First, buy a well-rounded cookbook. Of the thousands of cookbooks on the market, only a small group is dedicated to the essential elements for a novice cook. One of the first nationally used cookbooks was The 1896 Boston Cooking School Cookbook by Fannie Farmer; its most recent edition was published in 1997 ($16.95 paperback). Then in 1931, Irma Rombauer published The Joy of Cooking, which became the beloved, dog-eared, stained cookbook for generations. Later editions of Joy were published by Rombauer's daughter. For the newest edition, The All New, All Purpose Joy of Cooking ($35), Ethan Becker, grandson of Irma and son of Marion Rombauer Becker and Maria Guarnaschelli (senior editor and vice president at Scribner's), gathered and revamped 3,000 recipes.
However, if you only have the cash for one cookbook to add to your new kitchen, Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food, with illustrations by Alan Witschonke (Hungry Minds, 1998: New York, $35), is ideal. Bittman is an author of many cookbooks as well as a food columnist for the New York Times. When this 944-page tome was published in 1998, Bittman won the Julia Child Cookbook and the James Beard Foundation Cookbook awards.
"Anyone can cook, and most everyone should," Bittman writes. Take this advice to heart. In this clearly and simply written cookbook, he covers recipes that span our current global tastes. Recipes in the appetizers section include hummus, guacamole, taramasalata, plantain chips and potato-filled samosas. Illustrations show how to make pot stickers and eat lobster. In all, he packs 1,500 recipes into this ambitious cookbook. In addition to recipes, a glossary and handy menus for a number of occasions, Bittman uses sidebars with such useful information as "24 great salads for a picnic," "Eighteen grain dishes that are good cold or reheated," and "Ten special desserts for special occasions."
Next up is buying a quality knife, an essential element for any cook. Quality knives are expensive, but worth it. Start with an 8-inch chef's knife. One trendy chef's knife is made by Global, a Japanese company ($82, Williams-Sonoma). The blade is molybdenum and vanadium stainless steel. The edge of this knife is ground to a more acute angle than European-styled knives. Also, Global's handle is stainless steel with a finger safety notch between blade and handle. But if you find the curved polypropylene handle more familiar, go with the German Wusthof Trident Le Cordon Bleu ($116, Sur La Table). This blade is incredibly sharp and made with high-carbon, no-stain German steel. In addition to the knife, consider buying a sharpener.
After knives, good measuring devices are a must for the new cook. Sure, after making a recipe once, you may not need exact measurements, but for the first go, precise measurements will deliver the taste the recipe's author intended. Besides, if you venture into baking, measuring will make the difference. While plastic or thin metal measuring devices are cheaper, they can also break or lose their shape. Instead, invest in 18/8 stainless steel dry measuring cups and spoons. A four-piece, long-handled, dry measure cup set of 18/10 stainless steel costs about $20 and a heavy gauge five-piece spoon set costs about $11. You'll also need a liquid measure with a spout. The ever-present Pyrex has been around for decades and costs from $4 for a one-cup to $12 for a 2-quart bowl.
For cookware, buy the best you can. If you can afford only three pots and pans, buy a nonstick fry pan, a three-quart saucier and a stock pot. A nonstick fry pan, such as the 10-inch Emerilware hard-anodized pan ($64), is designed for high-heat cooking and is perfect to saute, stir fry or cook eggs. A classic saucier has sloped sides, ideal for evaporation and reduction necessary in sauces, yet works just as well to heat a can of soup. The 18/10 stainless steel All-Clad Master Chef (MC2) 3-quart pan ($125) with a tight fitting lid has a highly polished interior that resists sticking and is non-reactive to tomato-based and other acidic sauces. A classic 10- or 12-quart stockpot is a necessity for pastas, chilis, lobster and homemade chicken soup. Choose one of 18/10 stainless steel. Some stock pots, such as the Cuisinart ($50), have a tapered rim for easy pouring. The 12-quart All-Clad stock pot ($100-plus) comes with pasta and steamer inserts. Not only can the pasta insert be used as a colander, but with the steamer insert, it allows for steamed corn on the cob, mussels and shrimp.
Round out your shopping trip by buying a good quality whisk, such as the long wired Rosle ($23). The wires of inexpensive whisks have a tendency to clump and, unless they're stainless, rust. Also buy tongs with a locking mechanism ($12). Tongs are perfect for sauteing, flipping steaks and plating. Buy a few Le Creuset silicone spatulas, which resist heat to 600F and are ideal for your nonstick pan; a long handled wooden spoon; and slotted and solid heavy metal spoons. Finally, purchase a set of mixing bowls in metal or glass. In general, the heavier the bowl, the higher the quality.
Spending $500 on these quality items now will save you money in the future, since most won't need to be replaced. Finally, remember that while having the right equipment may be important, practice is what makes a cook.
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