By its nature, cooking is a physical activity. Other gadgets might offer hours of music or videoriffic glee, but kitchen tools are usually a way to make really boring tasks a bit easier.
C'mon, when was the last time you took true pleasure in chopping potatoes? This year, I sought out devices that put a little fun in the drudgery.
Soehnle Triple digital food scale
I somehow survived for years without a kitchen scale, and now I wonder how. Buy a scale and the next time a recipe inexplicably calls for a pound of beans, you won't be left calculating and converting your way into a culinary mishap. Digital scales are even better for their accuracy.
Germany's Soehnle has been making scales since 1868, which should be a hint they know what they're doing. True, their newest addition, the Soehnle Triple, looks like something out of Star Trek (one diagram in its manual really should read, "Please do not land your spaceship on uneven ground") but it's as functional as it is post-modern.
This scale has one of the heavier maximum loads (about 11 pounds) I've found in digital kitchen scales, with an accuracy to 0.1 ounce. It includes an easy-to-use tare function that zeroes out the weight of bowls and cups, and the round glass plate is a cinch to wipe clean. Metric-lovers will rejoice over the one-knob switch between ounces and grams.
The Soehnle Triple may seem delicate, but it's remarkably durable. Plus, you'll have a conversation piece on your counter to keep your egghead visitors intrigued. They might even volunteer to help cook.
List price is $90, but found for $70 and under: on the higher end of scale prices, but worth it.
There's almost nothing in the kitchen as fun as a Microplane. For those who don't know the story: Originally a woodworking device, a sort of newfangled rasp, these graters found a new use in the mid-1990s when a Canadian housewife grabbed one to zest some orange peel. A foodie phenomenon was born.
You simply can't beat the Microplane's razor-sharp blades, made by etching holes in a single metal sheet. They shave and grate in clean, even lines, and make fluffy shreds of cheese or chocolate; zesting fruit is almost shamefully easy. Best of all, their surfaces are far easier to clean than box graters. I use one nearly every day.
Happily, the Russellville, Ark., company has been continually expanding its product line. If the chef in your life doesn't yet have one, the original zester or zester/grater is the perfect stocking stuffer. If they do, fear not. You've got options.
The company's 37000 series offers interchangeable grating planes for everything from spices to Parmesan shavings, all made to fit on the same handle. Personally, I'm a fan of the all-stainless 38000 pro series, which are even more durable, though you'll need to buy each type of grater individually.
There's also a new rotary grater for the cook who truly values their knuckle skin. It's much the same as other rotaries, but with the sharpness of Microplane blades. Topping pasta with perfectly curled cheese is effortless, though cleaning isn't quite so easy. And there's a new spice grater that doubles as a container.
The pro series runs $14-16 per grater; interchangeable sets are about the same, with additional blades for $8-9. The rotary retails for under $20. At those prices, feel free to fill up your stockings.
Continuing on the finger-mutilation theme, let's talk about mandolines -- those alternately useful and diabolical devices that make short work of uniformly slicing vegetables, occasionally claiming a chunk of finger as humble payment.
Give enormous credit to Oxo for attempting a mandoline safe enough to be, as the company's Gretchen Holt put it, "accessible to a larger group of consumers." I wasn't a fan of its many plastic parts, but it's durable and easy to clean, even if the blades look like something out of Torquemada's private collection.
The key to the Oxo mandoline is its food holder. Dull spikes hold a potato or pepper in place as it glides easily along the mandoline runway. Most importantly, the gadget is designed to keep your hand well away from cutting surfaces. No fingers were lost in the making of this story.
As for the food, results were generally good, if not uniformly so. Potatoes were a cinch, and with a bit of skill, you can turn out waffle-cut slices for perfect fries. Pepper slices worked well on thicker settings, but not thin ones. Some daikon I tried to julienne turned into a mushy mess, and I was hoping for a thinner setting than one-eighth of an inch.
The instructions could use work, too. They seem easy to follow at first glance, but I had to reread the waffle cut section twice before I got the hang of it. Recipe ideas would also have been nice.
Still, this is a great mandoline for home chefs who are still getting their footing. At $70, it's far cheaper than some pro models, though more expensive than lightweight Japanese ceramic-blade options.
Cuisinart rice cooker
I really wanted to test a rice cooker, one of those things I find frivolous but many people consider essential. What's neat about Cuisinart's new series -- aside from the brushed-steel finish, which all appliances should have -- is that they built it not simply to steam rice but other things too, such that you can prepare an entire meal with one device.
Given Cuisinart's engineering mastery (their food processors can't be beat), the rice steamers do really well with the basics. Plain white and Basmati rice came out perfectly. Ditto for the steaming function, though not beyond the abilities of a good stovetop steamer.
Not everything was a success. Results with arborio rice were nothing short of volcanic, with starchy foam bubbling over the top.
Truly puzzling is the special plastic rice measuring cup, which corresponds to no standard measure I'm aware of. Just to confuse things, instructions call for X special cups rice to Y regular cups water. I'm sure this is a unique, patented ratio to get picture-perfect rice, but just call me a standard-measures guy.
At $50 for the 4-cup CRC-400, or $80 for the 8-cup CRC-800, these aren't cheap. But they should fill the rice freaks in your life with glee.
Maverick Redi-Check remote thermometer
I saw some remote thermometers last year, but waited until I had serious outdoor cooking to try one, namely Thanksgiving turkeys. Maverick recommends this model, the ET-72, for either the grill or the oven. It can be invaluable for either, especially the grill.
The hardest part is precisely following the directions, which studiously list every possible way to turn on the transmitter (with the probe that goes in the meat) and the receiver (with all the spiffy buttons) so they'll talk to each other. Once you've mastered that, the rest is a cinch.
The thermometer is programmed for specific USDA-approved temperature settings for meat and poultry. Choose your dish, choose your cooking preference (rare, medium) and leave it. The base unit will start beeping like crazy when it's done, though the impatient cook -- me, that is -- is likely to keep peeking. In fact, it beeps continually once you've hit your target temperature, a feature as meal-saving as it is annoying.
Most important, you can keep the receiver by your side and attend to other tasks -- chopping onions, watching golf -- an especially helpful feature for grills. I prepared several other Thanksgiving dishes with the receiver on the counter, dutifully telling me how my turkey, on the grill behind my garage, was faring. Turkey perfect, guests happy.
List price is almost $60, but it can be found for under $35.
Yeah, yeah -- the jokes have been circulating around the Northwest for months now. A fire log made from recycled coffee grounds? How ... Seattle!
In fact, Java-Log is made by an Ottawa-based firm, Robustion Products, using grounds discarded by Nestlé plants and coffee shops. It is intended as a novel substitute for products like Duraflame, and claims to burn with less soot and less carbon dioxide than other synthetic logs.
Personally, I'm not a fan of synthetics. There are perfectly good reasons why firewood exists. But Java-Log is a wonder. Just don't expect a roomful of coffee scent: It lights effortlessly, then burns clean, bright and more or less odorlessly for between two and three hours.
At about $3.50 per log, this makes for a nice, easy weeknight fire. Plus you can feel good about that whole recycling thing, since the coffee grounds are rescued from the trash heap. I bought several to test, then bought a bunch more to use at holiday parties.
What does this have to do with the kitchen? Not much. You can't use Java-Log in pizza ovens or smokers. But with the holidays near, a nice fire is in order (if you have a fireplace, wise guy) next to which you can eat all that great food.