Kitchen Simplicity; Or, You Don’t Need All The Stuff You Think You Do
Let’s start with kitchen hardware. We all would like to have a huge CuisinArt with a box full of sharp-as-death tools and a KitchenAide mixer that can knead four loaves of whole wheat bread at one go. I would also like to have a kitchen with a Wolf Range with six burners and granite counter tops with gold sparkles in them. The fact is, you can get along with a lot less and be an excellent cook. On the other hand, you can have all that machinery and still end up using your kitchen as just one more beautiful room for entertaining, without doing much cooking. Did you see the movie Julie and Juia? The Julie character in the movie (and I’m sure the woman in real life) was cooking up all that fabulous French food in a tiny kitchen without a lot of fancy equipment. Of course, if you’re getting married, expensive kitchen hardware is just the thing to put on the registry. But bear in mind, you don’t need it.
So let’s get started. If you buy the right things, they’ll last you a lifetime or more, and you’ll be happy in your kitchen. If you buy cheap stuff, you’ll be replacing it over and over and you’ll hate it while you’re using it. You don’t have to spend a fortune on the latest designer chef’s signature brand. You don’t need 6,000 pots and pans and 20,000 gadgets. You just need a few basics. This is especially true if you are young and will probably be moving a lot. You will thank me that you are not carting around a 30 lb. mixer and a 20 lb. food processor with every move.
Knives and Sharpener: One utility knife and 1 paring knife, maybe a bread knife if you’re like my son Paul, who likes to bake bread. A 10-inch chef’s knife is considered the basic knife. But a six or seven inch utility knife is just as good to start with (actually, I didn’t get the chef’s knife until my late 50’s and it still kind of scares me, it’s so big). Buy the best brand you can but stay away from over-priced chef’s brands, and no home cook needs a $200 knife. Forschner is a good brand (they are the kitchen knife brand of the folks who make Swiss Army knives) with good blades but inexpensive handles. Some kinds of knives start well over $100 for a tiny knife, and the clerks get all snooty with you, so find a happy medium. and only get two. You really don’t need any more to start with.
Don’t put your knives in the dish washer and always dry them immediately after washing by hand. Protect the edge of the knife. Buy a sharpening steel and learn how to use it. An electric sharpener is great, but they aren’t cheap. Ask for one for Christmas. There are inexpensive little sharpening gadgets that hold the knife at the right angle and do a super job. I don’t have one, but I want one. Shop the website below, they cost about $35.
The Knife Merchant 1-800-714-8226, or www.knifemerchant.com, is a great source for knives at good prices and good advice about knives.
Two or 3-quart sauce pans: You need two. I have three plus a steamer, but I could get along with two and my steamer on regular days. I am not in favor of non-stick cookware like Teflon, though it has improved greatly in recent years. However, I still think that unless you spend a lot of money, the pans themselves tend to be thin, so heat doesn’t distribute well and you have a hot spot over the middle and the rest of the pan is cold. Also, eventually the surface flakes off, probably into your food. Very, very bad for you.
To find cookware, check out stores for professional cooks for open stock cookware, or sales in department stores on decent cookware. Calphalon and other trendy cookware is way too expensive. I like good old-fashioned Revere Ware with it’s copper bottoms. Ask for these things as gifts (my son got a set of Revere Ware from his aunt last Christmas). Also check out yard and estate sales and the Salvation Army, too. I absolutely love my mother’s old cast aluminum Dutch oven, and cast iron frying pan, and you can’t buy things like those anywhere but second hand stores. I have bought nice sets of stainless pans with aluminum bottoms at Target and I have seen Revere Ware sets at our local outlet mall. So, there are options which are not too expensive.
A word about taking care of your pans. Don’t take a hot pan off the stove and run cold water in it. Ever see a pan with a round bottom? That’s what happens when you put cold water in a hot pan. Let it cool off, then soak it.
Steamer: This can be a stand alone steamer like the one I have (a wedding gift from my husband’s Uncle Mark and Aunt Joyce, so it’s getting up there), or one of those little fold-up baskets that fits into a saucepan (my parents used one of these forever, but my daughter and I agree that they are kind of annoying). Steaming vegetables preserves the most nutrition and flavor, so a steamer is a must.
Frying pan: I bought my son a cast iron frying pan. I was impressed they still make them. Properly cared for, it will outlive him. You can see a photo, above, of my mother’s cast iron frying pan which came from a Wyoming girls’ summer camp. Goodness knows how old that pan is. It has outlived my mother, and will out-live me. My son’s new pan came “pre-seasoned,” which means we weren’t supposed to have needed to put oil in it and heat it up for five minutes before it’s maiden voyage. Well, they lied. Pre-seasoned or not, the egg we scrambled the first time stuck pretty badly. The directions say not to use soap or detergent on it, which is important with cast iron for about the first 20 years. He’s supposed to put oil in it after each use, which is a good idea. I like cast iron because, while it requires attention, it’s a joy to cook with. It heats up quickly and the heat is even. Also, it builds your upper body strength. If you can’t find cast iron, there are good stainless pans which have a copper or aluminum core to provide good heat dispersal.
Stock pot: A large pot for cooking soup or stew. This can be substituted with a crock pot for awhile, though ultimately, everyone needs a large pot because you can’t cook a box of spaghetti or a dozen ears of corn in a crock pot. The sets of pots and pans which I’ve bought my kids have each included a big pot of some kind, which makes buying one of those sets look increasingly economical.
Small sauce pan: A 1-quart sauce pan is good for making hollandaise sauce, boiling an egg, or making oatmeal if you don’t happen to have a microwave handy.
Loaf pans: If you bake bread you’ll need two. Mine are aluminum, but they don’t seem to be available anymore. See what’s available in the store. Try to avoid non-stick, for the reasons I’ve mentioned. One loaf pan is nice to have because there are some pretty good quick bread mixes out there and at Christmas time it’s nice to make pumpkin bread or cranberry bread to share at work, and nobody needs to know it’s from a mix. Also, if you make meat loaf, you’ll need a loaf pan.
Mixing bowls: You can’t make brownies or oatmeal cookies without at least two of these. An inexpensive set of three or four nesting bowls is a great investment. They will last forever. If you are going to bake bread, you will need a really large bowl, as big as you can find. A salad bowl will work.
Colander: Hard to drain hot pasta without one.
Oblong pan: This is for baking gingerbread or broiling salmon. 9x12x2 inches or something like that. It can be Pyrex or stainless, avoid the non-stick.
Canisters: Really important for keeping things like flour and corn meal protected from pantry moths. Pantry moth eggs come in with the packaging of all kinds of dry stuff and if you don’t want a major infestation, complete with creepy crawly wormy caterpillars, get some canisters. They are cheap. By the way, you can prevent an infestation if you take your flour or corn meal, fresh from the store, and put it in the freezer for half an hour or so to kill whatever larvae have traveled in with the packaging.
Drawer Stuff: Assorted wooden spoons, pancake turner, tongs (surprisingly useful, and very cheap), bottle opener, ladle, measuring spoons, measuring cups, can opener, cork screw (even if you don’t drink, what if dinner guests bring a bottle of wine and want a glass?), two-tined long-handled fork, wire whisks, timer (most ovens have one, but what if you’re timing rice and salmon steaks?), potato peeler, instant-read meat thermometer (a must).
Heat disperser: This is a round metal thing full of small holes which sits on the burner and a pan sits on top of it. It acts like a double boiler, decreasing the heat of the burner (turned as low as it can go) and protects a delicate thing like hollandaise sauce or melting chocolate from getting too hot and being ruined. This is a cheap, nifty gadget and I love mine.
Citrus squeezer: Fresh lemonade, anyone? Also needed for hollandaise sauce (if you don’t know what hollandaise sauce is, all will be revealed later on. It will be worth the wait.)
Pot holders: Plus tea towels, apron (at least one), dish scrubbers, a long-handled dish brush and whatever else you need to keep dishes clean. In this section I would add the things that you need to clean the floor, including a bucket, mop, rubber gloves and detergent. Those Swiffer things just don’t work well on really dirty kitchen floors, like those found in recently vacated apartments. One word. Eeeweewe.
Blender and/or small food processor: I like a small food processor better than a blender, it’s more versatile and takes up less space. I currently own a cool, inexpensive thing made by Braun: a hand blender where the machine part comes off and fits to various things including a small food processor. Those clever Germans! However, a regular blender is not expensive, and they do have the advantage of making margaritas in the summertime, so there is something to be said for the traditional blender if you have the money and the space.
Toaster: This should be an easy purchase but I’ve gone through a lot of them over the years and they all seem to have flaws. Check out the thrift stores. Don’t buy an expensive one because they don’t seem to be any better than the cheapies, in my experience. My sister has one identical to the one our parents got as a wedding gift in 1937. If that doesn’t tell you something about manufacturing these days….
Coffee Grinder: I don’t recommend them. If you can tell the difference between good coffee ground right before you use it and good coffee ground just before you leave the store, then ask for a grinder for Christmas. I find that mine makes a mess on the counter and I can’t tell the difference in flavor. It’s more important to make sure your coffee pot and brewing apparatus are scrupulously clean (the oil in the coffee goes rancid).
Brightly colored plastic kitchen utensils. I almost never use my aluminum colander because it blends in with everything else in my dark cupboards, but I can spot my bright red plastic one right away. And in my jumbled mess of a kitchen drawer I can find my green spatula in no time flat. So, go with the pretty colors.
Cutting board: A small (big ones are too heavy to lift and scrap chopped veggies into a pan on the stove, also hard to store) plastic or wooden one is a necessity. The rumor that wooden cutting boards harbor bad bacteria is not true. Women have used them for hundreds of years without anyone dying. Just wash it off with soap and water, for crying out loud! Don’t cut on your counter! It will ruin both the counter and your knife.
Small Electric Grill: Think George Foreman. I don’t have one of these but my son does and he loves it, especially for pork chops. They come out really moist, he says. I saw a friend of ours defrost a skinless chicken breast in the microwave and then cook it on her grill, all in less than 10 minutes, and it tasted great! I’m not saying this is a must-have, but if you see one on sale, you might consider it.
I’m not going to talk about dishes, silverware and glassware. I like Target as a source, but these are really more fashion accessories and people can buy what they like, need and can afford.
However, I do have one piece of advice from my mother. She said to always keep an extra set of glasses put away for special occasions because glasses get broken and messed up in the dishwasher, etc. The set can cost $20 from Target (which mine did), it’s just the fact that they’re all there and they match that’s important. You might also get a set of cheap wine glasses for the same reason. My mother was a very wise lady, and I’ll be quoting her a lot throughout this blog.
We will tackle the kitchen cupboard next. However, I have to break here as my dear husband, Larry, is patiently awaiting his supper, and I have to go start chopping some veggies on the cherry cutting board that Larry’s dear dad made for me thirty years ago.