Christine Cushing has seen what lurks in other people’s kitchens and it scares her. Open up a cupboard in many homes and you’ll tumble upon a museum of expensive mistakes ? an unused juicer sitting next to a bread maker that last saw daylight at Christmas. But ask for something as simple as a decent set of knives and chances are that you’ll meet with disappointment. Ditto if you’re looking for a simple wooden cutting board.
“It’s the basic things that matter,” says Cushing, author of the cookbook Fearless in the Kitchen and the star of TV’s Food Network Canada. She believes every home cook needs a few essentials: a good set of pots, a reliable set of knives, an all-purpose mixer or food processor, and a wooden cutting board. Too often people mistake high design for high practicality. For instance, “the glass cutting boards that a lot of cooks have are useless. They may look good but they’re impractical and hard to chop on.”
Nearly every good meal begins with some slicing or cutting so smart cooks start their shopping there. Purchase No. 1: a decent wooden cutting board, which will set you back all of about $25 at any kitchen supply store. Purchase No. 2: a good, basic set of knives. No need to buy a complete set of blades if you don’t want to. All you really require are three essentials: a paring knife for peeling vegetables, an eight-inch chef’s knife for all-purpose cutting and a knife with a serrated edge for slicing breads and cakes. You should be able to get all three for about $225. While there are many good knife manufacturers, Cushing is a fan of the Victorinox brand because its blades are well balanced and feel good in her hand. She also recommends checking out the German-made Wüsthof line ( www.wusthof.ca). They’re slightly curved at the bottom to create a rocking motion that makes chopping less of a chore.
A good food processor can also save you a lot of tedium. While Cushing is no fan of most single-purpose gadgets, she considers a processor to be the jewel of the kitchen because it performs so many jobs, from pureeing soups to grating cheese and mixing cake batter. The Kitchen Aid model for $350 is her particular fave. “It’s really good quality,” she says. “It has a double bowl in it so you get a big-size food processor and a little insert bowl as well so you don’t have to buy two pieces of machinery. And you also get a plastic blade for dough if you need it.”
Pots and pans complete the list of kitchen essentials. For year-round discounts on top-end pots and huge selection on commercial restaurant cookware, Cushing recommends you check out restaurant supply shops that sell to the public such as Dinetz (416-368-8657) and Nikolaou (416-504-6411) in Toronto. Or for a pleasant shopping experience with great variety and good prices, try Cayne’s Super Housewares in Thornhill, Ont. (905-764-1188) or Basic Stock Cookware in Vancouver (604-736-1412).
If you must shop at a department store or a cookware retailer, shun prepackaged sets that bundle together a dozen or more items-you’ll usually wind up paying for cookware you never use. Instead, devote your budget to buying fewer but better pots that you’ll use daily. Cushing particularly likes Paderno cookware ( www.paderno.com or 1-800-263-9768), which is constructed of stainless steel with an aluminum pad on the bottom to transmit heat evenly. Most cooks will find their day-to-day needs satisfied by three essentials: a wide skillet with a lid for stir-fries and sauces ($135), a 1.5-litre saucepan with lid ($100) and a large pot for boiling pasta ($100). If you can afford a little more, go for cookware by All-Clad or KitchenAid. Both charge about $160 for a basic saucepan. By sandwiching stainless steel around an aluminum core, these pots heat rapidly and evenly.
While you’re at it, spend $35 or so for a good cast-iron frying pan. That’s a lot easier to swallow than the $170 price tag for a stainless-steel model from All-Clad. Yes, the cast-iron pan will require maintenance but it will last a lifetime if treated properly. “It’s the one frying pan I couldn’t live without,” says Cushing. “I season it with a little bit of oil and the more you season it the better it works. I know people who still have the cast-iron frying pan from their grandmother’s days. It’s almost stick-proof when you keep it well-oiled.”
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September/October 2003 issue.