Culinary Sine Qua Nons

My sister Meg lives without most common kitchen utensils. You won't find a Pyrex measuring cup, a wooden spatula, or even a teakettle in her kitchen. On one family visit to her house, my husband Patrick went out and bought her a cheese grater because, as he said, "Who doesn't own a cheese grater?" Meg doesn't. "You can live without a lot of things," she jested to me last week. "Who doesn't like soggy lettuce? Forget the salad spinner. But a can opener, that is another story. That is a necessity. We lived on a lot of canned goods when we were in grad school." Perhaps Meg would become the next Julia Child if she were properly set up with kitchen supplies. I decided to pick the brains of my family and friends to put together a list of culinary sine qua non s.

"I live by my wooden spoons," said college chum Sarah. "I have a few different-sized round-headed ones, and then I have a flat spatula head. They are great for anything on the stove that needs stirring. I can just leave them in the pot."

Her mother-in-law, listening in on the conversation, added her own favorite utensil. "It's called the Quick Chop. It is a cylinder with a knob on top," she explained, "and you chop onions or garlic in it by pounding the knob. I'm constantly using it in the kitchen."

Cousin Laura warned me about measuring spoons. "Don't buy cheap measuring spoons, because the letters wear off on them. Then you are left guessing as to what measurement it is. Only buy metal utensils with engraved letters on them."

"I'm not the greatest in the kitchen," shrugged gal pal Erica, "but a cheap potato peeler is useless, and to peel by hand takes forever -- you waste half of the potato. So a good potato peeler is a necessary item."

"My French chef Cutco knife," answered pal Vicki. "Wouldn't live without that for more than a day."

"You have to have good knives," best friend Bernice agreed. "A chef's knife, a boning knife, a paring knife, and a small serrated knife. With those four knives, you can do anything in the kitchen. I also love my Joyce Chen kitchen scissors. I use them to snip herbs, cut up a chicken, cut string. I use them all the time."

Her husband Frank, a home pastry chef by night, would not live without his double boiler. "For my birthday years ago, all I wanted was a double boiler. Bernice bought me an All-Clad double boiler, which is wonderful because it is heavy, so the top pan fits tightly in the base pan. When you are stirring ingredients in it, the pan is not moving on you. I use that for a lot of my desserts."

Friend Shawn loves her Le Creuset Dutch oven. "I make everything in it," she informed me. "It is fire engine red, made of enameled cast iron, and I wouldn't live without it."

The most interesting reply came from my sister Cathy. "I would have to say my needle-nose pliers," she said. "I use them for getting things out of the drain, or helping get lids off of cans, lots of things."

After talking to all of these homemakers, I called Erika D'Eugenio, retail manager for Great News Discount Cookware. She gave me a long rundown of must-haves. Her first suggestion was a toaster oven. "Personally, I would die without my toaster oven. It's a DeLonghi six-slice toaster oven, all stainless steel, and it also has a rounded back so that you can fit pizzas in it [ $99 ].

"For cookware, I would say All-Clad and ScanPan together. All-Clad for your stainless steel cookware and ScanPan when you need a really good nonstick. ScanPan is a ceramic titanium nonstick [with a] lifetime warranty. It doesn't have the Teflon properties in it. [ScanPan frying pans start at $39 ; All-Clad start at about $100 apiece. The 9-piece set runs $539 with two free gifts.] You save about 20 percent when you do the set."

D'Eugenio also recommended an All-Clad roasting pan or a Mauviel roasting pan, "which is a seven-ply stainless-steel roasting pan so that you can make gravy in it on top of the stove top [ $220 ].

"Every kitchen needs good knives," she continued, "I would recommend Wusthof or Shun. The pricing is around the same for both [sets start at $299 ]. A good chef's knife is going to run you about $90 .

"I would do Emile Henry casserole and baking dishes [ $25 and up]," she added. "They are from freezer to oven. And some high-quality cookie sheets that won't warp, like a Chicago Metallic cookie sheet, which runs about $22 ."

Hitting her stride, D'Eugenio continued, "We promote our silicone pot mitts. [About $20 apiece]. They go up to 600 degrees and you can put your hand in boiling water with it on.

"You also need a nice wood cutting board. We carry bamboo cutting boards, which are a harder cutting board, and they are not going to warp. Smaller sizes run $30 to $100 . We also carry Epicurean boards, which are a composite of different woods, and they are a dishwasher-safe wood [ $20 and up].

"For utensils, every kitchen needs a whisk, a good high-heat spatula, a ladle, and tongs. And I would recommend the Rosle garlic press [ $32], which is a one-piece stainless steel press. I would also have a probe-style meat thermometer. The probe piece sticks in the meat, and the meter is on the outside of the oven so you don't have to keep opening your oven [ $24] ."

Before we hung up, D'Eugenio had one last addition. "Every kitchen needs a Microplane zester [ $12.94 -- 14.94] . The small, skinny, handheld grater is wonderful for grating chocolate, nutmeg, cheese, and zest of lemons, limes, and oranges."

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