For some odd reason, a lot of my favorite plants are members of the genus Allium: garlic and onions. The savory bulbs are favorites in many cuisines, including most of the ones I cook regularly: Cajun, Mexican, Italian, and several Asian styles. Of course there's always good old American food, where a slice of onion is a must on a burger, chopped onions are required on hot dogs and brats, and red onion slivers are de rigeur in a garden salad.
When you combine my household's love of onions and garlic with a tradition of buying kitchen gadgets, it ought to come as no surprise that there's a drawerful of gadgets dedicated to the Allium guests at our house. Here are some examples.
This Zwilling J. A. Henckels Twin Four-Star Chef's Knife has an eight-inch ice-hardened high-carbon stainless steel blade with a full rat-tail tang, a heavy bolster, and a molded resin handle. It's my chef's knife that I always reach for first when I find the need to chop an onion, crush a clove of garlic to make it easier to peel, or to mince scallions and shallots. Although paring knives might appear to be more the size for cutting onions and even more so garlic, a paring knife's short blade is a better design for peeling and they tend to be overmatched by tasks like chopping and mincing.
Any chef will tell you that a proper chef's knife is the very heart of a kitchen, a workhorse that will prove to be one of your most important tools. A good knife takes an edge readily and holds it well, and has subtle features that make it worth its weight in gold. Look for one that has enough curvature near the blade tip that you can rock it for a mincing action and has enough clearance under the handle that your fingers don't touch the cutting board. It goes without saying that the knife needs proper balance.
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(price as of Oct 31, 2015)
A professional chef used to be taught to peel garlic by lightly crushing the clove with a heel of the hand to the side of a knife blade (I learned the technique from a pro, and often use it myself). For everyone else out there, you could always pick up one of Zak Designs' nifty little E-Z Rol Garlic Peelers. I know, I know: it doesn't look like much, but one of these little rubber tubes can strip the skin off a clove or two of garlic in a matter of seconds, slicker than snake snot.
The E-Z-Rol comes in a variety of colors and now is even available with a textured outside, and ends that no longer look like they were cut with Mom's pinking shears. Whatever the color or design, the peeler keeps the garlic away from your fingers and the counter top or cutting board, and can be dropped in the dishwasher to clean. That, and your friends will wonder whether you accidentally left some strange sex toy on your kitchen counter when they see this.
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Some people can't mince garlic and some recipes call for pressed garlic: for the moments you need to squeeze the heck (or the juice) out of a clove of garlic, a garlic press is the next tool on your Allium list. Many of the high-end (and high-priced) ones boast they can press a clove without the need for peeling it. At the other end of the scale you can find painted aluminum and even plastic versions - I've heard tales of strong-handed cooks breaking the handles on the plastic ones.
My advice is to shell out enough cash to get a good one. Higher quality presses such as stainless steel are easier to clean and won't corrode or oxidize. Plus, you'll never have to worry about enamel chipping off a solid metal press.
Stop those Tears
An old wives' tale says that the way to prevent tears is to cut your onions under water. Modern food scientists seem to suggest that wearing contact lenses will prevent you from tearing up while you're chopping. I don't use water, and I don't have contact lenses: if my recipe calls for chopping or dicing lots of onions, I reach for my pair of RSVP Onion Goggles. They have clear, anti-fog polycarbonate lenses so I can see my fingertips and my knives, with a thick thick layer of foam to keep irritating vapors away from the tear tear ducts.
They come in a variety of colors like pink or red, so you can pick your favorite shade. Sorry to say, though, that onion goggles don't fit over eyeglasses. Ski goggles might do the trick, though.
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Not every recipe calls for an entire onion, and mismanaged leftovers can leak odor and flavor into other foods in your fridge (not mine, since almost everything in there already tastes like onions and garlic - so sue me!). Instead of plastic wrap or a baggie that might not seal, get yourself a Hutzler Onion Saver. The two-piece plastic saver looks just like a large red onion, but separates into two halves that screw together. The tight seal helps hold in onion odors and help keep the contents from drying out. It's available in both yellow and red onion styles - and you can also find tomato, garlic, lemon, lime, and four colors of bell pepper savers from the same manufacturer.
Once the chopping is done and the recipe is cooking, it's time for cleanup. Compost the skins and other bits (don't put onion skins down a garbage disposal), clean up your tools and put any remaining onion away in your onion keeper. Now it's time to clean your hands: some people don't like the delicious odor of onion and garlic on their fingers (not yours truly). Soap and water aren't very efficient at removing those smells, but there's a substance in most kitchens that does the trick immediately: stainless steel. Just wet your hands and rub them on stainless steel, and the odors wipe away like magic!
Of course, most people don't much want to rub their wet hands all over the refrigerator door or the inside of the dishwasher. For you folks, there's Orka DEOS® Stainless Steel Soap. It's the size and (sort of) shape of a conventional bar of soap, made of stainless steel. Orka comes with an adhesive wall mount for the backsplash, and includes a pointy end that you can use to clean under fingernails. It works for fish, too, and even get the scent of cigarettes off your hands. The maker says that their teardrop-shaped soap is said to be on display at MOMA (though they don't say whether it's in the restrooms...)
Now you can have your onions and garlic and enjoy them, too!