Q&A with Melissa Clark
If you've ever read Melissa Clark's "A Good Appetite" column in the New York Times (which I do, religiously)–or thumbed through any of her 32 cookbooks–then you know that she's a terrific cook and a captivating writer. She's also hilarious. Reading her stories over the years–of running a catering business out of her fifth floor walk-up apartment, of her childhood brush with vegetarianism (it never quite stuck), or the whiskey-soaked chocolate cake that earned her major cool points in high school–you quickly realize that her recipes are comprised as much from memories as they are ingredients. Clark's warm writing style draws you into the kitchen with her, and makes you feel that making duck confit or homemade spaetzle are entirely possible feats.
Clark's latest cookbook, Cook This Now, is a collection of "120 Easy and Delectable Dishes You Can't Wait to Make" and was inspired by simple dishes she cooks at home for her family and friends. Arranged seasonally, and full of recipes I personally can't wait to try (the sticky cranberry gingerbread is high on my list), Cook This Now is the sort of cookbook that is equally fun to curl up with before bed as it is to cook from at dinner. In addition to her weekly New York Times column and cookbook-writing, she's mom to a 3-year old and a contributing editor at Gilt Taste. Oh, and she also has a blog. (I'm not sure when she sleeps?!) I caught up with her recently and we chatted (via email) about her latest cookbook, her favorite make-at-the-last-minute dinner, and the biggest challenge of all: cooking for a toddler.
How long have you been cooking? What first drew you into the kitchen?
I've been cooking since I was a kid–I think I was was eight when I made my first cake. A purple cake, without the baking powder (accidentally). It was flat as a pancake, but I loved the color and was very pleased at myself for cooking anything at all. I think the desire to control what I ate drew me into the kitchen. My childhood home was a desert of rice cakes and health foods, with parents who, when they weren't cooking from Julia Child's cookbook for elaborate dinner parties, were on diets. If I wanted cake, I had to learn how to make it myself. My sweet tooth gets the credit!
Your career seems pretty equally divided between cooking and writing. Do you consider yourself more of a cook or a writer, and why?
Definitely a writer first. If I had to choose (and I really hope I never do!) I would choose writing over cooking. Though I know all my metaphors would still be food related because that's the way I think.
As a freelancer, you're always juggling different hats. What aspects of your job do you most love? What are a few challenges?
I love the constant discovery part. Every time I cook something, I learn something–and then think about a way to tell people exactly what that is. I love fantasizing about food, sitting around dreaming up delicious things to eat–and then to go home and make them (usually they work, sometimes they don't). I love the process of sitting down to write an article (actually it's a love/hate relationship, but I think most writers feel that way about starting something). I love working creatively.
The challenges are many and I love them too! I guess the hardest part for me is juggling so many projects, which I need to do as a freelancer. Not that I'd want to go work in an office everyday, but it would be nice to have fewer, bigger projects that I could immerse myself in without being pulled in so many different directions.
You write about a different recipe every week in your "A Good Appetite" column in the New York Times. Where do you find your inspiration for these columns?
Everywhere! I see the world through a lens of food. A ginger colored sweater can inspire a cookie. A ruffled flower can make me want to eat a salad. Some people wear rose colored glasses. My analogue would be glasses that turn everything into meals.
Your latest cookbook, Cook This Now, just came out in October. On your blog, you said that you are particularly excited about this book because it's the food you actually cook at home for your family. What are a few dishes in the book that are special family favorites?
That's exactly why I love the book–because it's exactly what I cooked last year. All the recipes are simple, fast, and striving to be slightly health-conscious, while still being incredibly full-flavored and interesting. But fast and easy seasonal food is the foundation of the book because that's how I really cook.
And favorites...that's tough. I love all my little babies (recipes, that is). I guess right now I'm really into the roasted cauliflower with cumin, salted yogurt and pomegranate. It's so warming and hearty while still being super easy to throw together (you can leave out the pomegranates if you can't get them...). Another favorite is the carrot mac & cheese. My daughter LOVES this so we make it often, and it's fairly nutritious for mac & cheese because of the carrots and whole wheat pasta, but tastes great because I don't skimp on the good cheddar cheese!
I love the way that Cook This Now is divided into chapters not just by seasons, but by months! Have you always eaten this seasonally? Any months that you particularly love from a cooking standpoint?
First of all, to clarify, I only eat semi-seasonally. I'm not strict about it. If I want the cucumber in February, as long as it tastes good, I'll eat it (which rules out tomatoes in winter because they never taste good....). I eat seasonally because food in season tastes better. And it connects me to the earth and grounds me in a way that I find profound, but that is also yummy. And since I buy most of my food at the farmers market, it's kind of my default. And every month is great for cooking seasonally–even the depths of winter can be inspiring (if you love to eat as much as I do, that is)!
How has having a toddler changed your cooking style? Is your daughter an adventurous eater or does she stick to the basics?
She's a typical 3 year old and goes back and forth being adventuresome and meek about what she eats. Right now it's a meek phase, except for salmon roe, which she loves. She's made me streamline my cooking and speed it up. I have less time for cooking than ever! But love it just as much.
What five items are always in your pantry?
Does the fridge count too? Lemons, olive oil, garlic, good flaky salt, pasta. There's a recipe right there! (Hint use the juice and lemon zest).
If you had to cook an impromptu dinner for eight tonight, what would you make?
Pasta! I always have it on hand and you don't need to do much to make it taste good, as long as you use enough salt in the water, and have some good olive oil and garlic around...and maybe some herbs or vegetables. It's very forgiving stuff. Plus, everyone loves it, so I can surely please all eight.