Hello from Greenpoint: My new kitchen

Just before Thanksgiving, I moved to a beautiful new apartment in the Greenpoint/ Graham Ave Section of Brooklyn. My block may be a bit industrial, but it means that I was able to afford an apartment with the impossible— a decent-sized kitchen— even LARGE by New York standards!

I love to cook, and I know that being a good cook doesn’t mean that you need the fanciest cookware, the most expensive appliances, or the most elaborate set-up. A determined cook can find a way to prepare a delicious meal anywhere, even without a proper kitchen or fancy tools. Indeed, I have fond memories of the makeshift cooking I did as a first year at Columbia University in my kitchenless dorm, using a sharp knife, an electric tea kettle, and the dining hall microwave. Years later, as a graduate student, I lived in a tiny studio in the center of Rome, Italy. My small kitchen table had to double as a countertop; my stove had just two burners; there was no proper oven– just a large countertop convection oven— essentially a glorified toaster oven. Still, I cooked almost every night. I even managed to bake.

That said, I am ecstatic to be in a space where multiple people can prepare things at the same time! If Sam is hunting for a jar of pickled herring in the back of the fridge, I can still walk by behind him! There are cabinets for food, and other cabinets for cookware! So now that I have space to store things, I’ve been trying to expand my kitchen wares— but, on a very limited budget. This is the first of a series of entries that will focus on setting up your kitchen on a limited budget.

The Essentials

Every cook has his or her own list of essential kitchen tools. I’ve seen lists that include a pie plate, cookie sheets, a barbecue, a microplane grater, a potato masher– it’s really dependent upon what you like to cook. I find that one can generally improvise– last month I went to my sister’s apartment to make pierogies for her husband’s birthday, and had to grab a drinking glass to use as a rolling pin. A funnel can double as a single serving coffee maker when lined with a paper filter, or a scrap of muslin. Use a baking stone as a cookie tray. No baking stone? Some heavy duty aluminum foil will do. Just as one can improvise with ingredients, it’s usually possible to also improvise with gadgets and utensils. With this in mind, I’ve compiled the following list of my own essential kitchen items:

  • A Chef’s knife: This knife will be your general tool. It will chop, slice and dice. It will crush garlic. It will peel skin from vegetables. You can use it to finely chop cheese if you have no grater. I actually have a Santuko, a Japanese-style all purpose kitchen knife. It doesn’t have the weight of a traditional French Chef’s knife, but I find it to be sharper, and, because I have small hands, this knife is easier for me to handle.
  • A wooden cutting board: A cutting board will save your knife. Using a plate (or a glass cutting board for that matter) will dull your knife and can even cause a blade to dent or chip. I like a wooden cutting board because the surface doesn’t scratch as easily as a plastic one (and those lovely marble and ceramic surfaces are not meant for cutting– they are meant for rolling dough). Additionally, one doesn’t have to worry about wood melting if it gets too close to a flame or hot surface. In fact, it can even double as a trivet! Most of what I cook is vegetarian (with a few pescetarian exceptions) so I don’t worry about the bacterial issues of meat and wooden cutting boards. Plus, there are some studies that indicate that wood has natural antibacterial properties that actually makes them more sanitary than plastics. Regardless– I do a good job washing my cutting board.
  • A cast iron pan: A decent cast iron skillet can be purchased for as little as $15– even less if you find a used one (which is often actually better– the surface gets smoother with use). It conducts heat well and it can safely go from stovetop to oven. This means that in addition to frying eggs, making a sauce, pan searing fish, or doing whatever you would normally do in a pan, you can also make a casserole in it. You can make corn bread. You can use it to make a pie or a cobbler. I like items that multi-task. In fact, just this week I was making a vegetarian moussaka, when I realized that my casserole dish wasn’t large enough to fit it all in, and I didn’t have a second one. So, I layered everything up in my trusty cast iron skillet, and stuck it in the oven.
  • A glass measuring cup: I bake a lot, and when making many things, I know that I can just use my flatware in place of a proper teaspoon or tablespoon, or just take a pinch of something. But a measuring cup is necessary to get the right ratio of flour, sugar, and liquid. And, if you have limited space and means, a Pyrex glass measuring cup is great– it has marks on the side for your 1/4 cup, 1/3 cup, 1/2 cup, etc as well as marks indicating the amount of ounces, for liquid measurements. It’s technically a liquid measuring cup, but if your recipes don’t require precise measurements (and many don’t– besides, if they do, you’re much better off with a kitchen scale for dry ingredients), it works fine. The glass is easy to clean and won’t stain, and it can handle hot or cold liquid. You can even put it in the microwave.
  • A stock pot: A large pot is great for making pasta, of course. But, you can also use it to make rice. You can make a big soup, curry, stew or chili in it that will last for days. You can use it to boil water for tea (or for the coffee that you’re making with a funnel). You can mull cider in it. It can also double as a large mixing bowl.
  • A wooden spoon: I like a wooden spoon because you can use it to stir hot sauces and soups and it won’t burn your hand. It’s also a valuable tool for hand-mixing doughs and batters.
  • A wooden spatula: Use your wooden spatula to fold egg whites into your baked goods, in addition to using it to cook, lift, and turn things in your cast iron pan.
  • Waiter’s corkscrew: It’s small, it’s the most efficient way to open a bottle of wine, which I use both for cooking and drinking, and it should also be able to take the cap off a beer bottle. And you can purchase one for $3-$5, so it’s a bargain as well. Sure, I’ve been in a jam and used a screw and pliers to open a bottle of wine, and, although I’ve never been able to master the technique myself, I’ve had to rely on others to use a lighter as a bottle opener for my beer. But really, why work so hard?
  • A can opener: Sometimes you need something from a can– coconut milk, tomato paste, black beans. A simple, manual can opener is an essential tool for making a quick, stress free meal. As with the corkscrew, there are things one can do to improvise, but, for an item that can be purchased for as little as $1, why bother?

What can’t you live without in the kitchen?