1. Good quality chef's knife. Aaron and I got a Wusthof knife similar to this one as a wedding gift, and it's still my absolute favorite. While I'm sure there are more affordable options out there, I'm a believer in having one really good knife vs. several cheap options. I pretty much use this knife every time I cook; it's without a doubt my most-used kitchen item.
2. Large wood cutting board. When I'm putting dinner together, I like to get all the chopping done before I start cooking anything, so it comes together more quickly. I like having a big cutting board so I can chop one thing and put it to the side, then move on to the next thing. Yes, I could put ingredients in pretty little dishes (like they do in cooking shows) but then
3. Liquid measuring cups. Yes, it's a measuring cup...but it's so much more!! Other than the obvious use of, well, measuring liquids, I like to use these Pyrex bad boys for mixing dressings and sauces. When I make a stir-fry, for example, I make the sauce in the measuring cup and then add it to the pan. It's less messy because of the pour-spout, plus I don't have to use lots of other measuring cups since the measures are right on the side of the cup.
4. Microplane. I got my microplane as a stocking-stuffer many, many years ago and it's been a favorite ever since. I use it to zest lemons and limes, grate hard cheese (like Parmesan), grate ginger, and even grate peeled cloves of garlic. With it's nearly daily use, I'm so impressed with how sharp it stays, even when I throw it in the dishwasher time after time.
5. Oven-safe skillet or Dutch oven. For the longest time if I was starting a dish on the stove and finishing it in the oven, I had to transfer everything from a skillet to a baking dish. This Christmas though I got an enamel-coated Dutch oven that lets me go from stove to oven in one dish. (Do I sound like an infomercial or what?) But seriously, I love having the option of searing something (like chicken) on a higher heat on the stove, but then finishing it up in the oven so it can cook more evenly. A Dutch oven is also great for soups, stews, and braising large pieces of meat.
Tell me, what are your kitchen essentials?