2011-09-01 / News

A low-tech way to cook

Flotsam and Jetsam

I have a blender, a food processor and an immersion blender – all electronic kitchen tools that perform related functions in a quick and effi cient way. They all see some use in my kitchen, but lately they have been gathering dust as I have been increasingly turning to another tool to accomplish what the electrics just can’t do. It’s the old-fashioned, hand-cranked food mill. A European import, it’s also called a passatutto in Italian and a Mouli in French.

The food mill has been around Europe for decades – maybe centuries – and when you first look at it it’s hard to tell what it does. It looks like a stainless steel saucepan with a handle, but the bottom is full of small holes like a colander. Inside, there is a halfmoon shaped blade that covers half the bottom of the pot. It is turned by a handle that rises above the pot. Underneath the pot there is a wand that scrapes what comes through the holes into another bowl or saucepan that you place below it.

Most American folks I know who have a food mill use it only during canning season. But it is used almost daily in Italian kitchens. In fact, whenever I have rented houses or apartments in Italy while on vacation there, the kitchen is always equipped with a food mill.

I use my food mill when making soups, preserves and some sauces. At this time of year I am using it a lot because it’s a wonderful thing to have when the garden is full of tomatoes.

Marcella Hazan, cookbook author and matriarch of Italian cuisine, says of her food mill “I would sooner give up my food processor, because what the food mill does, no processor or blender can.”

She explains: “The best a food processor can do is chop thing infinitesimally fine. The food mill goes further, separating unwanted strings, skins, seeds and small bones from the desirable pulp of food.” She concludes, “For anyone doing Italian cooking a food mill has to be on the list of indispensible equipment.”

This is exactly why I love my food mill so much. When I make a marinara sauce that includes tomatoes, peppers and onions, I can sautĂ© all of the vegetables together – skins, seeds and all – to extract their flavor. Then, when everything is a pulpy mess at the bottom of the pot, I transfer it scoop by scoop into the food mill. Where, after a few cranks of the handle, an even textured, velvety puree emerges into the pot below.

The undesirable but flavorful stuff remains in the bowl of the mill and can be tossed into the garbage or put in the compost pile if there’s no meat and oil in it. The remaining puree can then be used as is, or can be further reduced into a ketchup. You can also take the puree, add some stock, some small pasta and some previously browned meat to make a delicious soup. Or, you can just can the puree and save it for the winter.

In addition to tomato-based items, the food mill also works miracles with pumpkins and squashes – removing the stringy parts and leaving you with a creamy, buttery base from which to create pumpkin butter, pie filling or maybe a curry with a pumpkin base. It is also the perfect tool for making applesauce: You don’t have to remove every bit of skin or core when you are cooking the apples – the food mill will do it for you.

I only bought my first food mill a couple of years ago, but already it is a star in my kitchen gadget lineup.

The apples on my tree are just turning ripe and I will turn them into pie and applesauce in the coming days.

For an outrageously simple applesauce, cut into one-inch chunks about four or five large apples. If you have a food mill you can leave the skins on. Put the chunks in a glass pie plate or other microwave safe bowl and microwave on high for 10 minutes. Let the chunks cool for a couple of minutes then put a few scoops in the food mill. Turn the crank until there is nothing remaining in the mill except the skins, fibrous parts and seeds. Repeat until all the apples are processed. Toss the undesirable stuff. Top the sauce with a sprinkle of cinnamon and serve.

Currently chefscatalog.com and amazon.com have food mills available for about $50. The best priced one is on crateandbarrel.com for $30.

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