Letter: Setting up your First Kitchen Recipe

101 Cookbooks readers weigh in on how to outfit and set up a first kitchen.

Letter: Setting up your First Kitchen

A couple months back I posted A Letter from an Unwilling Cook, a 60 year-old English man who was trying to find inspiration and motivation in the kitchen. I posted the letter with the hope that you (my readers) would have insight and advice to share beyond what I might tell him. The response was unbelievable - 220 comments!

I received another letter this week. This one is from Olivia, a student ready to embark on her first summer in an apartment on her own:

Hi Heidi,
I'm a college student on a meal plan, and seeing your updates gives me hope in food after another greasy cardboard-flavored meal at the dining hall. Anyways, this summer is the first of several where I'll be working an internship and have my own apartment. The whole situation is simultaneously exhilarating and daunting, especially in terms of figuring out the whole living on my own thing. Part of that is, naturally, food.

I've cooked at home plenty of times, and a few times at school after interrogating everyone I know in search of a pot or baking pan. I can make basic meals on my own and follow recipes easily, but I'm not sure about buying food--I've always worked from an already-stocked kitchen, or else just bought the ingredients for a single meal. Where do I start? What basic staples would you suggest? Thanks for any advice you've got!


I thought I would open up the discussion to all of you.
I suspect many of you have recently been in her shoes, or maybe you have kids in college that are striking out on their own for the first time. What advice, suggestions, nuggets of knowledge do you have for Olivia? I suspect general guidance, basic equipment or pantry suggestions, personal stories, names of books and the like will all be much appreciated.

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Well, you must be dizzy by now with all those comments, so I´ll just say ditto and add just one cookbook recommendation: A cook´s book (http://tinyurl.com/yvfkvx) is a bit of an encyclopedia (648 big pages) which covers pretty much all you ever needed to know about cooking and some basic recipes. For instance, it shows you how to cut certain vegetables and different cuts of meat, peel a fish, make basic breads and doughs, make a fritatta, and I could go on and on. Check it out at a bookstore and see if it suits your needs. Good luck!


I might add: a copy of Joy of Cooking. I also keep a copy of The Professional Chef - the CIA textbook. It is frighteningly large, but it's a heck of a resource. I like to just pick a section and study it for a while. It also works as a good technique reference.


A lot of people have mentioned knives, which are, of course, one of the most important items. Some excellent lower-priced knives (particularly compared to Wusthof, etc.) are available from Fante's in Philadelphia. They contract with a company in Solingen, Germany - home of Wusthof and Henckels. I have several, and I'm planning on buying another $300 or so in them soon. Great quality, especially for the price. Go to http://fantes.com/ and scroll down to "Knives, Fante's Pro." I recommend going with an 8" chef's knife, a utility knife, paring knife, and steel to start.


My ex boyfriend graduated from a very good cooking school. Unfortunately, work didn’t appeal to him. He was a rock star trapped in a slacker’s body. As such, he was always flat broke. Still, a $5-10 trip to the grocery store, a sense of adventure and the following list always yielded the most amazing results for a meal. Two good quality knives A cutting board A 3 quart pot with lid A 14 inch pan with lid A Pyrex lasagna dish A turner A spatula A wooden spoon Aluminum foil Olive oil Salt –GOOD salt, spend the money on salt Pepper – get peppercorns in a grinder, they’ll last you all summer (if not all year) Bouillon in a jar Soy sauce


oh yes, and never pass by second hand stores and yard sales for the most awesome dish ware!


I just graduated a while ago, and am going back for my MA. Have a good knife, a pairing knife, a skillet, a large pot, a sauce pot. A cutting board will do you well too. Limes make everything better, and fresh cilantro, mint, and basil are always cheap and provide great flavor.


To list your staples, pay attention to what you eat regularly and note the ingredients used in what you make. Things others consider staples--ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, pickles, green peppers, lettuce--I've never kept on hand. And I know a lot of people have recommended a rice cooker, but I've never used one--a saucepan cooks my rice just fine. I've got other kitcheny things to spend my money on. This is what my mom made sure I had for my cooking/baking endeavors (thanks, Mom!): at least one large skillet and one small skillet dutch oven/stock pot (I boiled my pasta in a stock pot for ages) slow cooker/Crockpot medium sauce pan cutting board rubber spatula wood/bamboo spoons (at least two) colander can opener cookie sheet 9 x 12 cake pan 1- & 4-cup measuring cups, preferably Pyrex or similar a couple of mixing bowls cheese grater garlic press (we love garlic) Tupperware's largest bowl--holds 32 cups & is perfect for making batches of Chex mix or puppy chow or other favorite snack mixes. Knives (they get their own subheading): a good paring knife--I like my Cutcos & Wusthofs a good trimmer for meat an 8" chef's knife a couple of those cheap paring knives--they only cost $1 or so--with the bright colored plastic handles. they sharpen down to nothing in a year or so, but they're really handy knife sharpener--I suggest the disc kind instead of the rods, and remember of course to never use it on serrated knives


I like to use a vacuum sealer. This way I can make up a few portions ahead of time and freeze them. They work great to marinade steaks and chicken too.

Mark Laymon

Hey Olivia, Most importantly have fun cooking. A glass of wine (in the recipe or not) is always great for the prep work. Don't skimp on your basic supplies a good knife an americanized wok (one with a handle for stove top cooking) and a pasta pot will get you in the door. For shopping try to plan at least a couple of days out, shopping by the meal gets expensive. Buy bulk the things you can store long term (pasta,rice,sugar, flour). Think of the left over potential of everything. sure you probably won't eat a whole roast chicken but... chicken soup, chx salad sandwhichs, chx fajitas.........you get the point. Have fun, cook what you like, keep a frozen pizza in the freezer (they won't all be winners)


Just a question to you Englishman and yes Englishwomen as well , what is it about those electric kettles , whats so special about them ,, a stove would work just as well to boil water.


I disagree that anything in a box isn't worth eating. One item in particular is couscous. There are several brands of inexpensive $1-$2) flavored couscous in all the stores. All you need is a pot and a spoon, water and heat. And then the creativity begins. Start with a cooked chicken breast, shredded carrots, frozen corn, chopped green onion, chopped red/green pepper, chopped tomato, cucumber, you get the idea.


I just moved out with my boyfriend about a month ago. I was fortunate enough to be stocking cooking utensils for many years. But in food related matters all i can say is that leftovers are you friends. There's no point trying to cut down on recipies just for one or two. Then you end up saving money on food at lunchtime. And i'd usually go something easy - pasta, stirfries, burrito pie: they all keep well in the fridge for the next day!


I'm part of a cooking message board, and we'd love to have any beginner (or anyone else!) to join us! http://thequalitycook.com/phpBB One of our recent topics was "which 20 spices can you NOT live without (and how to use them!)" Here was my response: 1. Salt - use on everything 2. Pepper - use on everything 3. Garlic powder (granulated) - I use it on 99% of everything I cook 4. Onion Powder (granulated) - Again, use it on everything, but especially if you unexpectedly run out of onions 5. Rosemary - rub with some olive oil onto chicken, turkey, pork or beef before cooking, along with everythign above 6. Thyme - intimate companion to rosemary - use sparingly until youknow what you like, it's a strong flavor, use as rosemary 7. Oregano - use wih tomato sauces, or anything italian 8. Cayenne/red pepper flakes - same spice, but one is ground. Use a tad in just about anything for a little heat. 9. Basil - use like (with) oregano - tomato dishes and anything italian. Sprinkle oregano and basil over hot pasta and toss with olive oil,lemon and parm... Mmmm... 10. Dehydrated onion/garlic - great if you don't feel like chopping or for a little bit of extra flavor. Add early in cooking to let them re-hydrate. 11. Ground Mustard - I use this to add a background flavor and heat - it's not really hot though... I use it a lot in meatloaf/meatballs 12. Cumin - for Indian dishes, this is a must 13. Curry - Indian again 14. Ginger - use with Indian foods, but others too. Can be used in most dishes you would put garlic in. 15. Cinnamon 16. allspice 17. nutmeg 18. cloves - traditional holiday spices, for pies etc. For somethign yummy, chop up 2 sweet potatoes and place in a bowl, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with equal amounts of the above spices (including ginger). Bake in a shallow pan at 350 stiring every 15 min. until they pierce easily. Serve with brown sugar and buter. It's like pumpkin pie without the pie! 19. Chili powder - its actually a blend of red pepper, cumin, garlic... use in chilli (of course) tacos, stuff like that 20. Italian seasoning - this is at the bottom because you can do pretty well with oregano and basil (above) but very handy to keep if you run out of the others.


I usually try to keep these handy: Fresh greens, nuts, and turkey ham to make a salad anytime; lots of chickpeas (for salads, hummus, sandwiches, rice, fried grains, Heidi's chickpea burgers...); eggs (omelettes are great fast dishes), whole grain pasta, olive oil, cheeses, bread, tuna, frozen shrimp, fish, ground beef (very useful), tofu, yogurt, WINE and lots of spices (the basics work great: basil, oregano, cilantro, cumin, etc...). I don't usually follow recipes, I use my intuition and get great results. For example, I smell the ingredients and know if they mix or not. I've been cooking for 5 years now and it's always given me great results. Good luck!


There's already some great advice about gearing up your kitchen so I'll offer some advice on how to narrow the gap in selecting recipes for a week. Here's how I do it. First, make a list of your favorite comfort foods. I make sure these get repeated every couple of months so no one at home is longing for their favorite dish. For inspriation, that's not overwhelming, I turn to Heidi's website and some other sources, like the epicurious.com weekly email. I also enjoy the mag Real Simple, which has a selection of seasonal recipes. Recently I added Bon Appetit (because it was free with a purchase). Lastly, The New Best Recipe, from the editors of Cook's Illustrated has proved to be a fantastic source for how to cook some of those comfort foods that no one remembers how to prepare. The background and instructions are really helpful. Anyway, I browse these and pick out some recipes that sound yummy and are not too time consuming. I agree with comments already posted that being motivated to prepare meals for one can be a challenge (as opposed to a week of cereal for dinner). Cooking for/with friends is a great way to feel connected and you'll have leftovers for the week. Have fun on this new chapter in your life!


I think it helps to gather together recipes for some of the things you grew up eating. Most of the meals my mother made were very simple, but some days there's nothing else in the world I want to eat. And as much as I love improvising and exploring my many cookbooks, it can be a relief to prepare a recipe already knowing how it's supposed to turn out.


Lots of the posts here allude to this: don't be intimidated! Especially don't be intimidated by recipes. My philosophy, arrived at after a few years of trial and error, is this: there's cooking, and then there's baking. Baking is like chemistry and math---it needs exact measurements and proportions. Personally, I am not a math and sciences person. That's why I love cooking. Cooking is simply putting ingredients together and making them hot. Be creative! Don't measure! Chop, heat, and eat. My most common meals usually have some sort of starch (rice, sweet potatoes, couscous, pasta) and then I add some kind of veggie and occasionally a meat, usually fish sprinkled with whatever spice I'm in the mood for and cooked on the stovetop. These are my everynight meals. On weekends, or if I'm feeling creative, I'll do something that requires more planning, more effort than sauteeing. I must put in a word for eggplant. It is such a versatile vegetable! Grill it on the George Foreman, cube it in pasta sauce, stick it in a stir fry, bread it and fry it for a really indulgent dish of eggplant parm. It's like meat, only cheaper!


Olivia, All these are pretty solid advice. Food is so simply, I think North Americans make it a bit complicated. If you have veggies in your fridge, spices bought in bulk (I store mine in old jam jars) and carbs like quinoa, rice, pasta, coucous, brown rice and wild rice...you always have a meal on hand. You simply need to add chicken, beef or fish and you are set. In terms of learning...there is no better way than to get your hands dirty. If you don't succeed the firt time, try it again. The most important lesson in becoming a great cook is not to be afraid of making mistakes and having LOADS of fun trying. Best of luck, Krizia from Canada


Olivia, All these are pretty solid advice. Food is so simply, I think North Americans make it a bit complicated. If you have veggies in your fridge, spices bought in bulk (I store mine in old jam jars) and carbs like quinoa, rice, pasta, coucous, brown rice and wild rice...you always have a meal on hand. You simply need to add chicken, beef or fish and you are set. In terms of learning...there is no better way than to get your hands dirty. If you don't succeed the firt time, try it again. The most important lesson in becoming a great cook is not to be afraid of making mistakes and having LOADS of fun trying. Best of luck, Krizia from Canada


Spend money on a good chef of santoku knife!!


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