Based on the variety of ice cream scoops on the market—1,529 available from Amazon alone—one might conclude the world faces a crisis of improperly excavated ice cream. Based on the popularity of bread-making machines that look like they could mate with R2D2, you'd think we had a shortage of bakeries. From the electric can opener to the voice-activated-coffee-maker, the existence of so much gadgetry can lead one to believe we're a nation of lazy, gizmo-crazed wannabe chefs with enough kitchen space to accommodate all of our toys. But the value from accumulating all this stuff eventually diminishes. Keep that in mind as we prepare for another annual round of buying each other more crap.
What I want most of all is an uncluttered kitchen with just the tools I need. I'm not after style points. Food usually goes in a bowl ungarnished, spiced with some form of capsicum and greased with cheese or mayo. I'll take good ingredients over nifty gear any day and can improvise from there. What I can't do is untangle the spatula from the avocado slicer in a cluttered drawer. I just can't.
Sometimes I’m shocked by how primitive my kitchen is. For years I opened cans with a jackknife. I still don't own measuring spoons. Not one piece of my silverware matches another. But nobody leaves my table unfulfilled, and no one can taste how dull my knives are.
In fact, knives act as barometers for a cook’s obsession with kitchen tools. You can spend a lot of money on them or almost none. Any knife can be kept sharp or get the job done dull.
My favorite knife is one I found in Thailand. It's exquisitely thin with a wide, flat tip I can use as a spatula. I picked it up on a motorcycle-taxi tour around Bangkok's open-air kitchen-supply markets. My driver was helping me find a cro hiin, Thai for "big-ass stone mortar and pestle."
We finally found my cro hiin at a market stall underneath an elevated highway. I bought both sets the guy had because they were perfect: well-crafted from smooth, heavy stone. They were the size of tea kettles and about 20 pounds each—5 for the pestle, 15 for the mortar.
When I finally got my mortars and pestles home, I placed one set on my counter, where it proved well worth the trouble of procuring it. It pulverizes everything, large and small, hard and soft. The pestle does all the work, and the mortar doesn't budge. The bowl’s deep enough that its contents don’t fly all over the kitchen. It consumes a bit of space, but it's worth it, even though it was a major pain to bring home. That cro hiin remains one of the most important and versatile tools in my primitive kitchen.
I gave the other to friends as a wedding present. What better way to symbolize a marriage than the grinding action of pestle in mortar? As for appropriate presents to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, the retail economy or whatever they're calling it these days, remember: Your friends probably already have an ice cream scoop. It's called a spoon.