Part One of my experience/suggestions is documented here.
My townhome faces north, which means I only have Northern and Southern exposures in my windows. The Midwest winters only allow for outdoor planting from May-August, so I had to find a new option to maintain a supply of fresh herbs.
The Aero-Garden is sweet, and it works, but is quite pricey. They sell special fluorescent fixtures for growing plants indoors, which are no more than a 2-foot fluorescent fixtures with a full-spectrum light designed for growing plants. So, I made my own with a 2’ foot fixture from the hardware store, and a special grow
bulb. Total cost: $18, plus $7 for a timer.
The only herb with which I haven’t found much success has been cilantro, which is supposed to be re-planted every six weeks. Good herbs to try: Thyme, Mint, Rosemary, Basil, Arugula, Lavender, Sage, Italian Parsley, Cherberil, Marjoram, and Oregano.
Re-caulk Counter Top
This is an inexpensive, landlord friendly way to overcome the unfinished look of rental kitchens. A simple round of acrylic caulk seals the spaces and shadows between your counter and the wall, and matches that beautiful rental white!
Oven-Pull Towel Rack
When I first moved in, there was only a quarter inch rubber spacer between the oven handle and the door, which was not enough space to fit the thicker corners of a dishtowel. I extended the space with longer bolts and an inch of stacked washers. Total cost was around $4. (I know the rust is gross; I told you this was an awful rental kitchen with 30 year old appliances).
Magazines and Cookbooks
My mom is a school principal, so via junior high fundraisers, I’ve always gotten cheap magazine subscriptions. Over a couple years, twelve additions annually can add up, especially if your trying to store your cooking magazines where they belong: near the kitchen. So, having decided I no longer need my collection of 3-year-old All-Clad ads, I spent an afternoon looking for the recipes I’d actually cook, and then pulled out the pages and put them in a three-ring binder. I did this with a couple cookbooks too, and donated the remains. I realized having millions of recipe cookbooks (as opposed to technique books) doesn’t make it seem like I know how to cook, but that I need shelves full of instructions to create meals. Of course, with different storage options and skills, your mileage will vary, but paring down your collection to a “greatest hits” menu means you won’t have to look hard for inspiration.
Minimize Cookware/Update Non-Stick
Sometimes, it’s just time to move on. Non-stick pans are great: there’s no point in trying to be a hero and cook eggs or fish on stainless or anodized aluminum. But, they don’t last forever, especially cheaper surfaces, and once they’ve been scratched (as done by my loving wife, who still insists on flipping EVERYTHING with a fork because it's what her mom always used), that stuff gets in your food, and it can be toxic. Stainless steel is safe (some research indicates that persons with Alzheimer’s have increased levels of aluminum), can be preheated for maximum carmelization, is perfect for pan sauces and reductions, and looks sweet.
I believe it’s better to have 3 great pieces than 10 crummy ones, so with that in mind:
5 quart Saucepan/Stock Pot: No one needs a non-stick saucepan. Get a large stainless steel or cast-iron model that’s as wide as it is deep. This will for soups, pasta boiling, rice (with which you need as wide a surface as possible), and steaming vegetables.
3 or 4 quart Sauté Pan: This is perfect for a pasta sauce for 3-4. If you regularly cook for larger groups, there are 5 and 6 quart models available. I’d recommend stainless here as well, because if you choose non-stick, you’ll lose carmelization and fond-deglazing opportunities, in which the flavor really lies. Sans a wok, this pan is better for stir-frying, since you can safely preheat to the necessary super high temperatures. Stainless is also safe on the range and in the oven, so you can start your meal with a quick browning, and roast it to completion.
10-or-12” Non-Stick skillet: See, I don’t hate non-stick surfaces, I just think they need to be keep under control. This will complement your sauté pan for all your sauté needs, and are great for low-heat applications. NEVER preheat an empty non-stick pan, as its fumes can be lethal (remember the urban legend about the birds?). I also would refrain from putting one in the oven, unless I was only keeping the dish warm, and I was sure the pan was oven safe. Also, these don’t last forever (which is not an excuse to buy a cheap one), so once it’s done, it’s done.
Another cool opportunity would be a 12” cast iron skillet, which, although it requires a specific cleaning method, is a no-stick surface in which you can use metal utensils. Plus, seasoning it with layers of flavor is like a little pet project.
Once you’ve got this basic set, complement it with: a smaller 2 or 3 quart saucepan, a 10-inch stainless omelet pan/skillet, a smaller non-stick skiller, and a 2-quart saucier.
If you buy stainless right, it will last you a lifetime. It’ll pay for itself with all the money you’ll save from eating out, since you'll stop asking yourself, "Why doesn't my cooking ever taste as good as restaurant?" (Neither does mine, but it's better than the dried out Shake-and-Bake I ate as a kid).
Americans eat way too many saturated fats, sugars, and food additives. But we also consume too much salt. When we cook at home, most don't use salt effectively. We shake a micro layer of sodium all over our whole plate, and have no idea how much we're actually consuming.
The answer to smart use of salt is store a larger grain (such as kosher salt, or coarse sea salt) in a dish next to your cooktop. Then, you don’t have to shake an invisible layer of unknown proportion, and the salt goes where you want. I know you're already convinced that fresh ground pepper is the way to go; the salt dish concept is its classical-French counterpart.
Imagine you’re cooking a large pot of soup: you’ve already sautéed your mirepoix (carrots, onions, and celery) and seasoned them with salt (so as to draw out their moisture and soften them quicker). Now it’s time to add your chicken pieces or additional vegetables, etc..., which need to be seasoned. If your grab a salt shaker, you’ll unnecessarily resalt everything in the pan. If you’ve got a bowl of kosher salt, you can grab some with your fingers (of course you will have washed and dried your hands several times, especially after touching raw meat), and place it exactly where you need it, on top of the newly added items. Plus, it makes it easier to dip measuring spoons for recipes, and you feel like a pro.