Essential Tools: The Break Down
You’ve already seen me wax poetic about cast iron and watched me spit my ire over the microwave. Today I’d like to do a quick rundown of the other essential tools I use and why I think you should consider adding them to your own arsenal. Just to recap here’s that list: Here’s what I use on a daily basis:
Cast Iron Skillet
Silicone Spatula/Wooden Spoon
As you might imagine, I’m a knife guy. I have quite a few in my collection but there’s only two I go to every single day - my chef's knife and my paring knife. Years ago I was given a gift certificate to Williams Sonoma. I really have no business setting foot in this kind of store but there I was. I had enough to get a chef’s knife and I wanted to get a good one. I bought an 10 inch Wusthof. A beast of blade. A top notch knife made by a very reputable company big enough for my Shrek like hands. I never use it.
Oh, I did at first but a few month’s later a client and friend gave me a knife for my birthday, a regularly sized 9 inch Victorinox. I am ashamed to say that while I was gracious in accepting the gift I kinda turned my nose up at it. I mean after all I had a Cadillac sitting at home already. Yet it’s that sturdy, plain, wooden handled Victorinox that I turn to everyday. All it took was to take it down few times and slowly it dawned on me, that despite the pedigree of my Wusthof, this was just simply a better knife.
And this is not the first time my pretensions have made me an ass. Back in my 20s when I worked at Bottega I cooked with a Chinese cleaver. All the other chef’s had professional knife rolls and full kit. I showed up with a paring knife and that Chinese cleaver, rolled in a towel, and tucked into the back of my pants as I rode my bike too and from work. That same level of pretension led me to smoke Capris in high school. I just thought it looked cool.
My paring knife is also quite simple. Three inches of triangular steel fitted to a micarta handle. It doesn’t see nearly as much work as my chef knife, but it comes in handy with small work like sectioning citrus or opening food bags.
As an honorable mention I’d also like to point out my filet knife and my steel. The filet knife gets no where near daily work, but I do fancy myself a bit of an amateur butcher and it comes in handy when breaking down chicken or de-boning a roast. The steel is essential for keeping a good hone on my blades and extending the time between sharpenings.
The economoix is simply a peeler and apple corer combo. Of all the vegetable peelers out there this is my favorite. It’s design is both simple and elegant. It fits the hand like a paring knife but is much more forgiving as a peeler.
My Butcher Block is yet another example of why I believe I am the “Luckiest Boy in the World.” We moved into this house back in 2008. The kitchen was spacious but decidedly lacking in counter space. A client had worked up a fairly sizable credit account and asked if I’d be willing to trade for a butcher block her husband would make. I said yes and it has been the single greatest addition to my kitchen. I put it to work almost immediately barely taking enough time to properly oil and season the top. The rest of this extremely well made stand came unfinished. It is a testimony to the utility of this block that I have yet, in the 13 years I’ve had it in use, been willing to part with it long enough to sand and finish the legs and pot shelf. At this point I don’t think I ever will.
AKA the spatula to rule all spatulas. I first learned of this nifty device through a Master Class taught by Thomas Keller. It’s almost perfect. It’s light and flexible. It has large slots for allowing oil and jus to drain through which allow it to double as a slotted spoon. It is absolutely useless for making smash burgers, but I don’t mind as I also have a cast iron bacon press that does a much more admirable job. The fish spatula is absolutely essential for pan seared salmon but also works great for fried eggs, pancakes, flipping burgers, and all other spatula duties.
Wooden Spoon/Whisk/Silicone Spatulas
Despite being a tool of corporal punishment as a child I still like wooden spoons. I like the traditional fully recognizable as a wooden spoon spoons as well as the ones that are really more pan scraper than spoon. Obviously they are great for stirring and scraping bits of fond of the bottom of a pan.
I have a couple of whisks. While not essential to scrambling eggs, a fork works quite well and sometimes better, I find it indispensable for making vinaigrettes and gravies.
Silicone is one of the greatest kitchen inventions in the last twenty years. I love the versatility of a silicone spatula. It’s heat resistance allows me to use it to gently arrange eggs in a pan and its flexibility lets me get that last bit of batter out of a bowl for that final adorably small pancake. Silicone hot pads are nice but with my tendency to let the bottom edge droop I prefer natural fibers. Burning cotton is just a more pleasant smell than burning silicone.
I didn’t mention it in my list and it’s not anywhere near a daily user, but those silicone sheet pan liners are amazing. Whether you’re baking cookies or biscuits or roasting bones for stock these make the perfect non stick surface and are easy on the clean up.
Get a bunch of them in various sizes. Store them close at hand nested inside each other. Of course they’re handy for mixing stuff, but they’re also useful for temporary storage. You can easily overwhelm your workspace with chop-chop and having multiple bowls on hand is helpful in staging ingredients until you need them.
These really should have been closer to the top of my list. I actually have four pairs in my kitchen, although two of those pairs have silicone ends that render them basically useless. All you need is a basic pair (preferably two so that one pair is always clean.) These are indispensable for picking up hot or icky food. I use mine to turn bacon, steaks, chicken, basically anything that gets a sear in the skillet that’s too big for a pan flip. For the past three or four years we have kept our dogs on a raw diet. Chicken leg quarters bought in family packs make up the bulk of their diet. Sam frequently uses the tongs to handle those leg quarters, for obvious reasons.
Pan Seared Pork Chops with Pepper Jelly Reduction and Arugula Salad
Man, don’t that sound fancy? Back in my early kitchen days at The Grit we used to joke a lot about the way we sold our menu items. You can take a relatively normal everyday dish and make it sound super special just by the way you name it. Case in point, we once had a soup on our menu called West African Ground Nut Stew. Ain’t that fancy? West Africa? That’s exotic. Ground nut? What could that be?
It’s a peanut.
West African Ground Nut Stew is absolutely delicious, but it’s root vegetables, cabbage, and peanut butter. Without trying it would you buy Peanut Butter Soup? Probably not, but give it a fancy name and we can sell it all day long.
Sort of like today’s offering. At it’s heart it’s just pork chops and a salad. It was a simple oh-shit-what-are-we-going-to-eat-tonight dinner that I just pulled together at seven o’clock on a Tuesday right after jiu-jitsu. The Pepper Jelly Reduction while it may sound exotic is no more fancy than the peanut butter in West African Ground Nut Stew (and yes, I’m aware that a peanut is not actually a nut, but would you buy Goober Soup?)
To start grab that glorious cast iron skillet. Be sure to take a minute to marvel at how that seasoning is coming along and to give thanks to the culinary gods for the bounty they have bestowed upon you. Get it on a medium high heat and once the pan is good and hot add your oil or rendered fat. If you planned ahead your pork chops have been sitting out at room temperature and are well salted on both sides. Fancy chefs call that dry brining.
Before searing those chops in the pan pat them dry with a paper towel. If you didn’t plan ahead, don’t sweat it. Just pat the chops dry and give them a good salting. Your sear won’t be as crispy as it might have been, but you’ll be reminded that next time it would be nicer to pull them out ahead of time. Whether that actually happens or not is another matter entirely.
Sear those chops. Here in the South we generally fry our chops to the consistency of roof shingles. We’ve been convinced that since the pig is such a tasty animal it must also be rooted in evil. The only way we can enjoy our chops and still attain salvation is to cook that evil out by cooking chops cut especially thin to a cracker like status.
If you haven’t figured out yet, I am both heretic and heathen. I love pork. I love juicy pork and so sear my chops, preferably cut on the thicker side, just to the point of a nice brown crust but where the center is still soft and juicy.
Once your chops are cooked set them a side to rest. Add a splash of a mild vinegar. I went with Rice Wine vinegar but an apple cider or a sherry would work just as well. Just enough to de-glaze the pan and lift up those bits of delicious fond that stick to the bottom of the pan. As soon as those bits are lifted add a couple tablespoons of whatever jam or jelly you have on hand. Of course, that homemade jam you were gifted with a Christmas would be best, but even Smuckers will do in a pinch. I used a pepper jelly loving crafted by my oldest daughter’s godmother.
Stir that into the vinegar and allow it to reduce for a few minutes. Your going to be spooning this onto the pork chops so you want a gravy like consistency.
To round out the meal I made an arugula salad simply dressed with salt and pepper, extra virgin olive oil, and the juice of half a lemon. There’s a reason most of us don’t really like salads. It generally boils down to not enough seasoning or not enough fat. Believe it or not much of the nutrients found in your salad are fat soluble. Consuming sufficient fats with your salad render those nutrients available to your body. Don’t be so quick to discount your taste buds. They are trying to tell you something. A properly dressed salad is wonderful thing, but you’ll have to learn your limits as under dressed is a drudgery and over dressed is a mess.
Pork chops and salad, a simple yet extremely satisfying meal - no matter what you call it.