Chef on Call
Taking Small Steps
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Beth Dahlman and Lauren Dunn dance the tiny-kitchen shuffle in their 500-square-foot Capitol Hill apartment. The coffee table's bottom shelf becomes a cooling rack. A portable island rolls in and out for extra storage and work space. Serving bowls become mixing bowls.
And when the sink and counters fill up with dirty pots and pans, the roommates have an interim solution: "Oh, just put them in the dishwasher for now," Dunn, 24, tells a visitor. "We do that all the time. We clean them later." Countless urban professionals who use microwaves and ovens for storage can identify.
The recent Washington transplants, who both work for nonprofit organizations, turned to Chef on Call for help: "Could you find a culinary expert to show us some techniques for cooking fresh, healthy(er), flavorful food in a small space?" wrote Dahlman, 23. "We eat vegetarian about 90 percent of the time."
Chef Esther Lee, 35, of Obelisk immediately came to mind; she has seven years of experience working with owner Peter Pastan, who has been turning out simply crafted five-course menus from the small kitchen of his Dupont Circle restaurant since the late 1980s. Lee consulted with Dahlman and Dunn, loaded up a bright woven shopping tote with equipment essentials and ingredients, and showed up on their doorstep on a warm April evening. On the menu: deviled eggs, marinated roasted peppers, farro salad with shaved fennel and arugula, halibut baked in parchment paper, strawberries in Chianti.
Lee took the requests of her students to heart, keeping in mind the limitations of cooking -- and entertaining guests -- in close quarters. "I just moved into a 400-square-foot efficiency, so I know what it's like," she said. "I picked things that for the most part could be made ahead of time and served room temp. You don't want to have the oven and stove[top] on all night with a lot of people in a little place."
The mechanics of the lesson emphasized the inherent challenge. The kitchen is barely 9 feet by 6 feet; maneuvering the teacher, students, photographer and reporter proved cumbersome. As the photographer teetered on a stool to take an overhead shot, he groaned that his feet were in the frame, then asked the reporter to move to the left.
There was no left left.
As the interlopers continued to bump into each other, Lee and the roommates persevered in relative comfort; they were accustomed to the restrictions.
A set of three stackable cake racks came in handy: Lee placed each one over a burner of the gas stove and roasted peppers on them over an open flame. "You cook the peppers until they are soft but not charred" all over, she said. "Then you put them in a bowl covered with plastic wrap. The steam will make separating the skin from the flesh easy." Soon Dahlman and Dunn took over the peeling, seeding and trimming of the peppers, which Lee seasoned and dressed with basil leaves, slivered garlic and olive oil before relegating them to the refrigerator.
"Can you use any olive oil?" Dunn queried.
"This is Italian olive oil, ladies!" Lee pronounced. That was a no.
Different olive oils -- French, Italian, Spanish -- have different qualities, and Lee encouraged experimentation: "You learn what goes with what. What you get back in flavor justifies the expense.