My Minimalist Kitchen

As I have visited various Lisbon apartments and condominiums in search of our next home, one thing that has struck me is the (tiny) size of most kitchens relative to a typical U.S. kitchen. It seems that kitchens here are merely an afterthought. One kitchen in a completely remodeled apartment — everything completely brand new and of the highest quality — was the size of our walk-in closet in SF.

As I give up on the idea of having any decent sized kitchen here, I have to invoke one of my favorite images of Julia Child in her Paris kitchen for inspiration. If Julia can do it, certainly I can!

Of all the things I purged in preparation for my move, my kitchen tools and utensils survived mostly unscathed. But a lot of things were added to the donate pile, with a few boxes in the “reconsider upon return” category. They are safely stored back in the States for my return.

The Cook I Am Today

An interesting thing that happens when you’re purging, as I have mentioned in previous posts, is that you have to reconcile who you think you are (or who you used to be) with who you really are now. I’ve realized that I’m no longer interested in high-production, multi-course extravaganzas I used to host. Those, in fact, deflated in a whimper after my mom died. What took their place was a more relaxed approach to hosting — family style, straightforward preparations. If I could do them outdoors, even better. The focus was not on the food, but on the gathering itself. (More on gatherings in a future blog post).

As I plan to stock a European kitchen, it’s a good time to think about what I consider essential for a proper set-up for someone who cooks. This is my list, and I don’t intend for it to be a prescription for anyone else who may cook differently than I do. (One thing that bugs me about a lot of those minimalist blogs is the holier-than-thou tone they take, suggesting their way to minimalism is gospel. That’s hooey. Plus, who in their right mind would just toss their knives in a drawer? That’s no way to treat a knife blade!). Cook’s Illustrated does a nice job of listing their kitchen essentials (subscription required) for someone newly setting up their first apartment. The New York Times also did a story on stocking up for a tiny kitchen.

So here is my list.

Knives

Unfortunately, I think my Wüsthof travel knife kit was lost in transition. I had packed it, but in the hoopla at the airport in SF as we were moving items to balance weight between two checked bags, it got lost. Now is the opportunity to get it down to the essentials.

I don’t need the ten-plus knife kit with a clunky wooden kitchen block that takes up too much precious real estate on the counter. I didn’t use most of my knives back at home, anyway.

The essentials for me are:

As for brand, I am a fan of the Wüsthof Classic line. But if you visit a restaurant supply store, you’ll see what the “real” chefs use — lighter, less precious. It may be time for me to explore those here. Cook’s Illustrated swears by the (far less expensive) Victorinox Swiss Army Fibrox Pro 8″ Chef’s Knife.

As for knife storage, I love the universal knife blocks that allow you to build your own knife kit without having the designated slots. In fact, I have two — one in Napa and one in a “to ship” box that I hope will arrive her unscathed. It’s the Schmidt Brothers Midtown Acacia Magnetic Knife Block. It’s gorgeous and has a low profile.

Love this knife block so much I have two!

Even better, to save more counter space (but not realistic in a rental since they probably don’t want you drilling into the backsplash), is a knife magnet. I love the wooden ones like the one below.

Magnetic wood knife strip saves even more counter space

Pots & Pans

Here, again, I don’t believe in buying the “sets” that are ubiquitous in department stores. I found I really used only a few of the ones I had. The Europeans are fans of the ceramic or induction cooktops, and many of them have a combination microwave-convection oven to save space. For induction cooktops you need stainless steelcast iron, or carbon steel. For the ceramic cooktops, you need stainless steel, titanium, aluminum or copper-bottomed pans. Forget any enameled pots for either. To be safe, we’ll stick to stainless steel pans that can accommodate either cooktop.

Also, cooktops are smaller here, so the 12-inch fry pan is going to be too big for most purposes. With some gift cards I had to Crate & Barrel and Williams-Sonoma, I got some of these ready to ship.

  • Ten-inch fry pan
  • Ten-inch non-stick fry pan
  • Four-quart saucepan
  • Two-quart saucepan

Due to the smaller cooktops, I’ve seen most saucepans have two handles rather than one long one. This way they can also be used as Dutch ovens for roasting. I may end up adding a larger stockpot for soups, but this can easily get me started.

A word about non-stick

Historically I have not been a fan of non-stick pans. Who wants to eat Teflon? But I’ve realized they are quite useful for low heat cooking (hello, Saturday morning scrambled eggs). Also, I buy the less expensive versions since they do need replacing every couple years.

Oven stuff

For any baking or roasting, here’s what I’d consider essential (with accommodation for the tiny ovens. No way is a Thanksgiving Day turkey going into these itty bitty ovens).

  • Quarter sheet pan (and cooling rack)
  • Pyrex glass containers with lids (oven to table to fridge)
  • Ramekins (4)
Sheet pan dinners
Good for everything from gratins & lasagna to storage in the fridge
For souffés, serving nibbles or dessert

Honestly that’s all I can think of for now for the oven. I considered a loaf pan and other items for baking. But, in reality, there are amazing bakeries on every corner and bread is really inexpensive. It makes no sense to bake your own, truthfully. That said, a few wish list items for the future could include:

  • Tart pan
  • Loaf pan
  • Springform pan

Other stuff

Finally here is my list of other essentials.

  • Metal mixing bowls (3)
  • Metal colander
  • Microplane grater
  • Pour-over coffee set-up
  • Vegetable peeler
  • A decent wine opener
  • Serving & stirring utensils (ladle, spatula, large spoon, tongs)
  • Cutting boards
Mixing bowls, salad serving bowls, or to display fruit and other items on the counter

Yes, I could use a knife to peel potatoes and cucumbers. But honestly, this Kuhn Rikon makes short work of that task.
There are a lot of crappy wine openers out there. This one is cool because you can also open a beer.
Multiple cutting boards — for vegetables, meat, poultry and fish.

 

Coffee

You’ve met my spouse, right? Yeah, so this section deserves its own headline. Mostly, people drink espresso-style drinks around here. However, there is a entirely new language of coffee drinks I have to learn. A regular espresso (um, cafe) runs me anywhere between 50 and 75 cents at locals’ places. There are some new hipster-fancy-pants cafes opening up that have the audacity to charge €1.20 for a coffee. God save us.

I am still an American, however. I still like my slow cup in the morning. (And then my Portuguese side saddles up to cafe bar for an espresso by mid-morning.) Sadly, there is no half-and-half anywhere. You have to make your own with whole milk and heavy cream. But the full fat milk here seems richer and that’s been fine.

Our weekend coffee set-up includes a Hario water pot (Best. Pour. Ever.), the serving pot and a specially-fitted ceramic cone filter.

 

Electricals

OK. Here is where it gets tricky because things can quickly get out of hand. But here is what I’d consider a few essential electrical items, plus a few splurges.

  • A hand mixer
  • A hand blender
  • Water kettle
  • Small food processor
For making aioli, dressings, dips, marinades, and sauces. Also for chopping nuts, etc.
For purees and soups
Maintains water temperature as you make your coffee; heats water up faster than on the stovetop. Splurge item.
Hand mixer. Could be a splurge item but makes whipping egg whites for soufflés a lot easier.

It’s easy to allow items to creep back into your kitchen drawers and cabinets over time. But having a small European kitchen will, I hope, keep that at a minimum. We will likely move into a fully furnished and equipped apartment, at which time I’ll take a complete inventory and we’ll go from there.

We’ll keep you updated on the progress on that front!

 

 

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