Fantastic Flavories

Kitchens are filled with utensils, oils and spices--but it can be too much

I have a friend who spent about a gadzillion dollars redoing the tiny kitchen in her old foothills casa. She got herself a six-burner Gaggenau stovetop combination with double ovens; a sliding-door refrigerator and Sub-Zero freezer; deep, country-style double sinks; and granite countertops on everything. She had more pots and pans than a specialty catalog and a wall of cookbooks that would do a Sonoma County bookstore proud.

Thing is, she hated to cook. That's not meant as criticism, 'cuz that kitchen was a delight to be in. But I always found it a puzzlement. Granite countertops and shelves of cookbooks are nice things to have, but needs they are not. My list of fundamentals is more modest and attainable. If I had to do so, I think I could pack all my kitchen necessities into a middle-size knapsack.

For instance, I still use the Revereware my mother had, and I've added some steel-clad pans along the way. But the indispensable pot is a three-quart, white Le Creuset casserole. Heavier than sin, it is the one cooking utensil I'd lug to the proverbial deserted isle. I can fry, roast, bake, stew, simmer, poach and more in it if required.

On my non-granite countertop are containers for various tools, the most used of which are well-worn wooden spoons, tongs, a ladle, a heat-resistant spatula, a two-tined meat fork and a stainless-steel oversized spoon. While I have accrued more knives than I will ever use, the four most handy include two Forschners (filleting and chef's knives), a Miracle Blade 2 (no kidding--it has a handy fork at the tip and it cuts bread, too, as well as concrete pipe and tomatoes) and a small utility knife I got in college.

I've bought a lot of gadgets (just HAD to have that Vitamix that one day), but the old faithfuls are the electric coffee grinder, a very small Sunbeam Oskar chopper and a submersible blender that's been with me for years. I use basic stainless-steel measuring cups and spoons and rely on a quart-size Pyrex measuring cup that often doubles as a mixing bowl. I like those translucent, composite cutting boards that can be scrubbed to perfection; use a French press for coffee; think that the OXO vegetable peeler is one of humankind's greatest inventions; and use the Chicago Cutlery kitchen shears for everything, from cutting up chickens to slicing open well-wrapped FedEx packages. I recently saw an advertisement in Dwell for a refrigerator that is really three-quarters freezer and one-quarter fridge, but I am so far resisting the urge. Mandolin slicers, by the way, are the tools of evil agents and should only be used with focus and supervision.

Not nearly so simple, but far more numerous, are the spices, oils, condiments and--as my Great Aunt Sylvie called them--the "flavories" that accrue over time. I look up at my shelves and can count a dozen different oils: two sesame and three olive, peanut, canola and corn, oils infused with garlic, chilies and peppers. There are hot sauces, fish sauces and soy sauces; spice blends from Mexico, Thailand, China, Vietnam, India, France, Italy and Spain; two kinds of kosher salt; two more of salt from the sea. In the refrigerator panels are capers and anchovies, several varieties of mustard, bean paste, tamarind pulp, Worcester and Tabasco, lemon and lime juices. The contents of the Schilling and McCormick spice bottles on my shelves would have made me as rich as a Venetian doge in the days of Marco Polo.

I've promised myself to winnow down this bounty. It's ridiculous and unnecessary to have such a treasure hoard--spices grow old and lose pungency; oils turn. Besides, we live in a place where there are tiny specialty stores (not to mention the Wild Oats, Trader Joe's, Williams-Sonoma and Table Talk "giants") and we can obtain the real stuff. And, if we crave something amazingly exotic, there's always the blessed 'Net.

Here are some of my local favorite stores--their names are self-explanatory.

  • Taj Mahal Gifts & Food, 2569 N. First Ave.
  • Kimpo Oriental, 5595 E. Fifth St.
  • Caravan Mideastern Foods, 2817 N. Country Club Road
  • Sandyi Oriental Market, 4270 E. Pima St.
  • Moan's Oriental Market, 2022 S. Craycroft Road
  • Roma Imports, 627 S. Vine Ave.
The 17th Street Farmer's Market, at 840 E. 17th Street, is a dream come true, not simply for Sylvie's "flavories" but for the produce and fresh fish. It's also a fave place for finding kitchen tools, as is G&L Import/Export at 4828 E. 22nd St. I'd love to hear about other "must" kitchen tools and specialty stores.

In the end, our kitchens and what we make in them are only as good as our intentions, just like everything else we do. That, of course, is the never-ending challenge--with or without Gaggenau stoves or OXO vegetable peelers.

In the mail:

To James L. S.: What a terrific letter! Thank you for sharing so many memories--memories that are locked in my mind as well. I'd forgotten about Vaughn's, and you are correct about Johnie's with no "y." How I could have forgotten Jack's on Grant is beyond me.

To William S. F.: Frampton-Stone was the place to be, and Shakey's on Drachman was waaay cool for a long time. Casa Molina goes on and on and on, hey? And, yeah--we were at CC together.

To Manabu M: Thanks for the advisory, re: Tatake vs. Tataki, and for the information about Bonita Tataki. I will be looking for it. I don't see Iron Chef, unfortunately ... I'm a semi-Luddite and don't have cable.