Ask a true cook to describe his or her favorite kitchen companions and you’re sure to hear enthusiastic prose extolling the virtues, not of people, but of gadgets, gear and great cookbooks. Not fooled by pretty faces, experienced cooks require from their trusted servants one quality above all: an enduring practicality. Does it work? Is it truly useful? Is it durable enough to stand up to years of kitchen wizardry without letting us down? Are its recipes alluring enough to coax us back between its covers time and again? We asked a few of our favorite cooks to tell us about their best kitchen friends. Their stories follow, and we’d love to hear your stories as well. See Page 43 for details on how you can share your stories with us.
The most important thing to a cook, other than quality ingredients, is a good sharp knife and a large wooden cutting board. It surprises me how many people have dull knives (which are more dangerous than sharp ones) — and no wonder if they’re using one of those pebbly glass cutting boards — which are hard to cut on and dull the blades of knives. Although they have pretty designs, I use mine for trivets.
Being a culinary herbalist, I use two tools all of the time and truly love them. In fact they travel with me, to herb demonstrations, lectures and classes. They are the mezzaluna and the mortar and pestle.
I was first introduced to the mezzaluna when I lived in Italy nearly 30 years ago. Mezza means half and luna means moon in Italian, and this tool is a half-moon shaped knife blade with two handles at either end. It is just the tool for chopping and mincing small or large quantities of herbs and garlic. I use mine every day. I also chop with my chef’s knife, but I like using the mezzaluna to chop herbs, garlic and nuts. I am good at it, after so many years of using it, and I must admit I make it look easy. I encourage those in the audience to come try it — it is easy to get the knack of it — after a few times using it, you find your own rhythm.
It is also a wonderful tool for children to use, since they cannot get their fingers under the blade because they have to hold onto the two handles. I am certain of the kind of mezzaluna that I like — there are a number of them on the market now — and some I find cumbersome or inadequate. I don’t like the small ones that come with little round bowls to chop in. They inhibit the cook, and the bowl is so small that herbs fly out all over the place. I like to use mine on a cutting board where I have room to rock and roll. I also don’t like the two-bladed ones very much since herbs and pieces of garlic or nuts get stuck in between the blades. A recent introduction is a one-handled mezzaluna that has a handgrip over the blade. I find it awkward and can’t get the same rocking motion with this style and would rather use a chef’s knife.
I have a few antique mezzalunas hanging in my kitchen that are just for show, and I have two Italian ones that get a workout. They have stainless blades, wooden handles and measure 8-inches and 10-inches. I use the larger one most often, and the smaller one I bought for my children when they were little. I think I paid about $25 and $30 for them, but that was a few years back. I sharpen mine on a stone, and they should last a lifetime.
My other favorite tool is the mortar and pestle. I have a collection of them — more than 30 — in all sizes, shapes and materials. My favorite one is my largest, measuring 10-inches across the top and made of vitreous porcelain. I use it for making salsa verde, pesto, bread sauces, mayonnaise, for pounding roots like echinacea for making tinctures, and to make sugar scrubs and bath salts in large quantities. I have a smaller metal one that has a rough black surface, which was a gift from the Michigan Herb Growers that is wonderful for crushing herb seeds and spices. For more information see the April/May 2001 issue for my article on mortars and pestles.
One of the reasons that these tools are special to me, besides
getting the job done, is that they have a bit of ceremony with
them. Using them makes me slow down a bit. Rather than just press a
button and process, I use the tools and become intimate with the
food and the moment. I get to reflect on how big and lush my basil
is this year, or how pungent the garlic is, and how wonderful
toasted cumin smells. These tools allow me the pleasure of being in
touch with my senses and to experience the food that I prepare on
another level. I find that using the mezzaluna and the mortar and
pestle is almost a kind of therapy for me, creating harmony in
preparing food and a feeling of satisfaction while doing it.
— Susan Belsinger
Herb gardener, cook and Herb Companion contributor
For the last few months, I’ve been having great fun trying new recipes in Vegetarian Planet, by Didi Emmons (Harvard Common Press, 1997). It includes vegetarian recipes from a variety of world cuisines, cleaned up (to reduce excessive fat) and often brightened to bring out big flavors. Naturally, herbs play prominent roles in many of the recipes, for example Golden Potato Cake with Fresh Herb Dressing, and Wild Mushroom Stew with Herbed Dumplings. Truly yummy stuff!
On the kitchen gadget side, I really like the silicon baking mat my mother gave me a couple of years ago. It has eliminated the need to spray a baking sheet with cooking spray before baking cookies or bread sticks (one of my specialties) or even scones. Nothing sticks to it, and it’s easy to clean.
And everyone should have a couple pairs of kitchen scissors. I
use little ones to snip herbs from the garden, and often to prepare
them for the table, too. Plus they’re handy for opening packaging
of various kinds.
— Barbara Pleasant
Cook and Herb Companion contributing editor
My favorite kitchen gadget is the food processor. When making my lemon balm cake, I can whir up the lemongrass and lemon balm with the liquid ingredients in a flash, then finish mixing the cake in a bowl. For fresh or dried herbs, nothing is faster than a food processor.
My favorite cookbook is the late Marge Clark’s The Best of
Thymes (Thyme Cookbooks, 1997). Her recipes are always inspiring
and tantalizing, and it’s a wonderful way to remember a writer and
promoter of herbal cooking. (Look for The Best of Thymes on Ebay
auctions and Amazon.com’s used books section.)
— Jim Long
Herb lover extraordinaire and Herb Companion contributing editor
My favorite cookbook is Moosewood Restaurant New Classics. Every dish I’ve made from it has turned out wonderful and generated a flurry of e-mails with requests for the recipe. The instructions are simple, and the ingredient lists are always filled with fresh seasonal herbs and vegetables in tasty combinations. My husband and I love to make the Greek Lasagna for new parents. It has kalamata olives, feta cheese, eggplant and dill. Our friend Carrie raves over the Tofu Stroganoff, and my husband’s kids love the Dressed-up Salmon Cakes with potatoes and carrots.
Kitchen gadgets are so fun. My drawers are full of them. The
true test of a favorite though, is how often I pull it out. If it
tends to be at the front of the drawer and I’m always worried
whether it’s clean when I’m starting on a recipe, it must be
something I love. I adore my garlic press. My husband and I have
gone through several that just couldn’t withstand our zealous use
of garlic. Our current press is made by The Pampered Chef and has
stood up to almost a year of use with very little sign of wear.
It’s beefy enough to handle unpeeled cloves, and presses fresh
ginger amazingly well, too. Its smooth action doesn’t require a
rock-climber’s grip, and it has a handy cleaning tool that protects
our hands from garlic odor. A great investment if you consider
garlic a frequent necessity.
— Marci O’Brien
The Herb Companion’s art director and senior food stylist
I have found some fine recipes from the Gourmet Cookbook (circa 1950) that include herbs, some of which I have adapted. A favorite recipe I have adapted from its Cabbage Soup recipe, I call Harvest Soup. This is a hearty peasant-style (1-dish meal) soup that uses fresh-from-the garden cabbage, potatoes, leeks, carrots, garlic and parsley.
Cut up 3 medium potatoes, carrots and the tender part of 2
leeks. Cook gently in 1 tablespoon of butter for a few minutes. Add
1 small chopped cabbage with 2 cloves fresh chopped garlic and 1
small handful chopped parsley. Simmer together for 30 minutes or
until all vegetables are tender. Serve with rye bread and unsalted
— Jo Ann Gardner
Herb Companion contributor and devoted herb lover
We are firm believers in blenders for liquid
type mixtures — such as salad dressings and marinades, food
processors for herbal oil concentrates and pesto, and a good large
(10-inch) French chef’s knife for chopping and mincing. But don’t
overlook a coffee grinder for spices and seeds that are extremely
difficult to get to a powder in a blender or processor. If anyone
does any amount of cooking at all, a coffee grinder is
indispensable — just make sure it doesn’t get used for
— Madalene Hill & Gwen Barclay
Herb-loving mother/daughter team and Herb Companion contributors
Local Flavors by Deborah Madison has recipes with lots of herbs in Madison’s wonderful, fresh recipes and inspiring thoughts. Here is an herby quote from the book: “Herbs are one of the most magical — and practical — components of our cooking. They’re the lively border collies of the plant world, whose task is to urge fruits and vegetables in this or that direction. Herbs can take a vegetable on the most amazing journeys, changing the food from savory to sweet and back again, and they can make one vegetable seem like five. Corn with Italian basil is completely different from corn with Thai basil, and is different yet again from corn with sage, cilantro or dill. You can cook corn every night of the week and never have it taste the same . . .” Pretty inspiring, eh?
Older but still available is The St. Louis Herb Society Cookbook. This little volume does a great job of presenting the basics (example: “What’s FINES HERBES?” and “FRESH HERBS ARE BEST”) as well as a range of foundation recipes, from chicken broth to herb mustards, and an ethnically diverse selection of foods, starting with canapes and ending with desserts. There’s even Rose Geranium Jelly (“Old ladies and little girls love it.”) and Red Pepper Jelly (“Hot as Hell!”). This little volume is very worthwhile if you love herbs.
My favorite kitchen gadget for herbs is my mezzaluna. It’s a
single with two handles and a dished cutting board. I think I
bought it from Williams Sonoma by mail when my youngest daughter
was still in high school. She’s 26 now and married, and I still use
that mezzaluna every day, and my granddaughters use it, too. It’s
perfectly safe for a child because it has two handles. You can see
the newest version on the Williams Sonoma website. There are double
mezzalunas, too, but I love my single-bladed version.
Herb Companion contributor and senior editor of Mother Earth News