Organize for Success: How the Spice Doc Stays Organized in the Kitchen

Apr 27, 2013
Organize for success is a blog series which takes a peek into the lives of people in various situations. These people have managed to find systems and routines that work for them and/or their families, and allow them to experience success in whatever they've chosen to do.

Today's interview is with Nicole (from the Spice Doc blog). Being a licensed Acupuncturist, an Herbalist, and a Medicinal Chef, she's intimately aware of the many ways that food can be used as medicine. Since she spends so much time in the kitchen, I thought it'd be interesting to see how she gets organized!

 1) You have such an interesting profession! How did you get into it, and why?

Thank you for the kind words. It is an interesting profession and I love that I continue to learn new things every day -- that's what keeps it dynamic. For my bachelor's degree I studied Anthropology with a focus on medical and biological anthro which blended my two main interests; people and medicine. Whilst studying this I was exposed to the wide array of medical frameworks in history and in the world today. In addition, I did an internship for many years at an acupuncture clinic that serviced the HIV and AIDS community in Boston, which specifically opened me up to the amazing benefits of Chinese Medicine on a (thus far) incurable disease. I ended up writing my final research paper for my major on alternative medical treatment in the HIV and AIDS community. 

Often, populations that have supposedly incurable illnesses will seek out treatments (beyond the obvious biomedical framework that we have come to accept as the end all be all of medicine in the 20th and 21st centuries), because the biomedical framework is not serving them adequately. In my last year of university I got a grant to do research on the Green Revolution in Cuba, which is a movement that was created to counter balance the effects of the U.S. embargo on Cuba, post Soviet Bloc collapse. Basically, Cuba wasn't able to receive enough petrol to cart food into the cities where the majority of the populations lived, or enough pesticides and fertilizers to produce in mass quantities, OR all the medicine it needed to treat their population. What this created was little urban farms, herbals gardens for medical treatment, and so on. It also meant rationing and other unpleasant realities. 

The part that really struck me was the herbal gardens for treating illnesses, all these common herbs and plants that anyone could grow to treat headaches, stomachaches, and a whole range of maladies! This stayed with me. After I finished my studies at Tufts in Boston I moved to NYC and wanted to work for a few years before deciding on whether to apply to medical school, study Chinese Medicine, study Nutrition, or go to cooking school. Those were my four choices which I fluctuated between in those years. In the end, I decided to study Chinese Medicine which not only satisfied my desire to be in the medical profession but also had a large component of it that was steeped in nutrition, specifically medicinal cooking. 

In the end, while I didn't make an easy career choice given that this medicine was still quite marginalized in the early part of the 2000's in the U.S. and Europe, it brought me much joy and a constant wonder at it's deep healing potential. I received a Masters of Science (which took four years of straight study) in Traditional Chinese Medicine, which included both Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine. For the last 5 years I have become completely focused on the medicinal cooking aspect of Chinese Medicine as I found that it was not as strongly represented as it should be in the U.S. and I wanted to know more. Medicinal cooking is one of the best tools you can give your patients, something that will help them to heal themselves on a daily basis. That's the long story of how I came to be doing what I am doing today! I have been living in Sichuan Province with my husband for the last two years, completely immersed in the study of medicinal cooking from the Chinese Medicine perspective, and loving it every minute of the way.

2) As someone who experiments a lot with food and medicinal cooking, you must spend a lot of time in the kitchen. How do you organize your kitchen?

Kitchen in China

I do spend a lot of time in the kitchen; it is my research lab and my playground at the same time. When we moved to Sichuan we searched long and hard for the right kitchen that would fit all my kitchen tools and gadgets, herbs, and entertaining accoutrement. Typically, people do not have large kitchens in China, and they also don't have more than two burners most of the time. In the end we managed to find a large kitchen, with three burners, lots of light (very key), and almost enough storage for all my treasures. While there are things missing that I would love to have if I were to build out my own kitchen (such as a composting area, somewhere to grow fresh herbs...and so on), I am content with what I have to work with here.

Mortar and pestle, oils, rice cooker, and tools in jar

I like to organize my kitchen in much the same way that they organize an herbal pharmacy - you keep your "fast movers" (in their case it would be herbs often used in a TCM formula) easily accessible and your more rarely used herbs or things, whether they be tools, dry goods, glasses, or whatever, in the harder to reach areas. I have my most used oils right next to the stove. Olive oil (one regular one for cooking at low heat or larger quantity, one small high quality one for drizzling cold/raw on salads etc.) and grapeseed oil (for frying and high heat cooking as olive oil doesn't withstand high heats). My other oils stay in the cabinet below to the right of the stove: sesame oil, Sichuan peppercorn oil, walnut oil, etc etc. 

 To the right of the stove, I have my fast moving condiments for dressings or cooking: rice vinegar, sea salt, cayenne pepper, Thai chile flakes, soy sauce, cooking wine, and Japanese chile flakes. To the right below the stove (along with the other oils) I keep other vinegars such as red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar, a whole slew of salts (Himalayan, Hawaiian, French, Thai, etc), fresh black peppercorns (which I always grind when needed right before using in my Mexican mole mortar and pestle so you get the real benefits and taste of black pepper), bay leaves, Sichuan peppercorns, turmeric, and other spices that don't require refrigeration to stay fresh and pungent. 

Kitchen tools and gadgets kept within easy reach

The rest of the kitchen is organized in much the same way -- my most used tools are out on the counters and the rest are stored neatly away in the storage units in the kitchen. The least used are the hardest to get to. Outside I keep a knife rack, two different mortar and pestle's (one Mexican for dry spices such as pepper and the other Thai for wet pounding such as garlic etc), a blender, a huge transformer for my U.S. tools that need voltage conversion, a scale for baking measurements, cooking tools in a big glass container such as chopsticks, spatula's, spoons, noodle strainers, etc. that I can just grab and use, and I have a section that is for pickling (Sichuan-style). As per regards to food, I like to keep things that don't need refrigeration outside to save energy (which is better for the environment and for the taste of things overall!). 

 Instead of throwing away wine corks, they've been turned into a cork board.

When it's humid, sometimes the rules for this are bent as things will spoil quicker outside. But otherwise, I keep tomatoes, avocados, bananas, onions, lemons, eggs, oranges, sugars, etc. all outsides and reachable in their own bowls or containers. Tomatoes and many fruits lose their taste in the refrigerator. If the bananas spoil, I freeze them for later use in a banana bread.

3) How do you keep all your recipes organized?

To be honest, if it's non medicinal recipes, they stay in my mind (or don't) as I'm not much for keeping them organized as such. But, if it's a medicinal recipe I do write it in one of my many notebooks that I keep for that purpose. For baking (which I am only recently getting into) I have been using sticky notes and leaving them stuck on the wall right behind the scale I use when I bake on the rare occasion. I have a whole slew of cook books which I love that I keep in my office, though in an ideal world they'd be in my kitchen and full of sticky fingers and what not, with notes in the sides to fix the recipes, or remind me of tricks. I think having a binder or book with personal recipes that you learn or get from people is a great idea and one I'd like to do, but for the most part I've been the type to learn a recipe by watching, learning, doing, and not by reading it and measuring. That's why I don't always record them and that's why I'm not really the best of bakers! Except banana bread of course :)

4) What are your favorite organizing tools?

Bowls for fruits and vegetables, sealable containers for spices and sugar, and I almost always keep old glass jars that formerly housed jams, etc to store more spices, herbs, salts and whatever else fits in there! Often I buy spices in bulk in open air markets that don't sell them in packaging so they need to be transferred to some type of container and this is a great way to do that. I love that these jars come in all shapes and sizes and I get excited if it's a teeny tiny one to put something like say expensive saffron or a pinch of rare something or other. 

Oranges, sugars, and stuff w/out containers yet, plus a pickling station.

I detest using plastic if avoidable and I think throwing out perfectly usable glass jars is a tragedy, so I like to recycle their use in this way. It also gives everything a homey feel to me. Soaking them for a time in hot water and soap sterilizes them and gets rid of the sticky paper which tells you what was in there before. Sometimes though, I can't be bothered peeling the papers that are really stuck. I think this is a great way to save a little money, not waste glass jars, and recycle.

5) From a food-as-medicine standpoint, what’s the one thing you think everyone should have in their kitchen and why?

Good salt. We need it to survive, it brings out the flavor in foods, and it can treat an array of illnesses (from gargling with salt water for a infected tooth or throat, to placing some on a infected wound). I have an extensive collection of salt that I buy wherever I travel to. Salt became a pariah sometime in the last 50 years with claims that it was bad for you and in the '80's that awful fake salt was created (the no salt, salt) to replace it, which is much like eating a poison and is probably worse for you than the purported health risks of a high salt diet.

Salt is the only rock we eat and it is full of minerals you can't get elsewhere, especially if you use the kind that has color and taste to it from not being bleached and processed like much of Morton's salt. If you want to read more about salt I wrote a whole post on it a long time ago when I first started writing The Spice Doc here.

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