09 May 2009

Not-So-Simple Mac and Cheese

Photo above: not-so-simple mac and cheese.

We have been cooking out of a temporary kitchen for the last six weeks, and expect to be in this unenviable state for another eight weeks. Living through a major remodeling project is generally lousy: the psychological impact of construction mess in our home; dust everywhere (even with diligent dust protection, it's inevitable); varying noise levels throughout the day; disruption of general routine and inconvenience all around. But the worst of it all, as far as I'm concerned, is the utter disorganization and severe prepping/cooking limitation that goes along with working out of a temporary kitchen.

Our setup is basically this: our kitchen (with oven, electric skillet, fridge, microwave, and freezer) is in the garage, which is on our main ground level. We also have a grill on the back deck, which is also on the main level. Our casual dining/family area is setup in the daylight walkout basement. For our cleanup, we are using the utility sink in the laundry room... which is on the upper bedroom level. So the progression of a meal is: prep on main floor; serve down in basement; hike two levels to cleanup on top floor. Here is "appliance alley" in our garage:

And here's the view of our ghetto-garage in all its glory from the outside. Not only is it our "kitchen", as well as storage area for newly delivered appliances, but also the garage contains random odd items as any self-respecting garage would:
The best is when I am using the oven to roast or something like that -- with no venthood, I really must open the garage door to let out the fumes. We get quite a few "looks" and questions from our inquisitive neighbors as they stroll past on their walks.

The situation is far from ideal, but I went through a few scenarios and there's really no good way to do this. So, each day requires traversing the three levels of our house many, many times. As an aside, I am 7.5 months pregnant. I am also sometimes carrying our almost-2yo toddler on my right hip, as I juggle items being transported from one living level to another in my left hand. So trust me, if I could find a better way than going up and down these stairs all day, I would.

Recently our exterior framing/siding was finished... which meant we could use our deck and grill again. This meant -- drumroll -- that I could now boil water! Our Daddy Grill has a side gas burner which I had never used before, but it was now an object of my lust. My daughter had asked for mac and cheese earlier in the day, and gosh darn it I was going to make it for her!

Challenge #1: find a pot to boil water in. Any stovetop work we do in the temp kitchen is primarily in the electric skillet, so we didn't keep too many pots and pans accessible... As in, we kept one pot out with the rest stored in boxes, closets, etc. That one pot was currently storing leftover soup. Five minutes of searching later, I finally found an adequate pot. It wasn't ideal (wide and shallow) but at ~3.5" deep, it would work to boil water.

Challenge #2: Fill water into pot in bathroom sink and carry water to deck without spilling. Mostly successful.

Challenge #3: I needed a landing zone for my cooking tools: Strainer, mitt, spatula, cheese packet. There was no work surface nearby and the patio table was too far of a reach. I balanced my items on various flat parts of the grill.

Challenge #4: Cook the pasta. It is supposed to boil for 8-10 minutes. With my wide shallow pot on my outdoor gas burner, I lost a lot of surface heat to crosswind. Had to boil for an unusually long 15 minutes.

Challenge #5: Extinguish the silicone spatula. Apparently my landing zone that I concocted for #3, left the spatula too close to my gas flame. My silicone safe-to-500-degrees spatula caught on fire. I had no water source nearby. My husband grabbed the utensil and headed down off the deck to the outdoor hose and soaked the utensil. After photo:

Challenge #6: By now, all pyro incidents have been solved and the pasta is cooked. I even had, by some miracle, a strainer at hand. But - where to strain my boiling water? I have no sink on the deck. My daughter and dog are both playing in the yard down below the deck. Solution: have husband keep them at bay while I strained off the boiling water in a far corner of the deck.

Challenge #7: find a measuring cup to make the cheese sauce. Who am I kidding? I'm not going back to the garage for a measuring cup. I eyeball it. I end up putting in too much milk so the sauce is entirely runny and way unappetizing, not to mention asking for uber-messy trouble with a toddler. I ask my husband for any ideas and he suggests that I try adding bread crumbs. Miraculously, I know where the bread crumbs are (they're in the garage, next to the measuring cups!). I throw some bread crumbs into the mac and cheese and the consistency was actually lovely. It simply looked homemade.

That's part of the problem with a temporary kitchen -- every new process, as simple as it is, seems like re-inventing the wheel. It's amazing how we take the convenience of a "real kitchen" for granted. We have been really fortunate in our remodel to not only go over to friends' houses for dinners, but also to be part of a couple frozen meal swaps that have kept us stocked in easy to prepare meals. I remember wondering if running a 220v line to have my oven hooked up in the garage was really necessary (electrician visits can be expensive!). It turns out to be a lifesaver as we have lots of frozen meals that taste like proper homemade dishes, that can only be baked in the oven.

Here is what I miss most about our normal kitchen:
  • having a dishwasher - this easily tops the list as we hate dishwashing
  • having ice to keep our drinks cold
  • using real metal utensils (we could do this but... we hate washing dishes even more than we hate plastic utensils)
  • having a clean dust-free environment for storing and prepping fresh produce. We're doing a lot of bagged salads and steamed frozen veggies. We certainly do these normally, but not ALL the TIME and it's getting a bit old. I can do SOME fresh produce, but it's so exhausting to figure it all out. Easier to just throw in the proverbial towel and just steam up some frozen vegs.
(ps Luckily, both my daughter and her friend totally loved the mac and cheese.)


Paul Anater said...

Great post Rachele, thanks for that. I warn my clients all the time no to underestimate the disruption a renovation entails. It does a real number on your outlook and the dynamics of your family too. It's not a fun experience. But chin up, your memory of it will be a lot gentler than your experience of it. Small comfort I know, but it's all I have. That and keep your bedrooms clean and uncluttered. That way, you can close the bedroom door and pretend everything's fine when it's getting tough.

Megan said...

I say splurge and buy a bag of ice and stick it in the freezer. Or you could buy an old-fashioned ice cube tray and make ice. Wow - I thought of buying ice before using a tray. Sad. :)

Rachele said...

The bag of ice will eventually meld into a mega-ice-chunk (in my past experience) so that makes it hard to have a big bag of ice that is useful beyond a couple days.

Sadly, I never thought of using an ice cube tray. Quite embarrassing. :)

the aug said...

i was thinking: she also doesn't have ice trays ('cause we don't)? i hear sometimes frozen veggies actually have more nutrients or are better than fresh that have been transported / sitting / decomposing.

Kelly at Kitchen Sync said...

Rachele -

As a thought, look up your local suppliers of construction portable toilets and see if they have any SaniSinks as a rental. Sanisinks are portable sinks with a water pump and a container for waste water. You buy a 5-gallon unit of water and hook it up and you're in business.

Not every place will have them, but you can try.

Here's what they look like: ttp://www.sanisink.com/standard.html

Kelly at Kitchen Sync said...

oops, *blush* Add the "h" to "_ttp" and you're good to go.


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