Building a Greater Grater

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Grating my nerves, mostly

Grating my nerves, mostly

I’ve never had a happy relationship with any box grater, ever. For the most part, they are designed for a child’s hand, are honed about as sharp as Carrot Top’s wit, and embody the confidence-inspiring sturdiness of single-ply bathroom tissue. Basically, they feature one marginally useful side (pictured), while the other three are for clogging, juicing, and… I never quite figured out what that fourth side was for. On occasion, I might be able to shred cheddar, provided it nailed the precise thermal sweet spot where it neither crumbled nor smeared, which, to the best of my ability to determine it, is 2.5˚C (36.5˚ F), or just slightly colder than the interior of my fridge. Accordingly, the potential gratee usually detoured briefly to the freezer while I tried to triangulate the stay required to arrive at la température idéale. Upon its removal, I had roughly 41 nanoseconds to complete my task before the warmth of my hand and the ambient temp turned le fromage into un blob gluant. Back to the freezer, 41 more nanoseconds, again and again and again.

During the holidays, I decided to buy a new grater for The Bride as a stocking stuffer, and I was determined not to repeat the same mistake I had been making for the better part of 40 years. Enter the Microplane 4-Sided Box Grater.

Size isn't everything, but it does count

Size isn’t everything, but it does count

If there is such a thing as the Maybach Landaulet of box graters, this is it. Strike that — they don’t make Maybachs anymore, and new Rolls-Royces are just plain fugly, which this isn’t. Call it the Bentley Flying Spur of box graters; not flashy, but meticulously engineered. To extend the metaphor, if the price of the average box grater in Target’s or Tesco’s housewares section were indexed to, say, a Kia, the Microplane is gonna cost you like a Cadillac. [I think I paid $35 USD + tax for mine at Sur la Table.] But oh, what luxuries it affords.

Who's the greatest of them all?

Who’s the greatest of them all?

Let’s start with the dual handle; nicely contoured for the palm of the hand, with an additional finger grip for added stability. The plasticised feet set the tool’s base about an inch above the cutting board/pan/plate surface, so you can actually see how much you’ve grated (used to be, one had to lift up the grater to peek, which meant carrot or parsnip or cheese shreds tumbled out, thereby making it impossible to set it level again without a pile of fuss). The blades, which are hella sharp, come in ultra coarse, fine, medium ribbon, and slicer sides, the latter of which provides a sort of mini-mandoline for cucumbers and carrots and the like. One of the sides even slides off so you can comfortably (and thoroughly) clean the grater’s interior. And maybe best of all, it comes with a protective plastic shield for storage, which keeps the blades sharp and your fingers safe (when reaching in the drawer for it, anyway; the usual safety cautions apply during use). No wonder it took the gold medal in the Kitchen Hand Tools category of the 2009 Housewares Design Awards.

This may not be the last box grater you’ll ever need, but it’s probably the first one you won’t regret having bought.

Such a Tool

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Everything put together can be taken apart

Everything put together can be taken apart

No cook or chef I know — myself included — ever seems to have enough storage space. The recently acquired Piment d’Espelette doesn’t fit into the spice rack, the deal you got on parchment paper at Costco means you’ll be keeping it in the garage (or worse, the back seat of your car), and measuring spoons often exhibit a sock-like knack for going missing unexpectedly, particularly at a mission-critical juncture. The folks at Progressive International have more or less solved this last dilemma with four sets of measuring spoons that have mastered the art of spooning, in that they nest — and remain — together in the drawer. No more hanging spoons off a ring like a jailer’s keys. No more trying to eyeball 7.5 mL’s worth of baking soda in a 15 mL spoon.

From a design standpoint, they are elegant and really thought through. First, they have measuring bowls at both ends, one narrow for digging spices out of small-necked jars, one round and well suited to liquids. How many times have you had to wash or dry your measuring spoon because you were moving from wet to dry ingredients? Problem solved. Second, they are flat on the bottom, so they sit perfectly on the counter or stovetop, making it easy to drizzle in a little liquid from the jug of olive oil or vinegar. Third, because the stems and bowls are flush, it’s easy to scrape across the top to level off dry ingredients. Fourth, they display both metric measurements and their archaic counterparts. And finally, they lock together, keeping them beautifully compact and always at the ready in the storage drawer. As a special bonus, any spoons superfluous to your current project can remain locked together, presuming you arrange them from smallest to largest.

Measuring spoons spooning

Measuring spoons spooning

The set I have (pictured above) are made of stainless steel and snap together mechanically at the mid-section, but you can also get a snap-fit set made from plastic, and both plastic and stainless versions with embedded magnets to wed them.

Brilliant. Simple. How ever did I get along without them?

Next up for this kitchen: Progressive International has adapted the genius bit to measuring cups. Gotta get those without doubt.

[NOTE: While many of these links send you to Amazon.com, Progressive International products are available through a variety of retail channels, both brick-and-mortar and online.]

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Special kudos to iheartorganizing.blogspot.com for their photo of kitchen drawer chaos. Makes me feel like I’m right at home. And to theoatmeal.com for the first coherent explanation on why socks can’t live together in peace and harmony. [They’ve also neatly outlined the difference between mayonnaise and Miracle Whip in an R-rated strip.]

In Praise of a Very Fancy Blender

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First off, let me say from the outset that I’m not a “juice guy.” Sure, I’ve seen the infomercials and heard the testimonials and been subject to in-store demos, just like the rest of us. And I love juice; very few liquids on Earth bring me greater pleasure than a fresh-squeezed glass of blood orange juice. But I’m not persuaded that juice can rightly claim the curative powers that its disciples ascribe to it. So it wasn’t for that reason that I found myself on Craigslist, obsessing over finding my first VitaMix (or Vita-Mixer, as it was known then).

Last year, I had promised to make mushroom soup for a Thanksgiving gathering at our friends Rick and Lori’s house, and I knew that some of the attendees had dairy issues. Accordingly, I mused aloud on my FB page as to whether I should substitute almond milk, or cashew cream, or some sort of ersatz non-dairy sour cream substitute as a thickening agent, to give it a “creaminess” without using cream. My pal (and head chef at Papilles Bistro in Hollywood) Tim Carey commented, “I never use cream. Get yourself a VitaMix.” Okay. When you get advice from the guy who has made the best cauliflower soup you’ve ever had in your life, it makes sense to listen.

VitaMix products are expensive. No, really. They are. Very. Expensive. Then again, so are Maybachs, and for much the same reason. I’m pretty sure I could throw a handful of gravel in my Vita-Mixer and come out with a lovely powder, suitable for sprinkling over a fruit cocktail that found itself light in mineral content. The one that I bought — a Vita-Mixer 4000, used, for $200 — had been in service for over a decade and a half, and the guy who sold it did so only because he had been given a new one as a present. It’s a champ, the very one pictured at the top of this post. Easy to clean, easy to use (though I have twice made a pretty comical mess of the kitchen by failing to secure the so-called “Action Dome”). The original cookbook, which came as part of the purchase, claims that one can actually use the device to cook soup, due to the friction of its rotors against the canister’s contents. That may be so, but the idea of having to listen to this device at full throttle for half an hour is about as appealing as being subjected to an extra-innings Justin Bieber concert.

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I made a mushroom stock from water and leeks and carrots and parsley and garlic and dried and fresh mushrooms (dried oyster and black trumpet mushrooms, fresh Eryngii, Maitake, and Bunapi mushrooms), then I sautéed a bunch of fresh mushrooms (I think there were seven different varieties of fresh mushrooms in the soup) and some spices, combined the whole lot (mushrooms, homemade mushroom stock, a bit of olive oil, a little fresh rosemary and oregano, and some salt and pepper) in the Vita-Mixer and puréed like a crazy man.

Sautéed and puréed fresh mushrooms

Sautéed and puréed fresh mushrooms

[Incidentally, there are consequences to puréeing hot soup in a food processor whose lid has been too securely clamped; the steam forces the liquid out of the container at high pressure in directions hitherto unimagined at a velocity just barely less energetic than an Olympic gymnast’s free-form floor event. Live and learn.]

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The resulting soup — at least the part of it that I didn’t have to wipe off the cabinets, counters, and floor — was magnificent; creamy, hearty, aromatic. And I owe it all to the wonders of what might be the single most essential countertop kitchen device other than the toaster — the VitaMix[er].