One of the most important things in doing “small-time” cooking is to have the right equipment. You don’t need a lot, just the best that you can afford. Good equipment makes cooking easier and thus, more enjoyable.
It’s interesting what other serious cooks feel are the basics for cooking. When so many kitchen gadgets are promoted, it’s easy to pick up things that sound great but really are not necessary, and may not even work well. I had not really though about the bare essentials until I read what Michael Ruhlman gave as his five basic items: “my truly minimalist kitchen would have a chef’s knife, cutting board, large sauté pan, flat-edged wood spoon and a large Pyrex bowl”. For the purposes of cooking for one, I might suggest that a smaller sauté pan might be in order, but otherwise those things would give you basic cooking tools. You can certainly start minimalist and add as you find your cooking style.
One of the most important things in you kitchen is your knives. Have knives that are comfortable to use–go to a store where you can actually pick them up and feel the weight and the balance. I like heavy knives; I have a mix of brands chosen because I like the feel, the heft and balance of a particular knife. You frequently see Wüsthoff, Henkles and, more recently, a number of Japanese knives, in the “gourmet” stores and catalogs, but there are good serviceable knives available that are less expensive. You need to buy the best knives you can afford that are comfortable in your hand and fit your cutting style. If you feel clueless about knives, Consumersearch offers a report on various brands of knives that may be useful. You don’t need a lot of knives; buy the knives that do the things that you do in the kitchen. You can always add specialty knives as your cooking repertoire expands. For basic kitchen tasks, a chef’s knife, a slicer and a utility paring knife are good starters. If you use lots of bread, then you might also want a bread knife but a good, sharp slicer can handle bread. If you filet fish, then you may well want a specific knife for that–buy only what you need. There is no point in having a huge set of knives, but using only a couple. Your money would be better spent in other ways.
A French (chef’s) knife is the real workhorse of the kitchen: it cuts vegetables, chops, minces; it’s broad tapered blade lets you perform a “rocking” motion for chopping. A slicer or slicing knife, with its long, thin blade can slice meats, breads, and tomatoes. A utility paring knife of 3-1/2 to 4 inches–looking a bit like a small chef’s knife, is good for coring, taking eyes out of potatoes, peeling, et cetera. These form a sound base of kitchen work. I also like a “bird’s beak” paring knife that has a short, thin, curved blade makes quick work of shaping and peeling.
I’d consider a cutting board as a necessity even for a minimalist kitchen since I want to treat my knives well. Cutting boards can be made of so many different things and in such different prices that it can be hard to make a decision. I would recommend looking at some product reviews, such as Cook’s Illustrated where the testing done is unbiased, and where they are not selling a product. One of the things that’s important to me is the feel of the board while chopping–it’s hard to beat wood for chopping comfort. The down side of wood is the necessity of hand washing, and conditioning them; but it takes only seconds, so that’s not the deciding factor for me. I also have plastic cutting boards in my kitchen; the feel is different from wood, but I still find it comfortable. I like my cutting boards to be light enough that I can pick them up to move ingredients, rather than having to scrape them up in order to transfer them to their destination.
Another important item for your “small-time” cooking are pots and pans of the appropriate size for the quantity of food that you are cooking. Quality of these in important too: heavy enough for good even heat transfer. A 12-inch skillet is just not going to work the same when cooking one chop as when cooking four chops. The appropriate size pan controls evaporation. Cooking that single chop in a large skillet will get you burned fond. Cooking that same chop in a smaller pan will give you that wonderful, browned base for a pan sauce. Don’t be tempted to buy that set of pots and pans that is suitable for cooking for four or more; if that’s what you have now, your cooking for one will improve when you invest in some smaller pans suited to the size of servings that you are cooking. Almost all of my cookware is All-Clad, with the occasional piece of Calphalon mixed in.
A food processor is nice, but not by any means a necessity; I have a Krups blender/food processor–the same base works for blender and for the food processor as well. It’s a very basic food processor–it does not shred, or really do much but chop things. For a lot of things I won’t use it because I need such a small quantity that it is easier to use a knife which is much quicker to clean than the food processor. There are times when I would not want to be without the food processor though: when I want to make up mirepoix or soffrito (sofrito) to put in the freezer, or when I want to make a huge pot of chili and need bunches of onions chopped. Mostly for cooking for one, I use knives or a mortar and pestle for chopping or mincing.
There is one kitchen gadget that I’m in love with: my immersion blender which comes with a small “processor”, a whisk, and tall container that lets you make mayonnaise or vinaigrette quickly and easily in small quantities, with much less cleanup than the standard food processor.
If you’re serious about cooking for one, get some good knives that fit your hand, and some good pots and pans that are small enough for a single serving–or maybe two servings!