Perfectly seasonal: An interview with Smitten Kitchen’s Deb Perelman
Deb Perelman is the veteran blogger and photographer behind Smitten Kitchen, one of the more lovely food blogs dedicated to seasonal eating I’ve seen.
Perelman cooks everything from “a puny 42-square-foot, circa-1935, sort of half-galley kitchen with a 24 foot footprint, a single counter, tiny stove, checkered floor, and a noisy window at the end to the avenue below.” But her readers know not to let her tiny digs fool you; she brings a level of awareness and a concern for detail that rivals the chefs cooking in many of the world’s most professional kitchens. That’s why, rather than the six months she set aside to write The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, it took her three years.
I spoke to Perelman recently about the book, her tendency to see meat as a treat, and the fact that her audience is getting younger. (See the info at the bottom of the page to find out how you can be entered in a drawing for a copy of her book.)
Q. How do you characterize the work you do? How is it different from other food blogging/recipe writing?
A.It’s for people looking for quick cooking without compromise. With a lot of quick cooking, the focus is, “Hey, you did it and got out of the kitchen!” But it’s just not about being quick. It’s about making food you’re really proud of and enjoy eating.
I say, in general, I don’t mind a recipe that takes more than 20 or 30 minutes, but I want to know it’s going to be worth it. So I find myself asking questions like: I know we usually make cakes in three bowls, but does it taste better or is that just the way it’s done? So when I create a cake recipe, I really do try it both ways. And I haven’t always found that it makes a difference, so I’ll write the recipe with as few steps as possible to get the same results.
Q. What’s your approach to eating meat?
A. I was a vegetarian for a very long time. And I’ve slowly come back to meat, but it has never been a central part of my meal. I look at it as a treat, and I’m not buying it every night — like roasted chicken I might do like once a week tops. Or if I was to do a steak, I might do it once a month — so when I do eat some meat, I like to get something at the farmers market or something local and really cleanly made. But the center of my meals is usually much more about beans and vegetables and grains.
Q. Your pancetta, white bean, and chard pot pies seem like a great example of this approach. The pancetta plays a very small role.
A. Yes, the pancetta can boost the flavor profile, but the recipe absolutely works without it.
Q. How important is local and organic food to you?
A. It’s very important to me, but it’s one of those areas where I tread carefully because it’s expensive. In an ideal world, humanely raised, hormone-free meat would be more affordable and we could all have access it. But I think for a lot of people it’s: “How am I going to feed my family?” I would never shame someone for buying the 99-cents-a-pound chicken. It just worries me what happened to get it to that price. But yes, for me it’s pretty up there.
Q. Your photos are always so perfect, I assume you must have to do things over. How do you handle food waste?
A. I shoot as I cook; so that’s how it came out. Every once in a blue moon, the photo is terrible, and then I’ll make it again. But for the most part I just try to get it right the first time. I try to aim my cooking so it’s done at the time of day when the light’s good in my kitchen. It takes a little more coordinating, but it’s worth it.
The same goes for my book — I didn’t write the recipes and then send it out to a food stylist, so I don’t have a special stack of chopped vegetables that are going to go in the garbage (I think it must happen on food sets all the time).
For me this is the actual cooking that happens in my actual kitchen. It’s good for the sustainability angle, but also for the transparency angle. If I tell you I cooked this for dinner it’s because I cooked it for dinner.
Q. I just read a study that said millennials are eating out less than other generations have. Do you have thoughts on that shift?
A. This is not a scientific sample, but I’ve been on book tour for almost two weeks, and I’m meeting so many people who are younger than me. A lot of them are in college, or just out of college — and they cook! One woman told me that she and her friends had a cooking club and would cook together once a month for four years. That impresses me because I’ve always liked to cook, but even I didn’t want to deal with my dorm kitchen. And I hear from emails and stuff that so many people who wouldn’t be in the typical demographic are now cooking at home.
Q. What are the most important things you think people should absolutely consider when putting together a Thanksgiving meal?
A. I think people should make it as unstressful as possible. Look at recipes that can be made as far in advance as possible. I’m a huge fan of gratins and baked vegetable dishes for Thanksgiving. It doesn’t have to be a cheese and butter bomb, it’s just the idea of things baking together and getting crisp at the edges. One of my favorites is a wild rice gratin with kale and caramelized onion. It tastes crazy indulgent, but it’s not. It would be an easy one to make a couple of days before Thanksgiving.
You can get a lot of these vegetables banged out in advance so the day of you can just focus on turkey, gravy, salad — things that you absolutely have to make that day.
Because why make the day busier? People are going to be showing up early, and you won’t have seen them for a while, so you’ll want to be able to relax. It’s not a good time to try something new — or some complex dish from scratch.
Grist readers! Would you like to own The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook? Just let us know how you’re making your Thanksgiving greener — in words or pictures, on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below, and one lucky reader will get a book.