Out and About

Transcript: Q&A with Smitten Kitchen's Deb Perelman

Posted February 24, 2013 2:34 p.m. EST

Out and About: So you have a philosophy about recipes. I’ve heard you in other interviews talking about recipes, and I thought it was really interesting because, in the day of all these food blogs and Pinterest, there’s so many recipes out there and a lot of them are not necessarily reliable because trying something once and have it turn out doesn’t meant it’s a good, tested recipe.

Deb Perelman: Long before there were even a ton of food blogs, and I hardly think the worst of it, there were always recipe databases online, and people just cut and paste, and cut and paste, and copy the content, and it’s just something to drive page views. But it doesn’t really mean anything. It’s just a list of ingredients with, like, three directions.

I feel like I personally can’t make sense of a recipe until there are reader responses, so I gravitate towards recipes with comments and some sort of community interaction.

That aside, yeah, obviously if you’re just going to slap up a recipe and it doesn’t work for people, then I don’t really know what the point of that is. I just imagine that you would be dulling your own reputation as well as annoying people.

OA: A lot of your recipes are adapted, but you sort of put your own spin on them. How often are you just playing in the kitchen and come up with something totally your own?

DP: I feel like in a lot of people’s heads, there’s this really clear line between adapted and using somebody else’s, and there is in some cases. But I did not invent roast chicken and I like Cook’s Illustrated roasting chicken temperature, but you know what I mean? What I try to do, especially with the book, if I don’t give a source line for it, it means I did not see anyone else doing this and came up with it. So that would actually be most of the book and a lot of the site, unless I specifically say, "This is Gina DePalma’s lentil soup and it’s amazing."

Aside from that, all the time, you’re just playing around. I think in the beginning, when I was less confident in the cooking, and in the kitchen, I would say, "I’ve always wanted to make hearty lentil soup with greens and sausage, but I don’t know how to do that." And I would Google because I couldn’t find a recipe. Now, I’m like, at this point, I can pretty much make it myself, but I also might just say, "Why would I make it if Gina’s got a great one?"

So, sometimes I’m just playing around. Sometimes it’s just a craving for something. It really depends.

OA: Because you’re always borrowing from influences when you’re cooking. You can’t help it.

DP: Yeah. Well, also, I didn’t invent sautéing. I didn’t invent the roux or the béchamel. So I think sometimes people have too concrete of an idea of inventing. I think what’s important is when I’m like, "Oh, I’ve always wanted to make rye bread English muffins," because I love rye toast in the morning. It’s one of my weird ideas I’ve been kicking around. I have not actually seen this. I did not invent rye bread or English muffins, but I might take two of my favorite recipes for each and try to mash them up into something.

OA: One of the recipes in your book talks about this special Indian spice that you had on popcorn in one of your favorite restaurants and it’s one of the rare times in your book when you say, "I don’t normally do this, but go out and get this spice. You need it specifically." Are there other things like that maybe we’re all missing out on, special items that we should really seek out?

DP: That depends. If you’re trying to make my recipes, no, that’s the only one you really need. I think you might go to the store and try the spice blends and you might find your favorite thing ever and you want to put it on everything, from your potatoes to your eggs.

In terms of what I’ve found, it’s just not really the way I work. I’m not that interested in spice blends. I’m interested in, how can I make this at home? I think it’s really great for people to use what they already have and not have to go to specialty store … I don’t think, in most cases, you need really fancy ingredients to cook. You shouldn’t need to go to a specialty store. I think that good recipes should transcend their ingredients, and they should work whether you have supermarket carrots or ones that have been lovingly massaged in the soil by an organic farmer.

They might taste a degree better, but a good recipe should work for both.

OA: When did you start cooking?

DP: I mean, I cooked when I was little. I cooked pancakes. My parents cooked, it was normal, it was nothing too obsessive. I would say, a little bit more a French lean because my mom was super into “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and Julia Child, but we cooked. It was normal.

I got much more into cooking after I met my husband, like most young people living in the city. I was single, I had a walk-up apartment, ingredients are expensive, there’s very little true reason to cook. When people are like, "I’m single and I never like to cook," I’m like, "It’s fine. It’s normal."

Why would you want to? You end up with these recipes – half the time they’re mediocre, half the time they make so much that you’re eating it for two weeks. That’s really fun. "I can’t go out tonight because I have leftovers to work through from last week." So, I totally understand.

But once I was living with my husband and I had this in-house audience and he’d help with the groceries and the dish washing and all that, I started being able to finally get involved in cooking more. It was something I’d always wanted to do, but I also felt like, and I feel like I hear this from a lot of my friends as we hit adulthood, "I don’t really know how to roast a chicken" or "I have pancake recipes, but I don’t really have a favorite." And it was that obsessive hunt for the best in each category, that was where the site came from.

OA: Let’s talk about the site. When you started it, this was something you were doing on the side. How did you make time for it?

DP: I would work on it in the evenings and on the weekends. I stuck with it by making it fun for myself. I think when people are, like, I don’t want to do this anymore, some part of it has become like poison to you and it’s probably something that you thought you had to do that maybe you just weren’t that interested in the topic that you chose or you felt like you needed to stick to some voice that wasn’t yours, which makes it really tiring. My only rule is it has to be enjoyable, and so, if I don’t feel like doing X, Y or Z, I just don’t do it … I think you have to make it fun for yourself. I think if you’re not enjoying it, you should take a break. You shouldn’t update just because it’s Monday and it’s a good day to update. You should update because you have something good to say.

I just tried to keep cooking food that I enjoyed. I wasn’t going to cook something because readers would like it. I cooked it because I would enjoy it. We’re always cooking dinner and there should always be something to talk about.

OA: How long was it before you realized that a lot of people were reading the blog and responding to it?

DP: It’s been so gradual that I would say I only kind of realized there were a lot of people out there this fall. That’s just because, you know, I’m behind the computer. I’m doing this from my living room, my home, so I knew that the numbers were big and I saw the site meter getting higher and higher, and I’m like, "Wow, that’s kind of a lot of people."

But can you really conceptualize what 2 million or 3 million is? No, you have no idea. They’re just clicks on a screen. So, it wasn’t until I started doing book events that people were showing up and I was like, "Oh, you’re real human beings and you’re all adorable and young, and you cook a lot. This is so cool, where have you been my whole life?" Because none of my friends cook.

OA: You’re very open in your blog. You’ve very personal. You talk about your husband. You talk about your son. Now that you know that so many eyes are on your blog, do you ever think, "Oh, I’ve really shared a lot."

DP: It’s interesting. A bunch of people asked me that question in the beginning and I was like, "Really, you think I share a lot?" Which is so weird, I know I share things. I guess what I mean is, I’m very much a grown up here and I’m very fully aware of what I’m sharing and what I’m not sharing.
I don’t really have any deep, dark secrets, but if I did, I probably wouldn’t put them on the Internet.

Instead, I prefer to share stories that are true and real. I don’t invent stories. I don’t hide major things going on in life, but I sort of process them in my own turn. So, like I said, it’s very important for me to share stories that are true and real, but I don’t even feel like I need to open a vein to update my blog. That would be horrible. You’d feel so depleted afterwards.

So, I’m very guarded in that respect, but at the same time, I like the idea of just telling stories that we can all relate to.

OA: But on the other hand, now that things are taking off, you don’t ever feel like you have to censor yourself?

DP: No, because I was never uncomfortable with the level of sharing I was doing. I’ve never accidentally said too much. I mean, probably little stupid things, but never major things. So, I’ve never really felt like I was giving away something I didn’t want to ... I think, at the end of the day, it’s just basic life stories. There was traffic. My kid threw his food across the floor. This is fairly run-of-the-mill stuff.

OA: I have a few questions from our viewers. What are a few things you always have stocked in your pantry?

DP: A lot of stuff (laughs).

OA: Well, what does a good cook always have on hand?

DP: I always have flour and sugar and whole wheat flour. I actually have a lot of flours, but that’s because I like to play around. If you like beans, some dried beans, some good lentils. Good lentils make a big difference, if you can find them. Stuff that really lasts, for that night you’re at home. I always have a couple cans of good tomatoes and dried pastas and dried rice. Stuff like that, so you’re like, ‘What can I make? Oh wait, I think I can throw something together.’

A couple cans or cartons of stock or a good stock cube, just the cornerstones where you could make a risotto, a rice pilaf, a beans and rice stew with sausages from the freezer. Stuff like that I try to keep around.

OA: You turned me on to San Marzano tomatoes, which now I always have in my pantry.

DP: It doesn’t have to be San Marzanos. There are good tomatoes grown in the U.S. I am from New Jersey. We are very proud of our tomatoes. They’re very good. But, in terms of the canning, I’m very spoiled. There’s a little Italian shop right on the corner near my apartment, and they just sell all these weird brands that you’ve never heard of, and I always try different ones. They’re, like, kind of ugly labels and they’re all like $2. They’re cheap because nobody cares about them. They’re not organic. But they’re amazing, they’re all imported and it really does taste different.

A good, peak-season canned tomato really can make a whole sauce and the better the canned tomatoes, the less you have to do with them. I have three friends who are Italian, living in Italy, and when they make tomato sauce, they just heat up some oil, sauté a garlic clove for like 30 seconds or a minute, add a can of tomatoes and cook it for 45 minutes. That is it.

When you’re using tomatoes like they can get in their corner store, it’s pretty amazing.

OA: When you make millions of dollars off your cookbook –

DP: What? No one makes millions of dollars off a cookbook.

OA: Are you going to upgrade your kitchen?

DP: No, I’m not. I have a rental apartment. I don’t really care about it. I know people make this whole story about me having a small kitchen, but it’s just kind of where we live now. I’ve lived there for three years. We lived someplace else for three years. We’re not, like, "This is my home." I’ve always lived in average apartments because I’m pretty cheap and I would rather save my money to buy something great one day.

So yeah, maybe one day, there will be a slightly larger kitchen, but I’ve never really cared about having a big kitchen. I’m kind of uncomfortable in them. You can only be in one area at a time. I think it would be nice to have an extra counter or something, but people are like, "Are you going to get a giant apartment?" No, I’m not going to get a giant apartment. I’m still not rich by New York standards.

We’re actually just about to sign our lease for another year, so I’ll continue to live in my too-small apartment … Honestly, we’re too lazy to move, and I kind of like it there. It’s just a good location. My husband and I will just stay and stay and stay.

OA: Well, I like the idea that you can make it work in a small space.

DP: I try not to get stuck on that. Even if I did find my dream apartment, the odds that it would have a large kitchen are very slim. I’m much more interested in other things.

I just need a workable space, and even though the kitchen is really tiny, I looked and I’m like, "There’s an empty space. There’s shelf space here. I can put a rack here. I can put stuff on top of the fridge." I knew I could make it work.

OA: This question is from an expecting mom. She has your cookbook and noticed that you have a few pictures of your son – in one of them, I think he’s eating the mussels and the fries. How do you get your son to try a lot of interesting foods that aren’t necessarily kid foods?

DP: Don’t stress over it. First of all, there is no rule that you have to make kid food. They don’t eat kid food if you don’t make kid food. I’m not saying that you have to have some sort of thing where you never indulge the things they want. My son would happily eat plain buttered noodles three times a day. You don’t have to make that. You have to be strong enough to know that they’re going to eat when they’re hungry, and so you’re allowed to make the food that you think they should eat. He, by the way, at that age was definitely not at a mussel-eating age. I was taking the picture and they were on the counter. My son came home and he just grabbed the bowl of French fries. He ate the French fries, he didn’t eat the mussels. Though, at the same time, if you introduce them to stuff when they’re younger, it’s nice for it to not be weird.

I like to work with him. I’m very into this positive discipline mentality, where I work with him. If we want to eat something for dinner, we’re going to eat and we’re not going to be like, ‘Oh, but Jacob can’t eat it, so let’s go make him pizza bites.’ No judgment if you want to make your life easy once in a while.

What I’ll do is, say, I’m really craving chana masala and I want to make it spicy. It may not be his favorite thing to eat the first time, so let’s make lots of white rice and some naan bread and have some nice, mild cucumber salad and maybe hold back on the spice in it. So, work with them, but you can still put grown-up food out.

Also, people seem to think that because he’s my kid, he must be a good eater. He’s terrible. He’s 3. He wants to eat pasta and bread and cake and cookies … I think also that kids are not hungry all the time. I think we expect them to be hungry at meal times and they’re sometimes not. There are days when I put out all of his favorite foods and he won’t touch them. If he was hungry, he would eat.