You may know Carolyn Cope as Umami Girl. She stops by on Tuesdays with ideas on preparing the abundance of fruits and vegetables you might get from your CSA or the market. —The Mgmt.
When your crisper is jam-packed, the basic tools in your kitchen can make or break your relationship with those vegetables. With the right set of equipment, most of which is not particularly fancy, you can show your produce who's boss, and do it in style. And when you come right down to it, what else is summer for? These are my top 10 tools for keeping things under control in the passionate heat of summer produce season. Did I miss anything? Let us know in the comments!
1. Big-Ass Knife
Do people call you Strega Nona? Can you cut enough vegetables to feed a village in no time flat, holding a paring knife blade-up, without severing your thumb or the tip of your nose? Me neither. Unless you've earned your stripes as a magical Italian grandma, a very sharp chef's knife is the number-one "it" tool of the veggie season. Learning how to use it well is the hottest thing you'll do all summer. Spend an evening at a local knife-skills class—you'll gain back the time in just a few weeks of efficient veggie chopping. Or just practice, practice, practice to gain speed and confidence. If you aren't already, soon you'll be one of the cool kids cracking a barely perceptible, knowing grin when Kenji calls an onion "one of the most pleasurable foods to take a sharp blade to." That's right, suckas.
2. Salad Spinner
All those leafy greens you may be getting from your CSA, garden, or farmers' market promise you better vision, Popeye strength, and a longer life. They seem so wholesome that you might not expect them to fight dirty. But boy, do they fight dirty—and sandy, and gritty, and buggy. To whip them into shape, you'll need to submerge them in water, smack them around a little, drain, and repeat until they know who's boss. Sure, you could fill up the whole sink or a big bowl without a built-in strainer, but a salad spinner is really the way to go.
3. Food Processor (or, in a pinch, a serious box grater and mortar and pestle)
Between shredding zucchini and carrots for every-which purpose and making batches upon batches of pesto to freeze for winter, it's borderline ridiculous how often I haul out my food processor during the summer. I feel the same way about my Cuisinart as I do about my children and about Google—I have only the vaguest, spiritually impoverished memories of a former life without them. If you can hack the initial investment, you won't be sorry to have one. But if you're penny pinching, or looking to burn calories, or, say, from Lancaster County, PA, a sturdy box grater and mortar and pestle will serve you well.
4. Wide (12-inch) Skillet
Ever try to wilt three pounds of greens or get some decent caramelization on a bumper crop of diced butternut squash using a respectably sized pan? It's not easy, to say the least. Every veggie lover should own a skillet whose sheer magnitude makes you slightly embarrassed to behold. Use it even to cook a lunch of wilted greens for one. Wield it proudly.
5. Long-Handled Tongs
Whether you're tossing salad, sautéeing greens in a giant pan, grilling slices of eggplant, or cooking up a big pot of pasta to toss with all your crisper's odds and ends, long-handled tongs are indispensable.
Steamed veggies have their place on the Weight Watchers zero-points menu, but they have no place in my heart. A little butter (or olive oil, or good-quality bacon fat) goes a long way toward helping you bring produce to the center of the plate and crave it again day after day. It also helps our bodies absorb the nutrients that vegetables have to offer. They're not just being cute when they say that butter is "a tool, not an ingredient." Don't be bashful. Use the tools you're given.
While we're on the subject of ingredients as tools, it's worth investing in a few bottles of good vinegar if you're expecting a large number of leafy guests this season. Of course, there's salad dressing to make. But a few tablespoons of cider vinegar during cooking or a splash of aged balsamic afterward can also sweeten up the most aggressive pan of greens like you wouldn't believe.
8. Sturdy Half- or Three-Quarter-Sheet Pan
As root vegetables come into season and the weather cools off a bit, you'll want to make it as easy on yourself as possible to crank the oven to 425° F and roast a big pan of goodness. A sturdy, commercial-grade half- or 3/4-sheet pan will fit in a home oven without crying Wolf and will maximize those tasty burned bits on an autumn's worth of cozy dinners.
9. Airtight Glass Containers
Whether or not you think plastic is pure evil, reusable, dishwasher-safe glass containers with locking lids are a great choice for storing an abundance of vegetables. You can put them in the freezer, and they won't absorb the tastes and odors of garlic, tomatoes, or bitter greens.
I'm the first to admit that I was the last to adopt this modern amenity. I was so late, in fact, that I waited until Martha Stewart told me (via her daytime talk show, that is) to do it. Why oh why did I wait so long? Was it the (in the end, not overwhelming) cost (quickly recouped with fewer wasted veggies and maybe even lowered healthcare costs)? The fear of becoming a tragic, leathery tanned, juice bar junkie? No matter. I'm a convert now.
What about you? What do you consider the essential tools of the veggie trade? Let us know in the comments!
About the author: Carolyn Cope writes Umami Girl and manages a CSA in New Jersey.