Cookbook Review: 'The Kitchn Cookbook' is Your Tiny Kitchen Handbook

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[Photographs: Leela Cyd]

Editor's note: Hundreds of cookbooks come out every year. Which are really worth your time and money? Cook the Book highlights our favorites and puts their recipes to the test.

My kitchen, where I test all the recipes for this column, is tiny. So tiny that I find myself longing for the relative spaciousness of my dinky Manhattan apartment. It can also feel maddeningly disorganized at times, as I'm constantly trying to wedge in more and do more in it than it can handle; my pantry is essentially an ongoing game of Jenga, and I'm always losing. So I found myself riveted to the pages of The Kitchn Cookbook: Recipes, Kitchens & Tips to Inspire Your Cooking, by Sara Kate Gillingham and Faith Durand, editors of the massively popular website, TheKitchn.com. After almost a decade of growing the site with the help of their devoted readers, Gillingham and Durand decided it was time to round up their hard-won wisdom and best-loved recipes (as well many not previously published) into an accessible, hard copy collection. For fans of the website, it's a handy, curated collection of The Kitchn's greatest hits; for the uninitiated, it's a stand-alone primer. The book, like the site, is as much focused on organizing inspirational, user-friendly kitchen spaces as it is on providing inspirational, user-friendly recipes that are creative without being intimidating.

In fact, the entire first half of the book is devoted solely to the pursuit and execution of that comfortable kitchen. It makes sense, given that in 2005, The Kitchn branched off from its parent website, Apartment Therapy, with Gillingham at its head and a smart sense of design as a guiding principle. Employing smart design to maximize both the form and function of what is often the epicenter of the home is central to The Kitchn's philosophy. Without a well-thought-out and organized kitchen, cooking becomes much less pleasurable and take-out menus become that much more tempting (I can attest to that).

To that end, Part One: The Kitchen, covers everything from how to lay out a kitchen if you're starting from the ground up—with special attention paid to "the kitchen work triangle," the path between the refrigerator, the sink, and the stove that marks the majority of movement while cooking (ideally you'll have at least 4 feet but no more than 9 feet between any point)—to the tools that you're most likely to need and how to care for them. I, of course, was particularly interested in the section on improving 'challenging' kitchens, like the extra-small kitchen and the rental (mine is both). Tips like using a large butcher block to cover the stovetop to make more room for pre-cooking prep will really make a big difference in my workspace. Throughout Part One, Gillingham and Durand share profiles of real people cooking in their artfully designed kitchens. Though at this point the rooms are more aspirational than inspirational for me personally, the notion of really thinking through each and every decision about such an important space is 100% applicable.

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Rather than launch right into recipes, Part Two: How to Cook Well instead offers lessons on stocking the pantry, choosing ingredients, and approaching each meal with a plan. Nothing is willy-nilly in the world of The Kitchn, but all of their advice is so actionable, it never comes off as preachy or out-of-touch/reach. Instead, they offer tips like this: "Look for ingredient connections. If you're thinking about cooking a pot of beans, look for other ways to put the rest of that pot to use. One night you stir some beans into soup, and then the next night you serve the rest with chicken on top. As you pick out recipes to make each week, look for ways to make your work do double-duty." They also give readers a helpful primer in The Kitchn's Cooking School, in which they break down 50 skills they deem essential kitchen knowledge. Some of these skills are 101 for neophytes, like boiling water, and some would be useful refreshers for even the most seasoned cooks out there, like how long specific raw meats can hang out in the refrigerator before passing their prime. There are photo tutorials on how to break down a chicken and knead dough, and lessons on caramelizing onions and cutting butter into flour. They are thorough, and never condescending in their tone.

Finally, once they've gotten you organized, prepped, and ready, the second half of the book brings you the big pay-off: the recipes. After recently testing several cheffy cookbooks full of recipes that could intimidate even a hard-core home cook, it was so refreshing to flip through these pages and see recipe after recipe of wholesome, nourishing, weeknight-style cooking. Nothing fussy, nothing daunting. As they say by way of introduction, "If you've never cooked before, here are more than 100 recipes that you can follow step-by-step and find success...If you are an experienced cook, think of these as a hint that might inspire you." When I haven't gone shopping and my toddler fights sleep until 9:30, I'm not going to find something in a cheffy manifesto to ignite the spark my dim brain needs to turn the hodgepodge of items in my fridge into a delicious dinner. But I find that here. From a simple French Omelet to Roasted Chicken Thighs and Squash over Polenta to Wheat Berry Salad with Blood Oranges, Feta, and Red Onion Vinaigrette, there is something for every shade of a hungry, gimme-real-food mood. Breakfast all the way through through dinner, drinks, and dessert are covered. Nearly all the recipes are straight-forward leaning towards simple, but there are enough creative tweaks to keep an advanced cook interested (like Smoked Salmon Deviled Eggs with Crispy Capers).

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In fact, many of the recipes in the book are essentially well-executed basics. Like their Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Cauliflower, and Radishes with Garlic Aioli. Nothing groundbreaking here, but the simply roasted veggies and the aioli are spot-on, and that's really all you need. It's a nice mix of cold-weather veg, cut into smallish pieces and roasted at high heat, which means the edges get a bit charred just as the interiors soften. The aioli is wonderfully tangy and supremely garlicky, with that lovely olive oil flavor that trumps canola oil-based mayo every time. In fact, I made a faux aioli using the same proportions of ingredients but with mayo for my daughter, and it was quite tasty (if you don't want the egg yolk), but I sorely missed that olive oil aroma. I would actually say that the suggested four servings be cut to two very generous servings instead; between me and my little girl, we nearly polished off the plate in a sitting. (Now I know she has a thing for roasted radishes. Duly noted.)

But let's back up to breakfast. What better way to start the day than cold pizza straight out of the fridge? Maybe...hot pizza straight out of the oven? Enter the Breakfast Pizza, a straightforward, customizable pie with just-set eggs baked right on top. Their pizza dough recipe is quick and easy (actually, the single hour-and-a-half rise is optional, so you could make it to use right away) and results in a pleasantly chewy crust. The tomato sauce gets an interesting lift from lemon zest, and generous ricotta and Parmesan cheese add balancing salty richness. They suggest a handful of toppings including prosciutto and thinly sliced potatoes, though I went with a simple sprinkle of basil. I admit, I had it for dinner, where it worked juuuust fine, but the leftovers for breakfast sure hit the spot, as well.

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And finally, we had to try one of their desserts. But with all the cookie baking going on, it was nice to not have to turn on the oven for their No-Bake Banana and Peanut Butter Caramel Icebox Cake. Both the name and the final product are mouthfuls. Graham crackers are layered with a cream cheesy whipped cream, bananas, chopped peanuts and pecans, and a killer peanut butter caramel sauce. After a few hours in the fridge, the crackers soften and meld with the cream, and the cake becomes a nutty twist on banana pudding. (In fact, I might use vanilla wafers instead of the graham crackers and knock 'em dead at next summer's Southern potlucks.) And FYI, the peanut butter caramel sauce would make for an amazing sundae.

Throughout both sections of the book runs the heartfelt philosophy behind The Kitchn: that the kitchen is the heart of the home, and that cooking for oneself and others is caring for oneself and others in the purest sense. The book gets downright poetic in the musings from Dana Veldon; for instance, "The nature of the world is that everything is in motion; everything is in flux. Perfection, by extension, is a moving target as well. This is both the beauty and the challenge of cooking...With our eyes open, we can then discover how each moment, each circumstance, has its own perfection: this particular lemon, this pot, this rainy/sunny/snowy day; this body today, this mind, this simple extraordinary human life." Reading this cookbook/life-how-to manual truly does make me want to take a breath, take stock, and reorganize both mentally and physically. It was just the pep talk I needed to tackle that pantry.