Tools of the trade

Is Franka Philip a kitchen gadget geek? You be the judge, as she justifies the purchase of yet another whisk and confesses that one dream purchase is

A pastelle press replaces the age-old method of pressing by hand or the rolling pin. Photograph by Marlon Rouse

There are three whisks in my kitchen: a heavy-duty French whisk for beating eggs for omelettes and custard; a smaller vinaigrette whisk for light sauces; and a hand-held electric whisk for whizzing egg whites to stiff peaks.

To the normal person, that’s got to be enough but no, not for me. After seeing the silicone-wrapped whisks and the ball whisks on the Gourmet magazine website’s “whisk slideshow,” I’m heading out to get them because they seem so useful and cool.

A bit of a kitchen-gadget geek, you’re thinking? I wouldn’t say that, but were I a weaker person, I’d be buying lots of “cool” devices.

It goes without saying that lots of those gadgets would probably get ferocious use for a few months, then eventually end up in the back of the cupboard. You’re smiling as you’re reading this, aren’t you? You’re probably thinking about the gadgets you bought with great intentions—the bread maker, the food processor or the oft-neglected juicer.

In my mother’s kitchen, there’s a slow cooker or “crock pot,” a Vitamix and a few other once-trendy gadgets. When we got the Vitamix as a gift from my uncle many years ago, I was particularly impressed by the cookbook full of colourful photos, with promises of perfect ice cream, peanut butter and soup.

I think my mother used it once or twice and it was retired to the cupboard, under a cute blue gingham cover.

I fear my Magimix food processor may go the way of my mother’s Vitamix if I don’t start using it a bit more. The shiny chrome Magimix 4200, with its range of attachments and cutters for chopping, grating and shredding, had been one of my fantasy gadgets for ages and ages. I imagined liquidising soup, blending cake batters and grating Parmesan cheese in preparation for big dinner parties and Sunday lunches.

So you could imagine how quickly my chequebook came out when I went to a food expo and saw one at the Magimix booth for the discounted price of £120 (they can cost up to £200) just because it had been on display for three days.

Thus far, it’s minced lamb for lamb burgers and mixed batter for lemon cake, but mainly, it’s been used for juicing fruit and vegetables. I discovered that for all its beauty and sturdiness, my Magimix is just not nimble enough for everyday use.

Around the same time, I bought a nifty-looking turbo-charged hand-blender system, and that’s what I use most often. It’s perfect for common chores like making smoothies, blending seasoning and liquidising soup.

From talking to a lot of my foodie friends, it seems that the gadgets most likely to become cupboard relics are the ones bought to accompany some kind of trend or kick, usually detoxing or dieting. So many of them confessed to buying juicers in January because they’ve made ambitious New Year resolutions to embark on major detoxing after the excesses of the Christmas season. But once the detox programme ends, the task of chopping apples, pears and beetroot suddenly seems too tedious.

On the other hand, a lot of people who buy the sleek and simple citrus power hand presses never tire of them because making orange and grapefruit juice is so simple and quick—one push and you’re done.

Thanks to food television, there’s no more mystery to pasta-making. Chefs make it seem so easy, but if you can buy really good-quality fresh pasta in most supermarkets, why buy a pasta maker? They seem such obvious contenders for the scrap heap.

On food message boards, people post questions about making fresh pasta time and time again. Some respondents gush about how much better homemade pasta is than the shop-bought stuff, and making your own pasta is oh-so-therapeutic. The more pragmatic foodies warn that it’s not worth it unless you’re making very large quantities of pasta all the time, because they end up in the attic or at knock-down prices in a charity shop months later.

We are often convinced of the wonderfulness of kitchen gadgets by slick advertising campaigns, usually fronted by chefs and washed-up celebrities. Look at the ubiquitous commercials for the George Foreman Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine, tirelessly promoted by the cuddly former boxing champion. Foreman’s promises of tasty grilled food in minutes and busting the fat off meat have led to sales of more than 100 million around the world. The grilling machine is often the butt of jokes by snooty foodies who pooh-pooh the idea, and even I laughed out loud when a friend told me she wanted one as a housewarming present.

I have, however, come to regard the grill in a new light after coming across Hidden Kitchens, a series of stories on National Public Radio (NPR) that “explores the world of street-corner cooking, below-the-radar, unexpected, hidden kitchens, legendary meals and eating traditions.”

Before listening to Hidden Kitchens, I never knew how important the grill has been for immigrants, homeless people and those living in hostels “who have no kitchens, no legal or official place to cook.” I was particularly touched by the story of Jeffrey, who cooks for himself and other homeless people by plugging his grill into a power pole under the overpass on Chicago’s busy Wacker Drive. It’s a risky way of cooking, but I guess people do what they have to do given their circumstances. I’m not going to rush out and buy a George Foreman grill anytime soon, but I certainly won’t laugh at my friends who want them.

Among my Trini friends here in London, we’re always discussing the merits of the pastelle press. This is a cumbersome but truly effective tool in the making of a favourite Trinidadian Christmas delicacy. Pastelles, also known as hallacas in Latin American countries, are meat-filled polenta (cornmeal) pies and to make them, the polenta needs to be pressed into a thin disc before stuffing and folding. I’ve made pastelles by using a rolling pin, and although they aren’t perfect, I won’t be lugging a heavy wooden tool across the seas just to use it once a year.

Before buying those new whisks, I’m going to invest in some other handy little gadgets that will definitely never end up in the back of my cupboard. This year, I’ve been on a mission to become a better baker, and I’m really interested in making artisanal breads in the traditional way. No breadmaker for me, I want to feel the dough come to life in my hands!

The baking gadgets I intend to acquire first are simple ones—a plastic scraper to mix and cut dough, a lame (the traditional baker’s “pen” that holds a razor blade to make nice designs on the bread) and wicker proving baskets to hold my loaves while they’re proving.

A sexy chef’s knife is also on the list. I know most people don’t think of knives as gadgets, but we serious cooks really cherish our knives. A knife is for life, and it’s not uncommon for chefs to spend hundreds of dollars on a single knife. I recently fell in love with a beautiful, well balanced Japanese chef’s knife that felt like an extension of my hand—and at the very decent price of £60, it’s a steal.
Of course, it’s also been enthusiastically endorsed by several top chefs…so it’s got to be good, right?

Hidden Kitchens: www.kitchensisters.org/hidden_kitchens/hk_radio_series.htm