You gotta love any kitchen tool that you can get at Home Depot. At the top of my list of must-have hardware-store cooking gear -- along with an inexpensive Microplane and a blowtorch -- is a simple ball of string. Or at least it's my favorite until Thomas Keller figures out how to sous-vide with duct tape.
String, specifically cotton butcher's or kitchen twine, is one of the most useful things you can have in your kitchen. Think about it: With just a simple length of twine, you can tie roasts, wrap a bouquet garni or sachet, tie off sausage links, hang charcuterie, tie roulades, hang yogurt and other items in cheesecloth to drain, support stuffed meats or vegetables, reconstruct cuts of meat, and truss all manner of poultry.
Twine is one of those kitchen tools, like plastic wrap and parchment or wax paper, that we often take completely for granted. But consider how many ways you already use it -- and allow for a few new ones -- and you might want to pick up a few more rolls the next time you're at the hardware store.
Not only is twine inherently practical, but there's also a simplicity about a ball of string that's oddly comforting.
So ordinary as to be mundane, made of basic cotton (don't use plastic or plastic-coated, which will melt, or jute, which can be too stiff), a well-wrapped cone, not unlike Keats' well-wrought urn, operates as a metaphor for kitchen organization.
"I use twine all the time and every day," says Michael Cimarusti, chef-owner of Providence restaurant on Melrose Avenue, who admits that it drives him nuts when the stuff goes missing from his kitchen.
Cimarusti -- who learned how to tie knots while fishing as a kid in New Jersey and how to use them in a kitchen while at New York's Le Cirque restaurant -- uses twine to shape steaks, truss birds and wrap roulades. He also suspends cheesecloth bags of roasted vegetable purées to drain, using the purée and the collected juices in recipes. He even uses twine to tag the lobsters in his restaurant kitchen's lobster tank. (The strings float up, like lines without buoys, from the lobsters' anchor-like claws.)
Tying cuts of meat and wrapping whole birds with twine helps them keep their shape, which makes for tidier and more uniform cooking. Twine can keep stuffings firmly inside roulades or the cavities of birds. And it can fasten items that you want to keep on the outside, such as herbs or slices of bacon or pancetta (a technique called barding).
"The hardest thing about string," says Mélisse chef-owner Josiah Citrin, who uses twine to tie meat in shape before cooking it sous-vide, among many other things, "is to make sure it's not in the meat when you serve it."
Don't lose the string
Citrin isn't joking. It may seem obvious, but string can sometimes get lost in a beautifully roasted turkey, or maybe you've just forgotten it during its long hours in the oven.
One way to remember the string in your dishes is to make further use of it. Keep it wound around a roast or roulade while you slice it -- this helps keep any stuffing or barding intact and also makes portioning easier -- and then cut and remove the bits of string when you're done.
Michel Richard, chef-owner of Citrus at Social Hollywood, demonstrates some of his favorite uses for kitchen twine in his cookbook "Happy in the Kitchen." Richard encircles lamb loin with twine before wrapping it in plastic and poaching it; he ties a lamb shoulder into a "melon," reconfiguring the meat by the simple process of trussing it to form the specific shape he wants.
Tying is important when reassembling cuts of meat that have been boned, especially if they've been re-formed around the bone. Tying a standing rib roast or a large rack of lamb helps prevent the layers of meat from separating during roasting.
"You can use [twine] as a belt too," says Richard, who reports that he learned the art of knotting "from tying my shoes."
A note about knots. Although there are many knots to choose from -- there are more than 2,000 in "The Ashley Book of Knots," perhaps the definitive book on the subject, published in 1944 -- the square knot is probably the most useful in the kitchen. Just tie two overhand knots, left over right, then right over left: The tidy results will look like two interlocking loops.
"A palomar is my favorite knot to use while fishing," says Providence's Cimarusti, who mostly utilizes the square knot for cooking, "but alas, it's useless in the kitchen."
Maybe a palomar knot would work for a cooking method called à la ficelle ("on a string"), in which a whole bird or piece of meat is tied up and hung to roast in front of a fire. This bucolic trick was supposedly invented by French novelist Alexandre Dumas (Dumas père, whose book "Le Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine" was as influential in some circles as his novel "The Three Musketeers"), who was said to have used the method with a whole lamb.
If you don't have a fireplace handy, a more convenient French recipe for boeuf à la ficelle can be accomplished with little more than a cut of beef, a pot of broth, a bit of string and a long-handled spoon. Essentially, it's just poached beef, served medium-rare with some bread, condiments and a few blanched vegetables.
To make it, wrap a rump roast with a long piece of string, tying the meat securely and then use the tails at the end to suspend the beef in a soup pot so that it clears the bottom. Use the handle of a long wooden spoon as a bridge over the top of the pot and tie the ends of the string to the handle.
A flavorful broth
You can poach the beef in plain water, but a subtle homemade broth of carrots, leeks and celery root brings out the beef's lovely notes. If you're cutting vegetables to blanch anyway, you'll have a lot of scraps. Instead of throwing them out, use them to make the broth. After the beef poaches, let it rest, then cut it and arrange the warm slices on a platter alongside the blanched vegetables. It's an entire meal as still life.
Herbed pork loin is even better when it's barded with bacon, a simple method that's kind of like wrapping a present without tape. Here two tenderloins are rubbed with minced sage and garlic, then covered with apple-wood-smoked bacon. Lengths of twine, spaced out at even intervals, secure the bacon to the pork.
As the pork roasts in a hot oven, the crisping bacon adds moisture and flavor. Add some quartered apples (neither peeled nor cored, they add a pretty, rustic look) and fresh sage leaves part way through the roasting. The rendering bacon fat and accumulating pan juices caramelize the apples -- and make an awesome quick pan sauce when deglazed with a little wine.
For a roulade with a bit of a kick, make a spicy filling of chiles, red kale and toasted pepitas and spread it on pounded chicken breasts. Rolled up and tied with string, the roulades are then seared in a skillet before being finished in the oven. While they're cooking, a simple side dish of hominy and diced bacon takes only a few minutes.
Or if all this seems too much for you, just soak a bit of twine in water (to prevent it from burning, Cimarusti says), tie it securely around a juicy New York steak -- the taut string plumps the meat and allows it to cook uniformly -- and throw it on the grill.
And if you leave enough string attached, you can even use it to reel in your steak without ever leaving your patio chair. You can't get much more practical than that.