I’m a sucker for kitchen gadgets and culinary bits and bobs. Like most people I have certain items that gather dust on the back of a shelf or bottom of a drawer but I have my favourites too, things I’d really miss and feel obliged to replace if (heaven forfend) the kitchen burned down.
This is was going to be my firemans’ bucket list. Then I looked at my first draft and realised that a) most of them were electronics, b) a lot of them were expensive things we bought in the days when we had a disposable income rather than a disposed-of income and c) anyone with a small kitchen wouldn’t have anywhere to keep them anyway.
So I’ve gone back to basics with some suggestions you may find useful if you’re looking for a thoughtful gift for the cook in your life. Some will cost you a bob or two. Others are as cheap as chips, or nearly. Hopefully they avoid the “look, darling, I bought you a new vacuum cleaner for Christmas” death wish pitfall.
Forgive me if I sound a bit Blue Peter but you don’t always have to buy shiny new things. I’m not suggesting you rush out and source sticky-backed plastic and the cardboard bits from loo rolls or start crocheting tea cosies (unless that’s your thing) but sometimes upcycling can work.
Slate food presentation boards are in a lot of Christmas catalogues. I got given a couple of roofing slates recently: we sealed them and stuck some felt circles on the bottom and they’re perfect for serving cold meats and cheeses and cost us nothing. Some of my friends tell me they’ve done the same thing with beautiful old tiles for use as trivets.
Some of my favourite kitchen buys over the years have been at car boot sales: properly seasoned wooden spoons, a potato masher that doesn’t cut into my hand when I use it, a fat, brown, shiny earthenware casserole that cost a fraction of what it would have been in a posh kitchen shop.
If you’re looking for quirkier things for the person who has everything, other antiques fair/boot sale finds have included a ham gripper (so you don’t get your fingers sticky when you’re carving that ham on the bone), wooden butter moulds and my Mrs Portly branding iron. Less said about that the better but Him Outdoors is running scared.
I’m always chuffed if I’m given a lovely old plate or jug or bowl I can use in the kitchen and when I’m photographing food for Mrs Portly. And while a potato masher may not be top of your Christmas list a well-designed bit of kitchen kit, be it ever so humble, is always a pleasure to use.
Unfortunately there is some very ill-conceived stuff out there and until you actually use it you don’t know whether it’s going to be your favourite new thing or just another example of design triumphing over function. A friend I consulted in the writing of this post complained that she’d bought umpteen bread boards and chopping boards before finding one that worked for her.
If you have the space, a good butcher’s block is a thing of beauty. Mine was built as part of our old kitchen by Ian Dunn and I love it so much that when we moved I took it with me. (It’s free-standing, I’m not so obsessed that I demolished the kitchen.)
It’s chunky and solid and will probably outlive me.
We’ve also got a much cheaper one we bought from Ikea and it’s lasted well. I’d just say buy the best you can afford, with the thickest slab of wood on the top that you can manage.
I’d avoid the “antique” ones you sometimes see, full of dips and hummocks, allegedly worn away by generations of butchers. Try slicing a carrot on one of those.
The same goes for wooden chopping boards and bread boards. A lot of them are laminated and they warp. We’ve got a couple like that, also from Ikea, and they’re okay but like our shed door, they contract and expand depending on the humidity of the weather. Sometimes they’re flat, sometimes they dip in the middle.
My husband, a practical man, suggests going to a carpenter and buying a solid chunk of wood, asking him (the carpenter, not my husband) to plane and sand it smooth and then taking it home and oiling it yourself. You can buy special food-safe oils but olive oil works too. Just let it soak in, then re-apply as necessary until you have a good sealed surface. You may have to give it a light sand between coats and re-oil it once a year but you’ll end up with something made-to-measure that will last you for years.
Too DIY for you? Okay, apart from my electric food processor/coffee machine/bread machine/rice cooker/wok/other items of conspicuous consumption, these are shop-bought items I find useful. In no particular order …
I have a couple of deep, heavy-duty pans I use on almost a daily basis, both German, one from Woll and one from Berndes. I think the two makes are on a par. They’re made from cast aluminium, with glass oven-proof lids and detachable handles so you can use them on top of the stove and in the oven. They’re not cheap but they’re worth the money.
They’re well-nigh indestructible – mine have seen some serious use and abuse – and fantastic for stews and curries or just a fry-up. Make sure you see them before you buy: some are heavy and unsuitable for people who have RSI or can’t lift heavy weights, others are much lighter.
Microplane graters. They come in various shapes and sizes but you really only need one, with a medium rasp. Use them to grate anything from rock-hard parmesan to lemon rind but try not to grate your knuckles. They’re phenomenally sharp.
If you’re short on space a stick blender is a handy thing to have. They often come with accessories like a tiny blender jug but I think these are a waste of time. I usually stick my blender straight in the pan and save on washing up (not advisable if your pans are non-stick of course).
But sometimes, if you want to puree something AND get the seeds or fibres out, they’re infinitely preferable to pushing everything through a sieve.
Hand-operated ones are readily available but I really like my electric mouli. It’s effortless to use. I bought mine in Spain for about £25 but the only one I can find on sale in the UK is twice as expensive (sorry).
Jar openers: if you’ve ever battled with opening a stubborn jar, especially one that’s vacuum-sealed, you need one of these. They come in all shapes and sizes but the one I find most useful is a metal one from Brabantia. It has toothed grippers that fit all lids.
We don’t eat chips very often but I am ridiculously fond of our chip cutter. It’s hardly a kitchen essential but it’s such a nifty little gadget and childishly pleasing to use. They cost around a tenner so not quite as cheap as chips but close.
Tin openers: I’m straying dangerously close to death wish territory here but I’ve had so many completely useless ones, including (sorry, love) the battery-operated one my husband bought me one Christmas that I’m going to stick my neck out. My favourite is a Culinare MagiCan. It opens tins easily and doesn’t leave you with a dangerously sharp edge on the can.
If all else fails and you’re panic-buying on Christmas Eve, a really good bottle of olive oil or balsamic vinegar is a welcome gift in any cook’s kitchen. And I haven’t talked here about cookbooks, but my top picks this year are Persiana, by Sabrina Ghayour and Dino Joannides’ superb Semplice.
I’d love to know what you consider indispensable in your kitchen. Drop me a line and let me know. There may be something I can add to my Christmas list …
No money changed hands in the writing of this post nor were any of the items mentioned manufacturers’ freebies.