I’m Food Journalist Alicia Kennedy, and This Is How I Eat

I’m Food Journalist Alicia Kennedy, and This Is How I Eat
Photo: Ricardo Hernandez Martinez
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I have always been a bit in awe of Alicia Kennedy. Her writing focuses on the intersection of food, capitalism, and ethics, and it’s always thoughtful, beautifully-written, and informative — all without a touch of snobbery. She lives with her boyfriend and egg-loving dog in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where she’s working on a book about eating while also churning out thought-provoking weekly essays via her Substack, From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy. I’m a fan, is what I’m saying, and was delighted when she agreed to chat about ethical chocolate, the horror of zoodles, and what makes the perfect martini.

Do you usually eat breakfast?

Left to my own devices I will generally drink coffee until 11:00, and then I’ll be really hungry and I’ll eat something. When I do eat breakfast, I eat oatmeal with peanut butter and whatever jam we’re using. Right now I’m using a lot of JAM According to Daniel, which is from Virginia. Peanut butter is usually Costco natural peanut butter because it’s affordable and comes in a very big jar. I eat peanut butter every day. So peanut butter and jelly with my oatmeal, sometimes bananas if I have bananas, and always Burlap & Barrel royal cinnamon and a sprinkle of Maldon salt. Sometimes that is on sourdough toast instead of oatmeal, if we have sourdough that’s fresh.

How do you take your coffee?

Black. I drink a ton of coffee. I start every weekday with an iced Americano from a local coffee shop called Cuatro Estaciones. It’s the fuel I need to get through the day. But today I also had a cup of cold brew from a local cold brew maker called Chubidubi. I’ve had a lot of coffee today.

You’re vegan, right?

I’m mostly vegan. I am vegetarian for myriad reasons. But right now, it would be very difficult for me not to be vegetarian. We were looking at a menu at a local restaurant where it said the avocado toast is vegan, but it had an egg and feta cheese. And the bagel is vegetarian, but it had salmon on it. Being vegan here [in San Jaun] is basically being vegetarian. But I’d rather get my B12 from a local happy chicken’s egg or a local happy goat’s milk cheese than I would from a vitamin.

Do you like any of the alternative milks?

I always have canned coconut milk in my house for baking or cooking, and I always have unsweetened, unflavored almond milk for baking. That’s always been my preferred baking milk, but I’ll also use cashew if that’s around. I’ve never really gotten into oat milk at all because I don’t drink milk. I’ve been lactose-intolerant basically my entire life, and I find all milk disgusting. I don’t really have any around except for cooking with. I just buy a Costco box of almond milk. I don’t know if that’s the most sustainable choice. It probably is not. It’s almond milk in my cakes and cookies, and coconut milk in curries and that sort of thing. I make cashew cream to do anything that a heavy cream might do. It has the right fat content.

Do you usually eat lunch?

I always eat lunch. It will either be leftovers — today I ate leftover veggie dumplings standing up in the kitchen, then followed it up with a couple of passionfruits. But a lot of the time I’ll do either a fancy avocado toast if I have avocados around, or tomato toast. Sometimes I’ll have a salad later in the afternoon. Usually it’s not a big heavy lunch. I used to eat heavy lunches when I lived in New York because it helped break up my day. I would go out alone and have a drink and have a big lunch and then go back to work.

Can you describe both your avocado toast and your tomato toast?

It depends on what I have around. We were in an Airbnb this weekend in Culebra and there was an actual toaster there. I haven’t had an actual toaster in ages, and then I got back today and was making toast for breakfast and I was like “maybe we should have a toaster.” Usually, I toast it in the cast iron with a little olive oil, and then will either flip it with my fingers and burn myself or use my bread knife to flip it over, which is not a good strategy. The local avocados are the like Caribbean type, so they have a little more water in them than the Hass avocados. It still works. If I have pickled red onions, I’ll put those on top, and Calabrian chillis, which I keep buying because they’re at Marshall’s a lot — jars of Calabrian chillis in oil. I’ll put those on. If I have cilantro, I’ll put that. I love to put lemon zest on literally everything, so I’ll always try and put a little lemon zest or lime zest depending on what citrus is around. Always Maldon salt and smoked paprika if I’m in the mood, sometimes za’atar. I have industrial restaurant service-size jars of both of those — za’atar and smoked paprika — as well as cinnamon, because I use them so much that it didn’t make any sense to buy a normal-size jar.

And tomato toast, which I haven’t had in a while, it’s the same system toasting the bread in the cast iron, then I use the grater to grate the tomato onto the toast, and then it’s olive oil, Maldon salt, probably chilies, and whatever herb or green thing is around that makes sense to put on top.

What do you usually do for dinner?

We’ve been ordering out a little bit more lately, which has been fun. We’ve just been working so much that it really is daunting at the end of the day — we take the dog to the dog park for an hour and then come home and make dinner. Sometimes the energy is not there for that. We order Thai food from a place called Mai Pen Rai, or we order bao, or stuff from my friend Pax, who’s a chef at a place called Jungle Bird. That’s the favourite takeout for us. It’s very Asian. Yesterday we had dumplings and veggie lo mein from a 24-hour dumpling place that’s in a very hotel-y kind of zone but, to me, has the best Chinese food around. It used to be a place we’d only go after drinking all night, and now it’s like, you know what? It’s pretty good. We don’t have to be drunk to eat this.

But usually I’m either making tacos with black beans and potatoes, or black beans and eggplant. Sometimes I’ll make a cashew cilantro cream, and I pretty much always have pickled red onions. Lately, instead of doing an actual pickle, I’ve been doing kind of an escabeche with just lime and salt, and that works out so much easier. I don’t know why I was ever measuring vinegar and shit to do pickled red onions. The lime works so much better.

At the beginning of the lockdown we were doing big Middle Eastern feasts once a week, making the pita from scratch, making falafel, making hummus, maybe making baba ganoush. And that was really fun, but it’s very time-consuming. So lately it’s been more tacos. It’s been pasta. I always make tomato sauce from Cento tomatoes in a can. We buy them by the pallet because I love them. We’ve also been doing the tomato kofta curry that Tejal Roa published in The New York Times, because it’s amazing. Her recipe is vegetarian, but I make it vegan with arrowroot instead of egg. I should also add some aquafaba and then it would bind a little better, but I haven’t tried it yet. It’s a lot of tacos, curries, pasta — very basic food. But I try and zhuzh it up a bit with with good spices and good ingredients.

Can we see inside your fridge?

Eek, it’s a mess!

Does your partner cook, too?

He never cooked until the pandemic, and now he does bread stuff. He’s the bread guy now. Focaccia or pita or flatbreads or naan — that’s his job. He is also the beverage director because he used to be a bartender and has been doing some sommelier studies. It’s a complementary relationship.

Can you tell me a bit more about your spice collection?

It’s all Burlap & Barrel. It’s like I am sponsored by Burlap & Barrel. I have the giant service industry-size Burlap & Barrel royal cinnamon, smoky pimentón and wild za’atar. Those are my go-tos. And I also use a lot of Maldon and a lot of Diamond Kosher salt.

Photo: Alicia Kennedy Photo: Alicia Kennedy

I use so much Costco Spanish extra virgin olive oil. They recently had this amazing unfiltered olive oil for very cheap. And of course, nutritional yeast is a go-to for me as a semi-vegan. I really don’t eat cheese, so it adds that savouriness that sometimes is necessary. I have to buy more of their wild mountain cumin; I put cumin in all of my beans. And on fruit — on mango and pineapple — I always put the Burlap & Barrel red jalapeño flakes. They’re perfect. Red pepper flakes I use constantly, but I just use the cheap kind. I feel like people always expect me to use the best of everything available. I don’t have that much money. The crushed red pepper from Costco is perfect. I put that on everything too. If you’re eating pizza, you need them. If you’re eating pasta, you need them. I do prefer things on the spicy side.

Photo: Alicia Kennedy Photo: Alicia Kennedy

I love how many Costco shout-outs have been in this interview so far.

Costco is the absolute best. I just became an executive member because it was necessary. We get the dog food there, so of course we also get human food there. I also cook with a lot of Native Forest canned jackfruit. People ask me “Oh, where do you get that local Puerto Rican jackfruit?” And I’m like “There is none. It’s a Southeast Asian product. It’s not here.” But the Native Forest canned jackfruit is really good. I can’t wait to find out that it’s harvested by enslaved monkeys or something. I’m sure will happen at some point.

That’s one of the hard things about food — dealing with the ever-changing ethics of consuming it.

I was talking about this today with my friend today. She’s an anthropology professor at Harvard who she started the Fine Cacoa and Chocolate Institute. I was like “How do you decide what chocolate to buy? For a lot of people it’s very difficult.” And she said “Well, first of all, it’s not their fault.” The industry and the food system is built so that people can’t think about these things, and it’s all very obscure and unclear where things are from, how they were sourced, what the labour conditions were, etc. So for me — when I’m buying Native Forest jackfruit in a can, I’m like, ok, it’s vegan, it’s organic. They have all the labels right on the cans. But you never really know unless you go to the source of the food.

I’m going to watch this British documentary called “Dirty Secrets of American Food.” The UK is very worried that, because of Brexit, they’re suddenly going to get all of this American food with all this stuff that the EU keeps out of the food. The United States government does not protect anyone from eating food that is going to be bad for them. It puts too much responsibility on the human being at the end of the chain. No one wants to think about these things all the time. I think about these things all the time because it’s my job to do so and because I love food. For most people, they just want to eat something. It’s disgusting how these policies that take advantage of that and make it so that food that is cheap is often overly processed, and has additives that people probably shouldn’t be eating. The fact that the people in the United Kingdom are afraid of getting food from the U.S. seems like such a damning notion.

Shifting slightly back to chocolate. Do you have a favourite chocolate brand?

Raaka chocolate is my absolute favourite. They are super transparent. Everything they make is vegan. They make my absolute favourite chocolate bar on the planet, which is a coconut milk chocolate bar. They don’t call it “raw.” They call it “un-roasted.” It’s fermented, and then it’s not roasted. It’s just made into chocolate. I wrote a whole piece years ago about why they don’t use that word. Basically, it’s very misleading, and there’s no way of knowing whether the chocolate had gone over 180 degrees — which gets rid of the “raw” designation — when it was being fermented.

Another favourite is Lagusta’s Luscious from New Paltz, New York, and they ship all over the U.S. They’re a vegan, fair-trade chocolate maker and also anarchist feminists. [In] Puerto Rico, I’ve been able to get chocolate from Sandra Farms, which is grown locally, which is what I’ve been using to make chocolate ganache and bake lately. The cacao that’s grown here, when it’s made into chocolate, has a very beautiful, bright, kind of lemony flavour, but I don’t think it’s available anywhere else yet.

What do you like to bake with your chocolate?

I make chocolate ganache a lot, and I always have, but my boyfriend is a big chocolate person. If I make cake, I’m baking chocolate cake with chocolate ganache on top. Because it’s so humid here, I can’t make traditional buttercream. It just kind of collapses. Next time I want to bake a cake, I’m just gonna blast the A/C in the bedroom and decorate it in there. Chocolate ganache works with the climate. So does coconut whipped cream. I have to get the coconut cream super, super cold to make it work. I’ve also been doing a powdered sugar and local fruit compote to decorate cakes. I know there’s a new book called Snacking Cakes, and over the last two years that’s been my approach to cake as well. Unless it’s someone’s birthday or a very special occasion, it’s a one layer cake with very minimal stuff on top.

Photo: Alicia Kennedy Photo: Alicia Kennedy

What are your favourite kitchen tools, and which ones do you think are not worth it?

I think single-use tools, generally, are bad. I don’t have a garlic press or anything. I use a chef’s knife and a cutting board all the time. But there are other things that are necessary. You need a micro plane for citrus zest. I don’t think you can get really get around that. I think all of my special tools are for citrus. I have a Mexican lime squeezer which I love that’s silver, and it always feels like it’s about to fall apart, but it never does.

My favourite knives are from Opinel. This makes it sound like an ad, but they they sent me a set of them and I’m completely obsessed because they’re the perfect weight and they have wooden handles that are very nice and smooth. The chef’s knife, especially — it’s an eight inch chef’s knife, and it’s really accessible for anyone who is just getting into nice stuff. And I still have a 12-inch Japanese chef’s knife from Shun that I use for special occasions. It used to be my only chef’s knife, and I don’t know how I went for years just using this gigantic Japanese knife. My aunt bought it for me years ago. I never pay for a chef’s knife. That’s the moral of the story.

I love my hand blender a lot. I use it for salad dressing. I use it to make cashew cream. I’m a firm believer in the Staub Dutch oven over any other kind. I have a red one that I got on sale and it’s kind of changed my life. I also have three Lodge cast iron pants. One is a deep 20-inch, and the one I used the most — my oldest one — is the classic nine-inch. And I have another nine-inch that is four inches deep, which is really nice, especially for deep frying. Those are my super essentials, which is obvious — knife, citrus stuff, pots and pans. And I have a pan with that’s copper on the outside and and stainless steel on the inside, and that is my pan that I use to make eggs for my dog. He loves eggs, but only if they’re cooked in butter. If I make them for him in oil he gets upset and will like take a long time to eat them because he’s displeased with my work.

Someone gave me an pressure cooker and I never used it. Left it in York. And I don’t have an air fryer because I’m of the mind that if you’re gonna fry things, just fry them. I have a zoodle maker, but that can also be used for other stuff. I made zoodles for dinner once and no one was happy. No more zoodles. I might use it to make curly fries. I have a torch, but for me that makes complete sense. I have a molinillo to make Mexican hot chocolate. I’ve never made Mexican hot chocolate, but I take it everywhere I move just in case.

You’re a martini drinker, right?

Oh, yes.

Do you have a favourite ratio?

Under normal circumstances, I do a 50/50 with half Dolan dry vermouth, half Beefeater gin, and olives — as many olives as possible — also from Costco. The Beefeater is always in the freezer and so is the stirring apparatus, so it’s always very, very cold. Then there are days when I want a traditional-ratio martini because it’s been a hard day. Then it’s two parts gin to one part vermouth. Also since the pandemic started, my boyfriend got me into drinking Tuxedo No. 4s, which is just a martini with gin, but in place of the dry vermouth, it’s Fino Sherry. It’s very lovely. With booze, I just want it dry — bone dry.

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