A no-nonsense kitchen for Christmas
Based on the variety of ice cream scoops on the market --1,529 available from Amazon alone -- you might conclude that the world faces a crisis of improperly excavated ice cream.
I think it's more a symptom of our love affair with cooking gadgetry combined with our ever-larger kitchens. We now easily accommodate toys like turkey fryers, pizza stones, bread-making machines and drawers of little hand tools. But at some point, even in the most super-sized of kitchens, the returns from accumulating all of this gear will diminish. Keep that in mind as we plunge into another seasonal round of buying each other yet more expensive stuff.
Every piece of cooking gear you give someone effectively takes away space from the kitchen, and that can mess with cooking flow. What I want for Christmas is an uncluttered kitchen, with just the tools I need to do what I do. I'll take good ingredients over kitchen gear any day.
What I can't do is move a dough mixer out of the way every time I want to chop an onion. I can't untangle the spatula from the avocado slicer in a clattery, cluttered drawer. I can't waste my shelf space with gravy separators and pancake portion-pourers.
I am shocked at times by how primitive my kitchen is. Until recently I was opening cans with a jackknife. I still don't own measuring spoons. But nobody leaves my table unfulfilled. And no one can taste that the meal was cooked on an electric stove, or that my knives are dull. Knives, in fact, can serve as a barometer for someone's obsession with kitchen tools. You can spend a lot of money on them, or almost none. But any knife can be kept sharp, or get the job done dull. It's interesting that Japan and Germany, our World War II enemies, seem to have cornered the world market for fine knives. Japan, at least, I can understand, because it has awesome food. But Germany?
Japanese chefs say they need yanagi, usuba, and deba knives in order to properly float my boat of sushi, and I fully support them. But I also know full well that if I tried to use those knives at home I'd probably just hurt myself.
My favorite knife was made in Thailand. It's rectangular and very thin, with a wide, flat tip I can use as a spatula. I picked it up while on a motorcycle-taxi tour around some of Bangkok's widely dispersed, open-air kitchen-supply markets. My driver was helping me find a cro hiin, Thai for "big-ass stone mortar and pestle."
We finally found my cro hiin at a stall in a market underneath an elevated highway. I bought both sets the guy had, because they were perfect, crafted from smooth, heavy stone. They were the size of tea kettles and about 20 pounds each, five pounds for the pestle, 15 for the mortar. Flying home, I didn't want to check them for fear they'd bounce around and destroy each other. But the airline wouldn't let me carry them on the plane, probably fearing I might use one to smash open the cockpit door. Luckily, airline personnel could see what was at stake and helped me package them appropriately.
When I finally got my mortars and pestles home, I put one set straight on my counter, where it proved well worth the trouble. It pulverizes everything, large and small, hard and soft. The heavy pestle does all the work, and the mortar doesn't budge. The bowl is deep enough that stuff doesn't fly out and all over the kitchen. It consumes a bit of space, but it's worth it. That cro hiin remains one of the most important tools in my primitive kitchen.
I gave the other cro hiin to friends as a wedding present. What better way to symbolize an enduring marriage than the grinding action of pestle in mortar? As for presents to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, solstice, Kwanzaa, the retail economy, or whatever we choose to call it these days, remember: Your friends probably already have an ice cream scoop. It's called a spoon.