All posts for the month September, 2011

Living with a small kitchen: cookware

Published September 19, 2011 by livinggraciously

The subtitle of this entry should be “Or how I justify owning 7 skillets.”

Because let’s get right to the confession. I do. Here they are:

Scale is a little hard to comprehend in this photo, but the two skillets at the top are what serve as average large skillets in most households: 12″ ones. The cast iron one to their left is a monstrous 15″-er. When I get it out, it triggers a vision of cowboys on the Goodnight-Loving Trail, driving cattle while Cookie and Stumpy fry up a mess o’ beans. It doesn’t appear to belong in a home kitchen, even when I’m using it.

So why do I own it? Because it’s a terrific size for heating red hot and flash-cooking flat breads. And it can handle vast quantities of bacon.  As an example, last night I remembered that I had a roasting chicken in the fridge that needed to be cooked, but I didn’t feel like roast chicken. So I quartered it, and browned the seasoned pieces in some bacon fat. I removed the pieces and sauteed chopped onions and mushrooms (portabella and rehydrated porcini) until the onions were carmelizing. Then I was able to push the veg to one side of the pan and make a roux in the other half. Added the rehydrating liquid and chicken broth and mixed it all back up, then kept throwing in herbs and spices until I was happy with the results, added the chicken back, slid the whole thing into the oven for 45 minutes and served with rice.  I couldn’t fit that whole chicken into a 12″ skillet, and I couldn’t have gotten the even sear on the meat with stainless steel. Cast iron transfers heat to its outer edges beautifully, and cooks more evenly than any other metal. In fact, if pressed I would argue that I need one more skillet – a 12″ cast iron one to complete my collection.

As I said at the beginning of this series, an argument can be made that all a kitchen really needs is a 12″ skillet and a stock pot. Yet I will staunchly defend and protect my ownership of all these. Because in the last week, I have used each and every one of them at least once. In fact, last night alone I used both the small cast iron ones and the medium stainless steel one. The 12″ All-Clad and the 12″ off-brand skillets would seem to duplicate each other, but the All-Clad has sloping, saute-pan sides that make it good for meats and getting a good browning, while the deep one is great for things that simmer with a sauce. The smaller pans? I frequently end up using 2 or three of them at a time. And all the stainless steel pans nest together in the bottom drawer of the range, while the cast iron stack together nicely in a cabinet. I like the convenience of having them all.

If I get a 12″ cast iron skillet, will I get rid of one of my other 12″ stainless steel ones? Possibly, but cast iron does not like acidic foods, so I might keep them both around for tomato-based dishes. I mean, it’s not hoarding if you actually use the items, right? Right??

(Note that I have no nonstick stovetop pans in my kitchen. I don’t like nonstick surfaces, and find that there’s nothing that sticks to my pans if they are properly cared for.)

Moving on, let’s get all the confessions out of the way. I said you only need one stock pot, right? Well, I have 4:

Of course, others would argue that I have 5:

but I don’t think the dutch oven really counts. I mean, I’m never going to boil water in it.

Though I might well use it for beef stew….

Anyway, I have what is, admittedly, an abundance of stock pots. But I do actually use all four. Part of it depends on the volume of what I’m cooking, part of it depends on the nature of what I’m cooking. The two furthest from the camera are stored at the back of the cabinet and don’t see quite as much action, but if I’m cooking something that starts with a saute in the pot, I like their wider bottoms for that. And the furthest one back is much larger than the other three. I could probably live with just two if I have to, but none of them is simply taking up space and not being used.

Then there’s sauce pans:

Here I will admit that the largest pan duplicates the use of the smallest stock pot and could probably go. But I find it hard to break up the set. The advice given on most sites is not to buy them as a set, and I think they are right. If an elephant showed up in my kitchen and stepped on my saucepans (what? it could happen), and I was replacing them with high quality, All-Clad pans, I would probably get just two in the middle sizes and call it good.

While we are in the neighborhood of the topic, a word about quality. You want it. Well-made pans will provide even heat and better performance. That being said, you can get along with pans you pick up at Target. Don’t use not being able to afford All-Clad as an excuse not to cook. These off-brand pans have served me well for many years, and while I would gladly trade them for the shiny weight and quality of high-end pans, I’m not going to break the bank to replace them. After all, it gives Ferrett years of Christmas prezzies to get me!

Okay, enough with the pictures. Those are the workhorses of your kitchen. What else do you need? Here’s my list of musts:

  • Cookie sheets/jellyroll pans – at least two good large ones. I prefer the ones with sides because they are more versatile than the flat pans
  • Baking pans – 8″x8″, 9″x13″, one of each will probably do unless you do a lot of entertaining or go to a lot of potlucks. From cakes to lasagnas, these are your ovenware pans. This is where I do have nonstick coatings. Avoid the pans with sharp, folded corners as food works its way into them and never comes out again.
  • Roasting pan – a large pan with a roasting rack will brown chickens and roasts nicely, and catch all the drippings to make lovely sauces. I consider it a necessity, but you can get my with a
  • Broiling pan – the enamel ones that look like they came with the oven are just fine.

Those will get you by in almost any situation. After that, it’s a matter of space and interest whether you have such things as muffin tins, bread pans, casserole dishes, etc.  I have such things, and they get relatively little use.

Next up: gadgetry!



Published September 18, 2011 by livinggraciously

Last night was the first time since the remodel that we had “company.” Oh, we’ve had people over and I’ve cooked, but they’ve all been people who’ve been here often and dinner was dished up from the kitchen and eaten in the living room. Last night, it was a couple who were here for the first time (Mike’s been here, and eaten here, before, but as part of Ferrett’s writing group; Patti was here for the first time ever.) So I wanted to actually sit down to dinner at the dining table.

Even before the remodel, we did not often sit at table. I am not sure why this is, because I used to have people to dinner and actually sit up like grownups fairly regularly. Part of the reason is simply that we are often having dinner while watching a movie, but I suspect that at least part of it is that the dining space in this house is small enough to have never been completely comfortable to me. Even before we had the breakfast bar extension that extends into the space, we frequently had the dining table pushed up against the wall. It’s another sign to me that we need to refurnish that space.

Because there are times when it’s nice to actually have dinner. Like last night.

It was tough to decide what to cook, because Mike and Patti regularly hold impressive (and intimidating) feasts at their home. I’ve been to their house when over 100 people were wandering about, and just last week they had about 50 people over for Greek food. Patty spent a week cooking for that event. I am humbled and awed by such undertakings. And can’t help feeling that my own culinary abilities leave much to be desired.

But living graciously means making the best of what you’ve got and making your guests feel at home, so I plowed forward. Consulting with Ferrett, we decided on tuna as the protein of choice. After perusing the Cook’s Illustrated website (requires a paid membership, but totally worth it for the ease of recipe hunting every recipe they’ve ever published), I decided on grilling the tuna. But firing up the barbecue for tuna, which takes about 2 minutes per side to cook, seemed like a lot of work for a very short cooking time. So we added grilled corn on the cob to the menu. Of course, I would be baking bread, and there would be salad. Desirous of one more green thing, we decided on green beans with toasted almonds. Oh,  at the grocery store they had beautiful “baby bellas,” so I added sauteed mushrooms on at the end.

Dessert was easy to decide: for Christmas last year, Ferrett bought me a creme brulee set and a torch, and I hadn’t used it yet. What better way to finish a meal than torch-it-yourself cremes brulee?

It was a reasonably simple menu, and none of its components were terribly time-consuming individually. Yet somehow it managed to consume pretty much the whole day. First there was starting bread in the morning, then I cubed and seasoned some leftover bread to make croutons for the evening’s salad, and then shopping, and then more fussing with the bread, then making the custard for the creme brulee, then trying to get the creme brulee out of the oven so that the bread could go in. Then there was prepping the corn for roasting on the grill, which consisted of peeling back the leaves and removing the silk, then folding back up the leaves and tying them around the ears and putting them to soak in cold water. Ferrett took on the task of cleaning and snapping the green beans while I finally got a shower.

(To be fair, we’d gotten a very late start on the day after being out late the night before, so it wasn’t that the cooking was slavish. We were just slow.)

We don’t grill nearly as much as I would like, and I’ve figured out why. Ferrett didn’t grow up doing the “manly man cook food over flame” thing, whereas I grew up in a household where grill night duties were split between Mom putting together all the side dishes in the kitchen and Dad attempting to burn down the neighborhood with his lighter fluid firebombs and then cooking the meat. Since Ferrett has no feel for the grill, he prefers for me to handle that part of the evening. But it’s hard to do both sides of that cooking, since one has to leave the kitchen in order to man the grill. The problem is that I still have the Mom subroutine running, so I expect to be in charge of sides. That I can’t properly watch because I’m outside. What I need to do in the future is put Ferrett definitively in charge of the sides in order to free myself up for the grilling. As it was, I was running madly in and out of the house (I’d at least had the foresight to drag the grill down near the side door instead of leaving it up by the garage) and giving Ferrett incomplete instructions when his head wasn’t in “cooking” space at all. The only bad consequence of this is that the green beans were a little underdone, since he thought they only needed a quick warmup and didn’t taste them to make sure they were properly cooked. Still, they were quite edible.

I’m very pleased with the way the tuna came out. Tuna is easy to overcook, and I managed to avoid that, while also getting the corn roasted but not dried out. The Cook’s Illustrated sauce, while tasty, was a bit of a disappointment because it didn’t really convey a lot of flavor using the instructions given. It’s an excellent sauce, though, and I saved it with the plans of making bruschetta next week. The bread – the third loaf I’ve baked this week – had such a fine, crisp crust that slicing it caused an explosion of crumbs to fly up from the knife. We enjoyed the companionship of a shared meal, and for the first time I got a feel for clearing the table and doing the dishes in the new kitchen. Since the door of the dishwasher effectively blocks the path into the dining room, it was incredibly handy to be able to stack things on the breakfast bar and have someone in the kitchen moving them to the sink and dishwasher.

After that, it was after-dinner drink and creme brulee time. I passed out the ramekins, and a glass with demarara sugar (a raw sugar like turbinado) to sprinkle atop the custard. Then we passed around the torch. I think everyone used too-thick a layer of sugar, but torching the cremes brulee was almost as fun as getting to eat them. This will definitely be a dessert that is seen again (though not too often as it is very rich). The drinks were Kahlua and milk over ice for three of us, and amaretto for Patti.

As all good evenings should, this one ended with taking our drinks into the living room and engaging in lively conversation. It was a lovely evening, and makes me look forward to seeing them again. I’ve promised Patti to give a bread-baking lesson at her lovely, recently remodeled kitchen (they were the ones who recommended the fabulous contractor who did ours, and their kitchen and family room addition are very awesome), and Mike has vowed to teach Ferrett to drive a stick-shift – but more on that when and if it actually happens.

In the meantime, today is the end of an incredibly busy week – a lengthy meeting Tuesday night, overnight company Wednesday, a Rock Band party Thursday, a concert Friday, and dinner with Mike and Patti last night. Today? Ferrett is fetching lunch from the local Middle Eastern restaurant, Aladdin’s, and I intend to sit on my butt and do next to nothing. We scheduled this as one of our rare, “no outside stuff” days.

Because tomorrow it all gets busy again.


Living with a Small Kitchen: Cutlery

Published September 14, 2011 by livinggraciously

Most writings on this topic will tell you that all you really need is a good chef’s knife, a 12″ skillet, and a stock pot, and you can cook most anything.

That’s reasonably true, but unless your kitchen consists of two burners and a minifridge, you’re probably going to need a little more that. Let’s open the cabinets in my kitchen and see what I’ve got, starting with the sharps:

Knives: These are one of people’s favorite things to buy in sets – the more massive the set, the better. The other day I saw a set of 35 Wusthof knives, all tucked neatly into a knife block about the size of a stump. My gut reaction? OMG, we wants it, Precious!!! And why not? Knives are shiny, and useful, and look so damned impressive on the counter. If I had 3 large to drop on complete frivolities, those knives would be a real temptation.

But the reality is that of the 5 knives we have in our knife block (not counting the steak knives), I only make daily use of one, and regular use of 3. Unless you bake bread, you probably only need two. So make them two of the best knives you can find. Go for a high quality brand like Wusthof or Henckels. Yes, you’re going to pay close to $100 for one knife, but the quality is completely worth the price. The first knife you need is a good chef’s knife. In that 35-knife set, 4 of the knives were chef’s knives in assorted sizes. You will probably want an 8″ knife, the most common size (measures are of blade length). Much smaller than that and the knife is too short for the classic rocking motion for which chef’s knives are designed. A 10″ knife is scary and will make you feel uncomfortable like Jack Torrence. Go to a good cookware store and ask to handle the knives. If the blade compels you to break through a door and yell, “Honey, I’m home!” it’s too long a blade for you.

(Santuko knives are gaining popularity as a companion to or even a substitute for a chef’s knife. These knives originated in Japan and have a narrower blade. I haven’t obtained one yet, so I have no opinion to share, but you might want to consider it as an alternative to the chef’s knife.)

Second knife you need is a paring knife. A 3-4″ knife designed for the in-hand work of peeling and small cuts, such as removing the eyes from potatoes. If you are using your paring knife for much chopping-type work, you are working too hard. I only use my occasionally, but when I need it, I’m glad to have one.

From there? You will want a good serrated bread knife if you bake bread. They are also really good for carving meats, though I’ll deny ever using my bread knife for that. (Actually, I have a cheap bread knife I keep around strictly for carving, so I can legitimately deny using my good bread knife for carving.)

The rest of those knives in that big block? Would probably never see any use in my kitchen. I have a 6″ utility knife, and I use it strictly for slashing breads right before baking. It’s useful that because it’s super sharp. Because I don’t use it for anything else.

Sharpening steel: Get one. Learn to use it. It will increase the lifespan of your blade. A steel doesn’t actually sharpen a knife. It realigns the edge so that the blade is smooth, but your blades will eventually need to be professionally resharpened. (I don’t recommend a home sharpener because they can get misaligned and wreck havoc on your blades.)

Kitchen shears: OMG, these are the best invention in the world. I would give up my paring knife before I’d part with my kitchen shears. We’re not talking about a pair of scissors; these are the take-apart shears with thick, black handles. They are the best tool for cutting up a whole chicken, for cutting a pizza, for snipping herbs into small bits. I have two pair – the crappy ones in the drawer that I use for cutting open packages, and my good Wusthofs that I use only for food.Use them and you will love them.

Knife block, magnetic knife holder: Now that you’ve spent all this money, for heavens sake don’t just chuck those blades in a drawer. Protect your investment. Knife blocks take up precious counter space, but a magnetic strip can do on the side of your fridge and keep those blades out of harms way. Also, NO DISHWASHERS! Hand wash those knives immediately. Don’t be tossing them into the sink, where they can get bent or chips and be a threat to your fingers.

Next: cookware (honestly, this time)

Living with a small kitchen

Published September 12, 2011 by livinggraciously

I love my new kitchen with all my heart. And I know how lucky I am to have been able to remodel it. It’s beautiful, and opening it to the dining living rooms has accomplished the social goals I had in mind.

But it’s still a small kitchen.

At 10’x11′, it’s not the kind of micro-kitchen that New Yorkers famously endure, but it’s still small by today’s standard of luxury kitchens, it’s itty bitty. And in this day and age, when kitchen catalogs are practically pornographic, dripping with shiny, colorful, richly enameled, or fabulously specialized equipment, an itty bitty kitchen can feel limiting. Sometimes I look at all those fancy bit of equipment with lust in my heart.

But a small kitchen doesn’t have to be a disadvantage. The trick is to figure out the right equipment to put into the space you have, to pay attention to what you use and what you don’t use, and to arrange your storage in such a way that you can get to the equipment you have.

First of all, figure out if there is somewhere besides your kitchen where you can store some of the kitchen items. I don’t have a pantry, but I do have my built-in china hutch. Our dishes and wine glasses are stored in the upper area, serving dishes and some appliances are stored below. If you have infrequently-used items such as seasonal dishes, storing them outside the kitchen can free up space.

Second figure out what you really need in the line of appliances. Dedicated use appliances can be lovely, but lots of them serve far too narrow a function to take up space in a small kitchen. Here is a list of appliances I have in my kitchen, in the order of my frequency of use. I initially thought about making the list in “order of importance,” but that would be artificial, because what we “think” is important and what is actually used are frequently two different things:

Rice cooker: When my sister gave me a rice cooker for Christmas, I gave her that, “gosh, how wonderful of you” smile. Little did I know that I would use the silly thing more than any other appliance in my kitchen. We eat a lot of rice, I admit, but it can also be used to cook oatmeal, quinoa, and other grains. I love the “set it and forget it” of the rice cooker, and how I don’t have the thing boiling over and scalding starch onto my stovetop all the time. It has a permanent place on my counter.

Electric kettle: To most Americans, an appliance designed solely for boiling water might seem like a waste, but no British household would be without their electric kettle – Brits are baffled at how we live without them. And now that I have one, I agree. Besides the ease of tea or coffee brewing, we use it to get a jumpstart on cooking pasta or potatoes or anything else that requires boiling water. It’s fast and easy, and everyone who has one loves theirs.

Pressure cooker: Most pressure cookers are stovetop appliances, but ours happens to be a freestanding electric one. It’s a very handy device, because it has built-in timers so there’s no danger of forgetting and burning the dinner. Pressure cookers have come back into fashion after years of a reputation as the producer of your great-aunt’s nasty lima bean stew that exploded all over the kitchen ceiling. The new ones are better designed and no longer a bomb waiting to detonate. They are also a quick way to produce amazingly tasty meals in half an hour. I use mine at least once a week, if not more.

Toaster: If your kitchen is really tiny, you can live without a toaster. The broiler in your oven can be used to toast bread. And if you’re going all low carb, a toaster is definitely a waste of space. But if you’re a bread baker, well….

Blender: Honestly, we really only use ours for smoothies. But if I’m making these in order, then blender comes next.

Food processor: I use this less than I could because I’m lazy in a really backward way. I would rather chop and grate by hand than clean the processor. This is time-wasting, wrong-headed thinking. Food processors are a wonderfully efficient way to reduce big chunky food into small bits for cooking.

Stand mixer: I would use this more than I do, but I like hand-kneading my bread. If you do any baking, a quality stand mixer is a worthwhile investment.

Microwave: If I didn’t have a over-the-stove microwave, I don’t think that I would devote the counter space to one. They’re handy for reheating leftovers, and defrosting meat, but other than that I don’t use mine at all.

Immersion blender: I just started using mine, and it’s brilliant. If I didn’t have space for a blender, I would definitely want an infusion blender.

Hand mixer: Handy for small jobs like mashing potatoes for two without dirtying more bowls. Not a good substitute for a stand mixer for large jobs, but a perfectly good substitute if you aren’t a regular baker.

Other appliances I own but hardly use: I have a slow cooker, and I only drag it out to make spiced cider at the holidays. I have a coffee maker, but since I drink it irregularly it’s stored away for when we have coffee-drinking company. The bread maker? Since it’s stowed in the top of a linen closet, I just haven’t gotten around to throwing it out yet.

Next: cookware.

Feathering the nest continues

Published September 8, 2011 by livinggraciously

The good news is I’ve figured out how to deal with the dining room. The bad news is that we can’t afford to do it until at least next year. Such is the nature of the limited budget.

That aside, a couple people pointed out that the built-in china cabinet had become something of an eyesore. Too much stuff just shoved into it, making it look like a jumble sale rather than a display or useful space. To you observant folk, I thank you. It’s easy to get blinded to such things. So while Ferrett was at World Con this weekend, I undertook reorganization of the visible shelves of the china cabinet. Here we have before:

and after:

The cookbooks are moved to another room, and some stuff that was just…stuff has been eliminated. The shelves now contain utilitarian items or items that have real sentimental value.  I also took the time to sand out a scorch mark that required something to cover it.

This is not the end of the changes for the china cabinet. I agree that it needs to be refinished in a color that better matches the kitchen cabinets, now that they are all so exposed to each other. My mind’s eye has trouble actually looking at both the kitchen and dining room at the same time, because they were so separate for so long. But I realize that other people can see the gestalt of it better than I. So stripping and staining are on the agenda.

Keep in mind that “doing something about the awful carpet” was on the agenda for about a decade before we finally got around to it. So don’t expect a lot of action in the near future. I’m sort of patting myself on the back for just cleaning out the cabinets.

Honestly? At this point just looking at the kitchen when it’s all cleaned up and “magazine ready” pleases me so much that I think that getting to do it all at once would detract from the pleasure.

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