Monday, December 28, 2015

Baby It's Cold Inside!

Hello Chickens! 

Now that we have chatted about how to prepare for making appliance decisions, I want to start telling you about the appliances we actually picked, because THIS IS THE MOST EXCITING FUN THING EVER!

Today, we are talking about cold storage.  That is refrigeration and freezing. 

I know that for many people, refrigeration is a very serious topic, which mostly has to do with exciting features.  Through the door options like filtered water on tap and your choice of whole or crushed ice cubes.  The new fangled ones where you can open part of the fridge door to get access to things kids need like gallons of milk and large containers of Sunny Delight.  There are fridges that have smart technology that can do everything from keep track of expiration dates on the perishables to scanning barcodes so that as you use the last of something it can go right on your grocery list.  There are people who swear by the freezer drawers on the bottom, and those who love a French door on top.  Some people want the fridge to disappear into their cabinets, and some want a statement piece.  Hipsters often covet the colorful and retro looking SMEG options, and those with sophisticated urbane tastes immediately sigh “Sub-Zero” with reverence.

Once again, when it comes to kitchen design, there are actually no rules, and no wrong answers.  It is YOUR kitchen. I am not here to tell you that our decisions are the “right” ones universally, just that they are the right ones for US.  For me, sharing all of this is more about the process than the products.  I want you to know how we chose these items and why, so that it can help inform your own process when it is time for you to tackle a project like this.  Of course, I want to give you plenty of info on the products we did decide upon since we are very excited about these choices, and since some of them may not be familiar to all of you.  But we aren’t promoting any of them exclusively, except for saying that they are all the absolute perfect choices for us and the way we live and cook and we believe strongly in their quality and recommend them wholeheartedly if the way you live and cook is similar to ours.

That is to say, there is nothing in the world wrong with fancy features and stylish looks, and Sub Zero makes a perfectly great product.  But that just isn’t the right fit for us.

When it came to finding the right fridges and freezer, we started once again with our list of needs and wants.  Which began immediately with looking at 72” options.  Yes.  That is not a typo.  We wanted a full 36” column of fridge, and a matching one of freezer.  Why so much space?

This is why.

Our fridge.  After returning from 4 days away, BEFORE we hit the grocery store.

The door.  So. Many. Condiments.

The freezer.  Can't really see?  That's because it is PACKED TO THE GILLS!

Freezer door.  When one cooks and bakes, your freezer needs lots of room for spices, nuts, etc.
since those things can go rancid at room temp.

We have a chest freezer in the basement as well as a commercial fridge for extra space because our actual fridge holds so little.  And forget parties. There is no room for extra stuff.  It is one thing when this means up and down the stairs from the first floor to the basement to grab necessities, but the new kitchen is on the SECOND floor, and we are middle-aged people with wonky knees.  So we wanted to have a lot of space in both the fridge and the freezer.


For us, in the main fridge, depth was going to be key.  We are putting the fridge and freezer in their own little nook, not amongst the cabinets, so we didn’t need to restrict ourselves to cabinet depth models.  We wanted a fridge that could accommodate large serving platters, as well as big pots full of yummy stuff.  Since I am a fan of using clear plastic organizers in the fridge, we didn’t need there to be a lot of interior bins and such, just easy to adjust super sturdy shelving.  And since we were looking at such a large unit, we wanted the option for a glass door on the fridge.  We don’t have kids, so we don’t need the fridge to function for art display or family calendar or chores wheel…and such a wide expanse of stainless would be a little monolithic.  By looking at glass door options, we could break up the monotony a bit.  I also like the idea of being able to see what is inside a bit without standing in an open fridge letting the cold out.  Effectively, we wanted commercial styling on the fridge side.

We were also looking at two undercounter units, a 24” wine fridge and a 15” wine fridge.  The 24” unit would be for wine, allowing us to keep a stock of our everyday tipples right in the kitchen for ease.  Charming Suitor was excited to be able to pull out a couple dozen bottles that are perfect for drinking right now and have them at our fingertips.

The 15” fridge is for the kitchen library.  For cheese.  I know, I know, but there is actually method to our madness…  Cheese is best stored at temps that are slightly higher than what your regular fridge is set at.  They also prefer a slightly more humid environment, which is not good in your regular fridge.  We love cheese.  We love it a LOT.  And when we entertain, we pretty much always do a cheese course during dinner.  There are always no fewer than four different kinds of good cheeses in this house.  So the idea of creating a really perfect environment for them to keep them at their best was very exciting for us.  A totally cheese geek thing to do, but this is a dream kitchen after all, and we both dream in cheese!  The smaller wine fridges are easy to set up for cheese storage, you just set the temp for 55-58 degrees (about 15-20 degrees higher than your regular fridge) and add a small battery operated humidifier, and with some shelf reconfiguring, you have a perfect little cave for your favorite cheeses, from the oldest parm to the freshest chevre. 


Here is where we depart from many, in that we don’t want a freezer that does anything except maintain freezing temps with plenty of storage.  We don’t want it to make ice or filter water.  We are addicted to Chicago Classic Cubes, clear ice cubes that are one and a half inches square and are great for cocktails and soft drinks alike…they melt slow and don’t impart any off flavors or little particles of floating stuff.  Now, we are also just two people who drink mostly water out of carafes we keep in the fridge, and almost no pop, so we really only use cubes for cocktails, and guests.  But the trade-off for us of both not losing any freezer space to ice making equipment, and also not having to have a water line installed, or filters to manage, we just wanted a freezer big enough to load in a couple bags of our beloved square cubes and we would be good to go!  Again, if you are a family of four or five people who love their fizzy drinks cold, you probably do want an ice maker, it just wasn’t something we had on our list.

When we set out to do the research, we looked at all the usual suspects, and many of them had fine options.  But remember when we did the beverage center in the Media Room?  We knew after several months of great use that Marvel makes a truly great product, so we were already committed to buying their wine fridges for the wine and cheese.  

Wine fridge!
Cheese to come!

And then we looked into their larger scale models.

So perfect!
Look at that capacity!!!!

It came as no surprise that as the oldest refrigeration company in North America, they were the first to pioneer the large scale fridge freezer for home use!  The biggest interior capacity available, with some great features like stainless interior, perforated metal shelving in the freezer for airflow. Clear bins at the bottom, easily adjustable shelves, metal bins on the freezer door that are also easily adjustable.  They had the glass door feature available, and the freezer could come with or without an icemaker.  Plus, the machinery is all on the top, instead of built into the sides of the unit, so the interior capacity is astounding...over 20" deep, 31" wide, and 65" tall on each side.  I could literally cry, that is how excited I am to get this thing up and stocked!  

We knew that we have been so impressed with the unit we already owned; we had complete confidence in the larger models.  So it made life easy, we could be an exclusive Marvel home for all refrigeration and freezing needs!

So, once again, your takeaways are much the same as with any appliance.  Make a list of how you intend to use the appliance, what features are most important to you and your family, and what your budget is, and then jump into research with both feet!

In other news, so far no one has guessed the correct color of our wall ovens, so it is not too late to enter to win!  You can post your guess in the comment section on the BlueStar post…contest stays open till someone guesses correctly or the ovens arrive shortly, whichever comes first!

Yours in Good Taste,

The Polymath

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Star to Guide Them By!

Hello Chickens! 

Now that we have chatted about how to prepare for making appliance decisions, I want to start telling you about the appliances we actually picked, because THIS IS THE MOST EXCITING FUN THING EVER!

Today, we are talking about the workhorses of the kitchen.  That would be the rangetop, ovens and hood.

These were the first appliance decisions we had to make, because in order of importance for us, they were key.  We needed to know about these four pieces first since every other appliance in the kitchen would be affected by the choice, budgetarily.  Remember how I said you have to prioritize everything you want?  When it is time to do your research, start at your top priority and make those decisions first, otherwise you might fall in love with something fun at the bottom of your list and end up either devastated when it doesn’t end up fitting into the budget, or you might end up compromising quality on some key items to force it to fit.  Neither of these is fun.

So, we began at the beginning.  First there is fire.  For cooking.  We knew that we couldn’t actually install commercial units (not that I didn’t look into it), but we also knew we wanted to get as close as we could to that kind of functionality.  I looked into most of the brands that everyone knows already (Wolf, Sub-Zero etc.), but got wildly different reports on how well they worked long term.  And I had already had experience with a Viking and knew that it wasn’t a good fit for us.  A chef friend suggested we explore BlueStar. 

To be honest, I hadn’t ever heard of it, which concerned me, since I think of myself a somewhat on top of these things, but the recommendation was a strong one, so I started to explore.  And talk about a light bulb moment!  The company used to be Garland, who made the single best professional stoves available for restaurant use for YEARS.  When they converted to making products for the home cook, they upped their design a bit, but kept every inch of the amazing functionality of their commercial products intact.  When I had toyed with the idea of really installing restaurant equipment, I had been looking for a Garland, so it seemed a bit like destiny.  And since they make rangetops, powerful hoods, and wall ovens, we were hopeful we might knock off all of our priority choices in one place! 

Charming Suitor and I headed to a showroom that carried the brand, because at the end of the day it doesn’t matter how cool something looks online, or if the features sound good on the website, you have to really meet it in person.  Arranged marriages are not a good idea in the appliance world!  Go on a date.  Several.  Really get to know each other.  Look for warts and closet skeletons. 

At the showroom, we started with the rangetop, and we were hugely impressed by the simple style, and clearly amazing function.  They are supremely well-built, with a-ha features galore.  For example, even though they have a low-BTU simmer burner, all of the burner grates have a heat tamer feature built-in. If you pick up the center part of the grate, turn it a quarter turn, and put it back, it elevates your pot an additional inch or so above the flame.  Meaning your regular burner can become a simmer burner, and your simmer burner can get so delicate you can melt chocolate without a double boiler and not scorch it!  AWESOME.  Also, these center sections of the grates all come out, so any burner immediately can become a wok burner without special extra equipment.

All the pieces come out for easy cleaning, and there is a thin tray underneath the burners that also slides out, so all those bits and pieces you drop, or the occasional (or in my case, weekly) boil-over is easily remedied.  Each piece is made custom, and you have options in terms of a range of BTU burners (they offer the highest for home cooking—up to 25,000!), they have grills and griddles, French Tops (my fave!), you can configure your range the way you want it.    


It was pretty much love at first sight with this thing, and when we saw their hoods were designed to work perfectly with their ranges and had serious blower power, we were really sold.

But if the rangetop and hood were like the perfect meet-cute and heavenly first date?  The wall ovens were where we fell head over heels in love.

The gas oven was first, and it is superlative.  Not only did they have bigger capacity than the same sizes of other brands, meaning that we could do the smaller 30” ovens instead of 36” without losing interior capacity, (so I can fit a full size commercial baking sheet in the 30” oven).  But they had every feature we had on our list.  French doors?  Check.  And not only French doors, but French doors that BOTH open when you pull either one of the handles, so that you have one-handed usability when the other has a tray of cookies in it.  Full-extension shelves?  You betcha, and on super smooth rollers.  Plus the stuff we hadn’t considered, like the broiler (1850 degrees of infrared heat for serious browning) and true convection, not just a fan. The gas oven has a 25,000 BTU burner, plus an additional 3000 BTUs for heat assist when preheating, so it warms up quickly. 

The electric one has many of the same features, with a 2500 watt baking element, and an additional 1800 watt heat assist for preheating, and a 5000 watt broiler.  The electric one also has its own bonuses…like a built in baking stone with temp control, a temperature probe, 12 different modes including everything from Proofing to Convection Roasting.  (It even has a Sabbath mode for my Kosher friends!  Who knew???)  Plus my new favorite feature?  An eco-friendly continuous clean feature that automatically keeps it sparkly. 

Can you hear the angels singing? 

How's that for capacity?

Built-in baking stone!

CS and I were giddy in the showroom.  And by giddy do I mean that we did an actual full-out happy dance when the rep left us alone to take a call?  You had better believe it.  I really hope, in retrospect, that there is not closed circuit camera footage of that.

We knew we had found our “anchor” appliances, and could not have been more delighted. 

Until they asked about color.

Want to take a couple of cooking geeks and really send them over the rainbow?  Tell them that their dream appliances can be made for them in over 256 different colors.

Yes, we do dream in color!

What the WHAT???

We looked at each other, twin grins exploding our faces.  Oh. YEAH.

I love these things so much I actually wrote them into Recipe for Disaster!

So, yes, it is official, we are going to be a proud BlueStar home for rangetop, ventilation, and wall ovens.  We are doing the 48" rangetop with four burners and a 24" French top, a 54" hood (you always want your hood to be slightly wider than your range) a 30" gas wall oven and a 30" electric.  And while we are keeping the rangetop and hood both a classic stainless steel…the wall ovens are going to be in color.

And the first person to guess the color correctly in the comments section will receive both a copy of Recipe for Disaster (starring BlueStar!) and a copy of my digital cookbook Big Delicious Life!

Stay tuned, next time we talk about fridges, and there are some fun surprises there as well!

Yours in Good Taste,

The Polymath

Monday, December 21, 2015

It"s beginning to look a lot like.... APPLIANCES!

Hello chickens! 

Now that you are all caught up on kitchen design and cabinetry for the time being (we will return to that soon when it is time to talk about organization), its officially time to talk about appliances.

(insert loud joyful squealing here!)

Again, this is where your Polymath strongly recommends that you have some serious conversations about your budget and how you use your kitchen.  Because the magical world of kitchen appliances will sing her siren song to you, and if you are not careful you will end up with a kitchen that costs more than the rest of your house put together.

Kitchens these days are aspirational.  The photos on Pinterest and features in design magazines can send the sanest person down the rabbit hole of gorgeous and totally impractical kitchens.   ANTIQUE ARMOIRES REPURPOSED AS CABINETS!  BLEACHED WHITE WOOD FLOORS!  ALL UNDERCOUNTER REFRIGERATION! (for funny tales of kitchen renovation dreams, with links to some of these amazing spaces, do check out the hilarious Victoria Elizabeth Barnes and be prepared for what seems like a crazy idea actually working (repurposing an antique square grand piano as a kitchen island....AWESOME!)

It is awfully tempting to go right down the rabbit hole into kitchen crazyland, and trust me, if anyone could do it, it is your Polymath!  But I am here to tell you, you want a kitchen that first and foremost addresses the following needs:

1.     It works with how YOU ACTUALLY COOK.
2.     It is relatively easy to maintain and keep clean.
3.     It provides adequate storage for what you own.
4.     It is a space that works for the needs of your particular family.
5.     It is doable within your budget.

Yes, once you make the important decisions about these five things, then you can see about design choices and the looks of things, and you will always have several options in your price range where finishes are concerned.  But if you start with some dream kitchen and how it looks, you are setting yourself for some heartbreak down the road.  

When it comes to appliances, things get tricky.  There are so many options in such a wide variety of price points (Why is this stove $2000 and this other one $60,000???).  And these days, there are so many KINDS of appliances you can find that you had no idea you might even want desperately!  (Built in wall coffee/espresso maker, in-counter fryer, teppanyaki grill....)

So how do you even start?

For many people, buying suites of appliances is definitely the way to go.  By sticking with all one brand, you can often get a much better deal than you would buying each piece individually.  The design is also unified, which works well for smaller spaces.  Be prepared to make some sacrifices on one or another feature, it is rare that when buying a suite you get every detail you want in every piece, but the value can be really good, so decide where your dealbreakers are and explore the brands that seem to get you as much of what you want as possible.

Right now many realtors and designers are promoting the “gourmet kitchen” or the “chef’s kitchen”.  Both of these tend to contain higher end luxury appliances, often modeled after commercial versions.  If you are a passionate cook, there is nothing better than the options on the higher end of the appliance spectrum.  And there are more and more brands branching into these options.  But be prepared, the more “commercial style” you get, the higher the price goes. And again, try to be honest with yourself!  Unless you are specifically designing your new kitchen purely for it’s resale value, if you are not a serious cook, dropping that kind of dough on the appliances may not be your best option.  If 70% of your dinners either come in a take-out container or out of the microwave, an eight-burner gas range is not really going to be a terrific fit for you, and will be a budget buster.

Our motto?  Is the juice worth the squeeze?  

If you cannot remember ever thinking "Boy a second oven would be really terrific right now!" then don't invest in two.  If you have never ever once used all of your burners at the same time, then don't buy a stove with any more burners than you currently have.  However, if every time you cook you set off the smoke alarm, that tells you to invest in a really high quality hood with heavy duty blower.  Is your refrigerator really just a condiment and beverage storage unit where leftover Thai goes to die?  You probably don't need the massive full wall of refrigeration.  But if you have four kids, one of whom is vegetarian and one of whom has decided to keep Kosher, all of whom require you pack all of their school lunches for the week on Sunday afternoon AND bring home gaggles of friends for snacks after school nearly daily?  You are going to want the BIG fridge and maybe an extra set of undercounter fridge drawers to boost storage.

Okay, enough practical stuff, I have done my due diligence, and now it is time to talk about how we made our decisions.

For Charming Suitor and I, we knew that actually using the appliances wasn’t going to be an issue, since we cook pretty much every day, and entertain several times a month, and I use the space for work, to test recipes for the novels and cookbooks.  And we often both cook at the same time, sort of a divide and conquer approach, especially when entertaining, which is part of why we devoted so much square footage to the kitchen to begin with.  So we knew we weren’t being (completely) impractical when we started looking at the commercial styled workhorses of the kitchen.  We also knew that the space we were dealing with was large enough that we didn’t have to worry about staying within one brand suite, we could choose each appliance on its own merits, based on the features it has and how we intended on using them.

It is important to note the following as we move through these decisions, our choices to use one or two products from one company and not their other products is in no way an indication that the other products in their line are somehow inferior.  There are five different brands of appliances going into the kitchen, and any one of those five could have done most, if not all of what we needed.  For us, the decisions came down to sometimes the tiniest details, such as how the piece worked with our layout, or how the door opened, or how it integrated within the cabinetry design.  In a couple of cases, it was simply that they were the only brand offering that particular TYPE of appliance.  But we researched extensively, and I truly would not hesitate to recommend each of the five complete product lines wholeheartedly.

Here were the parameters we set our for ourselves when it came to appliance selection:

1.     Gas Rangetop:  I’ve been cooking on electric for 23 years in this place, and the shift to gas is the single most exciting thing about the whole kitchen project.  When CS and I talked about what we wanted, the first decision was that we wanted a rangetop and not a full stove with ovens.  We wanted to do our ovens wall mounted, at counter height, for maximum ease of use.  We both have back issues, so bending over to the floor to hump the 18 pound Thanksgiving Turkey out of the oven is not something we wanted to put in the plan.  The key features we were looking for were:  a range of BTU burners so that there were really hot burners for searing meats and getting things caramelized, and at least one low BTU simmer burner for holding sauces and keeping things warm without scorching.  I wanted a French Top option, this is a large flat steel plate over a single center burner, that has zones of various temps as you move away from the center.  They are great when doing big meals with a lot of courses, since you can put several pots on it at the same time, with each in a zone that is the right temp for the contents.  CS wanted heavy duty cast iron grates that are easy to lift out and clean.  (because he lives with ME and I am a notoriously messy cook, and some cooktops have complicated nooks and crannies that can be difficult to really get clean).

2.     Wall ovens:  We wanted the option to have one gas for roasting and one electric for baking.  I wanted French doors, since my short arms make reaching over an open door to get into an oven can be a recipe for burnt arms.  We also wanted full-extension shelves (see "burnt arms" again), and a pretty decent sized capacity (see "Thanksgiving Turkey" again).

3.     Induction cooktop:  While we knew that having a second cooktop in the space would be a serious luxury, we had the space to do it, and have been very excited about induction cooking for a while.  We have chef pals who swear by it, including a three-Michelin star chef in France who has converted his entire restaurant kitchen to induction.  We also know that for big parties, it would be very convenient to have a second cooking space.

4.     Dishwashers:  We wanted large capacity washers, with internal flexibility to accommodate pots and pans and serving platters in addition to plates.  We wanted dishwashers that smartly accommodate stemware, because WINE.  And we both preferred the washers with the flatware tray at the top since the one place we tend to get things that come out with bits still stuck on them is in the silverware baskets.

5.     Refrigeration:  We wanted a 72” side-by-side fridge/freezer, deep enough to handle large platters and trays.  We did not want an integrated unit, since those are shallower, and we did not want to put panels that matched the cabinets on them.  We also wanted a simple unit, no through the door functions, no ice maker (more on that later), and we preferred the option for a glass door on the fridge side since 72 inches of stainless steel is sort of a lot, especially when you do not have the artwork of small people to display.  We also knew we would want an undercounter wine fridge for the kitchen, (because, WINE) and potentially a very small wine fridge to convert for cheese storage (more on this later).

6.     Warming drawers:  These are one of those appliances that can seem like real lily gilding, and to be sure, they are!  But everyone I know who has them says they use them all the time.  They can do everything from proofing bread dough, to warming your plates for a dinner party, to holding delicate sauces like hollandaise at the perfect temp.  For large events, especially holiday parties, you can load them up with finished dishes and keep them warm so that everything can get served at once with much better flexibility.  Ideal for potlucks when people show up with their hot dish and there is limited room in your oven to hold it before dinner.
      Steamer:  in-counter steamers are a pretty new thing, and again, sort of a bonus appliance, most people would not want to give up the counter space for them.  But we had enough counter space, and steaming is something we actually do a lot of! In artichoke season I steam them six to eight at a time at least once or twice a week.  For entertaining, I usually do some sort of steamed green vegetable as a side dish, and when CS and I are eating at home, steaming veggies is sort of a constant.  Our architects, who are also foodies, strongly recommend we explore them.  So we were intrigued to learn more, and put it in the "maybe" category.

7.     Built-in rotisserie:  Okay, this is mostly me, I have always wanted a rotisserie in my kitchen.  Great rotisserie chicken is one of our all time favorite things to eat, and is the first place we hit at a market.  This option was my total dream splurge item, and was also at the bottom of the priority list, it was only going to happen if we were really good about the budget in other departments, and could find one that we were confident would be easy to use and clean and would not require that we do any redesign on the kitchen.

     Some things we opted OUT of (I know, you are shocked there are appliances we did not buy, considering this epic list...):

      Built-in coffee station:  I not only don't drink coffee, I make TERRIBLE coffee, so I am not allowed to make coffee.  CS loves his French press, and it does a perfect job for him.  And for entertaining, neither of us was interested in having to play barrista for one or two cups at a time.  Impractical for us, but if you are a coffee aficionado, they might be an interesting option.

      Built-in microwave or microwave drawer:  We rarely use the microwave at home, sometimes going over two weeks between uses.  Our countertop model, which we have stored in the kitchen library, is just fine.

     Deep fryer:  I deep fry maybe twice a year, and for the sake of our health, really don't want to do much more than that.

     Indoor grill/griddle:  CS is a grilling purist...if there is not charcoal or wood involved, it isn't grilling, it is making lines on things that don't impart flavor.  So all grilling happens outside.  And no griddle because we are not really pancake people (see: type 2 diabetes).

Once we had our brief on each appliance it was off to the research…a combination of crowdsourcing opinions from friends and family (especially chefs and serious cooks), checking reviews and articles from trusted sources, and going to appliance stores to see the equipment in person and meet with reps to really get details about each potential item.  Since I knew we would be sharing all of this information with you, I made sure to not just meet with salespeople, but to reach out directly to brand reps and go to brand-specific showrooms to make sure that we had as much clear information as possible. 

Stay tuned, I’ll start sharing the details of what we actually picked, and why, very soon!

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath