Texas Book Festival
Listening to Lynne Rossetto Kasper describe food is a bit like savoring a rich meal itself – her voice is warm, buttery and soothing, and her vivid conversations about food leave you feeling content and, oddly enough, rested.
In short, she is human tryptophan.
Enjoying a meal with the affable host of American Public Media’s long-running weekly radio show The Splendid Table, on the other hand, is invigorating. In between promoting her new book, The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Weekends, at the Texas Book Festival, Rossetto Kasper sat down with us at Austin’s East Side Café to discuss her long career, her newest collection of recipes and, of course, her favorite foods.
You and The Splendid Table producer Sally Swift had already put out How to Eat Supper. What was the impetus for this follow-up book?
The first book that we did together was obviously about work nights and things that you could get on the table quickly. There were a lot of dishes that didn’t hit that category and things we loved to make. Also, for me personally, there were so many dishes either I’d been doing forever or that I use to do and loved, and it was nostalgic to go back. It was sort of a trip down memory lane.
The book includes 100 recipes for multi-course weekend dinners. Do you have any favorites of the bunch?
The beef stew, certainly. You may make it two times a year, but it’s a killer beef stew. One of my all-time favorites, which is the opposite of the beef stew and takes 10 minutes, is called Iced Fudge Lollies. They’re fudge pops done with cocoa, sugar, water and some vanilla, and you swear you’re eating the richest chocolate.
About that beef stew. It took several attempts to create the recipe you consider to be “the stew of all stews.” Any insider tips for perfecting it?
First, you don’t have to get the fatty cut of meat you’ve always been told to get. Instead, get the leg, or shank, often called “soup meat.” Curlicues of collagen are marbled through the meat, and when it breaks down slowly during cooking it gives you that silky, slightly sticky, delicious natural thickening. This is exactly the cut I remember having in France in many stews. Second, you never, under any circumstances, at any time, boil a stew. The meat will toughen. Never have that meat get above an internal temperature of 160 degrees. Trick three: The marinade ahead of time does squat. Where the huge difference comes in is to marinate after the fact. All that fuss about stew tastes better the second day, it’s absolutely true, so let the stew sit in its marinade after it’s been cooked.
You grew up with Italian food, taught Chinese cooking early in your career, and your book covers myriad cuisines, from Mexican to Indian. Is there any cuisine you haven’t mastered?
In your profession there should always be an area that you treat as sport. You don’t try to become an expert at it, you just go out and have fun with it, and this is how I feel about Vietnamese food. I’ve learned some things in spite of myself, but it’s really my "fun" food.
What’s your favorite spice to cook with?
At this moment, my favorite spice is allspice because I discovered it’s pretty fabulous with meats, pretty swell with most vegetables and really wonderful with tomatoes. The other combination I’m really loving, especially in baking, is whole cardamom pods and vanilla. I’m thinking of something like a buttermilk pie for Thanksgiving where the filling is made with cardamom and vanilla.
You’re reaching for comfort food. Do you grab salty or sweet?
Generally salty, but I love sweet things that have crunch and also sweet things that have a tremendous creaminess, things with marshmallow qualities. My ultimate delight is cake with real French butter cream that has been done masterfully. It’s really one of my great downfalls. I have fantasies about it.
Is there anything you won’t eat? (Aside from okra, which she establishes is “the only vegetable she really doesn’t like” after seeing it on East Side Café’s menu.)
Most innards, except for liver. Liver I eat if it comes from an animal that’s organic, because [the liver] is a storehouse. But my personal recipe for chicken liver pâté done with organic chickens is killer. That’s one of our Christmas treats – it’s so rich it’s ridiculous.
The Splendid Table started in 1994 after your debut book by the same name won both the James Beard and Julia Child Cookbook of the Year awards. What was the show meant to accomplish?
We started the show with the whole concept of food is more than cooking. It would be wonderful if everyone cooked, but the real idea behind the show was that this is an immense subject. This is a subject that embraces political concerns, ethical concerns, philosophy, spirituality, satire, hands-on cooking, science, history….
How has the food scene changed since you started your career in the late ’60s, early ’70s?
Just as with our political scene, where you have so many choices of candidates and what they stand for, a lot of people are asking questions about food now that we never asked 15, 17, 18 years ago, and I think that’s healthy. I want to see people asking more and more and more questions, and that’s what we do on the show.
You started talking about organic, locally grown food when the show started 17 years ago. Are you pleased to see it finally catching on?
You have to be fair – especially today. We have people right now who can’t keep a roof over their heads, who really don’t know if they’re going to have dinner tonight. When you have people sitting on their thrones, representing maybe 10 percent of the population who can afford a choice saying, ‘Is that local? Otherwise we shouldn’t be selling it,’ well, Buster, no, it isn’t, but this is what some people have. The real point is, you can’t call anything sustainable if it is not affordable to the entire population.
You’re on Death Row – any requests for your final meal?
Can I cook it myself?
Can my husband be there?
I would have to have my pasta with my tomato sauce; a bottle of Ripasso di Valpolicella quintarelli; a really lovely salad of mâche with Belgian endive and red onion and the oil and vinegar that we like; and an excellently made espresso butter cream and chocolate on a chocolate bouchon.
For more information about The Splendid Table and to purchase Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s new book, How to Eat Weekends, visit splendidtable.publicradio.org.