run them through a food mill to make a silky mash. Try that in a processor or a blender and you'll wind up with a potato-flavored glue.

Add celery root to the potatoes, and the food mill shows another advantage: You can choose the texture you want. Use the coarse blade for a puree with little chunks of celery root. Use the finest blade and the puree will be light and silky.

Actually, "puree" is not the right word for what a food mill does. Because of the power and ease of electric gadgets, that word has come to mean the processing of ingredients to the texture of baby food.

A food mill breaks down the food but never smashes it to a paste. You can prepare hearty soups with a food mill. Use the coarsest disk to puree winter squash, root vegetables or cooked beans; the resulting mix will be chunky.

It does a better job than a food processor because it's easier to control. It's better than a blender because it doesn't froth in any air.

A food mill makes a great chunky fish soup. Puree cooked fish using the coarsest disk and it will filter out all the small bones.

It's perfect for making spatzel, the little German dumplings. Fit the mill over a pot of boiling water, then grind the dough straight in through the coarsest disk. Saute the cooked dumplings in butter for a great accompaniment to stews.

Speaking of stews, use the medium or coarse disk to puree the braising vegetables back into the meat and liquid, and the dish thickens itself.

You can spend the earth on a food mill these days. One from the high-end companies Rosle or Cuisipro can run about $100 or more. Oxo International has just come out with one that is available for about $50.

I've had my food mill for so long that I no longer know where it came from. It works like a champ.

The key things to look for are rough-textured perforations on the plates and an all-metal body.

Using a food mill is straightforward. Choose your disk, and fit it and the crank into the bowl. Place the food in the bowl and turn the crank. But there are a couple of tricks.

When you're pureeing foods that leave a residue, such as peels or seeds, that residue inevitably clogs the holes. When you notice the process starting to slow, reverse the crank a couple of turns and the blade that was pressing the food through will become a scraper that will clear the holes.

Also, remember that the thinnest puree will flow through the plates the easiest; the thickest (and best) is apt to cling. When you've finished using the food mill, scrape the bottom of the grinding plate to get all the good stuff hiding underneath.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not about to get rid of my blender or food processor. Or my mortar and pestle, for that matter. Each does certain jobs better than anything else.

Maybe that's the best definition of true progress: connecting every tool with the task it does best.

Russ Parsons writes for the Los Angeles Times.

Celery Root Puree

Serves 6

There is nothing hard and fast about this recipe. If you prefer a milder celery root flavor, add more potatoes. As long as you wind up with about 3 pounds combined of peeled, cubed celery root and potatoes, it'll be fine.

Also, using a coarse disk rather than a fine disk will make a puree that is a little chunkier and less silky -- more "smashed" than "mashed."

2 1/2 pounds celery root

1 pound baking potatoes

2 cloves garlic, peeled

salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, plus more if desired

1/3 cup whipping cream

pinch white pepper

pinch freshly grated nutmeg

Peel celery root. Cut off knobby top and bottom. Set root upright on a cutting board and trim away the tough outer peel with a chef's knife. Cut into 1-inch cubes and place in a large saucepan with cold water.

Peel and cube potatoes and add with garlic to the saucepan. Season water with salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until vegetables are tender enough to be crushed with a fork, 20 to 25 minutes.

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