We were on a camping trip in the Catalinas and were introduced to the glories and endless functionality of a Dutch oven--those heavy, awkward cast-iron things which could be used on top of a campfire to make porcupine meatballs (ground beef with white rice, covered with tomato soup) or, miraculously!, buried and covered with coals for the baking of things. I thought it was about the coolest idea around. Somewhere, I'm sure, I still have that Dutch oven, though it's been at least 40 years since I've used it.
In any case, it marked the beginning of a lifelong fascination with instruments of the kitchen. The older I get, the more often I think about simplifying the "things" in my life. As anyone who knows me reasonably well will appreciate, that's an activity that could take me several more lifetimes to accomplish. My kitchen alone could occupy the rest of this one, from the drawers and containers of tools, pots and pans to the shelves of spices and the overpacked interior of the fridge.
Once in a while, I'll toss something--the basting brush with bristles too splayed to be useable, for example, or the measuring cup that has been battered to the point that it no longer accurately reflects the quantity. But there is so much more I could do. It's not that I don't think about it from time to time; I just figure there will always be some use left in whatever it is. My intentions are good, but I am not well-motivated.
I decided to ask some people I respect what their favorite one thing is, thinking that might help. Then I thought: Why not ask what one spice or herb they had to have on hand ... and their favorite ingredient, to boot? I had the hazy idea that I might be able to deconstruct to a minimalist kitchen on the basis of their responses.
Not likely, but I loved the answers.
"I have to have my shears and my Chinese knife that does everything," said Carlotta of the El Charro empire, refusing to limit herself to one item. "I travel with them." Presumably, she checks them with her luggage when she takes the plane. Her favorite spice is cinnamon, and the ingredient she has to have on hand: garlic.
A knife is also the tool of choice for Laurent at Le Bistro. For an herb, his pick is rosemary, and for an ingredient, the much-maligned foie gras--"although not together," he cautions. And when he closes his restaurant Jan. 1, what does he want to have in his refrigerator at home for his endless hours of leisure? "Foie gras and champagne!" Foie gras also heads the list as the favorite ingredient for John at Janos, although he chooses truffle salt as a spice/seasoning and his metal spoons as his fave instruments--"not the big ones but the simple ones I use for the plate presentations."
Tavolino's Massimo depends on his mixer, which he works magically in his tiny kitchen. His spice of choice is nutmeg. And the ingredient he needs to have around? "White wine!" Any particular kind, I asked Marianne, my intermediary in the conversation? "White wine," she repeated. Works for me.
Mark at the Dish has to have his hand blender, cardamom and star anise. At Bluefin Seafood Bistro, John relies on his wooden spoons, a bias with which I can easily agree. He wouldn't be without black pepper, and he must have onions on hand. At Terra Cotta, Dave would be lost without his big blender, his habanera powder and "any fresh herbs."
I feel pretty much on top of things since I have most of these items on hand--though I will need to borrow a pound or two of foie gras from Laurent and John if the occasion calls for it. Or I'll invite them to dinner and let them offer to bring it. That would be nice. Dave told me where he gets his habanera powder, and Carlotta would ... maybe ... let me borrow her shears if I misplaced my grandmother's. She used to let me borrow huge pans for paella 30 years ago, and I returned them, so the shears shouldn't be a problem.
But I admire the simplicity of all these true professionals. If I asked myself the same set of questions, I wouldn't be able to decide between the potato masher, the tongs, wooden spoons, stockpots or my immersible blender, for starters. Or three kinds of salt and four kinds of pepper. Or different miso concentrates, butter or soup stocks.
I have, however, made one good decision as a result of thinking about this: I am no longer going to look at catalogues of kitchen equipment or specialty herbs and spices. Now, if I could only apply this newfound discipline to book-buying, too.
To Steve R.: I never thought of using a meat thermometer for that, but will keep it in mind.