Queen of the Test Kitchen
Tasting Table‘s senior food editor Raquel Pelzel lives and breathes food. As director of TT’s test kitchen, her head’s in the fridge most days crafting creative content for their daily email publications, she’s also written over a dozen cookbooks (including a few James Beard award-winners) and she still loves to experiment in her own kitchen with her kids. We chat with Raquel about staying up on food trends, recipe testing and what she’s craving in Brooklyn. Raquel’s latest book, Preserving Wild Foods: A Modern Forager’s Recipes for Curing, Canning, Smoking and Pickling, is a must read for preserving enthusiasts.
AndrewZimmern.com: When did you first become interested in food?
Raquel Pelzel: Oh my, way, way back. My parents divorced when I was five, and part of their deal was that every Friday I’d spend the night at my dad’s house. My dad is Israeli and loves to eat, so every Friday we’d traverse the city sniffing out a good meal. In the beginning, like before I got to my double digits, we’d do mostly steakhouses—the old-school kind that gave you a crudité platter on the table before you ordered. My dad always ordered a dry vodka martini with olives—I’d get the olives. And that’s where I started learning about food. My dad also taught me how to use a knife and fork properly, not to devour the bread basket before my meal came, and to eat slowly and enjoy my food (“are the Russians after you?” he’d say—my dad was born in a camp in Romania during World War II; he grew up in an orphanage until he reunited with his mom and moved to Israel—his dad, my grandfather, was in Siberia until the late-1950s when he reunited with his family on a Kibbutz in the North of the country. Food is very important in my family, which I suppose makes sense when you’re born into starvation.).
My dad was a tough egg to crack. He was soft on the inside, but had that piercing Israeli bite about him. So the easiest way to get him to ease up was to ask him to tell me stories about him growing up on a kibbutz. About all the trouble he’d get into, about barbecuing porcupine in the woods, about his mother’s amazing cookies, about an Iraqi pita breakfast in Tel Aviv after working an all-night shift, about being a paratrooper in the Israeli army. So you could say that my love of food and my love of telling stories through food really started at the table with my dad. In the beginning it was petite filet mignons and cheesecake, and as I got older and we got more adventurous, we’d investigate sushi restaurants (a novelty in the early 80s), Cuban joints, Pakistani kebab shacks, Israeli restaurants, Greek fish houses. You name it, we ate it.
After that food was in my blood, I guess.
AZ.com: In a world where anyone can blog about food, how does Tasting Table stand out from the clutter?
RP: Well, first and foremost, Tasting Table (TT) is not a blog. We’re a digital e-mail food and lifestyle publication. We deliver food trend pieces on a national and local level (we have six city editions—NYC, D.C., Miami, Chicago, LA, and San Francisco plus five national editions—TT National, Good Taste, Chefs Recipes, Top Shelf, Sous Chef Series), we test and publish recipes from the country’s most talked about chefs and authors, and we deliver pretty amazing food/cocktail and lifestyle content on a daily basis. Our editorial staff is incredibly talented; we really have our pulse on what’s happening in the world of food. Plus, each story/e-mail gets tested and read by a dozen editors and staffers in addition to a pass through a copy editor. And every recipe gets tested, tasted and vetted before being published. That’s a whole lot more checks and balances than most blogs (and even some old-school glossies for that matter!).
AZ.com: As the senior editor of a daily food publication, how do you stay up on the trends and find fresh content every single day?
RP: Well, I have my head in the fridge on most days! My job is to be on top of everything that is happening in the test kitchen—every recipe that goes out in any of our eleven editions is quality checked by my team. Plus making sure that every recipe that we develop in-house for our Wednesday Chefs Recipes Edition and for our Dinner Party series is above-and-beyond delicious and speaks to what our readers want to eat. That means we get to touch on trends, make them doable for home cooks, and also get to create and eat what we’re craving, too (like Bloody Mary popsicles, fish tacos with Peppadew tartar sauce and twice-baked pistachio croissants just to name a few).
The food team relies on our amazing group of editors to keep us in the know with what’s happening in their metros. And because we cover the entire country, we see trends as they happen and can report on them while they’re still bubbling to the surface. Kimchi in everything? Chartreuse in baked goods? Fresno chiles, pickled shrimp and Brussles sprouts any which way? We were all over it.
AZ.com: You’ve co-authored several award-winning cookbooks, including DamSweetGood and Masala Farm. What is the most challenging part of writing a cookbook? The most rewarding?
RP: I love writing cookbooks. I love learning cool new tricks and recipes from wonderfully talented chefs and getting to translate their ideas and voice for home cooks. My cooking is a total amalgam of every chef whom I’ve ever worked with—it’s like going to a different cooking school every time I start a new project. It’s really an honor—and a huge responsibility. Getting to know these techniques first hand and being trusted with relaying the concepts and methods to readers—that is the most rewarding part about writing a book.
The most challenging is definitely getting chefs and food personalities to meet their deadlines. I mean, they can all cook up a storm, but the actual process of getting me recipes and scheduling time to chat (be it by phone or in person) well, that can be tricky. It can also be difficult to crack the veneer of a chef and really get into their head. Why are they really cooking the peppers this way? Where was the first time they tried this dish? Is there a personal connection? What is really the most important takeaway that home cooks need to know?
AZ.com: As a busy mom of two, any tips for introducing kids to the kitchen?
RP: Don’t do it if you a) don’t want your kitchen to look like a hurricane hit it and b) are too much of a control freak to let go and let your kids have fun. I admit that I can have problems with part b of that equation—as a professional cook and recipe tester, cooking a recipe is a sacred thing that needs to be done just-so. Try telling that to a three-year-old who just wants to whisk the hell out of some eggs!
I want my kids to be into food. To not be afraid of it, but also not to hold fried chicken on some kind of unhealthy pedestal. We do desserts, fried food, donuts, etc., but they know that we don’t do too much of anything. All food is good food—some is just better for us than others. And no food is “gross.” My seven-year-old has sucked on fish eyeballs and loves sardines. He is awesome.
I think the act of cooking is important, even if you’re kids don’t participate. Just hearing cooking—the sizzle of vegetables in oil, the sound of tongs clicking, the oven door creaking, wine hitting a hot pan—these are appetite inducing. They also teach kids to respect homemade food. Even though I only get to sit down with my kids to dinner on weekends, we have this ritual of cooking, sitting and enjoying. And on weekdays since I tend to get home on the late side, we sit down to breakfast together. Sharing meals is an important way of connecting. It doesn’t matter whether you do it over cereal, pancakes or coq au vin!
AZ.com: Favorite 3 restaurants in Brooklyn?
RP: An impossible IMPOSSIBLE question, so I’m giving you four options. Right now I’m super into Battersby, not that any mere mortals can even get in any more thanks to so much good press. But the food there is white hot. Roberto Santabañez’s place, Fonda, is wonderful. It’s this little neighborhood Mexican spot where the tortillas are supple and fresh and the smoked mole is eyes-roll-back-in-your-head insane. My favorite pizza spot is Toby’s in Greenwood Heights. It’s the most perfect neighborhood spot—something about it is so charming and cozy and warm. The music is great, the black garlic and smoked pancetta pizza super tasty. Regulars have a numbered stein hanging from the ceiling. It’s that kind of place. My fourth pick is Saltie in Williamsburg—it’s a slip of a spot in Williamsburg with creative sandwiches and not-too-sweet pastries. The currant and whiskey eccles cake is phenomenal, as is the Scuttlebut sandwich.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
RP: My fridge is packed right now because it’s Sunday so it’s loaded with food for the family for the week. Today I made a lamb and sun-dried tomato pesto meatloaf (hey, if scrunchies are back in fashion, sun-dried tomatoes can come back too, right?), mashed potatoes and a big batch of garlicky green beans. Also made a pot of creamy vegetable soup (from a book I co-authored with chef Suvir Saran, American Masala). Chocolate pudding from DamGoodSweet (authored with chef David Guas) and some couscous and lentils. Lots of yogurt—plain and flavored, Greek-style and French, as well as kid-i-fied yogurts with names like “blueberry blast” and “watermelon wipeout.” At least four different kinds of pickles, half a dozen mustards, and too-many-to-count hot sauces and salsas. Lemons, limes, a smattering of veggies, milk, cream, mango juice, soy milk. Some nice grapes I found at the market. Fixings for hard-shell taco night. Some of Maya Kaimal’s wonderful Coconut Curry simmer sauce. Don’t ask about the freezer!
Check out Raquel’s recipe for Balsamic-Glazed Lamb Meatloaf with Sun-Dried Tomatoes, Basil and Pecorino.
Award-winning food writer Raquel Pelzel is the senior food editor for TastingTable.com where she is in charge of the test kitchen and of all original and adapted recipes that run in eleven daily editions. She has authored more than thirteen cookbooks including James Beard award-nominated selections Masala Farm and DamGoodSweet. Pelzel won an IACP food journalism award for her contributions to GiltTaste.com and her recipes and stories have been featured in Saveur, The Wall Street Journal, and Cook’s Illustrated where she was an editor. Her newest book, Preserving Wild Foods authored with chef Matthew Weingarten comes out on November 6th. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, the founder of Factory 25 films, and her two sons. For more information, visit TastingTable.com, Raquel’s blog raqinthekitchen.com or follow her on Twitter @raqinthekitchen.