I was never a zealous student of science. But in third grade, after learning in science class about kitchen measurements, I was so enthralled I went home and dreamed about tablespoons and measuring cups. I have had a zest (pardon the pun) for kitchen equipment ever since.
My own kitchen, while not large, is handily equipped for cooking and entertaining. In fact, when I cook with friends and family in their sometimes bigger and fancier kitchens, I miss my stuff, the simple things I have in my drawers and cabinets that make cooking and entertaining easier.
Here, then, is my highly personal list of low-tech kitchen utensils, small-scale equipment and dinnerware that I find most useful when I have a dinner party.
Don’t skimp on the sharps
“Buying cheap knives,” said James Beard, “is the worst sort of economy.”
I hope you agree with the dean of American cookery, because I do. Even if you cook only periodically, high-quality knives are a solid investment. If you have good cutlery, you might even find yourself cooking more often, because prepping food with a hefty, razor-sharp knife is pure joy.
My Cutco 8-inch chef’s knife, the knife I would keep if I could keep only one, costs a little over a hundred bucks and lasts a lifetime. Don’t bother with knife sets if you’re on a tight budget; 95 percent of chopping, slicing and dicing can be done with this one implement. Just be sure you keep it sharp. I take my knives for professional sharpening once a year to Ambrosi Brothers on Main Street, and use a whetstone for touch-ups in between.
I’m also fond of my Microplane grater, which can turn Parmesan cheese, nutmeg, chocolate, and citrus peels into piles of fine shavings with little effort on my part. It was fifteen bucks at Pryde’s Kitchen and Necessities and is worth its weight in saffron threads.
The value of the really, really big bowl
A couple of times a year, I team up with other friends who cook and we donate a dinner for eight or 10 to be auctioned at a fundraiser; we usually prepare the meal in the purchaser’s home. There is one thing I always make sure I have with me when I cook for these dinners: a wide, shallow, stainless-steel prep bowl, 16 inches in diameter. Otherwise well-equipped kitchens often lack this simple tool, and it makes me crazy not to have it, because I don’t like blending, mixing or tossing foods together in an undersized bowl; it takes longer to do the job since your arm movements are restricted, and it’s messy because things plop over the edge of the bowl. So my big metal bowl gets loaded in the trunk, just in case.
Baker’s half-sheet pans (13-inch by 18-inch, with a one-inch rim) are equally useful, and, given their versatility, also surprisingly scarce in private kitchens. In addition to being great for making cookies, half-sheets are ideal for roasting vegetables (you can toss them in olive oil and sea salt right there in the pan and pop them in the oven at 400 degrees); baking potatoes, rolls and biscuits; and heating breads. When I have a dinner party, I usually plow through several half sheets.
Likewise, I wouldn’t trade my Cuisinart food processor and my KitchenAid stand mixer. They are the John Deere tractors of the kitchen.
What’s the platter with you?
If you like to entertain and you have the storage space, it’s great to have an assortment of interesting serving trays, platters and bowls in a variety of shapes and sizes.
I have a gigantic, white, oval-shaped ceramic serving platter I bought decades ago at Halls. I thought I would use it only for big parties, but it is pressed into service all the time, even if I have just a few people over for drinks. It easily accommodates bowls of olives and pistachios, a pretty bunch of grapes, 18 or 20 baguette slices and a log of goat cheese or a triangle of Camembert. I also have an old, wooden breadboard, not quite as commodious but more portable, which I use for the same purpose. I bought it at an antiques shop in the Ozarks for not much money.
Don’t be afraid to mix-and-match your serving trays, platters and bowls, as long as they share roughly the same level of formality. The same can be said of your flatware, by the way. It most certainly does not all have to match.
White is the new white
To feed guests simply and stylishly, all you really need in the way of dinnerware is a set of classic, unadorned white porcelain 10-inch dinner plates. If you have a quantity two or three times the number you are feeding, you can use them for a salad course and a dessert course, in addition to the main course.
I have two full sets of china and a vintage Fiestaware collection, all of which have fallen out of my current favor. They seem a little kitschy in comparison to my white dinner plates, and their patterns compete with the food. To my eye, food looks most appetizing against white plates, which blend well with almost any table décor. Choose the best-quality porcelain you can afford; cheap dishes crack and chip easily.
Let’s be clear
Unless you are a true wine enthusiast, you can get by with two sets of wine glasses: a tall round balloon glass for red wine (mine often double as a water goblet) and one with a narrower profile for white wine. Make sure you have plenty of wine glasses for a party. People appreciate getting a fresh glass at some point, especially when being served dinner. I’m not crazy about the stemless wine glasses that are all the rage with caterers, although I certainly understand their practical appeal. Stems just seem more genteel. Never serve wine in plastic cups, darling. Ever. And wine glasses should always be clear. Colored glass is fine, however, for water goblets.
I also highly recommend having a supply of Champagne flutes on hand, (and a bottle of Champagne in the fridge) because you never know when you are going to have something to celebrate.
Flowers and candles: more is more
A final note from the Ambience Committee: have an assortment of simple vases for the flowers at your dinner table, which always should be low enough so your guests can see each other across the table. Don’t forget to keep your favorite candles in good supply. If you’re feeling lazy, an assemblage of unscented pillars at different heights can make a lovely non-floral centerpiece.
Instant knife skills
My Borner V-Slicer, purchased at Pryde’s for $40, works like a mandoline with interchangeable blades that allow you to dice, julienne or thinly slice any vegetable with speed and precision. The only drawback is its very real potential to (cue Dan Aykroyd imitating Julia Child) cut the dickens out of my finger.
With the V-Slicer comes a metal-pronged safety guard, which you’re supposed to attach to the end of each vegetable to protect your fingers, but it is cumbersome to use. Instead, while slicing, I slip on my Forschner Performance Shield cut-resistant glove, purchased at Ambrosi Brothers for $20. It makes using the V-Slicer much easier. My V-Slicer is perfect for making Ina Garten’s excellent Potato-Fennel Gratin. Email me and I’ll send you the recipe.
Questions about entertaining? Merrily would love to answer them. Email them to her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Merrily on Twitter @MerrilyJackson.