Tuesday, August 25, 2015

What is all that crap and why do I need it?

My son just signed the lease on his very first apartment. As we all were at that point in our lives, he's trying to figure out what he needs to furnish his home. He was on top of buying a new bed and finding a second-hand couch (didn't we all have that?). But what about the things you don't think of? Sure, you'll pick up a box of Band-Aids when you need them. And light bulbs get bought on a whim, too when you realize you are sitting in the dark once the sun goes down. Toilet paper is a no-brainer, but sometimes you forget the plunger until that first 1am call to the super to come snake an overflowed toilet, right?

What about the kitchen? Well, for most bachelors my son's age, as long as there's room in the fridge for the pizza box and carry-out containers, life's good, right?

As a mom, I absolutely cannot let a kitchen go unfurnished. As you see above, I have mechanisms and tools for almost every occasion. I remember when my kids were little and they'd help me in the kitchen, they'd ask, "What does this do, Mom?" and "Why can't I use this?" and "Why do we have three _______?" Yes, I have a lot of kitchen utensils, but with very little exception, I am unwilling to part with any of it.

Take that rusty slotted spoon in the center with the beige-colored handle, for instance. I stole that from my brother's house when I moved out for the first time. Why? Well, because I needed one and I was broke as hell. That spoon? Not going anywhere. It's perfect for skimming the fat off of broths and digging French fries out of the deep fryer. The blue slotted spoon next to it? That's the serving spoon for veggies like corn and peas. The tan colored spoon facing the other way with the similar shape? That's excellent for gravy. Also, it's super great for making Rice-a-Roni. Of course, we've got three ladles because...well, we're a soup family and there's almost always one dirty all the time. Then you've got the potato masher, the can opener, tongs (which are in the dishwasher and not seen here), ice cream scoop, pizza cutter and numerous other tools I use from time to time.

But does a "new kitchen" like my son's really need all that crap? No. Not really. If I had to make a list of kitchen "essentials" though, it would look something like this:

  1. a wire whisk - scrambled eggs, mixing sauces and salad dressings, making gravy without lumps, and getting all the sticky bits off the bottom of a pan when you're making a killer sauce
  2. 2 spatulas - one metal for cooking on cast iron or metal pans, one plastic covered one for Teflon skillets and coated baking pans so you don't scratch them up
  3. a ladle - at least one, but probably two if you cook as much soup as I do
  4. slotted spoon - great for scooping out food from a soupy sauce or gravy, or taking fried things out of the oil
  5. serving spoon - great for getting the soupy sauce and gravy to pour over the top of your food
  6. wooden spoons - absolutely the most important tool in my kitchen for mixing. SO versatile!
  7. pizza cutter - obviously, for cutting pizza, but also great for minimizing hassle when cutting dough for noodles or cutting up waffles and pancakes for the kids
  8. ice cream scoop - unless you're like me and just eat it right out of the carton with a spoon
  9. rubber scraper - I can drink ranch dressing with a straw, so when I make up a batch, I want to make sure EVERY drop of it gets to where it needs to be. This is perfect for that. Also helpful when making cake or cookie batter so you get all the dry ingredients mixed into the wet ingredients
  10. can opener - not everything has that little pull-back tab system. And please trust me when I tell you there is not an electric can opener on this planet that will work every time without dropping a can all over the place or slopping the liquid from inside all over you, the counter and the floor. Don't waste your money. Just get a crank handle one. No need to go expensive. Just make sure it's a heavy duty one. (Nothing I've found works as well as that red-handled thing you see in the drawer. Just a heads up.) When it gets dirty, take a toothbrush and some dish soap to clean off the blades and gears and you'll be fine.
Those are the basics for what you need in the utensils drawer. Obviously, peruse the kitchen aisles or a Bed, Bath and Beyond for all the fancier gears like lemon zesters, cheese graters, garlic presses, and apple corers if you want them, but for general, everyday use, the 10 things listed above should get you through an average meal.

As for other tools and supplies?

  1. Beverage pitcher - 2qt is best and will fit in most fridges easily. Not gonna lie - Tupperware is your best bet on this. They last for decades. The other ones tend to peel, get sticky or gross after a while. I have the same 2qt pitcher I got for my wedding shower 21 years ago and it still looks brand new. If you ever think you'll make Kool-Aid or iced tea, don't go cheap on this.
  2. Strainer - Again, Tupperware is the best option. The ones I've found lately in stores have holes that are too big and stuff gets through them. I do have a metal strainer that came with a set of cookware I bought about 20 years ago and it's been perfect, but my back-up strainer is a Tupperware one. It's sturdy, stuff doesn't get through, it can go through the dishwasher and it won't rust, get sticky, greasy or gross.
  3. Measuring cups & spoons - I hate sounding like a Tupperware commercial but that's what I've used for years. I have a Pyrex measuring pitcher which I use pretty often, but anything else that has been plastic just falls apart. It's not worth it if I'm replacing them every couple of years. The only trouble I had with Tupperware was the label wearing off. If they've changed the style to where the measurement amount is imbedded in the plastic like it was in the 70s and 80's? Great. Otherwise, memorize which spoon is which.
  4. Cutting board - So many options out there to choose from. Personally, I like a wooden slab. Others like the plastic ones. Some people use the ones that roll up so you can scoop your stuff into the pan. It's a personal preference thing, but my suggestion is to have two - one for meats and one for veggies. No cross-contamination that way.
  5. Cutlery - speaking of cutting boards. Chopping knife, bread knife, paring knife and steak knives are your basic needs here. You can do just about anything with those. In fact, the best paring knives I've found are the little ones with the plastic handles that they sell at the check-out at kitchen stores. They usually run about a buck a piece and they last FOREVER! Make sure you get a good sharpening stone, though, if you invest in a good set of knives. And DO NOT put them in the dishwasher. Always wash your knives by hand or you run the risk of the harsh cleaners dulling the blades.
  6. Skillets - Cast iron is my personal preference here. They can be pricey, but they will last a lifetime, maybe two or three. Literally. My brother cooks with the same cast iron skillets that my mother owned. It's possible they even belonged to my grandmother. Learn how to care for them, season them, clean them and store them, though. If you don't want to go with cast iron, check reviews. Every cook has their preference. I hate Teflon b/c it flakes off, but I also hate stainless steel because everything sticks to it and I spend an hour trying to clean it off.
  7. Sauce pans, soup pans, and stock pots - Do not skimp and buy crappy cookware. You don't have to spend a paycheck on a set, but don't just get whatever is cheapest at the department store either. Your food will pay the price. I have two sets of pots and pans and use them both equally - one was a set of copper-bottom Revereware I got as a wedding gift in 1994. The second set I got about 4 years later. It has a "non-stick" coating that has flaked off a lot over the years, but they're heavy, sturdy, solid pots so I still use them. I've used enamel ware and hated how everything sticks to it. I'm sure there are more expensive brands that don't do that, but my luck with it hasn't been good.
  8. Cookie sheets/baking pans - Again, the cheaper you are, the worse luck you'll have. I've bought cheap, thin metal pans at the dollar store b/c I didn't feel like going into town, but they're only lasting me about six months before they're bent, burnt or flimsy. If I've cooked anything with tomato sauce in it? Forget it. The acid eats through the pan and I have to throw them away. You don't have to spend a fortune on them, but get at least one good cookie sheet and at least a 9x13 baking dish (great for roasting chicken or baking a cake or a pan of lasagna). Glass is better when it comes to baking dishes, but stick with Pyrex brand dishes. They last forever and clean up pretty easily.
  9. Pot holders - This is an easy one to overlook, but unless you have superhuman abilities, that pizza is going to stay in the oven until it's cold. I own plain pot holders, oven mitts, wrap-around ones...the ones that are used the most are the plain old square ones. The bigger the square, the better. The mitts, I've found are a bit cumbersome as are those silicone fingertip mits. 
  10. Dish towels - Even if you have a dishwasher and rolls of paper towels, you will - at some point - need dish towels. Mine is usually hanging on the fridge handle or flung over my shoulder. 
Yes, this probably seems like a lot of "must-haves" for a new kitchen, but some people never learned how to stock a kitchen. Many people in my generation weren't taught how to cook; take-out and drive-throughs were too available to us in the 80's and 90's. And since we didn't learn to cook, neither did/will our kids. I'm thankful I know how and that my kids have wanted to learn.

If I missed anything that seems obvious to you, mention it in the comments!

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