It’s a quandary not dissimilar to figuring out what to have for dinner some days. There’s not quite half a bag of frozen tortellini and not enough pesto to call it a meal. You’re entirely sick of chicken, so that’s out. The leftover Indian food from the weekend should have been eaten a day or so ago. At moments like these I start rifling through the cupboards. It’s not a matter of finding the right ingredient–just finding a good point of departure.
That was all well and good, but now you’re going to start interviewing yourself?
Mmm, maybe. Just looking for a direction. Maybe this was a bad idea.
Don’t try to get out of it now. Let’s start easy. What did you cook last night?
Swiss chard with raisins and pine nuts, roasted sweet potatoes, and a salad of oranges, fennel, and cucumber. Had some leftover polenta w/ it as well. Finished up with goat cheese Camembert.
What–no meat? Are you a vegetarian?
No, but I was really craving vegetables, and I had a bunch of them, so I cooked them. I also love color: the green of the chard was set off nicely by the sweet potatoes. I served the butter yellow polenta in red-orange ramekins. It was pretty, and that pleased me. And the flavors and textures contrasted well–crisp cucumbers and fennel, brightened by a touch of Tabasco and the acidity from rice vinegar and citrus.
So no, I’m not a vegetarian, but I got serious in the kitchen years ago in college when I went meatless–a choice, in hindsight, that had less to do with altruistic politics and more to do with irritating my parents. Back then, living in State College, PA, my options were limited to Wendy’s baked potatoes, cheese pizza, and the frozen samosas I found in a nearly hidden Indian food market tucked inside of a laundromat a few blocks from my house. I picked up the Moosewood cookbooks and learned how to make what amounted to “spiced slop,” as one friend would later indelibly name this style of cooking.
It’s good to hear you’re over that now. How would you describe your style of cooking these days?
Improvisational. Creative. Seasonal.
Oooh, fancy. Who taught you to cook that way?
No one in particular, but ten years ago I became seduced by the food writer M.F.K. Fisher, who espoused these values before they became fashionable. A grad school roommate introduced me to Alice Waters and her apostles (Deborah Madison and Annie Sommerville), who convinced me of the rightness and goodness of buying local ingredients and eating seasonally.* And when I left grad school, I went on to work at a fine dining restaurant where I became immersed in the local slow food movement here in Ann Arbor, unofficially headquartered in Kerrytown. At eve, I learned from a passionate cook and restaurateur (and fabulous all-around person) about how to taste, how to serve, and how a love of food brings people together in amazing ways.
So eve played a big part. What about celebrity chefs? Who do you watch on the Food Network?
Err, I don’t have cable. But when my brother and I worked at an engineering firm during the summers in college, we watched Bobby Flay every day at lunch and would seize the grill at night trying to recreate his recipes. Both my mother and an ex-boyfriend do uncannily good impressions of the late, great Julia Child, and I adore the picture of her in Julia and Jacques Cook at Home wielding a cleaver, about to butcher a turkey with a perverse gleam in her eye.
When I’m at my parents’ house these days, I like to watch Ina Garten and that hot Italian woman with the affected accent.
I love to hate Rachael Ray.
Some day, I hope to cook–and look–like Nigella Lawson.
I once waited on Mario Batali.
Any other influences?
Props to my mom, of course, for showing me the way around the kitchen and for instilling in me a predilection for homemade everything. And for buying me high-end cookware that I couldn’t afford on my grad school stipend. And big love to Mam-maw (my mom’s mom, 90 years young), for continuing to bake and cook even though she’s nearly blind.
It’s getting late. Got anything else to say?
Only that I’m glad to be here with Anne and Maria. (Read more about what we’re up to here.)
Ok. Time for a drink.
* I am a mere mortal; not all of my meals are seasoned with such lofty values. I eat my share of Trader Joe’s frozen food, and I’ve been known, on a number of occasions, to eat scrambled eggs w/ rice and hot sauce for dinner. Or chips and salsa.