Down the Aisle:Samin Nosrat

Chef and Author of "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking" Interview and Images by Aimee Brodeur

While many visitors to New York tend to gravitate towards a usual suspect like Union Square Farmer's Market, I was surprised to find Samin at a small nondescript market on busy Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn Heights. After spending about an hour with her, it was very clear to me that she is very serious about grocery shopping. Samin makes it a point to seek out the best spots from coast to coast, and she sticks to her motto of “good food begins with good ingredients.” While her talents and career accomplishments are many, one of her greatest and most apparent qualities is the ability to teach and inspire (in this case to a humble grocery store journalist) one to want to learn everything there is to know about food and cooking. Samin’s upcoming book, “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking”, will be available in April of 2017. Knowing now just how driven she is in her search for flavor and beauty in ingredients, and how thorough she is in her process, I truly can’t wait to pick it up.

How often are you in New York?

I probably visit 3-4 times a year, and for 1 or 2 of those times I’m involved in a large cooking endeavor.

Since this is not your typical grocery run, why did you choose this place in Brooklyn to go grocery shopping?

Whenever I set out to shop, I always start with produce.  I look to see what’s fresh and I’ll go from there.  A part of me felt like we should go to Union Square Farmer’s Market, but then I remembered this great little spot that my friends go to.  I think the produce here is better than Whole Foods- It’s not always the MOST local, but I know that at least some of it is.  At home in Northern California, we have the luxury of being able to eat locally at the peak of the season throughout the year.  

Tell me a bit about your SF routine?  Do you shop once a week?  Daily?

I like to shop almost every day.  I live in Berkeley, just a few blocks from the best grocery store in the world- Monterey Market.

Oh, I have heard about this place- Chris Kronner of Kronnerburger mentioned that he shops there as well!

They buy in bulk so their pricing is really fantastic- it’s the same stuff that the farmers markets have, and it’s only 2 blocks from my house.  I pretty much split my shopping between Monterey Market and Berkeley Bowl.  Berkeley Bowl is all-purpose.  The other thing about Monterey Market is that right around the corner from them is a great butcher shop and a great fish market!  You can just walk around the block and get everything you need- sort of old school.

I would say you found grocery market utopia…

I did! There is nothing better, and I feel pretty lucky.

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“As long as I have cilantro, limes, and 2 jalapenos in my fridge, I can pretty much find my way through the week.”

 

What produce are you looking forward to in the fall and winter months?

So there are these honey nut squashes…Dan Barber and his farmer created this new varietal that are like butternut squashes but much smaller.  They are a bit darker skinned as well, and when you cut them open they are the brightest orange. The whole idea behind them is that with butternut there is so much water content, and the first thing you have to do with them is roast them in the oven and cook all of that water out.  These don’t have the extra water content because of their size, but you get all of the flavor.  I also look forward to this pear from Frog Hollow in SF called the Warren Pear.

(At this point we head inside the market and straight towards produce.)  

Basically every time I shop… there are limes and cilantro in my cart- no matter what. This store has really good herbs…I’m very into the herb situation here.

Have your routines around buying and making food changed much in the past 10 or so years?  

A lot-yes.  A big part of it was in 2009, when I stopped working in restaurants. When I worked at restaurants, I never really cooked at home.  The last thing I wanted to do was cook a proper healthy meal after cooking in the restaurant all day long.  Since then I have transitioned out of restaurants and my full time job is essentially writing.  I always had these grand ideas of what lunches should be at work, because for my entire adult life lunch was something you made at a restaurant.  I sort of had to create a new context for what lunch meant and reduce expectations for myself.  Still, I understand there is a lot of luxury built into my situation.  I don’t have kids, I shop almost every day, and I cook a lot more than other people.

These days I make a lot of rice at home, and I have a little garden for some greens.  To me, it’s usually rice, greens, and an egg.  As long as I have cilantro, limes, and 2 jalapenos in my fridge, I can pretty much find my way through the week.

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“When people show up at my house- I like to think about how they can be part of it.  When you’re part of something, you’re more connected to it and more proud of it.”

 

Sounds like a big change in going from eating in a restaurant all the time to eating at home.  There also is probably a health and economic benefit there.

I went from having a full time income to writing freelance- so I ate my share of beans and rice too.  Oh, I love these! (Grabs a handful of cucumbers) I will say this… I won’t buy tomatoes out of season, and I won’t buy stone fruit out of season, but I will buy cucumbers year round!  I’m just too Persian, I can’t not buy them.

What’s a go-to feel good meal for you?

Roasted chicken. I’m really into spatchcocking it. Actually, I think I’m going to make it tonight.  A lot people have anxiety with raw meat and raw chicken, so they buy prepackaged pieces. If we could just get people a little more comfortable with cooking the whole animal…I promise you- anyone can put a whole chicken in the oven.

Do you have any specific rituals when you have people over for a meal?

I always try to get people’s hands in the food.  When people show up at my house- I like to think about how they can be part of it.  When you’re part of something, you’re more connected to it and more proud of it.  When we were at the farm last weekend, I sent people to harvest vegetables, peel corn, or set the table- anything to help them to be a part of it.

(Grabbing a bag of rice.)  

This is one of my very favorite kinds of rice!  It’s called “Haiga Rice”– they have a diagram on the back.  So white rice is milled, brown rice has the entire germ on it, and with this rice they leave the germ on but remove the hull.  It’s a perfect halfway point between white rice and brown rice, it cooks fast, and is delicious.  It’s so weird that I’ve never seen it anywhere other than Berkeley Bowl and they have it at this small corner store on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn!

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“They want you to shop there, so I think it is worth it to keep asking for the type of products you want.”

 

For someone who grocery shops so often and at places all over the country, what are your tricks for shopping on a budget while still getting great produce?

It’s so complicated because there is sort of a time/cost continuum, right?  If you want convenience, it makes sense to do fewer stops, especially in NYC because you have to schlep all of your stuff around.  It also makes a lot of sense to shop in your neighborhood.  The more you familiarize yourself with what’s in your neighborhood- this might sound very “Alice Waters dreamy”- but if you go to your corner store and keep asking for ginger or cilantro, and enough people do that, they will start carrying it.  I’ve seen corner shops change and start carrying organic milk. They want you to shop there, so I think it is worth it to keep asking for the type of products you want.  Also, it’s worth it to learn about all of the stores around you and to compare who has what and what their prices are.  For me that is a pleasure.

So when some people feel that the only option they have is the big box store, it’s worth looking to see if there may be a better deal at smaller stores?  Speaking of organics, do you have any strict rules or preferences?

Sometimes if the organic produce at a place looks old and picked over, I will go with something non-organic that is fresher.  There are a handful of items that I won’t compromise on, though.  

Eggs, dried beans- these make a big difference because if you buy better dried beans they will taste better and cook more evenly.  And 8 bucks for 1 lb. of beans is still a lot less expensive and will go a lot farther than any meat I can buy.  It’s the same with eggs.  I mean, it’s crazy to see a 12 dollar dozen box of eggs, but that’s still only $2.00 for breakfast. The most delicious egg I ever had was in England- the egg game in England is so strong.  It’s crazy how beautiful the eggs are there.  Also in Mexico- everyone just has good eggs there.

It’s the same with meat.  My rule is that it’s either good meat or no meat.  Those are my organics to live by- eggs, meat, beans, and dairy.  I spend the extra money to know where they come from.

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“Taste everything- both when you’re cooking and when you’re shopping.”

 

Do you talk about that in Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat?

I don’t talk so much about money, but I talk about using everything up to help your future self in the kitchen.  I think Tamar Adler, the author of “An Everlasting Meal”, said it best when she said something like, “We just have to change our expectations of what could be dinner.”  People have this grand idea of what dinner has to be- but we should get real about it and understand that a salad and a bowl of rice, or some chicken thighs and shaved carrots can all be dinner.  From there, you reduce the expectation and pressure, and then you reduce the cost of your meal.

Did you receive any memorable advice over the years that you still repeat to yourself while you are prepping or cooking for yourself?

Taste everything- both when you’re cooking and when you’re shopping.  Always taste the fruit in the market.

Two principles were instilled in me at Chez Panisse.  For one, it really starts with shopping. Your cooking is only as good as the ingredients you are using. I take that very seriously. Shopping is where cooking begins. Second, it brings me a lot of pleasure is to really consider aesthetics when cooking. We had to take great care of our stations, and we had to create beautiful produce displays that Alice would come by and judge. You are taught as a cook to take time and pride in making things look good, and I think that sensual aspect of appealing to all of the senses is built into my cooking.

When did you get the idea of putting all of this knowledge that you have acquired working at restaurants through the years, especially at Chez Panisse, into a book?

I started as a busser at Chez Panisse when I was in college. I was overcome with the beauty of the restaurant and how the menu changed each day, so I begged them to let me intern in the kitchen. I quickly became overwhelmed at the menu meetings, because one day we were making Moroccan cuisine, the next day it would be French food, and the next would be Italian. They all knew how to make everything. Nobody ever looked at a cookbook or said what the oven temperature should be. It was like a language that everybody knew but me. I remember thinking, “How will I ever get there?”

Over time I started to notice these very basic things- we always salted the meat a day before, for braises we always brought things to a boil before turning it down, and we always roasted vegetables at around 400 degrees. When I worked in pastries the oven was at 350 degrees, when it was savory it was over 400. There were these patterns that I started to see. I started to notice when chefs would request more salt or cheese or a little more lemon or vinegar. I started to see the common themes of salt, fat, acid and heat. These things just kept reappearing no matter what we were making.

I talked to a chef I was working with about this realization, and he was like, “Yeah, duh. We all know that.” But I was like, “What? No one ever told me about this.” It wasn’t in the cookbooks! At that point I was determined to write a book about it. I kept notes and it evolved over time to become part of my everyday vocabulary.

Then I took a class with Michael Pollan. I audited a class with him at my journalism school, and eventually he hired me to teach him how to cook for the book he was working on about the history of cooking.

What an amazing person to bounce book ideas off of.

He is the best, and has been an incredible mentor. He told me that before I make it into a book I should make it into a curriculum piece and teach it. So I did that, which helped me standardize what I wanted to say and work out some of the kinks. I taught it for three years straight.

You must really be ready for this book to come out!

Oh man, yes. I’ve been ready for 3 years! And it feels good. I feel like, as this crazy ambitious immigrant child with all these hopes and expectations, it’s hard to divorce myself from the hope that the book will do well, that a lot of people will buy it or love it. And right now, as I’m trying to really look at what defines success for me, it’s when I can know that I’ve done everything I can to make the book as good as I can. When I know that I put it out there with full consciousness of the choices I have made. At that point there is nothing more that I can do other than be proud of what I’ve done.

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Take-aways:

  1. Ciao SaminStories, Recipes, Tutorials, Event Updates, a Small Online Store, and More, Directly from Saminhttp://ciaosamin.com/
  2. "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking"Samin's Upcoming Book, Available for Pre-Order Through SF's finest Brick and Mortar Food Bookstore, Omnivore Books.Omnivore Books
Recipe Recipe

Recipe:

Samin Nosrat’s Corn Soup

I’m a firm believer that the best cooking is not so much about fancy techniques and expensive ingredients. Sometimes the tiniest—and most inexpensive—thing will make all the difference. Nothing demonstrates that idea as well as this soup, whose secret ingredient is a quick stock made using nothing more than cobs and water. Use the freshest, sweetest summer corn you can find and you’ll see how five simple ingredients can add up to a singularly flavorful soup.

Ingredients:

  • 8 to 10 ears of corn- husks, stalks, and silk removed
  • 8 tablespoons (4 ounces) butter
  • 2 medium yellow onions, sliced
  • Salt

Serves

6-8 people

Fold a kitchen towel into quarters and set it inside a large, wide metal bowl. Use one hand to hold an ear of corn in place upright atop the kitchen towel—it helps to pinch the ear at the top. With your other hand, use a serrated knife or sharp chef’s knife to cut off two or three rows of kernels at a time by sliding the knife down the cob. Get as close to the cob as you can, and resist the temptation to cut off more rows at once—that’ll leave behind lots of precious corn. Save the cobs. In a soup pot, quickly make a corn cob stock: cover the cobs with 9 cups water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes, then remove the cobs. Set stock aside. Return the pot to the stove and heat over medium heat. Add the butter. Once it has melted, add the onions and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are completely soft and translucent, or blond, about 20 minutes. If you notice the onions starting to brown, add a splash of water and keep an eye on things, stirring frequently, to prevent further browning. As soon as the onions are tender, add the corn. Increase the heat to high and sauté just until the corn turns a brighter shade of yellow, 3 to 4 minutes. Add just enough stock to cover everything, and crank up the heat to high. Save the rest of the stock in case you need to thin out the soup later. Season with salt, taste, and adjust. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 minutes. If you have an immersion blender, use it to carefully blend the soup until it is puréed. If you don’t have one, work carefully and quickly to purée it in batches in a blender or food processor. For a very silky texture, strain the soup one last time through a fine-mesh sieve. Taste the soup for salt, sweetness, and acid balance. If the soup is very flatly sweet, a tiny bit of white wine vinegar or lime juice can help balance it out.
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