If nothing else, the cozy kitchen at Abbie Shlesinger’s Reston, Va., condo has taught her to improvise. “I use the top of the washing machine if I’m baking cookies,” she says. “And I store dishes in the hall closet.” With only three drawers and no pantry, the 10-by-10, L-shaped space has also shown Shlesinger, 26, what she can do without. “I don’t have a food processor or blender,” says the mom of one, who works in direct marketing. “I don’t want to store things.”
It can be tough when you dream of “Top Chef” meals but your cucina seems barely big enough to nuke a frozen pizza. But even if you don’t have room for a KitchenAid mixer or wine glasses in every size, there’s no need to throw in the dish towel. The tiniest kitchen can still turn out yummy dishes, as long as no one expects it to function like a four-star restaurant.
“One of the biggest challenges is people biting off more than they can chew,” says Phoebe Lapine, co-author with Cara Eisenpress of “In the Small Kitchen” ($22, William Morrow). “Most of the time, they don’t realize how small their kitchen is until they’re way in the weeds on whatever elaborate dinner they’re trying to cook.”
Know your limitations, whether that’s a tiny square of counter space or a Lilliputian oven that can only fit a quail or two, not a Thanksgiving turkey. “You have to be more organized about how you cook and prepare items,” says Antonio Burrell, chef de cuisine at Masa 14 (1825 14th St. NW; 202-328-1414).
Burrell knows of what he speaks. He once lived in a basement apartment with only a sink, two burners and 3 feet of counters. “You can make roasted chicken or pizza in a toaster oven when you don’t have one,” he says. “You wind up prepping in the living room sitting on the couch.”
A lack of storage forces you to be creative. “Integrate kitchen equipment into other areas of the apartment,” Lapine says. “I have pots and pans on a wall as part of the living-room decoration.”
Like Shlesinger has learned, you don’t need lots of fancy equipment to cook a juicy steak or gooey batch of brownies. “Never buy sets,” says Nancy Pollard, owner of La Cuisine (323 Cameron St., Alexandria; 703-836-4435). “If you need a 1.5-quart saucepan, get a 1.5-quart saucepan.”
And know that you can host a dinner party, even with a closet-sized kitchen. Just don’t wait until your guests arrive to start. “Get as much as you can prepped ahead of time,” says Nicholas Stefanelli, executive chef at Bibiana (1100 New York Ave. NW; 202-216-9550). “Do one nice hot dish and have other things made ahead of time.”
“Don’t stress!” Lapine says. “Friends are so thrilled to get an invitation to dinner, it’s not like you have impress them with the most complicated dish.”
Recipe File: Provencal Baked Chicken
»1⁄4 cup red wine vinegar
»3 tablespoons olive oil
»5 dried dates, pitted and chopped (about 1⁄4 cup)
»3 tablespoons chopped pitted Kalamata olives
»2 bay leaves
»3 tablespoons garlic, crushed, minced with 1 teaspoon salt
»1 1⁄2 teaspoons dried oregano, or 2 tablespoons fresh oregano
»Freshly ground black pepper
»3 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
»1 small onion, thinly sliced
»4 plum tomatoes, each cut into 6 wedges
»3 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
»1⁄4 cup dry white wine
»2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley (optional)
1. Combine vinegar, olive oil, dates, olives, bay leaves, garlic, oregano and pepper to taste in a large container with a lid. Add the chicken and toss well to coat. Let this sit overnight in the fridge (or at least six hours).
2. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
3. Arrange the chicken in one layer in a casserole dish or baking pan. Pour all the marinade from the container over the chicken. Scatter onion slices between the chicken pieces, and wedge tomatoes into crevices around the pan. Sprinkle each piece of chicken with some of the brown sugar; then evenly pour the wine around the dish and over the chicken. Bake for one hour, or until the chicken’s juices run clear, the tomatoes are browned and the onions are soft.
4. Sprinkle fresh parsley over the chicken and transfer to a platter if you’re not serving it in the baking dish.
5. Pour juices from the pan into a small serving bowl and pass this sauce with the chicken.
Note: You can bake the chicken ahead of time and reheat After baking, refrigerate the chicken in the pan. Reheat it together with its sauce in a pot over a low flame. From “in the Small Kitchen” ($22, William Morrow)
Written by Beth Luberecki