Kitchen Tour: Jackie Gives Life to Her Rental Kitchen

Jackie knows that in order to thrive and get the creative juices flowing, her immediate physical environment must be pleasing to the eye and the soul. So she took on the challenge of personalizing a typical rental kitchen in New York City with gusto.

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After some customized curtain remnants, blackboard paint for the swinging doors, plants, and a wide array of fun and practical kitchen heirlooms, Jackie was ready to embark upon endless culinary adventures. Jackie does all the cooking for her household, so she has full reign over the design and habits of the kitchen. She's very spontaneous but at the same time, quite organized and efficient. She loves to experiment and is fortunate to have two very ready, willing and appreciative recipients of each and every outcome.

Jackie's kitchen hums. It is a personalized, inviting space where anything can happen and will.

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10 Questions for Jackie (and Her Kitchen)

What inspires your kitchen and your cooking?
To make meals from primary ingredients full of color and texture that entertain as much as they nourish — both in the mouth and to the eyes. I'm kind of obsessed with balancing sweet, sour, bitter, savory and spicy along with various textures in each dish. I can't just grab something out of the fruit bowl or fridge without, grabbing three or four things with which to achieve that stimulation.

I grew up on a farm, ate many meals right from the garden with only a salt shaker in my hand — a bite of tomato, then herbs, followed by a nibble on a chili and several grapes from the vine to settle the sting. I lived outside, grew up in the barn or on the back of my horse, so going inside to find dishes and knives took too much time. I loved tiny sour apples, cherries and mulberries I'd pick from trees as I rode beneath them, and even the tiny bright yellow green clover leaves and bitter alpha sprigs that grew from seed droppings in the yard from the hay I carried to the horses. In the decades that I spent moving around through cities in the States, Europe and South America, I lived to eat raw clams, inhale multiple lobsters in one sitting with only drippings of butter; existed on white fish ceviche's from fish I saw pulled out of the sea moments before, along with limitless quantities of squid and octopus alone for days; and due to anemia, even was known to bite into raw beef early in the morning to dissuade fainting for the iron. But, my body hums on raw vegetables with citrus and vinegars.

The food in my kitchen adds color to the space. My d├ęcor is mostly items from my family's kitchens past. I feel at home in any space with them around me. Their worn-in, cracked, splintered nature and stained blackened blades remind me of the tools that hung in the barn or came always with stories of my relatives.

What is your favorite kitchen tool or element?
My great great Grandmother's pasta 'chitarra' (guitar) from Sicily. It's a harp like instrument that I roll fresh pasta dough over and spaghetti noodles drop through the strings. My father gave it to me with tears in his eyes remembering his grandmother as he and I were in the attic packing some of the remaining items that were under the eaves as we were moving out of the farm house that was our home for over 30 years.

I also have this indescribable fascination for the shape and qualities of both octopus and giant squid. I wish I could stare at live ones moving free in the sea. I have this rubber giant squid, made by Schleich, that makes safe and realistic toys animals for children. I bought him at Academy Records from that shelf they have in the corner often filled with prehistoric creatures. I dubbed him my Kitchen God. He is revered and hangs next to my stove, reminding me of the greatness of the sea and the bounty of life it provides as I cook.

What's the most memorable meal you've ever cooked in this kitchen?
I've only lived in this apartment for a few months, so I'm just getting started after spending so much time decorating the place. But, I'd have to say the most memorable experience was the enormous challah bread I baked from scratch with my 7-year-old son on Rosh Hashanah. It tripled in size coming out of the oven! It was nearly bigger than him. We had to cut one third of it off the tray to fit it in the oven to finish baking. I grew up pretty much without religion, though I was baptized Catholic to appease one side of my family. Many of my friends and my son's friends are Jewish. I often celebrate the meaning of a holiday my son is exposed to via a meal in which I attempt to reproduce some of the culinary traditions associated with it.

Biggest challenge in your kitchen?
When the dishwasher is open, stretching to reach the cabinets on the other side to put away the dishes. Dealing with the low end fridge (and its infernal hum) and oven that came with the rental apartment. So: No self-cleaning, no ventilation and buzzkill from the fridge.

Biggest indulgence or splurge in the kitchen:
The food. It used to be water, buying cases or Pellegrino, but I've gone Sodastream.

Is there anything you hope to add or improve in your kitchen?
I need a good rug or mat to stand on as I increase the amount of time I spend in there and I may want to paint the wall if not tile it behind the sink for practical reasons. But, I have to paint the dining room and the bedroom which flank the kitchen first to determine what that bridge color should be. In my design, I am very attuned to the energy and stimulation color exudes. I need to choose a color element which facilitates the ease of transition from one room's space to the next.

How would you describe your cooking style?
Conjunctive combustion.

Best cooking advice or tip you ever received:
Trust your taste. "But don't believe it when it says 'I need another taste to be sure.' I frequently come to the dinner table with the smallest portion on my plate, because I tasted so much while improvising. "Save room for the table!" says my partner. I don't cook by measurements, ingredients vary in intensity and each meal is an approximation, a shake from the hand and a taste. It's how my grandmother and father taught me to cook — I learned by watching how much oregano for instance she spread along the top of a huge pot of tomato sauce in the morning. And how she topped all the herbs off again at the end of the day before dinner. I had this small pink bowl that was the relegated 'tasting bowl.' She'd put in a few teaspoons of the sauce and say, "Now Jackie, tell me what it needs?"

What is your favorite cookbook?
I just bought Mark Bittman's 'How to Cook Everything Vegetarian' and Ani's Raw Food Essentials. But I often cross check recipes from different cultures before deciding how I want to make my own version. And I have a staple of recipes from my family in my head from the Italian side. When baking, however, I rely exclusively on my mother's recipe box (the Welsh side).

What are you cooking this week?
I'm addicted to fennel and celery salad with lemon dressing, and watermelon & tomato salad I got from Bittman's round up of his favorite 25 recipes of 2010. I ate the latter almost everyday last week! But I just got a huge order of Indian specialties delivered from Food Temptation located in Jersey City, so I'll have to consult my Kitchen God to decide what'll be on the menu.

Favorite Kitchen Tools

• Mandolin
• Cheese grater
• Mini chop
• Food processor
• KitchenAid mixer
• Juicer
• Brita water filter
• Sodastream Penguin
• Le Creuset
• Laguiole

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(Images: Jill Slater)