In her award-winning blog, Smitten Kitchen, Deb Perelman proves you don’t need acres of space or fancy ingredients to conjure up amazing dishes. She chats to Alex Galbinski about her new cookbook[divider]
When the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Oprah Winfrey recommend your cookery blog, you know you’re onto something special. And when your first cookbook enters the New York Times bestseller list at number two and stays near the top for several weeks, it merely confirms it.
But despite her rocketing success, Deb Perelman, author of The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook: Recipes from a New York Kitchen, has remained grounded and focused on her life’s passion – cooking. The 37-year-old must be doing something right because, apart from her many celebrity fans, she has attracted to her blog some five to 6.5million unique visitors.
Depicting her penchant for presenting old favourites in new ways, the cover of her cookbook features rhubarb hamantaschen – a favourite Jewish food she likes to make. “It’s too bad that you never see seasonal hamantaschen,” she says. “It’s a really fun way of making them more interesting than with the traditional jam”.
There are plenty more traditional Jewish recipes inside – and all with her trademark twist.
She adds: “I love making challah – I like making it the traditional way and I love playing around with it. On the website, there is a recipe for an apple and honey challah, making a play on Rosh Hashanah, and in the book I have a fig, olive oil and sea salt challah, which is not traditional in any way, but it’s the most delicious thing.”
She also includes her take on her mother-in-law’s recipe for brisket. “It’s something I get a lot of requests for,” she explains. “Many people have bad memories of terrible brisket and my mother-in-law cooks it exceptionally well.”
Although she and her husband, Alex, an IT business manager, are not practicing, Perelman says: “We’ve always liked traditional food – the idea of meals bringing people together. Our relationship with Judaism these days is a nice family meal. We’ve always enjoyed the foods our grandparents made – noodle kugels, my grandmother’s European coffee cakes, and my mother’s apple cake.”
Surprisingly Perelman, who has a three-year-old son, Jacob, says she only started cooking properly when she was living by herself, although growing up she did like to help in the kitchen alongside her mother, whose parents came from Germany.
Her blog began in 2003 under the name of Smitten and encompassed relationships as well as cooking – Alex was one of the first people to comment on it, which is how they met. Three years later, Smitten became Smitten Kitchen to reflect its transformation into a dedicated cookery blog and, in 2008, when it became commercially viable, she left her job as a technology reporter to concentrate on it full-time.
So, in a sea of food bloggers and cookery authors, what is her schtick? Well, she loves to cook and wants to help you enjoy it, too – and it shows, despite that she cooks in a kitchen the size of a “shoebox”, which she describes as a “puny 42 square foot circa-1935 sort of half-galley kitchen with a 24 foot footprint, a single counter, tiny stove, checkered floor and a noisy window at the end to the avenue below”.
However, in the book’s introduction, she writes: “Here, I hope we don’t let tiny kitchens, tiny budgets, long days, fussy ingredients, or people who tell you you’re less of a cook if you need to look at a recipe, keep us from making awesome food we’re excited to eat and share.”
Her writing style is chatty – in Oprah Winfrey’s magazine, her book is described as reading like “a conversation with a witty friend who can recommend the perfect nosh for any occasion”.
Perelman also endeavours to answer each and every culinary query on her blog – even a cursory glance at a couple of recipes shows this is no mean feat, proving her popularity as a cookery writer.
Her aim is to make cooking accessible to all. “What I’m trying to do is to talk about food in regular language. I don’t consider myself a cooking professional or necessarily an expert, just someone who has a few tricks up my sleeve and I love to share them.
“I don’t like it when I read recipes and they seem very bossy to me, or when recipes lecture me – ‘use the best olive oil, only use the purest or the best vanilla’. That’s great, I like very good olive oil too, but when I talk to other people about how to cook, I try to remember how much that annoys me. I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong way to cook – I think there’s just the way it works for you.”
She admits to being an “obsessive”, testing and retesting each recipe to make sure each step is worth including. “I’m not trying to make 30-minute meals – I mean that’s fine, too – but I’m trying to make something that is really good and find out the most efficient way to get there.”
She tells me one of her greatest culinary influences is the late American chef Julia Child. “I feel there is so much outlined in her book and what I love is that she really uses everyday ingredients. I love this idea that ‘I will tell you how to cook with the ingredients you can get, rather than berate you for not shopping or paying for more’, which is sometimes the direction recipes go these days.”
While she admits her friends are sometimes nervous to cook for her, she offers the following advice for a nervous cook: “A good recipe should allow the most inexperienced or scared cook to be able to follow the recipe and make it exactly as the creator did. I think that should be the goal of the recipe. If it doesn’t work, it’s because I failed as a recipe writer.”
Looking back over the past few years, Perelman describes her life as “crazy”. With her book tours complete, she is looking forward to blogging and thinking about the food she wants to cook. And while she would like to one day write another book, she says: “I feel no need to rush into it. I would rather refill the well, work on inspiration, be brimming with ideas and then start thinking about another book.”
She adds: “I’ve been doing the website since 2006, mostly from my living room, so it’s definitely surreal to find there’s a very large audience in the outside world. It’s really fun, but it still hasn’t sunk in.”[divider]
The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook: Recipes from a New York Kitchen by Deb Perelman is out now, published by Square Peg, priced £20