learn how to become a ‘nimble cook,’ with ronna welsh
EACH SEASON I ask my cookbook writer friend, Ali Stafford, what new books look exciting to her. And for spring she had one in particular she said I mustn’t miss, “The Nimble Cook” by Ronna Welsh. Ronna asks us to think differently–specifically, to think about ingredients first, before recipes. And Ali was right, I love the approach the book asks us to take.
Ronna Welsh, a former restaurant cook who operates the New York cooking school called Purple Kale Kitchenworks, has been teaching chefs and home cooks for more than 20 years. Her new book’s full title is “The Nimble Cook: New Strategies for Great Meals that Make the Most of Your Ingredients,” and in it we learn to look for what she calls “starting points” that the ingredients we have on hand can offer, and to start to see the many potential incarnations of each one. You’ll never take a head of celery for granted again, or be so inclined to let partial bunches of fresh herbs languish under everything else in the “crisper” bin till they’re anything but crisp.
ronna’s 8/10 class at hgs home chef in hillsdale, ny
RONNA will be teaching at my local cooking school, HGS Home Chef in Hillsdale, NY, August 10, 2019; ticket information is here. Hope to see you there!
Read along as you listen to the July 29, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
Plus: Enter to win the cookbook in the comments box at the very bottom of the page, and also get Ronna’s distinctive Whole Leaf Frittata recipe at this link (printable pdf).
q&a with ‘the nimble cook,’ ronna welsh
Margaret: So a little background to give people a perspective. I was lucky enough to come hear you do a talk the other night, so I know this, but let’s tell it to everybody else. You were a professional chef, a professional cook in the restaurant world, and then you became a home cook, and it wasn’t such an easy transition was it? [Laughter.]
Ronna: Not so easy. In the end, a successful one. But for me the story is that I was in the restaurant world chugging away happily, and had my first daughter. I had one foot in, one foot out, and learned early on, before she was not quite 1, that I needed to step away from the kitchen and attend to some of her developmental needs. So I was at home full time cooking for myself and my very small family.
Two years later, another daughter on the way. And what I discovered, much to my dismay, was that while I had some success and felt at ease in the professional world, working with stellar ingredients, feeding a room full of diners, day in, day out, I failed miserably to cook for my tiny family at home. [More about Ronna’s transition to home cook, from a Food52 column she wrote.]
Ronna: It was a reckoning for me. I had to ask why, and it really came down to understanding that it wasn’t skill or experience, certainly not inspiration or intuition—all of these things that many of us think go hand in hand with having a kind of crafty skill. But instead it was something else that I needed that I then began to turn my attention to. And that was to develop a kind of nimbleness or a kind of facility with my space and my ingredients, and to work with my circumstances rather than to try to impose some kind of professional order on them.
Margaret: Yes. [Laughter.] And we do that, don’t we sometimes? We take all our, almost too intellectual, as opposed to surveying the landscape and taking inspiration from it.
Ronna: That’s right. Chefs love systems, they love tight systems. But the fact is that life, and especially parenthood, presents none of them to us at any time. So, yes, after knocking my head against the wall and wondering what went wrong, I realized what was wrong was my entire approach. One that was focused on a menu, on what’s for dinner, as opposed to what do I have in front of me?
jacques pépin on ronna welsh & ‘the nimble cook’
‘RONNA WELSH cooks the way I do: efficiently, vigilantly, skillfully, and frugally. This is foremost a teaching book that makes you think about ingredients rather than recipes. Understanding how versatile ingredients are so you can incorporate them in any recipe is the proper, intelligent way to cook.’— Jacques Pépin
Margaret: Right. And I loved the other night in the presentation that I enjoyed listening to that you gave, you said something so wonderful. You said this little anecdote about how so many of your students then, after the class, they say, “So, what do I do first?” And what do you tell them to do first?
Ronna: I usually tell them to go home and take stock of what they already have, that they’ve often overlooked. Most people want to walk away with a new grid for shopping. “Now, what do I put first? The produce or the… ” And what I tell people is, “Actually that’s too many steps.” The first step is just to look at the things that are around you, almost as if for the first time as edible and full of possibilities. And so, if my classes are successful at all, they provide people with the perspective to be able to say, “Oh, now what do I do with this?”
Margaret: Right. So don’t go shopping this week. Right? Skip it?
Ronna: [Laughter.] So don’t go shopping. We all have more food in our kitchens than we think.
Margaret: Yes. So I love the language of the book and of your way of approaching cooking. You have phrases like, “Starting points,” and you talk about the “ways to play” and “safe zones.” Tell us a little bit about how your approach to cooking works.
Ronna: Sure. So I’ve taken the process of planning a meal and kind of flipped it on its head. And rather than start… So, by the way, I’m all about recipes, and I’m really happy when someone gives me one of their own.
So, this is not toss the baby out with the bath water. But this is just to say that when we don’t have a recipe or when recipes fail us, or when recipes create more work than necessary, we want it to be able to have the skills to take stock. So, for me, the first step is take stock of what you have.
And that means not just opening the refrigerator and finding the protein without which maybe you can’t make a meal. It means looking at everything, sometimes looking at things in aggregate, all round things in the fridge [laughter], and then you present something in a way that’s different than if they weren’t all clumped together.
I often tell people to take the condiments out of their refrigerator door or to take the half-opened packages of pasta to reckon with what they have, to pull them out, and to say, “What happens if I do one thing to each of you?”
And in this way the task is very small, and very modest. It is to say, “Oh, this jar of capers, or this bunch of parsley, or maybe it’s these two duck breasts.” I’m not going to think about the dish that I have to feed my whole family within a half-hour, I’m going to instead say, “What one technique can I bring? Can I cut you, saute? Can I braise? Can I boil?” If you know how to roast a potato and boil an egg, you have two options, quick options, for applying to so many ingredients. And then what that gives you is what I call starting points.
Ronna: So maybe it is a roasted potato, which doesn’t really sound like anything new and novel, and why do I need somebody to tell me how to roast a potato? But what I want to remind people is that actually there’s a right way to roast and a wrong way. And if you short-change the roasting because you think it’s not really a big deal to roast a potato, it’s really just a means to an end to this final dish, then maybe you’re actually not doing it as well as you could.
Because a really delicious roasted potato is not that far from the end, especially if you have maybe another starting point, which is a parsley vinaigrette, which is a terrific way of using a whole bunch of parsley, including the stems. And then what you have is this lovely little salad, and just these two starting points on hand allow you a kind of improvisation which may not be readily available to you on a Tuesday when you come home from work and you see those potatoes partially sprouted because they’re on top of a pile of unpaid bills.
Margaret: [Laughter.] I know.
Ronna: Starting points for me are a way for us to get beyond ourselves. What do we hang up on?
Margaret: Yes. And so, you’re talking about, for instance, those potatoes and that parsley, and so the book is distinctive in many ways, but also for the fact—besides the philosophy, the strategy, the teaching—for the fact that it has illustrations and not photographs. And those include many beautiful painterly, illustrated flowcharts. Like there’s a full-page one for chicken, there’s a full-page one for herbs [top of page]. And so the name of the thing like herbs and there’s a sprig of parsley in the middle of that one. I’m looking at it right now. And then there’s this flowchart emanating out from this herb that says to you all these things that could happen from there, from that parsley.
Ronna: That’s right. And it takes you to the inner circle, the more immediate circle, from parsley or any herb, are the holding points. So maybe you turn it into a vinaigrette. Or maybe you pickle the parsley. Or maybe it’s just a novel and really great way of storing your herbs so that they last longer and they’re out of your produce drawer where they’re wilting, unseen.
So these ways of providing you with, not necessarily new techniques—although I think in the case of a pickled herb, maybe. But a new way to see the same old ingredients.
And that allows us in. We say, at the very least, we munch on the pickled parsley out of the container as we order pizza. But that gives us something to do. It gets us thinking about the pickled parsley so that when inspiration strikes—which is never for me in the kitchen, it’s always when I’m on the subway on the way to the doctor’s office on the Upper East Side. Right? And then I go, “Oh, pickled parsley.” [Laughter.] And then I can come home, and there it is.
Margaret: Yes. And so, those flowcharts, as I said, there’s chicken on one page in the endpapers of the book, and opposite a full-page flowchart of the herbs, and there’s pork in I think the back endpaper on one side, and citrus on the other, not something I would have thought of, but hey, citrus has this whole potential, right down to the peel. And you’re so frugal, and you’re so smart about, without being obsessive and negative about the idea of not wasting any bit.
And so, for instance, you have this, I forget what you… Oh, the Celery Sort. You have this way of looking at a head of celery, a bunch of celery. Right? Tell us about the Celery Sort [below].
Ronna: This is an exercise that I do in almost all of my classes when there’s time. I just present a bunch of celery. Most of us aren’t excited about the possibilities inherent in a bunch of celery. And many of us have the experience of using a stalk or two, maybe we like to dip it in hummus, or maybe we cut it up for a start of a soup, but then we always leave half the bunch to wilt.
Margaret: And it gets nice and rubbery. [Laughter.]
Ronna: Right. And it falls into one of those categories of food we actually somehow expect to throw away. We buy it knowing we’re going to throw half of it away. So, what I like to do is tell people to look at the ingredient that they’ve taken for granted differently. And I do that by pulling off first the dark outer leaves at the top, and then I pull the dark stalks, the fibrous stalks from the outside and put them in a separate pile.
And then what you have inside are these really beautiful buttery, yellow, bendy stalks, along with these really soft, silky, rough yellow leaves, and they taste entirely different than the outer stalk, which were just protecting them. And sometimes I’ll lob off the base itself because I can use that in a spring stock, which is a kind of vegetable stock that uses bits and pieces of ingredients and takes only 5 minutes to make, because if you cook it for longer than 5 minutes it tastes sort of dull.
So, what I tell people is now that we have this celery laid out, what do these various parts look most like? Well the outer ribs of the celery reminded me of something that I might want to cook for a long time. They’re tough. We sort of bat them around in the class for a little bit. They have to be peeled sometimes.
But the inner stalks don’t remind me of celery or a carrot stick at all. And the little yellow leaves, I want to then pair them with other herbs, not mix them into my tuna or my egg salad. So it gives us a way to look at this simple bunch differently.
And then leads us off in many different directions. We may not have those ideas right away, but even just the simple act of putting the leaves, washed, and in a separate container from the rest of the celery, means that maybe when we reach for those capers on our condiment drawer, and our hand moves past those celery leaves, it might occur to us that those two could live together on the same plate. And the fact that they are no longer attached to the bunch, out of view, gives us a moment to do something new.
Margaret: Yes, they’re at the ready, and maybe improvisation will strike, the thought will strike.
Ronna: That’s right. We set ourselves up for success, because otherwise we’re expected to take too many steps.
Margaret: And if we just take off the two stalks that we need to make the recipe that we went to the supermarket to get the celery for, and then the rest lays there in the drawer and gets reverie, it doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t feel good. Not only do we waste it, but it doesn’t feel good. It feels a little bit like a fail. And, by the way, celery is rising in price it seems lately. It’s an “it” thing.
Ronna: That’s right. It’s not something that is so easily discarded.
Margaret: Yes. So, you’re speaking about storing and so forth maybe some of those celery leaves. You have another tip in the book, you call it the Herb Tank [above right]. Can you just explain which herbs go into your Herb Tank, and what an Herb Tank is?
Ronna: Sure. An Herb Tank is a container that you fill with ice water, into which you plummet your fresh, washed herbs. This could include parsley, mint, cilantro, oregano, marjoram, or thyme, even sage. Basil is, to me, one of those herbs that… I feel like we all need to have a special basil fridge along with our wine fridge, because it’s so temperamental. So this is one I wouldn’t include, but most other herbs do really well in an Herb Tank.
The idea behind it is to move away from the inaccessibility of herbs. Many of us, if we don’t throw away the entire bunch of cilantro that we bought, we’ll throw part of it away.
Ronna: The crisper drawer really is an unfortunate design.
Margaret: Out of sight, out of mind.
Ronna: It is. That’s right. Pile things on top of each other. So what the Herb Tank does is it gets us past a couple of things. For one thing, it reminds us we have these herbs. And for another, they’re washed and ready and in plain sight. And in aggregate, all combined, they seem somehow more substantial than we think they are.
One of my favorite, favorite recipes in the book is for a many herb salad. And this is to take any fresh herbs that you have—set aside rosemary and sage because those are a little bit tougher in this particular salad to just eat straight—and to use the stems, and to use the leaves only roughly chopped, with lemon and olive oil. And this allows you…
So if you can imagine taking any herb from your crisper drawer and storing them in this Herb Tank, whether or not you empty the tank to make this herb salad, or you use it to follow through on an impulse that you might have, because maybe you’re sauteing chicken in a pan and you just think, “Huh, I wonder if maybe a fresh herb.” But it’s too many steps for you to go into your crisper drawer, open it up, feel defeated and deflated because you’ve let that half a bunch wilt, and then you just sort of close it. So this allows you to follow through on that, “I wonder if…” just grab it right out of the tank and it’s ready to go.
Margaret: So in that Herb Tank with the ice water, and you’re going to have to put more ice in from time to time, I assume, to keep it cold. Yes?
Ronna: And I actually change the water.
Margaret: Freshen the water. And so, in that Herb Tank might be multiple herbs. So gardeners, people listening to the show, we should all be going out there—and this is what came to me when I read about the Herb Tank. It was like, “Why aren’t I… ” And they can last up to a week depending on what it is. But why aren’t I going out twice a week to the garden picking a mixture of things? Not expecting myself, just because I’m making some eggs, to think, “Oh, well if I just walk out to the vegetable garden I could add some blah, blah to the… ” You know what I mean? But there it is. It’s right there. And trying these things. So, it’s a great thing for gardeners right now.
Sort of related, with spices, with other seasonings, with spices, you make me laugh when you talk about how we relate to them. And you encourage us to make spiced seasoned salts, instead of just using the dry spices. And tell us a little bit about where the “aha” came for that.
Ronna: Well, I find that most people use the same one or two spices, but they stock their kitchens with 3 to 12 times as many. Many of those, maybe we bought for a specific recipe and then have extra of. Some we bought because we bought a set of herbs. Others we bought because it sounded good or we were supposed to have, like marjoram, on hand. Regardless, we have a stock to choose from, and yet we rely on those ones we know best. Makes sense.
I encourage people to dive deeper and use spices, for example, that they may not know well. They’re afraid to do so without a recipe. They’re afraid to use cumin unless they understand exactly the 10 other ingredients that go into the curry that they once made. Even though cumin is a spice that’s used in so many cuisines beyond Indian, and that’s delicious on its own in really unexpected ways. So for example, it’s delicious paired with fresh oregano. But we don’t find this out necessarily because we made it in a recipe before, or I should say we shouldn’t have to wait to find this out, for a dish to present it.
Margaret: Right. So people go and they put their nose in the spice jar and think, “Oh, is that the right one?” But you want us to taste them. So you use this medium, the salt, yes, to facilitate that?
Ronna: The medium is salt, because we can’t taste a spice straight up.
Ronna: It often presents us with a bitterness or metallic-ness on the tongue. We mix it with a little bit of salt. I do offer some suggestions for proportion of salt.
Margaret: Yes. But you even said bay salt, for instance. Normally we stick a bay leaf in our split pea soup pot or lentils or whatever. But this is a whole different way to experience some of these. [Example: Ronna grinds 15 large bay leaves to a fine powder, then adds 1 tablespoon of coarse kosher salt; store in an airtight jar for up to three months.]
And related, I kind of slapped myself on the forehead, like “Oy vey, Margaret, you dummy, all these years.” When I got to the part about your Tasting Bowl and spoon. Because, of course, like many cooks all this time, if I’ve got a whole pot of something that’s not working out on the stove and I’m tasting it and I’m not loving it, I re-season the whole pot. And why am I doing that? So just quickly tell us about the Tasting Bowl and Spoon. It’s genius. [Laughter.]
Ronna: Sure. It’s really easy for us to find ourselves flailing about, whether it’s a recipe that isn’t the way we quite want it to be or if we’re just winging it and something’s not quite right. And I tell people at that juncture you have a number of choices. One is to turn it off and walk away, because things taste different in 5 or 10 minutes, or the next day. It’s sort of like when you’re stuck on a strange word in a sentence, sometimes you just have to go for a walk.
But the other thing is that we want to be smart and methodical about this. So even though we’re in our home kitchen, this isn’t what we do for work, we feel like we ought to be able to take this jar of spice and add it to our chili and that’s not such a big deal after all, except when we add the wrong thing or in the wrong amount, or, by wrong, I mean we just don’t like the way it tastes, it’s a real bummer. It’s dispiriting, it discourages us from doing it again.
So all we need is a Tasting Bowl and a Tasting Spoon and we need to take some of whatever it is we’re trying, put it in and make our small adjustments, in that, in that small space.
Margaret Roach: [Laughter.] I loved it. I just loved it. And the book is so much fun. I loved your Whole Leaf Frittata [above], which was different. It used whole leaves as opposed to chopped-up leaves and some eggs and so forth. It used whole leaves, I believe, of collards. And I want to share that with people [get printable pdf of the recipe here]. So, thank you, thank you, thank you.
Ronna: Thank you, thank you, thank you.
more from ronna welsh, ‘the nimble cook’
enter to win ‘the nimble cook’
I’LL BUY A COPY OF “The Nimble Cook” by Ronna Welsh for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page:
When was the last time you really took stock of all those jars in your refrigerator door to see what they might add up to–or how many spices with just one pinch used from the jar have been sitting on your shelf for how long? (I’m looking at both of my stashes in a different way since reading Ronna’s book and hearing her speak.)
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I;ll pick a random winner afte entries close at midnight Tuesday, August 6, 2019. Good luck to all.
(Credits: Illustrations © 2019 by Diana Vassar from “The Nimble Cook: New Strategies for Great Meals That Make the Most of Your Ingredients,” reproduced by permission of Rux Martin Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.)
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the July 29, 2019 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).