[Photograph: Joe Lukhovi] Listen. In the beginning, there was mutura. Mutura—viz., a fire-grilled delicacy made from goat and/or cow and/or lamb intestines sewn together and stuffed with a mixture bound by fresh blood (and, among the Maasai, laced with fat that melts when you grill…
Month: July 2020
[Photograph: D.Rooney] Much has been written during the pandemic about the increased popularity of community supported agriculture, commonly referred to as CSA. On this week’s Special Sauce, we had a far-reaching conversation with Maggie Cheney, one of the owners of Rock Steady Farm, which is…
On this week’s Special Sauce, Susan Spungen, author of Open Kitchen: Inspired Food for Casual Gathering and other books, regales us with her experiences in Hollywood as a food stylist and culinary consultant for movies like Julie and Julia and Eat, Pray, Love. What’s it like to be on set and cooking for the likes of Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and Amy Adams? Listen and you’ll find out.
Susan also talks about her terrific new book. She explains that the organizing principle behind the book is “sprezzatura,” an Italian word for “studied nonchalance.” The book articulates beautifully a relaxed yet rigorous approach to gathering your friends to eat and drink.
And, as usual, Kenji gets the episode off to a hot start by explaining the best way to cook his justifiably famous smashed burgers, indoors or out.
Kenji on smashed burgers and Susan Spungen on cooking for Meryl Streep and “sprezzatura.” It’s a Special Sauce that should provide a welcome respite from the insanity we’re all living through.
Please stay safe and healthy, Serious Eaters. And I hope you don’t mind me reminding you yet again that the pandemic dictates we should do everything we can at this perilous moment to support both local restaurants and the farmers and purveyors that supply them. So long, and we’ll see you next time.
Production note: With everyone hunkered down in place we are no longer able to record Special Sauce in a fully equipped studio with an experienced and skilled engineer. So if the sound quality of this episode isn’t up to snuff, know that we are working on all aspects of the production within the context of the new reality we’re all living in. Better things and better sound lie ahead.
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Want to chat with me and our unbelievably talented recipe developers? We’re accepting questions for Special Sauce call-in episodes now. Do you have a recurring argument with your spouse over the best way to maintain a cast iron skillet? Have you been working on your mac and cheese recipe for the past five years, but can’t quite get it right? Does your brother-in-law make the worst lasagna, and you want to figure out how to give him tips? We want to get to know you and solve all your food-related problems. Send us the whole story at specialsauce [at] seriouseats.com.
Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce 2.0, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life, now with an expanded menu. Every week on Special Sauce, we begin with “Ask Kenji,” where Kenji López-Alt, Serious Eats’ chief culinary consultant, gives the definitive answer to the question of the week that a Serious Eater like you has sent us. After “Ask Kenji,” a conversation with our guest. Today, my old friend, cookbook author, and food stylist to the stars, Susan Spungen, whose new book is Open Kitchen: Inspired Food for Casual Gathering, is back with us.
EL: First up, our chief culinary consultant author of The Food Lab, Kenji López-Alt. David Greg has the question of the week re: smash burger, something close to both of our hearts. I’ve made them several times now. I have a carbon steel griddle on my gas grill outside. I get it real hot, start there. First batch has a great crust, second set of smash burgers, the temperature cools and fat pools and I get no crust, but gray meat. Both times I’ve move grilling inside to a grill pan, flat side on my stove, the heat stays consistent, but I smoke my house up. Question: is it possible to do outside on a grill with carbon steel pan or is the heat on a grill too far from the pan? Is there a temperature of the cooking surface I should look for with an infraspot thermometer?
Kenji López-Alt: Okay. Well, all right, I think we can work backwards on this one here. The last question was, is there a surface temperature he should be looking for on a pan to cook a burger? The answer is no and it’s because temperature is a measurement that’s entirely dependent on the medium that you’re measuring. So a stainless steel pan at one temperature is going to cook differently from a carbon steel pan at the same temperature, which will cook differently from an aluminum pan at the same temperature, which will cook differently from cast iron at the same temperature. So surface temperature is only really useful if you’re talking about the exact same material and the same thickness every time. The answer is yes, the surface temperature you should be looking for, assuming you’re using the same pan every time, use the temperature that worked well for you the last time and look for that temperature. But there’s no magic number that I can give you that’s going to apply to your pan.
KLA: If you want to feel an illustration of this, there’s that old thing where if you stand with bare feet on a floor that has a rug over tile, and you put one foot on the tile and one foot on the rug, the foot on the rug feels much warmer even though those two things are actually the same temperature. They’re both ambient room temperature, but the tile feels much cooler than the rug, which feels warmer and that’s just because of the way they conduct heat and because of their specific heat capacity and all these other things that affect the way heat is transferred, even given the same exact temperature.
KLA: If we move back from there, the question was, can you put a carbon steel pan on top of an outdoor grill and get it hot enough to sear your burger, or is the flame too far away? I mean, I can’t answer that question. It depends on your grill, it depends on your setup. The answer is you’re going to have to try it. Probably yes. You’re going to be fine. I’ve done that. Probably yes, you’ll be able to get it plenty hot if you build a big fire out of coal. If you’ve got a weaker gas burner, then probably not. But if you’ve got any kind of coal fire or wood fire grill, you can always build the fire higher and higher and higher to as high as you want. But the answer to that again, is you’re just going to have to try it and see. Now the very first question I think was that when he’s cooking burgers, the first burgers come out well, and…
EL: And the second set come out gray.
KLA: Yeah, the reason that’s happening, and I think he even said it, it’s because the pan cools down. Really the only answer is you’ve got to wait for your pan to heat back up again.
EL: It’s time.
KLA: Yeah, it’s time. Wipe it out and make sure there’s nothing in there that’s going to burn and just wait for it to heat back up again. If you’re having trouble outside, then you probably just need some more coal and some more time. If you’re having trouble inside, yeah, it’s just a matter of more time. If your apartment is smoking out, when you’re cooking burgers, that just means you’re doing it right. There’s no way you can sear a steak or a burger or anything that requires high heat cooking without creating smoke. Dave Arnold always called smoke detectors, cooking detectors.
EL: Can we give David Greg the advice that he just needs to cool out? No, no, no. I’m sorry.
KLA: Oh my god, Ed!
EL: I don’t know. I start talking to you Kenji and my pun-ometer goes off.
KLA: They go right out of my ear. Those puns are just a flash in the pan for me.
EL: All right, man. We’ll talk soon.
KLA: All right.
EL: Thanks, Kenji. Kenji López-Alt, Serious Eats’ chief culinary consultant and author of The Food Lab. Do send in your questions to [email protected]
EL: Now, it’s time to hear more from Susan Spungen. Welcome back.
Susan Spungen: Thanks.
EL: When we left, you were just about to start dishing up beef bourguignon on movie sets. How did that happen? How did you go from successful freelancing to food styling and movies?
SS: Well, I mean, I will tell you exactly how it started, but the movies because there’s quite an afterglow. It’s not like that’s all I was doing all of those years because I did a movie, then I did another movie. Three months of work here, three months of work there, but somehow the movies, they have a lasting effect, which is great for my career. I was doing lots of other things during and between all of those movie jobs. One day literally my phone rang, wasn’t an email. We had email, but it was actually Nora Ephron on the phone calling me. I thought it was a friend playing a joke on me because it’s like, “Hi, this is Nora Ephron.” I was thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Is this really Nora Ephron calling me?” And she said, “Yes, well, I’m making a movie about Julia Child,” and I asked … I think you might’ve been one of the people, but…
EL: She did. She asked me after we had lunch, not that we were close friends, but we were acquaintances. I was incredibly proud of that fact. She used to come to Serious Eats world headquarters actually and do pastrami tastings.
SS: Yeah, she was amazing.
EL: Brisket tastings and she was just a fan.
SS: Yeah, she was.
EL: She was a fan of Serious Eats, she was a fan of Ed Levine. For me, Nora Ephron was one of my writing heroes. Not just from her movie screenplays, but from those essays that she wrote. She’s awesome. Anyway.
SS: She said it was Amanda Hesser, but later I heard that you corroborated Amanda Hesser’s recommendation. She said, “Who should I get to do the food for my movie?” I think I’m quoting directly, because that is the way she talked. Everybody said, “You, so I’m calling you.” She literally said, “Who should do the food for my movie?” I just thought, “Wow! I am so in for this. Why would I say no?” I mean, again, I was going feet first into something I knew nothing about, but I knew that especially at this point in my career, that I could figure it out.
EL: Plus it’s the perfect intersection of what you started to do at the commissary and at food in combining your visual aesthetic and now your cooking chops, which had developed over a number of years.
SS: And this time also having to translate it, which is one of the things I think I’m good on maybe because of my artists’ eye of translating what would be really great on film, even though I hadn’t done it before. But I was very good at thinking about it. It wasn’t like I was just a cook and I had no idea what it was going to look like filmed. I had a good sense of what would be cool on film. I didn’t get the job instantly, but I met with Nora. I met with, I think the whole team that was already on board. I did get hired as the culinary consultant/food stylist for the film. It was a fantastic experience and it was really three months full time, which is not usually how it is on a film, they’ll call you in for a few days here or there.
EL: But this is a real film about food. Food was central to the movie.
SS: Right. So we really had to be there on the set, which was good, almost every day, because when they tried to say, “Well, just come on Tuesday,” things change all the time on film sets. It’s very hard. I’ve worked on other projects where they only wanted you on certain days and they’re like, “Well, but it’s going to snow tomorrow so we’re pulling up food.” It’s like, “But I’m working on something else tomorrow.” It’s better in a situation like this, where you’re just there for three months. I worked with an amazing prop person called Diana Burton. She also was instrumental in bringing me on and she taught me a lot. I mean, about working on a movie set. So it was really helpful to have her.
EL: It seems to me that the key to styling food on a movie set is how to account for time.
SS: Yeah, yeah.
EL: It’s like you make a beef bourguignon at 6:00 and then when it appears on set, it has to feel like it’s coming out of the oven and it’s bubbling and it looks perfect or not, in the case. But it seems to be the hardest thing is how do you play with time when it comes to the food?
SS: Right. Well, in a funny way, that’s one of the big parts of my book. Is all of those things that I know about how far ahead you can make things, how you can hold them until it’s time to serve. All of those things that I’ve learned through my professional experiences, like what you’re talking about, is what guides the way I cook when I’m having people over too. This part you can make hey, three days ahead, this part you can make three hours ahead.
EL: Is that something you really mastered on movie sets or had you already dealt with those issues with the magazine?
SS: Oh yeah, no, no. Between catering… I mean, catering is huge. You have to think about, especially if it’s a big party. Well, you have to make as much as possible ahead, but there are some things you have to make there, like a salad or whipped cream or whatever it is. Those kind of things are second nature to most chefs. It’s the same kind of things come into food styling, whether it’s for a movie or for print because you have a lot to do. I mean, you cannot keep people waiting on a film set because you’re not ready with food.
EL: That would not be appreciated.
SS: I mean, it’s bad on a photo shoot, but it’s a lot worse on a film shoot. Because every minute is thousands and thousands of dollars. So if anybody’s waiting for you, you just don’t want that. So you do everything you can to be ready even if they say, “Oh, you know what? We’re changing things around and we’re going to pull you up right after lunch instead of 5:00 like you thought,” or, “You’ve worked all day to do this, but guess what? We ran out of time and you have to do it again tomorrow.”
EL: That’s funny. Give us three tricks of the trade of food styling for movies.
SS: For movies, oh, boy! The thing is, there aren’t really tricks. I would say be prepared.
EL: Be prepared doesn’t count. Come on, Susan.
SS: A trick?
EL: We’re going to edit out. Be prepared.
SS: All right, a very specific trick?
SS: Oh boy, should have prepared me for that one.
EL: No, this can’t be that hard. I’ll take one.
SS: All right, I’ll give you one. I mean, the thing about tricks is every single job and every single food item presents its own challenges so there aren’t universal tricks that you use.
EL: Sure, I believe that.
SS: But we had one challenging scene where Amy Adams’ character, Julie, had to pull a soufflé out of the oven. Well, we all know how long a soufflé lasts, right?
SS: Yeah. So a film crew waiting around and all of the other delays that happen, we knew it couldn’t be a real soufflé. It turns out that pâte à choux, a giant, giant thing of pâte à choux.
EL: Pâte à choux is a pastry that people use, it’s a French pastry.
SS: For eclair, for gougere, a lot of…
EL: Cream puffs.
SS: Yeah. And it’s super, super sturdy and it really looked exactly like a soufflé.
SS: We had that thing for weeks in the kitchen.
EL: Did you have to think of that on the spot or had you thought about it?
SS: Well, actually Colin Flynn, who worked with me, I got to credit him, it was his idea. We were trying to figure out how we were going to do it and he was like, “Well, maybe pâte à choux would work,” and I was like, “I think you’re right.” So we just experimented with the right amount of pâte à choux in the dish until it looked like a big billowy soufflé. For the purpose of film, you have to remember, things are going by very, very quickly. You would never be like, “Hey, wait a minute. That’s not a soufflé,” because it’s pretty darn close to a soufflé.
EL: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I was on that movie set.
SS: I know, in Dean and DeLuca. I wasn’t there that night.
EL: I was in Dean and DeLuca and if you really watch the movie closely and you slow it down, you can see the back of my head. It was my star turn.
SS: I had a moment too, Nora gave me a moment. Do you remember? There’s a scene where someone’s calling on the phone when she’s getting a lot of calls, Julie Powell, after Amanda Hesser, who also has a cameo, writes about her. I think it was, this is Ruth Spungen from Food and Wine. Nora wrote that into the script to give me a little nod.
EL: She was full of little touches that made you feel special and everyone I’ve ever talked to about her. I’m sure she was incredibly tough minded when she had to be, but she was awesome.
SS: She was great. At one point I had an email and I think it’s gone now because I don’t have EarthLink anymore. But she had written me an email before she passed away, it was soon after the movie came out and she referred to it as our movie, as opposed to my movie, which is how she called it before we did it. But afterwards she referred to it as our movie and I just thought that really showed how generous she was.
EL: Yes, she used to introduce me as this is Ed Levine, he’s the best food writer in the world, which was so not true. But it didn’t matter. It was just incredibly flattering.
EL: You’re doing movies, you do Eat, Pray, Love where you have to move to Rome.
SS: Well, it was only three weeks.
EL: Three weeks.
SS: But it was a fun three weeks in Rome, crazy. But yeah, it was fun to spend that much time in a place. When you work in a place it’s very different than being a tourist, so.
EL: Was it stressful or fun to work with people like Meryl Streep and Amy Adams and Julia Roberts?
SS: Well, I mean, a little bit of both and everybody’s a little different. But I would say on Julie and Julia, it was very relaxed because we were on a soundstage in Brooklyn. That’s very different than being on location in Rome. We were really in the streets in Rome. When you’re on a stage, you get to hang out with the actors in a different way. Not that they’re hanging out with you, but by It’s Complicated, Meryl and I had developed a nice relationship because we had already worked on a movie together so there was a certain familiarity. Then on It’s Complicated, she also had her second dressing room right next to my little kitchen. So I’d say, “Oh, would you like a piece of salmon, Meryl?” She’s great, she’s wonderful. I loved working with her on both films.
SS: But with Julia Roberts, I mean, we were in Rome and they would get a hotel room for her next to wherever we were shooting because you can’t even have trailers. It’s not the same kind of situation as New York where there’s all the trucks. It was very, very scrappy shooting in Rome so I didn’t really have as much interaction with her and plus she wasn’t cooking. On Julie and Julia, the actors were actually cooking so I had to give them more instruction.
EL: Got it. Did the food styling in the movies change your life in any way that you expected or was it really just another good paying gig where you got to hang out with some famous people? I’m sure it was stressful, but was it just another thing that you mastered, another skill?
SS: No. I mean, it was more just a really nice thing to have on my resume and something, I think that because of the magic of movie making and people’s general celebrity worship and feeling about Hollywood, it’s brought me a lot of recognition for that work. That’s been great and they were great experiences to have had, but honestly, in my career, they were weeks and months out of a very long career. Like I said, the effect of them is much bigger than the time they took to do or anything like that. But I’ve gotten some really nice press around each one of those movies and been part of promoting those movies and yeah, it was fun.
EL: Now that I’m talking to you, I’m realizing that I think it gets back to early on this combination of a visual aesthetic and food craft is still just as relevant today. In fact, maybe more relevant and actually the visual aesthetic may be more important than the craft at this particular moment. With all the Instagram stuff going on and how photo-heavy the food media world is.
SS: And if I may say something about that, I feel like Instagram, when that became a thing or how long have I been doing it? I don’t know, I think since 2012 or something like that. And I realized, “Wow, this is a visual outlet for me.” I was able to bring my own personal artistic sense back into… I had some place to put it, which has been really cool for me because it’s like a frustrated artist. I do things sometimes and put it on Instagram and people are like, “Oh, my God, it’s so artistic.” And I’m like, “Oh, I wasn’t even thinking about that.”
EL: Yeah, because it’s been your jam for 25 years.
SS: Yeah, yeah, exactly, exactly.
EL: It’s weird. The New York Times ended up calling you the Babe Ruth of cookies, and as a baseball fan, I appreciated that. I was like, “Wow, Susan’s like the Babe Ruth of cookies.”
SS: Which means what? I hit home runs every time?
SS: I was like, “Wait a minute. I haven’t really thought that much about what that actually means.”
EL: It also means that you drank a lot before work. No, I mean-
SS: Now I’m stuck with that.
EL: It means that you were the superstar of cookies like Babe Ruth was-
SS: Well, I think that was used in the context of again, who should we get to do this for us? And they were like, “Who’s the Babe Ruth of cookies?” Then somebody was like, “Susan is the Babe Ruth.” Because they were like, “Who can hit it out of the park?” That was what they were looking for.
EL: What was your gig for the Times?
SS: What was my gig?
EL: Yeah, what were you doing for the Times where they were like, “We need the Babe Ruth of cookies.”
SS: They published this big cookie feature in the Sunday Times for the print edition. I mean, it started with the print edition and then all the social stuff just comes with it. But it’s like a couple of times a year, they do this big elaborate saloon door, they call it, the way paper opens. Eight-page spread and on cookies. That was the beginning of it. They were like, “We want to do 12 dazzling recipes,” those were the words that Emily Weinstein said to me. And I was like, “All right, I’m going to dazzle them.” That was how it started. They said, “Do you want to do this project?” I was like, “Again, what do I always say? Absolutely, yes. I’m in.” I took that on and it was a really, really, really fun thing to do.
EL: And because you knew so little about baseball, you didn’t really feel the added pressure…
SS: That wasn’t until later. The Babe Ruth thing didn’t come out until the whole thing was done. I didn’t know that was happening.
EL: I mean, if I may make a bad pun, you were the Cookie Monster of recipe developers. All right, all right, all right. I’ll move on, I’ll move on. Let’s turn the page.
SS: That was bad, Ed.
EL: And talk about your new book, Open Kitchen.
SS: That’s why I’m here.
EL: Yeah, that’s why you’re here. How did you come to write it? Open Kitchen. What was the jumping off point? And do you need a big idea when you’re thinking about books?
SS: That’s a tough thing because-
EL: I ask tough questions.
SS: No, no, no, no. I’m just saying it’s something you ask yourself a lot because I think sometimes your agent will tell you it’s a big idea, but in some ways I think it’s more it’s a small idea. It’s more a hook or a conceit, I think. I mean, I’ll get back to you about how this book does, but I think it has to have something that is a point of view. I don’t think it has to be like, “Wow, no one has ever written a book about this before,” because come on, everything’s been done. Especially if you go back through the history-
EL: Of cookbooks.
SS: I mean, yeah, there’s always going to be a new angle and before there was Keto, there were no Keto books, but that’s a different story.
EL: There were Atkins books.
SS: I think it’s really more that you need to have an organizing principle that makes sense to you and to the reader.
EL: You talked about this Italian word, sprezzatura.
EL: Which means “studied nonchalance” according to your book. That almost became the organizing principle.
SS: It was really, yes. It is one of the first words in my intro. At one point when we were shopping around the proposal, somebody wanted that to be the title of the book and I had to rework my proposal, but then we didn’t end up going with that publisher. Then other people were like, “No, that would be a really big mistake having an Italian word.” Whatever, it probably would have made people think it was an Italian cookbook, which it’s not, even though I default to Italian cooking much of the time. It’s not all I do and it’s certainly not an Italian cookbook. But sprezzatura means “studied nonchalance” and it’s usually a term that is used to describe men’s fashion, a guy who just looks amazing, has gorgeous clothes on, but just looks like he’s not trying too hard.
EL: Oh my God!
SS: It really is just your hair is a little undone, you just look perfect, but you don’t look like you’re trying too hard. That’s what I go for with food.
EL: With food. You talk about in the introduction, about the appearance of effortless.
EL: The appearance of effortlessness, which is a first cousin of sprezzatura.
SS: Yeah, absolutely.
EL: It does permeate the book.
SS: Yeah, I think it does, yeah. I think that appearance of effortlessness comes from this whole idea of being prepared. I like to do that because a) I’m a planner, and b) I like to be really ready when people come over. I’m not that person that is going to be slaving away in the kitchen and with a sink full of pots when guests come over. It’s so hackneyed, people have said it a million times, so you can enjoy the party and sit with your guests. But that really is my goal and I usually achieve it.
EL: I mean, what’s interesting about the book is you don’t stress the ease of anything, even though you try to make things as easy as possible. I love the last two paragraphs of the introduction. “I’m not going to lie, good food does take some planning and work. I don’t want to make promises of effortlessness. I just want to help you get closer to that and to the appearance of effortlessness, excuse me. But it’s pleasure that fuels the work, going to the farmer’s market, going to the fish market to see what looks good, being creative in the kitchen, all of these joyful things happen while you are making this effort. Cooking is how you learn to be a good cook. Just like anything else, cooking is a practice, so as you keep cooking, you’ll find yourself getting more and more comfortable and better and better at it. You won’t get better at cooking just by reading this book. You need to get yourself into the kitchen and cook without the fear of failure, because there really is no such thing.” That’s pretty good.
SS: That’s truly, truly what I believe. One of the things I love about an iPhone is notes. I actually wrote some of that when I was taking a walk out in the beautiful sunshine. I was like, “This whole idea of effort.” I mean, it’s like, “Don’t cook if you don’t enjoy it, because it comes through in your food.” You have to love it. You want to have a good time doing it. You can’t think about, well, it’s so much work. I mean, it’s like you have to be willing to do a little work.
EL: It’s true and for me, it’s when I have time, in the summer or when I have an entire Saturday, I love it. I’m not one of these people that cooks for therapeutic reasons during the week. In other words, if I come home, I don’t want feigned effortlessness, I actually want effort. But in the book you talk about cooking in stages, what you can make ahead and what you can’t, you talk about multi-steps. If you actually read the book and take it to heart, I think you will have a better time in the kitchen.
SS: That’s my hope, that’s my hope.
EL: How has your cooking and thinking evolved over the years where you got to this point?
SS: Yeah. So much. I mean, sometimes I look back at earlier recipes I wrote and like I say, cooking is how you learn to cook. I mean, I have just gotten so much better. I mean like anything else, it’s trial and error. When you have done things so many times, you have a much better sense of what’s going to happen. I guess my cooking, I’ve learned because the technique part is more second nature. How to really build flavors, I feel like that’s one of the things that you can’t see in the pictures, but that really are a big part of my recipes. Is how good they taste and how well they come out and how people will be like, “Wow, that was really good.” Also, the talent of translating what you cook into the kitchen, into a recipe that someone at home can use. That is a talent all unto itself.
EL: Right, because not all of those people are going to have the same level of craft that you do to build flavors.
SS: Right, right. I mean, that’s the biggest challenge of being a food writer, and when I mean food writer, I mean recipe writer, is just making it possible for someone to duplicate the experience that you’ve had in the kitchen. That’s the biggest challenge. A lot of recipes or books can miss the mark if they’re not experienced. You’re like, “Yeah, I’m going to write a cookbook,” or they have a co-writer and there’s not a strong connection between the person who did that cooking and the person writing the recipe.
EL: I loved how you talk in the book about the pantry. When you say pantry is palette, because it’s a way that you truly bring your art world…
SS: Yeah, it’s true.
EL: And your food world things together.
SS: I did do that, yeah.
EL: Was that on purpose?
SS: Well, yeah, because that’s how I think of it. It’s a palette, it’s your palliative colors. You got to have that and you can’t really make a painting without paint, right?
EL: Give us three recipes people should start with in the book and tell us why you chose them.
SS: Again, you should have prepped me for that one.
EL: Come on, man.
SS: Can I see the book?
EL: Yeah, of course you can.
SS: Well, off the top of my head I’m going to say the banana bread because I think anyone can make a banana bread and it’s a really good banana bread.
EL: Right, but it’s an unusual banana bread, it’s not your everyday banana bread, if I remember.
SS: It’s true. It has buckwheat flour and it also has toasted buckwheat groats on the top for crunch. It has a delicious glaze with tahini and maple and it’s yummy and don’t sleep on the glaze, because the glaze is really good.
EL: I’m sleeping on the glaze.
SS: If you don’t do the glaze, then you will have nothing for the buckwheat to stick to. So you don’t want to do that. Then, okay another favorite that’s really quite easy and accessible would be this not fried eggplant parm, which has these big croutons. The eggplant is just roasted, it’s not fried, it’s breaded, you don’t do any of that fussy stuff. It has bread, which absorbs all the juices from the tomatoes and eggplant, delicious. And burrata at the end. I mean, how can you go wrong with that?
SS: All right. Are we looking for entry level things here?
EL: Yeah, well, it doesn’t matter.
SS: Any of the toasts are a great way in, but I’m going to give you one more really good one. If you want to bake, well those are two baking ones, but whole grain cumin cracker bread. These are not just delicious, but gorgeous.
EL: Got it.
SS: They’re easy, they’re a big cracker. I’ve always been a fan of homemade crackers and there’s a few in the book.
EL: Got it, cool.
SS: Those are three easy things.
EL: Yeah, I like that.
SS: And there’s so much more, but…
EL: What’s next?
SS: Well, I’m promoting this book.
EL: I understand, I understand.
SS: What’s next? I’m not sure. Actually, I’m working on a documentary about Julia Child.
EL: Oh, cool.
SS: Yeah, with the ladies who did RGB.
EL: Oh yeah, yeah. In fact…
SS: I mean RBG, I always say it wrong.
EL: Is it Betsy?
SS: Yeah and Julie.
EL: And Betsey’s husband, Oren, who is also a great documentarian. He’s in my movie group. I have a movie group. All right, now it’s time for the Special Sauce, all you can answer buffet. I know you’re going to tell me, I should have prepped you, but tough.
SS: Is this a speed round?
EL: But because edited, you don’t need to worry about the speed.
EL: Who’s at your last supper, no family allowed.
SS: I wouldn’t allow family.
EL: Well, I know you love your husband. He’s a cool guy.
SS: He’s family, yeah, he’s family. Oh, boy.
EL: And it can be artists, it can be musicians, it can be people living, dead, doesn’t matter.
SS: Actually, they would be artists and off the top of my head, I’m going to say Donald Judd and Georgia O’Keeffe because they both love food and cooking. And I’ve been in both of their kitchens by touring in Marfa, in New York and Donald Judd’s homes.
EL: Yeah, Donald Judd is still alive, right?
EL: No, he died a few years ago?
SS: Quite a few years ago. And Georgia…
EL: That’s how you know you’re getting old is when you say to someone, “Oh, they just died,” or, “They’re alive,” it’s like, “No, they died.”
SS: And Georgia O’Keeffe, her recipe box is up on the auction block. I recently toured her house in Abiquiú, New Mexico. I mean, seeing her kitchen and her garden, I just… even though I would have loved to sit at their table, I’d like to have them at my table too.
EL: All right, any non-artists? One more person.
SS:One more person.
EL: Or two more people.
SS: My last supper?
SS: You really should have prepped me.
EL: Come on. You’ve had people…
SS: Someone I’ve never met would be probably really more where you’re going, right?
SS: Well, all right. Mick Jagger.
EL: That’s good. Mick Jagger.
SS: Because I finally saw the Stones this summer and we had really good seats and just, I don’t know, just feeling the energy-
EL: You’ve never seen the Stones before?
SS: Never. So seeing his energy up close-
EL: I have a friend who used to say the Stones these days, they’re the best Stones cover band in the world.
SS: Absolutely, I heard that. Yes, and they are really good.
EL: All right. Well, that’s good. That’s an interesting trio.
SS: It’s true. See, that’s the kind of dinner party I like to put together.
EL: What are you eating?
SS: What do I eat?
EL: Yeah, what are you eating at the last supper?
SS: Well, I’m eating really healthy right now because I’m trying to look okay for my-
EL: It’s your last supper so you don’t have to worry about that.
SS: Oh, at this meal.
SS: At this meal, oh, boy. Well, it would have to be probably some kind of large communal dish. I don’t know if I would do meat because someone might be a vegetarian. That’s always how I think.
EL: Don’t worry about that.
SS: All right. Well, I’d probably do maybe the lamb that’s in my book with a pomegranate molasses.
EL: I like that.
SS: Lamb shoulder. I mean, lamb shoulder’s a little hard to get, you got to really special order it, but it’s really a great cut.
EL: Well, people have it because they sell shoulder chops. It’s just, they don’t sell the whole shoulder.
SS: Exactly, so you have to order it, but it’s really a great cut. It’s just like doing a pork shoulder, but smaller. If you have a lot of people you do two of them.
EL: And side dishes, dessert?
SS: Well, I’m going to give you stuff from the book because that’s what’s… With the lamb, I have this freekeh salad. It’s got pickled onions in it.
EL: Freekeh is a grain.
SS: Yeah. It’s a green wheat, smoked green wheat, so good. I mean, you could use tabouli if you didn’t have freekeh, but I love the smokiness of the freekeh and the pomegranate seeds. I think that Georgia O’Keefe and Donald Judd, even Mick Jagger would appreciate that.
EL: And what about for dessert?
SS: Oh, dessert, hmm. What time of year is it?
EL: Oh, God…
SS: All right. I’d probably just do a galette.
EL: An apple galette.
SS: Yeah, apple or peach I have in the… Yeah.
EL: That’s good. And what are you listening to? Don’t try to kiss…
SS: Leonard Cohen.
EL: Mick Jagger’s ass.
SS: No, no, no. Leonard Cohen radio on Pandora.
EL: I love that. Leonard Cohen radio on Pandora. All right.
SS: It’s really a good Pandora station. You can listen to it for hours.
EL: What are three books, they can be cookbooks or not, that have influenced your life?
SS: Ed, this is not fair. You should have prepped me.
EL: Go ahead.
SS: Well, okay. The New York Times Cookbook, the old one.
EL: The old one.
SS: Yeah, Craig Claiborne. I already told you how it influenced me. I mean, I guess recently I listened to the Handmaid’s Tale again, I know I probably had read it. I’m obsessed with Margaret Atwood because I think she’s amazing. I’m going to say Cucina Fresca. Do you remember that book?
EL: Really? Sure.
SS: Yeah, because I was thinking about that recently.
EL: That was what’s his name?
SS: Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman, who does radio now. But that book was really influential on me because it showed how you could be simple. Everything didn’t have to be fussy and fancy. And it was just a kind of Italian cooking that I really, really related to and it was at a sort of formative time in my career.
EL: Got it. Three things in your kitchen that you can’t do without.
SS: Oh, okay. That’s easy. My Kyocera mandolin. Yeah, I use it all the time and-
EL: With gloves or without?
SS: With gloves, I highly recommend gloves. One of the things I use all the time that I love is a sieve from Muji, which has little feet on it. It’s big enough to drain pasta in for a couple of people, everything. I just use it constantly because I don’t like colanders that don’t have enough holes. Well, knives of course, good knives. You’re not counting that. Yes, a bench scraper. I use a bench scraper. I should have turned to my tools page, but yeah, a bench scraper because I use it all the time for many, many things. For making gnocchi, for transferring onions to a saute pan, for-
EL: Sweet and savory, yeah.
SS: Yeah, I have it on the counter almost all the time. I use it all the time.
EL: What do you cook when there’s nothing in the house to eat?
SS: Well, usually pasta because there’s usually some pasta. And even if you only had pasta and butter and capers you’d have a meal.
EL: That’s it. That’s one of the things that I do. I love that. It’s just been declared Susan Spungen day all over the world.
SS: Oh, my God.
EL: What’s happening on that day?
SS: Oh, my God. Everybody’s dropping out of school.
EL: Everyone’s dropping out of school. That’s an unusual answer.
SS: I don’t know, I don’t know, Ed. What’s everyone doing on Susan’s Spungen day? Cooking, baking, having fun in the kitchen.
EL: But with sprezzatura. Okay, so they’re cooking and making it seem effortless.
SS: Yeah. Having people over.
EL: All right, that’s good. Anyway, thank you so much for sharing this Special Sauce with Susan Spungen. If you want to know how to set up a serious spread to your guests without stressing, pick up a copy of Susan’s new book, Open Kitchen: Inspired Food for Casual Gathering.
SS: Thanks for having me, Ed.
EL: That’s it for this week’s episode of Special Sauce. Please stay safe and healthy Serious Eaters. And I hope all this pandemic food talk reminds you that we should do everything we can at this perilous moment to support both local restaurants and the farmers and purveyors that supply them. So long, Serious Eaters. We’ll see you next time.
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Crackers are the go-to option for many bakers looking to use up excess sourdough starter. At its simplest, the process is a breeze: Mix some starter, flour, and salt until you get a rough dough; roll it out, bake it, and you’ve got yourself some serviceable crackers. You don’t need to worry about kneading, proofing, or any of the countless pitfalls of baking sourdough bread. Sourdough crackers should be forgiving, and shouldn’t demand much thought.
These crackers are inspired by ones I used to make at BISq restaurant under Alex Saenz. Back in those days, I saved all the tiny, unusable broken cracker scraps from each batch and stored them in a deli container; later in the night, if I got a little peckish, I’d go to town on them with a spoon. While that recipe doesn’t include any sourdough starter (it’s still amazing without it), the bones of my recipe are similar. Rye flour serves as a foundation for nutty, earthy flavors. Sparkling white wine like Champagne or cava adds both sweetness and a fruity kick to the crackers that plays nicely with the funky sourness of the starter (if you don’t have the wine, a sparkling cider could work too). Cracked coriander reinforces citrus and sweet notes, while the subtle licorice flavor of fennel seed sneaks up on you with each bite.
The resulting crackers are thin, shatteringly crisp, and feature a dark, caramel color. They’re salty, sweet, and lightly tart—perfect for a cheeseboard. And because you bake them in large sheets, they can be broken into various sizes to suit your entertaining or snacking needs.
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A long time ago, back when we were still cooking in the Serious Eats test kitchen, we shot a video for my French-style brown butter potatoes. Before every shoot there’s always an hour or so of set-up, with Joel Russo, our resident expert in all things video, tinkering with cameras and lighting, while I do last-minute knife work and get all the mise en place into cute little bowls.
Usually, the time leading up to a shoot is a bit of a mad dash to get all the time-sensitive kitchen prep work done before shooting—making sure that doughs are properly proofed, or figuring out a plan B because there wasn’t any good-looking asparagus at the farmers market that morning, etc. It’s the closest I get to recreating that high-adrenaline scramble of getting set up for a busy service in a restaurant kitchen. But for this shoot, there wasn’t much to do. The only prep work beyond rinsing potatoes involved slicing some chives.
In many restaurant kitchens, picking and slicing herbs for garnish is usually one of the last things you do before diners walk in the door (some chefs even insist on cutting all herbs to order). More often than not, cooks are running behind on completing all the tasks on their prep lists when service begins, so if you peek into a kitchen right when the doors open, it’s pretty common to see all the cooks on the line hurriedly picking cilantro and slicing chives. In one of the kitchens I worked in, I was responsible for slicing chives for every station in the kitchen, and it was always the final task I had to cross off my prep list before chugging a coffee and getting crushed with orders.
It was at these jobs that I was taught to cut chives in a very specific way, using a method called the back-slice. It’s the technique that I still use today when cutting chives, scallions, and other delicate herbs, but especially those in the allium family. So, while Joel fiddled around with the positioning of an overhead camera and various lighting stands, I back-sliced chives for sprinkling over brown butter-drenched potatoes.
After watching me for a bit and noting how fastidious I was being about a little garnish, Joel started asking me questions about what I was doing. I explained my reasoning, and we decided it would be useful to produce a brief knife skills video on the subject. And here we are.
Is mastering the perfect chive-slicing technique the most important thing for home cooks? Absolutely not. But a lot of people are cooking more than ever at home these days, so hopefully this will be helpful for anyone looking to practice and hone their knife skills in the kitchen. At the very least, it’s another chance to sound off in the comments about how all my videos should be played at 1.5x speed. I’m all for convincing Joel to just jack up the playback speed since my artificially sped-up knife skills will make my chive slicing look even more impressive.
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