Interview with Melissa Clark | Dinner in French
Intro: Welcome to the number one cookbook podcast, Cookery by the Book with Suzy Chase. She’s just a home cook in New York City, sitting at her dining room table talking to cookbook authors.
Melissa Clark: Hi, I’m Melissa Clark. I am a food reporter for the New York Times and a cookbook author and my latest cookbook is called “Dinner in French: My Recipes By Way Of France.”
Suzy Chase: You are the most prolific cookbook writer I’ve had on the podcast with more than 40 cookbooks under your belt and you write for the New York Times Food Section in addition to your weekly column called, “A Good Appetite.” This conversation is going to be a two-parter. First let’s chat about your new cookbook, “Dinner in French.” Then I know we’re all desperate to hear some clever ways to use our pantry items while we’re at home during the coronavirus quarantine. You first fell in love with France and French food as a child thanks to your great aunt Martha and great uncle Jack. Talk a little bit about your annual summer vacations and how that came about?
Melissa Clark: It was a really crazy childhood. My parents were both psychiatrists and this was back in the 70s and 80s. In those days when you were a psychiatrist you had the whole month of August off. If you had any kind of mental issues in August you were stuck, you had to wait until September but it was great for us as a family because we took the month and we would travel. My parents fell in love with France before we were born thanks to my great uncle Jack and my great aunt Martha who took them to France when they were graduating from medical school. They fell in love with France and they took us, they took my sister and me, every single summer. What we did, and this was really unusual back in the day, was we house exchanged. Now people think, “Oh house exchange, Airbnb,” they’re used to it but especially this was in the early 80s. There was no internet so just imagine typing out letters to strangers in France. There was a directory so you would find these people who were willing to exchange houses but that was all. There was just a list of names.
Melissa Clark: We would send these letters and then we’d wait a few months to get letters back. Then we would arrange a telephone call and eventually arrange an exchange but it was this leap of trust and faith, which I don’t think, I mean it was strange back then and even now can you imagine if you were going to exchange houses with someone you would Google them and you would find out everything you could about them and you would see aerial pictures of the house. We just went in blind but despite that it was amazing. So there we were, out family of four living in these French people’s houses and the French would come to our house and they would take care of our cat, we would take care of their vegetable garden or whatever it was and it was great. It was this really immersive cultural experience every single August. What we did as a family when we got to France was we cooked. We did not cook at home in Brooklyn together. We did not have time. My parents were professionals. As psychiatrists they worked late into the evening. My sister and I were kind of on our own for dinner most of the time.
Melissa Clark: In France we ate every meal together and we cooked it together and that’s where I learned how to cook. For me, cooking, my first memories and my first love of cooking, it all happened in France.
Suzy Chase: In the cookbook how do you pair the way you ate growing up in Brooklyn with French cuisine?
Melissa Clark: To me it was the same thing. I didn’t have a division of, “Okay this is Brooklyn food and this is French food.” To me it was all the same. It was all, “These are the flavors of my childhood” and the flavors of my childhood were my grandmother’s food and when my parents did cook. I grew up in a Jewish household so my grandmother’s food to me is very Ashkenazi Jewish. I remember baked apples and Shabbat dinner with brisket and latkes and kugel and gefilte fish, you know? That was all very much part of my childhood and not to mention the Brooklyn flavors that I was having and Brooklyn was diverse even back then. I mean, Brooklyn is way diverse now but back in the 80s we were still going out, we were going out for Chinese food, we’re getting dim sum, we were going to Lundy’s, which Lundy’s was this great old fish seafood shack, or not shack, restaurant in Sheepshead Bay and we would get these amazing biscuits and DiFara’s Pizza which now is a cult place but back then it was one of our local pizzerias that we would go and get this incredible Sicilian grandma pies.
Melissa Clark: It was this mishmash and then French food was just part of that. It’s like, oh, we would go to France and we would eat crepes and it was all part of the same thing. So when I develop recipes and think about cooking I’m using all of those flavors from my childhood to create something and I’ve never really written about it in an organized way until Dinner in French, until this cookbook.
Suzy Chase: What made you decide to write this cookbook?
Melissa Clark: I spent most of my life a little bit embarrassed about the French connection in my past mostly because I am embarrassed to tell you that my French is terrible. Any time I would tell someone, I’d say I spent every August in France they’d say, “Oh you must speak French” and I even spent a semester in college in Paris and I could never master it. I’m not great at languages, I’m also not great at music. I don’t have the ear. I study and I study and I study and I speak passable French. I get around, I’m fine, but I’m not fluent and that lack of fluency, especially because my husband is actually fluent in French which kind of makes it worse, makes me not want to admit to being as close to French food as I am.
Melissa Clark: It’s a funny thing but as an adult, finally I’ve grown up and I’ve decided, “You know what? This is actually part of me and part of my childhood and I’m going to get over the fact that I don’t speak it very well” because you know what I realized? I can cook in French. I cannot conjugate but I can, give me a French kitchen and any French ingredient and I can cook with it and make it my own. When I’m cooking, I call it “Cooking in French” you know? I can do it by feel, I can do it by sensory, it’s just part of me. Because I am who I am, I’m also very practical. Whenever I think about cooking in French I’m also thinking about how to do it a little more easily. I’m not thinking about classic technique. You know what I’m thinking about? I’m thinking about we forget that French people make dinner every single night for their families, you know? It’s not just fancy restaurants and that’s, when I say I “Cook in French” that’s the food I’m cooking. French home cooking through this like, Brooklyn lens of even more practicality and making it, so streamlining the dishes, making them very accessible so I don’t have to do a lot of cleanup after all.
Melissa Clark: I’m always thinking, “Can I eliminate a pot? Can I do this a little more easily?” Then I’m adding different flavors in from Brooklyn but also just from my life, from my travels. Cooking in French, it’s a very broad definition of what I consider this kind of French food to be.
Suzy Chase: It’s kind of like your autobiography.
Melissa Clark: Yeah in a way. It’s all the different parts. It really is. Although maybe we’re going to leave out the Swedish first husband because he doesn’t really factor in. There’s no Swedish recipes in here.
Suzy Chase: Yeah.
Melissa Clark: Except for that.
Suzy Chase: Yeah, we don’t need him.
Melissa Clark: We don’t need him.
Suzy Chase: No. I think this cookbook, probably more than your others, really highlights your lighthearted exploration of flavors and cuisines. So many cookbooks I find, especially foreign ones, are so serious, right?
Melissa Clark: Yeah it’s true. Well you know when you’re writing about a foreign to you cuisine, so maybe you are writing about someone else’s culture or maybe it’s your culture and you’re trying to present it to people who are not familiar with it, I think there is actually a big weight on your shoulders because you need to do justice, right? That’s important and that is, especially right now in this age of learning about cultural appropriation in food, this is a really important issue. You want to take culture and people’s culture and your own culture very seriously but I kind of get a pass on France because it is something that I learned in my childhood and it’s also something that I’m not trying to be authentic. That’s not my goal here. I’m not trying to present French culture. I would never, ever have undertaken this book if I was trying to do that. I’m trying to give you a sense of who I am as a cook and I am a lighthearted cook to be honest. I love to play with ingredients, I love to play with flavors.
Melissa Clark: One thing I read about in this cookbook is I remember when I was a kid, right, we’d come back to Brooklyn and my parents would make these amazing Julie Child type gourmet dinners. They were using Julia’s recipes and they were very like, serious about following the recipe. Or maybe they’d use Jacques Pepin, but then the next day with the leftovers I think my dad had made the coq au vin and my mom was taking it and she was slathering it on challah. I think my dad was maybe adding some soy sauce. They were so free in what they did as cooks and I really adopted that. I’m not afraid to play with flavor, I’m not afraid to play with technique. I will take a dish apart and put it back together if I like it better that way but again, I’m not trying to represent French culture. I’m trying to let other cooks know how I do it.
Suzy Chase: Dinner in French, I love your introductions to each recipe. Especially the one for Grated Carrot Salad with Preserved Lemon and Coriander on Page 71. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Melissa Clark: Basically when you go to Paris and you order a plate of crudités or really anywhere in France and you get all these different little composed salads and I ate a ton of crudités when I was a student in Paris during college because I was also eating a ton of Croque Monsieurs and ham and cheese sandwiches and I was eating a lot of baguettes and boy, was I eating those Pain au Chocolat, right? I was a little worried about balancing my day. I was always concerned about my weight. I mean, this is just something that as a woman you grow up with and I took it in. Also members of my family are heavy so I knew that if I wanted to eat well I needed to eat carefully. This was just always something on my mind. When I was a student and I was in college I would say, “All right if I’m going to eat all of this cheese and oh my God did I eat the cheese? I’m going to have to have crudités a lot. A lot of vegetables.” But I fell in love with it because salads in France are so delicious.
Melissa Clark: There’s so much, especially better than the salads I had in the 80s in New York. We were still kind of gearing up as a food culture. Especially in an every day, you know, fancy restaurants had great salads but when you were a student and you went to get a salad in a diner in New York you certainly didn’t get the same kind of salad that you got when you were a student and you went to get a plate of crudités in a café in Paris. You got grated carrots with this delicious vinaigrette, you got sliced beets, you got potatoes, you got lettuce with a bright mustards dressing. It was all so delicious. When I got back I started making this crudités salad, which is what I called it, which is basically grated carrots with a mustardy, yummy dressing. I put herbs in it like coriander, coriander seeds and also cilantro but it was so great. It didn’t even feel like I was dieting it just felt like I’m eating something that I really, really love.
Melissa Clark: That recipe, which is very evocative to me of my student days is in this book and I absolutely think everybody should make it and then you should go eat the Croque Monsieur casserole because that’s how I would do it. It’s like a little bit of vegetable, a little bit of ham and cheese and then it all kind of balances out.
Suzy Chase: Speaking of Croque Monsieur, I made it the other day, it’s on page 42 and can you talk a little bit about that recipe?
Melissa Clark: Yeah so Croque Monsieur are, this was the sandwich, I ate so many Croque Monsieur when I was in Paris. It’s a ham and cheese sandwich but it’s toasted and then they put bechamel on top. So bechamel, a white sauce, cheesy white sauce on top of your sandwich and then they broil it and it gets all golden. It’s so good. I mean, I’m sorry, our grilled cheeses are good, I love a grilled cheese any which way but Croque Monsieur might be my favorite. What I did was I took those flavors and I put them into a casserole. So you make little ham and cheese sandwiches and you line them up in a casserole dish and then you pour bechamel over the whole thing and cheese and yeah. It’s really good. Bubbly, hot, cheesy, hammy, the perfect brunch dish. I mean, I think it’s perfect for supper, too. I mean, it’s all a light supper but it’s kind of one of those easy, everything goes in the oven casserole suppers. Then all you do is serve it with a big green salad on the side and you’ve got the best dinner. Glass of Beaujolais wouldn’t hurt.
Suzy Chase: Also I think this is a good recipe for right now so we can still find the white sandwich bread around at our bodega, you can still get sliced ham and I think this is great for our pandemic situation right now.
Melissa Clark: Yeah, it’s one of those pantry staple recipes that we need, everybody needs to really start thinking about clever ways to use pantry stable items. I’m thinking about that a lot myself. I mean, right now I’m really lucky. I’m in Brooklyn, you’re I don’t know how it is in the West Village, grocery store lines are long but we still can get everything and hopefully that will remain. At the same time, we don’t want to go shopping too often. You want to use up all these pantry staples that you stocked your kitchen with.
Suzy Chase: Your mother taught you how to get dinner on the table fast and make it taste good with what you had in the house. This is what we’re grappling with right now as many of us are stuck in the home during the coronavirus pandemic. In your home in Brooklyn how are you dealing with the idea of potentially cooking three meals a day for weeks with limited access to the outside world?
Melissa Clark: I’m pretty prepared. I did stock my pantry. I wrote about it for the Times and I practiced what I preached. I have a lot of beans and pastas and rice and canned fish. I’m very lucky in that I have a separate freezer in my basement. I know it’s extremely lucky so I’ve got meat in there-
Suzy Chase: So lucky.
Melissa Clark: I know, I know, it’s like if I just had a little freezer, I know you’re in the West Village with a small freezer-
Suzy Chase: Yep.
Melissa Clark: That’s much harder. I feel like I’m actually ahead of the game a little bit but at the same time we all have the same limitations on, “Okay all right now what? We’ve got our pasta and our rice and our tuna and now what are we going to do with our pasta and our rice and our tuna?” I think my job going forward is to help people think of creative ways to use everything so that we don’t end up getting bored. Cooking can be a very calming process, especially right now when things are scary out there. Cooking calms you, at least it does for me, and it’s also very creative. I’m hoping that people will come out of this more eager to cook, a little less afraid to try something new and I mean, also you’re not cooking for entertaining, which is very different. I think most of us spend a lot of our time cooking for friends and we’re thinking about what other’s are going to think of what we’re making but it’s just for us, it’s just for family. I’m hoping that people are going to use this time to experiment, get comfortable cooking things and I’m going to be there. I’m here to help.
Suzy Chase: So much tuna.
Melissa Clark: So much tuna.
Suzy Chase: So much tuna. I don’t think I’m alone when I say I have over 10 cans of tuna right now. How about that tuna dip of yours? I think it’s in your dinner cookbook?
Melissa Clark: Yeah. Oh, see tuna dip is great. My mother used to make this salmon mousse recipe when I was growing up. I think it was a Julia Child recipe. She would take, I think she would use canned salmon actually and put it in the blender with mayonnaise and she’d set it with gelatin and cream and it was this beautiful thing. My version of that is almost more like an Italian tonnato sauce. I take a can of tuna, I put it in the blender with olives and capers and yes, some mayonnaise and herbs and garlic and I make this tuna dip, which if you put it in the fridge it gets cold and firm and you can spread it on bread like a pate but you can also use it as a pasta sauce, you could put it on top of rice. It’s fantastic if you add a little extra oil, so you make it very, very runny and you use it as a dip for veggies. It’s just so versatile and so flavorful and it’s like when you’re getting tired of tuna casserole and tuna salad sandwiches, this is the dip to make you … It has so much flavor in it you’re like, “Oh, right. This is why I love tuna.” It also has anchovies.
Suzy Chase: Let’s say we have a big tub of steel cut oats. What can we do with them?
Melissa Clark: Steel cut oats are great to have. Not just for breakfast, either. Yes, you can make them for breakfast. I’ve been baking them lately which I really like. I wrote about this in The Times recently of baked steel cut oats. It’s pretty much the same as if you do them on the stove except that you throw them in the oven and then you don’t have to worry about them. You can season the cooking water, well first of all you can use milk if you have some but you can also add spices and I added some almond butter recently to the cooking water. Your general proportions for steel cut oats is one to three. So one cup of oats to three cups of water and you just bring it to a simmer either on the stove or you add boiling water to a casserole dish, cover it with foil and throw it in the oven for an hour. Either way but just think about what you can season that water with, different toppings but also don’t forget oats are fantastic savory.
Melissa Clark: If you think about polenta, we love savory polenta, oats can be used in the exact same way. Try cooking them in broth or maybe with a couple of garlic cloves and a bay leaf and then use that yummy savory kind of mushy starch as you would a bed of polenta and just throw lots of stuff on top of it. It absorbs, it’s just like a great sort of bed for yummy other flavors. Or like mashed potatoes, same kind of thing, mushy, comforting, savory, add lots of butter and salt. It’s just, oh, and Parmesan too. Risotto, think of it as risotto except it’s oats.
Suzy Chase: We all have tons of pasta on hand. Help please.
Melissa Clark: I know right.
Suzy Chase: So much.
Melissa Clark: Yes, I mean, pasta never gets old. I’m never tired of making pasta. When you think about, I mean, all of those wonderful dishes. You can go to Italy for a month and eat pasta every day and not get tired of it and you can do the same thing in your kitchen except you’re not, unfortunately, in Italy which is I guess right now good but in general bad. Think about the simplest Cucina Povera recipe, right, which is just things that you have in your pantry anyway. Maybe you have a can of anchovies, maybe you have some bread crumbs. Right now this is a time to be saving those bread scraps and making bread crumbs if you don’t already. Saute’ them in garlic with some Parmesan and that with some olive oil is a fantastic pasta topping. I use little bits of leftovers as the base for pasta sauces all the time. Those left over roasted veggies I’ll chop up, saute’, add some butter and throw them on top of pasta. You probably have cans of tomatoes if you love pasta you should have some plum tomatoes on hand and simmering those into a sauce of course is just the most basic, elemental thing you can do.
Melissa Clark: If you have access to a sunny windowsill I would say now’s the time to get some basil seeds and start planting and even if you don’t-
Suzy Chase: That’s so smart.
Melissa Clark: Maybe you’ll have pesto in a month. My neighbor works at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens and unfortunately they closed, which I was hoping I’d be able to walk outside in their gardens but we can’t. However, she did bring me some basil seeds before they closed so I’m about to embark on a whole exciting little gardening trip here in my Brooklyn spot, see if I can grow. I have the brownest thumb. People, it’s funny because when people call me up, my friends call me and say, “Okay I’m looking at a chicken. What do I do?” Because they have no idea how to cook and I get those calls a lot from my good friends. I’m going to do the same to my friends who garden. “All right I’ve got the basil seeds. Now what do I do?” So I’m very sympathetic if you can’t make a chicken so please be sympathetic and teach me how to grow something.
Suzy Chase: Tell us about your sardine and tomato toast recipe on page 135 in Dinner in French.
Melissa Clark: Sardine toasts are my, I mean, they’re my go to dish. We probably eat sardine toast once a week under normal circumstances. Not even when we’re eating from the pantry, just on a normal week because we love sardines. This sardine toast recipe in Dinner in French is almost provincial in feeling because it has tomatoes and garlic and basil and sliced onions but I want to start with the basic sardine toast for people out there who are listening and they’ve just got their sardines and their bread and what do you do, right? You toast your bread, and this is important to use the best bread you can. Crusty like a baguette or any kind of country bread if you’ve got it. Toast it until it’s crisp and then take a halved garlic clove and rub it all over and the garlic will get in the bread. Then you season the bread with some kind of fat. I think I used olive oil in the cookbook but you can also use butter and the fat helps spread the flavor.
Melissa Clark: Then you add a little salt and if you have a tomato that’s decent you can cut the tomato in half and rub those tomato guts all over that bread, almost like a Pan Con Tomate like a Catalan bread and tomato dish. We’re bringing Spain in here, we’re bringing France in here, we’re bringing Italy. This is a very cross cultural dish but you don’t even need the tomato. Just, you’ve got your garlic and your fat, your oil or your butter, you lay your sardines down with some thinly sliced onion or scallion or shallot and maybe some herbs if you have it or maybe some sliced tomatoes if you have them. Even if you don’t, the elements are bread, garlic, fat, so say olive oil, sardines, some kind of thinly sliced onion material, salt and pepper and another drizzle of olive oil. It is divine.
Suzy Chase: Eggs. Should we be stocking up on eggs?
Melissa Clark: Yeah, eggs last forever. I mean, not forever but they’ll last a month. They last a really long time. Get a lot of eggs, put them in the fridge. You can also leave them on the counter for about a week they’ll be fine.
Suzy Chase: Really?
Melissa Clark: Whenever we make eggs in our house we boil them and we start with room temperature eggs so I always have about half a dozen eggs sitting out in a basket on my counter and we use those eggs for soft or hard boiled eggs. When my fridge is crammed I will keep a carton of eggs out and again, like I said, they will last for at least a week out of the fridge. Especially if you keep them in the carton. So don’t worry. Don’t freak out about eggs. Eggs are not like milk and butter. Even butter lasts a few days out of the fridge. I mean, we in America tend to get really nervous about perishability but in these moments when you’re actually eating everything you’re buying because you’re cooking at home you’re going to use this stuff up. So eggs and butter can be out of the fridge. Eggs for a week easily, butter for a few days. Milk unfortunately does have to go in your fridge unless you get shelf stable milk, which is another thing that we should stock up on if we drink milk and we like milk. Get some UTH shelf stable milk and that will keep in your pantry for a long time.
Suzy Chase: You love a good sheet pan recipe. Could we do something with chickpeas on a sheet pan?
Melissa Clark: I love a sheet pan recipe. I love chickpeas on a sheet pan. So roasted chickpeas are delicious, a great snack. Toss them with olive oil, salt and whatever spices you have around. I like to use garam masala but you can also just use cumin or a little bit of cayenne and there are different ways to do it. I like to do it in a hot, hot oven. I do 425 or 450 and when you start to see them sizzle, it takes like half an hour sometimes depending on how wet your chickpeas were, before you even do that take your chickpeas out of the can, dry them off with a kitchen towel and then coat them in oil and spices and salt and blast them in a hot oven. They’re so crispy you can’t stop eating them. I just love them. [inaudible 00:23:29] to that basic thing, if you’ve got a chicken, chicken parts or a whole chicken, throw it right on top. Just right on top of that sheet pan full of chickpeas and the chicken fat will season the chickpeas even more and make them even more crunchy and delicious. Chicken and chickpeas is one of my favorite sheet pan meals. I have a recipe for that in my dinner cookbook.
Melissa Clark: Again, they can also be he bases for a vegetable dish. You can have chickpeas and you can put all kinds of veg for roasting along with them like sliced carrots and maybe cherry tomatoes if you have those little non-seasonal cherry tomatoes right now that I know that I have, just throw them on the sheet pan. They get so much better when they’re roasted in spices along with some chickpeas. Potatoes are great there, too. There’s a lot you can do. Just think of the chickpeas are the base and then you’re going to add either a protein or more vegetables.
Suzy Chase: In terms of fresh fruits and vegetables what are some varieties that keep for a while?
Melissa Clark: Think about root vegetables and boiled vegetables. So aside from you know that you can keep onions and garlic and potatoes in the pantry for months, they keep for months, and sweet potatoes but then think of the ones that you might want to keep in the fridge like radishes keep for a month for sure, I’ve kept radishes in my fridge for a long time. Turnips, which turnips when they’re fresh and juicy are delicious raw. I like to slice them into salads. Fennel is another thing that keeps for a long time, carrots of course, celery. Stock up on those things, keep them in your fridge and then if you can’t get lettuce at least you can make a salad from all these juicy, crisp vegetables that you have lying around.
Suzy Chase: So bars are closed in New York City. No more happy hour for us. Do you have a delicious quarantine cocktail idea?
Melissa Clark: Yeah we’re big Campari drinkers so we’ve been making Negronis that and Boulevardiers and the thing about a Negroni and a Boulevardier is it’s the same drink with a different booze sort of as the center of it and it’s such an easy drink. I don’t really mix cocktails very well because I’m a little bit sloppy, I’m not precise. My husband bakes the bread and he mixes the cocktails and he does both of them much better than I do. I can make a Negroni or a Boulevardier. This is how you do it. It’s equal parts which is so great because equal parts, right? That means for me I can eyeball it. I just put it all into my little rocks glass, equal parts Campari and then for a Negroni it’s gin and for a Boulevardier it’s whisky, like usually we use rye whisky but you can use bourbon, then sweet vermouth. Then you just take some orange zest and squeeze the oils into it. You do a twist, is the cocktail word for it, see I’m bad with cocktails, and some ice cubes and that is it. It is the perfect drink that even I can make.
Suzy Chase: Now for my segment called “My Favorite Cookbook.” Aside from this cookbook what is your all-time favorite cookbook and why? And I can’t wait to hear this.
Melissa Clark: Okay so I can’t name a favorite because I can’t have a favorite child even though I do have a favorite child because I only have one child but if I had two children I couldn’t name a favorite. I can’t name a favorite cookbook but the one I’m reading right now, I’m reading a lot of Jane Grigson and Jane Grigson is a British author who wrote a lot of cookbooks back in the 60s and 70s and 80s. She’s fabulous. Her stuff is fresh, seasonal food that is really simple in it’s essence but that she shows you how to make your own. She shows you how to adapt it and I love all food writing that is adaptable and open hearted in that way. I love people who teach you how to make things delicious in the way that you like them and Jane Grigson absolutely does. Any of her cookbooks, she has a book called “English Food” which I love but any of her books are great.
Suzy Chase: Well that’s what you do for us.
Melissa Clark: I try. I try, darn it.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web and social media?
Melissa Clark: I am Instagramming like a fiend these days because I’m trying to share recipe ideas for people who are cooped up. So find me on Instagram primarily at Clarkbar. So Clarkbar like the candy, which is not good branding because on Twitter I am Melissa Clark.
Suzy Chase: James Beard said, “Food unites us. It brings us together.” Thank you for all that you do to bring us together and thanks for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Melissa Clark: Thanks for having me, Suzy.
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