Small kitchens, well equipped, can produce great meals

While the apartment I live in is spacious and open, with three working fireplaces, the tiny closet-size kitchen is definitely not satisfactory for anyone who likes to cook. Its only advantage - everything is within an arm's reach.

On two white wall grids hang pots and pans, along with such indispensable gadgets as a mouli grater, a strainer, and a colander.

Whisks and wooden spoons are arranged in marmalade jars. Knives are nestled in a knifeblock.

It is possible to cook simply in this closet-kitchen, and we have managed to find room for all of the basic items, along with some fun and frivolous things - cookie cutters for dog biscuits, a yogurtmaker, and madeleine pans.

We have managed to cook some wonderful meals in this tiny space. Cheese Souffle and Apple Crisp became fall favorites; Chicken Salad and fresh asparagus in the spring; Boiled Lobster and Key Lime Pie for special occasions.

In between these main events many loaves of banana bread and batches of brownies were baked.

Christmas cookies are cut out on the dining room table; steaks are grilled on the fire escape; pots of herbs somehow survive on the windowsill.

We are truly just making do, but it is a challenge and we know it won't be forever. When looking for a new place to live, an open, spacious kitchen will be our top priority.

Pierre Franey, the food columnist and cookbook author, once wrote, ''For the beginning cook, the best of equipment provides the best of starts.''

He also believes that you don't need an elaborate set of gadgets and utensils to cook well.

For example, you can easily get by with two good sharp knives - a chef's knife and a paring knife - and then build on this basic set, adding a bread knife, and so on.

If you are just beginning to outfit your kitchen, here is a list of essentials. Kitchen equipment: 2 heavy aluminum or cast-iron skillets, 6 1/2 inches and 10 inches Stainless steel or heavy gauge aluminum saucepans in 1, 2, and 3 quart sizes 8-quart kettle with cover Casserole Roasting pan 6-cup souffle dish or other round baking dish Two knives - 4-inch paring, 10 or 12-inch chef's knife Food mill, blender, or food processor Hand-held electric mixer or egg beater Graduated measuring cups Measuring spoons Nest of mixing bowls Multipurpose grater Stainless steel strainer Colander Tart or pie pan Chopping board Can opener Swivel vegetable scraper Spatulas - one in metal, one in rubber Wooden spoon Two-pronged fork Wire whisk

This is a very basic list, and many beginning cooks will quickly add such items as a toaster and a kettle, a flour sifter, meat thermometer, ladle, ice cream scoop, pastry brush, rolling pin, and kitchen timer, as well as more pots or pans, knives, and whisks and spoons.

After acquiring these things you need to take a close look at your own interests and needs. Do you bake a lot or not at all? Do you particularly like fish or pasta or Chinese food? Do you entertain frequently or seldom?

Do you cook to relax, or cook to eat? Answers to these questions will determine what additional equipment you might like to purchase, from major items like woks and pasta machines to little things such as bread pans, muffin tins, a lemon zester, an oyster knife, and a melon ball scoop.

If your kitchen looks a bit dull it probably needs a personal touch to make it more inviting. Choose one or two colors and stick with them when buying enamel pots and gratin dishes, potholders, and dish towels.

You might start a collection for display - perhaps mugs, dessert plates, mustard jars, baskets, or pitchers. Restaurant menus and paintings or drawings of vegetables and fruits are colorful. In the summer, buy a pot or two of fresh herbs. They add variety to the decor, and you can snip their leaves as you cook.

What about cookbooks? You will need a few reliable general ones to refer to - such as ''Joy of Cooking,'' by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion R. Becker (Bobbs-Merrill, $14.95), or the ''Fannie Farmer Cookbook'' (Alfred A. Knopf, $15 .95), and perhaps some on specific foods that particularly interest you - seafood, Mexican cooking, breads, or vegetables.

A cookbook by the Junior League in your part of the country or a museum in your hometown may give you some special regional recipes.

You might like a cookbook with quick menus for working people: Pierre Franey's ''60-Minute Gourmet'' (Times Books), Julie Dannebaum's ''Fast and Fresh'' (Harper & Row, $13.95), and Marian Burros's ''Keep It Simple'' (Morrow,

Along with kitchen equipment and cookbooks, some foods should be kept in stock for unexpected meals or for those times when you return late after being away for the weekend. These include canned tuna, sardines, salmon; canned tomatoes and tomato paste; noodles; rice; canned chicken and beef stock and clam juice; and assorted crackers and nuts.

In your refrigerator have cheeses, such as Brie or Camembert, Swiss, Parmesan , and cream cheese, all tightly wrapped; eggs; ingredients for a simple salad; some fresh fruit; lemons; fresh garlic; onions; oil and vinegar; mayonnaise; sour cream or plain yogurt; cream; Dijon mustard; jam and jelly; chutney.

In the freezer keep a loaf or two of French bread along with some kind of rolls; extra sticks of butter; frozen puff pastry and pie crusts; frozen strawberries or raspberries; and vanilla ice cream. If friends surprise you with a visit, at least you'll be able to offer them something to eat.

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