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Worth It? Not Worth It?

Where to put your dough? Two expert -- and opinionated -- cooks weigh in.

October 08, 2008|Russ Parsons and Amy Scattergood | Times Staff Writers

Mini food processors. What's the point? Anything small enough to fit in the feed bowl of one of these can be just as easily and quickly chopped by hand. Find it in the cupboard, put it together, find a plug, pulse twice, take it apart, clean it up, put it away. Give me a chef's knife and a cutting board any day.

Expensive nonstick skillets. If you're spending more than $30 on a nonstick skillet, you're crazy. I know, because I have done it repeatedly. And two months later they've got the same set of nicks and dings as the cheapo pan I bought at the restaurant supply store. Of course, it goes without saying that nonstick anything else -- saucepans, roasting pans, etc. -- is a complete waste of money, unless you truly are a serial scorcher.

Specialty knives. My wife is going to howl with laughter when she reads this because I've got two knife blocks jammed full, and more in a drawer. But 98% of all the cutting I do is with a chef's knife or a paring knife. The rest of it, I confess, is nothing more than a cutting-edge indulgence. So let's agree never again to mention that 12-inch antique French carbon steel ham slicer, OK?

Big red wines. How many grilled black-pepper-coated steaks are you going to eat in a year? That's about the only possible dish these high-alcohol, high-extract wines can pair with. I'm looking at you, Paso Robles Zin! Who are you kidding with 15.5% alcohol? And these days there are even some Pinots that get that high. If I want Port, I'll buy Port.

White truffles. There is no one who loves white truffles more than I do. But I can count on one hand the number of times I've had white truffles in this country that approach the quality of the ones you get in Italy. There, you can smell the truffles being sliced from across the room. Here, most of the time you practically have to bury your nose in a dish before you get any of their perfume. Luxury ingredients are wonderful when there is a payoff; otherwise they're the culinary equivalent of gold-plating bathroom fixtures.

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Amy Scattergood

Worth it

High-quality coffee. Skimping on coffee is one of those things -- like buying cheap shoes -- that never ends up working out. Sure, a pound of fair trade, organic, artisan-roasted Ethiopian Yrgacheffe is going to set you back more than a can of Folgers (about three times as much), but you'll get a far better cup of joe, therefore increasing the caffeine happiness factor and probably decreasing the amount of coffee you'll need to drink in the first place. Quality over quantity, anyone?

Dutch oven. A few years ago I bought a 4-quart Staub enameled cast iron Dutch oven on sale at a cooking store, and I think I've used it more than all the rest of the pots and pans in my kitchen -- combined -- since then. I don't even put it away; it lives on my stove. These lidded pots usually cost $100 to $200 (the price varies a lot, depending on the size and manufacturer), but you can use them on the stove top and in the oven, for soups, braises, casseroles, boiling pasta and making sauces. I even use mine to make cobblers. They conduct heat amazingly well, are pretty enough to serve in, and they're so durable that they'll survive us all. Bargain cast-iron Dutch ovens from the hardware store may not be as pretty, but at a fraction of the price, they'll work almost as well.

Whole vanilla beans. Imitation vanilla extract should come with a government warning label: You have no idea what you're missing. Even extract made from real vanilla has nothing on the beans themselves. Scrape the seeds into sauces and doughs, steep the husks in vats of creme anglaise for ice cream. You can reuse the beans too. After they're dried, bury them in your sugar bowl for homemade vanilla sugar. Yeah, they're expensive ($1 to $2 for a single Madagascar bean), but when you want the flavor to shine through, they're worth it.

Saffron. Tagged as the world's most expensive spice -- you can buy a 2 1/2 -pound case of saffron on amazon.com for $4,410 -- saffron is the key ingredient in many regional dishes, such as paella and bouillabaisse as well as certain pilafs and tagines. They depend on its unique grassy flavor and startling yellow color. Authenticity has its price, of course, but it's not so bad when you consider how little you need of the stuff. It's also another one of those wacky ingredients that make you think, wow, who comes up with this stuff? Dried crocus stigmas. What demented gardener thought of putting that in the stew?

Microplane. Yeah, you may think that a box grater is all you'll ever need -- until you use one of these gizmos for the first time. The fine metal graters are inexpensive (around 10 bucks, less if you shop at hardware stores) and seriously useful. Grate cheese, nutmeg, a chunk of 70% cacoa chocolate; zest citrus without worrying about grating the bitter pith. And never a scraped knuckle! I keep mine right next to my stove -- and I have no idea where my box grater is anymore.

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