While anyone who’s met me in cyberspace can conclude that I have no fear of technology, anyone who’s met me in person can confirm that I am not drawn to gizmos for their own sake. For me, it is less of a question of whether an object has a plug or a motherboard and more of a question of whether an object has practical usage. As we read in the previous column, many electrics are indispensable to the kitchen, and there are others that are indispensable throughout the home. These functions include cleaning and maintenance, and they include entertainment. Though there are those who live without them, television, movies, music and the intranet are important components of homekeeping. Not only do John and I have home entertainment systems in our urban homes, I don’t know if I could shuttle between the two as often as I do without the vital assistance of my ipod, my laptop and my movie player. I also typically need a bottle of airplane wine and a plastic box of cheese, but that’s another column.
Unsurprisingly, I do have an appreciation for gadgets. This is evident in last autumn’s popular column about outfitting a household toolbox, but it came into practice this winter, when we set up our second urban home. Along with the other rooms and functions that required addressing, we found ourselves outfitting a second kitchen. Distinctions of space and amenities are common to every home and often highlighted in the kitchen. Aside from its obvious practical dimension, outfitting the California kitchen was a study in the differences in lifestyle between the two locales. For example and somewhat ironically, the California kitchen is smaller than the New York City kitchen, but it is better appointed with amenities such as a trash compactor, a microwave oven, and a dishwasher. For another, while in New York City we can get to box stores, we tend to buy home goods from department stores, local businesses and specialty shops, and online. In LA, we found that shopping at box stores is the norm, especially for necessities. And we found, for the record, that one can do very well indeed with these merchants.
As I wrote in the previous column, every time you set up a home, it brings into focus what you know but it also exposes you to developments and innovations you may have missed. Nowhere is this truer than in the kitchen, and from that as we lived it and learned it in setting up a new home for the first time in over twenty years, this pair of columns has proceeded. I have focused on the kitchen because no matter where you locate your urban home, the kitchen is its heart. Now that we’ve decided upon our kitchen electrics, we turn our attention to that arena of kitchenware that makes hoarders of us all: kitchen gadgets.
As we outfitted the kitchen this winter, it seemed that wherever we were and whatever we were supposed to be looking at, we found ourselves scanning the kitchenware. While we were open to considering any option, and accordingly found some nice surprises, we learned that few gadgets displayed improvement over those we relied upon in our New York City kitchen. This confirmed that we had chosen well at the outset, so as supply allowed, we often replicated. The list below is a synthesis of items from both kitchens, some new, some tried and true. In our urban home, the rule is to allow for no gadget or gizmo that does not have practical application or usage, and this list is filtered through that consideration as well. Finally, for purposes of this list, I have included cookware, prepware, utensils, and, yes, gadgets.
OUTFITTING THE KITCHEN: TOOLS
This list is a synthesis of items from both of our kitchens, and it is a list of suggestions rather than a comprehensive checklist of essentials. As always,none of these is a compensated endorsement. This list is based on my ongoing experience as a homekeeper and lifestyle author.
Most home stores have a stack of electric juicers and for a west coast kitchen, where oranges and lemons grow streetside, some kind of juicer is a necessity. However, we had to return two separate juicers from two separate manufacturers due to difficulty of operation. Therefore juicing in our urban kitchens is markedly low tech. We express citrus juice for serving with the help of a vintage glass juicer from my grandmother’s china cabinet. For cooking,the Chef'n Fresh Force Citrus Juicer is indispensable. Unlike the metal versions that preceded this design, the pressing mechanism fits together tightly, to quickly and efficiently accomplish the task at hand (at press?) without extra effort or splash. Capture pith and seeds by pouring your fresh juice through a simple wire sieve; cheap versions are widely available. As I’ve written before and have since re-tested and re-affirmed, for zesting, nothing compares to the Microplane Citrus Tool.
For the stovetop, non-stick skillets are controversial. This is because non-stick coatings for cookware are often manufactured using a compound called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) that some believe to be harmful. Of the harm that some believe PFOA causes or contributes to, among the most worrisome is a theory concerning cancer. As a cancer survivor myself, this has been of particular concern to me. There is little definitive research on PFOA,and none of my medical doctors has advised me against using a non-stick skillet, but it’s impossible not to conclude that caution is warranted. Thus,while I believe that a good non-stick skillet is invaluable in the kitchen, I do not recommend a full set of non-stick cookware, and for that skillet, I only recommend using a brand that is certified to be PFOA-free. One such is Todd English’s Green Pan, which does not use PFOA in manufacturing.
If you are going to use a non-stick skillet, use cooking utensils made from high impact plastic. For these, try Calphalon Nylon Cooking Tools. In the oven, it was English who first educated me that the best pizza stone is a quarry tile. While these are obtainable and certainly convey foodie street cred, I bake pizzas on the widely available Fox Run Pizza Stone. Once your pizza is out of the oven, transfer it to a clean cutting board (see below) and cut it with a Bialetti Pizza Chopper. And since we have the oven going let’s put a roast in; for that, among the most indispensable items in your kitchen is a reliable meat thermometer. I rely on the easy to use, effective and inexpensive Taylor Elite Digital Instant Read Thermometer.
Speaking of cooking utensils, devoted readers of Urban Home Blog have long since gotten used to reading (and obeying) the phrase “use a silicon spatula” when they use the recipes here. Almost any vendor of kitchenware offers these vital cooking tools. Choose yours by confirming that it is made from 100% food grade heatproof silicon, that it can withstand varied and repeated usage, and that it cleans easily. For all of these, I maintain a collection of Williams Sonoma Silicone Spatulas. You will also need a good whisk, so while you’re at it, get a stainless steel balloon whisk in medium and large sizes.
At the prep station, readers are just as used to reading about cutting boards devoted to specific food groups as they are to reading about silicon spatulas. Wooden cutting boards look great but it is best to reserve those for foods that cannot easily contaminate the porous wood. Martha Stewart’s Shesham Wood Cutting Board looks stunning on the counter, especially if you have just sliced into a loaf of freshly baked bread. For prepwork, non-porous food safe plastic cutting boards sold in sets allow you to devote one each to red meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables and fruit. Some cooks like jelly boards, but I find that the surface scars and doesn’t clean easily. I prefer Crate and Barrel’s inexpensive and eminently practical grip mats, which are packaged in sets of three and which are strong enough to withstand a lot of chopping. If you’re splurging, Joseph Joseph’s Advance Indexed Chopping Board Set is color coded and tabbed for each of the food groups.
If we’re chopping fruits or vegetables we might be making a salad, and for that we need an in-sink colander such as the Norpro Expanding Colander and a spinner such as the Zyliss Easy Spin. We also need good knives. While I wrote in the previous column about the Cuisinart Mini Prep Plus, which is a great tool for chopping large quantities of fruits or vegetables such as we will be doing when canning season arrives, Kyocera’s knives have ceramic blades that perform well for smaller tasks at mealtime. I like all of these knives, especially the tomato- and citrus knives. Kyocera also supplies the mandoline we use for paper-thin shreds of onions and potatoes. Operate it safely and correctly with the guard and a cut resistant glove.
After dozens of attempts to find a good commercial herb keeper, I have found that, while many of those work okay, there is really no substitute for the simplest practices regarding culinary herbs. Grow fresh herbs in a clean living environment and snip what you need as you’re cooking. Depending on your space and the temperance of your climate, you can plant a selection of herbs on your property or grow them in containers. However you grow culinary herbs, remember as you tend them that they are food, so do not expose their edible parts to anything you don’t want to consume yourself.Supplement your windowsill or backyard garden with small jars of those herbs that perform well when dried – see Urban Home’s Guide to Herbs and Spices for a thorough listing. When you need fresh herbs beyond what you grow yourself, buy fresh bunches of herbs from the farmers market or the organic section of the grocery store and use them within a day or two of obtaining them. To store fresh soft herbs such as cilantro, parsley and sage, fill glasses ¼ with cool water and place the herbs root side down into the water. For fresh woody herbs such as thyme, rosemary or bay, moisten a double layer of paper towels and wrap the root ends of the herbs in the moistened paper. Place the wrapped herbs into a food-safe plastic bag and then place the sealed bag in the crisper.
The simplest things are often the most challenging to design effectively, and that along with our impatience to get on with the proceedings is why it is so devilishly difficult to find a good ice cream scoop. A Browne-Halco Stainless Steel Standard Ice Cream Disher is called that because it’s the standard you’re used to seeing in action behind the glass at the ice cream shop, and it is available for home purchase. Equally and somewhat surprisingly challenging to find a good interpretation of is the humble but vital dish drainer. For small clean-up, we finally located the Interdesign Forma Lupe Dish Drainer. The draining rack fits snugly into the plastic tray that is part of the unit, but removes easily so that the tray can be drained. Properly cared for and especially in usage as an adjunct to the dishwasher, there is no reason this dish rack won’t be able to perform for years in whichever urban kitchen it finds itself pressed into service. Finally, and most simply of all, we consider the humble, vital loaf of bread. No sight was more welcome in Grandma's kitchen than the big metal bread box that sat on her counter in coordination with her kitchen theme. Vintage bread boxes are still available at tag sales and vintage shops, and the Best Reusable Bread Storage Bag keeps the carbs fresh --not an insignificant accomplishment in a kitchen where the baking, and the storage, are for one.