Monday, June 3, 2013

Part 1: Begin with the First Step

In the first part of my cooking series, "Kitchen Cool: Secrets of a Vegan Personal Chef," I address one of the biggest complaints I hear about switching to a vegan diet:   not knowing where to begin.  The change alone often feels so overwhelming, but if you’ve already made that decision, BRAVO!  The rest is easy.  That is, once you get over the “fear of flying” in your kitchen.  But how do you do that??

To make it easy on yourself, follow the advice of the brilliant Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, and “start where you are.”  Some of you come to vegan cooking as seasoned chefs already possessing knife skills and a familiarity with kitchen equipment, so you may want to simply peruse these steps for items relevant to your needs as a vegan.  Others are equally new to vegan cooking as you are to cooking in general, and you may want to consider this as a detailed step-by-step checklist. Most of you are probably somewhere in between, having dabbled in vegan cooking for awhile and come here looking for fresh ideas.  Whatever the case may be, grounding yourself where you are and using these tips as guidance will help you build a strong foundation upon which future cooking endeavors will be laid.

The Lowdown
You don’t need the most expensive, top of the line products to make good food, but in the case of kitchen equipment, you often get what you pay for.  That said, I will make recommendations for various budgets as well as offer my personal preferences as suggestions.  These are the tools I’ve come to favor over the years, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that others aren’t equally good.  Buy what you’re comfortable with when starting out, upgrade when necessary, and consider every purchase an investment. You will be much happier using equipment you don’t have to fight with!

The Dirty Secrets
It’s important to equip your kitchen with the right tools of the trade so that you’ll not only be safe and feel comfortable, but so that you’ll come to enjoy the cooking process itself and not see it as yet another chore to get through.  When I first started out in my own kitchen prior to becoming a personal chef, I didn’t even have a cutting board.  I used to hold an apple in the palm of my left hand and pray that the serrated steak knife I was gingerly holding in my right hand wouldn’t slip!  Yeah, it was bad.  But if I can get over the hurdle, so can you!  
  1. Take care of the major investments by equipping your kitchen with the right appliances.
      • Food processor - get the biggest you can afford as this will save time when making large batches of mixtures
      • High speed blender - I use mine nearly every day for smoothies, sauces, and batters.  You can get by with something basic like a Waring, and even Ninja makes some highly rated belnders, but when you're feeling confident and ready to splurge, go with the Vita-Mix.  You can save a little money by buying it  reconditioned directly from the manufacturer's website.
      • Immersion blender - for pureeing hot soups to a smooth consistency, this is indispensable.  If you get one with a bowl attachment, you can also use it for processing smaller jobs.  This is great for making a whipped “cream” or single serving of sauce.  I take it with me wherever I cook because it’s much easier to transport than my blender and food processor!  Recommended!
  2. These essential tools will make cooking easy and fun, and you’ll feel like a pro when you use them.
      • knives - 8” chef’s knife, serrated knife, paring knife
      • knife sharpener and honing steel
      • skillet - 10” stainless steel, 10” non-stick, 10" cast iron
      • pots - Dutch oven (6 qt), 5-6 qt. sauce pot, 1-2 qt. sauce pot with lids
      • metal colander
      • wooden cutting board   Recommended!
  3. I'm not a fan of gadgets that serve just one purpose, but these essentials will make kitchen chores a breeze.
        • garlic press (zyliss)
        • metal tongs
        • metal spatula
        • plastic spatula
        • wooden spoons of different sizes
        • ladle
        • vegetable peeler & zester
        • mandolin
        • spiralizer
        • grater                                            Recommended!
    • Stock your pantry with staples that are versatile, healthful, and have a long shelf life. 
        • bulk grains (brown rice, quinoa, millet, wild rice, amaranth, teff)
        • bulk nuts & seeds (almonds, walnuts, pecans, pistachios, pine nuts, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds)
        • bulk dry legumes (garbanzo, black-eyed peas, brown lentil, French lentil, red lentil) 
        • canned beans (black, butter, kindney, cannelini, pinto, garbanzo)
        • non-dairy milks (rice, almond, hemp)
        • sea vegetables (nori sheets, dulse flakes, arame)
        • oils (olive, toasted sesame, canola)
        • condiments (balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar, Dijon mustard, yellow mustard, Sriracha hot sauce, tamari, pickles, etc.)
        • flour, baking products
        • sweeteners (agave syrup, rice syrup, maple syrup)
    Personally, I recommend holding off on stocking your pantry with dessert ingredients such as flours, sweeteners, and chocolate, partly because they’re expensive, but mostly because I believe desserts should be kept to a minimum.  While they’re yummy and sexy and everyone loves a good vegan cupcake, a goal of a good vegan chef should be to stay healthy and balanced. 

    This is where I began 17 years ago.  You will learn what your favorites are the more you practice.  In our next piece in this series, I will show you how to save time and keep your sanity in the kitchen.  
    Oh, and one more thing.  While this isn't really a necessity, sometimes a little treat or two will make cooking all that much more fun.  For me, that means a cute little apron.  And how could anyone resist these retro-inspired designs from Sur La Table?  As a bonus, they're now on sale through this link!  I don't know about you, but I've got my eye on this one with the kitties! 

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