Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Simple Kitchen

Photo courtesy Flickr

Cooking over an open hearth means stewing or grilling. Cooking over a cast-iron range means baking as well. Cooking with a food processor, microwave, and state of the art whatever means competing with professional chefs to replicate the latest and greatest, often in a second kitchen outdoors.

I think that’s nuts. A professional foodie came to visit for several days just after Christmas. I should not have been surprised when, like the interior designer I know, she was disinclined to consider anything about food except to eat whatever she didn’t have to fix herself.

I come from a long line of competitive cooks with innkeeping genes. When my cousin Patty showed signs of serious foodiness, I decided the best way to deal with the kitchen Olympics was to throw the contest. I cook one dish for parties, and people come over when they’re hungry for gumbo.

When my partner and I set up housekeeping, we had ten sets of cookware, not counting our hiking gear: his for Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and down home; mine for Northwest/California/Julia Child French; my mother’s basics and whang-bang collection of Cordon Bleu tinware from a Sixties expedition to Paris; and my grandmother’s trove of heirlooms and personal favorites. There was an eight by six foot apartment kitchen to store all this, and we solved our storage problem by not storing it.

The defining moment in the relationship came when we committed to edit the cookware and send the rejects to a consignment shop. The proceeds allowed us to invest in a fine set of enameled cast-iron French pots that look good enough to set on a buffet table. Over the many years since that historic conference, the working collection has grown ever simpler. We no longer even use a stove, which makes sense for our situation but perhaps not for others.

Here are some suggestions to make it easy to put a meal on the table by keeping labor-saving devices to a minimum. The main idea is to reduce the number of variables you have to juggle.

Use frozen whole-grain waffles.

Shop twice a year for staples. Cook with single-ingredient pantry staples and fresh things.

Grow parsley, shallots for the green tops, herbs you prefer, and lettuce. These things cost the most per pound fresh, store not at all, and are easy to set into a compost heap as bulbs or starts. Mulch the heap with a box of complete organic fertilizer and forget it. Think of this as a way of avoiding trips to the store.

The closer you are to a grocery, the smaller the refrigerator can be. Back up a small unit with a foam picnic cooler. Any leakproof container can become an ice bucket, and canny hikers insulate a cold steak for the first night on the trail by stuffing it into a rolled sleeping bag. Refrigeration is expensive: my power bill fell by half when I got rid of the freezer and shifted to a small frig.

Store food in standardized containers. I find it convenient to use the small, shallow rectangular glass dishes with red plastic tops from an old-line American manufacturer. A shallow dish cools food quickly, preserving quality. These little dishes allow me to get by with a small under-counter refrigerator. I decant sour cream, pesto sauce, and other condiments into these dishes to save space. 

Small appliances automate processes.

Choose pots and dishes that stack or nest.

Let professionals deep fry.

Define the number of places you will set and revert to disposables or a party supplier for larger gatherings. Have double the number of your defined places for the stock of salad forks, teaspoons, salad plates, bowls, and coffee cups to support extra courses and delay replacing broken pieces. Do the same with glasses.

Standardize linens and aprons. I favor bleachable white.

Use baking spray. It keeps finished platters from drying out and is a good topping to crisp baked dishes.

About that stove: an induction hotplate, camper’s butane grill, portable convection oven, electric hot pot, and electronic pressure cooker substitute nicely and make the kitchen layout flexible. I can cook for two or thirty with equal ease, and the electricity bill halved when I displaced the stove. The backyard’s freestanding fireplace allows low-tech grilling in a wire basket. We live in a development property, so I don’t concern myself with domestic design aimed at resale. 

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