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.

What Do You Do with the Duck Fat?

Not long ago my stepdaughter Bronwyn remarked that she loved to watch me in the kitchen because I was like a child, I was having so much fun. And daughter Audrey years ago observed about my husband and me, “You two no sooner finish one meal than you are talking about the next.”

I plead guilty on both counts. It is true that I love to cook. I love smashing the garlic, squishing a tomato, kneading and punching the bread dough, stirring a sauce mindfully, then tasting and tweaking it, as the kitchen comes alive with good cooking smells. When I am making something, I am already thinking of ways to give what’s left a second round. The challenge of making one dish into another with a character all its own is one of the creative aspects of cooking and I find it endlessly satisfying, perhaps even more so now that I am alone.

But I realize that many people consider cooking a chore and they aren’t really comfortable alone in their neat little kitchens. There is no one there to turn to for help when the sauce begins to curdle or to ask a simple question such as how lively should a simmer be. Most recipes today are written in what I call recipe jargon, succinct formulas that don’t explain the whys and wherefores of a technique so you really don’t know what you’re doing.

I have been blessed over the years because as an editor I have worked with some of the great cooks of our time. And I have learned so much watching them and asking questions. They have become the voices in my kitchen: Julia Child reminding me to be sure to dry that meat before sautéing it and not to crowd the pan; Jim Beard showing me how to temper an overly assertive onion to go into his heavenly onion sandwich; Michael Field insisting I rub salt on the steak before searing it (Julia and Jim did not agree); Madhur Jaffrey demonstrating how to fry a paste—a surprising technique I thought peculiar to Indian cuisine only to discover years later that Lidia Bastianich does exactly the same thing when she pushes aside the aromatic vegetables she has sautéed to create a dry spot in the pan, where she then fries the tomato paste to enrich its flavor before blending it into the sauce.

Julia wrote in the introduction to her Kitchen Wisdom, “Once you have mastered a technique, you hardly need look at a recipe again, and can take off on your own.” How true. But we need those expert voices in our kitchens grounding us in the right techniques. And I think we need each other to exchange ideas and goad one another on creatively.

Last year when the Washington Post started a weekly column on cooking for one, I was asked to do an introductory piece and then to participate in their chat room at lunch time on the day the food section came out. It was a very lively exchange about all sorts of food matters. I particularly liked the question, “What do you do with the duck fat?” In the recipe section of my food memoir The Tenth Muse I had written, “Be sure to save the duck fat.” But my questioner was quite right: For what? And it started me thinking how delicious potatoes are pan-fried in duck fat, to say nothing of browning meats in it, or drizzling a small amount onto the breadcrumb topping of a casserole or bean dish such as cassoulet. It is a pure, unadulterated fat that has real flavor, and I find it a treasure to have on hand.

So let’s share our treasures and our experiments and add to the voices in our kitchens as we learn from one another.

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