Thursday, April 14, 2005

Kitchen Aids

NJ asked about cookbooks, and I realize that a lot of people don't have what I would regard as the basics in their kitchens. In this post, I'm going to list cookbooks I particularly like, including why I like them; spices and handy canned goods I think are central to cooking a wide variety of things; and kitchen implements that are necessary or useful. Obviously, it would be expensive to go out and buy all of this at once. I'd start with a cookbook or two, and pick a couple of recipes, and buy what you need to make those, and then branch out a little at a time.

Cookbooks Everyone should have a copy of Joy of Cooking. If possible, get an earlier version than the latest revision, because the older version has a lot of information about canning and freezing and so on that's apparently missing from the latest revision, but, truth be told, I haven't tried to use the new edition. I use Joy to learn the basics about whatever it is I want to do or know. Want to know about butter cookies versus roll cookies versus drop cookies? About the various cuts of beef? About different methods for cooking something? Joy has the answers. Some of the recipes are outdated, but, as you become a better cook, you can still use their recipes as the basis for something else.

An extremely useful complement to Joy is Sally Schneider's A New Way to Cook. ANWtC provides a basic range of recipes and techniques that are lower in fat but that focus on flavor. I've made the chicken braised in marsala with dried cherries three times now--it's not a difficult recipe, though it's time-consuming, but oh MY is it good. I wouldn't necessarily try it without a basic comfort level in the kitchen, but you can read it for yourself. She also provides good instruction on basic techniques and flavors.

For vegetarian cooking, nothing beats Moosewood cookbooks (though a number of people are fans of The Vegetarian Epicure, I've never owned those and can't speak to them). My copy of New Recipes from Moosewood Restaurant is held together with duct tape, and it still has pages falling out of it. According to the website, however, this cookbook isn't available. What's become my new favorite is Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites. I also have New Classics, Daily Special, Cooks at Home and Sundays, as well as the two original books by Molly Katzen--the original Moosewood Cookbook, also held together with duct tape, was one of the first cookbooks I ever owned. They're all good, but I'd start with the Low-Fat Favorites and branch out as you see fit.

I think you can get pretty far with just these three books. If you want a book more geared toward baking and desserts, you could check out the Moosewood dessert book (I haven't done so yet) or the Cook's Illustrated baking book, which is truly superb, but NOT low-fat in any way. I also like Marcella Hazan's books on Italian cooking--she's extremely thorough, and the recipes are good. I use Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking pretty often, and her recipe for polenta is the best.

If you're feeling more adventurous, the Cook's Illustrated stuff will get you pretty far--they are overwhelmingly thorough in their recipe-testing, to good effect: I've made several recipes from the magazine, and all have turned out extremely well. There's a lot of instruction about technique, too, and they test products as well as recipes. The downside is that it can sometimes be a little precious in tone, I think a lot of the cooking has more fat than it need have, and they're not cheap. (I refer to the magazine as Food Porn Bimonthly, and looking at a couple of issues will explain why.) Cook's Illustrated also reviews cookbooks, which is helpful.

I don't have any of Alice Waters' stuff, though I suspect I'd like it. I do have a Silver Palate book, but I don't like it much--every recipe seems to start with two sticks of butter. I have some Asian, Indian, and Rick Bayless books, but you can start rummaging through cuisine-based cookbooks once you have a good grasp of the basics and your own tastes.

Spices and Canned/Dry Goods Everyone has their own list of must-haves, and many cookbooks will, too. Mine include, in roughly alphabetical order: bay leaf, basil (though I prefer to make pesto and freeze it or get fresh basil), cardamom, cinnamon (ground and sticks), coriander, cumin, cayenne, fennel (seeds and ground), fenugreek (though I just added this recently; you could do w/o it), ginger (ground and crystallized; sometimes I also have fresh in the vegetable drawer, and homemade ginger ale mix in the fridge), oregano, parsley (fresh is better, but dried is very handy), pepper, peppercorns, turmeric, thyme, tarragon, nutmeg, vanilla, and vanilla beans (if you're feeling extravagant and baking something special; otherwise, just good vanilla extract). I might be forgetting some, but these are the ones I use most often. I also have almond and orange extracts, and possibly lemon. We also have about 10 different kinds of hot sauce--C sprinkles it on everything, just about--but I don't use it much. I also have a jar of yeast in the refrigerator, but that's only if you want to bake a lot of bread. (Do you? I can help w/ that, too.)

For dry stuff, I have white and brown rice, coarse corn meal (bought in bulk from Whole Foods and used for polenta), pasta, flour (unbleached), cake flour, sugar (white, brown, and confectioner's), baking chocolate, chocolate chips, and several kinds of salt. (I have a lot of other things, too, but these are the basics.) Red and brown lentils are useful to keep around, as are chopped nuts if you do a lot of baking. Canned goods include Muir Glen chopped peeled tomatos (regular and fire-roasted) and several kinds of canned beans (great northern, black, pinto, and garbanzos; I don't use the pintos much, but C does). Some people like dried beans, but the convenience of organic canned beans is great--cooking dry beans means you need more time. With both tomatos and beans, I stock up like a madwoman when they go on sale and then mark the date I bought them on the lid with indelible marker. You also want, at minimum, some good olive oil (first cold-pressed is the quality you want; I like Colavita), canola oil (when you need a blander taste than olive oil), and perhaps some balsamic vinegar (Whole Foods is good quality and cheap). You might want soy sauce if you're going to do stir-frys. I buy butter (unsalted) when it's on sale and freeze it. I also make chicken stock and freeze it in individual one-cup containers, which is extremely handy; some people use canned or boxed chicken stock. Onions and garlic are the basis of just about everything, so I always have them around. Do NOT use powdered garlic or onion. Ever. For any reason. If you have some now, go throw it out.

If you're going to have leftovers, then you want a bunch of little plastic Ziploc or Gladware containers; I portion things out and freeze them for lunches. These are also good for portioning and freezing things like tomato sauce. We bought a little upright freezer--about 9 cubic feet, I think--and it's stuffed full; I bet we have 50 little plastic containers in one freezer or the other.

Equipment Really, you don't need much. A couple of knives (a 7" paring knife from the grocery store, maybe a chef's knife, to start); a cutting board (plastic can go in the dishwasher but wood is good, too, and, apparently a lot safer than people once thought--possibly safer than plastic; make sure you wipe everything down really well after you handle raw meat of any kind); a big pot (3-4 qts., for making pasta and so on); a small and a large frying pan; a 1-qt saucepan. Start with that. Add what you need a little at a time, or take advantage of a calphalon sale at I have a big stock pot, too--at least 8 qts. I don't like non-stick that much, because I don't trust the coatings. You also want some baking dishes: at minimum, a 9x14 glass dish, an 8x8 square pan, at least one or two loaf pans, maybe a lasagna/roasting pan. You might also want a pie plate or two, a muffin tin, a springform pan. I have a ton of stuff, but I've been doing this a long damned time and it adds up. You want at least a good strong hand mixer--expect to pay $60-$80 for it. If you can afford it, a Kitchen-Aid stand mixer is a wonderful wonderful thing--I got mine as a gift, but I used the hand mixer for years and years before that. A full-size food processor (I have a Cuisinart) is better than i ever expected it to be, but I use the hell out of my little mini-prep Cuisinart, too, and I highly recommend it. You can get really far with a hand mixer and a blender, though--I'm living proof of that. If I had to buy things in order, I'd say: hand mixer, food processor, mini-prep, stand mixer.

Any questions?


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