The Nimble Cook | Ronna Welsh
The Nimble Cook
By Ronna Welsh
Intro: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book podcast with Suzy Chase. She's just a home cook in New York City sitting at her dining room table talking to cookbook authors.
Ronna Welsh: Hi. I'm Ronna Welsh, and my cookbook is The Nimble Cook.
Suzy Chase: Your philosophy is there are three steps to making a meal. How can we be nimble in three steps?
Ronna Welsh: The first is to take stock of what we have. For me, that means, when you open up your refrigerator looking for something to eat, you see the things that you would normally be blind to. That includes things that are on your refrigerator door, the things that are pushed to the back of your fridge. It also might include things in your pantry that you've just ignored because they aren't on spoiler alert. The other thing about taking stock of what you have is to think about the time, who you have to feed, how much counter space you have. All those things should drive what you do. After we take stock of what we have, we want to create what I call starting points. That's really basically saying, "What do I do with what I have?" There's a lot less pressure involved in making one small move from, let's say, a raw ingredient to a raw ingredient cut or a raw ingredient washed or a raw ingredient roasted than there is from taking said raw ingredient and turning it into a soup, a risotto, a dish for which many of us might need a recipe or at least more motivation than we might bring to the kitchen on an average Tuesday. When you have these things that are started already, so maybe it's an onion that's already chopped for you or maybe it's you pulled all the loose bags of pasta out of your cabinet to reckon with on your counter, then the next thing to do is to put things together to eat, and that's plating. That could be as simple as take the avocado you cut in half, drive a spoon into it, and then that really nice hazelnut oil that you haven't used yet because it cost more than your salary, you open to pour on top. That's the making of a meal. It's sort of this three-step process that can be carried out over the course of a week if you are a planner and you like to do things like cut an onion while you're waiting for your pizza delivery, or it's actually itself compressed into one moment, the way in which we go from, "There's nothing to eat," to, "Great, I'm sitting down for dinner."
Suzy Chase: I thought it was so interesting that you mentioned your refrigerator door. You really never think of that.
Ronna Welsh: It's true. The things that we have on our refrigerator door are the ... they're collections, almost memories of dinners that we've had. It's the barbecue, or the time we made Thai food and the fish sauce is there to remind us, or the jar of tamarind paste, those things that don't go bad. It's the seven jars opened of mustard. It's the jalapeno peppers, all those things that are preserved and buy us time to look elsewhere, so we do. One of my favorite recipes in the book is for something I call Refrigerator Door Relish. I take everything on my refrigerator door, which in my case being a lover of things salty, are green peppercorns, capers, anchovies, and I put them all together. I do a big dump. I pull them all off my shelves, and then I reckon with what I have to clean once I've cleared the space. Then I put them in a food processor with some oil, sometimes some red pepper flakes, sometimes some lemon, but usually just those things, and they become a relish. What's done from there is you can take that relish and then grab all that mustard that's in your door and mix it together, and then it becomes this really spicy interesting condiment. I do other things with it, but the whole point is not so much that I have bought more time, because these things weren't going bad in the first place, but I put them into this more recognizable form, more of a convenience food. Then what I do is, when I take that relish or that mustard, I don't put it back on the side of the fridge. I put it in front of me, maybe in front of the milk even so that the next time I go into the refrigerator, I see it in front of me, and it says, "Hey, over here. Maybe I can be of help." What I just proposed is nothing profound. It's simply that it's one step in a direction that sometimes we need to take in order for us to think about ingredients becoming a meal.
Suzy Chase: Okay. How on Earth do we make risotto from scratch in two minutes?
Ronna Welsh: Right, so this is actually something that I learned working in restaurants. The best of the Italian restaurants do actually take 20 minutes to make your risotto, so when they request that on the menu, it's no lie, but risotto from start to finish elsewhere, I learned, and certainly in my home, happens by taking each specific step and then pausing at the moment that's right for you. But then here's the key is carrying forth from that moment, and I'll give you and example in a second, carrying forth from that moment all the stuff that makes risotto risotto into the next moment. For example, let's say we are making risotto which starts with this Arborio rice, and we ... well, that's the rice that goes into it. It actually starts with shallots, let's say shallots and butter, and we're sauteing those things. Then we add to that our rice, cook that for one or two minutes, and then you add wine. This is sort of just a very classic procedure for making risotto. We let the wine cook down. Then what we do is we begin to add stock. The stock is actually added while it's hot, so you have this other pot on the burner of stock, and you add that little by little to kind of eke out the starch from the rice, and that's what makes risotto creamy. Let's say you get to the point where you're maybe 18 minutes in, right, and it's still not done. That's one of the places where I might stop. In order to stop but to still make sure that my risotto, when I pick it up a day or two later, is as good as if I was making it from scratch, I need to take all of that creamy but not quite done rice in the pot, and I need to pour it out onto a sheet pan or a cookie tray. What that does is it stops the cooking immediately. I spread it out, but I also make sure to take a rubber spatula and scrape every bit of starchy goodness from inside that pot and put it on the tray. Then, absolutely, when that is cool and ready to go into a container in my refrigerator, I scrape every bit of that delicious gooey starch into the container because if I don't do that, then all my effort is short-changed.
It's about knowing how to pause, how to keep all of the essential elements that make cooking really good in place so that, when you're ready to pick it up, you just kind of resume with the same attention and forethought as you had when you were starting the risotto initially.
Suzy Chase: Did you just describe the 20-minute or your 2-minute one?
Ronna Welsh: Sorry. I just described the up to about 18 minutes where it's not quite done, and then you stop the cooking. Then what happens is, once everything is cooled down, and let's say you store it, you come back to it two days later. I decide that, instead of making risotto for four because, lo and behold, it's only me cooking for myself that evening, I might take a scoop out of that container of par-cooked risotto, so not fully cooked but most of the way cooked, and I'll put it in a pan. I'll kind of warm it up a little bit. Then I set in place all the other elements for making the risotto that I kind of interrupted from two days before.
Suzy Chase: Okay.
Ronna Welsh: I'll put the remainder of my stock on the stove. What happens is, as soon as I add that warm stock to that small single serving of risotto in the pan, the creaminess comes back instantly, and so I finish a portion of risotto in time for me to eat in two minutes, but what I've done is I've kind of preserved the care and the attention of the other 18 minutes but just pushed them forward to when I needed to eat.
Suzy Chase: One thing I love about this cookbook is that most dishes are written for a single serving size. Talk a bit about that.
Ronna Welsh: Yes. That was highly controversial, that is in the cookbook publishing world, but I was insistent on it, and here's why. I have a family of four. I never cook for four. There are families of five, families of three, people who cook just for themselves. For one thing, I wanted to make a cookbook that did not speak to this generic four-to-six-person dinner. The other thing is, even though I have a family for four, I'm not cooking the same thing for everyone at all times. To me, this idea of who we had as eaters really was outdated. The other thing is when you have an approach to cooking that is ingredient-driven, and that is you're focusing on what you have, using what you have given your circumstances, time, how it's best expressed rather than focused on, let's say, making a soup for which there will be leftovers if you have it feed four to six, then what you do is you can cook out of anything you have on hand. If I have one leek, I can still make something with it for me to eat rather than worry about going to the store to get four more leeks to make a recipe for soup that feeds four. The way that my starting points are set up ... The book is divided between starting points and explorations. Basically, that's just saying I have an ingredient, let's say leeks. With that ingredient, I do one thing. In this case, maybe I braise them. That just means I cook them slowly with some aromatics and wine and water, and they're delicious and soft. From that container of braised leeks, that container with those leeks which are edible just with a fork in my underwear at midnight, there's also the ability to take a small portion of those leeks, heat them in a pan, mash them up with maybe a cooked potato that I also have, and there I have soup for one that required no planning and zero waste. That's really what's behind this method is the idea that, if you use what you have, you should be able to turn small bits and pieces into plates of food. There's also one other thing that goes into this, and that is that I think we need to reckon with the fact that mealtime doesn't have to or really doesn't ever look the way it does as cookbooks suggest. We rarely have a platter as a main entrée and then a platter of vegetables and then a platter of starch and have all that food be gone by the end of the meal. Instead, sometimes I think meals need to look like the family that's eating them, so it needs to look a collection of ideas and interests and tastes. Sometimes, for me, a meal might be the potato-leek soup that I kind of sort of mocked together in those two minutes, but somebody else in my family might eat that half of an avocado with that really beautiful oil and a spoon. As long as we're sitting together and we're eating from what we have, that's the meal.
Suzy Chase: Jacques Pepin said you cook the way he does: efficiently, vigilantly, skillfully, and frugally. Was this way of cooking second nature to you, or did you have to develop these skills along the way?
Ronna Welsh: It wasn't second nature, although I think it's the most intuitive way to cook, but for me, no. I grew up in a household of convenience foods. I was the kid who ate the mashed potatoes out of the packet, the green beans out of the can. It wasn't until I was older, went away, and then after graduate school started to cook that I understood the skillset I was missing. Even then, though, being a new cook and then working my way through the restaurant world, there I started in Austin, Texas and then came to New York, I learned how to cook by dish. That means that whatever we were serving, whatever was on the menu, we would prep our ingredients for that particular dish. We would mise en place a dish in order to execute it perfectly well and in keeping with the rigors and the timing of the kitchen. I've always been focused, I think like most cooks, on the dish, the recipe, and then the execution of. It wasn't until I stepped out of the kitchen, which is when you had my first daughter, and then two years following my second, that I reckoned with the fact that all of my experience in the professional world did little to prepare me for cooking at home. I've always cooked at home for friends. I always loved spending days off doing really ambitious things, but making a cassoulet serves no purpose in feeding a toddler. It was feeding kids that proved to be my greatest challenge as a cook. I had to come up with a way to cook for them that was as sort of fly by the seat of my pants as parenting always is. The way for me to do that was not to stock up on chicken fingers and boxed mac and cheese. If I credit my professional background at all, it's that it made me stubborn, and it made me unwilling to make those choices of convenience and forced me to find another way.
Suzy Chase: What two ingredients do you use most?
Ronna Welsh: Olive oil and salt.
Suzy Chase: Speaking of salts, you have a Spice, Salts and Rubs chapter. The bay salt recipe has renewed my interest in bay leaves, which I normally think are like nothing, flavorless. Talk a bit about that.
Ronna Welsh: Right, so one of the things, when I started teaching, I realized is that people are wary of their spice rack. Of course, it's really easy for spices to go old. It's really for us to overlook spices that we bought for one particular dish. Also, many of us don't use spices beyond the specific instructions in a recipe. One of the problems, I think, is that we are told to check out our spices by opening a jar and then sticking our nose in the jar, but you know what? Spices all sort of smell the same. They smell dusty after a while. They smell a little bit like shoes, and so you can't actually taste a spice by smelling it, which sounds obvious, except that's what we've all been encouraged to do. Then the next step is to say, "Well, what if I just lick my finger and stick it in the jar?" because that's the way we roll in my house, and then put my finer in my mouth. Well, if you do that for cumin, which is a spice I use all the time, you'll get a sense of what it is, but you'll also then taste that it's somewhat metallic and off-putting. That doesn't open up ideas for what to do, so the key is to provide a medium through which you can taste the spice, and one of those is salt. What I tell people to do is take spices out of your spice rack and, in a little bowl, put some of that spice and salt, mix it up, and taste. Then you'll see the possibilities of that one spice. Spice salts, for me, are the key to your spice rack. Bay salt came about because I had this, I guess for over a period of months, I just kept buying bay leaves, and so I had these individual packets of bay leaves and not enough soup to make, right? We always put sort of the bay leaf in the soup for this elusive, we're not quite sure what flavor. I took them all because, for me, my choice was trash or opportunity, so I took them all, I put them in a spice grinder with some salt, and that became bay salt. The thing about bay salt is it tastes like nothing else, and it goes on absolutely everything. Whereas the bay leaf that cooks for a long time in a soup or a stew provides a kind of backbone that we can't quite describe and so we don't even know it's gone, really, if it's not there, but the bay salt then sits right on your tongue. I use it as a finishing salt. It might be that you would take chicken soup that normally, I guess, maybe you could cook with a bay leaf but, instead, I just add some bay salt to the end.
Suzy Chase: Sticking with the salt subject, on Saturday, I made your recipe for Salted Roast Chicken on page 253. At first, I thought, "This is a lot of salt," and then it was so moist. It was so crispy on the outside. How does the salt contribute to the moistness of the chicken?
Ronna Welsh: Well, in this case, the salt is put on the chicken as far as 24 hours in advance. The salt is different than other kinds of, let's say, spices. Salt worms its way into the meat, and so then you begin to season the meat from the inside out. The case with salt is its magic is that it's not imparting its own flavor, although it will if you use too much, but that it brings out the flavor of the thing that you've salted. The idea is that you've seasoned the meat from the inside out. The salt itself aids in the moisture of the meat, but I also think that has to do with the way it is cooked so that the skin is dried out in the fridge overnight. You cook the chicken on super high heat, crisp the skin, and then let it bathe in all of its fat at a slightly lower temperature to finish it. The other thing I like about that chicken dish is I shove the chicken in a roasting pan, a snug one, so every bit of juice and fat just collects on the bottom of the pan. That helps also to keep the chicken moist because it sits in a bath of its own making.
Suzy Chase: I also made your Roasted Cucumbers With Caraway Seeds and Scallions on page 126. I have never had roasted cucumbers or even thought about roasting cucumbers. This was crazy. Describe this dish.
Ronna Welsh: Sure. Roasted cucumbers is now my favorite thing. I have a couple of different recipes for them, but the idea behind the roasted cucumbers is to treat them as a vegetable in the way that we might treat a zucchini squash. They have a lot of water in them, so you have to reckon with that. One of the things I do in the roasting is allow the water from the cucumber to contribute to a sauce. It's put in a dish with butter and caraway seeds. Salt is important. Roasted so that they turn that kind of dull green. You can cut them with a fork, they're that tender, but they're rather substantial, which is something that surprised me. Then they're beautifully paired with a sour cream but even, actually, salty meats. The roasted cucumbers came about because when I was thinking about things I could make with cucumbers. My thought process goes like this, and this is what I encourage for everyone is to say, "Cucumbers. What can I do? I can bite into it raw. I can slice it. I can peel it and slice it. I can grate it. I can blend it. I can ..." Then you begin to insert other options, things that maybe you've never done before. "Can I steam it? Sure. Can I roast it? I don't know." Then if you say, "Well I want to find out," then you can even look up other recipes for roasted cucumber, if they exist, or you play around yourself. To me, that's the beginning of the process of improvisation is to ask yourself, "What do I do with what I have?" You might arrive at a really interesting pairing of ingredient and technique that you hadn't thought of before.
Suzy Chase: Now for my segment called My Least Meal. What would you have for your last supper?
Ronna Welsh: First, I would like to say that I would like to be able to take this back at any point in my life and offer another answer, but I think perhaps my last meal would be a huge cassoulet. It might be because I mentioned that word 20 minutes ago but, honestly, think about it. When you have a cassoulet and you break into the crust, you have days worth of labor, and it's that magic moment where you aren't sure is it going to be really good? It's such a gift to me. It's such a one-pot gift that I like to enjoy by myself. I will share it with other friends if they're on the island, but I suppose it's the category of things like, to me, cassoulet and terrine, things that require so much finesse and care and time. Those might be the kinds of things that I'd have for my last meal.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web, social media, and in Brooklyn?
Ronna Welsh: The name of my cooking studio in Brooklyn is Purple Kale Kitchenworks, so you will be able to find me and also a little bit more about the book at purplekale.com, purple like the color, kale like the vegetable dot com, and on social media as well would be purplekalekitchenworks.
Suzy Chase: Everyone is a better cook in The Nimble Kitchen. Thanks so much for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Ronna Welsh: Thank you.
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