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As home cooks, we rely on our instincts, our knowledge, and our curiosities -- but we also have to rely on our tools. Which is why we're asking the experts about the essential tools we need to make our favorite foods attainable in our own kitchens.
Today: Deborah Madison, produce whisperer and author of Vegetable Literacy, instructs us on how to stock our vegetable-centered kitchens (but reassures us that our five senses are the most important tools, anyway).
What is essential in the vegetable-based kitchen depends, as with any other kitchen, on what you like to cook. If you like stir-fries, then you'll have a wok among your essentials. If you have a fondness for braising, as I do, then you might rely heavily on your shallow and lidded Le Creuset braising pan.
While I've listed some of my favorite, most essential tools, I didn't mention my food mill, which I use only for two purposes (tomato sauce and applesauce) yet wouldn't be without, or my salad spinner. Nor did I mention hands, which are so very essential for feeling the food you're cooking; or noses, for smelling; or ears, for hearing when a process subtly changes on the stove; or eyes for discerning the beauty or flaw contained in a vegetable. You don't have to buy these; you are equipped with your senses already.
But what do stand out for me as most essential items for a cook dealing with a lot of vegetables are good knives and a large cutting board. Without those tools, cooking isn't fun or efficient. From there? A mortar and pestle and more -- tools that are essential in my kitchen, and maybe in yours, too.
1. Good knives and a way to keep them sharp
A few good knives are essential to any cook, but especially to one who is cooking a lot of vegetables because they usually require a fare amount of slicing and dicing. You don’t want a boning knife or a knife with a curved blade because you want to have as much contact as possible with your board in order to get the job done. I have a few lightweight Japanese vegetable knives that ensure a lot of contact with what I'm chopping. One of my knives is really cheap, one is not (a Shun), and one is a handmade knife -- a gift from a friend in Japan.
A good paring knife is very useful. I do a lot with my 4-inch Global knife: I peel, do a little chopping, and use it to access small places, like the stems of cauliflower florets. It’s wider than most paring knives, which is why it’s so versatile. You’ll also want one heavier chef’s knife or cleaver for whacking dense winter squash into pieces, as well as a serrated knife for bread and tomatoes. That’s it.
It should go without saying that you need some way to keep your knives sharp because when knives are sharp, cooks are much happier people. An oral surgeon gave me a knife sharpener that he swears by (it's not electric and I don't even know what brand it is), and since he is a surgeon, he knows and cares about sharp tools. That's what I use on a daily basis.
2. A big cutting board
Give yourself a lot of room to work! This is essential. You’ll feel cramped and frustrated using a small cutting board like the cheese board you got for a wedding (or graduation) present. Wood or plastic, that’s up to you. I used a large, plastic board for years, but recently bought myself a gorgeous black walnut cutting board because I prefer the look and feel of it (and it was my birthday). Since I am so often at the board, I want it to be something I love to use. It’s not huge -- my plastic one is twice as large -- but it’s fine when cooking for two, which is what I usually do, and I also have back-ups when needed.
I recommend having a second board for cutting fruit. Fruit with a trace of garlic just doesn’t taste right, and if you don’t have fresh fruit to slice very often, it needn’t be large.
3. A fait-tout pan, such as a 2-quart saucier
This is a pan I use all the time. Mine happens to be a stainless All-Clad. It’s large enough for whatever I want to do, and its shape is wonderfully versatile. You use it to sauté or to make a soup or a sauce (as the name suggests). You can make just about anything in it, except maybe make an omelet. I probably use mine every day.
4. Earthenware gratin dishes or cazuelas
I love baking and serving vegetable in handsome earthenware dishes, whether they’re inexpensive Spanish cazuelas or more costly French gratin dishes. I use mine not only for cooking, but also for storing vegetables like eggplant and tomatoes that are gorgeous and don’t want to be in the refrigerator.
To me, it’s important that my functional pots and pans also be beautiful. I have a collection of earthenware vessels: casseroles and shallower dishes (from Cook on Clay Flameware), micaceous pots made by native New Mexico potters, Italian baking dishes, and so forth. I keep them on open shelves where I can see them.
There are few things more useful than tongs. A long pair allows you to stand back from the fire or grill, while shorter ones let you to get close to your food. You can use tongs to turn vegetables over in a pan or retrieve them from a pot of boiling water and check for doneness. They have a million uses, plus they’re very handy for picking up things you don’t want to use your hands for -- like a scary insect that might have made its way into your kitchen. You want simple, spring-loaded tongs – nothing fancy, no serrated bottoms. (Le Creuset makes a very good pair, but they're more costly than what you can get a restaurant supply house.)
It helps if the tongs close so that they fit easily into a drawer, but if they don’t have the gadget on them that makes that possible, use one of the rubber bands that comes wrapped around some asparagus or a bunch of broccoli and slide it over the tips.
6. Mortar and pestle (or a spice grinder)
There’s something about pounding garlic with a little salt that makes it so creamy and so much better than merely pressing it. Plus it takes almost no time. And roasted spices, they smell so wonderful as you work them over the rough bottom of a mortar -- fresh ones, too. I use a small, inexpensive marble mortar and pestle for garlic and spices and a larger one if I’m actually going to make a sauce in it. (I have a large one made of olive wood that I bought in Provence years ago.) And while the little one works fine for my everyday cooking, I’d love to have a large marble one, too.
It’s not the same thing, but an electric spice grinder makes quick work of grinding toasted spices to a powder. Toasting and grinding as needed gives your food so much more flavor.
7. More pots and pans (this may be cheating, but they’re all important!)
- I use my set of good, solid, well-made saucepans with inserts for steaming nearly everyday. One good non-stick 10-inch skillet is a must for eggs and pancakes; otherwise, I use my cast-iron skillets and a cast-iron grill pan.
- A deeper pan with a lid or a Le Creuset Dutch oven is essential for braising vegetables or making a risotto.
- A wide pot, about 6 inches deep, is key for making big soups or for boiling water for pasta.
- I have two (!) double boilers: one a fancy copper affair and the other an old-fashioned blue metal one that I bought because of its color. I actually do use them. They’re great for holding mashed potatoes or other vegetable purées; making the base for a soufflé or a sauce; and using to cook polenta or melt chocolate. A double boiler lets you keep foods warm without worry. I don’t know why we let them go out of style -- they’re truly useful.
- Finally a one-quart saucepan is the perfect size for hard-boiling a few eggs, making hot cereal in the morning or quinoa in the evening, and for reheating soup for lunch.
8. Pressure Cooker
I do love my pressure cooker. It makes having a lentil soup on the table in 20 minutes or sweet potatoes for dinner when you really don’t have an hour or more to bake them a real possibility. It’s great for certain bean dishes and long-cooking grains. I don’t use it as often as other pots and pans, but I’d feel adrift without it. Plus, it can double as an extra pot.
9. A Kitchen Scale
I really think every cook should use one. They are ideal for baking, but also as a way of measuring by weight regardless. Sometimes it’s surprising to see what a vegetable actually does weigh, or a cup of flour, or some rice. Imagine you have a chunk of butter or cheese or chocolate, but you don’t know how much you have. Put it on the scale, then you’ll know if you have enough to make that recipe. After a while you can pretty much judge accurately by eye, but until then, a scale can be helpful -- if not essential -- for getting it right on the money. Mine reads in both ounces and grams, which is useful when you’re using recipes that are written by English cooks like Nigel Slater.
What tools do you turn to when preparing and cooking vegetables? Share with us in the comments below!