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The Compact Parked in My Kitchen

By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sometimes I long for a shrinking device a la "Fantastic Voyage" or "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory": something that will zap all those chickens, carrots and herb bunches to a manageable, solo-cook size. The impulse is part portion control, part leftover avoidance.

Thankfully, miniature versions of some of my favorite foods are readily available, no transporter required. But a one-pound Cornish hen looks mighty lonely sitting in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet, even when surrounded by new potatoes and (real) baby carrots. And it appears positively forlorn when that skillet is sitting in an otherwise empty oven. Such a picture is what got me thinking about the wastefulness of using such a large appliance to cook such small amounts.

To borrow a euphemistic line from recession-era corporate culture, it was time for some right-sizing. I wouldn't get rid of my range any more than I'd lose the cast-iron skillet; I use both, and more, when cooking for friends or otherwise making large quantities. But I could certainly find room in my kitchen for a toaster oven.

Countertop ovens have come a long way, and I knew as much. Old, cramped models that were good for little more than dorm-room-style "pizzas" on pita have morphed into larger-capacity, multifunctional devices whose names don't necessarily include the word "toaster" anymore. They preheat in only a few minutes without heating up the kitchen, and they use half to one-third of the energy of a full-size oven. In the hands of creative cooks they can handle smaller versions of just about anything.

For some reason, though, I still hadn't imagined myself using one for much beyond, well, toast, until acclaimed chef Eric Ripert started his blog (http://www.aveceric.com) last summer with a video series dubbed "Get Toasted." The chef of Le Bernardin uses a Cuisinart model (which, perhaps not so incidentally, is advertised on the site) to make a frittata with zucchini, mint and Parmesan cheese; raspberry clafouti; garlic butterflied shrimp; broiled red snapper; and more. That's the kind of dorm-room cuisine that would send me right back to school.

Ripert doesn't live alone, but even for a couple with a small child the toaster oven can come in handy, which is what gave the chef the idea for the series. One rushed night, he was bemoaning the lack of time to get dinner on the table before he and his wife had to be at an event, and she announced she would broil a simple piece of halibut in the toaster oven. "I was doubtful," he said in a phone interview. "I had never considered it a too-serious appliance. But then she showed me, and I said, 'Oh, my goodness.'

"I'm not wanting to be the toaster-oven guy, but I thought, 'Let's prove a point and do something interesting for people who are cooking for themselves or for just two people.' "

I found more inspiration in the pages of Lynn Alley's "The Gourmet Toaster Oven" (Ten Speed Press, 2005), which includes recipes for braised scallions, Southwestern scones and savory cheesecakes.

Alley, a 60-year-old single cook and freelance writer in San Diego, initially bought a toaster oven when her full-size oven was damaged and she had weeks to wait until a new range was delivered. She became so enamored of her toaster oven that it led to her cookbook.

Three years later, long after her fancy new full-size oven was installed, "that little fellow still sits . . . in the place of honor, where it probably gets used more frequently than almost any other tool in the kitchen," she said.

Despite the evangelism of such cooks as Alley and Ripert, the toaster oven is far from reaching the ubiquity of, say, the slow cooker. According to the 2008 Kitchen Audit by market research firm NPD Group, about 41 percent of kitchens contain a toaster oven. But as the number of single-person households continues to grow, so could the toaster oven's appeal.

When I was looking through Alley's book, her meatloaf recipes first caught my eye, particularly one that called for baking the loaf in single-serving ramekins. I fairly blew apart the recipe, halving the portion size and using a combination of ground pork and store-bought salsa instead of turkey, apples and ketchup, and immediately devoured the results. Now I prepare four at a time but bake only one, wrapping the other three in plastic and freezing them. On any given morning, I can transfer one of the loaves from freezer to fridge for defrosting, then pop it into the toaster oven when I get home.

My other go-to toaster oven recipe these days is a shrunken version of the justifiably famous roast chicken at Hamersley's Bistro in Boston. Chef Gordon Hamersley marinates the chicken in a pungent combination of lemon, garlic and onion, roasts it in advance, then cuts up the bird and broils the pieces just before serving, until the skin is crisp.

Because the toaster oven can so quickly go from bake to broil, I applied a streamlined version of the technique to a small Cornish hen, roasting it in a round Lodge cast-iron Mini-Server, with baby carrots and potatoes roasting in matching cookware at the same time. They all fit.

Now when I pull them out, the bird doesn't seem too small for the pan, or for the oven. It's just right.

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