In my twenties, I learned a lot about cooking, and I gradually acquired a good collection of kitchen tools. I tried things, I bought stuff, and I read a lot about the hows and whys and whats of cooking, which means I spent a lot of time learning about other people's priorities in the kitchen. I bought (and almost never used) a mandoline, a food mill, a mortar and pestle, some excellent cake pans and a garlic press. I also bought (and still adore) an immersion blender, a sturdy whisk and a couple of great knives.
In my thirties, I've spent more time learning about my own priorities in the kitchen. Am I the kind of cook that needs the tools to bake every possible dessert? I am not. My realistic annual baking output is fifteen batches of muffins, twelve dozen cookies, three pies, and something less than one whole cake. I clearly do not need to own any cake-specific tools. I like to be able to make a nice dessert. I do not need to be able to make all the nice desserts. I only make piecrust a few times a year, I kind of like to hand-slice cabbage for coleslaw, and my immersion blender makes excellent pesto. And so I have happily given away my poor, unappreciated food processor and I'm about to de-aquisition my mandoline. The waffle iron has gone back to the thrift store from whence it came, and if I ever change my mind, I know where to go to get another one.
I must admit, however, that this has not been a completely efficient process. I got rid of my sushi-rolling mat about a month before I realized that homemade sushi has quite a lot going for it (tasty, cheap, flexible, exciting, healthy). But three dollars for a new sushi mat seemed like a reasonable price to pay for cleared-out cabinets and a spring in my step.
I want the tools I do keep to be both useful and also actually used. One of my favorite recent additions is a handsome set of nesting enamel baking dishes. I have roasted chicken, baked casseroles, served grilled fish, made brownies, and tossed salads in them. They're pretty, sturdy and easy to wash and store. I have three favorite pans that do almost everything I need to do on the stovetop (and two junior auxiliary pans that I keep around for very particular reasons: frying dumplings, and cooking a single scrambled egg).
I've been applying this cold-eyed realism to cooking, too. Which sounds like a terrible idea, I know, but bear with me. I'm just after the best ratio between kitchen-hours spent and tasty meals produced.
So, when I cook, I try to make not only the meal at hand, but also a few incidental meal starters, accompaniments, or add-ins that I will be delighted to find the next time I open the fridge at 4:30 in an inquisitive and hopeful way.
In that spirit, here are some flexible pickled vegetables that are culturally non-specific, so you can make a big batch and eat them with scandinavian-style sandwiches, alongside Indian curry, tossed into a salad, layered in a sandwich, or tucked into a burrito. So efficient (also, good).
Universal Pickled Vegetables
6 tablespoons white vinegar (as culturally neutral as you can get)
3 tablespoons water (okay, maybe water is even more neutral)
1 teaspoon sea salt (a fairly global commodity)
2 tablespoons sugar (ditto)
1 large cucumber, thinly sliced (peeled and seeded only if skin and seeds are tough)
1 sweet white onion, thinly sliced
1 carrot, julienned or grated (I use this julienne carrot peeler all the time)
1 lemon, both zest and juice (or more-- the lemon is so good)
Mix the vinegar, water, salt, and sugar in a large bowl. Toss the cucumber, onion, carrot, lemon zest, and lemon juice into the bowl as you prep them. Mix well and refrigerate for at least six hours.