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How do you make the crispiest fish–the kind your order at restaurants? And what do you put on that fish to preserve its simplicity but also make it exciting?

Those are the two pressing questions we’re answering in today’s post.

I’ve been searching for a couple years for a consistent way to make the best simple fish. I love a good fish stew, a pot of steamed mussels, a skillet of salmon roasted on greens. But to get crispy skin and a perfectly cooked interior on today’s fresh catch from Mermaid’s Garden without leaving delish detritus in the pan: that’s harder. I’ve tried cornmeal. I’ve tried dusting with Wondra flour. At last, I’ve settled on nothing but high heat, thanks to a tiny tip from one of this winter’s editions of Bon Appetit.

The kind of heat you need will probably make you uncomfortable. The pan will grow dark and brownish before you start. The oil will smoke. The fish will crackle loudly. You’ll have to open your windows and close your bedroom door. You’ll want to turn your fan around so it faces out, not in. But the cooking takes all of 5 minutes, after which the smoke will clear and the scent will diffuse, and you’ll sit down to perfectly cooked fish filets that have remarkably crispy skin and very juicy flesh.

And then what? You don’t want to sauce your fish with anything goopy, out of fear of softening that hard-earned crispy crust and diminishing the subtle flavor.

A compound butter is answer. Compound butter is just butter that’s been mixed with flavorings. You don’t need much of it to do a lot of seasoning work, so serve with a dollop. (But if you keep the bowl on the table, like we did, you’ll probably end up garnishing every bite with a new smear of butter, especially once your palate acclimates to the heat.)

Tabasco sauce–the original flavor–adds that heat, as well as the acidity that seafood craves. You use a big quantity of the hot sauce here: 3 tablespoons for the 1/2 cup of butter. Put in another tablespoon if you’re serious about heat. At first, when you sample the butter, you’ll think even 3 tablespoons was too much. But next to the crispy hot sear of the fish, you’ll find that hot butter is just what you want. The butter starts off solid but soon melts to become a balanced sauce, just the pairing your perfect filets were looking for.

If you’re wondering what’s below the fish, that’s the kind of hodgepodge I cook up on weeknights based on what’s in the fridge and pantry. For this one, I simmered about a cup of farro in salty water and sautéed sweet potatoes, onions, and kale in a skillet. I combined the two together and seasoned with some leftover shallot vinaigrette.

This post is sponsored by Tabasco as part of TABASCO® Tastemakers program. If you missed the first of the four Tabasco/BGSK recipes–Chipotle Pecans–get at it now. All opinions, as always, are my own. Thanks for supporting the sponsors who keep BGSK delicious!

You want to go to the park for a picnic or the beach for an early sandwich dinner. Eating outside is irresistible, so this desire is probably on repeat right now. But planning the meal takes more effort than daydreaming about how to source tomatoes for patafla. You need stuff: utensils, cups, drinks, bug spray.

That’s why I’ve always been tempted to own one of those fully loaded picnic baskets, the kind with patterned plastic plates and a built-in strap for your wine bottle. But given the changing seasons of the northeast, I know that such a possession would burden the clutter-free kitchen for three-quarters of the year. It’s easy to say no when there’s no space for storage and the snow is falling. It’s harder to say no when the sun is shining, even when you don’t want to overcrowd your closets.

There’s no limit on over-thinking in a small space though, so I spent some time considering the reasons those stocked picnic baskets tempt us. They promise a classy way to eat in the park or at the beach, with reusable dinner plates and bottles of wine. But that’s not the whole story. They hold within their woven wicker walls the lure of spontaneity: Let’s have a last-minute picnic because the sun is out when predictions were for rain. You grab some sandwiches and I’ll pack the olives and we’ll be set. No long checklists, no forgetting of corkscrews, no inability to cut the chorizo because someone forgot a pocketknife.

We can recreate that feeling without a clunky hamper by making our own picnic-ready “baskets”–probably a tote, IRL–that’s on call for outdoor dinners. The aesthetics aren’t as fetching, but the convenience is enticing enough. Put together your basket as soon as summer arrives, then  keep the must-haves stowed in there for as long as the weather permits adventures. (You can find an empty corner to stuff the basket into, in season.) Then, when winter comes, unpack the summery things and roll up the tote, and don’t worry about making room for anything but summer nostalgia.

First, find the bag. Any large tote will do. I chose mine because of its size, and because a flat-seamed bottom keeps it standing upright. There’s also a a zippered closure and a thin insulated lining. If your tote collection looks like mine, you’ll have plenty to choose from. I don’t know where they all come from, but I cherish them.

Now that you’ve settled on a “basket,” go gather more bags and sacks and cases from beneath the bathroom sink and the back of the junk drawer. Pull out the freebie zippered pouches from plane rides or cosmetic subscription boxes, the cloth bags your espadrilles came in–or, if you’ve got neither, baggies. Containing picnic paraphernalia is key to our bag’s usefulness and all-summer-long durability. You’ll pack like with like in those mini bags, so there’s a place to put things back at picnic’s end.

Set your table. You’ll want plates and cups–reusable or a pile of throwaway, your choice. Into one of your sacks, stuff plastic forks, knives, and spoons. Bonus points if they’re left over from a party or salvaged from last week’s picnic, when you filched more forks than needed from the deli. Into another sack go napkins (or torn-off paper towels, or a half-used roll). Add a water bottle, one you don’t use regularly. Keep it empty; its presence in the bag will remind you to fill up before departing, and maybe to add an extra bottle before you go. Now fill up another little bag with the necessary utensils for serving and prepping: one paring or pocketknife, one corkscrew and bottle opener, a jar of salt and one of pepper if you like, little bottles or jars of olive oil and vinegar for last-minute seasoning, a small cutting board, and at least one sturdy non-disposable fork for serving and steadying. If you have a light tray you don’t use much at home, add that so that bottles and cups have a horizontal surface at the park, or you have a way to serve pita chips.

Look to repurpose items from your kitchen and pantry that you won’t miss day to day, like that cutting board someone gave you as a gift, that bottle opener party favor from someone’s wedding, that pocket knife you would bring on hiking trips if it were allowed in your carry-on.

Of course, sometimes you don’t own duplicates. Make a list of picnic necessities you can’t relegate to the basket full-time. Write the items on a little card, and clip it to the strap of your bag or the cutting board so you remember to grab them before you head out.

Prepare to keep the picnic neat with the right cleaning supplies. Pack two garbage bags, plus extra baggies or supermarket plastic bags to help separate reusable food and utensils from those destined for the trash. Two new Clorox® products, Scrub Singles and Pump ‘n Clean, help with tidiness. The Scrub Singles are like individual sponges. You wet them to activate their bleach-free cleaner, then use them to scrub down knives, the plastic containers you packed food in, or greasy grilling tools. If you’re cooking on a public grill, like the ones we have in Prospect Park, you can also use them to sanitize the grates before you sear your burgers. Clorox’s® Pump ‘n Clean makes one-handed clean-up a cinch. Press a paper towel down on the pump to soak up the food-safe cleaning liquid, then wipe down cutting boards and utensils without leaving a residue. (Don’t use to clean up from raw meat or fish though.) Clean up a cutting board used to chop veggies before repurposing it as a serving platter, or use the cleaners to do the initial wipe down before a second cleaning at home.

You probably have a handle on the picnic food you crave, but can I put in a plug for one formula I’m loving right now? Sandwiches (mine are cheddar and mortadella with spicy mayo, inspired by this winning favorite) with a side of sautéed vegetables, which are easier to eat than salads. I packed garlicky broccoli rabe here. You can’t go wrong with chips.

After the food, there’s fun. You’ll need a blanket or sheet for sitting. Toss in a frisbee, a deck of cards, and other favorite lawn or blanket games. I add a miscellaneous baseball hat for the fair-skinned, plus sunscreen and bug spray just in case. (Again, I harvest the assorted extras from our cabinet and closet stash: cards from a delay in the Houston airport, a cap from a work trip, sunscreen purchased on the way to Macchu Picchu…)

Here’s all that stuff in list form. Happy picnicking!

Set the Table

  • Plates
  • Disposable (or reusable!) silverware
  • Napkins or paper towels
  • Corkscrew/bottle opener
  • Reusable water bottle(s)
  • Salt and pepper (plus olive oil & vinegar if you’d like)
  • Pocket knife (or a paring knife protected with a cloth or case)
  • Cutting board and/or sturdy but light serving tray
  • Sturdy (non-disposable) fork (to steady breads or cheeses when cutting, for serving, to flip anything you’re making on the portable grill)
  • If grilling: aluminum pans for receiving hot stuff, tongs, matches or lighter, charcoal
  • Notecards/sticky notes to remind you what needs to go in the basket last-minute

Clean up

  • Garbage bag and extra baggies
  • Scrubs for cleaning surfaces, like Clorox® Scrub Singles
  • Cleaning liquid, like Clorox® Pump ‘n Clean
  • More paper towels

Play

  • Sheet or blanket (you might store this in a second tote)
  • Deck of cards
  • Frisbee
  • Portable speakers
  • Bug spray (or bug-repellant candle, plus matches)
  • Sunscreen
  • Baseball cap

Eat

This post was sponsored by Clorox®. All opinions are my own. Thanks for supporting the sponsors that keep Big Girls, Small Kitchen delicious!

If you want to mix me a Manhattan or stir me a Moscow Mule, I will never say no. But though I know I might be able to build a small kitchen-style minimalist liquor cabinet that yielded an impressively varied array of mixed drinks, I haven’t yet. Normally, I’m content to open a beer and then go make a mess in the kitchen instead of at the bar. Sometimes you just have to go with what obsesses you.

But I do love the premise of a drink before dinner, the sipping of something cold and a little bit sweet to put the day behind you and get your appetite ready for a meal. That thing just doesn’t have to be a cocktail.

So I thought I’d tell you about four aperitifs that you can pour straight from the bottle this summer. Each of these herb-infused liquors, most based off of wine, seem more special than wine or beer, yet they’re a whole lot less work than any cocktail. (All are great cocktail mixers, though, if we ever change our minds about mixing.) You can pour them right over ice. Or, if you want to do a little work, you can pour a half-inch of seltzer or champagne to make fizzes, and/or garnish with orange or lemon slices or rinds.

This week, I interviewed Wes Avila of Guerrilla Tacos for my complete guide to tacos on First We Feast. At his Los Angeles taco truck, I learned, he changes the menu constantly, based on inspiration from what’s available or what he finds himself eating in his regular life. He told me he’s made tacos from leftover fideuà and from the Armenian sausages he buys in Glendale, his neighborhood. I loved how he talked about the creativity involved in translating his world into food, particularly tacos. Here’s how he puts it:

Wear what you dig. Cook what you like. If you like really spicy stuff, go for it. If you like exotic things, go for it. As far as you being the cook – professional or home – when you’re cooking something that comes from the heart…that’s when you can make something tasty. If you have good ingredients, and you can simply cook it, and not try to do some BS fusion crap you saw on TV but cook something you like, then you’re in the right direction.

As I so often do when I’ve been testing something for a piece, I ended up subsisting on tacos and leftover tacos materials for several days. I’m not sick of them. In fact, I’ve forgotten all about rice bowls and sandwiches, my usual vehicles for edible miscellany. Now, I want to wrap everything in a corn tortilla, just like Wes. Cooking what you like, right?! Here are 10 dishes from the archives I really like, which are suddenly begging for the taco treatment.

1. Chicken & Cauliflower YakitoriVegetables and chicken baked in a sweet soy sauce should come off the skewer and into your taco. Instead of salsa, drizzle on sriracha.

2. Manchurian CauliflowerThe Chinese-Indian favorite features crispy cauliflower in a sweet and tangy sauce. A dollop of yogurt would be welcome on top.

3. Paneer Bhurji. Paneer kind of reminds me of Mexican fresh cheese, and this dish evokes a spicy egg scramble, so maybe it belongs not just on any taco but on a breakfast taco.

4. Corn Pudding. Corn on corn! Add something crunchy to make the textures work, like pickled shallots or radishes.

Kitchen Stuff: The Handheld Mixer

Posted by on Monday Jun 15th, 2015

In a small kitchen, you don’t need a lot of equipment to cook great food. Still, you do need some pots, pans, utensils, and dishes–obviously. In the BGSK book, you’ll find a bare bones list of necessary tools, but I’ve long wanted to bring you a similar resource on the web.

So we’re going one by one, stocking up our virtual pantries and maybe our real ones too.

Over the weekend, we celebrated my mom’s birthday. While I zested lemon for the batter, my sister Kate tried to cream three-quarters of a stick of butter in a very old handheld mixer in my sister Jill’s kitchen. Once the cake (raspberry-swirled lemon cake with lemon cream cheese icing) was in the oven, we realized we’d had a really weird case of kitchen blindness. Jill has a stand mixer out on the counter.

The cake turned out great without the stand mixer’s super powers though. Handheld mixers are hardly as brawny, but they get the job done. And though stand mixers, particularly those in beautiful hues, make a generous housewarming present if you move into an actual house, when you’re cooking in a small apartment kitchen, they simply take up too much counter or cabinet space to justify their $400 price tag. That’s why, if you bake even a few times a year, I recommend directing your love to a much more accessible handheld mixer, one costs less than $40. You may have to beat your butter and eggs for a few extra seconds, and you’ll likely have to replace the mixer every four years when its motor peters out. But in the meantime, you won’t be put off by buttercreams or meringues–whether because you don’t own a mixer or because you don’t want to pull your heavy stand mixer out of storage.

(It should be noted, of course, that if you’re completely baking equipment phobic, you can always cream butter and whip cream with your spatula or whisk and your very strong arm.)

Here’s what you’ll make with your cheap and nimble handheld mixer:

When you have documented, for anyone who would listen or read, that you’ll put a fried egg (or a handful of nuts) on top of anything, can you rescue this format (bowl of something + egg on top = B,L, or D) from the oblivion of those rando hodgepodge dishes meant to be eaten only in your own company?

Here’s one path to redemption: the fancy leftovers from a dinner party.

One of the only times I turn to actual recipes written by other people is when I’m hosting friends. It’s an odd habit, even a bad one. Dinner party rules say never to make a new recipes when eight hungry guests await the results, and they are probably right. I ran out of tin foil to cover the pans of the new-to-me fish, old-to-Paula Wolfert tagine, and the potato slices on top of the fish filets cooked so slowly that I dirtied an extra pot because it had a cover that kept the heat in better than tin foil. In the end, dinner was good (enough), and I didn’t breathe a word about the worrisome not-quite-soft potatoes to anyone at the table, a tenet from the rulebook that I do follow.

Anyway, the next day, I reheated the leftovers. Just the scraps from the pan–all the fish was gone. The charmoula–an ultra lemony Moroccan parsley marinade–had time in the oven to sink further into the vegetables and garbanzos that had cooked alongside the snapper filets, and as they roasted, they softened and grew tangy and tasty and flavorful. The potatoes, in particular, were way better than the night before.

How and Why To Build a Giant Nut Stash

Posted by on Wednesday Jun 3rd, 2015

If you want to cook seamlessly on weeknights and have something to eat when there appears to be nothing, here’s my advice: make like a squirrel and fill your larder with nuts (and seeds). I reach for almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, pepitas, pine nuts, pistachios, sesame seeds,  sunflower seeds, or walnuts in about half of my cooking endeavors. Whether I want to make pesto, add crunch to a salad, or snack before my bike ride, I’m thrilled to rediscover my growing and miscellaneous buffet, and though I’m usually more minimalist about equipment and ingredients that belong in a small kitchen, right now I actually own all of the nuts listed in the second sentence of this paragraph, and I don’t begrudge them the space. Here’s how and why to build you a giant nut stash of your own.