Monday, October 25, 2010

8 Questions for Amanda Hesser

I'm so excited about this post! I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to interview Amanda Hesser, author, cofounder of, and longtime New York Times staffer. Her latest project (though many years in the making) is The Essential New York Times Cookbook, which was just released.

Before we get to the good stuff, I will take a moment to gush over this book. I received a review copy from the publisher, and while I was looking forward to perusing its pages, I did not expect to instantly fall in love (I still can't stop talking about how great it is!). If you like to cook, want to cook or enjoy a little cultural context with your recipes, you must buy this book. Not just nice to read curled up on the sofa, it is also extraordinarily useful: Hesser tested, perfected and annotated each recipe so that anyone can walk into the kitchen with their copy and emerge successful, with something good to eat.

So far, I have made black bean soup with salsa  and steak au poivre. I followed the soup recipe almost to the letter, and I loved it. If you don't think black bean soup can be particularly interesting or special, this is the recipe you should try (a ton of lime juice added at the end is the secret). The steak recipe, along with the many others in the book, served as inspiration for my own riff on classic steak au poivre--this is an excellent cookbook to turn to for unique ideas.

Here are a few more reasons why I love this book: each chapter list recipes chronologically (some go back 150 years); Hesser provides the title and author of the article in which each recipe originally appeared, as well as historical context when appropriate; and most recipes are followed by a list of suggested recipes from the book that could be used to construct a complete meal. Finally, as much as I enjoy cookbooks, most are not essential. Rarely do they have something new to offer. This one, however, lives up to its name tenfold. Now, here's what Amanda had to say about my new favorite book:

Amanda Hesser 
Photo Credit: Sarah Shatz

This book covers 150 years worth of recipes in the Times, so it’s a tremendous undertaking. How did you choose the recipes you would test? I find this process fascinating, so feel free to go into detail!

The first thing I did was turn to the New York Times readers and ask them (in a query in the paper) what their favorite recipes were. From their thousands of suggestions I tested the 400 recipes that were recommended most. This gave me a much-needed foundation of terrific favorites from the book. But it only took me back to the 1960s. For the 100 years of recipes preceding this, I had to just dig in and figure out what were the important dishes of each decade. With a recipe like Tomato Soup, I’d read all the recipes that were printed and then select the most promising one to test. The testing took 4 to 5 years.

Will you describe a recipe or two that looked promising on paper, but couldn’t be included in the book for some reason(s)?

Charlotte Russe, which is an old molded dessert that was very popular in the 19th century. I really wanted to include it but every version I tried turned out so firm and rubbery that it seemed closer to charlotte Play-Doh.

I imagine you had to test quite a few recipes that went totally against your personal taste. Did any of them surprise you or change the way you eat going forward?

I like pretty much everything so that wasn’t a problem. I think the biggest change is simply that by cooking 1,400 recipes, I vastly expanded my repertory, and now I have a lot more dishes I’m excited to make, like Amazing Overnight Waffles, Huguenot Torte, Craig Claiborne’s Fondue, and The Normandy (a delicious drink for fall).

Are there any particular writers or chefs whom you rediscovered (or became a first-time fan of) while working on the book?

I came to adore Pierre Franey, who was the chef at the storied Le Pavillon, and who later teamed up with Craig Claiborne to write the Sunday food page as well as his own column, “The 60-Minute Gourmet,” which was the 1970s version of The Minimalist. Franey wasn’t much of a writer but sure knew how to construct a recipe. He was precise without being pedantic.

You couldn’t possibly have one favorite recipe from the book, so how about giving us one favorite in each of the following categories?

As you’ll see I couldn’t select just one in each!

Hors d’oeuvres: Pickled Shrimp or Hot Cheese Olives
Easy entrée: Chicken Canzanese
Dessert: Teddie’s Apple Cake or Lucas Schoorman’s Lemon Tart
Anything beef: Spanish Fricco or Dijon and Cognac Beef Stew

You asked Times readers to send you their favorite recipes from the paper, which seems like a nicely democratic way to make your selections. But if you were a reader answering this call, what recipes would you have sent in to the author of The Essential New York Times Cookbook (and did they make the cut?)?

The truth is that when I was a reporter, I was so busy working on my own stories that I didn’t have time to cook from the Times’s food pages. One of the great joys of working on this project was getting a chance to cook recipes by colleagues like Marian Burros, Florence Fabricant, Molly O’Neill and Mark Bittman

As in any cookbook, there are going to be recipes that enjoy perennial popularity with readers and those that get neglected because they seem to lack an obvious wow factor. Please save us from ourselves and shine a light on a couple recipes you fear may not get the attention they deserve.

Sea Bass in Grappa
Tuna Salad
Bolzano Apple Cake
Delicate Bread Pudding
Broccoli Puree with Ginger
Raspberry Vinegar
Beets in Lime Cream

While writing this book, you also launched, a first-of-its-kind recipe site that combines the expertise of you and co-creator, Merrill Stubbs, with the creativity of home cooks and social media. As newspapers and magazines struggle, do you believe sites like will become the new chroniclers of American gastronomy?

I hope so – we’ve found our system of crowd-sourcing and curation immensely effective and rewarding. The ideas and recipes from the crowd are filled with soul and experience, and that’s hard to replicate with a single voice. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for experts and great writers, but I think we’ve managed to highlight another path to shaping the food conversation. The fluidity of the internet allows you to instantly see emerging trends and moods and changes, and at food52, you get a pure distillation of all of this from the people who are in the trenches, cooking at home and thinking about food day after day.

I want to thank Amanda for taking the time to answer my questions. I need to go read the Beets in Lime Cream recipe right now (I seem to be cooking beets about once a week lately). Do any of you have the book yet? Will you buy it? I would love to know if you've tried any of the recipes and how they turned out. Sound off in the comment section, and please leave your links if you've blogged about the book!

1 comment:

Barbara said...

Great interview and it sounds like a marvelous book!