Thursday, August 23, 2012

Health and Life in the Kitchen: Green Kitchen, Pt. 1

And indeed, is there not something holy about a great kitchen? ... the scoured gleam of row upon row of metal vessels dangling from hooks or reposing on their shelves till needed with the air of so many chalices waiting for the celebration of the sacrament of food?
 -Angela Carter

I've talked a few different times on other blogs about setting up kitchens under various constraints, and when I was at the college I did full-on design plans for kitchens ranging from small-scale household bastions to grand, full-brigade services. If this, therefore, winds up sounding a little familiar, I apologize. As a part of our Green Week efforts here on A&G, I'm getting ready to tackle my favourite room in the house: the kitchen.

Another snapshot of the mushroom fajitas.
What Makes Kitchens "Good"?
We've all had the pleasure of living in a house with a bad kitchen. Ultimately, your taste in kitchen design is going to vary depending on personal taste, but there are a few traits in good kitchens that I think everyone can agree on:

  • Practicality of Use
  • Sufficiency of Storage
  • Adequacy of Supply

Practicality of Use
We've all been there: a kitchen too cramped to work in, without enough burner elements on the range or too small of a sink. By and large, unless you're constructing or renovating, there's not a terrible lot you can do about this point, except to minimize the constraints you place on the practicality yourself. My kitchen, when cleaned, has more counterspace than I would ever need for any of the projects I would attempt in a home kitchen, but it's almost never that far decluttered (clean and decluttered aren't the same thing!). What seems like ample counter space in one moment quickly becomes cramped quarters when you have to start thinking about the placement of countertop appliances, quite a few of which never get put away (I'm thinking of toasters, coffee makers, and microwaves).

A big part of keeping your kitchen usable has to do with being able to store things (that's another topic), and keeping your kitchen clean. The appliances we choose here can make a big difference when it comes both to the practicality of the kitchen and to our energy consumption and even health.

Microwaves are what I usually think of when I'm thinking of this, so I'll talk about them first. First and foremost, your average person doesn't need a microwave. They're a convenience, and power-hungry ones at that. In a green kitchen you're going to be eating a lot more of home-cooked food, so apart from occasionally having to rapidly defrost something or the odd plate of lazy nachos, you're not going to need one. I'd eighty-six it and keep the storage space - you're going to save yourself a lot of cleaning, too.

Kettles, Coffee Makers, and the like are another common kitchen tool. Some people like a stovetop kettle and I think that's fine, though I prefer an electric myself. Choose something with a narrow footprint and low energy consumption - while I'm not an expert on coffee machines, I know Zojirushi makes a very nice 4 L electric kettle which is perfect for more than just making the odd cup of tea - the water comes out hot enough to cook instant noodles when you DO need a rapid-snack.

Other appliances, such as stand mixers, steamers, vacuum sealers, blenders, bread machines, and so on, should be of a design that you can quickly stow away. I'm going to go ahead and recommend having at least a blender and a slow cooker. I'm told there are companies out there that even make countertop ice machines, which is good, I guess, if you use a lot of ice. Remember that anything living on your countertop reduces your work space and makes it harder to clean.

Cleaning is another important part of keeping your kitchen healthy. While you should never eat off of a counter, we both know you will, and what's more, just about any surface that can come into contact with food will, and food attracts bugs and leaves behind nasty odours. We don't want that, so we have to talk about cleaning.

Now, if you're like me and you've spent any time working in a commercial kitchen, from fast food to fine dining, the first thing you'll think of when it comes to cleaning counters is J-Cloth, Paper Towel, and sanitizer spray. In a home kitchen, none of these things are inherently good! Commercial sanitizers use some synthetic chemicals that aren't always as healthy to make as they are to clean with, and disposable rag and paper towel really just eats up our wallets a little bit faster.

Cloths come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colours. Good cloths are inexpensive, hard-wearing, and have a sufficiently textured surface to clean any sort of mess off of any sort of surface. Get 3 different kinds of dish cloth (that is, three different colours). One colour is going to be used for doing dishes. Another is going to be used for doing counters, and the third will be kept in reserve for using highly-powered cleaners on the rare occasions it becomes necessary. I like to do green for dishes, yellow for counters, and red for the nasty things - levels of relative safety are an easy mnemonic.

Dish Soaps essentially come in two sorts: sink soaps and washer soaps. I've yet to find a reasonable alternative to the commercial versions of either kind. Both are necessary (assuming you own a washer), and both can be kind of nasty, depending on what brand you're using. Remember to look for cleaners that are phosphate-free and biodegradable. In this respect, colgate, the makers of palmolive, make nice soaps in both sorts... often times, your favourite grocery's store brand has good cleaners available as well.

Spray Cleaners are another matter altogether. While there a few cleaners that come in spray form that aren't easily replaced (oven cleaners come to mind), most are, and should be, since a lot of residential-use spray cleaners contain a lot of ingredients they really don't need. I'm fond of a mixture of orange oil, vinegar, and water for cleaning the countertops and I don't find that the vinegar (cut appropriately) leaves any kind of a smell on my counters other than a clean one.

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