I’m officially obsessed with this charming book about life in the kitchen by author Dana Velden. From cover to cover, Dana nails some of the inexplicably beautiful elements of life spent over the stove and at the kitchen sink. The book aligns mundane tasks with strikingly appropriate meditations, identifies a good handful of ideal, all-purpose recipes and other cooking instructions, and insists that we stop and appreciate the minutia that makes life all that it is.
Although Near & Far is my official cookbook for holiday gift-giving this year, Finding Yourself in the Kitchen is running a very close second. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy for yourself before the holiday hubbub begins and make it a point to enjoy every last moment you spend in the kitchen during the soon approaching holiday season.
This excerpt from the book originally appeared years ago as part of Dana’s popular column at The Kitchn. It’s cozy and practical charm has withstood the test of time…
I hope this list inspires you to consider what makes you happy in your kitchen. If you don’t know or have never considered this question, take a moment to find out. Pay attention to when you’re happiest in your kitchen. Take note of the causes and conditions that help to create this feeling and be sure to practice and celebrate them as often as possible.
8 Simple Things to Do to Be Happy in Your Kitchen
Keep a well-stocked pantry
A well-stocked pantry is fundamental in any kitchen, no matter what our aspirations are for happiness. So it’s important to give our pantries enough attention and consideration. What we keep in our pantries (and refrigerators, for that matter) is a very personal reflection of who we are as cooks. The items reflect our interests and abilities, our income, food culture, space limitations, and time constraints. These are the things we reach for without thinking too much and have no problem remembering to restock when needed. The basics. I also like to think of cooking time and convenience when I’m stocking my pantry so that there are a variety of things available that can be cooked up quickly as well as things that work for longer, slower projects. It is also important to have a few unknowns in your pantry, a wildcard item or two that inspires you to cook outside your usual habits. This could be as simple as an unusual variety of dried bean or as exotic as a jar of dried Iranian limes.
Grow fresh herbs in pots
I don’t think I’ve ever met a devoted cook who doesn’t believe in having fresh herbs on hand. As a black-thumbed gardener, this is a challenge for me as I have a hard time keeping plants alive. But I persist because I am quite convinced of the benefit of fresh herbs. They add a freshness and flavor that is impossible to duplicate (dried herbs and fresh herbs are not always interchangeable). If it is impossible to grow herbs in your home, purchase them from the farmers’ market or grocery store and keep them in water on your counter. Treat them much like fresh flowers by trimming their stems and changing the water frequently.
Embrace the clutter (sort of)
While we can admire the sleek, streamlined, nearly empty kitchens we see in blogs and magazines, the truth is that most home kitchens have a lot more going on in them if they are truly being used. How you manage this and what it looks like is completely up to you. Maybe you have the space to stash it all away behind closed doors or maybe you’re more of an out-of-sight, out-of-mind kind of cook and need to keep things visible. Whatever your style is, it’s always more pleasant to cook in a clean kitchen with lots of available counter space with equipment and utensils in their proper place. So if you find that you just can’t avoid the clutter, keep it as organized as possible and don’t be afraid to purge every now and then.
Love your stuff
It’s important that you enjoy using the tools of your kitchen. If you sigh with displeasure every time you reach for that wobbly, dented frying pan, then your cooking experience with it is always going to be lacking. Invest in a few good pieces of kitchen equipment and plan on maintaining them for the rest of your life.
Fill the Sink with Warm, Sudsy Water
In an interview, the brilliant cook and cookbook author Deborah Madison once recommended filling the kitchen sink full of warm, soapy water before starting on a recipe. This is one of my favorite pieces of kitchen advice for it is practical and sensual and calming all at the same time. Washing my utensils as I use them is a pragmatic thing to do, but it also feels really wonderful to plunge my hands into warm, soapy water and clean off any stickiness or mess. And knowing that the tablespoon I just used and quickly cleaned will be ready for the next thing relieves some of the stress and confusion that can come with cooking, too.
Keep sharp knives
Having sharp knives in your kitchen will make a world of difference in your cooking. Contrary to what cookware stores tell you, you don’t need a lot of them, so spend your money on quality over quantity. A simple chef’s knife and a paring knife or two are a good place to start. Equally important are cutting surfaces. Wood boards are best and most popular; plastic will also work, although plastic is not as sanitary as wood. The most important thing is to keep your boards very clean and toss out any that are severely scuffed up as they will tend to harbor bacteria. It also helps to have a few sizes available to match the task at hand.
Learn techniques, not recipes
I have nothing against recipes, but when it comes to being able to play in the kitchen – to experience the freedom to improvise and turn on a dime, if needed – having an understanding of basic cooking techniques is far more important. Understanding fundamental techniques will free you up to experiment and allow you to feed a group of people a delicious meal with nothing more than a sack of potatoes and a few pantry items.
Pause and breathe
If you’re in the kitchen and you’re wired and stressed, pause and take a few breaths to see if you can’t find a little calm in the middle of the chaos. If you’re in the kitchen and you’re happy as a lark, then pause and take a few breaths to let it all in, to really steep yourself in your enjoyment. If you’re in the kitchen and you’re bored, pause and take a breath, noticing what might be a little different about today’s task at hand. No matter what your circumstances, pause and breathe. Look for where the sunlight is coming in, or notice the particular texture or color of the ingredient you are working with. Sniff the air. Every moment is endlessly fascinating and equally as fleeting. Don’t let it slip away.
Be as seasonal as possible
This is my bonus recommendation. To the extent that you can, try to eat seasonally. I find that when I’m living within the rhythms of the seasons, I have less anxiety, and I can clearly see where and how I am sustained. This connection, this acknowledgment – that even though I am living in a crowded urban area, I am still closely bound to the earth – is a never-ending source of comfort and joy.
Reprinted from Finding Yourself in the Kitchen by Dana Velden. (c) 2015 by Dana Velden. By permission of Rodale Books.