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Jan 23, 2018
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An Interview with Smitten Kitchen’s Deb Perelman

February 19th 12:02pm, 2013

If you’re anything like us, Deb Perelman is no stranger to your kitchen. We’ve been following the home cook behind the celebrated food blog Smitten Kitchen for years. So when we found out that Perelman was going to be featured in our Sauce Celebrity Chef Series next month, where she’d be demonstrating recipes from her new The Smitten Cookbook and enjoying lunch, we couldn’t hold back our excitement. We quickly set up an interview to chat with Perelman about everything Smitten Kitchen. Read on to see what she had to say about finding inspiration, writing tips for aspiring bloggers and her own celebrity moment.

Apparently, you couldn’t hold back your Smitten Kitchen excitement either, as Perelman’s Sauce Celebrity Chef Series sold out in mere days! Wasn’t able to snag a ticket to the event? You can still catch Perelman as she signs her cookbook at the downtown location of Left Bank Books on March 1 at 7 p.m. And keep an eye out for the blog next month as we cook from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook and give a copy away to one lucky reader in our By the Book column.

I noticed there isn’t a lot of overlap between your blog and your book.
I was very concerned that the book would be a value for people who have read the blog for a long time. If it was all the same or sounded the same – well, people have been getting that for free. So I decided that no more than 15 percent of the blog could be in the book, I wanted to make it overwhelmingly new. And I stuck with that.

Did you choose the most popular items from the blog as part of the 15 percent?
[Laughs]. No, or else they would all be chocolate and peanut butter. I chose recipes that best fit the section that I was working on. Like my favorite way to prepare broccoli and my mom’s apple cake – recipes I just wanted people to have.

Going back to chocolate and peanut butter. The first thing I ever made from your blog was your recipe for chocolate peanut butter cake. I made it for a party, and I must say, the compliments I received on that thing truly made me feel like a capable cook for the very first time.
I think that cake was the first thing that broke my server. Sometimes it takes things like peanut butter cake to realize that you need a better server.

It’s so impressive to find great photography, writing and cooking all in one. Were you interested in one before the other? Or did they build off of each other?
Well, my photography comes third and writing second. I’m always been interested in artsy fartsy things; I love taking pictures; I take them of everything. I love Instagram, and I’ve always enjoyed writing – it was never hard for me – but the cooking is my love.

Where do you get your inspiration for the recipes you create?
Mostly cravings. It starts with being hungry. But it also starts with being out somewhere and having something I like or don’t like and figuring out how I might change it. Or if I find a combo I love, but the preparation is really fussy, I wonder if there is a way to pare it down. Or just from things I’ve always wanted to make – like how could you combine the tastes of hummus and carrots? And then figuring it out.       

Any books that you go to for inspiration?
I know it’s an obvious answer but Mastering the Art of French Cooking [by Julia Child]. Onions seem so boring, but browned onions are amazing. The book takes the simplest ingredients and then lovingly coaxes out the most intense deliciousness out of them.

Along with your great recipes, I think one reason people are so attracted to your blog and book is for your writing. Any tips?
I like a voice that is not too writerly but natural. At first, it’s hard not to sound like other people’s ideas of what you should be – you paint in a way you were taught to paint. Finding your voice is a process; it’s not like one day you achieve it. You gradually become more comfortable putting your mark on it. I don’t have a proper writing background, so I just try to write how I speak – for it to sound like a conversation. I like to picture my mom talking on the phone with a long yellow cord that stretched across the kitchen so that she could talk to a friend while cooking. Recipe writing has always been very succinct, write as little as possible, but rather than three sentences, sometimes mine can be three paragraphs. When you are a nervous cook, it helps to have description. I like to know that the dough is supposed to be sticky or that it will taste too salty but will turn out all right.

I love that you stress the everyday ingredients, so that a home cook doesn’t need to break the bank when buying ingredients, but do you have a favorite luxury ingredient?
I have a bunch. If I’m making a spinach quiche with four other ingredients, that’s a good time to use frozen spinach, but if it’s for a delicate salad and it’s the main ingredient, that would be a good time to splurge and get the best from the market. I think good recipes should transcend good ingredients, but it’s also about figuring out when it’s worth it to splurge. Like I have a workday olive oil for something like cooking an egg, but then I also have a really nice olive oil that I use for finishing. I mostly work with regular unfancy butter, but I love the European stuff with higher butterfat. But why make a layer cake with the most expensive butter? Save that for when you’re really going to taste it.

How much do you have to adjust your cooking now that you have a 3-year-old son?
It changes every week. In the last two weeks, my son has wanted to help me cook which has seemed to make him more excited about eating, but I say that and last night he helped and then he only ate one bite. I have two kinds of cooking now, and they don’t always overlap. Where most of my recipes come from is when I’m wondering what will happen when I make this with this and that – my experimental cooking. With a kid though, we have to put out proper meals. Before my son, it was, ‘Oh honey, I just made this carrot soup, let’s eat it for dinner with a hunk of bread.’ But if I do that now, my son will probably just skip the soup, eat the bread and then I haven’t really fed him properly. I started to have dinner panic around his first birthday. But you figure it out. The tricky thing for me is to stay inspired and to not have to cook the same-old, same-old.

I always think my future children will never be the kids who only eat mac n’ cheese, but I have a feeling I’m going to be completely humbled.
We all are. And nobody’s failing. If that’s what the kid wants to eat, they are going to be fine. I try to find something in the middle. For each meal I try to do a carb, a protein, a cold veg and a cooked veg, and I try to make only one a little scary.

Your blog has been successful for a while, but now with the book, have you had any celebrity moments?
[Laughs] Today, actually. I was at coffee with a friend; we go to this place all the time, and I was sitting by the window and this girl walked by, stopped, and whispered that she knew who I was. I was a little embarrassed. It’s okay though. The people who do come up to me have all been very normal, very nice people – I like it, I really do. Sometimes I forget this will happen, until it does again.

With the success of your cookbook, are you planning on keeping the blog going?
Yes. Forever if I can. As long as it’s fun and enjoyable, and there’s stuff to put up there. My plan is to keep making the site as good as I can. 

— photos courtesy of Deb Perelman

By Julie Cohen

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