I co-taught a class at the Revel work space in Madison a few months ago on menu planning and meal prepping with the amazing personal chef and menu planner extraordinaire Mandy Cullen. I was invited (and honored) to be a local food expert alongside beef farmer Sarah Wells from Wells Farms Beef.
At the workshop, I eagerly shared my farming story with the packed room before launching into what CSA stands for (Community Supported Agriculture) and why there was no other style of farming for me. But quickly the conversation turned into something broader. It flowed easily from the founding of a business with an innovate model to the realization of a big problem in this world: that the majority of Americans are not eating vegetables or cooking on a regular basis.
I get it. We’re all busy. We’re all just slogging along trying to fit everything in and find some degree of balance (and sanity). Eating vegetables and getting dinner on the table are priorities that constantly fall by the wayside. I so get it! But it’s not good: not for our health, not for our families, not for our farmers and not for our food system.
I wanted to help the people in the room understand that cooking and using produce doesn’t have to be hard so I shared my top 10 tips for successfully making it through a summer of abundant CSA produce. Tips like: roasting or grilling everything at the end of the week if you don’t know what else to do with it. Or just not feeling guilty when you wind up composting radish tops or a head of lettuce from time to time. I think that some people let the guilt of not wasting a morsel of produce stop them from participating in a CSA program and that is a truly tragic thing because CSAs as a model are truly transforming our food system keeping dollars in local communities, providing farmers a more stable, predictable income, and helping families eat healthy, nourishing, local, often organic produce on a regular basis.
I was so grateful for the conversations in that room that I decided right there and then that I wanted, no needed, to continue those conversations here. I want to do more than just share my farm story and provide you with recipes (though I will certainly continue to do this). I also want to provide you with resources and tips to enjoy the time you spend in the kitchen.
I didn’t turn into a great cook or foodie fanatic overnight. When my Carrot and I met in 2009 I was eating scrambled eggs for most meals and when we decided as a couple that a fun date would be cooking a meal together we made a god damn mess preparing something that tasted pretty lackluster and didn’t cook together again for a full year. I have been there. Lost in the world of not knowing where to start or what I even need to become a good home cook.
Since then, I’ve spent nearly a decade playing in my kitchen, trying new combinations, paging through cookbooks, scrolling through blogs and practicing. I’ve spent years learning how to stock my pantry, investing in kitchen essentials, figuring out a grocery store routine that doesn’t bring me to tears, and just generally learning to be a good home cook. I’ve got loads of knowledge to share beyond just how to make a dynamite quiche or cocktails with fresh produce. (Though again, I will obviously continue doing that).
Some of you may have noticed that I’ve added an online shop to this website. It’s phase one in adding more resources and knowledge sharing to this site instead of just recipes. I started simple with a collection of cookbooks that I’ve used and loved as I learned to cook. I plan to add a local products store soon to help you outfit your pantry as well as a collection of favorite kitchen tools that I not only mention often in my recipes but also could not live without.
On that note, I want to spend a little time talking you through some of my most essential kitchen tools because I truly think that an improper kitchen set up is the reason many people shy away from or don’t enjoy cooking. It’s like any other activity: if you don’t have the things you need to feel successful or to make the task simpler, it’s just too dang hard.
So here they are, my top five tools for success in your kitchen:
- A Great, Sharp Chef’s Knife: I cannot stress this enough. If you do not have a sharp knife that you feel confident using, cooking will never be fun. You will notice I’m not linking to any one knife specifically here because honestly, a chef’s knife is way too individual a decision. It’s like that favorite pair of jeans you want to wear everyday. No pair fits the same person the same way, and greater expense won’t necessarily make any difference. My favorite knife actually came to me as a surprise. It was a gift from a Pampered Chef party my mom threw six or seven years ago. It was a 7″ Santoku knife that they don’t even make anymore; a knife I thought I’d like for a year or two while I kept on looking for the knife of my dreams because a Santoku knife isn’t even technically a chef’s knife. The blade has a different shape than a chef’s knife, but the grip fits my hand perfectly and it has been easy for me to use moving from winter squash to peppers to asparagus, and pretty much everything in between. Find your dream knife and keep it sharp. It will change your cooking life.
- Baking Sheets: I have three baking sheets (also called sheet pans or Jelly Roll pans) and it is still never enough. These are one of my most frequently used kitchen tools (second only to the chef’s knife). I roast vegetables on them. I make sheet-pan meals and sheet-pan quiches. I line them with parchment paper and cook bacon. I dice peppers, pack the tray solid and pop them in my freezer to freeze individually before placing the diced peppers into bags (and then do the same thing with green beans, strawberries, kale, cantaloupe and about a dozen other things). I use these to make biscuits and cookie bars. I love my baking sheets and honestly believe with a sharp knife, a cutting board and a sheet pan, you could pretty much always prepare a delicious meal.
- Cast Iron Skillet: Okay, so it wouldn’t have to be a cast-iron skillet but every home cook needs a heavy skillet that can stand up to excessive heat and also hold onto that high heat well. That is an essential piece of kitchen equipment when searing a steak, browning a roast before sticking it in the crock pot or even shallow frying some fritters or onions. I love a cast-iron skillet for these tasks because it’s incredibly affordable, impossible to destroy (I’ve rusted mine three times), and better multi-tasker than your regular heavy skillet. Not only can it cook those heavy pieces of meat and serve as a frying device; it can also go straight from the stove-top to the oven (for all those frittatas and cornbreads) or be used over a grill (like for these smash potatoes). Once you get comfortable with it, you will learn you can do literally anything in your cast-iron skillet. From baking cinnamon rolls to making stove-top pizza, there is nothing this pan can’t do. If you only have one pan in your kitchen, make it this one.
- Food Processor: A food processor is another one of these real powerhouse kitchen tools that does a lot. I lean towards kitchen tools that have a lot of purposes since I don’t like having too much clutter or giving up too much counter space in my kitchen. I got my food processor the same year as my first Kitchen-Aid stand mixer and at first I was disappointed and unsure how to use it. I figured the stand mixer would be the work horse and the food processor would collect dust. While quite the opposite has happened. My biggest frustration is how often I have to wash it because of how many times I attempt to use it in a simple day. Today, for example, I made two batches of pie dough, then salad dressing and a few hours later I made hot sauce. You can use it for pesto, for salsa, for pureeing soups, or making hummus. You can make hundreds of quick sauces or mince up a ton of garlic at one time. And this is without even mentioning the attachments that help you do other things like shred or grate or juice. I call for food processors in a lot of my recipes and yes, of course I always give an alternative way to make the recipe without, but honestly why would you want to?
- Mandoline: This is another tool I received as a gift that I wasn’t immediately certain would be such a kitchen stable, but overtime as I learned to use it, I realized how much time this baby can save. In the past couple years I’ve deviated towards more and more Sunday batch cooking and the mandoline makes light work of all that slicing. I also love it for shaving long strips of vegetables (carrots, zucchini, cucumbers) for elegant raw salads (as done here). That knife work is near impossible without a mandoline.
Your dearest, one and only,