Guide to Cooking in Small Spaces

Amy Pennington, author of "Urban Pantry: Tips & Recipes for a Thrifty, Sustainable & Seasonal Kitchen." Photo: Courtesy of Pennington

An apartment dweller can’t flip through cookbooks or culinary magazines without feeling inadequate. Images of spacious counter tops, shelves that hold every spice imaginable and long dinning room tables all strike envy in the hearts’ of city cooks. It’s enough to make you want to call for takeout and never cook again.

But according to Amy Pennington, size doesn’t matter, at least when it comes to your kitchen. In her book “Urban Pantry: Tips & Recipes for a Thrifty, Sustainable & Seasonal Kitchen,” Pennington shares tips for starting a pantry garden, small batch canning and stocking small spaces with the essentials – all with saving money in mind.

We asked Pennington to give Earth911’s city cooks some of her own tips and favorite recipes.

1. Space-saving kitchen secrets

Earth911: What are some space-saving ideas you can give to chefs burdened with tiny kitchens? Are there containers or shelving techniques you use at home to save space?

Amy Pennington: The first thing to really think about is how much food you will actually use. A single person does not need a 5-pound bag of potatoes, whereas a family of four can use them. It is always best to buy in bulk when you can, for the best deal, but also so you’re able to control quantity. Only make risotto once in a blue moon? Then you only need 2 cups of pearled barley (or arborio rice), and there is no reason to crowd your small pantry with more. By purchasing smaller quantities, you cook through them faster and make space to try some new things.

2. Growing herbs in the windowsill

Earth911: What about apartment gardening? What are some great windowsill herbs to grow?

AP: You can grow herbs on your windowsill (presuming you have sun exposure for at least six hours a day), but I wouldn’t recommend it. If you cook a few times a week, a small pot of herbs on your windowsill won’t actually produce enough green fast enough to satisfy. If you’re able, it’s better to put a pot of herbs outside. If you really only have your windowsill, I’d recommend some other home-growing projects like sprouting seeds or having a little micro green garden for garnishes.

3. If there’s no room for recycling…

Earth911: What about recycling, do you have any space saving ideas for keeping your recycling and trash neat in a tiny space?

AP: I compost anything I can, adding it to the city’s yard waste containers that are collected once a week. All vegetable scraps, fruit peels, eggshells and coffee grinds go in to a gallon-sized glass mason jar. I take that out every two days or so, because it gets full fast and in that way, never smells or rots. I do the same for recycling. I simply reuse paper grocery bags and take it out often. If you get into the habit of taking your waste out often, you don’t need a big space to contain it! I create very little waste, so there is no need for me to have a big garbage can, either.

[Author note: I LOVE my Simple Human trash/recycling bin.]

4. The cookware you need

Earth911: What are some common mistakes new cooks in tiny kitchens make? Are there items that novice chefs tend to buy that they really don’t need and don’t have the space for?

AP: Too many gadgets! You don’t need a garlic press if you have a knife, and many other kitchen items that are meant to be convenient just end up taking up space. Be realistic about what equipment you’ll use often and only purchase those. (If you make rice four times a week, a rice maker is great!) You can get by really well on a rubber spatula, a wooden spoon and a good chef’s knife. You also really only need one saucepan and one fry pan. New cooks also have a tendency to buy ingredients only because they think they’ll need them, [but they] just have to be realistic about how often they will cook and shop accordingly.

5. Food that’s worth the money

Earth911: What are some more expensive items or ingredients that are worth the cost?

AP: Spices are worth the extra expense. A beautifully smoked paprika is an entirely different beast then the paprika you buy in a tin from the grocery. Local and organic meat, eggs and dairy are also worth the cost. I don’t eat meat often, as I can’t afford local organic meat, which is often more than half the cost of conventional, but the extra money you spend is totally worth it. This meat is typically grass fed and therefore leaner and has a more complex flavor which means a little goes a long way (and saves you money!).

6. Last-minute, low-resource recipes

Earth911: What’s your favorite dish to cook for guests? What about a comforting meal after a long day?

AP: My hands down favorite comfort meal is roast chicken and a gin martini. When in doubt, I will roast a chicken. For guests, I like to cook elaborate meals that come together simply so I’m not stuck in the kitchen all night. Braises are great for this – you just put them in the oven and leave them be. You can make them special by focusing on condiments and garnishes – some gremolata, some pickled vegetables, a compound butter – these are the things that make meals special.

Page 2: Recipe for Over Easy With Tomato and Polenta

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  1. Yay for container gardening! If windowsill gardening isn’t your bag, ANYthing that can be grown outdoors can be grown indoors in containers (near a very sunny window, or with grow lamps). Lack of space is NOT a reason to keep you from growing healthy veg in your home, if you use containers.

    Happy gardening and healthy harvesting!

  2. It’s true that so many people have so much extra stuff in their kitchen that they don’t use! I used to and recently I started throwing things away. I redid my kitchen and got all new supplies. I got only what I REALLY use! I got everything from great company! They have everything you need and helped me figure out what I do and don’t need! I love working in my kitchen now! No extra gadgets and everything is so much neater!

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