Thursday, April 9, 2015

Friends Who Cook: Emily Ganzer

Since my Beloved has been back I've actually been making meals again (!), and so the subject of dinner has been revived.

Meet my friend, Emily. She is an stunning artist, writer, mother, shop-keeper, home cook, and friend. She mentioned a quince soda to me back in October, and I forgot to thank her properly: Thank you, Emily!

A long while ago Emily and I and another friend were emailing back and forth on the subject of feeding ourselves and our families - of how we do it well, or not so well, of what life changes can do for our cooking, and how inspired or uninspired we are by the daily glory of it all. I liked what they had to say, so I asked Emily to make the conversation official, and public. Here I interview her, and she shares a recipe. Enjoy!

Emily Ganzer
Emily and her girls and a certain blackberry basil birthday cake.

Emily, this might be a big question to start out with, but, what inspires you to cook?

There's the somewhat bland but important answer, which is that I want my family to eat healthy, whole, made-from-scratch meals because I believe it's best for their souls and bodies and I have the capacity and interest to make it happen (most of the time).

But aside from that... my parents are good cooks. I was and am inspired by their interest in other cultures and flavors combined with the elegant simplicity of their approach to food. My father, for example, knows dozens of fillings and sauces for crepes and approaches the whole business with efficiency and joy, and my mother can take a few simple vegetables and some fish and make an incredibly delicious and easy meal out of it, and that's my favorite way to cook, too.

It sounds a little silly to say it, but Martha Stewart was actually the one who taught me how to cook, at least initially. I had attempted cooking throughout my childhood and adolescence, but didn't know a thing and never used a recipe, so it never turned out well (but I loved the process!). One afternoon when I was 19, I was lazing around in my parents' house watching the Martha Stewart Show and she was making a pasta dish. She just heated olive oil in a pan and added crushed garlic ("to release the flavor"), then cherry tomatoes, as people do. I don't know what else happened after that, but heat + fat was the key that unlocked good cooking for me. I never knew about it.

And what keeps me going, besides practicality, are three things: 1) the first I can't even describe - something about dignity and gift and mastery and the way good cooking, and dignity and gift and mastery, is accessible by nearly all levels of society - but your question, Amanda, has made me want to pursue that trail further. Thank you. 2) The connection to time and place, both in the cultural art of cooking throughout both history and cultures, and the times and places of the foods themselves. That gets me going. And, most immediately satisfying to me, 3) beauty. Food - growing, uncooked, cut, cooked, plated - is beautiful. How can anyone face the raw ingredients of a dish - the fragrant and colorful spices, the shapes and colors and texture of vegetables, the arresting grain of meat and fish, the sounds of cutting and thunking and sizzling, the array of smells and further smells released by heat and oil - and not be moved? It's kingship, really. Humbling and crowning, all at once. It's a right feeling.

Spanish Omelette-Inspired Frittata

Wow, I feel remarkably grounded by your answer. I hope everyone else thinks this is as good as an idea as I do. Now to the hard part: Kids! Change! How has having children and moving across the continent a couple times influenced how and what you cook? 

I think that what moving and having children has done vis-a-vis my cooking, more than anything, is to make me a more self-aware cook. I no longer panic when I hit a lull or even a period of distaste for cooking (which happens after big life changes and in winter - not including January which for some reason is a decent cooking month for me). And this may sound smarmy, but having children has widened my sense of identity. If a dinner party goes awry or I hit one of those lulls, it's okay - my identity is not quite so significantly wrapped up in being "that girl who cooks really well". There's also some relief in realizing that everyone makes really awful soup sometimes. Maybe that's just reaching my 30s, though. Also, I used to make complicated dishes all the time. Now I do that on Easter. Maybe. But I'm getting much better at the beautiful-simple route.

So then, Emily, why this dish?

Why this dish? As is often the case in the life of a mother of little ones, the answer to that begins with a story about pee. A year ago February, I was potty training my now 3 1/2 year old, Clara. I followed lots of good advice - gave her a big cup of diluted juice to drink, set her up with books and shows while she sat on her potty, let her run around bottomless. Second day in, things were going okay, if stressful. Following her around, taking her to the potty often, keeping my cool whilst cleaning up errant pees. By the end of the day I thought, okay, I conquered a fear (which is to say I faced potty training - to me this was daunting), things have been hard and I've wiped up a lot of urine, and now I'm ready for a good end to the day. Good food, good connection with my girl. So I faced weariness and difficulty the way I'd faced it in my pre-child days: I made a gorgeous, "simple" meal. I made a caramelized onion tart with thyme and gruyere and served it with a champagne vinegar and olive oil vinaigrette tossed green salad. I thought, here's this beautiful meal, we'll love it, we'll relax, we'll be immersed in food-beauty, I'm such a good mother!

But the entire making was stressful - whiny child, cleaning up (more) pee. But I did it. I made it. It was beautiful. I put it on the table, and she said "no!" and wouldn't eat it and wept and said she had to go potty ("an excuse not to eat!" I thought). And I was tired. So I told her in my most mature voice, "FINE! I'll eat it ALONE!" And I did, while she went into the other room and peed on the floor (it wasn't an excuse - I felt terrible). And I cried and yelled, and she cried and said she didn't want to go potty ever again (as an adult she will be able to point to this moment as the start to her bladder issues and aversion to French food).

As I later reflected on the day, I realized that I should have absolutely made pasta with butter, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches - something easy, and something easy to like. I learned that day that truly simple foods are essential to the little years - parents aren't making that up. At the same time, I know that I'm not willing to sacrifice beauty and quality. And that's finally where the eggs come in. Eggs are versatile, beautiful, easy, and fast. They are also a good vehicle for other foods, like vegetables, so you can call it a meal and be done.

Spanish Omelette-Inspired Frittata

Serves 2 for dinner or 4 as a light lunch

olive oil
1 baked potato, sliced into 1/4 inch thick slices
1 shallot, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
4-5 large eggs, lightly beaten
Two handfuls spinach leaves
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Yogurt, for serving (salted and/or meyer-lemoned if desired), optional
Herbs (parsley, thyme, and/or basil), optional

Heat up an oven-safe cast iron or stainless steel frying pan on medium until drops of water, flicked from wetted fingers, dance around the surface. Add a glug of olive oil and swirl to coat, then add potato slices, shallot, and garlic in a single layer. Cook 3-4 minutes. Flip potatoes, etc. and cook 3-4 minutes more until each side is lightly golden brown.

Preheat broiler. Meanwhile, pour eggs over potatoes, etc. and tilt pan to distribute evenly. Toss spinach on top of eggs and cover pan for a couple of minutes. Let cook until bottom is set, a few minutes.

Set pan in oven, under broiler, for a few minutes more, until the top is just set (it will continue cooking out of oven, so don't let it get brown or you'll have dry eggs). Remove from broiler, salt, and either serve immediately or let sit to room temp. Either way is fine. Before serving, slice and top with yogurt and freshly ground pepper. A drizzle of smoked olive oil is good, too. Sometimes I like a sprinkle of thyme, chopped parsley, or basil.

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