Our annual summer road trip usually involves some camping. On returning, I'm always relieved that I’ll be able to cook in my well-equipped kitchen again without worrying about wind, rain, and running out of propane; but sad that it’s the end of a month of pared-down, improvisational dining.
We’re car campers, so I’m not traveling light. I’ve filled a rubber bin with cooking gear. But going without electric appliances reminds me that I can make good food with minimal tools and ingredients. It takes me back to when I first fell in love with cooking — and eating — by experimenting with the scant array of utensils and cookbooks my meager budget afforded me in my 20s. I didn’t own a decent pot or pan, let alone a food processor. I definitely couldn’t dine out much, but I ate well.
With the school year beginning, grown kids are heading off to college, to first jobs and apartments — maybe downstairs to your basement apartment with a kitchenette. What do they need to feed themselves and resist the budget-sucking and potentially health-destroying allure of takeout? Maybe some of you are young parents who are just beginning to set up your kitchens. What are the bare necessities that’ll help you feed your new family?
Here’s a simple list of the tools I use daily. Almost all of these items are available at a restaurant supply store like Lit here in Memphis. And below is a simple supper you can make using these essentials. It’s not so different from the first supper I cooked in my grandparents’ kitchen when I was around 9 or 10. They certainly didn’t have any fancy gear, and somehow it all worked out.
Pots & Pans
Chef’s knife, paring knife (Lit has good Russell knives)
Cutting board; polypropylene, at least 12”x18”
Cast-iron skillet, 12” (learn how to season it and care for it, and you’ll never need nonstick)
Pot/Dutch oven (at least 5 qt./14”) with lid
Small pot, 2 qt.
Sheet pan; half or quarter size, depending on your oven’s size
9x13 baking pan
Steel mixing bowls; one larger, one smaller (shallow bowls are great for some things, but have at least one that’s deeper than it is wide)
Prep Tools and Utensils
2-cup glass measure
Set of dry measuring cups
Potholders; all-cotton, heavy-duty
Roasted Salmon Amandine with Garlicky Sautéed Spinach and Rice
2 lb. fillets of steelhead trout, Arctic char, or salmon
1 stick of butter
½-¾ cups sliced or slivered almonds, to taste
Juice of half a lemon (cut the other half into wedges)
Salt and pepper
Neutral oil, like canola
2 cups long-grained white rice
1 lb. fresh spinach, washed in a bowl of cold water, then lifted into a colander to drain
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, sliced or minced
Preheat the oven to 425. Line a sheet pan with foil, oil it lightly, then set the fish fillets on it, skin side down. Pat the fish dry with paper towels and drizzle them with oil, spreading it around with your fingers. Season with salt and pepper, then set aside while oven preheats.
In a saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Cook until it starts to smell warm and nutty and you see brown bits at the bottom of the pan. Transfer to the skillet.
Cook 2 cups of rice in the saucepan according to your favorite method or package directions. Warm the butter in the skillet over medium heat, then add almonds, lemon juice, and ½ teaspoon salt. With a wooden spoon, toss it to blend, and cook, stirring occasionally, till the almonds have browned a bit.
By now, the oven should be ready and the fish should be in it. Cook the fish for 9-10 minutes, checking early for doneness. While it cooks, place the clean spinach in the Dutch oven with a splash of water and a teaspoon of salt. Cover and set over medium heat for a few minutes, stir, and cook for another minute, or until wilted. Pour it back into the colander (in the sink) to drain. Wipe out the pot, return to stove over medium heat, and add olive oil, garlic, and a big pinch of chili flakes. When the garlic is fragrant, add the spinach and stir with wooden spoon ’til hot. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Cut the fillets into serving-sized pieces. Put them on plates next to rice, cover each piece with buttery almonds, and serve spinach with lemon wedges on the side.