Another horrible kitchen was in our house-share in England. We had been married a year and moved over there with clothes, big Shakespeare books, and computers. I would have brought my Top Five kitchen things, but we were promised that the kitchen was "well-equipped." The only thing this kitchen was, in fact, equipped for, was burning your dinner on the thinner-than-aluminum-foil pans, opening wine bottles (which helped to wash down your burnt dinner), and making tea (those supplies did, in fairness, get put to a lot of use). One time I was making Thanksgiving dinner for all of our non-American housemates and some American friends, and I was cutting the bread to make stuffing with an awful little bendy serrated knife, and the knife slipped (since it wasn't sharp enough to grip even soggy-crusted British bread) and almost hacked a good quarter inch off of my finger. I bled all over the place, including the bread, jumped around the kitchen in a fit, and called my husband and made him leave class early. He arrived at home minutes later, to find me sitting in the bloody bread cube-scattered kitchen with my arm above my head and my hand wrapped in some kind of inappropriate bandage -- like a pot holder or something -- with a very injured expression on my face. We went out the next day and bought better knives.
So here is my list of the top five kitchen things you should have at your disposal in any kitchen, whether you're going off to grad school in a foreign land or renting a house by the sea for a week's vacation. These are most definitely listed in order of most crucial to least:
1. A heavy flat-bottomed, straight-sided stainless steel skillet with two metal handles (so you can put it in the oven) and a lid. You might be surprised that a sharp knife is not at the top of this list. I thought long and hard about this, and I really think the pan wins out. Thin, wobbly, bad pans have the power to ruin whatever you put in them, making it burn, stick, and cook unevenly. A bad knife, wielded with great care, will still get the job done, just not as quickly, and with not nearly the amount of pleasure.
2. A really sharp 8-inch chef's knife. Second only to a good pan is a good knife. I think the 8-inch chef's knife is the most versatile. You can hack through a chicken, chop herbs, make quick work of dicing up onions and garlic, you can use the side of it like a mallet to pound meat cutlets.. Some people are really partial to Santoku knives, which are really the Asian incarnation of the chef's knife. I like to use my Santoku knife when I make fake Asian food, because it makes me feel ironically authentic.
3. A good, thick, heavy cutting board made from wood or bamboo. I don't believe in plastic cutting boards. Things slide around on them, they slide around on the counter, and after a while little bits of plastic start getting hacked up by the chopping and they get in your food. "But what about all the Scary Bacteria?" you ask. It's actually been proven that wood is a cleaner cutting surface; somehow wood ejects bacteria from its surface. Obviously I do a nice hot soapy wash after raw meats, but I've never had a problem with The Germs.
4. An immersion blender. It's portable, and you can make food different consistencies with it!! Of course, the ideal is to have a food processor, blender, and Kitchen Aid mixer, but I've been making do with an immersion blender for years. Use it to make aioli, pesto, pureed soups, smoothies, milkshakes, baby food, etc.
5. A wooden spoon. It's the first utensil humans ever made, and for good reason. Also, they feel nice to hold in your hand, and they're safe for your baby to chew on.
I did this as an experiment and we all declared it more delicious than mashed potatoes. I don't know if you'll agree, but you should try it just in case! This is a time to crack out the immersion blender; you won't get the nice smooth consistency without it. I think this was quicker to prepare than mashed potatoes, too, because there's no peeling involved. Bonus.
Cut up one head of cauliflower and boil it until it's very tender when you poke the stem with a knife. (You could steam it, too, if you're so inclined.). Drain it very well. Return it to the pot, place over very low heat, and add 2/3 brick of cream cheese and half a stick of butter. Puree with your handy immersion blender (or food processor, or mash by hand). If it seems too thick, thin with a bit of milk or cream. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and freshly grated nutmeg.