mericans move. Europeans stay put. Over the last six years we’ve changed houses several times, first leaving Los Angeles for France and then deciding we needed a small abode in Rome where we could gather together step-kids, step-grandkids, an ex-wife, and our various friends scattered around the continent.
In America, I pared down my vegetable peelers, kicked out duplicate casseroles, gave away or sold myriad pots, pans, and pudding molds, and stocked my small Italian kitchen with basics.
I have to admit I’d grown a little tired of the L.A. foodie world, where I was a food business owner, a member of several food organizations and a teacher to boot. Years of experimenting with gadgets (the new model Le Creuset Screwpull wine opener, stainless steel anti-garlic soap bars, tea-bag squeezers) wore out its welcome — well, maybe not experimenting with wine openers.
The fact is that cooking easily and efficiently doesn’t demand a kitchen packed with all the latest accoutrements. Easy-to-find kitchen and lab tools can make cooking a delight instead of a drudge.
Some of the basics can endure across generations. For example, I still use my mother’s plastic spoon with a hole in the middle for stirring dough or soup. It helps make sure I don’t slosh things on myself and on those around me.
If you’re going for the essentials, start with a really good steel chef’s knife, one that’s easy to sharpen and in a pinch can be used as cleaver or a meat flattener for small portions. For larger whacking I prize my Japanese cleaver, which was made for the purpose. You can find good ones at the Rome Porta Portese flea market or at tag sales. Mine was costly, but two decades later it’s been more than amortized.
My brother gave me an exquisite Japanese knife that looked like it probably once belonged to a samurai. So far, this potential sushi knife has remained in its case. I find that a long straight, thin slicing knife cuts fish even better.
If you bone your own carcasses, you’ll need a very thin butcher’s boning knife or a sharp steak knife. You may find the latter more useful. Avoid serrated edges, as they tear the meat. These tools let me bone, pare and devastate a garlic clove in seconds. A good sharpening stone keeps them in shape.
Next, pick up a vegetable peeler. It’s the best tool on earth for trimming the tricky bottoms of artichoke stems without lopping off larger pieces of the heart. A vegetable peeler also handles celery strings, potato skins, and asparagus trimming — and can also serve as a soft pencil sharpener.
IKEA’s €2 model is my favorite. After using ergonomic rubber-grip peelers for years, give me the cheapo any day. While you’re at it, pick up IKEA’s Vietnam-made three-pot special. They’re the only cooking pots you’ll need. I admit I have a Le Creuset nestled beside them, but guess which ones I use daily.
Be sure to get a good set of stove tools, six will do, including a pasta fork, pancake turner, perforated flat spoon, long fork, soup ladle and a large serving spoon. These will suffice for almost anything you wish to cook. Along with a saucepan, they can also entertain grandchildren for hours at a time.
Pick up rubber spatulas. Two will do you, but getting four means less rinsing and drying. I look for the one-piece kind. The attached versions can come apart while you’re boiling a bouillabaisse, leaving you to fish out the head with tongs.
On to scissors. Next to the wine opener, these are my favorite tools. Big, sharp Fiskars are the best. They can cut through an ornery duck with one snip.
You’ll need a garlic press (though flattening the clove, then mincing it with your good chef’s knife, can also do the trick.) Like men, a good garlic press is hard to find.
I keep the tools from rattling around in my now-empty drawers by storing kitchen towels on the side, lots of them. My kitchen linens are as precious to me as my one pair of La Perla knickers.
And although I recently watched a man open his wine bottle with a shoe, I’ll stick with the Screwpull.