It's difficult to offer a specific list, because everyone has different tastes and dietary needs. But in general, try to have the basics like canned tomatoes, canned and dried beans, several kinds of grains, a few oils, etc. And be sure there are least a couple of ingredients you're excited about: a new kind of pasta or rice, a few fascinating spices, or a decadent cheese in the fridge.
2. Grow fresh herbs in pots. When interviewing people for our 5 Essentials series, nearly everyone I spoke with talked about having fresh herbs on hand. If at all possible, try growing some herbs in pots, either in or very near to your kitchen. You will be amazed by how much they will inspire you: a snip here and there and suddenly you're off in a whole new direction! If it is impossible to grow herbs in your home, purchase them from the farmers' market and keep them in water on your counter. Treat them much like fresh flowers by trimming their stems and changing the water frequently.
3. Clutter. While we can admire those sleek, streamlined, nearly empty kitchens we see in blogs and magazines, the truth is most home kitchens have a lot more going on in them if they are truly being used. Between those half-used packets of pasta and the myriad utensils needed to whisk, flip, beat, strain, measure, cut, grate, squeeze, shred, and stir our meals, we tend to accumulate a lot of stuff. So it's important to seek out a clutter-reducing strategy and stick with it. And remember, it's always easier and more pleasant to cook in a clean kitchen with uncluttered counter spaces, easy access to a garbage pail and compost, and your equipment/utensils in their proper place.
4. Love your stuff. It's important that you enjoy using the tools of your kitchen. If you sigh with displeasure every time you reach for that wobbly, dented frying pan, then your cooking experience with it is always going to be lacking. Invest in a few good pieces of kitchen equipment and maintaing them for the rest of your life is the way to go. (Better yet, keep a look out at your local thirft store and yard sales. It's astonishing what people give away.) But no matter how or where you get it, or even its quality for that matter, if you really like a particular piece of kitchen equipment, you will use it often and you will use it with pleasure.
5. Deborah Madison's pan of warm sudsy water. In a recent interview, Deborah Madison recommended filling your sink full of warm, soapy water before starting on a recipe. This is one of my favorite pieces of advice for it is practical and sensual and calming all at the same time. Washing your utensils as you use them is, as mentioned, a pragmatic thing to do. But it also feels good to plunge your hands into warm soapy water and clean off any stickiness, and knowing that the tablespoon you just used will be clean and ready for the next thing relieves some of the stress and confusion that can come with cooking. Using a special dish soap only adds to the pleasure.
6. Sharp knives. Having sharp knifes makes a world of difference and it's not that hard to keep them that way, so no excuses! Start with a professional sharpening, if needed, and maintain it by honing between uses.
7. Include art. Or flowers, or music, or whatever makes your kitchen a place you want to be in. Even the smallest of kitchens can accommodate a touch of beauty or whimsy.
8. Fill it up or empty it out. If your kitchen is always full of people, send them off to the movies one afternoon and enjoy the quiet time to yourself as you make a nice dinner for them upon their return. If you usually cook alone, invite a few people over to take on making a meal together. Either way, try to challenge and stretch your habits and assumptions and step out of your routines now and then, even if it feels uncomfortable. You may be pleasantly surprised what's on the other side of your resistance.
9. Learn techniques, not recipes. I have nothing against recipes, but when it comes to being able to play in the kitchen, to experience the freedom to improvise and turn on a dime if needed, then basic techniques are more important. Understanding fundamentals will free you up to experiment and allow you to feed a group of people a delicious meal with nothing more than a sack of potatoes and a few pantry items. Take a class or ask a friend to show you the ropes. In the kitchen, as well as in life, never assume you're finished with learning. Always be teachable.
10. Pause and breathe. If you're in the kitchen and you're wired and stressed, pause and take a few breaths to see if you can't find a little calm in the middle of the chaos. If you're in the kitchen and you're happy as a lark, then pause and take a few breaths to let it all in, to really steep yourself in your enjoyment. If you're in the kitchen and you're bored, pause and take a breath, noticing what might be a little different about today's task at hand. Look for where the sunlight is coming in, or the particular texture or color of the ingredient you are working with. Sniff the air. Every moment is endlessly fascinating.
Be as seasonal as possible. This is my bonus recommendation. To the extent that you can, try to eat seasonally. As a wealthy nation, Americans have a belief that happiness means getting what you want, whenever you want it. But I have found the opposite is true. When I have to wait for the asparagus season to arrive, my delight is made so much sweeter by my anticipation and of course, the asparagus itself is sweeter when it's in season and fresh from the ground. I find that when I'm living within the rhythms of the seasons, I have less anxiety and I can clearly see where and how I am sustained. This connection, this acknowledgment—that even though I am living in a crowed urban area, I am still closely bound to the earth—is a never ending source of comfort and joy.
What helps you to be happy in your kitchen?
(Image: Leela Cyd Ross)