Photo credit: Johnny Miller
This month, Smitten Kitchen, one of our favorite cooking blogs, turns five years old. We are big fans of Deb Perelman—the founder, cook, writer, and photographer behind the whole operation—and her gorgeous food photos, simple recipes, and charming voice. So, to celebrate Smitten Kitchen's "birthday," we featured Deb and her recipe for Roasted Eggplant with Tomato and Mint in our September issue. To get the recipe, check out page 33 our September issue, on newsstands now. Read on for an exclusive Q&A with Deb, including her tips for cooking in a small kitchen and her advice for budding bloggers.
Where did you learn how to cook?
Mostly, I taught myself. I watched my mom cook growing up, and she certainly instilled in me a sense that there's no need to be afraid of, say, kneading bread or beating egg whites or anything else that a recipe puts before you. But most of what I've learned has been by doing it myself—trying recipes, seeing what works and what never sorts out the way I think it will.
You have a 2-year-old son. What’s your strategy when it comes to cooking for kids?
I usually dodge the question—did you see that lightning?! When you cook a lot, people assume that your kid must be some sainted toddler that eagerly consumes all sorts of unfamiliar food and never, ever spits out a mouthful of what was his favorite meal just a week earlier. Alas, my kid is still a toddler. But I try not to push him about food. Ninety-nine percent of the time that he has tried and enjoyed something new and unfamiliar, it wasn't because I'd offered it to him, but because he'd seen me cooking something I'd assumed he would hate and he insisted—nay, demanded—with foot stomping and everything, that I give him some.
You talk about your small city kitchen—exactly how big is it?
My kitchen is 6 foot by 7 foot, but less than half of that is space you can actually stand in. The fridge, which isn't big by any standards, doesn't really fit in the kitchen, so you have to squeeze around it to get to the stove. It's as awkward as it sounds.
What are your strategies for cooking in a small kitchen?
If you have a small kitchen, my advice is to not look at photos in magazines or real estate sections of sprawling farmhouse kitchens. It's bad for morale. Beyond that, you have to be really strict with your kitchen purchase—only things that will earn their keep. Don't pre-stock your kitchen: Buy pots and baking pans as you know you need them and know for certain that you can't use anything else. And you've got to do everything you can with your space. Finally, you have to keep stuff off your counter; if it's cluttered with coffee makers, canisters, and spoon rests, you're sacrificing what limited space you have. I have shelves installed wherever possible, a wall-mounted pot rack over the window and vertical racks that store baking pans and cutting boards above the cabinets. Appliances are on the fridge, taken down as needed.
What’s your must-have piece of kitchen equipment?
After a good sharp knife, I'm pretty in love with my food processor. I use it more than anything else. It turns nuts to powder, heads of cabbage to slaw. After that, the dishwasher. I lived without one for many, many years and don't for a second miss the hours of cleanup some dishes required.
What inspires you to make a certain recipe?
It's a mix of, "That sounds so good I must eat it now." And, "Wow, I've never seen zucchini done quite like that before." As much as I love classics and comfort foods, I figure by now, most people have a favorite roast chicken recipe. So, unless I feel I can add one to the mix that's exceptional because of a surprising ingredient or easier in general, I might pause before sharing one.
What do you eat regularly that readers don’t see on your blog?
Peanut butter and jelly. Spaghetti with butter and Parmesan. Moo shu vegetables.
How many recipes in your recipe index?
There are a little more than 700 recipes in the archives, which blows my mind. I never looked it up before answering this.
Why did you start the blog?
I thought it might be fun to share the recipes I was trying and collecting. I've always figured that there's no shortage of recipes on the web. Google "buttermilk pancakes" and you'll get nearly a million results. But what's good? What really, actually works? What have you tried and liked better with your own adjustments? I hoped I could convey that if you have only one hour to spend cooking, and if you spend it on this pancake and not that one, it will be an hour well spent.
Your photos are beautiful. How do you get the food to look so great?
Thank you. I honestly believe that good food is naturally beautiful and the only thing left for a photographer to do is to capture that clearly. So, I try to minimize distractions—plain dishes, minimal garnishes—use only natural light, and try to take the sharpest photo I can so the food can be the focus.
How do you decide which dishes to create and post about in any given week?
I have a long list that I've been adding to and taking away from for the better part of a decade of things I'd like to make and things we'd like to eat. Because I like to cook seasonally, it's sorted by months so if I don't get to something this September, I'll circle back to it next year. For me, accumulating ideas is the easy and fun part. Finding time to work them out in the kitchen is trickier.
Does having this blog feel like keeping the ultimate scrapbook?
It does. These are the recipes I hope to be cooking for a long, long time. I launched the site when I'd been married for a year, a kid was still a far-off idea, and the posts mention things like having a hangover and not getting out of bed until 1 p.m. I read that now and think, "How luxurious!" And now I have this big-eyed, curly haired sidekick dragging his wooden alligator ("all-gay-er") on a string through the kitchen while I work, and I think it would have absolutely blown my mind five years ago to see the way life was about to unfold.
Any tips for budding bloggers?
Don't worry about what everyone else is doing; don't worry if it takes people a long time to find you. Just go be your bad, dorky self and they'll get there, sooner than later.