A Conversation with Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen
How the blogger and cookbook author conquers everyday cooking
Cooking. Some might have a knack for it, encouraged early on through hours spent in the kitchen with grandma (or grandpa, or mom, or dad), while others get through college without ever looking at, let alone picking up, a frying pan. If you’re a natural, great! But if you’re anything like award-winning blogger and New York Times best-selling author Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen, you might have more in common with the latter.
A “lazy cook at heart,” Deb has been writing, cooking, and photographing recipes for her blog Smitten Kitchen since 2006—using her trademark humor and penchant for exploring food through the lens of a home cook to launch her career and two successful cookbooks: The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook and Smitten Kitchen Every Day: Triumphant and Unfussy New Favorites—stay tuned for some of her recipes below! But Deb wasn’t always the self-proclaimed “obsessive home cook” that she is today.
"I didn’t know how to cook many things," she recalls. "But as I was figuring that out, I found I wanted to tell other people about it. I wanted people to make what I was making and I wanted to tell people about things they don’t need to bother with and I just really enjoyed doing that through a blog format."
By asking questions and staying curious, Deb invited “happy accidents” to join her in the kitchen. Shaking off “proper techniques” that end up saving work (and dishes) helped Deb create her detailed, choose-your-own-adventure style of recipes for home cooks—something she could never do by always following the rules. “It’s really cool if I try a salad at a restaurant with like 18 ingredients but nobody’s going to make that,” she says. “So I feel like it’s really important to look at that and say okay, what are the three ingredients that are great, what do I like about the dressing, and could I make it with ingredients that everybody keeps around?”
"I’ve been really lucky over the years with the strong comment section on Smitten Kitchen, which I’ve encouraged. I want it, I like it, I hang out there, I answer questions, and I really think it’s made me a better cook because they’ll tell me, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me with this ingredient’ or ‘I went to three stores, I live in a big city, and I couldn’t find it’ or ‘My store in rural Iowa has this,'" she laughs. “When I’m writing a recipe or working on it I can already hear it [the comments] in my head. If you’re paying attention, people will be happy to tell you what they don’t want to cook.”
Despite hearing the little voices in her head as she ponders, tests, and tastes recipes and dishes for Smitten Kitchen, when it comes to cooking at home for her husband and two children (one who eats just about everything, the other just about nothing), Deb focuses on satisfying her own interests first.
"A lot of nights I use dinner to make other people’s recipes or something that’s going viral—something I’m curious about," she says. "I’m really not that interested in cooking things I’ve made before and am really more interested in making new things, so most of the time I use dinner with my family as an excuse to try something new or to audition a recipe that I might not have a high amount of confidence about but I’m doing research on. Like ‘That chicken from that magazine looks kind of interesting; I have some doubts about it but let me try it,’ and it allows us to eat something new and fun and me to kind of try something out so I can then formulate my own vision about the recipe."
To pick her brain a bit more and get to know her better, we asked Deb a few rapid-fire questions. Here are her answers.
What’s your favorite recipe in your latest cookbook, Smitten Kitchen Every Day?
I’m a very moody cook. What I want to cook in July is not what I want to cook in June, but it’s starting to get warm here and a super easy summer meal I love from the book is the sheet pan halloumi. The meatballs marsala has been really popular among my friends, like literally people who I know don’t cook.
What was the most recent thing you cooked at home?
What was the most recent thing you ate out?
I had lunch at Frenchette on Tuesday and I had very good french fries, a basic springy salad with 18 ingredients, and we had like a duck merguez sausage on top braised white beans with a crispy egg. It was a spiral sausage and it was very good, very rich. Oh and we had a pistachio paris-brest, which I had never had before but it was also very good and very sweet.
What are some of your favorite cooking websites, cookbooks, magazines, podcasts, etc. for inspiration in food and recipe development?
I tend to mine from all over, I don’t really have one favorite anything. I definitely have cookbooks that have inspired me a lot over the last couple of years. Like everyone else I love Six Seasons, I think it’s incredible, but I also don’t like to spend too much time on any one. I like to keep my eyes and ears open for everything and get out and move around and try different things and go to new restaurants, go to old restaurants. I’m mostly just looking to absorb a big wide mix of things and then distill it into stuff I would make at home. I don’t want to listen, read, eat the same things as everyone else, I want to have a unique thing to offer.
What do you always have in your pantry?
I have so much stuff in my pantry. I always have popcorn, dried and canned beans, unusual vinegars and olive oils (both “fancy” ones for dressing and garnish and cooking ones), condiments (like 8 types of mustard), I have a lot of spices, hot sauces—because they just, in my mind, have different purposes—preserved lemon paste. I have an unnatural amount of Valrhona cocoa because I just love it so much, and it’s easier to order in bulk.
Which kitchen gadget can you not live without?
Old open and close tongs that I’ve had forever and they don’t make anymore, and I use my small offset spatula the most. I use it for so many different things, not just spreading frosting on cakes.
When it comes to food, where do you want to travel next or love to travel to frequently?
I’ve always wanted to go to Rome during artichoke season.
Whether your interest in cooking started at a young age or didn’t emerge until you were an adult, my chat with Deb left me convinced that not only can anyone conquer cooking at home, but the keys to success are simple—stay curious, ask questions, make room for failure, and always be open to try something new.
Speaking of trying new things, you can now upload and share your very own recipes on Kitchen Stories! Simply click the “Create” button on the bottom toolbar in our mobile app (if you don't have it yet, download it for free here), and voilà—we've made it easy to share your favorite recipe with our global community. While you ponder what your first recipe will be, check out the great ones Deb shared with us, adapted from her latest cookbook, Smitten Kitchen Every Day.
Published on July 12, 2019