Get over your kitchen gadgets
Our cupboards and drawers are clogged with kitchen kit that once promised to make our lives easier. When John Walsh moved house he decided it was the perfect time for a purge. But where to begin?
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Thursday 06 December 2012
There’s nothing like moving house for making you take stock of your kitchen and the devices that therein lie. However much kitchen space seemed available when you first looked at your new home, there’s never enough room for all the stuff you’ve accumulated over the years. I mean, just look at it. Whatever possessed you to buy this bulky, expensive and frankly unusable garbage? Whose idea was the fish kettle that you used exactly once, for a salmon lunch in July 2010? Have you ever got cost-per-wear out of the microwave that’s been sitting accusingly beside the toaster since 1997? And here, in these cutlery drawers, on this knife rack, in this utensils jug – just look at all this mad gallimaufry of labour-saving stuff, of bits of rubber and metal and plastic that might possibly lift the heart of a passing rag-and-bone man but now fills you with bewilderment that you ever thought it worth having.
There are so many things you don’t need and never have needed. Things you bought one day in a burst of self-delusion that you are: A) a hippie earth mother or, B) an artisanal cook, living in an era before supermarkets. The bread-maker, the pasta-maker, the incredibly messy ice-cream maker, the yoghurt-maker, the rice cooker (what was wrong with using a saucepan and some hot water?) and that vital necessity of 1970s living, the coffee-bean grinder – because everybody needs to start their mildly hungover day with a noise like a granite-quarry drill slicing through their sore head, don’t they?
There are things you bought to make cooking easier and discovered it made it far more complicated. At the top of this list is the food processor you bought to peel, chop and slice vegetables, to puree them into nourishing meals for the baby, to make soups and sauces and sophisticated reductions for dinner parties. But the fag of having to wash and dry and store all the attachments became so daunting, you reverted to buying the baby food in jars, the soup from Waitrose and the sauces from Marks & Sparks.
Labour-saving devices that promise to chop and slice electronically just add to your work-load because of the tedium of setting them up. I had high hopes of a heavy-duty juicer, but it was just too high-maintenance and we’re now estranged. I feel embarrassed about the way I’ve neglected the electronic weighing scales, ever since I lost the instructions: you can press the ‘Mode’ and ‘Reset’ keys till you’re blue in the face without ever getting the machine to actually weigh something. And don’t get me started on the sub-Gaggia cappuccino machine, to operate it required a PhD in material sciences and another in Italian psychology.
There are things whose beauty or bulk once recommended them to you but now only get in the way. Among them is a super-enormous, wooden chopping-board: it’s just too damn heavy. Few dinner ingredients need such comprehensive chopping that it justifies manhandling half a ton of teak onto the work surface. The stainless-steel stockpot never saw much action – I mean, who am I, Mrs Patmore from Downton Abbey, keeping the week’s potato peelings and carrot tops in order to make a nourishing stew? I wish I’d got more use out of the four-ton Le Creuset casserole, which resembles the cauldron in which cartoon savages might boil a missionary in the jungle.
And as you unpack another dozen cardboard boxes, you can only marvel at the hundred-odd fiddly devices and rusting geegaws you once deemed necessary for the cook’s existence. I have two meat thermometers – never used – two pizza cutters, ditto; a box grater, terminally clogged-up with fragments of Yarg circa 2009; an olive stoner, never used; three devices for keeping champagne perky after you’ve opened it; and a pack of yellowing cartouches clearly past their sell-by.
A deadly ennui envelops you. Are you going to keep all this stuff for another few years? Or are you going to start all over again?
The answer was to throw out lots of stuff I’d never used and write a shopping list for the necessities of kitchen life. It was a strangely cleansing experience. So was the trip to some wildly expensive kitchen-supplies shops – the Conran Shop, David Mellor – to look at the prices of the best-quality merchandise and try to find it cheaper elsewhere.
Did I want the Alessi Juicer in stainless steel and thermoplastic resin for £129? The Dualit four-slot toaster for £195? A Conran balloon whisk for a mere £27? An amazingly beautiful Forge de Laguiole cheese knife for £135? Perhaps not. I’m a sucker for knives. I’d festoon the kitchen with blades by Opinel, Zwilling or Robert Herder if I could afford them. But I can’t.
In my new, keep-it-simple kitchen, I’ll have just four. One serious, 15in carving knife (with matching fork) for roasts. You should splash out a bit on this item – Sabatier or Victorinox are ideal – and look for a 10-year guarantee to go with it. You also need a 12in serrated bread knife; a small (7in) serrated paring knife for small vegetables; and a bigger, 12in cook’s knife for slicing up meat and chopping large vegetables such as Spanish onions. The best I know is from the Kitchen Devil range; the extreme sharpness of its Cook’s Knife sliced through my left index finger as I was preparing Sunday lunch, and landed me in the A&E department of St Mary’s Paddington, the day after I bought it.
I’ve had the same three pans for ages: a 12in Tefal frying pan, a 10in griddle pan for cooking steak, and a 12in sauté pan with a lid. I swear by Tefal, although Authentic Kitchen offers good substitutes for about £20 each. For all your winter-stew needs, you must get a 12in, heavy-duty, cast-iron casserole with a lid. You don’t have to spend £150 at Le Creuset. Earl & Wilson sell a burnt-crimson beauty for £29.99.
There’s no point in being precious about saucepans. Whichever make of pans you choose doesn’t matter greatly, as long as they feel weighty, rather than tinny, in your hand and the steel gleams. You need a 10in, 8in and 7in, with lids, and a smaller one for boiling eggs. And a steamer saucepan with two steel baskets for steaming broccoli, carrots and courgettes.
For measuring liquids, you need a Pyrex measuring jug with pint/litre /fluid-ounce specifications. For the rest you need some old-fashioned Salter weighing scales and a set of measuring spoons for those half-cup, quarter-cup recipes. I treated myself to two new chopping boards, one wood for meat or fish, one plastic for vegetables. Joseph Joseph has a whole range, in sprightly colours, that fold up into a funnel after chopping.
Treat yourself to a new potato peeler. Forget those spindly U-shaped razor-blade scrapers; you need an old-fashioned Yorkshire potato peeler with a snug, twine-wound handle. You can get them in Robert Dyas for tuppence-ha’penny. While you’re at it, buy a new grater for cheese, carrots, potatoes and onions. You could buy a set of six Microplane graters (extra fine to extra coarse) at £25 each; you could buy a four-sided box grater, like the one I just threw out; a compromise is the ingenious Fold Flat Grater from Joseph Joseph, which features fine and coarse grating blades and a grippable handle (£16).
Other necessities are: a pair of kitchen scissors, invaluable for, among other things, cutting chicken into sections; a pair of tongs for turning bacon rashers, steaks and barbecue items; a spatula, preferably with metal (rather than rubber or plastic) handle, or it’ll melt against the edge of the frying pan; a colander; a large metal basting spoon; three roasting trays; a salad spinner (it smacks of gadgetry, but they’re the best way of removing water from salad; if you don’t, the dressing won’t stick); and a pestle and mortar, for grinding spices. It always gives your food more spiciness than using spices ready-ground in Schwartz jars. Porcelain, of course; wooden ones wouldn’t survive all the dishwashing.
And that’s all I think you need in your new kitchen. Except that, in my travels through the kitchen shops of west London, I couldn’t resist buying a very clever device called The Garlic Chop, which slices a whole garlic bulb into bits in seconds (£5.95 from Koopeh Designs). And a lemon squeezer that catches the pips in a little net. And a stylish little object that whips the stones out of fresh cherries and…
Uh-oh. Here we go again.
12 things you don’t need in the kitchen...
... and 20 things you do
Posh carving knife (and fork)
Pestle and mortar
12” frying pan
Chopping boards, wooden and plastic
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