Recipe: Seared Tofu Salad

Mellow tofu, and sweet bell peppers and carrots balance the zesty ginger and onions in this colorful and flavorful salad. I served this salad with a homey side of glutinous rice cooked with azuki beans, and can see it pairing well with other whole grains or a hearty bread, like the buttermilk rye bread I made in week 2 of my Whole Grains and Tofu Challenge. Plan ahead to give the tofu time to rest and marinade.

Recipe: Seared Tofu Salad

Makes 4 servings


  • 14 ounces firm tofu, cut into ¾ inch thick slices, then each slice cut into 6 pieces
  • 8 ounces salad greens
  • 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
  • 6 ounces mixed baby greens
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled and grated
  • 1 medium orange bell pepper
  • 1 medium yellow bell pepper
  • 1 lime, cut into wedges (optional)

For the marinade:

    • ¼ cup sake
    • 2 tablespoons low sodium tamari
    • 2 teaspoons sesame oil
    • 1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
    • 1 teaspoon fresh ginger root, peeled and grated
    • 4 scallions, sliced thin on an angle

For the dressing:

  • 1 teaspoon onion, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger root, peeled and grated
  • 1 small garlic clove, finely chopped
  • ½ tablespoon rice vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon ketchup
  • 1 teaspoon water
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon low sodium tamari


Remove excess water from the tofu: Place tofu in one layer on a dish towel, cover with another towel, then lay a cutting board on top. If you have a light cutting board, add a frying pan or a couple of cans on top. Allow the tofu to rest for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the marinade: In a flat bottomed casserole just big enough to fit the tofu in one layer, combine the ingredients for the marinade. After the tofu has rested, transfer it to the casserole in one layer. Marinate the tofu for approximately 45 minutes, turning occasionally.

Heat oil in a griddle pan or frying pan, preferably cast iron, over medium low heat, until very hot, almost smoking. Add tofu to the pan in one layer, reserving the marinade. Sear the tofu until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes, then flip it over and cook the other side. Remove the tofu from the pan.

Make the dressing: Place all the ingredients for the dressing in a jar with a tight fitting lid, and shake to mix thoroughly. Alternatively, whisk all the ingredients together in a bowl.

Place greens and carrots in a large bowl. Remove the seeds and ribs from the bell peppers, cut them into thin strips lengthwise, and add them to the greens. Add the reserved marinade and the salad dressing and toss.

Divide the greens onto 4 plates, and top with tofu. Tuck a wedge of lime (if using) on the side of each plate and serve.

Inspired by “Grilled Tofu Steak Salad” in The Wagamama Cookbook by Hugo Arnold (Kyle Books, 2004).


Update: 2014 New Year’s Resolutions

I hope the DH is flexing his fingers, because I’ve just crossed the finish line of my 2014 New Year’s Resolutions challenge. You know what that means, don’t you? He’s going to be treating me to a massage.… there’s that tight spot right behind my shoulder blades…. Aaaah!

But I’m sure that you’re more interested in how the Crazy Foodie Whole Grains and Tofu Challenge turned out, right? My goal was to serve whole grains and tofu at least once a week for six weeks. Here’s the week-by-week break down (recipe sources for new recipes are at the bottom):

Week 1

  • Pepperoni pizza and Hawaiian pizza on 100% white whole wheat crust.
  • Short grain brown rice (with black bean, sausage, and sweet potato soup).
  • Oops! What happened? I forgot to make something with tofu!

Week 2

  • Short grain brown rice bowl with oven-baked miso glazed tofu, red peppers and kimchi (Shulman) New! Too much like red rice with miso-roasted squash, leeks, red pepper, and tofu (also from Shulman), so it was good, but we preferred the other recipe.
  • Buttermilk rye bread (King Arthur) New! Pastrami on rye was ubiquitous in New York City delis and diners when I was growing up — I’m sure they still are — but I couldn’t pass up the hot open-faced turkey sandwiches (on white bread, of course) smothered in gravy, so I never got acquainted with rye. What a revelation! We loved the heady flavor and sturdy texture of this quick bread.

Week 3

  • Stir-fried rainbow peppers, eggplant, and tofu (Shulman) New! (with short grain brown rice) Loved the interplay of textures and flavors: roasted eggplant melting in your mouth, crunchy peppers, and meaty tofu. Beautiful colors, and the earthy aroma of hoisin sauce! Adjusted the proportions of the ingredients from the printed recipe to suit my family’s taste.
  • Short grain brown rice (with beef curry).

Week 4

  • Pine nut-parmesan biscuits (King Arthur) New! Everyone really loved these flaky biscuits except me. I thought they were a little too salty, and the flavor of the pine nuts might be brought out more by toasting them first. With a little adjusting, this recipe has potential.
  • Tofu in creamy nut butter sauce with scallions served with roasted brown rice with gomasio (Kaufmann) New! Roasting short grain brown rice lightened up its texture and punched up the nutty aromas of the rice. I could eat gomasio — a traditional Japanese condiment made of toasted sesame seeds and salt ground to a coarse powder — sprinkled on top of rice every day for the rest of my life!

Week 5

  • Brown basmati rice with onions, peas, and corn.
  • Seared tofu salad (inspired by “Grilled Tofu Salad,” in Hugo Arnold’s The Wagamama Cookbook) New! I used the printed recipe as a springboard, because the bean sprouts that the original recipe called for wouldn’t keep long enough, and also, I forgot to get some other key ingredients… doh! But we all loved the results, so check out the recipe here.

Week 6

  • Long grain brown rice (with red beans and rice).
  • Soba noodles with tofu (which counts for both tofu and whole grains, since soba noodles are made with buckwheat) (Shulman)

Final grade? A-. How embarrassing! I didn’t even realize that I missed the first week’s tofu dinner until I went back over my dinner journal. Still, it’s a decent track record, and a good mix of new recipes and picks from the recipe box.

I’ll raise the bar for my next challenge: can I keep both my resolutions for another 9 weeks? Remember that the recipe for the seared tofu salad in week 5 is here. Drop me a line if you’d like to hear about any of the other recipes that I mentioned!


I gave a short review of these sources (except for Hugo Arnold’s book) in my post, 2014 New Year’s Resolutions.

  • Hugo Arnold, The Wagamama Cookbook (Kyle Books, 2004).
  • Julie Kaufmann and Beth Hensperger, The Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook (Harvard Common Press, 2002).
  • King Arthur Flour, Whole Grain Baking: Delicious Recipes Using Nutritious Whole Grains (Countryman Press, 2006).
  • Martha Rose Shulman, “Recipes for Health,” in The New York Times.



My 2¢: Genetically Modified Crops

In the last decade or so, I’ve been scratching my head over how to think about genetically modified agricultural products. The debates over GM ag were no-holds-barred mud fights, and I was wary of the claims made by either side of the issue. Recently, The New York Times published an article by Amy Harmon, “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops” (Jan. 4, 2014). It generated more than 1,400 reader responses. Thinking that they would help give me some perspective on the issues, I shoveled through the comments, trying to sift out the hyperbole to reveal the nuggets of relevant information.

I didn’t read through them all — I’m a blogger, not a martyr! — but I only put away my fine meshed sieve when the comments started rehashing points that were only repeating things that I’d already seen. This is what I learned: my opinion about GM crops continues to be cautious. It boils down to a couple of points. First, GM crop technologies have not been adequately tested for long term consequences. Second, we are underutilizing agricultural solutions that would limit or eliminate the supposed “need” for GM crops. So, as I can, I’ll vote with my wallet by avoiding products made with GM crops. It would be helpful if food products were labelled, maybe with a “GM-Yes” or a “GM-No” on the ingredients list. The rest of this post shares some of my rationale. It was really interesting to delve into this topic. Hope you find it as interesting as I did! But now I think I’ll go shower off all that mud….


Just to be clear, this post is only about crops, not animals or medicines or other GM products. The vast majority of GM plants falls into two categories: those that are created to be resistant to herbicides like glyphosate (most popularly sold under the brand name Roundup by Monsanto), and those that are created with a pesticide (most often Bt) spliced into the genes of the plant itself. Glyphosate-resistant crops include soy, corn, canola, sugar beets, papayas, and alfalfa: in the US, most of these crops grown are now glyphosate-resistant varieties. Bt-GM plants include corn, potato, and cotton.

I’m leery of GM plants because longitudinal studies of long-term consequences have not been carried out. Studies done by the manufacturers are closely guarded industry secrets. Though the US government declared these plants to be safe, its history of backstepping on products that had previously been declared safe is long: BPA plastics, tobacco, agent orange, dioxins, DDT, asbestos, and lead paint, to name just a handful. To me, skepticism is merited. Even if the plants themselves are safe for our health and the environment, glyphosate use should be monitored more closely. When properly applied, studies show that glyphosate is among the most benign herbicides currently available; however, over application and improper application have negative consequences. The same way that overuse and improper use of antibiotics have contributed to the rise of “superbugs,” glyphosate resistant weeds have proliferated. Similarly, though Bt is used as an organic insecticide, it is used topically, where it degrades naturally in sunlight or washes off. Bt is not meant to be eaten by people or food animals, but the Bt in the Bt crops are, by necessity, eaten, and again, long term studies on potential health and environmental effects have not been done. Meanwhile, Bt resistant insects are also emerging. New, more intractable problems are being created by technologies meant to help us.

One solution is to support well-documented agricultural practices that have been shown to increase the resilience and strength of the environment and desirable plants. Among other steps, farmers should encourage and support a diversity of species, move away from the monocultural/factory model that is essentially an all-you-can-eat buffet for pests, and plant native species along the edges of fields, roadside ditches, and waterways to reduce run-off. Agricultural scientists and farmers can and should develop other techniques that rely on mechanical and structural changes to reach our agricultural goals.

The politics surrounding GMO ag suggests the wisdom of caution as well. “Politics” includes the host of social and cultural issues that aren’t about the actual plants themselves: government regulation, corporate control of agriculture, world wide population growth, consumer expectation of cheap food, etc. Sixty countries have banned, require labeling, or restrict the growth of GM crops, but rather than interpreting these policies as precautionary, GM ag supporters call it a result of political pressure and scare tactics.

Some opponents of GM crops distrust the corporations who develop and market these products. They suspect that, as a general rule, corporations value profits over the public good (think: tobacco, credit default swaps, and the insurance industry); therefore, corporations responsible for GM crops deserve heightened scrutiny. They fear that agriculture and food production will become controlled by a few large corporations. And after all, the most likely way to combat superweeds and superbugs created by GM crops is via more technological intervention, again, most likely provided by the corporations whose products first created these problems. This is already happening. I recently read a newspaper article about the next generation of GM crops, which modifies the RNA of target crops: corporations hope to have these new seeds available by the end of the decade. If the cycle continues, will farmers and individuals be able to grow food outside of the shadow cast by corporations? What are long term health and environmental consequences of these technologies?

Meanwhile, supporters of GM crops cite increased yields and nutrition to feed an ever-growing world population. The opposition contests this claim. Regardless, worldwide population growth does not need to be inevitable. In addition, a majority of GM crops currently grown are commodity or cash crops, used for animal feed, processed foods, and biofuels. They are typically not used to feed hungry populations across the globe. Meanwhile, rates of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other medical issues in the developed world have exploded ever since cheap, processed foods flooded grocery stores and since food costs as a percentage of total household spending have continued to drop. In the US, consumers have been trained to put a low value on food, but what we don’t pay up front, we surely pay later in health and environmental costs. From a global perspective, ⅓ of food grown for people is wasted, and in the US, the percentage of food waste is even higher. The amount of food lost or wasted every year is equivalent to more than half of the world’s annual cereals crop! Focusing on political solutions would be positive for the environment and for people.

Other points are contested by both sides of the issue: whether GM crops have sterile seeds or are self-replicating, whether GM ag products with added nutrients, such as vitamins, are absorbed by the human body in the same way as nutrients that have not been transgenically manipulated, and whether GM crops are as “natural” as crops created by hybridization techniques. I don’t have the answers to all these contested issues. But let’s hang up a big old PROCEED WITH CAUTION sign, and study each GM crop product for 50, or better yet, 100 years. It’s a long time for us, but for Mother Earth, it’s just a blink of the eye.

Caution photo by Michael Theis


2014 New Year’s Resolutions

We’re in that time of year when resolutions abound. The funny thing is that nobody I’ve talked to personally admits to having any resolutions of their own, but nonetheless, resolutions are floating around out there, like a virus or a deep-seated anxiety. Maybe I was careless about breathing in too deeply as I chatted with my friend over tea? Or when I was washing my hands at the movie theater and eavesdropping on the gossiping and texting teens? Or when I made eye contact with the man behind me at the grocery store? But I caught the New Year’s Resolution bug: the first is to pick up writing again, and the second is to incorporate more whole grains and tofu into my cooking.

Of course, it’s really no bad thing, this aspiration for self improvement, but I know how hard it is to keep up the momentum and create a permanent “new normal.” A handful of general “rules” helps, and I wrote about them in my first posts from 2013. I am applying this process to my own resolutions.

In terms of starting to write again, as you may have noticed, I’ve been on a hiatus from blogging since September. The reasons don’t really matter, the important thing is that I want to start again. My goal is to write 4 times a week for 30 minutes a day. I need to change my habit of doing everything else before I write, so before I check email, or call my mom, or clean the kitchen, I will write. Keeping track of my progress on a spreadsheet will help me visualize my success or need for improvement. If I can meet my weekly writing goal for 6 weeks, then my reward will be a massage (thank you, DH)!


Whole grains and tofu aren’t new in my kitchen, but in 2014, I want to include them regularly in my weekly menus. My goal is to serve tofu and whole grains for dinner, not necessarily at the same time, once a week. At the very least, I want to have brown rice frozen in small(er) servings that I can use any time. I need to be more consistent about using recipe sources I already know about, and I also need to keep an eye out for fresh ideas. I’ll keep track of my progress in my dinner diary. And adding more delicious, healthful dishes to my repertoire is reward enough to keep me motivated (though I wouldn’t mind another massage, hint-hint). These are some resources that I’ve already found useful:

  • The Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook by Julie Kaufmann and Beth Hensperger (Harvard Common Press). I have the 2002 edition, but there’s a revised 2012 edition. I skimmed the recipe titles of the first six sections of the table of contents, and except for three recipes that have been removed, the 2002 and 2012 editions look the same. I like the basic cooking instructions for many varieties of rice and grains in “The Perfect Pot of Rice” and “The Whole Grain Cooker.” The family loves Basmati Rice with Corn and Peas with brown basmati rice instead of white, and I want to try substituting brown rice in other recipes in “Simple Everyday Rices and Little Meals” and “The Family of Pilafs.”
  • Whole Grain Baking: Delicious Recipes Using Nutritious Whole Grains by King Arthur Flour (Countryman Press, 2006). For every day, the sections on quick breads, and biscuits, popovers, and dumplings have some known winners: Honey-Whole Wheat Biscuits and Peach-Oatmeal Bread are mouth-watering, and the Spelt Popovers are already a family favorite. When there’s more time, Dark & Soft Restaurant Dinner Rolls, Whole Wheat Pita, and Wheat Baguettes have been scrumptious. Can’t wait to try other recipes, especially those featuring other types of grains.
  • One of the obstacles to eating more tofu has been that I prefer dishes that are at least Asian-based — to me, tofutti and tofurky are just tofunky — and I have only a handful of recipes that we all enjoy. But Martha Rose Shulman, who writes the Recipes for Health column in the New York Times, has some promising possibilities that I’m looking forward to trying. Her Red-Rice or Farro With Miso-Roasted Squash, Leeks, Red Peppers and Tofu, for example, introduced me to red rice, with its appealing brown-red color and nutty flavor. The dish is a beautiful combination of colors, textures, and flavors, and the marinade is equally tasty on tofu and veggies. If her other tofu recipes are just as delish, I’ll have lots of great additions to my recipe box!

Where do you find delicious, easy, healthful recipes featuring whole grains or tofu? What resolutions do you have for 2014? I’ll share my progress as 2014 unfolds. Wish me luck!

Book Review — Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky

Salt is so common, so easy to obtain, and so inexpensive that we have forgotten that from the beginning of civilization until about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.

What’s in your refrigerator? Even if some people only use it for storing a bottle of ketchup, left-over pizza, and a six-pack of diet Coke, there is a fridge in practically every American home. Check your pantry: what canned goods are there? Chef-Boyardee, anyone? In Salt: A World History, Mark Kurlansky (New York: Walker) reminds us of the profound impact of these two inventions on our foodways. Before refrigeration and canning became so common as to be invisible, salting was — along with smoking and pickling — among the most common methods of preserving perishable food in most parts of the world. Salt was so valuable that Ancient Romans sometimes paid their soldiers in salt. The origin of the word salary is sal, or salt in Latin, and the expressions to be “worth his salt” and to “earn his salt” came out of this practice.

Kurlansky-Salt-cover-reviewSweeping through swaths of world history, Kurlansky details beliefs, production, trade, government policies, military strategy, scientific discoveries, and technological innovations demonstrating salt’s crucial role in human endeavors. The transformation of communities into civilizations depended on their ability to first extend and stabilize their food supply. Civilizations from the Incas to Asian India were founded not only by rivers, but also near places with access to salt. Salt became economically important as communities expanded: though salt, which is relatively bulky, was usually not exported on its own, it was used to preserve food that was then profitably sold. Wars were won or lost depending on an army’s access to salt to make and preserve food, for medicine, and to maintain livestock or horses for cavalry or hauling supplies. In example after example, Kurlansky illustrates how salted foods shaped economies for four millennia, and with economies, also government policies. Even as recently as 1930, Mohandas Gandhi sparked the independence movement in India against British rule by leading a campaign to deliberately break the laws prohibiting local harvesting of salt.

Salts have been used for much more than preserving food. While most of Salt focuses on the use of food salt, Kurlansky touches on the uses of non-food salts. He writes that by the Middle Ages, salts were used to cure leather, clean chimneys, soldering pipes, glazing pottery, and as medicine. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, the use of salt for food has become less significant compared to its uses for industrial purposes. Kurlansky shows the direct connection from scientific research conducted on salts to new industries. He even connects the inception of the oil and gas industry with salt mining: much of the drilling technology was the same, and oil, gas, or both are frequently found on the edge of salt. Even unused salt mines have found contemporary usage as storage for nuclear waste and emergency oil reserves. Nowadays, the US is the largest producer and consumer of salt, but only 8% is for food, and 51% is for deicing roads, and the remainder is for industrial purposes.

Lest it gets too geeky, Kurlansky seasons the text liberally with historical recipes and instructions for salt-cured foods, from the ancient Roman fish sauce, garum, to artisanal soy sauce crafted by modern-day entrepreneurs in Sichuan, China. The book is a fascinating review of history through a crystalline lens.

I particularly enjoyed Kurlansky’s discussion of salt’s symbolic value: emerging from its ability to preserve and sustain life, Jews, Muslims, and Christians all believed that salt protected infants from evil, but so did disparate peoples from Japan to Haiti. Long linked to fertility in ancient societies from Egypt to Borneo to North American Indians, salt was also thought to cause sexual arousal or to spur reproduction.

It’s trendy now to write history from “below,” exploring the perspectives and experiences of regular people, instead of the leaders and the generals. This book accomplishes a similar feat with that workhorse, salt. Salt doesn’t have the gleam and glamour like the quest for gold and territorial conquest, but without it, how would the world’s civilizations have functioned? Would a different method of animal domestication have been found? And what would food preservation have entailed? Would we wonder how to walk like an Egyptian? Would all roads have led to Rome? Would the sun have risen over a British Empire? You’ll never see our most common seasoning the same way again after reading Mark Kurlansky’s Salt.


Recipe: pear compote

I try to teach my kids about cooking, food, and diet choices, but I have a black thumb. I’ve killed so many plants that, much to my embarrassment, the kids have a knee-jerk reaction when friends give us plants: “Oh, no! She’s going to kill it!” Despite the efforts of both the DH and me, we have only ever succeeded in growing some herbs, and a sad handful of green beans, stunted lettuce, and mutant turnips. To them, growing food is better left to the experts.

So when my neighbor Bella rang the doorbell last week and gave us a bag of pears from her tree, they were skeptical that these pears could be safe to eat, much less tasty. The pears were hard and green, but after a week, they turned yellow-green and ripe. One or two were soft and had bad spots. I needed to do something quick before they all spoiled! I decided to make pear compote to serve over pancakes. I was surprised when even the DH wouldn’t try it, but after I wolfed down my first pancake with compote, the DD relented. After one cautious bite, she slathered on a generous helping on her short stack. The table was quiet except for the sounds of chewing and the two of us saying, “Mmmm!” Finally the DH and DS caved, and the pear compote disappeared.

Sure hope Bella will have a bumper crop of pears!

Recipe: Pear compote

Makes about 2 cups


  • 3 cups pears, peeled, cored, and sliced (about 1 pound)
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 1 generous tablespoon honey
  • ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
  • ⅛ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon brandy (optional)


Put all the ingredients except the brandy into a 1-quart saucepan. Over medium heat, bring the mixture to a low boil, uncovered. Turn the heat to low, and simmer for 10 minutes, until the sauce is thick and the pears are soft. Remove from the heat and stir in the brandy if using. Serve warm.


Birthday traditions

My mom’s birthday is just two days before mine, and my birthday is just a few weeks before my dad’s. Baba passed away more than 25 years ago, and Mama lives on the other coast, but I always feel close to them around my birthday.

Birthdays weren’t a big deal when I was a kid. We had cake, candles, and presents, but these weren’t an important focus of the day. What I remember most clearly was that we would have noodles, a hard boiled egg, a chicken drumstick, and an obligatory lecture: “work hard, be good, be thankful for your parents.” My parents told me, “It’s the way we do it.” For Chinese people, noodles represent wishes for a long life, a whole egg represents birth and wholeness, and a chicken drumstick is a symbol of prosperity.

My parents were working-class immigrants who stretched every penny they earned, and they never spent money on things they considered extravagances, like birthday parties. Maybe they figured that with four of us kids, we were always already a party, no extra guests needed. Maybe they never felt like they could pull off an American-style party. Maybe they were too tired just getting through the day to think about birthday parties. But they leaned on Chinese tradition to justify it: “Chinese people don’t celebrate children’s birthdays.”

I guess the idea stuck, at least in part. We’ve had our share of parties—I think I’ve recovered from staging Swan Lake for the DD’s 5th birthday—and sleep overs and special weekend get-aways. But birthdays are intensely food-centric for my family. At the core of our birthday celebrations is a week of special food for the birthday guy or gal. I still always serve noodles on each of our birthdays. I like having a hard boiled egg, and a chicken drumstick, too — even if it’s served as fried chicken! And the special birthday meal grew to meals over a week. We get a special breakfast, a restaurant meal, a cake or pie, and whatever other favorite dinners we want.

And a week can really be 7 days, or it can be more like 14 days, depending on what else might be on the calendar. For instance, this weekend, the kids have a big swim meet, and it’s right after my birthday. In preparation for the meet, they are sticking to a healthier diet than usual for a week or two beforehand. They even got special permission from their coach to have a slice of birthday cake! So my birthday week will trickle on for a couple of weeks, and it’s not over until I get my fried chicken!

But love of fried chicken aside, abiding recollections of my parents’ dreams and hopes for me and how they wanted us kids to know something of our Chinese heritage even while planting us in the security and promise of American soil inspire my birthday wishes. So, for my birthday week, I choose lots of what I think of as Chinese celebration foods: dim sum, hot pot, wonton noodle soup, and Peking duck. And when I called to wish my mom happy birthday a couple of days ago, she told me that she went out for dim sum, and I told her I was going to have dim sum too, and that I made steamed azuki bean buns. She asked what I was having for dinner on my birthday, and I said noodles. But I know she was hearing me say, “Thanks, Mom. I love you.”

What are your favorite birthday traditions?


Essential kitchen tools: my top 10 list

What are the 10 kitchen tools that you use all the time? The ones that, if you didn’t have them, would keep you out of the kitchen or keep you from cooking more than you do now? I’m talking about the stuff that isn’t built into a kitchen, like the fridge, stove, or sink. The answers might surprise you. For me, they aren’t the glamorous, stainless steel items with electric motors that outgun a Prius. If you’re someone who wants to cook more, this list highlights the fact that cooking doesn’t depend on having a lot of fancy equipment. And if you’re setting up a kitchen for the first time, this list will help you get a handle on your shopping list.

As a matter of fact, I was surprised at how ordinary most of the items are, like a vegetable peeler or kitchen towels. More durable items, like knives and pans, can last for decades, so it pays to do some research. I’ve had my tomato knife for about 22 years, and a piece of the handle just broke off the other day. The DH glued it back on; with some luck, it might last me another twenty years! So do get the very best that you can afford, but also keep in mind that price doesn’t necessarily translate into quality. For example, I wish I knew about cast iron pans when I was starting out; I might not have needed to replace my first set of pans if I’d started out with cast iron ones. I’ve included brand names where I could, as well as product links, mostly on Amazon. Note that if you buy these items from Amazon after clicking my links, I receive a small commission. (It doesn’t increase the Amazon price at all.) Cozy Foodies need to pay for our groceries!

I whittled the list down to my top 10, but then, I couldn’t resist adding a second (short) list of items that I use every day, but are arguably not essential, and may not even be considered “tools” per se. All those brawny machines would end up on a third list: the “nice to have, but not essential” list. There’s a long list of things that I would miss, and things I couldn’t make (muffins anyone?), but the essentials list really pares things down to the basic necessities for cooking.

Finally, I asked my kids to check my list, and the DS had a great suggestion: my brain! True enough, but I guess I was thinking about stuff that you need to buy (thanks, anyway).

What are the cooking tools that you absolutely can’t live without?

My top 10 list of essential kitchen tools

  1. 8-inch chef’s knife. I’ve had the same knife for so long, that the manufacturer’s information has rubbed off. It’s either a J.A. Henckels 8-Inch Stainless-Steel Chef’s Knife or a Wusthof 8-Inch Cook’s Knife.
  2. Tomato knife. Besides its most obvious use, I use it as a paring knife to make fruit salad every morning, and it also works well on bread. Mine looks a lot like this Zwilling J.A. Henckels 5-Inch Stainless-Steel Serrated Utility Knife.
  3. Cutting board. My favorite one is a 16” x 20” wooden one with no feet, so that I can use both sides. I like the large work surface and that wood is easier on my knife edge than other materials.
  4. Pans. If I could only have 2 pans, I would want them to heat evenly, release food well, and go in the oven as well as cook on the stove top. My 6-Quart Cuisinart MultiClad Pro Stainless Saucepot and my Le Creuset Enameled Cast-Iron Skillet would allow me to cook most every day dishes.
  5. Sharpening steel. Cooking is so much easier, fun, and safe with sharp knives!
  6. Measuring cups and spoons. I have several sets of each, and my favorite is this Cuisipro Stainless Steel Measuring Cup Set, with oval cups to reach into narrow-necked jars. I have an older model of this Endurance Measuring Spoon Set, which has rectangular spoon bowls to reach into narrow spice jars.
  7. OXO Good Grips Can Opener. Mine is so old I don’t remember exactly when I got it. The current models look different from mine. But I like the comfy fat handles and knob, and the built-in bottle opener.
  8. OXO Good Grips Swivel Peeler. Peel vegetables and fruits, even slice cheese (not very well, but sometimes I’m too lazy to wash the slicer)! As with the can opener, I have an older model, but this one has a similar comfy fat handle.
  9. OXO Good Grips Salad Spinner. Dries lettuce and other leafy greens, serves as a prep bowl, and a serving bowl, and works as a cake dome (not pretty, but it gets the job done). I have an earlier model, and it works very well, but the pull-apart lid has always been difficult to operate (I don’t know if this feature has been modified since I got my spinner). The DH can’t do it at all and claims that these were purposely designed to thwart males. The kids love using the “brakes.”
  10. Kitchen towels. My favorites are woven 100% cotton, not terry cloth or waffle weave. Dry my hands, dishes, countertops, ingredients. Wipe up spills. Cover rising dough. Open jars. Handy oven mitts (not recommended—I have accidentally set them on fire!).

My short list of tools I use every day, but may not be essential

  1. GelPro floor mat. Oh, my aching back and knees! The floor mat allows me to stand for a lot longer than I otherwise would be able to. You can sometimes get good deals on these on Amazon, so check prices.
  2. Seventh Generation Natural Paper Towels. They’re made of 100% unbleached recycled paper, so I feel OK using them once and recycling them. Wipe up small spills. Dry meat after rinsing. Use them to cover things in the microwave.
  3. Wooden stirring spoons. Easier on your pans. I’ve got 4 of these, and more often than not, they are in the sink because I use them so much.
  4. Stainless steel prep bowls. I can drop them without worrying about breaking them. They stack up nicely, and don’t react to foods or retain odors. Prep ingredients ahead of time, and when it’s time to cook, have ingredients ready to go, just like on the cooking shows. I wish mine had lids.
  5. Apron. It’s a splash guard and a towel rack (I tuck a kitchen towel into the pocket).

I got the idea for this post when I made dinner to celebrate my wedding anniversary a couple of weeks ago. The DH and I have done our share of romantic dinners at dimly lit restaurants, but this year, we opted to stay home. We made the day special by being especially kind and thoughtful to each other, and by using “happyanniversary” as an adjective when we talked to each other, like, “Take out the happyanniversary trash!” Very romantic (LOL)!

At one point in the evening, I surveyed the mayhem in the kitchen. In one corner of the counter, the slow cooker crouched timidly, meekly cooking the pork shoulder in barbeque sauce. The postage-stamp scale I use as a kitchen scale stood foursquare next to the slow cooker, daring it to take up more space; I had used it to weigh out roughly equal-sized balls of dough for the buns. On the other side of the slow cooker was a cooling rack crowded with the buns and also cream puffs for dessert. The food processor hulked muscularly, preening over how quickly it slivered cabbage and carrots for slaw. The bread machine sulked glumly on the other end of the counter, it’s job making the bread dough completed. In a metal work bowl next to the sink, the pastry bag and tip relaxed in a bubble bath after forming the cream puffs. There were two trays, one lined with parchment paper and the other lined with a silicone baking mat, abandoned on the stove top. And from the other room, the ice cream maker whined loudly, lonely for company. I couldn’t help thinking: this is a ridiculous amount of machinery and equipment for making just one dinner!

But it was yummilicious: pulled-pork sandwiches with coleslaw, and cream puffs with lemon ice cream for dessert. “Oy! Huge happyanniversary mess! Thank you for doing the dishes, honey!” It’s definitely nice to have all these “helpers” when I need them, but, honestly, the kitchen tools I would miss the most are the ones that I use every day!


Recipe: Bok choy with steamed chicken and shiitake mushrooms

[Go to my short story, Cooking Lesson, which features this recipe.]

Recipe: Bok choy with steamed chicken and shiitake mushrooms

Serves 4


  • 8 whole, dried shiitake mushrooms
  • boiling-hot water
  • ¼ cup thin soy sauce, low-sodium if possible
  • 2 tablespoons sherry
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 3 scallions, sliced into pea-sized pieces
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled and minced
  • 8 pieces chicken thighs
  • 8-12 small heads baby bok choy, washed well, ends trimmed, and quartered lengthwise partway
  • for serving: cooked rice


Place the dried mushrooms in a medium bowl and pour about 2 or 3 cups of boiling-hot water over them. Allow them to soften, about 30 minutes, adding more hot water if necessary. When the mushrooms are soft, discard the water. Squeeze out the extra water from the mushrooms, cut off the stems, and slice the caps in half, or, if large, in thirds.

In another bowl, mix together the soy sauce, sherry, cornstarch, sesame oil, scallions, and ginger. Pull the skins off the chicken thighs, and trim off any excess fat. Cut each thigh into three pieces, once lengthwise, then crosswise through the bone. Put the chicken in the bowl with the soy sauce mixture, and stir them together until they are well-combined. Marinate at room temperature for 10-15 minutes.

Add water to a pan with a steamer or wok with a steamer rack; bring water to a boil, covered. Add the mushrooms to the chicken and stir to combine. If using a pan and steamer, place a round, straight-sided cake pan or pie plate inside the steamer, then transfer the chicken, mushrooms, and sauce to the pan or plate. Place the steamer on the pan of boiling water, and cover. If using a wok with a steamer rack, transfer the chicken, mushrooms, and sauce to the cake pan or pie plate. Carefully place the pan or plate in the wok, and cover. Steam until the chicken is just cooked through, about 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, bring 2 quarts of water to a boil. Add the bok choy to the boiling water, pushing them into the water and stirring them around gently. Return the water to a boil, and cook the bok choy until bright green and still firm, about 3-4 minutes. Drain in a colander.

Carefully remove the chicken in its cake pan or pie plate from the steamer or wok. Arrange the bok choy around the edge of a serving plate. Spoon the chicken and sauce in the center of the plate. Serve hot, with rice.


Cooking lesson (a story)

The tea kettle shrilled commandingly when the water boiled. As I poured hot water over the bowlful of dried mushrooms, I was blinded by a fog of steam on my glasses.

“Mama, what if I married a black guy?” Wiping my glasses on my t-shirt, I looked sideways at her momentarily fuzzy figure. As I sat the tortoise shell frames back on my stubby nose, I saw that her eyes never even lifted from the water running into the pot in the sink. She stirred her fingers through the water, firmly rubbing the rice as the water turned milky.

“Why would you do that?”

“I’m just asking,” I shrugged, watching as she strained the water between bent fingers. I picked up the knife, slicing the ginger and sending its sharp tang into my nose.

“Tsk. You’re cutting the ginger too thick. Give me the knife.” She didn’t wait for me to put the knife down as she stepped in front of the cutting board. “Rinse the rice one more time. Be careful. Don’t let any of it wash away. Only this much water.” She showed me her left thumb, crooked at the knuckle. “Then get it started.” She frowned at the ginger on the cutting board, turned the knife on its side, and smacked the slices hard with the side of the blade. A few pieces flew out from under the knife, which she gathered back impatiently.

I stared at her. Why did she have to tell me how to do it every single time? “So, Ma, what would you do?”

“What?” The knife in her hand beat a staccato so fast it was like a low rumble of thunder, leaving the ginger minced in a thousand little pieces.

“If I married a black guy.”

“Get three scallions.”

I got the scallions, plus the bok choy and the chicken, from the fridge. “So…?”

I watched as she sliced the scallions in a tidy line. “Get the…. Oh. Put the chicken in the sink. Make sure it doesn’t drip.”


I thought I saw her hands hesitate for just one brief moment, then she punctured the plastic wrap and tore it away from the styrofoam tray. She plopped the chicken thighs wetly onto the cutting board. “So you’re getting married now?”

“No, of course not.”

“Then there’s no use talking about it.” I jumped when the knife cracked heavily through a bone. “You have to cut through the bone, you know. The marrow is what makes this dish delicious. Americans think breast meat is the best. But what do they know?” She sniffed as she swung the knife down again. Crack! “Just trim off a little bit from the end of the bok choy, Ming. Cut through the bottom where it’s thick, but leave it whole. That’s how Chinese people like it. And let it soak, so all the dirt will come out.” Crack!

I smiled down at the basin of bok choy. I was already washing it. “I’m just saying, ‘What if…?’”

“What if? What if? Who has time for what if?” Crack! “Did you finish your homework yet?”

“No, Ma.”

“So what are you talking about, what if? See if the mushrooms are soft all the way through, then go do your homework.”

“Ma, just say what you would do.”

She exhaled heavily. “What would he eat, your black man, if you married him? He’s not going to eat this?!” And she jabbed at the soggy pile of chicken pieces with the point of the knife.


[Curious about what Ma and Ming are cooking? Go to the recipe for bok choy with steamed chicken and shiitake mushrooms.]