Gift Guide: Get Going

One of the greatest pleasures of having Megan McArdle as a colleague is not only her irrepressibly opinionated company but her irrepressibly opinionated annual kitchen gift list, which she posted today. This is Megan at her sharpest, sardonic but enthusiastic best. Of course, she's very strong-minded. Of course, I disagree with a number of her recommendations. But not that many--it's really good. So in the spirit of the spirited debate we thrive on here at, here are a couple of cavils with this year's installment.

I agree with the recommendation against an expensive steel mandoline, that dangerous but beautiful kitchen trophy no one actually uses, and the Kyocera is probably one of the best of the low-priced fixed-blade slicers available. But pretty much any one will work for what you need it for (carrots, potatoes), and I part with her enthusiasm for Kyocera ceramic knives, which break not just when you drop them but when you slice into something with too much force. I write this from my brother's apartment, in New York, where among the most expensive knives in his drawer is a ceramic model with a very snub, very truncated nose and jagged front edge. I, who am clumsy, didn't manage this particular break, and I don't know who did--but he's an MD who knows how to do surgery! And both of his grown children are able cooks trained by their superlative French-Tunisian cook grandmother and mother. Buy metal knives.

After years of prof-chef indoctrination that tongs are the one essential kitchen tool, I've decided I hate them. They're clumsier than I am, and tear into chicken skin and pretty much anything I grab with them in the oven or a saute pan. I use many Oxo products, whose fat rubber handles are particularly good for klutzes like me--I go through at least a vegetable parer a year, some years two--but won't bother with this one.

The rotating potato/apple peeler, Rotato: I spent much of a late Yom Kippur afternoon hearing its virtues extolled by a longtime family friend who was preparing something with apples for the break fast--why is it that discussions of the break fast pick up special steam as the afternoon wears on and double digits of hours fasted climb? In any case he started with the standard apology that they sound like something hawked on late-night public-access cable TV but really liked them, so I made a new year's resolution to try one.

The Bodum tea press Megan links to is fine, and the wide, inset filter is one of my two favorite ways to make a big pot of leaf tea, something I do every morning. But I prefer old-fashioned, cuppa-style ceramic teapots with metal-filter insets; you can lift out the filter easily after four or (no more than) five minutes, and metal or nylon mesh is finer and I think better than the largish holes of the Bodum plastic inset. Also nylon/metal mesh and ceramic pots are easier to clean thoroughly. But my morning method is in a big glass press pot of the kind Jerry Baldwin and many others favor for coffee. Press down the metal filter after four minutes.

Rabbit corkscrews, as Megan generically calls what came into wide foodie use as the Screwpull, their first widely known manufacturer, are indeed the easiest and best. But in the past year I've broken my third one, progressing to ever-cheaper models: I pull the top lever back too far and it sticks in open-jaw position, and the wine shops I schlep the disabled, silly-looking spread-out openers to for a quick fix have no fix at all to offer. I guess I really am a klutz. Any ideas? In the meantime, my advice is to follow Megan to Costco, or the very cheapest one you can find.

Hand mixers: fine for egg whites and a quick souffle or something when you don't want to haul out the Kitchen Aid, but otherwise why bother with anything but a standing Kitchen Aid, as Megan wisely advocates. And I truly admire that she travels with a hand mixer, which I hope will become a leitmotif of her every dispatch from wherever she goes.

I agree on the utility of Calphalon, though they're not the handsomest pots in the world they're certainly indestructible and reliable. Their high prices may be what equips the stunning Calphalon cooking school I saw on a huge factory floor in a hip Soho-like Toronto neighborhood called, in fact, Soho. The hip and attractive young people working there told me it was the only such center in North America outside Chicago, which is much smaller, and that it offers hands-on cooking classes every day. Just the layout and equipment of the cooking stations and demonstration kitchen alone are a must stop on any Toronto tour, and of course there's a full range of products in the cellar, though the emphasis, remarkably, is on the school rather than the merchandise.

A standing Kitchen Aid was among the first things I bought with my first paychecks, straight out of college, and unlike much of what I bought (see mandoline, above) something that travels with me everywhere I live (vs Megan and the portable Kitchen Aid in her purse). I agree that you'll regret anything but white in the long run, and that the long run will apply.

She even makes me want to try a Kitchen Aid food processor, though its Target/Philippe Starck attempt at brushed-steel biomorphic cool looks pretty misbegotten. And I long ago relegated my perfect, beautiful, professional-model Cuisinart (bought right after the Kitchen Aid) to a dusty drawer. I guess the processor just does too many things! I pretty much never need it when there's a knife and a Kitchen Aid mixer available--and a blender, which is not only svelter and genuinely retro but more generally useful.

I use an older-model Cuisinart countertop oven when visiting my father and stepmother in Osprey, Florida, in the winter, and agree about its general utility, though my able-cook stepmother still misses a big oven, and you can't really roast meats or bake a full-scale pie. But Cuisinart is good at ovens, and after trying every Black and Decker toaster oven and snazzier DeLonghis, I've happily retreated to a big, somewhat clunky, reliable Cuisinart model.

This year's bonus section on bad ideas that seemed good at the time is a very good idea. Knife sharpeners don't work right, at least not in my hands (see above) and probably not in yours I'll venture to say. I went through my every-decade of rite of trying new ones when doing a piece on knife maker Adam Simha (maker of excellent holiday gifts), and go down the street to Gadgets, in Jamaica Plain, or to Kitchen Arts, the terrific locally owned store in Boston's Back Bay, for knife sharpening that works and doesn't hack up my knives.

I agree on the illusory versatility of silicone--great for rolling pins, not great for cake pans and not even for the Silpat sheets everyone loves and I have rolled up in the basement waiting to give to unsuspecting newlyweds. They're better for rolling than anything else; cookies don't brown as well as they do on plain old single-sheet cookie tins. Which I'll be bringing out again in just a few weeks, and stocking up on baking parchment.

Which brings us back to--books! The best gift. See my previous posts on Besh and Apple, and more to come.