Friday, July 22, 2011

Nunchucks of the kitchen ninja.

Cooking is an integral part of an ethical food lifestyle. Only by cooking your own meals can you control what nutrients make it into your body and what kind of food system you are supporting. If you are like me, though, you grew up with a limited repertoire. Back in college, I could make a mean mac and cheese. You know, from the box… I also microwaved a killer lasagna!

Cooking “real food” was intimidating, so I started slowly. Once a week, my best friend would bring her laundry to my house (I owned a washer AND a dryer – no quarters needed!), and we would cook dinner together, chat, and watch Frasier. We stuck with pretty simple foods, sometimes from a box, but at least it got us into the kitchen.

I’ve come a long way since those days. Now cooking is a hobby of mine. My husband and I have had some of our best conversations over a cutting board and a glass of wine. Because we are often experimenting with new foods – strange CSA vegetables and different cuts of meat – we put more time into picking recipes and preparing our food with care. It makes cooking and eating more of an experience rather than a chore.

One thing I have learned over the years is that having the right equipment makes all the difference. Cooking is a lot more fun when you have everything you need in front of you! What exactly is the right equipment? Well, I’m so glad you asked. Below you will find a list of my top ten kitchen essentials.

1. Cutting boards

A healthy diet is heavy on the vegetables, and that means a lot of chopping. Multiple, quality cutting boards are essential. I use a cutting board every day whether for slicing fruit with breakfast, an avocado on my lunch salad, or veggies for dinner. Even though I make an effort to rinse and reuse them, having a few boards on hand makes life a lot easier.

2. A really good knife

Of course, you can’t chop veggies (or anything else) without a knife. I was shocked at how much faster and easier chopping was once I bought a high quality knife. I prefer a Santoku, but my husband prefers a chef’s knife. If it’s sharp and well-made, the decision comes down to personal preference. But trust me, you will never regret buying a good knife!

3. Salad spinner or colander

Leafy greens – like chard, kale, and spinach – provide tons of nutrients despite having very few calories. I try to eat about 8 cups of greens every day. My salad spinner is essential for creating fresh salads and preparing my latest addiction: sautéed greens with mushrooms and lentils. Even if I’m not spinning anything, the slotted bowl makes a great colander that I use while cleaning veggies. I also have a fine-mesh colander for rinsing beans, lentils, and berries.

4. Mixing bowls with lids

Mixing bowls are always useful for, well, mixing things. I also use mine for storing veggies. I try to clean and chop all my veggies for the week at once so I can easily throw together a salad or whip up a quick veggie side dish. My lunch salads are divided into two storage bowls: one with lettuce and one with toppings. That way, if I run out of lettuce, I can still use the toppings in an omelet. Or if one ingredient goes bad, I can still use the rest. Long-lasting salad veggies I often use are broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, celery, squash, salad turnips, and radishes. I tend to avoid bell peppers, mushrooms, and cucumbers because they get sticky rather quickly. I often add avocado in the morning as I am packing up my salad to take to work. It only takes a minute or two since I always have a cutting board ready!

5. Skillet (with lid)

I seriously could not live without my skillet. It’s huge, non-stick, and has a lid. I use it to make chili, stew, sautéed veggies, pan-fried fish, stir-fry, scrambled eggs, breakfast potatoes, and more. Technically it can go in the dishwasher, but it cleans up so easily, there’s really no need!

6. Jelly-roll/baking pan

There are lots of names for a flat, rectangular, baking sheet with raised edges. Ours is apparently called a jelly-roll pan. Great for baking fish, roasting root vegetables, and making chard chips – we must use this thing at least once a week. Rather than lining it with aluminum foil or applying cooking spray, we use a Silpat baking mat. Nothing sticks to it. Seriously… nothing. You have to wash it by hand, but it’s really useful if you cook a lot of things in the oven.

7. Tongs, a really good spatula, a slotted pasta spoon, and a meat thermometer

Yah, I know – I actually listed four things there, but they are all “utensils”. Unexpectedly, tongs have become our go-to kitchen tool. They are great for turning things over, doling out salad, and can be used to grab your partner’s nose when he or she really deserves it! We use spatulas and slotted spoons with almost every meal, and the meat thermometer is essential for cooking meat perfectly.

8. Measuring cups and spoons

These are pretty self-explanatory. Most recipes require measuring ingredients, and you will also need to know how much you are eating if you want to track nutrients or calories. One word of advice: buy metal measuring spoons. Our first set was plastic, and the numbers rubbed off over time.

9. Olive oil

We use this healthy oil in virtually all our cooking. I even use a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar as salad dressing.

10. Spices

Food is never boring when you have lots of spices! The ones I use the most (though not all together) are: fresh cracked pepper, paprika, chipotle chili powder, garlic (powder or fresh), cumin, and an Italian blend. We also have several Mrs. Dash blends. The same kind of fish can be a totally different experience depending on how it is seasoned!

Well, there you have it – 10 essential items for a home kitchen. With practice, patience, and these 10 tools, anyone can cook! I have compiled everything but the oil and spices into an Amazon Wishlist: Ethical Eats' Kitchen Essentials. I wanted to make a ListMania List, but there were some technical difficulties. So… be aware that you can’t buy these products directly from the Wishlist, or you will be buying them for me! Just follow the links to place an order. Whenever possible, I attempted to find exactly the same product that I own, so I could be sure I’m directing you to tools I know. Even so, I claim no responsibility for the quality of the particular item you receive should you place an order. Got all that? Good, now get cooking!


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