I rent an late 70's townhome, and the kitchen hasn't been updated since. My evil, corporate landlord could care less about how depressing and uninspiring the space is, so my only decorating options are a few colorful tea towels. So, I decided I could at least up the functionality of my kitchen, and I actually look forward to using the space. Here's my tips: (Disclaimer, I come from a totally culinarily-illiterate family, so these have been mind-blowing revelations to me. I apologize if they are obvious kitchen-necessities with which you grew up.)
Clean Fridge and Magnets
I love my family and friends (and my report cards with straight-A’s), but collages belong in your saucepan, not on your fridge. Plus, all the splatters and airborne oils in the kitchen will eventually settle on your photos, and ruin them, especially in a small space. Magnets are great- just keep ‘em under control. (The magnets on the freezer were inspired by a chapter in BIZARRE BAZAAR by Greg Der Ananian). In a place like this, the kitchen is NOT the center of the home, so finding another place to organize your paperwork is advised.
Oil and Vinegars Bottles
This one really makes you feel like a pro: pour your cooking oils and vinegars in glass bottles, and store them in a cabinet (if you can afford it), in your window sill, or on the back of your range. (Although the heat and light will make it lose antioxidants and eventually become rancid. This is not toxic, but the health properties of the monounsaturated fats are lost.) One, it looks cool; two, it makes them available and easy to use when you need them; and three, it frees up space. Putting them in generic bottles cuts down on the overflow of brandnames and commercialism in your home. The larger ones are about $4, and I found the smaller ones at yard sales and flea markets for pennies.
Toss the Knife Block
I researched this a lot: you only need three knives. The block takes up way too much countertop real estate. Sure, if you want, keep your steak knives, but just wrap them in some fabric, and store them elsewhere. Or, you could learn how to keep your food moist enough so that a butter knife will do the trick.
Chef’s Knife/Santoku: This knife slice some 99% percent of that which lies upon your cutting board. I use a 7” hollow-ground Santoku, but an 8-inch chef’s knife is the standard. Look for high-carbon stainless steel or carbon steel.
Paring Knife: This will do for when you need more precision that your larger chopping knife: deveining shrimp, cutting berries and citrus, coring an apple or tomato, peeling ginger, etc. Length should be around 3 1/2 to 4 inch.
Bread Knife: The serrations (this is the only knife which should be so) are good for breads, bagels, some desserts, and ripe tomatoes. Look for a 10” blade, which is slightly curved, and has a handle that keeps your knuckles out of the way. All my knives are Wüstof Classic, but the Forschner Fibrox series are incredible for the price: under $40 for the chef’s and bread knives, and only $6 for a 3 1/2” paring knife. Though it violates Fung Shui principles, the magnetic wall plates are safe and effective. This is a challenge to someone to come up with a DIY model. You’ll see the three knives on my rack, plus a sharpening steel (important) and a steak knife I keep around to open food packages, etc, which dull your sharp edges. Remember: if you keep your eyes on your knife and all your fingers, you’ll never cut yourself.
Butcher Block Workspace
This is hands-down the best investment I've ever made for my kitchen. The traditional kitchen arrangement philosophy suggests creating a work triangle, with your range, sink, and refrigerator as the as points ABC. This is nonsense! Sure, it’ll work great if all your ingredients are pre-chopped and organized, mise-en-place style, but in the real world, for any one that cooks fresh vegetables or uses fresh herbs, the three points are gonna be the range, the cutting board, and the trash can. (You’ll never catch me citing Rachael Ray, but the garbage bowl is a pretty good idea). A large, wooden butcher block is the most effective way to prep your veggies, and is the best surface in keeping your knives sharp. If you can manage to keep it right next to your range, it cuts your prep time into slivers. Throw out all your little white plastic jobs and glass boards, and invest in an end-grain maple board. Bamboo is also a cool alternative. Using the end-grain of hardwood allows the wood to heal itself after being sliced upon. Add a couple appropriately sized flexible boards that you can place on top for messy jobs or raw meat (designate one for raw chicken/poultry, another for red meat, and a third for fish if you’re so inclined). The large size is functional, and safe if you're using long, sharp knives. Wipe it down with soapy water after every use, and season occasionally with Mineral Oil (available at the pharmacy, and NOT at the Hardware store…that was a long search). I made mine out of sugar maple (another How-To post will follow soon) for about $45, plus glue and sandpaper. The most well known producers are Ozark West and John Boos (Boos Blocks), but check kitchen shops or restaurant supply stores for less expensive options.
I enjoy toast about four or five times a week. So for me, a toaster is a must-have, and it must stay out on the counter. Unfortunately, the model I inherited after college was ugly, and good for absolutely nothing besides browning bread. Sixty bones later, and I replaced it with a toaster oven: which is like a toaster, AND an oven. What do you know? This may be old news to most of you, but coming from the world’s most un-culinary family, this was an extraordinary purchase. The oven is perfect for cooking for two, and is a good electric alternative that is quicker and cheaper to heat than a large, gas oven. And it makes killer toast.
Part Two shall follow...