Guides

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.

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.

Summer is the season of eating outdoors, but that doesn’t mean that city dwellers can’t make great barbecue inside, in our little, backyard-less apartments. In fact, the oven is a seriously great tool for turning whole pork butts into the best possible pulled pork sandwiches.  I’ve got a guide up today on First We Feast that shows you just how to do this. Check it out here.

A Dream Small Kitchen

Posted by on Monday May 18th, 2015

One of the oddities about doing the big girl/small kitchen life in New York City is how long you live as a renter. Though it feels like being socked in the gut when you think too deeply about real estate value vis-à-vis ever growing up and owning an apartment, there’s a lot to be said for renting once you get into the rhythm and find a good landlord. You have less responsibility, less stress, less fear of commitment in your daily life. This can be a good thing.

Of course, then again we renters have to face a lack of flexibility in decoration. We’re not going to tear down our walls or redo our kitchens. And so we make do with what we have (which is really not so bad!), and we dream.

Except, honestly, I never dreamed all that much about my perfect small kitchen. I’ve worked in studio kitchens and suburban kitchens, my mom’s kitchen and strangers’ kitchens. At the end of the day, I like my space best, even though it’s small and hardly customized to me. So, when it came to envisioning the perfect small kitchen, I needed some help with the dreaming part, not to mention the design.

In a world where we’re always seeking out the new, making and remaking an old favorite has the advantage of propelling us towards perfection.

That’s what happened when Alex and I made pasta with tomato sauce a weekly dinner staple, its assembly a cherished routine. He makes the sauce, and I assemble the dish. As he’s grown to know exactly how the garlic should look and smell when you’re ready to add the tomatoes, I’ve determined the right scale of acidity to richness (olive oil, parmesan), and how to melt mozzarella in the bottom of the bowl so each forkful of pasta includes a cheese pull. These days, our pasta with tomato sauce has gotten really good, because of a few particular ingredients and techniques.

I know this might sound simple, even trivial, the idea of going through a dish that a lot of you could make in your sleep in such detail. But with a couple extra flourishes and some mastery of timing, I think you can transform a ho hum dinner into the kind of food that reminds you why you cook, why you eat, and why you rarely need to order take-out.

For a two-person dinner and leftovers, you’ll need 3/4 pound of pasta (any shape), one 28-ounce can of whole plum tomatoes, an onion, as much garlic as you can stand peeling, a hunk of parm to grate, and some good olive oil (if you care). I sometimes put mozzarella into my pasta, but the dish is also good without.

Here’s the step by step.