I don’t know about you, but I’ve had to accept, however reluctantly at times, that my kitchen kind of life may not always live up to the ideals of my imaginings.
I may never have a gorgeous, roomy, ideally designed kitchen with every convenience that you see in magazines and on cooking shows. (Not to mention the crew of people behind the scenes to prep, style the food and touch up my hair and makeup while I breezily whip up a complex meal).
I may not always be able to do everything in the way I would prefer.
When it comes to ingredients, left to my own devices I would eschew all that is artificial in favour of real butter, cream, vanilla and the like, but in my world not only do I need to watch what I eat, but I cook for people who have allergies, sensitivities and very definite tastes that may differ from mine (not to mention some
picky selective eaters).
So, what’s a gal to do but learn how to adapt in the kitchen? Here’s how I’ve overcome some of my major cooking challenges.
The Less Than Ideal Kitchen
Some years ago, after having enjoyed several large kitchens, I found myself living in an apartment with a tiny galley kitchen. Counterspace was negligible, and the appliances were toy-sized. The first time I tried to fit my favourite sheet pan in the oven, I found to my dismay that it wouldn’t fit (there may possibly have been tears). The top of the stove was so small that if I had a large pot or pan on one of the burners, I could only use two of the others.
Still, I learned how to cope, planning meals with those logistics in mind, and managed to host a few dinner parties and brunches. I bought a put-it-together-yourself cabinet that I put in a corner of the postage-stamp sized ‘eating area’ (it was too small for my table, which I set up in the monster-sized living room) to store seldom-used appliances, reserving the limited cupboard space in the kitchen for more essential items. My kids gave me a marble-topped kitchen cart on wheels that I also set up in the eating area as my mixer station. When you put your mind to it, you can do a lot in a
small micro kitchen.
Changes in Physical Capability
In recent years, I’ve faced a far more difficult adaptation. Having injured both my wrists, I went through a period where I could barely prepare a meal, let alone write about it. Sadly, most of the creative things I liked to do were beyond my ability. If I did cook a family meal, usually by the time dinner was served I was in too much pain to enjoy it. Fortunately, I’m better now, but I still need to be conscious about what I do, how and how much. For any of you who may face your own physical challenges, here are some of the techniques I’ve used to adapt.
Learn to pace yourself. This year when I was preparing for a table of 12 at Thanksgiving, I started prepping the food several days in advance, trying to ensure I wouldn’t have too much to do at any one time. This is always a good approach to large-scale cooking, but in my case also a necessity now.
Ask for help. This one is huge for me. What can I say, I like to do things myself. And, because I have some control issues in the kitchen (some? okay, lots) I have a tendency to jump in when people are assisting me. I’ve been working very hard to overcome this. As evidence of my success, you may notice that there are some very manly arms in my post about extracting the seeds from a pomegranate. Rest assured, those are not mine.
An unanticipated benefit of learning to ask for help is that I’ve been spending more time with Jenn, teaching her how to do the things that I can’t always do myself. And, I’m learning to be a better teacher. Our experience making pumpkin pies together was a complete delight. We had fun, she learned how to make pie, and at the end of the evening I had two pies on the counter and didn’t need to rest with ice packs on my wrists.
Use more tools. Although I’m a bit of a collector of kitchen appliances and gadgets, I usually like to do things by hand. There’s a certain pleasure in breaking down a pile of vegetables for a stew using a sharp chef’s knife and a cutting board, whipping cream with a whisk, and mixing cookie dough by hand. I now use my food processor and mixer far more often, and have benefited from the ease they provide.
Sometimes it takes me a while to realize adaptive action is required. I use a lot of citrus in my cooking, and one day I realized I often mentioned how painful it was to squeeze a lemon or lime. Finally, I clued in to the concept of buying a juicer (it’s helped, although I sometimes need help to use it too — Sigh).
Even something as simple as how I peel a potato makes a huge difference for me. My family is Belgian, and believe me, when I was growing up potatoes were important. My parents taught me to remove a very thin peel with a paring knife, so that’s what I’ve always used. That’s pretty much out of the question for me now, but I’ve discovered that switching to a good quality peeler makes this simple task more manageable. If there’s more than a few potatoes, though, back I go to tip #2, Ask for Help.
Thinking about kitchen ergonomics and using the effort-saving appliances that adorn my countertop means I can do more in the kitchen. I still cannot cook as much or as often as I would like, but having this creative outlet back in my life because of the changes I’ve made in how I approach the physical side of cooking has made a huge difference to me. Those of you who love to cook will understand, I’m sure.
Dietary, Allergy and Preference Restrictions
Then there’s the whole issue of adapting to accommodate changes in diet, allergies, and just plain preferences.
To the latter point, my son Jonathan despises onions. Really, how do you cook without onions? Sometimes I just leave them big enough so he can pick them out (what a nice Mum I am) but usually I try to work around his aversion. I used to make my burgers with diced onion in them, but if he was going to be at the table I used minced garlic instead. I found that I actually prefer both the flavour and the finer texture of the garlic, and this is now my standard recipe.
Until I met Brent, I never cooked for someone with food allergies. This experience has taught me to think creatively and also to try ingredients I otherwise wouldn’t have. His dairy allergy means milk, butter and cheese are all out. I had already been using olive or canola oils in place of butter where possible as part of a healthy approach to cooking, and I’ve now switched to margarine for most baking. I confess, I’m a butter snob and I don’t like the idea of margarine, but the reality is that it works well for most things. The first time I made pancakes for him, I wasn’t sure what to substitute for the milk. He doesn’t care for soy milk, so I tried almond milk and the recipe turned out just fine. I also use it in the ‘faux cream’ soups I make such as my Curried Cream of Broccoli or Potato Leek Chowder, and even in my pumpkin pie.
When guests are coming for dinner I have long made it a point to ask in advance if they have any allergies or dislikes. If I’m going to prepare a meal for people I care about (and let’s face it, that’s who I invite to my table), I want it to be safe for them, and something that they will enjoy. Really, what would be the point of any other approach? Do I strongly feel that real butter is best, especially given that I don’t use it often? Yes. Is that more important than looking after my friends and family well? No. If I had my heart set on serving a pork roast but I have a guest whose dietary restriction doesn’t allow it, is it a problem to switch to beef or chicken? No. Vegetarian? No problem to serve some high protein, meat-free dishes.
So, In Summary …
The philosopher Rousseau said that change is the only constant, and that’s certainly true in my kitchen. For me, the only way to keep cooking has been to change the way I approach it.
I’ve found that being challenged to find new ways to do things, or new ingredients to accommodate someone’s needs, helps me learn and grow, and keeps things fresh and new in the kitchen. The journey continues, as I learn my way around my new kitchen. As you can see from the photo below, it was love at first sight!