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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Kitchen Essentials for the Home Cook

Quality's the Main Objective

On the heels of an article I wrote on the subject of teaching yourself to cook, I came to realize there was one very important factor I omitted: proper equipment.

I know some of the modern-day heirs to Escoffier's legacy claim to posses the ability to cook a five course meal using nothing more than a hot rock and a sharp stick, but for the average cook – and especially for the novice home cook – there are some things that are essential.

Knives

Top of the “essential” list for any cook in any kitchen is a selection of good quality knives. It doesn't have to be a 20-piece matched set that comes with a knife block, a honing steel, a dozen kitchen gadgets, and a timer that plays the National Anthem. All you need is a chef's knife, a utility knife, and a paring knife. Everything else is gravy. An 8-inch chef's knife is pretty much standard and will get you through most basic chores. The utility knife and the paring knife are there for more specialized tasks. I suppose you could peel an apple with a chef's knife; I just don't know that I would try it myself. If you wanted to add a knife with a serrated blade to your collection, that would be a good idea.

Quality's the main objective. Buy the best you can afford, but stay far, far away from discount and dollar store knives. Their cheap construction makes them an accident waiting to happen and if you do any real cooking, you'll wind up replacing them frequently. Professional chefs don't bat an eye at dropping a couple hundred bucks on a single knife. Great if you can afford it. Global, Wüsthof, Shun, Henckels and other high dollar brands are superior knives, but most cooks can get by with a good set of something like Dexter Russell or Victorinox Forschner. They're good quality, durable, inexpensive, and readily available. I guarantee if you check out your local restaurant kitchens, you're not going to find line cooks hacking away with two-hundred dollar Wüsthofs. Ninety percent of them are going to be using Dexter Russells or Victorinox Forschners.

While we're on the subject of cutlery, another essential item is a good cutting board. Drop a few bucks on the purchase of a decent wood, bamboo, or polycarbonate board of a workable size. Little bitty boards are useless and huge oversize ones are overkill. And do avoid like the plague anything made of glass, metal, or stone. Pretty to look at, but they'll turn your shiny new sharp knives into expensive butter knives in short order.

Pots and Pans

Next on the “essentials” list are the vessels in which to cook all the things you've cut up. Here's what you need to get started: a saucepan and a frying pan. That'll cover most simple dishes. Make sure to get a decent size saucepan, two or three quarts. You can put one quart of water in a three-quart pan, but you can't put two quarts of water in a one-quart pan. And a 10.25 to 12-inch frying pan will do nicely. If you're going to do a little more advanced cooking or bigger volume cooking, you'll want to add maybe a sauté pan and a Dutch oven to your arsenal as well as a variety of sizes for the other basic pans.

Once again, quality counts. Cheap, lightweight aluminum pans like you get in the big box sets at the big box stores are a waste of money. They're notorious for uneven heat distribution and their surfaces scratch and pit at the drop of a fork. Better to spend thirty or forty dollars on one good pan than to spend the same amount on ten cheap ones. What's a “good” pan? Quality stainless steel, heavy anodized aluminum, cast-iron, and enameled cast-iron are the choices of serious cooks. Name brands like Calphalon and All-Clad will cost you a mortgage payment. Sure, they'll probably outlast your house, but it's a lot of cash for most people to fork over. (I saw a nice seven-hundred-dollar set of All-Clad at Macy's.) Just look for 18/10 stainless steel. Make sure it has a triple-ply or encapsulated bottom. You can find good sets like that for less than a hundred bucks in stores or on Amazon.

I don't personally like aluminum cookware for most applications. I have some non-stick aluminum by Bialetti that I swear by; the rest I just swear at. If you do opt for aluminum, make sure it's heavy anodized aluminum. Otherwise, it'll warp like you won't believe and the aluminum can leach into your cooking.

Leaching is also true of cast-iron, but in the case of iron, that's a good thing. You don't mind a little extra iron in your diet. Extra aluminum has not proven to be beneficial. And cast-iron wears like.....well, it wears like iron. Treat it well and you'll be able to pass it on to your children and grandchildren. And it's by far the least expensive choice for cookware. Yes, it requires seasoning and extra care, but it's worth the effort. Lodge is pretty much the first name in cast-iron cookware.

Add a coat of enamel to cast-iron and you've got the best of both worlds. Non-stick convenience and iron durability. Le Creuset is the top-shelf brand for enameled cast-iron. You don't really need it. Two-hundred twenty bucks for a 3.5-quart round Dutch oven at Sears? Fuhgeddaboudit! You can get a six-quart from Lodge almost anywhere for about fifty dollars.

Non-stick pans are all the rage, but most real cooks “stick” to the materials listed above. Non-stick surfaces are good for a very limited number of things. Eggs, for instance. Even top chefs use non-stick for eggs. As I said, I've got some non-stick made by Bialetti that I just love. Thirty dollars for a 10.25-inch skillet at Bed, Bath and Beyond. But don't rely on non-stick for everyday cooking. You can't use it over high heat, you've got to baby the coating, and if you're lucky you'll get five years out of it. Buy one and use it for eggs or pancakes or something. But get stainless steel, cast-iron, or anodized aluminum for your general cooking requirements.

Small Appliances

It's easy to go way overboard here. So much stuff, so little money (or space)! I don't think I have to mention a microwave. Not so much for “cooking” as for reheating, defrosting, melting butter – stuff like that. And popcorn, of course. Where would society be without microwave popcorn? (I'll answer that question seriously one of these days.)

A toaster is also essential, although I really like toaster ovens, or “countertop ovens” as they are sometimes called. A regular toaster is a uni-tasker. It makes toast. Period. Not only can you make toast, you can cook a frozen pizza in some of today's countertop ovens, especially the ones with a convection feature. And they aren't that expensive. Between fifty and a hundred dollars, depending on bells and whistles.

If you're a coffee or tea drinker, a coffee or tea maker is important. Keurig will impress your friends, but Mr. Coffee will still make them coffee for about one-tenth the price.

You need an electric mixer. Don't go nuts and spend $300 on a KitchenAid stand mixer unless you're really going to use it. At the same time, beware of cheaper models. They sometimes have weak motors that aren't up to the task for doughs and heavy batters and you can burn 'em out pretty easily. A good hand mixer is what most home cooks need. Black and Decker makes a five-speed mixer for under thirty dollars and KitchenAid has one for just a little more. Again, avoid “bargains.” A ten-dollar mixer will give you what you pay for.

Food processors teeter on the edge of “essential.” They're so darn versatile, but maybe not what every cook needs. Mini-processors or mini-choppers are popular and inexpensive and fill the bill in many kitchens.

Avoid uni-taskers if money and/or space are at a premium. Bread machines are cool, but you can make bread dough in a stand mixer or a food processor. Deep fryers are nice, but you can deep-fry in an enameled Dutch oven. Not to say that if you plan on doing a lot of bread making or deep-frying these appliances wouldn't come in handy, but not for run-of-the-mill, day-to-day cooking. Blenders are good, but food processors are usually better. The one exception might be an immersion blender, but that's a pretty specialized tool. Electric can openers? Nah. I can open cans faster with a hand-cranker, especially the nifty new ones that leave a nice, smooth edge. More on that in a minute.

The Little Stuff

Here's where you can really beat up your wallet. And the sad thing is that most of these “essential” gadgets wind up getting used once or twice and then stuck away in the back of a drawer or cabinet never to see the light of day again until the big yard sale. This is especially true of all those “as seen on TV” gimmicks. But there are a few things you really should have.

Measuring cups and spoons. Plastic cups and spoons are okay, but metal is better. You'll go through ten cheap plastic sets before you'll wear out a good stainless steel set. There is a difference between cups intended for dry measure and those meant for wet measure. It's a good idea to have a set of each for really accurate results. And a variety of glass measuring cups will also really be useful, especially in the microwave.

Microplane Grater/Zester. This tool – adapted from the carpentry trade – is a must have. It grates cheese, nutmeg, garlic – you name it. And it produces perfect zest from lemons,oranges, limes, etc. An old-fashioned box grater is still good for coarser grating tasks, so invest in one of those, too.

Mixing bowls, colander. Pros use stainless steel mixing bowls. You can prep food in them and they can go in the oven, on the stovetop, in the refrigerator – very versatile. Glass bowls are good, too, but they are prone to breakage. Plastic is a poor third choice. It stains, it warps and you really shouldn't use it for whipping egg whites or whipping cream. (It's a chemistry thing.) Get a variety of sizes. And a colander is essential for draining and drying. Mine's a big metal honker that hangs on the wall, but they make collapsible colanders that hardly take up any space at all.

Whisks, wooden spoons, spatulas. You can whisk with a fork, but you can whisk better with a whisk. A simple balloon whisk is good enough. A few wooden spoons are also essential. Plastic is colorful and cheap, but nothing beats wood for durability. A silicone spatula is handy. Notice I said silicone, not rubber. Silicone spatulas are heat resistant up to about 500°F. Not so with cheap rubber spatulas. And get the good ones with wooden handles. Plastic handles snap easily.

Instant-read thermometers. Okay, the pros have this thing they do with feeling the palms of their hands to tell them when meat is properly cooked. Everybody else should use an instant-read thermometer. Not a meat thermometer or a candy thermometer. They are useful, but not interchangeable.

Peelers and openers. I like a nice “Y” peeler. And, yes, you can peel fruits and vegetables with a paring knife, but a peeler is faster, easier, and safer for most people. And speaking of safety, I really recommend the new “smooth edge” can openers. They're a little pricier than old-fashioned openers that leave sharp, jagged edges, but they're cheaper than a trip to the ER. And you really should have a bottle/can opener – what used to be called a “church key” – around somewhere. Almost everything is twist-off or pop-top these days, but not everything.

Bakeware and accessories. Even if you're only going to make cakes, cookies, brownies, and cupcakes from box mixes or refrigerated dough, you still need something on which to bake them. A couple of round cake pans, a cookie sheet or two, a square or rectangular baking pan, and a muffin pan will start you out well. And for goodness sake, buy a wooden rolling pin. I once had to use a two-liter soda bottle to roll out dough in a friend's kitchen that was, shall we say, less than well-equipped.

Potholders, mitts and aprons. In professional kitchens, most cooks rely on towels hanging from their aprons – “side towels” – for handling hot pots and pans, simply because potholders and mitts are hard to track down when you need them. Home cooks don't usually have that problem, so always have a few at the ready. You can even get them to match your apron, which is another kitchen essential. At the very least an apron will keep grease and sauce from spattering your clothes. In a worst case scenario, it can prevent a serious burn should something spill or overturn.

Storage containers. A nice variety of storage containers is the last word in kitchen essentials. Empty glass jars and plastic tubs that used to hold margarine (which I fervently hope you're not using) or whipped topping (ditto) don't count. My preference for storage is glass. Plastic is okay, and I've got a boatload of plastic, too. But you have to be careful with plastic. For one thing, you can't use some plastics in a microwave. Either they emit toxins when heated or they just melt. And plastics tend to stain and retain strong odors. Plastic or acrylic canisters with tight seals are great for storing flour, sugar and other dry goods. But glass bowls with lids are best for sticking leftovers in the fridge.

Those are the basics. As time goes on and your cooking skills and requirements grow, so will your kitchen collection. But beyond gadgets and gimmicks, you really need good basic tools in order to be a good, efficient cook. And by “good” I also mean good quality. Stay out of the dollar store, but don't bankrupt yourself at Williams Sonoma, either. There's lots of good stuff to be found in the middle. Shop around and buy the best you can afford. And don't limit your search to discount and department stores. Culinary specialty shops almost always overcharge for basic items, but restaurant supply stores are a great source for quality and economy.

Buona fortuna e buona cucina!

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