The Deb Perelman Interview

Today's interviewee is the curator of a site that I check daily in hopes that it will inspire me to make something delicious--it's the blog Smitten Kitchen, which I love for its plain talk, beautiful photos and flexitarian tendencies. Next year, you can get a nice hardcopy of her first cookbook but in the meantime try some of her recipes (some of my favorites have included the chicken meatballs, raspberry buttermilk cake, pasta with cauliflower, feta and walnuts and spring panzanella. By the by, the timing on this interview just happened to work out but consider it a segue into a fun new food-related project I'm going to start up next week (fingers crossed).

Are there any recipes or techniques that you've just been too intimidated to attempt at this point?
No, but mostly because I enjoy getting in over my head. There are things I avoid these days due to space limitations -- when I used to take on a too-big project, I'd spread out all over the apartment. Now the rest of the apartment is Toddler Domain, and as charming as cakes with fistfuls removed are, they might not go over well at a wedding.

Are there any dealbreaker ingredients for you that you either typically omit or just will skip the recipe over?
I ignore all suggestions of fussy ingredients; it doesn't matter to me that I can get them, it's just not the kind of cooking that interests me. I also kind of secretly roll my eyes when a recipe says that you need to use "organic" flour or "free range" chicken broth. I mean, I use both in my cooking but believe a great recipe, the kind that is worth your time, will be delicious with or without it.

What have you had for breakfast today?
Nothing yet. I've been on a fruit/yogurt smoothie kick lately but am out of the yogurt part and am having a stand-off with my laziness to see if I will go out to get yogurt before I cave and make oatmeal instead. As you can tell, weekday breakfast is a dull affair around here.

How many times do you try a cookbook before you decide it's not for you? What do you do with it then?
Depends on how badly a recipe did not work for me. If I try one and it's abysmal, and worse, smacks of clearly not being tested or written well, I'll probably be annoyed with the book enough to not use it again. Fortunately, this doesn't happen often. I have also bought books that everyone loved, that I was sure I'd love, but thumbed through them dozens and dozens of times without finding a single thing that jumped off the page for me. It's a total bummer. Eventually, I buy new books I'm more excited about and have no choice but to donate them. The constant removal of crap from one's apartment is the only way to stay on this side of a Hoarders episode.

What's the laziest meal you've made of late? (Making can also mean "heating up.")
Buttered egg noodles. It was pouring, we were nearly out of groceries and it was really, really delicious.

What are some of the most extravagant ingredients you've ever purchased? Were they worth it?
We spend a lot on meat. I didn't eat meat for a long time (15 years!) and part of me coming back was feeling that I needed to do it as fairly as possible -- I want it to be the cleanest, freshest, most ethical and hopefully local meat I can find. There's definitely a surcharge for this but it is absolutely worth it to me. And there's a balance -- we probably cook meat only once a week.

How many meals ahead do you typically think, either as a chef or an eater?
I've been jotting down recipe ideas for years; there are hundreds and hundreds of ideas (that make varying amounts of sense when I read them later) in one place. It's like a scrapbook. I go through when I'm uninspired and try to find one to polish up. But as for what's for dinner if I haven't cooked anything that day? We decide while we're giving the kid a bath. "Moo shu? Hummus Place?" etc.

Are there any dishes or ingredients that you husband dislikes that you wish he could get down with so you'd have reasons to cook them?
My husband, like many Russians I know, likes food assaulted with garlic, spices, salt and hopefully served with pickled things. I like these things too, but I also have a soft spot for food with more subtle and delicate flavors. Fortunately, he either likes everything I cook or is very good at faking it, and I am never offended when he comes at a piece of chicken with Sriracha .

How do you decide whether to try something new and exciting versus making a tried and true dish?
I usually cook on a whim. It's often something I couldn't get out of my head, either a random craving or something I saw in a book or had at a restaurant. [Actual item on my to-do list for Monday, btw, was: "Eff it, let's make some spaetzle." That I'm referring to myself as a plural I understand is disturbing.] If it's an established dish that everyone knows how to make, I might steer clear of writing it up for the site unless I'm sure I can add a newer or more compelling angle or twist to it, or some way to make it more manageable at home. But I also don't like changing things just for the sake of making them different, or making them "mine". Julia Child made perfect onion soup. When I want onion soup, I make hers.

Are there any shortcuts you typically take despite what the gourmands may advise? (I can never see myself making my own stock, for instance.)
Pfft, I have little patience for people who look down their noses at the practices of home cooks. They're not in the kitchen with my anyway! Let's see, I never tuck my fingers when I chop things, leading to a lot of Band-Aids and regret. I never boil my pasta in the correct amount of water. I keep butter too long. Sometimes I use a tiny amount of soap and scrubbing on my cast iron skillets; it makes me feel like I'm living on the edge. I don't dot sauces delicately across plates, I actually want to taste them. I never use fancy wine for cooking and think people who suggest it are preposterous should offer to buy me wine -- I think you should use something inexpensive but acceptably tasty. I do not fry eggs in $20/bottle extra virgin olive oil, either, as I'm convinced that the delicate fruitiness of it gets lost in high heat. I save the fancy stuff for "finishing" or raw things like dressing; I use inexpensive stuff for saute pans. I don't prefer Meyer lemons over regular ones -- I kind of like the extra punch of the grocery store variety. And I use store brand butter, usually Trader Joe's.

I don't make stock as often as I'd like. (Though I just discovered Cook's Illustrated's slow cooker chicken stock, which might change things.) For chicken noodle or matzo ball soup, I think it's a non-negotiable because the broth is the flavor. To cook couscous or make a stew with 12 other ingredients, I don't think I'd ever bother.

Are there any techniques or dishes you just can't get right?
Does shopping for groceries count? I live for the day, one day, when I can get through a recipe without having to pause and run out for something I had no business running out of, like flour.

Either for the cookbook or the blog, how many times do you make a dish until you believe you've got it right? What's the process for keeping track of what you did differently and comparing tastes? Does this get very tedious?
The site, often just once or twice, especially when working from an established recipe, but I've also gone as high as 6 times on some things. I don't think anything in the cookbook will be tested less than 4 times and there are definitely things already on the 8th try. I'm working from scratch a lot more, and it takes a lot more rounds to get what I was going for. It is extremely tedious. I didn't know it would take so long to get everything right, and I have a hard time saying "This is excellent enough" if I'm convinced there's something else that could be tweaked. I try to remind myself that I'm not nearly this insane on the site, and yet people are largely happy with the recipes, but it never works.

What was the biggest difference in transitioning from writing your recipes for your blog vs. the cookbook?
I'm actually not done with the book yet -- and most days, am convinced I'll never be -- so we haven't really started the editorial process yet. I am sure it will be fascinating for me and I'll learn a lot about writing recipes that will make those on the site better in the long run. Or that's the hope.

Are there any gadgets or kitchen equipment you've been lusting over lately?
I'm generally opposed to single-use gadgets, because I have a single counter, it is 2x3 feet and if I put two appliances on it, I'd have to stop cooking altogether. But last week I was squeezing some blood oranges for mimosas and for the millionth time, dreamed of purchasing an electric citrus juicer. It was sleeting out and I started imagining an entire summer filled with pitchers lemonades and limeades (also, porch swings and cotton fields, nope, not weird, not at all) that we'd made in less than 5 minutes and I caved and coughed up $20 for one. I have a feeling I will not regret it, although I may have to store it in my sock drawer.

Are there any pieces of equipment that you've found overrated?
Anything that helps you chop things. If everyone had one great, sharp chef's knife and practiced with it enough that they were good at using it, they'd never need avocado cutters and mango corers and onion choppers. You'd never have to pay a surcharge for pre-cubed butternut squash or chicken parts someone else had butchered for you. You could escape 20-part knife block tyranny. I'm very Power to the People! about this, as you can see.

This is a problem I have sometimes: when you do make rich foods, how do you avoid eating all and then feel out of sorts about it? That always seems like a good reason to have a huge family--people to eat stuff.
If we were desperately craving macaroni-and-cheese, and it hardly seemed worth it to waste our calories on anything but a perfect homemade one, I might halve it or invite friends over to limit the damage we could do to it/the chance of leftovers. And then I'd make a big green salad and we'd do our best to finish it before digging in. And I would also make green beans or some other vegetable we like so much, that we don't think it needs anything but salt and pepper or a light drizzle of olive oil to taste good.

What are the best dishes your husband makes?
Bloody Marys. Chicken on the grill that is not cooked to death. Shrimp cocktail with homemade cocktail sauce. And I used to "assign" (ha) him this chicken marsala he loved and it was always excellent.

How does it feel to be the 278th person interviewed for
I'm flattered! I thought you only interviewed cool people.