Inspiration for Small Plates and Meandering Meals
By Suzanne Lenzer
Suzy Chase: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book podcast, with me, Suzy Chase.
Suzanne Lenzer: Hi, I'm Suzanne Lenzer. My new book is called Graze: Inspiration for Small Plates and Meandering Meals.
Suzy Chase: Suzanne has always been one of my favorite cooks because she gets what makes home cooking so great. Not fancy tools or exotic ingredients, but just the act of being in the kitchen cooking for those she cares about. Taking good ingredients and letting them shine. I love this book because it's exactly how I cook, and how I love to eat. High praise from Mark Bittman.
Describe the art of grazing.
Suzanne Lenzer: You know I don't know if you're ... So much an art form as it is a, partially at least for me, laziness. But to me grazing is all about enjoying lots of little bites, small plates, different flavors, and just enjoying moving from dish to dish. Not just eating one single bowl of pasta or one roast chicken, which I love, but grazing to me is a more communal way of eating. It just somehow feels like you're engaging with the food when you have lots of little things to pick from, if that makes any sense.
Suzy Chase: How did you pivot from a successful advertising career to enrolling in the Institute for Culinary Education, ICE?
Suzanne Lenzer: That is a long story; I will make it short for you. I was burning out on advertising. I was actually ... Had left a big agency, and for a few years had been on my own. And I had always wanted to cook. I'd gone to London right after college hoping to cook. I ended up waiting tables, another story, but I suddenly realized I just wanted to be classically trained. I didn't expect to do anything with it. I thought it would just be fun to know the mother sauces. It was all for me, but to get out of culinary school you do have to do an externship of 200 hours. That's how I pivoted into food styling and writing full-time. I had to burn those hours working for someone and I ended up working for Mark Bittman. And the rest is sort of history at this point.
Suzy Chase: Did you always love cooking?
Suzanne Lenzer: Always loved cooking. As a kid ... My mom is a great cook. I'm from California and she kinda was ahead of the game on California cooking as much as a mom in the 70s can be. She was always using olive oil before that was kind of the thing, and she liked to cook. I just liked to be by her side. I wasn't a ... Never been a super fancy cook until I really got in my 20s and wanted to start making more fancy "food", but I was always excited to be in the kitchen.
Suzy Chase: Talk about how your entire style of eating changed after your first trip to Spain with your husband.
Suzanne Lenzer: That was so funny and strange in retrospect. We took this great trip together to southern Spain. We ambled down from Seville down to Grenada, and then over to Ronda, and then went up to Cordoba. We didn't follow a plan even. We were just rambling around, and we had tapas our first afternoon after landing. Of course we've had in New York, but we had them at this little bar. We were starving, we were exhausted, and they were revelatory. We just kept eating little bits of iberico ham and buttery olives, and manchego, and just octopus. Everything, the whole trip we just never went out for a real meal because it was so much fun. We kept saying, "We're tired, let's go get a glass of wine and a tapas."
And when we came home, it was almost like something had changed in our metabolism. We just didn't crave dinners anymore as much as that kind of sitting down to a few little plates of things to share. We stuck with it pretty well; we still do. I make homemade pizza dough on Sundays, and we'll still have a small pizza and a salad. But as I say in the book even that is kind of a form of grazing for us, because we both nibble while we're cooking and then we sit down and we sort of jump from a half a slice of pizza to a few pieces of Parmesan cheese and a crouton. It just feels like the really right way for us to eat.
Suzy Chase: It's almost like you had to unwind from what our parents told us.
Suzanne Lenzer: Totally Suzy, it's interesting. I actually mention that in the book. I think I say something like you know the way we've been conditioned to eat, because I do think moms were brought up ... Bring up their kids and they want to feed them wholesome food. That's kind of like a meat and two veg, or maybe these days not meat but two veg and a starch. I think it's how we all think we should eat, and I'm a real rule follower. So I always just like ... Well I have to have a real dinner.
Grazing liberates me in that sense. I feel like oh, I'm an adult. I can actually eat what I want to eat. It's a nice way for the cook too if you love to cook, it's great. But not everybody does, and I feel like grazing kind of liberates you from that idea of what comes first, what comes second. Do I need to serve a salad; does there have to be an appetizer. If you think of it as just a cohesive holistic meal of lots of little things, it seems like just a freer way to put food on the table to me.
Suzy Chase: On the other hand, the thought of putting out a bunch of small dishes is a bit overwhelming. So walk us through your planning and shopping tips to simplify the whole thing.
Suzanne Lenzer: Of course. I know, that's actually a hurdle. That's definitely a conceptual hurdle, I fully admit. What I do, and this is again ... I full on admit that I'm a cheater sometimes in the kitchen. I'm a really big fan of not trying to do everything yourself all the time. I think we've been conditioned from food television and glossy magazines to believe that we have to make everything from scratch, and we have to ... And it's great. I love making things from scratch, but there are times where I think just good shopping, good smart shopping and a little bit of chopping is all you need to do.
So some of the ways that I talk about making grazing easier is you don't have to cook four things to put out. You can pick one thing that's relatively simple to cook and then build around it with wonderful fresh vegetables that you just need a knife to slice and serve on the side with some beautiful Maldon salt or drizzle olive oil. I'm totally a fan of buying really good provisions. You and I live in New York City, and it's easier in some ways for us. But these days you can find wonderful things anywhere at good grocery stores.
I'm a real advocate for buying good jarred olives or artichoke hearts or sun-dried tomatoes. I buy canned beans. I buy my arugula in a pre-washed box. I try to buy the best stuff I can rationalize and the best I can find. I also think we all have to work within our means and just do what's right for our own sense of self. So back to your original question, making it easier to me is not trying to cook at all. Pick something you want to make. Pick one thing that seems fun and challenging, and then put a great loaf of bread out. Put a dish of olive oil, get some fabulous fresh tomatoes, half an avocado, shave some corn off the cob and drizzle it with chili powder. It can really be much more of a picnic feeling if you think about it that way.
Suzy Chase: I made your grazing menu called Mexico vs. California, and it was exactly what you just talked about like with the tostadas. I got the tortillas at the grocery store, and then mixed up the black bean and fresh lime juice. Then put the avocado and crab on top. That was so easy, but it kind of took it to a different level. Your fresh corn kernels tossed with chopped tomato, cilantro and lime juice, that was amazing too.
Suzanne Lenzer: You should feel okay as a home cook. Buy the best tortillas you can find. Pick up a can of black beans and put them in a few [inaudible 08:09] or with some fresh cilantro and lime juice, and buy some crab and call it dinner. It doesn't have to be this overwrought, overthought kind of eating. It should be ... This goes back to what we're all so in favor of these days, which is eating what's ripest, freshest, and most in season at the right time. You don't need to do much to it if you're buying really good stuff, and that's harder for us here on the east coast in the winter. Still, there are always ways to make things easy in the kitchen if you just get a little creative. I love that you love those tostadas. I think that's one of my parlor tricks. It doesn't take that much if you're using really great flavorful things, to pile them together and have a delicious easy dinner; or lunch or snack or whatever.
Suzy Chase: And crab always makes everything luxurious, I think.
Suzanne Lenzer: It does, it totally does.
Suzy Chase: So give us an example of how you would deconstruct a complex meal to incorporate the graze philosophy.
Suzanne Lenzer: Well the one I always go back to because I so, so love cassoulet, is that I make a cassoulet that takes some time. It's in the book actually. It's not a 30 minute dinner by any stretch, but it's a commitment. It's like a chilly Sunday morning you decide you want something ... Thick stew and you're gonna spend some time chopping and cooking and enjoying being in the kitchen. But what I always say about cassoulet is you can deconstruct that meal, and if that's what you're craving you can easily turn it into a grazing meal without even turning on the oven.
If you think of it in terms of a dish of white beans, some tomatoes, sun-dried or otherwise, some sausage, duck ... I have a lot of vegetables in mind. So fresh zucchini, a hunk of great bread ... You sort of take the ingredients, the classic ingredients from that dish, put 'em apart and think of them as a tapas, and I think that's to me a really interesting way to come up with grazing menus. There's obviously thinking of what's in season at the same time. There's regionality if you're thinking "Oh, I want something French or Spanish," you kind of know what those things that go together are.
Deconstructing other meals to me, especially ... If you have a favorite pasta that you just love, you go out for it, you love it, you think about it and you're like oh, it's pancetta; it's peas, asparagus, and Parmesan cheese. If you take those ingredients and you think of them and you either quickly blanch the asparagus, drizzle it with some olive oil, put out some wonderful ham, a loaf of bread, Parmesan cheese or otherwise. You've just taken apart a delicious meal you love and really simplified it, and you actually barely have to cook any of those things. But you get the same sort of sensibility in flavors.
Suzy Chase: I love how you wrote that your recipes are dishes that require only small, meditative efforts in the kitchen.
Suzanne Lenzer: I love being in the kitchen, and not everybody does. So it's something I have to keep in mind when I'm thinking about ... You can say these things and be like "Who doesn't love spending hours in the kitchen?" Well a lot of us don't love spending hours in the kitchen. If people say "I just love washing lettuce," I don't love washing lettuce. But I will say I can really get calmed down in the kitchen, and there are certain things I love to do. I make homemade bread a lot. I love kneading bread. I do love stirring risotto. I find some of those moments are very very therapeutic, and if you don't take it too seriously.
I think so many of us as cooks, again I go back to the immediate environment we live in now, we're convinced that we need to strive to do restaurant style dinners or these very fancy kind of like cooking for show in front of friends. And I think you've gotta let that go, and you've gotta let yourself just say "Hey I want to make something delicious and easy, and I want to have fun doing it." Because to me the meals that I make that work the best are the ones where I'm just having a good time. As soon as I sorta get tied up in knots and think oh I'm making this for my in-laws or for friends, that's when things go awry.
Suzy Chase: Yeah, so in Graze you also talk about how you want to enjoy a similar simplified menu like the ones you enjoy in your favorite restaurants.
Suzanne Lenzer: Totally. And you know my favorite restaurants, and you and I live in the same neighborhood so I think we probably have the same ones in mind, I love ... There's a place down on Grove St. that I just love. And it's fun to-
Suzy Chase: Buvette?
Suzanne Lenzer: Well I love Buvette, but Via Carota is the one I was thinking of actually.
Suzy Chase: Same owner.
Suzanne Lenzer: Same owners, exactly. But I love being able to go in there and sit down in a really wonderful casual environment, jeans, whatever; and get a really nice glass of wine and then share dishes with friends. Whether there's two of us or 10 of us, you can always ... Everyone gets to pick something. Some of it you're gonna love, some of it you're gonna love more, and there's just this, like I said before, communal aspect to sharing food that restaurants do really well. Because you're sitting there being served and they're bringing out the small dishes, and it all works together because sensibly the chef has created a menu with an aesthetic. So it all feels of a peace.
At home, recreating that seems, as you said, a little onerous because what goes with what, and how many things do I have to make. But the reality of it is, it's the experience that we enjoy at those restaurants so much. The idea of being with friends, sitting, eating, and tasting different things. And I think that's what I was trying to bring home with Graze, is that you can do that. You don't have to try to achieve the same level of culinary expertise as you get in restaurants, but you can mimic that experience very easily if you're willing to sort of disband with some of the conventional thinking about what dinner should be.
Suzy Chase: This is the cookbook that you can also pack in your suitcase if you're renting a house this summer.
Suzanne Lenzer: That is super kind of you to say, and I hadn't actually thought of it that way. Although it's funny, is I will say a lot of the inspiration for these dishes comes from ... My husband and I have a little cottage we're fixing up in Connecticut, and so on the weekends we really do eat this way largely for the sake of eating, like what's in the fridge? What do we have, what can we pull out? As I said I make bread, so there's always frozen bread. So it's always like pull out a half a loaf of bread, let that defrost; and then what's leftover from last night's barbecue, what cheese do you have, and it is easy to pull things together. I think in the summer especially we're all looking for ways to spend less time in the kitchen. You want to be a little slicing, a little dicing, some chopping, a lot of sipping, but pretty much you want to be sitting out on the patio enjoying yourself. Not slaving over a hot oven. At least I don't.
Suzy Chase: So while we're grazing, what should we be sipping?
Suzanne Lenzer: I never pretend to be an expert in this department, but I know what I like. I always say to people "Drink what you like." I love wine. I'm a big wine drinker. I know enough to be dangerous; probably not. I know when to keep my mouth shut around people who know a lot more than I do, but I think you should drink what makes you happy. You know I feel strongly that if you want to have a beer with your oysters instead of a glass of champagne or rose or muscadet, great. Have a beer. If you want a cocktail, have a cocktail with dinner and just enjoy it. The whole point of grazing to me is eating what you like in a way that makes you comfortable and allows you to enjoy the food and the company you're with. And to me, drinking is exactly the same thing.
I'm not a teetotaler by any stretch and I don't wait for the weekends to splash out. I do have a glass of wine most nights, sometimes two. I enjoy that, that's part of the ritual for me of the winding down of the day is having that sip of wine. In terms of what people should buy, again wine can be intimidating. I think we all feel that way, unless you really are very very well versed in it. It's hard to walk into a store and ask questions without feeling a little silly, but I always feel like it's worth it. People who know more, you're gonna learn a lot if you walk in and you start asking questions. You know a bit about what you like, you tell them, you try a few new things. It's an experience, and it's an adventure to try new things to drink.
But I would say drink whatever it is that makes you happy. Don't worry about the seasons. If you want red in July, go for it. If you want champagne with your burger, go for it. Just do what makes you happy.
Suzy Chase: So since we live in the same neighborhood, we also go to the same butcher; Ottomanelli's.
Suzanne Lenzer: We do.
Suzy Chase: I love Frank. What is your go-to at the butcher?
Suzanne Lenzer: Well Frank is my go-to at the butcher, actually. Half the time I go down there is just to hang out with him and watch him work. We've become pals over the years because, for styling obviously, sometimes I'm going in there and not buying dinner for two but buying pot roast for three days; or 40 pot roasts or something like that. I think once I did buy 70 chicken breasts from him or something like that. But my go-to at the butcher in terms of buying for us is usually small bits, and I also love Murray's and Faicco's which are both right down the street as well. They're all great because you can get a third a pound of prosciutto or you can get two sausage from Frank, and you can get a bit of ground lamb. But you don't have to buy a ton, and that's one thing I do talk about as well in Graze is that we don't eat a ton of meat.
We are carnivores, but we don't consume a lot of it. And I think one thing ... Having a good butcher especially is great because you go in, you talk to them, you ask them what's best right now, what they suggest. You learn a ton from them, but you also don't need to eat massive amounts of meat to get the flavor you want. You don't have to treat it like a garnish, but you also don't have to treat it like it's the main focus of your meal.
But yeah, I pretty much go to Ottomanelli for Frank. I can't lie about that. He's my pal.
Suzy Chase: I love him, he's always singing songs or maybe a little off color.
Suzanne Lenzer: Totally.
Suzy Chase: But he's a blast.
Suzanne Lenzer: He is a blast.
Suzy Chase: So where can we find you on the web?
Suzanne Lenzer: You can find me at www.suzannelenzer.com. What you'll find is a little bit more about Graze, a little bit more about my previous cookbook Truly Madly Pizza, and then probably a lot of pictures of food. Because, as you know, when I'm not writing I'm usually styling. So most of that website is gonna be a portfolio for my styling.
Suzy Chase: I'm gonna be cooking like this all summer long. Thanks Suzanne for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Suzanne Lenzer: Suzy thanks so much for having me.
Suzy Chase: Subscribe in iTunes, and follow me on Instagram @cookerybythebook; on Twitter @iamsuzychase. Thank you so much for listening to Cookery by the Book podcast.