Home Cooked: Essential Recipes for a New Way to Cook author Anya Fernald tells Russ Parsons how she got her unconventional start, her enthusiasm for "long cuts," and what you can do to take the stress out of hosting a dinner party.
Russ Parsons: You came to your approach to food in kind of an unusual way, instead of working at restaurants or going to cooking school, the way so many people do now. How did you learn how to cook?
Anya Fernald (Photo: Brown W. Cannon III © 2016)
Anya Fernald: Well, I did have a very early start in restaurants, Russ, and quickly decided it wasn't for me. Just the hours, frankly, and the beating that was involved in it wasn't what I wanted to do, and I didn't think that culinary school was going to be a lot better.
So, I moved to Europe in the late ‘90s and got a fellowship to study artisan cheesemaking in southern Europe and northern Africa. I did that for a year, and from there I was hired to do a rural development project for the EEU, working with small cheesemakers in southeastern Sicily. I learned a lot through cheesemaking about the quality of ingredients and how they affect food. But I learned more from working in dairies and visiting many, many small farms in southern Europe, and just learning how farm wives cooked. Tasting this simple, essential food was really transformative for my palate and inspired me to learn to cook in a different way.
RP: So many cooks today seem to have kind of an equipment fetish; they fill their cabinets with gadgets. The country cooks you learned from often had only the most basic utensils. What do you consider to be the essential equipment in a kitchen?
AF: I'd say a grater, a good knife, and a mortar and pestle. I remember having an amazing lunch on one of my early stints working in some dairy in Tuscany, going into the kitchen to talk to the woman who'd made it, and just seeing that she'd made this entire lunch with a grater and a fork. It was kind of revelatory for me, coming from the U.S. and growing up in the Peninsula, where people have these sort of mausoleum kitchens. A lot of it's never touched, but it's beautiful and decorative, lots of stone and fancy things. I was just blown away that one of the best things I'd ever eaten was literally made with a fork to form the pasta, a spoon to make the dough, and a grater, which is what they use a lot for processing onions and tomatoes.
Now, my selective force for gadgets is, if it only does one thing, I really don't want to buy it. My exceptions are things like the coffee grinder, stuff like that. But in general I'm trying to look for things that are multi-purpose and I really stay away from gadgets. The only thing that plugs in that I use regularly in my kitchen is a Vitamix.
RP: At one point in the book, you talk about avoiding short cuts in cooking and even favoring what you call “long cuts.” Can you give us an example of kind of the fundamental long cuts that you use and that you always have on hand.
AF: One basic is soffritto, which is a cooked down mix of carrots, onions, and celery. And that's the base of Mediterranean cooking. It has a different name in every country. It's “mirepoix” in France, it's “sofrito” spelled differently in Spain, I don't know what it's called in Greece, but it exists there.
I learned to make that in a prepared way in Italy, which is just to cook it down for three hours, blend it, and put it in ice cube trays. I do the same thing with reduced cubes of broth. It takes three hours in a Sunday to make that, but you make it once every six months, and then you can add this rich, lustrous, umami finish to things very easily.
With those kind of long cuts, I'm investing time so later on when I'm entertaining, I can do it graciously and easily, making the food taste delicious but still hanging out with my guests or with my family. Which is really the point of cooking, after all.
RP: Your parties are really well known for so much good food, and yet it all seems to come together really, really effortlessly. What are your rules for throwing a good party?
AF: To take care of yourself. Think about the dishes that you execute comfortably, but also do something that you can prepare beforehand. It's about using high-quality ingredients. And I think that's my big secret in entertaining. People often tell me "Oh, this is so basic, I make this all the time but it doesn't taste as good as when you make it,” and it's usually a combination of using things like broth, using soffritto, using these enriching, deeper flavor bases that add a lot to very simple dishes.
Also, of course, use good-quality butter, good-quality meat, all those bases there. You can always just finish with a dollop of butter, and if it's a really delicious, fermented, great butter, you can add a ton of richness and flavor. There's no other way to replicate that and you frankly don't have to spend a lot of time on it.
One trick that I learned was to batch my cocktails. I found that I was getting stressed out in a party when I was mixing a round of drinks, you have ten guests, and by the time you've made everybody their drink and your garnishes and stuff, everybody wants a second one, and hey, you don't have a drink in your hand at that point. You've just spent your first two hours of the party mixing people drinks.
I found a couple of drinks that just hold well, like vermouth cocktails, boulevardiers, and Old Fashioneds. I make a batch of eight or 16 of them in a big Mason jar and then just pour them over ice, with your orange peel at the end. You can also make the base of a thing like a vermouth cocktail, and if you want a lighter drink, you can finish it with champagne or sparkling water. Having that made the day before or two days before, it’s not going to go bad. You put it in the fridge so it's nice and chilled, and you take away that stress of having to mix drinks at the last minute for people.
RP: What about the structure of the menu for those parties?
AF: I always do one starchy thing, two or three vegetables, and one meaty thing. So for crowd cooking or just for a dinner party, I usually do things like a spatchcocked chicken, cut up and covered with lemon slices and parsley on the table. It's delicious and people can all grab at it. That one meaty dish, make it something you can make easily and don't have to be fussing over the stove at the last minute.
You can do all of that on the grill as well. Chicken holds beautifully on the grill--lamb racks, even a roast. Some of the best top round or eye of round roasts that I've ever had, or chuck roasts, have been done on the grill. Takes two or three hours but it's spectacular. And choose options that if you cook them ten minutes too little or ten minutes too much, the whole things not going to fall apart. Not like if you're cooking, say, a filet mignon or a ribeye, where if it's over cooked it's really a bummer. The chicken can have a little more olive oil or add a couple extra pats of butter to it and nobody's going to notice. I try to opt for those things.
And then I usually make two or three vegetables, usually all prepared beforehand. I have a great recipe that's a party favorite for me for the summertime, which is pickled fried zucchini, something I learned in northern Italy. It’s deep-fried slices of zucchini packed in vinegar, in a light brine, and it lasts for up to a week. And it's a great side for a party because it's a beautiful, fancy-looking salad, but you can make it the day before. I also love things like a pot of white beans cooked in broth and finished with soffritto. Something a little richer and heavier, especially in the wintertime. Also, things like braised fennel are real favorites for me.
For starters, I rely a lot on things like pickled eggs cut in half and pickled lemon beets. They look spectacular and cool, and you can make them beforehand. I love doing things with anchovies for starters. I find that anchovies really whet the palate that goes so well with meats. The meat starters that I typically do are things like sliced salami or fried mortadella sandwiches. Occasionally, I love to whip out chicken hearts fried in butter. They're really succulent, really cool looking, and people are surprised by them. They typically don't cook them and they are just very delicious, especially if you're doing poultry as a main. That's great. Things like pates are easy to whip out and hold well as well.