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National News

October 26, 2011

Clearing space

What to do when your kitchen Zen is buried deep beneath whatchamabobs

CHICAGO — Let’s start with the ugly truth: Your kitchen has gone to pot — and we don’t mean the cooking kind, the kind you can’t find for all the whatchamabobs and doohickeys you’ve hoarded over the years.

You can’t see the countertops (yes, those quarried-just-for-you landing pads you haven’t eyeballed since the day they were smacked down).

You can barely yank open the extra-wide utensil drawer, what with all the thingamajigs you’ve stuffed inside. Psst, do you really need three dough scrapers? And what’s with the five orange peelers, the deep-dish pizza pan grabber you haven’t used in 16 years, and, excuse me, please explain the microwave probe that looks for all the world like something that belongs in a carpenter’s tool belt?

Oh, sure, you could call in the demolition crew and start from scratch. But we’ve got a smarter idea: Pare it down. Ditch the detritus. Dial up the bliss there by the cutting board. The holidays are just around the bend, and you might crave a little Zen in your cooking den.

“I call all this stuff that builds up life plaque,” says life coach Gail Blanke, author of “Throw Out Fifty Things: Clear the Clutter, Find Your Life” (Hachette, $13.99). “It clogs the arteries of our lives and, God knows, it stops up our creativity.”

Seeing as she wrote 271 pages on the subject, Blanke can clear a kitchen in a matter of minutes (follow along with her de-clutter guide below). Most of what’s clogging the joint, she says, is “the debris of indecision.”

You really need that oyster shucking knife you haven’t used in 11 years?

Lest you think she’ll have you tossing the kitchen sink, she soothes: “I’m not a minimalist. I’m a middle-of-the-road person. The difference is I don’t keep anything around that I don’t use.”

And therein lies your homework.

“We’re not talking about having the tidiest kitchen on the block,” Blanke said, “we’re talking about being free. You clear the clutter, you clear your mind.”

Here’s inspiration: Blanke, a first-rate cook, one who can debate morels versus chanterelles with the best of ‘em, says the most sumptuous part of the holidays is what goes on way before dinner is served in the kitchen, the cleared-of-life-plaque kitchen.

In her old Connecticut farmhouse, it’s five grown-ups and an oversize golden retriever, ringing round the cookstove. It’s a candle burning on the clutter-free counter, a lamp glowing in the corner (because there aren’t 18 odd appliances hogging all the real estate). It’s not being worried that when one of the sous chefs is rummaging for a pie cutter he’ll be impaled by one of umpteen redundant whatchamahoojies.

When the kitchen is a place where the ones you love aren’t elbowing for inches, where there’s room to peel and chop and stir, “it makes people feel like they belong, feel cozy,” Blanke said. “You have casual conversations that you might not otherwise have. That’s what we remember — it’s not about having a perfect dinner, it’s about creating something beautiful together.”

Rosanna Nafziger Henderson, co-author of “The Lost Art of Real Cooking: Rediscovering the Pleasures of Traditional Food One Recipe at a Time” (Perigee, $18.95), downsized from her already undersized San Francisco kitchen when she married this past summer, squeezing into a mere 60 square feet in which she still manages to churn butter, ferment sauerkraut, even mill her own buckwheat.

She savors getting by with a few utensils that connect her to the ways of cookery long ago, weave a little exercise into her day and create much-needed pauses in the rush to feasting.

“One of the main things about being in the kitchen together is doing parallel tasks, and the conversations that happen when your hands are doing something,” Henderson said.

And, adds Blanke, making room in a kitchen for good souls and conversation allows for the richest recipe of all: “You want the people who’ve come into your home to walk away differently from the way they arrived.”

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