Down The Aisle:Sarah Weiner

Director of The Good Food Awards, Content Director at Slow Food Nation, and Co-Founder of The Seedling Project Interview and Images by Aimee Brodeur

As the director of The Good Food Awards, Sarah regularly gets to test and eat the world’s most delicious small batch food products. Yes, it sounds like a dream gig, but it’s built upon years of dedication to quality products and a passion for the people that make them. I found Sarah’s sense of adventure and enthusiasm infectious as I joined her for a grocery run at Bi-Rite’s Divisadero Street outpost. As we strolled through the aisles, she would pull random items off the shelves with remarks like, “These people are so sweet!” or “The way they toast this chili is amazing.” It’s as if her years in the food industry and relationships with individual makers have given her a sort of x-ray vision into the inner workings of the food products we love most.

So what does your typical routine look like when you go to the grocery store?

I like to go in with a list, but sometimes I’m not so prepared. If I do have a list, I’ll divide it into two parts.  The first is a list of ingredients to make a specific recipe, and the second is a list of ingredients I keep in my house to make something on the fly. I try and make a dish over the weekend that I can bring as leftovers for lunch at the office. I’ll often find that recipe on Food52.com, or I have a couple of favorite cookbooks like David Tanis’ A Platter of Figs. I’ve been really into making brown rice bowls and bringing them in for lunch. A few things I add to make them exciting and delicious are crunchy fried shallots, garlic, and chilies. I also like to make a simple sauce with lemon, garlic, oil, and tahini. I love having that on hand for the week.

Another thing I like to do is buy fresh bread, but there are times when I don’t get to all of it because I’ll be out for dinner.  So a day or two after I buy the bread I’ll slice it up and put it in the freezer, and that way it lasts over a week.  I’ll just take a slice out, put it under the broiler, and have a quick bruschetta.

Where do you go to find inspiration in the kitchen?

Cookbooks- but I go in phases. There are times when work is really busy and I am just throwing together fast and simple dishes. Then there are times when I really get into a new cookbook, and I spend time making things from it.

Have you noticed any big changes in your food eating habits over the last 10 years?

Definitely. When I lived in England, I didn’t have a job, and I was challenged to cook for myself on $20 a week. It forced me to get creative with how I thought of meals and what I could make that would last.

I come across a lot of people who tell me that organic is too expensive, or that they can’t afford to shop at farmers markets or specialty stores because of the prices. What is your advice on how to get the best foods for the best prices?

The first thing I would say is I completely understand where they are coming from. My grandparents were immigrants and Holocaust survivors from Poland. The way my mother was raised was worlds away from the way a lot of people now are privileged to be able to look at food. I grew up seeing food through her perspective.

I also feel that there are ways to cook with a weekly budget and buy ingredients that are whole foods and organic and still make great meals. It kind of has to with what you want and what you value.  For example, I rarely buy steak or salmon. Maybe once every 6 months. But I do buy chicken thighs, and I buy the best chicken thighs. They are the cheapest cut from the chicken and they also happen to be the most tasty.  

Lastly, shopping in season at the farmer’s market where there is a glut of tomatoes or other seasonal vegetables will always be the cheapest option for buying the best and most affordable produce. It takes a little more time and a little bit more know-how, but in the end it ends up saving you money.

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“It kind of has to with what you want and what you value… I rarely buy steak or salmon. Maybe once every 6 months. But I do buy chicken thighs, and I buy the best chicken thighs.”

 

What are you planning on making with today’s ingredients?

I’m going to make a blueberry dessert that my grandmother would make for us every time we would go to visit her.

What is it called?

Interestingly enough, she just called it “blueberries”- she didn’t speak much English. I had never seen this type of pastry anywhere at any bakery. It’s a sweet yeasted dough, and it’s sort of turned over with the berries inside and oval in shape with streusel on top.

A funny story about this pastry- I was visiting my friend one day and when I arrived I saw these pastries at her home. She was testing them for a new cookbook she was writing. When I told her that my grandmother was the only person I know to have made them, she asked if my grandmother was from Toronto.  It turns out, upon doing research on this pastry, that a lot of immigrants from Poland moved to this exact place in Toronto and it’s one of the few places you can find them.

So unique and special.

And isn’t it odd that she was testing that recipe on the day I happen to be coming by?

It was meant to be.  What is a go-to recipe that you find yourself making over and over?

Chicken thighs baked in the oven, and then finished off in the broiler so the skin gets extra crispy. It lays on a bed of fennel and thinly sliced oranges, so those also get a little crispy, and then I add Castelvetrano olives. The chicken lays on top of it all. It’s great for leftovers, too.

Favorite place to take a friend from out of town to dinner?

Chez Panisse, or NOPA for a local spot. I love the burger there.

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“When I lived in England, I didn’t have a job, and I was challenged to cook for myself on $20 a week. It forced me to get creative with how I thought of meals and what I could make that would last.”

 

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“Interestingly enough, she just called it “blueberries”- she didn’t speak much English… It turns out, upon doing research on this pastry, that a lot of immigrants from Poland moved to this exact place in Toronto and it’s one of the few places you can find them.”

 

Favorite thing at Chez Panisse?

The salads, and anything fried that they have. They do a fried rabbit that is amazing.

Favorite solo eating spot?

Off the Grid. I go for the poke bowl every time.

So your job is to taste a ton of amazing food products and then either give them awards or not- how many items do you try each round?

2,000 items.

Oh my God- that doesn’t sound like a bad job at all. Have you had a few favorites that you continue to get each year?

Nosh This Brittle- it’s such an excellent treat.

Do you have a favorite memory that was shared over a meal?

The first time I ever went to Europe, I was backpacking with my sisters. I was 18, and we visited a family in France. They hosted us and made this incredible meal.  He was such a gregarious French man that just loved food. His wife showed us how she makes vinegar from their leftover wines. They served this type of a roast that I had never had before. They couldn’t explain it in English but I later found out it was called Roebuck, which I have still never had anywhere else.  At the end of the meal, they gave us all of these amazing stinky cheeses and marzipan. It was such a different way of eating in somebody’s home. It was really mind blowing to think, “This is what someone else considers dinner.” I think that in coming from a family where we started dinner at 5pm and finished by 5:40pm, there was this joie de vivre about the whole experience that really changed how I thought about gathering for a meal.

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Take-aways:

  1. Sarah's favorite place to look for new recipesFood 52
  2. A go-to cookbook for cooking inspirationDavid Tanis