Culinate

Melissa Clark

Your best friend in the kitchen

By
December 7, 2011

Melissa Clark hangs with the Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud; she’s also BFFs with Our Lady of Lard, Paula Deen, having co-authored cookbooks with both of them. Clark has written or co-written 30 other cookbooks, including The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen, written with chef Peter Berley, which garnered both a James Beard and a Julia Child Cookbook Award in 2000.

Clark, who earned an MFA in writing at Columbia, isn’t so much a ghostwriter as someone with a talent for translating a chef’s inspired but sometimes hazy visions into workable recipes. She’s also a culinary force of nature in her own right. Her 2010 book In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite culled a year’s worth of favorite recipes from her column “A Good Appetite,” a sumptuous staple of the New York Times dining section. Clark’s new book, Cook This Now, offers 120 easy, delicious seasonal recipes, from springy green-poached eggs with spinach and chives to winter holiday treats like crispy, sweet parsnip latkes. NPR recently named it one of the best cookbooks of the year.

Cook This Now is Clark’s most personal work, revealing her hands-on experience in her own Brooklyn kitchen cooking for herself, her husband, Daniel, and their three-year-old daughter, Dahlia. She shares her own holiday traditions (“braising a large hunk of meat”) and her fall-back strategies (“A big glass of red wine never hurts”). She may be Paula Deen’s BFF, but she’s yours, too.

Melissa Clark and her daughter, Dahlia.

What’s the best thing you’ve learned from working with chefs on cookbooks?
I learned there’s absolutely not one right way to do something in the kitchen. Paula Deen does it differently than [Gramercy Tavern pastry chef] Claudia Fleming, and that’s fine. There’s a lot of ways of getting from point A to point B, point B being a delicious meal.

People are so afraid to do it wrong, they don’t even try. The lesson for home cooks is, there are techniques to learn, but keep experimenting. Don’t think you need to change what you’re doing; there’s room for your way, too.

How’d you go from literature to food? How do the two inform each other?
Writing was really my first love. I wrote stories even when I was a kid. I just loved to write. My other great love is history. When I entered grad school, I wasn’t sure if I was going to do fiction or nonfiction, or maybe I’d do historical novels like Antonia Fraser.

Food became a bigger and bigger part of my life. I started a catering job at Columbia. I just put out a shingle, completely illegally, and ran a catering business out of my little kitchen for professors, all the graduate students. Any time there was a graduation party, I got a lot of calls, a lot of business. It was simple stuff, but I could do it with flair. I was writing, doing this MFA, and cooking. It became very clear to me I needed to merge the two.

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Now it’s an accepted profession, but in the 1990s, nobody wrote about food. M.F.K. Fisher, she was a huge influence; she showed you food could be a primary metaphor. Her stuff is very literary. It’s hard to make a living at that. Cookbooks became this very creative outlet for me. Writing in other peoples’ voices, co-authoring — it’s the fictional impulse to live in someone else’s head. I love that. I didn’t go to the CIA, I haven’t worked for years in restaurants, but I have these amazing chefs who have been my tutors, who have taught me what I know.

What can a cookbook do for you that the Food Network can’t?
Both are valid and good. We process things differently. I don’t think the Food Network teaches you how to cook; it entertains you. Traditional cooking shows like Julia Child’s can show you amazing technique, and they’re great. But when you’re reading a cookbook, you’re taking it in on your own terms. When you’re reading a recipe, it’s because you’re cooking it. You’re learning methodically. You learn as you’re doing.

When you’re watching someone, maybe it adds to the knowledge you already have, but it’s not as concrete; you’re not cooking when you’re watching. I do think we learn by doing; it’s the best way. You can hear a million times how to roast a chicken, but until you pat the salt all over it, you don’t know.

Can cooking be taught?
Of course. Cooking can be taught to somebody who wants to learn. It can be taught to someone who likes to eat — that’s a happy piece of the puzzle. But a lot of people just don’t care. I’m not close with those people. I could never, ever be best friends with someone like that. Someone doesn’t have to be food-obsessed or food-knowledgeable; it’s about taking pleasure, too. There’s a lot of pleasure to be had in food. If you cut yourself off from that, you’re losing something, I think.

Is there such a thing as bad food?
Yeah, totally. There’s bad people and bad food. There is evil in the world, I’m sad to say. We’ve created our Frankensteins, we’ve created the monsters — factory farming, processed food.

What do you keep in mind when creating a recipe?
The most important place to start is, “What am I hungry for?” We make food for reasons that have nothing to do with what we want to eat. A recipe can be easy, or good for us, but I think it’s not as satisfying. We don’t eat as well, as happily, as joyfully that way. So know yourself, know your stomach. That’s worth spending a little time on. Think, “What do I really want to eat?”

So, Melissa Clark, what do you really want to eat today?
I have not had any breakfast yet — except the cream-cheese frosting off a cupcake. I’m going through a toast phase — texture, crunch. I’m feeling toast, savory toast, pan con tomate. And I’ve got cherry tomatoes from the farmers’ market.

Cook This Now is arranged seasonally.
That’s really the purpose of the book. When you shop at the farmers’ market, seasonal is what you have. But a friend asked, “Can you make a recipe from March right now?” Of course you can.

What are Dahlia’s food loves right now? Your recipes for mallobars and one-handed mac and cheese?
She loves broccoli, green beans, cauliflower. I make them crispy; I don’t cook them to death. I add sea salt and olive oil. It’s the little things that make it taste good. I usually cook for her, but her babysitter made her dinner one night — broccoli and cauliflower. She cooked everything really soft. Dahlia spit it all out. I thought, “But she loves cauliflower!” She didn’t love this cauliflower. She really loves good quality.

She likes whole-wheat pasta; she eats a lot of cheese. And the mallobars are so much fun. I try to let her help. I try to tolerate more of a mess. When you have a three-year-old get in there and mix up that pancake batter, there’s going to be mess. That’s a little hard for me, but it’s important. At holidays, when it’s a big family meal with Dahlia, I make her a part of it from the beginning, or just have her play in the kitchen with me with a big bowl of water and some measuring cups.

How else has Dahlia informed how you cook and eat?
She’s made me more humble. I used to think I knew how I’d feed my kid. I didn’t know shit. If she wants bread and butter for dinner, that’s OK; she doesn’t have to eat what we’re eating. She’s made me much more flexible. Certain things I don’t bend on — no processed food. She’s going to get plenty of that when she gets older and makes her own decisions. She would probably say we’re stingy with dessert.

She’s changed me in the kitchen, and [as with] so many things, one size does not fit all. In terms of food, in terms of people, you have to be flexible in life, and in the kitchen.

I’m more sympathetic to people who have food dislikes. I’m such a macho eater; I’ll eat anything. But if people don’t want to eat x, y, z for any reason, it’s OK. I don’t have to cook three meals when I’m having a dinner party, but I can be accepting and generous about it. The point of having a dinner party is to be hospitable and enjoy yourself. If you’re going to start being weird about people’s food and casting judgment, you’re not going to have a good time.

What are your tips on how to make a fabulous holiday meal when you’ve got a three-year-old girl on your hip or pattering around in the kitchen with you?
I go much simpler now. I go for the most flavor with the fewest ingredients. Instead of roasting vegetables separately, I take all my vegetables and roast them all at the same time, with salt, pepper, and olive oil.

We’re fighting multiple wars and the economy’s in the toilet. So why does food matter?
It matters more than ever. We need to be better in the world and better in our country. We need to get our hands dirty. We need to cook for each other. It will not solve all the problems, but it will help us get in the right place. We are better people when we eat well. I really, really believe that.

Florida-based writer Ellen Kanner keeps a website and a blog and contributes regularly to the Huffington Post.