I hate gadgets. I’m glad that’s off my chest. From garlic presses to citrus juicers, I have little use for any of it. Give me a chef knife and a cutting board and I’m all set. Every time I see a cute new doo-dad (that’s all I can think to call them), what comes to mind is that it’s another thing to clean. But that’s me.
If you love gadgets and simply must have the latest, greatest tool to make life easier, go for it. But if you’re like me, you want to streamline, reduce consumption and control how much stuff clutters your life…and your kitchen.
In that vein of simple living and simple cooking, I’ve compiled two lists for you. The first collection is my stuck-on-a-desert-island list of ingredients that allows me to put a meal on the table on any day, in any situation. The other is my list of tools that make my life easier in the kitchen. I won’t say I can’t live without them, but I would miss them terribly as I tried to cook.
All this posturing about gadgets and consumption aside, I must be truthful. As an avid baker, I am in the midst of a long, passionate affair with my stand-up mixer that shows no signs of abating. I often say I couldn’t live without her. She is my one weakness.
My drop dead survival food list has its roots in learning to cook from my mother who used to say that all we needed to create great meals were fresh ingredients and olive oil, salt, garlic and lemon juice. She was right, at least about that one.
So here goes…all you need to let your inner Julia Child run free…it’s less than you think.
Essential Foods for a Delicious Kitchen
Extra virgin olive oil
From sautéing to dressing salads to baking, extra virgin olive oil can serve any purpose in cooking. Invest in your health and buy the best quality oil you can afford so you are sure you’re getting all the heart-health benefits from it and not just 120 calories per tablespoon of fat added to your food.
Sweeter and healthier for us, sea salt has a smooth flavor that will bring out the best in your food without that metallic aftertaste we associate with table salt. Use it in cooking only. You can retire the shakers on the table. Learn how to season so you don’t need them.
Beans and grains
The foundations of healthy cooking in just about any culture, a few varieties of whole grains and beans ensure you can always get the proper nutrition in you with little effort or investment. Stock up on brown rice, quinoa and millet as they are high in protein and balance our intestinal pH. Lentils cook quickly and are as heart-healthy as a food can get. Chickpeas and black beans ensure you can create a variety of dishes. And yes, you can stock canned beans for ease.
Along with garlic, onions seem to be the foundation of any great dish, so stock up on these heart-healthy, immune-boosting alliums.
The fresh taste of lemon juice brings any dish to life and adds to easing digestion. It’s a win-win.
An essential in my kitchen, cinnamon serves a lot of purposes. In baking, of course, but adding cinnamon to a dish implies sweet taste, thereby helping us manage sweet cravings. From oatmeal to roasted vegetables to salad dressings, cinnamon provides the flavor and aroma of comfort.
Chili flakes bring more than heat to cooking, adding interesting layers of flavor to the simplest of recipes. Be sure to err on the side of less if you’re not used to cooking with hot spice. This is a definite case of less is more.
From salad dressings to marinades, sauces and sandwiches, no pantry is complete without a jar of good Dijon mustard to add interesting flavor to simple dishes.
Adding a depth that exceeds salt, soy sauce creates that mystical ‘umami’ that take dishes from okay to amazing. Used to season as you would with salt, it’s a great option when you want to create a little mystery in your cooking.
Essential Tools to Cook Anything
A kitchen without a great chef knife is non-functioning. You don’t need to spend a fortune, but you need to head to kitchen shop where you can hold the knife and see if you like the heft and balance of your blade. I advise between 7-8 inches for the blade length. While I am a ceramic knife fan girl, for most of us, a solid stainless steel blade that costs under $50 will serve you just fine.
Consider a serrated knife as well for breads.
The second most important tool in the kitchen, a thick wooden board will change how you cook. Thick boards won’t crack or warp and will last a long time. Get a board that suits your space, but as big as your space allows so you have room to work. Bamboo is also a great choice as they’re lighter and naturally anti-bacterial. Don’t even think about those flimsy roll-up plastic ones…just don’t.
10-inch cast iron or stainless steel skillet
I want to say you need both of these in your kitchen and I might even add a “green” non-stick skillet as well. Most people struggle with seasoning a cast iron pan so stainless steel is a good choice for everyday cooking. They distribute heat evenly and clean easily.
Sieve or colander
A sieve or colander comes in handy for rinsing grains and beans, draining pasta and lifting boiled or blanched vegetables from boiling water. I use mine every day and prefer a fine sieve over a colander because I use it the way most people use a slotted spoon.
Sauce pans (2-3 quart)
The number of people you’re regularly cooking for will determine the size of this pan, but every kitchen needs a small sauce pan for steaming, boiling, blanching, sauces and small pots of soup. I have several smaller pans as I cook for two people most nights.
There’s no chili, stews, pasta or boiled vegetables without a large Dutch oven. Five to six quarts is the average size and will serve you in cooking for one or for a crowd. There are so many varieties so consider what you might be doing the most. If you’re boiling pasta, stainless steel will serve you fine. If you stew, make big pots of soup or chili, make casseroles, consider a porcelain-coated cast iron, like Le Creuset.
A good set of long handled tongs do a lot of jobs, from mixing salads to lifting foods from boiling water to turning foods on the grill. I like tongs with silicone tips as they can stand the heat of whatever I am doing.
Wooden spoons add a beauty and grace to cooking that I love. They’re easy on your hands for holding; they don’t scrape the pans’ surfaces; they clean easily. I have many, but a few will get you started. Go with a 10-inch, 12-inch and a 14-inch to serve you best in just about any task.
I’m not a fan of silicone spatulas, brushes and metal spoons. I just don’t consider them essential.
Measuring spoons and cups
I have to confess; I don’t measure and never use measuring spoons or cups unless I’m testing a recipe for a new cookie or cake. But for most of us, measuring is key to the success of recipes, so get a set of cups and spoons. I like stainless steel for both of these as they last and last and clean easily.
Micro-plane or box grater
I use my micro-plane so often, I feel like it’s extension on my arm! From citrus zest to cheese (if you eat it), a microplane is easy to handle and clean and gives you a fine grated texture. A box grater is fine also, but I feel like it’s not as versatile as a micro-plane.
Of course, you know I have to conclude with stocking the fridge with fresh seasonal vegetables and fruit so you get the nutrition you need, but in this arena, go with the whole food. Skip the bagged salads and pre-cut vegetables and fruit. They might be convenient, but they’ve lost a lot of nutrients in the processing and they make a pretty big footprint on our fragile planet.
My KISS method of stocking your kitchen will serve you well in any culinary situation…so Keep It Simple, Sweetie.