What if a cookbook didn't stop at great recipes? What if it made you a better, more confident cook?
The Improvisational Cook will show you how to make decadent Chocolate Wonders and a delicious Tuscan Island Shellfish Stew, but Sally Schneider also wants you to understand how those recipes work. Her highly anticipated follow-up to 2001's A New Way to Cook is a toolbox that empowers home cooks every step of the way from market to table.
What's in season? What looks good today? Make dinner from that instead of always walking in, shopping list in hand, just hoping for the best. Maximize flavor. Live healthier and feel better. Sound good so far?
Five years ago, the author published one of the most inspired cookbooks of its generation. Stuffed with mouth watering, wide ranging, health-minded concoctions, and a wealth of useful charts and creative ideas besides, A New Way to Cook was instantly received as "a sure classic" (Metropolitan Home), "an essential read" (Restaurant Digest), and "the cookbook for the early 21st century" (Publishers Weekly).
The Improvisational Cook does something just as impressive: It makes the other cookbooks on your shelf more valuable. Tweak tired old recipes to create delicious variations. Substitute for unavailable ingredients and tools, or just for the freedom of trying something new. Take control.
Dave: Who do you see as your audience for The Improvisational Cook?
Sally Schneider: I'd say it's mid-level home cooks, mid to even fairly new, just not absolutely new. There are a lot of very simple recipes in the book, and there's a huge amount of material to help people understand how things work. There's quite a range. I've had many serious cooks take to it and find themselves inspired by the ideas.
I was aiming for the cooks that I've talked to by teaching an online course and by traveling, listening to people who are really busy and harried but want to be cooking. A lot of people love the idea of improvising but are terrified of it, so I tried to make a book that was not a chef's book about improvising but a real home cook's book with a real home cook's pantry, supermarket ingredients, that sort of thing.
Dave: When I heard the title, what came to mind was, "You've got such and such in the pantry, and here's how to make a great meal," but there's actually quite a bit more. For example: what to do when you don't have the right tools.
Schneider: That's something very close to my heart. I love to cook wherever I am, and I've found that if you open your mind a little, you can get away with almost no equipment.
So many people think they need to have serious equipment. In the magazines and the media, they see all this stylish stuff, especially on TV, and they think, That's what I need to make it work. You don't. I'm attempting a little bit of liberation here.
Dave: The day after reading about flavored salts in The Improvisational Cook, I found smoked salt at a farmers market in Astoria.
Schneider: You can buy some amazing salts now, and they're completely easy to make. In fact you can smoke salt, yourself; there's a very easy way to do it.
Salt is a preservative. It really holds flavor. For example, if you chop up some fresh herbs, or even just garlic, the salt will extract the moisture and preserve the flavor. There it is, ready to go, and it's stable for quite a while. There are a wealth of flavorings you can put in a salt, and if you're in a hurry that's your seasoning. That's all you have to do.
Of course it's an ancient technique, but who actually invents anything new?
Dave: Prior to writing articles about healthy eating in the eighties, had that been your focus, or did a magazine assignment steer you toward that subject?
Schneider: My own need was driving me. I had all kinds of food issues, including health concerns and weight concerns. I'm a serious eater and a seriously hungry person, so I set out on that path to figure it out for myself, and of course it really resonated with other people. But I come at it from the point of view of being a pleasure-hungry person. I use cream and butter, and I've always used salt in my cooking because it's a way to magnify flavor. Everything I do is about flavor.
Dave: In A New Way to Cook, you explain that you started working in restaurants to support your photography career.
Schneider: I did.
Dave: And at some point you literally had a dream that made you consider cooking. Had cooking been at all in your plans previously?
Schneider: I was working in restaurants as a captain and as a waiter. I was one of the first women working as a captain in New York, doing all this tableside stuff, because one of the really fancy restaurants had been busted by the Civil Liberties Union and forced to hire women. So I was making a lot of money, and I was also doing my photography and studying.
I realized I didn't want to be a photographer. I gave it up, but I still worked that job in the restaurant and I found myself constantly hanging out in the kitchen. But not consciously. I wasn't thinking that I should cook until I woke up from that dream. Then it was like, "Of course, that's it."
It was as though I found the language I'd wanted from photography; the expression that I got partly from photography, I got completely from cooking.
Years down the line, I became a food stylist. I was doing the food for photography. I had an eye for it. But I was always writing, and the writing took over.
Dave: In The Improvisational Cook, you mention Anne Disrude. When I googled her, several references described her as a food stylist. I'd never heard that term. The first thing that came to mind was setting plates up for pictures, but does the job also include consulting for restaurants, helping with presentation?
Schneider: That's possible to do. When I was a stylist, when we would photograph restaurants I was often hired to clean up the chef's stuff if they hadn't already done it.
I styled A New Way to Cook, but I hired Anne Disrude to style The Improvisational Cook. I thought, Who's the best cook I know? And the most real? All the food I ever styled for my books, and all the food that she styled, was all real food that we then ate.
Everybody thinks it's just setting things up, but it's cooking and it's also finding the foods that best express that dish. Anne did things like go out with farmers into their fields to pick out a great onion. There's an amazing picture of an onion [in The Improvisational Cook]. She pulled watercress from a stream for a soup. To remind people of that reality.
Dave: Do you think the fact that you weren't on the culinary school path helps you relate to home cooks?
Schneider: I think it does. Having read a lot of chefs' recipes and known a lot of chefs, and then being a home cook, I guess it does. There are so many things that come into writing a recipe, and it's really important if you're writing for home cooks to be cooking like you are at home.
The problem with chefs and culinary schools is that they're geared toward professional kitchens, which are totally different. That being said, I often write into recipes techniques I learned in the restaurant kitchen. There are ways of organizing your prep and so on that are immensely useful. Those are woven into all the recipes I do.
Dave: The improvisational approach isn't very common in cookbooks. Often when a chef publishes a book, it's an expression of what they do in their restaurants as opposed to a teaching tool.
Schneider: That's true, although more and more chefs have been trying to deconstruct what they do.
Generally a chef's book is like a calling card or a portfolio to display their personal work. To write a book about improvisation is partly a contradiction in terms. Improvisation is spontaneous. It's in the moment. This book is pointing the way into it for people that see it as daunting or a mystery. Some people just do it, but others need help with the mindset, permission almost to listen to themselves. Understanding how things work is the key.
Also, it takes a lot more time to do a book where you're explaining everything. That's a constraint I think a lot of authors aren't crazy about.
Dave: You provide a chart of taste affinities. It's empowering to have those basic building blocks at your disposal. People might not be confident enough to guess or to make assumptions.
Schneider: That's one of the things I heard most, even from pretty good cooks. A lot of friends call me up and say, "I don't know what to do next," or "How do I flavor it?" It's because they're not familiar, or sometimes they haven't brought it to consciousness, flavorings that go together.
I heard that so many times that I thought, Why don't I see if I can at least give people an idea of some of the essential affinities, so they can use the simple technique of inserting a different set of flavors to change a recipe? It was based purely on the need that I'd heard.
Dave: A related principle touted in the book is very much in vogue these days: "What grows together goes together." You hear Alice Waters and Deborah Madison and even Michael Pollan saying the same thing, bringing people to their farmers' markets and urging them to get in touch with the world of produce that exists before everything gets muddled in a supermarket.
Schneider: And you know what? It will take care of you. That's what so great.
Aside from being great for the environment and all that, that principle is a really easy way to cook and to know what goes together. It's almost guaranteed that things will be good if you follow it. It's a very good guideline. It's the organizing principle behind the world's cuisines. I don't think that can be stated too many times.
Dave: I'm dying to try the Chocolate Wonders. The Earl Grey Cookies sound good, but not nearly as gluttonous.
Schneider: No, these are completely over the top. They stop people in their tracks. People over and over say, "This is the best chocolate cookie I've ever had."
Part of it is great chocolate, but with that, it's basically just globs of a brownie mixture stuffed with whatever you want. That's where it can get really fun, chopping up candy bars, or I love pistachios, that sort of thing.
But the other piece to that cookie that was so astonishing... I was fooling around with them and I wondered what would happen if I didn't put any of that chunky stuff in. You end up with this thin, chewy, utterly chocolate, elegant cookie. It's the same batter. I love that change.
Dave: Of the recipes in A New Way to Cook, the ones we end up making over and over again use your brining and roasting techniques. It's how we make a Thanksgiving turkey now. It's how our friends make a Thanksgiving turkey.
Are there recipes or techniques in the book that readers latch onto like that?
Schneider: The roasting is a big one. Even today it's a technique that surprises people if they haven't understood how it can work globally in concentrating flavors and caramelizing foods and, depending on the heat, making them utterly tender.
The other technique in New Way to Cook that I've found people are pretty astonished by is the one to emulsify fats: making a really flavorful fat and then adding a little water to it to coat something starchy, like beans or pasta.
A lot of people who want to cook with less fat are surprised by that. You can cook vegetables in a little water in a covered pan and then throw the fat into the residual liquid to coat them. People always are saying, "I always steamed vegetables before," and they would put a ton of butter on them. They're astonished to find this method that actually takes less equipment.
Dave: If you could give just a few guiding principles for constructing a menu, pairing items, what would they be?
Schneider: "Foods that grow together go together" is a nice one for a menu because it anchors you to the season and gives the table a feeling of being in a moment. That's really great.
In the course of a menu, I like to modulate flavors. I tend not to repeat them overtly. If I use a lot of herbs on the lamb, I won't repeat those herbs. Although I love to throw thyme into cooking plumbs and berries, it would only be a whisper because I don't want to overtly replay a flavor.
I also think it's very important to consider how the food will feel to the person eating it. A lot of chefs in restaurants, when they create their tasting menus, don't seem to consider that. They're trying to impress with too many rich items. The modulation between something rich and something refreshing is really effective.
Often for hors d'oeuvres, I serve room temperature vegetables, something like that, so that the main course might be quite rich but the first course has balanced it out. Using lots of fresh foods, fruits and vegetables, helps to keep the menu buoyant — I don't know if that's the right word, but it keeps a balance of freshness and health.
Dave: We had a party on Labor Day. People brought food to grill, and my wife prepared the side dishes. She made your Herb Salad; Doctored Mesclun Salad; Real Onion Dip; White Beans with Rosemary, Thyme, and Lavender; Rustic Bean Stew with Bacon and Caramelized Onions; and Roasted Potatoes with leftover caramelized onions.
Everything was great, but she wondered if you would say that she used caramelized onions in too many dishes. Our guess was no because in every dish except the onion dip, that flavor was in the background.
Schneider: Absolutely. Caramelized onions or garlic, these are things you can repeat infinitely if you're not featuring them.
If you had done an onion dip and then onions piled onto a toast to make a crostini, those would be repetitive. But all that being said about modulation, if you're serving people delicious food, they won't complain.
I'm honored that you made so many of these dishes. I hope it went well.
Dave: It was great. Mindy is inclined toward improvisation anyway, so she was excited to hear about the new book. Probably the most regularly served dish in our house is a variation on the Provincial Onion Tart in A New Way to Cook. She uses your Slow Roasted Tomatoes and combines the recipes.
Schneider: That's great!
You know, this is really a way of cooking. It's not my way. I'm deeply influenced by the Mediterranean way of being. I've spent a lot of time there. And I've sort of translated it; I've tried to make it available to people in this country to whom it might not be familiar.
One of my greatest joys is when someone like your wife takes one idea or one piece of a recipe and does it her way. That's what I'm encouraging. You don't have to stick with these recipes. They're guides. As I say, they're a way in. Have fun with them. It's an easier way to cook in a busy life, once you get the hang of it.
Dave: What nation's food doesn't get the respect it deserves in the U.S.?
Schneider: For a while I thought Spanish food didn't, but at least in New York all hell is breaking loose.
Dave: The same thing is happening here.
Schneider: It's finally happening. The restaurant chefs in Spain are breaking ground, but in terms of the everyday cooking in Spain I still hear people coming back and saying they were disappointed. I think it's because they're expecting the chef stuff.
I've been to Spain many times, and I'm always knocked out by the markets and the restaurants I've stumbled upon. I can't tell you how many times I've walked into a little place somewhere in Spain and said, "I'm hungry. Do you have anything to eat?" And they'll cook for me. You know, in the middle of the night. You don't even know where you are.
They really respect hunger. That's why they have tapas bars. It's why you can stop in anywhere and eat at any time of day. Somehow people here make tapas into a cocktail thing. I don't see it as that. I see the Spanish way of cooking being about sustaining people throughout their day.
And Spain — their hams are finally getting acclaim.
Dave: I went to a wedding two weeks ago. The bride was from Spain. Her family snuck hams onto the plane to bring to the reception.
Schneider: Wow! I once wanted to write about smuggling a ham with a hoof still on, and the editor said, "We can't encourage people to smuggle."
These are miraculous products. In their real state, they're fabulous. I say "real" because I don't know what's going to happen when they have to pass all of our laws. Was it a great wedding?
Dave: The food was incredible. It was here in Portland, outdoors by the water. The first wedding I've ever ridden my bike to. It was very casual.
Schneider: That sounds great.
Dave: I know that you've written about the saffron harvest in Spain. What about?
Schneider: The saffron harvest is one of the astonishing miracles of life, I think. Saffron comes from crocuses that come up at the end of October, when it's quite cold. There are three stamens in each flower. It's very difficult to get those out intact and then handle them, and you need thousands and thousands of them to build up even a small pile of saffron.
What's so incredible is that it's all done by hand. It can't be mechanized. It's generally done by small farmers with little plots dedicated to saffron. Every aspect of it is of the earth. You're out before dawn because you have to pick the flowers before it's sunny; otherwise the flowers will wilt. Whole families work on removing the stamens because it has to be done by a certain time. Then there is the tenuous, difficult process of toasting the stamens. They have to be dried out. One misstep and thousands of dollars go up in smoke.
There's a huge culture around it that has to do so much with the life of Spanish farmers, where saffron was used like money. In some places it still is because it keeps a long time. There are stories of farmers going to church smelling like saffron because they hid the saffron with their good clothes.
It's astonishing, and to know that this unbelievable flavor comes from a delicate crocus growing in these chilly fields, all picked by hand, continues to knock me out. Every October I feel it; it's like a clock in me. I've been many times to witness it.
Dave: I read that you were a contributor to the Encyclopedia of Appalachia. What did you write?
Schneider: For about thirty-five years I've been going to a tiny town deep in the Appalachian Mountains called Helvetia that I stumbled on when I was in college. I first went because I heard there was a ramp supper there — ramps are wild leeks that grow throughout the mountains. And in fact there was a ramp supper put on by the Farm Women's Association, with a big square dance afterwards.
What I discovered in this town you can drive through in five minutes was a Swiss community that had settled in the Appalachians around 1860. The culture was still alive. I started to document it. I went back year after year. I've photographed it and written about it. They're like my family. I'm one of the few people that has documented enough to write about the Swiss food culture there. That's why I ended up writing that; I'm very proud of it because I'm a New York kid from Greenwich Village.
It's really something, fabulous food. Now it's disappearing, but it was a mix of Swiss and the culture that the immigrants brought over, mixed with all the raw materials they found. And of course the mighty pig, because that was the staple meat. So pork and ham figure heavily, and cornbread. It's a real amalgam.
Dave: What will you work on next?
Schneider: Actually, I am working on it. It's not a cookbook. It's a book of writing about food. That town in Appalachia figures in it, and some of the wild restaurant stuff. It's about ways of being fed that I've witnessed.
Dave: Sounds great.
Schneider: Well, I'm going to try.
Sally Schneider spoke from her home in New York on September 11, 2006.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State