Cozy Kitchens

When the space is small, cooks get big ideas on how to cope.

June 29, 2005|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff

The kitchen dimensions at the Sheridan house in Radnor-Winston hold the potential for culinary gridlock. The 99-square-foot space has no pantry, precious little counter space and three avid cooks.

Yet on a recent evening, retired caterer Nick Sheridan, wife Suzanne Shaw and daughter Megan Sheridan companionably chopped vegetables for a stir-fry, only occasionally getting in each other's way. Eleven years after they moved to the 1911 house they loved with a kitchen that was half the size of their old one, the family has learned to make do.

In new homes and often in old ones, Americans are demanding ever-bigger kitchens. The average kitchen in a new home was 285 square feet in 2003, compared with 250 a decade earlier, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

But for those in urban rowhouses and older houses where the kitchen was often a small, dark afterthought, a cozy cooking space is a fact of life. Many cooks who can't increase their square footage have learned to make great meals and even entertain using a fraction of the space you'd find in a typical showroom.

The Sheridans reserve most big parties for the summer so they can grill outside, and they set a rain date. They occasionally stash dirty party dishes temporarily in the first-floor bathtub. They enclosed a back porch and put in shelves for sauces and soups.

When Megan, 19, wants to bake her specialty -- yellow cake with chardonnay -- she takes advantage of a college student's late-night body clock, hitting the kitchen in the wee hours. (The downside: The delicious smells sometimes wake her dad.)

Denise Sullivan Medved, who was so passionate about small-kitchen cooking that she published a cookbook called The Tiny Kitchen on her own, blames the lust for ever-larger, more open kitchens on the popularity of cooking shows, with their granite-topped islands, Viking stoves and endless cabinets.

"The average viewer of these TV shows is like, 'I can only dream of having a kitchen like that, with somebody laying everything out for me in these little clear bowls,' " said Medved, who cooked in spaces the size of broom closets in Manhattan and Alexandria, Va. "Half the things on those shows, people with a tiny kitchen plain old can't do."

But there's much they can do, Medved said. Her 2001 book includes menus for a Thanksgiving evening gathering for 25 and a cocktail buffet for 50.

Among her hints: Lean toward cold buffets with make-ahead items. For Thanksgiving, think roasted turkey breast instead of whole bird. Stagger party arrival times.

Fish is the only food she wouldn't recommend. "Not in the tiny kitchen," she writes. "It smells."

As for equipment, Medved writes that you don't need much. She tells the story of mixing batter for her Grandma Dexter's poundcake recipe in front of the living-room television, using her grandmother's hand-held eggbeater.

If necessary, she says, stack pots on the stove top and pie plates and baking pans in the oven. Take shortcuts with pantry items such as Newman's Own salad dressings to marinate chicken, beef or lamb.

That's assuming you have some place to put them.

When she moved to a Bolton Hill rowhouse six years ago, Donna Beth Joy Shapiro, former operator of the Old Waverly History Exchange & Tea Room, traded in an expansive home kitchen for one a fraction of its size.

For Shapiro, 45, downsizing had particular challenges. Now a preservation consultant, she still entertains frequently and turns out the occasional wedding cake. She has beloved collections of everything from Yellow Ware ceramic bowls to cookie cutters. And she keeps a kosher kitchen, which means having to keep separate equipment for milk and meat.

But now the light-filled, 113-square-foot kitchen is her favorite room in the house, thanks to a custom design and features that put everything in its place -- and everything to use.

The most important item is a custom-made, granite-topped table that runs the length of the room. It functions as both a work space and an in-kitchen dining table. Metal carts nestled below the table hold baking sheets and liners, a toaster oven and a microwave. A metal trash can from Smith & Hawken is both decorative and functional, and wheels discreetly underneath.

The large Yellow Ware bowls make a useful display atop the cabinets. Smaller bowls are double-stacked along the counter, where they justify their space by holding fresh staples like apricots, garlic, plums and limes. A large bowl of onions rests on a burner when the stove is not in use. Magnet bars display and separate knives.

Shapiro compares preparing food in a small kitchen to a ballet -- a delicate dance that involves cleaning as she goes and organizing equipment and ingredients so there's room to work. She also depends on her sunny deck, which the kitchen opens onto, for extra cooking and entertaining room in good weather.

"This room is so small, I really have to use [something] for it to be out," she said.

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