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)
Advisable Tools (can cook more easily with than without them)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Have some in your kitchen. See Have on Hand.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.