Our columnist discovers a love—no, a like—for cooking
A friend said to me once, “I want to get to the point where I only have to dust my kitchen.” At the time, it was a philosophy I was ready to adopt. I am an inelegant and unintuitive cook. Cooking is a creative process, and the ability to do it with skill and grace springs from the same well as all creative process: a desire to communicate emotion through a medium that one loves. Good food, like all art, is a gift. When someone develops that passion, through training or trial or experiment—or a combination of the three—he elevates the experience and offers those who sit at his table the essence of his soul each time he puts a plate in front of them.
Rather than cooking less as I grow older, which many people do, I am trying to cook more. I find that I am messing around rather than following recipes, and it is here that I am finding the joy in cooking. I understand the importance of recipes and respect without measure the time it takes to test and record, but it is this science, I think, that has kept me from cooking all along. The realization that I have skipped a step or folded when I should have whipped leaves me with a sense of defeat and ineptness, when cooking is like all things; there’s always room to correct and begin again. At its worst, if the whole mess ends up in the sink, there’s comfort in a cold plate of ripe tomatoes, mozzarella and sausage with good, fresh bread. Nothing bad has really happened.
But when it works, I am triumphant. When I discover something that I can cook with some skill that my children will eat, it is as if I hear angels sing. Not long after we moved to our current house, I had a craving for Fettuccine Alfredo. In the dark, cold early evening of January I needed the comfort of its starch and cream and butter. I needed my belly to be full with something rich, to assure me that the winter could be kept outside the door.
I started with garlic, which is always a good idea. It was simple, really. Butter, cream, cheese. Salt. The miracle was that nothing stuck to the bottom of the pan. The sauce thickened over low heat as it should. Unencumbered by the checking and double-checking of the cookbook, I was able to relax and drink some wine and check the pasta until I found it just firm between my teeth. I tipped it from the pot, and it slid like yards of satin ribbon into the sauce and suddenly, there was dinner.
My children are accustomed to sitting down to utilitarian meals. Varieties of baked chicken. Sliced pork tenderloin. Spaghetti. Sometimes they do little more than rearrange it with their forks, but they don’t complain. Each one of them looked down at the plate of creamy pasta and paused. They’re not cowards, but they’ve been eating my cooking all their lives and they’re smart. It looked plain and bland and I could see the slow intake of their breath as they lifted the forks to their lips and readied themselves not just for mediocracy, but for the kind review they would need to offer the cook.
I watched them hold the first bites in their mouths and the reaction in their eyes as they began to chew and nod. “It’s good,” said my middle son, who does not hesitate to let me know when I have missed the mark. They request it once or twice a week and I indulge them to some degree. But there are so many new things to try.
One of the things, other than an adventurous spirit, that makes cooking a breeze is smart kitchen design. Some local designers weigh in on the things they wish people knew about planning their spaces.
Think long term
Just as some designers will tell you to invest in a rug first as it is likely to be the most expensive piece in a room, the same goes for elements in the kitchen. “I wish people would realize that the cabinets are the bones of the room. Sometimes people are willing to allocate more money to their appliances, but cabinets are the thing that really lasts,” advises Sue Shinneman of Kitchen Studio.
More is not always more
While cabinets are key, rows of cabinets, both top and bottom, which used to be a standard element of all kitchens, no longer need be the case. Along with this, the need for a cabinet for every pot may be overkill. “We live differently than we used to. We don’t stockpile food in our pantries for months anymore. That space can be great storage for your turkey roaster or something that you use every six months or so. This allows clients to have fewer, but nicer cabinets. You don’t need to blow your budget on 60 cabinets when 30 cabinets will do,” says Randy Sisk of Kitchens by Kleweno.
Be open to evolution
For more than a decade natural stone countertops have been the gold standard of custom kitchens, but technology is changing the game. Bev Gilbert of Regarding Kitchens is seeing a shift in the market. “We do very little in the way of natural stone. Engineered stone has become so sophisticated. It’s beautiful and functional (there’s virtually no maintenance) and designers love the consistency,” she says.
Creative details matter
The last thing you want to do is make your kitchen purely workspace. Coming together around food is fun, and you want the room to reflect that. Lisa Otterness of Classic Kitchens encourages a dash of spice. “If you want to create a timeless design with a personal touch, have fun with the backsplash. It is often the easiest element to change, and like a whimsical shirt with a serious suit, it lets your personality shine.”
WORD OF ADVICE
What to do for the cook with more want-to than know-how (like me)? A few of my favorite local chefs offer some words of advice on making cooking easier on yourself.
“Everyone needs a good knife, cutting board and tongs! The Joy of Cooking cookbook has every basic recipe you would need to get started, and Culinary Artistry is filled with flavor profiles, foods in season and what pairs well. I still reference both books. It’s always fun to ask the chefs for recipes if you enjoy what they have prepared for you. I always give my email if someone wants a recipe.”
Executive chef, Café Sebastienne
“It’s a lot like you see on those fashion makeover shows on TV. You need a few, really good things rather than a lot of mediocre things. A wooden spoon, a heavy-bottomed saucepan and a sharp knife. Those are the tools every novice cook must invest in. They’ll be good for a lifetime.”
Owner and executive chef, Room 39
“Always use a gas stove! It’s more controllable and you don’t get “hot spots” that burn food. Dutch ovens and cast-iron pans are far better than expensive brands, plus they last generations.”
Executive chef and co-owner, Bluestem and Rye
“The best piece of advice is to set up and get organized. If you’re working with a recipe, read it all the way through (twice) and clean as you go. Worst case scenario, call Johnny Jo’s Pizza and have it delivered.”
Chef and owner, Port Fonda
“Practice and repetition. Don’t be afraid to try new recipes and different foods. It takes time and doesn’t happen overnight.”
Executive chef, Ophelia’s
Q: I’m moving into a new house, but I think I’ll only be there a short time. Is an all-white kitchen the best way to go?
— Nancy Wilson
A: The late Van Day Truex, a Kansas native who is often credited with being the dean of modern day design, is often quoted as saying that all kitchens should be white. I do think some real estate agents would say the same. While I’m somewhat organically attracted to white kitchens myself, I’d encourage you to follow your heart. Whether you love to cook or loathe it, you’ll spend a lot of time there; you should love it. If yellow makes you happy, make it yellow. If blue and white feeds your soul, then blue and white it is. I had an apple green kitchen once that made my heart sing, and that house wasn’t on the market a day. Live with what you love.
— Patricia O’Dell Shackelford
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