Kitchen essentials: updated

My kitchen has changed quite a bit since I wrote my Kitchen Essentials post back in 2008, so I thought I’d write an updated and expanded version. This time I’m breaking it up into categories for different parts of the kitchen. I can’t speak to what other cooks want in their kitchens, but I can tell you what I use and value the most.

So here goes, my kitchen essentials (along with some extras you might want). If there’s something I didn’t mention it’s because I don’t have it, but I probably want it!

KNIVES

Chef’s knife: First and foremost, you want a good knife. I use mine every day, multiple times a day. It’s a Wusthof santoku, I’ve had it for at least six years, and it still works beautifully. Just take it to a hardware store to get sharpened once in a while. It might seem like a lot to spend $70 or more on a knife, but you will get your money’s worth and so much more.

Smaller knives: A smaller serrated knife works great when you need to slice something soft, like a tomato. When you need to cut into a small space, a paring knife will do the trick.

Bread knife: You need a bigger serrated knife to slice through baguettes and other crusty breads. You shouldn’t have to spend as much money to get a basic bread knife.

Cutting boards: I like bamboo cutting boards, and the one I use most is probably 9 x 12 inches or something like that. We also have a bigger bamboo board, a plastic one we use for cutting meat, a board with a strainer, and a fancy one we use for serving cheese. We definitely don’t need that many, but hey, we’re foodies! My handy method for storing them is to keep them in a file organizer.

COOKING VESSELS

Set of pots and pans: You can get a nice complete set for about $200, more if you want something that will last longer. You at least need a small skillet/omelet pan (nonstick preferred), a larger pan with a lid, a medium-sized pot with a lid, and a large soup pot with a lid. Next time we buy pots and pans we’ll be looking at a restaurant supply store. I’ve heard you can get great bargains on pans that will hold up well. You can also sign up for emails from places like Williams Sonoma so you’ll be the first to hear about sales on these sets or individual pieces. Sometimes they are even like 40% off.
Warning: Many pot-and-pan sets are not dishwasher safe, so check before you buy!

Cast iron pans: If you take care of these pans they will last forever. They hold heat well, and are great for things that go from stovetop to oven, like steak or salmon. I was skeptical at first, but now I’m a convert.

Cookie sheets with a Silpat: Throw a Silpat on any baking sheet and it becomes completely nonstick. I use mine at least once a week, often more than that. Absolute essential!

Mixing bowls: Mike loves to tease me about my obsession with bowls, but really, can you have too many? The most often used set is by KitchenAid. They have rubber on the bottom so they don’t slide around and handy pour spouts. I also have some clear glass ones and some bigger stripey ceramic ones. I’ve always loved this set at Crate and Barrel.

9×13 baking dish: This is sort of your go-to vessel for casseroles, lasagnas, and other baked dishes.

8 or 9-inch square baking dish: When you don’t need a huge dish, these come in handy, especially for side dishes and desserts. I love the vintage Glasbake ones.

Single-serving plastic or glass containers: For leftovers, for lunches, for overflow ingredients. The plastic ones get so banged up and stained, I am moving more to glass containers.

Dutch oven: This didn’t used to be an essential in my mind, but now that I have one I use it constantly. Anything that slow cooks or braises can go in here. Again, cast iron helps with even heating. Don’t think you have to drop $250 for a Le Creuset version. My Lodge dutch oven was less than $75!

Others: muffin tins (regular and mini), round cake pans, pie pan with fluted edges, loaf pans. Look for discounts on these at places like TJ Maxx and Marshalls.

SMALL APPLIANCES

Blender: A lot of things that you can do in a food processor or other chopping device you can also do with a blender. So start with a good one. I’ve gone through several cheap plastic ones and they’re just not worth it, in my opinion. If the plastic cracks you get leaks, so you might want to go with a glass container. My husband also says that the ones with a metal peg in the base are better than the ones with the plastic fan-like pieces, so look for that. Of course I would die to have a Vitamix, but until I make my fortune I’ll have to stick with something a little cheaper.

Food processor: I love ours. I believe it’s the Cuisinart PowerPrep Plus. If you need to grind the heck out of something, this is your machine. It makes hummus, bread crumbs, fruit/nut balls, pie dough, and with the other accessories you can shred things in seconds. I hate cleaning it because of all the pieces, but that’s mostly because our dishwasher sucks.

Mixer: Like pretty much every foodie, we’re devoted to our KitchenAid mixer. Not only is is great for baking (get the big glass bowl), it also can be used, with attachments, to make ice cream, pasta, or ground meat for sausages.  For desserts, the mixer is ideal for making whipped cream and frostings.

Immersion blender: This thing is awesome! I have a Cuisinart Smart Stick, and I use it all the time for blending up tomato sauce or soups, right in the pot. To clean it you just pop off the end, rinse it off, and you’re good to go.

Others: As you can probably tell, I have a thing for Cuisinart appliances. We also have a toaster and coffeemaker of theirs. I just think they’re smart looking and really functional. (You better believe I bought them on sale at department stores, and with extra coupons). In addition we have a big Crock Pot, an electric teakettle (love this one), and a super powered juicer. What we don’t have is any counter space left…

GADGETS

Spoonulas: Part spoon, part spatula, these things are amazing. Probably the most-used item after the chef’s knife in my kitchen. I have several in different sizes.

Peelers: Your standard $4 Kuhn Rikon peeler is all you need for basic peeling. Sometimes I use it for cheese or chocolate shavings, too. If you cook a lot with peaches or fresh tomatoes, you might want to get a soft peeler for the skins.

Box grater: I like this one because it has measurements on the side and a little sliding thing that holds everything inside the box.

Measuring cups and spoons: I have glass cups for liquids, plastic ones for dry ingredients, and a cheap set of stainless steel measuring spoons. You don’t need to spend much money on these, but you certainly could.

Silicone whisk: A regular whisk is fine, but a silicone-coated whisk won’t scratch the bottom of your pans.

Handheld juicer: I love our lemon juicer for squeezing fresh juice into just about anything (no seeds!). We have other juicers, but this one works the best.

Others: Microplane, Hard cheese grater, can opener, garlic press, soup ladle, potato masher, flat spatulas, silicone brush, PBJ spreader. We have a lot more junk than that, but nothing essential.

RANDOM ITEMS

Hanging baskets: I like these for storing onions, potatoes, shallots, and the like. Then they don’t take up precious counter space.

Garlic pot: Get one of these to keep garlic fresh for a long time.

Compost bin: If you’re able to compost (or your garbage takes it), keep one of these around for collecting food scraps and coffee grounds. I like this ceramic one because it’s nice looking and has air holes and a filter in the lid.

Strainers: One with bigger holes for pasta and rinsing off fruit. One with fine mesh for straining liquids.

Salad spinner: Perfect for rinsing greens. Also kind of fun to use. I like the one by OXO.

Dressing shaker: Like a salad spinner, this is the kind of thing that encourages you to eat healthy! I like this one, but a Mason jar will do in a pinch.

PANTRY
Obviously we have a rotating selection of foods in our house at any given time, but we always have certain staples on hand.

Crushed tomatoes: My cooking got a lot better when I started using better-quality canned tomatoes. I get San Marzanos. Usually they’re about $3.50 or so for a 28-ounce can. It seems like a lot to me, but it makes such a difference in soups, sauces, and chilis.

Tomato paste: I like the kind that comes in a tube so you can squeeze out just the right amount.

Kosher salt, black pepper: I like the kosher salt flakes. They’re stronger and less processed. I just buy cheap ground pepper to have out, and then we also have a pepper grinder if we want it fresh.

Olive oil: I wish I could say we bought the best quality we could find, but the truth is we use so much of it we’ve been buying fairly generic brands. This is something I hope to change someday!

Good bread: We’re lucky we have access to amazing local bakery breads at the grocery store, but I bet most places do now. Overly processed packaged breads just taste weird to me now, so I can’t go back.

Local honey: Pretty much every farmers market has someone selling honey. Support your local beekeeper!

Tea: Our tea shelf runneth over. But I don’t think it’s a crime to have too much tea. I really love Trader Joe’s white pomegranate and Gong Fu’s holiday blend.

Fresh spices: I can’t emphasize enough how much it improves your cooking to use fresh, high-quality spices. If it takes you a while to use up a spice, just buy the smallest container of it. At places like Penzey’s it will usually run you about $2. You can also find affordable spices at Indian and Mexican grocery stores. The ones we use most are definitely cumin and chili powder. Always buy real vanilla. And get whole nutmegs to grind fresh.

As far as the dry goods part of the pantry, here is what we usually have. I like to buy Le Parfait jars for storage.
Rice: brown, basmati, wild — must be from Minnesota!
Flours: all-purpose, whole wheat, whole wheat pastry flour — King Arthur flours are great and have really come down in price
Beans/legumes: black, white, black-eyed peas, split peas, lentils
Sugars: white, brown, powdered, organic raw
Grains: quinoa, couscous, oats, cornmeal, polenta

COOKBOOKS

We keep all of our cookbooks on a bookshelf in the dining room. I’m sure that we have way more than we need. The one I use most is actually a binder where I keep all of my recipes printed from the internet in plastic-covered pages. I also save helpful articles from magazines in there. And we have a takeout menu organizer that is pretty cool.

As far as favorite cookbooks, I probably use Simply in Season the most, followed by Super Natural Every Day. You can’t go wrong with a copy of How to Cook Everything

Loving: Le Parfait jars

I’ve gotten kind of obsessed lately with organizing our pantry. We have so many random dry beans and flours and other assorted ingredients, and I’d like to see all the ones we use regularly sorted into some kind of system. I bought a bunch of cute red-lidded jars from World Market, but then I saw these Le Parfait jars at our awesome Ace Hardware and I just had to buy some.

These are two of the largest jars, but they have them in all shapes and sizes down to the littlest jelly jars. I’ve seen Weck canning jars all over design blogs lately, but I don’t want to have to keep track of the little metal clips. And I think the Le Parfait jars are much cooler looking with their scripty font.

Now that I am banned from buying any more bowls, I think I am definitely developing a glass jar habit.

Exercise

Back when I decided to do the cleanse, I also decided that I was going to focus 100 percent on food, and hold off on exercise until I felt I had the food part down. It turned out to be a good idea, because not only was the food part a monster in itself, but as I detoxed I often felt tired or headache-y or just generally not my best.

But by the end of February I felt like I was ready to start exercising again. I confess I have a hard time sticking to any one exercise for a long period of time, which has contributed a lot to my issues with the scale. So I decided to make some goals that had only to do with the amount of time I worked out, not what I did.

And because I am a super list maker (and a little OCD about organization), I took a tip from Maggie and made myself a little grid with boxes I can check off as the month goes on.

It’s worked really well so far. My goal is to get in 30 minutes of exercise per day, for a total of 2.5 hours per week. To me that is reasonable and sustainable in the long term. Most of the time I end up doing an hour at at time, and checking off two days worth. I’ve gone on hikes, walks, even runs (!!). I am excited for bike rides and yoga/Nia classes to enter the mix. I’ve gotten more fresh air and sun, and explored my neighborhood quite a bit. The dogs are getting more exercise, too. It’s all good.

2011 resolutions

First of all, apologies for the long absence. Our internet has been down for the last few days and we finally got it working again.

I’m not usually a big resolution maker, but I thought that since my life has completely changed in the last year, that it would be a good time to get a fresh start in some ways. My first big goal was to take the box of wedding/honeymoon albums, miscellaneous travel souvenirs and extra photos and put it all together into something that someone could actually view!

It cost me about $100 in prints (for 600+ photos in various sizes) and a few days of putting together albums, but I finally got that project finished.

My helpers were not so helpful.

I am also going to try another cleanse over the next four weeks. The last few months have involved a lot of overindulgence, stress, and adjustment to change. I feel a bit unhealthy and low energy. I read about the book “Clean” in the latest issue of Outside, and it got a pretty ringing endorsement from a skeptical editor.

So I’m going to try it (one week of elimination diet with no wheat, dairy, or highly acidic foods, and three weeks of the Clean diet with two daily liquid meals and one meal from the elimination plan).

After that I am really going to try to work on my relationship with food, which has never been particularly healthy. I want to release myself of the guilt and anxiety I feel about eating certain things, and try to focus on eating what makes me feel good physically rather that emotionally. I have been working on this already, and have been amazed at how less stressed I feel about eating generally.

Hopefully having more energy will lead to more adventures in California. We’re in the middle of a long stretch of great weather (60s and sunny in January!), so we’ve been trying to get out and enjoy it. We went to the dog park again the other day, and it was just gorgeous.

I love the birds out there, and Mike sees something new every time we go.

We spent a long time just watching this pelican dive into the bay.

That’s not something I ever thought I’d spend my weekends doing!

What do you want to do more of this year?

Pretty up the porch

One of the best parts about working at home (and just starting out, which means I have more free time), is that I get to tackle some projects that have been on my to-do list for ages. And then there are other projects that just pop up because I happen to be around to notice that this or that bothers me.

The driveway gets swept, weeds get pulled, clutter gets put away and the dishwasher gets run on a regular basis. My stress level over the way this house is running has just gone waaayyy down.

Anyway, today it just hit me how sad it is that we never use our screened-in porch area. Technically it’s hard to consider it a real screened-in porch because we have to leave the door open for the dogs to access the yard and the patchwork roof over it is not water tight. But ultimately it’s a pretty big space that just sits there.

I think a big reason we haven’t been using it is just simply because it’s been really dirty. Ever since we moved in it’s been covered in spiderwebs, leaves and dirt. I sweep it occasionally, but I’ve never actually cleaned it cleaned it.

I guess I always thought if we wanted to sit outside we’d sit on the patio area. But since the patio is directly under a gigantic tree that drops walnuts (or bits of walnuts after the squirrels are done with them), we never want to sit out there.

So, today I finally made us an outdoor sitting area. I took a broom and swept all the cobwebs from the walls and ceiling. Then I swept the floor in every nook and cranny I usually skip. And finally I turned the hose on it. I powerwashed everything to the best of my ability, including our table and chairs that I moved into the porch area.

Just those few things made a huge difference. I can really see us sitting out there now or having friends over. Maybe even coffee and a newspaper in the morning.

I still have to address the adjacent garden area that is totally overgrown. Last year we decided to pull out all the old covering and rocks and put in new ones. Except we didn’t realize that the old covering was keeping the weeds from sprouting through. Oops.

But that’s a pretty labor-intensive project that we can tackle in the spring. For now, I’m looking for ways to pretty up the empty porch, and maybe you can help.

It has one bare lightbulb that could really use a covering of some kind (and remember it has to be waterproof).

And this one wall is completely empty. It needs some metal signs or other kind of decoration, I think.

What else can I do to make it more visually appealing? Fabric flags? Plants? Vintage buckets or something? I would love to hear your suggestions. And remember, I’m on a tight budget!

Organizing the garage

The other day I went on another organizing bender, only this time it was in the garage. We actually have a three-car garage, which is pretty much unheard of in our neighborhood of old brick houses. Well, it’s more like 2 1/2. We discovered that the third stall (added later) is more of a work or storage unit. It doesn’t even hold the teeny convertable that our landlord wanted to store in it last year. But it’s a third garage, which is pretty sweet!

So we have a huge space for people that just have two compact cars and a scooter. And there’s actually another sectioned off part of the garage that we were using to store some old furniture that we never got rid of. We could not have been making worse use of the space considering that every time I opened my compact car door I smacked it into an assortment of shovels and rakes, which would inevitably fall over and cause a domino effect.

So I pulled the cars out of the garage and just started moving stuff around. It always amazes me how much difference that makes. Nothing new, nothing hard, just moving stuff around. We decided to trash the old desk since I spilled chalkboard paint on it (oops!) and it wasn’t good quality to begin with, and that freed up a huge amount of space. I moved all the gardening pots, tools, bags of potting soil, fencing, etc. to the empty corner and parked the mower in front. The previous owner had put in shelving on all sides of the garage and peg board, so we had plenty of places to hang tools and keep bottles organized. I can’t believe we didn’t do this before. We’ve lived here almost 2 1/2 years!

The finished gardening corner.

Gotta love this retro light, though it could use a dusting.

Then I rearranged the other shelves, cleaned out the tiny garage, moved the dangerous chemicals to high shelves away from doggie tongues, and swept all the dust and leaves away. The last step was rescuing a few items I found covered in cobwebs and dirt. One was a full-length mirror, which I have been meaning to buy for ages, and the other is this little table.

Isn’t it cute? I think it would make a great plant stand, but it needs a fresh coat of paint. What color do you think it should be?

Clearing the clutter from my desk

A long time ago I decided that all the little doo dads in my office were getting cluttered so I needed some little containers for paperclips, thumb tacks, rubber bands, etc. I found some tins with clear lids at a paper store for about 50 cents apiece and bought 10 or so, then filled them up and tossed them in a basket on my desk. Which meant that every time I wanted a stamp or an address label I had to go rifling through the basket to find the right tin. Not much of a solution.

So, finally, during one of our many, many trips to Home Depot (see previous post) I picked up a 12-inch square sheet of stainless steel on which my little tins could stick. I knew I had some magnet sheets with adhesive backing that I could cut to size, making my tins like the little spice jars on my fridge.

The only problem was that the stainless steel sheets you get at a hardware store have really sharp edges. So I dropped a few more bucks on a metal file and filed down the edges. So it only took several years, but I finally de-cluttered my desktop and I think my little stainless steel wall-o-goodies is pretty darn cute.

Get yourself organized

In case you haven’t noticed, I am a person that likes things just so.

One of the things that both makes me laugh and has become so important to me over the last year is this idea of “keeping house.” And by that I mean that when your life is crazy like mine is, you have to come home to a house that works. You have to stay organized or a million little things will start to drive you absolutely crazy. (piles of dishes, piles of paper, piles of dog poop, you get the picture). You have to make time for it. Meal planning is one of those things I really need to work on, but for now my focus was on the house itself.

So when I got back from Chicago I realized I had four days with absolutely no work to do. Four days to evaluate everything in my house so that when I went back to the madness, I wouldn’t have to stress about things being messy and a mile-long to-do list I wouldn’t have time for.

Most people would think woo hoo! Four days to drink martinis and watch basketball and work on my tan! Well, I did a lot of that, too, but I am a freak so I also got organized.

Anyway, I realized that the best way to get organized is to ask yourself some questions:

1. What do I have?
Go through everything. The back of your cabinets, the depths of your closets, the boxes in the basement. Everything. I guarantee you’ll find stuff you never knew you had. Then trash the trash, start a pile to take to Goodwill so someone else can benefit from it, and if there are things you found that you can use, rotate them back into your home. (Ahem, this is also a great way to save you money on things you might have bought new without realizing you already had.) Put things where you can see them. Frame your favorite photos, hang up clothes, make a display for your jewelry, etc.

I found that this over-the-door hanger was a godsend because now I can see all the accessories I have and make sure I wear/use them.

2. Does the way things are arranged make sense?
This one was huge for me. Over the last few months I’ve started noticing where things pile up (which drives me crazy) and buying organizers to tidy up those spaces. I got two of these shoe trays, one for each door, so that dirty shoes aren’t strewn everywhere. And any time someone needs to go outside to drop something in the recycling or whatever, there’s always a pair of shoes handy.

I go nuts over little organizing bins. But they really do give those inevitable piles of stuff a place to go.

And I really went bananas over the kitchen when I realized just how out of whack our arrangement of things was compared to how we use them. I had all kinds of things I never use at eye level while the bowls and measuring cups I use almost daily were in a cabinet almost at floor level. So, easy enough, I moved them.

In fact, I moved almost everything. After having lived in our house for two years I know how we use the kitchen so it was easy to figure out where things should go. I can’t tell you how much better I felt after that.

3. What simple, inexpensive items could I buy that would make everything function better?
Make those items a priority. Is it a shelf in the bathroom? A chest for soccer balls and water bottles that could also be used as extra seating (yes! yes!)? Storage bins? Cup hooks? Rubbermaid tubs? If a $10 or $20 or $30 item will save your sanity over and over because it makes your house work for you, just buy it. I am the queen of penny pinching lately, but I can tell you that when you have a busy life, these things are worth it. When you have 20 minutes to walk a dog and the leash is hanging right there, you are a happy person. Simple as that.

Dogs in their usual spot? Check.

Maybe I’m just stating the obvious here, but answering these questions has really helped me figure things out the last few days. I feel SO MUCH BETTER going back into the work week. And for once I feel like the house is working like it’s supposed to.

As for spring cleaning? Well, let’s just say I don’t get as excited about dust bunnies.

Kitchen must-haves

I’ve read a lot of top 10 or most-essential lists about what tools every cook should have, but I don’t always agree with the picks. Everyone seems to go ga-ga over a Microplane, which I do think is a handy tool, but I probably only use it once every few weeks. I guess I just don’t seem to require citrus zest and nutmeg as much as other cooks. So here is my list. If it helps you with your Christmas or birthday list, good!

*A good knife. If nothing else, spend the money on a high-quality knife that feels good in your hand. We have a Wusthof 7-inch santoku knife that we’ve had since about 2005, and I think if our house was burning down I’d run back for that knife. It is awesome. We recently added a couple of smaller knives to our collection with a 40 percent off coupon from Williams-Sonoma.

*A set of 5 or 6 non-stick pots and pans. When I got my first apartment I bought a mid-range Calphalon set from Target for about $200, I think. I added a large omelet pan (basically a deep skillet) a while later. You can skimp on crappy pots, but as much as I use these, I can’t imagine being constantly frustrated by uneven heat, a handle that gets too hot, a sticky surface, etc. Some people, like Mike, are partial to cast iron. Me, I like my Calphalon.

*A food processor. We have a good blender and a Kitchen Aid mixer, but I think if I had to pick the best grinder of things, I’d go with the food processor. It makes hummus, it blends soups, it mixes doughs. It’s a fabulous pesto maker in the summertime.

*A good set of mixing bowls. I don’t care if it’s glass, metal, plastic, ceramic. Just get a good quality set that nests, so they don’t take up too much room in your cabinets. I always liked the Kitchen Aid set that has a pour spout. Smart!

*A Silpat. It doesn’t matter what kind of baking sheets you have (and we have all kinds). Slap on a silicone baking mat and you can bake anything without worrying about it sticking. This has been indispensible to me, and I probably only spent $20 on it.

*Kosher salt. Fancy salts got really popular in the last couple of years, and I definitely upgraded from regular table salt. But you don’t need anything more than a $2 box of Morton kosher salt poured into a dish on top of your stove. It’s a little stronger than regular salt, and blends perfectly, I think.

*A spoonula. I think we have a Le Creuset version, which looks like it’s been put through a meat grinder, it’s gotten so much use. Not only do you not have to worry about it melting because it’s silicone, you can scrape the sides of a pan and reach into casserole dish corners with this spatula/spoon.

*Peeler. I love my little green Kuhn Rikon peeler. I thought I’d lost it once and could not find a replacement, so I bought another one. Then I found the original, so I have two great bright colored peelers that fit into the palm of your hand. These are less than $10 at most kitchen stores.

*Compost bin. In our kitchen, we make a ridiculous amount of compost, from coffee grounds to egg shells to potato peels and on an on. We also have a garden, so instead of tossing it in the trash, we fill up a little ceramic container and take it out to the backyard once a week or so.

So that’s my list. I’m sure everyone else’s list would be different, depending on what you make often. I am still pining over a mandoline slicer and a grill pan. And of course someday I’d love to have Le Creuset baking dishes and All-Clad pots and pans. A girl can dream.

Clever bead storage

Now that I’ve taken up crochet beaded bracelets I find myself in need of bead storage. I had been keeping my beads separated in a muffin tin, but it’s bulky and well, supposed to be for muffin making.

I don’t know what made me think of it but I’ve been keeping teeny tiny baggies that once contained spare buttons. They’re just the right size for holding a few beads.

I also noticed that each baggie has a little hole running through it, so I strung them together with a spare piece of jewelry wire and now I won’t lose the little guys.