She Sure Is PRETTY! (but can she COOK?)

Inspired by the whole “new year, new you” thing (and an incoming Le Creuset purchase from QVC that’s going to need cabinet space), I’m in the process of reorganizing my cabinets and fine-tuning my cookware choices in the kitchen. I wish I had a nickel for every pan, dish, gadget and gizmo that turned my head or took my breath away just because it was pretty. Since starting my journey toward becoming better than just OK, I’ve bought a LOTTA stuff. My cabinets are full to bursting with pretty things that, at least at first, pretended to do something I needed done. And every last purchase was super easy to justify because it gave the impression of being a useful tool in the kitchen, promising to make me a better cook.

So I’m having a proper clear-out, sifting through my culinary arsenal, and I’ll be writing a few informational blog posts as I go — what do I use, for what, and why, and if I don’t use it, then why not? Take these, for example:

They’re enameled cast iron so, yes, of course, they cook. They’re bright and sparkly and pretty and colorful, and they fit in my countertop oven. I got them in anticipation of paying more attention to my portions, and maybe doing individual baked apples, small desserts, single-serve pot pies. It didn’t dawn on me at the time of purchase that (a) the portions were REAL small and (b) they’re really tedious to clean. Besides that, the knobs don’t stay screwed on well and unless they’re hand-washed, the screws can get lost in the dishwasher making the lids a whole nuther problem.

My dad was a mechanic. He always had to have the right tool for the job. I learned how important that is from watching him fix things. Sure, there are unlimited work-arounds if you don’t have what you need when you need it (and you’re good at thinking outside the box). Many times it’s possible to hobble along and see a task to completion on a wing and a prayer. But for the most part, if you want to do something well, and you think you’ll have to do it more than once, you’re going to want to have the right tools on hand.

I’m all about tools in the kitchen. When I was about 6 years old, my mother went back to work and one day, after school, a man came to the door selling “waterless cookware,” aka stainless steel (for the record all waterless cookware is stainless steel but not all stainless steel is waterless cookware – a conversation for another blog).

Those were the days when leaving children home alone wasn’t illegal. And in my small community, it was also long before “stranger danger” was a public concern. Door-to-door salesmen were commonplace, so when the man asked if my mother was home, I told him she was at work wouldn’t be home until 5:30. I know, right? It’s like a horror movie where you cover your eyes thinking, “How stupid can she BE?” But I was 6, and why else would the salesman choose to knock on my door in the middle of the afternoon? The feminist movement in my town only existed for a couple of years in the 1940s — somewhere between Rosie the Riveter and VE Day. Women were usually home with their kids at that time of day, thinking about what to cook for supper. The timing for selling a set of cookware would have been perfect back then.

I’m pretty sure the salesman saw the stars in my eyes when he flashed that brochure in front of me. Right there on the cover was the most stunning display of cookware I’d ever seen in my life. Clean, polished, unpitted. Bright shiny silver exterior with matching LIDS! Photographed in living color and arranged in a progression that looked like the stairway to Heaven. He let me keep the brochure and said he’d come back when my mom got home. I couldn’t wait!

While it goes without saying that she wouldn’t buy the cookware Mom did (grudgingly) sit through the presentation. I was so star struck (and terrified of my mother’s glare) that I don’t remember much of what was said. I do remember learning that a stiff upper lip in the face of deep disappointment can really save your bacon (she was so angry, begging was out of the question and crying was not an option). But I sure did love that sparkly cookware. I just knew it was my destiny.

Most of my cooking life has been spent in the company of the same kind of rag-tag, mismatched, lid-less pots, pans, and Pyrex that squatted in the kitchen of my childhood … cheap aluminum, scarred nonstick, and a ruined set of hard anodized from the late 1980s. No wonder when it comes to cooking, I’m just OK. Well, that and the fact that my mother hated to cook.

Thankfully, it’s never too late to improve. And thankfully again, I did eventually acquire a set of shiny, sparkly, stainless steel cookware of my very own. But I didn’t stop there. I wanted to improve my understanding of how things work in the kitchen, and I think it’s important to experiment with other options. Over the past three years, I’ve made it a point to try everything I could get my hands on and as a result, my cabinets are overflowing with cookware of every kind. I’ve cooked in all of them and through trial and error, I’ve learned that each medium has at least something it’s good at … or if not good, at least decent.

That goes for bakeware, too, where the question of form over function is just as important. In fact, I’ve found that bakeware has led me down the primrose path far more often than cookware ever has. Take these, for example:

Pretty, bakes well, but not very robust
Attractive, fancy price tag, bakes like a pro, they’ll fight over it when I’m dead!

The red dish is pretty, no doubt. Not nearly as weighty as the gray one. Bakes nicely, too. But it doesn’t go on the stovetop, and it only took a small fumble with a sugar spoon to leave that sizable divot right on the front! Not so pretty any more, is she?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a brand snob. I love that brand but the quality has suffered staggering inconsistencies in the last couple of years, making it not nearly as economical as it used to be. When you have to replace broken or crazed dishes every year or so, or you have to send back pieces that leak or arrive cracked/chipped, it gets to the point where it ends up costing less to go for the big price tag to begin with than to make multiple (seemingly lower cost) purchases again and again. And the bonus in this instance is that the gray one does a lot more than the red one. Better bang for the buck all around.

And how about these?

Saucier (aka Pro XL Wok)
Super SAUCIER! (aka Cassadou)

Both about the same size. Both do the same types of cooking … stovetop, oven, grill. I bought the inexpensive one because I needed a pan like that. I bought the pretty one because … well, it was pretty and I’ve come to love that brand (and I got a SUPER deal on eBay). So … pretty? Yes. Robust? YES! Cooks well? YOU BETCHA! Durable? That’s where the pretty one takes the prize. While the coating on the first pan is better than most nonsticks, it still doesn’t held up over the long haul. This isn’t my nonstick pan of this type.

Again, it’s not always an issue of brand. I’ve just gained a lot of intel over a lifetime of buying and replacing cookware. Sadly, I was late learning. I’m also a skeptic so even if someone told me that brand A was better than brand B, I probably wouldn’t have believed them anyway until I’d bought the less expensive one first to at least TRY to prove them wrong.

Cookware and bakeware can be very personal. That’s one thing I hadn’t considered when I started this adventure. With so many options available, it’s easy to make impulsive and uniformed choices. It’s hard to know what questions to ask. And in the end, it can be next to impossible to let go of the hope that fueled the acquisition in the first place. “So pretty!”

While I’ve managed to pare down quite a bit of cookware in the last couple of days, it hasn’t been a straightforward process. Luckily, my kids like to cook so many of the pieces I’m “donating” already have a home. That helped me let go of more than I might have otherwise. I’ve still got a few things to sort, many of them pretty, so I’ll be putting them to the test to answer the question that gave rise to this post. And when I’ve successfully completed this purge and I’m faced with temptation, my greatest hope is that before I buy one more thing, I’ll ask: “… but can she cook?”

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