No, not that kind!

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Okay, I admit it: I am terribly afraid of spiders. They bite, they're kind of icky, and once, when I was performing in a summer of outdoor Shakespeare theater in Idaho...oh, never mind, we don't even need to go there. But before you all start having spider nightmares, I would like to talk to you about the one spider I love — the one that's always in my kitchen, and the one that I wouldn't want to live without.

A "spider" is something of a handheld drainer. It pairs a long handle with a cup-like woven metal basket, sort of like a mini colander or very large holed sieve. That basket resembles a spider web, which (I assume) is why the ingenious tool is called a "spider." Typically, you can find spider strainers — or skimmers, as they're also called — at any store that sells cookware or online, with either a long bamboo handle or a long metal handle.

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I first encountered them in my wanderings through the warren of amazing shops in NYC's Chinatown in the early 80s. I assumed that I had at least a vague idea what they were used for, and then I went to a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant nearby, and watched in awe as I saw the cooks wield them. Unbelievable!

They were pulling various things out of boiling oil with an ease that put all other means of "retrieving" fried foods to shame. The handle was long enough to keep the cook's arm and hand well away from the bubbling oil. And the openings in the net were so large that virtually all of the excess oil drained away BEFORE the food ever came to rest on a draining rack. And as all of you who fry know well, the key to delicious fried food rests with getting rid of ALL of the excess oil.

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So, of course, after lunch, I went back to the shop and bought one. I was shocked at how little it cost (and 2021 update…they are still very inexpensive). It quickly became my go to strainer for deep frying. But, I must admit, I don't deep fry all that often. And I hate having something in the kitchen that I rarely use. So I started wondering what other uses I might find for my spider.

First, I realized that blanching vegetables before shocking them yielded two uses — fishing vegetables out of the hot water, and then out of the ice bath.

And then, one fateful night, I was making some farfalle (bow tie) pasta. As I went to get my Pyrex measuring cup to reserve pasta water and the big colander to drain it, the cartoon light bulb over my head went off! I simply used the spider to scoop out the bow ties and transfer them right into the sauce to finish cooking. I had an entire pot of pasta water just waiting in case I needed it. Truly no muss, no fuss.

Williams-Sonoma Spider Skimmer
Credit: Williams Sonoma

In the years since, using that same spider for the last 35+ years, I'm continually finding uses for it. And when I DO deep fry, the results are wonderfully non-greasy.

Here's a partial list of "retrieval" tasks that make the spider indispensable in my kitchen:

The list goes on. The spider is the gentlest way to remove delicate items from oil or water. It drains remarkably quickly. It's really inexpensive, and lasts forever. Thus, it's the one kind of spider  that even I'm not afraid of.

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