Thursday, October 13, 2011

Pleasure Tools

A version of this article appeared in the Montreal Mirror on October 13, 2011 (here).

When it comes to kitchen equipment, I believe in minimalism. As a general rule, the home cook should aim to have a basic set of high-quality, multi-purpose tools. Specialized, single-purpose tools are only worthwhile if they allow you to do something you could not accomplish with a multi-purpose tool, or could accomplish only through a great deal of agony. Home cooking, like other activities that result in the furtherance of human life, should be pleasurable.

Two narrowly specialized kitchen tools from which I have been deriving pleasure continuously for years now are the olive pitter and the lemon squeezer. In both cases, the tool’s arrival in my kitchen altered my relationship to the ingredient it helps to process.

The Olive Pitter
If you want to use olives in a dish while avoiding dental work, it is advisable to use pitted olives. The trouble with olives that are sold pitted is that they are usually crap. If you want to use really good olives, you will have to pit them yourself. If you have tried doing this without a dedicated tool—for instance, by slitting the olives and trying to squeeze out their pits—you will know that it is a pleasure tantamount to masturbating with a cheese grater.

Figure 1. An olive is shown who's boss.
Not so if you own an olive pitter, a small, simple tool that should set you back no more than $10 (Figure 1). You will be amazed by how fast, in fact, by how fun, it is to show those olives who’s boss. You can rip through a cupful of kalamatas in just a couple of minutes (Figure 2).

Do not confuse an olive pitter with a cherry pitter! They look similar but the latter has a much larger receptacle for the fruits; it will not hold olives snugly and instead of removing their pits it will turn them to pulp. Any merchant who tries to convince you otherwise is a big fat liar.

Figure 2. Look ma, no pits!

The Lemon Squeezer
The case of the lemon squeezer is somewhat different from that of the olive pitter, in the sense that most of us already have a specialized tool for extracting juice from lemons and other smaller citrus fruits—i.e., a juicer. I am referring to those ridged cones made of wood, plastic or glass that you impale lemon halves on and twist to wring out their entrails. They do effectively extract the juice, but they also take out pulp, pith, and seeds. Herein lies the problem with juicers: you just want the juice, not the other junk, and especially not the seeds. You have to take certain cumbersome steps to sepa­rate junk from the juice, straining it out with a sieve or removing it manually with a spoon.

Figure 3. That lemon got juiced.
The lemon squeezer, a tool that looks like a garlic squeezer on steroids, elegantly solves this problem (Figure 3). You load your lemon or lime half, flat side down, into a receptacle with small holes that only allow juice to pass through. This means you can squeeze the juice directly into your dish; the seeds, pith, and pulp are trapped inside the squeezer. No fuss, no muss.

Squeeze hard enough and you will not only extract every last drop of juice but also some of the extremely fragrant citrus oil from the rind! After squeezing, open the squeezer and tilt it over your compost or garbage bin and watch that dead, inside out lemon rind fall out along with the seeds. It’s so efficient it would give a German engineer a boner.

Tapenade Recipe
Having these tools will enable you to make dishes that would otherwise have been tedious, if not impossible, to make. For me, one such dish is tapenade—the classic, southern French olive paste. It requires significant quantities of both pitted olives and lemon juice. Below, I provide you with a recipe for tapenade that I believe to be vastly superior in taste (not to mention inferior in cost) to any of the prepared products available on the market.

  • 1 cup pitted black olives (works well with kalamata olives)
  • 2 tbsp capers
  • 8 anchovies
  • 2–3 cloves garlic juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp finely chopped parsley
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
  • 2 tbsp brandy (optional)
  • 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Put all of the above ingredients in a small food processor (Figure 4) and blend until a coarse paste forms (Figure 5). Very difficult!

Figure 4. Before.
Figure 5. After.
Tapenade is delicious on bread, with cheese and tomatoes.

Good appetite.