(question): in the kitchen…

How about another reader question? Nancy asked me to write about dirt – kidding, although I appreciated the compliment. There are several Nancys that read and comment here, but this Nancy has known me since we were roommates in college. I’m pretty sure neither of us ever cooked in our senior year apartment – the only real memory I have of that kitchen is that another roommate used to leave typewritten notes of warning about relocating the dish drying rack to an unapproved location. There was a definite passive-aggressive vibe in that room; Nancy and I survived it by fleeing to Copenhagen and Genoa, respectively, and we don’t regret those decisions one bit.

Backing up in time just a little – back to my freshman year of college, the only other time I had a kitchen at my disposal. These were the olden days, when college students were stuck into shoebox size dorm rooms with roommates and you had to “loft” your bed on cinder blocks to fit your rubbermaid clothes storage beneath it. None of these elaborate suites with full kitchens and laundry rooms and private bedrooms and bathrooms for each student that kids get these days!

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I did get lucky as a freshman, and scored a choice room on an honors floor in a dorm on a hill that had formerly been faculty housing in the fifties and sixties. (I thought that black and white photo of Clemson House I found online really drives home how old I am!) The suites weren’t large, especially with three girls in one room, but we had a tiny galley kitchen with ancient appliances, a pass thru closet area that held a couple of dressers, and our own bathroom! So it seemed super plush. The dorm was co-ed, and mostly upperclassmen (smart upperclassmen), and we had our own smaller dining hall restaurant on the first floor. It felt like a small community on a larger campus, and I’m completely grateful for that setting. It was like instant-belonging, without having to seek it out in other social groups or party scenes.

My dad worked for Procter & Gamble, and we seemed to always have an endless supply of Duncan Hines mixes on hand at home. My parents would bring me a case of them when they would visit, and I’d buy eggs and vegetable oil at the grocery store (Bi-Lo, I think? There used to be a Piggly Wiggly there too). Most evenings I’d stir up a batch of chocolate chunk brownies or cinnamon swirl coffee cake, and the wide, carpeted hallways would fill up with students studying and talking. The smell would fill the floor, and it only took a week or two before our snacks became legendary. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one in the building that dared to use the oven, outside of the unsuccessful grilled cheese smoke-offs that forced building evacuations at least twice a month.

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(I also managed to find a photo of a typical kitchen in my dorm online! Although that oven ^^ looks a lot cleaner than ours did.)

There was very little skill involved in these baking sessions, outside of vigilance on the bake times – the thermostat was busted, and the timer only rattled a bit instead of buzzing or dinging. I became very skilled at judging doneness by smell; to this day, I equate comfort and belonging with the smell of fresh baked brownies. I’ve upped my game a bit on the recipes, but the end result is just as rewarding.

…..

So Nancy asked me about my strengths and weaknesses in the kitchen. I think my strengths list has grown over the years from constant practice. I’m very comfortable with a knife – and love my really large chef knife, the sharper the better. With my contacts in, onion slicing doesn’t bother me too much, and I’ve gotten pretty efficient at slicing and dicing. We have a mandolin and a food processor with slicing attachments. We even have an apple slicer. I never use any of those. I much prefer a knife and a cutting board – easy to use and easy to clean.

I don’t enjoy peeling the papery skins off garlic, but I just got something similar to this and it works pretty well. I love my garlic press, so I never have to mince garlic and smell like it for days.

The biggest change I’ve made to my kitchen habits is to thoroughly read through recipes multiple times before buying ingredients and again before starting the prep work. I often reread them the night before, just to make sure I’m not missing some “make ahead” step, like overnight soaking or marinating. I prep absolutely everything in advance, and it makes all the difference in the world. No matter how much faster I think I can be if I start the cooking process while still prepping ingredients – it always comes back to bite me. I’m not a great under-pressure cook. I like organization and calm in the kitchen. I’ve found this also makes the cleanup process much simpler too. If I start with a clean countertop, everything prepped and ready, then I can place the used bowls and tools directly into the dishwasher as I go. It’s so much nicer than working around an overflowing sink.

Something I’m terrible at is making conversation while cooking. I have trouble focusing on two things at one time, and I always make mistakes. I’d like to be better at this – when family comes to visit they like to hang out while I’m cooking, and I’m notorious for losing track of where I am in a recipe. (Or losing the thread of conversation completely.)

Also related to focus – I’d like to get better at coordinating larger dinners with multiple dishes. The thought is completely intimidating to me, and as a result, we typically have one dish dinners versus a main dish and a bunch of sides. I would also like to find the time to do more cooking and baking – but for now I’ll have to be content with putting a good dinner on the table 6-7 nights a week.

Weird things? I don’t like looking at recipes on devices, like tablets or my phone. I like cookbooks or printed recipes. I love zesting things. I despise having to peel off the skins of roasted peppers, gross. (Although I love roasted peppers.) I get frustrated with my current appliances – my limitations on high heat for browning, and the cold spots in my refrigerator that do mean things to my produce. I’m past ready for a kitchen makeover, but I’m having a hard time getting out of the kitchen and into the studio to make it happen. I’m a pretty neat cook – I rarely wear an apron, and rarely make a mess of myself. We only use cloth napkins and towels, and now I don’t like using paper products other places. I read Cook’s Illustrated from cover to cover, even the recipes I know I’ll never make. My kids do not enjoy everything I make, and there are still complaints. But no one is starving, and pushing them out of their comfort zone is a good thing, and a healthy one. I’m 100% convinced that eating real food makes a tremendous difference in all aspects of our lives, and I’d rather cook dinner (and clean up after it) than go out to dinner. That’s a seismic shift for me over the past seven-eight years.

I owe a lot to those box brownies, I think.

5 Responses to (question): in the kitchen…

  1. this is the one area of my life where “epic fail” comes to mind. i think it is based on desire (20 percent) and crappy math skills (80 percent). I nearly sunk a batch of lemon bars by not reading the correct amount of flour. Mise en place makes sense, but I’m basically lazy. That being said, at the post-baptism brunch at our house, I slid the various casseroles into the (stupid) convection oven — and neglected to hit start. Too much conversation… I love seeing what you have on your counter top. Not a pizza (or box of brownies) in sight.

  2. This post is inspiring! I love to cook and bake and challenge myself in the kitchen but with three kids six and under I struggle sometimes to make it a priority to cook outside the basics. I should make more of an effort.

    • thirdstoryies

      Thanks, Leslie. It’s taken a lot of practice to get to where we are. I think the biggest adjustment was combatting hungry, grouchy children at the end of the day. That might have been the biggest hurdle. There are some days that they just can’t handle even hanging around the kitchen while dinner is in progress, maybe because the sights and smells remind them that they are hungry – and then they whine about it! But everyone had fallen into the pattern of waiting for dinner to be ready. And coming to the table ready to eat is never a bad thing.

      I’ve thought of several things just beyond this post that I should have included – I might do a quick part two!

  3. I do believe we were separated at birth. I could’ve written the same things. Although, I’m too lazy to read paper recipes. All mine are on my phone or tablet.

    That Clemson House was so swanky. Johnstone A had those icky communal kitchens (and bathrooms, quadruple ick!), which didn’t really keep me from my Hamburger Helper.

    So hey, I don’t remember you ever making any special studio batches of brownies….guess they never made it all the way down to Lee. 😉

    • thirdstoryies

      They were consumed immediately upon removal from the oven, every time!

      It WAS swanky! The meal plans covered 21 meals, but if you ate at Clemson House on Sundays, it used your breakfast AND your lunch meal plus you had to pay $3, but it was quite a brunch spread. All the church people in town would show up too. My grandparents used to send me letters and they would always include $3 in them so I could go to Sunday brunch (and eat fried chicken). Sundays smelled like fried chicken. And now we live down the street from a locally famous fried chicken restaurant, so I haven’t escaped it.

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