A few weeks ago, I attended a press event for a new cookbook - the Washington Local and Seasonal Cookbook. One of the authors, Becky Selengut, spoke on her passion for cooking locally and her successful website, Seasonal Cornucopia. I was lucky enough to grab a few minutes of her time over email a few days later for a more in-depth interview. I hope you find her responses as interesting as I did.
Patricia: You mentioned that most of the recipes in the cookbook were actually written by someone else, and you wrote the forwards for the recipes. As a chef, what was it like to work with someone else's recipes? Were you tempted to tweak them?
Becky: I love the opportunity to work with other chef's recipes. When I worked in restaurants I was constantly exposed to new ideas by both the head chef and my colleagues. Now that I work for myself, it is something that I actively seek out to bring fresh ideas into my cooking. Yes I was tempted to tweak some of the recipes but through testing them and following what another chef recommends I often learn both a new perspective on food and further clarify my own style.
Patricia: As a follow-up, when cooking professionally, either for the Herbfarm or for your own business, how often do you come up with your own recipe as opposed to using a recipe from elsewhere?
Becky: Certainly when I worked in restaurants I would follow what the chef wanted - or risk getting something thrown at me :) , however most of the chefs I had the pleasure of working for were open to my ideas when I offered them. Now that I work for myself I find that I rarely use recipes anymore. There are a billion directions to take food but a much more limited set of fundamental cooking techniques. I find that once you really learn the techniques you are then able to let your creativity determine the direction of the food. Of course, this took years of experience so I don't expect beginners to start at this point. That's why I feel that before you get all renegade with food, you simply must master the fundamentals first.
Patricia: I've loved the cookbook so far, but one thing that has struck me is that many of the recipes use a lot of non-local ingredients. Soy sauce, lemons, limes, oranges, sugar, pistachios, vanilla beans, a banana, etc. Can you elaborate on your view of what "cooking local" means?
Becky: I'm so glad you asked me this question. I often tell people that I'm no "food nazi" when it comes to eating local. It's just so perfectly American of us to get so LITERAL and TRENDY with this concept. "Eating local" before it was a fad was and is an integral way of life in the great food cultures of the world. My feeling is that if you stick with seeking out high-quality ingredients you will soon find that local food tastes better. Does this mean that I don't use lemons, mangos, vanilla beans? If we grew them here, you can bet I'd be using local but since we don't I am perfectly happy getting them from elsewhere. Most of my food comes from local sources but at least 25% comes from elsewhere. Life is so much more wonderful with spices, tropical fruits and citrus... why would I want to limit my food to food miles that strictly? For me, it's all about balance... and flavor. Weighing all the good reasons for eating local without going so overboard that you feel deprived of the treats that we get from other places. Fair-trade coffee and chocolate? You can bet I'm not giving it up. Guilt and food are a terrible combination. I just tell people to educate themselves and follow their nose... it will- most of the time - lead right to a local farmer's market.
Patricia: Can you tell me about a favorite ingredient? What is catching your eye at the farmers markets right now? What are you anxiously waiting for?
Becky: I'm a big fan of briny, green sea beans. Jeremy Faber forages for them along the coast. He had a big huge pile of perfect ones last weekend at the University Farmer's Market. Many people are unfamiliar with them. It's important to blanch them once or twice in UNSALTED water to leech some of the salt out of them. They can be pickled or just tossed with oil. They add this gorgeous pop of ocean brine to dishes. I like to scatter them over a roasted black cod dish with a wine sauce and morels.
Patricia: What is your comfort food (or one of them)?
Becky: Hmmm. That's a hard one because I have so many and I'm an indecisive Libra who balks at just picking one. So here's my list: braised short ribs, french fries, macaroni and cheese with crusty bits of buttered breadcrumbs on the top, braised greens with olives and bacon with awesome toasted artisan bread, Dana Cree's salted caramel ice cream at Molly Moon's, and finally..... one perfect hamachi hand roll.
Patricia: Is it difficult to eat out? Do you deconstruct meals that you are served?
Becky: I like to eat out with other chefs or food-obsessed individuals because yes, I'm an insufferable downer to innocent diners not interested in tearing apart their meal with anything more than their teeth. Luckily my partner is a sommelier so while I sometimes critique the food, she occasionally scoffs at the wine :) But seriously, often I'm very happy with eating out, especially when I go to inexpensive asian restaurants where I am often pleased and my pocketbook thanks me. Where it gets dicier is when I'm paying a lot of money for something I feel I could make better at home.
Patricia: Do you have one food that you hope people will try, even though it might not be "mainstream"? (I'm thinking of something like a mangosteen or tat soi.)
Becky: Funny you should say a mangosteen because I had one in Thailand. I believe there they refer to it as the "queen of fruit". It was one of the most amazing things ever.. but I recommend eating it in season in Thailand. I've had one imported here that just was a wisp of it's former self. Locally I would recommend people try spring nettles. I've recently become the nettle poster child because they are so abundant here, so healthy and so, so tasty. I make tea from them, pasta fillings, puree it like you would spinach, make soup from it... YUM.
Patricia: Anything else you'd like readers to know?
Becky: I would love readers to check out www.seasonalcornucopia.com for info on local and seasonal ingredients.