Cooking as Courtship

Introductory explanations and insistences to spur the faint of heart and calm the enthusiastic.



Cooking as a means of courtship. Courtship as a means of drawing others toward you and persuading them to remain of their own free will. It may be courtship of an intended love, though it might as soon be a parent or child or colleagues or friends or a very old and beloved love. Cooking as courtship because food will somehow be prepared and served, perhaps elaborately, but probably not. Perhaps by you, but not always.

Some squirm, uncomfortable with the idea of courting others, or confused by the thought that food might be for something besides maintaining one’s weight. They imagine it dishonest to do anything sheerly for the pleasure of another, fearing it may even be a betrayal of oneself.

Others wonder why anyone would bother to mention, let alone discuss at length, the courting of others through food. “Naturally one courts others and of course that courtship takes place through the offering of food; metaphor for sustenance, for sex, gesture or token of love, of affection, care and concern, devotion,” they remark dismissively. “In Hindu culture the gods themselves are courted with gorgeous, extravagant offerings of food, which the deities then generously share with their beloved devotees. What were you planning to say about it?”

Oh dear.

The author of this book should be far more successful than I at courtship. Yet such a one, having much sweeter things to do, might not have the inclination to write. Certainly the author should be a much better cook than I. But then a talented chef would never have been pressed to learn how to effect courtship at mealtime in the almost certain absence of an excellent entrée. Sublime food will seduce with little further effort, and chefs have only to remember not to be very very awful.



I tell you now and you will know later: This is not a cookbook. In order to cook you will likely want to acquire a few real cookbooks written by real cooks. For reference and occasional inspiration, if not for clear instructions. It makes little difference which books you choose, as long as you choose wisely. In order to cook as a means of courtship you might as soon offer another a bite of apple as prepare and serve an awe-inspiring repast. It is a matter of something else entirely.

Try to believe this is not a book of rules and does not mean to proscribe a style of living nor being. Opinion and admonitions are just that. Sometimes it may seem the same thought is repeated over and over and that the whole book could be distilled into a single sentence, a phrase, a word, if only the right one had surfaced. Clearly it didn’t.

The pages before you fall into two main parts: first a collection of essays meandering around various facets of cooking in the context of courtship; then a mess of what might be mistaken for recipes. A third, appended bit offers information mined casually from the heads of professional chefs. Anything that seems wrong to you probably is, for you. Commandments for one are crimes for another.

You will be fine. Anything made in love (1). and offered freely will warm and court.





FOOTNOTES


1 That word. Good, I suppose, that it comes up so soon, since so many believe one only courts those with whom one hopes to share romantic love. This book is not so much about romantic love. It is about large love, the love that encompasses all things, even those things you don’t particularly like. So to do anything in love does not at all mean to Be In Love. It means maybe to be within love, to be love, as opposed to hate and all its many avatars. It means to forsake the thieves of love, to banish greed and pride and desire and anger and jealousy and fear. It is harder than you might think to bring such strength to romantic love itself. Easier perhaps to love truly that which does not mean so much to you.

Finding Recipes

In which you find or invent some several things worth making and which you can make very well.



If you are going to cook, you need to cook something, and the set of instructions for cooking that thing, even if they exist only in your head, is a recipe. It might merely be your technique for slicing a pear and putting in a bowl which is somehow right, softly coaxing others to eat a pear which they would have otherwise passed by, thereby allowing them to delight in pear-deliciousness and your company at the same time and perhaps make an association of happiness and the source of it between the two. It might rather be a complicated series of ingredients and procedures for making a spiced tea which are written carefully on a piece of paper which you keep in a particular part of a particular drawer so you will be able to refer to it when you make the tea and not be forced to guess and remember and possibly fail to make the drink you desire. It might be a loose combination of ingredients and no particular procedure, but which when followed however inexactly leads to an irresistible and comfortable pasta or salad or soup or roasted thing or whatever. It might be a book full of things, all of which you enjoy cooking, the whole book being for you a recipe for cooking in general.

As you can imagine, these recipes do not descend from on high at the moment of your birth and attach themselves to you, even though you may eventually inherit one or several from your parents. No, you must discover and develop and otherwise hunt down and domesticate them to your own purposes. You must nurture them and care for them and keep them healthy so they will last many years and grow, perhaps fitfully, along with you. Many will enter your life for awhile and then wander off, the two of you having grown irreconcilably in separate directions.1 You might on occasion look closely and critically at your stable of preferred recipes and check to see that none are unhappy with you, that none are undermining your hopes and dreams for yourself by frightening away your friends, showing up and appearing to be a perfectly fine thing for dinner, but underneath the warm exterior poisoning people against you.

You need to root out and make your own those few recipes for things you like well enough to revisit again and again, and which are not so fussy and precise that you actually need skills or concentration to make them.2 They need to be on good terms with your friends and family, and should not betray preferences nor restrictions nor provoke allergic reactions. Naturally, your kitchen and tools should be able to accommodate these recipes, although you might very well have favorites which you only enjoy making when you have access to the garden or professional stove or company of some certain friend. They should be less rather than more labor intensive; you should neither notice nor care about the effort.3 Your chosen recipes should not destroy your health, but since you are hardly going to be cooking everyday and subsisting on your own chefery, neither do they have to be relentlessly healthy and correct for daily bread.4 Also, if you are going to have only a small number of recipes at your immediate disposal, it is very nice for them to be recipes which are amenable to variation. Chocolate soufflé, for example, would not come under the heading “Amenable to Variation”. Salads, pastas, soups, sandwiches, marinades, muffins, enchiladas and risottos do.

How do you find your recipes? According to me, there are several ways and all of them incorporate a small amount of trial and error. Willingness to fail, and humility and humor because you will, are invaluable in the hunt for your house specialties.

ONE

Notice when you are served something you really like, and then at a convenient moment ask politely and sincerely for the recipe. Friends and other hosts are usually generous, willing at least to point toward the cookbook in which the original recipe is located. Be forewarned, however, that they often withhold, as they have every right to do, spontaneous or premeditated alterations on the original instructions.5

A variation on this way of acquiring recipes is to watch carefully while someone who knows how to cook is making something you like very much and to ask questions about what they are doing. Eventually you will come to understand the underlying structure of the dish and be able to recreate it in your own fashion with only the barest inkling of ingredients and method—which is all a recipe ever is anyway, however fanatically you may choose to follow it. Watch and copy. Notice what is being combined with what else and in what general amounts. Ask questions. Over time this course of observation will give you a foundation of knowledge which will enable you to behave sensibly around other groups of ingredients as well.6 If you seem in over your head, if your attempt to remember the temperature of the oven seems to be displacing information about how or how much oil was used earlier in the process, you can always retreat and ask for the recipe in writing.

Again, most people will be flattered by the request and will be happy to hand over the recipe in some scant or elaborate form. But there are people who will be flustered by the request, who will respond in a less than generous way. Let them be. They might not really know the recipe, are flying by the seat of their pants, and fear horribly they will be revealed in their charade. Or they might have been sworn to secrecy by the great-grandmother who passed this family recipe into their care moments before passing away. Or they might be among those people who lie spontaneously when asked even such unthreatening questions as where they purchased an article of clothing, considering their knowledge to be part of their wealth and believing that if shared its value is diminished. Alternatively, your friend may be literally unable to respond to a request for something because they are in the process of entertaining a bunch of people. Have some sense of timing.

Have some sense of discretion as well. If you beg, borrow or steal a recipe from someone, make it your own. You might alter the amounts of some ingredients, add or subtract mushrooms or some other expendable item, choose some very different form of presentation, anything which makes it yours and not theirs. If the recipe is directly from a cookbook, then you needn’t worry. Hundreds of people in hundreds of kitchens are creating the exact same delicacy down to the garnish and the author is raking in royalties. On the other hand, if you recreate a friend’s signature dish and then serve it at every opportunity, you should not be surprised if you seem not to see much of that friend any more.

TWO

Look through cookbooks for recipes which list ingredients you like, or seek out recipes for things you remember enjoying, and then try those recipes on for size. This method of hunting up recipes requires a substantial amount of patience. You often have to try a recipe a couple of times before you get it to work, and then another time or two to make it suit your tastes. Even then it may not work out for circumstantial reasons: your oven isn’t sufficiently dependable, the grocery stops stocking some of the ingredients, the mess from preparation is too horrible, things like that. But if you keep your eyes open and are willing to eat toast for dinner now and again, it works. Later on you don’t have to credit anyone for your virtuosity, nor risk becoming bitter because a friend of yours effortlessly serves up a particular something you have failed to conquer.

The trickiest part about learning from books is the touchy-feely part. Many recipes depend upon some cooking knowledge, and some familiarity with the nature of food. They are not simply a set of instructions that anyone who can read can follow, as many people claim. Recipes are riddled with directions like “beaten eggs”, but there is no way for you to know you must beat the eggs with a fork or a whisk until they turn lemon yellow and drizzle off the utensil in a smooth ribbon or the cake won’t really do what a cake is supposed to do. There is no one in your kitchen saying “THIS is what the dough should feel like before you roll it out.” No. You have to figure it out for yourself, and there is pretty much no chance you will get it right the first time. For that matter, you don’t want to get it right the first time. Then you will have learned nothing about the process. Best to get it terribly wrong, then call one of your cook friends and tell them the whole pathetic story. They will be happy to point out the several ways in which you may have erred. Needless to say, their comments could help you learn about things that didn’t actually go wrong but might have at a later date if they hadn’t drawn your attention to their importance. You learn in double time and still, with all this help, can claim the recipes as your own.

Getting a good grasp on a recipe which depends upon your knowing what the food should be like at various points in the process will take several attempts within a very small number of days so you can remember from one try to the next what you did and what you changed and how that affected the final product. Once you have mastered a basic recipe, and know where you must be careful and where you can relax, you might with confidence vary it for effect or to accommodate seasonal and regional foods and the contents of your refrigerator.

Browse cookbooks without motive and reject anything requiring special tools or appliances or having more than about ten ingredients until you are a very comfortable cook. Do not be ambitious. Even if by some miracle you successfully execute a delicate and complicated dish, you will probably not have had much fun, will be ragged from the strain of unfamiliar concentration, and won’t be inclined to play in the kitchen again anytime soon. Push yourself but gently and without large leaps which might leave you suddenly lost in the middle of nowhere. Consider this process akin to pursuing a self-designed and directed work-out regimen. The important things are to keep showing up at the gym or on the field or wherever and to not succumb to enthusiasm which could lead to injury or even to extreme and debilitating soreness which would preclude the continued pursuit of strength and flexibility. Same here. Moderation. Persistence. Modesty and humility. The ability to admire others who are further along than you are in their development as an athlete or as a cook. To ask for advice and to accept counsel that was unasked for but appropriate anyway. To politely screen inappropriate counsel.

If you are impatient, seek out and commission a trainer.

THREE

Keep your eye out for likely recipes in restaurants. A difficult path because you get even less designation of amounts than I am willing to give in this book. Clever because chefs in restaurants are endlessly imaginative and there is next to no chance that anyone else will make such a thing in a private home and so you do not risk serving an inferior or at best matching version of something already wrought with previous intimate associations.

How can you get such recipes? Sometimes you can beg the chef for it. Sometimes you can convince a cooking magazine to wrangle the recipe from the restaurant and publish it several months down the road when the ingredients are no longer freshly available. Or you can hone your genius for ingredient identification and try to recreate the dish at home with skills you barely possess and a vague idea of what might be in the recipe. I tried that once. A better approach is to describe the dish to a friend who knows how to cook really well, and ask them what they think is in it. Or take them to the restaurant and let them figure it out in person. Or call the next day and ask what was in the dish under the pretext of trying to discover what might have been responsible for an allergic reaction you suffered after leaving the restaurant. Chefs always fall for that one. You don’t get precise amounts, but you can get precise ingredients and general amounts. Then you can combine this knowledge of ingredients with knowledge about how to make things which you have gleaned from cookbooks and from cooking friends, and weave together something resembling what you so enjoyed at the restaurant. Your best direction from here is to improve it to your own tastes and using your own imagination rather than trying ever harder to mimic exactly what the professional chef created with ingredients and tools which are oft times not even available to you, and being necessarily and so foolishly disappointed.

GO

However you do it, find something you like to make and which people like to eat7 and which is not too elaborate.8 Maybe three or four things. Know them so intimately that you could make them in your sleep. You may have to. Learn them so well that even if you do not have any of the ingredients on hand, you can create a reasonable facsimile of the dish. Spontaneity. Flexibility. Creativity. Competence. Humor. Excellent qualities in a cook,9 and especially important when you fail miserably and are dialing for take-out. Temper or any evidence of a bruised ego is extremely inappropriate. Impress your companion with your humor, your sanity, and your good taste in delivery food.



about the recipes in this book: they are homogeneous and dull. Interesting only because everyone is so surprised to find me cooking anything at all. Delicious only because everyone is drunk or famished or otherwise distracted by the time they sit down to the table. Documented here solely because they are the only things I know how to make, and so all that is available for me to demonstrate how you might go about feeding your friends and would-be loved ones without all the trouble of actually becoming an excellent cook. I wouldn’t bother trying to emulate any of these recipes, were I you. The tastes you crave, the flavors you favor cannot be the same as mine because you were not raised in my mother’s house. You did not discover garlic in Massachusetts, far from any fresh vegetables. Your roommate was not from India. You did not linger for years in Sharon’s kitchen and garden. You did not have two plum trees in your yard when you were small. Your best love did not teach you how to make peanut butter cookies. You did not work at the Flea Street Cafe. You didn’t get to spend weeks being fed by Jennifer. You did not live in France and England and Spain and learn about those peculiar approaches to food. You are not so finicky about what you eat in the first place. Maybe you like mushrooms and olives.

You will find your own recipes, will find your own flavors you like to use. The important thing is to choose foods others like as well. No point in cooking things no one else wants to eat. That will not charm a soul. Be comfortable with some few recipes so you can make them without attending to a recipe book. It is extremely difficult to pay attention to a guest if your nose is in a book and you are concerned you will miss a step and ruin a dinner which is supposed to seduce. They might wander off, finally eating and enjoying the delicious meal you labored over in the midst of a flirtation with someone else entirely.

If your cooking style requires your complete attention, you should do it by yourself before anyone arrives. Much better to know recipes you can make while chatting with others, or at least while listening to them and enjoying the conversation. That way no one feels as though you have slaved away for them and that they now owe you something in return for your great effort, if only the courtesy of feigning enjoyment. You want them to feel as though it were absolutely no trouble for you to offer them this delicious meal, all trouble and travail rendered enjoyable, or at least untroubling, because it was done with them in mind. And if they don’t like summer squash, for heaven’s sake you didn’t know and are terribly sorry and they shouldn’t trouble themselves about it. If you feel your face fall as a guest politely explains that they can’t stand the watermelon you drove ten miles in horrible heat to pick up, you are being vile. The only thought you should have when someone doesn’t want something you have offered is, “What else do I have in the house which might be a nice dessert for them since they won’t enjoy the watermelon?” Any other response will make them feel terrible for being themselves. If they end up in your arms after such a display on your part, you had best wonder what they want from you to have so quickly forgiven or forgotten such dreadful proof of character.

Whatever you choose to cook and serve is what others will be eating. Find recipes that will make everyone happy, tossing your delight to the side first. It’s your kitchen. You can always find something to eat. The others, they are at your mercy.





FOOTNOTES

1 For example, very few people are the experts at making macaroni and cheese from a box they were in their early twenties.

2 Of course you may have extraordinary culinary skills and excellent concentration, but there are moments when you do not care to call on them for cooking, or when it might be inappropriate and undermining of higher goals to do so. I have seen more than one amour be more put off than seduced by a great display of effort and skill, for a variety of reasons. See footnote 8.

3 Naturally this is different for everyone. I blanche at the thought of roasting and peeling the same Anaheim pepper which continents of people roast and peel without thinking the first thing. Funny, but I can’t think of a single chore I happily do but millions of others think is too much effort. Cooking at all, maybe. Documenting my every tiny opinion, certainly. Sweet of you to read along.

4 Which conveniently explains and excuses most of the recipes found in this book. Mind you, you might find it easier to eat well by feeding yourself than by any other means. Which explains the rest of the recipes in this book.

5 One friend, who has remained a good friend in spite of this, insists to this day her recipe for muffins comes from the side of the 100% Bran box. “Maybe I use more butter than they suggest,” she offers when I call to tell her that once again my attempt to make muffins from this recipe has failed. Abroad and far from any bran at all, I tried other muffin recipes until I found one in The Joy of Cooking that I could play with without ruining. To each their own muffin. Mine never involve bran. Why should they? I can always go to her house or to the bakery for that sort of thing.

6 When very young I made tapioca pudding, assiduously following the recipe on the back of the box. Unfortunately I misread the box and put in a quarter cup of salt instead of sugar. So now I know that a quarter cup of salt is inappropriate for something that is to serve six people. I always recommend learning from other people’s mistakes.

7 For example, there is probably no need to get really good at making okra tortas.

8 Sure you can have extremely elaborate dishes which you enjoy making, and can make at a moment’s notice. But overly elaborate meals, like too-expensive gifts, make people nervous. And I ask you, Who is going to clean up the mess after the execution of an extravagant concoction? Some people are virtually incapable of becoming all quivery and romantic if there are dishes in the sink. I don’t need to tell you how precious momentum can be lost during even 10 minutes of clean-up time. It’s as bad as the drive back from a restaurant. On the other hand, if you can make doing the dishes as provocative as slow-dancing by firelight, bravo.

9 Or a colleague or a friend or a parent or a child or a lover or a spouse or just about anybody.

About Amounts 1

In which you are admonished to pay some, but not too much attention.




When you begin cooking, should you begin cooking, you might think it is best, even imperative, to adhere to amounts dictated by recipes. One cup sugar. A half cup olive oil. A quarter teaspoon thyme. Two eggs. Like that. Alternatively you may be too-quickly enlightened, having watched Julia Child at too early an age, and think too carelessly that any amount of anything will be just fine.

Truth, as usual, appears to linger somewhere in between, with occasional visits to each extreme. Some knowledge, some good portion of awareness and evolving wisdom will guide you well. It is not too hard to notice that eggs come in many sizes, that herbs and spices are inconsistently intense, and that sweetness is a matter of taste. Even if you do stick strictly to dictated amounts, the variation in the final product can be significant. How large a step is it then to take some control over the variations? To know what more or less thyme will do to a dish and decide for yourself if it needs more or less or none or something else entirely. To know whether you prefer the effect of more egg or less egg, and determine on your own, given the size of eggs on hand, how many to use. The recipe is a good place to start. More or less two eggs. Two medium eggs. Maybe two small eggs, if you prefer less egg, or just one large egg. Or three small eggs, or even three medium or two large eggs, if you want the cakiness of more egg. You, you you you, decide. You are the cook.

You see, cooking is no more precise than any other endeavor in the material world. Olive and other oils have great variety of flavor, and if the oil is being used for flavor the quality and intensity might be considered. If the oil is being used as a medium, one’s preference for oiliness is of interest.2 The right degree of sweetness of a sauce or a cookie is very much a matter of taste. American cookbooks tend to make both desserts and savory dishes sweeter than necessary for deliciousness. Sugar, fat and salt are the most direct way to stimulate the sense of taste and are overused for that reason.3

If you could see me, you would see a woman shaking her head and rolling her eyes, frustrated as can be at the wide-spread practice of obsessive measuring and adherence to recipes. Food is so variable it seems silly to suggest let alone dictate amounts for anything besides baked stuff or candies. Even then, recipes can usually be adjusted to taste without harm. More frequently, one has only obscure or untrustworthy directions to begin with, bare clues about where to start and with what. The recipe for bruschetta pilfered from the menu of a local trattoria lets on that roma tomatoes, garlic, basil and olive oil are present. How much? Who knows. If the recipe came from a book, you might be equally adrift. You are captive to how strong your garlic is and how much you feel like peeling and chopping up. You must decide how much green basil you want to see amongst the red, even if the recipe was specific about how many leaves to use. How can you not notice that leaves come in many sizes? You may want to start the whole process by looking to see how many tomatoes you bought and how big they are. Maybe there should be a bit of salt and pepper and sugar in the mixture since there almost always is, and adding them certainly works, but sometimes you forget the salt or the pepper or the sugar and it is fine as well. You would never forget the garlic, of course, but if you did, or if the garlic used was not pungent enough, you would know soon enough because it wouldn’t be wonderful.4 You wouldn’t want to eat any. Your guests would still be talking instead of eating and laughing at their efforts to keep the bits of tomato on the toasts. You would turn around and it would still be there. Would a recipe have helped? Wouldn’t it be better to have instructions to look at to insure that nothing important is forgotten? Yes, but no. Because the garlic might still be weak, the tomatoes not sweet enough, or the recipe itself flawed in the context of your own tastes and the habits of your friends. The bruschetta would be all wrong and the only solace you would have is to blame the failure on someone else. “The book said to do it that way. It’s not my fault it didn’t work.” Yes, well. Forgive everyone for not caring too much, and go about making it better.

Of course “making it better” will require you to be able to determine what is wrong with it. Can you decide if it needs salt or garlic or sugar or more basil or more oil? Do you know a little bit about what each ingredient contributes so you can resolve that common lament: It needs something. How very important it is to have some idea of what various foods do in conjunction with other foods so when you use more or use less you have some good idea what will happen. Important both so that you do not make some horrible mistake and render inedible perfectly good food, but also so that you can experiment and explore and create ever more delicious somethings with confidence. No good at all being cavalier about amounts before your time. Things can turn ugly in the blink of an eye, and you might end up forever afraid of making anything that has not been previously tested in a professional kitchen and given the stamp of approval by a NYC cookbook publisher.

Be wary as you become wise. Wisdom in some areas means you must be humble and know there are other and myriad areas where it would not be right to improvise just yet. Perhaps you have a good grasp on garlic and an array of herbs popular in Italy. Play as you like with them. But when you decide one day to try making a southeast Asian vegetable dish, even if it happens to include basil which it might, use a recipe and use it carefully. You cannot leap wildly and exuberantly about until you have checked that you have ground to stand on and leap from and that dangerous precipices are a little ways off. It’s no good bouncing about hoping you will by chance land on some solid ground. Neither physics nor cooking nor courtship work that way. Who knows how they work, but they don’t work like that. You always need something to leap from.5

That is why you need to have a rudimentary grasp of amounts. Now, how.





Somehow you will acquire knowledge about amounts of ingredients and you will be able to raise your eyebrows with the finest chefs when a recipe calls for an unorthodox amount of some ingredient or another.6 Mind you, such heresy is exactly the sort of stuff famous chefs are made of. But their successful rejection of traditional rules for cooking rises from their understanding of them. The more intimately they understand the existing dogma, the more profound and revelatory will be their refutation. For you, a beginning of understanding will allow you to begin inventing and straying on your own. Increasing understanding will increase your inventiveness and expand the radius of your wanderings. To start, know that a cup of salt is never right, unless you are cooking for more than 300, or if the salt is being used in some process and then discarded or rinsed off well before serving whatever it is. A cup of sugar is often right, but not if the recipe is to be served prior to dessert. Later you may learn that a cup of capers is almost never right, parmesan goes in at the last moment, and lemon should not be combined with milk, but that with care it can be mingled with cream. Still further along, discover that ginger can be used in extremely small amounts or in prodigious amounts, and that both effects are glorious and lead to soft sighs and purrs that begin below the belly.7

Begin to gather this sort of knowledge by browsing through cookbooks. Notice the amounts associated with different ingredients and what role the various ingredients seem to have in the recipe. Note whether a particular ingredient is a large part of the recipe, or a grace note. Notice when it is used and how it is prepared before being combined with the other ingredients. Read instructions for preparation. Read anything having to do with cooking and food. You will absorb more than you notice. Even lists of ingredients on prepared foods will give you knowledge.8

Then when you are feeling adventurous, or particularly safe and secure, follow a few recipes—recipes from real cookbooks. Any recipes will do. As long as you are at it, you may as well find recipes which involve some of the special things you particularly want to know about. The less stuff in a recipe, the easier it will be to see how one single ingredient affects it. Too few things, though, and you will not be able to see how different elements affect each other. Seven to twelve ingredients, perhaps. Make brownies with less egg and then with more egg. Make a pasta sauce with less garlic and then with more. Put in double the amount of an herb or spice than is called for. Leave it out entirely, adding it at the last moment if it turns out to be indispensable. Exchange one ingredient for another you think will be an interesting alternative. Decide if you like what happens. Banish your ego and be willing to accept that an experiment failed. Find recipes that combine ingredients in ways you have not before tried. Discover that garlic and ginger go beautifully together. Notice how mustard can be used as an ingredient rather than a condiment. Find nutmeg in all sorts of sauces and soups. Grated on top when not mixed into the dish itself. Figure out how to cook with beans. With chili peppers. Indeed, knowledge and understanding of amounts is inextricable from knowledge and understanding of the ingredients themselves. Know about beans and about chili peppers, what they are like, their flavor and texture, and then you will know better how much of them you want to add to the risotto or soup or salad or pasta you are making.

Or find a recipe for something you are already familiar with, and which you like quite a bit since you will be having it on several occasions. A dressing for a salad. Soup. A casserole, a frittata, an omelet, a torte. Not a soufflé nor a mousse. Not flaming anything. Nothing which seems like it must be done Just So. You might not want to use a favorite recipe from a friend if you tend to have high expectations of yourself. You will surely not make it as well on your first try as they do any day of the week, and you risk becoming quickly frustrated and bricking off the kitchen in a fit of pique. No sense at all in giving yourself opportunity to compare your developing skills to those of other, more experienced cooks and possibly lose heart. For that matter, no sense in learning how to make something you can just as easily get someone else to make for you. Sure you are using the recipe primarily to learn about amounts—as well as to become acquainted with ingredients and have the opportunity to practice cooking technique—but the hard truth is whatever you experiment with at this time will become the cornerstone of your repertoire of things you know how to make. If you have borrowed a favorite recipe from a friend, and then proceed to make some version of it for every dinner party for the next decade, you stand a good chance of offending and an even better chance of being considered unimaginative and thoughtless.

However you do it, as long as you do it politely and legally, find a recipe or several for things you would like to make. Before you begin to play with your food, make whatever it is you have chosen exactly according to the recipe you have found. Or as exactly as you can in your particular kitchen. If there are difficult to find ingredients you are missing or tools required which you do not possess and are in no hurry to add to your collection, pause. Call someone who knows how to cook and ask them if artichoke hearts are really all that important in this particular soup recipe. I cannot think of a single ingredient that might not be indispensable in one recipe, while frivolous and perhaps even better left out of another. Even salt has moments when it is not needed.9 Consider amounts with the intent to arrive at a spot where not having measuring spoons and cups in the kitchen won’t bother you. As you make the chosen recipe, notice how much of the different ingredients you are using. When you taste the final product, think about what went into it and how it might be different if you had used more or less of something, or left it out altogether. Taste the stuff at different stages, before some ingredients have been added to learn more on that count. Taste your ingredients. Imagine how the addition of another herb, or some nuts or raisins, or a different vegetable or some cream might effect the dish. Ask others what they think and be the beneficiary of much hard experience. You will hear tales of woe and of triumph; there will be much laughter and storytelling, confessions and contradictions.10 You will eventually find yourself not caring very deeply what any recipe has to say about how much garlic and crushed red pepper you should use. You will know yourself to be the final judge of that. If the recipe is by a cook whom you trust and admire, you may want to give weight to their thoughts on the matter. In all cases you decide what you want to do, and then you do it. Even if it is following a recipe to the letter.

Whatever you choose to do, remember that when you approach cooking as courtship it doesn’t matter what others have done before you or might choose to do after you. All that matters is that what you do at any moment be sincere, pure in its intent, and without expectation for return. Your beloved, or whomever is fortunate enough to find themselves at your table, will have no grounds for comparing you to anyone or anything else in the whole world, thoughtlessly happy as they are with whatever is in front of them.





Perhaps you are reluctant to learn. You shake your head and say, “Cooking as courtship I can see. I accept the idea that feeding someone well might make them feel a little or a lot more warmly toward me personally. But this stuff about using recipes as mere suggestion is going too far. People more clever than myself have thought this all out, determined the amounts, and I am not going to waste my time learning how to be flexible in the kitchen. I am sure I will feed my darlings much better if I just follow the recipes in the books. That way I can serve them a wider variety of impressive things, without having to think too much about it, and that must be good. Variety. Right?”

Oh, yes. Right. Variety is very good. In fact, your darling might begin to consider a wider variety of entertainments if you take this approach to feeding them. Consider A: Your guest informs you as you are beginning to cook up a delicious something they are allergic to or can’t stand or otherwise prefer not to ingest a certain element of the thing you are about to make.11 Consider B: Neither of you is exactly dressed to go to the store, but a particular sort of something is desired by the other. Something which you would be happy to make if only you had ... But you don’t. Consider C: Another good friend borrowed your cookbook yesterday. Consider, although it is difficult and sad to do so, how many times one body walks away from another simply because life was too dull, too regimented, too predictable. They find a love who is inspired by them, who inspires in them creativity and boldness, with whom they can play and reveal themselves. Not that the first love couldn’t have thrown aside ideas and preconceptions and allegiance to lifestyle and come out to play themselves, but if they don’t, they haven’t.

You had better know how to make something and how to make it with more or less or none or a slightly different version of any particular ingredient. That’s what I think. “Where’s the respect for the art of the author of the cookbook?” you ask. Oh, for heaven’s sake, someone is hungry, perhaps for something, and the more quickly and deliciously and humorously you feed them, and all the better with something which is exactly what they wanted except better and surprising and scrumptious on its own, the more quickly they will retire back to the chaise or the lounge or wherever it is you would have them. Don’t undermine yourself with purist ideas about the merit of any particular recipe. Don’t be fussing and trying to measure out amounts primly and precisely when you might be exhibiting spontaneity, dexterity and sureness of movement and intention. A relaxed nature. Even should goofiness or ineptitude be your persona of choice—an act which works extremely well for a small percentage of people—you still need to get better than edible food in front of another with some haste and with little apparent effort. Otherwise they will not understand why you are not just ordering delivery, will regret you were not clever enough to have leftovers in the fridge. Trying too hard. People are extremely sensitive to it, don’t like it, draw away from it, wish you wouldn’t, so don’t. Or at least don’t appear to. Even more important perhaps is that you do not ever allow yourself to feel you are trying too hard. If you do, or if you sense that you are losing the allegiance of your audience as they instinctively desert someone doomed to failure or check out before they are forced into feeling grateful, stop immediately and say, “This is too complicated to pay attention to with you over there. How about some toast?”

Then, of course, it must be added: Use the measuring instruments if you wish, follow instructions exactly, but follow them as friends instead of jailers and relax. In general it just doesn’t matter. Cooking for the most part is a far less precise science than most cookbooks would suggest. Relative amounts are what is most important, if anything is, therefore it is fine to use whatever cup you have on hand as long as you use the same sort of cup for all the ingredients. Insistence that you must use one-fourth of a teaspoon rather than a whole teaspoon of marjoram is in violent opposition to the whole idea of cooking as courtship. Certainly that 3/4 teaspoon will change the way the dish tastes and for people who are picky and precise and full of ideas about how things should taste that might be a very big deal indeed. But perhaps the author chose an exact amount only so that the reader would feel secure. In most cases, changing the amount of an ingredient will simply change the way something tastes, not necessarily for the better nor for the worse. Which is all to say, please let your use of cookbooks be referential rather than reverential.

Having said that, chemistry instructions should not be toyed with unless you become quite an advanced cook and need to spend more effort disguising your proficiency than creating fabulous foods. Chemistry instructions are pretty easy to notice because they involve all the things that are essentially flavorless. Oils, water, flour, salt, eggs, baking soda and baking powder. Some things have both flavor and chemistry value. Vinegar and lemon and alcohols, for example. Instructions on the order of mixing things together and the amount of time and sort of heat for cooking should also be heeded.

As it happens, there is lots of room for flexibility even in these chemistry experiments—obviously since plenty of people cook beautifully with nearly no resources—but it does take a bit of experimentation under the watchful gaze of a mentor, present or in print, before you can move freely about inside the restrictions of the physical world. Bake obediently until you can disregard instructions intelligently.12





Follow recipes to the letter if you like, but consider that you might eventually, sooner rather than later, adjust them to your taste and to the ingredients available. Altering them if only to be certain that your culinary expression of affection is not word for word that of another. Or because you notice that regardless of how safe it may make you feel and certain of success, if you persist in following instructions your nose will have been very unfortunately in a book and you won’t have heard a word of conversation for possibly hours. Which sadly means you will be an hour behind in both subject and momentum when you do finally get dinner on the table and address yourself to the minds and souls at hand. Good strategy, if you like to sleep alone. Better, I should think, to depend upon recipes you are comfortable with, have already transcended in terms of exact amounts and participating ingredients,13 and which you know people like, or at least have good reason to think they will. Know what you are doing. Do what you want. Hold within yourself knowledge of what has gone before and acceptance that you do not know what will come next. A constant balance between the two, neither resting solidly on former successes, neither flailing about with no substance within grasp.



A final suggestion: Do your experimenting on your own time or with people who already love you so much that no amount of praiseworthy food would increase their affection, and no amount of delivered pizza will hurt it.14





FOOTNOTES



1 There was early criticism of the near absence of exact amounts in the recipes in this book. In response I discreetly shrieked that these are my recipes, recipes for foods I actually cook for family and for friends and for loves and it hardly seems wise to let others know exactly how I make them. Where would that leave me? With a repertoire of recipes my intimates can find at the table of any literate person with sufficient sense to buy this book. You’re lucky I include complete lists of ingredients. The recipes in this book are offered only to illustrate a manner of cooking, a philosophy for feeding others in which it is unlikely that the exact same amounts would ever be used twice to create the same recipe. This approach has plenty of historical precedence. Besides, truth be told I don’t know the exact amounts.



2 One excellent cook, in addition to many friends, simply halves the oil and doubles the garlic suggested in any recipe. That’s a good rule, if you love garlic and have not been trained to need great amounts of fat to feel something is delicious. A middle ground between the excesses of regular recipes and the excesses of fat-free cooking.

3 Kind of like using a vibrator all of the time.

4 Unless of course the basil and tomatoes were of such luscious ripeness that their mingling in aromatic oil from the olive were sufficient all by itself. A hint or no garlic at all being very very fine in this case. You see, you see? The possibilities are endless. You cannot go wrong unless you don’t care, don’t notice when what you offer is not good, neglect to acquire good ingredients, refuse to learn to taste and appreciate texture and flavor, forget to notice if your guests are enjoying themselves. Bad qualities all around, I’d say, steering well clear of your bed.

5 By the way, you aren’t going to find it in this book. This is only about leaping form. Try The Way to Cook, The Silver Palate Cookbook, The Greens Cookbook, The Joy of Cooking, Fannie Farmer, Escoffier, books by Pepin. Or ask a smart, kind, sympathetic, non-snooty friend who cooks to recommend a book from which you might leap. Or take a cooking class. Or work for a few months in a restaurant. Or get deeply involved with someone who loves to cook and knows how.

6 I do not mean in judgment or disdain. Eyebrows can go up in simple recognition that something is not as it usually is. A gesture that suggests no condemnation, but rather increased interest and heightened attentiveness as the predictable has been forsaken.

7 Why don’t you add your own footnote here.

8 I confess I once elucidated most of a recipe for Caesar dressing from the backs of several bottles at the gourmet grocery. It was a busy day leading up to the festivities of the Book Burning and Exchange; friends appearing out of nowhere and others disappearing as mysteriously. All day with eyes open, but still no recipe presented itself. We all knew there was something special about Caesar dressing, but couldn’t remember what it was. No vinegar, it turns out. Lemon juice and olive oil; plus garlic, egg, anchovy, and parmesan, of course. Ground pepper to finish. And large, rustic croutons. A little fresh thyme, if you like. Make it properly and people will eat it right out of the bowl with their hands and not even notice.

9 Cordelia would never have believed it, but then I do not believe pre-historic Gaul had many sources of parmesan cheese or anchovy paste, or even many lemons for that matter, or garlic. Lear, though, he knew. A man before his time. “Loves me like salt, does she? I see through her little ruse. Tomorrow she will favor orange zest and then where will my kingdom be?”

10 IF it is a crowd who cooks, be it casually or professionally; a crowd not bent on appearing impressive; friends who do not fear foolishness in themselves nor deride it in others.

11 Mind you, you needn’t listen too carefully to any of their ideas about what should be in the meal unless they are prefaced with medical authority of some sort, e.g. “Goat cheese makes me sick,” or the authority of an on-off switch, e.g. “If it is very spicy-hot, I won’t be able to eat it.” And you should listen very carefully to polite displays of deep revulsion, e.g. “Are you going to cook this eggplant?” It is self-assured, controlling comments like “Go easy on the ginger. I’m not wild about it,” which you can ignore utterly, simply nodding in their direction as though you heard them. That is a food prejudice, and indeed if you have any evidence they have unknowingly eaten things with lots of ginger in it, you can ignore them without feeling the smallest bit evil. Besides, like it’s even possible to have too much ginger.

12 Another Susan takes all my thoughts about amounts and casts them out with a single chocolate chip cookie. Single? I should rather say many several, they were so delicious I lost count. Asking for the recipe, she tells me a long story about trying the recipe in the Stars cookbook and finding that the cookies were not at all like the those served in the restaurant. (Mind you this is a woman who can tell when a favorite bakery has changed flour suppliers.) Addressing her dismay to the restaurant, the baker finally confesses she had converted the amounts from weight to volume measurements to accommodate home cooks who rarely have scales. Hmmm. It’s true though. Ingredients change volume with humidity and other variables. So Susan and the baker work together and figure out what the weight measurements are for a small batch. Some specific number of grams of this, some specific number of grams of that. Perfect. Susan orders chocolate pieces from a cafe in Seattle to make the cookies still more wonderful.

13 We haven’t discussed this yet, and perhaps for good reason. There are two sorts of stabilities, mathematically speaking. One is the equivalent of pin balanced on its point on top of the point of another pin. The other is illustrated by a marble at the bottom of a bowl. Both are stable, but the first cannot stand even the slightest push from the stable point while the second can be pushed around quite dramatically and even violently before the marble finally slips over the edge of the bowl. Some recipes are like the first: They work just fine if conditions are perfect and you do everything exactly right. Other recipes, all the recipes in this book, for example, are stable in the second manner: You can fool with them almost endlessly, as long as you don’t do anything foolish like turn the bowl over. The first sort cannot be transcended. The second sort may be best that way. Having said that, it’s interesting to look at an original recipe years later to see how far you’ve wandered, and to consider different routes from center.

14 That will take too much time, you complain? Well. Did you make love beautifully the first time? Even within several years of picking up the sport? Of course not, but a healthy amount of good humor and an honest desire to learn, an enthusiasm and willingness even, pleaded your cause and probably everyone waited patiently for you to become tolerable and then even longer for you to become competent. Try try and try again, they say, although I don’t think this is what they were talking about. And it is remarkable how many rustic meals, honestly prepared, people will gladly accept if the conversation and wine are good and the food isn’t getting worse. Remarkable how few previously frozen, recently microwaved meals you can serve before people begin to decline invitations to dine at all. Unless, of course, company and conversation are of legendary proportions.

The Complete Kitchen

In which the more likely kitchen tools are noted and their relative importance put forth.



A friend recently outfitted his kitchen with everything he thought he would need. “I want to cook at home more,” he told me earnestly. Pots and pans, knives, bowls, appliances of all sorts, tools and utensils I’d heard of but never before seen, vinegars, oils, spices, herbs. He’d long since acquired dishes, glasses, tableware. Still, it was an expensive day.

I suppose there is no reason not to do it this way if you have a good deal of money and even more cupboard space. Or if you are for some personal reason committed to radically increasing the role of cooking in your life.

Even so, there is no imperative for such a monumental investment of money and space.

Maybe you acquire a big ceramic or porcelain or metal bowl, suitable for tossing salads or pastas, for mixing up cookies or cakes or muffins or bread. A saucepan large enough for cooking pasta and another, slightly smaller, for cooking sauce at the same time. Or just the bigger one. A sauté pan. Erring on the large size if you are only to have one. Some wooden spoons. A corkscrew bottle opener. A can opener. A chef’s knife. A cutting board. A teapot. Some means to make coffee. Something that will contain the things that must go into the oven. Plates, bowls or rounded mugs, knives, spoons and forks. These things—and maybe even a few of these could be foregone—and you can cook.1

As you begin to cook a bit and perhaps a bit more and others begin to explore your kitchen for themselves, you will become aware of things that you would like to have. Maybe a colander for straining pasta and cleaning vegetables. Strawberries are mesmerizing when being rinsed in steel or copper. Maybe you need a hand mixer, or maybe just one of those squiggly tools designed to mash up vegetables. Maybe a platter for serving things too big to fit on a dinner plate, and bowls of various sizes. People start giving you gifts for your kitchen. Your mother hands on a few precious things she no longer needs. You notice bargains on well used kitchen things at garage sales in your neighborhood. You acquire measuring paraphernalia, cups and spoons. A wooden salad bowl and serving utensils in the shape of giraffes sent by friends from Nairobi. A toaster and a coffee grinder. Baking pans. A Dutch oven. Who knows what you will need until you need it? And how will you need it unless you are cooking and discover that you cannot live without it, at least not comfortably?

Naturally, there will always be the first go at a recipe when you become aware of all the things you do not have. But rather than anticipating and prepurchasing all of the possible conveniences and inconveniencing yourself terribly trying to use a zoo of tools you are unfamiliar with, you have the enviable opportunity to challenge your creativity in getting around the absence of all sorts of “indispensable items”. Embrace that other freedom which springs from limitation. Surprise yourself by how little is needed. You will learn soon enough what is missing and might be acquired. Wait and watch and reign in desire until it becomes need, real and without emotion or urgency and you can see clearly what will fill it. Do not go rushing out to assuage every whim and brief craving. I implore you. Such indulgence is destroying more than just us. If you keep your eyes open and hunt wisely and not greedily as you go about your day, you will find what you lack. Or perhaps someone will recognize your craving and find the right thing for you or lead you to it. It helps if you make known what it is you need and why you think you need it. Another may hear you who knows how to do without the item you consider necessary but which will take up an extraordinary amount of rare counter space and rarer cash. And they will share their knowledge.

Consider as well that the fewer luxury cooking tools and appliances you have in your kitchen, the more impressed people will be by the food you prepare. If your kitchen looks like the display window at Williams-Sonoma, people expect so much, pressure mounts, humor flies out the window, and with it many possibilities. Let your collection of kitchen toys and tools grow only as quickly as you do.

You can see that I remain baffled as to what needs absolutely to be in a kitchen. However, feel free to make use of the following list of things you might want to have in your kitchen and my opinion as to why. You will find that your Most Favored Recipes will require some few things that I could not have foreseen. Go get them. Listed below are the tools and trinkets which will make it possible for you and for others to cook in your kitchen with only adventurous inconvenience.2


Indispensable Things (can’t possibly cook without them)

Imagination

Humor

Patience



Advisable Tools (can cook more easily with than without them)

Board

For chopping and other events. Any decent wood chopping board is a treasure. It might be a beautiful piece of wood, or a bunch of glued together bits of decent wood, or a plank of not particularly nice wood. It hardly matters. In addition to being a tool, it is a very nice way to serve cheese, or hot garlic breads, or anything that needs to be cut while serving. Big round fruit, for example. Ignoring aesthetics, which on occasion happens, a nylon cutting board works, and I have heard some particularly wary mothers say that nylon is hygienically superior to wood. Whatever. If you find a board you love, give similar boards freely to others as gifts. More than one board in a kitchen is just fine. I am thinking of acquiring a third. A really big one this time.

People who like to roast meats are well served by a carving board, which is very different from a chopping board. Carving boards are designed to drain the juices from the meat as it is being carved. They might be slanted to this purpose, or the board might have gutters carved into it. In either case there will be a receptacle toward which the juice drains. Some have spikes imbedded into them to keep the meat in place while it is being carved. All these are excellent qualities for a carving board, but horrible for a chopping board. For chopping you need the surface to be flat and continuous. Which in turn is terrible for carving as the juice from the meat runs quickly off the board, relentlessly seeking a lowest point which will eventually and unfortunately be the floor. Carve on a platter if you do not have a carving board, but be careful of the meat slipping out from under the knife.


Bowl

One largish bowl that is suitable for mixing and for serving would be very hard to live without. The bowl can be used for one-bowl pastas, for serving more complicated pastas and rices, for vegetable side dishes, for tossing and serving salads, for mixing brownies or cookies, and in the case of my own bowl, as a water dish for visiting rottweilers and mastiffs. Just one bowl. Big enough that visiting shi-tzus can’t drink from it at all. Everything is complemented by any of the many white ceramics and porcelains and stonewares available from around the world and for sale in even the most remote spots. Once in a while you will find or another will give to you a bowl, perhaps plain, perhaps of many colors. A bowl made by someone with an eye and a hand and a mind for shape and depth and weight and color. You might not recognize it as the bowl right off, but it will make itself known as time passes and it is the bowl you prefer. The bowl you are constantly looking for and can’t find because it is already in use. Today, I have two. Or three. All gifts. One large and white and slightly decorated in relief. An Italian ceramic thing that came complete with a chip on the edge and a blemish on the finish of the interior. So I don’t worry about it. Another is small and pale blue and painted with strange flowers from some Asian imagination. Bigger than a very big cereal bowl. Strange thing and yet always in use. A third which almost doesn’t count as a bowl. Still a gift, but this time with overtones of inheritance. Better described as a serving dish with a cover. Oval, footed, perfect in size, delightful in its restrained, almost intellectual romance. Not so confident of its beauty that it has forgotten to be useful.3

Find a bowl that suits you, and use it all the time. Acquiring others as it happens.


Colander

Which is to say, a bowl with holes in it. Sometimes a bowl formed of wire mesh. Use it for draining liquid from other things, or for keeping food from going down the drain while you are trying to wash it. Pasta, vegetables, shellfish, things out of jars or cans. Stainless steel is beautiful and my choice. I saw enamel colanders in many colors while shopping for a wedding gift last week. Mom has an awful aluminum one with bent feet, but it works fine. Plastic is available and will do. Sometimes you can get someone to give you a copper colander as gift. Colanders that are not eyesores are also good for serving just-washed fruit as the fruit that falls to the bottom doesn’t get water logged Place it on the table and make sure everyone has access to knives and napkins.

Until you find yourself in possession of such a thing, vegetables and fruit can be washed and drained in plastic bags that you punch holes in or any loosely woven fabric sack, or in the salad spinner, or in whatever works for you. Pasta can be drained awkwardly using the cover of the pot it was cooked in.


Can Opener

There may be people in this country who never open cans of anything and so never need one. You will not be counted among them anytime soon. And I’ll bet most of those people have a can opener in their kitchen anyway, just in case. Nothing more foolish than to not be able to get at your food. While it is likely that you will at some point inherit a can opener, it is also likely that it will be difficult to use in some way. Otherwise why would anyone get rid of it? One day when you feel flush and in a temperament of generosity toward yourself, get a strong can opener with coated handles and a tight mechanism. Certainly they can be found at the grocery store, but you will be more assured of quality at a kitchen supply or hardware store. Estate sales are a good place to find them as well. A little the worse for wear, but if it was well made to begin with it will be good for a long while.


Cookie sheet

Sometimes you want to make cookies. They are what love is made of. If you are planning to buy a cookie sheet, get one that is weighted to hold the heat. It is a bit more expensive than the cheapest alternatives, but very worth it.

Still, even if you never make cookies, and even if you have only a traditional pan, inherited or found, you will be happier with a cookie sheet than without. Endlessly, it is the surface for holding things in the oven. It keeps foods from falling though the oven rack. It keeps your sanity intact. A cooking surface. Flat and stable. It cannot be knocked over. It can be recruited for tasks like some sort of marine infantry. A platter in a pinch. A cover to a large pot. And then again, you might need to make cookies.


Corkscrew

You need to decide for yourself which kind you prefer, but you must have one. Even if you never drink wine. Someone might come over to your house with a tall green bottle and will not be thrilled a second time to have to open it by pushing the cork down the neck. Tiresome and messy, and not in a particularly provocative way. Your corkscrew should open bottles as well. As with all tools, you will be immeasurably happier if you have a well-made corkscrew. Corkscrews do some hard work and some healthy amount of torque might be exerted on them. Naturally you don’t want the thing to break off in a cork, nor slice open someone’s hand, and those are sufficient reason to acquire a good one. But further than that, the experience of opening a bottle of wine or beer or soda will be vastly improved by the quality of the device used. It should certainly be strong and capable, but it might also be antique or beautiful or exquisitely simple and solid and classic in design. One will get over a disappointing encounter with the tool. But to have had it be a good thing, a delightful thing, a thing unnoticed perhaps but absorbed and experienced nonetheless, is akin to having gorgeous fabrics drape your body, and for such stuff as pleases the senses and the imagination to be the last thing one touches before they touch skin.


Dishes

There is a whole section on dishes somewhere in this book. It is more important than you might think to set a decent table.4


Food

Have some in your kitchen. See Have on Hand.


Grater

A simple thing, an ingenious tool that you can live without. But why? You can get graters that are like small towers with different sorts of grating textures on each side. Or you can find yourself with one of the planar graters, a flat thing that you lean against the counter while you crate against it. Even if you have a food processor for grating large quantities of things, you might still consider acquiring a hand grater. It is always nice to not use electricity if you don’t have to. And often grating things requires a bit of muscle. It is very nice to feel your strength in this unchallenging task. Very nice in a completely unnoticed sort of way for some other you might politely ask to do some grating for you. Much sweeter a task than hauling out the processor and making a racket while exercising only the strength of an index finger, which interrupts conversation and makes for more dishes to do later. And it might very well be some golden rule of existence on this planet that if you can do it just as easily with your own power as with power stolen from the earth, you should.

Consider as well that if your grater has a variety of grating surfaces and one of them is very fine and non-directional, you can enjoy freshly grated nutmeg, which is the perfect complement to many pastas and soups. If you find you dearly love nutmeg, you can get a small grater made just for that. Ask for it at your favorite cooking or hardware store.

Then there is the cheese planer, which slices cheese thinly off the top of a hunk in a regular and graceful sort of way.5

Mind you, people do go years without any sort of cheese grater, arduously slicing and shaving cheeses. Parmesan and its siblings can even benefit from alternative methods of disintegration. And of course you can buy them grated. Other cheeses can be sliced and then julienned (chopped into slim strips) for use in omelets and the like. To not have a cheese grater also establishes you firmly as an amateur without drastically hindering your ability to cook. Liberated from expectations, confident that every edible morsel you produce will be appreciated, you will also probably use less cheese than other people, which is considerate and wise.

I must mention a completely unnecessary and medieval contraption involving a cylindrical grater and a long handle that grates long curls of parmesan or romano or the like which are an elegant complement to all kinds of steamed vegetables and the tops of pastas. Frivolous and perfect. It is the very best way to grate parmesan and other hard cheeses for tumbling over food about to be served. You surely don’t need one, but should one come your way, accept it.


Knives

Spend your money on a good, 8-inch chef’s knife. It will take you far. Pick up different knives and feel them before you choose which one to buy. The more truthful you are during the selection process, the happier you will be with your choice. A good knife store should have sales people who can talk to you about what to look for in a knife far better than I can. If they don’t, go to a different store. Don’t order knives off late night t.v.

There are other knives you might want to have. A bread knife, which is long, uniformly thin, and has a serrated (scalloped) edge. Such a serrated blade is also invaluable for slicing up tomatoes, although a very sharp chef’s knife is even better. A small knife for everything the chef’s knife is too big for. A paring knife, to those in the know, a darling, tiny thing that is practically just another finger. Sharper, of course. Maybe a 4-inch blade. A steak knife will just barely do if you are very dexterous and very short of cash.6

There is certainly no need to rush out and buy one of those nifty blocks with a bunch of knives stuck into it. Even if it is on sale. Takes up space and makes people think you know how to cook. Or it can label you as the domestic equivalent of a snow bunny. Better to be a novice.

Novice or not, learn how to sharpen knives, or find out which of your friends are good at the art and get them to do your knives now and again. They will do this in exchange for almost nothing. They like to pretend it is a great task; but in truth, people who know how to sharpen knives love to do it and need to find other knives to sharpen or they risk sharpening their own knives down to nubs. You do need to have a knife sharpening tool, and it should be the tool of preference for the person who is going to do the sharpening.


Ladle

For soups and sauces. The only trick to buying a ladle, besides remembering to, is to look for one with a hook at the end of the handle which will keep it from slipping into the pot. Unfortunately, most ladles do not have this feature. Too many designers of kitchen tools think it is more important to hang your ladle decoratively on the wall than to keep it from falling into the soup. If you end up with one of these awful ladles, I recommend making a mess of your counter by setting the ladle down between uses rather than leaving it in the pot or bowl and allowing the handle to slip into the pot. Neither solution is particularly elegant, but the first is more palatable to others who may not like watching you root around in the soup. Also, you are less likely to accidentally utter distasteful expressions as your hand is scalded and your sleeve dips into the sauce. Less likely to shock and offend respected others with horrifying displays of temper. Something to consider as you are holding the ladle and weighing the costs of placing it sloppily on the counter or of sacrificing another dish to hold it.

Another quality of ladles is weight. Your ladle should feel substantial. Imagine the mechanics of a shallow vessel filled with fluid at the far end of a long, thin length of wood or metal: Would a heavy ladle be preferable to the light one? Less likely to be tipped indiscreetly and spill soup on the wrong lap?7 It probably depends enormously on the design. Which suggests you might have to pay a little more than you thought.


Oven

Whatever oven you have in your home is fine. If it is really not fine, or simply not there, consider purchasing a good quality and largish toaster oven. If you like baked and roasted foods and require the heat of an oven, consider instead or in addition to what you have, a freestanding convection oven. Convection means that the air in the oven is circulated, which allows foods to cook more evenly and a bit more quickly, but otherwise with all the wonderful qualities of roasting and baking and broiling. They are not so easy to find these days. It seems they were marketed on the quality of cooking more quickly, and never caught on because for speed one surely would choose a microwave.

On that note, microwave ovens are misnamed. They are better replacements for stoves than for the traditional, radiant oven.


Oven Mitts

Get several that you like, and keep them next to the stove and oven at all times. You used to be able to get leather mitts at the Cheyenne Rodeo. Current aesthetic has brought all-cotton mitts into the stores, which is a great boon to anyone whose hands are not perfectly smooth at all times. So nasty are the synthetic interiors of most mitts, you might find yourself more willing to burn hands than try to slip them inside the mitts. Sturdy dish towels work well as an alternative, although you may find that you frequently burn the tops of hands on the racks and roofs of ovens since only the palms are protected. The white terry cloth towels sold in hardware and warehouse stores by the dozen are perfect.7 Grab opposing corners, and the towel will just fit around most pasta pots and casseroles. Avoid cute, thematic pot holders and towels. Avoid cute, thematic anything.


Pasta or Stock Pot

A big pot with two strong handles, one on each side near the top. Ideally, find yourself an 8-qt, stainless steel pot with a good cover. Try to avoid aluminum. It is important for the pot to be big enough that when a pound of pasta is placed in boiling water, the pasta is able to move around, roiling with the boiling motion of the water. Also, the more water in the pot, the less cooling effect the pasta will have on the water, and the sooner the water will return to boiling. A pasta pot is also an excellent vessel for making chili or risotto. You can survive with so small as a 3-quart pot, but it is like living in a too-small apartment. Whatever is cooking in the pot will be forever splattering on the stove and counters, bubbling over. Stirring becomes an exercise in dexterity and diplomacy. Your patience is brought to the fore. What’s the point? Isn’t the day difficult enough? Plus, while a 3-quart pot will take you as far as one pound of pasta, if you find yourself with more than four delicate diners at your table, you will be stumped by how to cook enough food for them. An extra pound of pasta and more sauce is no effort at all, unless you are restricted by your minimalist cookware.

Your pot should have a cover that fits nicely, for sometimes it will be needed. For example, when you want to cook rice. Or when you want to disguise the fact that you didn’t wash it yet, or if you want to place it in the refrigerator, or if you need to keep insects or small animals from exploring the contents.


Pepper Mill

The generally tall device used for grinding pepper. You don’t need one. Ground pepper can be bought in any store.

But you would be a fool. Freshly ground pepper is sublime and worth the weight of the mill in gold. I especially like to grind pepper onto sandwiches, getting it all over the plate or counter. It is the best toy in a kitchen. Find one that feels good in your hand, is easy to use and feels as strong as you are. Not too large, maybe even quite small. Not tall at all. The grinding mechanism is what is important. The design can be anything. You will need to buy whole peppercorns for your mill and you might have your choice of black, red, or white peppercorns, or a combination of all three. All the colors are from the same tree, fruit in various stages of ripeness. White pepper on its own is considered irreplaceable in pale sauces by some cooks (and I confess that aesthetics have indeed restrained me from grinding black pepper into a few things, however they cried for the spice.) Other dishes look anemic without the traditional black and tan punctuation. You might consider two pepper grinders if you tend to more subtly colored recipes. Until you decide on such extravagance, you can buy ground white pepper.

In another scenario, you could find yourself with two pepper grinders because each is set to grind pepper to different coarseness. Coarse and crunchy for some more rustic things. Fine, powdery grind for silkier foods. Both filled with black peppercorns. Might as well put white peppercorns into the finer grinder. Or don’t think about it all. Enjoy the indulgence of two pepper mills filled with the same peppercorns.8


Refrigerator

I feel a little parochial mentioning this. After all, most of the world cooks much better food than I do without any access to refrigeration. But here in the western world, cooking often involves perishables, and while you would probably do fine without one if you didn’t eat meat or dairy products, many people whom you wish to make comfortable in your home will look askance at the absence of refrigeration. They will get nervous about nothing and probably come down with some psychosomatic intestinal complaint tomorrow. And then you will certainly feel compelled to get a refrigerator. Might as well get one now. It needn’t be very large, and if you have any consideration for energy usage it should be quite small. It is in every case the single largest electricity consumer in your home.

Excavate for failed experiments and forgotten leftovers every few months. Preferably on the day the trash is taken out. Look in the drawers for last season’s fruits and vegetables. Keep an open box or small bowl of baking soda inside and change it occasionally. Sam’s trick for people who don’t use their refrigerator much and tend to leave things in it overly long is to keep the temperature lower than standard. He’s right. Food still gets old and moldy in time but it doesn’t rot so quickly.

Feeling rather prudish talking about this at all, I protest that you will spoil appetites (and you know which appetites I am talking about) with a mangy refrigerator. You may even destroy hope in the heart of someone dear, discourage their senses by an assault on nose and eyes. Pray they do not touch anything, or that they have a sudden moment of amnesia and draw no conclusions about your character from the state of affairs in your refrigerator.

When you do have to clean the thing, use warm soapy water and a sponge very carefully. If you don’t clean your refrigerator, someone else will eventually feel compelled to tackle it for the sake of community health. Your laziness may cheer, but your reputation will suffer.


Sauce Pans

Sauce pans have vertical sides, are deep enough to hold lots of liquid, and have a single, long handle. You should have maybe three. Small, Medium and Large. 1, 2 & 4 quart. To be extremely Spartan, have just one medium size sauce pan, suitable for boiling enough pasta for two. The large one is large enough to pose as a pasta or stock pot.

The having of several sauce pans is not only about variety, but about quantity. Cooking even a simple meal might involve the cooking of several things simultaneously or one after another, but in any case you need pans for each thing or you will be forever having to transfer stuff from a pan to some other vessel and then back again, let alone the washing out that will have to take place in between. Sauce pans are therefore great gifts, as are bowls. “Too many” would only mean there is no more room in the cupboard.


Sauté Pans

Round and not very deep. The things you cook eggs in. They are also used to sauté vegetables, which is a French habit and a not bad one. If possible, have both a very small sauté pan—maybe 6 or 8 inches in diameter for sautéing mushrooms and the like9—as well as a larger sauté pan, 14 inches or so, for cooking real foods. Or something in between. Since I don’t eat mushrooms, I have lived for some time with only a single, 10-inch sauté pan, a French, cast iron thing I acquired somehow, and which keeps following me around from house to house.10 The pans might have curved sides and perhaps a solid non-stick surface.11 Or the sides might rise at a right angle to the cooking surface, in which case it might be called a “sauterne” by cooks in the know. The pan should not be any deeper than two or three inches, so you can see what you are cooking. Deeper than that and you have a sauce pan on your hands. Which is absolutely fine, as long as you are not making an omelet.

Sauté pans should boast a heat-proof handle. They often need to be snatched quickly from the stove after attention has wandered, too much time has passed, and one easily forgets to grab a protective cloth.12


Silverware

There is a section about silverware tucked into the chapter on setting the table. I think the point was: You and your guests will eat with the forks and knives and spoons, so vanity should be forsaken in favor of functionality and sensuality. Would you buy a screwdriver with a witty or modern or beautifully sculpted, but barely functional handle?


Sink

With running water or without. A place to wash and prepare fruits and vegetables. A place to pour unwanted liquids. A place to place dishes at the end of the meal. Whatever your sink, keep it as empty as possible at all times. Clean it regularly with scouring stuff. You might even consider it the biggest and last thing to clean at the end of any cooking session. Just after the last pots have been carefully set on the counter to dry. If you have a counter. Long before the last wine and water glasses find their way back into the kitchen. Sink and counters and all surfaces and tools and dishes should always be ready for the next thing. Just like you.


Some Means to Make Coffee

Entirely up to you. See Coffee & Tea.


Some Way to Boil Water

A teapot is a good choice. A sauce pan will work. Electric kettles are divine.


Spatula

For pancakes, and anything else that needs to be flipped or removed whole from a cooking surface. You might be able to live without one if you don’t make pancakes and would never consider sautéing eggplant or making cookies, but it is one of those things people are extremely surprised to discover you do not have.13


Spatula (rubber)

Similar to a regular spatula in that it is a flat thing attached to a handle, a rubber spatula is for scooping the last bits of anything out of a bowl. The best of them are heat resistant, have wooden handles and a rounded rectangular rubber end that is strong and flexible. Many are made all of plastic and are almost worthless as they cannot flex snugly to the sides of the bowl. You might as well use a spoon. A rubber spatula is certainly something you can live without. All it means is that you have dirtier dishes to wash. And you forego the sensual delight of caressing the sides of bowls and pans with a tool designed perfectly for the chore. The most frugal among us also love rubber spatulas because they give us the sensation of not wasting even a drop of anything. Children hate them because there is so little left to lick out of the bowl. Try using yours judiciously and appropriately to the situation at hand.

Keep it in the container with the wooden spoons. See Wooden Spoons.


Spoons

A variety of spoons for stirring and serving. Again, see Wooden Spoons. Acquire a slotted spoon. It’s for scooping things out of liquid without having to scoop up the liquid as well. It comes up more often than you might think, perhaps even especially for the occasional cook.


Stove

Some sort of surface to cook on. Gas is preferred by people who like to cook. Electric is preferred by people who have bad memories of gas stoves from other times and places. You will probably be limited by what is in your home already. If you have no stove or no kitchen to speak of, you can purchase single or double electric burners which plug into a regular socket. I’ve used one to cook dinner for six or twelve on plenty of occasions. The only drawback is the same one for conventional electric stoves except worse: water takes forever to boil. Alternatively, you can get one of those nifty, double burner propane stoves (e.g., a Coleman camp stove) and have an excellent source of cooking heat which you can take camping with you if you should be so lucky as to go camping.14 If you develop a passion for cooking with gas, you can always upgrade to a professional gas burner that runs on gas or propane. Water boils in the blink of a jaded eye.


Toaster or Toaster Oven

Life as we know it and perhaps love itself is virtually impossible without the toaster. Toast, which is to say warm, delicious bread, slightly crisp where it wasn’t to begin with, is more than anything the food of deep affection. Symbolic and simple. Unassuming, unpretentious, unbearably kind. The last thing one can eat before they cannot stand food at all. The first thing one considers when hunger returns. It requires almost no attention on the part of the person offering it, and is, for many people, the stuff life is made of. See Toast.

Toaster ovens are even better than traditional toasters, although never so charming as a rounded, chrome Sunbeam. Beyond toast, you can heat leftover pizza or kimma nan or roast two potatoes or make enough garlic bread for two without turning on the big oven. Can’t do that in the Sunbeam.



Towels

Get yourself a stack of smallish, clean, cotton towels and be done with it. The kind sold in packs of twelve at stores everywhere work wonderfully. The kind described above for use as oven mitts. Clean, white, terry cloth towels. Some people set the table with them, using them as both placemats and as napkins. Adorable. Imaginative, casual, sensible. Provocative like clean skin. Or, if you are a speck more refined than that, you may prefer French dish towels. Again all cotton, often in a textured weave, white or pastel with a couple of wide stripes in a darker shade, sometimes with a pattern of fruit or some words woven through the stripe. Or you can walk a plain path, choosing those larger, thinner, very American, white squares of cotton. Flour sack towels. The sort women used to embroider the corners of with wisdom and pictures of teapots and farm animals. I would look for these at the hardware store in town.

Please do not fall prey to “designer” patterns. Typically not of the highest quality, they begin to disintegrate almost as soon as they are unwrapped, and you end up with towels that bring no pleasure for a lamentably long time. Having paid to indulge sentiment rather than respect for material or construction, from the first time you dry your hands these towels disappoint the senses. It is downhill from there.

On the other hand, there are sturdy cotton towels to be found in colors and patterns which are neither cute nor fashionable. You might feel a sort of camaraderie with them which can help you recognize them. Can’t tell you where, but they can be found, and since so few people recognize and purchase for quality, they can often be found on sale. Stock up and give them as gifts.

Do not, under any circumstances, use bathroom towels in the kitchen. They are bad sizes, too thick and therefore awkward for drying dishes, and it makes your guests wonder what else you are too lazy to do correctly.15


Wire Whisk

I’ve lived without one but I won’t again. I am not even sure what I use them for but when they are not available I miss them. They also provide a sculptural complement to the wooden spoons and rubber spatula standing in a vessel near the stove. The best of them have a wood or metal or plastic handle, in any case something which is larger in diameter than the bundle of wires which form the whisk. Certainly they are wonderful for mixing sauces, for beating eggs, and for finishing whipped cream. (The stronger amongst us can make whipped cream from start to finish with a large wire whisk. Very impressive. Meringue is a little easier, but also impressive.) Have as many different sizes as you feel will be useful.


Wooden Spoons

Lots of wooden spoons. Buy them by the bag and put them in some container on or near the stove. Use them without discretion. Use them to taste whatever you are making, a unique sensual experience which has the added advantage of cutting way back on burnt tongues and lips. For that matter, eat your entire meal with one, right out of the pan it was cooked in. Give your companion their own spoon, or share.

A few notes concerning the use of wooden spoons. Artists will insist that the secret to a beautiful painting is the use of many brushes and the frequent cleaning of those brushes. Same thing applies to spoons. Don’t use the same spoon in two different pans. And until you know your beloved very well, and perhaps even then, try not to put the spoon you just had in your mouth back into the pan. Or at least be understanding if they balk or object. Accept that people are raised with different versions of hygiene. Be patient and not angry, whichever side of this fence you fall on. They may not be disturbed for themselves, knowing well what deep kisses they plan to share with you before the day is out, but rather at the idea. At the thought that you might regard such earthiness as appropriate in general company.16




Convenient Things
(now and then useful, but honestly, who’d miss them?)


A Baking Dish

Some stuff has to go in the oven and you need to put it on something. Garlic bread, for example, or roasted potatoes, or brownies, or lasagna. A cookie sheet or foil for the first, parchment for the second, or nothing for either in a pinch, but for the third and fourth?

A square or rectangular dish about two inches deep is broadly useful. You might also choose to own a loaf pan for making banana bread or pumpkin or zucchini or cranberry bread, or pound cake if you are that sort of person. A deep baking dish with a cover is prized by people who like roasted animals. I am particularly greedy concerning potatoes and carrots and onions that have been roasted along with the roast-whatever. Pyrex or Corningware is good, or some kind of enamel-coated cast-iron thing. Create makeshift foil covers when necessary. Some friends and family have found themselves with terra cotta or other clay, covered pots and swear by them. If a birthday falls on Valentine’s Day, heart-shaped cake pans might be indispensable. Pie plates are as handy as they can possibly be, standing in as serving dishes on many occasions, holding a chicken for roasting, and being filled occasionally with a chocolate or pumpkin pie.


A Really Big Pot

For making large amounts of pasta, soup, chili or stew for large numbers of what are often large people.


A Really Small Sauce Pan

For cooking small stuff quickly and gracefully and for reheating leftovers for your lunch.


Hand Held Mixer

You cannot make whipped cream, nor meringue nor the chocolate pie in this book unless you have an electric mixer. Oh, maybe you are extraordinary and inherited your grandmother’s forearms and are willing to take on the task of beating cream or egg whites to soft stiffness with a whisk. But maybe you aren’t and you didn’t. Of course, you can do almost anything you might have done with a hand mixer with a stationary, countertop, but nonetheless electric mixer, should you have the good fortune to have one of those. What you can’t do is mash potatoes to velvet in the pot they were cooked in. That would be a shame.


Coffee Grinder

If you or anyone you like is a great fan of coffee, get one. I am not entirely sure that it makes a difference—surely not so large a difference as the quality of the coffee you buy or the frequency with which you restock your supply—but there are many people for whom it is ritual to grind coffee before making it into that seductive and poisonous nectar. And since ritual is the half of it, just go along with whatever they claim is important. Their happiness and comfort is the only thing you need to worry about.

You can use it to grind up spices if it turns out that you don’t use it for coffee.


More Serving Bowls and Platters

Technically speaking, food can be served from pots and pans. Often dinner plates can stand in as serving platters.17 But you will be happier having big dishes made for serving. Food loves to be in them. They feel good in hands as they are passed around. They are no extravagance as many things are made directly in them. They will wander toward you and you should welcome them, buying them when necessary, finding them and trapping them as they sneak past, accepting them and keeping them with dignity in your home. Wash them well and store them such that they are easy to get at and won’t break while you are trying to extract one or another of them.


Wooden Salad Bowl

A standard sometimes forgotten, unnoticed but ever appreciated in the visual and tactile below-consciousness. Warm and comfortable. People like to hold them. Food looks nice in them. The more they are used the better they are. And you can drop them on the floor and they almost never break. Perhaps you would also like to invest in a set of salad servers, those oversized fork and spoon things that are so handy for serving not just greens but also lots of the other warm and cold things you might find on your table.

A wooden bowl does not make the A-list of kitchen tools because there are other sorts of bowls which can easily be used in its place. But they are not the same, especially not for salad. Also, putting it on the A-list might encourage you to run out and get one when it would be much wiser to wait until you find a wonderful wooden bowl which you are driven to acquire regardless of whether or not you need it.


Junk (those things that might be used if they’re at hand)


Blender

If you are fond of making soup, any blender will be a treasure for you. If you do not lean in that direction, you might get by very nicely with a minipimer, which is a sort of handheld blender, or your hand mixer creatively manipulated. Neither is so powerful as a real blender and will not make so smooth a smoothie, but they will allow you to make mashed carrots in an instant and are easier to wash than a whole blender. Also use your blender, or the minipimer for that matter18 to make fruity drinks, with or without alcohol. You might also use them to make faux steamed milk for coffee in the morning. A magic trick described somewhere else.


Food Processor

If you do have one, use it to make pesto, to make cookies quickly, to chop onions and slice potatoes and grate cheeses, whir up salad dressings in a moment. Do not use it as a blender. It cannot contain liquid like that. If you do not like chopping things but also shy away from owning so ominous a machine, consider one of the small versions, or one of the still smaller versions that hold barely a cup of anything. They are even preferable for chopping garlic.


Garlic Press

If you must have one, get one and don’t be cheap. The last thing you want is a flimsy garlic press. Better not to get one at all. In fact, don’t get one at all. Marcella Hazan scorns the use of the garlic press, claiming that much of the power of the garlic is crushed into submission by the violent action of the press. She recommends chopping or slicing or some other knife-based approach to the cloves.19


Microwave Oven

I wouldn’t have one, but I do use them when I am in other kitchens. They make me question my own ethics, which is probably good except that I am not wild about the answers. If you do have one and do use it, be careful about the noise they make for it is far from delightful. Do not in any case over-use the microwave. They were invented for Cooking as Anything But Courtship. And of course for reheating previously cooked meals into reincarnations of themselves, which done thoughtfully and respectfully might very well be the stuff courtship is made of.20 You can reheat whole vessels of things, or you can assemble a meal on a plate, minus anything that should remain cool, cover it if you like, and then microwave that whole plate.

Metal cannot be used in a microwave. Ceramic, glass and plastic only. Pyrex containers are a marvelous choice. For potatoes, the microwave is a loud but swift way to cook them. Mash them, or serve as though they had been baked.


Muffin Tins

I confess I am afraid to own them. I have a thing for muffins and would happily spend every weekend morning for the rest of my life baking some slight variation on my favorite muffin recipe, which seems unwise. You do what you think is right, but if you cannot behave responsibly, sell your muffin tin for a dime at the next garage sale.


Pizza Board

A girlfriend has one and uses it to make what might be sublime pizzas except that they always seem to be covered with mushrooms of one sort or another. I don’t believe the board has anything to do with that, but I still decline to possess one. For another person, a pizza board might be just the tool, the thing which makes making food simple and seductive to the chef and delightful to all others.


Salad Spinner

At once useful and annoying because they do the job better than anything else, but take up so much space in the cupboard. In its absence, put the greens in the center of a towel, gather up the edges and whir it about over your head. This is better done outdoors, especially if you are at someone else’s house. There is an interim device, a wire basket, which expands to accommodate the greens, with handles so it can be whirred about (again, outdoors), but which can only be acquired through inheritance or diligent attendance at garage and estate sales. It folds into a more compact thing for storage, and is so lovely, this web of wires, that it may remain on the counter indefinitely without ever offending.



Forbidden Items


Diet Cookbooks





FOOTNOTES


1 Or another can come to your house and cook something. Sitting smugly and thinking, “I really do plan to adhere exclusively to the restaurant delivery method of home dining, and am really just looking for the section on romantic candle placement,” you may have forgotten that someone might come to your home and want to make dinner for you. Who knows why. Could be under almost any pretext. I often make dinner for a friend who plays the piano. He plays and I cook. Someone else might have a Wolf stove I envy. Or a fireplace. Or the bed I care to sleep in tonight. Or my roommate has his college football team in town for the Big Game and I don’t want to be at home and I don’t feel like going out, so I go to a friend’s house and say, “I want to make dinner for us. Do you mind?” There are any number of reasons someone besides your mother might want to come over and cook in your kitchen. You would have to be a grumpy discontent to refuse this offer. A kitchen that has been cooked in and cleaned up is nice for days. The dust is gone. There are leftovers in the refrigerator. The sterile aspect of a non-cook house is mussed and a richer order that includes all aspects of life descends like sun and moonlight.

2 This list is offered with good intentions and all, but in truth almost any cookbook published this year has a better, more useful list of tools for you to consider. It seems to be the fashion. I think what we can take away from this is that we have lost the cultural knowledge of what tools are required for cooking, and so it is almost foolish to write a cookbook without giving a list of tools needed, as though we were a bunch of second graders who needed to be told to get out paper and pencils in order to do our math problems. French cookbooks from as recently as your mother’s youth do not even list the ingredients for certain sauces used in a recipe, figuring that anyone in a kitchen knows full well how to make a Béarnaise. How far we are from there. I don’t even know anyone who is completely sure how to boil an egg.

Back to the point at hand, as this isn’t really a cookbook, this isn’t really a list of what you need to cook. It is a list of stuff you might want to have in your kitchen for all sorts of reasons.

3 A soup tureen, as it turns out. Although I am not so sure, now that I think on it, as the cover does not have one of those nitches for the ladle to poke out.

4 In fact, the section on dishes lies in the chapter on setting the table. Not that you will necessarily set a table each time you use your dishes, but it seemed like a good time to flog that particular horse. You’ll see what I mean.

5 It is not as easy and safe as it seems. Be careful how you hold the cheese while you plane it, and don’t exert lots of pressure. You are not, any more than I have been, exempt from planing off a bit of your hand.

6 “No it won’t!” Tony howls. Oh, but it did do for many years.

7 I would like to point out that I don’t believe fluid mechanics are counted among the basic laws of physics.

7 In fact they come in handy all over the house. Cheap and robust, they can be bleached back to white in all but the most extreme cases and are quite sexy in their disingenuousness. I won’t name names, but I assure you they come highly recommended.

8 I am informed by professional chefs that one can adjust the grind of one’s peppermill. I did know that, but I find that if the mill is adjusted by any besides a professional chef, and even then, there is a good chance the whole thing will come unscrewed and peppercorns will fly all over the place. Which is at once festive and annoying.

9 As if anything were like mushrooms.

10 Every once in a while I will notice several people gathered around it as though it were some kind of alien landed. “This is a beautiful pan” they will breathe in awe. It is a nice pan, but sometimes I wonder if they are merely seduced by the bright, rich blue enamel exterior of the thing.

11 Not Teflon, which is no longer manufactured but which you might inherit or ignorantly acquire in a second-hand, flea market fashion. Health hazards aside, it scrapes off the bottom of the pan with the lightest touch of metal. The pan is ruined, no one wants to eat what was being cooked, and courtship is soured when you fly across the kitchen screaming “NO!” as your darling, disposing of inhibition, stirs the mushrooms with the tip of a chef’s knife.

12 I cannot resist making the perverse observation that nursing another’s injury can provoke very warm, friendly feelings from both men and women. Cutting off the tiniest tip of finger quite accidentally one evening in Paris led to a memorable if brief romance. On the other hand, some people sicken at the sight of blood.

13 Perhaps I am projecting my own, still raw pain at the mocking I once received for not possessing a spatula. I should never have invited those actors over for barbecue. Try claiming that a neighbor borrowed it earlier in the week. Or launch into a sincere admission of how you never much liked the word “spatula” and have never been able to bring yourself to ask for one in the store. Or you could just look at them blankly, as I did, disbelieving that they should be so callous toward the feelings of the person making them dinner.

14 Do get a propane tank, or keep a few extra little bottles of propane on hand. I do not recommend running out of fuel halfway through cooking a meal, although I have done it and it turned out fine. Just luck that there had been plenty for all without that last pasta dish.

15 Of course, they also might wonder where else the towels have been.

16 This is an unavoidably tricky point, and I must confess I believe it is easier for the one with a more open approach to the sharing of cooties to adapt and be generous. I am such a one, so you needn’t suppose I am making things easy for myself.

17 If you have been discreet and tasteful in your choice of dishes. See the Dishes section in Setting Tables.

18 Haven’t tried the hand mixer for this. That the two whisks don’t fit nicely in a glass is probably the reason. But I think there are more fundamental reasons in addition to the circumstantial ones. But you give it a try if you think it will work. The minipimer, by the way, is more generically referred to as an immersion blender. It is exactly what you would expect a one-whisk hand mixer to look like, knowing as you must, that it was designed by a team of male designers. Yes, phallic, but please do not take this cruel and whiny little appliance out of the kitchen.

19 I know cooking technique is not my area of expertise, but allow me to offer you a tip for getting garlic cloves out of their jammies. Cut off the end that was attached to the base of the bulb. Place a chef’s knife with a broad blade on top of the clove, which is lying on a chopping board. Hold the handle of the knife with one hand; then press down on the blade with the palm of the other hand. The clove will be smashed and the stiff covering sufficiently damaged for it to be removed easily. If you were planning to neatly slice the garlic for something special, don’t do this. Otherwise, do a few or many and then chop them all at the same time.

20 Don’t forget that reheating leftovers was done for centuries without the advantage of microwaves. Slowly on the stove, no more than medium heat, with a bit of added liquid. Slowly in the oven, or in the toaster oven or small convection oven. You might change containers, as twice baked-on food is very difficult to clean. Not impossible, so you needn’t throw the pan away, but difficult.

21 If you shop correctly, you don’t even need that much. But you will not appear to be cooking.