The Big Crunch

I love cooking, but I have a tiny kitchen. How can I make the most of my limited space?

A small kitchen setup
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

The Pickle, a food and cooking advice column, was written by The Art of Gay Cooking author Daniel J. Isengart. You can follow all of his work at his website.

I have been seeing someone new, and we went on a few dates already, I think mostly to restaurants. I want to invite her over to my bachelor’s pad for the first time and cook dinner. What should I make?

A few weeks ago, a recently married woman told me of her second date with her husband. He had invited her to his place for dinner and served her a delicious, highly elaborate dinner that had completely bowled her over, a prelude to the very enjoyable night that followed. Only months later, well into their dating period (and just short of his engagement proposal) did he admit to her that the food had in fact been prepared by a friendly neighbor, a professional chef who was eager to help him to “finally get laid.” She might have considered his sly scheme a deal breaker, but she had the smarts to see it for what it was—a daring but somewhat charming trick—and forgave him with a wink and a smile. (It’s safe to assume he had other endearing qualities and that he only tried to pull off this trick once.) Such a generous reaction is, of course, not guaranteed, and in any case, neighborly outsourcing wouldn’t be a viable solution in the long run.

First, find out what your date likes to eat. Don’t be too direct about it by flatly asking (with the exception of allergies and pronounced dislikes, which you should inquire about): Rather, observe and remember what—and how—she orders in restaurants, how discerning she is about food in general, and how she reacts to what she is being served. Put all that into consideration for the meal you want to prepare and surprise her with a menu that demonstrates that you have discretely paid close attention to her culinary preferences. Do not underestimate the effect this can have on a budding relationship. In fact, I cannot think of a better way to show one’s commitment.

Put together a menu that allows you to, again, pay more attention to her than to the food. Make something that will not stress you out and is well within your competence: This is also an opportunity to show confidence (but not cockiness) and that you can fulfill a given task with a level of ease that, once again, allows you to focus mostly on her. And make sure that the kitchen is clean and in order when she arrives—another way to show that you are a responsible person, or at least try to be.

In terms of cooking strategy, there are two different approaches. You could prepare everything ahead of time so that you’ll just need to put the last finishing touches on the meal in her presence. There is nothing wrong with a room-temperature meal that is completely ready to serve as is, or, say, a main course that comes out of the oven so that all you need to keep in mind is timing (a whole fish en papillote, a roast chicken, or even a fillet of beef). The first approach could be a green salad (lightly dressed just before serving with a honey-sweetened vinaigrette); halibut fillet baked over a bed of shaved fennel, served with roasted new potatoes and a green sauce of sour cream, chopped dill, a few crushed juniper berries, and finely diced apple and celery; and a dessert of roasted sliced peaches, brushed with olive oil and drizzled with a Balsamico reduction, with biscotti on the side.

Or you could devise a menu where the main course requires some cooking in her presence as you both sip some wine or a cocktail and engage in conversation, which can be very sexy if it’s done with casual ease. I can imagine a light risotto, slowly stirred, beginning with sautéing diced onions, celery, and carrots until translucent (which you can prep, but not too long ahead of time or the diced onions will turn acrid) before adding a sprig of fresh thyme and the rice. (Carnaroli is best.) Then mix in, little by little, white wine, homemade (!) very lightly salted chicken broth, a few saffron strands, and—once the rice is still al dente but the risotto agreeably “wet”—perhaps some diced zucchini or shredded radicchio, or a handful of peeled and deveined shrimp (all of which will cook within a couple of minutes), a touch of butter, and some grated parmesan.

Resist the much-advertised cliché of serving any of those alleged edible aphrodisiacs. Stay clear of the suggestive Valentine’s Day–style menus with their forced, evocative, Champagne-popping, stingy caviar nibbles, chucked oysters, stiff asparagus, ostensibly luxurious lobster tails, and gold-leaf-decorated chocolate concoctions: They point all too directly to the bedroom, and it’s too early for that in your budding relationship. There is also a list of no-no’s in terms of foods with “side effects”: Be easy on the garlic and omit raw onions altogether, not to mention beans.

Furthermore, don’t be heavy-handed with the “art direction” of the evening: No strewn rose petals on the floor; no baroque abundance of candlelights flooding the entire apartment; no heady bouquets of flowers or “romantic” music. Keep things welcoming and neat (especially the bathroom), but don’t be fussy: The only thing worse than a fussy gay man is a fussy straight man.

In some cultures, tradition decrees that a man should appraise a potential wife by her ability to cook a perfect rice dish. While such practices might strike some as archaic or sexist, I think that they should not be dismissed without proper analysis: Cooking a delicate rice dish with the requisite Tahdig (the delicious but easily burned golden crust that forms at the bottom) requires knowledge, experience, focus, and above all, patience—qualities that anyone should wish for in a partner, no matter their gender.

I am a great cook with a tiny kitchen. As in, I have about 2 feet of counter space, which is not really easily accessible (i.e., I can’t really stand in front of it), my sink, and then my small 4 burner (3 small, 1 big) stove-oven. I have a rolling butcher block where my microwave and toaster oven live that I should use but is currently occupied by my sewing machine and is also out past the fridge. I need a better place to chop than the edge of my sink. HELP ME. How can I best use a tiny kitchen?

The first thing you should do is get a sturdy wooden chopping board large enough to fit over your sink so that, in a pinch, you can chop things there. But that is neither ideal nor a solution, for you will have to move it and place it somewhere when you need to use the sink. Which means that you need to rethink both how you set up your kitchen and how you operate in it.

Back in the late ’90s, I lived in a shoebox-size studio with the tiniest kitchen, out of which, one Christmas season, I produced literally thousands of cookies—a dozen varieties—that I packaged and sold in hand-painted gift boxes. Since then, in my capacity as a private chef, I have cooked in some very large kitchens, with marble-topped islands the size of a bed. The main lesson I have learned from all of this is that one can work in pretty much any kitchen as long as it’s well organized. On the other hand, no matter how small or large the kitchen, one always ends up doing most of the work (the prep work—what needs to be done before any actual cooking begins) in one and the same spot. Think of it as the home base or, to be more poetic, the earth spot. The secondary and tertiary spots (representing, as it were, water and fire) are predetermined by the position of the  sink and stove. In the logic of this approach, you are the air that connects the other elements, and the sign of a well-designed kitchen is that the former three are not too far from one another, so you can flow with ease from one to the other, like a breeze.

Park the toaster oven on the counter space you “cannot stand in front of.” As for your microwave: Just get rid of it. Sell it; give it to someone; put it on the street. Trust me, your reheating can be done on a stovetop or in the toaster oven, and generally just as quickly.

Another space-saving step might be getting a dish rack that mounts directly onto the wall behind the sink. They come in different sizes, and a small one will probably do for your purpose. That way, washing dishes will not require you to free up precious counter space each time to set them out to dry.

More generally speaking, a small kitchen requires vertical organization: Everything you own and use in it should be stackable—plates, glasses, cups, pots, pans, bowls, and mixing bowls—even your pantry items. You could get stackable food containers and fill your dry ingredients (rice, pasta, flour, sugar, etc.) into them. You could also create some extra storage space by adding a shelf to the rolling butcher block. (Most of them have only two but are built from a modular system, so adding a shelf should be easy.) Adjust the middle shelf farther down and install the third a few inches below the top and equip it with a cutlery tray for utensils.

Finally, if it is an option, consider getting a second butcher-block island on wheels. They are very practical precisely because they are not locked into space and can be pushed against the wall somewhere or even moved into another room. After all, the kitchen is not quite the perfect place for sewing clothes.

I don’t really care for sweets and am not into baking. Do you have any easy recipes for desserts I can whip up when I have friends over for dinner?

My first inclination was to recommend doing it like the French do when they entertain at home: serving a tarte or individual pastries, proudly procured from a reputed local pâtisserie. Sadly, it is still a challenge to find an equivalent over here. (American cakes with their inch-thick layers and heavy frostings are more suitable for afternoon birthday celebrations than for a final course after dinner, and pies, well, pies really ought to be homemade.)

You could break with tradition (or rather, revert to an even older one) and replace dessert with an elegant cheese course. Select a minimum of four cheeses of different textures and flavor profiles, going from mild to sharp, and include cheeses made of all three sources ­(cow’s, goat’s, and sheep’s milk). Augment the cheese board with fruit—but please, don’t fall into the abominable trend of putting berries onto your cheese board, which I see all over Instagram. (Strawberries and blue cheese? No.) Stick with grapes, pears, fresh and dried figs, plump raisins, and dates (no apricots either, please). Don’t go overboard with the nuts, either; a few walnuts will do. You could add a quince confit (it goes well with hard cheeses like manchego), or, if you’re willing to put a little bit of work into it, roast some sliced fresh quince with honey and olive oil until caramelized and soft. A little drizzle of chestnut honey can do wonders to a Stilton. Forgo sliced bread (too filling after a meal) and instead set out a well-curated mix of dry flatbreads and crackers, with a ramekin of cultured salted butter on the side.

Another idea is to literally serve just fruit for dessert. But again, don’t follow the cliché of putting out mixed berries and whipped cream, especially since berries that actually taste as they should (local, sun-ripened, and in season) are a rarity. You can do better. A few weeks ago, I was served a delightfully understated bowl of halved grapes dressed with nothing but Meyer lemon juice. Perfection. We’re past peach season in the Northeast, but sliced peaches macerated in red wine are something to keep in mind for next summer.

Finally, remember that dinner should end with small fireworks in your mouth—that is, give your guests something crunchy. Quality, store-bought Italian biscotti or Scottish shortbread will do. And naturally, no one will object to a plate of high-end chocolates from a real chocolatier—although that alone can easily cost you more than an entire cheese platter.