Taking those first few steps away from the family home into some sort of adulthood is a painful process. As the keys on our ring multiply, things get complicated: there’s the expense, the responsibilities, the interminable laundry. The cruelest gut-punch of them all may well be having to abandon all that good home cooking: the rice and beans, the tostones, homemade salsa. If you work all day or live on your own or — gasp! — are the one in charge of getting dinner on the table, there is nothing more comforting and nostalgia-satisfying than the smells of home from your own kitchen right now.
Of course, you don’t have all day to simmer stock for the pozole or fold tamales, so make sure you grab a box of stock and pre-ground masa at the store. Below, we’ve got you covered with all the gadgets you will need to make the dishes you crave at home. Some of them are the same the same utensils the abuelas use, while others are updated versions of classic tools that will make your life even easier. No one is suggesting that it is even possible to top your abuela’s ajiaco, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying
This bowl-and-masher combo with a Nahuatl name is the same shape as a mortar and pestle, like the ones used in Italy to make pesto or in Pakistan and India to grind spices. But while a mortar and pestle may be carved out of marble or metal, the Mexican molcajete is traditionally made from basalt stone, a type of volcanic rock whose porous surface is ideal for grinding things like spices, chilies, salsa and guacamole ingredients. It’s ability to retain heat also makes the molcajete a suitable vehicle for hot stews that go by the same name. Purists agree that there is a better taste to foods prepared in a molcajete as opposed to ones made with a convenience tool like a blender.
2 Tortilla Press
Nearly impossible to convince anyone who grew up with homemade tortillas to settle for store-bought, a tortilladora or tortilla press makes half the work easy. Mix and knead a batch of masa and pop individual balls into the press. With a single move you will have flat tortilla yumminess, ready for the skillet. Using the same technique, you can make corn empanada skins, arepas, and best of all, no more fiddling with scalding hot plantains for tostones. After frying the plátano the first time, press the softened plantain in the pre-seasoned cast iron press and fry the now-flat tostón again, until crunchy.
Pressing out beautiful disks of carb-y goodness taken care of, where will you actually cook your tortilla? The comal is essentially a low-sided, cast iron pan that has been seasoned enough not to stick to food. The comal’s high heat conduction makes quick work of griddling tortillas and arepas or sizzling meat and vegetables for fajitas. Since the comal is a shallow pan, frying Colombian empanadas, buñuelos, yuca, and tostones require a deep fryer or a deeper pan with a few inches of oil, reserve your comal for dry work, like making individual pizzas, flatbreads, crepes or chapatis.
4 Tortilla Keeper
Once you have your perfectly chewy and warm tortilla, how do you keep it that way for serving? A tortilla keeper, of course. Just like the ones at the restaurants, these simple, plastic vessels with a lid retain the heat and moisture that the tortillas need to stay delicious, while you’re guests work on their first taco. Check out this cute one from Tupperware, the queen of Americana, proving how powerfully Latina culture is represented in the kitchen.
5 Olla Express/Instant Pot
Canned beans are a wonderful convenience and I am grateful for them, but sometimes a long-simmered pot of beans is the only thing that will do. Before you start to consider how long it takes to cook dried beans, having to remember to soak them the night before or lose 8 hours cooking them on the stovetop, I will remind you of two words you might not have heard since 1980: olla express. The clunky, unsexy pressure cooker, with its black, plastic handles and wobbly piston dancing at the top. It had the power to explode in your face and unleash a hot lava of frijoles negros if you didn’t open it right, yes, but it also cooked them right up in a flash. The great news? No more hot bean lava explosions — now we have the instant pot, which is great for more than just beans.
Just like the piano has both its ebony and its ivory, so, too, do beans need their rice. An essential part of the daily diet throughout Central American and the Andean region, rice is cooked in most Latina households more regularly that perhaps any other starch. A caldero, a lightweight stainless steel, double-handled pot with a tight-fitting lid, the caldero steams a perfect pot of rice without sticking, even forming the coveted crispy bottom crust. A paellera or paella pan is a similar idea, though those tend to be more heavyweight and expensive. Imusa makes a great and inexpensive rice caldero.
7 Cazuela de Barro
Clay cookware was the traditional vessel of the pre-Columbian cook. Used still in Mexico to cook beans, moles and stews, it is not unusual to see one of these beautiful vessels perched right on the stovetop in many Central American households. More shallow versions of the pot-bellied classic can withstand both stovetop and oven needs. In Colombia, ajiaco is both prepared and served in traditional black clay earthenware called chamba, which helps to retain the heat of the stew for prolonged enjoyment.
8 Herb Scissors
With so much cilantro to chop, a set of herb scissors makes precise work of it. While a dull knife will bruise your greens causing them to lose their aroma and color, a set of herb scissors is the gentlest way to make sure the green specks in your ceviche stay bright. In kitchens with tight counter spaces, it’s nice not to have to put out a cutting board, and have one less thing to clean.
9 Avocado Slicer
Now that you have a nice pile of chopped cilantro, don’t you want a little guacamole to put it into? A sharp knife is a must in any kitchen, but with this little jimmy, you won’t even need that. This handy tool will open pit, scoop, and slice your buttery avocado right into a molcajete, salad plate, or blender.
However you slice it, there’s a lot of chopping involved in Latin American cooking. Just about everything, from sofrito to ceviche, takes a ton of onions, maybe some peppers, garlic, tomatoes. While all of this can be accomplished with a molcajete and a knife, sometimes there’s just not enough time. While a full-sized food processor offers speed and power, it is expensive, big to store, and what time you save chopping you investing in washing and assembly. A mini food processor is often big enough to get the job done, but will only rough chop, producing vegetables suitable for soups and stews. A sleek mandolin-style slicer offers a variety of cuts like a full-sized processor and immense precision (think tweezing versus waxing), but be careful with those fingers!
If you’re not into brevity or minimalism, want to tackle projects like grinding your own cornmeal for masa, making fresh batidos and horchata, soups, dips, and batters in a jiffy, and have a spare $600, the Vitamix, with as much horsepower as a Fiat, might be the best indulgence for your kitchen. It’s too heavy and too much of a commitment to be anywhere but on your counter, in use every single day, so it can pay for itself in just a few years.
12 Citrus Juicer
We all know there’s lime juice in ceviches, margaritas, and guacamole, sour orange in the mojo, orange juice in the salpicón de frutas, but it’s possible we don’t fully comprehend how much is involved or how much juice it really is? To juice all that delicious citrus by hand takes the kind of Hulk-strength that people who can easily open every jar have. Switching to a simple, handheld or stand up juice press, can save time and muscle.
Another masterful tool that fits easily in a drawer and produces the frothiest Mexican or Colombian hot chocolate is the molinillo. Since both preparations begin with solid chocolate tables that will dissolve slowly in warming water or milk, the ridged sides of the molinillo beat against the tablets, helping the process along. Placing the chocolate and liquid in the stovetop pot, the molinillo is held between both palms so that the motion of rubbing the hands together twists it, turning the ridged end back and forth like the tiny windmill it’s named for. The result is a well-blended cup with a layer like the crema on an espresso. Throw some cubed queso blanco in the bottom of your cup and you have a wonderful 4 pm repast, Bogotá-style.
14 Meat Pounder
Simplicity is often key in cooking, and the prep part is no exception. A gem in your tool box is your meat pounder. Textured on one side for tenderizing tough cuts, don’t be afraid to use that one to take out some frustrations on that bistec before you throw it into a hot pan. For the best cutlets, pound with the flat side until the whole thing is of even thickness. This “evening out” process is also great for meat that will be grilled quickly, as in for taco fillings. Most like a real tool, don’t forget your pounder when cracking a coconut for some arroz con coco— it will get the job done.
15 Wooden Spoons
When I got married fifteen years ago, one of my dearest friends traveled from Colombia for the party and brought me a gift from home, which I’ve used daily and still have: a set of wooden spoons. Folk tales have it that milk will curdle before becoming arequipe (dulce de leche) unless it’s stirred with a wooden spoon. The best material to rub up against stainless steel, non-stick, cast iron, and copper pans, a wooden spoon is like a cross between a rubber spatula and a metal tool, strong but flexible. Great for beating, stirring, scraping up bits, and especially for tasting, run out now and get a handful. For peanuts a pop, this is an investment you can’t afford not to make.