Americans love gadgets.
It's in our DNA, hard-wired in our brainpans, infused in our mother's milk. If some nitwit on late-night TV promises that his cheap 'n' cheesy invention will shave a few seconds off a simple task or make it easy enough for a blind, paraplegic monkey to perform, we're reaching for our wallets before he can say, "But wait, there's more."
And, actually, there is. There are a few gadgets, mostly inexpensive and easy to use, that really are worth the money, that make performing certain kitchen tasks less onerous and produce better results. This quintet of handy little tools, for example:
Double-lever corkscrew. You can spend $60 or $70 for corkscrews that resemble the Wright Brothers' first aircraft and are about as complicated to operate, or you can drop less than 10 bucks for one of these nifty items. The secret is the twin levers -- one short and one long -- that grip the mouth of the wine bottle. You draw the cork halfway out with the short lever, then use the longer one to pop it completely. No tearing up the cork or shredding your rotator cuff trying to get obstinate ones out.
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Instant-read thermometer. Checking the temperature of a piece of meat or fish doesn't get any easier than with one of these cheap (around $10) and basic devices. Just jab it in (not touching any bone), wait 30 seconds, read the number on the dial, and you're done. Yeah, for a few bucks more you can buy a digital thermometer that runs on batteries, but it doesn't work any better and is more prone to break down.
Microplaner. Two things these kitchen versions of carpenter's tools I find incredibly useful for: grating hard cheeses you want to instantly and completely incorporate into a sauce or meatball or farce, and finely grating garlic for dishes that use the stinking rose in its most pungent raw form (say, caesar salad or aioli). This last I stole from Rachael Ray, which makes me very much ashamed.
Tiny whisk. Perfect for mixing small amounts of anything, from incorporating herbs, spices, and other flavoring agents into mayonnaise to making enough vinaigrette for two, three, or four. Why dirty a blender, processor, or big balloon whisk and bowl when you can get the same product from this little guy in a small bowl or even teacup that when finished go straight into the dishwasher?
Champagne stopper. Yes, even in my household, a bottle of wine occasionally lives to see a second day. With still wines, just replacing the cork will hold the bottle for 24 hours, but with sparklers, even half an hour without a cap will allow must of the precious bubbles to escape. And forget about keeping the bottle overnight. Spend $5 on one of these and you'll always be able to pick up your celebration where you left off.