Hundreds of cookbooks come out every year. I don’t know why hundreds of cookbooks come out every year. Most don’t sell. Most aren’t worth the paper it’s printed on, with recipes that sound better on paper than in practice. So how does one separate cookbook wheat from chaff? One way is to look at precedent. If a cookbook author has multiple titles, it usually means the ones before sold. A history of books sold means popularity, and popularity is a good barometer. When it comes to cookbooks, I’m more likely to be an author’s repeat customer—win me over once, and I’m a fan for life.
I will be loyal to Dorie Greenspan for the rest of my days. She’s one of the few authors whose new books are automatic purchases, sight unseen. Greenspan’s early collaborations with Julia Child and Pierre Hermé showed her strength for explaining both simple and intricate recipes with warmth and lucidity, but it was her 2006 neo-classic Baking: From My Home To Yours that solidified her spot on Cookbook’s Mount Rushmore. How confident am I with a Dorie Greenspan book? Her Baking Chez Moi was a Christmas present I got for my wife.
Do I sound like a fanboy? Yes I do. And let me say this: I don’t get starstruck often but I did when I spoke on the phone with Greenspan. The reason for speaking: Her new book of weeknight cooking called Everyday Dorie, out October 23. I’ve read through it; you should buy it sight unseen.
The Takeout: People claim baking is a science but cooking is an art. In that spirit, did that change how you approached this cookbook?
Dorie Greenspan: I’ve often told people that I took “Science and Math for Poets” in college. If in fact being precise and scientific and having a feel for math has anything to do with being a baker, I’m truly an anomaly. I think the world’s divide to cooks and bakers. People who cook and don’t bake think it’s so precise and difficult. I think baking is really easy. If you have a good recipe, you just get to follow it. In can be true with cooking as well, but there’s always these judgment calls you make in cooking. You’re always looking at the color of something, you’re pressing that flabby part of the bottom of your thumb and ask “does my steak feel that way?” With baking, you put yourself in the hands of a good recipe and just go.
[With Everyday Dorie,] I realized as I’m working on these recipes that over the years I’ve become a simpler cook. Because I’ve been living the last eight years more in Connecticut than in New York and I’m an hour round-trip from the nearest supermarket, I have become a very practical cook. I have learned to improvise based on what I have in the refrigerator door or in the pantry. I have found cooking like this to be more exciting and more fun. It’s not anything I did consciously. But as I was looking at recipes for the book, I realized how many recipes came about just because I didn’t want to get in the car!
TO: I love how you discover new dishes from accidents. There’s a dish in here called Lettuce Soup.
DG: It really was an accident. I had planned to make scallops and a salad for friends. And when it turned out that we had extra people—and this is a story of being too far away from a store to rush out to supplement what I had—I turned salad into soup. And it’s such a beautiful dish!
TO: For me as a Chinese person it’s not so strange because we often use lettuce to bulk up our wonton soups.
DG: Lettuce doesn’t have a whole lot of flavor. So pureeing it did a few things: It gave it a bit more flavor and it gave it body, which made it look hearty enough to be a meal.
TO: That illustrates the idea that eating isn’t just about flavor and aroma—it’s the texture, the tactile sensation.
DG: I think about texture a lot. I remember the experience but not the specifics: I was trying to describe a food in a recipe. And I realized I thought I was describing the flavor of the dish. But in fact I was describing the texture. The texture is so important that often you forget or don’t think about it.
TO: I think of what we Cantonese love to eat that’s more texture than flavor: Beef tendon, jellyfish, to name two. The pleasure is in the chewing and the slipperiness in our mouths.
DG: When you’ve got something that you have to chew on, it also makes the flavor last longer. So for instance, if you put nuts in cookies or brownies, not only does it add to the flavor, but in something soft, you’ve got to chew them. So the nuts absorb the chocolate flavor, but also keeps the pleasure of the dish going.
TO: Adding texture is like a flavor extender!
DG: I have this recipe, a mushroom-bacon galette with leeks and garlic, but I’ve added walnuts to the mix. It’s just what we were talking about. I add them for flavor, and that nuttiness with mushrooms is a nice combination. But it’s also a surprise. I love that unexpected ingredient, that pop of flavor you just didn’t think you were gonna get. I love every mouthful of the dish is a little different. It’s why when I do chocolate chip cookies, I don’t do chips—chips are so predictable!
TO: This book is about approachable weeknight dishes, but often with an element of surprise. What other recipe from this book illustrated that?
DG: There’s a dish called Subtly Spicy, Softly Hot, Slightly Sweet Beef Stew. It’s a standard stew in that beef is marinated with red wine. But I had a tub of gochujang (the Korean fermented red chili paste). This is one of those things you buy for one recipe and then it languishes in the fridge. I thought, “hmm, I love star anise with beef. I love that it adds a sense of mystery to the dish, because you can’t quite place it.” I thought I’d add star anise, but decided to add gochujang. And then at the last minute, the cranberries (as well). I’ve never added cranberries to a stew, I mean, who would? And they added a extra bit of sharpness and tang and a little bit of pucker. I love this dish. And it came about by playing with what I had on hand.
TO: What foods aren’t we eating enough?
DG: I don’t have an answer for you. What I feel like we’re not doing enough is cooking at home. But I’m encouraged. I’m seeing our son and daughter-in-law cooking at home and cooking for friends. I’d like to beat the drum of getting people around the table and eating together and talking and sharing a moment. It’s so pleasurable. Maybe we’re going back to the way we feel about baking, that perhaps having friends come to dinner, you have to do something very special. It’s nice to take a little extra time, but it doesn’t have to be fancy. I always refer to my favorite food as “elbows on the table” food. I like food that keeps you at the table. I love when I can put some stuff out on the table and people are passing platters around or have condiments they can add to their dish. It keeps you at the table longer when you’ve got a little job to do! It’s really what I wish for people, to have that pleasure and satisfaction of sharing with people they care about.