Handle with care
By JOHN CARAFOLI 
CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Now more than ever, home cooks are filling their kitchens with the latest in equipment and gadgets.

Perhaps some people are under the illusion that the ''latest'' will make them a better cook - or is it just a status-symbol thing? Who knows, but I was inspired to write this article after paging through several mail-order catalogs and realizing how many new types of equipment there are.

In re-evaluating the gadgets I have in my own kitchen, some of which are new but many of which are old and treasured, I was forced to ask myself why I have them, what the usefulness of each is, and whether all this stuff makes me a better cook.

A week ago, I ventured into All Cape Cook's Supply in Hyannis looking for a simple plastic fat separator. Pam Cooney, owner of the best-stocked cooking equipment store this side of New York City, pulled out the plastic one I had in mind - $4.95 - but then she showed me an exquisite tall glass structure of German design costing $20.

''This is the one you should have,'' she said.

I bought it. Does this one separate fat better than the plastic one? No, but I bought it anyway because of its beautiful design.

I asked Cooney which cooking items she sold the most of. ''Micro planes, believe it or not,'' she told me. ''That is absolutely my No. 1 seller, followed closely by a little Swiss vegetable peeler, a cheapo for $3.99. The single best inexpensive kitchen gadget is a 79-cent pot-and-pan scraper.''

What also really sells on the Cape, she continued, ''is the 40-quart stockpot for steaming lobsters at home. We also sell quite a few turkey fryers, as well as those double-burner cast-iron griddles. Then anything silicone, like tong handles for high heat, along with spatulas. These have all been hot for the past couple of years.''

Justin Fisher, sales associate at the Cooks Shop in Brewster, concurred on the appeal of silicone.

''We're selling all things silicone, from measuring cups to oven mitts to cooking utensils. Ten years ago, everyone was buying nonstick pans and vinyl cooking utensils that would not harm the pans. Now the silicone cooking utensils do the trick better, since they don't melt as easily.''

In addition, he finds people buying Japanese cooking knives, panini presses and a ''whirly pot popcorn maker - an old-style, top-of-stove crank popcorn maker.''

With this in mind, I took a good hard look at the equipment in my kitchen. My eyes settled first on my hard-to-miss, expensive stainless steel and copper pans hanging over the breakfast nook. While I use them often, they constantly need polishing. Hanging on an adjacent wall rack

is an array of seasoned cast-iron skillets in all shapes and sizes. I use these most. A few came from my grandmother's kitchen, a couple from flea markets and friends, and one, the very largest, I found in the local dump. Over time, it has become one of my favorites.

 

Mixing with memories

Some of my favorite cooking tools are cherished mementos of friends and family. They resonate with tradition and flavors of the past, like my grandmother's 12-inch well-worn chipped blue-and-white enamel spoon she used to stir her pasta sauces, soups and anything else that need stirring, as well as the pasta machine belonging to my dear friend Laura Borghi, who passed away several years ago and left it to me.

I also own several gadgets bought because they were beautiful as well as functional - the blown-glass fat separator mentioned earlier is the latest. It joins a truffle slicer, used not only for truffles but to shave chocolate, and a marble mortar and pestle for making pesto and crushing spices I bought on a recent trip to Italy.

I called my friend Mafalda ''Muffie'' Maiolini to ask her what she uses for cooking equipment. Muffie, 93, who has known me since I was a child, is one of the best cooks in the village of Sagamore, creating Italian food that is simple and delicious. She told me, ''The pots and pans I use and feel comfortable with I have had for 65 years. They are mostly aluminum, although some are enamel. A man came around the village years ago when I first got married selling these pots and pans. Many other women in the village also bought them, but they got tired of them and threw them out. I held on to mine.

''I have three different sizes of pots: big, small and very small, as well as fry pans. I use them all the time for making stews, my polenta and everything else. They are still in good shape.''

Have you bought anything new since then, I asked her. ''No, I am comfortable with them and they work,'' she said. ''Why buy new ones?''

My friend Judy Papi's favorite cooking tool is her large wooden spoon, which has provided nonculinary utility through the years as well.

''It's my everything spoon. It is a comfort thing, too. It stirs well as long as my arm keeps moving it. I think I whacked the kids with it when they were growing up, and still managed to get it in the pot, and it has not broken.

''I also have my mother-in-law's crimper. I always think of her when I am making my raviolis.''

 

Chefs' specials

Chefs have their favorites, too. David Kelly at the Naked Oyster confided, ''I am a nut about my wooden spoons. And I am very particular about my tongs. The ends of my tongs have to meet and touch exactly at the ends or I won't use them.''

He added, laughing, ''My kitchen help thinks I'm nuts because I am so compulsive about my tools.''

And Jeremiah Reardon, chef-owner of Brewster Fish House, uses sterling silver spoons instead of tongs.

''I have a favorite one that's been with me from San Francisco to New York to here. I also have a favorite pepper mill, a Peugeot, which has been with me the same amount of time. I cannot live without it.''

People who love food and love to cook infuse their cooking with their energy, lending it a highly personalized sense. Using a special spoon, ravioli crimper or other piece of favorite equipment heightens the experience, often bringing back memories of a person or recipe from the past, and helping to rekindle that bygone connection. So our favorite tools and equipment, whether old or new, help make our cooking our own.

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I asked Judy Papi for a favorite recipe she cooks with her old wooden spoon. She shared her recipe for ragu, which she uses in pasta dishes like ravioli and lasagna.

''It's very simple. I put about three to four tablespoons olive oil in the pan, add one large onion, chopped, and I let that cook for five to six minutes. Then I add a couple of cloves crushed garlic and sauté that for a few minutes. I add a half a pound of Italian sausage meat and 1 pound good hamburger meat. I mash it up and stir it with my nice old big brown spoon. I then add some fresh basil because I love basil, some Italian seasonings and a little rosemary, salt and pepper. When that cooks down and is lightly brown, I add a large can crushed tomatoes and a small can of tomato puree. Then I cook it for one to two hours.''

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Here is one of Muffie's favorite simple sauces, as told in her own words:

''In a small saucepan I heat a couple tablespoons or so of olive oil. Get an onion and a stalk of celery, dice them up and put it all in the pan along with a handful of minced parsley. Cook it until soft and tender. Mix in one or two tablespoons tomato paste and add a little water (three or four tablespoons.) Stir and cook a few minutes. Then stir in one small can (6½ ounces) of tuna fish in oil, undrained. Cook for a few minutes. Pepper to taste. If it gets a little dry, add a little water. Add to 1 pound of pasta cooked al dente and drained. I prefer spaghetti to macaroni for this dish because it tastes different.''

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Finally, David Kelly says he could not make this dish without his special tongs. In his recipe he uses them when grilling the asparagus, turning the flounder and sautéing the arugula.

Sautéed Flounder

2 pounds skinless boneless flounder fillets (1/4 pound per person)

Flour for dredging

4 tablespoons olive oil or clarified butter

1 pound asparagus, grilled

1/2 pound baby arugula

For the vinaigrette:

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup olive oil

2 shallots, minced

2 tablespoons fresh chopped herbs: basil, thyme, chives and parsley

Place the balsamic vinegar, olive oil, shallot and fresh herbs in a small jar and shake until well incorporated.

Dredge the fish in a little flour, shaking off excess. Heat the oil or butter in a large sauté pan. Once the pan is hot add the fillets, a few at a time, and cook two minutes on one side until lightly browned, turning over and cook for another two to three minutes until lightly done. Transfer to a platter and keep warm.

To assemble:

Put the arugula in a saucepan; add 1 ounce of vinaigrette and place pan over heat, tossing arugula until warm and slightly wilted, about one minute.

Place a bed of arugula on each of four plates, arrange the grilled asparagus over it, then lay the fillet on top and drizzle with vinaigrette. Serves four.

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This is one of my favorite winter soups. I use my grandmother's enamel spoon to stir the ingredients frequently, then I lay it beside the stove as a little reminder of her and the food she loved to cook.

Escarole and Bean Soup

1 cup dried cannellini beans (white kidney beans)

3 tablespoons finely diced pork fatback or salt pork

1 large onion, diced

2 medium-sized carrots, diced

2 celery stalks, diced

1 pound escarole, rinsed and coarsely chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

3 or 4 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 cup white wine

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

1 teaspoon fresh marjoram

4 cups homemade or canned organic chicken broth

2 to 3 cups water

Salt and pepper to taste

Extra virgin olive oil

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese (about 1 tablespoon per person)

Place the beans in a deep, medium-size bowl with enough hot water to cover them by 2 inches. Let stand overnight, drain and rinse periodically.

Place the diced fatback or salt pork in a large saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until the fat is rendered out and the pork bits are brown. With a large spoon, remove and discard the browned bits, letting the fat drain back into the pan. Add the onion, carrots and celery to the hot fat. Reduce the heat slightly and sauté, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent.

Meanwhile, bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan, add the escarole, and cook just until wilted, 3 to 4 minutes. Drain well, reserving the cooking liquid.

Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a small sauté pan. Add the garlic and sauté until light brown. Add the drained escarole and cook, stirring once or twice, another 5 minutes.

Drain and rinse the soaked beans, discard the soaking water.

Dissolve the tomato paste in the wine and add the sautéed onion mixture along with the beans and escarole. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring, for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the escarole cooking liquid and chicken broth plus 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium; cook, partly covered, until the beans are tender, 1½ to 2 hours; season with salt and pepper to taste. To serve, drizzle each serving with olive oil and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Makes about 10 cups.

(Published: February 7, 2007)