A rare vision of simplicity in todays world of spiralisers, avocado huggers and strawberry hullers. Photograph: villagemoon/Getty Images/iStockphoto
It’s not that I’m blind to the seductive wink of kitchen equipment. As others desire the scarlet flash of Louboutin soles or the buttery kiss of a Balenciaga tote, I’m susceptible to culinary gadgets and utensils. Show me a cool square of mottled marble on which to roll out pastry, and I’m gone.
You could see this for yourself if you managed to jemmy open my large kitchen drawer – one of several slotted pasta scoops is likely to have wedged it firmly shut. Inside is an archaeological assay of my kitchen past; a timeline of bits and bobs, some of which I use daily but most of which I have abandoned to the gods.
A potato ricer, like a giant’s garlic press, I found among the housecoats and big knickers at an Italian market (used occasionally). A ridged plate for grating garlic, bought for an extortionate price at a ceramics shop in Cotignac, while channelling A Year in Provence like a fool (never used, ditto tiny brush that came with). A funnel plucked from the glorious chaos of a car boot in Dorset (used frequently). A farrago of measuring jugs, mixing bowls, pastry cutters, defunct meat probes, kitchen scales, sugar thermometers, a mandolin and its family of blades, sundry food processor attachments (functions unknown), piping bags and nozzles (used only in my nightmares), ceramic baking beads (deployed occasionally, but a joy to run my fingers through à la Amélie and her lentils). And that is an abridged exploration of just one drawer.
And yet, the sensible part of my brain – the bit that writes about food for a living – knows this collection is madness. And I was reminded of this recently while working on a new cookbook in which every recipe had to be made in a single roasting tray. The truth is, very delicious things can be cooked with very little equipment – with no dispiriting piles of washing up to contend with afterwards. Elizabeth David was right. One of her most famous essays, Garlic Presses are Utterly Useless, begins as a cookbook review but spirals into a tirade against superfluous kitchen gadgetry. If you wish to crush a garlic clove, she argues in her fine and firm style, why not use the back of a heavy knife? “Quicker, surely, than getting the garlic press out of the drawer, let alone using it and cleaning it,” she asserts. More’s the pity that we will never know her views on today’s world of spiralisers, avocado huggers and strawberry hullers.
So, how much of my kitchen equipment do I actually use? Not much. Despite a drawer overflowing with knives, I always reach for the same silver Füri; a wedding present 17 years ago, it’s so comfortable to hold that it now feels like an extension of my hand. A couple of 40-year-old Le Creuset pans passed on from my mother-in-law. The enamel is wearing away and the lids are cracked, but they’re reliable and speak of so many family meals – including those eaten by my husband as a kid – I can’t bear to cook in anything else. A couple of roasting trays, of course. A frying pan. A mortar and pestle. A food processor. Wooden spoons and spatulas. A chopping board. Maybe some tongs. Mostly utensils that have more than one use.
I have taken a virtual peek into the kitchen drawers of other cooks, and it seems that less is more all round. Food writer Emiko Davies wrote her first cookbook Florentine: the True Cuisine of Florence (Hardie Grant) with an impressively modest clutch of kit. “I had a fork, lots of wooden spoons, a good knife, a rolling pin, a whisk, a food mill and a simple pair of electric beaters,” she tells me.
Claire Thomson, chef, food writer and author of The Art of the Larder (Quadrille)agrees. “Seriously, a sharp knife and good hefty chopping board and you can prep just about anything,” she says. “Good, solid, heavy-bottomed pans that distribute heat evenly are definitely worth their price tag, but I’ve found countless ones in charity shops for a dime, as people tend to find them too heavy.”
“I’m not big at all on equipment,” says Diana Henry, award-winning author of 10 cookbooks.” People try to persuade me to try out a Vitamix blender, but I know what would happen – it would sit on the floor of the larder and I would trip over it.” The only pieces of electrical equipment she values are beaters and a food processor. Henry’s other kitchen essentials are pretty basic: roasting tins, box grater, a few pots and pans (including a large one to make stock), sieve, colander, scales, chopping boards, tins, baking sheets and a pastry brush (if you bake), a measuring jug, good knives, a few mixing bowls, wooden spoons, a slotted spoon, rolling pin, spatula and pestle and mortar.
So, if acclaimed cooks can achieve so much with so little, why do some of us hoard for doomsday when it comes to kitchenalia? Again, Elizabeth David’s wisdom is apposite. “I don’t a bit covet the exotic gear dangling from hooks, the riot of clanking ironmongery, the serried rank of sauté pans and all other carefully chosen symbols of culinary activity I see in so many photographs of chic kitchens,” she says in an essay in Is There a Nutmeg in the House? “Pseuds corners, I’m afraid, many of them.”
In other words, any fool can collect kitchen equipment. It doesn’t mean they can cook a decent meal.