BEING THE occupant of an unnaturally small kitchen, I'm forced to make hard decisions about what equipment to keep on hand. Just the other day the lemon reamer and a pair of shears went into the basement to join a collection of wanted but seldom used cookware and gadgets. After Christmas there will be some more.
No matter how disciplined you try to be, no matter how strongly you subscribe to the "go with what you've got" philosophy of cooking (borrowed from an identical journalistic philosophy), the desire to try a new gadget or trade upward to a shinier, stronger pot or pan is virtually irresistable. So to beat the season, I went window shopping at half-a-dozen of the area's best cookware stores. What follows are some unusual items that aren't already in every cook's collection and won't be in every Christmas stocking next month.
At Jarvis Kitchenware, the handsome new downtown shop in the Esplanade shopping center, 1990 K St. NW, you are likely to notice the fish poachers, if only because one of them is more than a yard long. This 40-inch poacher is made of heavy-guage aluminum. It sells for $375. The smallest model is 20 inches long ( $72) and there are sizes in between. There also are tin fish poachers and a diamond-shaped turbot poacher ( $175) in case a whole turbot or sole swims into view.
Another luxury item at Jarvis is the Imperia R-220 pasta machine, with a 9-inch roller width and a capacity of 30 pounds per hour. For $495, you still have to turn the crank yourself; it's not electrically driven. For the same amount of dough, you can have the Matfer Pastry Cream Injector, a French item borrowed from Rube Goldberg. Pour in up to 5 quarts of whipping cream, line up your cream puffs and just pull the level as each marches by. The cream is injected through a syringe point.
At the other end of the price scale, check out the brown porcelain escargot shells ( $1 each), the clear glass French "jelly jars" ( $7 for a set of six) that are useful as gift containers for homemade food items, or the 13-inch nylon pastry bags from France ($4.98). These items may also be found, or ordered, at the original Jarvis Kitchenware shop, 5021 Wilson La., Bethesda.
In Alexandria, at La Cuisine, 323 Cameron Street, Nancy Pollard has classic check and stripe design Irish linen towels ($2.25 to $6 each), Berard jam spoons ($1.75 in sycamore, $2.75 in olive wood) and a collection of Tennessee cast iron pans, which she quite rightly considers "the best buy in cookware" ( $8 for a 10-inch regular skillet, or $11 for an 11-inch skillet with a ridged bottom). For a little more money ( $22), you can buy a two-pound English Christmas pudding ready to heat in a Fortnum & Mason signature bowl. For a lot more money ( $700), you can have a copper brazier of your very own.
The Kitchen Bazaar's three stores (4455 Connecticut Ave. NW, Seven Corners Center in Virginia and 6548 Reisterstown Road Plaza in Baltimore) have the most extensive selection of cookware and related items in the area. They are selling the CuisineVu, the new microfiche-viewer system for cookbooks and recipes ( $325), the impressive Calphalon cookware ( $74 for a dutch oven or $33.50 for a 12-inch omelet skillet) and lots of personalized coffee cups $5. I bought a very handsome Hohn mortar and pestle ($15.98), and was tempted by the Hamilton-Dale cream maker from England ($13.95), the lovely American earthenware mixing bowls at various prices by McCoy (with blue and pink bands) and a copper double boiler for $39.95. I wasn't tempted by an $10 set for breadmaking that includes a bowl, brush, measuring pitcher, scraper and spoon.
Among the knick-knacks that should make a hit are a $3 table crumber by Rowoco that looks like a miniature carpet sweeper, Rowoco's self-cleaning garlic press ($6.49) and the Progressus Cake Breaker ($2.39), which consists of 18 connected metal rods each about four inches long. The rods are pushed into the cake, then a piece is broken off without tearing either cake or frosting. I can understand how it works after the first piece is out, but how do you start?Oh Well, for $2.39 it's worth the gamble.
Rockville Pike offers cookware on the left of you, cookware on the right.At White Flint, Bloomingdale's has some intriguing items on sale. A set of three Farberware metal mixing bowls (1-, 2- and 3-quart with rings and plastic covers) is $12. A seven-piece "starter set" of Heller Bakeware, with an attractive ridged glass design, costs $29.95. A set of six Wusthof stainless stell steak knives is $41 and there is a 9-inch, serrated bread knife for $6. For big spenders, there is a 21-hole super block wooden knife holder ( $85) or a $475 briefcase for traveling chefs that contains seven knives, a cleaver and six accessories.
There are several items to bypass, however. Among them any combination salt shaker and pepper mill (it's rare enough to find a free-standing pepper mill that works properly) and a $15 "surface thermometer" for use in skillets and griddles that "takes the guesswork out of cookng." For $15, you can afford a lot of drops of water to sprinkle on your hot skillet and only have to guess a little bit.
Nearby in the Mall, or at its Bethesda store, 6807 Wisconsin Ave., the China Closet has all the basics -- plates, serving bowls, etc. -- for keeping the food off the table. In the more esoteric categories, there was some very handsome, brown-flecked Canadian oven to table ware from La Cuisine. The selection includes a rectangular lasagna dish ($8.95), a rounded dish for fish or baked vegetable stews ($10.95) and a deep meat loaf mold ($8.95). Also at the China Closet, those who don't like to troop to the basement for cooking equipment will find Taylor & Ng five-hook, wall-mounted pot racks ($32.50) and hanging racks ($24.75). The fine Melior coffee makers are here, too. The eight-cup white club model is $29.49 and the classic clear-metal Chambord style is $56.99 for the six-cup size and $59.49 for the eight-cup size.A very useful accessory, the kitchen clock, is available in several stylish Italian models shaped by Artimel. The two checked out were priced at $29.95.
Nearer Rockville, on the far side of the 1776 Plaza, What's Cooking has the most crowded display space this side of an old-fashioned supermarket. The hunt is worthwhile, though. There are some worthwhile items to be found. Among those you might overlook because of their relatively small size and price: wooden crab mallets (89 cents each), Hoan cooking parchment ($1.69), La Baleine brand coarse sea salt ($1.75) and a mushroom brush ( $3). There are Marioue steel bread pans ($8.50 for a 9 1/2-by-5 1/2-by-2 1/2-inch pan) and others by Walcamp; $8.50 also will buy you an eight-armed, two-foot-high wooden pasta drier. You almost certainly will spot the white ceramic "ovenproof" serving platters shaped like fish. The larger size measures 23 inches and costs $26.95; the smaller is 18 inches from head to tail and costs $14. Coffee-fanciers may be drawn to the Melitta Coffeemaker Travel Kit ($29.95) that comes with cups and filters. Cooks who find precision smooths the path to perfection, even in an undersized kitchen, should consider the space-saving Eva wall scale. It takes up no more space than a clock and (for $29.98) will weigh up to 1 kilogram or 2.3 pounds.
As a postscript, here's a glance at what everyone else is buying. "Entree," a new magazine for "gourmet retailers" just introduced by Fairchild Publications, contains a list of bestselling equipment in four regions of the country. As Washington is south of the Northeast, but north of the deep South, either might be valid. So, looking at these two areas, Taylor & Ng wok sets ( $20 to $40) are on both lists, as is the Cuisinart DLC7 ( $250).
In the Northeast, Taylor & Ng mugs ( $3 to $4) are big, as is the Cuisinart CFP9 ( $120), Calphalon's 2 1/2-quart saucepan ($41.50), Chemex 2-8 cup coffeemaker ($20.95 and up), Cuisine Concepts wine brick ($9.95 and up), Wheaton glass jars ( $3 to $5), Le Creuset 6-quart dutch oven ( $30 to $40), Le Creuset starter sets ( $50). In the South, Hoan's handing wire baskets ($5.99 to $9.99) are the best seller, followed by T-fal 10-inch skillets ($11.99 and up), Sabatier 3- to 10-inch knives ( $9 to $24), Hoan's honey dipper ( $1), Hoan's vegetable steamers ($3.50 and up), Atlas wok sets ($19.95 and up), Durand storage jars ($1.85 and up) and Melior plastic coffeemaker ( $25 and up).