Face Time: Melissa Clark

December 2, 2011

Food writer and latke fanatic Melissa Clark.

In her popular New York Times column “A Good Appetite,” Melissa Clark tweaks seasonal recipes to make them both more interesting and more flavorful. It’s a trick the creative foodie diva shows off in her 32nd cookbook, “Cook This Now” ($30, Hyperion). She’ll talk about it and sign books Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue (tickets $8-$10; 600 I St. NW; 202-408-3100).

This book is structured around what you can find at farmers markets in given months. How should I approach the market if I’m a newbie?
Stay with what you know, and buy the cool, heirloom versions of it. And I have a rule that, if you’re taking home something new, that nothing you buy at the farmers market can hurt you eaten raw, except rhubarb leaves.

Winter markets offer challenges, though, don’t they?
People think they’ll go to the farmers market in winter and there will be nothing but potatoes. But winter can be amazing, with these hearty root vegetables, collard greens and kale. Just don’t expect tomatoes and eggplants.

Fiddling with recipes is one of your trademarks. Any advice on how to do it?
I always begin following a recipe, because it’s important to know how to make something before you tweak it. And when you start to tweak, think about what you are hungry for. Then adjust the spices and keep the technique.

Which veggies get a bad rap?
I think cabbage gets a bad rap. People think it’s smelly and not sweet. But broil it, and it’s the best thing.

In the dead of winter, is it OK to eat out-of-season stuff?
I’m not a purist — I think that by the time March rolls around, you get sick of cabbage and potatoes, especially since, in the Northeast, spring is a big lie. It doesn’t really happen until June!

Which non-winter veggies are OK from the supermarket, then?
I don’t use out-of-season tomatoes much, but cukes are pretty reliable, and so is eggplant. It’s just that food in season tastes better.

With Hanukkah and Christmas coming, what are you excited to make?
I’m excited to make parsnip latkes, which are so great. The parsnips are so sweet, it’s like eating latkes with the applesauce built in.

You have a kiddo now. How has she changed how you cook?
It’s made me conscious of what I can do quickly. What can I throw in the oven with olive oil that’ll taste good? I have to be on autopilot if I’m cooking and my daughter is smushing Play-Doh into the plants. My food has become simpler, yet more intense, because if I’m not using six different herbs, I’m using one and getting the most flavor out of it.

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Vicky Hallett · December 2, 2011