Closed Captioned For The Thinking Impaired

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Kitchen Essentials: The 411 For The Newly Kitchened

“The stove, the bins, the cupboards, I had learned forever, make an inviolable throne room. From them I ruled; temporarily I controlled. I felt powerful, and I loved that feeling…but I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.” 
― M.F.K. Fisher, The Gastronomical Me
“We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”
― Marshall McLuhan

"June Bride" immediately connotes all that is youthful, hopeful, and pure. Blushing damsels wearing orange blossoms, gossamer veils and white confectionary gowns; taking their vows beneath the beams of a silvery moon, while doves coo and choirs of angels sing some Taylor Swift tune. June is traditionally the month in which loving hearts opt to become united in sacred wedlock, holding huge ceremonies to celebrate the fact that they will be building happy little idylls all their own for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish all the days of their lives. But why June? A quick internet search yielded a tradition dating back to Roman times - to the festival held on the first day of June honoring Juno, goddess of connubial bliss, hearth and home. It was believed couples who married in June would be blessed with prosperity and happiness. In fact, many of the wedding traditions we still celebrate from bridal veils to wedding cakes originated with the Romans.
The tradition continued through the Middle Ages. The reason was less superstitious and a bit more practical: a person’s annual bath usually fell in late May or June (whether they needed it or not), flowers were more abundant by June, and brides - wanting to smell their sweetest for their wedding day - carried a bouquet of flowers as a precautionary measure - to hide their body odor in case they missed their annual douching - thereby creating the Western civilization's time-honored tradition of bridal bouquets. It was also hoped by those crafty feudal lords, that the bride would be less likely to be in advanced stages of pregnancy with a June wedding, thereby allowing her to be an extra pair of hands for the autumn harvest.
(Of course, I got married in March, not June -what with having access to freely running water, indoor plumbing, and, sadly, being sans the requisite crops that one requires to qualify as a pair of helping hands come harvest-time, but I digress...)
To this day, June remains the month when many a happy (and hopefully clean-smelling) modern couple begin building their new nest together. Virginia Woolf said, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” This construction of wedded bliss requires certain specialized tools if one is to live and dine well - I should think kitchen utensils must rank high among them.
The way humans forged and used sophisticated tools is perhaps principally what set our species apart from the rest of the planet. Our kissing cousin, Homo Erectus, evolved by finding innovative ways of getting access to meat, and devising methods of digesting that meat more efficiently. Beast protein created larger brains, larger brains created better tools for hunting and eating more beast. This doesn't mean that early stone tools were restricted to processing animal carcasses, or that meat became the primary factor in their diet, since by all indications, from chimpanzees to tropical hunter-gatherer people today, plants were and are the staple. It just demonstrated an increased interest in meat and the tools to process that meat was essential to keep the larger brained amongst us well-nourished and cogitating.
The kitchen, then, becomes a strong impetus for the ascension of man. I consider it the primordial petri dish. First the grub, then the morality. We eat to live. This is an ineluctable fact. The brighter and the more convivial among us live to eat. (Put that in your random Darwin generator and smoke it. Preferably with mesquite). And for that we require specialty tools. Tools like spatulas and kitchen timers...
From time to time (even for the savviest, most happily married cook) the proper implementation of these utensils can cause their own grounds for turmoil, because how one cooks is a matter of individual preference: there is more than one way to peel a potato (though I prefer leaving the skins on mine, but that's a bone of contention we can gnaw on another time); one's technique is often a result of one's unique upbringing. I had an abuelita who never owned a cookbook, she let her experience be her guide. Her wooden pilon (mortar and pestle) was her favorite kitchen appliance. My husband's mother, on the other hand, painstakingly wrote family recipes on index cards, everything neatly filed in alphabetical order, according to category. The archives which now fall into my improvisational hands. She was a firm believer in gadgetry, a cook who felt naked without her electric eggbeater and barbaric without a garlic press.
I don't use mixers, or garlic pressers, a smash of a garlic clove with the back of the knife takes care of all my garlic pressing needs. I don't even have a lemon squeezer, I enjoy rolling citrus on the countertop to release its juice & then cutting & squeezing the halves with one hand, while using the other hand as a sieve to strain out those pesky seeds; though I do love food processors for making crusts, grinding meats, etc. and immersion blenders are a godsend for creamy soups, so much better than transferring them into the pitcher of a stand alone blender. I keep forgetting to buy a rolling pin, so I often roll out dough with a chilled bottle of our wine instead. It rolls it out pretty well. The pastry doesn't stick to the glass (no extra flour required). I'm not a big gadget gal, but it's astonishing how many little things one takes for granted that are indispensable like different graters, strainers, spatulas, etc. I bet if you started enumerating the number of tools you actually do have to use, you'd be flabbergasted. To me the hands are the most essential kitchen utensils, of course. Nothing tosses a salad better, or tests for meat doneness better than mine, though we do have utensils for both tasks, because my husband takes after his mother in this respect.
I never use a timer. I use my olfactory senses, I can smell when the oven is heated, or when the water is boiling, or when the sauce needs to be stirred. My better half prefers me to use a marine chronometer.
"Sweetie, can you please stir the sauce at 8:43?"
"Sure, honey, just give me a minute, I have to synchronize my neurons to the NIST-F1 atomic clock first to make sure that my synapses are firing at your command."
I love my husband. He is the kindest, most generous person I have ever met. He is brave, affectionate, playful and has many other wonderful characteristics (can you hear the BUT coming?) B-U-T if he ever gives me another directive to do something or be somewhere by 8:43 or 12:51 or any other sub-fraction of an hour again, I will crown him the king of all timekeepers with his grandfather's clock right on the frontal squama of his cranium!
It's a serious culture clash. This. He comes from a German/Dutch family who believes it's rude if you don't show up 39 minutes before the appointed hour because showing up early means you are really looking forward to being there. If you show up on time, you're late!
I come from a Puerto Rican tribe who thinks it's beyond inconsiderate if you show up earlier than 15 minutes late, nevermind on time, because you know no one will be ready, and you are obviously being a judgmental prick trying to make your host feel inadequate. I thought we were over this particular cultural hurdle.
I thought wrong.
El Esposo also has the objectionable habit of not allowing any remnant of anything he's eaten remain on his plate while he's still eating. For instance, when he eats ribs, he places the pile of discarded rib bones on the actual table, instead of leaving them on his plate. It's completely alien to me since I was taught to keep everything on a plate at all times, including eating implements. Being the dutiful homemaker, naturally I always call him on this distasteful practice of his, but he can't seem to help it. I don't know which culture thinks a pile of bones by your plate is more polite than a pile of bones on your plate, so I don't know who to blame. Chicken bones, asparagus ends, potato skins all receive the same treatment. Last night when he did it with the corncob, I told him to take the damned thing off the table. He did. He put it on top of his head, and left it balanced there. We both laughed.
However, his need to make me aware of every fraction of an hour that falls on a prime number has become his latest 'thing'... 'thing' being loosely defined as an idea that he is trying to negotiate into an edict in our household, he calls these informal entreaties The Unfair Treaty of Nanjing and evokes them constantly and it is fucking driving me BONKERS! So, in a plea for tolerance, I try to explain to the man that all this punching of psychic timecards is unnerving me and he says, 
"I tell you this so that you will be more aware of time. And you were. A little organization won't hurt you."
"You told me to stir the sauce at 8:43."
"Actually I said 8:33. I will eat in 12 minutes."

Suffice to say, we did not eat in 12 minutes, but we still had a delicious meal, sans spousicide. On the surface, this is an amusing anecdote. Frustrated wife releases steam, but upon closer inspection, it is an exposition on social constructs. Both parties in this story are subject to their individual cultures, both are acting appropriately in accordance to their unique upbringings. Time, in of itself, has no specific or absolute value other than the perceptions that humans endow it with. Bones on the plate, bones off the plate can be seen as points of contention, but the correctness of each viewpoint depends on whose eye is casting the judgment. The only variable is the dominant culture whose values are ingrained in each individual until they practically become an autonomic process - like indigestion.
This is also true of language, and social mores. Differences in cultures are as abundant as the number of people in them. There are no universally recognized absolutes in these matters. The conflict occurs only when people of differing cultures meet and fall in love; still, in many instances love them sees through it all. Be that love platonic, romantic, or any of the other classifications that philosophers feel the need to define and demarcate. Understanding and accepting the differences rules the day. 26 years of cohabitation with the same man has taught me this much. The truth is, I mostly ignore his time strictures... and he mostly ignores my ignoring it, and so joy reigns supreme... Luckily, we both like to eat the same foods.
This is paramount for any successful marriage. Here is where each couple creates their own family culture, habits and traditions. The way to a spouse's heart is through her stomach. The sacred bonds of matrimony can withstand many things, but if you like your meat rare & he's a vegan, I guarantee it won't last.
Enjoying the same foods creates conjugal harmony, and those foods require certain indispensable tools for our singular culinary conquests. So whilst my intention here today is to suggest a few kitchen essentials, the truth is there can be no perfect starter set for any individual or family, there are too many variables that factor into the equation. If I suggest a raw-food vegan buy a wok, (s)he would think I was being sardonic. (S)he'd probably be correct.

Note: I have included photos of my own culinary arsenal, just for laughs.

There really is no one-kitchen-fits-all. This is my dilemma with this month's column. I so hate writing generic advice. It's an impossible task. I need to know who I am suggesting this to. I can presume it's meant for Middle America, but what does that even mean? I don't know... I've never lived in the quintessential American household. I'm not sure such a thing exists. The essence of cooking is about modifying things to suit one's abilities and sensibility as well as one's taste. It's impossible to recommend an ideal kitchen without some familiarity with the cook-to-be. This was arduous for me and we're not even halfway through. My sweet editor will probably hate it, no reader will actually read it all, but I have hemmed and hawed enough. Now that I am done carping we'll get to the "meat" of the matter. (And no, I won't ask you to forgive me for the pun.)
Glassware, flatware, dishware, serving dishes, storage containers are all essential, as are napkins & placemats, but I am excluding them from this already too long article. Toasters, blenders and toaster ovens were left off the list. I have the first two, but so do you and while I adore my Dualit toaster, I hate most others. If you are someone who enjoys steaming food then a Chinese bamboo steamer is also useful. I have one, it's not essential because a microwave does a grand job of steaming food, but it smells lovely and looks pretty. I don't believe in crockpots, a Dutch oven makes an admirable slowcooker, but I understand crockpots are their own institution amongst many an American bride. You'll never find one in a Puerto Rican kitchen. In compiling the list, I am assuming the newlywed couple enjoys eating goods that are baked, grilled, roasted, boiled, and sauteed. Each item recommended could actually use a book's worth of description. However, here we go:
1) Range - stove top with oven. In a perfect world, it would be a 60" gas-fired La Cornue, with a double oven, French-top and 6 burners, but I live in reality (& a rented shoebox), so mine is a cheap 28" Crosley with 4 lousy electric burners that don't work half the time & one chintzy oven/broiler... I still manage to make great meals.
2) Refrigerator - unless you live in an igloo. Preferably a 48" Subzero with side by side freezer/ refrigerator. The dual compressor (one for the freezer, one for the fridge) keeps your ice from tasting like onions. (My tiny galley kitchen is outfitted with this. Yay!)
3) Microwave - yes, it's essential for re-heating, better than your oven or stove top because it retains moisture, particularly, if  you cook a lot of casseroles, stews, soups, and wish to reheat leftovers, or want to quickly steam up some tortillas. It's also a quick way to melt butter, as well as steam vegetables, though I rarely steam vegetables, preferring to eat them either raw, roasted or sauteed. Just don't heat bread or pizza in it. It wreaks havoc on gluten.
4) Coffeemaker - simple, straightforward purveyor of hot water over grounds. No need to spend a fortune. Cappuccino makers are a mess and unless you can afford to buy a truly industrial one, don't bother. A french press is lovely, too. You can always heat the water for the french press in the microwave, though I prefer using the Alessi tea kettle that was gifted to me 20 years ago.
5) Coffee grinder - grinding your own beans not only gives you fresher tasting coffee, but is also a supremely satisfying way to workout any tension due to anxiety you may have about the course of your day. It's truly zen-like and mediative to slowly count to twenty as you grind something into near oblivion. You can also use it for grinding spices, pulverizing granulated sugar when you need powdered sugar, etc.

6) Knives - a 10" Chef's knife, a paring knife, a bread knife, a sharpening steel. You will also require something to store them in. A wooden block is best, but you can get fittings for a drawer, if you prefer having them concealed. Buy the best forged knife you can afford. A good knife will last you a lifetime. Literally. But only if you take care of it. Mine have. The best come with a lifetime guarantee Wüsthof or Henckels are always quality. Solingen, Germany is a German knife mecca and that is where you will find the history of the major and more popular German knives. Japanese knives are also wonderful. I have four Kanetsune Seki knives - they're like mini- Samurai swords. Lighter, thinner, & sharper than the German knives - they are also easier to cut yourself with. Whatever knives you buy keep them sharp. A dull knife is the most dangerous tool in your kitchen. You apply more force to what you're cutting & invariably a dull knife's edge will slip off what you are trying to cut & plunge into you.
7) Two cutting boards - One for meats, one for fruits, veggies & cheese. The idea behind them is to keep you from cutting your countertop, so you don't have to spend a fortune, but they also can do double-duty as service trays. Wood & plastic are best. Something with a grip on the edges is always nice to keep from slipping. I have several of each. I love a brand called Epicurean which is made from recycled materials by a manufacturer of skateboards. Those boards are indestructible.
8) Vegetable peeler - You need one. Trust me. Unless you only eat meat, or leafy greens, in which case, then you don't.
9) Can opener/ Bottle-cap opener/ Corkscrew - See #8 for the first two items on the list, and allow me to assure you that if you wish to open any bottle of wine that does not come in a box (unless it's champagne, which you just open with your fingers), you will need a corkscrew. Remind me to tell you of a Frenchwoman who came knocking on my door in desperate search of a corkscrew one evening. 
10) Box grater & a finer cheese grater for hard cheeses - get both. Don't get all fancy with it, get something straightforward & made of stainless steel with a rubber grip for stability. I would also invest in a very fine grater, one that grates nutmeg & can be used to zest lemons. I realize food processors have attachments that do all this, but you'll never use those attachments. Mandoline slicers are wonderful, too, better than box graters, but they cost a fortune. Unless you are the sous-chef for Chez Panisse, you don't need to invest in one.
11) Pans - A 10-1/2 inch wide, 2" deep saute pan with a lid, a 12-inch saute pan, a cast iron grill, and a small 9" saute pan.
For overall use, get a 12-inch stainless steel skillet. You can cook almost anything in a 12-inch skillet, whether you want to sauté, shallow-fry, pan-roast, make paellas, risotto, or even stir-fry. I prefer a skillet with a traditional, rather than nonstick, surface because (except for eggs) I want the food to adhere slightly, in order to create the caramelized, browned bits called fond that are the foundation for great sauces. What’s more, while even the best nonstick surface will wear off eventually, a well-made traditional skillet should last a lifetime.
Skillets are simply frying pans with low, flared sides. Their shape encourages evaporation, which is why skillets excel at searing, browning, and sauce reduction. Traditional versions come in three main materials: stainless steel, anodized aluminum, and cast iron. I'm not a fan of anodized aluminum, as it makes it hard to judge the color of fond. Cast-iron skillets have their uses, but they are cumbersome and can react with acidic sauces, but if you have a small apartment, no balcony & enjoy grilling meat and vegetables, also invest in a high quality cast-iron grill. Mine are Le Creuset. They go from stove-top to oven admirably, give your food a beautiful sear, are durable, relatively inexpensive and provide you with even heating and a little workout just lifting them out of the appliance drawer.
Traditional skillets made of stainless steel sandwiched around a core of aluminum are best. Aluminum is one of the fastest conductors of heat, but it reacts with acidic foods and is overly responsive to temperature fluctuations, making cooking harder to control. Stainless steel is nonreactive, but, by itself, it’s a poor conductor of heat (in fact handles made of stainless generally won’t get hot on the stovetop); a marriage of the two metals makes the ideal composition for a skillet.
You will also need a smaller saute' pan for those times you are alone and are scrambling a couple of eggs, making an omelet or a quick beurre blanc, or any other light simple sauce. Invest in the best you can afford. I like All-Clad. 
12) Pots - You only need two: a large pot and a small pot, both should have lids. I recommend a Dutch Oven as the large one. A 6 quart Dutch oven is extremely versatile both on the stove and in the oven. You can boil pasta and cook rice, brown & braise meat, and steam or boil vegetables. Make stews, pasta sauces, etc.
Get a 3 quart pot for making a couple of cups of rice, couscous, boiling eggs, small amounts of vegetables, etc.
Now I have several pots and I use them all: a stockpot for turning bones into broth, enamel-coated cast-iron braisers from Le Creuset that are both deep & shallow, a designated pasta pot, a 14" carbon steel wok (which by the way, may be the most versatile & economical pot in the kitchen, if you don't mind the incessant care it requires) & many more, but I am obsessed with pots & pans. You don't have to be.
13) Salt & Pepper Mills
Consider the size of the mills and the ease of operation, whether you want to use them with just one hand, two hands. Is the coarseness of the grind adjustable? How easy or difficult is it to fill? If you don't care whether your salt and pepper are freshly cracked and ground, disregard this entry. I have a block of pink salt that is gorgeous, looks like quartz. I use a fine grater to grate what I need for cooking. I don't add salt table-side.
14) Oven mitts, pot holders, dish towels
Oven mitts protect your hands, wrists, and arms from - you guessed it - hot dishes, hot cookware, and hot ovens. Cloth mitts may not be as heat-resistant as the newer silicone ones, but they tend to be easier to bend and grab containers with. Try them on for size before purchasing. If you don't plan on storing the mitts in a drawer, look for those with a loop for hanging. 
Ditto on pot holders which are baby oven mitts, sometimes you just need something insulated to grab a pot with, especially important for the new cook. Battle-hardened cooks might be more cavalier and boastful about their asbestos fingertips, but new cooks need the protection.
Dish towels are eco-friendly and very useful for everything from wiping things dry to protecting countertops from heat, to absorbing excess moisture from veggies, to keeping things damp and/or covered. Paper towels are not always a good substitute. Get good quality cotton dish towels.

15) Tongs - Need to fish something out of a pot of boiling water or flip a steak over on the grill? Want to better incorporate your linguine into its sauce? You need a pair of tongs. Look for tongs that are long enough for your purposes (I recommend 12 inches) and have a locking mechanism so they stay closed while stored. Although you can find tongs made of plastic and wood, tongs crafted from metal are the strongest and most versatile. Something with silicon pads on both ends for better grip & comfort.
16) Colander - For washing vegetables and greens, and draining pasta. I also have a smaller, finer strainer that I use to wash berries, cherries, and occasionally sieve flour & sauces with. Stainless steel. No plastic.
17) Mixing bowls - Metal mixing bowls are indispensable to toss salads, make pancake batter, marinate meat & vegetables, make dressings. Absolutely essential. Get a nested set of stainless bowls. They'll last a lifetime. I still use the ones my husband bought as a bachelor in the 80s, well before he met me.
18) Measuring cups (wet/dry), measuring spoons - Get them in stainless steel, they are essential for baking. Baking is chemistry, chemistry is science, science demands precision. You can get away with eyeballing ingredients for other types of cookery, but not baking. Enough said. One glass or liquid measuring cup with a four-cup capacity will be very useful. We measure dry ingredients differently than wet ingredients because of the volume, unless you use a metric scale to weigh everything in grams or liters, that is. Then it won't matter, but you better be sure the recipe you're using for that pate a choux is written to reflect it.
19) Whisk - Make it stainless steel wire. Yes, you can live without it, but if you want whipped cream, whip egg whites into meringue, or even just make really good fluffy scrambled eggs, a whisk is THE tool to incorporate air. A fork won't do it as well, though a handheld blender is another option, but I prefer using my own muscle for these tasks.
20) Food processor - a marvelous tool for pureeing, making quick pie crusts, creaming butter, turning cream cheese & sugar into a smooth cake batter, grinding meat and innumerable other uses. Kitchen Aid 9-cup capacity is ideal for most uses. Bigger is better here, so if you want to splurge or regularly cook dinner for a Kardashian-sized clan go for the 14-cupper.
21) 9″ by 13″ baking pan - If you want to bake a lasagne, brownies, or even roast a chicken you need a 9x13" baking pan — maybe the most called-for pan size of all time. Invest in something sturdy & durable. I have baking dishes and pans of all shapes & sizes, most of them are stoneware from Le Creuset, Stoneware maintains even temperatures and prevents scorching, it has peerless thermal resistance – safe for freezer, microwave, oven, broiler and dishwasher. Dense stoneware blocks moisture absorption to prevent cracking, crazing and rippling, its impermeable exterior enamel resists scratch... & they are so pretty they double are serving dishes.
A large heavy-duty aluminum-base, steel-clad roasting pan is also handy, if you roast big birds like turkey or hunks of beast on a regular basis.
22) 9" pie dish / 11" tart-quiche pan - A good old Anchor Hocking Glass Deep Pie Dish will last a lifetime & accommodate any style of pie you like, I have my mother-in-law's from the 60s or 70s.
I also have a few tart pans that I bought 15 years ago from a professional kitchen supply shop on Polk Street that very sadly closed its doors. They are coated with a non-stick surface, the bottoms are free-floating & the sides are easily removable, making serving the tarts a cinch. If you like making cheesecakes then you should add a deep springform pan to your arsenal, too.
23) Baking/cookie sheet pan - essential for cookies, croissants, roasting veggies, freeform tarts, toasting nuts, even making bacon. I like non-stick surfaced ones, but plain old metal works.
24) Loaf pan - great for baking everything from banana bread to meat loaf, it's also a wonderful mold for pates, savory napoleons. Buy a cheap glass one. Though I, of course, have them in glass, stoneware & metal.
25) Wood spoon - They are inexpensive, heat resistant, and won't scratch non-stick surfaces. I prefer spoons with flat angled heads for sauteeing and anything that requires a bit of scraping of the pan, but I use the round kind for stirring liquidy sauces and soups. They are cheap enough that you can afford to buy both the round & angled kind. So do.
26) Spatulas - you will need three: a slightly flexible Rubbermaid scraper for getting every bit of deliciousness out of a bowl or jar; a flexible "pancake" turner with an offset head for flipping pancakes & omelettes, a stiffer, thicker, longer metal turner for fish or removing slices of lasagne from a pan. To slot or not to slot, that is the question, depends on how much you really need to drain what you are removing from the pan. I'm not a huge fan of slotted spatulas.
27) Immersion blender - The Cuisinart® Smart Stick® 2 -speed Hand Blender is the perfect kitchen tool to have on hand when you want to quickly puree ingredients in the pot for soups, blend cocoa for frothy hot chocolate, make fresh fruit smoothies, make your own whipped butter from cream, turn veggies you accidentally overcooked into creamy delicious purees. It's less costly than comparable brands but it works. Comes in lovely colors, too. Mine is tangerine!
28) Potato masher/ricer - I prefer the good old-fashioned wire masher for my smashed potatoes with skins, but ricers are grand when you are concocting something more delicate that requires a finer drier fluffier texture for mashing of potato sans skin (ricers act like potato peelers) in the making of blinis and gnocchi.

Here's looking at you, kids. Thanks for reading! Cin! Cin! 

No comments: