When it comes to kitchen utensils, you have to balance utility with convenience, practicality with indulgence. A little too much emphasis on the latter and you’ll likely end up with a junk drawer that threatens to take over the entire kitchen, quirky gadgets that are used once in a blue moon then shoved in a drawer to disappear until moving day. There are literally hundreds of gadgets out there, many of them come from television’s golden gadget age of K-Tel and Ronco, from the Veg-o-matic to the Slap Chop, from electric can-openers to Spiralizers.
Some time ago I wrote a post about Yorkshire pudding, and crowed about having recently acquired a popover pan, which made all the difference. Certainly you can make popovers in a muffin tin, but if you want to really nail it, use a popover pan. That’s where having the right pan, or knife, or utensil comes in. Having the essential utensil is almost as important as having the proper ingredients. At the very least, it will make your time spent prepping your favourite recipes more rewarding; your efficiency will improve, slicing and dicing will become more uniform with the right knives and a little practice, and utensils like a digital cooking thermometer will take the guesswork out of determining between rare and medium rare.
In this series we take a look at the utensils that a serious cook will want to have handy, and we start today with the mandoline, not to be confused with the mandolin which is indeed a lovely stringed instrument, but not much help in the kitchen unless you happen to be listening to Vivaldi while you slice your potatoes for that gratin.
Mandolines come in many shapes and sizes and price ranges but all operate on the same principle. A mandoline has two parallel surfaces that are separated by a small space and a very thin, sharp cutting blade. By adjusting a knob, the first surface is lowered a few milimetres or more so that the bottom-most surface of a food item -say a potato or carrot- that is quickly pushed or slid along comes into contact with the blade is sliced; the thinly-sliced portion drops off, and the procedure is repeated until the desired amount of slices are obtained. Each piece will be of uniform thickness. The circumference and overall size of the slices will vary according to the shape of the vegetable, but the thickness will be exactly the same, an important consideration when it comes to both presentation and ensuring proper cooking; thicker pieces take longer to cook.
A mandoline usually has a pusher/hand guard to make sure you don’t accidentally slice your hands, especially when you’re getting near to the end, as a certain amount of downward and forward pressure is required to ensure a quick, clean cut (think “Guillotine”). Other mandolines come with a sort of protective “safety hat” with prongs to hold slippery items like peeled onions et cetera, or a re-enforced glove. Often a mandoline will have a separate set of julienne or batonette blades that rotate up or down when you adjust the thickness setting, so it makes great and uniform French-fries and julienned potatoes, and some models even have a crinkle or waffle-cut attachment as well. But remember, avoid treading into the arena of the gadget; the mandoline should make your kitchen more efficient, not more cluttered.
A mandoline is second to none when it comes to slicing tomatoes super thin, if that’s your thing, which is difficult to get just right with a knife. It’s also great for slicing onions and shallots and garlic paper thin, always a daunting task, or apples and pears for making perfect tarts and galettes. Here’s a video demonstrating one particular make of mandoline that will give you an idea on it’s operation. We leave you with a delicious recipe for a potato and sweet potato gratin that calls for the mandolin for the potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions and garlic. Using the mandoline allows you to slice the spuds so thin they are actually a lovely translucent gold when finished. Easy peasy and oh so delicious!
Potato and Sweet Potato Gratin
2 onions, sliced thin
2 yukon gold potatoes, sliced thin (about 1/16 inch thick)
2 sweet potatoes, sliced about 1/8 inch thick
2 clove garlic, sliced thin
½ cup goat cheese
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
salt and pepper
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 cup 18% table cream
Pre-heat oven to 400F. Line an 8×8 casserole dish or cake pan with parchment paper. Cover bottom of pan with a layer of sliced potatoes, then a loose layer of some of the onion and garlic slices, then a layer of sweet potato slices. (The sweet potatoes are cut a little thicker because they cook faster.) Season with a little salt and pepper, a sprinkle of thyme, a dusting of the flour, a few dots of butter and about a third of the goat cheese. Repeat this layering process two more times. Pour cream over entire gratin. Place dish on a baking sheet as this will bubble up and over during cooking. Bake for about 50-60 minutes.