Friday, November 18, 2011

Essential Foodie Gifts Under $20

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Thinking about holiday gifts?  I was cooking something with lemon zest the other day and thought about how much I like my microplane zester, so it occurred to me to do a blog post about favorite kitchen tools that are beyond the basic measuring cups and spoons but not so exotic that you only use them once or twice a year (like olive pitters and blow torches). To make it a little more interesting I decided they had to be under $20.  I enlisted the help of my foodie friends Ted and Brad to come up with the following list and did a couple of recon visits to my local kitchenware store as well as Bed, Bath and Beyond to make sure they fit the $$ limit.

Each of these would be a nice gift for your favorite foodie if you know they don't currently own said item.  They would also be a good hostess gift or (better yet) a nice gift for yourself.  I always like the gifts I give myself because I never have to take them back.  :-)  I was having lunch with my friends Michelle and Jessica the other day and Jessica mentioned that she had made a salmon recipe.  Michelle commented that she would never make a salmon recipe because she didn't like salmon, although she's never actually tasted salmon.  We went on to discuss another recipe and I asked her if she has a food processor.  She wasn't sure but thought she might have a hand crank one ("hand crank food processor"?  I mean, really.)  Anyway, I think I need to take Michelle on a little shopping trip so she can pick up a few items.

So in no particular order, here we go.

Kitchen Scale
There are many recipes that call for one or more ingredients by weight rather than volume because it's more precise.  For example, how many tomatoes equal two pounds?  Depends on the size of the tomatoes, of course.  Without a scale you're just guessing.  What to look for:  a small, simple scale that's easy to store.  I've seen scales with an attached bowl, for example, that I wouldn't recommend.  The size and shape of your food won't always work in that particular bowl and it's bulkier to store.  The scale that I show above will zero out the weight of whatever empty bowl you put on it, so it just weighs the ingredients.  You can use whatever bowl works best.  Slick!

Citrus Juicer
I love citrus, particularly lemon, and use a lot in cooking.  I think I've tried pretty much every juicer there is.  Years ago I had one of those brightly-colored hinged gadgets where you put a half a lemon inside and squeeze it together.  It basically turns the lemon inside-out.  I didn't like it because it didn't work very well, you had to have different sizes for different-sized citrus, and it required a lot of hand strength.  Then I bought the simple juicer shown above and used it for years.  You hold the juicer in your weaker hand (the left hand for us righties) and the fruit in your other hand.  Stick the pointy end into the fruit and work it around while you squeeze with your strong hand.  Works great, it's simple, and easy to store.  The only drawback is that you need a bowl to catch the juice, and either a strainer on top of the bowl or a spoon to fish out the seeds.

This little beauty solves the bowl and seed issues.  You just jam the cut fruit down on the top and use the cutting board as your counter-pressure.  It comes apart easily and goes in the dishwasher.  I've also seen hard plastic versions of this same concept which have the advantage of being able to see the amount of juice in the bowl.  I would recommend either this juicer or the simple wooden one above but not the hinged variety.

Meat Thermometer

First and foremost, you need a meat thermometer for food safety but it also ensures you don't overcook your beautiful roast or turkey and turn it into cardboard.  Last year I asked The Brother how he knows when his turkey is done since he doesn't have a meat thermometer, and he replied "we guess".  Oh boy.  I was over at my foodie friend Brad's house a few weeks ago for Gourmet Club and noticed that he used not one, but TWO meat thermometers to check a rolled stuffed pork roast to ensure he didn't accidentally hit the stuffing instead of the meat.  Good idea.  Ted takes his thermometer on road trips to his daughter's house.  Another good idea.  Get a good quality thermometer and don't leave it in the meat when you put it back in the oven or the plastic face will melt.  Trust me.

Straight Edge Stirrer

Brad calls this a "flat bottom stirrer" but somehow that sounded somewhat provocative to me so I call it a straight edge stirrer.  Whatever, it's used to scrape the bottom of the pan to release meat bits and incorporate them into an ensuing sauce.  I also use it to scramble eggs and other pan scraping/stirring tasks.

Citrus Zester
This could be my all-time favorite gadget.  Microplane had the brilliant idea to create a kitchen version of what is essentially a carpenter's rasp, and it works like magic to zest citrus.  The holes are small and their edges are sharp, resulting in fast, effortless and perfect zest without any of the bitter white pith.  Microplane also makes different sizes for grating cheeses, etc. and the cover of each states what they should be used to grate. They are simply the best. 

Meat Tenderizer/Pounder

Meat tenderizers are used to pound meat or poultry to make them an even thickness for cooking and to tenderize the meat.  The one I show above is not the most common variety.  The most common variety looks a lot like a two-headed hammer with one flat side and one side with jagged teeth.  I had one of those once, and tried the jagged teeth side on chicken breasts that were covered with plastic wrap (you always cover the meat with plastic before pounding).  The teeth tore up both the plastic and the chicken, resulting in a mess.  I decided I needed a pounder without teeth and with as large a pounding surface as I could find for efficiency.  Hence the version above.  I call it "The Whammer".


You'll find this particular gadget in the Asian section of your kitchen store near the woks.  It will be called a spider, although I think it actually looks more like a spider web.  You can also find all-stainless versions in the kitchen utensil aisle, in which case it will be called a skimmer.  (Don't ask.)  In either event, this is your go-to tool for taking things out of liquid.  For example, I saw a chef on Food TV use this exact item to take blanched beans out of boiling water and put them into ice water.  I drop tomatoes into boiling water for a few seconds to make them easier to peel and use my spider to take them out one at a time.  It's also perfect for taking meat out of a wok so you can cook the vegetables and then put the meat back in.  You get the idea.  What to look for - a rounded (bowl-shaped) mesh head rather than a flat head so it cups the food you're scooping.  Think tomatoes.

I hope these gave you some holiday gift ideas!  If you have any questions or other favorite gadgets that you would add, drop me a comment below.  Back to recipes next week!

1 comment:

Marne said...

I like that microplane idea. I often skip over recipes that call for zest, even though I love the taste. It's too much hassle with a plain old grater.

I met friends for a birthday/Christmas breakfast today at Hot Plate (52nd and Bloomington)in Mpls. I had your pumpkin pancakes on the brain, so when I saw they had a pumpkin pecan waffle, I was SO there! And sure enough, it was moist and yummy. Thanks for the idea. Marne