Cheap Eats:
Bulgarian Kebap

Good ingredients is only one aspect of cooking successfully. Good gadgets is the other. But what, you may ask, does one really need? Well, for starters, really excellent knives. This is one area where you don’t want to "cut corners." I have Chef’s Choice and Henckels, which are two of the best brands made. Also, get a good sharpener. It doesn’t have to be electric, but it should be high quality. I have the Chef’s Choice hand sharpener, my brother has the Chef’s Choice electric sharpener; once a year I take my knives to his house for a supremely good edge, but the rest of the time, the hand sharpener is enough. A sharp knife is really a lot safer than a dull knife, since you have greater control and don’t have to press as hard, but I do suggest you watch at least one good gourmet cooking show, to learn the proper chopping method, with fingers curled under and knife against the knuckles — it could save you a couple of digits. (Match their form, but don’t worry about matching their speed — you have to slice thousands of veggies before you can get that fast without hurting yourself.)

If someone gives you really expensive pots and pans, don’t refuse them (unless you can’t lift them), but don’t worry if that’s not what you have. Nice Silverstone or Revereware pans, or the equivalent, are good enough, and you can usually get a full set for a reasonable price. Really crummy pans aren’t a good idea, since heat distribution is uneven, but you don’t need the stuff that’s $100 apiece.

I can’t imagine why anyone in the world would own any vegetable peeler other than the Good Grips version, since there are few things more painful than peeling a dozen potatoes with an old, skinny, metal peeler.

A cutting board is a most useful item, and if you only have one, make it wood. A few years ago, everyone started buying acrylic, thinking it would be healthier and safer. It’s not. A study published in the Tufts University Diet & Nutrition Letter reported that tests on wood vs. acrylic prove conclusively that wood is a lot safer — germs grow wildly on acrylic and not at all on wood. In fact, they went so far as to introduce e.coli bacteria onto wood boards, and it was dead in 24 hours. (This doesn’t mean you don’t still have to clean it, just that you’re dramatically reducing your risk with wood.) I have two boards. I use the acrylic one for things like tomatoes, which are highly acidic, or onions and garlic, which are antibiotic (also, you might not want everything you cut to smell like onions or garlic — though that’s hard to imagine), and I use the wood one for everything else.

A couple of wooden spoons (some things, like sour-dough starter, can’t be mixed with metal spoons) and a Pyrex measuring cup (you can use it in the microwave without blowing it up) are also wise choices. Everything else — even essentials like measuring spoons and mixing bowls — are pretty much a matter of personal style, budget, and the cuisines you wish to prepare. I have favorite toys, of course, like a citrus peeler, Royal Worcester soufflé dish, and porcelain ginger grater, but your toys may be completely different — or completely absent.

The following recipe calls for no fancy utensils, just those sharp knives and wooden cutting board. It’s a Bulgarian recipe, and is one of those good, hearty, warming, and thoroughly delicious stews that fill the bill when February’s winds are blowing, and you don’t think you’ll ever be warm again.

Bulgarian Kebap

2 pounds boneless beef, cut in bite-size pieces (no more than 1-inch cube)

2 Tbs. vegetable oil

2 onions, finely chopped

1 Tbs. flour

1 Tbs. paprika

dash or two of cayenne pepper (optional)

½ tsp. salt

¼ tsp. ground black pepper

1 bay leaf

1 cup red wine

2 tomatoes, finely chopped

1 15-oz. jar Aunt Nellie’s Whole Holland-style onions (these are not pickled onions)

1 clove garlic, diced

Fresh parsley

In a large frying pan, brown the beef in the oil. When beef is browned, add chopped onions and cook until transparent. Mix flour, paprika, and cayenne together, then add to the beef. Stir well, making sure flour mixture is evenly distributed, and cook for 2 minutes. Add salt, pepper, bay leaf, and wine to beef, then cover and simmer gently for 1 hour, or until beef is tender. (Hot water or more wine can be added if dish appears to need more liquid.)

Add tomatoes, drained whole onions, and garlic. Cover and cook over low heat for another 15 minutes, or until the tomato is cooked. Remove the bay leaf and serve.

This dish can be served on a plate over brown rice, or in a bowl with a hunk of dark bread on the side, depending on your mood. Before serving, snip fresh parsley over the top. Serves 6.

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