Saturday, June 29, 2013

Fun Weekends Treats

Last night Levi and I decided to pick up dinner at The Fresh Market.  I love this store, it has all the fun of going out to eat without the wait-list and when I go, I always try to pick up something new along with an old favorite or two.

The Old Favorite: Xochitl Totopos de Maiz

Approx: $5.50/bag @ Fresh Market

These corn chips are thin, crispy and a perfect compliment to any dip!  For those of you missing the chips from Chevy's-these are the closest thing to them!  I promise-you wont notice the difference!


The New Favorite: The Fresh Market's Biscotti with Italian Fig

$4.99/pint @ Fresh Market
I grew up in a ice cream loving family.  My grandfather's motto was: 'Never drive past a Dairy Queen'-a motto I think some members take a little too seriously, but I digress.  I love to try all sorts of ice cream, sorbet, gelato, etc...and find very few I dont like.  The Fresh Market has a fun selection to peruse-I just wish there was more rotation-I took a chance on this pint and while the gelato was delicious and creamy, it had freezer burn on one side.  I have noticed frost on some of the pints at Fresh Market, so just be aware-as good as it looks-even those pints with the slightest frost have been there too long.  I took a chance and found a wonderful treat spited by neglect.

A Farmers Market Favorite: Ropp Jersey Green Onion Cheddar

$5 for ~8oz. @ Bloomington's Farmers Market
This morning upon roaming the vendors at the Farmers Market I found myself passing the Ropp Jersey Cheese booth.  The same gentleman is there with samples and friendly conversation.  Today, Levi and I tried the Green Onion Cheddar and it was incredible!  The cheese had a wonderful soft texture and the green onion was present, but not overpowering.  For a locally produced cheese-I found the price incredibly reasonable.

*On a side note: Last week at the Bloomington Farmers Market, I tried the Ludwig Farmstead Creamery's Raw Milk Mozzarella ($5-6ea.) and was rather disappointed.  I love to pair mozzarella with many things or just eat it alone as a snack.  While the consistency and appearance of the cheese was fine, the mozzarella itself was sour and salty.  Did anyone else have an experience like this? 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Documentary Review: 'A Matter of Taste: Serving Up Paul Liebrandt'

A Matter of Taste has been sitting in my instant queue for some time now.  I'm not familiar with Paul Liebrandt nor any of the restaurants mentioned in this documentary, except Guilt, so my desire to view this was minimal, but for 68 minutes-I felt it deserved some attention.

 A Matter of Taste takes the viewer on a journey documenting a man who won't settle for another person’s menu.  Liebrandt is a visionary chef who creates visually stunning art with his food and gives his guests a true dining experience in some unsuspecting places.  The kitchens Liebrandt is cooking in are stepping stones, as he discusses how as a chef-one often is required to cook for the owner, using the owner's menu as opposed to cooking one’s own food.  This conundrum of food preferences creates less than creative environments for culinary artists such as Liebrandt.  In A Matter of Taste, we watch Paul move between different restaurants, each giving Paul more freedom of expression, until years later-when he finally gets his big break. 

Watch Chef Liebrandt go through the perils of developing a relationship with an investor, creating menus, training and coaching kitchen staff-all to lead up to a make-it-or-break-it review by the Times' own Frank Bruni.

A Matter of Taste is only a snapshot of a chef, well known to chefs, but not to the general public.  While only a 68 minute film, the story did drag at times, but as a viewer you receive an understanding as to how in any business-it takes time to build a career and a reputation.  I recommend this film to those foodies, looking for a view behind the curtain of Corton. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Taste of Champaign-Urbana from my perspective

Saturday Levi and I attended the Taste of Champaign-a food event with merch vendors, live music and this year-beer!  Here are the photos from the progression of the event, for the article a few of us from SP (Smile Politely) split up the food vendors to review.  To read that article, please visit HERE.  For my article alone, please continue reading:
A sculpture in West Side Park

While I hesitate to begin another article discussing the rain, the fickle weather has certainly decided to make its importance clear for yet another outdoor event, the Taste of Champaign.  Relying on Twitter to update me on the progress of the 3 hour rain-delay, I was fortunate not to have it interrupt my plans of attending on Saturday evening. 

Upon arrival, there was no shortage of families enjoying the day, as children danced through the bubble machine with faces painted in tiger stripes and holding their coveted balloon animals.   My guest and I made our way through the pop-up restaurant row that formed in the middle of West Side Park.  We were looking to get a lay-of-the-land before embarking on our revelry of food, but I was surprised to feel as though there were fewer food vendors than I remember-as it has been a few years since I have attended the Taste. 
What was nice about going to this event, was the Champaign Park District posted a map on their website complete with vendors, menus and prices-so I was easily able to budget for the event and plan my dinner from appetizer to dessert-keeping my total bill at $10 for the evening.  I had quickly decided against participating in the beer tent for two reasons: 1. the inflated rates on Coors and Leinenkugel Summer Shandy ($3.75/12oz) and 2. the restricted area in which the beer was offered.  While I understand why the restrictions were in place, I opted not to drink and maintain my freedom to walk among the food.

Nevertheless, I began my dinner experience with Shanghai 1938.  I saw they were featuring steamed pork dumplings and my guest and I couldn’t help but to try one.  Shanghai utilized a kitchen trailer and upon our order, the lady made her way into the kitchen to retrieve it.  Our dumplings came out, hot, fresh, with the
Shanghai 1938's steamed pork dumpling
sweet and sour soy dipping sauce I can never get enough of.  After cutting into my dumpling, I could see the vibrant green of the scallion and the flavors of the savory pork made Shanghai 1938 a wonderful beginning to my visit.

Manolo’s Pizza and Empanadas was our next stop.  I was set on
BBQ Pork Empanada
trying an empanada, while my guest was marveling that a slice of pizza was only 1 ticket.  Upon the recommendation of the helpful girl at the counter-I decided to try the BBQ Pork Empanada and my guest, the Italian Potato Pizza.  I received my empanada right away while we moved to the side of the tent waiting for a few moments as a young man warmed the slice on a stone in a gas grill.  My empanada had a slight crackling crust that coated the chewier inner layer of dough before exposing the sweet pulled pork on the inside.  The pork was juicy and tender and pulled apart easily as I moved through the empanada.  While I was very happy with my
Spotted Goat Pizza from Manolo's
choice, my guest’s pizza stole the moment-as his slice had a crispy, buttery crust that held up to the well-balanced and flavorful toppings.  The red sauce and mozzarella made for a nice complement without overtaking the presence of the potato.  We were so impressed we decided to order another slice, trying the Spotted Goat pizza.  The crust on this slice was equally crispy and flavorful and the creamy goat cheese pleasantly chased the flavors of the tomato and spinach.

Next door to Manolo’s was Spoon House Korean Kitchen.  The simple setup contained very visually appealing signage and I was immediately drawn to the beef bulgogi taco.  Bulgogi is traditionally Korean barbecued beef and a favorite of mine.  Bulgogi is not often spicy, but very flavorful as the ginger and rice wine make the sauce dance.  Our tacos were beautifully presented on homemade flour tortillas with
Beef Bulgogi Taco
lettuce, onion and a lime wedge.  The vegetables were cold and crisp and the beef tender, juicy and flavorful-a wonderful twist on Korean BBQ. 

Moving on to Mamma D’s Smokehouse I was excited to try the brisket sliders.  My guest and I were received in a tepid manner and our inquiry regarding the two types of BBQ sauces (a red and yellow-named as such) was met with ambivalence.  We received our sliders on cold, store-bought buns and decided to try both BBQ sauces and decide for ourselves which was better.  The Red BBQ Sauce, was runny in consistency and watery in flavor-so much so I could hardly taste it at all.  The Yellow BBQ Sauce was thicker, but lacked the Kansas City-style I expecting and maintained a muted flavor.  What was even more surprising is what was being passed off as brisket.  My guest is from the South and grew up in an area that prides itself on good BBQ-while visiting, we stop at every BBQ stand we can find to enjoy brisket, pulled pork and homemade BBQ sauce.  This was not like any brisket I have ever had-the absence of a rub was noticeable upon glance and the lack of smoke upon flavor.  In fact, the meat resembled more a dry pot roast than brisket.

Our final stop was Crepe De Licious, a franchise from Canada that has made it to our fair town.  The visual appeal of the setup was professional and vibrant-the menu simple.  While I understand there is a strong Nutella following, I have yet to jump onto the bandwagon that Crepe De Licious seemingly has taken the head of with the dozens of Nutella containers adorning their counter.  None-the-less I tried their ‘Black &
Red & Black Crepe
Red’ a crepe with Nutella and strawberries.  The gentleman quickly poured the batter on the flattop, demonstrating without words he has done this hundreds of times.  The crepe was constructed in about a minute and I elected for only a light touch of crème and cinnamon.  The spongy and thin crepe was sweet and the warm Nutella changed my mind on this chocolaty spread-a delicious ending to my dinner experience.

Overall, the Taste is called as such because it gives our community an opportunity to try new places without much of a monetary commitment.  Those looking to gorge on food for little-to-no money may want to try another event more appropriately named ‘the buffet’. 

Runner getting ready for the Pie Run-they actually get pies thrown at them.  And that's my sister, Boogie, pointing at the left-she found a friend doing the run.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Bad Day at the Restaurant? A Few Insider Tips to Ease the Grind of the Restaurant Life

I came across Advaita Kala's USA Today article and  it made me think about the hospitality industry and moving forward-even when all you want to do is throw in the towel.  I have worked in restaurants since I was 16 years old and even did a brief stint in a small inn-to which I will say, those who work in restaurants are brave and those who work in hotels are saints.  It is one thing to pick up after a group who do not have the courtesy to keep their eating space organized and tidy (although the server has to do his part too) for the hour or so they are sitting at a table.  It is quite different to pick up after people who have 'camped out' for a night or more and turned a single room into what looks like the aftermath of Animal House in solitary confinement.  

Over the years I have come up with some ways to 'cope' with the overwhelming angst and frustration that cycles through me in this business.  As much as we try to keep that smile on our faces-there are times when we feel the breaking point coming and the smile starts to look a little more like a sneer.  These coping mechanisms have preventing me from walking out (which I have never done), yelling at a guest and telling my boss to go f___ himself...oh wait, I have done that one (hey, its trial and error).  I thought I would share some of these tips with you.

When you want to quit:  I'm not saying don't quit your job, sometimes its justified.  I quit a great full-time bar manager position to bartend at a popular bar 20 hours per week because I wanted to finish school and there was no step down in pay.  Sometimes, as close to the people and places we get-in order to grow-we have to leave.

But, if you are in a place that is a good place and you know you're cycling through a stream of crappy tips, customers who ask for the world at a discount or staff who you're convinced were hired by the janitor-I recommend reading Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain.  I dont know what Bourdain would think about using his book as a survival guide, but it works for me.  He has a romantic, but crude sense of humor to this business-something that's required in order to survive it.  This book with help you through.  And a tip?  Dont loan it out!  You will never get that book back!  I have probably replaced my copy 8 times-and I'm low-balling this estimate.

When you're in a tip rut: We've all been there-even the best of us have had a slew of guests who came through that make you feel as though these people were all just released from a time-warp from the Depression and cant spare a dollar.  I know its frustrating and insulting-especially when you just did them a favor by scoring them something a little extra for free and they don't show any appreciation.  

What I do: first, I go through Ben Chakroun's list of 'Cardinal Sins' in Eric Ripert's On the Line to brush up on the elements of my service.  Since we cannot force the guest to change, why not get better ourselves?  What for, you say?  If you're making crappy tips from crappy people, why try to give them better service?  Because if you're getting crappy tips its for 1 of 2 reasons: #1: its them OR #2: its you.  And as a rule, I make darn sure, its never me!  So I get better and improve my odds.  Control what you can control-which is yourself.

When you have a bad manager: First of all, in an industry in which managers are vital to the running of an establishment-often, there is little training or experience required to be one.  Being asked to be a manager is always flattering, but it is always the worst job in the building.  Its essentially babysitting a bunch of drunk misfits who band together against you and make your life a 80+hour week of hell with few-to-no days off.  Which is why I dont manage anymore.  

Managers come in 2 forms: one has something to prove and the other was a friend amongst the misfits who got promoted.  The latter is usually the better overall manager.  They have been-there-done-that and know how to help you and when to back off.  The manager with something to prove is harder to deal with and generally takes about 6 months to 'cool'.  But if you're looking to get him to cool a little early.  I recommend getting him drunk.  Make him feel as though hes part of the parade of misfits-or at least wants to be.  This is not manipulation-this is high school all over again.  The manager usually feels like the dorky kid on the outskirts of whats going on.  So if you can include him (to a degree) they usually let their guard down and are easier to work with.  A word of the wise: careful what you expose them to right away-some managers will give you the slip and use it as ammunition.  Also, the best policy is the, 'what stays in Vegas...'-so they also know they can trust you to keep your mouth shut.

The hospitality business is wonderful and infuriating.  We can try to change it all we can, but sometimes its better to acknowledge you cant rationalize with crazy-so learn to work with it and think like a crazy person.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Book Review: The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape the 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich By: Timothy Ferris

I have already posted about Tim Ferris' most recent publication, The 4-Hour Chef, that I happened upon in my library.  The 4-Hour Workweek is Ferris' first publication (The 4-Hour Body is the remaining book in the series).  The title alone had be compelled to pick up the book, let alone read the entire thing and take notes.  What about working only 4 hours a week could be bad?

Tim Ferris describes a period of time in his life where we was finished living the 'rat-race' of the office and how, what began as a much needed vacation, turned into an eye-opening approach on how to design one's own life into a high earning, low time-commitment, workweek.

I began reading Ferris' book with reservations as often with books of this type-often there is little instruction and more, 'if you build it-they will come' hocus-pocus.  Did you ever read, The Secret?  Yeah, me too and I didn't want to lose more hours on a book that was a waste of my time.  So, when I began 4HWW (as Ferris refers to it), I almost put it down because it began, very much in that similar tone.  I pushed through, and by Chapter 5, the book began to hit its stride.  Chapter 5 is about time management and the difference between efficient and effective.  I found this chapter to be a great read alone or with the rest of the book because it addresses how so many people send their day in the 'grind' with telephones, computers, email, Facebook, etc.  Ferris offers actual suggestions for anyone looking to send less time doing busy-work and more time being effective.

A significant part of the book discusses strategies to make a lot of money with little effort, also known as 'automatic income'.  This idea can be appealing and I think creating awareness about alternative forms of income generation, especially in this day-in-age,  is highly beneficial so that if the opportunity presents itself-we are prepared with the tools to make it happen.  But the bigger message I received from Ferris' book, was how to stand out by being effective and how to go it.  To often, we are given the wrong message about how we need to conduct our work-when a lot of that message is counter-productive: stay up on emails, attend meetings, look busy.  Its an easy counter-productive trap, but if you can turn these norms on their head-you can make yourself more valuable because you are being more effective.

I really enjoyed reading Tim Ferris' recant of business practices and how we have morphed them into a counter-productive animal.  His ideas and theories are now regular topics of conversation in my home and office and I would not be the least bit surprised to see Franklin-Covey classes switch over to 4HWW classes in the future.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Sunday's Crawfish Boil at Crane Alley in Champaign

For a full description of the day, please read my debut article for Smile Politely HERE!
Crane Alley on Main Street in Urbana, IL

My dinner guest, Levi

The spread of food

Fresh Crawfish

Outdoor Cooking at its finest


Cooks hard at work

Crawfish cooking

The waiting room

The GM walking us through Randall the Enamel Animal


Victory's Beer selection


Everyone having a good time!

This line only looks long, it was short and fast!

Another view of the festivities!

Chef Ledbetter dropped a little guy off to say, 'Hi!'

Randall in action (Randall is made by Dogfish Head Brewery)

Aaron tasting the finished product!

Foodigen is now mobile!

Lots of fun progress made today! I just updated some technology and had an article featured on!

Please stay posted as Foodigen has many good things in the works!

Monday, June 17, 2013

When being a Foodie Backfires: 3 stories of Foodies putting their foot in their mouths

1. The Green Bean Incident

A few years ago, on Mother's Day, my family decided to meet at a mom-n-pop diner for Mother's Day brunch.  We were in a town, population 7,200, that I don't dine in very often.  

The young waitress was doing a fine job-as we were a bit of a larger party (about 10 or so) on a day many decided to treat their mothers out.  As she told us about the specials, she mentioned the vegetable of the day was green beans.  Then she proceeded to go around and take everyone's order.

For some reason, I was in a conundrum over whether I wanted to green beans or not and decided to ask the waitress about them.

Me: 'How are the green beans prepared?'
Her: 'Prepared?'
Me: 'Yes, are they sauteed or steamed?'
Her: 'Uh, steamed, I guess.'
Me: 'Ok, that sounds great-I'll have those with my entree.'

The waitress seemed a little baffled by my questioning of something so trivial and I couldn't help, but to be a little irritated by her confusion.  That was, until my food arrived.

As she set down the platter and the side dish of green beans-I almost started laughing out-loud.  Not at her, but at myself.  You see, as soon as those green beans were put on the table, I recognized them.  They were not steamed or sauteed at all!  They came from a can.  Because in a breakfast-lunch-diner establishment, they are working on the side of efficiency and are making no claims of farm-to-fork and nor do they care.  I had been so wrapped up in my own little foodie world-I forgot that sometimes, in some places-I'm the only resident. 

2. The Wine List

A friend of mine and his girlfriend heard about a little cafe in a little neighboring town and decided to go there for dinner.  He told me how scenic the little cafe was, how it was cozy and there was working fireplace in the dining room.  They requested a table near the fireplace and proceeded to look over the menu.  

When the waitress arrived, my friend requested to see the wine list. To which the waitress responded, "Dude, we have a red, a white and a white zin.  That's the wine list."  My friend, embarrassed, ordered his glass of 'red' and enjoyed the rest of their evening.  With the occasional chuckle about how they probably came off to the waitress.

3. The Mayo Incident

At work one day I had to make up some boxed lunches for a meeting.  They are fairly simple and straightforward containing a sandwich, cookie and two types of salad (of the person's choice).  This went without incident until the next day when the manager received a rather disgruntled email from one of the attendees regarding how the broccoli salad contained mayonnaise.  Apparently, she felt that mayonnaise was a ridiculous addition to the salad and couldn't fathom why we would ever think to include it, as mayo 'only belongs in France'.

After an apologetic email and offering to change the salad for her specifically in the event of a future order, the lady was still showing signs of agitation that our recipe contained mayo.  Apparently, in her opinion,  Americans don't eat mayonnaise.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Top 10 Kitchen Gadgets to Avoid!

I love Top 10 lists!  There is something about them that takes over your brain and makes you think, 'Yes!  I need to know what, 'Top 10 Vacation Destinations are Designed for People Who Like to Square-Dance!'  And after I read it, I look lovingly at my spouse and show them Destination Numero Uno and after receiving a long strange look they remind you that 'we' don't square-dance.  Oh, right. 

Then there are the other, even more popular top 10 lists.  For example: The Top 10 Essentials for Your Golf Bag or The Top 10 Energy Saving Tips or The Top 10 Must-Haves for your Kitchen.  The last one, I would like to focus on.  After reading 'must have' lists, I usually feel a little poor.  As much as I want a Nespresso Pixie, I cant justify the expense right now.  And I have tried using a juicer on multiple occasions, but that's just not for me.  So, for you, dear reader-I decided to take the opposite approach: lets talk about some genres of useless kitchen gadgets that keep getting pushed on the people.  And then useful alternatives you can often find at thrift stores or garage sales-in addition to a local retailer.

10. 'Heavy-Duty' Items

When I say heavy duty, I'm talking in the literal sense of the word.  A good example are those stoneware mixing bowls.  When you mix something, generally, the bowl is acting as a middle-man.  If you struggle to lift it and maneuver it as you need to, its not worth the money!  In industrial/restaurant kitchens, items are heavy-duty, but often light and easy to use with one hand.  Few items require both hands because that can create drops, spills, burns and serious injury. 

Revere Ware Mixing Bowl

What to look for: look for an item you would be willing to trust your 2 year old to play with and your 90 year old grandmother to carry around.  A good solution to the stoneware?  How about those Revere Ware stainless steel mixing bowls (pictured) your grandmother had?  You cant find them anywhere except thrift stores, garage sales and Ebay!  Often for under $10 for a set of three!

 #9: Fondue Pots

Sure I have one, but ask me how often I use it.  I had to dig it out of the high cabinet (aka: last stop before Goodwill) just to take the picture!  Fondue pots are a total waste of money, the reason?  We have little bitty crock-pots now!  The mini-crock is a better dollar spent and functions much better than a fondue pot which rarely comes with a lid and often dries your dip into some disgusting thing resembling old silly putty.

My fondue pot
What to look for: The mini crock-pot that will last you a lifetime and keep your dip covered and nice for the duration of the dip!

#8: Small Cutting Boards

I can't tell you how many times I see these.  Every time, they are smaller than a dinner plate, plastic and look like they barely hold a lime on them.  I don't know why people buy these, but please stop wasting your money!  I'm not here to argue about the sanitation of plastic vs wood cutting boards (although I'm a wood cutting board person ALL THE WAY!).  I am here to argue the weight and function of the cutting board.

First of all, cutting boards should be larger (the size of a place mat) and have some weight to them.  My smallest cutting board weighs 2.5lbs.  Now, any cutting board you use should be placed on a towel on the counter to prevent it from slipping-the health inspector would prefer you to use a dishwasher safe grip mat, but I digress.  A small light cutting board, with the towel, still poses a risk of movement.  The lack of weight to the board makes it easy to counter-balance and forces you to work on a wobbly surface.

Second, a small cutting board poses more vulnerability to injury.  The tight workspace means your hands are closer together, you're cuts have to be incredibly precise otherwise you'll cut yourself.  Having more room to work lets you position your arms and your body at a more comfortable angle allowing you to work more efficiently.  

Third, it takes longer to prep working in a smaller space because you're constantly having to move the cuttings from the board.  You will never develop any fancy knife skills when you spend more time freeing up space as opposed to cutting.

What to look for: don't worry about brand, look for something you will notice weighing your knapsack down.  And as far as plastic or wood?  That is for you to decide.

 #7: Smoothie Makers

Dude, its called a blender.

 #6: Toasters

A toaster is something of the past, I know they look cute and vintage and the POP of the spring makes you reminiscent of childhood, but its ridiculously expensive now and taking up much needed room on your counter.

What to look for: a toaster oven.  These contraptions have been out for a long time and much more dynamic than ol' one-note toaster over there.  In the summer you can use the toaster oven in place of  the oven and save some money on air conditioning, plus, your bagel wont get stuck in the narrow slots and burn!  Toaster ovens also offer a second hand when you decide to make a larger or more involved dinner.  I often multitask by roasting the garlic in the toaster oven while my main course is working in the oven.  Toaster ovens start at around $20. 

#5: Anything you will use to replace your Pyrex

Pyrex goes in the same category as your Revere Ware bowls.  Pyrex are one of the most durable items in my kitchen.  While, many people are disposing of their vintage Pyrex-the rest of us are grabbing it up as though
Vintage Pyrex (left) New Pyrex (right)
it were gold!  The casserole dishes safe for the oven and microwave and generally have glass lids to fit each size.  The newer Pyrex is more limited-it has warnings on the bottom saying not to put it in the oven.  Thus, making the vintage Pyrex even more valuable.

Also, for those looking for a 'green' option.  The idea of Pyrex not being a plastic item is very appealing to many people (myself included).  I use my Pyrex much more than any plastic ware and have eliminated almost all of it.  I only have about 7-8 pieces of Pyrex that I'm constantly using.

What to look for: Vintage Pyrex WITH a lid.  Also, beware of price gougers!  Look first within your family!  It was formerly a popular gifting item-so family members may have some they are willing to unload for free!  That's how I got mine!

#4: Odd Shaped Cookware

I don't see them as often as I used to, but anything that is to be used on your stove that has an odd shape.  Square skillets, oblong skillets.  These don't allow for even cooking and usually mess up your food.  As nice as the square skillet seemed to be for pancakes-they always were burnt and undercooked.

What to look for: if you are looking to expand your skillet space, try an electric griddle.  They are the easiest thing to cook on and clean up.  They take very little room to store and are portable and lightweight!  I often see them on sale for around $20!  We use ours for french toast, pancakes, homemade tortillas, fajitas, etc.  Also nice in the summer to prevent all the heat from using the stove!

#3: Kitchen Knife Blocks (and other cheap kitchen knives)

You need very few knives to accomplish a majority of your cooking.  And if you need a very small number (3), then why waste money housing and fussing with a bad array?  The most important knife you need is a chef's knife.  I cook every day and I use my chef's knife for 95% of everything I do.  I wash it multiple times as day and I never put it in the drawer-its always out.  You will not find a quality chef's knife in a $20 block.  These are cheap and lightweight.  You are wanting something heavier.  People are going to preach to you about getting a Wusthof (approx $100) or something to that effect.

What to look for: I like Katherine Flynn's approach-it appeases the cheap-skate in me-go for the most expensive knife you can afford.  Be sure to test a few out to see which feels the best in your hand.  This is something you will use more than any counter-top appliance you own-keep that in mind when gauging where its value lies.  And then, have it sharpened regularly.  After the first time you get it sharpened-you'll understand why people say that.

#2: Plastic:

Plastic Measuring Cups
How much plastic do you have in your kitchen?  How often do you cook with it?  Do you ever stop to think why industrial/restaurant kitchens are not allowed to use much plastic?

Sure, the stainless steel can be more expensive, but I assure you I have spent much more on plastic junk for my kitchen than the stainless steel.  Most of the stainless I have found at thrift stores!  But why stainless?

First of all, its generally less bulky.  In order to hold-up the edges of the plastic bowls and measuring cups have to be thicker-making it larger to hold, but with minimal weight to it.  I'm not saying my stainless is heavy, but there is a comfortable weight to it that ensures I'm less likely to drop it.

Second, plastic looks cheap.  It easily scuffs, melts, stains, chips, cracks or mismatches.  It gets dirty and never really feels clean.

Third, plastic has a shorter lifespan.  Plastic is more likely to break and be thrown away than stainless.  Stainless is so easy to find second-hand because it will never go away.  It always looks the same and can be passed along.  You're not going to pass on a piece of stainless because it doesn't match the 'decor'.  So, while stainless is being more 'green' its also has more of a lasting style.
Stainless Measuring Spoons

  What to look for: second hand stainless accessories: whisks, measuring cups, measuring spoons, mixing bowls (preferably Revere Ware), serving spoons.  These types of items also make great gifts!  My mother is always surprising me with stainless kitchenware-as she knows the lifelong value of using them.

#1: One-Trick Ponies & 'As Seen on TV' Garbage:

We all know that person who shops QVC and cooks with their 'latest and greatest' for a month until they get sick of it and it either ends up in the attic, re-gifted, or in the next garage sale.  Not sure what I'm talking about? Go to your local Goodwill and shop in the kitchen section.  How many bread makers are there?  Pizza cookers? Quesadilla makers?  Why did someone spend in the neighborhood of $100 for a bread maker, when they have an oven?  Your quesadilla maker is a stove or that electric griddle I suggested earlier.  Watch how these people market these items and think long and hard about what they're doing.  Is that something you could cook on everyday?  Can you cook your staple recipes with it? 

What to look for:  If the item can only accomplish one thing-walk away.  Examples: pizza makers, garlic peelers, egg cookers, etc.  If that is all it can make-save your money.  Pizza can be cooked in the oven, smash the garlic with the side of a knife to peel it and use your smallest Pyrex to cook your egg in the microwave if you need to cheat.

Did I miss anything?  Leave your comments below!

*This list was compiled with the help of a couple co-workers! Thanks Ladies!