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I never thought I needed a book to teach me how to wash dishes. How to sous vide? Yes. How to realize my storage goals? Perhaps. But to wash dishes, that most quotidian of household tasks?
Yet...here it is.
When it arrived on my desk a few months ago, a jewel-box of a book, I couldn’t put it down. Because while I am no dishwashing enthusiast, who doesn't love a writer who can take the prosaic and turn it into poetry? And that’s exactly what Peter Miller does with How to Wash the Dishes.
Miller popped into the Food52 kitchen the other day—a rare bird among our guests, not here to sauté or roast or bake, but to offer to wash the dishes after us! We had to ask him: Why a book on dishwashing? “It’s simple,” he says, “Washing dishes is the one act in the kitchen that gets the least amount of attention.”
I’ve always been discomfited by the sight of a sink full of dishes. Look, I don’t shy away from messy tasks: I’ll repot a plant with glee, even scrub down a drippy bath fan grill. But the chaos that is a pile of dirty dishes? “You’ll know your state of mind as soon as you start to wash the dishes. Are you impatient? Or distracted?” says Miller. Both, I think.
How to Wash the Dishes is smart, funny, and packed with idiosyncratic observations. There’s also more than a touch of the romantic: dishwashers, for instance, aren’t totally ignored, but are definitely relegated to supporting act. By page 70, I—aforementioned non-fan of dishwashing—may have been itching to tackle a sinkful.
“I love the grace and clarity Peter Miller helps us see in seemingly mundane bits of life,” says Kristen Miglore, creative director of Genius. She’s referring to two other quixotic odes that Miller—who has run a bookstore in Seattle for over 35 years—has dedicated to the subjects of midday meals and cooking asparagus, five ways. "I need his next book to be about taking out the trash," she adds.
One doesn’t necessarily need to agree with Miller’s methods to enjoy the book, because, obviously, there’s more than one way to wash dishes. And if you have no interest whatsoever in dishwashing, there are also three recipes included—including one for a very good omelet.
Think of dishwashing as an opportunity for review: Do you need better pasta bowls? Was the broccoli poorly received? You will literally see how the meal fared and take note for future meals.
A bowl filled with hot soapy water is your best piece of equipment: Use it to soak small items and silverware before they’re rinsed off, or to repeatedly dip your sponge into (and save both soap and water in the bargain!).
Always, always rinse: Rinsing allows you to prioritize dishes, pots and pans. Also, un-rinsed plates take double the labor—not good—and destroy the strength of the bowl of soapy water (see above)—also, not good.
Have a process that runs as smooth as water: Get the smaller pieces out of the way first; start with the glasses, the smaller plates and cups, and then tackle the larger plates and platters. When those are washed and cleared, take on the cookware.
Except, when you have a Big Bertha on your hands: Giant bowls that fill the sink and don’t sit flat within are the troublemakers in the plot-line. “That extra-large bowl, we call ours 'Big Bertha,' is always there at the most inconvenient moment. Give it your full attention and get it dispatched,” says Miller.
Consider using a natural sea sponge: It's better for the environment, but remember to rinse it out with cold water and wring it out every time, or it will smell sour—and sour is not a smell you want in the kitchen.
Don’t put “key tools” like your spatula in the dishwasher: A wooden spoon can go from mixing dressing to stirring a sauce. Wash it in a bowl of soapy water and dry with a ready towel, and it’s good to go—again.
Dishcloths are not the same as dish towels: Dishcloths are great for wiping counters and backsplashes, but they’re also great for washing tighter corners of colanders and mixers.
“A beautiful dish towel, on the other hand, is literally the scarf of the kitchen: ” Consider having two piles of towels: the hardworking ones, distinguished by their war wounds, and the favorites—decorated and treasured. It’s the difference between your dungarees and a wedding shirt!
“A dish rack takes too much space.”: If you have a dishwasher, use it as a drying rack to dry dishes for about 20 seconds. Then take 'em out and wipe 'em down. If you must use a dishwasher, remember it’s for multiples (of plates, bowls), not the singles (peelers and whisks). Singles must be hand-washed and accounted for, one by one.
- Give thanks: When all is done, survey your countertops laid out with all the things you just washed. These are the vignettes of a successful meal—it’s time for appreciation and respect.
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