Sunday, February 22, 2009

Little, Big, and Lots of

Between a cooling rack, toaster oven with homemade bread stacked on top, coffee maker, coffee grinder, sugar bowl and the plastic tub of fenugreek (easy to identify if you speak Amharic), I eek out kitchen workspace. Not surprisingly, three of my 2009 kitchen resolutions involve space and organization. I've made some progress on the others: I hope to cook through How to Eat Supper (currently around 5 - 10%); I've blogged more than I hoped; and I've baked bread nearly every week. But my goals around spatial organization have been tougher. I'm hitting the wall. The wall is tools.

I don't carry a Swiss army knife anymore. But from the Boy Scouts I carry a Swiss-army-knife-like notion of utilitarianism and minimalism. Ideally, kitchen tools should consist solely of a chef's knife, a frying pan, and a saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. With that simple kit, a real chef should be able to cook anything. Put another way, I want to be the culinary MacGyver. To this day I look askance at any single-purpose device. Stocking a kitchen with a tool for each chore is expensive, and the clutter is frustrating. If you've ever spent three minutes looking for a tomato corer in a miscellaneous tool drawer you know what I mean. Said tool is found in the time it would have taken to perform the task with a knife. It is embarrassing. Okay, it isn't a big deal, but I mince garlic with a knife vs. a garlic press. Hurray for small victories.

It was only through marriage that a rice cooker came into my life. Praised by some, I was never impressed. Yes, it cooked and kept rice warm, but it was a single-purpose device -- only worse -- it took up a square foot of precious kitchen shelf space and needed to be plugged in. A friend mentioned her mini-rice cooker and asked if I burned a lot of rice. Before I used a rice cooker I didn't. Next thing I knew, I was at Target getting a scaled-down rice cooker. One try of the mini-cooker was enough. The device that could have fed Charlie Chan's family went to the basement, pending garage sale or Good Will disposal.

My trade from Hummer-size to Vespa-size rice cooker wouldn't apply to all kitchens, but it started a train of thought. Big. Little. Lots of. What works well in my kitchen works well because it is in the right category of Big, Little or Lots of. Cutting boards for instance. I foolishly wrecked one a few weeks ago while pounding out a slab of pork. It was an older wooden board and it split. A few days later I seemed to miss it. I have six cutting boards. I had seven. Between concerns about cross contamination, boards pending dish washing, and limited work surface, I need a good supply of cutting boards. I need lots of cutting boards. If I handle raw meat on a big board, the whole thing is off limits until washed. A big cutting board is also a nuisance if counter space starts getting tight or to get in and out of the sink quickly. Not that little boards are the solution. Little cutting boards are, well. . . little. Little worked for the rice cooker, but I buy whole chickens. Lots of different size cutting boards is what I need.

Measuring cups and spoons are a lots of category. If you pour into measuring spoons and cups vs. scoop out of spice jars and flour bags you might not see the necessity. But if you have shaky hands or clumpy ingredients pouring isn't an option. In the midst of cooking, interrupting to wash and dry measuring spoons is silly considering their minimal spatial requirements. So what about big?

To Make this easier I went through each category:

  • Knives. My wife is intimidated by my 10" chef's knife. I haven't found much that I can't do with it. For years I fiddled around with a six inch, but the larger knife has proven better for leverage, control and when I need to smash a clove of garlic (nearly daily). The same for my serrated knife. Good, sharp, large knives obviate the purchase of smaller ones.
  • Colanders. You can't drain very well if the water is packed in tight. Give yourself some space
  • Drying racks.
  • Cooling racks.
  • Spice racks. Silk Road Cooking recipes and my interest in East African cooking has made the spice collection more than cumbersome. I need a big rack
  • The aforementioned rice cooker.
  • Toaster ovens. If you have something large to toast, it belongs in a regular oven.
  • Salt cellars. I use a lot of salt, but my little salt box dishes out tablespoon after tablespoon and I don't remember refilling it.
Lots of
  • Measuring spoons and cups.
  • Cutting boards.
  • Knives might fit here too. I use one big knife for nearly everything, but when we have big events (Thanksgiving, Christmas, guests) I wind up pulling all the rest out because I get sick of washing the same knife over and over.
  • Wooden spoons.
  • Storage containers. The world has moved beyond tupperware. It is much easier to find the right size of re-sealable bags, plastic and now tempered glass containers. This has meant a huge decrease in the amount of food that gets thrown in our house.
I'm tempted to include a fourth category: Too damn many of. In our house, muffin tins and cookie cutters compete for first place.

1 comment:

John said...

I'm with you on the Big and Lots of for sure. Knives--I wish I had about 6 or 7 10-inch chef's knives. I have the 6 cutting boards and still run out. I don't think I will ever have enough wooden spoons.

I am a big fan of my rice cooker, though. Mine doubles as a vegetable steamer and makes great "baked" potatoes!

One more for the Lots of list--rubber scrapers.