Wednesday, May 26, 2010

10 Essential Kitchen Items for the Healthy Cook

A healthy cook’s kitchen is much like any other. There are probably some pots, a few pans, a spatula, and, mysteriously, 48,000 whisks. There might be a chef’s knife among the cutlery, and a splotch of tomato sauce on the floor. Somewhere, maybe behind the spice rack or in a rarely used thermos, lies a king-sized bag of guilty pleasure M&Ms.

However, upon deeper inspection, there are differences between the two galleys. Foremost among the cookware lies a large nonstick skillet. Claiming places of prominence in the utensil drawer are a zester and pack of wooden skewers. Bizarrely, there’s a food scale in the liquor cabinet. (Because seriously, where else do you put that thing?)

Lighter cooking doesn’t have to involve a lot of pricey additional gear, but there are a few pieces of inexpensive, multi-purpose equipment that can undoubtedly make the venture a bit easier. These are my ten picks, garnered from eons and epochs and ages (Note: a coupla years) of healthy-type meal prep. Some would appear in any well-stocked kitchen. Others are specific to us nutritionally-minded folks.

Readers, what would you add? What would you leave off? Aren’t microplane graters the best? Seriously, I could run away to Tahiti with one.

1) Large nonstick skillet with lid
I love Calphalon pans, but they require a good amount of oil and butter to prevent food from sticking. On the other hand, my 13-year-old, 12-inch nonstick barely needs any at all. A little dab of olive oil is enough for most veggies and meats. Not to mention, its sheer size is perfect for a plethora of healthy one-dish meals.

2) Pepper grinder
An important part of healthy cooking is creating maximum flavor without adding too much extra fat or too many calories. For this, salt and pepper are absolutely vital. And while there isn’t a huge difference between mass-produced salts, the same isn’t true for their black-n-gray partners. Freshly ground peppercorns are far superior to dusty, pre-ground supermarket pepper, in both taste and intensity. Find a durable, inexpensive, hand-operated grinder online (Amazon is a good place to start) and get cranking.

3) Microplane zester/grater
Along the same lines, a handheld microplane zester is fantastic for upping your flavor factor. Mulched garlic, grated nutmeg, finely shredded parmesan, and rasped citrus all have a place on its resumé, and it’s really fun to hold. Having one makes me feel like Mario Batali. (Note: Minus the hair.)

4) Food scale
Owning a food scale may not seem useful outside a regimented diet, but hear me now and believe me later: they’re spectacular for gauging portion sizes, no matter how you eat. Four ounces of meat can be difficult to eyeball, but stick that baby on a food scale and *poof*, you’re good to go. Plus, scales are great for measuring exact weights for more accurate recipe reproduction. Grab a cheap-o mechanical version, and you’ll never puzzle over half a pound of penne again.

5) Stick blender
Let’s talk about blender explosions. You know the drill: you ladle a few cups of hot soup in for a puree, you hit the “chop” button, and BLAMMO, there’s butternut squash all over your counter, your walls, and *ouch* your now-blistering hand. Don’t worry, sweet reader. A stick blender will make all that badness go away. Spectacular for healthy soups and purees, it does all the work of a regular blender, without the hospital bills. Cleanup is way easier, as well, and bargain buys tend to perform as well as pricier pieces in reviews.

6) Steamer basket
Soggy vegetables are the bane of humanity. Boiling or over-nuking them can have this unfortunate effect. BUT. Imagine chowing down on crisp, tender, colorful vegetables less than five minutes after turning on your stove’s burner. A $10 metal steamer basket will perform this miracle, and cure your cat of lockjaw. (Note: Only one of those last two statements are true.)

7) Food processor
When you think “food processor,” what’s the first image that comes to mind? Is it a 20-cup monster used for commercial baking? Is it an impossible-to-clean leviathan that takes up 70% of your counter space? Is it an airplane propeller? (Er … weirdo.) Never fear, my friends. Essential for light sauces, dips, salsas, pestos, and other flavorful mixtures, these champions of chop can be found small, cheap, and well-made online. A few minutes (seriously, that’s it) of searching will give your knife calluses a much-needed rest.

8) Bulk storage
Whole foods (as opposed to processed ones) are the cornerstone of healthy eating. Frequently, this means cooking and baking with grains, dried beans, lentils, whole-wheat flour, and a multitude of other items that can be purchased cheaper en masse. Subsequently, having convenient, airtight, bug-resistant storage at hand is highly suggested. You don’t have to buy 20-gallon bins or anything, but a few good OXO or Snapware jars can be just the ticket.

9) Skewers
Fast, high-heat methods of cooking like broiling and grilling don’t generally require a boatload of extra cooking oil, which is nice. Usually, you need just enough to keep food from sticking to a grate. Beyond that, skewers are nice to have. Because:
  • They make smaller cuts of meat look gigantic.
  • They promote even cooking.
  • They’re cheap as heck.
  • It is proven scientific fact (by me) that everything tastes 200% to 300% better when stuck on a stick. Give a kid a tomato, he’ll throw it at the dog. Put a tomato on a stick, and he’ll ask for seventh helpings.
Note: I use metal skewers, but mah friend Rachel prefers wooden. If you buy the latter, be aware they tend to burn at the ends unless you soak ‘em first.

10) Tongs, kitchen shears, and a slow cooker (TIE).
These three items are common to most kitchens, but I’m listing them anyway. Why? Well, I use the first two almost everyday, for everything. The latter is helpful when I’m in a rush and need big portions of light food with little effort. I suspect families might use it pretty frequently, too.

And with that, sweet readers, I leave it to you. Is there anything about this list you’d change? I dare you to comment on it. (MUHAHAHAHA!)

(Photos from Sur La Table [zester], Skillet Cookware [skillet], Amazon [food scale and canister].)


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Michelle said...

The mini prep you posted a link to is great...I have one myself..but it's not a true food processor (which is an essential kitchen tool!). It's great for small jobs. A full-sized food processor is a must.

Also, frugal doesn't always mean buying the cheapest models. Frugal can mean buying the best you can afford and having it last a lifetime. I would never go cheap on important kitchen appliances or tools. It's not a frugal move in the long run.

Alice said...

I love my silicone cookie sheet liner, similar to this one: Keeps stuff from sticking to the sheet without using butter.

Also, there is a difference with salt! The difference between plain old table salt and the good - although not cheap - fleur de sel is night and day. A small sprinkle of the good stuff where the flavour of the salt really matters (like on top of delicately cooked fish, roasted veggies, or these guys: can take a dish from good to GOOOOD.

Marcia said...

My only concern would be for non-stick cookware. I know that there are new types coming out all the time that aren't made of teflon. But I am actually moving more and more to stainless and cast iron (with extra oil) instead of non-stick.

Non-stick only when necessary.

wosnes said...

I cook real food. I have a food scale, stick blender, steamer basket, but I almost never use them. In fact, they're in storage right now and I don't miss them at all. I don't have and don't need skewers. I have and use a slow cooker frequently, but I'm questioning my "need" for it.

I do have a couple of good knives that I would miss if I didn't have them for even one day.

gfpumpkins said...

I too would nix the nonstick skillet. I haven't cooked with nonstick in likely over 10 years and I don't miss it. Learn how to use a stainless or cast iron and you're set.
My $18 chef's knife is a must to me, as is my rice cooker. I have a few of the other things you list, but honestly, I could do without. I haven't used my steamer since moving to my current city two years ago and I've only needed skewers twice in my entire life.

Georgie said...

For those who can find the money for the capital investment - a Thermomix. Yes, they're expensive, but mine saves me money, time, and enables me to cook healthier food for my family (although I'm not really on the low fat = healthy bandwagon). And SPACE, I have a tiny kitchen and three children. It also replaces a few items on the list: stick blender, food processor, scale, steamer basket.

I bought mine with a tax refund and now my weekly grocery bill is lower and we're eating better.

Anonymous said...

I'd take a pressure cooker over a slow cooker any day. Fantastic for cooking soups & casseroles, outstanding for cooking dried beans & chickpeas; also for stewing fruit. I use mine at least twice a week & sometimes twice a day.

Daniel said...

Kris, another exceptional post. I'd second gfpumpkins on the necessity of a rice cooker. We use ours 4 nights a week.

And couldn't agree more with the large nonstick skillet/lid. In fact, I'd suggest buying one that's deep, at least 4 inches deep, so you can use it for a ridiculously wide range of meals, including soups, sauces, etc.

Curious why 1-2 sturdy, good quality knives didn't make your list?

Casual Kitchen