By Mary Ann Ebner
We may think we know our neighbors, closest confidants and even ourselves, but a more complete picture may be stashed on kitchen shelves and counters. It’s not the pantry — blushing with expired preserves or neglected boxes of dated pasta — that gives us away, but a cabinet or tool drawer, where we store, stuff and tuck kitchenware. Some kitchens bulge with too much, while others suffer the consequences of meager attention.
Last summer my family stayed in a home away from home for a few days during a gathering in Florida. Located in close proximity to the beach as well as the grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, the cottage exceeded our needs. It was one of those property agreements brokered through a third party. The owner secures personal items in a locked storage room and guests rent the rest of the space — kitchen utensils included.
The lush herb garden spilling over the back patio hinted that the owner invested real time cooking in the home’s kitchen. But it was the complete set of razor-sharp kitchen knives, cutting boards worn with use and a selection of pans of a certain quality that revealed details about the owner who stepped out for the week to generate a little income from the property.
The homeowner, subliminally, shared a philosophy: Stocking the right utensils helps hands in the kitchen. Some of us are wishful when it comes to essential tools designed for food preparation and table service. An ambitious friend has accumulated a colossal collection of the latest cooking and baking products but doesn’t cook much. The desire is there, but the pasta maker serves more as a decoration than a workhorse in the kitchen.
It’s easy to fall for the latest gadgets on the market, but limiting acquisitions to items that justify their keep with frequent use can control kitchen clutter. My go-to cooking tools include the basics — a santoku knife, cast-iron skillet and a collection of assorted spoons — and occasionally the day arrives to retire tools that time and technology have improved.
One of my most reliable tools was purchased thanks to a neighbor who dropped by during dinner prep one evening. Artemis, born and raised in Asia, knows her rice and probably prepares it six days a week. She insisted that I surrender my old rice cooker. It was smallish, with two settings, but did the job. Politely, my friend questioned how it could possibly suffice, and most importantly, she mentioned the products she had avoided and suggested a few models to research.
A rice cooker equipped with Fuzzy Logic technology — essentially a computer chip that adjusts time and temperature for precise and consistent cooking — soon replaced the old small appliance. The rice cooker has paid for itself in producing pillowy rice for the last few years, and it also turns out perfectly steamed vegetables.
Another practical tool is the mandoline slicer. Interchangeable blades offer a choice in creating everything from julienne slices to curly cuts to course grating and fine zesting. But do note: Absolute attention is required for those who want to keep all of their fingers intact. The blades are super sharp. Distracted slicing is not recommended.
Not everyone needs a lava mortar and pestle, but the three-legged bowl often used in my kitchen rocks. Also known as a molcajete, it’s an age-old cooking tool. The molcajete helps in the crushing of herbs and spices, and inspires the smashing of just-ripened avocadoes into a proper paste for guacamole. And when making guacamole, the lemon and lime squeezer is a must.
Home-away-from-home guests peering around my kitchen might be fooled by a small display of odd kitchen gadgets on a shelf. Among the items is a vintage aluminum citrus squeezer. Put it to work and it still fully extracts the juice and separates it from the seeds and pulp, but it’s no match for a contemporary hinged squeezer (kept at close reach in a drawer) that makes easy work of juice extraction.
A medley of knives, slicers, spoons and pans recently served as instruments to help prepare sweet and sour chicken with vegetables. Naturally, the task could have been handled with fewer gadgets, but when a kitchen functions well, even a slender slotted spoon deserves some of the credit. Modest tools — put into practice — minimize prep time, food waste and cleanup. The best utensils in an everyday kitchen may not necessarily be the most sophisticated, but they’re the tools that see the most use.
Sweet and Sour Chicken With Vegetables
6 to 8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 teaspoon sesame seeds
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1 teaspoon sea salt
Twist of freshly ground pepper
½ cup sugar
1 cup stock or chicken broth
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
¼ cup red wine vinegar
½ cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Rinse chicken thighs and place in sealable bag or container. Mix soy sauce, canola, sesame seeds, ginger, salt and pepper. Pour mixture over chicken, seal container and toss to evenly coat chicken. Place container contents in baking dish. Bake uncovered 45 minutes.
During the baking process, slice carrots and green peppers and chop scallions. Set aside.
In medium saucepan, combine sugar, stock, vinegars, lemon juice and zest. Bring to a low boil and whisk in cornstarch. Remove from heat and stir in carrots, green peppers and scallions. Stir to warm through.
Place chicken thighs on platter or serving dish and smother with sweet and sour vegetable sauce. Serve immediately with fresh garden greens and steamed rice.
6 to 8 medium carrots, thinly sliced (If you have a mandoline food slicer, use it.)
1 large green pepper, thinly sliced
1 bunch scallions, finely chopped
Photos by M.A. Ebner