Gail Simmons & Curtis Stone on Falling in Love With Food

I really love what feels like a new trend in Los Angeles of having so many live talks and conversations happening all the time. It’s not just the usual book signings in bookstores anymore, though those are always great. There are now several groups organizing events across the city (usually related to a new book release) from ALOUD to Live Talks LA to the Los Angeles Times Ideas Exchange to Maria Shriver’s Architects of Change Live. One of my “to live deliberately” goals is to attend as many interesting in talks as possible (cost-and-schedule-permitting), and I hope to share more and more of them on this blog. (Like last week’s post about Jennifer Egan’s conversation with Marisa Silver at the Los Angeles Public Library’s main branch downtown).

I attended a talk featuring Top Chef judge Gail Simmons in conversation with LA Times columnist Patt Morrison in Beverly Hills on Sunday evening. Simmons has a new cookbook out, “Bringing It Home,” with recipes she developed based on the notes she gathered over the last few years while she travelled and tasted the world.

The theme of the night was, of course, food, but they touched on so many interesting facets that surround this basic human need.

Food and Memory

“We love food that has stories.” Morrison said early on in the discussion, and Simmions agreed.

“Food is very personal,” she said. “Food memory is a very powerful thing.” Most of her recipes are based on stories of family–especially her mother–and travel, often the two combined. She shared one story of a recipe based on Lee’s Diner on Main Street in Gloucester where she goes every year with her husband’s family.

And a few days after the talk, she shared this lovely banana and cardamom upside-down cake recipe on morning TV. The recipe was inspired by her mom, and how she always had banana bread in the house– but Simmons added her own touches (sour cream, cardamom) based on her experience with recipes and ingredients. I can’t wait to try it!

Food and Fear

After a general intro about the cookbook, one of the first things Morrison asked about was all the “pickiness” surrounding food today (of which I’ve been guilty of myself at some points, I have to admit), such as the gluten-free trend.

Simmons nodded knowingly.”Food phobia,” she said. “Food is yes very powerful, but also very scary. There are a lot of cultural issues that weigh into food…” especially related to body image. That drives a lot of the problems people have with food. At the same time, Simmons made clear that there are real cases when people do really need to be careful with what they eat. “There are also very serious autoimmune disease that are on the rise,” she said, listing celiac disease as an example, and the increase of children with severe peanut allergies as another. These, she said, are a real problems we should be concerned with.

“It’s sometimes hard to differentiate between the two,” she added, saying that in general there needs to be a balance.

“In my life, I was always taught that food is a great pleasure and a great privilege, and it’s a great luxury to be having the food we’re eating now.”

When Morrison asked her later in the evening what her “guilty pleasures” were, Simmons said,

“I try not to feel guilty about food…

Sure, there are some foods that she can’t resist the call to have (salt and vinegar chips, for example), so she may need to temper herself around them, but to her the idea of guilt shouldn’t exist.

Food and Politics

Simmons invited her friend and fellow Top Chef judge, Chef Curtis Stone, to join her on stage midway through the talk. One topic that was clearly important to both of them was food distribution, or the lack thereof.

“I think at large that the culinary world is very interested in helping,” Stone said, describing how most chefs are involved in their cities’ efforts to feed those who do not have enough to eat. But he stressed that “Food distribution is a political issue.”

Simmons agreed emphatically. “We are in a moment when access is the issue, and it’s not an issue of not having enough food in the country to feed people. It’s an issue of distribution. It’s on the political level, congress, lawmakers… I don’t think food banks are the solutions– they’re a band-aid that we definitely need.”

Food and Cooking

A topic that kept coming up through the night is how the link between food and cooking broke in our country for a while as people got busier and were no longer able to spend hours following a complicated recipe and making a perfect dish (though that’s fun sometimes, it is unsustainable on a daily basis). Morrison said that even looking at some photos in cookbooks can be intimidating to many and lead them to processed, quick foods.

“For me, it should be less about being perfect, and more about being holistic and fun,” Simmons said. “It should be something that gives you pleasure, and not something that gives you anxiety.”

There’s been a revival recently in people turning back to kitchens, with shows like Top Chef being a part of that. There’s also been an expansion in what we’re eating. “Our tastes in America swing all over the place, and that’s the beauty of living in a country with so many cultural influences and varied histories.” Simmons said, noting that diversity in taste and palates is an important feature in her cookbook.

I especially loved what she had to say about the joy of making your own meal:

“The best part is it comes together in an hour or less, and you can make something that people can enjoy. And that’s magical.”

She had specific tips to help people make it more convenient to cook. Being organizing is essential: thinking about the week ahead, planning recipes, discovering simple and interesting things, cooking in large batches, buying the right ingredients for the week, (and being conscious about not wasting food by matching meals to your own or your family’s schedule). She added that if cooking can be a family activity, that helps a lot as well. It becomes something for everyone to do together in the evenings, and brings people together, rather than being a chore for one person.

Stone chimed in, “If you fall back in love with food, that’s the important part.”

I really liked Stone’s closing thought about cookbooks themselves being a gift that keeps on giving. First you enjoy receiving them, then enjoy reading them through, and then you keep enjoying them as you try new recipes and make ones you love over and over again. That’s definitely something I’m going to keep in mind when giving gifts, especially with the holiday season ahead.

 

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Q&A With Lebanese Chef Lara Ariss

lara-ariss-beirut-lebanese-food-recipes

While I was in Lebanon (where I grew up) for the holidays, I met with an old family friend Lara Ariss. She just released a new cookbook, Levantine Harvest, and I wanted to get her perspective on work-life balance in Beirut, where she lives.

Make sure to scroll down for one of her delicious recipes, following the Q&A.

  • How did you decide what you wanted to do? What made you want to become a chef?

I always used to go into my mom’s kitchen and play and try recipes, and she used to let me. It was always something that I enjoyed doing. Especially when we moved to Lebanon, there was no place to play outdoors. We lived in an apartment in Beirut. There was nothing to do as a child. [Lara’s family moved to Lebanon soon after the long nearly 30-year Civil War ended. The country was devastated in all aspects]. The summer we moved to Lebanon, my mom enrolled me in a baking class for kids. I was 9 or 10. That was my first experience in the kitchen.

Later, I found Le Cordon Bleu online, and my heart was set on going there. I wanted to finish high school and go. My dad said, get your Bachelor’s degree, you never know what happens. When I finished college, he said, work a bit first. I worked in advertising— Then I couldn’t do it anymore. So I dropped everything and went to London, the summer I was 26 years old.

It was a 9-month program. While I was studying, I was also working in a kitchen in London… There was a lot of me being confused. When I moved back to Lebanon, I wanted to open something, but at the time the situation was much worse than it is now in the country. I also couldn’t get a job in a kitchen. When people saw I had a college degree, they said I was overqualified to work in a kitchen. So I went back to advertising for one year, to keep myself busy, and I had my food blog as well, Keys to My Kitchen.

After a year, I was like, “No, what am I doing here?” So I went to New York and took writing courses, and by then my blog was getting recognition. So I returned to Beirut and decided to to do this cookbook, with recipes simplified for the new generation.  I pitched it to publishers in Cyrus, Dubai and Beirut, chose one, and that’s when I started with this book.

levantine-harvest-lebanese-cookbook-lara-ariss

  • What does work-life balance mean to you?

I’m kind of struggling with it, and I have been struggling with it. Sometimes it feels like people don’t realize how much time it takes to test my recipes, to research my recipes. I was testing my cheesecake for 2 years. Sometimes people don’t realize being in the kitchen is tiring. (You know, in the past, women weren’t chefs because it’s considered labor work, like a plumber or carpenter). So sometimes, when I’ve been in the kitchen 10-12 hours, and I’m tired, people don’t get it, so it’s a bit frustrating.

Do you think work-life balance is possible?

It is possible when you are very organized, and that’s what I’m trying to do. With my cookbook, that’s what I tried to do, but sometimes it’s out of your control. During the editing phase, I shut myself off from everyone, 10 hours a day.

I do think it’s possible, but I’m still single. Honestly, some people are moms. They’re married and have kids. I don’t know how they do it.

  • What’s your biggest challenge to having a balanced life?

The strong support system that I have is living abroad. That’s the hardest part.

  • What’s one thing you wish you did differently in how you manage your time?

I cycle a lot, mostly on the weekends, and I wish I could ride my bike in the city. I wish we had bike lanes, because I think I could get from place to place much more quickly. I tried biking in Beirut twice, and I don’t know how I’m still alive. Because it’s the errands that I have to do that really slow me down, so I end up spending less time in the place I want to be, which is the kitchen.

lebanese-food-chef-lara-ariss

  • What’s your advice for someone starting a new endeavor?

It’s a bit cheesy, but you know that quote… “Get up. Dress up. Show up.” It’s really that.

Just don’t give up. You’re going to be scared, which is normal, but just do it. You end up learning and evolving so much on a personal level that it’s satisfying. Especially when you have a passion, you want to do something with it. The fear is there, but don’t give up, no matter how long it takes.

  • What are some of your favorite recipes from your book?

Do I have to pick one? [Laughs] I like my cheesecake recipe because I’m just so proud of it. I like the Rose Loukoum ice cream recipe. The cheese rolls are really good. The rocket and date salad as well. Cauliflower and chickpea soup. Kafta with tahini. Lamb shanks with bulghur and chickpeas. Kafta crumble. Pumpkin kebbeh. Falafel. Makloubeh….

recipe-wild-mushrooms-on-toast

When I was flipping through Lara’s cookbook for the first time, so many recipes stood out to me. One of them I knew I had to try as soon as I returned to Los Angeles was the Seasoned Wild Mushrooms on Toast. She gave me permission to share it on this blog:

Seasoned Wild Mushrooms on Toast, from Levantine Harvest

The combination of rosemary, cinnamon and sumac gives a wonderful sweet and tangy kick to the dense flavors of wild mushrooms. You can make the mushrooms ahead of time and reheat them just before serving.

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 15 minutes

Serves: 4 to 6 levantine-harvest-lara-ariss

  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 4 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 300g mixed wild mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 sprigs rosemary, stems removed, coarsely chopped
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1⁄2 tsp sumac
  • Olive oil, to taste
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

To serve

  • Butter, to taste
  • Sliced brown bread

Heat the vegetable oil in a medium frying pan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, and sauté until translucent.

Add the mushrooms and toss. When the mushrooms have softened slightly, add the rosemary, cinnamon and sumac. Toss for 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Line a baking tray with parchment paper.

Butter one side of each slice of the bread. Place buttered side up on a baking tray and toast for 5 to 6 minutes, or until lightly toasted.

Divide the mushroom medley over the bread slices. Serve immediately.

 


Photographs by Natalie Naccache