Monday, August 31, 2020

Kitchen Gadgets That Bring Disproportionate Joy

Our kitchen storage situation is unusually cramped. Typical units in our building have an overhead cabinet on the wall in this space, but somehow ours ended up without.  The overhead cabinets on the opposite wall are also extremely small. Photo is from when we first moved in, and this corner now holds even more pantry items, now that we're cooking every day!

I recently posted about some things I haven't been spending on or buying due to COVID-19 shutdowns. But there are also certain things I've been buying because of staying home to socially distance. Today, I thought I'd write about some of the smaller items in that category, namely a few fairly basic kitchen tools or gadgets that have brought me a disproportionate amount of joy through their utility. Now that I finally have them, I wonder why I waited so long to acquire them!

For the most part, these are items for which I first recognized the need or potential use at least a few months - if not years - ago. But, in each case, I dragged my feet regarding the purchase for an unnecessarily long time. It's only now that we're cooking every single meal at home that I was finally inspired to actually buy these kitchen tools.

I've mentioned a few times over the years that I can be really weird about putting off certain basic and fairly inexpensive purchases for the home and kitchen, even when the need for them is abundantly clear. K and I put off buying a full-size vacuum cleaner for years, sticking with a small hand vacuum I bought when I started law school, even as we started getting to an age where our bodies make complaints known about our repeatedly crouching down to the floor to use a hand vacuum to clean our entire - admittedly not that large - apartment. And I've previously used significantly warped cutting boards and also oven mitts on which the protective silicone layer was actively peeling off... for an almost stupidly long time, before finally replacing them. That's despite the obvious potential kitchen safety issues caused by both things. 

This dilly-dallying is definitely not because of money. These items I drag my feet on are pretty much all fairly inexpensive. It may sort of be because of lack of storage space in our kitchen. There is basically no  significant extra unused space in there. Accordingly, any new small appliance or tool needs to be carefully considered before purchase.

Which doesn't fully explain my reluctance to replace items we already have and that are now broken or no longer fully functional. But it seems that my inclination to overthink and dawdle about the purchase of outright new kitchen gadgets also keeps me from quickly and easily making decisions about replacements for existing items that are already here and taking up precious storage space. Plus I get some decision paralysis about wanting to choose the best possible exemplar of each type of tool, to try to "buy it for life" or build up a close-to-perfect set of "forever kitchen tools," something like that.

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The items on this list are not, at least, generally ones for which their absence or lack of replacement was causing potential kitchen safety issues. Without further ado, here are some of the new kitchen tools we've acquired in the past few months, each of which have brought us disproportionate joy from their effectiveness, even if they perform extremely mundane functions! 

Mortar and pestle: With this purchase, I can finally grind up the sichuan peppercorns for mapo tofu, a dish we make nearly once a week now (using a slightly modified version of the Woks of Life recipe). Previously, I made this dish fairly often without grinding the spices. One can coax a reasonable amount of the needed flavors out of the whole sichuan peppercorns by mixing them with the dry chilis and heating the spices in most of the cooking oil needed for the recipe, in order to make a mala (or numbing-spicy) chili oil. The resulting chili oil - which I used starting from the beginning of the cooking process when stir-frying the garlic and ginger - was able to impart at least some of the desired numbing-spicy flavor to the dish, even if I discarded the whole spices and didn't add them in. But cooking that way required a significantly larger portion of the sichuan peppercorns (1.5 tablespoons, compared to the slightly less than 0.75 tablespoons I use now) and resulted - unsurprisingly - in a less assertive mala flavor than one gets from actually putting the ground-up spices in the dish. Now that I can actually grind the spices, our mapo tofu is much improved! 

Whisk: Can you believe I've gone this long without owning a whisk? (Because we use non-stick cookware a lot more than most would consider ideal, I picked out a silicone whisk so that I could use it on all our pans, if needed.) I used to just mix things by hand with a fork where a whisk would have been suitable, but the whisk - no surprise - is a fair bit less labor-intensive to use than the fork.

Microplane zester/grater: I already owned a box grater with four grating surfaces of various sizes, but it wasn't really capable of zesting citrus fruits, nor was it particularly functional for grating frozen ginger. Our fridge has been having issues with running too cold at times. For whatever reason, ginger has proven particularly prone to inadvertently getting frozen, and the texture is not so nice when it thaws, so we end up keeping most of our ginger in the freezer and grating it instead of chopping or mincing with a knife.

EZ-DUZ-IT can opener: Our previous can opener was ancient, and was no longer particularly good at its job. It could take more than 10 minutes to open a can, because we'd continuously need to reposition the old opener so it could actually cut into the can. I typically rely on Wirecutter reviews for purchases like this - where functionality is important and design defects could easily render the item effectively unusable - and their recommendation for this specific brand of can opener was solid.

Brown Sugar Bear: Now that I've started baking a bit more often, I got tired of trying to measure out our dried-up, rock-hard brown sugar. These terra cotta bears work remarkably well to soften up hardened out brown sugar. It felt like magic the first time I tried them! Just soak in water for 15 minutes or so, pat dry lightly, and then toss them in the container with the brown sugar. A block of brown sugar that'd been almost completely solidified for months took only about a day to fully soften up the first time. (I ended up needing to re-soak these maybe two months later, when the sugar started getting dry again.) I linked a two pack of these because I had a large enough container of completely dry brown sugar to make use of both at once.

Souper Cubes: I forget where I first heard about these silicone freezer trays, but they're quite cleverly designed. The 1/2 cup size (with six compartments) is perfect for our household to freeze leftover chicken stock, rather than waste it. We tend to need only a bit of chicken stock at a time - for instance, just a generous splash of it while stir-frying vegetables; 1/4 cup or a bit less for steamed eggs; or 1/2 cup for the mapo tofu I mentioned - so there was a moderate amount of waste when we didn't have a good way of freezing it. The frozen cubes of stock pop right out of the tray very easily.

As one might suspect, my cooking repertoire is far more expansive now than it used to be when I was still a law student, the last time I wrote in particularly noteworthy detail about my kitchen tools. At the time I didn't even own a grater, whisk, or can opener, much less a mortar and pestle! I also didn't do any baking at all back then, as I only started baking in 2018.

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