Minimizing in the Kitchen

“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.

 

 

25 Recipes

“Most cooks I know are constantly looking for new recipes the way some folks are constantly on the lookout for antiques, clothes, computer software, or specials down at Price Chopper. There is nothing wrong with living life vicariously through recipes-we all do it to some extent-but the problem with most home cooks is that they have too many recipes rather than too few.”

Christopher Kimball, The Kitchen Detective

Cooking has changed drastically over the last century. Our grandmothers and great- grandmothers cooked most of their food from scratch and worked from a limited set of recipes that they probably knew by heart. Through their senses, intuition and repetition, they became experts in the kitchen. We, on the other hand, live in a unique age in which we are absolutely inundated with recipes.  Cookbooks, magazines, the Internet…..there is no shortage of ideas for tonight’s dinner.

Before you buy another cookbook or leaf through another cooking magazine, consider this:   maybe our ancestors were on to something.  What if the secret to becoming a good home cook, to becoming self-reliant in the kitchen, is having fewer recipes?  Developing the skills to prepare simple foods for ourselves gives us power in the kitchen, power that we have largely given away to food corporations, diet experts and celebrity chefs in recent years.  Once we are confident with the basics, we are free to engage more creatively with the ingredients in front of us, and to make our own choices.

In his book, The Kitchen Detective, Christopher Kimball suggests that we begin with a shortlist of 25 recipes and stick with them for a while:  “Like good musicians, good cooks realized that restricting one’s repertoire has great advantages:  It allows one to focus on the underlying technique instead of just a new set of notes.”

I’m not sure if I can pare my list down to 25 recipes, but I love the idea of simplifying my recipe collection; of getting back to basics and taking the time to establish a foundation of skills in the kitchen.  I love the idea of becoming an intuitive cook rather than simply a reader of recipes, a cook who is mindfully engaged in the creative process of cooking.  And simple, of course, does not necessarily mean boring.  The simplification of anything can be an art. Think of a pared down wardrobe that is stylish, elegant and has everything you need. Scandinavian design.  A juicy, crisp-skinned whole roast chicken.

Like so many other things in life, less is more when it comes to our recipe collections.  More skill, more confidence and, ultimately, more freedom and creativity.  How might you benefit from a limited repertoire in the kitchen?  What might your 25 recipes be?

 

Alone in the Kitchen

“Imagine treating yourself the way you treat people you love. This means actually sitting in a chair when you eat.” –Geneen Roth, When You Eat at the Refrigerator, Pull Up a Chair

There are many opportunities to practice self-kindness in the kitchen. Cooking an unhurried, nourishing meal just for you is an excellent place to begin. So often we think that if we are not preparing food for our families or the people we love, why bother?  Instead we opt for a handful of chips, a bowl of cold cereal or leftovers from a Tupperware container while we stand at the refrigerator with the door open. When we are alone in the kitchen, it is easy to send ourselves the message that we are simply not worth the effort.

But of course we are worth the effort, each and every one of us. We are our own family, deserving of nourishment, beauty and pleasure each and every day, regardless of whether there is anyone else around or not. Show yourself some love the next time you are hungry and alone in the kitchen.  Prepare a meal just for you. It doesn’t have to be complicated; simple and delicious will do.  Set a place at the table for yourself, sit down and enjoy your own company.  Treat yourself like the precious guest that you are.

Perfectly Imperfect

“You don’t need more motivation or inspiration to create the life you want. You need less shame around the idea that you’re not doing your best.” 

-Julie Veron, To Anyone Who Thinks They are Falling Behind in Life, Huffington Post blog

I read blogs for inspiration and ideas, but sometimes they leave me feeling like I’m inadequate in some way, particularly food blogs. Suddenly I’m not cooking and eating the right things. Clearly these other people are eating perfect, healthy meals three times a day, seven days a week. Oh, and the food is always gorgeous. I’m holding myself up to someone else’s idea of the perfect way to eat and live, and guess what? I’m not measuring up.

The last thing we need in our lives is yet another opportunity to compare ourselves to an online ideal, another way to feel not worthy and not enough.

I hope to never give the impression here that my life is perfect or that I’ve got it all figured out. My intention is to create a space where it’s okay to slow down and nourish ourselves, to explore how you might gently bring these ideas into your own life, in your own way. A space that is kind, comforting and encouraging. The ideas presented here matter to me because I long to incorporate them into my own life. Sometimes I succeed, and sometimes I don’t. My sacred kitchen is sometimes spotless and inviting, and sometimes covered in backpacks and school papers along with dirty dishes from last night’s dinner. And that’s okay. Sometimes I mindfully make a pot of beans on a Sunday afternoon, and sometimes I heat up a box of tomato soup from Trader Joe’s. Also okay.

We must always remember to be kind and go easy, to not make grandiose promises to ourselves about what we will always do or will never do again. We must give our good intentions the open space to flow with our perfectly imperfect lives.

We are on this journey together.

The Blank Canvas

One way to ground ourselves in this very restless month of February is to prepare nourishing foods that soothe and give us an opportunity to explore the creative potential of this unsettled energy. This is where your simple pot of white beans comes in.  Think of these beans as a blank canvas, an opportunity to play.  How might you incorporate them into something beautiful and altogether new to nourish yourself today?

A portion of the beans I made last week found their way into a delicious rosemary white bean purée.  Creamy and smooth, this purée is an excellent topping for bruschetta and a tasty dip with pita chips.  Combined with a little chicken stock or water and heated, it would make a simple, warming soup.

Rosemary White Bean Purée

Place 2 cups cooked white beans, slightly drained of their cooking liquid, into a food processor.  The more liquid you include in your purée, the looser the the texture will be.  Add 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, 1 peeled garlic clove and 1 tablespoon lemon juice.  Pureé until smooth.  If the purée is too thick or too thin, simply add additional beans or liquid as needed and purée again.  Add another 1/2 cup of beans, well-drained this time, and 1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary.  Season with salt and pepper.  Pulse a few times to incorporate the rosemary and break the beans down slightly.

The bruschetta pictured below is simply toasted baguette topped with the purée, baby arugula and thinly sliced red onion that has been tossed with 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper.

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Slow and Simple Cooking

“I find myself grateful for things that simply cook themselves.”  –Laurie Colwin, More Home Cooking

So how to begin? Slowly and simply, of course.

We all need recipes in our repertoire that are multitaskers, especially when we are trying to simplify matters in our kitchens and get back to basics. Recipes that can begin as one delicious dish and be completely transformed the next day into something new. A pot of beans is just that sort of thing. Delicious, brimming with nutrition, easy on the wallet and incredibly versatile, dried beans are a cook’s best friend. They store beautifully in a dry cool place, a jar in your pantry perhaps, waiting patiently to be simmered into something lovely on a quiet weekend afternoon.

Dried beans are most definitely a slow food. They take time to prepare, but not much more. A pot, water and salt are all you need to transform the humble dried bean into something creamy, warm and satisfying. And while they simmer in your oven, you may go about your business. Since the beans are doing the work, I suggest that you feel free to take this time to read a novel, enjoy a steaming cup of tea, or write a lovely poem about the beauty of this moment, this simmering pot of beans, the quiet sacred space that is your kitchen on this sunny afternoon. Let slow cooking nurture you, not only with the delicious beans that will inevitably be your reward, but also by creating time and space in which to just be for a little while. Peek into the pot from time to time, give them a stir and check them occasionally to see if they are tender and creamy. This is all that they ask of you.

Creamy White Beans

The very industrious people who work at America’s Test Kitchen came up with the brilliant idea to brine beans in a mixture of salt and water overnight rather than simply soaking them in water alone. This technique yields a very flavorful and softly-textured bean.

Overnight Soak:

1 pound dried cannellini beans, picked over for small stones or other foreign material and rinsed in a strainer

3 tablespoons table salt

4 quarts cold water

 Combine salt and water in a large bowl. Stir to dissolve. Add dried beans and allow to sit at room temperature for 8 to 24 hours.

 Cooking the Beans:

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.  Remove beans from the brine and rinse thoroughly in a strainer. Pour beans into a large pot. Cover with fresh cold water by 2 inches. Set pot over medium-high heat and bring to a boil.  Cover and slip into the oven to simmer gently until tender, 1-2 hours. Add more water if necessary during cooking to keep the beans fully submerged.

Using the Beans:

Allow the beans to cool slightly. You may then drain your beans and use them right away, or you may cool them in their liquid and refrigerate or freeze them for later use.  I recommend freezing in smaller portions, maybe 3 or 4 cups of beans and liquid per package.

Kitchen Notes:

  • Simmering the beans in the oven at a lower temperature rather than on the stove top helps the beans cook slowly and evenly and prevents them from bursting and falling apart.  
  • The freshness of the particular dried beans you are using will impact how long it takes to cook them.  The older the bean, the longer it will take to become tender.

 

 

The Cure for Busy-ness

What happened to a world in which we can sit with the people we love so much and have slow conversations about the state of our heart and soul, conversations that slowly unfold, conversations with pregnant pauses and silences that we are in no rush to fill?  –Omid Safi, “The Disease of Being Busy”

 Omid Safi, columnist for the On Being website, wrote a beautiful piece about the unfortunate state of busy-ness that most of us find ourselves in these days. “How,” he asks, “did we create a world in which we have more and more to do with less time for leisure, less time for reflection, less time for community, less time to just… be?”

My thoughts immediately turn to the kitchen, to the mindful process of cooking, to the shared meal over which deep conversations and connection take place.  One might argue that with the advent of convenience foods we have at last freed ourselves from the drudgery of kitchen work, creating more leisure time in our lives. For most of us, however, this does not hold true. The time that we once spent preparing nourishing meals from scratch has turned into more time on our devices, more scheduled activities, more meetings, more TV.  By investing less time and effort into what nourishes us we have stopped giving cooking and eating the sacred space and reverence it deserves. We have lost the simple joy and satisfaction of cooking a meal from scratch. We have lost one of the best opportunities in our day-to-day lives to connect with ourselves, our planet and each other.

It’s time to slow down. It’s time to remember, or perhaps discover for the first time, what it is like to just be.  The kitchen is a wonderful and very natural place to begin.