Playing the Mandoline

Most of the really great cooks I’ve known are receptive to new ideas and love to play with the latest kitchen equipment to see if it lives up to what it claims.

I can remember so clearly one of the many times I had gone up to the Child’s house in Cambridge, Mass., for a work session with Julia and how she greeted me with great excitement. She had been testing a new kitchen gadget called the Robot-Coupe, the French forerunner of the food processor, and she was thrilled with its performance. “Now the home cook can make quenelles,” she exclaimed, “zap—just like that.” Whereupon she whirled the batter in the plastic bowl of the processor so we could see what was going on. “No more scraping fish through a fine sieve or a tamis. Look—a perfectly smooth blend in a matter of seconds.” And she zapped it again.

Julia had been working with this powerful little machine on just about everything and was satisfied with the results—except for potatoes. Mashing them a la Robot-Coupe made them gluey, and that was not acceptable.

Jim Beard in the months that followed found even more ways to make the processor an essential aid for the American cook. Many a time I would be working with him in his townhouse on West 12th Street and Carl Sontheimer would drop by for a consultation. He was the clever entrepreneur who brought the Robot-Coupeto this country and converted it to its American version, complete with a safety device so we wouldn’t slice off our fingertips. He would be constantly pumping Jim for new ideas for its use and pretty soon it was mixing pasta doughs and kneading bread doughs, to say nothing of processing a fine mayonnaise and a fair hollandaise. I once timidly ventured the opinion that the pie dough seemed over-blended, and soon “pulsing” because part of our culinary vocabulary. The gifted Lydie Marshall, who taught French cooking to New Yorkers in her own kitchen in Greenwich Village, came up with the wonderful idea of having her students say “alligator” to measure exactly how long each pulse should be (15 alligators for incorporating the butter, 10 more mixing in the ice water) and, voilà, you have perfect pastry dough (although if you’re French there is the final fraisage, and that must be done by hand).

Alas, the French mandoline never succeeded in making its way into the American kitchen for obvious reasons—its use was too limited, it was rather dangerous, it was expensive, and it wasn’t electric. But it did have a certain cache among the food elite. I remember Jason Epstein, the legendary book publisher, who is also a fine cook (look for his book Eating, coming out this fall) once said to me, “What! You don’t have a mandoline?” So I immediately went out and spent a large sum for one, which has been languishing in a closet because I never seemed to get the hang of it. But now there are light plastic models that are available for less than twenty dollars, and it’s worth investing in one.

What’s always fun about a new piece of equipment in your kitchen is that it generates new ideas. With the mandolineyou can slice raw vegetables paper thin and marinate them in vinaigrette to make lovely, fresh salad combinations: raw fennel withraw mushroom slices and/or roasted beets, for instance; or some small pickling cucumbers and young carrots, sliced lengthwise. Katy Sparks, who incidentally gave me my first plastic mandoline and turned me on to its possibilities, has in her book Sparks in the Kitchen a delightful dish for which she slices zucchini lengthwise on the mandoline to create long pappardelle-like strands and then tosses chunks of steamed salmon on top. So get yourself a mandoline and start playing.

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