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Kitchen Basics: Make Life Easy (and Tasty)

Stock Your Cabinets with the Essentials

By Winnie Yang

Staff Writer

I used to share dinner duty with my good friend Joyce (who is now basking in Santa Monica’s fine sunshine, lucky girl), and I’d trek over to her suite at Bexley regularly to create our usual brand of Korean, Taiwanese, Mediterranean, and hungry-college-kid-influenced cuisine. While I envied her gas stove (my dorm had those awful, inconsistent electric ranges), I inevitably found myself griping about her suite’s sad collection of dull knives and their understocked larder. We’d end up running over to LaVerde’s for items that I consider essential if one does any reasonable amount of cooking. I found this to be true of many of my friends’ kitchens, and I’ve since realized that keeping your kitchen properly stocked is just a matter of knowing what’s important and what you’ll always reach for. And if you do keep these staples on hand, you’ll feel all that more inclined to make something yourself.

The most important part of your basic kitchen is a sharp chef’s knife. This, strangely enough, is not intuitively obvious and even sounds intimidating to many. However, there is really nothing less pleasurable than using a dull knife for prep, much less a dull serrated steak knife. A chef’s knife, contrary to the name, isn’t designated solely for the rarefied ranks of restaurant cooks; it is the most useful tool in any kitchen. The curved tip facilitates the rocking motion for the most efficient chopping, while the wide blade can handle anything from the thinnest, finest chive leaves to unwieldy, thick-rinded melons.

A perfectly serviceable chef’s knife can be had for about $30 and is definitely worth the investment. And a good knife will last years if cared for properly. You can certainly pay much, much more (and not necessarily for better quality), but it’s unnecessary for the average home cook. Regardless of price, it is very important to check out knives before making any kind of purchase, as you want a knife that feels good in the hand; one that’s balanced, whether light or heavy (a personal preference), the handle best shaped for your grip, the best length for your use (they usually come in six, eight, nine, and ten inch blades). High carbon-steel alloys are the way to go (and I could get into the hows and whys of it, but this would quickly turn into a column on just knives).

In Boston, Kitchen Arts (161 Newbury Street) offers one of the best selections, and their knowledgeable staff can help you find a suitable knife, as well as offer advice on how to take care of it. They also sell refurbished knives (I’ve seen my favorite WÜsthof 9-inch for $30, a total steal). Keeping your knife sharp is critical, of course. There’s no point in buying a nice knife if it’s only good for spreading butter. I sharpen mine on a whetstone, but it takes some practice and patience (and Kitchen Arts will also sharpen your knife for about three dollars).

Paring knives are also essential and make short work of small tasks. You can get a great paring knife for about five dollars. Clearly, if you have knives, you’ll need a cutting board. And though everyone could use a good pot and a cast iron skillet, I think it’s less important to specify a particular type of cooking vessel than the right kind of knife. Most of what’s available on the market will get the job done.

Besides the dull knives, my other major problem with Joyce’s kitchen was her constant lack of garlic. I always keep a couple heads of garlic around, as well as a few yellow onions, or some scallions or shallots. The allium family of bulbous plants (which also includes leeks, chives, and ramps) serves as the best flavoring agent for just about anything. Even if all that’s left in your pantry is some old bread, you can toast that, pop some unpeeled cloves into an oven at 375° sprinkled with salt and drizzled with olive oil and in 30 minutes, you’ll have a lovely creamy, garlicky spread for your bread. This, of course, only works if you also keep salt and olive oil on hand (which most people tend to do these days).

I am very particular about my salt. While this might seem a bit obsessive, the difference in taste between all the different kinds of salts is remarkable. I grew up on the blue canister of Morton iodized table salt, but really, that stuff is only good for making biscuits. For flavoring dishes, the metallic, almost chlorine taste can prove way too harsh. I’m a big fan of Maldon sea salt, a little white box of large, flaky crystals that you can crush in your fingertips to season as you’re cooking. Left uncrushed, the crystals offer a really wonderful crunchy texture to salads or crusted onto salmon or pork chops or sprinkled on herbed potatoes. While it’s considerably more expensive (about five dollars for 250 grams) than table salt, a little goes a long way. I still have the same box after two years of constant use. Kosher salt is another excellent alternative to table salt. It also offers a coarse texture that you can grab with your fingers for better distribution and flavors foods without the chemical astringency of table salt. While kosher salt does not have the excellent flaky texture of Maldon, it costs much less.

As for cooking fat, I tend to use olive oil the most. I reserve the extra virgin stuff for dipping bread or for dousing roasted peppers or fresh mozzarella balls (sprinkled with my Maldon sea salt and some rosemary, naturally). Sesame oil lends a delicious aroma to stir-fries and makes great salad dressing, but be warned that it’s much too strong for dishes that don’t have a particular Asian bent. I also like to cook with butter sometimes for the added richness. I definitely prefer the Land O Lakes Ultra Creamy kind (unsalted for cooking or baking, salted for spreading). It’s 83 percent butterfat, as opposed to the usual 80 percent in most commercial American brands. The higher butterfat content gives it much better cooking properties as well as really exceptional flavor and texture.

Pepper is a critical flavoring component, and I prefer to buy jars of black peppercorns which I grind fresh when I season my dishes. White pepper offers even more of a kick.

When making a dish, people often overlook a sour or acidic element, which can really balance out sweet or salty flavors and give the dish a little depth. Vinegars are great acids, and the red, white, and rice wine varieties are probably the most useful. (I don’t find myself using balsamic as often as others might, but if you’re a fan, you probably have a bottle anyway. And just so you know, if it ain’t from Modena, it ain’t balsamic vinegar.) I actually prefer limes and lemons for acid, and they prove useful for so many more dishes (especially fish or Southeast Asian dishes).

For soy sauce, I eschew the Kikkoman for a big jug of Wan Ja Shan (available in most Asian grocery stores). As my mother says, “It just tastes better.” I keep a finger or two of fresh ginger around to add to meat or vegetable stir-fries. Big cans of whole peeled plum tomatoes (the San Marzano variety are best) are better than the fresh kind for making sauce from scratch. Pine nuts toasted in a hot pan with a little oil are a wonderful crunchy addition to just about any dish. Canned beans are always handy to have around (especially for soup). I always keep a big wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano in the fridge, wrapped in wax paper to allow it to breathe without drying out. This cheese (and alternatively, Grana Padano, Pecorino Romano, Manchego, and a few others) is ideal for grating over pastas, risottos, vegetables, soups, and bread, shaved over salads, or for just noshing with a glass of wine and some fruit.

Why high carbon-steel alloy knives? What’s fleur de sel, and why didn’t you mention it? Why cook? Address your questions to <>.