If you watch any of those house hunting shows on TV, you'll notice that there is always special attention paid to the kitchen. And why not? The kitchen is often the heart of the household and an important workspace. Those home buyers want new appliances, ample cupboards, and lots of counter space – common items on kitchen wish lists.
Watching these shows makes us think about how far we've come from the kitchens found in colonial times. Instead of a range top or oven, there was a large brick fireplace along one wall. A wood fire was built on the floor and pots hung on hooks from an iron brace. There was no separate treatment for baking, roasting, frying, or broiling. There was the fire and a way to get food close to it, and that was it.
And what about work space? In colonial kitchens a large wooden table served as the prep area during cooking and then was cleared so the family could sit down to their meal. There was no counter space. There wasn't even an indoor sink since water was only available from the well outside.
As time passed, iron stoves came into the kitchen. You still had to build a wood fire in the stove, but there were burners on top along with an oven compartment. When advances brought running water inside, a large farmhouse sink became a focal point of every kitchen. Ice boxes added another layer of convenience, but the earliest ones were not electric and the cooling element – or block of ice – lasted only until it melted. Over time, one improvement after another has gotten us to the technological marvel that we take for granted as the modern kitchen.
We wouldn't trade all our progress for the colonial kitchen of old, but it's nice to reflect on our heritage. Kitchens were the family gathering places, filled with activity and conversation, kids learning skills, and everyone helping each other. No matter how far we've come technically, we can still keep the warmth of spirit that filled the old kitchens of our past.
If you've ever been inspired to empty out your pantry and throw away all those half-used containers of ingredients that you can't remember when you bought, you should know that there are some things you don't have to toss, no matter how old they are!
Does that seem impossible? After all, conventional wisdom says that nothing lasts forever. Surprisingly though, there are some very basic items that never spoil, decay, rot, or go bad no matter how long they've been occupying a place on the shelf. Here are a few:
Corn Starch: Kept dry, corn starch stays good indefinitely. It's more than a recipe ingredient. Corn starch is a replacement for talcum powder. In fact, you'll find it right next to the talcum powder on the drugstore shelf, and you can use it for all the same purposes. Soothe diaper rash, sunburn, or any skin irritation with corn starch. It's also a handy last minute shampoo. Sprinkle a little cornstarch on greasy hair and work it through. Then brush it out. In a pinch, it removes oils and leave hair cleaner.
Honey: Honey is darn-near indestructible. Time may cause it to crystallize but you can restore the consistency by warming it up and stirring. We've heard that honey found in ancient pyramids was still edible. We don't know if the archaeologists poured it into their tea, but they must have tasted it and lived to tell the tale.
Hard Liquor: Bless the gods for this one, but liquor never goes bad. If it sticks around long enough to actually get old (an unlikely proposition in some homes) you can rely on it still being what you hope when you find some way at the back of that shelf you never look at. Even if the bottle has been opened, it's still good.
Pure Vanilla Extract: Because this is a type of liqueur, it gets better with time. You might not use it often if you don't do a lot of baking, but when you need it, count on that ancient bottle to provide the flavor you want.
Salt: Salt is eternal. Ordinary table salt or sea salt never goes bad. (Not so for seasoned salt which only lasts about a year.)
Sugar: While it may get hard, that doesn't decrease the quality of sugar. It doesn't matter if it's white refined sugar, brown sugar, or the powdered variety, sugar is for keeps. You can soften it the same way you would crystallized honey. Just warm it and stir.
So if you go on a cleaning binge and attack your kitchen cupboard, remember that not everything is fodder for the trash. Dust off the things that will last and use them when you need them, even if it's only once a decade.
Many of us love to watch professional chefs on TV. What wizards they seem to be! Everything always comes out perfect, and all in half an hour.
We can learn a lot from watching the best at work even though most of us will remain amateurs in our own kitchens. But whatever level of cooking you do, there are some basic things that will make you better.
• Read the entire recipe before you start and make sure you have all the right ingredients (or acceptable substitutions).• Baking is chemistry – the formula counts: A pinch of this, a handful of that may work when you're making a stew or creating a salad, but when you're baking, follow the recipe amounts and measure carefully.• Learn some technical skills (chopping, slicing, stirring, folding...) and practice, practice, practice.• Clean up as you work. Don't let the kitchen become a disaster. Rinsing utensils, bowls, and measuring cups/spoons when they're no longer needed and setting them in the dishwasher as you go keeps the prep area clear and keeps you focused on the recipe and procedures.• Taste along the way. Is there enough salt? Are your spices still potent or stale? Do you need to tweak? Only tasting will tell you (before it's too late).• Don't be wasteful. Turn stale bread into breadcrumbs. Save bones for soup. Put extra chopped veggies in the freezer. Use the last handful of rice as a thickener for soup.• Be patient. Let the cooking process take its time. Give ingredients time to mesh and flavors time to mingle. Don't check over and over to see how something is coming along, especially if keeping the oven door closed is critical to the success of a recipe.• Dress the dish. How food looks when served is an important part of the process. Arrange it nicely. Add garnishes. All this makes a meal more appetizing and creates the setting for greater enjoyment.
And remember that love is a real ingredient. Cook happy. Cook creative. Cook with love. Anticipate feeding your family, your guests, and yourself something delicious. Most things take longer to prepare than to eat, so make the process worthwhile, fun, and fulfilling.
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