Even More Kitchen Gear Everyone Needs

DSC02048 (2)My argument around the holidays is always if you are going to buy someone kitchen gear, make it something essential and useful. Don’t bother with futzy, single use things. And if you can’t make it something useful, then make it something edible (tea, coffee, liquor, or spices are all awesome things that don’t need to be consumed immediately). These are a few things in my kitchen I love. If you’re looking for even more ideas, check out the other two iterations of this list I made: Kitchen Gear Everyone Needs and More Kitchen Gear Everyone Needs. I still stand by every item I mentioned previously, and use them constantly. With the exception of the citrus squeezer, which I recently had to replace because the coating was chipping off, I still use all of those exact items weekly, if not daily.

This list is working from the bottom up and clockwise through what is in the photo above.

Commercial baking sheets. Do your baking sheets ever make a popping noise in the oven? And then when you open the door to look, the baking sheet is no longer flat, but warped? Those should be demoted to craft-only baking sheets. Invest in a couple really nice baking sheets which are meant to withstand high temperatures (like those in an oven!!) and they will last a lifetime. I have half and quarter sheet pans which I use frequently (the standard size in a home kitchen is actually a half-sheet pan, the giant ones used in commercial kitchens are full). (My half and quarter sheet pans look vastly different because the half has logged over 5 years of constant use, and the quarter is only a year old.)

Cooling racks the same size as your baking sheets. These were a game changer for me. I bought a cooling rack without measuring it, only to find it was much thinner and longer than a standard half sheet pan. This is very inconvenient when you need to nest a cooling rack within a sheet pan for very important tasks like allowing chicken wings to rest in the fridge prior to baking, or cooling/draining just fried breaded eggplant.

Fine mesh brewing basket. This isn’t cooking gear per se, but I still find this invaluable. There are plenty of adorable tea infusers out there (like the MANATEA!!!!!!), but….THEY DON’T WORK. I want to drink tea, not water full of leaves. This is the only strainer I’ve used that has holes that are so fine that even rooibos can’t get through it.

1/4 cup measure. Admittedly, I bought this after reading Julia Turshen sing its praises, and she sure was right. This tiny cup is endlessly useful and has saved what I’m sure will account for many hours of my life that I could have spent measuring 4 individual tablespoons, but instead just measured once. (It is also great for measuring cocktail ingredients, and far easier to pour than a shot glass.)

Glass containers for food storage (shown with the red top). I don’t know where I was without these in my life. They stand up to being filled with hot foods, stack, don’t stain or retain smells, and work great for reheating in an oven or microwave. I’m partial to the 4 cup size, which I think is the perfect portion for a lunch, but I have a few larger and a few smaller containers that I wouldn’t want to go without. The lids are not as durable at the glass bases (mine lasted about 2 years), but you can buy replacement lids separately.

A mandoline (no, not a mandolin). This does some with a caveat, because it is really easy to slice of the tip of your finger with one of these. But….they do make consistent, thin slices or matchsticks of many a vegetable. My one complaint with this particular model is it is fairly narrow, so if you have a large vegetable you have to cut it down a bit.

For a bit more fun, check out this year’s edition of my absolute favorite gift guide.

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Books about food

dsc01942My favorite hobbies are in order: eating food, making food, reading about food. While the first two take precedence to sustain me, I wouldn’t be fulfilled without the third. The holidays are an especially great time to share this love of reading. While I don’t force food books onto everyone in my life, if I had to pick a few to share, these would be at the top of the list.

The Third Plate (Dan Barber). If you need a crash course on Dan Barber (and an awesome show to fall into), watch his episode of Chef’s TableThis book presented our food system in an entirely new way to me. Barber’s argument is that the fundamental problem with our food system is we don’t look at it as a whole. Consumers (chef’s included) demand large amounts of specific plants and animals (like tomatoes or beef), which incentivizes farmers to produce those in mass quantities. Though that may allow them to make a living, it takes a toll on the environment and depletes resources in the long run. He says we should instead be asking farmers what they need to grow or how they need to raise animals to preserve the health of the land, and then we should base what we eat off of that. This forces greater variety on the consumer, and necessitates using more of each plant.

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (Michael Pollan). I reread Cooked this year, and I’m so glad I gave it a second chance. While I was lukewarm after the first reading, I was completely enthralled this time around. I love the organization of the book, Pollan explores one food process to match each element: fire (barbecue), water (braising), air (breadmaking), and earth (fermentation). History, science, and technique are interwoven as Pollan shadows experts and attempts processes in his own kitchen (and backyard).

An Everlasting Meal (Tamar Adler). This book really straddles the line of book about food and cookbook. Recipes, techniques, and food philosophies stew together in Adler’s opinionated and often dramatic prose (“The degrading of mayonnaise from a wonderful condiment for cooked vegetables or sandwiches to an indistinguishable layer of fat has been radical and violent.” p31). Some recipes are written out in the standard ingredient list and instructions format, but the majority of them are within the rest of the paragraphs. While they are a delight to read like this, I have found them much harder to find and refer back to. As the title suggest, Adler believes each meal leads into the next, and we can cook in such a way so little is wasted and maximum flavor is extracted from each ingredient. While her tastes may not match everyone’s, I loved her fiery point of view and many suggestions for simple yet delicious food.

And a few other books I’ve loved: Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, The Kitchen Counter Cooking School, Consider the Fork, Edible, and Catching Fire.

Beer Advent Calendar

beer-advent-calendarIf you need a great gift for a beer lover, a beer advent calendar is hard to beat. Many liquor stores or specialty beer stores (like Craft Beer Cellar) sell single bottles or make your own six packs. (Looking on the Craft Beer Cellar website right now it even looks like they sell something to make a beer advent calendar…but you can do it on your own!) Find 24 distinct beers, keeping in mind the preferences of your beer drinker, but also the fact that you are buying single bottles of beer which is an excellent opportunity to take some risks. I went with 12 ounce bottles and a few 16 ounce cans, but if you are a big spender you can go for 22 ouncer bottles or bombers. It’s fun to make at least the final beer a bomber, and last year I ended with Culmination (which pleased me greatly). I used paper grocery bags to wrap them and just wrote a number on each, but you could get even fancier (that effort would have been lost on my recipient, so I did not bother).

I love the calendar concept for a gift, even if beer is not your chosen medium. Mix it up with other beverages, chocolates, love notes, or anything else. Combine the childhood delight of getting a new gift every day with your expanded adult tastes (or just make one for a kid, they will still love it). Will liked this so much that we decided it would be an annual tradition and switch off making them for each other (which greatly simplifies the process, because buying and storing beer in secret in this house is HARD).

Another huge benefit of the beer advent calendar (besides maybe getting to partake in the consumption yourself), is the entire prep is done before Decemeber even starts, so you’re immediately ahead of the gift game. Instead of dealing with crowds Black Friday, spend a couple hours curating an awesome gift that lasts all month. Cheers!

Making Vanilla Extract to Give to a Crowd

dsc01924Vanilla extract only has two ingredients: vanilla beans and vodka. Mix those together, give them some time to marry, and you have an incredibly potent elixir to bake with. If you’re going to go through the little trouble it takes to make extract, it is barely any more effort to make a big batch of it. Start that batch now, and you will have an excellent gift for friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors for the holidays. It fits into all kinds of diets, doesn’t go bad, and is one of those things that people don’t usually make so it seems more impressive than it is. To make a single batch you need a handle of vodka (nothing too fancy), about 25 vanilla beans, and some jars for gifting. The up front expense seems high (vanilla ain’t cheap), but it works out to about $5 a bottle (4 oz) for a homemade and actually useful gift. (I’ve seen nice vanilla extract go over $10 for 4 ounces.)

I follow the formula laid out here of 1 vanilla bean for every two ounces of vodka. This year I wanted to make a lot to give out, so I bought two 25 packs of beans, and two handles of vodka. The last few years I’ve used the US Kirkland Vodka from Costco, but any lower to mid-range vodka should work (not the worst, not the best). I use quart mason jars to make the measuring easy – just count fourteen beans for each jar, split them, put them in the jar, and then fill it up to the 28 oz line. A handle of vodka (750 mL) is just under 60 ounces, so that would fill two 28 oz mason and make about fourteen 4 oz bottles. This year I put fourteen beans in three quart jars and filled them, so I had about a half handle of vodka leftover from the two. I’ll use that to make a second batch with doubled-up used beans after Christmas that I can use myself. I have eight beans leftover that I’m saving for other cooking projects, as they are far cheaper bought in bulk like this.

dsc01927The shortest amount of time I’ve let them sit before gifting is five weeks, but longer is better. Order beans and vodka now, put them to steep, and by the holidays you will be all ready. How is that for lazy gift making? Past years I’ve bought twelve packs of Boston round bottles which are economical and just the right size, but I’ve found they leak a bit so I’m searching for a better sealed option.

I like to check up on them and give the bottles a shake every few weeks, but that is mostly just for fun and observing the process. The change in color is dramatic, especially after the first few days. I took these photos just two days after I started my jars and look at the difference already!

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So many gifts and celebrations around the holidays focus on rich foods and sweets. I like giving something that can help create decadence later on, but does not need to be consumed on top of the already collected mountain of extravagance. Someone can tuck it away in a cabinet and maybe not use it for months without the quality or usefulness being compromised. Start a batch now, and you can take care of your giving list before Halloween!

More Cookbooks for You and Other People

More Cookbooks for Your and Other People - Vegetal MattersCookbooks are one of my favorite gifts to give and receive. Yes, there is an internet’s worth of recipes at your finger tips. but it will never match the experience of diving into one author’s perspective of a certain cuisine, ingredient, or type of dishes. Sometimes you just want a recommendation from someone you feel like you know and trust. My cookbooks snuggled into a bookcase in my kitchen feel like backup forces of chefs and friends ready to provide inspiration, walk me through a new dish, or reliably guide me through cooking something I love.

All the books below have been in my possession for 6 months or (many) more. I have read them cover to cover and cooked at least 3 recipes from them (but probably more). Last year I wrote about five favorite cookbooks for gifts, all of which are still happily on my bookcase and in the cooking rotation. If this is just not enough books for you, then we should be friends, and you should also check out other cookbooks I’ve mentioned here as well as other books related to food in the Cookbooks and Read categories.

More Cookbooks for Your and Other People - Vegetal MattersEvery Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking by Fuchsia Dunlop. I got this out of the library after reading Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepperand then I got it out of the library again. Then I felt I was being unfair to other library patrons and bought my own copy. It is a beautifully designed book with rice grain art dividing each chapter. The recipes are nothing like the fried chicken in a sweet, goopy sauce you might find at a buffet. I’ve never been to China (please, take me!), but whenever I cook from this book I feel like I’m making dishes that could easily be what Chinese households are making.

More Cookbooks for You and Other People - Vegetal MattersInitially this did require special trips to find more obscure ingredients like light and dark soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, Chinkiang vinegar, and chili bean paste, but they were relatively easy to find at Asian grocery stores (and would be great to include along with your book gift!). Many of the recipes repeat these ingredients, so once you have the basics there’s no need to go searching for something new with every dish you cook. Dan dan noodles, vegetarian “Gong Bao Chicken,” fish fragrant eggplant, and Sichuanese “send-the-rice-down” chopped celery with ground beef are all in my eternal repertoire now.

More Cookbooks for You and Other People - Vegetal MattersThug Kitchen: The Official Cookbook: Eat Like You Give a F*ck by the authors of the Thug Kitchen blog The blog and book aim to destroy the notion that vegan food is pretentious, expensive, girly, and doesn’t taste good (and they succeed). The recipes are easy and call for very common ingredients, with the added bonus of being hilarious. BBQ bean burritos with grilled peach salsa, spring veggie bowl with curry lime sauce, tortilla soup, and the baked tofu I’ve made so many times I have the page memorized (77!) have kept me reaching for this book again and again. They released a new cookbook this year, Thug Kitchen Party Grub: For Social Motherf*ckersbut I haven’t had it long enough or cooked from it enough to provide an official endorsement. There is some pretty funny gear in their shop to go along with your book gift.

More Cookbooks for You and Other People - Vegetal MattersOn Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. This book does not have any recipes in it, but should still be on every cookbook shelf. It is essential to understanding why we use what techniques where and how foods behave when subjected to different processes. After reading it this year I wrote about all the greatness to be gleaned. Buy it for your own shelf too, and turn to Harold first every time you wonder why something occurs when cooking.

More Cookbooks for You and Other People - Vegetal MattersJamie at Home: Cook Your Way to the Good Life by Jamie Oliver. I already gushed about this book and my favorite recipes when I wrote about zucchini carbonara. I won’t repeat myself, but this book is worthwhile for the cherry tomato and sausage bake alone.

 

More Kitchen Gear Everyone Needs

Last year I wrote up a very short gift guide of incredibly useful kitchen items that I fear are overlooked as gifts because they are not flashy enough. I still stand by every one of those items and continue to use them on a weekly, if not daily basis (especially my beloved scale). Very specific items (deviled egg plates! banana slicers! Moscow mule mugs!) may seem like the thing to get a cook that has everything, but the reason they don’t own them is because they aren’t needed. (In fact, Moscow mules are traditionally served in copper mugs because the girlfriend of the bartender who invented them had a copper mug company. Source: The Drunken Botanist)

And seasonal gifts like GingerBread Kids Cakelet Pans are useful (if you can call them that) a tiny portion of the year, and are exactly the kind of thing you donate when you move because the idea of putting time and effort into packaging and transporting something so trivial makes their absurdity very apparent. (Pro tip – Goodwill is full of cakelet* pans for real cheap right now!) Give kitchen gifts that people will box up last, and unpack first when they move into a new place. I love these three items so much I brought them with me to cook Thanksgiving last week. They reduce effort and waste, are constantly useful, and are useful for cooks of any skill level. Like last year, I’m linking to examples but it’s not the specific brand that is important here.

*I was not aware cakelet was a word until I found this pan. When did cakelets become a thing???

More Kitchen Gear Everyone Needs - Vegetal Matters

Silicone spatula – I especially like the models where the spatula is one piece (not a head with a handle made from another material). They wash nicely, and there is less chance of the head falling off or weird gunk getting stuck.  I probably don’t need to tell you these are essential for wiping down the sides of the food processor and getting every last drop out of measuring cups, bowls, and pans. Owning one is rarely enough.

Citrus squeezer – Yes, you can try squishing citrus on the counter with your palm or microwaving it to get more juice out (or squishing then microwaving, which Robert Wolke found in What Einstein Told His Cook to provide the highest juice yield). But those methods only make citrus easier to juice if you are doing it by hand. I find this low tech squeezer to greatly magnify my squishing power with its leverage and pressure. As a bonus feature it keeps almost all the seeds out of whatever you are making. I do also have one of these juicer/strainer combos that is better for larger citrus and/or higher quantities (read: cocktails), but I keep one of these squeezers readily accessible for my daily needs.

Silicone baking mat – I never want to go back to my life without this. I don’t even remember the last time I made cookies that stuck to the pan. Use it in any recipe that calls for parchment paper or a foil lining of a baking sheet. Nothing sticks, ever. I’ve had this one three or four years and yes, it is a bit weathered, but no worse for the wear. I use it for roasting tofu, crackers, cookies, rolls, and anything that threatens to be sticky.

If you are looking for even more ideas, I keep a board of items on Pinterest (but some are more dream items than small gifts, and since I don’t own them I can’t officially endorse). What are other hyper-useful gift ideas for the home cook?

Kitchen gear everyone needs

I love kitchen gear, but only to an extent. I don’t like having many items that only serve one purpose. My goal is to have a well curated collection of things that I use constantly. These are a few items missing from the rest of the internet’s kitchen gift suggestions that I use daily. I did link to specific examples, but I’m not married to any brand for these (except the pot, because that’s a sale item). There are lots of options, so look around.

gear

Canning Funnel – Don’t can? You still need this funnel. Funnels in general are awesome. I do use this one for canning, but I reached for it so much I moved it out of the box of canning stuff and into an everyday drawer. I use it constantly for transferring things that are not straight liquid into containers (beverages! soup! granola! flour!). Definitely get metal, best for hot uses.

Mesh Produce Bags – I keep a bunch of these in my grocery bag and use them for buying produce and bulk items so I don’t have to get a plastic bag for every kind of fruit or vegetable I buy (which can be many….).

Kitchen Scale – These babies are life changing. I use them for measuring dry goods for baking (just zero after every ingredient! so exact! fewer dishes!), truly knowing I have 6 oz of mushrooms when that is what the recipe calls for, and just being more exact in general because weight is always more reliable than volume. And maybe every once in a while I weigh mail to see how many stamps I need.

pot

Cast Iron Dutch Oven – In my ideal world, I would have a beautiful set of vintage Le Creuset pots in a snappy color. Unfortunately every other cook has this same dream. New ones are prohibitively expensive for most, and used ones are still pricey. I was trolling West Elm because I had a gift card and found this gem on sale. No, it doesn’t have the vintage warmth of a Creuset, but it is a beast of a pot and $49.99 for 5.5 quarts is amazing (just for the black). In my other ideal world (slightly less ideal than the Le Creuset world) I would have gotten white or red, but paying an extra $30 for a color is a level of crazy I thankfully am not. My one complaint about this pot is it is so heavy I can’t lift it with one arm, but that means I just need to do more push ups.

Look! Using two of my favorite things together! (Putting away some mushroom soup)

in use

PS – Do you hate gift guides? Even this one? These could be more your taste: Gift Guide: Foodies and Gift Guide: Witches and Wizards