Mixing bowls are having a moment.
It doesn’t matter if they’re glass, melamine or stainless steel, they are selling like proverbial hotcakes at Casco Bay Cutlery & Kitchenware in Freeport.
“I rarely restock them,” said Rhoda Dillman, whose family owns the store. “Maybe once or twice a year, and I’ve already done it twice.”
As Mainers stay home during the pandemic and rediscover the pleasures of cooking, sales at local kitchen stores reflect their culinary enthusiasms. Maine stores report robust sales of casserole dishes and other bakeware, pizza stones, barware, KitchenAid mixers – especially the attachments – and anything having to do with baking bread.
Customers are also buying coffee makers and stocking up on coffee filters, presumably to replace expensive trips through the drive-through, once a daily habit during work commutes. “Anything coffee has been really huge,” said Mike Fear, owner of Now You’re Cooking in Bath.
Fear’s store ran out of food processors early in the pandemic (though he is well-stocked now). Anything that helps with organization or storage in the kitchen has also been selling well because people who are now spending more time in their own kitchens are “fed up with not being able to find things,” he said.
And who wants to spend money on expensive sodas when the breadwinner in the household has been furloughed, or when spending less time in the grocery store is a priority?
“The hottest thing during the whole COVID crisis has been Soda Stream refill canisters,” said Suzie Rephan, manager of LeRoux Kitchen on Commercial Street in Portland. “I mean, it’s crazy. We’ll get some in and we’ll have a list of people to call because when they came into the store, it was out of stock.”
Home cooks are also discovering that when they try to chop onions and celery for that casserole, their kitchen knives are dull or in need of repair. So they seek out people like David Orbeton of Wicked Sharp, who runs a knife-sharpening business out of his South Portland home. Orbeton says business is up about 40 percent. (In addition to kitchen knives, he sharpens scissors for people who sew and do crafts – such as making masks – as well as garden tools for all the new gardeners who have sprouted during the pandemic.)
Orbeton says about half of his customers this year are new, and he can tell just by looking at their knives that most haven’t been sharpened in a long time – if ever. Embarrassed home cooks often apologize to him for the neglect.
As for repairs? “Very few people admit that they were the one that dropped the knife,” he said, chuckling. “They always say ‘It has to have been one of my kids,’ or ‘My husband must have done it.’ And of course, I tell them, talking to me about this is like talking to the doctor. We all keep it confidential. I won’t tell anybody.”
Evan Atwell, owner of Strata, a Japanese whetstone sharpening service and culinary knife shop on Washington Avenue in Portland, worried about his business in March and April when the state was in lockdown. But he has added a web store and has seen a big increase in the number of local customers dropping off knives for sharpening and repair. “Business now, it’s honestly better than ever,” he said. Atwell said he works on 20 to 40 knives a day, and sharpening stones are selling fast. Like Orbeton, he is seeing “a lot of prolonged bad maintenance” in the form of dull or chipped knives.
“We’re really busy and we’re kind of backed up,” he said. “It’s a case of not being able to keep some stuff in stock.”
In addition to taking care of their knives – and buying newer, better ones – home cooks who can afford it, who haven’t lost jobs or income because of the pandemic, are upgrading a lot of the tired old appliances and tools they’ve rediscovered in their kitchens. They have no more patience for that finicky toaster, those cheap pots and pans inherited from parents, or the ugly tableware picked up at a discount. Instead of geeking out on the latest gadget or impulse-buying a lobster tea towel, they’re investing in better-looking, better-quality products Rephan says.
“I think people, because they’re cooking so much at home, have been taking a look around their kitchens and saying ‘I don’t want to be cooking with this every day. I want to be cooking with something new,” she said. “So we’ve seen a lot of people investing in things like making the jump to a Le Creuset oven. The Le Creuset has been really hot.”
And the Instant Pot craze, she added, has taken a back seat during the pandemic to classic Dutch ovens and other kitchenware good for long, slow braises.
People are also looking for brands that look good on the counter, Rephan said, items that are “well designed and sort of spiff up the place.”
Fear has been seeing the same thing. His customers have been expressing more interest in his line of copper pots from France and stainless steel from Belgium.
“We find people are saying ‘OK, if I’m cooking, I deserve to cook with something really special,’” Fear said, laughing.
The store’s “not inexpensive” Polish bakeware and serve ware has been popular as well.
When it comes to upgrades, home cooks aren’t forgetting about cocktail hour. Unable or unwilling to visit local restaurants, Fear’s customers have been choosing better bottles of wine and brands of beer to drink at home. “Our wine sales have gone through the roof,” he said. “People want something more special at home.”
And across the board, kitchen stores say they’re selling a lot of barware and cocktail accessories, from martini glasses and cocktail shakers to muddlers, bitters and silicone ice cube forms. Fear said his store used to carry only 18-ounce cocktail shakers, but customers kept asking for 24 ounces.
“They wanted them bigger,” he said, bemused. His shelves are now well-stocked with 24-ounce shakers.
After nearly eight months of living in a pandemic, we’ll drink to that.
The pandemic is no joke, but in lighter moments a lot of jokes about the apocalypse have been tossed around – including, in the “what’s next?” department, the zombie apocalypse. We’re also getting close to Halloween. So put those new cocktail-making accessories to use to make a classic Zombie cocktail. This recipe comes from “Classic Cocktails: A Modern Shake” by Mark Kingwell (St. Martin’s Press 2007).
Makes one cocktail
Three ounces of rum, 1 ounce each for light, amber and dark rums added to some type of tropical fruit juice (pineapple, papaya, mango, for example). A glug of apricot brandy or cherry whisky is optional. Shake it all together and pour over ice in a chilled collins or highball glass. Can be garnished with a cherry or powdered sugar on the rim. Before serving, layer a teaspoon of 151-proof rum on the top.
Smoked Haddock Pie with Dill Biscuits
You will put your newly sharpened knives and your new casserole dishes to good use with this recipe from Annemarie Ahearn’s “Modern Country Cooking” (Roost Books, 2020).
FOR THE FISH:
1 pound smoked haddock fillets
2 cups milk
1 bay leaf
FOR THE BISCUITS:
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 tablespoons chopped dill
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons cold butter
1 cup heavy cream
FOR THE EGG WASH:
1 egg, whisked
FOR THE FILLING:
2 tablespoons butter
4 leeks, white and green parts thinly sliced
3 carrots, small dice
3 stalks celery, small dice
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 Yukon gold potatoes, small dice
2 cups fish stock
6 sprigs parsley, leaves picked from stems and roughly chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup fresh or frozen green peas
To make the fish, place the fillets in a large pan, cover with the milk, add the bay leaf and place over medium heat. Cook for 10 minutes. Pour off the milk, and flake the fish into small pieces, discarding any skin and tough bits.
To make the biscuits, preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Combine the flour, baking powder, dill and salt in a medium mixing bowl. Cut the butter into small pieces and cut into the flour with a pastry cutter or your fingers. Once no piece of butter is bigger than a pea, add the cream. Bring the dough together taking care not to overwork.
Turn it onto a lightly floured surface and form it into a disc. Refrigerate it for 10 minutes, then roll it out to 1-inch height. Cut into 4 round biscuits and space them out evenly on a sheet pan. Brush with egg wash, then bake for 25 minutes until golden and set. Turn the oven down to 350 degrees.
Meanwhile, to make the filling, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat in a large saute pan. Add the leeks, carrots, celery and a pinch of salt. Cook for 10-12 minutes, stirring occasionally. Sprinkle the vegetables with the flour, moving it around the pan to disperse.
Add the potatoes, fish and fish stock and cook about 10 minutes until the potatoes are just tender. Stir in the cream and cook for another few minutes. Stir in the peas and parsley. Move to a square baking dish. Bake 15-20 minutes. Top with biscuits and serve.