The Elements of Cooking

If you keep an eye on my book list, you may have noticed I am currently reading Michael Ruhlman‘s recently published, orange book*. In The Elements of Cooking, he proposes to break down and discuss the building blocks of the cooking craft, like William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White did for writers in their classic little volume The Elements of Style, to which the title and format are a homage.

The Elements of Cooking It is an engaging and educational read that retains a strong sense of the author’s voice and idiosyncrasies, unlike other reference books like, say, The Food Lover’s Companion, which I consult regularly but wouldn’t think to read from cover to cover.

The bulk of the book consists in an Acid-to-Zester lexicon of concepts, techniques, preparations, and ingredients, which Ruhlman prefaces with a section in which he lays down his founding principles, addressing such themes as salt, heat, and finesse.

In his essay on tools, he begins by asking the reader to “imagine the kitchen as a white box with nothing more than a stove, fridge, countertop, and sink — not a single other element for cooking in it — and then to pose a hypothetical question: if you were asked to outfit the kitchen with as few items as possible, the absolute minimum you could possibly get away with and still be able to cook most things, what would those items be?”

This question is of particular interest to me as it conjoins two topics I find endlessly stimulating: the desert island question (if you could only bring along five books/CDs/articles of toiletry, what would they be?**) and the neverending battle one has to wage to keep one’s home and life clutter-free.

So I’d like to submit the question to you: if you could only have five tools (pots, utensils, cutlery, and let’s add appliances) in your kitchen, what would they be? Note that we are considering your cooking needs only, setting aside the question of baking equipment. (If you’re the playful type, I suggest you come up with your own list before scrolling down to see Ruhlman’s and mine.)

* The book was sent to me as a review copy.
** Great car game, too!

Michael Ruhlman’s five items are:
“- a chef’s knife,
– a large cutting board,
– a large sauté pan,
– a flat-edged wood spoon,
– a large nonreactive heatproof bowl (ideally Pyrex).”

The list makes perfect sense, and I would confidently traipse off to my desert island with this basic kit, but for the sake of argument I’ve tried to draw up a slightly different selection. Mine would include:

– a 12-cm (4.5”) paring knife (I find I use it more than my chef’s knife),
– my vintage cast-iron enamel cocotte (sturdy, excellent heat distribution, virtually nonstick, and oh-so-lovable),
– a heat-resistant silicone spatula (it can be used to stir and scrape),
– my multipurpose stick blender that comes with a whisk and mini-chopper attachments (I hope this isn’t cheating),
– a large nonreactive heatproof bowl — I’m not sure I would have thought of this item on my own, but now I can’t see how I could do without.

Note 1- The cutting board is missing, true, but that’s because I’ve fitted my imaginary kitchen with a bamboo countertop on which I will chop my vegetables. Am I allowed a sponge for cleanup?
Note 2- I’m assuming I’m retiring to a desert island where there is electric power: after all, the kitchen has a stove and fridge.

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