I'm going to combine two things I've been thinking about lately: Bruce Sterling's Last Viridian Note (a twenty-first century version of William Morris's "The Beauty of Life") and a discussion among recent college grads of the best tools for setting up a new kitchen.
Update: I have in mind here setting up the post-school adult kitchen. See Sam's comment on this post for a great little take on the ultraminimal student version.
My goal here is to help myself and others reduce crapware. Since I moved out of my parents' house, I've bought a fair amount of stuff for my kitchen. Most of it has been thrown away, given away, or (worst of all) stored away. However, I've also come upon some items that I use all the time, that give me pleasure, and that offer great value--either because they are inexpensive or because they are so useful. If I got to start over, here are a few things I would get to set up a new kitchen.
Pots and Pans
I use a fair number of pots and pans, but I could manage almost everything I want to cook with three basic ones: a pot for pasta, soups, and such; a pan for sauces and small jobs; and a big pan for frying and sautéeing.
For the smaller pan, I would look to the Calphalon line. The key to shopping Calphalon is to know that they always have a few items available at huge discounts; they want to hook you into loving the brand so you buy the other stuff. For instance, you can get the Calphalon Contemporary Nonstick 10-Inch & 12-Inch Omelet Combo Pack for fifty dollars. This is the best Calphalon nonstick line--these would be great egg pans and small sauté pans. You won't be able to find a price much lower for one pan, so if you want only one, you can get this combo and give one away.
I have two big stovetop pans, one terrific one from Calphalon that's on the expensive side and an even bigger one that I'll recommend here as a great value: the Bialetti covered deep sauté pan. This holds a lot of food and never sticks. Its lid and handles are great.
For the big pot, I would choose the Lodge enameled cast-iron 6-Quart dutch oven. This pot looks great, is extremely sturdy, and holds enough liquid to make a good-sized batch of chili or soup. I have recently made two batches of the same soup, one in a cheaper aluminum pot and one in this: it was amazing how much the Lodge pot resisted burning and overcooking. The pot is a little heavy for simply boiling pasta water, but it's manageable, and you can always keep a cheap water-boiler pot around if you want one.
Cutting Boards and Knives
You don't need many knives, just great ones, and Cook's Illustrated uncovered the incredible value of the Victorinox Forschner line, with supersharp blades and comfortable (if slightly cheesy looking) synthetic handles. See the 8-inch chef's Knife and 10-1/4-inch curved blade bread knife. I have the bread knife and covet the chef's.
I admit to a special affection for the Epicurian Cutting Surfaces line of cutting boards because they used to have a pleasant ECS logo, which for me doubled as a personalized monogram. Even without that advantage, you won't believe how great these suckers are. I would not have thought any cutting board could be worth a premium price, but I got a small one as a gift, and now I want to get two bigger ones (or even bigger)--one for meat, one not--and throw away all my others.
I got two high-quality silicon spoon-style spatulas as a gift, and I find that I use them all the time. They have become my main in-the-pan stirring utensils as well as the only spatulas I bother with. I don't know that the brand matters much here, as long as you get good, sturdy ones and not any old silicon spatula: these Rubbermaid ones look great. I know fifteen dollars seems insane for a spatula, but now that I've used these things, I think they're well worth it--really good ones make a lot of other utensils obsolete.
Contrarily, as long as you don't use metal utensils on nonstick surfaces, I think you can get away with pretty cheap nylon cooking spoons, ladles, and such. We have cheap ones and expensive ones: the expensive ones look nicer and match (they were a wedding present), but I don't notice any difference in functionality.
You know about food processors and coffeemakers and such, probably, but you may not have thought about getting a good immersion blender (a.k.a. stick blender or hand blender). This fellow is a lifesaver in soupmaking: instead of taking soup out of the pot, processing it, and putting it back in, you just blend it right on the stove. You can also use these for smoothies, milkshakes, and stuff; they are vastly easier to use and clean than regular blenders, and they take up almost no space.
Specialty Prep Tools
This Zyliss garlic press has transformed my garlic life: it makes using fresh garlic genuinely easy. And anything that encourages you to eat things that involve fresh garlic is worth cherishing.
Finally, though it's easily the lowest priority item on this list, I must mention this apple peeler, corer, and slicer. It claims to work for potatoes as well--I don't buy that--but if you're the type to make big-batch apple recipes, you gotta see this thing work. For me, it made apple-picking (and therefore apple cooking) worth the effort.