Based on the variety of ice cream scoops on the market — 1,529 available from Amazon alone — one might conclude the world faces a crisis of improperly or inconveniently excavated ice cream. I think it's more a symptom of our love affair with cooking gadgetry. Today's kitchens are bigger than ever and can easily accommodate toys like turkey fryers, pizza stones, bread-making machines, and drawers of little hand tools. Every day we're inundated with images of picture-perfect food, and some people actually believe that an adjustable tip on their bulb baster or a chef jacket with their name embroidered on it will help them reach the next level. But at some point, even in the most super-sized of kitchens, the returns from accumulating this stuff will eventually diminish. Keep that in mind as we prepare for another seasonal round of buying each other more crap to deal with.
Every piece of cooking gear you give someone effectively takes away space from their kitchen. If he or she doesn't have a lot of space to work with, that can mess with their cooking flow. Just because, in the moment of present-opening, someone is pleased at the sight of a new set of egg-poaching baskets doesn't mean it's in their best interest to keep it.
What I want for Christmas is an uncluttered kitchen with just the tools I need to do what I do. And when I'm at home, in private, what I do is pretty simple. I'm not after style points or photos to post on my Facebook time line. Food usually goes in a bowl ungarnished, spiced with some form of capsicum and greased with cheese or mayo if desired. I'll take good ingredients over kitchen gear any day. I can improvise from there. What I can't do is move a dough mixer out of the way every time I want to chop an onion. I can't untangle the spatula from the avocado slicer in a clattery, cluttered drawer. I can't waste my shelf space with gravy separators and pancake portion pourers.
I'm not saying folks should go ill-prepared into meal prep. If you frequently enjoy soft-boiled eggs at home, you should probably own one of those medieval-torture-device-looking things that constricts a ring of blades around the tip of the egg with a easy squeeze of the handle, scalping off the shell and allowing your spoon easy access to the slimy innards. I do not need one of these devices, hence I do not have one.
But given how often I write about food, I am admittedly shocked at times by how primitive my kitchen is. Until recently, I was opening cans with a jackknife. I still don't own measuring spoons. My whisk gets more action as a mallet for a certain little drummer boy than I ever give it. Not one piece of my silverware matches another. But nobody leaves my table unfulfilled. No one can taste that the meal was cooked on an electric stove or that my knives are dull.
Knives, in fact, can serve as a barometer for someone's obsession with kitchen tools. You can spend a lot of money on them, or almost none. Any knife can be kept sharp or get the job done dull. If you are really into fancy knives, you probably have at least one ice cream scoop. If you're a pro, you pretty much need to spend money on knives. Otherwise, you really don't.
Japanese chefs say they need yanagi, usuba, and deba knives in order to properly float my boat of sushi, and I fully support them. But I also know full well that if I tried to use those knives at home I'd probably just hurt myself. I don't need knives like that.
My favorite knife ever is one I got in Thailand. It's rectangular and very thin, with a wide, flat tip I can use as a spatula. I picked it up while on a motorcycle-taxi tour around some of Bangkok's widely dispersed open-air kitchen-supply markets. My driver was helping me find a cro hiin, Thai for "big-ass stone mortar and pestle." I said cro hiin so many times that day it remains one of the few bits of Thai I remember, along with hello and thanks.
We finally found my cro hiin at a stall in a market underneath an elevated highway. I bought both sets the guy had, because they were absolutely perfect: well-crafted from smooth, heavy stone. They were the size of tea kettles and about 20 pounds each — five for the pestle, 15 for the mortar. Flying home, I didn't want to check them for fear they'd bounce around and destroy each other and the rest of my luggage. But the airline wouldn't let me carry them on the plane, fearing I might use one to smash open the cockpit door. Luckily, airline personnel could see what was at stake and helped me package them appropriately.
When I finally got my mortars and pestles home, I put one set straight on my counter, where it proved well worth the trouble. It pulverizes everything, large and small, hard and soft. The heavy pestle does all the work, and the mortar doesn't budge. The bowl is deep enough that stuff doesn't fly out and all over the kitchen. It consumes a bit of space, but it's worth it. That cro hiin remains one of the most important tools in my primitive kitchen.
I gave the other cro hiin to friends as a wedding present. What better way to symbolize a marriage than the grinding action of pestle in mortar? As for presents to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, solstice, Kwanzaa, the retail economy, or whatever they're calling it these days, remember: Your friends probably already have an ice cream scoop. It's called a spoon.