Last week, I was thrilled to chat with the legendary food writer, bestselling author, restaurant critic and former Gourmet magazine editor in chief Ruth Reichl. Her first cookbook in over 40 years — My Kitchen Year — just came out this week. Here, Ruth shares her go-to dinner, her secret talent and the best piece of career advice she’s ever gotten…
What ingredients do you always have on hand?
Butter, lemons, anchovies, Parmesan cheese, olive oil, a couple kinds of vinegar. Eggs! Oh, my God, I would never be without eggs. And milk.
Do you have a favorite go-to dinner?
It has three parts and takes 10 minutes to make. First, it’s a baked potato. I think we don’t pay enough attention to baked potatoes. They’re one of the great foods of the world — no work at all, comforting and delicious. Plus, lamb chops, which are the easiest thing in the world to make. People make a big deal out of it, but you just put them on the pan. Then Brussels sprouts, which I think are much maligned because people boil them. But if you julienne them, and sauté them with a little bit of onion in some olive oil, it keeps them very crisp. You throw in a little bit of flavor, a little miso or soy sauce, or a little maple syrup. It’s no energy, and it’s really satisfying.
If you could only eat one thing forever, what would it be?
Bread and butter. Really good bread and sweet, cultured butter.
Is there anything you struggle with in the kitchen? Or a dish you’ve never been able to master?
Oh, tons of things! I’m a home cook. I’ve never taken a cooking lesson. In our culture, we’ve made people think they should be chefs, but that’s crazy. I look at chefs who are chopping and go, oh, my knife skills are terrible. The classic dishes, I can’t do any of them. You shouldn’t be trying to do chef-level stuff if that’s not your bent. You should be aiming for something that is a pleasure for you to make and for your friends to eat.
Do you have a secret talent?
I wish I did! I guess it’s that I’ve never met a cat who didn’t like me.
You’re prolific on Twitter. (We especially love your poetic descriptions.) So I’m wondering, who do you love to follow?
There is somebody called New York Farmer, who I don’t actually know. As far as I can tell, she is from a many-generation dairy family in upstate New York and seems to work for a vet and is also a lawyer? She tweets all kinds of things – the cows in the field, a milk truck in the ice — and re-tweets interesting things about farmers all over the world. I like Gastropoda, Regina Schrambling, who is so wonderfully dyspeptic. I also enjoy My Last Bite – she keeps me up-to-date on what’s going on in the food world.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever gotten?
Back when I was writing restaurant reviews in California, I was quite friendly with M.F.K. Fisher, and she became a kind of mentor. I was agonizing over every word that I wrote, trying to make things perfect, and she said to me, “You’re polishing every word. You’re taking too much time.” She told me to go work for a newspaper, where somebody would say, “I need a thousand words in an hour,” and you’d write them, and the next day somebody would wrap their fish in it. So I did that, and it was the best thing I ever did.
Your books are wonderfully honest and intimate. Are you ever afraid to write about such personal things?
Almost always. With my first book, the hardest thing was dealing with my late mother’s mental illness. She was bipolar. But I tried to dance around it, and tried to turn her into an Auntie Mame character. My editor read the first draft and said, “There’s a secret here. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something you’re not telling us.” It was the first time I’d ever struggled with the issue of, how much do you tell? I wound up being very frank about my mother, and I have never for one instant regretted it. I’ve gotten so much mail, especially from young people, telling me how helpful it is for them to know you can survive this. That lesson has stayed with me throughout all of my subsequent books — your truth can be useful to people.
Did you learn anything while writing your new book My Kitchen Year?
A couple things — what I’m trying to say in this book is that we do so much results-oriented cooking that we don’t always stop and pay attention to what a sensory pleasure it is to be in the kitchen. When I make pie dough, I cut it by hand. It might not be easier than putting it into a Cuisinart, but I love the tactile sense of it. I love peeling a peach. I love the color under there — it’s like a little secret, it’s just for you, right beneath the peel. If you bite into a peach, you’ll miss it. You’ll never see it unless you’re peeling a peach to make a pie. The smell of onions caramelizing in butter is the greatest scent on earth. The feeling of when you cut up apples — depending on whether it’s a soft apple or a crisp apple, the sound will be different.
Part of what I learned this year is that we tend to waste our lives waiting for big moments, and there is a lot of joy to be found in small moments. To me, that’s the secret of life. Don’t wait for pleasure to come and find you, go find it.
Do you have a favorite recipe in the book?
That’s like asking which of your children is your favorite! But, yes. One of the recipes is for a steak sandwich that’s really meaningful to me. I had to go on a book tour the day after Gourmet magazine closed; I had been the editor in chief for 10 years, and I was distraught. My husband was like, “You’re crazy! Don’t go!” But I went to the airport anyway and was wandering around in a daze, where I picked up a steak sandwich. I went to pay for it, and the cashier said, “This one is on me. I loved that magazine. ” This woman was a complete stranger and she just lifted me right up. Every time I see a steak sandwich, it’s a reminder of random acts of kindness and what they can do for you.
Recipe: Ruth’s Steak Sandwich
From My Kitchen Year
1 pound skirt steak
4 crusty rolls
If you love steak sandwiches, you need to make friends with skirt steak. It’s a fantastically flavorful cut that doesn’t cost much. It does, however, demand a bit of coddling.
The skirt is a bundle of abdominal muscles that have worked very hard, lending them great flavor and a tendency to be tough. Long and thin (a friend calls it “steak by the yard”), skirt steak has many aliases. In Texas it’s called “beef for fajitas,” and in the Jewish restaurants of New York’s Lower East Side it goes by “Romanian tenderloin.” But in my house it’s sandwich steak because the skinny slices can stand up to salsa, chimichurri, pesto — or simply mustard and a bit of butter.
If you buy your meat from an artisanal butcher, ask for the “outside” skirt, which is fattier and juicier than the inside cut. (If you’re buying meat from industrially raised animals, this is a pointless exercise; the Japanese import 90 percent of American outside skirt steak.)
Rub the meat all over with salt — 3/4 of a teaspoon per pound of meat — and let it sit in this dry brine for 4 or 5 hours before cooking. This will draw out the liquid and concentrate the flavor. Just before cooking, blot the meat very well with paper towels to remove all the surface moisture, and brush it with a bit of vegetable oil. (I prefer a neutral oil like grapeseed, but it’s your call.)
Skirt steaks prefer high heat (cooked low and slow, the meat turns chewy), so get a grill or grill pan very hot. The steak will cook quickly; 2 minutes a side should give you beautifully rare meat.
Rest the steak for 10 minutes. Now comes the most important part: the slicing. If you cut with the grain, each slice will be a single tough muscle. If you cut against the grain, into very thin slices, you’ll end up with tender meat. (This means that when you’re cutting you want the grain to run up and down in vertical stripes, not horizontal ones.)
Now, cut a crusty roll in half, butter one side, spread mustard on the other, and heap it with steak slices. You can add any condiments you like, but this meat is so tasty it really deserves the spotlight to itself.
Thank you so much, Ruth! It was both a pleasure and an honor speaking with you.