MacGyver Moves in the Kitchen

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By Alison Ashton

Remember the TV show “MacGyver,” in which the hero adapted whatever was at hand to save the day like using a paperclip to diffuse a bomb? At Nourish Network, we’re all about making full use of ingredients, and the same goes for equipment. Nothing brings out your culinary MacGyver like working in a professional kitchen, as Jennifer Schaertl, learned as a chef in four-star restaurants, where kitchens typically are cramped, and there never seems to be enough equipment to go around. Many strategies common to the restaurant kitchen can help space-strapped home cooks, too, and Shaertl shares her tips in her new book Gourmet Meals in Crappy Little Kitchens (Health Communications).

macgyver-postShaertl puts a practical, cheerful spin on cooking in “CLKs” (crappy little kitchens), and her strategies can help even if your kitchen isn’t so tight. A well-organized CLK is a remarkably efficient and pleasurable place to cook–everything is close at hand, and you have less crap to clean up at the end.

The key is to pare down your equipment and choose items that can multitask. For example, Schaertl says you only need three knives: A good-quality 6- to 8-inch chef’s knife, a serrated bread knife, and a paring knife. (Though Kurt contends–and I agree–a boning knife is nice, too, but it’s optional.) One of Shaertl’s favorite tools is an easy-to-store stacking 12-quart stockpot with a strainer and steamer basket, which you can use to make stock, cook-and-strain pasta, and steam vegetables. The pot’s steamer basket also can double as a colander.

In the CLK spirit, here are five specialty tools you can easily improvise with items you probably already have:

Microplane/mandolin. A four-sided box grater as a versatile tool that can stand in for both a microplane and a mandolin, says Schaertl. Use it to grate cheese or veggies for slaw, as well as finely grate lemon zest, garlic, ginger, and chocolate, or thinly slice mushrooms. The more often you use it, the more uses you’ll find for it.

Meat mallet. This is one of Shaertl’s space-wasting “CLK Saboteurs.” Instead, pound that veal cutlet for scallopini with the bottom of a heavy skillet or saucepan, and use a fork to tenderize meat.

Panini press. These things are terrible space hogs. If you love panini, make them on the stovetop in a grill pan or regular skillet and weigh down the sandwich with another heavy skillet, saucepan, or Dutch oven.

Sifter. “This thing is the epitome of the one-trick pony,” Shaertl writes. I agree, and use the $5 fine-mesh strainer I bought years ago at Walmart to sift flour, sift powdered sugar over baked goods, and strain sauces.

Double boiler. This is a gizmo in which one pan nests inside another; the larger pan holds simmering water to gently heat whatever is in the top pan. It’s just a fancy version of an old-school bain-marie (water bath) that you can create with any saucepan and heatproof bowl, as we do here with our Kitchen MacGyver Lemon Curd.

Now that I think of it, making better use of fewer tools instead of cluttering the kitchen with lots of random gadgets is the very spirit of sustainability. How do you make your kitchen equipment pull double, triple, or even quadruple duty? Let us know!

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Kitchen MacGyver Lemon Curd

This lemon curd recipe requires no special equipment. Grate the lemon zest on the fine holes of a box grater, and use a saucepan and heatproof bowl to set up the bain-marie to gently cook the curd. Lemon curd is delicious spread on toast or scones, dolloped on pancakes or waffles, or even used in place of the cheesecake filling in Strawberry Cheesecake Tartlets. (Of course, hang onto the egg whites to make angel food cake or meringue cookies.)

Kitchen MacGyver Lemon Curd

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Yield: 1 1/4 cups

Kitchen MacGyver Lemon Curd


  1. 1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest (about 2 lemons)
  2. 2/3 cup fresh lemon juice (about 4 lemons)
  3. 3/4 cup sugar
  4. 1/8 teaspoon sea salt
  5. 6 large egg yolks
  6. 1/4 cup cold butter, cubed


Combine zest and juice in a small bowl; let stand 10 minutes.

Combine sugar, salt and yolks in a medium stainless-steel or other nonreactive heatproof bowl. Whisk until well combined and the consistency of mayonnaise. Add juice mixture and stir just until combined.

Fill a medium saucepan with water to a depth of 1 inch and bring to a simmer. Place bowl of yolk mixture over pan of simmering water. Cook 15 minutes or until thickened to the consistency of pudding, stirring continuously and gently with a rubber spatula. Carefully lift the bowl (the bowl and steam will be hot) occasionally to check the water; if it’s boiling, lower the heat.

Remove from heat and gradually add butter, stirring until it melts. (The curd should be smooth, but if any lumps formed during cooking, strain it through a fine-mesh strainer.) Fill a larger bowl with ice water. Set the curd-filled bowl into the ice bath and cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally to prevent a skin from forming. Transfer curd to a clean jar and refrigerate. Use within 5 days.

  • Tamara Mitchell

    I use my potato ricer not only to make great fluffy mashed potatoes, but also to squeeze defrosted spinach dry, and it makes a handy can strainer for tomatoes and tuna.

  • Cheryl

    Wait, I love my meat mallet! Can I keep it if I also use it to crush cherries & olives, thereby releasing their pits, and to smack open walnut shells? It’s definitely a space hog, but I do heart it so.

  • Alison Ashton

    But, of course, and I confess, I have a cherry pitter, which I love, even if it is totally unnecessary…

    Tamara, love the way you press that ricer into triple duty!

  • kitchenguy

    Well, I refuse to throw away any of the clutter from my cutlery draw; it’s far too much fun watching my obsessively tidy wife seethe with exasperation while digging around looking for that elusive potato peeler. :)

  • http://JacquelineChurch Jacqueline Church

    Kitchenguy…that’s too funny and I really shouldn’t be laughing.

    I use my melon baller to pit apples as well as vegetables.

    I use the cherry pitter to also pit olives for tapenade (tho those are easily done with a knife)

    Anyone remember Julia and the pea-sheller? When I was a kid I thought it was funny how tickled she was at the new gadgets that were coming out.

  • Lia Huber

    Kitchenguy … and probably scrape her knuckles raw on various bladed objects in the process ;-).

    Jackie … I use my melon baller for all kinds of things too — apples, and to scrape seeds out of a cucumber halved lengthwise.

    Cheryl … love the idea of a meat mallet as a cherry pitter. Hmmm.

    I think the theme emerging is, there’s no particular formula for what tools you should have in the kitchen–everyone has their own needs and preferences. But it’s a good thing to get the most out of what you do have.

  • Alison Ashton

    Kitchenguy is evil. I like that!