Sunday, August 2, 2009

Big City, Small Kitchen

Do you love to cook? I know I do. I also love cooking shows on TV. But like the apartment in the TV series Friends, the size of TV kitchens are at least ten times the size of an actual kitchen in NYC. Or the size of a kitchen in Florida. Or Canada. Or anywhere.

So I can’t spread my ingredients in twelve bowls arranged over a hundred square foot counter top. And neither can you, I’ll bet. But you want to cook, and you want to maximize the minimum space you have. Truth be told, it is very easy to cook fantastic food in the closet where your kitchen is.

I’m here to offer tips and insights for cooking the food you love, for the people you love, in the space that you have. Because I have that space too. I share your pain. But it doesn’t have to be painful. It can, actually, be quite fun.

First things first, you need to size up your kitchen. Literally. Look at the space, look at your appliances, and whether you have a counter. Look how tall the ceiling is, how long the space is, how wide. Can you open the stove door without hitting the other wall, or a standing pipe? No? That’s still ok. At least you have a stove. Hopefully all the burners work.

Even small spaces can yield large storage for your cooking supplies if you know how to store effectively. Look for a clear space on top of cabinets, or the fridge. You may need to clean that up a little.

Yuck! But clean now, more time for fun later. Also look at your open wall space, all the way up to the ceiling. This is a great place for adding hooks.

Ah, hooks. Hooks are a small kitchen’s best friend. They’re small, and don’t protrude too far into the kitchen space. You can stack hooks from floor to ceiling, and hang just about everything you need to cook with-pots, pans, bags with utensils, garlic… You name it, you can hang it! Functional hooks can even make your kitchen look very modern and stylish.

So you need some storage ideas? Look at catalogs and go to some stores, but a warning-do not buy the first thing you see! Window shop and Windows shop and look at all the items that may work in your kitchen, then buy. Know ahead of time what you need, measurements, price limitations, etc. Know your budget. If you are on a shoestring, like most of us, you will see numerous cheap solutions to your kitchen storage problems.

For a customized cost-effective wall hook system, you can hit Home Depot and grab some wood (like a 3 inch board, cut to length of your wall), and individual metal hooks (attach to board with screws, space along board for whole length) to create a custom hook rack for surprisingly little money.

I like to be surprised at how little things cost.

Spices are an essential, and spices are usually unceremoniously thrown into a drawer or cabinet. Try to find an efficient way to store your spices, either on a wall, or stacked in a cupboard. With all of the storage, the idea is accessibility. You need to get that coriander, and you need to get it now!

We all have that cabinet. You know the one, where everything is packed so tightly that to remove the thyme would bring down a rain of McCormick products on you and your cat. That cabinet. Well organize that cabinet! Organize your space before you begin to use your kitchen, and you will have more time to focus on the food, and not waste time picking bay leaves off of the floor.

Here's a tip: right now, go through your spices. That chicken rub/powder/salt free spice jar you’ve had since college? Bye-bye. Same with any spices that are really old, and, just like medication, are just no longer effective.

There are dozens of great wire racks, shelves, and pantry organizers of all shapes to accomplish the task of keeping your spices, and everything in your limited cabinet space organized. Cheap, effective, sexy. And you will need the spices. This is why the Good Lord created Ikea. Skip through furniture and make your way to the kitchen and storage area. Lots of good stuff, not so much moolah. But if that’s not your thing, there are lots of other buying options.

Next, you want to look at your kitchen equipment. Beyond a pot and pan, what do you own? Does it plug in? Many cooking shows demonstrate an array of gadgets to make cooking easier. And they work. But you don’t need twenty machines to get your cooking done.

You will need a couple, though, to be able to complete a wide variety of cooking projects. Those old pots and pans that you don't even remember exist, the ones that have an imprint of the last meal you made in them-say "Bon Voyage!" If there are things you have not used within a year or more, give it away, donate it, or if in bad condition, simply throw out. Stop being a packrat, be a minimalist! A minimalist will thrive in small places. The idea is to have the least amount of equipment, to do the most variety of recipes. Let's do it the French way, fait à la main!

I have my personal 'Top 5' basic tools in the kitchen that I cannot live without.

These are:

(1) 2 or 3 quart standard saucepan (Stainless is good)

(2) 8 inch frying pan (All-clad if ya can! But any good one will do)

(3) Food processor (Depending on budget, either a 2 or 3 cup mini processor ($30-50), or a larger one if you can swing it)

(4) Medium whisk

(5) A set of good quality knives (Did I mention a good set of knives? You need these!)

In my personal experience, these ‘essential’ items will help you prepare the greatest variety of meals for whatever the occasion. If you want to cook, and cook well, you will need at least these basic tools. This is probably the only place where you really need to invest in your kitchen. Nothing hurts your creativity more than a crappy set of dull knives.

Once you store your equipment on hooks (or cupboards, if you are lucky), and once you have the basic cooking gear you are ready: Let’s cook!

A hole is to dig, a kitchen is to cook

Ruth Krauss had it right. (A great children’s read, BTW illustrated by Maurice Sendak).

The kitchen is to cook. Also to linger in, stare at a toaster in, stand in front of an open refrigerator in…but mainly the purpose of the space is to prepare the food you love.

We’ve gone over some storage ideas, but storage isn’t enough! Actual preparation of a meal in a space the size of an airplane bathroom can be tricky. Again, as always, organization is key.

Look over the recipe. Get all of the ingredients together-not necessarily in a bowl, because who wants to wash twelve bowls? If counter space is about two feet square, keep ingredients at the ready in the fridge (more shelves to take advantage of!).

Also consider stacking ingredients in plastic storage containers-it prevents spilling, keeps everything separate, and after a quick rinse, the storage can be used for leftovers.

The space you use to cook doesn’t have to be a permanent space. A flip-up piece of stained wood, that can be flush against the wall most of the time, can be a temporary space to place cooking items, towels, jars, what have you.

Use your sink as a space as well, by laying a cutting board, or other suitable flat surface item, over it. While preparing recipes, clean as you go-dishes won’t pile up in the sink and you can reuse the utensils over and over. If you follow at least half of these simple tips, space on the counter won’t be wasted, and you can have more time to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Most importantly, love what you do and have fun doing it. More tips and recipes to follow!



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