I have a confession to make. I am a Food Network junkie. If you ask me what Giada made on her show yesterday, I can tell you. Where was Guy Fieri on the latest episode of Diners, Drive-in’s and Dives? In Baltimore, of course! If it’s being sautéed, chopped, or stirred on the Food Network, I am most likely right there watching it.
So, when the delectable cookbook by this month’s Jen’s Jewels Melissa Clark came across my desk, I couldn’t wait to check out her scrumptious recipes. You may recognize her name from the New York Times Dining Section. Her culinary writing career is quite amazing, to say the least. In her latest endeavor, she combines her favorite stories with the food she loves. Each recipe is a mouth-watering treat.
As part of this interview, Hyperion Books has generously donated five copies for you, my favorite readers, to try to win. So, don’t forget to look for the trivia question at the end. And, thanks for making Jen’s Jewels a part of your back-to-school reading list!
Jen: Without a doubt, your writing prowess is synonymous with culinary expertise. Whether the topic is fine dining or homemade comfort food, you have covered it. So that my readers may have a glimpse into your background, please share with us your educational and professional experience.
Melissa:: I never did go to cooking school, though I thought about it. I spent my senior year of high school working in the kitchen of a small neighbor restaurant/bakery/ice cream shop, and I toyed with the idea of going to the CIA instead of college. But in the end I chose college. I realized that as much as I loved cooking, I liked writing about it better. I had discovered the works of MFK Fisher and held her up as a kind of model – not as the way to live my life though she and I do have being married three times in common – but as a way to combine two passions, writing and food. To that end I decided, post college (I went to Barnard) to pursue an MFA in writing. I chose nonfiction as a concentration and food has nearly always been a theme of my work, at least tangentially.
While I was earning my MFA, I was also catering for the faculty of Columbia University, and did dozens of those wine and cheese receptions that colleges always have, though I got a little fancier with the hors d’oeuvres. It was great training. I had my own catering company for 3 years, and branched out from the University to Soho gallery openings, a few music videos and even a few small weddings (and one not so small wedding, that was hell). Then I realized that catering was just too hard for too little money so I gave it up. I didn’t mind the little money part (you don’t become a food writer to make money), but the schlepping nearly did me in (I lived in a fifth floor walk up, had no car, you get the picture).
Professionally I started writing about food online, pitched tiny pieces to print publications, and eventually started freelancing for Time Out New York, where a friend of mine from college was working. I was also working part time at a small, now defunct food magazine, where I learned how to edit recipes.
About that time, I wrote my first cookbook, a bread machine cookbook. Again it was through a friend. My friend knew I was catering part time, and so recommended me to a small book packager whose writer on the project went AWOL and they were desperate. I wrote an entire cookbook in 6 weeks, had several bread machines going 24 hours a day and I would get up in the middle of the night (every 4 hours, which was their cycle) to “feed them.” I thought it would prepare me for motherhood but I had no idea.
From there I slogged away, getting bigger and bigger assignments. My first breaks were getting to write for the Times, and also Food and Wine Magazine. Once I had those credentials under my belt, getting work became easier.
Jen: Embarking on a freelance writing career specializing in food must have been an exciting undertaking. In the beginning, what was more challenging… mastering your knowledge of the art of cooking or establishing yourself among your peers? And, why so?
Melissa:: They both kind of happened organically at the same time. I just cooked and cooked and read and read and honed my cooking skills because I loved it. I had started writing cookbooks with chefs at that point, and that’s where I learned the bulk of my knowledge, from the masters themselves. As I cooked with more chefs, I met their friends and a whole network opened up. At the same time I was young and single and eager and going to every event I could to meet people to broaden my network of writers and editors. So it all grew at the same time.
Jen: Your prolific career has enabled you to collaborate with some of the best chefs in the business. Having written over 30 cookbooks, please share with us a few secrets for us over-worked and underpaid moms that would turn mealtime into a stress-free experience.
Melissa:: Hah! Being the mother of a 22 month old, I just can’t imagine how to answer this. Mealtime is hard, even if the food is good and easy and fast and all those other buzz words for convenience, or even if you’ve thrown up your hands and ordered in a pizza, f your kid in a mood and won’t eat any of it, what’s the use? The best chef in world couldn’t help.
All I can say is that at every dinner, I learn how to be a more patient person. It’s continually humbling though there are amazing moments, like when my baby realized the wonder of prosciutto-wrapped ripe melon. That got me through the week.
Jen: Your latest endeavor is an exquisite collection of recipes and stories titled IN THE KITCHEN WITH A GOOD APPETITE. How did you arrive at the premise?
Melissa:: It grew naturally out of my column in the Dining Section of the New York Times. I really love being able to tell the story behind the meal, and my column lets me do that. I realized it would work well in book form. The book has 100 new recipes and stories, and 50 of my favorites from the column.
Jen: Please describe for us the format of the book and why you choose to arrange it in this way.
Melissa:: I decided to be quirky and very personal with the chapter flow in the book and grouped the recipes whimsically and thematically rather than more traditionally (appetizers, salads, soups, entrees, etc).
The first chapter, called Waffling Toward Dinner, is about breakfast foods you can make for dinner, and vice verse. I just love eating breakfast for dinner, and grew up in a household where my parents ate leftover dinner – including wilted salad — for breakfast. So it made sense to me. Other chapters are called The Farmers’ Market and Me (veggie recipes that sprang from my obsession with my local greenmarket), It Tastes Like Chicken (which is a normal chicken chapter in disguise, but the narrative plays with the notion that everything parents want kids to eat “tastes like chicken,” including snake and rabbit), and Holiday Food, which is my family’s person repertoire of dishes we make for various holidays. There is a beverages and cocktails chapter because I think most cookbooks give those things short shrift. My mega-sized sweet tooth demanded an entire chapter on pie and a separate one on other desserts. And meat and fish chapters round out the offerings so people can find something normal to make for dinner and not just my ramblings….
Jen: As a former French teacher, I was green with envy as I read your charming vignette about your childhood culinary vacations in France. How did your parents’ love of food impact your choice of career? Who is the biggest food critic in your family…your parents, sister, or you?
Melissa:: My parents are to blame for me being a foodie, I learned it all, good, bad, and annoying, from them! That was the culture in the family, cooking together, eating great (or terrible) meals and talking about them. I think I learned how to be a good critic from them, and we each have out passions and specialties, our prejudices and peccadilloes when it comes to talking about, and making, food.
Jen: So that I could truly appreciate the book, I experimented with recipes from each section. Let’s start by talking about those that particularly stood out. Pesto Scrambled Eggs with Fresh Ricotta…yummy! What makes this recipe so special?
Melissa:: It’s just one of those combinations of flavors and textures that really work well together. The fluffy, milky ricotta cheese, the zingy, pungent pesto, and the mild, savory eggs really fill your entire mouth. I can’t stop eating it whenever I make it!
Jen: Your mother’s love of the sandwich… “Each bite should be a little different, otherwise it gets boring”… made lunchtime into gourmet time in my house. The salami and horseradish cheddar bagel sandwich is to die for! In terms of school lunchboxes, what are your favorite sandwiches? And, how do you make lunch not so boring for the kids?
Melissa:: My daughter is still young enough to eat lunch in her highchair, so I’m not packing much more than almond butter and jam for her to munch at the playground as a snack. But I have big plans that I’m sure will evaporate when the reality of the daily school lunch grind sets in. But right now I’m imaging learning how to make my own vegetable sushi rolls, and lots of sturdy colorful salads with the likes of grilled tofu, steamed broccoli, edamame, string beans, bells peppers and salami in them (not all in the same salad). (Talk to me in three years and I’ll probably sing quite a different tune).
Jen: The Holiday Food section is chock-full of scrumptious recipes. What is your favorite recipe for Thanksgiving stuffing?
Melissa:: I love the sweet potato shrimp hash recipe – it’s completely different than the usual turkey stuffing, though seafood at one point in American history was traditional in stuffings. The flavors work really nicely together, with the honeyed sweet potatoes and briny shrimp seasoned with chili and lime juice.
Jen: For those of us fortunate to have Farmers’ Markets in our towns, mealtime is just bursting with freshness and flavor. What are the essential homegrown items that are a must for any cook?
Melissa:: the building blocks of every meal are herbs, onions and garlic and if you can get them fresh from the garden, they really are better, and will make your whole meal shine. And there is nothing as good as a fresh, ripe tomato.
Jen: And, are organic products truly worth the extra money? Or, is this just a marketing gimmick?
Melissa:: I think local and seasonal trump organic both for flavor and environmental friendliness. A lot of the organic stuff we get is grown in places like China.
Jen: Finally, we have to talk about desserts! Truth be told, I am a horrible baker. Which recipes in the book are the easiest for a novice baker such as me?
Melissa:: I’d say start with the shortbread cookies. Unless you burn them, you just can’t mess them up, they are so easy! And they are the cornerstone of a terrific dessert if you add ice cream and some fresh, ripe fruit. They also make terrific gifts.
Jen: Let’s switch gears now and talk about your promotional plans for the book. Will you be participating on a book tour?
Melissa:: I’ll be going on a loose tour to do events in San Francisco, Seattle, Austin and possibly Orlando, Fl. I’ll update my schedule on my website: MelissaClark.net
Jen: Please take us on a brief tour of your website. Do you have a blog?
Melissa:: I do have a blog. It’s at MelissaClark.net and it’s a snapshot of what I’m cooking, eating, and thinking about. Excuse the photos; I’m still learning how to use my nifty new camera. If something looks good, it was by accident.
Jen: What’s next for you? Perhaps reality television as a food judge? (You’d be perfect!)
Melissa:: That could be, I think it’d be fun! But for sure I’ll continue to cook, eat, and write about it because that’s what I love doing.
Jen: Thank you so much for stopping by and chatting with my readers. I thoroughly enjoyed your new cookbook and highly recommend it to my readers. Bon appétit!
Melissa:: Thanks, Jen!
I hope you have enjoyed my interview with Melissa. Please stop by your favorite bookstore or local library branch and pick up a copy of IN THE KITCHEN WITH A GOOD APPETITE today.
Better yet, how would you like to win one instead? Correctly answer the following trivia question and you could be one of five winners.
Until next time…