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The Nimble Cook FAQ

Q & A about the book

How do you think “cooking by circumstance” can alleviate stress, save money, and liberate those with less time to devote to planning, preparing and serving a meal?

Cooking by circumstance means you do what you can in your available time and physical space to turn the ingredients on hand into something delicious for everyone to eat.  This might mean roasting a chicken while you wait for take out or freezing portions of pre-soaked beans to thaw later and cook quickly ‘from-scratch.’

And sometimes, cooking by circumstance calls for taking the quickest path from fridge to stomach, skipping the plate all together.  I have several suggestions for using avocado in the book, but the most common way I serve the fruit at home is with a napkin, some salt, and a spoon.

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At the end of the Introduction, you write: “Remember one thing: How we ‘do’ dinner it is not a valid metric of how much we care about ourselves, those we feed, the environment, or anything else. Home cooking is about bringing humor and love to the table and giving ourselves permission to be less than ideal.” What do you want home cooks to take away from the book as a whole, or the way they approach “dinner”?

I want home cooks to remember that there is no “right” way to eat.  And from that, it follows that there is no right way to cook.  Once you remember that a meal does not have to adhere to any one form, you are free to fill the table with ingredients delicious and just right for you.

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Like all books, cookbook titles do a lot of work to hint at what kind of recipes are inside. Instead of a style of food, your cookbook title speaks to a style of cook. What does it mean to be a “nimble” cook, and what do you think this shift in mindset can offer novice and seasoned home cooks?

A “nimble” cook is attentive, flexible, ever ready, and always game. Her aim is to make food for any given moment, no matter what ingredients she has on hand, the number of people she has to feed, and how little time she has to cook. The nimble cook looks at the contents of her kitchen as flexible pieces in an ever-changing plate, rather than as parts of a predetermined dish. She is a not a planner, but an pragmatist. She might prep for what she hopes will happen, but is ready for whatever will.

Experienced cooks have mastered a cluster of techniques and a repertoire of dishes.  But for many, improvisation remains elusive.  In fact, all cooks think improvisation rests on inspiration or whimsy, which are impossible to nail down, let alone teach. But for The Nimble Cook, improvisation comes down to perspective, looking to great ingredients, excellently prepared, to put together in myriad ways.  Improvisation is available to even the beginner cook, once she understands the gift of Starting Points in making delicious, impromptu meals.

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There is a major emphasis on less, if not zero, waste cooking in the book. What kind of mentalities do you wish home cooks would re-learn, and how do you recommend thinking about zero-waste cooking to keep it stress free and accessible to all kinds of cooks?

No one likes to waste food.  But few people are motivated by the guilt of throwing food away.  Instead, reducing food waste should be a happy and necessary result of cooking more freely and deliciously, every day.  The nimble cook will try parsley stems minced in a salad or discover that they hold up better than the leaves in a vinaigrette.

Because even food we intend to eat often goes to waste, the Nimble Cook has many ways to use or preserve every ingredient she has on hand, not just the “scraps.” Everything edible becomes an asset.

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A lot of the tips contained in the book happen before any cooking takes place -- from shopping for ingredients that you’d want to eat (instead of for a recipe), organizing the spices in ways that work together, and prepping food in ways you’ll actually use them later. What are some of the most useful?

Yes, better cooking goes hand in hand with smarter shopping and storing of ingredients.  The Nimble Cook sees opportunities everywhere to sustain her kitchen system. She puts fresh herbs in an Herb Tank to have them visible and ready to use, where they’ll also last longer than in the produce drawer.  She even might buy extra herbs than what she thinks she needs so she can put up the excess as Herb Butter, adding to her versatile pantry.  She cuts heads of lettuce in wedges to clean and store; her greens are now pre-portioned for quick use.  She turns spices into seasoned salts, making even unfamiliar ones easier to use.

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You lovingly address each ingredient in the book, devoting space to the many ways it can be prepared and stored, and making sure to highlight a number of ways each ingredient can shine. Was there any ingredient that was particularly difficult to work with, or lead to a surprising recipe?  

My nemesis is winter squash.  Initially, I struggled to prepare it without egregious amounts of butter and sugar. But those ingredients were what made it palatable to me in large portions.  In the end, my solution was to prepare it to intermingle with other ingredients.  I found a way to roast the squash, in thin slices, with the skin and seeds intact for tossing with greens and yogurt.  Pickled, squash pieces hold up against sharp cheeses and fatty meats.  Cut into small dice before roasting, they remain distinct even when dressed as a honeyed compote.

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The cookbook is organized by ingredient and season, and then within those categories things are broken down further by both basic and original ways to prep and store the ingredient, followed by a variety of recipes that build on those starting points. Why did you choose to highlight each individual ingredient instead of big--picture recipes?

An ingredient-first approach is the most intuitive one.  We buy or grow food that we put into a form best to eat.  That form might resemble a dish we know, but it shouldn’t have to.

Plus, ingredients are variable by nature.  A recipe doesn’t tell us the best use of a parsnip; the attributes of the parsnip do.  For example, if a small, sweet parsnip is carefully peeled and thinly sliced, it can be served as part of a winter crudité, instead of, as is popular or by-habit, roasting it away.

What you do with an ingredient can be informed by the idea of a dish, but it does not depend on, nor should it be constrained by it.  Recipes don’t tell you how to use ingredients you have; they tell you what ingredients you need to get.  It’s illogical.

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What is “the Celery Sort” and how can it be applied to other fresh, commonly misunderstood, ingredients?

 The Celery Sort is a lesson I give in my cooking classes.  Celery is an ingredient home cooks have little love for and rarely know how to use, beyond dicing for soup or cutting for crudité.  But different tastes and textures are hidden in celery’s humble parts. In the sort, students separate the leaves and root end from the ribs.  The ribs and leaves get sorted further into “dark” and “crisp,” “light” and “tender.”  We sample the sorted celery, paying attention to variations in taste and what its differently shaped parts suggest: Should we tossed the leaves with herbs for a salad?  Can we cook the ribs whole like cardoons?  What can we do with the otherwise neglected, but hefty root end?

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The book looks and feels a bit like a field guide to home cooking -- the illustrations are beautifully drawn and the charts are labeled in text that looks handwritten. How does the presentation of the information mirror your cooking philosophies?

I think of this book as a field guide, too.  The flow charts are wonderful, aren’t they?  They are replications of pages in my own kitchen notebooks, transformed by Diana’s hand.

Diana’s illustrations show the level of detail and myriad possibilities that I see in each ingredient. Just as factory-trimmed, stemmed, and washed produce hinders the botanist’s full study, it robs the diligent cook’s options for what to eat.  All ingredients are pictured as if pulled right from the ground: whole, intact, with peel, leaves, and roots. The one exception is the chapters for meat, poultry, and fish and seafood, which show the most widely-accessible cuts.

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The portion sizes in the recipes are quite unique. Some are single portions, but things like soups are many more than that! Why did you choose to structure the recipes the way that you did?

There are two kinds of recipes in the book:  Starting Points and Explorations.  Starting Points are simple preparations of a single ingredient. A Starting Point is prepared for its own sake or to use in a variety of other, often quick-to-put together, sometimes unplanned or even unimagined dishes (explorations). On their own, Starting Points can feed 4 or more.

Explorations are written mostly for single servings.  The long-standing convention to “feed four” is not reflective of the way many households—even families of 4--eat.  Most people in a household don’t all eat the same thing, nor necessarily at the same time. So even if we have four people to feed, it might make most sense to fill the table with an assortment of quicker-to-put together, delicious plates of food from what is prepared on hand than to shop for ingredients for a specific dish that maybe not everyone will eat.  Besides, the single-serving explorations are easy to scale up, whether you have two or twelve to feed.

I write a few explorations for more servings (for example, Watermelon Peel Gazpacho).  Mostly, these dishes are easier to make and season in larger batches. Some of those soups even improve after a day, so leftovers are something to look forward to.

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