Tools: Tongs

Although I'm confident I could quit anytime I want, it's probably fair to admit that I have a tongs problem. I've got more than half a dozen pairs of tongs in my kitchen, of various lengths, designs and materials. Two are essential and constantly in use:

9" stainless steel tongs, spring activated: these are the most frequently grabbed-for tool in my kitchen, a natural extension of my hands. I use tongs for manipulating food in the pan, flipping steaks on the grill, pulling lids off of pots, serving plates, stirring pots and a hundred more things. Price: really cheap - <$10
12" stainless steel tongs, spring activated, with lock: when 9" isn't enough to keep your knuckles from singeing, reach for the longer version. Not as articulate as their shorter brethren, but invaluable for the grill, broiler or wok, when you don't want to futz around with a glove. Get the locking ones. Price: really cheap - <$10

Two other models earn their keep, though they are less frequently used:
9" stainless steel tongs with nylon tips, spring activated, with lock: as above, but safe for non-stick cookware, these are great for grabbing vegetables, flipping chicken breasts, etc. I'd use 'em all the time, except the tips don't "grab" quite as well as aluminum, and I worry about melting them, especially on the grill - they're only good for temps below 400F. Price: cheap - <$15
16" stainless steel, spring activated, with lock: sometimes - such as when i need to move a chicken off the smoker - 12" just isn't big enough. These tongs are really too long for most indoor uses, but they're perfect for tending wood, moving grates and relocating hot poultry. Get the locking ones. Price: cheap - <$15

Others range from handy-but-seldom-used to unsafe-at-any-speed. In particular, the stainless steel scissors-style tongs are completely useless for any task. Ditto for the bobby-pin design single-piece plastic tongs, which are too slippery to hold anything, even if they could muster the leverage for a decent pinch.

The lock may seem like unnecessary frill, but you'll appreciate it when you put tongs in the dishwasher or in a drawer; locking them shut makes for a much more compact package.

OXO makes all of the sizes I've mentioned; their tongs feature a nice non-slip rubber ridge on each handle, and they have held up to active use for years. (To be fair, I've been just as pleased with the no-name ones I picked up at a restaurant supply house for $4.)

Tools: Razor-Sharp Paddle of Doom

OK, doom may be a stretch - but this hand-held mandoline puts a serious hurt on anything that gets close to its double-edged blade: cloves of garlic, onions, cucumbers, fingertips, you get the idea. Very thin (2.5mm, or about 1/10”), uniform slices fly off the ceramic blade at an astounding rate; the double-edge means that you can slice on both the downstroke and upstroke, so a clove of garlic disappears in seconds.

What makes this gadget much more useful than a knife or a countertop mandoline is the ability to slice directly into a sauce pan or mixing bowl. Flick paper-thin wisps of garlic right onto your green beans. Float delicate onion rings into sizzling butter, for the start of a great curry. Make a cucumber salad in 30 seconds, without a knife - just shave into a serving bowl and toss with rice wine vinegar and a little sugar. Shred a head of cabbage into cole slaw in 2 minutes flat.

In addition to impressive performance, it’s easy to clean by hand, and also dishwasher safe. Inexpensive, too - about $25.

There are a couple of downsides. At 3”, the blade isn’t very wide; you’ll need to cut large onions in half, and heads of cabbage into quarters to fit. Then there’s the razor-sharp blade. A reviewer on Amazon aptly describes the situation as “99% glorious and 1% terrifying.” The blade is incredibly sharp, and the included plastic finger guard is absolutely useless. Suck it up, and you'll be rewarded with a terrific tool.

Williams-Sonoma has these guys in stock, or available online here.

Subterranean Tuscan Potatoes Blues

Here's my Tuscan Potatoes recipe as a Bob Dylan video:

Walkthrough: Pulled Pork & Chicken

Here's the timeline for our Labor Day weekend feast - recipes will follow.

Friday: my butcher cut me a beautiful 9-pound Boston Butt, the ideal section of pork for smoking. The Boston Butt is the top portion of the front shoulder of the pig - the other, bonier, half of the shoulder is the Picnic. I also picked up a couple of plump chickens, about 4 and a half pounds each.

Saturday, 9PM: rubbed the Boston Butt with a generous quantity of the Tri-Wizard, supplemented with celery seed, mustard powder, onion powder, brown sugar and paprika. Popped it into a 2.5 gallon Zip-Lok and watched "Human Nature," our Netflix pick.

Sunday, 9PM: took the pork out of the fridge and let it rest on the counter for an hour, still wrapped. At about half past the hour, I warmed up the smoker and prepared a mix of hickory and pecan wood, for sweetness and tang.

Sunday, 10PM: with the temperature at a perfect 225F, the pork hit the pit. Pork shoulder ought to spend about 1.5 hours in the smoker per pound of meat.

Monday, 9:30AM
: took the chickens out of the fridge and let them rest in the sink for about 20 minutes, still wrapped, while I prepared their accompaniments. I cleared out the cavities, rinsed the chickens well, then stuffed each one with 4 cloves of garlic, 4 whole cloves and an onion, cut in half. Light salt, pepper and paprika.

Monday, 10:30AM: with the temp still holding steady at 225F, the chickens joined the pig in the pit. Chickens should go about 4 hours in the smoker. Time to make the potato salad and cole slaw!

Monday, 3:00PM: the chickens come off the pit, after 4 and a half hours, with an internal temp of about 165F. I'll let them sit for 30 minutes, while I make a light sauce, then pull the meat off the bones and mix it with the sauce. Wrapped up, it'll stay warm for a couple of hours.

Monday, 4:00PM: after 18 hours, the pig's internal temp is only 170F, but we've got to go - we're taking the show on the road today. It gets a triple wrapping of aluminum foil before going into an ice chest.

Monday, 6:00PM: I unwrap the pig and pull it with two pairs of tongs. It's perfect: tender, smoky and juicy. Let's eat!

Tuscan Potatoes

Ask Liz why she married me, and you'll hear the usual - for love, for money, it was her first time drinking Absinthe, etc. Ask her again, and she may tell you the truth: Tuscan potatoes.

No one is immune to their charms, and they are sooooo many. First, there's the aroma; earthy, sweet, salty and fresh, an oven full of these beauties drives the whole neighborhood wild with rosemary-scented desire. Then, there's their appearance, imperfectly cut and tumbling together, roasted brown and gold, flecked with green, glistening with oil. The satisfying crunch as you bite down, and the melts-in-your-mouth interior. Finally, the explosion of elemental flavors: potato, rosemary, salt and oil, ratcheted up beyond reason.

Tuscan potatoes are an extraordinary accompaniment to a grilled steak, a smoked tri-tip or a pork roast. They take a bit of work, but they're worth it.

2 Russet potatoes
3 sprigs fresh rosemary, about 5” long
1 tsp rosemary salt or kosher salt
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Peel the potatoes, cut them lengthwise into quarters, then slice into roughly 1" chunks. Rinse in a bowl of cool water until the water runs clear, then soak them in cold water for about twenty minutes. This step removes the starch from the surface of the potatoes, enabling the delicious crunch.

Preheat the oven to 450F. If you're using a cast iron skillet (recommended*), put it in the oven to preheat.

Drain and dry the potatoes with a dish towel or paper towels.

Pour the oil into your skillet or a baking pan, then de-stem 2 sprigs of rosemary into the oil. (I usually throw in the stems, too.) Add the potatoes in single layer and toss to coat with the oil and rosemary. Put your pan into the oven on the top rack.

Roast for 30 minutes at 450F. Remove the pan from the oven, turn the potatoes with a spatula, and return to the oven for another 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, de-stem the other sprig of rosemary and chop it finely.

Check your potatoes: they should be mostly golden, with a few dark-brown patches. If they are pale, return them to the oven, checking at 5 minute intervals. My last oven consistently took a full hour, but my current oven (in convection mode) turns them out perfectly in 45 minutes.

When your potatoes are ready, toss them with chopped rosemary and salt (I use rosemary-scented salt, for a double kick) and serve immediately.

This recipe feeds two hearty appetites.

* I like to cook Tuscan potatoes in a 12" cast iron skillet, which produces a superior crusty texture but only holds about two medium potatoes. If you have a crowd to feed, use a baking pan with raised edges. If you don't have a 12" cast iron skillet, buy one. Today.

White Bean Hummus

Smooth, creamy, garlicky and delicious. Try not to feel hurt when your friends ask, accusingly: “you made this?” The recipe originates at Orangette; I’ve tweaked it a bit and added the smoked paprika topping, which really brings out the flavors. Serve with pita or crostini or naan or carrot sticks or anything else you can imagine.

1 15 oz can Canellini beans, drained and rinsed
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1/2 cup tahini
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/4 cup water
Extra virgin olive oil
Smoked paprika
Combine first six ingredients in a food processor or blender, pulsing until the beans are a smooth paste. Add the water a bit at a time until the consistency is as you like it. To serve, drizzle a little olive oil over the surface and sprinkle with smoked paprika.

If you’re making hummus in advance, store it in the fridge, but take it out a bit before serving - it’s best at room temperature.

Store leftovers (assuming you have any) in a covered dish in the fridge. Hummus stays fresh for about a week.


Italian for “little toasts,” crostini are a simple yet decadent staple food. They're good for scooping up hummus or a soft cheese dip (think ricotta and pesto); smearing with roasted garlic; topping with prosciutto, arugula and parmesan; or just for crunching alone, like fat, succulent chips.

1 baguette
1 clove garlic
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp coarsley ground black pepper
rosemary salt or kosher salt
Preheat oven to 350F. Press or mince the garlic and combine with the olive oil and black pepper. Slice the baguette into rounds* about 1/4” thick and arrange on a baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes, or until they are just beginning to get brown. Paint the olive oil mixture on the rounds with a pastry brush, sprinkle with rosemary salt and return them to the oven for 2 minutes.

Cool and store in a jar or zip-top bag. Crostini stay fresh for about a week, but they rarely last that long in our house.

*When I want to be fancy, I slice the bread on the bias, or diagonally. It may look elegant, but they’re harder to dip and much more than a mouthful.

Smoked Tri-Tip

I hadn’t heard of a tri-tip roast until moving to California a few years ago - it’s a triangular cut of beef also called the bottom sirloin, usually weighing in at between two and three pounds. Tri-tip is funny-looking, but quite tasty - a cross between a sirloin steak and a roast - and really shines on the smoker, though it’s also good grilled.

1 tri-tip roast (2.5-3 pounds)
1/4 cup tri-wizard rub
24 hours before cooking: Trim the fat cap, if desired. Rub the tri-tip well with the tri-wizard mixture, making sure you get it into all the nooks and crannies. Cover with plastic wrap or pop into a zip-top bag and refrigerate overnight, or at least a couple of hours.

1 hour before cooking: Take the tri-tip out of the fridge and allow to come to room temperature. Preheat your smoker or grill.

Smoke at 225F for 4 hours or until the internal temp reaches about 140F for medium rare. I like a combination of hickory and pecan woods.

If you don’t have access to a smoker, sear on a hot (500F) grill for up to 5 minutes per side, then move it off of the flame and continue to cook for about 15 minutes at medium (350F) until the internal temp reaches about 140F for medium rare.

Use tongs to put your beautiful tri-tip on a serving platter, cover it loosely with aluminum foil and allow it to sit for at least ten minutes before carving.

Tip: it’s just as easy to make two, and the leftovers make terrific sandwiches.

Tri-Wizard Rub

Perfect for smoked tri-tip, this rub is also nice on chicken, fish and pork. It’s a great seasoning base, too: add cumin and lime juice for a Cuban flavor, or paprika, brown sugar and celery seed for a Memphis-style rib rub. The ground chipotle pepper adds a nice touch of smokiness, as well as heat; if you have trouble finding it locally, try Penzey's online or substitute cayenne pepper.

1/4 cup rosemary salt or kosher salt
1/4 cup freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup garlic powder
1 tsp dried chipotle or cayenne
Mix well and store in a covered container - an empty spice jar with a “shaker” lid is ideal. Tri-wizard rub keeps indefinitely.

Rosemary Salt

I made rosemary-infused salt on a whim a few years ago, and it immediately became a staple in my kitchen. It lends a soft perfume to spice rubs, soups and stews and takes crostini and garlic bread from good to great. It’s also inexpensive and extremely simple to make.

1 cup kosher salt or sea salt
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, about 5” long, cut to fit your container
Empty spice jar
In a small saucepan over medium heat, warm the salt for about 5 minutes, or until hot to the touch. Remove the pan from the heat, stir in the rosemary sprigs and set aside, uncovered, until cool. Store in a covered container - an empty spice jar with a “shaker” lid is ideal. Rosemary salt keeps indefinitely.