Cooking in small spaces, strategically

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 10, 2014 - 6:09 AM

Cooking in close quarters calls for a fresh look at efficiencies, while not sacrificing flavor.


The tiny kitchen aboard this Cape Dory 36 sailboat imposes the need for order and efficiency.

Photo: John Danicic • Special to the Star Tribune,

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It sounds weird, but the prospect of spending a week sailing on the vast expanse of Lake Superior is when I most channel my inner New Yorker.

The city’s tiny apartments are infamous for their even tinier kitchens, which may explain all the restaurants there. But dining out isn’t an option when anchored in the Apostle Islands or off Isle Royale in Mariah, our Cape Dory 36 sailboat.

Our galley squeezes stove, sink, fridge and pantry within the span of my arms. We’re talking about boats, but the space may be no different in recreational vehicles, lake cabins, a campsite picnic table, even in the “tiny house” movement.

Wherever you are, a shortage of space shouldn’t lead to compromises on cuisine.

So I strategize. Truth be told, that’s half the fun.

For starters, I plan meals with an eye to making one pan do double or triple duty. Then there’s the matter of keeping prep scraps to a minimum and odors at bay, especially during long stretches without touching the mainland, with its siren song of resupply and ability to offload trash.

Refrigeration helps, but armed with a few basic strategies even someone out for a few days with an ice chest can dine well. This recipe for Presque Bay Primavera shows how to ease the cook’s lot.

I start by prepping all my ingredients so everything is ready before cooking begins.

First step is laying down a paper towel. This is for all of the onion skins, broccoli trimmings, pepper innards and such. Then I just roll up the towel and squish it into a small sealable plastic bag. Mess and odors are now compressed and contained.

Here’s what I prep: half an onion, cut in slices. A couple of garlic cloves, sliced. A half-dozen of those small multicolored peppers, sliced. A cup of sliced mushrooms. Four slices of deli ham, slivered. A cup or so of broccoli florets, along with stems sliced thin. Get out some oil, the pasta, white wine (if we have it), salt and pepper.

Now, I’ll get out a 10-inch saucepan, heat a glug of canola oil over medium heat and cook the onion until it starts to soften. Nudging it to one side makes room for the peppers, which will cook while the onion takes on a golden sheen. In goes the garlic, which should just soften, then I make room for the mushrooms, which cook quickly.

Using a slotted spoon, lift all the vegetables from the pan into a bowl, saving the now-flavorful oil.

In goes the ham, where it frizzles for several minutes until the slivers sear just a bit. Add that to the veggie bowl.

Into the now almost-dry pan, the broccoli gets a quick stir-fry. If I’ve got white wine on board, a splash and a tight lid lets the broccoli steam for a minute. No wine? Water will do. The par-cooked broccoli then joins the ham and veggies. Cover to keep warm.

Now for the pasta, and the beauty part of this routine. I’ve been persuaded that pasta needn’t gambol about in great quantities of boiling water, but cooks well in just enough water to cover, 3 to 4 cups. You need to stir more often, but when you’re on a boat, there’s no laundry to throw into the dryer or phone to answer. Nothing better to do than lean against the stove, perhaps with a glass of wine, and prod pasta every so often.

Besides, when you have a finite amount of water and fuel, no point in wasting it with multiple pans to wash up or long cooking times.

But there’s also a cooking benefit: What little water remains after the pasta has reached its proper al dente now is so starchy that it helps bind everything together, almost like a light sauce.

When the pasta is done, drain any remaining water into a cup, then add the reserved vegetables and ham to the pasta. Sprinkle in some fresh grated Parmesan and let everything heat through once more, stirring in spoonfuls of the reserved water as needed until everything’s heated through. Fill plates from the pan, season, and you have a great dinner with just one pan to wash.

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