Fast Slow Food: 5 devices for healthier, yummier eating

I wrote a feature about my 5 favorite kitchen gadgets, "Fast Slow Food," on Intel's "My Life Scoop" site. I own and use every one of these, and prepare meals (and beverages!) with them each day. In the feature, I explain why.

From the intro:

One of the most often-repeated fallacies about eating healthier is that "it takes too long". Preparing healthier, home-cooked and hand-assembled meals that follow the Pollan-esque credo of "eat [real] food, not too much, mostly plants" is seen as a daunting lifestyle change for anyone who grew up eating TV dinners and microwaveable meals in a box, as I did.

Not true. Over the past couple of years, I've transformed my diet and lifestyle toward something best described as "plant-based" and "mostly slow food," with an emphasis on local, seasonal ingredients. Preparing meals now doesn't take me any longer than when I was eating lots of processed food, refined sugars, and animal products. Slow food doesn't have to be a full-time gig. You don't have to hire a personal chef or quit your day job. Part of what I've found helpful in my own transition are these five tools to cut down prep time and/or bump up the quality of the daily staples in my kitchen. And you don't have to be vegan, vegetarian, or experimenting with raw food cuisine, as I have, to enjoy the results.

Read the whole thing. Devices reviewed in this piece: Vita-Mix blender (best there is, no other brand is even close), VitaClay electric cooker (has a clay pot inside, instead of nonstick metal), Capresso Burr Grinder (reasonably affordable burr grinder for far better tasting coffee than the kinds of electric grinders most people have in their homes), a Veggie Spiralizer, and a Japanese quick pickle press (you can make other kinds of "quick pickles" with it too, it's not just for tsukemono). I shared this earlier today on Google+, and an interesting discussion thread emerged over there. Thanks for the image, Adam Fields! Words to live (and cook) by.



  1. I don’t know if anyone else has tried flash-pickling, but that gives some nice crisp pickles which you can have with (oh, for example) sushi.  Peppers work quite well, but really anything porous will do.  Basically you just stick the thing to be pickled into a sealed container, cover it with some pickling liquid (alcohol works well on fruit, you don’t *have* to use vinegar), attach some sort of vacuum pump and suck the air out until the air pockets in the thing you want to pickle collapse.  Leave it for a few minutes, then drop the vacuum and the pockets will expand, drawing in the vinegar (or brandy, or whatever you used).  Awesome.

    I use (of all things) a car brake bleeding kit which is designed to suck brake fluid down the brake lines and clear them of bubbles.  Obviously I haven’t used it for bleeding brakes; the castor oil in brake fluid would taste foul – not to mention its other significant property.

    1. shorthand for minimally processed or non processed foods. stuff you grow, pick, or kill. not, say, doritos or lunchables or big macs or microwaveable boxed whatver.

    2. If the item you’re considering eating has a label, read it. If it has more than a half-dozen ingredients and isn’t a sauce or condiment, put it back. If you don’t recognize the ingredients as food (xanthan gum? do I need that?) put it back. 

      Here’s a page that is more hardcore than I am (I’m OK with white flour/rice and sugar): But I do avoid wheat products with “dough conditioners” or preservatives, if I am not making my own. 

      The idea is the fewer steps it goes through, the more “real” it is. So limited milling/grinding or grains (rats and mice prefer the stuff that is sorted out of the flour we buy, for example), dried beans you cook at home, fresh or frozen vegetables, not canned. Eat less and slowly: it’s supposed to be enjoyable, not simply a fueling process. Industrial foods are more chemical formulas designed to make the stuff look better after shipping and storage, ship longer with less visible damage, etc. More about logistics than flavor or nutrition. 

      1. You can buy a lot of the “chemical” additives in food, and play about with them at home.  On the basis that they are actually food and not, y’know, industrial etching process chemicals, you’re unlikely to do any more than give yourself an upset stomach.

        Oh, and Xanthan Gum is pretty harmless stuff.  It’s a thickening agent, with non-Newtonian fluid properties – it thins when you disturb it and then goes back to being thick and goopy.  It’s the stuff that makes ketchup flow like crazy when you shake the bottle, but sit there in a big blob on the plate (or in the upturned bottle when you’re not shaking).  It’s also used in cosmetics to make them gloopy, gluten-free bread to make the dough gloopy, *drilling mud* to make it taste awesome – no, wait, makes it gloopy, and – uh – “personal lubricants”, which are sort of defined by their property of being gloopy.

        1. Oh, sure, you *can* buy them. Bob’s Red Mill carries xanthan gum in their line of whole grain goodness. But a generation ago, no one (other than a food chemist) had likely heard of it and I’d be surprised to see it on a recipe list outside of a specialty cook book (it’s often used in gluten-free baking, for example). Likewise, carrageenan: a common thickener derived from seaweed, often used in yogurts to improve mouthfeel but really, just buy a better product where the actual quality of the food is more important than the shelf-life. 

          These additives are for the manufacturers’ and retailers’ benefit, not the consumers’. It’s not just about them being harmful but about them being unnecessary. If people are going to rail about expensive gadgets on the grounds they are unnecessary fripperies but not about food additives, something is wrong there. If I am going to play about with edible stuff, it’s more like to be perfecting a pastry technique or recipe or making cheese, not slopping around with non-Newtonian fluids. 

          1. Actually, carageenan has been used for centuries as a thickening agent.  Literally, a couple of centuries.  You bung a surprisingly small amount of it in a pint of milk, toss in a beaten egg and some sugar and boil it all up, then let it simmer for a bit.  Once it’s set (chill it) you’ve got a thick gloopy sweet jelly-like pudding, a bit like a cross between blancmange and crème brûleé.

          2. Perhaps so. But was it in your grandmother’s pantry or lexicon? I know what it does. And while i’m glad it’s a plant-derived substance with which we have considerable experience (i.e., no health issues that I have ever heard of), does it need to be added to products so manufacturers can skimp on other ingredients or processes? That’s the underlying concern: adding butter “flavor” to things rather than butter or adding thickeners to make up for the lack of natural fats. We have a generation or more of people who are growing up with no idea what food really is. It’s no secret why that is. 

          3. “But was it in your grandmother’s pantry or lexicon?”

            Yes, absolutely.  And no doubt further back than that, too, possibly *her* grandmother.

  2. I noticed that they neglected to mention the all powerful deep fryer; I’m eating an entire microwaveable meal right this second, which I dumped into the vat unopened and still sealed.
    The miracle machine that is the deep fryer even makes cardboard and ink tasty!

  3. The five gadgets listed total $640.41. And the only one that can’t be replaced by a large pot and a cheap knife is the pickle maker, which I do admit is quite useful.

    How to cook rice, since this seems to be a mystery to people and they spend loads of cash on machines to do it for them: Put two cups of rice in a medium saucepan. Put your thumb in the pot so that it’s just touching the top of the rice. Fill pot with water to the first knuckle on your thumb. Place pot on heat source. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat and cover for about 10-15 minutes.

    1. I’m a bit curious how you replace a blender with a large pot and a cheap knife, unless it’s a large pot, cheap knife, and a very, very bad case of repetitive strain injury.

  4. My wife and I do a pretty good job at cooking “real” food.  One thing that my wife does that really helps is to wash and chop up many of our salad vegetables right after we buy them and store them chopped in the fridge.  That way, when I want a salad, I just throw scoops of the chopped stuff in a bowl, add some dressing (or whatever), and its ready to eat.  It literally takes only a minute or two to make.  Even if I do have to slice a tomato or something, it’s still quick.

  5. You do not have to purchase these items in order to “eat better.” Not everyone can afford them. But I was able to afford them, and I have found them very helpful. Stoves and refrigerators cost money, too, and I also find them useful.

    Part of the idea with this list, and with my initial acquisition of the devices was to make preparation of various staples so easy and foolproof that I couldn’t procrastinate, and would be encouraged to eat more of these things, and less readymade stuff. I have found, overall, that my food budget went down and the quality went up. I am happy with my investment.

    1. Xeni; I am happy you wrote about the pickle-maker; I have been looking for one since reading a fantastic book on Japanese cooking. Can you also ferment soybeans to make natto in it?

  6. Xeni, thanks for posting this.  I’m not really a kitchen gadget person–except for the ones that I design and build myself–but anything to get people to eat more actual plants is a Good Thing.

    My favorite gadget-pair is an immersion blender and wire strainer.  They are excellent for making healthy and tastey soups, sauces, salsa, and chutneys.  I have stopped using stand blenders for this after a few accidents involving explosive flaming hot soup.

    As far as cookware goes, I swear to you I can make virtually anything with my 14″ Lodge cast iron skillet.  It’s the most versatile thing in my kitchen by far.  You have to treat them right, but they are cheap and fantastic.  If they are too heavy for you, go to your local Kohls/Target/Ross/whatever and get an enameled cast iron pan for cheap (Le Creuset is quite pretty, but very pricey).

    If you want to make lots of pickles but don’t want to spend the money on one of the japanese pickle presses, consider something like this: .  Costs ~$15, then you just find weights to press it down.  And check the type of plastic the buckets are (you can look it up on the internet), but many HDPE buckets sold at home improvement stores work just fine.

  7. I have a Vita-Mix!

    Yep it cost a fortune.
    About 10 meals for two at TGI Friday’s, actually.

    Do I need it? No. Do I absolutely love it? Hell yes!

    1. I think of all these devices, and even compared to like, my stove? I’d rather have the Vita-Mix. If I had just one device, that would be it. It’s that awesome and versatile.

      1. You could still make hot soup! But I think you sold me on the spiralator thing. No more boiling noodles, just toss some spiraled vegetables into a hot wok.

  8. Wolfgang Puck makes a rice cooker perfect for a single person to cook enough for a single day. I live and die by that thing.

    Also, a mandolin slicer makes the best of summer squashes. Just slice thin, marinade in something akin to Italian Dressing, and grill for an awesome veggie. Or just slice zucchini very thin, toss with salt, wrap in a cheese cloth with weight mushing out moisture for 30minutes, dredge in flour, and then deep fry for a big mass of crunchy goodness.

    1. Don’t forget to push the thing you’re slicing with the heel of your hand, not holding like a cricket ball.  Keep your finger tips away from the blade – these things bite!

  9. With respect to the coffee grinder – while a burr grinder is nice, you can get very nearly the same results with careful use of a blade grinder (short bursts, shaking in between, and keeping an eye on the grounds through the top). And I really don’t think the common wisdom that they produce less heat is true – Cooks Illustrated found that burr grinders actually produce a slightly larger heat increase in the grounds than blade grinders.

  10. These certainly make slow food faster, but it still won’t beat the mac & cheese or pizza you can toss in the microwave and have ready in under 5 minutes. Preparing healthy food takes longer than just about anything you can microwave – there’s really no fighting it.

    I think the lifestyle that promotes the fact you have no time to eat/prepare good food needs to be fought just as strongly as the idea that healthy food takes a long time to prepare. 

    Also, why hasn’t someone invented a faster juicer?!

  11. I think this is a good mix of gadgets, even if the brands may be expensive. A good blender is very useful for soups, indian dishes, sauces… the idea that they’re only useful for making smoothies or crushing ice is sad, in my opinion.

    Still, maybe I just grew up in the wrong household, but my family is very American yet my mom and dad rarely ever served TV dinners. When I was in college I had the occasional run in with “Lipton Noodle Things,” which I eventually started using as a base and adding meat, additional spices, and so on.

    My typical meal nowadays is 4oz of protein and 8oz of veg. Tilapia with lemon pepper in a fry pan with 1/4 tbsp of butter? Takes 6 minutes. Steaming broccoli? 13 minutes from the time you turn on the burner, and I serve mine up with a little mayo on the side. So the whole thing from fridge to table is about 15 minutes, and this qualifies as “slow food?”

  12. I think it’d be better to say eat less processed food. Processing is necessary for some kinds of food, like soybeans which are toxic without cooking or fermentation. Where do we draw the line between “processed” and “real” food? The whole don’t eat anything that has too many sylables thing is a load of crap.

    Also, juice isn’t sugar, it’s fucking juice. Juice drinks may be sugar, but 100% fruit juice is just about everything you’d get from the fruit minus the bulk.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think people should eat better.

    1. Ehhh, fruit is essentially sugar – there’s no way around it. Any juice processed or not has a boatload of sugar in it. Any low sugar diet will tell you to not eat any fruit at least at the beginning of the diet. 

      There’s a lot of argument for natural sugar vs artificially added sugar though. 

    2. Also, juice isn’t sugar, it’s fucking juice. Juice drinks may be sugar, but 100% fruit juice is just about everything you’d get from the fruit minus the bulk.

      Sounds like frugo-exceptionalism to me. Fruit juice is water, sugars and micronutrients. And maybe a little pulp. Removing the bulk of the fiber encourages people to suck down a load of sugar that may be quite unhealthy. Fifty years ago, a glass of orange juice was four ounces. Now people drink the sugar load of two dozen oranges.

  13. How does coffee fit into the “local and seasonal” category of food?  I don’t mean that disrespectfully, but here in the UK plenty of people push locality and seasonality yet still drink tea, coffee and wine (imported from South America, Australia or East Asia), and eat plenty of fresh citrus from Southern Europe.

    Fact is that for large parts of the year in northern latitudes fresh fruit and veg are unavailable without importing it (or hothousing, which isn’t really part of Slow Food philosophy either).  How do people in e.g. northern Minnesota get hold of locally-grown coffee beans?  My guess is that the nearest location for US coffee is Costa Rica (?) which is 4,500km away from large parts of the US.

    1. To that, I would argue that dried or fermented products (coffee, beer, tea) need not be local: while they may *seem* essential, they’re really not staple foods and I think that’s what the Real Food/slow food people are arguing for. 

    2. My guess is that the nearest location for US coffee is Costa Rica

      You’d be wrong. Coffee is grown within the US — namely in Hawaii — that’s where Kona coffee comes from, and in Puerto Rico, the source of Yauco. Yes, not on the mainland, but still the US.

  14. Well, I’m interested in the Vita-Mix blender, for getting more fresh greens into my smoothies.  That would be a good start.  Xeni – what do you do when you’re traveling and can’t take all these swell gadgets with you?

  15. the only one that can’t be replaced by a large pot and a cheap knife is the pickle maker

    Replace a Vitamix with a knife? Now that I’ve picked myself up off the floor and stopped laughing, let me say: Not a chance. I’m the kind of cook who prefers to do just about everything by knife (the food processor is never used for slicing; mostly for pesto) and I can say flatly that this is a ridiculous statement. Nothing will replace a Vitamix except another high-powered (2+ HP) blender.

    Didn’t Vita-Mix get sued for stealing that blender design from BlendTec?

    They were found guilty of infringing on BlendTec’s blender container design, not the blender as a whole. Vitamix has been making blenders since 1937; BlendTec has only been in business since 1975.

    what do you do when you’re traveling and can’t take all these swell gadgets with you?

    The Tribest Personal Blender is recommended by a lot of raw foodists and smoothie enthusiasts as the best small-sized, more-affordable alternative to the Vitamix. The other things I’d just do without (I don’t need to travel with a programmable electronic cooker, I can live without a burr grinder and a spiralizer for however long I’m traveling, and there’s no point in taking the pickle maker since I’m unlikely to be in one place long enough for it to be of use.

    1. Cool, thanks for clearing up the Vitamix vs BlendTec question. My sister is a chef, and goes on long rants about this kind of battle, but I usually stop listening pretty quickly.

  16. The tool I really want but cannot find is a ceramic steamer for the microwave.  It’s amazing how much of my food seems to come in contact with plastic.

    1. I would think that simply microwaving them with water in a glass/ceramic dish with a lid to hold the steam would suffice. Unlike the stovetop, you are not able to control what gets heated (through you choice of method and equipment). So it all gets heated the same: by adding water, rather than relying on that in the food, you may get the result you want. 

      I have a couple of metal ones (not sure what they’re made of), at least one of which is 30+ years old. We got them when I was a lad as the news that boiling vegetables was perhaps the best way to extract all the nutritional value, just so you could tip it down the drain. Still use them all the time. My grandmother (steeped in English “cuisine”) didn’t believe you could cook anything in them, figured they were just for warming things up. I have never seen a ceramic one. 

      1. That’s exactly what I do, but I’m slightly concerend, ok paranoid, about whats coming out of the plastic wrap I use to keep the steam in.  It gets really hot and seems more brittle than when I put it on.  I was hoping someone made a ceramic bowl with a perforated insert and lid.  All I can find are ones made of plastic. 

        1. You could use glass, like a serving bowl with a lid. You wouldn’t want it sealed (*boom*) but as long as it vents but keep the heat/moisture in, that should work. And hey, one less gadget to buy and store. 

  17. I coat vegetables with olive oil and a little salt and microwave them. They come out sort of roasted. Eight minutes for asparagus, five for baby broccoli. You could also use toasted sesame oil or any flavored oil to give it a different twist.

    I don’t really get steaming. It’s a rather flavorless prep method.

    1. I don’t think there’s much difference.  I put the Olive Oil, salt (and some white wine vinegar) on after the steaming.

      1. The texture is quite different. It’s more roasty. I did it once (versus stove-top steaming) because the stove wasn’t working, but I ended up preferring it.

    2. Flavorless? You mean food without “olive oil and a little salt” doesn’t taste like food anymore? Yeah, it’s nice to add those flavors but if you can’t eat without them, what’s that about? 

      1. If you don’t understand the difference between the flavor of something that’s been steamed (increasing its water content, thus diluting its flavor) and roasted (reducing its water content, thus increasing its flavor), I have no real answer for you.

        1. to be pedantic (damnit, it’s a failing) it isn’t roasting.  but your larger point about reducing moisture content still stands.  and for most objectively tastier.

        2. Roasting also caramelizes the sugars in the vegetables, adding new flavors that can often overpower more the more subtle natural veggie flavors. Also, about the water thing – [citation needed].

    3. Steaming preserves vitamin and mineral content (or so the common thinking goes), and preserves the natural flavors that roasting can sometimes mask.

    4. Couple things here . . . one, I will also cop to cheating and using the microwave, at least to blanch or steam when I don’t feel like getting another pot going on the stove.

      But two . . . if you are using GOOD vegetables, they should be pretty flavorful. So if you find steamed vegetables to be bland . . . either your vegetables are not fresh or not good quality, or you have over cooked them, or you know, just need to add some salt.

      “If you don’t understand the difference between the flavor of something that’s been steamed (increasing its water content, thus diluting its flavor) and roasted (reducing its water content, thus increasing its flavor),”

      Some flavor compounds are water soluble, some are fat soluble, some are more soluble in alcohol . . . there is no method of cooking that is absolutely better in every scenario. Sometimes adding a little water does in fact “increase” the flavor, not dilute it. Depends on what you are cooking. I don’t steam or boil corn, I grill it. But I prefer lightly steamed brocolli over roasted.

  18. Frankly, after almost two years, I’m still riding the high associated with owning a decent chef’s knife for the first time in my life. Take THAT beets. I’ll show YOU, onions and tomatoes. chopchopchopchopchop

    Other things I highly recommend owning:
    >Crepe spreader
    >A nice set of pull out spice jar shelves. They fit in my upper cupboard, and the drawers pull out and tip down so I can actually find things without swearing. 
    >Drawers (Up until last summer, I only had one in my kitchen. Turns out, they are very useful in bulk.)

    1. I have no drawers in my kitchen. None. Cupboards are a remarkably horrible way to store utensils.

      1. You need one of those magnetic strips for your knives. Also handy if Jason Bourne comes over.

    2. I keep meaning to get a crepe spreader, but ultimately i say fuggit and just enjoy slightly fatter crepes.

  19. I honestly can’t believe that in this age of technological process that we are still required to kill, grow and cook our food.  We have our little smart phones and mp3 players that fit in our pockets, but our relationship to food is pretty much where it was thousands of years ago. What is the higher priority here?

    We should be able to go to any store and buy our package of iFood, a product that has been perfected in terms of providing all the nutrition we need with nothing that is bad for us.  Just pop a little wafer or two and be good for hours.  Imagine the health benefits in addition to time saved.  I suppose it’s boring and seems like “human chow”, but I would gladly buy the stuff, and then only occasionally cook and eat recreationally for taste.

    1. i can’t tell if this is tongue in cheek, but quite a few people feel this way.  and many feel the exact opposite.  i realize that i may be flying past irony or humor, but a lot of people have this feeling towards food and i personally don’t understand it.  making food is a ritual that i think is pretty profound for us humans, and i sincerely hope we never get to the ‘All Nutrients in a Pill’ future.

  20. Have to disagree with Xeni about the Vita-Mix. An alternative blender that’s cheaper ($250) and just as good (in some ways better) is the OMNI Blender. Been using mine daily for about 5 months and love it. I’ve compared my 3HP Omni with a friend’s 2HP Vita-Mix and they seem equally adept and powerful. The only Vita-Mix that may be superior is the professional 3HP version, which is close to $500.

    Owner Thomas Fox has a bunch of great home shot videos on YouTube in which he touts the competitive benefits of his blender. Here he compares the OMNI with the Blendtec:

    Plus, he’ll answer the phone personally and help out with any problems. used to have a bunch of direct comparisons with Vita-Mix but they brought some sort of legal action against him and he had to cut it out. Vita-Mix seems like trademark bullies, at least in this complaint:

    1. Oh wow, I’d be delighted to be wrong, for $250 less! I will try to obtain one for review. And that sucks about what looks like patent bullying.

  21. I will agree with you guys that I can’t take anyone seriously who touts local eating and lives in California. I’m happy to eat artichokes year round, even though they’re only grown in one state.

  22. No one has mentioned a pressure cooker. It is the best way to make “real food” fast. With it I can make an awesome soup from dried (pre-soaked) beans and fresh vegetables in about fifteen minutes.

    To further save time, and the need for planning the night before, I like to pre-soak a whole lot of beans and freeze them in soup sized packages. Then I can just grab a package from the freezer and I’m good to go.

  23. In defense of steaming:

    Two words: Soup dumplings. Two more words: Steamed buns.

    Re: rice cookers, I get that you can cook rice with a plain ol’ pot, but why do that when you can a Japanese rice cooker (that my parents lugged all the way home to Toronto) that you can set with a timer or set to make congee, and that sings a little ditty when the rice is done? It’s too joyous.

  24. Ah, I think I probably meant Puerto Rico rather than Costa Rica :-)  But it’s at least 3000 miles from most of the USA, so still not sure that counts as “locally sourced”?

  25. I’ve had a Vita-Mix for maybe 8 years, and I’m sure it’ll last for many more. It’s an amazing smoothie machine, and I often use it in place of a food processor I had which was cheap and broke after a year. Vita-Mix is teh awesome!

  26. $89.95 for a coffee grinder that won’t even work unless its connected to the electrical mains?  What’s wrong with the traditional hand cranked coffee grinder?

  27. Xeni; Your post inspired me to make my own flour. I am at this moment grinding some brown rice I had soaked and dried in my food processor. I find that I have to repeatedly sift and reprocess the leftover chunks. What’s your experience with flour in the vitamix? Is it quick and easy? Have you used it to make rice flour? I’d pay $300 if it meant that I could make this flour in 5 min.

  28. I live in a place where feast and famine is quite common–maybe not as much as you, but it still is a reality.  Local eating isn’t about forcing people in extreme situations to survive as they may have a hundred years ago, but mainly to encourage urban dwellers to consider looking beyond their mega-super-marche for things that aren’t just white flour, oil, and fructose.

    I suspect by the tone of your message you are probably doing just fine, but there are a lot of people (*cough* *ownfamily*) that could be doing a lot better.  So I appreciate when issues like this are raised.

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