This is the kitchen in California, where we vacation in the summer. It’s my favorite place in the world to cook, despite the clunky electric stove, the dishwasher that limps through every cycle, and the more-than-occasional mouse. Although, since we have a pizza oven, it doesn’t really matter about the stove. The oven is in a screened dining room, right outside the kitchen door.
If you were visiting the kitchen for the first time, you might think it was outfitted by an eclectic hoarder. But bear in mind that our kitchen turned 100 years old this year and is stocked by a family of people who love to cook. On the back wall is a floor-to-ceiling hutch with stocky towers of grey and cream stoneware mixing bowls and bright majolica serving bowls; one pink plastic and one flowered plastic pitcher; two dark blue Wedgewood pitchers, one large and one small, with gleaming Grecian ladies dancing around the base and that’s just a start. There must be a dozen large platters. The Chinese ones have people in houses and gardens in reds, oranges and greens, while those from Japan are blue and white with chrysanthemums. An enormous, painted, chipped tin platter strewn with colorful strawberries, apples, grapes and a beet (or could it be a rutabaga?) stands brightly behind. All kinds of baking dishes are piled messily at the side: white ceramics from France, two small painted terra cotta ones from Mexico, and plain old pyrex, squares and rectangles. Pie plates in tin or glass, some with fluted edges are on the shelf underneath. There are so many sugar bowls, wedged in between the bowls and platters. Three teapots. Several cruets – does anyone actually use cruets? – patiently gathering dust on the top shelf. Did I forget to mention there is a stack of 15 wooden bowls, round or oval in every size? Oops. To say that this kitchen is well-stocked doesn’t quite describe it.
My favorite plate is a white scratched square for asparagus with purple and green spears painted around the edges. Like the asparagus plate, many of the pieces look like what you are supposed to serve on them. There are several bowls that either look like artichokes or are painted with artichokes. Next to those sit two small dark green artichoke-shaped containers for homemade mayonnaise. There are bowls painted with lemons or that look like a giant lemon cut in half, with little majolica lemons resting on the edge. There is even a matching pitcher, in case you want to serve lemonade with your lemons. A small walnut shaped bowl with a lid is for serving, um, walnuts.
I haven’t even started on the tool drawer. Let’s just say that if you need to crush an entire head of garlic or open many bottles of wine simultaneously, you’ve come to the right place.
The one thing we don’t have is a heavy skillet for the pizza oven, so I haven’t had the opportunity to roast a chicken in there yet. But we do have a grill to place over the smoldering chunks of oak, so we grill steaks and chickens broken down into pieces in addition to the pizzas. You would think that a house as well-stocked as ours is would at least have a cast iron skillet, seasoned well, if a little dusty, shoved in a corner somewhere. But no. A heavy stainless steel skillet would be even better.
What we do cook, we make over and over again. Pizza, of course. When we first got the oven, twelve times in fourteen days. Lots of grilled skirt steak rubbed with sea salt, pepper, and chili flakes, sliced thinly in corn tortillas with pico de gallo. Gazpacho. Guacamole. Big Greek salads. Lamb, butterflied, in the pizza oven. Pita bread in the pizza oven with the lamb and white bean puree. Cooking like this, reductively, with the simplest methods, a little olive oil, a chop of garlic, salt and pepper, the rhythm of my knife on the board, the scent and feel of the ingredients, the funny old tools and serving dishes – I cook more instinctively here. I use fewer recipes.
I had to make a few rules for myself, though, so I don’t spend the entire vacation chopping, being chained to the stove or going on obsessive searches for ingredients that are hard to find in a rural grocery store. (Of which I only use a few spoonfuls and then forget about after they get shoved in the back of the refrigerator.)
The rules are eccentrically specific but are important nonetheless:
- No julienne-ing anything under any circumstance! Just don’t! Even for Vietnamese noodle salad.
- No caramelizing onions. As hard as it is to resist this, if I spend another hour and a half getting the onions as brownly sweet as I like them, I will sulk. And nobody cares nearly as much as I do how brown they are. Bacon makes a good substitute.
- No buying any exotic ingredients. They will only be used once anyway and then are quickly forgotten at the back of the refrigerator. For instance, tahini. There are 3 tins of tahini in the refrigerator right now. I bet I am the only person who makes homemade hummus here. It is hard to put up with plastic tub hummus, though. How about tzatiki or white bean puree instead? Martin makes pita bread in the pizza oven and we need something to go with it.
I’ll finish this post with an excellent summer cocktail. Martin made this last night and we sipped it as I was making dinner. The kids were reading quietly and a quarter moon appeared between the live oaks in the still blue sky. We could hear crickets.
Plantation from The Art of the Bar
(if you like making cocktails at all, you really should get this book)
Just outside the front door we grow basil, mint, thyme and rosemary. We use basil and mint in cocktails.
- 6 basil leaves
- 1/2 tsp sugar
- 1 ounce Plymouth gin
- 1/2 ounce Cointreau
- 1/2 ounce lime juice
- 1 ounce fresh grapefruit juice
- 1/6 slice grapefruit for garnish
- Mash or muddle the basil with the sugar in the bottom of a large glass to make a paste. If you don’t have a muddler, you can use the handle of a wooden spoon. Make it look like pesto.
- Fill the glass with ice then add the gin, Cointreau, lime and grapefruit juices. Stir thoroughly until very cold.
- Strain through fine mesh strainer into a cold cocktail glass.
- Garnish with grapefruit slice.