Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Tools of the Trade

Every trade has specific tools which are required to complete specific tasks. When I was 13 I worked for my Dad and his brothers, who owned a very high end house painting and wallpapering business in Toronto. These guys were the ultimate craftsmen. They could mix colours, hang any wallpaper and had an inherent love of the trade. The right tools were very much part of this. I believe that working for my father instilled in me a love of technique and the idea of using the right tool for a specific task has carried through to this day.

I am often asked what my favourite tools are and what I can't live without. I will save knives for another post since they are a discussion unto themselves. Ditto for pots and pans and appliances. Here we will discuss hand tools.

There are three things I absolutely can't live without in the kitchen. First is a set of good wooden spoons. They should be of hardwood and of varying shapes. A good spoon makes stirring a risotto or the vegetables for a soup that much easier and more satisfying. There is an undefinable quality in the way different chefs prepare food. If you make say a batch of scones in a hurry when you are in a bad mood they will taste that way. If you relax and use the right fork to mix the dough and a good sharp cutter to form them they will be light, flaky and sublime.

The feel of a good wooden spoon in your hand, with the right slant to the end will make the job easier and more enjoyable. I loath the sound of a metal spoon or tongs in a pot. All that jarring, scraping metal on metal is awful. Recently I bought a curved, slightly concave spoon from a woodcarver on Lasqueti named Ingo Dyrkton.

At the Saturday market he had a wide array of spoons arranged on a blanket on the ground. As he and I talked I picked up and put down a dozen spoons. I finally picked up one that just felt right. Since then it has become indispensable in my kitchen at home.

At the restaurant I have several wooden paddles made by a Thai woman who sets up her booth at the Saturday Farmer's Market outside our store. They are straight ended and work beautifully for all manner of tasks from stirring veg for soups, to folding cornbread batter together.

The second tool I can't live without is a Lee Valley rasp. For everything from lemon zest to cheese it is what I reach for. We only use freshly grated nutmeg in the kitchen and it makes all the difference here as well.

The third thing essential tool is a good pair of tongs. Tongs can be used for all tasks from turning meat to lifting pots out of the way - they become an extension of your hands. I like the shorter, heavy duty ones with the plastic handles.

Although wooden spoons, rasp and tongs are my essentials, there are many tools in the kitchen that are used on a daily basis. I choose these with care. For instance, all the wire whisks at the restaurant have wooden handles, they just feel better in your hands. Rubber spatulas are all of the high heat silicone variety - to my mind they are one of the greatest things ever invented.

I have tools that I bought in 1980 and still use. The other day I picked up a melon baller to use to make a salsa. It is oval and has a rosewood handle. Our young apprentice was admiring it. It fits my hand, makes lovely oval pieces of melon and was built to last.

Most of my tools tell a story. I recommend only buying a kitchen tool if you are going to use it on a regular basis. The kitchen can easily become so loaded with single use gadgets that we can barely remember why we bought them. Because I have a minimal number of tools I can pick up a melon baller or wooden spoon and remember where I was and what I was doing when I bought it.


Heather said...

Ingo's carvings are so lovely, he really finds the sweet spot in the wood. Maybe you could set up an endorsement deal! : )

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this posting. I am looking forward to your discussion of knives, pots and pans, and appliances. I am inspired by your wooden spoon story, and see a new purchase on my horizon!