Sunday, September 18, 2011

In my Grandmother's Kitchen

"If you know how to cook, you can cook anywhere." ~ Elsie R. Rice

Aside from her childhood home outside Liverpool, England my grandmother lived in small rented apartments her entire life. She had little storage space and even less counter space. She began her married life in a small apartment in the Bronx and was exceedingly proud of the fact that she put dinner on the table for her husband, young son and often friends of her husband every night through the Great Depression. She did it again during WWII for her now teenage son and young daughter while her husband was overseas.

Much later, when I was a child, I loved going to her small senior housing apartment in Wellesley for Sunday dinner. She had a miniature dinner table on wheels with two leaves that could be propped up on either side. We would roll it out from against the wall and make it big enough for four: Grammie, Mom, my brother and me. This marvelous table also held a central storage compartment for folding chairs that it was our job to take out, set-up and stow away again after dinner. Sunday dinners usually meant a roast chicken or a pot roast, salad and 2-3 vegetables since Grammie insisted on having color and variety at the table. Today's nutritionists would agree. The best part? There was always dessert. Sometimes it was a cake but usually it was Jell-O with juicy mandarin oranges laced throughout. Something about that cold, jiggly dessert with the sweet bursts of orange made me feel completely sated and content.

Now that I am older and have my own pie-in-the-sky visions of a dream home I recognize with a twinge of sadness that it must have been challenging for Grammie not to have ever had a home of her own. I am amazed that at 87 she was still walking to the grocery store and carrying her little bag of groceries up a flight of stairs to her tiny apartment. I am extremely grateful to Grammie, however for the lessons she unknowingly gave me in "making do." Living in a two-room apartment myself I appreciate the frustration over lack of storage and counter space. On the other hand, I am astounded at the number of gadgets and redundant utensils people will buy. A new gadget will not make you a good cook. Learning technique, flavor and practicing will make you a good cook. A new gadget will not make you cook more. You will cook if you make time to cook (and there are plenty of fabulous, fast recipes out there to try).  Therefore, the first lesson is this: "buy only what you need."

So, what do you really need in a kitchen?

Cake's Must-Have Kitchen Items
- Chef's knife
- paring knife
- cutting board
- mixing bowls
- measuring cups & spoons
- cooking spoon
- spatula
- whisk
- frying pan
- soup pot
- colander
- cookie sheet/brownie tin/cake tin/pie tin - if needed
- roasting pan
- combination blender/processor such as a Cuisinart SmartStick - a luxury convenience if you have space & extra cash

Grammie was adamant that a kitchen should have sharp knives. The sharper the better. This is actually a crucial lesson to learn because a sharp knife will not only cut better but it requires less force to cut, resulting in less chance of accidental injury to the user. If you do happen to get cut a sharp knife will produce a less ragged wound whose edges will heal together faster. But how many knives does your kitchen need? The answer may surprise you. You only need two knives.

Every kitchen should have one good quality 8" or 10" chef's knife. My personal preference is for the 8" Global chef's knife but I know a lot of folks don't care for this knife;  like a good pair of shoes your knife should fit you. The handle should fit comfortably in your grip and the overall weight should be comfortable to your hand. I highly recommend going to a specialty store such as Williams Sonoma or Sur la Table to "try on" different knives and see what feels comfortable. The knife should feel like an extension of your hand. Professional cooks carry their own knives with them to work and woe betide anyone who attempts to use another cook's knife. You might get stabbed. And in the court of kitchen opinion the person stabbing you would probably be acquitted, too. Since we're talking home use, however, purchase a good knife, a knife guard and maintain your knife strictly according to manufacturer instructions for optimum results.

I hear the following complaint all the time, "but those knives are so expensiiiiive." Yes, they are. So are good quality shoes. You can purchase cheap knives several times over the course of your lifetime or you can purchase a few good knives once. That being said, a hundred dollars is a lot to pay for anything so whatever you decide to purchase make sure you follow the manufacturer's instructions and keep it sharp.

The second knife every kitchen needs is a good paring knife. This can not only handle smaller jobs and items but can be used in place of a vegetable peeler and if necessary in place of a steak knife at the table. I am personally more forgiving in quality of paring knives, but get yourself one that is very comfortable as you will likely use it often. One more thing to note - you don't have to be brand loyal. I adore the few Global knives I own and drool over the cases of them in Williams Sonoma, but my bread knife is a Wustof. Because that's what felt comfortable for that task. My paring knife is a Sabatier one that came in a butcher block given to my husband by friends. I have another professional grade one that I keep rolled away with my other babies but the Sabatier one does just fine for daily home use.

Now, here we come to the distinction between "need to have" and "nice to have." You need a knife in a kitchen. You don't need a vegetable peeler, a bread knife (or other serrated knife), cheese knife, boning knife, etc. Those things are all "nice to have" unless, of course, you are a professional or you really do that much cooking. My minimum "nice to have" list would include a vegetable peeler and a serrated knife.

The next thing you need in a kitchen is a cutting board. For safety's sake I recommend a non-slip one that is dishwasher safe (so that it can be washed at high temperature, thereby reducing any possible bacteria contamination). My personal favorite happens to be an inexpensive one I purchased at Target. My husband prefers wood but bear in mind that wood is porous and can harbor bacteria. It also has a tendency to slip which could lead you to accidentally cut yourself. To prevent a cutting board from sliding around the counter dampen a paper towel and lay it out underneath the board.

Other items that are necessary in a kitchen for food prep are 2-3 mixing bowls in different sizes which can double as serving bowls if needed, measuring cups and spoons, a spatula, a cooking spoon and a whisk. A rubber spatula and tongs are really nice to have (but strictly speaking, not essential).

As for actual cookware this depends a little on how much and what you cook. For essentials I cannot live without one good quality frying pan and one good quality soup pot. If they are usable both on top of the stove and in the oven all the better. My personal preference is for good ol' made in the USA All-Clad and Lodge cookware. (Check before you buy - some of the "Williams Sonoma Exclusive!" All-Clad products are actually made in China and not at the original Pennsylvania plant). The soup pot that I took with me when I moved to North Carolina for culinary school was Grammie's WearEver aluminum pot. It has a steamer insert and a perforated tray that can be used for spaeztle. I still make all of my soups in it today.

Personally I think a colander is a kitchen necessity for washing fruits and vegetables and for straining pasta. A fine mesh one can also double as a flour sifter. If you also bake you will really start to get into more specialized cookware and need more storage space. Generally bakers will need at least one cookie sheet and cookware for whatever else you tend to bake most often; be it pies, brownies or cakes. I do bake quite a bit and so it's nice to have a brownie tin (handed down to me from Mom), two cake tins (for layer cakes), a pie plate (I use the Emile Henry brand of ceramic bakeware) and loaf tins for banana bread (I have two hand-me-downs and one luscious GoldTouch brand loaf tin). If you bake rarely, however, bear in mind that you can use a cast iron skillet for cornbread, brownies and rustic tarts. I also use my oven for savory baking and roasting so I have a larger, rectangular Emile Henry ceramic dish for roasts, lasagnas, etc.

We still haven't talked gadgets! Incredible, isn't it, that we've come all this way without a single electric gizzimeebop. That's because while there are any number of electric accessories that can make a cook's life simpler none of them are actually essential. Whipped cream and meringues can be made with a whisk; finely chopped items simply require more time under a skilled knife. But it's an electric world out there and blenders, beaters and food processors certainly do make life easier. Even though Grammie never owned a food processor she was not opposed to innovation and would use Mom's when they cooked together at our house. For my small space I invested in a Cuisinart SmartStick. The blender attachment is used often for velvety smooth soups (a staple for me during the long, cold New England winter) and it also comes with a mini processor attachment as well as a whisk attachment for meringues (honestly whipped cream comes together so quickly I usually make it by hand). Even though I have lived without a microwave I do prefer living with one and am grateful that our apartment comes with a built-in microwave. I can personally live without a coffee maker, but my husband brought one into the marriage (given how much coffee he drinks I'm beginning to think this was his dowry!) and I'm pretty sure he would go into some kind of apoplectic fit if it ever broke down.

When setting up a kitchen always think quality over quantity. Much the same way you would purchase ingredients for a particular recipe only purchase those items you would actually use (hence why we don't own a panini press or a waffle iron. Nothing wrong with them but grilled sandwiches and waffles just aren't in our daily diet). Research the best quality pieces you can afford and shop sales for quality items. Have fun going through thrift stores and garage sales for vintage items. A former roommate of mine once scored an amazing heavy duty ceramic mixing bowl for just a few dollars at a garage sale. Above all else, take care of what you own. If you don't have the manufacturer's instructions look them up on line or email the company for information. In these lean times it makes sense to go through your kitchen and resell those items you don't actually use. With the extra cash you just might be able to invest in the best knife you ever owned!

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