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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Lazy Gourmet: An Interview with Robin Donovan and Juliana Gallin

Juliana Gallin and Robin Donovan are the authors of The Lazy Gourmet: Magnificent Meals Made Easy —a hip, fun, and practical guide to cooking strikingly sophisticated, yet surprisingly simple dishes. With more than 125 delightfully easy recipes, the book shows that anyone—even those short on time, patience, skill, or experience—can cook impressive meals with minimal effort.

Everyone who knows me knows about my utter lack of cooking ability. That's why I was so excited to chat with Robin and Juliana and learn all about their book!

Shelly Rachanow: I love the title of your book, The Lazy Gourmet! What inspired you to write it?

RD & JG: We’ve been friends since college, where we were housemates in a huge old Santa Cruz Victorian that we shared with five other students. We all took turns doing the chores, including cooking. That was the beginning of our friendship, and we’ve continued to enjoy cooking together since then.

RD: Back then I was already very comfortable in the kitchen. I grew up in Berkeley in a very foodie family. My mom was a food writer and a professional restaurant critic, and I always helped her in the kitchen. I don’t actually remember “learning” how to cook—I just learned by helping my mom in the kitchen and became a fairly competent cook by the time I went away to college. As a result, I’ve always had a certain natural confidence in the kitchen.

JG: I, on the other hand, had no early kitchen training or foodie sensibility. My favorite foods were hamburgers, french fries, Pringles, and Doritos. As I got older I became more interested in eating and cooking real food, but I was a by-the-book, devoted recipe-follower—completely convinced for many years that I just had no natural talent in the kitchen. I stuck with it though, learned some rules and techniques, started experimenting more, and eventually became a pretty good cook. The most important thing I had realized during this transformation was that some of the best dishes were also some of the most simple. There didn’t seem to be any direct relation whatsoever between the difficulty of a recipe and the quality of a meal.

RD: And that’s the premise of our book. Over the years we talked more and more about the idea that cooking really good food doesn't have to be difficult, and that anyone can do it. At some point we decided to write a cookbook about this idea. We basically wanted to create a collection of our most elegant, delicious, exciting recipes—the kind of dishes you would serve at a dinner party when you want to impress your guests—that are deceptively easy to make.

RD & JG: As far as the title goes, the original title was How To Impersonate a Gourmet Chef, but that was too much of a mouthful. Our publisher urged us to change it and that’s when we came up with The Lazy Gourmet. This helped us to clarify our focus for the book—the concept that it can be really easy to cook well. Even for people who are kitchen-phobic, intimidated, time-constrained, or just plain “lazy.”

Shelly Rachanow: So many people think it takes hours to cook a fabulous meal, or days to prepare for a dinner party. Is that really the case? Can cooking good food really be simple and easy?

RD & JG: Yes! We like to say, “Cooking a gourmet meal can be just as easy as cooking a crappy meal.” And it’s so true. We firmly believe that cooking delicious, interesting, “gourmet” food can actually be really easy. It’s just a matter of using good ingredients and combining them in interesting ways using very basic techniques.

Shelly Rachanow: One of the things I love about your book is that it’s given me (someone who, as my friends will attest, cannot cook–at all) the confidence to help my fiancé (a chef) in the kitchen. What do you say to people like me who lack confidence or experience when it comes to cooking?

JG: I would tell them that I used to lack kitchen confidence myself, and now I’m a cookbook author! One of the light bulb moments for me, as I mentioned before, was realizing that elegant, impressive gourmet dishes are often exceptionally simple. To start building up your confidence and comfort levels, make a dinner where you basically have only one recipe to follow—pick a very simple, but interesting, entrée. Then pair it with a couple of side dishes that seem special but basically require no work at all, like black rice, or roasted asparagus, or even a prepared vegetable dish from a fancy deli. This is a great way to get your toes in the water without having to cook a multi-course meal from scratch.

RD: We also like to remind people that a recipe is just a suggestion. Don’t get too hung up on following it word-for-word. Substitute one ingredient for another; leave something out if you don’t like it; double the quantity of another ingredient that you love. This will break your dependence on recipes and help you become a more natural, comfortable cook.

Shelly Rachanow: Tell us more about the types of recipes in your book, and share one or two of your favorites.

RD & JG: Our primary audience for the book is the novice cook—people who don’t realize how incredibly easy it can be to cook really well, and to impress guests with “gourmet” dinners. But we also wanted the recipes to appeal to experienced cooks. We measured each potential recipe against the following three criteria, to decide whether or not we thought it was worth pursuing: easiness, impressiveness, and that extra “certain something” that makes a recipe interesting and special.

Because we wanted to be absolutely certain that our recipes would be easy to follow, we enlisted more than 50 volunteer testers who made our recipes and then filled out detailed feedback forms where they rated each recipe for easiness, clarity of instructions, deliciousness, impressiveness, visual appeal, availability of ingredients, and more. We then made adjustments based on their feedback.

Some of our favorites recipes are Orange Crème Fraiche Cake with Bittersweet Chocolate Drizzle; Asparagus and Meyer Lemon Tart; Savory Blue Cheese Shortbread; Artichoke and Endive Panzanella; Fig, Mint, and Pistachio Salad; Bombay-Style Vegetable Sandwiches; Smoked Trout Brandade; Roasted Salmon with Garlic Confit; and everyone’s favorite—Charmoula (a magical Moroccan condiment made of lemon juice, garlic, cilantro, mint, and spices).

Shelly Rachanow: And last, the 'If Women Ran the World Blog' question for everyone - What would you do if you ran the world?

JG: Wow, every single honest answer that comes to mind makes me sound like a real evil maniac. So I’ll just suggest that we let tiny, fluffy lap dogs run the government. I don’t think they would do a very good job, but it would be fun to cuddle them at their fundraisers!

RD: I like Juliana’s answer! But if I ran the world, I would make organic vegetable gardening and cooking required subjects in schools. I think it’s so important for kids to have an idea of where food comes from and how it gets from farm to table. Growing and cooking your own food gives you so much more of an appreciation for it, and I think makes you more inclined to choose wholesome, unprocessed foods. I think if we fostered this kind of connection to healthy food from an early age, we’d solve a lot of the health problems our society faces today.

For more information, visit:

Blog: http://www.twolazygourmets.com/
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/TheLazyGourmet
Twitter: http://twitter.com/lazy_gourmet

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Frugal Foodie Cookbook: An Interview with Lara Starr

Cookbook author, cake decorating teacher, radio producer, marketeer, card-carrying cheapskate, wife and mom. Those are just a few words that describe Lara Starr: Whew!

Lara’s first cookbook, The Party Girl Cookbook, was written 1998. Back then, she was newly married and kid-less, the streets were paved with dot-com gold, and a young Ben Stiller was teaching us how to laugh. Lara had plenty of time and money for parties that included elaborate themes, silly costumes and the inevitable next-day hangovers.

Now, like many of us, Lara is striving to make ends meet, has faced un- and under-employment, and is looking to save a buck wherever she can. She also added a kid to the equation and is always on the lookout for healthy, nutritious meals that the Young Master Picky, Mr. Meat and Potatoes, and Ms. Frugal Foodie will all enjoy...and won't break the bank.

For Lara, it's been so fun and satisfying to discover and develop new recipes, find lots of little ways to cut spending without sacrificing a yummy lifestyle, and share it all in The Frugal Foodie Cookbook! As someone who loves good food, I was excited to talk to Lara more about her latest project.

Shelly Rachanow: Tell us more about your book, The Frugal Foodie Cookbook.

Lara Starr: It's got lots of delicious recipes for food that doesn't cost a lot to make, and that makes the most of every ingredient, such as "The Exponential Chicken" which can feed two people for five days! It's also got lots of advice for saving money around the house—like how to make you own low-cost cleanings supplies, and fun quotes from foodies and frugalistas.

Shelly Rachanow: What do you tell people who say it isn’t possible to be a foodie while also maintaining a budget?

Lara Starr: I say you're dead wrong! My secret is meal planning. I know what's for dinner every night of the week, and have an arsenal of lunch and breakfast items. That way I only shop for what I need and I only shop once a week at two stores (the regular supermarket and Trader Joes). The less time you spend in a store, the less you're going to spend.

Shelly Rachanow: I love the “Frugal Foodie Tips” from the book. What are some of your favorites?

Lara Starr: I don't fry very often, but when I figured out that I can use newspapers and one paper towel to drain fried food instead of a pile of paper towels, it was a revelation. I only like to use a paper towel if my life depends on it.

I also love re-growing green onions. Who knew, right? I've always got a bunch of them in a glass jar in my window.

Shelly Rachanow: Your book contains recipes for breakfast, brunches, lunches, dinners, kids, snacks, and more. What’s one that you can share with us?

Lara Starr: These Biscotti are my one of favorite recipes of all time. They're easy, delicious and so inexpensive to make. I've made them dozens and dozens of times to rave reviews. Sometimes I get fancy and add chocolate or orange peel, but I really love them just as is.

Not Your Bubbe’s Biscotti

“Look at all of the fancy, schmancy mandel bread!”

That’s what I imagine my great-grandmother “Mimi” would have said had she lived long enough to see the platters and jars of dipped and decorated biscotti at upscale coffee shops. I grew up eating her mandel bread, a twice-baked almond cookie very similar to biscotti.

Mimi’s recipe contained butter and was a little more cookie-like than these. My biscotti are not only less expensive, but are more crisp and hold up very well to dunking in coffee, tea or wine.

2 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups flour
3/4 cups almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped

Preheat oven to 350. Line a baking sheet with foil and grease well.

Beat the eggs and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer until pale, about 2 minutes. Beat in the flour and baking soda and continue beating until blended. Mix in the almonds. With floured hands, form half of the dough into a 12-inch log. Place on the baking sheet and press down to flatten to about 3 inches. Repeat with the remaining dough.

Bake the cookie loaves for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven, but leave the oven on. Let the loaves cool for 5 minutes, then remove them to a cutting board. Slice each loaf diagonally into 12 slices with a sharp, serrated knife. Don’t press hard, let the knife do the work for you.

Put the slices back on the cutting cookie sheet, on their sides. Return to the oven and bake an additional 20 minutes. Cool completely on a rack.

Cookies will keep for about a week in an airtight container or for up to three months in the freezer.

Shelly Rachanow: What are some tips you can give people who want to throw a foodie-worthy party without breaking the bank?

Lara Starr: Make a signature spiked punch or sangria instead of serving beer, wine or an open bar, and don't be afraid to ask people to contribute—people like to help! Take care with presentation. Use a tablecloth, set out flowers, light candles—these touches really make a difference, and even simple spaghetti seems fancy and festive in the right setting.

Shelly Rachanow: And last, the 'If Women Ran the World Blog' question for everyone - What would you do if you ran the world?

Lara Starr: My cheeky answer is I'd ban all boxed cake mix and canned frosting. I weep for the children whose only experience of cake is boxed cake mix and canned frosting.

My serious answer is that I'd ensure that all children have access to safe, stimulating and challenging schools, delicious and healthy food, and the love and support of caring grown-ups.

For more information or to contact Lara, visit her on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/frugalfoodiecookbook