The food mill is a throwback. It may be mechanical and it may be marvelous, but it is resolutely un-modern. It’s not quite as basic as a mortar and pestle, but it’s not far behind.
There are only three parts: a big bowl with a hole in the bottom, a perforated disk that fits into that hole (most come with three disks with perforations of different sizes), and a rotating blade attached to a handle that you turn to press the food through the perforations.
There is nothing to plug in; the food mill is powered by “elbow grease,” as my dad used to say. And yet for a lot of kitchen jobs, it works better than any of those newfangled contraptions.
Control is the biggest difference. Food is never mashed or over-processed. And with three sizes of disks, you can make a puree that varies from fairly fine to slightly coarse.
Boil potatoes, and you can run them through a food mill to make a silky mash. Try that in a food processor or (good heavens!) a blender and you’ll wind up with a potato-flavored glue.
Add celery root to the potatoes, and the food mill shows another advantage: You can choose the texture you want. Use the coarse blade, and you wind up with a very homey puree with little chunks of celery root. Use the finest blade, and the puree will be light and silky.
Actually, “puree” is not quite the right word for what a food mill does. Because of the power and ease of electric gadgets, that word has come to mean the processing of ingredients to the texture of baby food.
A food mill breaks down the food but never smashes it to a paste. Purees are lighter and not so perfectly, uniformly smooth.
You can prepare all kinds of hearty soups with a food mill. Use the coarsest disk to puree winter squash, root vegetables or even cooked beans; the resulting mix will be slightly chunky and homespun.
It does a better job at this than a food processor because it’s easier to control and because you don’t have to do everything in batches. And it’s better than a blender because it doesn’t froth in any air.
Speaking of stews, use the medium or coarse disk to puree the braising vegetables back into the meat and liquid, and the dish thickens itself.
In the summertime, when the tomato crop is going crazy, you can puree a ton at a time in a food mill -- chopped raw tomatoes if you’re canning puree, cooked if you’re making a sauce.
Somehow, a food mill leaves just enough tiny bits of tomato that, as it reduces the sauce, becomes rich and silky rather than perfectly smooth but thin. And if you use the finest disk, it will strain out all the seeds and bits of peel.
In the fall, you can do the same with apples: Cut them in chunks, cook until soft, then run them through the food mill to make big batches of applesauce.
Paula Wolfert uses the fine disk of a food mill to make hummus with an incomparably light texture. Puree berries, and that same fine disk sorts out the seeds, an otherwise impossible chore.
On the other hand, use the coarse disk to puree cooked chestnuts, and you get those lovely nut-brown “noodles” that pile into mountains, instead of a formless paste.
You can spend the earth on a food mill these days -- a shiny, modern, stainless-steel one from the high-end companies Rosle or Cuisipro can run about $100 or more. I’m sure they’re very nice, but still, that seems pretty steep for what is essentially a simple, peasant’s kitchen tool.
The always excellent Oxo International has just come out with one that is available for about $50.
I’ve had my food mill for so long that I no longer know where it came from. Maybe a yard sale? Goodwill? Maybe it was a castoff from a modernizing friend?
Wherever it came from, the mill works like a champ. It’s made of cheap pot metal. The wood knob on the handle is painted a bright cherry red, though it is flaking from heavy use.
There are a couple of metal hooks welded to the side so the mill rests securely in mixing bowls or saucepans. The disks are rough and coarse, but that is a good thing: It “grips” the food well so it doesn’t just slide around when you turn the crank.
This mill may be homely, but it is French, which has to count for some style points. It’s labeled Brevette SGDG and Passe legumes. On the other hand, it does say plainly (and in English) “Made in France,” so who knows.
The French also call the mill mouli-legume and the Italians, passatutto.
You can usually find old food mills like mine -- or a Foley, the American equivalent -- for less than $20 on EBay.
The key things to look for are rough-textured perforations on the plates and an all-metal body. (I’ve seen some food mills made in white plastic; can you imagine making tomato sauce with that?)
Also, be sure that the mechanism fits together tightly.
Suited to its role
WHEN you’re pureeing foods that leave behind a residue, such as peels or seeds, that residue inevitably clogs the holes so no more food can pass through.
When you notice the process starting to slow, reverse the crank a couple of turns and the blade that was pressing the food through will become a scraper that will clear the holes.
Also, remember that the thinnest puree will flow through the plates the easiest; the thickest (and best) is apt to cling. When you’ve finished using the food mill, be sure to scrape the bottom of the grinding plate to get all the good stuff that is hiding underneath.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to get rid of my blender or food processor. Or my mortar and pestle, for that matter. Each of those does certain jobs better than anything else.
And maybe that’s the best definition of true progress: connecting every tool with the task it does best.