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Brave New Kitchen

Brave New Kitchen -- Appetite for Life -- © Microsoft
At one time, in most houses, the room with the most tools was the garage. Today, fueled by food TV, culinary magazines and countless tweets and blog posts from restaurants and their customers, the kitchen often gains that distinction as home cooks easily get caught up in the arms race of exploring new accessories and ingredients.

Yet there are handy helpers to make cooking more fun, more adventurous and better for you and the environment. What's more, it's possible to freshen up what's in your kitchen and on your plate without breaking the bank or devoting all your free time to mastering the details of arcane recipes.

Formerly exotic ingredients are easier to find than ever — if not in your local store, then online. And a surprising number of gourmet innovations of the last two decades are within reach of mere amateurs.

Spanish chef Ferran Adrià spearheaded a movement generally known as molecular gastronomy, drawing diners to his now-closed restaurant elBulli for meals with dozens of tiny courses inspired as much by science as art. As solids became foams and liquids formed spheres, his experimentation and dramatic presentation challenged chefs worldwide to expand their own horizons.

So it might seem unlikely that one of the most useful and accessible guides for home cooks was written by ... Adrià? "The Family Meal" (2011) is a collection of recipes for 31 three-course dinners of the type the elBulli staff would enjoy together before serving guests. A typical example: Meal 26, which includes fish soup, sausages with mushrooms, and oranges with honey, olive oil and salt. The book has clear instructions for each recipe, including step-by-step photographs and invaluable tips on stocking a kitchen.

Also unlikely? That Adrià-style experimentation would be taken up by megamillionaire Nathan Myhrvold, former chief technology officer at Microsoft. He is the author, with Chris Young and Maxime Bilet, of "Modernist Cuisine," a 2011 manifesto about the maximal potential of food, presented in the form of a six-volume, 2,438-page cookbook. The following year, Myhrvold and Bilet published the streamlined, one-volume "Modernist Cuisine at Home."

The engaging Modernist Cuisine website is filled with recipes and shopping advice. Want to make eggplant parmesan in a microwave? Or cook salmon extremely slowly in a warm-water bath, like the sous vide method chefs use? The website shows you how — no special equipment required. For the more adventurous, there are guides for purchasing professional gear, as well as more modest substitutes. (A note about surgical forceps under "Inexpensive but Invaluable Modernist Tools": "Have several sizes on hand.")

What you cook and what you cook with aren't the only choices you face in the modern kitchen. Home chefs are growing increasingly conscious of how their kitchen choices affect the environment. The government of King County, Washington (home to Seattle), publishes on its website free guides for eco-friendly kitchen renovation and operations, weighing the pros and cons of countertop materials, and properly recycling and composting.

With a few modest resources at your disposal, you don't have to be a culinary master to make healthy food in a positive setting.