Chefs’ Picks

| October/November 2004

  • Culinary herbalist Susan Belsinger says life goes better in the kitchen with a mezzaluna, mortar and pestle, and a wooden cutting board.

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.

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