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Frank Stitt’s Guide to Successful Kitchen Design

Inspired by his travels and experiences in the culinary world, Frank offers tips for creating a kitchen that functions as the heart and soul of the household. (And, yes, he shares some recipes, too.)

photography by Arik Sokol, Food photography by Christopher Hirsheimer

Frank Stitt knows a thing or two about kitchens. As the owner of Highlands Bar and Grill, Bottega, and Chez Fon Fon, he’s seen his share of kitchen designs and knows what works and what doesn’t. Frank recently spoke to AIA Birmingham at European Kitchen of Alabama about functionality both at home and in commercial kitchens.

“All the aesthetics come together when you create a place that feels really great. Architecture is so important,” Frank says, pointing out that it’s not only the food that makes a restaurant successful, but also the atmosphere. Aesthetically pleasing kitchens rely on design as well. In fact, Frank stresses the importance of making the kitchen a focal point in any home.

“We all want to hang out in the kitchen. We all want be drawn into that warmth,” Frank says. “For me, it was my mom’s kitchen that set the tone for what I do.”

“Kitchens are the incredible, strong, spiritual center of our home and our life, and I think that we’ve got to do whatever we can to nurture and accentuate it,” Frank says.

Tortellini Salad with Chicken, Pine Nuts, Sultanas, and Balsamic

Serves 4
The few times we’ve dared to replace this dish on the Bottega Café menu, our regular crowd screams in protest. It’s deliciously simple once you’ve assembled all the components, and very satisfying. I have been known to snack on this on those many afternoons when lunch has passed me by.

1/4 cup Homemade Mayonnaise* (see below) or high-quality commercial mayonnaise
1/4 cup Balsamic Vinaigrette** (see below)
2 small heads romaine lettuce, sliced into 1-inch-wide strips
4 cups (about 1 pound) cooked store-bought fresh cheese tortellini
Four 6-ounce skinless, boneless chicken breasts, grilled and cut into large cubes
1 heaping tablespoon pine nuts, toasted*** (see below)
1/4 cup sultanas (golden raisins)
1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, halved, or quartered if large
1 scant tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Whisk the mayonnaise and vinaigrette together in a small bowl.

Toss the romaine leaves with half of the dressing in a large bowl and divide among four plates. Add the tortellini, chicken, pine nuts, sultanas, half of the tomatoes, and the parsley to the bowl and toss to coat with the remaining dressing. Season with salt and pepper and toss again. Arrange on top of the lettuce leaves, garnish with the remaining cherry tomatoes, and serve.

To Drink: Pinot Grigio (Livio Felluga)

*Homemade Mayonnaise

Makes 1 3/4 cups

Homemade mayonnaise is one of the most versatile sauces there is. During my first book tour, a Southern grande dame exclaimed, “Southern ladies do not serve store-bought mayonnaise!” At the restaurant, we make mayo by hand with a balloon whisk and elbow grease, but the food processor does a good job. In a pinch, good store-bought mayonnaise (I like Hellman’s, called Best Food out West) is a fine stand-in.

1 large egg
1 egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Pinch of cayenne
1 1/2 cups canola or grapeseed oil
1 to 2 tablespoons warm water, if needed

Combine the egg, egg yolk, and salt in a food processor and process for 30 seconds. Add the lemon juice, mustard, and cayenne and process for 15 seconds with the machine running. Slowly pour the oil through the feed tube until the mayonnaise is thick and emulsified. If the mixture becomes too dense, stop pouring in the oil and add warm water, a little at a time, until the mayonnaise loosens, then slowly incorporate the remaining oil. Taste and adjust the seasoning. The mayonnaise can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

**Balsamic Vinaigrette

Makes a generous 1 cup
Balsamic vinegar has become a victim of its own success. True artisanal balsamic vinegar is one of Italy’s treasures, but there are many more imitation balsamics than the authentic variety, aceto balsamico di Modena, which is aged in wood barrels of decreasing size as it matures and concentrates. As with most ingredients, you get what you pay for. An excellent value is condimento balsamico di Modena. It’s not the ultraluxe version, but it captures balsamic’s true spirit—the fruitiness of ripe grapes transformed and matured—and is good for most purposes.

Letting the shallot macerate in the vinegar tames its bite while infusing the vinegar with its flavor.

1 medium shallot, finely minced
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon chopped thyme
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Combine the shallot, vinegar, thyme, and salt and pepper in a small bowl. Set aside to macerate for about 10 minutes.

Whisk in the olive oil and taste and adjust the seasonings. The vinaigrette will keep for several days in a jar in the refrigerator.

***Toasting Nuts 

Toasting nuts brings out their flavor and gives them added crunch. Spread the nuts on a baking sheet and bake in a preheated 325°F oven, shaking the pan from time to time, until the nuts are aromatic and lightly browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Monitor them carefully, as they can burn quickly. If you need only a small quantity of toasted nuts, you can toast them in a dry skillet over medium heat, shaking the pan occasionally, until fragrant. We usually toast pine nuts in a skillet, so we can keep an eye on them; they tend to scorch easily because of their high oil content. Blanching hazelnuts or other nuts means removing their skins. To toast and blanch hazelnuts, walnuts, or almonds, toast as above, then wrap the warm nuts in a kitchen towel and rub together to remove the skins (don’t worry about removing every last bit of skin).

Old-Fashioned Tomato Salad

Serves 4
The old-fashioned salad I grew up with is a vinegary mix of tomatoes cut into chunks, with some sliced cucumbers and onions all tossed together with a little fresh dill. This presentation is just a bit more refined. Make this only when the ingredients are perfect, in July or August, and tomatoes and cucumbers are at their best. Choose varieties such as Brandywine, Big Beef, Atkinson, German Pink, or Green Zebra. Use small pickling-type cucumbers, such as Kirby or thin-skinned Persian. Avoid tomatoes that have been refrigerated—their flavor will have suffered substantially.

For a heartier version of this salad, add some blanched or boiled little green beans, tiny beets, and/or just-dug new potatoes.

2 small Kirby cucumbers, skin removed in wide zebralike stripes
Sea salt
1 small sweet onion, such as Vidalia, cut into thin rings
2 tablespoons cider-honey vinegar (2 tablespoons cider vinegar plus 1⁄2 teaspoon honey) or red wine or sherry vinegar
4 to 8 nice tomatoes—a variety of flavorful types in different colors, sizes, and shapes, cored and thickly sliced
About 1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, preferably an assortment, halved
3 tablespoons finest-quality extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
A handful of fresh herbs, such as chives, dill, mint sprigs, and basil leaves coarsely chopped

If the cucumbers are small enough that the seeds have not fully developed, simply slice them thin. If the seeds are noticeable, cut the cucumbers lengthwise in half and, with a small spoon, remove the seeds; then slice. Toss with a good pinch of sea salt in a small bowl and place in the refrigerator to macerate for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, toss the thinly sliced onion with 1 tablespoon of the vinegar in a bowl and refrigerate for 15 minutes. (Macerating the onion slices both crisps them and tames their pungency.)

Arrange the sliced tomatoes attractively on a large platter. Scatter the cherry tomatoes over and around them.

To serve, drain the cucumbers and squeeze to remove any excess liquid. Toss with the onion slices and scatter over the tomatoes. Drizzle over the remaining 1 tablespoon vinegar and the olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and toss the herbs over everything.

To drink: Sancerre, Delaporte, Sancerre, Reverdy

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