Instead, she invites the reader or viewer to learn about, eat and enjoy food, all while radiating joy and warmth. Keeping in that spirit of generosity, she was kind enough to tell us how she takes her coffee, her favourite Trader Joe’s meal, and why eating boiled vegetables can sometimes feel like a vacation. (She also let us look inside her fridge.)
Location: Berkeley, California
Current gig: Cook, teacher and writer, and the host and executive producer of the Netflix series Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, based on my award-winning book of the same name.
One word that describes how you eat: Joyful
Could you kind of take me through a usual day from a food perspective?
I don’t have that many usual days, but when I’m home and I’m working in the office I think that’s my most routine life. I take thyroid medicine in the morning so I can’t eat for an hour after that, so usually I have a slow start to the day. Then I make coffee with what I describe to people as “enough half-and-half so that it looks like Haagen-Dazs coffee ice cream,” like so much that other people would be embarrassed.
I’ve been in a funny oatmeal phase for the last — I don’t know — few months. It’s been strangely soothing. I make this instant oatmeal with cinnamon. I chop up three medjool dates and put them in there and then add a little bit of flaxseed. I have a whole little kit I built for myself. I just throw it all together and then I finish it with a big spoonful of almond butter and frozen blueberries and then a splash of half-and-half.
My mum used to make us oatmeal when I was little and I’d often find myself hungry like an hour later. So I think cutting up the dates and letting the sugar come from fruit that also has fibre in it is helpful.
My friend called it his “power breakfast” and he made it for me, and normally I am not into all the “super foods,” but it was so tasty and so good that I was like, “I’m going to make this for myself.” So it feels like I’m doing something to care for myself because I eat this big hearty thing. Then I can make it all the way to lunchtime without feeling like I’m going to go down.
How do you lunch?
I have an office where I write with about two dozen other writers locally. We have kind of a rudimentary kitchen situation so usually I bring leftovers if I have them and just heat them up or eat them room temperature. Monday is both the hardest day to go to work and also my favourite day because my friend Dominica Rice opened a really amazing Mexican restaurant about 10 blocks from the office, and on Mondays she makes green mole.
I’m like “oh, my God the only reason I have to get out of bed on Monday is great mole.” And also the thing is it takes the pressure off of me. Because a lot of the time on Sundays, I’m really exhausted and I’ve done a ton of working and shopping, and stuff like that. So it takes the pressure off of having to do a big cook to have a leftover if I let myself lunch out once a week or twice a week.
I did learn early on in my office life once I left restaurants that if I eat lunch out every day it’s really bad news and that often I can’t get anything done the second half of the day because I’m just digesting.
I will say that by the time I started working in an office I think I was 31, and that was the first time in my life when I was really a home cook and a person commuting and going to work. Because I had gone sort of straight from college into a world class kitchen, I always had this relatively complicated idea of what “lunch” is.
In the restaurants where I worked we always made a point of having a nice staff lunch, and had many different things to choose from — salads, and a little bit of a main course, and a little bit of pasta or rice or something. So it took me at least a year of going to work and being surrounded by everyday home eaters and home cooks to understand that, like, “oh, people just bring like a meatball from last night’s dinner and eat that with some carrot sticks and that’s lunch,” and that I didn’t have to make this huge deal, and I could still be nourished and satisfied.
So it’s been really good, and in some of my more desperate times, you know it’s just a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. If I really have nothing I bring two corn tortillas and a can of beans, and it’s a lot less of a pressure than I used to feel of having to construct some meal for myself.
And, at the same time, it also feels really nice to be able to eat a little bit of home-cooked leftovers or — I don’t know—just a little bit of salad mixed with a bottled salad dressing we keep at the office. I’m pretty good about keeping both my home freezer and the work freezer stocked with frozen vegetables. At word, I really love these green chile tamales from Trader Joe’s; they’re so good. That’s my super emergency meal.
On the surface, working from home would seem to give one unparalleled control over one's diet. Not only do you control your schedule, but you're right there with your fridge. What could possibly go wrong?
That’s a perfect answer to two questions I was going to ask you later — “what you think of frozen convenience food?” and “what do you buy from Trader Joe’s?”
Those are so good. I live by myself, but still I’m a professional cook, but like, there’s only so much a human can scale down, and I have a really hard time cooking for one so I always have leftovers, which I’ve really learned to see as a way to be taking care of my future self. Often it’ll just be little bit steamed rice, vegetables, or whatever.
So I bring that and I have that at work. I always have snacks. I figured out that I can’t have snacks that are too delicious around. Me and the sugar fiends in my office, if we buy ice cream we’ll eat the whole thing in one day. But if they’re also too virtuous I’ll never eat them.
So it’s about finding that balance?
Yeah, that right place. There’s actually a trail mix from Trader Joe’s that has a little bit of chocolate in it. And the nice thing [about working in an office] is, because I have somewhat of a routine, then I’m actually hungry for dinner, especially if I go to the gym, then I actually want to eat something when I go home.
And usually by then — because I haven’t cooked very much and have been sitting in front of a screen all day — often I’m actually excited to go home and make something and use my hands.
When I travel I try to keep the fridge really full of both fruits and vegetables and then when I’m home and I go to the grocery store I make a point of always buying like two, or three, or four vegetables, so I always have something to choose from. It’s usually nothing that’s too fancy; it’s broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, kale or whatever.
So I’ll make some combination of roasted, or boiled, or sautéed vegetables, and a green and then either an egg or tofu. I eat really simply when I’m at home — when I don’t have a reason to be eating a big fancy meal, because so much of my public life, and the public part of my job is spent eating really heavy stuff, or just eating really interesting stuff or thinking about food. So for me, it’s almost like a vacation to get to eat boiled vegetables.
It’s not on the same scale, but I go through a similar thing where I just want to make a burger for myself, and have it be plain with American cheese.
Totally. That’s one of my favourites; I love American cheese so much. Then I go through little phases, like I go through sausage phases — that’s a thing I buy for myself — and I make sausage and sauerkraut or whatever, or I go through ground meat phases where I just buy ground turkey and make turkey burgers or ground lamb and make lamb meatballs. But I definitely am a phase person.
One thing I loved in your last episode of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat was that you say your favourite meat is chicken. What’s the most common mistake you think that home cooks make with chicken?
Well, usually it starts with buying boneless, skinless breasts, which there’s nothing wrong with it to begin with, but the skin is kind of a protectant—and the bone too is often protective; they help protect you from overcooking and drying it out. And so if you are going to buy boneless, skinless breasts you really have to be sort of on high alert to protect them from overcooking.
A really sort of surefire way to do that is actually—and sometimes I’m like “I can’t deal,” so I just buy the boneless skinless too — so if I do that, a really sort of wonderful and quick and simple way to cook the breasts is to pound them thinly into what’s called a “paillard.” The way I like to pound them out is in between two plastic bags with a little bit of olive oil on top and below, and then if I have a mallet I’ll pound with that, or in a pinch I’ve used the bottom of an olive oil bottle. Pound it really thin into an nice, thin, even piece.
A big part of why people overcook the breasts is because it’s so unevenly shaped. It has a big, thick top and then a thin bottom so, if you’re cooking the poor bottom all the way to the point of doneness of the top, the bottom is going to be totally dry. So what I suggest is at the very least pound it until the top is much thinner and even [with the bottom].
But if you go even thinner, until it’s a large, thin sort of cake, then you can turn on your cast iron skillet, or whatever pan you have super flaming hot and then add a little bit of oil and it cooks the breasts so quickly—it will take probably 90 seconds per side, maybe two minutes per side. And you get this beautiful brown, thin, juicy thing, and you get so much more browning because there’s so much surface area, and it’s a nice way to preserve from overcooking.
But otherwise, my go-to: I typically buy chicken thighs. I find them to be so versatile. If you take the bone out or buy boneless thighs you can cook them skin side down in a cast iron pan with another cast iron pan on top.
There’s a recipe for that in my book, and it’s so simple and it cooks about as quickly as grilling a chicken breast would. But you get this amazing moistness from the thigh, and the flavour that comes from the skin. You get this incredibly crisp skin. In the book it’s called “conveyor belt chicken” but it’s kind of a version of “brick chicken” or “chicken under a brick.”
Do you have a go-to order for if you find yourself at a random, basic diner?
I’m a mood person. I do love a tuna melt. If it’s a breakfast situation—like if hasbrowns are the way the potatoes are coming — then I’ll order a two eggs over easy breakfast just so I can get the hash browns.
Do you have a movie theatre snack?
Ooh! I wish I was a person who went to more movies. But, I mean, I just would say very buttery popcorn.
Do you have a special way you make popcorn at home?
Yes I absolutely do; I’m so happy you asked. My friend gave me an old-timey hand crank popcorn popper, which is so superior because nary a corn kernel remains un-popped. So, I have a multi-fat situation. I use coconut oil to pop the corn because it gets so hot and it creates almost like this lacquered crust on the outside of the popcorn. It gets so crisp. It’s so amazing.
And then I melt butter and [add] salt and nutritional yeast and I put that on the popcorn. I love nutritional yeast. I kind of want to figure out a way... Could I create a savoury granola using it? I don’t know. I’m trying to think of a new way to hit new frontiers with nutritional yeast.
I would be excited to hear about that if you come up with anything. Going back to potatoes: do you have a favourite french fry?
Unfortunately, so many years have past since I’ve been a person who eats regularly in places that commonly purvey french fries. I couldn’t tell you a brand, but I do believe in the twice-fried fry, which is like very crisp on the outside — a McDonald’s fry is twice-fried. Most fast food fries are twice-fried. What the twice-frying leads to is the inside is perfectly starchy and creamy, and the outside is crisp.
Once example of a once-fried fry that I’m not a fan of is at In-n-Out Burger. Because it’s only fried once, the outside gets too brown and the inside is not creamy enough. So, I really like a pale golden fry, that’s salty and crisp and creamy on the inside.
Do you have a shape preference?
Oh! These are good questions! I mean I think I would go with the classic, long, skinny fry but I will never turn down a waffle or a curly.
My favourite is when you order the regular fries and then a waffle or a curly ends up in there.
Oh, I love that. I love that.
You said you love a tuna melt. Do you have a favourite sandwich that you make at home?
At home? Well, BLT season just ended. At home I eat a lot of turkey sandwiches. At the grocery store near my house they serve roasted turkey which is so good. I love getting the turkey where they slice it at deli, rather than the pre-packaged stuff — which I also buy — but usually the pre-packaged stuff is like so pumped full of water, it’s just a different texture and a different taste.
I believe in a lot of mayonnaise on a sandwich, and if not mayonnaise than some other moistening agent. Hummus is a good one.
I like mayonnaise and hummus, as a combo. Tomatoes. I love a pickle. And I love crunchy things. And then my secret thing that I usually do — It’s not even “secret,” but my special extra chef thing, I guess: I love putting cilantro on my sandwiches. Or any herbs, but cilantro is my favourite. For me, as a cook, fresh herbs are a thing that bring life to food. It’s just a way to make it a little bit nicer.
I loved in the Acid episode when you say you used to put yogurt on everything, and I was wondering if you still find yourself doing that sometimes, particularly if you need something comforting?
The other day I was at an event being interviewed on stage, and we were talking about yogurt, and I confessed that I always put it on everything, including pasta, when I was a kid. My brothers and I put it on literally everything, both for the sourness and creaminess, but also because it was a way to cool down the hot food more quickly so we could eat.
I really love the taste of my mum’s meat sauce — spaghetti with meat sauce — with this yogurt on it. It was just the taste of my childhood. But then once I became a chef and went to Italy I was horrified by the idea of putting yogurt on pasta. So, I admitted it in front of this whole crowd, and this Italian woman got up and she was was like, “it’s ok; yogurt on pasta is ok.”
[Yotam] Ottolenghi had a recipe in his book for pasta with yogurt. So I was like, “oh my God, amazing.” And this Italian woman was like, “listen: that’s about as far as I’m willing to stretch, but the minute you put mayonnaise in your pasta, that’s done.”
I almost hate to ask but if you could only pick one source of fat, one source of acid, and one source of salt, what would you choose from each category?
I would choose limes for my acid, I think I would just choose salt—like a Maldon salt. And I think I would just choose olive oil, but that’s a really hard one. But I’ve given myself that same task before so I was prepared.
Going back to the salt: how many types of salt do you have in your kitchen?
I have two kinds a friend sent me to test, then I have Diamond Crystal, and a fine sea salt I use to test recipes with, and then I have Jacobsen, which is a beautiful salt made in Oregon. I have Maldon salt—six. I have sel gris — seven. I have a beautiful pink salt that I bought in Australia—eight. Oh darn, you know what? A butcher friend gave me one—nine.
I bought both kinds [from the show] in Japan—so that’s eleven. A lot of them have overflowed into the living room because my kitchen’s small. I only really regularly use the Diamond Crystal, and one of flake salts. And then when I test recipes the sea salt. So, I really only keep around, on the counter or on the shelf, three.
Do you have a go-to “sad meal”?
One of the things I always buy at the grocery store is sweet potatoes. And if I really have nothing left in me, I will halve them, and roast them flesh side down so they get really browned. Then I bring them out and depending on what I have at home I’ll basically make a baked potato situation. I mash up all the potato insides and grate a whole bunch of sharp cheddar cheese, and then [add] hot sauce.
I either use Valentina which is a Mexican one that’s really vinegary that I really like, or I love Calabrian chilli peppers. There’s a bunch of Calabrian pepper paste in the Italian food section, so I’ll mash some Calabrian chilli in there and then I’ll put either yogurt or sour cream on there, and that’s definitely my sad-couch-watching-TV dinner.
Can we see inside your fridge?
Photo: Samin Nosrat
Shifting slightly, what’s your knife situation like?
I do have a pretty awesome knife situation. I have a beautiful magnetic wooden strip on my wall. I’ve been cooking for so long, and I’ve been collecting knives for so long, so I do have a lot of knives. I give away a lot. My favourite one I got for six dollars at a thrift store. I took it to my like cutter and was like, “where do you think this is from,” because it doesn’t have any markings, and he was like, “it looks like it’s from Chicago in the 1920s.”
It’s a huge, carbon steel, big, big chef’s knife. It’s probably twelve inches long, and it’s just kind of a thing that’s not really made anymore with a beautiful wooden handle that’s chipped. I’ve always wanted to try and get the handle refinished. But I don’t think you need fancy knives to cook well. The knives I would recommend to buy are Victorinox — they have great, all-purpose chef’s knives you can buy for 40 bucks.
In terms of gadgets, there are food processors, blenders and then immersion blenders. Do you have a favourite?
I had inherited an old Vitamix from somebody so that was my thing that I felt really good about; I had this fancy blender, even though it was very old. But I never ever took it out. Although it is pretty amazing how finely it purees stuff, and when I’m doing cooking for work, it’s really nice. It just was such a pain in the butt to pull it out from under the shelf where I stored it, washing and putting it away every time.
So, for a long time I had nothing, and then when I was testing recipes for my book I wanted to often recommended an immersion blender, but I didn’t have one. So I googled up the wazoo. I bought this one from Breville, and it’s not a cheap one — I think it’s about a hundred bucks. It’s an immersion blender that’s amazing; it can get stuff really, really, really quite smooth but it also has a mini-food processor attachment.
And honestly for the amount that I cook for myself, and then [for] the recipes that I write which are for six, or a maximum of eight people, I’ve never needed a bigger one. Because I live in an apartment with such a small kitchen and such little storage space, I can’t justify buying a whole other tool. I mean when I worked in a restaurant it was definitely important to have both, but this little guy is so awesome because it gives me the best of both worlds.
On that note: do you have any small kitchen tips?
Well, what I’ve done is create as much surface as I can while cooking. I bought a Costco—and I’m sure you could get it on Amazon too — just like a stainless steel table. I think the kitchen—before I moved in—the people who were there before used it as a little bit of an eat-in kitchen, which it barely could have been for two people.
So I took away that eating space and turned it into work space. And honestly, any time I know anyone who is re-doing their kitchen and they’re asking me for tips, I’m like, “you can never have too much counter space,” so anything you could do to create surfaces is really the best tip, I think.
Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
Michelle Obama, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Jonathan Van Ness, Terry Gross, Maggie Haberman, Mary Oliver and Wendy MacNaughton.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.