I’ve been cooking for over 30 years, and in that time I’ve acquired my fair share of equipment. There isn’t room on my worktop for every gadget I’ve collected in that time. As a compromise, we had a cupboard built into our last kitchen refit to store them. It’s shallow, and goes floor to ceiling, more or less, so you can see at a glance what’s in there.
There’s a lot of fashion and a lot of snobbery attached to the batterie de cuisine. Every time I go around Lakeland, once the home of plastic practicality, a place where you could buy every freezer bag and carton you could ever need, and a good few you’d never thought of, I’m struck by how much of their stuff these days is likely to get used once or twice and then languish in storage. I mean, how many cake pops does a person really need? We’ve got along fine without them for most of human history.
As I’ve got older, I’ve tended to buy fewer cooking items, and spend more on those I do buy. The ideal cook’s helper should be like an extension of your arm, something you use without even thinking about it. But it should, in a perfect world, also give you pleasure every time you use it, feel the weight of it in your hands and appreciate its perfect design.
So here are the top five items in my kitchen, electrical or otherwise, that tick those boxes for me. Some were old friends from the moment of purchase, others took a while to grow on me as I discovered new ways of using them. All are things I really wouldn’t want to be without.
1. Kenwood Chef Mixer
It’s just the basic, no-frills classic. I’m not interested in a machine that will cook a soup from start to finish. I just want to save my aching arms when I make a cake. And that is almost all I use it for. There are numerous attachments for everything from simple blending to making pasta. I do have the blender, though it plugs into the top and that makes it inconveniently high up for me.
I make meringues in it, and they are fantastic, but other than that it’s almost exclusively a cake mixing machine. It does one thing, as far as I’m concerned, and it does it brilliantly with the minimum of fuss. Worth every penny.
A really good, solid griddle
I originally bought this to make drop scones on, but in fact I’ve only done that once or twice. But it’s in almost daily use, particularly when my son is home from college and existing on daily fry-ups. I love it because you can do everything on it at the same time – bacon, eggy bread, sausages, tomatoes, the lot. It goes on my big wok ring in the middle of the hob and conducts heat so brilliantly that I can cook a whole breakfast on a gas burner about 5cm in diameter once it’s heated up. Once every so often I treat the sides with an oven cleaner just to get rid of the grease build-up and stop it smoking.
It has many other uses – sealing chops before they go in the oven, or browning them after they’ve been in there a while, flipping tacos, making eggy fried rice and frying large flat pieces of fish. And I’ve never done it, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t be perfect for cooking a large tortilla or frittata, because you could bung it in the oven and it would come to no harm. Certainly I’ve flashed it under the grill to puff up a cheesy souffle omelette a few times.
Le Creuset Cocotte
Okay, they are eye-wateringly expensive – one of these beauties will likely set you back around £70.00, and its bigger siblings could go up to £150.00. I bought mine by saving Nectar points for a long time, back when you could get them on Amazon purchases, until the price came down to something I can live with.
There are more economical versions appearing in the chain stores now – Sainsburys and Ikea do very acceptable ones. But I have to say, I have never begrudged a penny of what mine cost. It’s a thing of beauty and a joy forever, and it’s absolutely true what they say about cast-iron cooking. Like buying a Mac, you never go back. It’s all about the heat conduction. With the lid on, it’s a mini-oven, so much so that you can get a risotto or pilau going in it, then put on the lid, pull it off the heat and come back 25 minutes later to find it perfectly cooked.
One of my favourite things about my Cocotte is the way you always get a beautiful rich patina on the surface after you’ve cooked meat in it. Take the meat out, a splash of wine, a shake of flour, and you’ve got fantastic gravy. It also deals brilliantly with marinaded meat. When I do chops in it, I seal them, then it goes straight in the oven with the lid on for about 30 minutes. After that, I flip the meat over, maybe add some veggies (try pork chops with potatoes and/or celeriac), and let it sizzle uncovered for the last few minutes. Gorgeous.
It’s also excellent for shepherds’ pie, fish pie, fruit crumble…you name it. And beautifully designed, so it can go from hob to oven to table to fridge (if there are any leftovers) without a blink.
Masterchef Saute Pan and Steamer
This was one of those purchases that became useful in ways I hadn’t expected. It was the large, heavy saute pan I was really after. It holds enough liquid for you to brown a few bones and veggies for stock, then add the water and leave it merrily bubbling away for hours, and the shallow design reduces the contents to perfection.
The steamer was a bit of an afterthought for me, but in fact I use it several times a week. It’s simplicity itself to fill it with something green and leafy, and in five minutes you have the healthiest, most delicious vegetables imaginable. I find it particularly useful when cooking one of the roast dinners my kids love when they come home from college for a while. Just when everything is jostling for space on your hob, you can put carrots in the bottom and maybe broccoli and spinach on top, and it’ll have both done to perfection in no time.
Magimix Micro chopper
We were given a full-size Magimix food processer for a wedding present over 25 years ago and it’s still going strong. If I was buying any kind of food processer, that would be the name I’d go for. But in fact I find it rather an awkward piece of kit to dig out of the cupboard and assemble. It’s heavy and complicated, and although everyone’s advice is to have it out on your worktop ready to go, if you’ve a juicer and a Kenwood Chef there already you begin to run short on chopping space.
This little beauty is the perfect solution for me. It makes short work of any herb chopping tasks and whizzes up salad dressings and mayonnaise in moments (there’s something very French about this one). Pesto and tapenade, which we eat a lot, are a doddle. I also use it to make a savoury paste of things like garlic, a couple of anchovies and what Jamie would call a good lug of olive oil, a mixture that peps up a spag bol like you wouldn’t believe. Got a bit of stale bread lying around? Make it into crumbs and bung it in the freezer. Honestly, I could go on and on about this one. It’s just brilliant. In fact, I’m on my second one – not because the motor went but because I literally wore out the pulse button. I suppose nothing in life is completely perfect…
So there it is. My Top Five. But I’ve had my share of disastrous kitchen purchases too, so maybe my next post should list my worst five white elephants. Does the name Ramoska mean anything to you?