It’s officially the first day of spring, and for me, that means it’s time for my usual round of spring cleaning in the kitchen. I usually spend a couple of hours on a weekend afternoon digging through our drawers and cupboards to see what needs to get sold or donated to charity.
Having moved around the country many times in my life (25+ at last count), I tend to be pretty thrifty about what I keep in my arsenal. Packing and unpacking countless boxes of stuff over and over again will definitely cure you of any nascent hoarding tendencies. And as I’ve mostly lived in cities in smaller spaces, you have to be pretty judicious about what you have room for.
But I do have a fondness for gadgets –- or maybe I should say it’s more of a weakness -– and can spend hours at culinary supply stores ogling all of the latest contraptions. In order to avoid the packrat syndrome, I now have a “in-out” policy: if I get something new, then something has to go.
We recently acquired one of those awe-inspiring Vitamix blenders -- which I've had my eye on for years -- and splurged on a refurbished model from their website. These blenders aren’t cheap, but selling off our juicer helped offset some of the cost. I confess I was pretty lazy about coming up with ways to reuse discarded pulp and would just heap it into our compost bin. It felt pretty wasteful and now we can just blend up healthy beverages that include all of our produce’s fiber.
There are certain items in my kitchen, however, that always make the yearly cut and will never be consigned to craigslist. When friends ask me what I consider to be essential tools, I recommend the following list. (And there's many companies that manufacture these products, so you'll have to do your own research on which ones you prefer based on price, aesthetic, etc.)
1) Immersion Blender: This should be the first item you acquire when building up your culinary toolkit. It can chop, blend, mince, whisk, and it can probably give you a backrub with the right attachment. I use a model by Braun that comes with a mini food-processor that’s perfect for prepping garlic, herbs, shallots, even a small amount of onions and vegetables. It also has a tall cup for blending smoothies and other liquids, and a separate whisk attachment. And most importantly, you can blend soups right in your cooking vessel and thus avoid making a mess while transferring it to your countertop blender. Needless to say, I’ve let go of my Cuisinart food processor and KitchenAid stand mixer since we weren’t using them enough. This pretty much does what I need, and now that we have the Vitamix, I think we’re pretty covered in the processing department.
2) Rice Cooker: Given that I’m Korean-American and grew up eating a ton of rice, my counter just wouldn't seem right without a rice cooker sitting there waiting to sing, "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" when I press the "Cooking" button. When I was younger, I’d eat rice for breakfast with a raw egg cracked right into the bowl, then add in some soy sauce and butter. I'd mix it all up, and the heat from the rice would partially cook the egg for a delicious, savory meal. If I was hungry after school, our trusty rice cooker would always be on with some leftover rice warming inside so I could have a quick snack of rice with dried seaweed (the salted Korean variety that’s been rubbed with vegetable oil and toasted). But there’s so much more you can do with the rice cooker (film critic Roger Ebert wrote a cookbook devoted to its many uses last year), and we cook quinoa, barley, buckwheat and all kinds of grains in it. I know folks who make ramen and other soups, too. Just please, please, please promise me you won’t do this with your appliance or you’ll anger the rice cooker gods.
3) Toaster Oven: It toasts! It broils! It bakes! I’m a big fan of this little machine. If there’s a way I can avoid powering up our regular oven and just use the toaster oven, I will. It’s really efficient and also great for heating up some leftovers if you’re not in a hurry.
4) Slow Cooker: So while several of my foodie and chef friends have gone all nuts for sous vide cookers, I’m still using the tried-and-true old school slow cooker: put in your ingredients, add some liquid and aromatics, plug it in, and wait for the magic to happen. It’s awesome for cooking meat (especially cheaper, tougher cuts), beans, vegetables, and it's much easier than the stove-top / oven braising method which requires much more time management.
In addition to the recent exodus of the juicer, here are some other gadgets that I’ve banished from the kitchen:
1) George Foreman Grill -- I have a real loathing of "time-saving" gizmos that are sold in infomercials (except for the Slap Chop, but I haven't managed to rationalize buying one yet) so I’m singling out this gadget as the representative for of all of those "As Seen on TV" products. While there wasn't a big dramatic ultimatum scene where I said, "It's either it or me!" when my husband and I first moved in together, the grill did quickly made its way to Goodwill. A good cast-iron pan or even your toaster oven will cook the same stuff much better.
2) Waffle Iron -- I love waffles, but honestly, I never made them enough to warrant keeping this behemoth piece of equipment around. It takes up a lot of real estate and I'd rather just order waffles for brunch on the rare occasion that I crave them.