Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Necessary Expenditures

I read Mark Bittman's article with a combination of amusement and mild indignation. What, he asks, are the most important tools to outfit any kitchen? He answers his own question with a trip to the restaurant supply house, where he furnishes a kitchen for $300, eschewing good knives, heavy pots, roasters, or immersion blenders. On the need for quality equipment, Bittman writes:

"Like cookbooks, kitchen equipment is a talisman; people believe that buying the right kind will make them good cooks. Yet some of the best cooks I’ve known worked with a battered batterie de cuisine: dented pots and pans scarred beyond recognition, an old steak knife turned into an all-purpose tool, a pot lid held just so to strain pasta when the colander was missing, a food processor with a busted switch."

He's right, and I would extend this obsession to all material things: Americans want the best object of its kind, regardless of how much they'll actually use it. Hence the need for Hummers in urban areas with little or no parking, McMansions, and the Williams-Sonoma inventory.

And yes, it is possible to prepare good food with flimsy pots and cheap knives. I did it for years, and it was a hassle. I slowly collected a few high quality knives (and yes, they cost more than $100), All-Clad pots (not the top of the line, but still), and one Le Creuset roaster that set me back $220. Breathtakingly expensive, I know, but since that pot's arrival in my kitchen two years ago, it has seen almost daily use. It is far better than the $6 sheet pan Bittman suggests.

Of course good cookware will not transform an inept cook into Jean Troisgros, but it sure as hell improves things if you are halfway adept. Sharp knives allow better control and neater slices, while heavier bolsters lessen the chances of slippage. Heavy pots and pans both hold heat longer and distribute it more evenly, meaning the food cooks when and how you want it to. Thinner cookware causes hot spots, warping, and, in the case of non-stick pans, disintegration of the coating. Who wants Teflon in their food?

Citing poor knife skills, Bittman splurges on a Japanese mandoline. I am no Morimoto but have managed just fine without one. Yet he is dismissive of lids, objects I always, always use (and unlike Bittman, have no trouble finding. My kitchen, to paraphase Laurie Colwin, is the size of a postage stamp.) Bittman likes cast iron, which is cheap, safer than nonstick, and holds heat until Christmas. Unfortunately, you need to be the California governor to heft a cast iron pot filled with hot food, and like copper, cast iron needs a lot of babying. I have neither the wrists nor the time.

Bittman advises purchasing a food processor (from Amazon, natch)--another item I've done without--and a salad spinner. My salad spinner comes from Target, and as far as I can tell, lettuce emerges from it no less sodden or muddy than before. I do have a Microplane grater, a fun tool, but as for "oft-used asafetida," well, not in this house.

He describes blenders as "a bit more optional." I disagree; at some point anybody cooking beyond the Swanson dinner stage will wish for one. Blenders fall into a category I'll call necessary evils. That is, unless you are Mollie Katzen or a smoothie freak, you won't use your blender daily. But when you want to make margaritas, or puree the soup, you really need a blender. Nothing else will do.

And there's the rub. Many kitchen tools are expensive, take up space, and don't see daily use. But they are the exact tool for the job: the immersion blender, the cleaver, the standing mixer. Even worse, you will indeed get what you pay for. Le Creuset costs a fortune, but will last not only into your lifetime but your grandchild's. Kitchenaid is the queen of standing mixers for good reason: mine is about ten years old and behaves like a frisky teenager.

And knives? Here is Anthony Bourdain on the subject:

"You need, for God's sake, a decent chef's knife...Please believe me, here's all you will ever need in the knife department: ONE good chef's knife." (76)

Bourdain goes on to wax dreamily about Global knives, allowing that blade-happy cooks might also want boning knives, a serrated knife, and a paring knife. But it was his simple plea that sent me to my first serious knife back in 2001: a six-inch Henckels chef's knife that never sees the dark of a drawer.

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Is Bittman wrong? No. But cooking is so personal that creating anything beyond the most rudimentary kitchen inventory invites debate. Cookware is also subject to the idiosyncrasies of personal taste. Bittman sees no need for a roaster. My cooking style, which leans heavily on roasting and braising, requires one. Bittman makes no mention of slow cookers; mine is crucial for preparing decent meals on busy weekdays. He dismisses stockpots "until you start making gallons of stock at a time." I don't make gallons at a time--hell, there are only two of us--but I cook and freeze a pot of stock nearly every weekend. A stockpot also serves as the pasta pot, the polenta pot, and, of course, the soup pot. As for rice cookers, I don't use one. But as a starving grad student, I worked as a maid in student housing. I always knew the places where the Asian students lived; they all had rice cookers.

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In "The Low Tech Person's Batterie de Cuisine," Laurie Colwin weighs in on kitchen equipment. She had little, and like Bittman, advocated a minimal approach. Neither have much use for microwaves. I only use mine for a few things, and could live without it, but it's nice to have when confronting a frozen bagel at five a.m. Colwin didn't have a toaster. Neither do I--the broiler does a nice job, and what little counter space I do have is taken up by a number of things Bittman says I don't need: wooden cutting boards, expensive cutlery, the blender, the standing mixer. Colwin was a big fan of mixing bowls. I have several, too, and would like a really large one for bread dough.

Colwin's list of necessary items departs from Bittman's in the areas of roasting and casseroles, but she acknowledged "special interests that must be catered to." (18) She had a chicken fryer, used only twice yearly but "...the right tool for the job." (18) She also wanted a lemon zester for her madeleines.

I have a few items like that: a marble mortar and pestle, bought expressly for pesto-making but used for all sorts of spices; the aforementioned Le Creu pot; the Wüsthof cleaver, which I use (with great gusto, I must add) to hack up poultry bones for stock; the immersion blender, which I dithered over for months before breaking down and buying the damned thing.

That said, I will never buy an enormous suite of All Clad pots just to have them; my six-pot set serves me quite nicely. I love big bad knives, but if I buy more it will be sheer indulgence.

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Well then, what should a person furnish a kitchen with? You won't go horribly wrong with Bittman's list, at least in the short term. Realistically, many of us start with a motley collection acquired from parents or picked up during the transient housing situation known as young adulthood. From there American kitchens branch out: there are the people who want the good stuff and the people who don't care and never will. Within the don't care, never will group is a subset of people who have Viking kitchens they never set foot in. Factor into this the many ethnic cuisines in our diverse land--with their woks, griddles, comals, and kimchee jars--and it becomes nearly impossible to create a universal kitchen list.

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Yesterday we got the first basil of the season. Hockeyman is official pesto-maker in our home. I asked whether he preferred the automatic chopper, which is a sort of baby food processor, or the mortar and pestle, a handsome, heavy marble set my mother-in-law gave me last Christmas.

He decided to test drive the mortar and pestle. "Wow," he said. "Smell that! Look at the leaves!"

We watched the fluffy emerald mass collapse into a soft paste. We added cheese, garlic, pine nuts. The smell of garlic and basil rose, demanding several taste tests, scientifically carried out with our fingertips.

We mixed the pesto with rigatoni and ate the entire bowlful.

"Which would you use next time?" I asked. "The mortar and pestle or the chopper?"

"Definitely the mortar and pestle. I'm a slow food kinda guy."

This from a man who, when I met him, didn't know basil from barware, and further evidence that kitchen accessories are truly a matter of taste.

Anthony Bourdain: Kitchen Confidential.New York: Ecco Press. 2000

Laurie Colwin:Home Cooking. New York: Harper Perennial. 1988

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