Culinate

Caroline Cummins is Culinate’s managing editor. She lives with her husband, two daughters, and cat in Portland, Oregon.

Temporary cooking

How to eat when your kitchen is gone

By
January 29, 2013

When I was a teenager, my parents decided to remodel their kitchen.

This kitchen was the core of the Seattle house I grew up in. When it was built, in 1903, the Craftsman-style house was probably a looker. By the time my parents moved in, in the late 1970s, nobody had looked at it very much except perhaps in horror.

We’ll skip the purple asbestos shingling on the outside and move straight into the kitchen, which was basically a 1960s acid trip. Fluorescent yellow was the dominant color, tinting the linoleum floor, the creaky cabinetry, the ancient electric stove, and the cracked and peeling laminate countertops. This color choice was not enhanced by the fluorescent ring light in the middle of the ceiling that provided the room’s only illumination. But no amount of better lighting could’ve saved the wallpaper, which featured an oversized daisy print in hot pink, lime green, and more of that yellow.

We were sort of affectionate about the shocking kitchen, waiting avidly for the jaws to drop on first-time visitors and eagerly pointing out the large circular burn mark that decorated the middle of the floor. (My father had accidentally set a saucepan of popcorn on fire and, flustered, decided to put the fire out by setting the pan on the floor.) But, yes, it was terrible. So we were ready to ditch it.

We weren’t ready, though, for the challenge of feeding a family of four for two months out of a cooler and a toaster oven. After my mom valiantly coaxed the toaster oven into baking four potatoes (it took six hours), she called it quits and phoned the landlady of the empty house across the street. And for the next several weeks, under my mom’s impromptu kitchen-rental deal, we walked across the street to cook and eat every meal.

Our temporary basement kitchen. Fridge and storage racks on the right, stove and canning cabinet on the left. Baby wipes on the table.

So when my husband and I started talking, many months ago, about the possibility of remodeling our own outdated kitchen, I knew firsthand just how important it would be to make sure that our own family of four could cook and eat. Grilling in the back yard? Fine for a few summer evenings, but a chilly hassle in the wintertime. Takeout every night? Expensive, and also rather unappealing after the first few days. We needed to be able to make our own food, indoors.

When we raised the issue with our contractors, they said, “No problem. We’ll set up a kitchen for you in the basement.”

And that’s exactly what happened. The November weekend before the project was set to start, we moved as much as possible of the extant kitchen down into the basement, stacking plates and glassware, pots and pans, cans and bottles in a canning cabinet and on open metal shelving racks. On the official start date, the contractor’s crew moved our old fridge and range into our basement. Once the gas was hooked up to the gas range and we had jury-rigged a dishwashing station by the laundry sink, we were good to go.

The laundry sink, with a table for dishracks and compost bins.

We were fortunate; not everybody has a basement that can be temporarily converted into a fully functioning kitchen. Many a kitchen remodeler has been forced to make do with hot plates and washing dishes in the bathtub.

The active stage of our kitchen remodel took six weeks; my parents’ remodel took two months. And that’s not uncommon. It’s a long time frame that can feel like eternity if you don’t have a place to cook.

Even with the luxury of a basement kitchen, we still had to go out our front door (usually into the rain and the dark, since we remodeled in the winter) and walk around our entire house and into the back door to get to the basement. And our basement is unfinished, so it isn’t exactly cozy. And there isn’t anywhere for our small fry to play.

Besides, when the ceiling over your head is rattling from all the banging and power-tooling going on upstairs, you really don’t want to spend a lot of time down there.

All of which meant that cooking needed to get done with minimal effort and heightened efficiency. I switched from regular rolled oats to oat-bran cereal, for example, because the latter cooks faster. We made a lot of grilled sandwiches with our cast-iron fry pans. And I broke out my slow cooker and put it to work.

gravlax on dark bread
Gravlax is a good thing to make when you can’t actually cook much.

A few years ago, I spent several weeks trying to figure out the slow-cooker thing. But what had seemed then like an extra appliance that just took a really long time to make a simple stew was now, I realized, the perfect gadget for getting dinner made in the basement while I was upstairs or schlepping the kids to and from preschool.

When the babysitter arrived in the morning, I’d run outside and downstairs to spend 30 minutes to an hour doing the necessary prep work for a slow-cooker stew. Once it was going, I could do exactly what the slow cooker promises: leave it puttering along on low for the rest of the day. I broke out my favorite slow-cooker book, Andrew Schloss’s Art of the Slow Cooker, and put together a number of tasty stews: a mushroom barley “risotto,” a curried oxtail stew, a French-style beef stew, and a Moroccan-style chicken dish.

The drawback to most slow-cooker dishes, of course, is that they’re basically glop. (Hence all those crispy, chewy grilled sandwiches.) Toward the end of the kitchen remodel, I discovered something I should’ve been making all along: gravlax. No-cook cooking! I covered a fillet of salmon with a salt-and-sugar cure and left it alone in the fridge for a couple of days, then rinsed it off and sliced it thinly to eat with lemony sour cream on crunchy crackers. It was the perfect antidote to mush.

Related recipe: Simple Gravlax; post: Starting afresh; post: Choices, choices; post: Choosing a contractor; post: Kitchen homework; post: The field test