Good knives, skillets, sauce pans and muffin tins, etc. The items below are useful tools used regularly, take up very little space, and make regular cooking even more pleasurable.
BASICS & BEYOND
KNOW YOUR SALT
Salt comes in infinite varieties and is essential in all cooking and baking. Learning to use salt is one of the first things a cook should learn. While every salt is virtually 100% sodium chloride, the texture and density are what distinguishes one salt from another. Table salt tends to have iodine added and sometimes an anti-caking ingredient—reason enough for me to eschew it. Food, not additives, should give the human body what minerals it needs. Unless a person lives in a country where iodine deficiencies are common, there is no need to ingest additional iodine through salt.
Kosher Salt: Kosher salt may be the most important seasoning in the kitchen. First, it is easier to control seasoning food when using larger flakes of salt. Second, kosher salt is additive free. Third, distributing salt over meats and vegetables is easier to do with larger granules that don’t stick together in clumps like table salt does. Finally, the taste is clean and void of the chemical taste of table salt. Nonetheless, even kosher salt can have a different volume, particularly important when baking--buy one brand and stick with it. Soon you will have a sense of just how much you need to season properly.
Maldon Sea Salt Flakes: Although still a relatively inexpensive ingredient, this English salt is used to add a crunchy, shiny texture to finished dishes. Fish sparkles and beef glistens. When lightly piled on top of unsalted butter or alongside a spoonful of honey, the taste is nothing short of sublime.
Sea Salt: All offer a variety on the same theme: they add a fun, colorful and interesting texture to plated food. It is not something I generally go on a treasure hunt for, but boy have I enjoyed the occasional salt gift from a friend seeking out something special and practical as a gift for me. Recently, a Venezuelan friend arrived with Himalayan pink salt slabs on which to grill fish. At first skeptical, it took only one bite to turn me into a convert.
Castor sugar dissolves more easily and has a lighter texture than ordinary sugar. It is really nothing more than granulated sugar that has been ground to a finer consistency. No need to buy castor sugar, make it. Put granulated sugar in the bowl of a food processor (a mini chopper works great) and pulse a few times. Pulse until the sugar is a super-fine consistency, but not powdery.
Most berries out of season need a little coaxing to remind us of their juicy, summer sweetness. It doesn’t take much, but a tablespoon or two of sugar sprinkled over blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, or strawberries helps the fruit to release their natural juices. It usually takes 20 to 30 minutes at room temperature. The result is a lovely bowl of shiny fruit ready to eat with a spoon or serve with a dollop of whipped crème, crème fraîche, or drizzled with reduced balsamic vinegar and shavings of dark chocolate.
DON’T THROW THAT OUT!
Some fruit sitting in the refrigerator or on the kitchen counter may look a bit too ripe for eating out of hand or slicing for a salad. Nonetheless, this past prime fruit makes a fantastic addition to frozen smoothies or quick sauces. Peel peaches, pears, plums, nectarines, mangoes, or bananas and cut into chunks. Leave strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries whole. Place fruit on a parchment lined ¼ sheet pan and freeze. When frozen put in individual freezer bags and return to freezer for later use. A favorite past prime fruit recipe is Grandma's Breakfast Fruit Tart.
LET NATURE INSPIRE
For special occasions, or to make any occasion special, use cloth napkins and simple rings with a seasonal delight peeking out. In the winter, cut sprigs off holly (especially nice if red berries are abundant), boxwood or rosemary and tuck nicely between the napkin and the ring. In spring, Gently tying a sprig of mint or thyme (chocolate mint and lemon thyme smell divine), or a just-picked smiling violet pansy around a flax colored napkin. In summer, spray roses, lavender, daisies, and late purple asters add interest and color with little effort and expense. Use hydrangea leaves for cheese platters, and magnolia or fig leaves for tray decorations— don’t eat either, but a bit of nature indoors perks up any table and makes even simple food special.
RESTORE WILTED GREENS & REFRESH GARNISH
Soak greens (lettuce, kale, spinach, etc.) in cold water for 30 minutes, then spin and dry to bring wilted leaves back to life. During preparation, garnishes such as parsley and scallions may be stored for up to 3 hours in ice water on the counter. They will stay plump and green. Dry thoroughly before use.
A well-stocked pantry keeps a cook sane. Running to the market for something used all the time makes for crabby meal time preparation.
Whole black peppercorns
Saigon & Alba ground cinnamon
Cashews & almonds
"Nam Pla" fish sauce
Dark soy sauce
Sweet soy sauce
Inexpensive olive oil
Bittersweet chocolate block
Arborio or carnaroli rice
Vinegars: balsamic, red & white wine, champagne, apple cider, white balsamic
Always add certain perishables used on a weekly basis to the shopping cart:
Cilantro and arugula micro greens
Top This! Fire Grilled Pizza Crust
Parmesan Reggiano, shredded mozzarella, Gruyére & cheddar
Lemons & limes
Frozen corn & peas
High quality bacon—freeze
One-inch slabs of pancetta—freeze
High quality puff pastry—freeze
1 cup flour = 125 grams
1 cup sugar = 225 grams
1 cup brown sugar = 180 grams
1 stick butter = 115 grams
1 cup powdered sugar = 125 grams
1 cup raisins = 200 grams
1/4 teaspoon = 1.25 milliliters
1/2 teaspoon = 2.5 milliliters
1 teaspoon = 5 milliliters
1 tablespoon = 15 milliliters
1/4 cup = 60 milliliters
1/3 cup = 80 milliliters
1/2 cup = 125 milliliters
1 cup = 250 milliliters
CONVERTING OVEN TEMPERATURES
Fahrenheit - Celsius
225 F = 100 C
250 F = 120/130 C
275 F = 140 C
300 F = 150 C
325 F = 160/170 C
350 F = 180 C
375 F = 190 C
400 F = 200 C
425 F = 220 C
450 F = 230 C
475 F = 240 C