September 30, 2012 by annmquintero
Happy Sunday! Ok, introductions! My name is Ann and I’m BFsF with your favorite Urban Amazon. We’ve had some cooking adventures together and she’s asked me to lend my voice to Amazon community. I’ll tell you now, I don’t believe in using fake anything, so that means this is not going to be a lo-cal venture, but it WILL be a real food ADventure (Too cheesy? I also love cheese!). I love fresh, seasonal ingredients. I love playing pantry bingo. And I love feeding my friends.
I was not born into a cooking family. My mother was part of a generation that was amazed and delighted by the frozen, microwaveable, non-perishable glories of convenience foods. I was also raised in the midwest, land of casseroles (hot dish for you Minnesotans) made out of Campbell’s condensed cream of chicken and… well, anything. Veggies were cooked beyond recognition and flavor. Meat was tough and under-seasoned or, possibly worse, squishy.
So, with that in mind, my conversion to fresh, simple home cooking was made through friends I met when I started traveling as a young adult. (Did I mention I’m a performing artist? Yeah, I travel a lot. We’ll talk about cooking on the road in a future post.) Then I was introduced to Alton Brown’s Good Eats. I watched re-runs of that show like my life depended on it. And the best thing I got from it was the food science; the how and why instead of just “do it this way.”
This also encouraged me in a kamikaze approach to cooking where I don’t really measure or follow recipes. I just pinch and chunk and taste and try again. Most recipes I post here will more likely be lists of ingredients with vague instructions unless I’ve referenced another author.
Also, fair warning: I cuss in the kitchen. All. The. Damned. Time. That will surface in my writing here.
Today I thought I’d just share with you my must-have tools and foodstuffs in the kitchen. I’ll focus on my at-home list for now and put together an on-the-road list for our road warrior Amazons later.
A good knife and a veggie peeler. Preferably a few of them. Different knives will serve you well for different functions, but if you’re limited, please invest in two knives: a chef’s knife and a small serrated edge knife (like a steak knife). A chef’s knife will take care of a lot of the chopping, dicing, and mincing much more easily and faster than a smaller knife. The smaller knife is best for tomatoes and fiddly detailed work. When looking for a knife, quality counts. It will keep its edge longer (and there’s nothing more dangerous than a dull knife!) and chances are, it will be more comfortable in the hand. Comfort in the hand is MOST important. If the knife feels awkward in your mitts, it’s the wrong knife. Heavy is good (gravity is our friend when chopping). One would presume you’ll be eating your veggies, so best to have a peeler! A peeler is also good for removing strips of zest from citrus, making strips of carrots for a salad, and occasionally shaving a little hard cheese.
2 non-slip cutting boards. This is extremely important. Whether it’s bamboo or plastic or whatever, make sure it has grippy stuff to keep it from slipping while you’re cutting. Keep your fingertips, people! There are debates over the hygienic value of plastic over wood, but the truth is, either is just fine. Personally, I keep a plastic cutting board with grooved edges (for catching icky) for my meats/fish and a bamboo for my veggies. What IS important is that you don’t ever engage in cross-contamination while prepping. Never use the same cutting board for both raw meat and anything else (cooked meat, veg, your pet rock, etc.) without washing the board with hot soapy water first!
A large non-stick skillet and a large oven-safe skillet. Personally, I love cast iron and use it for a lot of things, but it’s not the ideal tool for everything and it can be daunting to the uninitiated. I know it was for me. But with a decent non-stick and an oven-safe stainless steel, you can get a LOT done! I still use the pans from my starter Cuisinart kitchen kit, and they’ve served me well. You can get fancier stuff, but basically as long as you get something with a decently heavy bottom (for even distribution of heat) you’ll be in good shape. Just remember when dealing with Teflon: Do not heat an empty pan. Do not put in the oven. Let it cool naturally instead of hitting it with cold water. Do not use metal tools (forks, knives, flippers, etc.). The minute you start scratching up that coating, you’ve degraded its strength and it’ll start flaking into your food. All non-stick pans have a limited life-span. When yours starts to look a little hinky (bubble up, have scratches, etc.), toss it and start over. Your health is worth it.
A roasting pan. In a roasting pan, you can do all sorts of magical things. Roast veggies, roast meats, even bake cookies if forced. There are a lot of options when it comes to roasting pans. If you want to make gravy, you might want to skip the non-stick. You get more yummy brown bits without it. You also want to make sure the handles are big enough to grab with oven-mitted hands. Safety first! Most roasting pans with come with a rack. A V-rack is usually the most useful, but in truth, I rarely use a rack at all. Why would I do that when I could use the drippings to season potatoes and onions and carrots and… right. I should probably eat before I write these things.
Tongs, flipper, wooden spoon. That looks like a great band name. These are my three most used tools in the kitchen. When you have to toss a salad, turn a piece of meat, retrieve that veggie that jumped out of the pan into that hot space between the pan and the burner that you’re just not going to stick your fingers into, no matter how tasty it looks… you’ll be happy you have your tongs. A flipper, need I even explain? And a wooden spoon is perfect for use in your pans when deglazing and pulling up brown bits or stirring a risotto.
Big metal prep bowls and a colander. Nesting stainless steel prep bowls can be used for everything: tossing a salad, whisking a vinaigrette, coating veggies in olive oil prior to roasting, mixing a batter. Stainless steel is durable and in case you need to whip some egg whites, they’ll serve you much better than plastic (for fun chemical reasons).
Oven mitts and a few kitchen towels. Hot things, wet things, messy things. Use your imagination. Also, chances are, you’re gonna be drying off your hands a LOT while cooking, whether from washing hands and tools to avoid cross contamination or washing food in the sink. No good trying to chop with wet hands. It’s a trip to the ER waiting to happen. Have back up kitchen towels around at all times.
Salt and Pepper! Yeah, yeah… I know this seems like a gimme, but bear with me for a minute. You know that classic iodized table salt we all have? Yeah, don’t cook with that. And the pre-ground black pepper? Chuck that too. Trust me, you’ll thank me. Admittedly, I’m a bit of a salt snob. I have in my kitchen at any given time sea salt of varying coarseness, kosher salt, truffle salt, smoked salt, fleur de sel, etc. You don’t need all those. (No one does. I’m just a jerk.) What’s the best salt to have at the ready for just about anything you want to do in the kitchen? Kosher salt. The cheap stuff in the big box. It has a softer texture and more complex flavor than table salt. Perfect for cooking. As for pepper, get thyself a good pepper mill and fresh peppercorns. It’s a completely different beast from the pre-ground stuff. I never understood the allure of pepper until I was exposed to freshly ground. If you want to get all pepper snobby, we can do that too. Pink peppercorns? Tellicherry? Green? Oh, we can go there! Is it necessary though? No.
Fat. Yes, the F word. Here’s the truth: Fat tastes good. Fat also has nutritional properties that are very important for our well being. Fat helps us absorb certain nutrients better. And certain fats are themselves the nutrients that help us to function. It’s important to have an array of fats at your disposal. Personally, I love butter and olive oil as my staples. My favorite butter is salted Kerrygold, made from the milk of grass-fed Irish cows. It has a beautiful natural yellowness and a smooth texture. Delicious on fresh bread or over haricots verts or finishing a steak or a sauce. If you plan to cook with olive oil, you really don’t need to get the extra virgin stuff. It loses its value in the cooking process. What you DO want EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) for is salad dressings and any other cold applications. The world of fat is vast and glorious, but this is a good place to start.
Garlic, onions, lemons. These are my three keys to sprucing up just about any dish. Garlic adds fabulous, stinky warmth and pungency. It’s also extremely versatile, ranging from sweet to spicy, depending on its preparation. Onions can add texture while raw, sweetness when cooked, aroma at all times. Lemon can brighten any dish whether you’re using the juice or the zest.
Basic spices and herbs. I love fresh herbs and will encourage you to use them as much as possible, but it’s good to keep a few basic things in the pantry for those days the store’s rosemary isn’t looking so hot. My most used dried herbs and spices are: crushed red pepper, paprika, rosemary, sage, thyme, parsley, basil, oregano, and tarragon. I also happen to like the addition of nutmeg to certain dishes, but please get the whole nutmeg and be prepared to freshly grate it into your food. The flavor is vastly superior to the pre-ground.
Chicken or Veggie broth. I prefer the low-sodium boxed kind. That way you can salt to your preferences. This is especially helpful if you’re watching your salt intake because of blood pressure, etc. I do keep my own homemade chicken stock in zip-loc baggies in the freezer, but this is a good, easy alternative when you want to add moisture and flavor to a dish and don’t have homemade stock at the ready. Because this is one of the few packaged ingredients I’ll recommend to you, I’m going to take this moment to encourage you all to become avid label readers. If you’re watching your sugars, sodium, gluten, etc. you should already know that bad things lurk in weird places, but even those of us who aren’t engaging in particularly restricted diets should be aware of what we’re ingesting. If you can’t pronounce it, don’t put it in your maw.
Easily stored proteins. Dried sausages have great shelf life and can add a lot of flavor to a simple dish. You’ll always find chorizo in my cupboard. Canned tuna is a very easy way to get some relatively cheap protein in. It’s lighter when canned in water, but tastier when canned in oil. Frozen chicken breasts and filets of fish (tilapia’s super easy and usually pretty cheap). Dried beans are better for you (and when prepared properly are a less magical fruit) than the canned kind, but can be a hassle to prepare. Lentils are fairly quick cooking and full of protein and iron (and they taste delicious with bacon!). Eggs are magic.
Frozen veggies. Yes, of course I prefer fresh produce, but sometimes you just didn’t have time to swing by the market. It’s good to have some frozen spinach or broccoli or green beans lurking in the back of your freezer for those just-in-case moments. They also double as spectacular ice packs when you’ve given yourself a boo-boo!
Feel free to ask questions or add your favorite kitchen equipment in the comments. If I don’t have an answer for you, I’m happy to look into it, or maybe one of your fellow Amazons has wisdom to share! I’d love to get a dialogue going here! On Friday: Roast chicken!