Aka: an Imaginary Conversation with Mark Bittman, Food writer of the New York TimesHey Mark, I saw your article in the New York Times, man. “A No-Frills Kitchen Still Cooks” and I gotta tell ya man, I think you’re on to something. People do seem to think that having great kitchen gear will make them better cooks… and we can all appreciate the beautiful equipment the TV chefs use. I think you have a point, we may actually believe that some brands and products will make us better cooks. I’m not sure that’s true. Copper pots and pans don’t come with creativity, they just don’t have that kind of power. And when in doubt – find a great recipe! The internet was MADE for recipes! Just hang out with the Minimalist Baker for like 10 minutes – just the photography alone will make you salivate.
Mark, where you lost me was when you started walking through the restaurant supply store, picking up various cheap tools… like actually cheap tools – not just inexpensive but seriously CHEAP. Dude, did you actually write in the NY Times that you use a $3 paring knife? Because you can seriously get your foodie card revoked for admitting that you use a cheap knife with a plastic handle… and you put it in writing where people could SEE it. Man, what were you thinking?! LOL, truth be told, I don’t really care that you use a cheap knife, I use a $20 knife pretty much every single day. It doesn’t have to be expensive to be useful. What bothers me is that you’re saying you use a disposable knife, and you’ll just pitch it after a while and get another one. Wait, what? A disposable knife? No. Just… no. My Austrian husband chimes in: “Organ builders and Luthiers sharpen and hone their tools – shouldn’t cooks be encouraged to buy quality tools and maintain them?” Um. Yes!
Mark, here’s what I really don’t get. Your column was called “The Minimalist” and you’ve been writing about food and cooking since before I was even in grade school. I thought “quality over quantity” was one of the mantras of the minimalist movement, man. So what gives here? You seem to be suggesting a kitchen full of cheap kitchen gear will get the job done, but what about quality items that you purchase once and then use for life? Isn’t there really something to be said for buying quality kitchen equipment so that you buy it only once?
I see that you recommend a small, medium, and large saucepan, 10 and 14 inch skillets, and a stock pot and ONE lid for all of that? And it’s true that the cheap aluminum ones are not much money, some of those are insanely cheap. Here’s what you may not really understand about me, your reader. I have a very special talent. I once melted aluminum on a stove top burner. It’s true. I know you wouldn’t think that was even possible… but I put a pot of chili on the burner and turned it on low, and then I went back to work. Later I came back to the kitchen (I lived in a monstrously huge house in those days) to give it a stir, and noticed a smell. Then I noticed the heat. I picked up the stainless steel pot and moved it to a hot pad beside the range… trailing molten aluminum as I went. Later, when everything had cooled and my heart started to beat normally again, I took apart the burner on the range to retrieve the aluminum paperweight I had created in the bottom of the range. That’s right, Mark. I melted the aluminum disk off the bottom of my stainless steel stock pot. Now that you know that about me, your reader, are you still suggesting that people like me purchase cheap aluminum cookware? No? Whew.
Ok, fair question, and that’s “Missus Smartypants” to you… what would I tell the readers of the New York Times if I’m so smart? WHAT in my experience of being a restaurant owner and living in a micro-dwelling would I recommend to the dear readers of the New York Times? (Especially since I couldn’t tell the difference between the low setting and crucible setting on my cute vintage range.) Glad you asked, Mark. Gosh, what a guy!
First of all, I would tell my readers to buy a cast iron Dutch Oven. It’s the sort of thing that even I can not destroy. We’ve used ours in our tiny house on a gas stove, and outside on the rocket stove and it still cleans up great! You can get the Lodge cast iron version for $40, the Lodge enamel version for $60, the French Staub version in some spectacular color for $190 and the Le Creuset version in even an more lovely color for $275. I have the 4.5 quart Le Creuset that I bought years ago (I only paid $150 for mine) and we use it often. I make all kinds of soup and stew in that pot, saute vegetables, roast beast in the oven and I even bake a loaf of bread in it from time to time. It’s a great all-purpose kitchen basic and the go-to dish for a whole pile of One Pot Wonder recipes.
The second thing on my list in a good basic sauce pan. I don’t think a person needs three sizes as you suggest, but then you weren’t writing for people who live in tiny houses. That’s more my gig. When space is at a premium, I think one sauce pan is plenty. Somewhere between a 2 and 3 quart is right in my opinion, and I like the All-Clad ones for a whopping $121, but I use an inexpensive $33 NuWave one and like it just fine. I don’t use it much because I reach for the Dutch Oven first, but I’m glad I have it and we use it.
The final thing on my list is the kitchen standard for cooks everywhere, the cast iron skillet. They’re usually somewhere around $15 and can be purchased new or you can buy a used one in an antique store and the price will be roughly the same. Again, this one works indoors on the range and outside on the rocket stove and they are indestructible even for someone like me. They are heavy and I would pack a few heavier things like this in a box and put it in my car when we were moving the tiny house from one parking place to another.
I would recommend getting and using lids for each of these three items. In a tiny house it is especially important to use the lids and also to have and use your exhaust fans to keep moisture from building up in your home because that can turn into a mold problem. Many of us in the tiny house world have a mold story. Not fun.
Mark, even if I give you grief for the $3 knife, I still think the larger idea of your article is still an excellent point. A no-frills super simple kitchen gear list really does “still cook” as you put it. We got used to having lots of stuff in our big kitchens, but the truth is that we can simplify a great deal and still make great food. Simplifying is not sacrificial if you do it right – and that’s why I wrote my own Super-Simple Kitchen Gear List and then I turned that into a Workshop to walk people through it in more detail. And while I’m not big on cheap kitchen equipment, and we don’t use anything disposable in our kitchen, my Buyer’s Guide can help your reader choose the kitchen tools that really do work quite well. And even a $100 knife that stands in for the unneeded food processor will save power and space… and that’s a beautiful thing. That gorgeous knife may even be a good deal when you consider what a pleasure it is to cook with a loved one enjoying great conversation rather than the noise of some obnoxious power tool.
Mark, thanks for pointing out that you wrote that article way back in 2007. The beauty of your article is that it’s still so relevant that minimalists are still pointing people to that article more than a decade later. Well done, Sir.
Also Mark, here’s my Cast Iron Cookie recipe. It only makes one cookie. (Quality, not quantity) You’ll just have to suffer through. (And no need for a mixer for this recipe – so it’s perfect for a tiny house!)
¾ cup softened butter
2 eggs – we got these fresh from the farmer this morning.
1 teaspoon vanilla
I combined these ingredients with a wooden spoon. No power tools needed. Then I added:
2 cups all purpose flour
¾ cups brown sugar
¾ cups white sugar
1 cup oatmeal
1.5 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 cup chips – I used chocolate chips and then threw in some M&M’s as well.
1 cup nuts – I used almonds
Spread dough in a buttered cast iron skillet and top with more chocolate chips if desired (or M&M’s) then bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes. Test with toothpick for desired doneness. I prefer cookies goey, my Austrian likes them crunchy. You choose.
These just came out of the oven and I carved a little bite out of the side. Then that one was so good that I went back for another little nibble… then Xaver must have discovered them because every time I came back there was more missing. These are absolutely delicious!
Enjoy them while they last! And remember… it’s just as true with cookies and it is with cookware: Quality over quantity.