Since you asked, Stacy, I can certainly list what I consider essential in my kitchen, which, of course, will be different from what others consider essential in theirs.
I don't need, or want, a kitchen full of gadgets and gizmos and specialty items, but there are many things that are nice to have if you like to cook. I like to streamline what I own, but I'm not about being a cheapskate. I try to buy good quality kitchen tools, especially for the most essential things. They last longer, they're more attractive, and they really do make a noticeable difference in the way the food turns out. For example, when my daughter and her husband moved in with us for a few months, she was using my LeCreuset Dutch oven to make the Bengali curries her mother-in-law taught her to make. When Michelle's family moved into their own apartment and started using her old pans again, she and her husband were both struck by how much inferior the curries tasted. They finally bought a heavy, enameled cast-iron pan, and the curries improved considerably again.
But we also have to live within our means (I've only owned some of my favorite items for a year or two because I've had to gradually acquire them), and we often don't need what we think we need or what looks like fun in the cooking catalogs. Obviously, people have been cooking for centuries with much less equipment than we have today and, they developed low-tech, timeless techniques that resulted in amazing cuisines.
For instance, a rustic mortar and pestle gives results that are as good as, or better, than a food processor, and the aromas that rise from it are so nice. (I use one sometimes just for the enjoyment of it, but I'm also glad to have my processor.) And there are certainly ways to make do without fancy, expensive equipment. If we want to, we can use a hand whisk or a wooden spoon instead of a mixer or blender (and I often do). We can make our own double boiler by putting a metal or pyrex bowl on top of a pan with simmering water (this is what I do). Or even use a jar instead of a rolling pin (which I don't)!
It's the same with many things in the kitchen. You don't need a garlic press; in fact, many chefs refuse to use them. Chopping garlic is quick and easy. I've even read of someone who uses a garlic "rock". This is an actual, palm-sized rock that is used to crush and peel the garlic. I've been meaning to go out and find a rock to use myself. So often, a more manual process yields much richer results, so if you have time to do things by hand, it's often worth the effort.
Still, modern equipment is nice to have around, and I use mine often. Here are some things I would hate to do without:
1. Good knives. I have two, and both are made by J.A. Henckels. An 8" chef's knife and a 5" utility knife. I use both of these every day. The only other knife I sometimes use is a bread knife. A little paring knife would be good to have, but I'm getting along without it.
2. A big, solid cutting board. Mine is a Boos Block. I love this. It's extremely sturdy. The bigger the better.
3. Good, heavyweight pans. Mine are LeCreuset. I love these, too. I picked up a few at an outlet store many years ago, and my husband added to my set later on Christmas, birthdays, etc. Good-quality, heavy-weight pans make a *huge* difference in cooking. I actually only use a couple pans all the time, at least on a day to day basis.
4. My little line-up of countertop appliances. I'll llump them together because they seem like a family or a team, the way I have them standing stand side by side in an out of the way place on my counter. I use these all the time. If I had to list these in order of what gets the most use, it would go this way:
a.) Food processor. I have a Kitchenaid. Many chefs use the Cuisinart because, for a long time, it was considered much superior, but many are now of the opinion that Kitchenaid's quality has pretty much caught up. I use this for cutting butter into scone or biscuit doughs, for making pesto, for grinding nuts, for lots of things. People lived without them for years, and I sometimes work by hand rather than using the processor, but I love having this.
b). Blender. I use mine daily for smoothies and, often, for mixing salad dressings. I wouldn't mind having a Vitamix blender some day (it's really helpful for raw food stuff). For now I have one of those chrome "beehive" looking Osterizers.
c.) Juicer. I have a fairly basic Breville. It's not my optimum choice for a juicer, but it works perfectly fine, and I couldn't drink green lemonade without it.
d.) Stand mixer. Kitchenaid again. I've had mine for 15 or 16 years, using it constantly (less now than before, for some reason), and it still runs great. Comes with a regular flat beater, a dough hook, and a wire whip. Not *essential* but very, very nice to have.
5. Spice grinder or a mortar and pestle. I use a coffee grinder that is dedicated to grinding spices only. I buy spices in bulk from Penzeys or Frontier, and I like to grind my own, either by hand or in the electric grinder, because fresh-ground spices have a much nicer, more vivid taste.
6. Citrus Trio. Microplane zester. Little wooden citrus reamer. Nigella's blue citrus hand-juicer that strains seeds. My daughter teases that my cooking is all about lemon. It's true that I do like to use a lot of citrus, so these tools are used all the time. I could do with just the first two and skip the third, but that little seed strainer in Nigella's juicer is pretty nice when juicing lemons.
7. Baking stone. I always keep it in the oven, even when I don't use it directly. It keeps the oven temperature more stable in my really cheapo stove. I cook scones and breads and pizzas on this, too.
8. Nice wooden spoons and spatulas. I love the slightly flexible LeCreuset spoon spatulas (for scraping the sides of bowls, pans, etc., as well as for serving). They work much better than basic brands. A wooden spoon/spatula with a flat bottom is really nice to have.
9. Parchment paper (unbleached). I"ve always used this, but it recently moved way up on my list. I line pans with it when cooking messy, sticky things (makes clean up a snap). I use it like I used to use plastic wrap or baggies-- I wrap sandwiches and snacks in it, I wrap cheeses in it to store in the fridge, etc.
10. French coffee press and a coffee grinder. This is a must in my kitchen! The fresh-ground beans are essential (the taste better, and anyway, coffee for a French press requires a coarser ground than for regular coffee makers).
Stacy, I would like to own a mandoline, too, because you're right, for raw "cooking" this would be a big help.
There are many other kitchen tools I own and use often:
Gridded cooling racks. Colanders and sieves. Salad spinner. Hand blender. A pepper mill (I like Peugot). Instant read thermometer. Pastry scraper. Measuring cups and spoons. Vegetable steaming basket. Vegetable peeler. A little, round Cuisinart waffle iron. All sorts of pans for baking things. Cheesecloth. Kitchen string.
I also like to cook ethnic cuisines sometimes, and I have things for that. A wok (which I use for non-Asian cooking, too). A wooden wok spatula. A sticky rice steaming pot and basket (inexpensive, and sticky rice is fun!). A tortilla press and warming container for tortillas.
Some people couldn't live without their breadmaker. Some people insist on having a deep fat fryer or a pressure cooker. Others use a rice maker every day. What is essential in a kitchen is dependent on what, and how, a person likes to cook.
Does anyone have anything not on this list that you consider absolutely essential? Or something you like better?