I'm pretty handy around the kitchen if I do say so myself. You need something seared, roasted, grilled, braised, boiled, bronzed or blanched, I'm your guy. But through most of the year my culinary aptitude is geared towards cooking for one, maybe two people, and a cat. Whipping up a full holiday feast for my extended family can pose a bit of a challenge. Thankfully, kitchens in the 21st century are a wonderland of helpful gear and gadgets. Here are a few that I hope will handle the heavy lifting on throughout the holidays.
My holiday cooking process starts the same every year: sharpen the knives, clean out the oven, assemble the ingredients, lock the cat in the bedroom because he can, has and will chew through heavy-duty plastic wrapping to gnaw on a frozen turkey. Then I pull out my recipe box. It's a quaint name for something that is decidedly not. I've spent around 15 years clipping recipes out of magazines and newspapers, printing them off websites and writing them on index cards -- not even counting the slew I inherited from my grandmother. This isn't a box of recipes so much as a barely-contained riot of loose paper. What I need is a digital solution.
That solution has not exactly been forthcoming, unfortunately, as a vast majority of cooking and recipe apps are designed as tutorials, rather than repositories. I don't need it to tell me how to truss up roast, I need it to preserve a digital copy of Nana's depression-era pot roast recipe before the ink finally fades to illegibility. At this point I've been reduced to taking pictures of the recipes and uploading them to Evernote but that makes sorting, much less editing, them a nightmare.
Even though my family is the sort that insists on sitting down to their holiday "dinner" at three in the afternoon, there's still plenty of time to nosh throughout the day. Normally I like to serve the standard fare of cheese and deli slices, veggie sticks and dip. But there's only so much cheese ball one can serve before their guests start sweating ricotta. So sometimes I'd like to get fancy and serve folks hot appetizers like mozzarella sticks, stuffing balls, or homemade chips and guac. But to do that, I'm considering an air fryer.
Yes, I suppose I could make the same appetizers with a traditional deep fryer but given that we're already staring at a week's worth of calories later in the day, air fryers offer a somewhat healthier, lower-calorie cooking option. They're also far less likely to burn your house down, an unofficial holiday tradition here in the States.
I've been looking at the Philips TurboStar air fryer ($200), for example. It requires only a tablespoon or so of oil to cook a basket of fries, thanks to a novel design that ensures a constant flow of superheated air over the entire cooking basket. This reportedly enables the TurboStar to cook "fried food 50 percent more evenly" and "up to 75 percent less fat" than a conventional deep fryer, according to Phillips. It also roasts, bakes and grills.
The Foodi air fryer ($200) from Ninja, the blender folks, is another, even more multifunctional option I've considered. It combines an air fryer with a convection oven and toaster, meaning you can heat up a bagel, cook a 13-inch pizza and heat up a basket of homemade potato chips all in the same machine. It even serves as a dehydrator. At $200, it's about the same price range as the Phillips, but it also offers a really cool space-saving feature in that its base is hinged. This flips it up and out of the way when not in use, rather than having to unplug and relegate it to a cupboard between uses. The bottom plate is also hinged, granting easy access when cleaning.
The problem with serving a bunch of fried food as an appetizer, I've found, is that they're likely to put a dent in everyone's appetites before the main meal. And that's where the salad comes in. Sure, I could just throw some carrot and celery sticks on a plate, drown them with blue cheese dressing, and call it a salad but we all know that it isn't.
No, a proper holiday spread demands a proper mixed green salad -- and all of the time-intensive chopping and cutting that comes with it. That's why I use a mandolin to speed up the process. Specifically, the same hand-me-down, mid-70s mandoline I've used for close more than a decade and which is currently just slightly sharper than my elbow. I think it might be time to upgrade to something like the Fullstar mandoline ($30). This thing does it all. It slices, it dices, it juliennes, it even makes something called zoodles, which are zucchini noodles and also an affront to humanity -- at least at my house.
At the same point, I'm very much a fan of having skin on the tops of my knuckles. Which is why I'm also currently eyeing the Black+Decker Glass Bowl Chopper ($30). It's outfitted with a 150-watt motor capable of cutting, chopping and mincing whatever you put into its 4-cup bowl. Toss some garlic, onion, avocado and tomatoes in there, let the chopper do its thing and boom, I'm most of the way to enjoying fresh guacamole. Yes, chips and guac is a holiday snack.
Once I've done my due diligence and forced some vegetables upon my guests, it's time to get back to the carbs. Mashed potatoes -- whether you like them with or without skin, chunky or creamy, using russets or yams -- are a pillar of holiday meals, even 4th of July. My method is straightforward: put boiled potatoes, milk and butter in a bowl and bludgeon them into a tasty paste. Obviously, I'm not dunking my hands into a pile of hot 'taters and squeezing them into mush, I use the OXO stainless steel masher ($12). It's got a broad wire base that makes short work of potatoes while still being easy to clear and clean, as well as an ergonomic grip to save me from hand cramps.
What I really want to try, however, is the OXO potato ricer ($25). It's essentially an oversized garlic press and works the same way: big chunks of potato go in, small pieces of potato come out, thereby reducing the chances the mash will end up with lumps.
Now for the pièce de resistance: the bird. Turkey is the aviary of choice in the Tarantola household but as I've proven more years than I'd like to admit, there are myriad ways in which to mess up. You never want to have a hot-pocket on your hands (burned on the outside, frozen in the middle) much less one so thoroughly overcooked as to resemble turkey jerky. And since my apartment is limited in what you'd call "outdoor space," grilling, smoking, or deep frying a holiday turkey isn't feasible and therefore is cooked in a conventional oven. Next year, however, I might brave the mild chill of a San Francisco winter, head out to the sidewalk and fry up the bird using science.
Infrared cooking technology has been around since the 1980s, though it never really caught on here in the states (I blame Big Charcoal). While conventional gas grills heat the meat directly, infrared grills use the flame to power an infrared element which in turn radiates intense heat to cook the meat. Proponents of this method argue that infrared grills are better at searing meat, cooking it more uniformly and with fewer flare-ups.
Specifically, I've got my eye on the Big Easy from Char-Broil ($180). Powered by an attached propane tank (sold separately) and capable of producing up to 18,000 BTU of heat, this infrared grill can smoke and roast up to 21 pounds of meat at a time, at a rate of around 8-10 minutes a pound. That puts even the biggest of birds onto the dinner table within 3.5 hours -- handy when I realize at noon, day-of, the bird hasn't gone into the oven yet. What's more, the Big Easy also works as an oil-free deep fryer.
Another cool aspect of the Big Easy is that it allows you to put a dry rub on the outside of my bird (and inject marinade into it) before cooking, something impossible with oil-based fryers. This is an essential step in producing a holiday main course that people will actually want to eat. Otherwise, I might as well just spatchcock and microwave the damn thing.
As for marinade injectors, I'm a fan of the comically oversized meat needles from Grillhogs ($22). Made from 304 food-grade stainless steel this system pumps up to two ounces of marinade deep into even large cuts like brisket and, of course, whole turkeys.
Rubs can be a bit more tricky. And since Spice Weasels aren't a thing (yet), I have to do it myself. By hand. However, I'm not a huge fan of running my mitts all over a semi-defrosted bird carcass. It feels weird and I can never seem to get the application even -- some parts wind up over-seasoned, others under. One trick my mom taught me was to dump the spices into a flour sifter and use its mechanical action to evenly dust. I suppose you could use a fine mesh strainer too or a purpose-built spice shaker like this model from Homestia ($6+).
And as Alec Baldwin famously quipped in Glengarry Glen Ross, "ABB" Always Be Basting. You don't baste your turkey, you get a dry turkey. And then it's your turn to get roasted. I still haven't lived down the... unpleasantness of 2006. So, I baste. Using this guy, the 3-in-1 baster from Cuisipro ($23). It's BPA-free, heat resistant and comes with a silicon brush for painting those rendered fluids with splash-free precision.
What kind of monster serves turkey without a side of gravy? It's downright un-American. But the only thing worse than no gravy is lumpy gravy. I'm paranoid about that so you can typically find me fussing over a saucepan of roux and pan drippings, dutifully swirling the flat side of a table fork to scrape up any bits sticking to the bottom. But since we're living in the future and all, I want to make a robot do it for me. And wouldn't you believe it, there is one: The Automatic Pot Stirrer by üutensil ($29). This battery-powered device stands in the middle of a saucepan and automatically rotates a trio of tynes to perpetually stir the pot. No scorched sauces, no lumpy gravy, what's not to love?
Cranberry sauce is another holiday staple and thankfully it's also the single easiest food you're going to prepare for that day. My process is simple: take a can of cranberry sauce, open it with any can opener on hand and slorp that jiggling red mass onto the center of a plate. Congrats, cranberry sauce. What, you think I'm going to make it fresh? I'm not Martha Stewart and there's food that needs eating.