Choosing the essential items for a Latin kitchen is difficult, but narrowing it down to just five is impossible. This round-up focuses on the workhorses. Always at the ready, they rarely get put away because they’re used every day. Whether it’s starting the morning with your favorite espresso, grinding out spices for an intricate mole recipe, roasting chilies or producing perfectly fluffed rice for a last minute pot of beans, they always come through, which makes them indispensable when it really counts.
Long before there was a Starbucks on every corner, there was the cafetera - sturdy, stovetop espresso makers that poured out endless pots of inky, black coffee until the rest of the country woke up to the pleasures of cafecitos, cortados, and café con leches. If you’re mother swears her pot makes better coffee than the over-priced machine you insisted on buying, she is probably right. The coffee oils that build up along the interior chambers enhance the flavor. When properly cared for, they only get better over time.
(Bialetti Moka Express Stovetop Espresso Makers, $19.95-$59.95, bialettishop.com)
A comal is a round flat griddle that can be made of traditional clay, sturdy cast-iron or lightweight steel. A staple in Mexico, where it lives on the stovetop, it is perfect for roasting fresh peppers and chilies, toasting garlic and herbs, or just warming tortillas. Also known as a budare in regions of South America, it distributes heat evenly and gives Venezuelan arepas and Salvadoran pupusas their distinctive thin crust.
(Imusa Round Comal Griddle, $13.95, amazon.com)
In a world of upgrades and updates, the molcajete (mortar) and its tejolete (pestle) both carved from volcanic rock, is one of those increasingly rare things that cannot be improved upon. With pre-Hispanic roots going back millennia, molcajetes have been used to grind herbs, spices and chilies for all variety of salsas and moles. Inexpensive replicas made from softer stone have flooded the markets recently but leave traces of sand and grit in your food. It is worthwhile to spend a little more to be sure of the authenticity and workmanship, especially since it will last forever.
(Molcajete, $49.95, williams-sonoma.com)
If you grew up in a Latin household, the cha-cha-cha of the pressure cooker valve working on the stove is a familiar sound. By cutting your cooking time in half, it operates like a time machine when you forget to leave the beans soaking overnight or have an overwhelming craving for ropa vieja but no time for the slow simmer. Everyone has heard stories of exploding pots, but safety regulations over the years have improved reliability. A careful read of the manufacturer’s instructions prevents most issues.
(Presto Aluminum Pressure Cookers, $29.54-$43.24, amazon.com)
If you are making frequent pots of rice to go with beans, potages, and stews, then a rice cooker is well worth the money and counter space. Of course, it is possible to make good rice without it, but it’s hard to beat the consistent results, programming capabilities, and warming options. No longer the single use appliance you remember, many mid-range cookers now double as both slow cookers and steamers.
(Krups RK7009 5-Cup Rice Cooker, $79.99, krupsusa.com)