$1,000 Question pt. 3

Last week my cousin Claude posted this on my Facebook page.

“JD! so I’m finally getting my own place, which means, I need my own kitchen stuff… any recommendations on knife brands? pots and pans as well, but I’ll probably get those for free from friends… CHOP CHOP!”

I’m not sure he was expecting what follows as my reply, but here it is. In this final post, I’ll talk about a very important part of a cook’s arsenal: knives.

As for knives! At home I’ll admit I can’t keep my home blade respectfully sharpened to save my life.  Despite that, I’ve still managed to find some pretty worthwhile blades.  I recommend investing in the following very affordable knives:

Victorinox 10 1/4″ Wavy Edge Bread Knife with Fibrox Handle – a big, slightly bowed “bread” knife that is extremely durable, costs only about 20 bucks on Amazon, and will always do the job, even if it’s not so glamorous.

– For a “chef’s knife” I might go, again, with Victorinox, who make an 8″ blade with Fibrox handle also for about 20 bucks. A steel will whip it into shape for a good year before you consider taking it to a stone, but then you might be sad to have this cool knife that struggles through an onion. Personally, I use a very basic set of ceramic knives that you can most likely find at Bed, Bath & Beyond or a similar store that offers housewares for young people furnishing their first apartments. The kit included a long chef’s blade, an herb chopping knife, and a dastardly paring knife. I’ve had them for about seven months, no sharpening, and they all work just great.

In the case that you do get a metal-blade knife, make sure to get a honing steel, that cool thing you always see chefs clanking their knives on before they dive into some sort of meat-slicing job. Learn how to use it by watching Youtube or whatever it takes. Maintaining an at-least-moderately sharp blade is not only sensible, it’s safe. More knife accidents happen with inadequately sharp knives than with their cared-for brethren.

There are those who argue the merits of having a huge knife collection, so that you’re always prepared; on the flip side there are minimalists who say “just one knife!”  I am content to supply myself with the blades I just mentioned, but occasionally I have found a need for a hefty meat cleaver (the best I’ve found so far are available for super cheap at international markets; it is not uncommon to find in a back corner of these kooky stores, next to the bamboo steamers, a box of reasonably sharp cleavers for under $10. I’ve had mine for two years, and it’s still going strong) and a long slicing knife, for slicing uniform, elegant and thin slices from roasts…these are dangerous knives indeed. In order for them to be justifiably useful, their blade must be kept EXTREMELY SHARP but the result when trying to achieve beautiful slices of fresh or country hams, brisket or large cheeses is unparalleled. Your average “chef type” would most likely recommend a filet knife, but I don’t spend much time with aquatic creatures in my kitchen, so I have almost no advice there. I have used one made by (you guessed it) Victorinox and it’s pretty good and inexpensive.

My last suggestion would be to seek out a Mandoline. Not the musical instrument! A mandoline is a pretty dangerous (if you think about it) but useful tool for achieving consistent and uniform slices of vegetables. A Japanese company, Benriner, makes excellent and affordable mandolines in two sizes (Small and Jumbo); both kinds come with various blade attachments to change the style of cut. Uniform slices and shreds at an adjustable width with just the flick of the wrist!  I have done a lot of mandoline research, and have a lot of experience using models from many different price ranges.  By far the best value is the super-affordable Benriner, but there are some other companies who make very fancy models with stands and vegetable-grippers (to “protect” your hand, though the pros all know using these can be more hazardous than without) and probably more attachments. Unless you have firsthand experience or a really good recommendation for one of these $200, steel-and reinforced/recycled/polycarbonate material show-stoppers I wouldn’t bother. I’ve seen the “legs” (which are supposed to hold the thing up and make your job “easier”) collapse under these things, and the ungrateful knuckle gushing afterward is really not worth it.  In fact, you could just buy whichever model you want, just make sure to get yourself a reinforced, cut-proof Kevlar glove, available online or at most kitchen stores.

Overwhelming, right? I know, believe me. An invaluable step in achieving culinary greatness is outfitting oneself with the proper tools. Unfortunately, this step can take a reeeeaaallly long time and lots of $$…unless you avoid the thousands of dollars of mistakes that people like me (and dumber) have made. Luckily, there are plenty of resources to help point you in the right direction. Cook’s Illustrated, though a little pricey for what you actually get in that 1/8″ volume, is a great resource and has provided me with a lot of the tips I’m giving you today, and it’s available at most supermarket newsstands. All other points aside, it  is important to take your time and invest wisely when buying kitchen tools.  The right ones can last; the wrong ones will just leave a bad taste in your mouth.


$1,000 Question pt. 2

Last week my cousin Claude posted this on my Facebook page.

“JD! so I’m finally getting my own place, which means, I need my own kitchen stuff…any recommendations on knife brands? pots and pans as well, but I’ll probably get those for free from friends… CHOP CHOP!”

I’m not sure he was expecting what follows as my reply, but here it is.  In this post I’ll offer my suggestions for pans and bakeware. Next up is knives!

…As for pans, oh my! are there some terrible pans out there. Don’t even waste your time with those. You know the kind. They give you terrible results (usually thinner or unsatisfactory materials result in poor heat distribution, tipping or burning). If all you can get your hands on is a 10″ cast iron, get it and use only that. Then get yourself a nice big pot (hopefully with a sturdy, fitted steamer basket insert and a tight fitting lid), then a quart and two quart saucepan, then an 8 or 9 “ saucier pan (a deeper kind of frying pan with straight sides and a longish handle. I got mine, as well as a steamer pot that fits the above description, both from Calphalon – the steamer for a trade of a dozen tamales at a yard sale, and the saucier pan on sale for $35!! I had good luck, but you can too. Just keep your eyes peeled). Shopping for pans can be one of the hardest steps in outfitting your kitchen, as it may seem like a hefty investment. But with diligent shopping, price comparisons and a little bit of research (I find user reviews on Amazon an excellent resource for judging a new product…and of course, there is the convenience of being able to buy it as you’re reading…) you can find a set of pots and pans, even if it takes buying them one at a time, that will suit your needs.

If you go to the fancy kitchen stores like Williams-Sonoma, or similar shops you usually find in strip malls or tourist towns, you’re likely to face a beautiful display of Viking or All-Clad cookware. These companies, and several like them, love to wow shoppers with their gorgeous products, their “ergonomic handles” and “reinforced bottoms” and all sorts of silly features like that, but there are not many of us willing to shell out $120 for a pan to fry eggs in. If you ever win the lottery, I advise you to invest in a set of these, as they will probably last a couple lifetimes and yield excellent results every time.  But until you have a career with benefits and at least 98% of your young-person debts paid, please don’t buy into the hype. Your friends and family will love you just the same.

Baking: Anchor Hocking makes great, cheaper-than-Pyrex glass baking dishes. Look for assorted sets of these at the aforementioned “first apartment stores”. Often these multi-packs can carry a nice value, and usually have a couple re-usable lids that make them perfect storage containers for leftovers. There are different packs for all kinds of needs – mixing bowls and small oven-safe baking dishes to huge roasting and gratin pans. Chicago Metallic makes nice half sheet pans (a “cookie sheet” for the home cook) – they even come with cooling racks in a set of 2! I use them all the time. Update makes a knockoff of the Silpat (silicone baking mat) that costs half of the name brand. If you don’t get your mixing bowls from Pyrex or Anchor, you should at least try to find a nice, restaurant-quality metal mixing bowl or two. I’ve always found it handy to have more than one, in case I’m doing several mixing projects at once (very likely for a guy like me), and sometimes, when company is over, these large vessels double as serving bowls for snacks.

…and stay tuned for the last installment in our overwhelming series on advice to outfit a home kitchen, on knives!!

My cousin Claude asks a $1,000 question…

Last week my cousin Claude posted this on my Facebook page.

“JD! so I’m finally getting my own place, which means, I need my own kitchen stuff…any recommendations on knife brands? pots and pans as well, but I’ll probably get those for free from friends… CHOP CHOP!”

I’m not sure he was expecting what follows as my reply, but here it is. In this first post I’ll talk about basic kitchen equipment, the kinds of things I use. Then we’ll move on to pans and baking, and finally knives.

Over the past couple years I’ve learned many important lessons through trial and error about the must-haves for the home cook. Though this certainly isn’t an exhaustive list (exhausting, maybe), I think it covers most of the basics, with my personal experience weighing in on certain products and most importantly, a mind for value. Composed here is my guide for an on-a-budget home kitchen supply shopper; it is reasonable to say you could get all or most of these products, or careful approximations, for around $1,000 total. Considering all the horrible purchases I’ve made myself, that’s a pretty good deal!

Bottom line, don’t spend too much money on any kitchen supplies until you have really clear ideas about what you want. The one exception I always made was for useful pieces of equipment like stand mixers (sausage grinding attachments! Personally, I use a 1000 Watt Viking, but Kitchen Aid makes one that is much smaller, and more suitable for the average person’s needs, and is much cheaper), blenders (everyone puts off purchasing one of these, but they’re super valuable. Don’t sell yourself short and wait till one of your friends gives theirs up after a short-lived smoothie or blended cocktail phase) and food processors (I splurged and got a super-pro Cuisinart. I don’t use it a ton but it’s nearly indestructible and it’s always great to have around). Also, a spice/coffee grinder is a good gizmo to have…available for about 10 bucks at a Walgreens or CVS, they’re useful for making fresh chili or spice powders, also for grinding rice for making horchata or pulverizing coarse grains to a less substantial size for sprinkling into doughs for texture. At home, I actually have two.

Two other gadgets I might have mentioned are: a good toaster oven (that means don’t just grab the first one you see at the Salvation Army!!) and a rice cooker. Both are versatile tools that take up little space.

Up next…pots and pans and baking tools!! I never thought I’d be so excited!!