A Former Maine Schooner Chef on How to Embrace a Tiny Kitchen
After working for over two decades in the galley of the J&E Riggin, Annie Mahle shares what she learned in her newest cookbook.
Annie Mahle spent over two decades working as the head chef on the schooner J&E Riggin, where she cooked three meals a day for up to 30 guests from a small ship galley. Working in this limited environment forced her to get creative in her food prep and inspired her third book, The Tiny Kitchen Cookbook (Storey Publishing, 2021), which came out this past August. We spoke with Mahle to get her tips for working in tight quarters and learning how to love the kitchen you have. We also grabbed a seasonal recipe recommendation to impress your guests with this holiday season.
How did working in the small kitchen on a schooner help you to grow as a chef?
When a kitchen—whether your personal small space or a restaurant space—has limited equipment, tools, counter space, or any other challenge, it encourages you to problem solve and do the best you can with what you have. I think working in a limited space persuaded me to focus on the special food I could create rather than on how the space restricted my ability to make a certain dish. Also, it helped me to fuss less and allow the high-quality ingredients to shine. Sometimes simpler actually is better.
While you were working on the J&E Riggin, what was the most popular meal that you would prepare for guests?
I’m not sure there was one particular favorite. Fresh bread for every meal, maybe. Or the idea that everything was made from scratch and by hand that day. Nothing was prepared ahead of time, and everything was created with the freshest farm-raised ingredients. People can feel how nourishing that is and sense that the intention and creativity translates to the food in a way that feels rich, deep, and connected.
What were the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of cooking on a schooner?
The most challenging part was cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day for 30 people in a space that was essentially outside. Wind, rain, heat, and humidity were constant factors affecting the food prep and presentation, all while the boat was in motion—often heeling 10 to 15 degrees. Imagine standing in your own kitchen after a day at work and in addition to the usual family, pet, and scheduling challenges, add weather, motion, and a significant tilt to your stove top and counter. That’s what every day was like cooking on the schooner, and I loved it. The most rewarding part was doing it all with an amazing team that became an extended family, and creating an atmosphere where people could find nourishment for their bodies and souls. We created a place that our guests knew they would leave replenished and revitalized—ready to greet the challenges of their lives with lighter hearts.
“Love the kitchen you have, not the one you don’t. Wonderful food can be created with very few tools and space.”
What advice would you give to a home cook with limited resources?
Love the kitchen you have, not the one you don’t. Wonderful food can be created with very few tools and space. All you really need is a cutting board, a couple of knives, a skillet, and a pot. All the rest of the tools you think you “need” are actually just things you want. Which is totally fine but not at all necessary to create nourishing and delicious food on a daily basis.
What ingredients do you always have on hand?
I always have lemons, limes, and something pickled in my fridge. That bright, acidic flavor is so good at perking up steamed veggies, a steak just off the grill, or even a little fresh fruit. As the weather gets cooler, I make my own lemon, ginger, and honey tea with fresh lemon and ginger.
What is your favorite space-saving hack for small kitchens?
I’ll often put a cutting board over my sink to create extra counter space. I also clean as I go, stack my prep bowls, and use the kitchen table as an extra prep space. Plus, I hang things; all of my baking and measuring tools and mugs are hanging on hooks.
What inspired you to write about your experiences cooking at sea?
Our guests. They kept saying, “You have to write a book.” It took a lot of courage to write the first book—I didn’t think of myself as a writer or a recipe creator. I just didn’t know if I could do it. But when you commit to a process you have to sit down every day and try. You do it even when it feels as if things aren’t going well. You have to quiet the voices in your mind and allow the creation to come through you rather than try to force it. Sometimes it’s sloppy, and other times it’s so easy it’s like floating down a river on a sunny day. Both are valid and no matter what, showing up every day to do the work is what produces the end result.
Creamy Pumpkin Almond Soup (Serves 2)
The blend of spices in this recipe is similar to berbere—an Ethiopian spice mix that can be tricky to find in all but the most sophisticated of grocery stores. It lends a special depth and richness to the soup, setting it apart from others.
-1 tablespoon coconut oil
-1 cup diced onion (about 1 medium onion)
-8 ounces pumpkin (or butternut squash) flesh, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch cubes, or 1 cup canned pumpkin puree
-½ teaspoon kosher salt
-½ teaspoon paprika
-¼ teaspoon ground ginger
-¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
-¼ teaspoon cardamom
-¼ teaspoon allspice
-1 teaspoon minced garlic (about 1 clove)
-1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger root
-1 cup chicken broth
-1 cup unsweetened plain oat (or coconut or almond) milk
-½ cup blanched slivered almonds (plus an extra 2 tablespoons for garnish)
-2 tablespoons unsweetened coconut flakes
-3 green tips of scallions
-Several sprigs of fresh cilantro
1. Heat the oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions, pumpkin, salt, paprika, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and allspice, and saute, stirring often, for 15 minutes or until the onions are translucent and the pumpkin has broken up. Add the garlic and ginger root and saute for 1 more minute. Then add the chicken broth, milk, and almonds. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 10 minutes.
2. Transfer the soup to a blender or use an immersion blender. Puree until smooth. If you don’t have either tool, don’t worry—your soup will be a bit more rustic but just as delicious.
3. Heat a small skillet over medium-high heat and toast the additional 2 tablespoons of almonds and coconut together for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring nearly continuously.
4. Serve hot, garnished with almonds, coconut, scallions, and cilantro.
Photos and recipe excerpted from The Tiny Kitchen Cookbook copyright by Annie Mahle, photography copyright by Kristen Tieg, used with permission from Storey Publishing.