It's unlikely that you'll see a vegetable peeler starring in a late-night infomercial any time soon. Unlike the slice-and-dice gadgets featured on those programs, the peeler simply peels -- an unglamorous task better suited to a back porch than a television studio.
That job description undervalues a peeler's capabilities, however. If given the chance, the utensil can do quite a bit more. The key is where you use it.
Liberated from its routine kitchen duty, a peeler slashes quick strips of carrot for a salad or stir-fry, carves delicate curls of Parmesan cheese and fresh fennel for a salad or pasta, and slices wide ribbons of zucchini and summer squash for a simple saute. The peeler is affordable, versatile, efficient and practical; it is more manageable than a mandoline, and safer than a knife. My enthusiasm for peelers evolved mostly out of laziness. In my dishwasher-less days, I multi-tasked with one tool whenever possible to avoid extra cleaning. I quickly discovered that an entire meal could be prepared using only a peeler and a saute pan. While I have since acquired a dishwasher, I have stayed loyal to the notion of a peeler's utility.
Before trying to teach your old peeler some new tricks, it might be worth thinking about an upgrade. Like a knife, a peeler's blade can and will dull (if not rust).
A visit to a kitchen store reveals a growing and overwhelming array of vegetable peelers. The Y-shaped peeler has a straight base that flares out like a "Y" at the blade, while the traditional straight peeler is vertical with a blade that runs parallel to the base. The blades on both may or may not swivel, but should be sharp and sturdy.
Although the traditional peeler makes quick work of potatoes and carrots with its rapid-fire motion, I prefer Y-shaped peelers for their versatility. They peel both pushing away from, and back toward, the body. This allows for more flexibility when you're slicing vegetables and makes it easier to vary the thickness of the slices.
As adeptly as both types of peelers handle root vegetables such as carrots and parsnips, they also deftly slice them into long, neat strips following the same peeling motion, past the vegetables' exterior, until only an unpeelable stump remains (use these pieces for a homemade chicken stock or, in the case of the carrot, as a snack while you cook the rest of the meal). The thin carrot strips are more delicate than their shredded counterparts in a salad or saute. The strips of parsnip, sweet and slightly toothy, are a welcome change from the mushy chunks that often appear in soups and stews.
Slicing zucchini, summer squash and cucumber into ribbons is a more dramatic technique that shows off a peeler's range. Carve wide strips from such vegetables by applying ample pressure, preferably using a Y-shaped peeler, while cutting along the length of the vegetable until you reach the seed core. Flip the vegetable to an uncut side, and repeat until only the seed core remains. Strips of cucumber and carrot take well to the spicy peanut dressing of an Asian-inspired coleslaw.
"But," as the infomercial announcer might chime in, "Wait! There's more!" Carve graceful Parmesan curls by grooving a peeler in a wide arc against a wedge of the Italian hard cheese. Warm a large block of chocolate in the microwave until it's barely softened and then shave it into delicate slices. Slice a couple of strips of lemon zest and gently warm with rosemary in a cup of extra-virgin olive oil for a bright rosemary-lemon oil.
Perhaps the best reason to push a peeler past its habitual tasks is that the tool produces elegant results -- which, while unworthy of an infomercial, are perfect for a quick meal tonight.
Sauteed Zucchini and Summer Squash With Tomatoes
and Black Olives
When zucchini and summer squash are thinly shaved rather than sliced thick, they take on a delicate appearance and cook in less than 3 minutes.
2 medium zucchini (about 1 pound), trimmed
2 medium summer squash (about 1 pound), trimmed
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
Large pinch crushed red pepper flakes
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup pitted black olives (Kalamata or Gaeta), quartered lengthwise
1 ripe tomato, cored, seeded and finely diced
12 basil leaves, torn into large pieces
Set the zucchini and summer squash on a large cutting board. Using a peeler (preferably Y-shaped) and applying some force, slice the zucchini and summer squash along the length of the vegetables into wide strips about 1/8-inch thick until you reach the seed core. Flip and continue slicing the zucchini and summer squash until only the seed core remains; you may discard this or use in a vegetable soup.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil, garlic and red pepper flakes in a large (preferably 12-inch) skillet over medium heat until the garlic starts to brown lightly, about 2 minutes. Raise the heat to medium-high and add the zucchini and summer squash. Sprinkle generously with salt (about 1 teaspoon) and black pepper, and cook, stirring with a spoon or tossing with tongs, until the vegetables wilt and soften but are not mushy, about 3 minutes. Stir in the olives, tomato and basil and cook for 1 minute more. Taste for salt and pepper, discard the garlic cloves (optional), and serve immediately with a drizzle of the remaining olive oil.
Per serving: 187 calories, 3 gm protein, 12 gm carbohydrates, 16 gm fat, 1 mg cholesterol, 8 gm saturated fat, 300 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber
Shaved Carrot and Cucumber Salad With Peanut Dressing
4 to 6 servings
This Asian spin on coleslaw tosses thin strips of carrots and cucumbers with a thick, slightly spicy, peanut dressing.
1 pound carrots (about 3 large), peeled
1 English or hothouse (or other almost seedless) cucumber, peeled if desired
2 tablespoons soy sauce
Scant 2 tablespoons peanut butter
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 teaspoon chili paste, preferably Thai, or additional to taste
1/4 cup peanut or canola oil
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh mint
2 scallions (white and green parts), thinly sliced on the diagonal
3 tablespoons chopped peanuts
Using a peeler and applying some force, shave the carrots into long, thin strips running the length of them until you reach the tough core. Turn and continue shaving. Set aside.
Place the cucumber on a large cutting board. Using a peeler (preferably Y-shaped) and applying some force, slice the cucumber into wide, thick strips until you reach the seed core. Turn as necessary and continue slicing the cucumber until only the seed core remains; discard the seed core or chop it for a salad. Transfer the carrots and cucumber to a strainer set over the sink, season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and set aside for 10 minutes.
Wrap the cucumber in a kitchen towel and gently squeeze out the excess moisture.
Meanwhile, in a food processor, process the soy sauce, peanut butter, vinegar and chili paste until combined and a thin paste forms. With the motor running, slowly add the oil in a steady stream so the mixture forms a smooth emulsion.
In a large bowl, toss the cucumber and carrots with the peanut dressing and half of the mint and scallions. Sprinkle the remaining mint and scallions and the peanuts over the top. Serve immediately.
Per serving (based on 6): 186 calories, 4 gm protein, 13 gm carbohydrates, 14 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 2 gm saturated fat, 500 mg sodium, 4 gm dietary fiber
Penne With Sauteed Fennel
2 to 3 servings
Fresh fennel is shaved into curls for this dish.
1 large bulb fennel (about 1 pound), quartered and 2 tablespoons of the fennel fronds, chopped and reserved
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 pound sweet Italian sausage (about 3 links), removed from the casing and crumbled into small pieces
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup homemade or canned low-salt chicken broth, plus more if needed
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/2 pound dried penne
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus additional for curling
In a large pot, bring about 6 quarts water to a boil.
Trim the fronds and stalks from the fennel bulb. Using a sharp peeler and holding the fennel at an angle, shave the fennel into strips, starting at the bottom or the core of each fennel bulb quarter and peeling toward the top. Continue to shave the fennel into strips until you are left with unpeelable stubs; discard the stubs or reserve for another use.
Place a large skillet over medium heat for 11/2 minutes. Add the oil and the sausage and cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon to crumble, until the sausage browns and is almost completely cooked through, about 5 minutes. Drain and discard the excess fat, if necessary. Add the fennel, season with 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the fennel wilts and is tender, about 3 minutes. Add the broth and vinegar to the skillet and cook, using a wooden spoon to stir constantly and scrape the bottom of the skillet, for 1 minute. Remove from the heat.
Meanwhile, salt the water generously and cook the pasta, stirring often, until tender, about 12 minutes. Drain the pasta and add it to the skillet along with the grated cheese and the fennel fronds. Remove from the heat and toss gently to combine. If the mixture begins to dry, add a couple more tablespoons of the broth. Taste and season accordingly with pepper.
Using a peeler, shave about 12 curls of cheese and scatter over the pasta.
Per serving (based on 3): 704 calories, 26 gm protein, 66 gm carbohydrates, 37 gm fat, 65 mg cholesterol, 12 gm saturated fat, 872 mg sodium, 4 gm dietary fiber
Tony Rosenfeld is a contributing editor to Fine Cooking magazine.