Tools & Utensils

Kitchen Toolbox, Part I

Ustensiles

I have recently received several emails from readers who were asking if I could share my ideal set of kitchen equipment. I can’t think of a more fitting time of year to do so, as some of these tools may make good items to add to your wish list if, like me, you are usually stumped when people ask what sort of gift you would like to receive.

The following list, which will be published in three installments, is a very personal one I’ve established based on 1/ the content of my own extraordinarily messy cabinets and drawers, and 2/ what I actually use — I’m sure some of you are aware of how different these two concepts can be.

These tools can be found in cookware stores (in Paris, you should visit E. Dehillerin, Mora, La Bovida, and A.Simon, as well as Eurotra), but also online, in thrift shops, or at yard sales. And if you have friends, neighbors, or coworkers who cook, ask if they’d be up for a swap or a loan: one person’s neglected kitchen gadget is another’s treasured acquisition.

Cooking

– Two round skillets or sauté pans, with lids: one small (20cm/8”), one large (25-30cm/10-12”). Choose heavy ones with a thick bottom, as they will conduct the heat better. (A sauté pan has straighter and higher sides than a skillet, so you can flip the contents with one adroit shake of the pan, but in most recipes they are interchangeable.)
– Two saucepans, with lids: one small (1 liter/quart), one large (3 liters/quarts).
– A heavy pot or Dutch oven, for soups, stews, and no-knead bread. Choose a large one, round or oval, 6 to 8 liters/quarts in capacity. I wholeheartedly recommend a cast-iron cocotte, enamel-coated or not: it’s definitely an investment, but the heat conduction is perfect and it will last several lifetimes. I own one large Staub and one smaller Le Creuset. These two brands I recommend if you can buy yours in France, but they are pretty pricy abroad and I hear there are now good-quality, cheaper alternatives in other countries. Make sure the handle of the lid can take high temperatures without melting, so you can use your pot in the oven, too.
– A steamer insert, with lid, to steam vegetables and fish. I use a basic set of stackable bamboo baskets (dirt-cheap at any Asian store), which you simply set over a pan of simmering water.

Not indispensable, but nice to have:

– An oval skillet, to cook whole fish.
– A grill pan, to sear meat and give it those nice, appetizing grill marks.
– A ceramic terrine dish, with lid.
– A Römertopf dish. This is on my wish list, to make Muriel’s chicken just like she does.

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Chick Yellow Coquelle

Coquelle

[Chick Yellow Coquelle]

Please join me in welcoming this yellow addition to my cocotte collection! Coquelle is a line of Le Creuset cast-iron pots designed by Raymond Loewy in 1958. They come in different colors, shapes, and sizes, but all of them share the same old-fashioned futuristic look, as if they were just about to take off from your stove and fly away to some distant planet where unattended stews do not scorch enamel and milk does not boil over.

I had spotted a re-edition at a Parisian department store earlier this year, and it looked glossy and seductive, but what I really wanted was one from the original production, in good enough a shape that I could use it, but with enough signs of wear to show it had been previously loved.

I first turned to a small store in my neighborhood called Et Puis C’est Tout! that specializes in objects and furniture from the 50’s to the 70’s — Ricard pitchers, plates with disco flower patterns, and bright orange plastic lamps. The owner knew what I was talking about, he didn’t have any in stock, but he explained that he did come across these cocottes from time to time, and that I should check back. And check back I did, every week or so, until I didn’t even need to ask anything anymore. I would pop in, wearing my most hopeful smile, but he would invariably shake his head with sympathy, “Sorry, no luck so far.”

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L’Aide de Cuisine

KitchenAid Stand Mixer

[The KitchenAid]

I have given in to the demon of temptation, and I can tell you this: it is poppy red, it weighs twenty-two pounds, and it comes with a dough hook, a flat beater, a wire whisk, and a stainless steel bowl (which conveniently doubles up as a kitchen mirror).

After so many years of lusting and wishing and yearning, resisting the urge because a stand mixer is not exactly cheap and counter space is a scarce commodity, I finally caved in and ordered one from a French online store. Just three days later, my shiny new friend showed up on my doorstep in its styrofoam jewel box, and I’ve been admiring it with the eyes of love ever since.

As one might guess, my recent brush with brioches is not entirely unrelated to this lavish purchase, and was certainly instrumental in getting Maxence’s blessing — he owns half of said counter space after all, so we make that kind of life-altering decision together. I chose red because everybody knows red cars drive faster, and my kitchen looks beside herself (yes, my kitchen is a she) with pleasure from this new accessory.

So, what have I used it for so far? Well, after carefully considering what recipe would be the most suitable for its inauguration, I decided on a simple pâte brisée to make the tartlets I was testing for a magazine article. The simplest ceremonies are often the most elegant, no?

Now I wish I could take it on the train with me to my parents’ mountain house for Easter so we could make hot cross buns with it, but that sounds like a stupid and back-breaking thing to do, so perhaps I won’t.

~~~

If you would like to know how and where such stand mixers are grown and harvested, you can read all about it in David and the KitchenAid Factory — perhaps Tim B. would like to buy the motion picture rights for that?

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Wine Charms

Wine Charms

When I was much younger, I loved fiddling and tinkering with things, building little trinkets, putting bits and pieces together, deconstructing toys and objects to see how they worked, and trying to get them back together afterwards — not always successfully I might add. Duct tape and scissors were my very good friends, and I loved using my mother’s sewing machine to assemble miniature purses or hair scrunchies (I know, I know, but this was the 80’s remember?) with fabric chosen from her big treasure chest of scraps. And scoubidous, of course, I really liked scoubidous.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a crafty person, as nothing admirable ever emerged from my little fingers, but I loved how these activities sucked you in, making you lose all sense of time until suddenly you looked up, night had fallen, and it was time for dinner. Time also to show your family what you had made, and they oohed and aahed because they loved you very much.

As I grew older I gradually stopped doing those things, mostly for lack of time, but I realize now that it is this same urge to create things with my hands that drew me to cooking. That, and the fact that you get to eat the fruits of your labor, which did not work so well with the scrunchies.

I haven’t quite abandoned my crafty ambitions though, and I have drawerfulls of beads and strings and fabric, but to be truthful I don’t do much with them. Naturally, this doesn’t stop me from buying more when I see pretty things. But I did recently manage to complete one small project, and since it is somewhat related to the main topic of this blog, I thought I would share it with you. Ladies and gentlemen, I made wine charms.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, let me explain. I’m sure you’ve all been in this situation: you have guests over at your place, you give everyone a glass so they can drink some of that fine little wine you bought at your favorite winestore, and after about ten minutes of conversation nobody knows which glass is which. Sometimes telltale traces of lipstick might settle the case, but mostly everyone just laughs it off and adopts a random glass, assuring that they don’t have cooties (in French: “Ça va, j’ai pas la gale.”). And this is when wine charms come in handy, helping you identify each glass with a little thing that dangles from its foot. Smart, no?

Here’s the recipe. (Of course in my case, it might have helped to choose beads that were more clearly different from one another. Bead and learn, right?)

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Introducing… la cocotte!

La Cocotte

Finally! It’s here! My birthday present and new best friend, my stupendous cast-iron cocotte by Staub!

My parents came by my apartment yesterday and were kind enough to lug it on the metro with them, after driving it all the way back from Les Vosges, snuggly bundled up in multiple layers of bubble-wrap.

31 centimeters in length (12”), weighing in at 6.3 kilograms (14 lbl) when it’s empty — I’ve been buffing up my arms with dumbbells in preparation for its arrival — it can hold 6 liters (6 qts) of something yummy and stewy and even-better-the-next-day to feed six happy friends.

And how could anyone resist a kitchen implement that so proudly brandishes its name? Ever thought how convenient that is, when you see it lying around somewhere in the kitchen and think, “hey what is this thing?”, and you get closer, read what’s on the lid, smack your forehead and exclaim, “but of course! it is la cocotte!”

The secret of the Staub cocotte, I am told, lies beneath the surface (am I scaring you yet?), on the underside of the lid, where all around the cocotte’s belly-button are tiny little pikes — the technical word I believe is picot — that gently invite the evaporated liquids to drip back down onto the food, thus preserving all the flavors and juices.

I feel a little like Calvin when he collects the points from his boxes of Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs* to receive a propeller hat, with which he thinks he will be able to fly all over the world. I really believe my cocotte is a magic wand that will make whatever I cook so good my guests will go into tastebud shock and faint.

*Calvin describes these cereals as “tasty, lip-smacking, crunchy-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside, and they don’t have a single natural ingredient or essential vitamin to get in the way of that rich, fudgy taste”. Quite the little food writer.

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