Cooking in the Moment with Andrea Reusing

Andrea ReusingIn the introduction of Cooking in the Moment you share with us this wonderful childhood memory.  Your grandmother spills a pot pie on the floor as she pulls it from the oven.  You and your cousin take turns kneeling on the floor and serving yourselves a plate.  You go on to make the point that food is love in the best, healthy sense of the relationship. I think felt this was a theme that permeated this cookbook -- that to truly appreciate food, you must love it, you must respect it.  Would you comment on that, please?

Cooking in the MomentFood has real, emotional meaning for me.  And that meaning definitely became more clear living here in North Carolina and getting to know the people who grow the food.  It became harder for me to eat and enjoy foods that didn’t have that personal connection -- anonymous food, food that had no love put into its growth or its preparation, no human touch.

But on the other hand, do you make your kids wait till May to eat strawberries? That’s on my mind today because my kids were asking for them, and I bought some from Florida.  It’s hard to be a purist when you have kids.

You’re not a Southern girl by birth, but it seemed that the foods of the South helped you forge a very personal relationship with your adopted home in North Carolina.  How has food played a part of your sense of community?

Southerners care deeply about food, and the South is full of simple ingredient-driven dishes. And yet outside the South there is the stereotype about the region and the food that’s just not true. Think about a meat and three, for example, the vegetables are a big part of what we eat.  Yes, convenience foods are everywhere, but that’s not what I see favored among the traditional cooks that I know here.

And on a personal note, we are very lucky to live in an agricultural community. There are about 250 small farms within 50 or so miles of my restaurant.

Well actually one of the things I loved most about this cookbook were the glimpses into the lives of the people who are in a sense on the front line  - the people who grow the vegetables and raise the poultry and pigs and make the cheeses.  And what I saw in all of these portraits was a sense of patience - truly the key ingredient, it seemed, in providing the best quality, best tasting food.  You mention the vegetable farmers from Fickle Creek Farm who spent four years preparing their land before they ever planted their first seeds.  Could you talk about this type of patience and its affect in your own cooking?

It was a real wake up for me to learn how the farmers at Fickle Creek approached the process of clearing their land.  They could have torn it up with back hoes instead of clearing it with grazing animals and then used chemical fertilizers to finish the job.  But they would not have accomplished their goal which was growing great-tasting food.  When you eat their carrots, it is a reminder about a long-term process.  Real flavor has a lot to do with patience and process.

You write that cooking is not as much about the flavors you can scheme up but about what is already there.  And some of your recipes are so simple that you write that they don’t really qualify as recipes - salt-marinated cucumbers, lemon verbena infused water, campfire bacon and eggs in a paper bag.  Do you think, somewhere along the way, we have “complicated” food?

I do.  Foodism and our obsession with food culture has made making dinner more complicated, not less. I think that watching people cook on television cooking shows has made cooking itself feel a bit out of reach.  We are made to feel that we need to be food professionals to invite someone over for dinner.

In thinking about writing my own book, a restaurant cookbook didn’t seem like the best choice.  Lantern is Asian for the most part.  And although foods are prepared with local ingredients, the cooking is kind of complicated.  I wanted to do one for all those friends who claim they can’t cook dinner from the farmer’s markets. The people who always say they want to cook that way, but also don’t know what to do with a turnip. I wanted to make something that would be useful and really live in people’s kitchens.

You remind me very much of the new and Southern Alice Waters --someone who cherishes the foods in season and believes, as you say, in “cooking and eating in the moment.”  You even arranged your cookbook according to the seasons.  So I must ask, do you have a favorite season?

Definitely fall.  Sometimes we never really experience spring here in the South.  We go straight from winter to summer.  But the fall is different here than in many other parts of the country because at the same time that it’s cooling down you get that long end of summer happening.  You have fall produce like pumpkins, greens and mushrooms while still enjoying some of the best of summer.  Every few years we have a freak fall asparagus crop, and then you suddenly get to have fresh asparagus with tomatoes or ripe end-of-summer peppers.

Fish is best in the fall, too.  Mullets are fat, shrimp are big, and clams are sweet.  And fall milk, after the cows have been grazing all summer, can be especially rich.

As a Southerner, I have to say I was not familiar with “ramps.”  Could you define the “ramp” and talk about the lengths you go to find foods indigenous to your North Carolina home.

A ramp is a wild onion.  They are the width of a thin pencil at the bottom, and the leaves are flat and green, kind of like a Lily of the Valley.  I like to wilt them whole in a big pan with just a little olive oil or lard and sprinkle them with crunchy salt.  At Lantern, we pickle them, saute them with black truffles for cauliflower soup, chop them fine and add them to potstickers. They’re on the wild “garlicy” side of onion.

Our ramps are foraged by Joe Hollis of Mountain Gardens in Celo, near Asheville.

There’s a section in your cookbook titled, “Schlepping Food.”  You go on to say that you “like to move food.”  I have to ask as someone who loves to touch food and prepare food but is not that “into” moving food where that comes from?

I’m thinking it may be some kind of pathology.  I’m just always thinking “what if I need this” or “what if I need that.”  Or maybe it’s just from being overly hungry all the time.

We went to Japan recently with our two kids and by the second day into our travels, I had pounds and pounds of pickles . . . and they all had to be refrigerated!  But I wanted to experience them, and many were not available in local restaurants.  So I put them in my suitcase and crossed my fingers.  I always end up with food when I'm talking to people, like the woman who made the pickles.  It’s hard to say that "goodbye" without buying something.

We are all aware of the serious health crisis in our country.  Yes, I’m talking about obesity.  You make a wonderful point of talking about “fat,”  “good fat” versus “not good fat.”  In fact, there’s a section titled GOOD FAT.  Could you please talk about that?

Fat is not just enjoyable and fine, it’s necessary.  Good fat really is part of a balanced diet.  And yet I think we’ve developed a fear of certain foods and taken all the pleasure out of food along the way.  The most important thing is to know where the fat is coming from.

We know that kids need fat to grow and why not get it from something like milk than processed food.  It’s better to eat some real ice cream made with fresh, real cream than processed low-fat cookies.

In the end, it’s all about having smart portions in balance with vegetables and grains.  So instead of using a vegetable oil that is just empty calories and no flavor, try a little bit of real butter.

If I remember correctly, you say that the “real you never cans” although you love to buy all the supplies.  Could you explain?

I’d love to be that person, but it’s really more of a fantasy for me.  I just never seem to get around to it.  Our country seems to be in the midst of a canning craze.  I predict that unused pressure canners may be the unused fondue sets of the next ten years.

Seriously though, I think people don’t always realize that you don’t have to can to preserve food. There is a section in the book about icebox pickles and easy food preserving that can be done without canning.

Tell me about your restaurant, LANTERN, (which I can’t wait to visit, by the way!) and how running a restaurant has affected or changed your thoughts about food and writing about food?

There’s this idea that chefs have this special access to ingredients.  But truly, people who are willing to get out there and meet the producers or get to the market early can really get better ingredients.

Cooking in a restaurant doesn’t have much resemblance to cooking at home.  Restaurants are not set up to follow the seasons.  There’s a lot of labor involved in focusing on seasonality in the menu, as well as a need for consistency and high volume.

The home cook does not have to deal with any of that.  No one at the dinner table is going to complain if the chicken and dumplings are a little different this time.  And at home you can do a lot with a few pints of great raspberries that would get lost in a restaurant kitchen.

I saved the best for last - THE TOMATO!  Finding and/or growing the perfect tomato was nothing less than religion in our family.  And I love that you give the tomato the attention it deserves from the simplest recipe - merely slicing and salting - to a drink I can’t wait to try - super sweet cherry tomatoes and basil, crushed in a glass with good gin and a splash of soda.  But I was really interested when I came across your recipe for cream of tomato soup with tomato leaves.  The recipe calls for the leaves and stems.  I have never thought to use that part of the plant, and I love that every part of the tomato holds value for you.  In a way, that felt like another important theme of this book and your cooking - finding value in everything.  Would you agree with that?

Thanks for that question, and I’m glad that came through in the book. The tomato is such a challenging thing.  We all want that perfect tomato, and we don’t get it very often in a restaurant.  To serve a delicious tomato salad in a restaurant is so much work - a beautiful ripe tomato that’s never been refrigerated requires a lot of organizing and risk just to have the right number ready at the right time.  But you don’t have that barrier at home.  If you’re patient with the tomato, then you’re gong to get a lot more out of it.

(As for the soup, you want to use the small, tender stems and leaves.  They really lend a gardeny aroma and flavor.  There is a myth out there that they are poisonous, but they're not.)