Many of us who harvest herbs to use with every meal have a fondness for gadgetry that can make the job easier or faster or more fun. Ah, we love these tools: the quintessential garlic press; the curved chopping blade, or mezzaluna, that’s perfect when you’re chopping herbs in time to rock music; the consummate nutmeg grinder that delivers delicate little flakes. We enjoy the beauty of a useful tool, the smoothness of a mortar made of marble or fine polished wood, the artfulness of a blade designed for one small job. Sure, any knife would probably do an adequate job of chopping, peeling, and mincing, but then we would miss the fun of searching out these other ways to do it.
We’ve put together an assortment of gadgets that almost any would-be chef would love to give or get this holiday season—or at any other time of year. Some of them will even fit into a stocking. Many come from gourmet kitchen stores and mail-order catalogs; others come from the kitchens of The Herb Companion staff members, antique stores, and grandmothers’ attics. Manufacturer or distributor information in the photo captions is keyed to the outline drawings adjacent to the photos and to a source list on page 48.
Mortars and pestles, used for centuries to pound and crush foods and drugs alike, are indispensable in today’s kitchen. The more we use ours, the more uses we find for them, whether crushing whole spices to release their flavor, mashing fresh herbs with garlic and oil for savory pestos, or reducing a pile of nutmeats to a paste.
Mortars range in diameter from about 4 inches to 12 inches or more and come in a variety of styles, colors, and materials. We found handsome mortars made of marble, wood, glass, porcelain, brass, rough-textured stone, and even cast iron. They are available at any kitchen store or by mail order.
Pepper mills are available in a host of styles. Most can be adjusted to produce grinds from fine to coarse. Grinding your own spices ensures that they are as fresh and flavorful as possible. Someone who uses a lot of spices in cooking might appreciate a small mill to be used just for grinding spices. The tall metal mills (#7) evoke the ambience of Mediterranean restaurants and are available by mail order in steel, brass, and copper in a range of heights. Clear mills show you what you’re grinding; wooden ones in rustic or sleek finishes are also available.
Some mills and graters were created with a specific herb or spice in mind. Whole nutmegs can be rubbed across the roughened surface of a simple, small metal grater; some even have a little compartment for storing the nutmeg between gratings. If this seems like too much work or if you end up scraping your knuckles too often, you might prefer a clear acrylic nutmeg grinder (#9), which produces fine flakes at the turn of a handle. A porcelain dish with a ridged surface (#15) does a quick job of grating fresh ginger and catching any juice that might otherwise be lost on the cutting board.
For the love of garlic
The surest sign of the passion that surrounds the subject of garlic is the amount of gadgetry that has sprung up around it. Canterbury’s wooden mushroom-shaped tool (#5) is used to crack and peel a clove of garlic. For a different approach, insert a clove into a flexible vinyl sleeve (#10), roll it between your hands or against a countertop, then see how easily the peel pops off. Or if you hate dealing with garlicky fingers, drop a clove into the basket of Chef’s Catalog’s white plastic automatic garlic peeler, squeeze a handle, and out comes the peeled clove while your hands remain odor-free.
From Italy comes a dandy stainless-steel mandoline-style garlic slicer/grater (#16) that can shred or deliver garlic slices as thin as you please with no nicked fingers or scraped knuckles. A survey of garlic presses turned up an array of models and prices. Frontier offers a functional, inexpensive version (#6), while other presses provide special features: some that crush the cloves and leave the peels behind, those with interchangeable parts that mince the cloves to varying sizes (#21), others that have no detachable parts (nothing to lose in the bottom of the dishwasher or down the sink drain) and clean with a simple flip and rinse (#20), and some with fat rubber grips that are especially easy to hold. One European-style garlic crusher (#14) stores fresh garlic in the refrigerator; a twist of the handle at the top sends down a plunger that ejects only as much crushed garlic as you need.
And then there are the herb choppers. Many cooks favor the curved blade of a mezzaluna (Italian for “half moon”), which rolls across fresh herbs to the cook’s own rhythm. The double-handled versions are easy to use on a wooden cutting board or other surface and can make quick work of a large pile of herbs (or onions, garlic, or other food). The Wooden Spoon and Chef’s Catalog’s dual-bladed mezzalunas mince with even greater efficiency. Williams-Sonoma’s mezzaluna (#19) comes with a beechwood slab that has a chopping well for stability.
Other cooks swear by a single-handled curved blade that fits the contours of its own wooden bowl. We found these in many sizes—from a small bowl that fits comfortably in your hand for quickly chopping herbs to season a single dish to much larger ones that would be useful in processing a garden harvest. One was an old family favorite, with the blade purchased separately from the bowl, and another came from an antique store. Nonslip feet on a bowl from Sur La Table provide a sturdy cutting surface.
Other chopping tools include rolling mincers with round blades that zip across a cutting board mincing every herb in their path (#11) and an herb mill offered by Williams-Sonoma that rains fresh chopped herbs at the crank of a handle.
A chopper/scraper with a broad, rectangular blade (#8) enables a chef to take out his or her aggressions on a large pile of shallots (and is also useful for scraping pastry dough from a work surface). Pampered Chef’s upright chopper holds the herbs or onions or other vegetables in a removable plastic bowl while steel blades rotate and chop with each push on the lever.
We cooks develop strong attachments to the kitchen tools we use daily. We want them to feel good in our hands, to be efficient and easy to use and maintain, and to fit our style of herb harvesting and cooking—all personal judgments that we can make only for ourselves. If you have a favorite tool for processing herbs or spices that we haven’t mentioned here, please tell us about it and where you bought it. Write The Herb Companion, 201 East Fourth Street, Loveland, Colorado 80537-5655.
The following mail-order companies have a wide selection of gourmet cookware and kitchen utensils.
Chef’s Catalog, 3215 Commercial Ave., Northbrook, IL 60062-1900. Catalog free. (800) 338-3232.
Crate and Barrel, PO Box 9059, Wheeling, IL 60090-9059. Catalog free. (800) 323-5461. Call for the location of a store near you.
Frontier Cooperative Herbs, 3021 78th St., PO Box 299, Norway, IA 52318. Catalog free. (800) 669-3275.
The Pampered Chef, 350 South Rohlwing Rd., Addison, IL 60101-3079. (630) 261-8900. Call for a consultant in your area.
Restoration Hardware, 8405 Park Meadows Center Dr., Littleton, CO 80124. (303) 792-5191. No catalog, but phone orders are accepted.
Sur La Table, 1765 Sixth Ave. South, Seattle, WA 98134-1608. Catalog free. (800) 243-0852. Call for the location of a store near you.
Williams-Sonoma Inc., PO Box 7456, San Francisco, CA 94120-7456. Catalog free. (800) 541-2233. Call for the location of a store near you.
The Wooden Spoon, PO Box 931, Clinton, CT 06413-0931. Catalog free. (800) 431-2207.