Deb Perelman, Creator of SmittenKitchen.com
Jewish Woman magazine chats with Deb Perelman about her new cookbook and acclaimed cooking blog.
By Danielle Cantor
“Fearless cooking from a tiny kitchen in New York City”: This is how Deb Perelman—America’s culinary sweetheart, big sister and best friend—describes Smitten Kitchen, a cooking blog whose accolades include selection as one of Saveur’s “Best of the Web” and Time’s 25 best blogs of 2011.
Perelman is currently on tour promoting her first book, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook (Alfred A. Knopf), which drops October 30, 2012.
As of spring 2012 Perelman's site was getting 7 million page views per month, and since launching in 2006, she has expanded it to include a recipe index, a measurement and ingredient conversion page, and a “Surprise Me!” link that produces a randomly chosen recipe every time you click it. (That last one is addictive; use at your own risk.) What hasn’t changed: The quality of the recipes, which are elegant and entirely from scratch, yet not the least bit intimidating; and the 42-square-foot kitchen where she develops them, inside the apartment she shares with husband Alex and their 3-year-old son, Jacob.
Perelman’s devoted following can be attributed not only to her mouthwatering recipes and photography, but also to a core belief that home cooking should be accessible. She is openly wary of fussy foods and pretentious ingredients, declaring, “I don’t do truffle oil, Himalayan pink salt at $10 per quarter-ounce or single-origin chocolate that can only be found through Posh Nosh-approved purveyors.” And Perelman herself is as accessible as her recipes. Tweets like “If we're going to be friends, you'll have to agree with me that leaky rugelach are the only rugelach worth eating” attract friends indeed: At the end of December she had 13,672 followers on Twitter; by the middle of January she was up to 14,268.
What doesn’t the world know about Deb Perelman? What’s your backstory?
I always assume people know everything about me, because I have a website, but then people sometimes comment that I’m very private. I don’t consider myself a very private person. I spent some time in D.C. [Perelman earned both her undergraduate and graduate degrees from George Washington University] and I liked it a lot. I was an art therapist for a while; I’d gotten a degree in psychology and fine art, and I thought, “What am I going to do with this? Oh – I’ll get a master’s in art therapy!” So I did that for a few years, but it wasn’t the right thing for me. I enjoyed the work I was doing, but I didn’t feel like it was creative enough; I didn’t get to exercise all the muscles I wanted to. That was when I started writing on the side, which led me to the original “Smitten,” which turned into Smitten Kitchen, and that brings us up to date.
Have you always been a foodie?
I think that a lot of my “interesting cooking” comes from the fact that I am picky. It should come from a nice, warm place – like, “My grandmother used to make this for me!” But the truth is that I want things to be a certain way, and you kind of have to do it yourself a lot. Also I have a little bit of obsessiveness, where it’s one thing to say, “I think this roast chicken is dry,” but then I go home and play around with it and do all this research, and try to come up with a recipe that’s more to my taste.
What did you learn about cooking at home growing up?
We ate a lot of arugula and brie and artichokes growing up, and I guess automatically that puts me on the fruity side of the map, but it wasn’t like a showy thing—we didn’t chase fancy restaurants or anything like that. My mother just always liked French food. She actually taught herself to cook from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. My mom didn’t cook at all, and my dad got it for her shortly after they were married. She was like the original “Julie and Julia”! She went through and taught herself beef bourguignon and French onion soup, and to this day those are the two things she’ll make if they’re having people over. I know it’s banal these days to say that you love Julia Child, but I really love her recipes because they do not assume that you’re wealthy or that you have access to the very best produce. Nowadays there are a lot of recipes that say, “Use the very best olive oil, the very best beef cut,” and not only is it expensive and would shut out people who may not have the same grocery budget, I think it’s also sort of a recipe shortcut. If everybody uses the same fancy ingredients, then you don’t need to create as great a recipe because great ingredients will sort of “take care of it.” But Julia Child knew that people weren’t necessarily getting fresh peas, so she would explain to you how to take canned peas and do your very best with them so they would taste as good as they possibly could.
What is your favorite Jewish culinary tradition?
I definitely love noodle kugel…. latkes… challah… Carbs—I think carbs are the theme. And brisket, when it’s made well. I have a nice noodle kugel story: When my mom and my dad were dating, my mom had my grandma’s noodle kugel and she thought it was the best thing she’d ever eaten in her life. She begged for the recipe. And my grandma said, “Not unless you marry my son.” So my mom married her son, and she got the recipe. She makes it for Thanksgiving, she makes it for the Jewish holidays, she makes it for everything. She always says it’s her desert island food: If she was stranded anywhere, as long as she had noodle kugel, she’d be happy.
If we are what we eat, what are you made of?
Well, after December, butter. But starting this month, a few more green vegetables. I’m not the most interesting eater in my off time. Cooking for me is very much an excursion; it’s a study, a curiosity. I like to eat homemade food that’s made well – as I said, I’m kind of picky. But if it’s just a Monday morning, I’ll probably make myself an egg on an English muffin. It’s not like I’m eating fancy food at home. Leftovers for lunch. I’m usually just trying to find something quick to eat so I don’t take too much time out of my day.
How do you stay organized in such a tiny kitchen?
I try to pretend I’m playing Tetris. We have refrigerator Tetris, we have dishwasher Tetris… You spend all of your time going, “What can I get rid of? What do I have doubles of?” It’s an obsessive practice, paring things down, trying to declutter. It’s a daily process. I would like to think these are good life skills—keeping your belongings and your life edited. You just have to be really careful with what you buy; be very rigid about what you need and what you don’t need. I walked through Williams-Sonoma yesterday, and while I saw a lot that I wanted, I truly couldn’t think of anything that I actually needed. It’s fun to look at things, but I’d have to figure out which pot I don’t use to buy a new pot. You also have to clean a lot more often than seems humanly possible. My husband and I always say that we feel like we’re constantly cleaning. That might also be because we have a 2-year-old.
What are your most essential cooking tools?
A really great knife. Well, I wouldn’t say “really great”—that makes people think they have to buy a really expensive knife. You just need a knife that holds a blade well. You don’t need to spend $400 on it unless that’s something you enjoy doing with your money. I think people only need one knife. If you want to go get yourself a bread knife or a paring knife, that’s fine, but if you just have a chef’s knife and you keep it sharp, you won’t need another one. Most people could survive with just one pot: that braiser shape, sort of shallow with walls, could get you by. You could scramble eggs in it and you could also braise chicken in it and you can also make soup in it. That or a cast-iron skillet; you can cook almost anything in it. I use my 12-inch cast-iron skillet almost every day. I bake things in the oven in it. You can buy a Lodge cast-iron 12-inch skillet for $16 and you will be able to give it to your grandchildren. You can fry every egg and bake every chicken in it for the rest of your life. A 9-inch you can bake cakes in, and cornbread. I actually have a 6-inch, 9-inch and 12-inch. I did not get them all on the first day I started cooking; I just sort of picked them up over the years. It’s just incredible what you can do with so little, in an age where we feel like we need so much. I don’t use my regular skillets half as much.
Do you ever order takeout?
Oh, we order takeout all the time. That’s the thing about living in New York: There’s no reason to cook unless you really want to. That’s why cooking is allowed to be an excursion—something I do a couple nights a week—and the rest of the time, especially in my neighborhood, I can get anything to the door in 20 minutes. The most perfect meatballs you’ve ever eaten, homemade hummus platters from this Israeli restaurant… You can get anything and not even spend a lot of money on it. It makes you question why anybody would cook, and I think if you’re going to cook, you have to really want something the way you want it.
Who are your favorite food bloggers?
I read a lot of them. Some I’ve been reading since the first day, and I find new ones all the time. I hate picking favorites because I could give you a list of 10. But I’ve always found Heidi of 101 Cookbooks to be a source of inspiration. She does a lot of natural, grain-based food, like alternative sugars, alternative flours, and she’s also an amazing photographer. For solid recipes, like an online Joy of Cooking, you can’t go wrong with Simply Recipes. It’s an exhaustive collection; there’s nothing she hasn’t made yet, and you can adapt her recipes to make them more to your taste. Those are the two I’ve been reading the longest. And then there are some newer blogs, baking-focused or Southern food-focused. I’ve always been a big fan of the Homesick Texan blog, which is quite specific to Texas food. You kind of feel like you’re in another place when you read it; it’s very fun. She also has a cookbook out now. A very popular one these days is called The Shiksa in the Kitchen. I think she converted, so she’s Jewish now. She’s a great source for some holiday recipes, and she definitely has some new takes on some old Jewish recipes and some Israeli recipes. She’s been getting a lot of press these days.
Do you rub elbows with famous chefs in the New York food scene?
I’m not much of a “scene” person. I’m sure I could accept more invitations; I don’t go to a lot of events, I tend to focus more on family and friends and making time for things that matter the most to me. I try not to get caught up in feeling like I have to be everywhere at once, but I think that because of that, I probably haven’t met as many people as I could have. I’ve met Martha [Stewart]; I was on her show once. I would love to meet Ina [Garten] one day. They seem like very inspirational home cooks.
Many people believe the obesity epidemic in the U.S. is fueled in part by the availability and popularity of processed convenience foods. Do you think you’re helping to combat this problem by teaching people how to understand and enjoy real food?
I hope so; I’d be honored to be part of that. I think this epidemic is about more than junk food; it has to do with the way we eat and the portion sizes we eat, work schedules that don’t permit cooking—how would you make it work if you came home at 6:30 and your kid went to bed at 7:30, unless you spent your whole weekend cooking? And there’s also the difficulty of finding good ingredients in stores. Even finding good grocery stores in some neighborhoods: A lot of neighborhoods in New York City only have a bodega that sells junk food. Showing people how they can make carrot soup at home, relatively quickly and on the cheap, is a great thing. I do think that if people were cooking at home more, you’d see a change. Even when we order hummus or sushi takeout, we know that we’re eating more than we ever would cook at home.
How do you think the popularity of TV cooking shows and blogs/websites have changed the way people approach cooking and eating?
The idea of cooking as entertainment is something that I don’t think existed before food shows, but I think it’s been great for cooking—for my cooking, for everyone’s cooking. Seeing how things come together sometimes reassures you that it’s not that complicated. Even if they’re taking shortcuts, seeing that you can put together a soup or a steak dinner with two sides in 30 minutes because you saw someone do it on TV is good for everyone. It takes cooking out of the realm of just restaurant chefs, who make wonderful food, but it’s not always the easiest stuff to replicate at home. I learned so much from watching the Food Network. Before I had a kid, I used to watch a series of shows on Saturday mornings—from Ina to Giada [DeLaurentiis] to Michael Chiarello—and my husband would call them my “stories”; I had to watch my stories on Saturday mornings. I learned so many techniques. It’s just one more resource, and it’s a really entertaining one. I know a lot of people watch the shows and it doesn’t translate into them cooking everything, but I don’t think that’s such a shame. We’re learning about our food; we’re learning how people make food, and how you can repeat it at home. And you don’t see people using very complicated ingredients or techniques. So if you were thinking that cooking was something you couldn’t do at home, after a show I think you would feel more like you could pull it off if you wanted to.
What’s your advice for someone who wants to earn a living as a blogger?
I don’t have much in the way of advice, because I did not seek out this thing that I’m doing. I just started the site and one thing led to another, and it took years. It wasn’t part of my master plan. But I think having a food blog because you want to have a food blog, and because it’s something you enjoy doing and there are stories you want to tell—you have to come at it from there, not because you want to quit your day job. It doesn’t lead to that for 99 percent of people. You have to really love what you’re doing. But I also think that going at it like a job, with that level of professionalism in terms of fine-tuning your content and photos, looking at your work with an editor’s eye… The sites that are most interesting to read stick with a certain vision. You’ll have a lot of things coming at you—friends will say, “You should write about this,” or “We had this at a restaurant the other night,” or someone will send you an article—and you have to decide what fits on your blog. Sometimes I make something and I say, “You know, this is not interesting enough for me to put it on the site; I don’t need to tell everybody about the time I baked a chicken.” I know what I’m looking for in a Smitten Kitchen recipe. Nobody needs to know this about their own blog right out of the gate, but you will figure it out over time. It’s really a process.
Do you ever worry that you’re giving too much away for free on your blog?
I have a writing background—I feel like you should get paid for your work. And I have ads up on my site, not that they bring in so much. But even if you’re not raking it in, you can put ads on your site and you’re never not being paid for your work. Maybe you’re not being paid what it’s worth, and it’s up to you how much you feel it’s worth. I don’t feel like I’m giving anything away for free—not just because I have ads on my site, but because I feel like I’m building something much larger than the site. Even a recipe that doesn’t necessarily get the eyeballs, because it’s soup, that a chocolate layer cake does, everybody needs soup recipes, too. Even if I only earned 25 cents on an early post, it’s not like I wasn’t making something and teaching myself something. You’re teaching yourself how to write and how to edit and how to publish, how to respond to people, and hopefully you’re listening to people in the comments and learning from that, too. At the very least, even if you didn’t earn a dime, you’re learning so much.
Once upon a time, a chef would become famous after writing a cookbook; your cookbook is coming out this year, as a result of your success. Did you intend to arrive at it this way?
For a long time people were telling me, “You should write a cookbook!” but I dug my heels in and I refused for many years, because I felt like I wasn’t ready and it wasn’t the right time. Some bloggers feel like, “Oh, this is just a blog. I need to do something bigger for my career—I need a TV show, I need a radio show,” but I didn’t feel like that at all. I could just do the blog for the rest of my life and be happy. I love the medium. I love self-publishing. I love that I can make something today and tell you about it this afternoon or tomorrow. To me, this is the very best thing. So because I was never unhappy with blogging, and because I didn’t feel like a cookbook was something you should just rush into or do just because you have the opportunity, it took me a long time to come around. I know it’s not the traditional process, but I guess I didn’t come about things in the traditional way. I’m not a restaurant chef; I didn’t go to cooking school. I just like to cook.
If you were to be remembered by one single dish, what would it be?
Can I pick a few things? I want everyone to make amazing pie dough—big, flaky, buttery pie dough. I feel like when you can make pie dough, you can make 75,000 desserts. I would love to show everyone how simple bread-making can be, so you could make yourself a loaf of any kind of bread you want, and build on it. But the basic process is so simple and so cheap and so satisfying: You made your own bread! And I would also like to save the world from tough, overcooked meat—bad brisket. There will be a new brisket recipe in the cookbook—my mother-in-law’s recipe—which I think is perfect for the high holidays.
What’s next for you?
More of the same. As I said, I’m not sitting here going, “I need to travel around the world and do cooking shows!” I’m very happy where I am. I will say that I hope to be open to new experiences. But at the same time, I’d be perfectly happy to do my site and to write the very best cookbook that I can.
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