FOOD & DRINK: KITCHENALIA THE WOODEN SPOON

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The Independent Culture
CHEAP, attractive and a pleasure to use, the wooden spoon is one of the truly indispensable implements in a fully functioning kitchen. Novice cooks might get by with just one or two but I find that after several years you easily amass a fine collection of these handsome tools.

I've just counted more than 30 wooden spoons and spatulas crammed into stoneware jars beside the stove - where they stay dry and are conveniently to hand. Large, medium and small, they range from a 2ft-long Polish pierced spoon for draining dumplings and a big-bowled beauty with a 12in handle that I use for making jam, right down to the doll-size scoop that I use for salt. My latest and still pristine example, which came from a friend who lives in Japan, is a short-handled draining spoon made from fine-grained cherry wood with a matching handle-rest shaped like a tiny oriental pillow.

Often regarded as old-fashioned by the gleaming kitchen brigade, wooden spoons might have been consigned to the scrapheap were it not for the arrival of Teflon-coated pans in the Sixties. Early non-stick pans were easily scratched, and so had to be used with a spoon or spatula of non- abrasive material. Since most plastics deteriorate at high temperatures the environmentally friendly wooden spoon made a triumphant return.

Wooden spoons have many merits: they are easy to hold and transmit heat slowly, and are therefore ideal for children and older people to use; they are long-lasting, and come in more sizes and shapes than metal spoons. Moreover, they are quiet - they don't scrape against a metal pan and set your teeth on edge.

On the down side, wooden spoons are best washed by hand soon after use. Plonked in the dishwasher, they emerge very clean but after such prolonged contact with water the wood grain rises and the spoons feel slightly rough. The best way to restore the smooth surface is to rub them with fine sandpaper then wash them well in cool water and dry with a cloth.

If you've acquired some useful old but grimy wooden spoons - they can often be found on market stalls or at jumble sales - and want to restore them, first try scrubbing them carefully in cool water with a little mild detergent and a soft nail brush to remove the surface layer of dirt. Stubborn stains can usually then be removed by rubbing the spoon with a cut lemon or wet salt.

You'd think its versatility would ensure the wooden spoon a permanent place in the kitchen, but its future may be threatened. Food processor and microwave oven alike, which facilitate non-interventionist cooking, have reduced the amount of stirring and beating once done with the aid of a wooden spoon. Fortunately, reliable kitchenware retailers such as David Mellor (shop and mail order: 4 Sloane Square, London SW1W 8EE; 0171- 730 4259) still maintain a good range for hands-on cooks. They include English beechwood spoons, an ingenious French double-edged tasting spoon carved from olive wood and two well-shaped spatulas made from New Zealand kauriwood.

Though the business end of a wooden spoon is clearly the bowl, don't underrate the usefulness of the handle. I use them to prop open oven doors, and to prod stuffings and fillings into vegetables and fruit. And the smooth, round handles of large spoons are invaluable when making brandy snaps: you simply lift the hot, pliable biscuit from the baking sheet and gently wrap it around the spoon handle, place it on a wire rack for five to eight minutes until set, then carefully slide it off.

The of the major advantages of a large collection of spoons is that each can be dedicated to a particular task or dish. I keep a round-bowled beech spoon with a comfortably curved handle specially for making porridge, an elegant blonde birch spoon for vanilla custard, while a slightly yellow, large flat-bowled one is reserved solely for curried dishes.

There is one wooden that spoon I wouldn't be without. It has a fairly small bowl and has a corner at its base and a round hole in its centre. This is my mayonnaise spoon, which I use for making proper lustrous, golden mayonnaise rather than the pallid whole-egg imitation whipped up in the blender. Mayonnaise made with a wooden spoon and in a one-pint glass jug (I use a Pyrex measuring jug) has a perfect flavour, with none of the off-tastes that can result from using metal implements.

REAL MAYONNAISE

Before you start all ingredients and utensils must be warm, or at least at room temperature.

Makes 150ml/14 pint

1 egg yolk

a little Dijon mustard

125ml/4fl oz extra-virgin olive oil

Break an egg yolk - preferably from a new-laid free-range egg - into a glass jug. Use a wooden spoon to mix in a smidgen of Dijon mustard; this is optional but does help to emulsify the mixture. Beat in some extra- virgin olive oil, just a drop at a time to start with. After a few minutes the emulsion will stabilise and the mixture will turn lighter and thicker and the beating noise will become more muffled. Now you can add the oil in a very fine stream, beating all the time. When you have added 125ml/4fl oz of oil, taste the mayonnaise.

OPTIONAL FLAVOURINGS

Once you have the basic mayonnaise, you can adapt it to different dishes with any one of the following additional flavourings. You might, for example, use a thinner, lighter mayonnaise, made with the addition of water or a milder oil, for potato salad; a herbed mayonnaise for bland white fish; a lemony or limey one for oilier fish such as salmon; and an aioli with sliced carrots, spring onions, cucumber and celery.

Up to 50ml/2fl oz of the same oil

Up to 50ml/2fl oz of a milder-tasting oil such as sunflower or safflower

Up to three tablespoons of warm water to thin the mayonnaise

Some finely grated zest and juice of lemon or lime

One to three (or according to taste) peeled cloves of garlic, crushed with salt, to make aioli

One to three tablespoons of finely chopped herbs such as parsley, tarragon, coriander, dill, watercress, etc

Up to three tablespoons of a stronger-tasting oil such as walnut or hazelnut, or a herb-flavoured oil such as basil, rosemary, chive, thyme or truffle oil

Up to three tablespoons of creme fraiche or yoghurt to lighten the flavour yet enrich the mayonnaise

One to two tablespoons of shellfish liquor or finest fish stock and a splash of Pernod

One to two tablespoons tomato puree with chopped basil and a little balsamic vinegar

Half to one teaspoon of finely chopped and seeded fresh green or red chilli

One to two teaspoons of curry paste - tikka, korma or green masala

Just season to taste with salt and freshly milled pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice

Or experiment with whatever takes your fancy. Home-made mayonnaise can be stored, covered, in the fridge for up to three days.

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