"What a food processor can do to a potato," notes Abby Mandel, "is like a magician's act." Mandel, a woman who helped add a new measurement -- "feed-tube lengths" -- to the American lexicon, is so dedicated to the food processor that she's spent the last 10 years of her life writing about it, talking about it, developing recipes for it and answering questions about it.
During her days at home in Winnetka, Ill., she and an assistant stand at the processors -- there are five in the Mandel household -- chopping and grinding, grating and slicing for the sake of her monthly food processor column in Bon Appetit magazine, a newspaper column, frequent articles for The Pleasures of Cooking magazine, her cooking classes and her work as consultant and recipe developer for Cuisinarts, Inc.
And that's only the stuff she does at home; Mandel also moves frequently about the country chopping in public and answering the heartfelt questions of millions of food processor devotees.
Mandel is not alone in her fascination with the machine. Her last cookbook, called "Abby Mandel's Cuisinart Classroom," sold 400,000 copies, a number that would get even Jackie Collins' attention.
She has a new book coming out within the month, and now believes that we have arrived at the state of the art where food processors are concerned. In the five years since her last book was published Mandel says she's learned a lot more about using the processor -- about how to organize ingredients in a recipe so that they can be processed together to save even more time, about diversifying recipes, and about how to whip egg whites -- the last little nyah-nyah that technophobes could throw in the machine's direction.
The standard disclaimer trotted out by the unconvinced -- "I only chop onions in mine" -- gets no sympathy. "That's an expensive onion," she says. Most people who don't get their money's worth out of the machine are simply intimidated, she believes, and need to get in there and learn how to use it.
The processor can help Americans assuage both their new-found appetite for healthy eating, and their desire for good food fast, she believes, because it's so good at cutting minutes from the preparation of vegetables and whole-grain breads. And, if we make more of our own foods instead of buying them already prepared, we have better control over what we eat.
Take the Mandel way with green beans, for example: bad beans (old, big ones) are laid in the feed tube horizontally, then sliced to make thinner, "Frenched" beans. Good beans are run through a thick slicing disk vertically, to be sliced into perfect lengths for stir-fry. Professional chefs can accomplish these things in seconds and will nearly always do them by hand, but the processor can save the average, untrained cook many minutes every week. It can also do things automatically that are difficult to learn -- julienning, for example.
But most of the questions Mandel gets, particularly in response to her magazine columns, are about adapting bread recipes for the processor. The complex carbohydrates in whole-grain breads are just what the doctor is ordering these days, and the processor virtually eliminates mixing and kneading time. Depending on the size of the processor, one to several loaves of bread can be completely mixed and kneaded in under a minute. Because whole-grain doughs tend to be especially sticky, the processor can be a particular help with them.
Finally, Mandel has some advice for people who don't have any idea where -- or even whether -- to start.
First, if you never cook, don't bother.
And don't expect the processor to make you into Escoffier. "It certainly helps anyone do better, but it doesn't make you a good cook," Mandel says. On the other hand, she believes some tricky techniques are easier to master with the processor. Even though she trained at La Varenne in Paris and in restaurant kithens, Mandel claims she never made a good pie crust until the processor, and she says she hears the same from her audiences around the country.
If you decide you want to take the plunge, and Mandel certainly wants you to, the Cuisinart model she recommends for most cooks -- and there are comparable models in other brands -- is the "DLC-7 Super Pro," a medium-sized machine that has the capacity to handle a 7-cup loaf of bread but will also chop one garlic clove. Both KitchenAid and Robot Coupe make comparable models.
If you love baking bread, or do a lot of other cooking, consider the giant DLC-X Plus, which will mix and knead 12 cups of bread dough at once.
Both models come with metal blade, dough blade, slicer and shredder, and the larger with two slicers. Once you get used to those and want to branch out, Mandel recommends the french fry disk, which can easily accomplish coarse chopping, extra-thick and extra-thin slicers, and the fine shredder.
Most kitchenware and department stores that sell processors also offer classes in their use.