Starting on the premise that part of my problems as of late is that my cooking is artless, I’ve been looking for ways to bring more care to my cooking – to perhaps spend a little more time and care, when possible, and try to bring out more of the pleasure in the great foods I like to buy.
It started with a desire for something Italian – and my immediate thought was a big bowl of pasta. Second thought was: what would be a good substitute for pasta? I’ve tried the shiritaki noodles as well as the Dreamfield’s pasta, but I was looking for more options.
Firing up Google, I put something in about pasta substitute and was led to Mark’s Daily Apple, which is most definitely not a bad site for finding scads of info on low carb / paleo / primal eating. His tips are great, he’s smart, and his writing is accessible and warm.
When I went there, though, I was presented with one of his random pics at the top of the site, which struck me as a little odd:
Is somebody thirsty and Mark is racing to help with 2 huge bottles for the water cooler from the supply closet – on the beach? It’s so wonderfully incongruent. I suppose he’s trying to show how strong he is – which, looking at his body, he doesn’t have to prove by hoofing office supplies down the coast.
It’s obvious I distract easily, and once I got over the above pic, I read his discussion of making summer squash noodles. It looked great – but what the heck is a mandoline?
I began researching this, and it appeared that a mandoline was one of the things that all the cool kids just knew about.
Sorry. Perhaps I’ve lived a sheltered existence. Perhaps my engineering background made the explanation ‘it cuts vegetables’ seem incomplete – I just needed to know more and the web just wasn’t being of much help.
I then came across the Williams-Sonoma site. They are the somewhat upscale, pretentious, and overpriced cooking store. They had a video.
OK – that helped, but I really wanted to see one in person because I was still a little iffy on exactly how it worked (the engineering thing again), so that day at lunch, I took a ride to a nearby mall that has a Williams-Sonoma store.
When I went in a very friendly sales person greeted me and asked me if they could be of any help. I told her I was interested in a mandoline and she led me to a shelf where they were on display, but due to the fact that the blades on these things are so darn sharp, they didn’t have them on display so I still couldn’t see exactly how they worked.
She went in the back and brought out the guts for 2 of them: the OXO model above they sell for $100 and another model twice the price.
I thought $100 was pretty steep for something to cut vegetables…but $200?
But now I saw how they worked. You slide your veggies down a slide using a food holder (so you don’t take a quarter-inch off the tips of your fingers) and your veggie meets up with a horizontal blade raised up from this slide. Before your veggie knew what happened, a slice of it exits below the machine, ready for whatever preparation steps lies in its future.
From there it gets fancy. Some models allow you to change the thickness – some don’t. Some allow you to make wavy cuts, which are not only decorative, but serve the purpose of preventing multiple thin slices from their tendency to stick together. Then there were the vertical knives that could be used to make Julienne strips and French fry shapes. The $200 model even diced.
I took a look at the $200 model. It had a little box underneath with the box of little knives. It actually was a homely-looking piece of equipment. As the sales person was showing me this, she told me that: “It’s French. It’s what real chef’s use.”
In that instant, I understood how Williams-Sonoma stays in business. It doesn’t sell cookware, it sells the fantasy to Joe and Jane Sixpack, who’s watched one-too-many Iron Chef episodes, that they can be as cool as those folks are.
I told her: “Look – the only difference between the OXO and this other model is that the $200 model dices.” I then lowered my voice: “For $100, I’ll use a knife and dice it myself.”
She smiled. She knew I was on to her – and she was OK with it. She probably trained to say things like ‘real chef’s use this’ and if there’s a commission on what she sells, it’s probably paid off.
The OXO appealed to me for a number of reasons – not all of them entirely rational. First, it was all stainless steel and somewhat sleek in design – sort of like a car. I liked the esthetic of the thing. It looked nice to me. The French monstrosity was homely in comparison, as I mentioned. Second, OXO is known for making things easy-to-use. My understanding was that the company was started to make kitchen gadgets for people with arthritis who can’t use standard kitchen utensils – and this was certainly built more intelligently. The horizontal knives were embedded in 2 key-like pieces that merely slid in and locked in place, where the French one had these itsy-bitsy blades that looked like they would be a challenge installing without cutting oneself. The vertical blades in the OXO were also easily accessible. The dial on the side allowed you to choose the thickness of slices, but at two points, the vertical knives would pop into place. Nice design.
So, figuring I could bring it back if I didn’t like it, I busted my budget for the month and bought it. When I got home, I tried it out for the reason I bought it: a pasta substitute.
We had some organic Patti-Pan squash we bought at the farmer’s market – cute little suckers, but when we got them home, it appeared nobody knew what to do with them.
These would be my first victim. Washed and ready, I made short work of them, creating a huge pile of noodle-like shapes. These I cooked in the microwave where they gave off some liquid, which I drained. I tried them out with some pasta sauce, and mozzarella and romano cheese and it was quite good.
My daughter wanted to try the cross-cut potatoes. Basically, there’s a wavy blade that allows you to make ridged potato chip shapes, but if you give your tuber a quarter-turn each time, you get these cross-cut chips that are kind of neat looking. She made a batch of these and we attempted frying them, getting hot oil all over ourselves and the stove in the process. There was some screaming involved, but not too much, and the fries came out pretty good.
This weekend I wanted to make some eggplant parmesan – I haven’t had this in ages. For me, one of the great food experiences is an eggplant parm sandwich.
I’ve tried making it in the past, but the secret to a good eggplant parm is thin slices, which I could never reliably achieve.
I could now with the mandoline. In a few minutes I had a pile of 1/8″ thick slices, which got layered in sauce and cheeses and thrown in the oven at 350 for an hour. It came out perfect – well, almost.
Once problem with these veggies when baked is that they release a lot of liquid. This liquid prevents the dish from getting dried out, but after cooking, it’s a bit of a bother.
My solution: put a dish towel under one end of the baking dish to let the excess juice drain to one end, then remove with a turkey baster. This leaves the dish moist, but not swimming in the liquid.
So all in all, my first impressions of the mandoline are positive. My daughter certainly likes it. I was able to do what I’ve wanted to do so far, and it opens up new ways for me to use veggies more creatively.
One problem is a maddening inability to use up the entire veggie. You should be able to get one last pass on the veggie when cut, but it’s design doesn’t allow this – the protective veggie holder simply does not allow the last 1/2 inch of veggie to get run through the thing. I suppose this is for safety reasons. I showed the absurdity of this by attempting to push the last piece through with my fingers, resulting in some blood-letting. Not being able to find Band-Aids (with a toddler in the house, they’re sometimes hard to find) I wrapped the wound in a piece of paper towel and put a rubber-band on it. It worked, and at least Hello Kitty wasn’t on my bandage.
My other concern is how long these blades will stay sharp. They come straight-on to the thing they are cutting – an angle is more forgiving to a dull edge. They are plenty sharp now. I guess we’ll have to see on this one.
So – useful tool or another kitchen gadget that will have a ‘honeymoon phase’ then be jammed in a drawer?
I don’t know, though my wife is betting on the latter. We’ll see.