There's a conspiracy among appliance and utensil manufacturers that is designed to eat away at our culinary confidence.
The perpetrators are using glossy catalogues and enticing magazine ads to brainwash us into believing it's impossible to even fathom cooking unless our kitchens are fully equipped with the latest gadgetry, professional-grade cookware and restaurant-style ranges. Between this "Williams Sonoma syndrome" and Martha Stewart's if- you- haven't- milled- the- wheat- yourself- don't- even- think- about- cultivating- your- own- sour- dough- starter approach to cooking, it's no wonder that so many intimidated gourmets are selling their souls to Boston Market and Koo Koo Roo.
A fully loaded kitchen is not going to improve your cooking skills any more than a new tennis racket will propel you onto the professional circuit. [The most important tool in any kitchen is a palate] that understands the different taste sensations of fresh produce, herbs and spices; and a will to experiment. Fifty cents' worth of fresh garlic, ginger, leeks or shallots, chilies and/or lime juice can instantly transform any ho-hum dish into a techno-flavored rave in your mouth. By developing the confidence to mix these elements in bold combinations, you can throw together a spontaneous meal that'll impress a romantic date or simply improve the pleasure quotient of the food you scarf down in front of the tube. Granted, it takes time to acquire confidence, but whose instincts do you have more faith in: yours or the 17-year-old kid standing behind the fast-food counter in plastic sanitary gloves?
When you're ready to take the plunge, there are [three basic kitchen items and one accessory] that I consider to be worthy of your investment. Each one is capable of making a noticeable difference and contributing to a more satisfying cooking experience.
* A solid 8-inch chef's knife. Pick one that feels good, weighty and well-balanced in your hand. When in doubt, go with a name brand such as Wusthof or Henckel.
* A sturdy wooden cutting board (the bigger and thicker the better).
* A 10-inch non-stick sauté pan and lid . Silverstone makes a fine pan for $25. All-Clad makes the Cadillac, but you'll pay the price.
For the widest selection and the best deals, [shop at a restaurant supply store] (find them in the yellow pages). A trip to one is a great source of inspiration and a guaranteed action adventure. After the basics are in hand, take a moment to integrate them into your kitchen. The following modifications can help even the most dysfunctional kitchens.
* Designate a prep area. This space should be well-lit. If you have track lighting, re-focus a lamp to illuminate this area. (Do it in such a way that your own body doesn't cast a shadow where you'll be chopping).
* Set your cutting board down in the prep area as a permanent fixture. If your counter surface is slippery or uneven, place a damp dishtowel underneath it.
* Relocate your garbage bin. Most garbage bags are hidden under a lid, behind the cupboard door, under the sink and several steps away from the prep area. Getting to the garbage with an armful of vegetable cuttings usually involves the use of several limbs. Like laboratory monkeys, we tend to retrace the same steps over and over, without noticing the inefficiency. (In fairness to the monkeys, they eventually do catch on). Improve your culinary ergonomics by setting a small trash bucket at your feet by the prep area when you start cooking.
Now, for the most important kitchen accessory: Tunage. [Music makes a cook happy]. And a happy disposition is an ingredient you can really taste (just ask any Buddhist). Instead of upgrading to a new multi-setting 40-horsepower blender, spend your next disposable kitchen dollars on a pair of bookshelf speakers (and enough wire to snake back to your receiver). Without any carpet or upholstered furniture to muffle the sound, just about any speaker will sound symphonic in the small confines of a kitchen. To enhance the stereo separation, hang them in diagonally opposing corners of the room. Sixty bucks and a trip to Radio Shack is all it takes to be slicin' and dicin' to the beat.
So grab your corkscrew and your favorite new music, [rip out the pages of those annoying catalogs] and use them for what they're really good for: igniting the pilot light of your stove.