Tastes Like Home – Maintaining your skills

Hi Everyone,

A couple of months ago as I was in the kitchen finely chopping some onions and herbs in preparation for a dish, a friend of mine visiting looked at me with a mixture of alarm and exasperation and said, “Why don’t you just use the food processor?” I explained to her that that would take too much time for me to do that and besides I want to maintain my chopping skills. She rolled her eyes and left.

Match-stick-cut rinds for Marmalade. (Photo by Cynthia Nelson)
Match-stick-cut rinds for Marmalade. (Photo by Cynthia Nelson)

These days we are bombarded with tools and gadgets left, right and centre. As fast as we adjust to one, a few months later a new and improved version comes out and so the buying spree continues. Before you know it, you have 3 different kinds of sieves, 4 different pans to sauté, a stove-top grill plus a grill pan, a potato ricer plus a food mill, knives too numerous to mention and the entire rainbow of coloured spatulas! And then of course, there is the issue of space, where am I going to put all of these things?

Don’t get me wrong there is a place for kitchen tools and gadgets, what kind of foodie would I be if I did not indulge every now and then? But over the years, I have learnt to be smart about making such purchases. I have weighed my impulse of buying gadgets and tools against my skills and ability to complete the same tasks which these gadgets and tools claim to fame. Time also plays a factor. For example, I usually consider how much time and effort would be involved in using a particular tool or gadget versus me doing it by hand with the essential tools such as a knife and a cutting board. If I had followed my friend’s advice that day, I would have spent extra time having to set up the food processor and then having to wash and dry it. That was time I did not have to spare, I had guests coming, and chopping the herbs and onions with my chef’s knife and a sturdy cutting board were all the tools I needed.

We are fortunate to live in an age and time where we can walk into a supermarket, megastore and even the markets and find things already sliced, diced, chopped and shredded. It saves us time in the kitchen (though it costs more). But it costs us more than money, it costs us our skills. We have become so reliant on everything being ready-made and ready-done that we forget about the process of getting there. We lack the understanding of working with the ingredients. We become slaves to our fancy tools and gadgets and lose the skills we once mastered.

I always find it interesting that on some popular reality cooking shows, like Food Network’s Next Food Network Star that contestants are asked to perform certain tasks and have certain skills and when they (the contestants) cannot execute them or do not have a clue where to begin, the judges (often executives in charge of programming etc) look down on them, scold them and express outright disappointment at the lack of skill and knowledge. Yet, these are the same people whose programming reflects very little of the kind of skills-learning that is obviously necessary if you want to be a part of their team. They have a duty and responsibility to not only entertain but to also inform and educate but they falter. It’s no wonder the contestants fail because the flagship station they look to for guidance, the place where they are vying to get into has failed them! I think it’s hypocritical.

My tools: mortar & pestle, chef’s  knife, cutting board & timer.  (Photo by Cynthia Nelson)
My tools: mortar & pestle, chef’s knife, cutting board & timer. (Photo by Cynthia Nelson)

There comes a time however, that no matter how influential a person or entity might be when we have to accept responsibilities for our own actions or lack thereof. We have to have our own standards. We have to want to stand apart from all the rest. We have to want to know that we are capable and able to do some things. I remember reading an article recently where the author wrote about the two-week power outage in his town. He wrote about his fancy kitchen with all the tools and gadgets (a lot of which required electricity) and then said that he realized then apart from a pot, all he really needed to was a knife to peel and cut the vegetables and potatoes and chop up the meat to prepare a meal for his family.
My point is, yes, embrace the tools and gadgets but don’t do so at the expense of losing your skills. Don’t become slaves to them. We are all busy and look forward to the shortcuts, that’s okay, just remember sometimes to use your skills so they remain active and sharp. Every now and then, beat the eggs by hand and feel your muscles work, cream the butter and sugar with a spoon. Knead the dough and feel the softness. Grate a coconut and marvel at the freshness. Buy a whole chicken and cut it up and save a few bucks. Buy dried peas, soak it over night and then cook it the next day and taste the difference. Buy shrimp and peel and de-vein it yourself. Make a paste with a mortar and pestle instead of using the blender or food processor etc.

There are four tools I rely on in my kitchen – a mortar and pestle, a cutting board, a chef’s knife and a timer. Throw in a set of measuring cups and spoons and I am good to go. Ask me if I want to surrender my OXO julienne gadget and I’ll quickly tell you no. But don’t be fooled the OXO gadget can’t give me the kind of matchstick slices I’m looking for when making marmalade.


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