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Cooking Without a Kitchen: Home Renovation

A kitchen renovation doesn't mean cooking deprivation—not when you can make French onion soup in a microwave and leg of lamb in a fireplace

The charm of the little 1896 row house I had been renting in San Francisco for the past 10 years went a long way in making up for its old, inefficient kitchen. The cabinets were rusty, the sink leaked, the lighting was dim. I couldn't calibrate the stove. So when I finally was able to buy the house last year, the idea of remodeling the kitchen made my heart pound. Modernizing the kitchen while staying true to the spirit of the 19th-century house became my raison d'être.

But one question plagued me: How would I feed myself during the renovation? That old kitchen, lacking as it was, produced some awfully good meals and dinner parties as well as four cookbooks. And so, with the determination of a field marshal, I set up a makeshift kitchen in my dining room. I would keep my social life alive by devising ways to cook for myself and my friends on the odd nights when I could not wangle an invitation to one of their houses.

I moved my old monolith of a refrigerator into the dining room and positioned a microwave on top. I placed an electric kettle on a work table (I planned to switch my coffee addiction to one for very good English breakfast tea). My indispensable toaster oven went alongside, as did my mortar and pestle. I set out a huge bowl of satsuma oranges for sustenance and decoration, and filled the room with orchids to distract from the mess.

Breakfasts were invariably sweet, milky tea and toast with blueberry jam that I had made the summer before. A tablespoon of chunky organic peanut butter went a long way in staving off hunger when I was in a hurry.

My standby lunch was escarole tossed with anchovies and garlic in a Meyer lemon dressing. I'd wash the greens in my garden in a stockpot filled with water from the hose. I'd make the dressing in my mortar and pestle. Instead of rinsing out my salad bowl afterward, I'd simply wipe it clean with paper towels, as any good French housewife would, thus curing the wood.

In anticipation of those long kitchen-free months, I had made quarts of chicken stock and sautéed pounds of onions that I froze in manageably sized containers. On cold days I would combine the stock and onions in the microwave, then melt a little Gruyère on toast. Et voilà, a superb French onion soup.

For dinner my best friend was a Tuscan Grill, a portable metal grate that lets you cook in a fireplace (you can purchase it at stores like The Gardener; 510-548-4545 or thegardener.com). I grilled tiny quails rubbed with salt, pepper, chopped thyme and olive oil. Pork chops brined in milk, sage and salt. New York strip steaks that I served topped with a mixture of butter and blue cheese, with garlicky toast alongside to soak up the juices. Dungeness crab I ate with an aioli I made in the mortar and pestle.

Dinners became more elaborate as the months went by. I had been dying to cook a leg of lamb "on a string" (gigot à la ficelle), as I'd seen the late cookbook author Richard Olney do at his house in the south of France. Olney dangled the lamb from a string (attached to a hook just inside the fireplace), and the meat spun as it roasted in the ambient heat of the fire. If it stopped twirling, Olney would mischievously kick it. It took me a few hours to make my gigot, but it was positively succulent, especially with a sauce I'd made by pounding mint from my garden in the mortar with a splash of boiling water and cider vinegar. I served the lamb with onions and potatoes I'd wrapped in foil and cooked in the coals.

Loads of candles made the room look romantic; their low glow hid what was really going on.

Then came the day when I really was no longer amused with my dining-room camping routine. I took a trip abroad only to return to San Francisco with the arrival of spring. Beautiful asparagus, artichokes and fava beans were at my farmers' market, and I could not bear not having a kitchen to cook them in. I pleaded, I cried, I bribed my contractor to hurry up.

And finally I had the stunning kitchen I had wanted all my life...and a lot of friends to pay back.

Peggy Knickerbocker's book Simple Soirées: Seasonal Menus for Sensational Dinner Parties will be published this month.

Published November 2005
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