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Kings Mountain, North Carolina, United States
"A mind lively and at ease" is a blog by a first-generation Russian-Ukrainian immigrant Maria K. (Maria Igorevna Kuroshchepova). An engineer by education, an analyst by trade, as well as a writer, photographer, artist and amateur model, Maria brings her talent for weaving an engaging narrative to stories of life, fashion and style advice, book and movie reviews, and common-sense and to-the-point essays on politics and economy.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Mama Masha's Kitchen - toys in the kitchen

Oh, get your silly minds of the gutter! I am talking about the basic tools you need to make your culinary life easier. Before you reach for that ginormous KitchenAid mixer with more bells and whistles than a space shuttle, I am going to have to disappoint you: unless you cater or frequently hold large family gatherings, you don’t really need any fancy technology. Having lived in a fairly small house with a tiny kitchen for seven years, my husband and I had no room to store anything beyond the basic pots, pans and dishes. Sure, we stepped on each other’s toes every now and then, and bumped elbows while trying to collaborate over the miniscule amount of counter space. Nevertheless, we managed to regularly whip up some pretty amazing meals involving multiple cooking dishes, ingredients, sauces and courses.

If you are strapped for space or simply don’t want to end up with a pile of fancy kitchen machines you never use, here are some basics to work with that will cover you from h'ordeurves to dessert.

Non-non-stick

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Sorry, folks, I don’t do non-stick. Why? Because the Teflon coating on the inside eventually deteriorates – both from cooking and from when you scrape the stuff off with a spatula to get it out of the pan. That not only reduces the “non-stickiness” of a pan but also deposits bits of Teflon into your food, which is neither nutritious nor delicious.

What you need is some good old cast iron supplemented by reasonably good cookwear. Get one large cast iron pan and one tiny one. Season them before first use Рthey usually come with instructions how to do that properly. Some cast iron pans now come pre-seasoned, but the seasoning does wear off and you will want to know how to re-season the pans on a regular basis. Seasoning in a cast iron pan serves the same purpose as Teflon in a non-stick pan, except seasoning is edible and not plastic. The large pan works great for combining ingredients for saut̩ing. The small one is fantastic for one-person meals.

To supplement the cast iron pans, get a good basic set of stainless steel pans. Ours is Emeril, we’ve had it for over four years (some of the pieces were wedding gifts), and the pans are really very good. It’s not the cheapest stuff on the market – a 10-piece set goes for $200 – but very serviceable and reliable. The layered steel-copper-aluminum bottom of each pan works really great to distribute the heat more evenly and prevent scorching. And I do love the transparent lids, because I can see what’s going on in there without having to open a pan. Our set includes: a 14-inch pan (awesome for stir-fries), 10-inch fry pan with two handles, one-quart sauce pan (for sauces or one-person portions of rice and pasta), and 3-quart sauce pan (lots of pasta!). Some of these are, indeed, fairly bulky and hard to store. If you are fortunate to have high enough ceilings to have a hanging pot rack – get it. The bigger pans can be real space-eaters and getting them out of the cabinets but still within reach is always a good idea.

Bumping and grinding

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Mortar and pestle are awesome things to have on hand. If you buy herbs in leaf form or grow your own, you can crush herbs into powder and mix them into home-made sauces and batters smoothly. Instead of buying expensive confectioner’s sugar, you can use your basic white refined stuff and powder it using mortar and pestle. Same goes for salt, when you want it in the form of finer powder, rather than larger granules. We have a small green marble mortar and pestle set, and believe me – that thing is hefty. You will want to find a good sturdy shelf for it within easy reach, because you don’t want one of the pieces slipping out of your hand and crashing onto your favorite bunion.

Collapse

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No, no, no, I don’t mean you after preparing a massive meal. I mean your kitchen accessories – in order to store them as efficiently as possible. Item number one – a collapsible strainer. We have two: one with the long handle and one with the little feet you can rest over a draining dish, but we use the one with the long handle the most. It works just as well as a regular strainer but stores nice and flat and takes up no more space in a dishwasher than a plate.

Item number two – collapsible measuring cups or scoops. I honestly cannot wait for my husband to get rid of his old-fashioned measuring cups, of which he has two or three sets and get one set of collapsible ones. That way, they can still be stashed in one of those skinny little drawers so many kitchens have on each side of the sink, without running a risk of one of the pesky little cups getting stuck and keeping you from opening a drawer.

Extreme measures

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While we are on the subject of measuring, while a good set of cups covers most of your precision needs, if you are a cautious cook and don’t like to use pinches and handfuls of things, you may want to get a set of measuring spoons. I am also a big fan of those big measuring cups with two scales – one drawn on the side and one at a slant on the inside. It allows you to pour liquid ingredients gradually and see how much is left. This comes in handy in those silly recipes that include 2-1/2 cups of whole milk in the list of ingredients, then mention the use for the first cup in the second step of the prep instructions and leave you wondering about the remaining cup and a half until about step ten.

I know there might be some hissing and spitting from the audience, but I prefer gas stoves to electrical. The best part about a gas stove is that the heat goes out as soon as you turn off a burner. With an electrical stove, if you need milk that gets just to a boiling point, but not beyond, turning off the burner as soon as the first bubbles appear is not enough – you have to physically remove the pot from the stove, because electrical burners remain hot that much longer. Another advantage is that you can still prepare a hot meal during an electrical outage, which makes a huge difference.

An oven in a gas stove is a fickle thing, however. You may set it to 450 deg F, but even with an electronic temperature sensor in a modern oven doesn’t really give you a good idea as to your oven’s internal climate. Get a good old-fashioned oven thermometer – the kind that clips onto one of the racks inside of the oven. If a recipe calls for something to be baked at the top of the oven at 350 deg F, you can put the rack at the appropriate level, clip the thermometer on and watch it climb to the right temperature at the right location in the oven.

While you are getting a handle on how hot things are supposed to get (I mean – in the kitchen), consider getting a grip on how long. Kitchen timers are inexpensive and available. If you want to get fancy, get one with two dials. Really, you don’t need anything more complicated than that.

Let’s go bowling!

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My husband believes that one can never have too many bowls. Having seen the number of dishes he uses when cooking, I am beginning to believe him. First and foremost – when you are getting bowls and they are not a set, make sure they stack well together to save space. Stainless is basic and practical. Include one really big bowl with plenty of room for mixing multiple ingredients (as in a potato salad, for example, or when making cake batter). Have a bunch of little ones for spices and smaller ingredients.

Mixing bowls are kitchen’s sturdy workhorses. You can toss them, drop them, wash them a million times and use them over and over for all kinds of things.

Spooning is best with wood

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I am talking about your kitchen spoons, naturally. What were you thinking about? Seriously, folks, while wood spoons are a little higher maintenance than plastic ones, they are also more durable and safer to use in your cooking. Besides, they are so much prettier! There are many fantastic wood utensil makers out there, and if you don’t have one nearby, check out arts and crafts fairs in the area in the near future – woodworkers often participate in those and you’ll be able to compare various styles and quality of workmanship.

For starters, pick up a good mixing spoon, a tasting spoon and a nice large flat spatula. Incidentally, wood spatulas are much easier on your cookware than metal and plastic ones, because they don’t scratch the surfaces nearly as badly.

To take good care of your wood utensils, do not wash them in a dishwasher – the dishwasher detergent and drying cycle heat will dry out the wood. Instead wash them by hand in a mild solution of soap and water and treat them regularly with tung oil. While we are on the subject of wood, let us discuss cutting boards. Contrary to popular opinion, wood cutting boards are actually better and safer than plastic. Plastic boards with their textured surface and cuts from long use retain moisture, which creates the environment for bacteria to grow.

A properly designed a constructed wood cutting board will have its end grain to the surface. End grain is what you see if you put a wood post into the ground and look at it from the top down. Before you are seduced into buying an expensive designer wood cutting board – check the grain and make sure it is in the right direction. Why is this important? …Because end grain actually sucks the moisture away from the surface of the cutting board, causing the bacteria to die. This process is called “lysing”, and Lysol is named after it, because it operates on the same principle: it captures the moisture on surfaces and evaporates quickly, killing the bacteria.

This is also why the old-fashioned butcher blocks are so popular among professional chefs and high-end kitchen designers. Consider what a butcher block is used for and you’ll recognize how important it is to have a surface that does not turn into a breeding ground for yucky things.

Slicing and dicing

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I have seen knives that were priced somewhere between mildly ridiculous and heart-stoppingly preposterous. Sure, those Damascus steel knives with rosewood and ivory-inlaid handles are pretty – but some of us might prefer to replace an old car… or two for the same price. One day, I would like to be so filthy rich that I can present my husband with a set of really incredible kitchen knives. Until then – a good basic set at a reasonable price will do just fine. Keep them sharp and safe in a knife block.

You need one nice big knife with a broad blade, a long knife with a skinnier blade, a bread knife, and a couple of smaller ones. If you are a meat eater and like to have a good steak on a regular basis, get a set of decent steak knives. Don’t obsess with separate knives for fish, and separate knives for lunch meat, and separate knives for…whatever. Trust me – the gods of gourmet will not smite you on the spot if you accidentally cut your fish with a non-fish knife. This is your kitchen – not Buckingham Palace reception.

That said, don’t skimp on the utensils entirely. When shopping for knives and your basic silverware, such as forks and spoons, do not buy them on line unless you are really familiar with the manufacturer and its collections. Go to a store, where you can pick them up and check out how they feel. You don’t want the ones that feel “cheap” in your hand: hollow or so thin and flat you are afraid to break it in half. You also don’t want utensils that are so heavy at the handle that they tip out of your plate and make a mess.

A good knife or piece of silverware, is like a good weapon. You want it to be well-balanced in your hand and in your plate (we are talking about utensils, don’t go sticking your prized Colt into your salad dish) and have a finish and texture you like. Overly ornate forks and spoons might look pretty in a box, but those little curlicues and flowers might actually feel uncomfortable and cut into your hand. Determine how much function you are willing to sacrifice for the sake of style.

Little things

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These are things that you don’t realize you need…until you start looking for one and don’t find it:

• Can opener. Good old-fashioned manual can opener that can last a long time and doesn’t care if you have electricity or not.

• Wine key. And don’t even start with me on those fancy woosy-ass wine keys. Just get a regular conventional one. If I can open a bottle with one of those babies, so can you, unless you have arthritis and really need some substantial leverage. We have two: one in the kitchen for when a bottle gets opened during the cooking process, and the wine is used as an ingredient; and one in the living room for, you know, those living room picnics.

• Whisk. I love, love, love our whisk, because it has three whisking levels in it: inside of the conventional whisk, there is a round wire cage, and inside it there is a small ball. When you need some major whisking power, you use the entire assembly. But when you need to whisk something very gently and carefully, you pull out the wire cage with the ball and just use the outside whisk.

• Kitchen shears. Talk about one hardworking tool! It works for everything from cutting a turkey into pieces to opening pet food bags to getting into those ridiculous bullet-proof plastic packages everything seems to come in these days.

• Electric mixer and electric immersion blender. Yes, I said it – you do need some small appliances in the kitchen. Why these two? They are tiny and break down into easy-to-store parts, all of which are washable, except the motor. Mixers usually have several sets of attachments to mix cake batters, frostings and mashed veggies. The immersion blender is for smoothie lovers and for parents with little kids who need some soft food variety. As with knives, there are some immersion blenders that cost as much as a used car, but you can get one for less than a hundred bucks that works just fine.

• Oil sprayer. It’s a tiny little pump sprayer you fill with your oil of choice to create a fine mist instead of a dribble. That – instead of expensive and environmentally unfriendly store-bought kitchen sprays. The oil sprayer can be used when seasoning a baking pan or a cookie sheet, prepping a cast iron pan or on a slice of toast so that you could sprinkle it with some herbs and cheese and help them stick. It’s a great controlled way to dispense cooking oils and is refillable and washable.

• Coffee grinder. Another small inexpensive appliance that is eminently practical and is bound to get a lot of use if you are a coffee drinker. Coffee beans keep their scent and flavor better than pre-ground coffee. Besides, the grinder is a fabulous way to wake up your local sleepy heads by virtue of noise and that incomparable smell of freshly-ground coffee beans.

I am sure I am leaving something out, but this should take care of most your kitchen tools and equipment. Well, what are you standing there waiting for? Get to cooking everyone!

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