Monday, September 26, 2016

Organizing your kitchen, part 2: the nitty-gritty

Something as simple as this can make a big difference in your kitchen.
Last post was all about the big picture in your kitchen, primarily placement of stove, sink, refrigeration and a few other things. Get those right — or have a layout that you can make work for you (I’m thinking galley-type kitchens here, for instance) and you’re well on the way. I get it that not everyone can renovate their kitchen at the drop of a hat. Unless your kitchen is huge and incredibly ill-thought out, you shouldn’t have too many problems, regardless of where the big — and immovable things — have been placed.

[One last thought before I move on to this post’s details: make sure your kitchen has adequate lighting. The areas where you slice and chop need to be well-lit. This is not a difficult retrofit if your kitchen has poor or dim lighting. A good electrician can help make it happen without too much expense.]

I’ve found that what really makes the most difference in terms of cooking enjoyment through organization is where you put all those little things, the small tools, specialized utensils and often-used minor appliances.

Directly to the right of our stovetop is a smallish drawer. This is where we keep things that are used often: tongs (we have 3 we use constantly), extra spatulas, ladles (3), peelers (2), can and bottle openers, wine opener and a few other similar items.

Next to that is another wider drawer. This holds items that we don’t use quite as often or are small and fit at the front of the drawer a bit better. Here you’ll find our rolling pin, some small spatulas and scrappers, lifters (3), oyster knife, micro graters (2), a mini strainer (for skimming), a couple of small whisks, ice cream scoops, and such things that are very useful but generally used only now and then.

Also to the right of the stove is a large can-like thing into which we put cooking spoons, some more spatulas and scrapers, and our large whisk. We use these things every time we cook and they’re placed here because they can be grabbed really quickly.

The key to making this system work is that anyone cooking or cleaning knows exactly what goes where and puts it there every single time. Cooking can get very hectic at times and we’ve all ruined dishes because we’ve been on a utensil hunt at a totally wrong time. Here’s another (hard-won) hint: try to lay out all the utensils you’ll need during the prepping stage. It’s not all about prepping just the food, is it?

As for the rest of the “hard good” things we use to cook, they’re either in a big catch-all cabinet under the above-mentioned drawers, in an upper cabinet where we also keep our plates and bowls, or across the room on two shelves we put up (for less-used items except for colanders and strainers). Baking pans are either in a wide drawer underneath our built-in oven or in another small cabinet nearby.

The only mid-range appliances that we keep out on the counters are a microwave (next to the oven), a blender, toaster, Cuisinart, coffee grinder and coffee maker, and our Kitchen Aid mixer. Any other things like these are kept in that lower catch-all cabinet.

I’ll say it one last time: this will only work if anyone using the kitchen regularly understands that everything must be put away correctly. It may sound difficult but it really isn’t.

During our very busy days when our two boys were young and we both worked long hours, we didn’t think like this. Stuff got stuffed into drawers and cabinets willy-nilly and just to get it put away somewhere. It was often hell to find them again. This was also when a lot of food got burned or otherwise overcooked. Honestly, it just never dawned on us that we could save massive amounts of time and aggravation through simple organization and diligence. I could slap myself upside the head for being such a dolt to not recognize this. It’s not as if I hadn’t seen it at work in the kitchens when I was doing those cooking gigs.

To boil down this discussion to its essence (like reducing a fine stock to a single tablespoon of intense flavour), cooking is most enjoyable when you have time to enjoy the process and to pay full attention as heat works its magic on what you’re going to plate and then enjoy at the table. Even the most hair-raising meal of the year (take your pick between Thanksgiving or Christmas in our household) becomes manageable and can sometimes be almost enjoyable.

All it takes is some reflection on what you generally do in the kitchen, making a plan and then sticking to it.

My guess is that if you do this, you will also find yourself less tempted to give up and order take-out, pull out the store-bought frozen food or simply head out to a restaurant. Because cooking when everything is organized is relaxing and enjoyable, you may even find yourself looking forward to cooking that evening meal at the end of a long day!

And wouldn’t that be nice?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Organizing your kitchen will make cooking FAR more enjoyable!

The two times I worked in restaurant kitchens, it was made pretty clear right from the beginning that things must always be put back in very specific places. If they weren’t, the offending party heard about it immediately. And if it was Chef doing the talking (yelling), it was guaranteed to be an unpleasant experience!

Over the past few years, I’ve worked hard to organize our kitchen for efficiency. That only requires some thought on what should go where (and why), but then comes the real trick: making sure everyone understands this and puts things back where they belong. No excuses accepted and no quarter given!

Now that’s not to say I’m a martinet about kitchen organization, but I’m also not afraid to tell my wife or anyone else that if they use something, “Please put it back exactly where you found it.” And I do mean exactly! Since I do most of the cooking around here, it’s recognized that I call the shots.

The obvious reason for this level of organization is so that the person who’s cooking doesn’t have to waste any time finding the utensils, cooking vessels, or appliances that they need. I’m sure you feel the same way I do about this: there is nothing that frustrates a cook more than to not be able to find what they need and having to waste time looking for it.

Another benefit of organizing a kitchen to a high level is that you can fit more into it. That can be by necessity if your kitchen is a small one, but it can also make a huge difference in a large kitchen. One step into a restaurant or other kind of commercial kitchen will show you why. The goal is to not only turn out delicious food, but to turn it out as quickly as possible. If you have to cross the room for commonly used things, then you’re wasting precious time, even if it only takes five or ten seconds. During the course of an evening rush, those seconds quickly turn into minutes.

Okay. So now you know my reasons for organizing my workspace. What is it that I did, exactly?

The first thing I did broke the cardinal rule I gave two paragraphs above (at least a little bit): keeping things you use a lot close to you. But in this case, it wound up saving more time.

We have a counter top gas cooktop against the west wall of our kitchen. The oven is close by on the south wall (basically you turn left and take one step to get there). To the left of the oven is our refrigerator. Our sink is directly across from the oven against the north wall, and about the same distance away. On both side of the cooktop are counters, extending from one thing to another. That’s my “general working area” (and the classic “triangle” set-up of a well laid-out kitchen). To the right of the sink is another counter extending over to our back door. The dish washer is under this. The remaining side of the kitchen has two sets of stairs: one down to the basement and the other up to our bedroom. Along the down stairs (and acting as a railing is a low well to which is mounted our last counter, an 8-foot length we use for plating when we make a large meal or for serving buffet-style meals. I’ll get into the cupboard arrangement later.

Underneath the stove are two deep drawers. We used to store as many of our pots and pans as would fit in there, along with their lids. This caused two problems. First, we have invested in good cookware and good cookware is heavy. You can guess at the problems we had with the bottoms of these drawers. second, with the number of pots, frypans, skillets, etc. that we own, you’d have to sift through stacks of things to find what you might need right now.

So my first organizing move (and the one that broke the rule) was something you see in commercial kitchens: hanging pots and pans from a bar mounted to the ceiling. Our kitchen’s ceiling is just eight feet, so hanging these things above my general working area would not have worked. The ideal place to hang the bar was directly above our “staging counter”, which is farther away from the stove. We got one of those heavy duty bars that hangs by means of chains from two large hooks screwed into a conveniently-placed ceiling joist. So someone cooking needs to walk about three steps to the far side of the room to retrieve a pot. Takes a tad longer, right? Well, it does, but it takes far more time to go through the drawers where these things used to reside. Now that’s a good trade to my mind.

Once we moved the pots and pans, we dedicated the top drawer under the stove to lids, two cast iron skillets that wouldn’t fit on the bar and our pressure cooker that couldn’t hang from the bar. The lower drawer (among other things) fits some small appliances (juicer, coffee mill, etc, some of our large kitchen tools that won’t fit in drawers and our wok.

This post has gone on long enough for a beginning, but I hope it gives you some starting places for improving your own kitchen’s layout. Trust me when I write that organizing your kitchen into an efficient “factory” for producing food will cut way down on the aggravation factor that many have endure when faced with cooking a meal in an inefficient space. Since I really became a nut about organizing where I spend a lot of time, my enjoyment of cooking something, even a complicated dish, has gone way up.

Next post, I’ll talk about organizing our cupboards and drawers for our staple items and (many, many) utensils.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Okay, so I lied about getting this blog back onto a normal schedule -or- life has a way of throwing curveballs at you

Way back in the dim beginnings of this year, I wrote about getting things back on track here at AMFAS. It’s not difficult to ascertain if you look at the date of the most recent post before this, that I either lied or fell off the face of the earth. Well, it was neither of those things. Sometimes life just has a way to rear up and bite one in the butt and not let go. That was the case with me.

I don’t want to go into all the whys and wherefores because that’s not what this little blog dedicated to food is all about. It just happened and there was little I could do about it. However, that didn’t keep me from feeling horribly guilty about it.

Anyway, I’m back once again and hopefully it will stick this time because (drum roll and trumpet fanfare, please!), I have “retired”. That’s in quotes because I’ve only stepping down from one job (graphic design) but that will allow me to concentrate on the other things I enjoy doing: writing and music, and of course, cooking and talking about food.

Over the past many months, though, we haven’t stopped eating and cooking some great food. So, I’ll have lots of new recipes to share and some thoughts on becoming a better cook and how to enjoy the cooking experience more — especially if you don’t enjoy cooking all that much.

I’ve also been doing a lot of reading and research into the food we eat and how it gets to our grocery stores and what might have been done to it along the way. I can promise some of that will be very sobering reading.

So stay tuned!

Before the week is out, I will be sharing some thoughts on making your kitchen more convenient and easy to work in. That’s a very important thing for anyone, whether they’re interested and enjoy cooking, but especially if you don’t particularly enjoy it and wish to get it done in the shortest amount of time.