Melissa Clark on Campari Cake, Cassoulet, and why you should treat yourself three times a day
Plus: Golden Fried Rice!
The secret of this newsletter is that I’m not a great cook. If you don’t believe me, you should know I recently cut my finger peeling a carrot, thereby dripping blood into the soup I was making, and the metallic piquancy of my plasma wasn’t even the worst note in the flavor profile of the dish. But when I follow Melissa Clark’s recipes, I become a master chef, with the elegance of Julia, the precision of Jiro, and the warmth of José.
Melissa’s directions are so clear, her ingredients are so accessible, her pedagogy is so flawless that even I have a hard time managing to mess up her recipes. The best part? SHE HAS SO MANY RECIPES. This year alone, she dropped a new cookbook, Dinner in French, which transforms your kitchen into a café off the Seine, only it’s even better, because you don’t have to put up with Parisians. And at the paper of record, she’s been publishing my favorite quarantine recipes on the internet, most of which you can make with whatever’s in your pantry. (Speaking of pantries, she also wrote one of the best articles on what you should have in yours.)
If you haven’t been reading her corona cooking column, go do that now. You’ll find everything from Korean kimchi soups to Middle Eastern lentils to bacon egg and cheese carbonara. I made her riff on sesame noodles last night, and it was wonderful.
Because Melissa has dropped so many recipes in recent weeks, I didn’t want to focus our interview on her advice for home cooks, since you can find that elsewhere. Instead, I wanted to know what she cooks for her family when the cameras are off and her computer is shut—and I wanted to ask her why she thinks so many of us are turning to cooking for comfort during this defining moment in our lives. But, of course, since she’s Melissa Clark and this is Cooking in Quarantine, we ended up dishing on recipes, too.
Melissa answered every question with wisdom, as she always does. Though, sadly, I forgot to ask her how to safely peel a carrot…
Why so many of us are finding comfort in cooking
Melissa: Oh my god, that’s all we have, right? What else is there? Obviously, it’s nourishing for your body, and it’s emotionally nourishing. And that snacky feeling—that feeling of needing something, needing diversion, needing entertainment in a physical way. Right now, most of our entertainment takes place on a screen, for the most part, or maybe we’re reading a book, but it’s still not physical; it’s intellectual. And food is a physical entertainment and diversion, and it’s one of the few that we have open to us.
And, of course, it delights us. When you’re at work, and you go and pick up lunch and eat it at your desk, it’s not necessarily delightful. It’s like, “Alright, I’m hungry. I gotta eat.” But when you turn it over to yourself, you have three chances every day to make yourself something—to fulfill an opportunity, right?
You have the opportunity to make something delicious, and really give yourself a treat. God, we need treats more than anything, I think. That’s really the reason: We need treats. There are not that many treats. Food is a treat.
What Melissa cooks when she doesn’t have to write about it
Melissa: Anchovy toast and sardine toast. That is our go-to if we’re exhausted, we want something really, really delicious, and we don’t want to cook.
I am lucky in that my husband makes sourdough bread, and he’s been doing it for a while, so at this point it’s good. All those newbies out there doing sourdough: Just hang in there, you’ll get it! It just takes a while.
So we have good bread, we have tons of canned fish, and just throwing that together has been the thing. I could eat it all the time.
We vary it up, but for the most part, the standard recipe is: Toast, and you rub it with a cut garlic clove. You take a raw garlic clove and you halve it. If you have toast, the toast is kind of abrasive, and next to the garlic it almost acts like a grater. So you’re basically grating the garlic into the bread.
And then you put a big glob of butter on there—like a big glob, you really want it to saturate with the butter, that’s extremely important. And then we put the fish on there. Sometimes, if I have a tomato, I’ll rub the tomato on it, but not usually with butter. I’ll just do the butter and put in some sliced onion or scallion, lemon juice, black pepper.
Tips for home cooks who used to have takeout-only diets
Melissa: First of all, keep it simple. Don’t try to do too much; you’re probably not going to recreate those takeout meals. So I would say to start slow.
Another thing is what I do with my kid. I always tell her, “What are your three favorite foods? Learn how to cook them.” And then, at least you have your touchstones.
My daughter loves salad; she can make a salad. She’s got her chocolate chip cookies down. You learn how to make the things you know you can come back to, and then you’ll venture a little bit out there. Like, “Alright, I’ve got the grilled cheese thing down; let me try the mac and cheese. Now, maybe I’m going to make the beans.”
How to create a French vibe in the kitchen
Melissa: I think the spirit of it is putting yourself in that mind. Putting on some Serge Gainsbourg and kind of getting in the mood.
What else should you do? Learning how to make mayo will take you very far, and it is one of those amazing skills to have, and just so easy. If you have a blender, it’s so easy.
Use a little extra mayo, and use more butter in your cooking, and that’ll definitely help you feel French.
READ: Melissa Clark’s mayo recipe which takes five (5!) minutes to make. If you make mayo yourself, I think you’re legally allowed to call it aioli.
I would say French pastries are a perfect thing to make as well. This might be your chance to try making homemade marzipan, which is incredibly easy, and you don’t even need to bake it. It’s just a rich, delicious little treat. If you have almonds—and people have been stocking up on nuts, so they probably do—and you have sugar, that’s really all you need.
WATCH: This one minute video which shows you how to make marzipan with three ingredients:
An easy, simple cake you can bake in one bowl
Melissa: One of my favorite recipes from the book that people have been making a lot is a Campari Cake. And what’s great about it is, it’s a beautiful cake, but you make it in a bowl. You don’t need a mixer, it’s olive oil-based, with a ton of different citrus. I use a lot of Campari in it, but you could pretty much use any booze you have in the house. People have been doing it with Cointreau, they’ve been doing it with Aperol, they’ve been doing it with pretty much anything you could think of. What’s so great is, I think one-bowl cakes are really popular right now. People want the comfort of cake, but they don’t want to get their mixer out.
Read: Melissa Clark’s recipe for Campari Olive Oil Cake
What to cook if you want a spend a day in the kitchen
Melissa: Now is a great time to make a big beef daube, which is a beef stew. People are doing cozy project cooking, and there’s a lot of that in French cuisine. You have the big, homey stews, which are great to make—they take all day, they make your house smell amazing, which you kind of need—and then you can put some of them in the freezer.
READ: Melissa’s beef bourguignon recipe
You could also make a cassoulet. Cassoulet is one of the most French things you could make. It’s primarily beans, so you probably have those, because you probably bought some beans. And then it takes all weekend, because you have to simmer the beans, and then you need to simmer the sausage, and you need to braise the meat separately.
In my book, I have a lamb shank cassoulet. I like the lamb, because lamb and beans together is a slightly unusual combination, and it’s extremely savory. But you could use any kind of meat. I always say, give yourself up to the rhythm of braising and stewing and simmering, and any other thing that makes your house smell amazing.
Read: Melissa Clark’s recipe for cassoulet.
How you can support the hungry right now
Melissa: Please support your local food pantries. People are out of work, people are hungrier than ever, and it’s up to us to support our communities. So I would say, find pantries that you know are doing a good job in serving their community. There are a lot of ways you can connect to different neighborhood organizations. Any doubt, go to your local government official—your local congressperson—and just ask who the people in your neighborhood are who are helping people in need.
It’s so easy in New York, there are so many big organizations—there’s City Harvest, there’s the Food Bank. We have some local ones—there’s one in Brooklyn called CHipS, a soup kitchen that does a great job. Just stay in touch with the people around you.
Editor’s Note: You can find your local food bank at this link from Feeding America.
THE BEST FRIED RICE DISH I HAVE EVER MADE
Junzi’s Lucas Sin has increased his Instagram follower count by, like, 1000% in the last week. Perhaps that’s because he did a takeover of Bon Appetit’s Instagram and was featured in The New Yorker. Or maybe it’s because people are pouring through the backlogs of Cooking in Quarantine. Who’s to say?
Either way, I want to shout out the golden fried rice recipe Lucas cooked for BonApp. I made it for breakfast yesterday and I will never make fried rice any other way. Basically, you cover each grain of rice in egg yolk—and scramble the whites separately. Sounds hard. In fact, it’s super easy. Even I could do it.
I also added ketchup, because that’s what Lucas recommended in the interview on this newsletter, and I refuse to accept anything else as canon.
Until next time...