The kitchen dimensions at the Sheridan house in Radnor-Winston hold the potential for culinary gridlock. The 99-square-foot space has no pantry, precious little counter space and three avid cooks.
Yet on a recent evening, retired caterer Nick Sheridan, wife Suzanne Shaw and daughter Megan Sheridan companionably chopped vegetables for a stir-fry, only occasionally getting in each other's way. Eleven years after they moved to the 1911 house they loved with a kitchen that was half the size of their old one, the family has learned to make do.
In new homes and often in old ones, Americans are demanding ever-bigger kitchens. The average kitchen in a new home was 285 square feet in 2003, compared with 250 a decade earlier, according to the National Association of Home Builders.
But for those in urban rowhouses and older houses where the kitchen was often a small, dark afterthought, a cozy cooking space is a fact of life. Many cooks who can't increase their square footage have learned to make great meals and even entertain using a fraction of the space you'd find in a typical showroom.
The Sheridans reserve most big parties for the summer so they can grill outside, and they set a rain date. They occasionally stash dirty party dishes temporarily in the first-floor bathtub. They enclosed a back porch and put in shelves for sauces and soups.
When Megan, 19, wants to bake her specialty -- yellow cake with chardonnay -- she takes advantage of a college student's late-night body clock, hitting the kitchen in the wee hours. (The downside: The delicious smells sometimes wake her dad.)
Denise Sullivan Medved, who was so passionate about small-kitchen cooking that she published a cookbook called The Tiny Kitchen on her own, blames the lust for ever-larger, more open kitchens on the popularity of cooking shows, with their granite-topped islands, Viking stoves and endless cabinets.
"The average viewer of these TV shows is like, 'I can only dream of having a kitchen like that, with somebody laying everything out for me in these little clear bowls,' " said Medved, who cooked in spaces the size of broom closets in Manhattan and Alexandria, Va. "Half the things on those shows, people with a tiny kitchen plain old can't do."
But there's much they can do, Medved said. Her 2001 book includes menus for a Thanksgiving evening gathering for 25 and a cocktail buffet for 50.
Among her hints: Lean toward cold buffets with make-ahead items. For Thanksgiving, think roasted turkey breast instead of whole bird. Stagger party arrival times.
Fish is the only food she wouldn't recommend. "Not in the tiny kitchen," she writes. "It smells."
As for equipment, Medved writes that you don't need much. She tells the story of mixing batter for her Grandma Dexter's poundcake recipe in front of the living-room television, using her grandmother's hand-held eggbeater.
If necessary, she says, stack pots on the stove top and pie plates and baking pans in the oven. Take shortcuts with pantry items such as Newman's Own salad dressings to marinate chicken, beef or lamb.
That's assuming you have some place to put them.
When she moved to a Bolton Hill rowhouse six years ago, Donna Beth Joy Shapiro, former operator of the Old Waverly History Exchange & Tea Room, traded in an expansive home kitchen for one a fraction of its size.
For Shapiro, 45, downsizing had particular challenges. Now a preservation consultant, she still entertains frequently and turns out the occasional wedding cake. She has beloved collections of everything from Yellow Ware ceramic bowls to cookie cutters. And she keeps a kosher kitchen, which means having to keep separate equipment for milk and meat.
But now the light-filled, 113-square-foot kitchen is her favorite room in the house, thanks to a custom design and features that put everything in its place -- and everything to use.
The most important item is a custom-made, granite-topped table that runs the length of the room. It functions as both a work space and an in-kitchen dining table. Metal carts nestled below the table hold baking sheets and liners, a toaster oven and a microwave. A metal trash can from Smith & Hawken is both decorative and functional, and wheels discreetly underneath.
The large Yellow Ware bowls make a useful display atop the cabinets. Smaller bowls are double-stacked along the counter, where they justify their space by holding fresh staples like apricots, garlic, plums and limes. A large bowl of onions rests on a burner when the stove is not in use. Magnet bars display and separate knives.
Shapiro compares preparing food in a small kitchen to a ballet -- a delicate dance that involves cleaning as she goes and organizing equipment and ingredients so there's room to work. She also depends on her sunny deck, which the kitchen opens onto, for extra cooking and entertaining room in good weather.
"This room is so small, I really have to use [something] for it to be out," she said.
Shapiro's kitchen space, added on to her house around 1900, represents the challenge of many historic Baltimore homes. Many larger Bolton Hill houses built in the late 1800s originally had rudimentary kitchens in the basement, where servants prepared food, said David Gleason, president of David H. Gleason Associates, a Baltimore architectural firm. A small Baltimore rowhouse often has a galley kitchen that's just 14 feet wide, he said.
"A lot of people want to open their kitchen out to an outdoor space or a terrace or something," Gleason said. "They may take walls out and create kitchen and dining space and open back up to the yard. It helps to relieve the space of the darkness."
If you don't have the space or the money to open up your small kitchen, you still can make it more workable, Gleason said. Using a range with a downdraft system allows you to exchange a range hood for more cabinet space. Light wood and a light polished granite countertop will make the space appear bigger and brighter.
Or, as Gloria Luster puts it, you can "manage what you have."
At 80, she still turns out peach cobbler and other dishes to take to church from her 128-square-foot Pimlico-area kitchen. "I am going to cook all the time," said Luster, a coordinator with the Mid-Atlantic Gleaning Network, a charity that distributes farmers' excess produce. "That is just something that is a given."
Luster's small-kitchen lifeline is her 1970s-era slow cooker, which roasts chicken that will last for several meals without taking up space or heat in the oven. She strains off vegetables and broth to use for soup.
Her basement has become a pantry full of canned fruit, vegetables and preserves.
It's even possible to make your living as a food professional with a tiny kitchen. Cookbook author Arthur Schwartz, known online and to New York radio listeners as "the Food Maven," still cooks in what he calls a "typical New York City galley kitchen" -- 7 feet wide and 14 feet long. "I did have a glamorous kitchen," he said, recalling the space he once had in a house in the country. "And I got over it."
His experiences in a previous tiny kitchen led him years ago to write Cooking in a Small Kitchen (Little, Brown, 1978), with recipes like "Unstuffed Cabbage" (really meatballs) that cut down on materials and prep time.
In his latest apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y., Schwartz created a basic, all-white kitchen that would be bright and easy to clean. It also provides a simple backdrop for the equipment and ingredients he must hang on the walls -- copper pots, garlic and peppers, knives, and white metal containers for spices. To hold the pots, he collects distinctive handmade hooks.
Schwartz has not made room for a microwave or a food processor. Instead of using a salad spinner, he rolls his washed greens in clean dish towels to dry.
He also frequently entertains. Like other small-kitchen cooks, he's had to deal with this fact of social life: No matter how tiny the space or how big the party, guests always seem to end up in the kitchen.
Shapiro gives up and welcomes them. "I usually wind up with 10 people in here," she said.
Nick Sheridan, on the other hand, banishes kitchen interlopers, at least while food is being prepared. "If somebody comes in and really wants to help, we send them out to the dining room table to chop something," he said.
Schwartz takes advantage of the fresh items he can buy at nearby markets and delis to keep guests busy and out of the way. He puts out prosciutto, good bread, cheese and fresh fruit.
"Just serve them good wine," he said. "Or, at least, plenty of wine."
Serves 6 to 8
2 pounds sauerkraut (preferably fresh or jarred, not canned)
one 28-ounce can tomato puree
1/2 cup dark-brown sugar
2 cups beef broth or bouillon
1/2 cup to 3/4 cup seeded raisins or pitted prunes
salt and fresh ground black pepper
2 1/2 pounds ground beef
1/2 cup raw rice
Drain the sauerkraut. If it is very sour, place in a strainer or colander and rinse it quickly under cold water. In a large casserole, combine the sauerkraut, tomato puree, sugar, broth or bouillon and raisins.
Stir well and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Simmer gently, uncovered, for about 10 minutes. Then taste and add salt and pepper as desired.
While sauce is cooking, combine the meat and rice in a large bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper. Form meatballs the size of golf balls (the mixture should yield about 24) and drop into the sauce.
Cover and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, for about 1 1/2 hours.
-- From "Cooking in a Small Kitchen" by Arthur Schwartz (Little, Brown, 1978)
Per serving (based on 8 servings): 438 calories; 26 grams protein; 18 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 46 grams carbohydrate; 5 grams fiber; 83 milligrams cholesterol; 1,509 milligrams sodium
Grandma Dexter's Poundcake
1 cup butter (softened)
1 2/3 cups sugar
2 cups cake flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
powdered sugar for sprinkling
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, 1 at a time, until creamy. Fold in the flour and salt and pour into greased and floured 10-inch tube pan.
Bake for 1 to 1 1/2 hours until a toothpick comes out dry. Let cool for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the pan by running a knife around the edges of the pan. If it seems to stick to the bottom, tap the bottom of the pan to loosen.
Turn upside down on a cake rack, then transfer to plate right side up, then slide back onto the cake rack to cool. Just before serving, sprinkle with powdered sugar. Cut into 1/2 -inch slices to serve.
-- From "The Tiny Kitchen" by Denise Sullivan Medved (Tiny Kitchen Publishing, 2001, $16.95)
Per serving: 283 calories; 4 grams protein; 14 grams fat; 8 grams saturated fat; 37 grams carbohydrate; 0 grams fiber; 103 milligrams cholesterol; 148 milligrams sodium
The big squeeze
Clean as you go to keep dirty dishes from hogging your precious counter space.
Survey your equipment and ruthlessly give away or discard anything you don't regularly use.
Look for tools that multi-task. A Dutch oven, for example, can be used in the oven for casseroles and on the stove top for stew.
If you can afford it, buy high-quality pots and pretty bowls that also make a nice display. Use wall space with shelves and hooks to free up drawers and cabinets.
Seek recipes that dirty as few dishes and pans as possible. Make one-pot meals.
Keep an inexpensive collapsible table under your bed, recommends author Denise Sullivan Medved. Use it for extra counter space when you're cooking for a crowd, and as buffet space during a gathering.
Does another room have unused space? Use an armoire to store dishes and bowls. Install shelves to turn a closet or part of the basement into a pantry.
- Kate Shatzkin