Before the pandemic started my wife and I had made a decision to dine out less. In our younger years we would eat out often, that “Two Incomes No Kids” lifestyle was a lot of fun, but it wasn’t always kind to our bank accounts or our waistlines. Whether it was a conscious decision or simply the result of having a young child at home, we were already spending more time around the dinner table when dining out ceased to be an option because of Co-vid 19. What was already becoming a trend in our lifestyle became a full-blown necessity as businesses grappled with the pandemic.
While I haven’t always loved meal planning, we are definitely taking a more structured approach to our weekly menu. My wife is not a professional cook and she likes to rely on recipes or have a specific dish in mind when cooking, while I love to just open the fridge and start creating from what I see. As a middle ground we build shopping lists with a few specific dishes in mind, and I also try to give her ideas about new ways to cook the vegetables we are pulling out of our garden. This time has also allowed us to take a hard look at our kitchen tools and separate the wheat from the chaff.
When you cook a lot it’s easy to build up a collection of cooking tools. Some gadgets are super useful and will remain hallmarks of your kitchen, while others only serve one purpose or don’t live up to their advertised claims. These duds get relegated to the back of the cabinet and take up space until you either donate them, foist them on someone else via a yard sale, or just trash ‘em. Our drawers are overflowing with tools, from an expansive knife set built from the retiree’s of my professional kit to pasta machines, and induction burners, we have a lot of kitchen equipment. Luckily, I have reduced our collection drastically as I have gotten more and more frustrated by our lack of space. I have also fallen in love with some of the gadgets that I once thought of as frivolous. This is a collection of the top 5 tools I’ve come to love as I’ve spent more time in my home kitchen during the pandemic.
1. Clip-on Pasta Strainer.
I used to see these in kitchens and think they were ridiculous. A colander is a much more efficient tool for this job, and it can do other things besides, or at least that is how I used to feel. Now with a small child running around, I find myself having to cook small amounts of pasta just for her. Whether it’s Mac and cheese or buttered noodled with parmesan, we are cooking a ton more pasta now, simply to get her fed at an appropriate hour. I’ve always been a late eater, sadly my child is not, so sometimes while I’m making the big people food, I’ll throw together something easy so she gets fed, and I don’t have to deal with a screaming child. Usually, I do this in a small saucepan, and pulling out the colander for a cup of noodles is ridiculous.
Enter the clip-on pasta strainer. This tool is easy to clean and has a relatively small footprint so it won’t take up a ton of space. It fits in a drawer and it makes preparing a single serving’s worth of pasta a cinch.
2. Rice Cooker
I have always loved my rice cooker, but over the past few months, I have found myself using it even more than usual. In terms of cooking tools, it’s not always great to buy an item that only serves one purpose, except when it comes to a rice cooker.
Rice cookers only cook starches, they don’t do much else, but they are quite good at that one thing. They cook rice, barley, farro, quinoa, and almost every other similar starch perfectly. There is some adjustment in the amount of liquid needed for each grain, but once you have it figured out, a rice cooker is a 1-button side-dish making machine. This has been a godsend for me because, as I have found out, children love starches. Meat and veggies not always so much, but they love starches. Being able to handle the starch portion of a meal with the click of a button has made dinner prep that much easier. Also, buttered rice is comfort food for me, and being able to throw it together in just a few minutes is a plus as well.
3. Instant Pot / Electric Pressure Cooker
Though the instant pot has some flaws, I love the idea of an electric pressure cooker. I braise and stew a ton at home, it’s an easy way to introduce a ton of vegetables into a dish, and braising and stewing recipes often work well as one-pot-meals. However, I hate how long it takes to properly braise a dish, especially when I want to make something rich and satisfying on a week-night. Though I tend to make braises a lot less during the warmer months, my instant pot has gotten a decent amount of use throughout the past few months. I know that I could always use a crockpot as the reverse of a pressure cooker, but I mostly prefer the flavors of pressure-cooked braises versus slow cooker recipes. Luckily, an instant pot is both a pressure is both a slow-cooker and a pressure-cooker, as well as a few other things. Whatever you do, don’t make rice in it, a rice-cooker is a much better option for and does a much better job overall.
The other great thing about an instant pot is the yogurt maker function. I have been making yogurt at home for some time and though I have always gone with tabletop cultures that ferment at a much lower temperature, it is nice to have the ability to make greek and danish styles as well which need a warmer fermentation.
4. Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven
I have gone on about my love for dutch ovens in the past, especially enameled ones. Unlike their unfinished cast iron cousins, the enameled dutch ovens make it possible to cook saucier and higher acid foods without pulling iron into the dish. Moreover, they make it super easy to make fried rice, which is a staple in our family due to all the rice leftovers from the rice-cooker.
Dutch ovens also make incredible sourdough bread. One of the failings of home ovens is their inability to maintain the high temperatures you need for good bread baking. They also leak steam at an alarming rate. Steam is one of the most important factors to good bread and sadly, home ovens leak like a sieve. Luckily a cast-iron dutch oven has a heavy enough lid to keep the steam inside. Check out this tutorial on making delicious sourdough bread at home!
5. Mini-Weber Smoker
This is less of a purchasable tool and one that I actively created from odds/ends, but it is also something I have come to love again during the quarantine. I built this smoker about 8 years ago from a mini-weber grill and a tamale pot, using a tutorial like this one. It has made it through two moves, and innumerable rain/snowstorms.
Over the past few years, I have used it less and less, especially after I acquired a larger Texas-style barrel smoker that I use to cook briskets and cater parties. Despite my love for my barrel smoker, it is a pretty wasteful use of resources when I’m only cooking for myself/my family. Thankfully, my trusty mini-weber uses far less fuel and because it’s a charcoal smoker, instead of a stick-burner, it’s much easier to set it and forget it.
Though I love brisket, it’s not the best cut for a family dinner, it takes way too long, and it’s a ton of meat. Luckily I can finish a 5# pork shoulder in 6-8 hours on my mini-weber and it’s the perfect size for dinner as well as a goodly amount of leftovers for the next day. This smoker is also the perfect size for a pack of chicken thighs which only take 2-3 hours from start to finish.
These day’s I love to light up my smoker on my day’s off, I get to spend time outside in the yard working on the many projects I’ve been planning for the past few years and I can keep an eye on my pit all along without having to worry about constantly feeding the fire.
While the pandemic has been frustrating, to say the least, and we all mourn the loss of our old normal, it has definitely offered a lot of new experiences, closer to home that I am incredibly thankful for.
What tools or dishes have become mainstay’s in your house since the pandemic? Let me know in the comments, I’m always looking for new recipes and gadgets!