This Christmas, my husband gave me a copy of The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. Author Deb Perelman is a New York-based food writer (she also blogs at smittenkitchen.com) who offers meticulously tested recipes, warm and funny writing, and a generous, unpretentious attitude to food and cooking.
I love all of that, but what really impresses me is that Perelman's glorious recipes are produced in a kitchen the size of a Ford Fiesta.
It's one of those culinary paradoxes that large urban centres offer up all kinds of exciting possibilities for food lovers — myriad ingredients, great shops, inspiring restaurants — while at the same time packing many of their citizens into incredibly small kitchens. In cities like New York and Paris, even richy-rich people can end up with teeny-tiny apartment kitchens.
There are now cookbooks that meet this situation head-on, like Perelman's The Smitten Kitchen and Rachel Khoo's Little Paris Kitchen. Blogs like Big Girls Small Kitchen and The Kitchn and online hubs like Sorted offer lots of recipes geared toward urbanites, university students, people in small apartments — anyone, really, who deals with a weird or funny little kitchen and still wants to eat well.
There are other cooking issues, of course. Sometimes it's not lack of space but lack of time. Or a tight budget. Sometimes it's just waning inspiration: It's easy to get stuck in that if-it's-Wednesday-it-must-be-chicken rut.
A cook like Perelman, who doesn't fret about limitations but just dives right in, is a great role model. With her infectious enthusiasm for food, she encourages us to stop with the excuses, whatever they might be, and just cook.
I made a few cooking resolutions this New Year. I want to try out more recipes instead of falling back on the same-old, same-old standards. And I want to enjoy my kitchen, just the way it is.
My kitchen is roomy by New York City standards but small by 2014 suburban Winnipeg standards. Designed in 1949 and essentially unchanged since then, it's a little galley setup that could be described as economical. Still, it's better to be too cramped a few days of the year -- on those big occasions when you're cooking for a crowd -- than too large the rest of the year.
I've pulled off Thanksgiving dinners for 18 that have involved juggling, improvising and (admittedly) a few moments of hair-pulling frustration. But, basically, anything that you can do in a big kitchen, you can do in a small kitchen. You just have to plan.
One of my New Year's projects was a big cleanup that allowed me to get reacquainted with the back of my pantry cupboard, while freeing me to stock up on some new ingredients. I ruthlessly purged non-essential items of kitchen equipment and organized the remaining basics. I donated obscure kitchen gadgets and vowed to renew my commitment to the ones I kept. (Bring on the slow cooker.) And I started to get tough with my cookbook collection, zeroing in on the recipes I really use, as well as adding some new ones to my weeknight rotation.
I celebrated this whole New Year-New Me project with a salad adapted from The Smitten Kitchen. The sesame-miso dressing is a keeper, and poured over some crisp greens, it cheered up a frigid January day.
I also made a slow-cooker pork stew from teenytinykitchen.com, a food blog written by a pair of Vermont-based cooks who passionately believe that "a small kitchen shouldn't be a hindrance to good food." (Although anyone with a micro-kitchen probably has to store the slow-cooker in some other part of the apartment, this appliance does free up a small oven for other things.)
There are loads of hints for small-kitchen cooking, and lots of ingenious IKEA storage whatsits to make the most of the space. But probably the best tip for using any non-dream kitchen is just to start cooking. What makes a kitchen beautiful isn't necessarily an expansive granite-topped island or a marble backsplash or endless cappuccino-finished cabinets. What really makes a kitchen beautiful is use.
Maybe your New Year's resolution is an ambitious kitchen renovation. But if that plan is only a distant dream, maybe you can just resolve to love the kitchen you have now. It might be bigger and better than you think.
Snap Pea Salad with Miso Dressing
225 g (about 1/2 lb) snap peas, untrimmed
225 g (about 1/2 lb or 3 cups) Napa cabbage (also called Chinese cabbage or sui choy), cut into thin ribbons
3 green onions, sliced thinly
Half an English cucumber, halved lengthwise and sliced thinly
15 ml (3 tbsp) toasted sesame seeds (divided)
15 ml (1 tbsp) minced fresh ginger
1 clove garlic, minced
30 ml (2 tbsp) mild yellow or white miso, plus up to 15 ml (1 tbsp) more to taste
30 ml (2 tbsp) tahini
15 ml (1 tbsp) honey
60 ml (1/4 cup) rice vinegar
30 ml (2 tbsp) sesame oil
30 ml (2 tbsp) canola oil
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and prepare a small ice-water bath. Boil the snap peas for about 2 minutes, then scoop them out with a slotted spoon and immediately drop into ice-water bath. Let cool, drain and pat dry. Trim ends and cut on the diagonal into thin slices. In large bowl, toss the snap peas, cabbage, green onions and cucumber. Sprinkle with 15 ml (1 tbsp) toasted sesame seeds. Make the dressing by whirling all ingredients, starting with the smaller amount of miso, in a blender until smooth. Taste and adjust ingredients -- use the extra 15 ml (1 tbsp) miso if desired. Toss salad with half the dressing and taste. Use more dressing if you like, or save the rest for your next salad. Sprinkle with remaining sesame seeds. Dig in.
Adapted from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman.
Tester's notes: Oh, gosh, so good. And such a terrific alternative to my desperately uninspired weekday staple of bagged greens and standard vinaigrette. Perelman points out that you can easily change up the ingredients. She uses julienned radishes, and you could also try blanched green beans or cooked, shelled edamame.
I made the dressing twice in one weekend, and the first time I didn't have miso and simply couldn't face going out in the -34 chill to get some. Miso definitely adds salty and subtle flavour, but that first miso-less batch was also pretty good. I just upped the amount of tahini by 15 ml (1 tbsp), added a little salt, and adjusted the oil and vinegar a bit.
You can toast sesame seeds in a 150 C (300 F) oven for about 5 minutes.
Wine-Stewed Pork Tenderloin in a Crock Pot
2 medium pork tenderloins
Salt and pepper, to taste
3 carrots, peeled
3 large parsnips, peeled
3 medium red thin-skinned potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled
2 red onions
60 ml (1/4 cup) Dijon mustard
Couple of sprigs fresh thyme
500 ml (2 cups) dry white wine
250 ml (1 cup) sodium-reduced chicken broth
In large pan over medium-high heat, heat the olive oil and sear the pork tenderloins on all sides, adding salt and pepper to each side. Meanwhile, cut the carrots, parsnips and potatoes into 2.5-cm (1-inch) pieces and place in bottom of a slow-cooker. Place seared pork tenderloins on top of vegetables and spread mustard on top of pork. Coarsely chop the onions and sauté in the same pan used to cook the pork until softened and beginning to brown. Deglaze the pan with wine and chicken stock, scraping up any brown bits, then pour mixture over pork and vegetables. Add thyme, cover and cook on high for 4-5 hours or until pork is starting to fall apart and vegetables are soft.
Adapted from teenytinykitchen.com.
Tester's notes: Just add some good bread and you have a nice, simple supper. Of course, this recipe will spark the Great Slow Cooker Debate -- whether or not to brown first. It's not an absolutely necessary step -- and part of the appeal of the slow cooker is the idea that you can just dump everything in and walk away -- but the browning stage does add colour and complexity. If you're feeling very ambitious, you can add one more step: After the meat and vegetables are done, you can transfer the liquid to a pot on the stovetop and boil it down for a thicker, more concentrated sauce.