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Cooking – Back to Basics, Part 1 – the Batterie de Cuisine.

Posted Feb 14 2014 8:03am

My recipes always take me by surprise with how popular they are and I thought, a few days ago, that it might be an idea to go back to basics. Recipes, of course, are an end product which start with the batterie de cuisine – your, and my, kitchen tools and, for our purposes, small appliances – without which you’d be hard pressed to make much more than a sandwich.

I did this a few years ago, but kitchens – and readers – change with time, and not everyone reads the older posts, so it seemed like an opportune time to review the kitchen situation in the light of my worsening disability. And to cover what’s needed in a decently-equipped kitchen, from tools to ingredients, for anyone considering branching out on their own, with the focus, where necessary, on disability. This, the first part, covers the tools.

Links are provided where the items I use are still available. Obviously, you don’t have to take my advice, but I’ve been cooking since I was 12,  and the kit I have now is, I believe, the best combination of price and functionality you’re likely to find. It’s also, where it matters, spoonie-friendly (or, like the food processor, spoonie-friendly as long as you don’t have to move it around).

The following photo is of my tiny kitchen, a shot of my workspace through the doorway – I’m actually standing in the living room using a 28mm lens.

My Workspace For all the pics here, click the thumbnail to see it full size, use the Back button to return here.

The sink is just out of shot to the left. On the worktop, from left to right, we have my Kenwood Chef, sitting on its anti-vibration pad (the reason is explained below, in the chopping-board section), and in front of it a couple of small chopping boards-cum-platters. Next is a bunch of jars containing various types of sea salt, plus one of golden caster sugar (it tastes better and can’t be confused with salt). Next is my Dualit XL 1500 food processor, a giant mug full of utensils, my bread flour bin (in need of refilling), and in front of that is a Tesco sourdough loaf. Then there’s my microwave, which sits on top of a dead cousin to give it height, and in front is my electronic scale, a couple of loaf tins and a box grater and, just sneaking in at the edge, my sarcophagus-shaped deep fryer, a DeLonghi model with a superbly accurate thermostat (I have thermometers for checking that and the oven temperatures), and the corner of my stove.

Above the worktop is my flavourings cupboard, Not apparent from the angle, but it’s crammed as full as it possibly could be with herbs, spices, and stock ingredients. We’ll be visiting that in detail next time. My knife rack, by the way, is on the outside of the right-hand door and, before the day’s out, there’ll be a tablet computer mounted on the outside of the left-hand one. I’ll add a pic in due course – I’m waiting for my tablet holder to come sometime today.

Out of shot to my left is a dead fridge freezer, used for food storage (mostly cans and dried stuff), while off to my right is a wooden kitchen trolley which holds my Dolce Gusto coffee machine and my mini oven, as well as giving me a couple of drawers and a shelf. The trolley has to be moved back so I can use the cooker’s oven. A minor inconvenience.

Obviously, working in such a confined space requires discipline. More than that, it needs scrupulous attention to cleanliness so, whether I’m making bread or prepping food, neither of which I’m able to do more than once a week, often less, the worktop and my chopping boards always get a preliminary scrub. Scrubbing my cooker and deep fryer are way down on my list of priorities, but keeping my workspace clean is right at the top. As it should be.

OK, got my tablet holder, and here it is installed.

Kitchen tablet

KNIVES.

Let’s start with knives, which you need even for something as basic as a sandwich – let’s face it, you might be able to butter sliced bread with a spoon, but try slicing the stuff – or cheese, or meat.

Anyway, these are my knives.

Knives

I have others, but these, apart from the one on the left, are in daily use (or rather, in use when I’m able to cook, which hasn’t been daily for some years). From the left we have a serrated utility knife, a carver, a Santoku knife , an 8” Solingen steel Victorinox chefs’ knife ** with a rosewood handle – very light, very strong, and takes an extremely sharp edge, an 8”bread knife with a scalloped blade,*** a 3” plain utility knife, a scalpel, and a small pair of scissors.

**No need to go all macho, and buy something with a 10 or 12 inch blade. 8” is ample for any normal person. If you have a wide and uncluttered work surface you could get away with a bigger blade, but you don’t need one. The amount of room in which you have to work will generally dictate the length of your chefs’ knife. In my case, that’s the depth of the next item, my chopping boards.

***This knife cost an absurd £2.95 from Sainsbury’s. No idea why it was so cheap, but it’s the best bread knife I’ve ever had. It cuts cleanly, without shredding the loaf – I can peel off slices 2 or 3 mm thick with no trouble at all, and it takes a good edge. Can’t really ask for more.

I would argue that, if you have a good chefs’ knife, you don’t actually need a Santoku. I bought mine because suddenly they were everywhere, and I wanted to see what the fuss was about. While initially impressed I soon found that, with extended use, it caused pain in my shoulder and wrist and, once the novelty wore off, I went back to my chefs’ knife.

I’ve been using one for about 40 years, so my joints and muscles are accustomed to being used at a certain angle and cause me no grief at all. Plus I can work fast with it. Not as lightning fast as a pro, but fast enough and, of course, like anything else I’m good at, I enjoy using it. It is, however, the standing that does for me during prep, and why I really must swallow my pride and use my food processor much more. My kitchen is too small to use a perching stool.

Before leaving knives, a knife is no good if it’s blunt. In fact a blunt knife is more likely to cut you than a sharp one and having tried almost everything from stones to steps during my life (the best thing is a stone step, but they’re hardly portable or convenient), I settled on a diamond-coated steel .

ScreenShot001

There’s a technique to learn, but it’s not hard and it will reliably give you an edge sharp enough to shave with – or to lay your fingers open to the bone if handled carelessly. They’re not cheap – mine was just coppers short of £40, but should last years.

One last tip. If, like me, you prefer bolsterless knives, then the heel of the blade will be dangerously close to your fingers especially if, again, like me, you tend to grip the knife at the junction of blade and handle. So, using a Carborundum stone (or the back step, if it’s stone), blunt the first half-inch of the heel. It takes a little effort as the steel is very hard, but your fingers will thank you for it.

CHOPPING BOARDS

I have three, one wood, 15” x 12” that is used for brad and cake, and occasionally hard cheese, only. Never cut up anything smelly or wet on a wooden board – they are too easily contaminated. The are satisfying to work with, but not easy to keep scrupulously clean. And when dealing with food that’s vitally important.

For fish, meat, smelly cheese and all vegetables, I use high-density polyethylene boards. They don’t absorb odours or fluids, but they do stain badly (carrots are the worst offender). However, a little Milton takes care of that.

I have four of those, 18” x 12, 13” x 10” and two that are 10” x 5½” and they’re the ones mostly used for cheese, or as platters for sandwiches.

The 18” x 12” one probably gets the most use, and dictates the size of my chefs’ knife. If it was any longer it would chip bits out of my food processor just a couple of inches away.

My boards sit on a non-slip pad comprising two layers of non-slip mesh sandwiching a piece of closed-cell foam cut from a camping mat . The combination keeps them in place and quietens them too – chopping veg is quite noisy and the walls of my kitchen are plasterboard, to which the worktop is bolted – the whole assembly is one giant drum! My pad damps that down nicely. The one under the mixer is a wooden board on top of a thick foam pad, so it can be slid out from under the cupboard when in use.

The place I bought my chopping boards no longer sells them, but these guys have a selection of sizes in high-density polyethylene. The Xtra Large, Large, and Bar sizes are a very close match for mine. Again, not cheap but they’re pretty much indestructible. If you just want one board, I’d go for the Xtra Large. However, if you’re not likely to, say, cut up a whole rabbit, or bone out a leg of lamb, then the Large would probably do you. To be honest, I’d always go for the biggest I have room for.

PANS

I very rarely use pans for anything except cooking veg as an accompaniment. For serious cooking I use, almost invariably, a 3litre stainless steel casserole .

3litre casserole

I also have a smaller one, about 2litres as far as I can tell, but the bigger one gets most use. Why these instead of pans? Simple, they are very light, but have a heavy base, so are great to cook with, and have two stubby D handles – no long ones to reach out and snag inattentive spoonies. In fact, they are very spoonie-friendly, which is why I use them. And I cook a lot of stews, because they give me the maximum food for the minimum of pain. And for only a little more effort (and pain), I can get 4 to 6 meals rather than one. Ditto soup. I’m pretty damn good at meal-in-a-bowl dishes.

I do use frying pans, though, as there’s no viable substitute. I have an oversized 30cm one, the extra size helping to keep the cooker clean, plus an omelette pan, both non-stick.

VEGETABLE PEELER

There’s only one peeler to consider for those of us with dodgy hands though, of course, it’s great for everyone else too, and that’s the Rex peeler .

Rex peeler

Rex peelers have been around since 1947. Often copied, but never bettered (and the copies always cost a hell of a lot more). They used to be hard to find with the demise of old-fashioned hardware shops, but for a few years I’ve been buying mine from Amazon. Compare that price with the copies from, say, Lakeland.

The Rex comes in two flavours, aluminium-framed, or stainless steel. Functionally, they’re identical. It’s worth getting several (£1.55 each – live a little!), one for veg, one for fruit, and another for cheese – works way better than a cheese plane.

MIXING BOWLS and STAND MIXERS

I suspect every home has at least one traditional, earthenware mixing bowl by Mason Cash – mine had a run of them down the generations, and I in my time, had mine. I still have it. However, as I’ve become increasingly disabled, and weaker, the very heavy bowl got to be too much for me, so I switched to stainless steel bowls. Sainsbury’s used to do a 5litre one – still do – and they are  very good value, strong and light. I’m assuming it’s 5 litres – they don’t say – but it’s the larger of the two they offer, and thus the best buy. If a bowl is too big, you don’t have to fill it. If it’s too small, you’re buggered.

These days I use a Kenwood Premier Silver Chef  stand mixer (now discontinued, I believe, a pity as it’s a robust and powerful machine that makes a KitchenAid Artisan mixer look like a toy , especially in terms of power **), for the grunt work in bread-making, and for cake mixes. It makes life a lot easier.

**A great styling exercise but grossly underpowered at around 300W – my Kenwood puts out 1200W, essential when mixing  a couple of kilos of bread dough at a time.

ODDS AND SODS

My crockery is polycarbonate – indestructible as long as you don’t do anything dumb like put it on a hot cooker (yep – done that!). That’s because I tend to drop stuff, to which china and earthenware do not take kindly and, one day I had the idea of bringing my old backpacking crockery out of retirement. Now, 10 years on, having replaced the plates (the cooker thing), a couple of times (I also have a large bowl and a small, plus a couple of mugs of about 400ml capacity – perfect for a can of soup), the stuff has gone off the market for reasons that elude me – possibly the economics of making an indestructible product were a bit suspect.

I also have plastic “glasses” for the same reason. They get to look shabby pretty quickly, though, rapidly losing their sparkle. Still, at least I can drop them with impunity.

I have the usual selection of wooden utensils, except for wooden spoons. Ergonomically, wooden spoons suck, the spindly handle tending to rotate in the hand, but Oriental rice paddles don’t.You’ve probably seen these, I use them as my spoonie-rating symbol in recipes, but here’s a pic anyway – this one isn’t a thumbnail, so don’t click it.

spoonie spoon

The design is perfect for stirring a pot with a facility to rival that of Shakespeare’s greasy Joan,** and their flat handle sits in the hand comfortably, making them ideal for those of us with a poor grip. Get them from Japanese/Chinese online stores. I have several, in different sizes, as well as some more traditional flat spatulas (spatulae?), and one large, curved monster, the tip of which is a sharp, straight edge – perfect for stirring anything which tends to stick. Pretty sure I got it from Sainsbury’s – I’ll check and add a link if I find it.

**The poem, Winter, by WS

I also have a pair of stainless steel balloon whisks, a 10” one for the casserole or pans, and a 5” one for mugs and jugs. Like the diamond steel, with whisks there’s a technique to be learned – get it right, though, and whisking, while not effortless, is well within the scope of this spoonie, at least.

Let’s not forget the miscellanea of any good kitchen  – a garlic press, a stick blender (I prefer a whisk or, for a bigger job, a jug blender), corkscrew, a reliable electronic timer, electronic scales – accuracy is essential for baking – plus smaller scale weighing in units of 1/10 of a gram (available from online head shops), for weighing out herbs and spices if you feel you need such precision. For me, in that situation, skill and experience is better than weighing, though I still have such a scale – they come in handy when writing up recipes for other people, so they can replicate what I do exactly. Just a pity I never remember!

And, of course, a food processor . I bought mine, tried it several time, it was great, saved me a lot of pain, and prepped veg in minutes that would otherwise have taken an hour or more, with rest breaks. And I’ve not used it since! I really must use it more, especially as the belief that washing it negates any time saved is a total crock. Time saved is up to 45 minutes (veg still has to be peeled), washing up takes maybe 5 minutes. No contest.

And one last thing in this section. I’m not sure if it properly counts as part of a batterie de cuisine but, for our purposes, I believe it can. For most of my life I’ve cooked entirely on instinct but as I get older my memory gets worse, and so I type up new recipes quickly, before I lose them. Recipes I’ve been cooking most of my life are hardwired, and  still there on autopilot, it’s the new ones that fade, so I type them up and publish them here. Then when I need one, I print it and take it into the kitchen. But I can do better than that, gadget freak that I am!

I’ve ordered a 7” tablet computer holder which I intend to mount on the cupboard door above my workspace. It’ll hold either a Kindle or an Android tablet. Probably the tablet, which has a USB port, making it easy to import my recipes to it as long as I can find a Word-compatible app.

Of course, it would help if Word had the facility to save documents in Kindle format, but a quick look at Google shows there are several ways of doing this, and this one appeals most so I might go with my spare Kindle Paperwhite**. On the other hand, the Android tab has a colour screen, which makes reading cookbooks in colour better. Decisions, decisions . . .

**Tried it, it doesn’t work. I converted a Word document to Kindle format using MobiPocket Creator, imported it manually to my Paperwhite, but the device couldn’t even see it

So it’s going to be the Android tab. Nothing fancy, just a cheap one I bought early on to test the water, but the entire tablet concept – and I now have 3, the cheap one, an iPad 3 (world’s most expensive paperweight), and a Kindle Fire HD – leaves me cold.

Finally, COOKING.

Not technically part of the batterie, but what the hell – I won’t tell if you don’t – I have a standard, solid-plate-hob, electric cooker with a fan oven, which latter gets used only for baking, removing the necessity for cleaning the buggerdly thing.

Many people hate solid hotplates and, I have to admit that, compared to radiant rings or ceramic hobs, they are unresponsive, but once you’ve adjusted to that they work just fine. Their virtue, for me, is that the hob is easy to clean, and thus, spoonie-friendly and, for that, I’m prepared to forgive a lot, as that’s where all my cooking takes place.

I also have a mini oven for reheating stuff, and it’s mostly over and done with in the time it takes my main oven to come up to operating temperature, with a decent saving in electricity (I prefer cooking with gas, but there’s none in this building).

screenshot365

If you buy one, ignore the advice to reduce the temperature when using the fan. In fact, ignore the fan – as far as I can tell it makes no perceptible difference. And using the supplied baking tray completely block the circulation within the oven cavity, whether by natural convection or fan-assisted. I use a smaller tray rescued from the oven I threw out, and that works just fine, as does the circular pizza tray supplied.

And with that, I think we’re done with this section. Any questions, feel free to post them in the comments section – and a reminder – please try to be brief, especially if you expect a reply, as I often don’t have the energy to read long comments.

And yes, I do realise I’ve written over 3,000 words – that’s partly why I don’t have the energy…


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