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An Ode to a Microplane

It’s a funny thing, kitchen love. Unlike gastronomic lust, with its blatant and all-consuming covetousness for, say, a six-burner stove or a window seat with a view, kitchen love tends to sneak up on a cook. It often begins with a crush, a fleeting fondness for that new tool with the ruggedly handsome good looks. Then, slowly and often imperceptibly, it matures into something far more profound. Whether the underlying reason relates to an utter practicality or an ability to evoke a chortlingly uproarious memory, sure enough, it usually entails something that satisfies the most simple, quietest needs while one stands facing the stove.

Curious about what makes other home cooks’ hearts skip a beat? We asked a handful of our favorite food bloggers and ever-reliable Leite’s Culinaria recipe testers for their love letters, their odes to the kitchen essentials for which they thank ye gods above. How do they love them? Let us count the ways.

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I love my Microplane zester. In all seriousness, don’t you think it’s time someone made a key chain model?
—Ramona Hamblin, Leite’s Culinaria recipe tester

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Most beloved kitchen tool? No question. My Mexican molcajete (mohl-kah-HEH-tay), the traditional mortar for grinding spices and herbs, and companion to the tejolote (tay hoh LOH tay), or pestle. Both are carved from dark gray volcanic basalt stone, usually in the state of Jalisco. It’s not that I never use a food processor, or that I use my molcajete every day. But I do use it a lot. And it’s a terrific story as to how it found us. My wife, Lane, and I had the molcajete on our must-purchase list during a trip to Mexico several years ago. We looked for one everywhere we went, from stores in Mexico City to open-air markets in towns like Patzcuaro, Morelia, and Guanajuato. The search became our personal trail of tears as we left each market empty-handed. It’s not that we couldn’t find a molcajete. It’s that we couldn’t settle on the right molcajete. By the time we landed at our final destination—touristville, Puerto Vallarta—we despaired of ever finding one…when there we saw it, a gorgeous specimen at a taco stand outside the Walmart. In our limited Spanish, and with much flailing of arms and other forms of gesticulation, we got rough directions to a hardware store in a neighborhood where I don’t think many tourists normally go. And there, in the back of this strangely fascinating hardware-saddlery-pet store, I found my molcajete, covered in dust as if it had been sitting there, waiting for me, for a century. When I approached the owner of the store to pay, she said to me in perfect English, “You know, most people these days use an electric blender.”
—Ed Bruske, The Slow Cook

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Tongs, you are the height of chivalry. In my earlier years, I earned the nickname Asbestos Hands for my willingness to tackle all things scalding with bare fingers. Older and wiser, I now defer to you. Whenever there’s something hot to be turned in a pan of jumping oil or a pot of boiling water, you throw yourself between my poorer judgment and second-degree burns. I know a better life now, one in which your elegant metal arms have restored feeling to my once-numb fingertips.

You never miss, you hold on tight, you clean up easy. You remind me that cooking is often best when it’s approached simply, with no programming required, no extra parts to replace or misplace. And you’re just as helpful outside the kitchen. Remember that sock that had fallen behind the washer you once retrieved? And when that curtain pull shot out of my hand and got stuck up on the picture rail, you oh-so-gallantly retrieved it.

When I grab you and snatch at the air with your tips as a warm-up, the resulting click, click, click is like opening music, a signal that the cooking is about to begin. And during those in-between cooking moments, you stave off boredom by doubling as kitchen castanets, invoking Spanish flair no matter what I’m making. Fusion cooking at its finest.
—Christine Sarkis, Leite’s Culinaria recipe tester

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My favored kitchen item has to be the tattered, stained page that fell out of an old Moosewood cookbook that I’ve toted all over the world. It’s the holy grail of birthday-cake recipes, which is why it fell out of the cookbook in the first place. As basic chocolate cakes go, this one is a true winner. Much as I’d hate to divulge that recipe—making it public will unmask me, as it’s the easiest cake ever—I’ve already had to share it with a few friends so as not to look completely selfish, and they love it, too. Deep in birthday season here, we’re all still clamoring for that cake.
—Fran Brennan, Editor, Food News Journal, Leite’s Culinaria recipe tester

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It’s a guilty secret that I’m sharing with you. My most cherished cooking tool, my daily cooking partner, my pampered darling of the kitchen, sits in my cupboard as an act of petty larceny. Sort of. I did ask the restaurant if I could have it—albeit after it had taken up residency in my home by about two months. But technically, I did ask, and I was given permission to keep the perfectly seasoned cast-iron fajita pan. Although, honestly, I’ve never made fajitas on it. Instead I rely on it for grilled cheese sandwiches, pancakes, toasted nuts, French toast, and other such kind and gentle items. Nothing is allowed near it that could mar it’s deep, shiny surface, the result of hours of curing. I do not share it. It’s MINE! My Precious.
—Jodi Calhoun, Leite’s Culinaria recipe tester

EDITOR’S NOTE: It is possible to purchase this low-sided, oval griddle from just about anyplace that sells cast-iron cookware for just a few bucks, although, of course, you’ll also need to invest a little time and effort in seasoning it following the instructions that always accompany anything cast iron.

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My engagement ring was a bright orange KitchenAid mixer. When I swapped countries for a blossoming romance, I was willing to give up, among countless other things, three previously essential items: Yankee season tickets, my cat, and my workhorse mixer. These were decisions I labored over, the final proof—at least to this skittish commitaphobe—that this really was love.

Before moving, I stowed most of my belongings for safekeeping in a miscellany of cardboard boxes that were then dispersed and crammed into the attics and closets of my accommodating family. I had several last jaunts to Yankee Stadium to cheer on my pinstriped boys. The cat got a round of rabies shots, a kitty passport, and the promise of Europe after the quarantine period had passed—yet in the end I had to leave her behind. And my beloved KitchenAid was driven over to the only cook I really trusted.

That plain white mixer had long been an emblem of my independence. The first real appliance I had bought for myself, it had dwelled on the living room table of my tiny Manhattan brownstone apartment, churning out double batches of brioche. Nestled gently into a car (along with the cat) and brought across the country, it helped keep me from starving when I lived in Memphis. And when I moved back to New York, it made easy work of dinner parties and birthday cakes. It was my trusty—and, often, my only reliable—companion.

Then, a year after I’d left everything I owned behind, my man presented me with a shiny new KitchenAid mixer in a sunny orange, knowing that it would mean more to me than diamonds. We’ve lived a lot of places together since then, and my new mixer has always stood out on the kitchen counter in a place of pride, my symbol of independence, now colored by love. Sometimes sprawled next to it is a new cat, named after my favorite Yankee screwball pitcher.
—Mary Stephens, Leite’s Culinaria recipe tester

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As two adult males living in a one-bedroom apartment for eleven years, DPaul and I became kings of optimization. Even though we had what could only optimistically be called an eat-in kitchen, we didn’t let our diminutive digs diminish our urge to entertain. Fortuitously, a complete and utter lack of counters afforded us room—extremely finite room—for a table and a couple chairs.

We were especially attracted to mid-century dinette sets, with their gleaming chrome and funky Formica, although endless thrift shopping netted not a single table that both fit the space and wasn’t hopelessly marred. Finally, we found a company that created retro-styled furniture to order—they even sent Formica chips and pleather swatches on request. Six to eight weeks later, we had our own “vintage” set, with bent chrome legs, a black Formica top riddled with Space-Age boomerang motif, and black and grey pleather seats. The table was sized to our spec, and if positioned at exactly the right angle, we could just seat four, so long as someone didn’t mind sitting right next to the stove.

Eventually, we decided we needed more space. As we cruised each open home, we analyzed what pieces of furniture would or wouldn’t make the transition. In almost every hypothetical case, the kitchen table was a goner. Then we landed a flat that had a large but unusually shaped kitchen, an L configuration with a niche that jutted out where the two legs of the room intersected. The dinette set fit with uncanny precision, as if it had once again been cut to spec. We now seat four comfortably, with a view over our neighborhood and the East Bay. And no one has to sit next to the stove.
—Sean Timberlake, Hedonia (Photo: DPaul Brown)

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I think I can safely and honestly say that I have one item in my kitchen that I totally love. It’s a hand-held cheese grater, and although I’ve had it for years and use it daily, I’ve never grated cheese on it. I use it for ginger instead. I love the convenience of it, as it allows me to grate small amounts without a mess. I just slide a small bowl under the grater so that it captures not only the grated fiber but also the super juice that flows out of the ginger. The grated root I use to cook with, whether in curries, rice, or stews. And the juice? Ah, the juice. Perfect for making bellinis.
—Monica BhideA Life of Spice

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I cannot imagine cooking without Grandma Marion looking on. To invoke her presence, I keep a framed letter on the wall that my mother, Allene, wrote as a child to her mother, my Grandma Marion. It has the place of honor, next to my nursery-school diploma (tuition courtesy of Grandma) and near a giant Victorian ironstone tureen that she really loved. She has been gone since I was a teen, but she was the one who taught me to bake—puff pastry first (we made cream puffs, though mine were more blob than puff) and then meringues (filled with dark chocolate bits or mashed dates laced with crumbled nuts). Now, she is always watching, and I can hear her admonishing me as I lick my fingers clean between steps, “That’s not Emily Post-ish!”
—Margaret Roach, A Way To Garden

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My favored kitchen item is a vintage cocotte, an enameled cast-iron pot designed by Raymond Loewy for Le Creuset in the late fifties as part of a retro-futuristic line named Coquelle. It’s pale yellow, like the down of a chick, and the inside coating, which used to be white, is now well-seasoned by decades of use. As a happy consequence, no absentmindedness of mine has ever caused anything to stick to it. I found the cocotte on a popular auction website a few years ago and snatched it for a handful of euros. It has served me dutifully since then, and it is the pot I reach for whenever I’m making apple compote, rice pudding, winter soups, stews—all those grandmotherly types of dishes that seem to fare so well under its care. I wish my cocotte had come with some sort of family tree, telling me whom it belonged to before me, but failing that, I am left to imagine a different owner every time, as well as the sort of things that he or she might have cooked with the dish when it was theirs.
—Clotilde Dusoulier, Chocolate & Zucchini

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I had to pare down everything in my life when I moved to a small rooftop apartment in Paris, so I became quite selective about what got valuable real estate in my kitchen. One thing that I’ve actually added—and which will never leave—is my Le Creuset casserole, referred to as coquelle in French. It’s bright orange, and given the aerodynamic shape it’s obviously from a decidedly mid-century modern era. I picked mine up at a flea market and use it not just for making rustic French dishes like coq au vin but for batches of Mexican carnitas. I’ve even made bread in it. It’s pretty heavy, being made of cast iron, and although the line of cookware was reissued briefly a few years ago, it’s no longer made, so I hope I never drop it. I’m holding on to mine…tightly!
—David Lebovitz, Living the Sweet Life In Paris

EDITOR’S NOTE: Yup, that’s two. It seems the French know something that those of us stateside have been missing out on.

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Our coupling in the kitchen was never meant to be. He, a Frenchman with a love of his mother’s metric-system recipes. I, an American raised to recite the number of ounces in a pound, married already to a set of dry-measure cups. We wanted to feed each other aphrodisiac-laced meals cooked in collaboration. We’d pour champagne and preheat the oven. But metrics are from Mars, measuring cups from Venus. We’d get only so far before the mood would sour with the need for conversion formulas, and inevitably someone would leave the kitchen in disgust. It seemed hopeless.

Until the Salter Electronic Scale Model 5002.

A scale that swings both ways, the Salter made everything seem possible again. Touch a padded orange button and switch from “kg” to “lb” in an instant. Alluring, with sleek curves, an easy-to-read digital display, and a “reset to zero” function, it has merits beyond the mediation of my marriage. Yes, with it, I can make my husband’s favorite cake without scratch paper and swearing. But I can also bake my own recipes with greater accuracy. No more fickle scooping, leveling, spilling of excess flour. No more wondering if I got all the honey out of the cup. And in the end, less dirty dishes to wash. It’s become the kitchen mistress I just can’t quit. So I avert my gaze from the drawer where my measuring cups reside, nested sweetly one inside the other. I’ll never abandon them—we understand each other too well—but sometimes a little infidelity can save a marriage.

There’s a theory that the soul weighs 21 grams. Maybe it’s the same for love; maybe not. But with the Salter, I know this: that’s equal to nearly three-fourths of an ounce, a tablespoon of sugar in my loved one’s coffee, served with breakfast in bed.
—Allison Parker, Feeding the Saints, Leite’s Culinaria recipe tester

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The favored item on my kitchen counter is my mortar and pestle—all six of them, each with its own history and purpose. The heavy hunk of Thai granite gets the most use; it builds muscles as well as it smashes lemongrass, galangal, chiles, and herbs. I lug that beast to the back stoop and sit to work, as would any respectable Asian cook, tok tok toking my way to the smoothest of curries. Smaller batches of seeds and dry spices require the lightweight aluminum mortar and pestle purchased in Nagaland, high in the hills where farmers grow the world’s hottest chiles. The wooden duo has but one purpose: mixing, mashing, and smashing the ingredients for Thai-style green papaya salad. (One day I will add a clay mortar with wooden pestle to my collection, too, for the Lao-style version of that dish). The gentlest jobs go to my British instruments, a ceramic pair as pretty and white as the others are rugged. Santa was good to me this past Christmas, bringing two more devices I’ve yet to try: a Mexican lava stone molcajete, and a smooth green Taiwanese marble mortar with a pestle that fits snugly inside. I’ve yet to test these latest acquisitions, as just a few days after the holidays my husband and I set off for Southeast Asia, serenaded everywhere by the soothing tok tok tok that signals a fragrant dinner to come—from someone else’s kitchen.
—Karen Coates, Rambling Spoon

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As our family’s sole cook, I sometimes feel a sharp loneliness preparing our meals in a kitchen that lacks the bond that comes from cooking together. I can’t help but think that if only my family joined me in the kitchen, all would be right with the world. I tried Tom Sawyer’s fence-painting technique, enthusiastically whipping up meals with such zeal that I figured my kids couldn’t bear to miss out. And it worked. Sort of. My ten-year-old daughter fell naturally into kitchen life. But my teenage son was less certain. He’d stir or chop when asked, then slink away at the slightest break in the action. Then one night after watching an explosive episode of MythBusters—and noticing my son’s rapt attention—I realized he needed more than just a perk. He needed pyrotechnics. Pyrotechnics and sugar, maybe. Crème brûlée time. I bought a torch, and as we unpacked it he grabbed the instructions like I wished he’d grab his textbooks. While the custard baked he tested the flame size and the distance from his theoretical target in both inches and centimeters, repeatedly asking the question, “Is it time yet?” When the moment finally arrived, he was fully pro. Insanely focused, he hovered intently over each ramekin, caramelizing the sugar in a crystal sea of bubbles until perfectly golden brown and crackly. That simple torch sparked a passion that has finally ignited our kitchen. There’s more joy here now, more warmth. It’s a little closer to that love-inducing center of the house I’d always hoped it would be. When I see my son at the helm of that flame, I think perhaps Cupid’s arrow was never so effective as a simple kitchen tool could be.
—Shelly Peppel, Editor, Food News Journal, Leite’s Culinaria recipe tester
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I love my little light blue Portmeirion juicer, a beautifully crafted, ceramic bowl-cum-strainer, with the reamer in the center. Whenever I use it, I feel as though I belong in a ramshackle house in the English countryside, wearing a muslin apron with large blowsy roses perfuming the air.
—Jennifer Vu, Leite’s Culinaria recipe tester

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My introduction to the Microplane came not as a kitchen dweller, but as an editorial assistant working in the beauty department of a magazine. The PR office for Microplane had sent us a note that told the story of a customer who’d taken the zester, intended for culinary purposes, into the bathroom to scrub her feet. Reader, I, too, cringed at this…yet, when ordered to try it by my boss, I found the tactic very effective. Years later when I went to pastry school, I found the classic zester in my new tool bag, and because of the brand’s track record elsewhere in my household, I wasn’t surprised at the ease with which I could zest oranges, grate cheeses, and grind a whole nutmeg. It was such a sigh of relief in zester design and function: No longer would I have to wrestle to pulverize a citrus, then ruin a perfectly good piece of sponge washing the practically useless grater. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Nor, however, would I take it out of the kitchen.
Baking While Depressed

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I grew up in Spain, and every Christmas Eve my entire extended family would meet at my grandparents’ home in Madrid for dinner. It was tradition that everybody brought a special treat from their respective corner of the country. One year my eldest cousin made a pork paté that everybody raved about. She replied, quite simply, “Oh, it was so easy, I just made it with the Thermomix.” There were numerous conversations about the wonders of the Thermomix during the rest of that holiday. To my ten-year-old brain, it sounded like a machine from the future, straight out of The Jetsons. According to the descriptions, you just added the ingredients, pushed the proper button, and the machine did everything else. It was state-of-the-art, expensive, and exclusive, and I wanted one.

It’s not just that my recollection is embellished by time. I recently spent a year living with a family in Seville whose kitchen was equipped with one of these beauties. Antonia, my Spanish-mother-I-never-had (my real mother is American), made impossibly silken vegetable soups, decadent arroz con leche, and flaky pastry for empanada. Although I really wasn’t allowed to do any cooking, I did get to watch the ease with which she weighed the ingredients, pushed a couple buttons, and went off to watch the mid-day soap until the Thermomix called “Beep-beep, I’m done!” And Raymond Sokolov of The Wall Street Journal proclaims that “this $1,400 German widget will do everything a blender, a processor, an electric mixer, a steamer, a Crock-Pot, a timer, and a kitchen scale can do, but better, and all in one small spot.”

True, I may just be trying to fulfill my fantasy of the super-mod Jetson-esque lifestyle, but Thermomix TM31, I still lust for you.
—Megan Salazar-Walsh, Leite’s Culinaria recipe tester

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I love much about my kitchen. But the tools that never fail to make me sigh with satisfaction are my microplanes. I have them in every shape and configuration, although as a citrus junkie, I started with the simple citrus zester, which was where they started, too. This incredibly well designed tool practically brought me to tears. I know that sounds extreme, but after a lifetime of sacrificing the skin off my top knuckle and, often, the ends of my manicure to get lemon zest into batter or grapefruit rind into a margarita, it was a balm. This tool let me quit wincing like a bad dog that can’t help but chase the cat even though it knows the result will be a whack with the paper.
—Nicole Aloni, A Conscious Feast

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I don’t mind sharing things. Just don’t make a move towards my lefty spatula. That’s because I’m the only one who can use it. Of course, when I told my adorable husband that he couldn’t use it, he tried. And. He. Failed. Jeremy is right handed. For him, no gadget is off-limits. Opening cans is a breeze, scooping ice cream is easy, and using a butter knife is mindless. Ask a lefty to do any of those things and watch the contortions begin. But this spatula? I don’t look like a fool using it.

My mother, the queen of giving gifts I didn’t know I needed, gave me my perfectly angled spatula for Christmas a few years ago. Because I use it nearly every day, it’s looking a little worse for the wear. The varnish is slowly wearing off and its factory-contoured angle has relaxed a bit. Made from bamboo, the spatula is lightweight, doesn’t scratch my favorite non-stick skillet, and makes me feel virtuous since it’s fashioned from a renewable resource. It really is the perfect kitchen tool. And it might be the only thing in my house that’s all mine.
—Susan Bingaman, Leite’s Culinaria recipe tester

Have an ode of your own to share? Declare your kitchen love by leaving a comment below.