I recently moved from one street in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn to another street two blocks away.
Parts of me felt sad about leaving behind my childhood friends I’d cohabitated and cooked with for 6 years. They had sat through my early experiments: lots of mustardy, caramelized Brussels sprouts and never-crispy-enough sweet potato fries. Classics eventually emerged: kale, chickpea, and sausage stew; tomatoey lentils; and tie-dye pasta (pesto and vodka sauce, duh). For years, we’d cooked shoulder to shoulder like contestants on Top Chef, borrowing a bouillon cube in a pinch or sharing the same whisk to make salad dressing.
There was, of course, the subject of moving in with my boyfriend. Parts of me felt scared about that. He’d hungrily consumed the first meal I cooked for him: cacio e pepe, even though I nervously seasoned the vat of pasta with salt instead of more black pepper. Another night, he’d dotingly driven me to the butcher when I burnt my first batch of carnitas for a dinner party he wasn’t even invited to. But would he have the stamina to experience these culinary failures and celebrate my successes each and every night?
In the weeks that preceded the move, I tried to think about what I could pack at the top of the kitchen box to make cooking in the new space less daunting. Though of course there were the run-of-the-pepper-mill things that would make me feel at home as I cooked my first meals (a crock for larger utensils, mixing bowls and knives aplenty), I found that what I enjoyed unpacking first were the little knick-knacks that ensured my creations would taste the same as they had down the street.
My former roommates will probably tell you that they taught me how to use these essential tools. They might be right, but so deeply do I feel my connection to them, that I’m convinced I would’ve found them on my own one day anyway.
1. These Tongs
Anyone who has had the misfortune of taking a long weekend trip with my overbearing kitchen voice (did you salt the pasta water?) has also been the recipient of a comforting bowl of cold sesame noodles. Slicked with peanut butter and umami-packed pantry ingredients like soy sauce and sesame oil, their coziness comes from the fact that you can make them anywhere. At home, this dish is what I make for myself when the cupboard is nearly empty and my hanger is mounting, especially since all I need to do is cook the noodles and toss them in the sauce.
There’s nothing that coats the noodles in their velvety sweatshirt quite like these tongs. I like the 12-inch pair for those times when I have to reach the back burner, but I also treated myself to a 6-inch pair so I could start a lonely kitchen band, clapping them like castanets.
Last summer, I made Caesar salad for a big group upstate. I thought I had mastered the art of catering: I made the creamy dressing a day ahead, dripping the vegetable oil slowly into the bowl until my whisking wrist was sore. Days before that, I’d toasted croutons to golden perfection, blitzing them in a food processor into crunchy crumbs. When I proudly set the long, whole romaine leaves on the table, my friends looked to me bewildered. They had expected the romaine to be diced into bite-size pieces and were in no mood to attack their salads with knife and fork, so one innovator suggested that they use their hands to eat the salad like a taco.
Now when I make this at home, I do so without the complaints of the peanut gallery while enjoying my most prized taco filling all for myself: large, thin squares of Parmesan that I’ve fashioned with a vegetable peeler. These chunks give the salad just the umami punch that it needs and my colorful peeler gives me hope that cheese may one day be a vegetable since it peels like one.
I find that kale pesto is the perfect match for my beloved chickpea pasta, making a meal that you want to get deep in the couch with but that doesn’t make you fall asleep there. It’s not what I make to wow my first dinner guests; it’s what I make to impress me (a much harsher critic). My version is packed with walnuts, pecorino, and garlic, cloaked in lots of olive oil, and a bit of butter. The star, however, is the juice of a lemon which cuts through all the fat, making the kale sing.
Having dropped lemon seeds in just about every place they’re not meant to be, I made sure to bring along this lemon squeezer. The squeezer’s color, matching its tenant, makes you want to design your kitchen in these colors and start a lemon blog.
One day, once I’ve really gotten comfortable in my new kitchen, when I’ve forgotten that I no longer have a dishwasher (but that my boyfriend loves scalding hot water on his hands), and that my spices are spilling over into my cutlery organizer and that my prep space is better suited for ants, I’ll walk my subway-soaked bones to the fancy fish store and buy a fillet with the scales removed. I’ll turn the heat to medium on the burner that actually works, and drop in some olive oil. I’ll have patted my fish dry and seasoned it liberally, and then I’ll float it into the pan, skin-side down.
Then, I’ll periodically press down on the fish with my very fancy (but affordable at just $7.02) fish spatula for exactly seven minutes and two seconds. A final flip to cook the flesh side for a moment longer will render this the happiest fish and me the happiest lady to eat it slowly, each tender piece paired with crackly salty skin, and wonder what could make me more content than cooking in my new but familiar kitchen.