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Gifts that Really Cook

Special Gifts
by John Raven, Ph.B.

With Christmas staring us right straight in the face, it's time to get busy shopping. If there is a creative cook on your list, you might consider a kitchen gadget or two for the stocking.

As with anything you purchase, you pretty well get what you pay for. More than likely the least expensive model is not the best choice, although I'm sure there are exceptions. Look for brand names you recognize. The larger manufacturers have a reputation to live up to.

I have something in my seldom-used gadget drawer that I really like. It's a hand blender. You know, the blender on a stick that you can use in bowl or pot. I don't use it often, but when the situation calls for it, nothing else will substitute. My portable blender has a cord on it that plugs in the wall. I'm sure there are cordless models out there now. You just have to remember to not raise the blending end out of the pot or bowl while the motor is running or you will find it makes a dandy food flinger, too.

An electric can opener is always handy, and everyone has cans that need opening. I like the ones that sit on the counter. I have a cordless electric can opener, but it's a little tricky to get set in place on the can. It would be a good idea to keep an old-fashioned, hand powered can opener around in case there is a power outage. They are also handy for taking camping or on picnics.

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Any serious cook would welcome a spice grinder. The one I have is sturdy enough to grind coffee. Pepper mills are great for the table, but when the recipe calls for ground black pepper by the spoonful, the spice grinder can turn out the fresh product in seconds without a lot of wrist action. You can use it for turning dried chile pods into chile powder. Any spice releases flavor quicker the finer it is ground.

Hot pads or pot holders, as we call them, and oven mitts are great. They are useful and decorative, too, if you keep them clean. They keep the nasty blisters off your fingers.

I have a food processor I use a lot. It can't be beat for chopping a large volume of whatever it is you need chopped. It will process a large onion in seconds. You just have to know when to stop chopping or you will end up with puree. The attachment on my processor for shredding and slicing does not work as well as I would like it to, but in a pinch it saves a lot of labor. A more expensive machine would do a better job. The processor is also handy for mixing things like cake batter or biscuit dough. It will cut the shortening into a batch of flour in no time and, if you are careful adding the liquids, it will form the batter or dough a lot quicker and better than you can do it with a spoon. There's a little learning curve involved, but it doesn't take long to get the hang of it. Did I mention it's great for chopping meat into sausage or burger? The secret of doing this correctly is to have the meat in equal size pieces before you start. Again you need to stop just as you get the size grind you desire, over grinding results in paté, which ain't all that bad.

If you are giving any utensils with non-stick surfaces, be sure to include some plastic or wooden spatulas and spoons. Metal tools ruin both expensive and inexpensive non-stick pots and pans in no time. If you see the TV chefs using metal spoons in the non-stick pots, it's because they don't have to buy new ones.

I recently purchased an inexpensive deep fryer. It looks nice and will fry things very well. Here's the catch. It's only big enough for a one-person operation. The oil gets contaminated too fast. The food particles that drop off during frying stay in the oil and just keep getting browner and browner until they are black and give off a foul taste. About three cookings is all I can get out of a batch of oil. If you have your heart set on a deep fryer, spend the money and get one with a filter for cleaning the oil and one that is large enough to cook a big batch of French fries at one time. The best deep fryer for the average chef is a Dutch oven. The cast iron really holds the heat, and you can use a candy thermometer to get the correct temperature. When the oil cools down, you can run it through a fine sieve to remove the offending particles. I've heard you can strain the oil through a coffee filter to really clean it, but I've never had much luck at that.

Cutting boards are always nice to have on hand. It really looks nice to have a loaf of homemade bread on a cutting board with knife handy so your guests can slice off what they desire. Or they can watch you do it, if you don't trust them with sharp objects. After years of haggling, it has been decided that a wooden cutting board is best. There is a natural germ inhibitor in wood that kills the little bugs. Maple is best choice for cutting boards. Any hard wood would be okay, but avoid pine as it is too soft and can impart a turpentine taste. Shy away from glass or ceramic cutting boards; they will ruin your knives.

Anyone who grills a lot would appreciate a set of grill tools with nice, long handles. Make sure they are sturdy and won't bend under the weight of a chicken. A grill brush is also handy. You can get the combination brass brush, scraper and grill scraper for about what a pack of gum costs -- inexpensive enough to throw away and replace when it gets grungy instead of trying to clean it.

Let's wind this up with a recipe I invented a few days ago. It's a fine soup course or can be a full meal deal.

Raven's Potato Soup

  • 3 medium potatoes, 1/2-inch dice (use baking potatoes -- not red skinned ones)
  • 1/2 medium onion, diced
  • 1/4 stick butter (2 tablespoons)
  • 4 chicken bouillon cubes
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon celery seed
Melt butter in a soup pot over medium high heat. Sauté onions until they are just transparent. Add the potatoes and continue to sauté about ten minutes. Add enough water to cover. [Note: If you have homemade chicken stock, use it and omit the bouillon cubes. Don't use canned broth.] Add the bouillon cubes, black pepper and celery seed. Bring to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are just tender.

Remove and reserve one-half of the potatoes. Purée contents of the pot. A hand blender works best. You can use regular blender, but be careful of the hot liquid. If you don't have a blender, mash the potatoes and onion against the side of the pot until they are as fine as you can get them. Return the reserved potatoes to the pot and stir. Bring to a simmer. Adjust seasoning if needed. Garnish with chopped parsley or chives. Serves 4 to 6.

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