rattle some pots and pans
A few people have asked what I reckon are worthwhile equipment musts for a good cooker, but you might be surprised that there is very little shiny stuff in my kitchen.....
Okay forget all the kitchen toyshops and gadgets, grab a wad of cash and buy a top quality 20 to 24cm chef's knife (small people 20 cm, big people 24 cm). Be prepared to spend around $200, but this is a kitchen must and will be your friend for life. If you have a boy with you, he will try to make you buy a 26cm-plus knife. Just roll your eyes and tell him he's either over compensating or dreaming, honestly this is an axe - not a knife, you need to be able to control it with nimble swift moves so small is better!
You will use this knife for cleaving (with the heel), deft slicing (with the tip) and the middle to nearly the tip for chopping. The blade will crush garlic and this is now your number one tool. Buy an old fashioned sharpening steel for honing, not a diamond one; they fail to align the ions for extra blade edge longevity and are too aggressive on the edge unless you really know what you are doing. Learn how to re-edge your knife on a stone approximately a 30 degree angle or find a good sharpening service.
Invest in a ton of tea towels, a good food processor, a stab (stick) mixer, a mouli ("ricer") for pureeing food, a thermometer, a pile of varying sized steel bowls, good quality baking trays, a spider for fishing stuff out of blanching pots and oil, a good colander, a slotted spoon, ladles, a decent rolling pin, a nice springy flexible whisk, a Microplane as well as a good old fashioned grater, a grill scraper and a wooden spoon. These are the most used items in commercial kitchens so I am calling them kitchen musts.
Don't waste your money on flashy looking shiny pans (unless you can afford Mauviel pans which are sexy and brilliant to cook in: if you can afford these you probably have "domestic servants" and live in a castle and don't even know where your kitchen is so you probably won't be reading this page anyway). Get a couple of heavy based black/blue steel or stainless fry pans with a really heavy thick base (it's all about heat retention through thermal mass). If you look after them once they are seasoned they will never stick and last for ever.
Buy a sauteuse pan or two in varying sizes (steep sides with a 45 degree angle), used for rapid frying which enables you to sauté (quite literally "jump") the food with a flick of your wrist. This enables you to cook swiftly on full flame without burning the food sitting in the pan, as much like woking, you control temperature by the amount of times you lift the pan and flick.
Pots, similarly you need a decent thick "sandwich" on the base and a few sizes, a 1, 2 and 5 litre. Good grade stainless is the best value for money. Just because it's polished it doesn't mean it will work any better, but it will cost more. So buy according to weight and grade of steel, not shininess!
The best place to go for all these pots and pans is a professional hospitality supplies store. Don't feel intimidated, they are open to the public and you will be amazed at the quality of the product for the price. Be warned that half the stuff will look like it belongs in a military installation but the emphasis is usability and longevity rather than style, and once you have cooked with good commercial gear you will never buy domestic cookware again.
Cast iron and the old enamel coated Dutch oven style pots are a really worthwhile investment for long, even cooking - put one on your Christmas list.
Get a big chopping board, you need the real estate when preparing food. Wood is good as it doesn't trap grease in the cracks and allow bacteria to harbour if allowed to air dry properly. Plastic boards do, so if you have plastic chuck in a bit of hot water and bleach periodically.
I don't mind plastic boards but go for a slightly softer material, the hard boards "tire" your wrists with knife jar if you chop a lot as they have no "give" when the knife comes down. Softer boards also prevent knife "skate" (when the knife flies sideways under excess pressure because it can't bite into the board) - can be nasty!
A black steel wok is a great investment for under $20. Burn off the machining oil over a high heat. Cure it (open the pores in the steel by heating and then adding cooking oil and cooling); don't use soapy water for cleaning just water and a brush; then always reheat the wok after cleaning and re-oil.
You will never be able to stir fry big quantities in a wok on a domestic flame. Buying a bigger wok won't help either, just do one or two serves at a time in a small wok and aim for speed not volume and the result will be better, with the food more fried and less "stewed".
If you are renovating your kitchen and love stir frying get a minimum 22Mj (amount of gas flow) burner - life will be better for you and your wok. Alternatively go and buy a big wok burner (aka Rambo burner) and a gas bottle from the Asian grocer and you will be able to toss a wok like a pro with flames licking everywhere. It truly is the most fun you can have with clothes on!
Grab a couple of wooden bamboo steamer baskets as well, you can pop them on top of your wok (or a big pot) and the gentle method of steam cooking is a must to master for delicate ingredients.
So even if you don't have the cash for my recommendations, don't let it stop you from cooking, there's always a way to wing it!