NYTimes Starts "Learning to Cook" Series

Lack of space and equipment as much of a challenge to a new cook as a skill set and a sense of humor

For four-and-half years, I lived in a rent-controlled, midtown Manhattan apartment whose kitchen was about 5 feet wide and 8 feet long. Lined up along one long wall were a mini-refrigerator, a small wall sink with attached drainboard and a three-burner Waterman gas stove like that shown, right. It had one small oven/broiler and a lid that could be lowered to cover the burners, presumably for more workspace. There was one small upper cabinet above the refrigerator, no base cabinets and no workspace at all.

I went on what passed for a buying streak. I bought two quarts of royal blue paint for the walls and $9 worth of self-stick vinyl tiles to cover the bare concrete floor. I bought a small freezer and hid it behind the door in my bedroom. I bought a cheap white metal utility cabinet for one cornerand a maple butcherblock to cover the bare metal top of the refrigerator. I bought three pine boards (and stained them), which a co-worker who owned a drill installed as shelves and a teeny workspace on other long wall. I found some space for a little pegboard and hung a lot of utensils from nails pounded into the walls.

My mother and my aunt had given me a few extra pots, pans and utensils from their kitchens, which meant that I duplicates of some implements and none of others. I filled with items from John’s Bargain Store, all I could afford. Somewhere along the line, I acquired three or four cookbooks, none of which was that red-and-white checked Better Homes & Gardens cookbook that every other beginning cook of that era started with. And that was my early cooking environment, but enthusiasm and New York’s matchless availability of ingredients, even then, went a long way in helping me become a pretty decent home cook.

With that in my distant past, I smiled empathetically when I read what is to be the first in a New York Times weekly series on learning to cook. “How to Cook….Something” was written by Emily Weinstein, producer for Times food columnist and cookbook author Mark Bittman. She loved food and had hoped to learn too cook “by osmosis,” but when that didn’t work, she decided to start cooking in her “small strip of a kitchen in Brooklyn.”

She wrote, “Before I began, I asked Mark for some advice on how to go about learning to cook. Should I just make stuff? Random stuff? Was there a hierarchy of skills I needed to master, in a certain order? Mark’s advice: ‘Think of things you really like and cook those.’”

Her first effort was a curried squash soup with frizzled leeks from a 1995 issue of Gourmet, a recipe she selected because she liked it when her mother made it. An early challenge was time, as precious a commodity in New York as space. It was 8:00 p.m. before she got started preparing soup for herself and her friend Jen. Her next epiphany involved an appropriate tool for the job. She wrote:

“Tip: Your Ikea peeler is no good for this task. I switched to a
paring knife but I didn’t have the steadiness of hand required for that. Then I
found a peeler that my mother must have given me, which worked the best. Despite
the shaky start, I was proud of myself for prepping the squash even though it
wouldn’t be added to the pot until the end of step 2. . . I didn’t have a cleaver to split the squash in half, a scale to weigh it (I needed 3 1/2 pounds’ worth, and so I just guessed, based on the recipe’s saying it would roughly equal 8 cups), or a bowl big enough to put all the squash in once it was cut into pieces. . .

“I didn’t have a cleaver to split the squash in half, a scale to weigh it
(I needed 3 1/2 pounds’ worth, and so I just guessed, based on the recipe’s
saying it would roughly equal 8 cups), or a bowl big enough to put all the
squash in once it was cut into pieces. . .

“Failing to be properly equipped became the theme of the night. At first I
started cooking the onions and the butter in a pot that was too small to hold
all the squash (it didn’t have a cover, either; I put a frying pan on top). Then
I realized I didn’t even own a pot big enough for everything, a realization that
escorted another: I was making a ton of soup. I had to use two pots, splitting
what I had already cooked between them and proceeding from there.”

Emily did manage to make the soup, which she wrote was “was tasty and satisfying, an approximation of what my mother makes, if not a convincing imitation,” even with some adaptations, adjustments and guesses along the way. She and Jen sat down to eat at 11:15 p.m., having laughed together at her first effort, fortified along the way by beer, baguettes, cheese and chocolate-covered pretzels. Challenges aside, preparing something from scratch and sharing food with a friend or a loved one is the true pleasure in cooking. And Emily Weinstein got that right the very first time she cooked something.

7 thoughts on “NYTimes Starts "Learning to Cook" Series”

  1. Nice memory of your first kitchen! Thanks for the NYT excerpt.

    I’ve cooked in a teeny tiny kitchen (my last house) and now I have an embarrassment of counter space. It feels quite decadent!

  2. Kitt – After my apartment in New York, I bought a brownstone across the river in Hoboken, New Jersey. There, I inherited an almost- linear kitchen — sink, range and countertops along one wall, full-size refridgerator on another. But once I installed my little freezer and a roll-to-the-sink dishwasher. and put the catfood and water dishes down, I was confined to about 2 1/2 feet of workspace on the counter between the sink and the stove. I now have a well-organized kitchen with ample counterspace, but I still find myself using very little for food preparation and the rest for appliances and staging areas when we have company. Old habits die hard.

    Sarah – No, it’s not mine. I found an image online. I never took pictures of that apartment on West 57th Street, but now wish I had.

  3. P.S. to Sarah – I now have a wonderful Viking range — four fabulous burners and dual-fuel, self-cleaning oven/broiler.
    It is a joy to use, but I think I honed my skills on that little three-burner, mini-oven stove in NY so long ago.

  4. I will never complain about my entire kitchen again. And I thought I was deprived because my kitchen is small and has formica counter tops and not granite and because I don’t have a Wolf range or Sub Zero refrigerator.

  5. I was lucky enough to score a gas/convection range off my neighbor who was remodeling a few years back. I just need my fridge to break to have all stainless – but when that happens it will probably be out of style.

    One time saving tip I’ve utilized over the years – both living solo and together, is to cook in volume.

    If I cook a regular favorite, or find a good recipe and buy the ingredients, I figure I might as well chop two onions rather than one, dirty two pans, etc. I just double what I need – since I’m investing time in the kitchen already anyway.

    I enjoy cooking. Its relaxing and I like attempting to create new things (for better or worse,) but its nice to have a meal ready to microwave when I don’t want to cook – and I prefer it to me my meal.

    I have a collection of tupperware, and cook in advance means I’ll have lunch for the next few days, or a meal on a night when I don’t feel like cooking.

    They’re like my little TV dinners, only made by me. And some taste really good as leftovers. (like turkey meatload with ketchup.)


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