Town Square Delaware: Please tell us why you wrote a cookbook geared toward weeknight meals.
Kathy Brennan: Getting dinner on the table Monday to Friday, week after week, can be a real drain, both physically and emotionally. Busy days, picky eaters, staggered schedules, someone home sick, bare cupboards… there’s a lot that conspires to keep us away from the stove. As working moms, Caroline and I know that feeling all too well. But we also had the benefit of being raised by moms and grandmoms who showed us around the kitchen, working at food magazines where advice from wonderful home cooks and chefs was plentiful, culinary schooling (me), and restaurant experience, so we thought we were in a unique position to write a weeknight meals cookbook.
There are many great cookbooks out there, but what we found from talking to people—moms, dads, singles, couples without kids—was that they needed that one go-to book with a laser-like focus on helping them survive the weeknight dinner gauntlet. Their feedback helped shape our book. Our recipes don’t call for exotic, expensive, or hard-to-find ingredients, they won’t leave your kitchen looking like a typhoon hit it, and they aren’t prefaced by long personal headnotes. They are highly practical and approachable, but not dumbed-down in any way. And they are accompanied by lots of tips and advice, such as how to season food, stock your pantry, substitute ingredients, and use all your senses in the kitchen. After all, it takes more than good recipes to become a good cook.
But the book is also fun and lighthearted, designed and written to make you feel like you have a friend in the kitchen, someone who is as empathetic and encouraging (and maybe witty…) as she is knowledgeable.
TSD: What’s a “keeper?”
KB: The term “keepers” dates to our food magazine days in New York. Every so often, the Saveur food editors would rave about a recipe they’d tested and declare it to be a “keeper”—meaning it was a dish worth adding to one’s personal recipe file.
To earn “keeper” status, a recipe had to transcend delicious: It also had to be the best of its kind, be a crowd pleaser, and be something you’d want to make repeatedly, regardless of how elemental or involved it was. And that’s what we give in this book, focusing on our favorite weeknight keepers—simple, satisfying dishes that are never boring: Skillet Lasagna, Smoky Turkey Chili, Deviled Panko-Crusted Chicken Thighs, Sausage and White Bean Gratin, Shrimp with Green Curry, No-Fuss Roasted Potatoes, Parmesan Broccoli, Everyday Salad with our three staple dressings.
When we’re trying to figure out what to make for dinner, we tend to first think about what ingredients we already have in the house. Next, we consider what kind of day it is. If people are eating at different times on a particular evening, for instance— your spouse is working late, one of the kids has a soccer game—our Angel Hair Pasta with Spicy Tomato Cream Sauce isn’t a good choice, because it’s going to get gummy pretty quickly. A better option would be something like Japanese-style Meat and Potatoes, which holds and reheats well and is also good at room temperature. So to help people figure out which dishes to serve based on their particular circumstances, we came up with various categories and listed them at the back of the book for easy reference.
TSD: Please tell us a bit about your background, and your parents’ culinary influence. Are some of the recipes generated from meals you enjoyed while growing up?
KB: My story sort of meanders a bit, but even though I didn’t always realize it or necessarily plan it this way, food and travel have shaped my life both personally and professionally. My mother, who is Japanese, is a gifted cook with an adventurous palate. My Irish-American father has simpler tastes. Give him a hearty stew, crusty bread, and some good ice cream and he’s happy. Growing up in Wilmington (McKean HS Class of ’85!), I ate pretty much anything that was put in front of me. I just loved food in every way: Growing it in the garden, shopping for it, cooking it, reading and talking about it. When I got older and started to travel on my own, I even plotted my trips around it (living abroad for much of my twenties helped make this possible).
But my hobby became my career when I was working as a journalist in Tokyo. An editor needed someone with a food background to write restaurant reviews. I figured knowing how to cook (thanks, Mom!) and how to navigate menus in a variety of languages was enough of a qualification, so I applied for the job and got it. I eventually went to culinary school in New York, toiled in some restaurants, and then started working at food magazines: First FoodArts, then Gourmet and Saveur. Getting paid to eat and travel and think about food was pretty amazing. After my second child was born, though, I decided to slow things down a bit and—after almost 20 years away—moved back to Delaware, where my parents still live. I now work mainly in cookbooks. Most recently, I was the recipe editor of the Gramercy Tavern book, which is being published in October.
And, yes, many of the recipes in “Keepers” are rooted in my background and travels, including my mom’s Japanese Meat and Potatoes and Adobo-Style Chicken Wings, which I learned how to make from a female Filipino cook when we were working together in Hong Kong.
TSD: Were there any Delaware influences in the book—perhaps a recipe you devised after you began raising a family here in the Wilmington area?
KB: Some of the recipes are Caroline’s, some are mine, and some are from family and friends, including two Delawareans: Michael Dougherty, who allowed us to print his wonderful Asian Slaw recipe, and my neighbor Lihong, who showed me how to make her surprisingly easy Shrimp Wonton Soup.
But in terms of the larger scope of the book, living in Delaware had a big influence on me, as living in rural New Jersey did for Caroline. When you’re in a big city, you are so spoiled when it comes to food choices. It’s not just all the incredible restaurants: It’s the quality, variety, and accessibility of ingredients and prepared foods, too. Eight years ago, if one of us needed za’atar or preserved lemons for a “weeknight” recipe, we didn’t have to look very far in Manhattan to find it. Likewise, it was really easy to supplement—or substitute—meals at home with prepared dishes from the corner market or takeout. And we took all that for granted, but where Caroline lives now, takeout doesn’t even exist, and I’ve yet to find za’atar near me.
There’s also a lot more schlepping of kids, which can leave little to no time to cook in the evening. So after our respective moves, we learned pretty quickly that if we don’t plan and shop ahead and always keep certain key ingredients on hand, dinner often devolves into boxed mac and cheese or a pizza. Our goal was to create a book that would be useful for anyone who wants to do better with weeknight meals, regardless of their demographics, and living in our current locales certainly helped with that.
TSD: You have quite a collection of renowned chefs and food critics who have endorsed your new book, including the world-famous Daniel Boulud. As you prepare to launch in bookstores, what would make you most proud?
KB: I first met Daniel in 1994 when he was a judge for my cooking school graduation. A few years later, I spent a week working as a cook in his kitchen, an experience I wrote about for Gourmet. We’ve kept in touch over the years and he’s always been very generous. That type of support is wonderful, of course, but what’s most fulfilling is when a harried parent, kitchen novice, or nervous cook tells us “Keepers” made getting dinner on the table a little easier, maybe even a little fun. That’s priceless because it all starts with one meal at a time.
“Keepers: Two Home Cooks Share Their Tried-and-True Weeknight Recipes and the Secrets to Happiness in the Kitchen” can be found on Amazon.com and at Barnes and Noble and other fine booksellers (Apropos in Greenville is also stocking copies). @KeepersCooks on Twitter. Meanwhile, Kathy and Caroline will be at the Christiana Mall Williams-Sonoma Saturday, October 26th at 1pm for a book signing and cooking demonstration.