Down the Aisle:Carla Lalli Music

Food Director at Bon Appétit Interview and Images by Aimee Brodeur

I have to say- meeting up with the food director of Bon Appétit was a slightly intimidating way to start my Saturday morning. I imagined that someone surrounded by food and restaurant buzz 24/7 may be a little jaded to go grocery shopping with. Thankfully, I couldn't have been more wrong. Carla's enthusiasm for all things delicious was inspiring as we browsed the cathedral-like aisle of the Fort Greene farmer's market. Her stories were amusing and familiar. We discussed the challenges of balancing the demands of cooking for work and for her children, and the joys of finding ways to inspire her children to cook for themselves. I made a second stop that afternoon at my own local market, equally eager and inspired to test out some of Carla's seasonal suggestions for myself.

I love this farmers market- is this your regular weekend spot?

It is!  I have lived in Fort Greene for 17 years and have been coming to this farmers market since it opened around 8-9 years ago.  For a long time I had to shop at Union Square and lug everything home.  We really didn’t have supermarkets, and even the bodegas back then didn’t have a lot of fresh food. To call it a “food desert” would be an exaggeration, but it was definitely limited, even just to get onions or garlic.

So what’s on your list today?

Usually there are a few things-  I love Ronnybrook– and we pretty much always get a challah loaf at Hot Bread.  I also always get bread at She Wolf.  Those are kind of like the staple things that I don’t really have to think about it.  For the other stuff I usually walk the market from front to back to see what everyone has. But Conuco Farms and Lucky Dog Farms are the two main places I get my produce from.

So when this market came to the neighborhood did you then start to notice an influx of more food options in Fort Greene?

Oh yeah, I mean so much of the neighborhood has changed.  The whole texture of the neighborhood, with the real estate demand and prices, it’s a different demographic all around. In 2006 and 2007 there were a ton of new families. Even when my oldest son applied for school, you could walk in and put your name on a list. When my younger son Cosmo was enrolling a few years ago, parents had to go online in the middle of the night, literally at 2 AM.

What type of bread do you like to keep in the house?

A seedy bread. The polenta pullman from She Wolf is great.

Are you a once a week or every day type of grocery shopper?

I’m a once a week shopper, and then we will fill in as needed- like if we run out of milk or peanut butter, those kind of things. I also do Fresh Direct for staples, like canned tomatoes, olive oil, pasta, or Parmesan cheese- all of the things I can’t get here or are going to cost an arm and a leg at other markets.  I actually love the meat market at Green Grape- they buy whole animal… But with some other things, it’s like being in the airport, like, “Why does this bottle of water cost $4.50?”

Does your diet change dramatically during the winter?

Oh yeah.

So do you guys try to eat as seasonally as possible.

We do- yes. But you know I’m still going to eat lemons in the winter, I’m not that hardcore.

I’m from California- I’m not that hard core either.  I’m like, “avocados in the winter?  Yes!”

It’s funny, I’m not great with the summer to fall transition. It makes me very sad.  My mom, my sister, and I… we are all like.. It’s sad.  Summer is my season. When the leaves change the end is near, and its like soon it’s going to be a frozen tundra and we won’t be able to go outside, my mom sees the first apple at the farmer’s market and she’ll email us like, “NOT READY!”

As seasons change, you crave different things.  I always say that in the fall my diet really goes orange and green between all of the squash and leafy greens.  I don’t really like the season, but then when I start cooking and doing time-consuming braises, I always have that moment where I’m like, “Oh, I do love this food!”  I welcome the change from the summer food. The greens get really colorful and beautiful- it’s eggplant parm season!

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“One thing that is important to me is to put together parts of meals for them during the weekends, so that even though I’m not always sitting down at the table with them, they are still eating a sauce or a soup that I made, and it closes that loop for me- where I know they are getting to eat something I made for them.”

 

Sounds like you cook a lot?  How many days a week would you say you are cooking?

I do cook a lot. I cook all weekend, especially in the fall and winter months.

Does it unwind you, do you really enjoy cooking?
Oh yeah.. Totally.  I started my career in food in restaurants. Then I got into management, then media, and now I run the test kitchen at Bon Appetit, so I’m in that kitchen all day long.  I cook and develop some recipes for the magazine, but mostly I’m guiding the other recipes to completion with my team.

(Walking past a produce stand)

Ooh watercress!  See, something like this is not on my list, but then it looks amazing and I haven’t seen it in the market for so long.

Impulse buys.

Yeah totally.. I’m like, “Hmm, what can I do with that?”

I think a lot of people at some point find their regular routines around food changed by new time constraints, or by health. Do you remember a time when your routine around cooking or grocery shopping changed?

Having young children. When they are so young, you are just much more ruled by their schedule. If you don’t get the opportunity to get out during the right window- the window will be gone. I think the first time I ever ordered Fresh Direct was when Leo, my first son, was a baby, and it was a brand new service.  It was SO not my kind of thing.  I didn’t understand it.  You can’t see the food, you can’t touch the food, you can’t smell the food- you just have to trust them. 

But at that time, there were so few places to shop in this neighborhood, so I would literally drive in the car to Harlem to the Fairway on 125th street because they had a parking lot.  By then it would be a half day routine. I mean, I love Fairway- I grew up going to Fairway, but at a certain point I just needed my time.  I was a working mom spending half of my 2 free days food shopping.  It was just too much.

During those times I also did a lot of strategic cooking.  I cooked all of his baby food, so the weekends were definitely a “get ahead” time where I was kind of drawing upon restaurant experience and cooking 4 things at a time.  I would be done in 2 hours and would have nearly a month’s worth of food- I had a vacuum sealer for his baby food jars.

One thing that is important to me is to put together parts of meals for them during the weekends, so that even though I’m not always sitting down at the table with them, they are still eating a sauce or a soup that I made, and it closes that loop for me- where I know they are getting to eat something I made for them.

Did you grow up around your parents cooking a lot for you?  Do you feel like you are passing down traditions you also experienced as a kid with cooking?

My mom was an amazing cook. I grew up eating really well. I think the reason why I put so much time into cooking for my family is because I want them to eat as well as I did as a kid.  When I moved out, I remember thinking… “Oh, I have to figure out how to make that stuff if I want to keep eating it.”

So now I’m teaching both of them how to cook.  I tell them all of the time, “A handsome gentleman who knows how to cook is going to slay it with the ladies!…Or whatever your preference is.”

Haha I love that- You’re like, “You will thank me later, I promise.”

Yeah I’m like, “I’m basically helping you land dates.”

So you’re kids are in the kitchen with you often, that’s great!

My oldest, Leo, is a fearless cook. He likes to cook for himself often. He will ask me, “So what pan would you use?”  Or, “How would you do it?” But then he doesn’t want me to help him, he wants to do it himself.

Wow, the day my kid asks me what pan to use…I think I will know I have done something right.
His independence is growing.  The other day he got home from school and his babysitter and Cosmo were at the park.  He sent me and my husband a picture of the food he made when he got home. It was stir fried rice with tomato sauce and a poached egg on top with hot sauce.  I think he even cut into the egg to show us the yoke was running. I was like… “You’re a beast!  That is so cool!”  And then another part of me was like, “Okay, you’re alone at the house and you turned on the stove…”

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“I was like… ‘You’re a beast! That is so cool!’ And then another part of me was like, ‘Okay, you’re alone at the house and you turned on the stove…'”

 

Right, you don’t want to discourage them, and then you also don’t want them to burn the house down.

Exactly, but nothing happened this time, and well… Cleaning up after himself is another thing.

How is that working out?

Not well! (laughing) I’m like, “At least get it in the sink!”

Our youngest invented this little pastry that he is so proud of. I gave him some scraps of dough and he rolled it flat, took a berry, put it in the center, and then wrapped it up, like a little dumpling. Then he said, “Mom- cook this and take a photo!”  He knows I’m on Instagram.  I knew I had to change my Instagram habits when I would hand them their dinners and they would lean back for me to hover over and get a picture.  I was like, “Oh no! This is bad. Really bad…”

(Picking up an Italian plum)  I was just in Italy and saw these everywhere, but I have never cooked with them.

Oh, I love these.  This is one of those special things that cure the deep sadness of the winter because they only come around this time of year.  There was an article in the New York Times about a plum torte- I think it was a Marian Burros’ recipe- that people have been making for a million years and for whatever reason it is back in the news.

This is one of those times during fall where I start thinking about all of the things I’m going to make, and then I get home and have so many ingredients and think… “Crap…it’s going to be a mad dash to cook all of this before it goes bad.”

One of my favorite times of year for Bon Appetit is the holiday issues.  Is there a recipe from a past issue that you developed that has made its way onto your family’s table for the holidays year after year?

There is a recipe for duck confit that I kind of improved at home where I had all of these duck legs, and I thought, “Do I really need to buy a quart of duck fat?  I feel like it’s going to render enough fat to cover itself.  Maybe if I cook it slow and give it a little water…”  So I tried it at home and it totally worked.  In the September issue, I did a one page story about tomato soup.  It has an antidote about Leo, who went to school, had tomato soup in the cafeteria, and came home asking,  “Do you know how to make tomato soup?”  And I was like… “Yeah of course!”  And I totally had never made it, so it’s a story of coming up with that. The recipe ran and it’s called Carla’s Tomato Soup.

So I think it’s safe to say food has gotten a lot more attention in the last 10 years than it ever has. Do you think there are pros and cons to that? If so, can you name any that you have experienced?

I read an article this morning saying that for the first time in a while, there has been a shift in that people are spending more on groceries than at restaurants.  It’s an anomaly, and that a lot of that is driven by the healthier trends in food, but also because prices at restaurants are going up and it’s expensive to eat out.  With things like Blue Apron and all of the meal kit stuff-  I think for a lot of people it jump starts the home cooking impulse.  There were a couple of anecdotes in the story about people who get hooked on Blue Apron, learn new ingredients and techniques, and eventually become better cooks and don’t need the box anymore and can do their own thing.  For someone in my position at the magazine, this is good.  I mean- we cover a lot of restaurants too, since chefs do push the needle forward and keep things fun- but our whole thing is also about taking trends, ideas, and inspiration and turning them into recipes that people can actually cook at home.  So I was really happy to read that.

I think the downside of the attention is- when something is very personal to you and you’ve dedicated your life and career to it- and then suddenly one day everybody is an expert.  Sometimes even looking through my Instagram feed, I’ll be like, “Ugh, I’m so bored- we’re all just taking photos of our food…”  The trendiness of social media has taken away from us enjoying our food in the moment.  And that goes back to what I was saying about having these guys lean away from their meal so mom can get a photo.

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“I knew I had to change my Instagram habits when I would hand them their dinners and they would lean back for me to hover over and get a picture.  I was like, ‘Oh no! This is bad. Really bad…'”

 

We are all so guilty of that.  I spoke with a chef recently and he mentioned that apps like Yelp and just the act of instantaneous comments and reviews has really shifted the way his customers interacted with him, his staff, and the restaurant  in a negative way.

I think it’s really exhausting because people have this megaphone.  I worked at Union Square Hospitality Group as the general manager for Shake Shack, and they had a saying that for everyone one person that will send you a letter of admiration, ten people will complain. People are much more motivated to comment negatively.  From a restaurant perspective that’s a problem.  Instead of people bringing it up with their server or restaurant manager on the spot, they just let it play out and then write about it later.

(To Carla’s son Cosmo) What is your favorite dish that you mom puts on the table for you?

Cosmo: Pasta. It has cheese and butter in it.

Carla: Basically Pasta Alfredo.

How often do you make it?

At least once a week.

Is there a dish that you really love putting on the table for your family?
I love to make soup.  Sunday soup supper is my favorite meal.  It will always be some variation of beans and greens, and maybe sausage and crusty bread with some Parmesan cheese.  It’s something I grew up eating.

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Take-aways:

  1. Challah BreadHot Bread Kitchen
  2. Ronny Brook MilkRonnybrook
  3. She Wolf BreadShe Wolf Bakery
  4. Carla's Tomato SoupTomato Soup Recipe
  5. Duck Confit for the HolidaysA quick way to make Duck Confit
  6. Plum Torte by Marion BurrosMarion Burro's Plum Torte
  7. Carla's Instagram@lallimusic
Recipe Recipe

Recipe:

Italian Plum Galette by Carla Lalli Music

Italian plums appear in the market in early fall, right around the time that concord grapes, new-crop apples, and the first of the winter squashes appear, but these proportions work equally well with summer stone fruit (increase cornstarch to 1 Tbsp. if fruit is especially juicy). Feel free to season the plum mixture with 1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper or a generous pinch of finely chopped fresh rosemary, if that appeals to you.

Ingredients:

  • 2 lb. Italian plums (about 12), or regular plums, quartered, pits removed
  • 2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
  • 2 Tbsp. Demerara sugar, raw sugar, or granulated sugar, plus more for sprinkling
  • 2 tsp. cornstarch
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 single pie crust
  • All-purpose flour, for work surface
  • 1 egg, beaten to blend, or 1/8 cup heavy cream

Serves

4-6

  • Preheat oven to 425°. In a medium bowl, toss plums with lemon juice, sugar, cornstarch, and a pinch salt. Set aside.
  • Roll out dough to a 10- 12" round on a lightly floured work surface. Carefully transfer to a 9"- or 10" springform pan or removable bottom tart pan, gently center dough, and press against edge and bottom of pan, lifting up from outside edge of dough and allowing dough to slump back down into pan. (You can also do this free-form: Transfer dough to a parchment paper-lined rimmed baking sheet.)
  • Arrange plums and any accumulated juices in an even layer on top of dough, extending to edge of pan (if making a free-form galette, leave a 2" border). Working your way around circumference, use  fingertips to fold edge of dough over plums (all but outermost ring of plums will remain uncovered). Brush dough with egg and sprinkle dough and surface of plums with sugar.
  • Bake until galette dough is dark golden brown and crisp, plums are very tender and slightly shriveled, and juices are bubbling thickly, about 1 hour. Let galette cool before serving.
Note: Galette can be baked 1 day in advance. Wrap loosely in plastic wrap and store at room temperature; revive in a 350° oven.
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