What you will need (…and how to find it if you don’t already have it…..)
Yes, you will certainly need some cooking gear – it is impossible to cook without (unless your first name is Bear and you jump out of helicopters into the jungle every day). Certain items are simply essential. If you are starting from scratch, you’ll need to ‘find’ them and then find room for them – you won’t regret it. Don’t look upon this necessary task of ‘finding’ as a chore; you will enjoy it, and anyway, it means that you are given the opportunity to talk to numerous attractive members of the opposite sex…
Of course, all this equipment need not be new, or even complete. Students should make full use of their parents (bless ‘em!), friends and other relatives who will often have the odd item just thrown into the garage or loft because they simply couldn’t bear to part with it when it was replaced. The thing to do is open your mouth and ask. Have a good snout around the old homestead and ask if that beat up old food processor stashed in the garage still actually works. Go get it. Try it. Take it away and thoroughly clean it, ready for use. Your available kit will vary with your situation. You might be alone in a fully equipped kitchen – but what do you do with it all? Read on.
The key to any successful singledom, however temporary or permanent, is to ‘be prepared’. (Yes, a bit like the Cubs, but without the dib dib dib or the freezing-cold tent.) Your cooking (and, crucially, your pocket) will benefit from the use of some labour-saving devices. If you are not well equipped, read this:
Car Boot Sales:
These weekly local outdoor social events are always good sources of items that may no longer be needed by the seller but may not have been very greatly used. Don’t trust to luck with any mains electrical equipment on sale though; it may be difficult to find out if a mains electric mixer or food processor works when in the middle of a field – unless, of course, someone is using a generator to demonstrate electric lawn mowers or something. Just ask if they would plug in what you want to buy – they’ll usually oblige if you smile when you ask. Yes, it’s a bit cheeky – but so what!
FreeCycle is a wonderful organisation of nice people who are environmentally friendly enough to want to avoid putting things into landfill. It is a nationally recognised, web-based organisation but each group is locally situated. When someone finds that they no longer have any need for something – the usual scenario is when moving house/downsizing or the good old loft clearout – they simply offer it through FreeCycle to all registered members by sending one email to a centralised address, then, once the message has been moderated and ok’d by a local volunteer, it is forwarded to all members. If a member sees something being offered that would be of use to them, or to a friend, they apply for it by replying with an email, and then the donor just gives it away to one of the applicants – simple as that. You are not permitted to ask for money or even any favours for the item, neither are you permitted to give anything to the person giving it away – not even a bottle of wine or anything like that – that could sway the choice of the donor to only give to people who will give something in return – it’s just not cricket, y’know. Some groups also post occasional ‘Wanted’ appeals as well. So, should your fridge give up its cold ghost, you can ask if anyone has a spare anywhere to get you out of bother. It is customary to have posted a number of offers before posting a wanted, but if you know anyone who has offered stuff, they’d be fine to post a wanted or two, especially to help out a friend. I certainly have, and the offers came rolling in. The items are not normally in new condition and, I have to say, many things are in need of a dammed good clean, but what the hell – it’s all free. However, it must be for you to USE – not just something to be picked up one day and flogged off the next; that’s a complete and utter no-no, as the idea of FreeCycle is to keep things from going into landfill – not to make you richer. But, for example, should you take a washing machine that has a fault, repair the fault and then sell the washing machine, that’s fairly ok as it would have gone to the dump otherwise; but if you were making a business out of it I think someone would become a bit pissed-off with you.
Like everything in life, FreeCycle is great if you treat it properly. It is a fantastic organisation when properly organised, run and moderated. Go to www.freecycle.co.uk to find out more – and have a word around your friends; you will probably find someone who is already a member and can help you out with it.
What will I actually need?
What sort of equipment do we actually need to be able to cook? Well, it all breaks down into areas like:
Pots, pans and Ovenware;
Saucepans – yes, I know that you know that you’ll need saucepans. It’s obvious really. My advice is to make sure that they have proper saucepan-type handles that stick out, preferably heat resistant. Beware of pans with metal loop handles on each side; they get very hot and you’ll sometimes need an oven glove to pick them up. It is infinitely more practical and much safer to have a traditional stick-out handle (boiling water tends to take skin off when it’s spilt on to legs……..pain tends to hurt) but the advantage of the metal handled ones is that they will go into the oven. Horses for courses; y’know?
Saucepans, in general, benefit from having lids, especially the larger ones, and if they have sliding vent holes, so much the better. A small, non-stick milk saucepan is very useful, but remember not to use the balloon whisk or any other metal utensils in anything with a non-stick coating.
Saucepans do not have to be super attractive and have pretty patterns on them – the decoration adds nothing to the taste or quality of the food. However, an out-of-date pattern on a saucepan doesn’t make it less able to cook. Even beaten up, out of shape aluminium saucepans still cook well (remember that they are merely containers in which the food is cooked) just don’t buy ones with holes in them! If you can find some copper-bottomed ones, whatever they look like, you are on to a winner as they spread the heat out over the base far more evenly, avoiding spot-burning and uneven cooking. But that’s a real luxury (sort-of rocking-horse shit, and all that, at the moment).
A must. A big, heavyweight, non-stick, cast aluminium (or cast iron, if you are very strong) frying pan with a wooden or heat-resistant handle is an essential tool, especially a non-stick one with a lid, even better a glass lid. This type of pan can be used for frying, sweating off, simmering – just about any thing except putting in the oven. If there is one pan you absolutely MUST have, it’s this one. You will find many references to this particular type of pan in the great majority of the original recipes in this book. The frying pans which can also go into the oven must have a metal handle; see notes about saucepans and safety above.
Cast iron saucepans/oven casseroles:
The French Le Creusot pans are expensive, however in France they cost much less – but refer to the exchange rate of the Euro before you do anything. Used Le Creusot pans can often be picked up for a song at UK car boot sales; most have been unnecessarily replaced by the more fashion-conscious cook because they are the wrong colour or they might not be quite as attractive as when they were first bought (see notes on decorated/beat up saucepans above) or may just have faded. Look inside to ensure that the inner coatings are ok and then snap them up. These are super useful tools as they can be used to ‘build’ the recipe on the hob and then put straight in the oven to cook slowly; and then they can even be put onto the table to serve from as well. This type of pan does not survive being bent out of shape as the enamel simply flakes off. Once this happens, they are completely knackered with a capital F.
A true wok on a true wok burner is magic to use for stir-fry dishes. However, if you do not have a true wok burner I would forget about the authentic dome-based wok. It is inherently unstable and unsuitable for use on a normal domestic hob by a rookie cookie. Anyway, the flat-bottomed woks don’t wok as well as…… oh go on, laugh… please?
Deep fat open frying pan:
Please do not entertain one at any price. Their reputation for starting kitchen fires is just legendary. Go to the chippie and buy a bag ready made, or use oven chips (see Tricks’n’Tips for how I cheat with mine). It’s much safer.
If you must fry your own chips, buy a thermostatically controlled deep fat fryer, stick strictly to the instructions and be very, very careful. Anyway, chips are bad for you…… Ok, they’re nice too.
Pyrex (and the Pyrex type of) clear glass casseroles:
You can survive without these, but life can be made so much simpler with just a few of various sizes. Again, the decorated type might look a little more attractive (if they haven’t dated, which they do very rapidly), but don’t shy away from grasping free offerings of the clear type, even if they are covered in burnt on food residue – they can always be soaked in caustic soda for a while to renovate them back to full health again. An open base is useful, even without a lid, but usefulness is greatly increased with a lid, especially for use in a microwave.
Ceramic open oven dishes:
A bit of a luxury, but very useful for impressing people. You might want to impress parents or relatives who come to visit, usually to check up on you (or, more importantly, a member of the opposite sex – the road to romance is often made smoother by the liberal application of a creamy white sauce devoid of all lumps). These are also very useful for microwave use, with the aid of a pierced cling film covering.
Metal baking sheets or tins:
Cheap and easy to obtain second-hand, these are very useful for general oven use, and can also be an effective weapon to beat someone over the head if they upset you. Don’t worry about burnt on food, the caustic soda trick is very effective (see Tricks’n’Tips).
Do you want ‘pretty-pretty’ or practical? Good, yes, practical is best. Don’t go for a pair of thin cotton oven mitts with cute flowers on, the only real oven glove worth having is a heavy-duty double-pocketed glove shown here. There are other good ones, like the silicon ones, but they tend to be super-expensive.
You will be able to get hold of wooden spoons, spatulas, etc., either used or new. You can always get hold of the odd big serving spoon here or there. Just go along to a boot sale and you’ll find lots of things for pennies. I recently bought a silicon spoon/spatula/stirrer from a factory outlet shop, and it’s wonderful! The best three quid I’ve spent for years.
Kitchen preparation knives: Photo of typical knives
Sharp knives are essential, but please make sure that they are really SHARP. Many fingers have been badly cut because the knife used was simply not sharp enough. A wide bladed 10” chef’s knife is certainly needed if you are not going to make a balls-up of chopping things to go into your best recipes. The broader bladed knives allow you to chop up the ingredients without chopping your fingers off as you can use your knuckles as a safe blade guide (believe me; parsley doesn’t look so good when covered with a red, sticky liquid.) Garlic really needs a wide bladed knife to squeeze the clove and then to chop it. Small knives are needed too, but start off with getting the big ones. Large carving knives and other specialist knives may not really be necessary as you start up, though they may be desirable later. Having said that, should they be offered to you for free, well………….
People often ask me how I can possibly get tomatoes sliced slice so thinly – I just tell ‘em that I’m highly skilled, wonderfully talented, and also very modest as well as being sexy… then they don’t believe a word! Well, they shouldn’t either; I just use sharp knives.
There are many types of sharpeners available, even electrically-operated ones. Just an old disc sharpener will do a good job. Draw the blade of the knife through, over the discs at an even speed. Don’t stop and start or the blade will develop a nick. A sharpening ‘steel’ will also do the job but will take a good deal longer unless you are really skilled at sharpening, like a fully trained chef. Knives with blades that are too thin should be avoided as the blades may twist and cause problems for you at this stage, also they cut into you when using them. I’ll tell you how to chop veg and things with a broad bladed knife in Tricks’n’Tips – it’s actually quite easy so long as you don’t try to do it as quickly as Uncle Jamie – he’s a bit special (and he loves to show off, too!).
Don’t go out to buy new weighing scales. There are new, fantastic digital whiz-bang weighing scales out there these days, full of whistles and bells. They do everything except chop the onions – almost. That means that there are many redundant ‘older, but not old’ weighing scales out there too, just lurking in garages and lofts, waiting for you to come along……. Start asking around.
Food containers for the fridge:
Used, empty ice-cream containers (Tesco and Walls ones are great) but ensure that you are able to match the correct lids to the containers or it’ll all be likely to end in tears. Lately, my local Chinese takeaway has been sending out food in fairly robust plastic containers that we wash, save and re-use time after time. Now that’s a good reason for having a take-away.
Cheese is normally of most use when grated so it is a good idea to have it ready-grated, but then there is a problem with catching the cheese as it is being grated, then it has to be transferred to a storage container. Well, IKEA (bless their particularly puzzling & peculiar pictorial assembly instructions) sell a very useful cheese grater with plastic container, with separate coarse and fine steel graters on top. This means that the container can be used to catch the grated cheese and also store the cheese as well, as it closes with its own lid. They are sold singly at £2.19 each (November 2011). The item number is: 501 531 80 and their product name (you know all about IKEA product names, don’t you – most times you can’t pronounce them) is Chosigt. For the life of me I can’t see where they got the name from, but they certainly grate well and store well, so an outlay of around £2 for a product that works and lasts is very good. Asda are selling just about the same item for perhaps a few pence more. I keep our common mousetrap (that’s what we call everyday normal cheese in our house) in a black one and the parmesan, together with the block, in a red one ready to be grated freshly. The system works a treat.
Commercial kitchens employ different coloured chopping boards for different uses. Raw meat, cooked meats, veg, fish, etc all have to be prepared on differently colour coded plastic ones. As a private individual you don’t have to go to this length, but you will certainly need to be very careful about washing your chopping boards between uses. Have two or three cheapish boards available in the kitchen so that when one has been used for raw meat or poultry, the second can be put into use for the veg. Ensure that they are washed and dried thoroughly, then aired off. You can, just to be sure, wipe them with a suitable antibacterial cleaner before use, should you wish.
…and please don’t ever be tempted to use a wooden breadboard for raw chicken!
To get lemons to part with their juice, you really need a juicer. Yes, I know that you can squeeze the lemon by hand, but so much juice is wasted – and anyway, there is a danger of pips finding their way into the food. The hand-held, bulbous ended ones are better, but the pips still may go walkabout. The electric ones are great – but such a faph to use that they are impractical. The heavy glass ones that sit on the surface are good, as they remove the juice efficiently and catch the majority if the pips – but I’m sure someone has come up with a better way to do it – probably IKEA. By the way, if you put lemons in the microwave for 10 seconds before juicing them, they will part with their juice more easily (10 secs for 1 or 2 lemons, 20 secs for 3 or 4 lemons).
One of the most useful bits of gear around. It makes cheese go much further, grates carrots without grating your finger nails and chops like a dream – sometimes you get a liquidiser too. A processor is excellent for making soups, cook-in sauces, fine or coarse chopping, especially if you have a lot to do. Forget about any of the complicated and fancy whisking mechanisms though, they are usually very fiddly to use and a great waste of time. Check that all the important bits for the bowl are there – seals, drive parts, chopping blade, grater disc, etc. Replacing parts like lids and bowls can be easy at car boot sales, if you take the time to search. There is a trend for little ones these days; they are relatively cheap to buy too. However, in the true spirit of Cheaterie Rookerie Cookerie, I still say that getting an old one for free is still preferable.
I bought a cheap, plastic, hand-powered mini food processor on a market in southern France. It was being demonstrated – you know the thing….. ‘you won’t know what you did before you bought this…. It chops, slices, whips, spins salads, does the washing up and with this attachment it cleans the house and vac’s the car…..’ Normally they prove to be a pile’o’poo. Well, this one chops like a dream, and with me needing to chop things quite a bit to test/prove out recipes for you lot, it has been a boon. I’ll try to include a photo of my little machine and the very useful cuber that came with it. (Latest news….. it broke….I suppose it was a step too far to use it for cleaning the car….!)
Another great piece of gear. They may not quite as simple to drive as some people think; they can give ‘spot heat‘ (no, that‘s not an embarrassing sexually transmitted disease). For example, a carefully reheated cup of coffee should be stirred before being drunk, as some areas within the liquid in the cup may be hotter than others, possibly causing you to scald your throat. (Be careful – you can‘t chat anyone up with a scalded throat – it could be good for the sympathy vote, though, I suppose…..croak).
Electric hand-held whisk:
Desirable, I suppose, but not a necessity. Personally I prefer a large hand-held balloon whisk. It uses less electricity and I feel the effectiveness of the balloon whisk is greater. However, it does take less effort to use the electric version, and if you want to do anything with meringues, it’s a great deal better to be electrically equipped than to be comprehensively knackered.
A good thing to have hanging around, and no, it is not a full size cooker. This just sits on the kitchen surface and tries to look like a flying saucer or a rugby ball. Cheaper cuts of meat need to be cooked long and slow, so this handy bit of kit is a boon to those who want to put it on and leave it to do the cooking by itself over a few hours or a whole day whilst you are at work. There’s no need for an oven and they don’t use too much electricity so they are a winner in all aspects, especially if you’re short of room in the kitchen – or you simply don’t have an oven……or a kitchen!
B. Other cookbooks:
Yes, you will certainly benefit from other sources of information as well. Firstly, and most importantly, I heartily commend to you Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course. It really is a must. It gives you so many SUCCESSFUL basic techniques that it is simply an essential for the rookie cookie. It doesn’t have some of the money-saving tricks or simple advice which you’ll find in this book, but what it does give is a range of fail-safe ways of doing all sorts of things. For example, Delia’s ‘Perfect Rice’ is really the perfect way to cook just plain rice – this method has not failed me once in the hundreds of times I’ve used it. You can’t get a better success rate than that (see Tricks’n’Tips or Cooking for Guests for the recipe – with the kind permission of St D). This wonderful book has little print and it doesn’t have a big flashy picture against every individual recipe, but it doesn’t need to. Take it from me, long after you depart your currently mandatory period of singledom to be another conventional, law-abiding boring old fart like the rest of us, you will still be thumbing through the tattered and food-stained pages of Delia’s Complete.
How about accepting the old and battered version (pardon the pun) as a relative or friend replaces it with a new and pristine copy? Or you might do well to drop a hint to ‘the powers that be’ (alias Santa) that this would be a great Christmas present. You certainly won’t regret it.
Anything with Pru Leith’s name on it will be ultra-reliable too (except her latest novel !).
Marguerite Patten’s Everyday Cook Book in colour (Hamlyn):
Our copy of this book was printed in 1970 and it’s now more than just a bit tatty; however it can still be relied upon to give lots of visual ideas, even though the actual recipes may not be what I want. It can, of course, be picked up at car boot sales for a few pence. Look out for it. When I am looking for inspiration for a meal I tend to just look at the pictures in this and then combine relevant recipes I find in several books. When I have considered it all very carefully I close all the books and do what I think. Not what you should do at all, I suppose. When I started cooking, I was really panicky about the precise amounts, exact timings and accurate heat settings and things. These days I tend to be far more relaxed and flexible and it all seems to work. I refer to it as ‘Approximation Cookery!’ Relax and use a little common sense.
You’ll soon notice as you use this little book that I describe amounts like ‘a dollop’ of this and ‘a slug’ of that. If it’s not specified to be measured by the milli-dilli-ounce; in a great many cases it doesn’t actually matter all that much, especially in savoury cooking. Chill man.
1000 beginners’ recipes – Carolyn Humphries (Foulsham):
Certainly more up-to-date than our copy of the Hamlyn book mentioned above, this book could give you quite a number of ideas for reasonably economic recipes and, I have noticed, a good few that would impress too.
I use all sorts of books from day to day and we have a collection of old cookbooks as well. I could list them but you’d get lost in the pile. Look for these two books at car boot sales or even new – but before you buy these, ensure that you’ve got Delia’s Complete Cookery Course – it really is the bee’s knees or the dog’s wotsits, depending on the appropriate vocabulary of the situation.
There are many microwave cookbooks around, take their advice seriously. The Good Housekeeping Complete Microwave Cookbook has 27 pages of excellent advice on the use of the microwave ovens, as well as about 150 recipes. It can be found at car boot sales too – or just put it on your ‘wish list’.
Remember that these are available not just “At all good bookshops”, but all good car boot sales/charity shops as well.