WHAT DO YOU REALLY NEED IN YOUR KITCHEN?
In the interest of full disclosure, I need to say at once that I’m anti-gadget, anti-gimmick, especially in the kitchen. I have such a fondness for old recipes, old processes and handmade foods that I recoil at most of the little tchotchkes you see on the shelves in kitchen supply stores, particularly if they bear the grinning photo of a foodie-of-the-month and are made in the colors of a Crayola box. I love copperware, stainless steel and wood handles on knives. I’m a crank.
Besides that, though, I also love a kitchen where nothing is out of place, where you can lay your hand on the tool you need almost without looking. This is not possible in a kitchen littered with trinkets made to do what a knife does perfectly well. Depending on your diligence as far as controlling clutter goes, your kitchen counter or basement shelves can become a wasteland of baubles that friends and relatives bestowed with the best of intentions—seriously, it can actually get to the point of being unsafe. Spend your hard-earned money on the best and pare back your purchases to the essentials and you’ll end up with a small collection of deeply gratifying and durable friends.
One account dates the earliest knife at 2.6 million years old. Without the knife, not only would cooking as we know it be unimaginable but so would most of civilization. No tool can replace the knife or even pretend to and the only skill in the kitchen that might even rival good knife use is skillful seasoning. You need two of them, one with a blade 8-10” long and one with a blade 3-4” long. I have many others, having at one point thought it essential to have the knife roll all the cool kids have with multiple filleting, slicing, santoku, granton-edge.....you get the idea. None of them gets even weekly use. My 8” French knife is used every day and, because I don’t like to futz around, I tend to use the big knife even for jobs that a paring knife is better suited to. However, if you try peeling an apple with a chef’s knife, you’ll learn the hard way that you do in fact need two knives. Beyond those, I recommend an offset serrated knife for cutting bread and all other manner of things held close to the cutting board. If you fish or you’re seriously going to buy whole fish, you need a filet knife. But....do you?
It’s crazy how many trained cooks I’ve worked with who don’t know how to use this tool or try to use it based on television footage. It isn’t difficult and will ensure that the $100 or so you dropped on the knife doesn’t seem like an extravagance. A great knife, unhoned, is a crap knife.
Do not buy rubber cutting boards, cutting boards that measure less than 12” x 12” or cutting boards that supposedly fit over your sink. They are bunkum and may get you hurt. By and large, I don’t believe in the ones with the ruts routed around the perimeter to catch waste, either. Buy butcher block if you can, the biggest one you can. Keep one for meat, one for fish, one for vegetables and one for pastry work and label the sides with a permanent marker. You’d be amazed at how long the smell and taste of garlic remains on a cutting board and how it makes a coffee cake taste. Not that I would know.
Well, this one certainly won’t win me any lazy friends. Gadgets, aren’t they supposed to help you shirk tiresome tasks, you say? They are, but to me there is something primal and rehumanizing about using a mortar and pestle and the texture it gives to pesto, for example—did you get the connection?—makes a huge difference. A processor whips everything to a paste and whips air into it as well, making it foamy. A mortar and pestle gives you shards of basil, ragged chunks of pine nut that turn up unpredictably in your linguine—beautiful. Also, it leaves your olive oil cool and creamy rather than beaten into submission. You need this for tapenades, for crushing spice mixtures, even possibly for making doughs or pastry if you can find one large enough.
The original and still the finest. Nonstick coatings are for chumps and besides, they end up in your bloodstream. Iron is classified as a safe—even beneficial—food additive by the FDA. You need to learn how to take care of it—no soap, not ever, and no leaving it to drip dry—but it’s worth it. No pancake was ever so happy as one cooked on cast iron and no one was ever so happy as when served a happy stack of pancakes. And now I feel like Steve Martin.
Expensive, very expensive. It’s worth it, though, even to get just one saucepan, one sauté pan and one large pot or casserole. The control of heat transfer is second to none and it has the spare beauty of something built to feel right in your hands and last a lifetime. You actually have to give yourself some time to get used to how fast it heats up and cools down, you’ll burn a few things at first by cranking up the heat too high if you’re used to crappy pots that can’t conduct. Bourgeat and Mauviel are good brands to look for, but be aware that at this level of quality there are no “steals” to be had.
Essential, unless you love the noise of a spoon hitting a bowl over and over and then wasting food anyway. Look for ones that are heat-resistant and get a variety of sizes.
May not get a ton of play, depending on how much meat you prepare. Not expensive, though, and indispensable until you’re absolutely confident with doneness on meats—and I’ve never worked with anyone who had a flawless record on that score.
The ones with the buttons on the top that drive the gears are a no-go, in my opinion. Get the old-school kind with the pull cord or, if you’re really serious, get a Dynamique with a crank (made in France, indestructible under normal circumstances). This will immeasurably improve the quality of your salads and probably their life in the fridge as well.
You may not have seen these recently, but you probably saw them in grandma’s house. Excellent because glass does not pick up off flavors like plastic is inclined to and also because many are ovenproof so you can just take the leftovers out of the fridge in their container and pop it in the oven.
I have to stop now, but would also advise getting a wood-burning pizza oven and grill combination oven built in your backyard and having a vineyard planted overlooking those appliances. More on that in the next installment.