MacGyver Moves in the Kitchen

By Alison Ashton

Remember the TV show “MacGyver,” in which the hero adapted whatever was at hand to save the day like using a paperclip to diffuse a bomb? At NOURISH Evolution, we’re all about making full use of ingredients, and the same goes for equipment. Nothing brings out your culinary MacGyver like working in a professional kitchen, as Jennifer Schaertl, learned as a chef in four-star restaurants, where kitchens typically are cramped, and there never seems to be enough equipment to go around. Many strategies common to the restaurant kitchen can help space-strapped home cooks, too, and Shaertl shares her tips in her new book Gourmet Meals in Crappy Little Kitchens (Health Communications).

macgyver-postShaertl puts a practical, cheerful spin on cooking in “CLKs” (crappy little kitchens), and her strategies can help even if your kitchen isn’t so tight. A well-organized CLK is a remarkably efficient and pleasurable place to cook–everything is close at hand, and you have less crap to clean up at the end.

The key is to pare down your equipment and choose items that can multitask. For example, Schaertl says you only need three knives: A good-quality 6- to 8-inch chef’s knife, a serrated bread knife, and a paring knife. (Though Kurt contends–and I agree–a boning knife is nice, too, but it’s optional.) One of Shaertl’s favorite tools is an easy-to-store stacking 12-quart stockpot with a strainer and steamer basket, which you can use to make stock, cook-and-strain pasta, and steam vegetables. The pot’s steamer basket also can double as a colander.

In the CLK spirit, here are five specialty tools you can easily improvise with items you probably already have:

Microplane/mandolin. A four-sided box grater as a versatile tool that can stand in for both a microplane and a mandolin, says Schaertl. Use it to grate cheese or veggies for slaw, as well as finely grate lemon zest, garlic, ginger, and chocolate, or thinly slice mushrooms. The more often you use it, the more uses you’ll find for it.

Meat mallet. This is one of Shaertl’s space-wasting “CLK Saboteurs.” Instead, pound that veal cutlet for scallopini with the bottom of a heavy skillet or saucepan, and use a fork to tenderize meat.

Panini press. These things are terrible space hogs. If you love panini, make them on the stovetop in a grill pan or regular skillet and weigh down the sandwich with another heavy skillet, saucepan, or Dutch oven.

Sifter. “This thing is the epitome of the one-trick pony,” Shaertl writes. I agree, and use the $5 fine-mesh strainer I bought years ago at Walmart to sift flour, sift powdered sugar over baked goods, and strain sauces.

Double boiler. This is a gizmo in which one pan nests inside another; the larger pan holds simmering water to gently heat whatever is in the top pan. It’s just a fancy version of an old-school bain-marie (water bath) that you can create with any saucepan and heatproof bowl, as we do here with our Kitchen MacGyver Lemon Curd.

Now that I think of it, making better use of fewer tools instead of cluttering the kitchen with lots of random gadgets is the very spirit of sustainability. How do you make your kitchen equipment pull double, triple, or even quadruple duty? Let us know!