Though I love to cook I realised from an early stage that my perspective is not that of others. Not for me the dance to the music of time with a saddle of lamb and a pile of potatoes. No, for me, food is war. Yonder lies a heap of ingredients defying you to bend them to your will. Arrogant and obdurate, given the least opportunity, they will play you false and end up undercooked and deadly, overcooked and tasteless, or just plain charred. To conquer this perfidious tribe you have to call upon the gods of technology. Only with the right equipment will you triumph.
Cleavers, straight and curved; carvers, smooth and serrated; everything from a canelle knife to a cutlass has its place in my knife box, awaiting the call to arms. Cataplana and chinois, mezzaluna and mandolin stand where they may be rapidly summoned to aid the cavalry. My pan cupboard houses a regiment ranging from cadet-sized blini pans to the field marshal of all black iron fryers. In reserve, billeted in the ‘occasional’ drawer lie probe thermometer and pasta maker. A shelf in the utility room supports the heavy artillery of my batterie de cuisine, the giant Norwegian steamer and the capacious stockpot. And in the military museum aka the garden shed, lies abandoned all the obsolete weaponry of earlier campaigns – the rotary runner bean slicer; the yoghurt maker and the compressed air driven corkscrew. Now this veteran of a thousand campaigns would like to pass on the benefit of his experience.
Fundamental to the war effort is a good hob, preferably gas. Go for power. The 5-burner De Dietrich which I use has a bonfire force wok hob, two large burners and two small ones. It has rugged, stable and elegant cast-iron pan stands. What’s more it will drop into a 60 square cm space as a direct replacement for an older, less powerful model. Neff, Gaggennau, Smeg and I’m sure others also make excellent hobs. Unless your da owns a trawler don’t be tempted to let the salesman sell you one with a fish kettle burner, you’ll never use it. Ovens are a matter of personal preference. If I had money and space I’d get a commercial Garland. I’ve hankered after one ever since I saw a fifteen-stone chef stand on the door to change a grease trap filter. Avoid double ovens if you have a large family – you may not be able to cook a big joint or a turkey.
Now to pans. For starters, I’d have three deep saucepans, in heavy gauge stainless steel, durable, easy to clean, with a steamer basket for the largest pan. Ideally lids should be all metal so you can transfer them to the oven should the dish call for it. The best tip I can give anyone is to buy plain straight-sided pans – avoid the ones with cute double curves as the metal thins out at the bends and this is where even carefully tended dishes will burn. I’d have an iron (not cast, they weigh a ton) frying pan, large as I could handle, with steepish sides so you can shallow-fry. And an omelette pan, which you must keep for omelettes. My next purchase would be a wok, round-bottomed for use on gas. I prefer the two-handled one as there’s less sticking out to catch on, but I have both. And do yourself a favour, go to an Asian store, buy a plain steel one and season it yourself. Don’t be deluded into buying the chef’s signature non-stick version, often too small and badly shaped, “toy woks” as a Chinese friend puts it.
After that, for me it has to be a lidded ‘saucier’ and I’d kill for a stainless steel lined copper one with a solid cast handle. The shallow shape is perfect for reducing liquids, for browning meat and sauteing vegetables. Elegant possibilities after that include a ridged cast iron skillet or griddle, a crepe pan and a set of four non-stick Bourgeat blini pans, surprisingly useful for turning out nice rounds of currently modish mash or for frying individual eggs in a minimum of oil or fat. These and possibly the omelette pan are the only non-stick I’d give shelf space to, although great strides have been made in the durability of non-stick coating. But remembering where you put the plastic spatula is truly a pain in the butt.
Fish kettle? No thanks. I have one but can’t honestly remember the last time I used it, anyone want to donate a wild salmon? But cataplana, now there’s a pan. Or is it a casserole? Or two small woks? Go to any town in the Algarve and you’ll see them hanging up in the tourist shop windows. Shimmery copper, I’m sure people bring them home to hang on the wall. But the ironmongers in Portimao and Lagos have heavier duty ones. Perfect for marrying meat, vegetables, herbs and a generous splash of wine in the oven and you can brown your meat and colour your onions on the stove top in the same vessel – the ultimate one pot cooker. Not an arm and a leg, either.
See cataplana recipe
Now to knives. Ooooh, sexy. I get such a buzz from thumbing the razor’s edge of my Martini filleter. A 25cm cook’s knife and a small paring knife will get you by. Choice these days seems to be slinky one-piece Japanese or solid functional Teutonic brass rivets – Henckels or Wusthof for preference. I find the handles on some of the Jap jobbies a tad short, though you may not. Watch Sabatier, the name has been somewhat debased – the lion and the pig-marked blades are okay, most of the others dubious. Third choice should be a cleaver, curved bladed. When you get used to it you’ll be doing all sorts of things with this vicious brute, including delicate julienne work. And nothing’s better for jointing a free-range chicken or a pheasant which seems amazingly resistant to poultry shears.
For filleting fish, the aforesaid Martini, from Finland, is the business. They also make a short two-pronged fork for clamping down the tail while you sweep the blade forward. If you’re a real cook, you’ll want a real carving knife. Once you get beyond the novice stage, plain blades are better than serrated and the point comes in handy. Buy a carving fork with a guard to partner your prize possession. What else? Ah yes, grapefruit knife – Wusthof, tomato slicer, Victorinox – these are cheap but delicate, buy two at a time. Do you really want a Parmesan knife? Do you really need an oyster knife? If yes to the latter, make sure it has a forged blade unless you want a handy hole to hang yourself on.
If you don’t have much budget for knives, IKEA in the UK has some sturdy riveted ones made in China that sharpen up really well.
Odds and sods department. Mezzalunae (is that the plural?) are great for chopping herbs. The double-bladed one is best. Potato peelers are often the subject of intense debate among cooks. My mother swore by the string-bound ‘Lancashire’ peeler. I much prefer the all-stainless ‘yoke’ but why they put the potato eye gouger on the top edge is beyond me. Many’s the time I’ve ripped my thumb open negotiating the tightly-radiused curves of a Kerr’s Pink.
I can’t get worked up about casseroles, having once received 24 of them as wedding presents, like I can about pans. Only advice is to get ones that clean easily, avoid the very big Le Creuset like the plague – most are great but this one’s a beggar for burning. Also avoid any with decorative, bulbous, sticky-uppy lids, they waste oven space