Friday, August 28, 2009

The College Chef's Repertoire #1: Tools of Survival

...Ok, fine, I'm not a chef; doesn't mean one can't dream you know?
*First Female Puerto Rican Chef in Iron Chef America*

Like many other students, I live on my own. Whether it be in a dormitory or an apartment, the majority of college students lives away from home and, consequentially, away from mommy dearest and her delicious cooking. Most of us were or are in the predicament of finding out how the hell we are going to feed ourselves now that the pot is completely empty.

At first, the shock of seeing said pot not magically filled with hot food (insert Harry Potter spell here) can be overwhelming and we seek out the other food that reminds of home to recover such a loss: good ol' fast food. I could go on about how much of a temptation it is to run to the nearest McDonalds ® everyday and score some, but remember two words: “freshman's 15” (not to say that other years don't miss out on gaining a dozen pounds before the new academic year starts).
Those of you who read this and yell at me, “Hey, I cook all my meals!” I say good for you! Now let's take a good look at your kitchenware.

Chances are your parents thought ahead and bought a nice, 30+ piece set of a bunch of hardware. More chances are that you'll probably never use 15 of them. Why? Because most of us look for a quick, efficient way to get meals done for one or two, not to make a feast for four (unless you live in a house of four and it was your turn to cook; in that case, poor you). Visiting my friends, I noticed that most have impossibly full kitchens with hardware that has never been used in a space so crammed that makes anyone dislike cooking.

Here's a list of the essential pieces that I've found to be the most useful and why. Note: I live a small studio apartment with about 10 sq ft of kitchen.

  • 2 Cutting boards: Unless you want to be cleaning chicken guts off what little counter space you have every time you cook, a plastic cutting board should be around. To avoid cross-contamination, buy a second, smaller one for chopping veggies. Note: although plastic is cheaper, wood is perfectly fine as long as you clean it with nonbleach-based detergents.

  • Whisk: one of the most efficient mixing tools since the fork, it lets air inside the mixture to make it creamy and fluffy (usually reserved for creams and thickening soups, or in some cases, meringues!).

  • 2 skillets: One small for minor jobs like bacon and small cuts and a medium for bigger portions, like whole steaks.

  • Wok: I'm pretty much the only student with one in my campus, but I'm slowly converting more to the wok-y goodness. It's a deep, steel skillet normally used in stir-fry but can be used a big skillet.

  • Rolling pin: Good both for flattening doughs, meats and any idiot. Buy one in a size relative to your space or you'll have to deal with storage issues.

  • Knives: These are usually bought in sets that usually include a combination of: a paring/steak knife, kitchen shears, chef's knife, bread knife, and utility knife and carving knife. On Cooking For Engineers, they recommend the Chinese Cleaver if you can afford only one since it's praised as an all-in-one knife (boyfriend does not like the idea of me having one close by).

  • Baking sheet: One's good enough if you plan to bake anything at all. I have an 12”x18” which has baked from yeast bread to BBQ ribs. Unless you have an oven, don't buy this, since most toaster ovens come with their own mini sheets.

  • Grater: I personally use a plastic multifaceted one to zest fruits, grate potatoes, etc. They're pretty inexpensive and easy to keep.

  • Wooden spoons: these are cheap, and versatile as they won't damage your equipment. Keep in mind that they will absorb flavor, so try to keep several for different uses.

  • Spatulas: I'm talking about the ones your mom used to clean out bowls of batter with. Usually found in sets of different sizes, they're good for that and folding.

  • Vegetable peeler: Does exactly what its name implies, can also be used to peel strips of zest off thick-skinned fruit.

  • Strainer: Before getting one, it was a literal puzzle every time I cooked pasta on how I would drain all that boiling water. Can also be used to sift flours and icing sugar (required in some recipes).

  • Sauce pot: a good aluminum one can have several uses, from pasta cooker to sauce making, and everything in between.

  • Rice Cooker: Depending on your personal preference, this might or might not be a good buy. Since I cook a lot of rice, a separate area that does that without having to waste a stove top is a great help. Be sure to follow its cooking instructions.

  • Cooking spoon/tools set: Large slotted spoon (grains, small pasta like couscous), potato masher (…), large spoon, spiderweb (catching floating parcel), spatula (flipping pieces), these have their own uses, and quite helpful.

  • Measuring cups and spoons: Try to have a cup for liquids (it looks like a miniature pitcher) and a set of cups for solids. Make sure that the latter's cups are well marked to a minimum of 1/ 8 cup, the smallest amount most recipes ask for, to a whole cup. Same goes for the spoons, they normally go from 1/8 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon.

  • Pastry brush: Usually used for just that, pastries, but always have a second one for brushing sauces on meats (no one wants a delicious cupcake spoiled by a weird meaty taste). I would personally suggest buying a silicon bristle brush, since it's much easier to clean.

  • Can opener: if you need an explanation for why this is important in a kitchen, you either eat fresh everyday or have never opened a can with anything other than a knife (THINK OF THE KNIVES!).

  • Thermometer: a must for any cook, a cooking thermometer has a spike that allows to get inside in process meals, making sure that the meals' internal temperature is reached.
Hope this little guide helps out anyone who reads this. All of this is way below $100, not too big for any budget.

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