Dining at home in a small Vancouver apartment doesn't have to be a drag

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      Local artist John Ferrie’s live/work studio is an open-concept space that not only functions as a workspace and gallery; it’s also a place where, over the last 15 years, he has honed his cooking skills. It doesn’t matter that his kitchen is tiny. The painter is almost as passionate about what he comes up with in the kitchen as what he creates on canvas.

      “My counter space is a foot and a half wide, but I love cooking and I’ve become really, really good at it,” says Ferrie, whose next show, If ONLY I Had a Helicopter, runs at the South Main Gallery (279 East 6th Avenue) in March. “I do this age-old thing: I follow a recipe. My signature dish is a roasted poblano and tomatillo chicken enchilada.”

      Ferrie genuinely enjoys cooking and entertaining, but he’s motivated to eat at home in part because of the cost savings.

      “Lattes and dining out: they’ll skyrocket your credit card into oblivion,” he says. “I try and make sure I always have food in the fridge. I’ll make a big Crock-Pot of chili or chicken noodle soup or taco mix so I’ve got those things as leftovers—so I’m not going ‘Oh, look, let’s just go here for a quick bite.’ I shop every day on Granville Island or at the farmers market or the little grocery store up the street.

      “When I have people over for dinner at 6, I try and have everything prepped by 2,” he adds. “And dinner at my house means an appetizer, a salad, an entrée, and dessert.”

      Create a mood and save cash

      In a city where there are so many appealing dining options, it can be hard for Vancouverites to avoid the temptation to go to a restaurant several nights a week. It’s always nicer to have someone else do the cooking and cleaning. Dining out can be especially difficult to resist for people living in small spaces, who don’t have gourmet kitchens like you see on the Food Network.

      The good news is there are plenty of things people can do to make cooking and eating at home a more pleasurable experience—while easing the strain on their cash flow.

      Start by making the most of your own surroundings.

      “The thing I really enjoy the most, sometimes more than the actual food, is creating the ambiance,” says Shelley Robinson, regional executive chef for Coast Hotels and chef instructor in the culinary program at Vancouver Community College. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money. I’ll go to IKEA and get nice, inexpensive dish sets and set a nice table with cool plates. Put out some place mats, light candles, put on some music, and make it relaxing. Part of why people go out is because they don’t like their space, it’s not comfortable. You can re-create that restaurant ambiance even if you have a small space. Clear the crap away, clear the clutter. Take the time to make the meal a pleasurable part of your day.”

      Get rid of excess pots and pans

      Having an organized kitchen will make it more likely that you’ll want to channel your inner chef.

      “Minimizing is key,” says chef David Robertson of Dirty Apron Cooking School. “At the end of the day you can cook any meal anywhere in the world with two knives. Everything else is add-ons. Look at what’s in the knife drawer, and if there’s anything you haven’t used in three or four years, maybe it’s time for a garage sale or to give it to your neighbour.”

      Ditto for spices that have been sitting in your pantry for years without being used: get rid of them or, if they still have their pungency and flavour, find recipes that call for them. Robertson says you shouldn’t need more than four pots and pans, no matter how big your kitchen is.

      “If you have pots and pans stacked on top of each other or you can’t find your knives, you’re just not motivated to start cooking,” says Robertson. “With clutter, you’re not even going to feel like picking up that pan.

      “Clean out your pantry and you’ll feel like cooking lots of meals,” he adds. “But always have room for a good bag of chips. My go-to things are butter, bacon, fresh herbs, salt, and mustards. It doesn’t matter how small my kitchen will be, there will always be room for those things.”

      The Dirty Apron's David Robertson (seen with daughter Chase [centre] and student Gina Vultaggio) recommends reducing the number of pots and pans in the kitchen.

      Coast Hotels regional executive chef Robinson’s must-have items include good olive oil, Italian tomatoes, lemons, garlic, pasta, and lentils. “When there are things that I know are there, maybe all I have to do is pick up a piece of meat or fish or some cheese, and I can make something really simple, really easily, that’s really good.”

      When she used to live in a studio apartment in Coal Harbour, Robinson had a single countertop. Here’s her solution for anyone with a barely there galley kitchen: invest in a raised faucet for the sink and a large cutting board—one big enough to fit right over the sink so that you have an instant workspace. Or place a cutting board over your stovetop to do your prep.

      While living in that tiny space, Robinson got really good at one-pot meals, an approach she still favours. She recently whipped up a meal consisting of roasted turkey breast, a turkey leg, and vegetables all cooked in the same pan.

      Many pieces of equipment can do triple duty, Robinson notes: a pie plate could be used for roasting vegetables and toasting nuts; you don’t necessarily need a roasting pan as well as several cookie sheets. “Quite often, recipes call for different pots and pans and bowls you don’t need,” she says.

      Keep a few gizmos to add fun

      That said, there are some gadgets that may be worth squeezing into your cupboards. Sous-vide machines are likely to become more popular, Robinson says; vacuum-sealed food is immersed in a water bath that is heated to the food’s serving temperature. “This is a really cool tool to be using in spaces that maybe don’t have a full-size oven or cooktop space or don’t have ventilation.”

      Other pieces of equipment are worth considering for small spaces, according to registered dietitian Lindsay Jang.

      “A microplane is great for citrus, ginger, garlic, nutmeg, and all of those add a lot of flavour and make things more interesting,” she says. “A two-in-one blender/food processor—something like a Ninja or a Magic Bullet can be great. You can use them as a blender to make smoothies or to blend soups or sauces, and as a food processor if you’re wanting to make your own salsas or nut butters. An immersion blender that you stick right into the pot is also great.”

      Dietitian Lindsay Jang recommends making use of gadgets to liven up meals.
      Lisa Patey/Mint Photography

      If you have any outdoor space, consider a barbecue as well as pots or planters for fresh herbs. Be smart about storage. Robinson suggests using small Mason jars or Tupperware containers that can be stacked to conserve space. Jang recommends mounting magnetic holders on walls for knives and spice jars. “Use the space you have,” she says.

      Jang likes to double up recipes so she has leftovers, which she freezes in plastic Ziploc bags. They’re easier to stack and take less space than containers, an important consideration if you don’t have a lot of freezer space.

      If you’re new to cooking, the pros recommend starting out slowly, trying one new recipe a week. Maybe cook with someone who can teach you a few things. And enjoy the fruits of your labour.

      “Turn off the TV and the phone,” Jang says. “Social media are on at all times. Turning off your computer helps you to eat more mindfully, which can help with your overall enjoyment. If you’ve taken time to prepare a meal, you don’t want to be distracted by a bunch of different things.”