Monday, September 12, 2011
My new wife came equipped with a nice set of pots and pans. Nice pots and pans that her mother helped her pick out when moved away from home. They’re stainless steel and the bottoms have a heavy aluminum core that conducts well. The lids fit perfectly and every piece has an ergonomically formed handle that won’t get hot on the stove. These handles, however, can’t take much heat. They’re plastic and you can’t put them in the oven. So, when we got engaged I registered for some new ones.
From the way Bobbie, who would soon be my mother-in-law, drew out her “Okaaayyy” I knew she wasn’t convinced that we needed new pans. She knows I love gadgets and maybe she thought I was just looking for an excuse to buy a shiny new thing. I love hobbies provide an excuse to cruise the shelves of specialty shops and websites for the greatest multitasker or that particular tool that meets a specific esoteric need. Rather than displaying the kinds of tchotchkes that most people buy on road trips and in antique shops my shelves are a bone yard of manuals, cameras, bicycle tools, and compasses.
It’s true that a significant part of my attraction to the kitchen is the endless carnival of gadgets, cookbooks, techniques, artisanal and heirloom ingredients, as well as YouTube videos on how to hack your small appliances. But, I have gained enough experience to see that the majority of these are gimmicky substitutes for basic knife skills and a little know how. I have even begun to give away things that I have learned are unnecessary. I no longer have a garlic press, bamboo steamer, turkey baster or citrus juicer. And nobody needs one of those slicer-dicers as seen on T.V.
Dinner is a learning experience as well as a chance to experiment and to be creative. I love to spend time at it. I frequently spend hours breaking down three or four or five or more recipes in preparation for making one dish. I’ll make that dish in several variations until I have it just so. Cornbread with brown instead of white sugar. Cornbread with brown sugar and rosemary. A vegan recipe says to use applesauce instead of the eggs. Maybe keep one egg and replace one with applesauce. What might be better in cornbread than buttermilk? Nothing is better than buttermilk.
It didn’t make sense to replace my wife’s pans altogether. They are very nice and she and her mother did pick them out together. If I wanted to move things from the stovetop to the oven I only really needed an omelet pan. But, a five-quart sauté pan would be a little more versatile. I imagined expertly heating a tablespoon of oil, waiting for it to smoke and browning chicken breasts in it. When they caramelized to a nice dark brown on one side I would turn them and put them in the oven. Seven minutes later, perfect chicken breasts would rest on a plate. Back on the the stovetop I would throw in a handful of green beans, a dash of salt and a splash of dark beer and clap on the lid. Five minutes later, perfect green beans.
I wanted good pans that could be counted on to last. However, if they cost too much they wouldn’t appear on the gift table. I needed to make careful choices. Julia Child tells us that “Copper pots are the most satisfactory of all to cook in, as they hold and spread heat well …” No doubt this is true. However, a ten inch copper omelet pan like the one she describes - at least 1/8 inch thick, lined with a wash of tin and featuring a heavy iron handle – starts at over $200. It would be vulgar to mention the cost of such a sauté pan. One of Julia’s second choices is aluminum lined with stainless steel, like my wife’s pans. Given that the other second choice, enameled iron, is double the weight and requires hand washing I decided to register for the stainless.
Thus armed, I turned to the source of all things, Amazon.com, where I navigated the loony bin world of customer reviews. The reviews for kitchen products are mostly about the difficulty of clean up, recommended cleaning products that didn’t work and, if it’s a pan, how it looks hanging from a rack above a kitchen island. This is sometimes accompanied by a description or even photos of the kitchen in question with the offending pan in situ. Pots and pans have become simulacra, pieces of home décor bought to complement open concept kitchens which recall Food Network sets and where nobody actually cooks.
After sifting through page after page of this I eventually shook out enough relevant information to narrow the field to two brands in a reasonable price range. All Clad is the brand used by most cooking shows and You Tube chefs. Even no-nonsense Alton Brown uses them, quite an endorsement in itself. The other was Calphalon, which was less expensive, the sauté was $99 compared to $150, and essentially made the same way. They have a nice flat bottom, and an oven safe ergonomic handle riveted into place. My mother-in-law had told us to try to keep the prices down or we might not get what we wanted. I registered for the Calphalon five-quart sauté.
I also noticed that the three-quart sauté was only $68. That seemed little more approachable. So, I registered for the three quart just in case nobody got us the five-quart. And then I saw that the twelve-inch omelet was about that price too. It didn’t come with a lid and didn’t have the tall sides of the sauté. But, it was about the same size and would do if necessary. The ten-inch omelet was only $45. That was a good price for a wedding gift. Somebody who wasn’t looking to spend too much would probably buy it for us. It would be good to have around, so it went onto the list too along with a non-stick pan for eggs.
Months later, married, we had some of the pans that I had registered for and several that I hadn’t. We had several non-stick pans and pots in various makes and sizes. We did not have the five-quart sauté pan. We did not have the three-quart sauté or the twelve-inch omelet either. We did have the ten-inch omelet.
Trying it out I learned that ten inches is still a good size for a lot of things. Protein for two or three won’t overcrowd it. You can’t keep an eye on much more than that anyway. A side dish for several people will easily fit in it. It’s not too heavy – three pounds – so you can move it around pretty easily. It’s wide enough that the heat from a burner has to go up and into its flat bottom before it can flow around. It’s narrow enough that it doesn’t extend beyond the range of the burner and heat unevenly. It can handle rocket heat and makes smooth, even changes in temperature. Temperature control is the most important thing a cook has to learn. Some applications require the pan to be as hot as possible. Others require changes in temperature at critical stages.
Because it doesn’t have the taller sides like the sauté, you can’t cook things involving a lot of sauce or stock in it. It won’t hold much liquid at all and it spills easily. And there’s no lid. Although the lid from one of my wife’s older set of pans does the job. It’s still a great pan. Just not for everything. Even tough I’m making due with it in some ways, it has become my go-to pan. I rely on it so much that I cook things in it that you normally wouldn’t. Lately I have taken to baking a whole chicken in my pan every Sunday. I think they’re coming out better than when I used a roasting rack. I often try to find ways to use it to for every part of a meal. Instead of cooking separate things in separate pans so they’re all ready at once, I’ll cook them one at a time in my omelet pan. The first thing is usually cold by the time everything is finished, but it’s such a pleasure to use the pan that I don’t care. It may be cold, but it was cooked perfectly.
My pan doesn’t hang from an overhead rack and it doesn’t sparkle or shine. It has a changing collection of seasoned-in tan and brown grease spots that move around its surfaces with each use like sunspots. These may be unsightly to Suzy Homemaker but to my eyes these are proud scars earned in the learning of a craft. These are cauliflower ears and scotched knuckles.
[[Needs a stronger ending]]
There’s a very good piece in there—you have good material, writing style, and point of view. But it needs a good deal of work, as the comments indicate. A lot of them suggest that you have to make things easier and clearer for the reader, in various ways. More generally, I wish you’d develop the idea you bring in at the very start, yourself as this gadget nerd. First, it’s interesting and second, it’s an excellent opportunity for self-deprecation. 9