VALENTINE'S DAY is a perfect excuse for indulgence. If you're looking for the ultimate gift for the one you love, the two items that follow are as luxurious as you can get in the world of kitchen equipment. They are expensive and beautiful--excellent examples of utilitarian objects raised to the level of art. And if you're tempted to bestow something on yourself as well, remember that a bit of self-indulgence is good for the soul.
The first object of our affections is a copper pot, pure and simple. Called a fait-tout or sauteuse evase'e, it is truly a thing of beauty. Fait-tout means "does everything," and this is one object that comes close. Made of heavy, hotel-weight copper lined with tin, it has gently flaring sides and an iron handle.
Copper is a magnificent heat conductor. It heats and cools quickly, making it perfect for delicate sauces that should almost but not quite boil, as well as for less subtle operations like saute'ing.
Copper also spreads heat evenly to all surfaces of the pan, so there will be no hot spots. Because hotel-weight copper is about 3/16-inch thick, the utensil will be sturdy and the food will not scorch.
The flaring sides of the fait-tout facilitate stirring or whisking, since all surfaces can be reached easily. The wider top allows for rapid evaporation of liquids, making the pan ideal for sauces that need to reduce and thicken.
In fact, the shape and construction of the fait-tout makes it perfect for many different kitchen operations. Take as an example the preparation of a bit of brown sauce to go with a roasted duck: The giblets and wing tips along with a few vegetables can be browned in butter in the bottom of the pan. They will brown quickly and evenly.
After stock is added they are left to simmer while the duck roasts; eventually the stock reduces and thickens into a sauce, all in the same pan.
But just because the pot is copper doesn't mean it must be reserved for the likes of duck stock. Using it to heat tomato soup for the 4-year-old's play group makes you feel less like an overworked short-order cook and more like a chef of substance. The soup won't stick to the bottom, either.
This, despite its beauty, is not a pot that wants to be pampered. It was designed for hard, daily use in restaurants, and it can take it. Never mind about polishing it, either, unless you have a tarnish phobia. The tarnish, if anything, enhances cooking properties by making the surface absorb heat better.
Restaurants constantly use metal utensils in tin-lined copper, with the result that the inside of the pot must be retinned frequently. Although you will want to use a wire whisk for sauces, in general it's easier on the lining to use wood, plastic or rubber utensils for stirring.
This is a good time to buy imported cookware because the dollar is strong and import prices are favorable. The fait-tout comes in three diameters--16, 20, and 24 centimeters; the smallest costs about $65.
Another kitchen indulgence is the mandoline, an implement with a musical name and multiple purposes. Mainly it slices, but it also juliennes and waffles and cuts potatoes into french fries.
If you've never seen one, picture a small stainless-steel washboard supported on one end by two legs. On the washboard surface are two blades, one plain and one ridged, which can be raised or lowered to control the thickness of the slices.
You strum your potato up and down over the blades and, voila, you have slices paper-thin, 3/8-inch thick or any thickness in between. Under the main slicing blade are two sets of teeth that can be swung into place and locked to produce julienne strips, or strips about 3/8-inch wide and as thick or thin as you want.
Why would you want a mandoline? Partly because it's fun, but also because with a mandoline you can produce hundreds of slices of zucchini, say, or cucumbers or potatoes in a matter of minutes, while at the same time controlling exactly the thickness and evenness of the slices.
A mandoline combines the advantages of working by hand (control and flexibility) with the advangages of working by machine (speed and power). You can also produce strips as long as the vegetable--the newly fashionable "zucchini spaghetti," for instance, which are long julienne strips of the outside layer of zucchini.
The only mandolines I've ever seen come from France. A hand guard to hold awkward or tough vegetables and to protect your knuckles from the blades is available separately. It pays to shop around for mandolines, as the prices vary widely.
They cost between $95 and $115, depending on model and place of purchase. La Cuisine in Alexandria carries two mandolines, one with the standard blades and one that will cut thinner strips. La Cuisine also carries replacement blades.