A few weeks into my marriage with the Environmentalist, I made the mistake of reading aloud an article about global warming that noted that kitchen appliances account for the largest share of total electricity consumption in many households.
"So, I guess that makes the kitchen the least eco-friendly room in the whole house," I said. "Go figure!"
And with that, as they say, the honeymoon was over. I had been transformed in his eyes from blushing bride to Eco-enemy No. 1. It made no difference that I drive a car small enough to be mistaken for a child's toy, incessantly carpool, and wash my face with organic cleanser made from seaweed. In our household, the kitchen is my domain. And the look the Environmentalist gave me just then said I might as well have cut down a rainforest with my bare teeth.
On the plus side, there's nothing like finding out that your new husband views you as an accomplice to the planet's destruction to jump-start interest in "greening" your kitchen.
With burgeoning literature, Web sites and blogs on the environment, it is not hard to find useful information to help make your whole kitchen greener - from the big stuff, like appliances, countertops and flooring, down to the way you cook your food and wash your dishes.
Since we rent our apartment, I was not willing to invest in any major purchases, like new appliances. (See the accompanying article for my research on how to save energy on those.)
So, my best chance for achieving a truly green kitchen lay in my ability to adjust my cooking habits. Tests by the U.S. Bureau of Standards determined that some people use 50 percent more energy than others to cook the same meal. If the number of dirty pots and pans is any indicator, I was probably guilty of energy overexertion as well.
Here's what I discovered: Low-impact cooking requires only reasonable amounts of discipline, such as using as little water as possible when boiling water for pasta or other dishes, and covering the pot with a lid to help it boil faster. Use the smallest pan and burner possible to get the job done and, if using a gas stove, be careful not to crank the flame up too high (if you see the flame anywhere on the side of the pot, it's probably too high). Also, turn off the oven a few minutes before food is ready, since it will still be hot enough to finish up.
A tough one for a messy cook like me is keeping the metal grease plates under burners clean to help reflect heat more effectively up to the cookware. I've had better luck lining them with aluminum foil. But don't cover oven racks with foil, because it will reduce heat flow and increase cooking time.
To really save energy, I had to train myself to stop being a slave to my stove. The microwave reduces energy consumption by an average of two-thirds and can be used for more than just heating up frozen dinners. You can poach salmon, bake a potato, or even make a casserole in the microwave.
The toaster oven is another ingenious energy-saver as long as you don't limit it to toasting. Think of the toaster as a mini-oven and start using it for real cooking, like lamb chops, fish fillets and roasted vegetables. Lynn Alley's The Gourmet Toaster Oven (Ten Speed Press, 2006) offers sophisticated recipes for toaster-oven meals, including a top-notch Herbed Oven-Fried Chicken and a sweet potato casserole. Other appliances that save time and energy include pressure cookers, crock pots and electric kettles. Just remember to unplug appliances after use, because they draw small amounts of electricity even in the "off" position.
Of course, even if you are using eco-friendly cooking techniques, it helps if the ingredients are locally grown, organic, hormone-free, bought in bulk, and carried in a reusable bag instead of the plastic ones at the store. That's why farmers markets are so popular among environmentalists: They offer fresh produce that has not traveled a long distance and isn't wrapped in a lot of plastic packaging. You earn extra eco-points if you grow herbs or vegetables yourself, so I purchased a fragrant rosemary plant and a couple of other indoor plants to help offset our household's energy usage.
To boost my savings, I also moved my main workstation - including my new eco-friendly beechwood cutting board - to the counter nearest the window to eliminate any need to switch on the overhead lights during the day. Luckily, my countertops and cabinets are bright white; dark wood and stone suck up light, meaning you are more likely to rely on overhead lighting - something to keep in mind for anyone remodeling a kitchen.
It's now been several weeks since I greened our kitchen. My conscience is lighter, as is my energy usage, and my husband has stopped looking at me like an environmental Antichrist. I feel better knowing I am doing my part to save the planet - except, of course, for unintentionally killing the rosemary plant, which I threw out when the Environmentalist wasn't home.
Turns out, I don't have much of a green thumb. Go figure.
Tilapia With Tomato and Basil
Makes 2 main-dish servings.
3 large slices ripe tomato
4 large fresh basil leaves
¾ pound tilapia fillets or other mild fish
½ teaspoon olive oil
½ teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Arrange tomato slices in single layer on large dinner plate. Place 2 basil leaves on top. Center fish over tomatoes. Top with oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper.
2. Place remaining basil leaves on top of fish. Cover tightly with microwave plastic wrap or set a layer of waxed paper over the top.
3. Cook at 100% power 4 minutes or until fish is almost done.
4. Remove from oven. If using plastic wrap, pierce with tip of a sharp knife and let stand, covered, 2 minutes. Uncover and serve hot.
- From Microwave Gourmet by Barbara Kafka (William Morrow)
Note: Substitute whatever mild fish is available fresh locally. To increase servings, to 3 or 4: Double all ingredients. Cook fish in 11-by-8½-by-2-inch dish 5 minutes and 30 seconds.
Per serving: 222 calories, 34 grams protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 8 grams fat, 66 milligrams cholesterol, 155 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Herbed Toaster Oven-Fried Chicken
Makes 2 servings
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 tablespoon oil
1/2 pound boneless skinless chicken breasts or chicken tenders (preferably free- range, organic)
1 cup rolled oats
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup fresh basil or rosemary needles
Olive oil spray
1. In a shallow dish, mix together the buttermilk, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, and the oil. Place the chicken pieces in the buttermilk mixture and coat them thoroughly. Marinate the chicken in the buttermilk mixture overnight in the refrigerator.
2. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
3. In a food processor, mix the oats, red pepper flakes, the remaining 1 teaspoon salt, Parmesan and basil. Pulse until the oats are partially powdered. (Alternatively, mix the ingredients together in a bowl with a wooden spoon.) Place the oat mixture on a plate. Shake any excess buttermilk off the chicken and dredge to coat each piece thoroughly.
4. For easy cleanup, cover the toaster oven baking tray with aluminum foil and lightly spray it with oil. (Check your manufacturer's instructions for any cautions against the use of aluminum foil in your toaster oven.) Place the chicken pieces on the tray so they are not touching.
5. Spray the chicken pieces lightly with oil and bake for about 10 to 15 minutes, depending upon the thickness of the meat, until the crust is golden brown and crisp.
6. Remove the chicken from the toaster oven and serve hot or refrigerate and serve cold over a salad.
Makes 2 servings
10 to 20 scallions (depending on size)
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 tablespoons chicken broth
Coarse salt, freshly ground
Black pepper, freshly ground
2 tablespoons creme fraiche or sour cream
1. Preheat the toaster oven to 425 degrees.
2. Trim the scallions, cutting away the bottoms and all but 1 inch of the green tops.
3. Combine the olive oil and chicken broth in a shallow bowl and toss the scallions in the mixture to coat. Season the scallions with a grind of salt and pepper.
4. Place the scallions in an oval or round gratin dish and bake for about 10 minutes, until the tips are slightly blackened.
5. Top with the creme fraiche and serve hot.
Per serving: 102 calories, 2 grams protein, 9 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 7 grams fat, 5 milligrams cholesterol, 84 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber
Vanilla Praline Dessert
Makes 4 servings
1 pint good vanilla ice cream
About 1/2 cup Nutella hazelnut spread
8 small cookies (Pepperidge Farm Bordeaux Butter Cookies work well), broken up
2 tablespoons pistachio nuts
1. Move the ice cream from the freezer to the refrigerator 1 hour before serving to soften.
2. At serving time, place the Nutella in a microwave oven and heat for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes, until the spread is soft and pourable.
3. Spoon about 1/4 cup of the softened vanilla ice cream into four dessert bowls. Cover with the broken cookies, dividing the pieces among the servings, then pour about 2 tablespoons of the hazelnut spread on top.
4. Spoon another 1/4 cup of ice cream over the spread in each dish and sprinkle the pistachio nuts on top. Serve immediately.
- From Jacques Pepin's Fast Food My Way (Houghton Mifflin, 2004)
Per serving: 403 calories, 6 grams protein, 44 grams carbohydrates, 30 grams sugar, 23 grams fat, 48 milligrams cholesterol, 132 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber