“Minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.” –Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, The Minimalists.com
I used to have a really tricked out kitchen. A six-burner Viking stove, double ovens and every pot, pan and gadget known to mankind. I also had a bookcase filled with an extensive cookbook collection and subscriptions to several cooking magazines. The trouble was, the more stuff and recipes I accumulated in pursuit of my cooking endeavors, the less I was actually cooking. I had always been an enthusiastic home cook, but over time my focus slowly shifted from the cooking itself to the collection of objects I thought I needed to do that cooking well.
And then I got divorced. I said goodbye to the fancy stove, double ovens, expensive cookware and gadgets. I moved to a one-bedroom, furnished apartment that had a very bare bones kitchen: simple pots and pans, only the essential gadgetry, and four sets of dishes and glassware. My kitchen had a dishwasher, but I never used it. With fewer things, it was easier to simply wash everything by hand and either reuse it or put it away.
I began cooking again. And somehow, even without all of that expensive kitchen stuff I thought I needed, I was making really great food and enjoying the process more than I had in years. By clearing out the extraneous kitchen clutter, my focus shifted back to what I loved in the first place, the creative act of cooking.
I no longer live in that small, furnished apartment, but the lessons I learned about keeping things simple in the kitchen in order to focus on what matters most have endured.
1. Simplify. Go through your kitchen and get rid of any equipment, gadgets and ingredients that you don’t use or need. Beware of duplicates or multiples of items such as measuring cups and spoons or bowls. Sometimes it is easier to wash and reuse a spoon or cup rather than using several in the course of cooking a meal and then finding a sink full of dirty dishes to wash when you are done. A more extreme but highly effective method for getting rid of things you don’t use comes from The Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. They write a fantastic blog about how to live well with less stuff. One of their recommendations for helping you clear clutter from your space is to have a packing party. In other words, pack up all of your belongings as if you were moving, and then take out only what you need as you need it. After a certain period of time, donate, sell or give away those items that never made it out of the boxes. For the purposes of simplifying your kitchen, you can do a mini-packing party just for the one room. Take everything out of the kitchen and put it in another room or box it up. For the next few weeks, only take out what you use and return those items to your kitchen. Get rid of the stuff that never made it out of the boxes.
2. Cultivate excellent knife skills. There are many unnecessary slicers and dicers on the market that may be taking up space in your kitchen. In truth, if you own an 8-inch chef’s knife, a paring knife and a serrated knife, you can complete most chopping and slicing tasks. The key is knowing how to use your knives properly and keeping them sharp so they perform well for you. Check out www.craftsy.com for an excellent free course in basic knife skills.
3. Remember…you are a home cook, not a restaurant chef. Take some time to examine your expectations in the kitchen. Mark Bittman says there are two dirty words in American home cooking, “convenience” and “gourmet”. I think we all understand the pitfalls of convenience food, but the gourmet approach to cooking can be equally as dangerous. Bittman describes gourmet cooking as “our ability to obsess about aspects of daily life that most other cultures take for granted. You might only cook once a week, but wow, what a meal.” This kind of approach to food is the antithesis of simple everyday cooking and is pervasive in American food culture today. We use terms like “foodie” and watch celebrity chefs on TV as if cooking were a spectator sport. Magazines and food blogs give us the impression that we are supposed to be churning out restaurant-quality meals on a regular basis. And so, overwhelmed by these expectations, many of us fall back on the ease of convenience foods to get us by. It’s time to find our way back to the middle ground: simple home cooking. Roast a chicken or a salmon filet. Learn to make a simple vinaigrette for your salad. Make a grilled cheese sandwich or an omelet. Unfussy, uncomplicated, delicious food should be the cornerstone of everyday cooking.
4. Limit your recipe sources. As I wrote in this essay, there are many benefits that arise out of limiting your repertoire in the kitchen. Focus on a few basic recipes that you hope to master (roasted chicken, poached salmon, steamed broccoli, whatever calls to you). Get to know the technique so well that you could practically make it with your eyes closed (or at the very least without a recipe). You will be keeping things simple and gaining confidence and skill at the same time.
5. Invest in good essentials. Kitchen equipment takes a beating. It is exposed to fire, water, stirring, and scraping on a daily basis. Quality makes a difference when it comes to how pots, pans, knives and small appliances will handle the day-to-day abuse of cooking. Do your research before buying anything for your kitchen, and don’t be afraid to invest in something that is an essential for you. For example, if you make a lot of smoothies, particularly smoothies that contain sturdier greens like kale, a powerful Vitamix blender is an expensive but worthwhile investment to consider. That said, expensive does not always mean better. My favorite pan is a vintage cast iron skillet (which can be found at garage sales or thrift stores for practically nothing), and my favorite chef’s knife retails for $44.95 on Amazon.com. Know what you need and research the quality of what you are buying.
6. Cook seasonally. Using seasonal fruits and vegetables is not only more affordable and better for the environment, it also helps you focus your recipe repertoire into a seasonal rotation and cultivate a sense of gratitude for the present moment, for what’s available NOW. I make a puréed butternut squash soup every fall when winter squash is in season. I do not make that soup in the spring or summer. For that reason, it is something I look forward to once the weather becomes cool and the leaves begin to change. Just knowing that it’s time to make that soup again brings a sense of gratitude for the return of fall, for the squash itself, for the changing of the seasons. Seasonal cooking brings a simple rhythm to life, an opportunity to find gratitude for this season’s sweet strawberries and anticipation for next season’s perfectly ripe tomato.
In the end, it’s not about having the latest gadgets, expensive cookware or an impressive recipe collection. It’s about being in the kitchen everyday preparing nourishing and simple food for ourselves and the people we love. And enjoying ourselves in the process.