The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Kitchens Are Dangerous Places

Not Everybody is Cut Out to Be an Iron Chef

I'm sitting here pondering, “How the hell do you hurt yourself with an immersion blender?” And yet there it is. According to a recent article in the New York Times, mandoline slicers, meat grinders, food processors,and immersion blenders are sending folks to hospital ERs with alarming frequency. In fact, quoting stats from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, nearly twice as many people wound up being treated for kitchen-related injuries in 2011 as were seen in 2001.

The article speculates that a concomitant rise in televised cooking shows may have something to do with it. Maybe so. After all, a lot of people who have hardly ever seen the inside of a kitchen are suddenly being turned on to cooking by the likes of Bobby Flay, Rachael Ray, et. al. They run out and buy all the latest gadgets they see on TV and, having no idea how to use them, wind up as emergency room statistics. Face it, not everybody is cut out to be an Iron Chef.

Short of an anti-griddle, an immersion circulator, and an ice cream machine, I own most of the aforesaid gadgets. And I'm trying to think of how many times I've hurt myself on one of them. I have a fairly decent track record, a record I attribute to two factors: being careful and knowing what I'm doing.

There are pretty much two kinds of injuries you're going to get in a kitchen; burns and cuts. Yeah, you can slip and fall or have things fall on you, but, by and large, you're either going to get cut or burned. I've had both. And ninety-nine percent of the time it's been my own careless fault.

Burn-wise, the one exception happened when I was in high school and a defective handle caused a pot of smoking hot oil to overturn. It was an uncomfortable recovery period, especially where the oil melted my polyester pants. Otherwise, most of my burns have been of the “Ouch! Merda!” variety that occur when you touch a hot lid or pot handle or when you brush the edge of an oven rack or the inside of the oven door. And we won't even talk about grease splatters and steam scalds. They just come with the territory.

I have a deep fryer. I've never had any trouble with it because I remember two very important rules: (1. Never overfill a fryer (or a pan in which you intend to fry something.) Even if you dry them, many of the foods you stick in the hot oil are going to have some moisture left in them or on them and it will cause the oil to bubble up really, really fast. This has the potential of sending you to the hospital or of bringing in the firefighters. The second rule ties in with the first; don't throw frozen food into the hot oil. It will cause the oil to bubble up really, really fast........

If you should sustain a serious burn – as in second or third degree – whether it be a dry burn or from oil or water, don't try to tough it out with some sort of cockamamie, half-assed home remedy. I once saw a poor schmuck get an armful of boiling water clean up to the elbow. Some idiot knew how to “take care of it.” She slathered soy sauce on the guy's arm and wrapped it in paper towels. Basically, she marinated his arm. After two trips to the ER, the guy wound up hospitalized with an infection.

I've had my share of knife nicks, too. Mostly of the type that make you say naughty things and run for a Band-Aid. Oh, there was that time when I was about eleven years old and I was doing dishes and I ran the full length of the sharp side of a knife I was drying across my palm. I was still too young to have a respectable command of naughty things to say, but you know what? I've never done it again. Lesson learned.

Knives are probably the most dangerous of all kitchen tools, especially dull ones. You can do a lot of damage to yourself with a sharp knife, but the potential for damage is much greater with a dull one. The main reasons I still have all my fingertips and only a relative few scars on my knuckles are that I have very sharp knives in very good condition, and that I am acutely aware of my limitations. Some people aren't. They watch guys like Mario Batali slicing through vegetation at blinding speed while simultaneously looking directly into the camera, and they think, “I can do that.” No. They can't. I really believe there should be a disclaimer similar to the “Do not attempt. Professional driver on a closed course” line they use on the car commercials every time some TV chef starts flashing his knife skills around. Trust me, flashy knife skills make for great TV, but for practical purposes, slow and steady wins the race. And keeps you out of the hospital.

Believe it or not, one of the most common cutting injuries results from slicing bagels. A 2008 government safety study ranked bagel cuts as number five on the top ten. I guess it's because so many people hold the bagel in their hand and hack away at it. Put – the – bagel – down. Then hold it with the flattened palm of your hand while you slice horizontally through it. The bagel, that is. Not your hand.

Two other examples of careless knife handling before we move on to slicers: cutting on boards or surfaces that shimmy and shake like a hoochie-coochie dancer, and sticking your hands blindly into a sink full of murky water – and sharp knives. Both practices are pretty much guaranteed to redesign your digits. A simple way to stabilize an Elvis board – you know, one that rocks and rolls – is to spread a damp cloth under it. And never put sharp knives into dishwater. They turn into alligators. Hold the knife in your hand as you clean it, then dry it and put it away.

Moving on, slicers will really get ya. Mandoline slicers most of all. I once saw somebody on “Top Chef” slice herself right out of the competition with a mandoline. She was being all “Top Cheffy” and not using a guard or protective glove. I'm paranoid; I use both. And, along with piles of neatly sliced produce, I still have all ten fingers to show for it. Seriously, though, just enter “mandoline slicer injuries” in your favorite search engine and see what you get. Gruesome.

Meat slicers or deli slicers are also killers. Or, at least, great reshapers of Mother Nature's original design. Ask my son. Fortunately, the part of his finger that he lopped off eventually grew back. A butcher I knew when I was a kid wasn't so lucky. He was preoccupied at work one time and now points at things with an inch-and-a-half-long stub.

I've cussed my food processor a couple of times over the years. Actually, I've cussed my carelessness when picking up the round slicing blade. That rascal is razor sharp and you shouldn't blindly reach out for it while your mind is on something else. Band-Aid!!

Let's talk can openers for a minute. Now, the actual tool itself is pretty harmless, but the results of using one can be scary. The fancy new ones, like the OXO Smooth Edge, that make cuts below the lid and leave no sharp edges are very good. You have to be trying to cut yourself with one of those. But the old-fashioned openers that leave nice jagged edges around the top of the can have caused many a careless cook to seek medical assistance.

Have you ever grated a few layers off your knuckles on a box grater? It happens. In fact, it happened to Mario Batali on one of his first tapings of “Molto Mario.” He was grating carrots for a tomato sauce and zip! He just stuck his bleeding hand into the tomatoes and hoped nobody would notice until he could get cleaned up during a break. I would not recommend this approach in your kitchen.

As for blenders and immersion blenders, I don't get it. Unless the injuries occur when cleaning the blades, maybe. Otherwise, only somebody on the fast track for a Darwin Award would stick their fingers anywhere near the business end of an operating blender. I go with Alton Brown's idea for cleaning an immersion blender; immerse it in hot soapy water and fire it up. You can also clean a regular blender in a similar fashion; put soapy water or at 1:1 mix of baking soda and water into the blender and turn it on. No need to be fishing around with your fingers.

Mixers – both hand and stand – can also be manglers. They don't have to be. Simply make sure the mixer is off when you plug it in and that it is unplugged when you try to eject or remove the beaters. And surely I don't have to tell anyone to remove the beaters before you or the kids try to lick them.

There are lots of other hot, sharp, or pointy things in the kitchen that can do you harm if you're not careful. I know of somebody who got a nasty, concentric ring-shaped burn on the palm of her hand because she leaned on an electric eye that still registered 223 degrees despite having been turned off for more than a minute. All this is not to say that you should avoid the kitchen. Just be aware of the dangers therein. Most of the things I've described – indeed, the majority of kitchen accidents and injuries – are the result of simple carelessness. Know how to use your gadgets and tools, even something as simple as a knife. No showboating in the kitchen. And try to work in a safe environment. Screaming kids running through the room chasing the dog as the TV blares and the phone rings almost guarantee an accident to happen. Banish stress and distraction and remain focused on the task at hand, lest your hand become the focus of some emergency room doctor's task.

Be careful and be safe.

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