PARIS -- My kitchen is not considered small by Parisian standards, but compared with the one that I had when I lived in Dallas, it is Barbie-size. It is also subterranean. Located just beneath street level, with a window that usually frames a set of fat tires parked along the curb above, it is not my dream looking-out-over-the-gray-rooftops-of-Paris-from-the-sink kitchen.
But I have learned to make do. I painted the walls a verdant green, in hopes of deflecting attention from the faux-wood countertops. I stacked my flea market blue-and-white plates on an iron baker's rack, and hung my copper pots on each end to create a rustic feel. I still try to ignore the two-hour cycle of the washing machine, which mimics the roar of a jet engine at takeoff, and the dryer (also in the kitchen).
As awful as it sounds, I've become quite attached to this little space. But it recently had become as jam-packed as the metro line at 6 p.m. My shelves were stuffed and completely disorganized; pasta was jammed on top of jars of honey, which were willy-nilly stuffed between the salsa and Nutella. This madness had to end. It was time to clean out the cabinets, get organized and restock with fresh ingredients. When you're as space-challenged as we are in Paris, every inch -- rather, centimeter -- counts.
I asked myself, "What would Mom do?"
She would clean, collect, categorize and label everything she could get her hands on. So I did.
First, I took everything off my shelves and scrubbed them thoroughly, and checked the dates of every can, bottle and box.
Then, for obvious categories like tea and spices, I put the items in plastic CD boxes and labeled them. Boxes take up a bit more space than just putting things in the cabinet, but I'll take less space over not knowing what I've got any day. I also tried to put things low that I use frequently, and high things that I need to access less often.
Over the years, drawers became catchalls for the overflow of tools that didn't fit in the utensil crock near the stove. I could never find anything without rummaging through all the drawers.
I divided and conquered, breaking up the space with a series of smaller baskets, which I found in the Paris equivalent of the Dollar Store. Now when I open the drawers, I can always put my hands on exactly what I need. Intuitively, I put the scissors near the drawer opening, since I need them every day, and put the lesser-used items toward the back.
It's still a challenge to keep things organized, but with this new framework in place, I know I can get things back to where they need to be. Now I can move onto other things.
Like my "pantry." I'm embarrassed to admit this, but it's actually a tiny bathroom we don't use. Instead, I store additional kitchen appliances and extra dry goods there. Extra sacks of flour, mustard and Texas imports such as Fritos, Ranch Style Beans and Velveeta are stacked everywhere.
I'm imagining shelves bolted onto the wall. Looks like it's time to visit Ikea.
Here are some "from-the-pantry" recipes that I've found I can make easily from what's on hand after I've cleaned the kitchen.
Split pea soup with caramelized onions, hazelnut oil and Roquefort breadsticks
Living in France taught me that even the simplest of things can be dressed up if you have the right accessories. Caramelized onions are easy to make, and they make everything better. If I don't know what to make for dinner, I often start by cutting up and caramelizing an onion. After that, anything's possible.
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 medium onion, 1/4-inch dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound split peas, rinsed and picked over
1 big hunk bacon or ham
1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
Sea salt (if needed; bacon or ham always adds saltiness, so I wait to add additional salt)
1 medium onion, 1/4-inch dice
Hazelnut oil, for serving
1 recipe Roquefort breadsticks (recipe follows)
1. In a medium skillet, drizzle 2 tablespoons olive oil and add onions and garlic. Turn heat on medium-high and cook until onions begin to become translucent, about 5-10 minutes.
2. Put the onion-garlic mixture in a slow cooker, add the split peas and bacon or ham, and cover with water by about 3 inches. Add pepper; wait until the peas are cooked before adding any salt. Turn on low heat for 4 hours. (If not using a slow cooker, cook on the stovetop on low heat for about an hour.)
3. Drizzle 2 remaining tablespoons olive oil in the skillet and, over medium-low heat, slowly cook the other diced onion until it's golden brown. Remove these onions from the skillet and set aside. To serve, spoon some of the soup in a shallow bowl, add a few of the caramelized onions and drizzle with hazelnut oil. Add a Roquefort breadstick.
Nutritional analysis per serving, without breadsticks: 410 calories, 15 grams fat, 49 grams carbohydrates, 21 grams protein, 5 milligrams cholesterol, 114 milligrams sodium, 20 grams dietary fiber, 33 percent of calories from fat.
So easy to make, these can instantly transform soup night into something special. I happen to love Roquefort, but you can use cheddar, Parmesan or your favorite melty cheese.
1 17.3-ounce package puff pastry (Pepperidge Farm sells it in sheets)
4 ounces Roquefort, crumbled
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Roll out the puff pastry onto a flat surface, and cover with bits of Roquefort. Sprinkle with pepper. Gently press the Roquefort crumbles and the pepper into the dough. With a pizza slicer, cut 18 1/2-inch-wide strips. Give each strip a twist and lay out on the cookie sheet. Bake for 10-12 minutes or until brown and crispy. Serve warm.
Nutritional analysis per breadstick: 173 calories, 12 grams fat, 12 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 6 milligrams cholesterol, 182 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 64 percent of calories from fat.
Artichoke heart and goat cheese tartines
Inspiration can come from anywhere. I was at the salad bar at Whole Foods in Dallas and put a spoonful of spicy chopped artichoke hearts onto my salad; I thought that it was such a simple idea, I needed to go home and chop up a jar of them myself. Red pepper flakes, instead of jalapeño peppers, would also work nicely to give this a bit of heat.
4 slices country bread
1 10-ounce jar grilled artichoke hearts in oil, drained
1/4 cup chopped roasted red bell pepper (I use the ones in the jar)
1 chopped jalapeño (pickled or fresh)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon fresh chopped dill, plus more for serving
Sea salt, to taste
Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
4 ounces goat cheese
1. Toast the bread and set aside.
2. Put the artichoke hearts in a small food processor and pulse 2-3 times, or until the pieces are small and uniform. Put the chopped artichoke hearts in a bowl and mix with bell pepper, jalapeño, lemon juice and dill. Add salt and pepper to taste.
3. Spread goat cheese over toast (about 1 tablespoon/1 ounce per slice), spoon on the artichoke mixture and garnish with a little more dill, if you'd like.
Cowgirl tip: This artichoke mixture could be spread on smaller pieces of toast or thin slices of baguette for an appetizer; stirred into penne pasta, along with the goat cheese; or served as a dip, with pita chips.
Nutritional analysis per tartine: 225 calories, 11 grams fat, 18 grams carbohydrates, 13 grams protein, 30 milligrams cholesterol, 410 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 45 percent of calories from fat.
Three-ingredient chocolate mousse
This recipe is adapted from the recipe on the back of the Nestlé dessert chocolat noir bar, 200g.
1 tablespoon butter, for greasing the ramekins
8 ounces semisweet chocolate (I use 52 percent cocoa)
1. Generously grease four 6-ounce ramekins with butter and set aside.
2. Break up the chocolate into small pieces and melt in a double boiler.
3. While the chocolate is melting, separate the eggs. Whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until firm peaks form.
4. When the chocolate has melted, remove from the heat and let cool slightly (it should only be slightly warm) before adding egg yolks. Note: If your chocolate isn't in a large bowl, now's the time to transfer it. This will make folding in the egg whites much easier.
5. Fold in about 1/4 of the egg whites, making sure they're incorporated. Now, fold in another 1/4, then another, and the final bit. Be sure to use a light touch when doing this; the less you mix, the more lift you'll have. Spoon mixture into the four ramekins and refrigerate for at least three hours.
Cowgirl tip: Chocolate mousse has never been a favorite dessert of mine, but when my boyfriend, Xavier, taught me the French way to eat it -- by dipping each small spoonful of mousse into a cup of strong espresso, so there's a mix of coffee and mousse in each bite -- I became a big fan. Now I can't eat it any other way.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 394 calories, 26 grams fat, 37 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams protein, 208 milligrams cholesterol, 148 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber, 56 percent of calories from fat.
Tuna and sun-dried tomatoes on puff pastry
Once I started eating tuna packed in olive oil, I couldn't go back to the other stuff. It's moist and tastes more like tuna should. I love it mixed with any combination of Mediterranean-inspired ingredients -- here, I've used capers and sun-dried tomatoes.
1 17.3-ounce package puff pastry
1 6-ounce can tuna in olive oil, drained
4 sun-dried tomatoes, chopped into small pieces
1 tablespoon capers, drained
2 tablespoons olive oil
Big pinch red-pepper flakes
Sea salt (to taste and if needed; the capers add a bit of saltiness)
About 1 tablespoon fresh chives, plus more for garnish
1. Roll out the puff pastry and, using a biscuit cutter (or whatever shape you'd like), cut out pieces. Cook according to the package directions and let cool.
2. Mix everything else in a bowl and refrigerate for an hour before serving. Spoon on top of puff pastry shapes.
Cowgirl tip: This also makes a great appetizer. Just cut the puff pastry into smaller shapes.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 1,586 calories, 108 grams fat, 114 grams carbohydrates, 40 grams protein, 26 milligrams cholesterol, 1,063 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber, 61 percent of calories from fat.