Friday, August 28, 2009

Carol's Guide to "No Really, You Can Cook for Cheap." Part One

I'm writing this because not enough people "get" cooking. It's some weird, strange thing that happens in other people's homes or that Mom does and it's probably a little scary. Except that it's not that hard. Now, how-to articles and recipes aren't hard to find online. But there are things no one ever thinks to tell you: what's the bare minimum equipment that you need? Which foodstuffs qualify as kitchen staples and which ones are on a buy-as-needed basis? And how do you pick your spices?

This series was inspired partly by the fact that my father won a "have someone come cook in your home" dinner that was decidedly mediocre and partly by Evelyn Raab's wonderful book, Clueless in the Kitchen. Tonight's dinner was really a wake-up call for me. A steamed chicken and potato dinner with some onions thrown in for flavor is a learning experience for someone? Of course I'm well aware that some people just don't cook, but the idea that someone would consider a basically unseasoned steamed dinner something new and tasty? I was stunned.

As for Clueless, I feel that Raab tends to include a bunch of things that aren't really necessary and she tends to neglect the 'why' when she says which things are. The same goes for a lot of "get started cooking sites" like this one (you don't actually need a sifter, they're just occasionally useful). I still heartily recommend buying Clueless in the Kitchen or checking it out from your local library, if for no other reason than I can't beat her explanation of how to chop up different veggies and decide which kind of rice you need. Also, she teaches you how to unclog your sink. And I will not.

Part One: But What am I Supposed to Cook It In?

With some decent supplies, anyone can hack their way through cooking, learn by trial and error and make every subsequent post I'll write on the subject irrelevant.

Unfortunately, this also tends to be the most expensive part of the whole endeavor. Raid your local thrift store and rummage sales for as many of the following items as you can. Stalk your local ads/Craigslist/whatever to get the rest on sale. If you've got a handy local college, see what you can salvage as people move out at the end of the semester or year.

- 1 or 2 good knives. Some people recommend a paring knife (2.5-4in blade) but I find that the blades are too short for my taste. I recommend what's usually called a utility knife (get a sturdy one) with a 4-7 blade. Paring knives are good for detail work, but if you're trying to cook for cheap, you're probably not going to be de-veining too many shrimp. If you can afford a chef's knife and/or a bread knife, go for that, too. A good knife is worth the money, so invest in something of decent quality. (Not to say that you have to buy the most expensive thing in the history of the universe, but don't skimp either.) A larger serrated knife is helpful, but if need be, you can fake it with a sharp, serrated table knife.

- 10" frying pan. You can get bigger or smaller if you think you'll need it, but a 10" frying pan is pretty dang multi-purpose and is probably what you'll use most for day-to-day stuff.

- A 2-3 quart pot. Again, multi-purpose. It won't handle anything enormous, but it'll probably take care of your day-to-day soup/pasta/etc. needs.

- 2 spatulas. You need two of these because there are two different kinds: the kind sometimes called a "turner" and the kind sometimes called a "plate scraper" or "rubber spatula." The first is the version with a long handle and a flat thing at the end for turning over pancakes or eggs or anything else you may have in your frying pan. The second is the kind with a flexible rubber head, excellent for scraping out mixing bowls, measuring cups or whatever else you can think of.

- 1 or 2 cutting boards. Get a big one and a small one, if you can manage it. If not, get something medium-sized and wash it between rounds of cutting stuff. In general but especially if you're only getting one of these, it needs to be plastic. Wooden cutting boards can be nice, but if you cut raw meat on them, they turn into a breeding ground for germs and you will die a horrible death may get really sick. Don't do it.

- Measuring spoons and cups. Measuring cups come in two kinds: dry and wet. It doesn't particularly matter what kind of dry measuring cups you get as long as you get them in 4 sizes: 1 cup, 1/2 cup, 1/3 cup and 1/4 cup. For the wet measuring cup, the important thing is to get something microwave-safe. I prefer 2 cup measures, but it's not terribly important as long as it's 1 cup or larger and you can heat it up. Measuring spoons, again, shouldn't be expensive. Get the cheapest ones you can find - sizes should go from 1/4 teaspoon - 1 tablespoon

- Long-ish wooden spoon. Have at least one of these for stirring hot things. Wooden spoons may scorch, but since they aren't made of metal and thus don't conduct heat, you won't get scorched. These will also keep your hands away from steam and hot oil and anything else that's likely to hurt. Some people will add slotted spoons here, too. I'm not sure they're essential, but they're great for getting food without scooping up oil or water as well.

- Air-tight containers. These should hold your flour/rice/sugar/chocolate chips and they're very important because they keep out bugs and mice and anything else that would otherwise make your food unfit for consumption. Metal Boy Scout popcorn containers (or similar things) work well and you can frequently get them for next to nothing at thrift stores. Plastic bags do not: most animals can still smell the food inside and they'll chew through the bag to get at it.

- Baking pan. These come in all sorts of sizes, but 9x13 is standard for a lot of recipes, so if you can only get one, this is it. Good for everything from brownies to lasagna. If you can get two, an 8x8 or 9x9 should be your next choice.

- Large mixing bowl. A lot of recipes call for two mixing bowls, a larger one and a smaller one, but you can usually fake the smaller one in a mug or a bowl or that wet measuring cup up there. It's hard to fake the large mixing bowl, though, so pick one up. Aim for something in the 4 quart range - anything that can withstand a bit of a beating should do. Something that can go in the microwave or oven is a plus - it can double as a baking dish.

- Strainer or colander. Self explanatory. You can use these to drain pasta and wash fruit or, if you get one that can fit in your pot, use them to steam rice or veggies.

- Can opener. Unless you're making everything from scratch, you'll probably have to open a can at some point.

- Aluminum foil. Wax paper is useful and plastic wrap is good for covering up leftovers, but you probably really will need aluminum foil. It's actually probably the single most useful cooking tool for a college student, especially those without kitchens. If you have aluminum foil and a coffee pot, you can make something (this is especially excellent for hot sandwiches; I don't recommend this for anything involving raw meat, though), wrap it up in aluminum foil and use the coffee pot's heater as a hot plate. It can take plastic wrap's place and cover up leftovers. It can wrap up your lunch so you can take it with you. About the only thing it can't do is go in the microwave. Don't try that one.

- Cookie sheet. There are ways to get around this. If you don't bake, you may be able to get away without one and if you do, but can't get one, you may be able to "fake it" by turning the 9x13 pan upside-down, covering it with aluminum foil (if it's glass) and cooking on top of that instead. But a cookie sheet is pretty useful and they're usually not terribly expensive.

- A whisk. Okay, this isn't absolutely necessary, but it's really, really incredibly useful. Anything that's liquid-y that needs to be mixed together thoroughly will be easier to manage with a whisk. Get a medium sized one and whomp your food into submission.

And a few things that you don't need but are really nice to have anyway:

- Vegetable peeler. You can do this with a knife if you have to, but it's much easier to peel things this way.

- Grater. One of these can grate cheese or carrots or pretty much anything else you can think of. It'll save you money in the long run, when you'll be able to buy a chunk of cheese and grate it yourself instead of forking over extra money for something that's been pre-packaged.

- Ladle. Easiest way to get soup or stew out of a pot without eating from it directly, but you can fake this with a mug or liquid measuring cup.

- Loaf pan. If you need to, you can bake whatever you would put in a loaf pan in your 9x13 pan or a glass casserole dish, if you have one, and in a pinch, you might be able to throw something in a pot and put that in the oven. (Maybe. Depending on your pot. And even then, I wouldn't recommend it.) But for whatever reason, eating brownie-shaped bread just isn't the same. If you don't plan to ever bake anything but biscuits and bar cookies, though, don't bother.

- Microwave-safe containers with lids. These things are wonderful. Throw any leftovers in them, seal them up and toss them into the fridge overnight and then throw them in the microwave when you want to heat them back up. Make a huge batch of something when you have time, parcel it out into single serving portions, freeze and grab one of these out of the freezer when you have to eat and run. It makes taking food with you on the go much easier. It makes defrosting easier. It makes a lot of things easier. If you can find these and they're in your budget, get some.

That's about as bare bones as you can get while still having something to work with. If you work long days and don't have time (or energy) to cook, crock pots can be useful. They're not always cheap, though, especially good ones. If you need one but it doesn't fit into the budget, you may have to ask for one as a present or stalk a thrift store until one shows up.

There's a whole slew of other things - skillets, dutch ovens, roasting pans and more - that you might find useful, depending on what you cook and the appliances available to you, but I've tried to keep this list as universal as possible. Is there any cooking equipment I haven't listed that you absolutely can't live without?

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