Food Well Done

OG Food Blogger Deb Perelman Can’t Stand 'Spa Water'

Portrait of Deb Perelman by Christine Han.

Deb Perelman has been running her food blog, The Smitten Kitchen, for 16 years. That makes her a native in the blogosphere, one of the first to log on and find an audience through her diverse, easy-to-master recipes. The standouts in Perelman’s repertoire get classified as “keepers,” those recipes that you may want to print out and file away for a rainy day or extended family get-together. For further ease of use, the chef compiled them into a cookbook, smitten kitchen keepers, out last November. Perelman took a break from perfecting a new lemon cake recipe to tell CULTURED her kitchen must-haves, least favorite dishes, and unusual bodega order.

CULTURED: What criteria does a keeper have to pass in order to meet your standards?

Deb Perelman: I need to feel without any lingering doubt in my stomach that it's going to work for everybody and that it's the best, easiest, and most reliable version of something I really wanna be able to make. I'm trying to remove as many extra steps as I can. Obviously, simplicity is good, but if it's gonna be a lemon cake, I want it to be the very best lemon cake you've had. I wanna make the last lemon cake recipe you’ll ever need.

CULTURED: This book is meant to be something easy that anyone can pull out and make in their own kitchen. What might make a cookbook, or a recipe, inaccessible to the average home cook?

Perelman: I get so much inspiration from eating out at restaurants. I'm so lucky to live in New York, where there's so much good food around. The way chefs cook at restaurants is completely different from the way we cook at home. The ingredients are different, the way we put them together, the timeline that we're working on... Recipes written for home cooks need to be very different, and that's when I often get back to like, “Can I make this in one bowl? If I'm using the stove, can every part of this dish be made on the stove? Do the ingredients align with the size that you purchase them in at grocery stores? If my spinach always comes in these 5 ounce bags, can we just use all 5 ounces, or am I only using 4 ounces?” Everybody hates having two tablespoons of tomato paste left in their fridge.

Carrot Cake with Brown Butter and No Clutter. Image from Smitten Kitchen Keepers and courtesy of Perelman. 

CULTURED: Is there a dish that represents where you're at in your life right now?

Perelman: I made a sandwich of leftovers this week and it was really good. I sometimes feel inside that I might not really be a sandwich person, but then I made this one. This is not a recipe I published; it was just some ingredients left over, with this mixture of spicy mustard and mayo. And then I had some leftover caramelized onions, and I put some sliced hard boiled egg on it. I was like, This is amazing. Am I a sandwich person though? Did this just happen? I feel like I have to pursue this a little bit.

CULTURED: What’s an overrated ingredient in your opinion?

Perelman: How long do you have? I don't like sheet-pan gnocchi. I feel like it gets really chewy and hard. I must be doing it wrong, because there's a million recipes on Pinterest for it. I don't like “spa water,” you know, when there's stuff floating in water? Like a cucumber? It's so gross. It just tastes like dirty water to me. And I'm like, “How long has that stuff been floating in there?” I have so many little things that drive me crazy.

I don't like smoked cheese. I don't know what it ever did to me, it just tastes very artificial and not like real smoke. I don’t know if they’re overused, they’re just things I don’t like. This is just because I'm a food person on the Internet, sometimes I see a lot of—and I know we all do this—sometimes a lot of food feels like innovation for the sake of innovation, when I think a lot of us are just pursuing classics.

Toasted Ricotta Gnocchi With Pistachio Pesto. Image from Smitten Kitchen Keepers and courtesy of Perelman. 

CULTURED: Something underrated?

Perelman: I love brownies. I just wanna keep making better and better brownies and not more innovative brownies. Absolutely no brownie is underrated. I think we should all be putting lemon zest in everything. I'm just a total lemon head and I feel like everything needs lemon, but a lot of times we're looking for the flavor from the juice and the real amazing fragrance and flavor comes from the peel. Can you tell I'm working on a lemon cake right now, and it's all I can think about?

CULTURED: As a New Yorker, do you have a go-to bodega order?

Perelman: I always get an egg and cheese with a slice of tomato. I understand you're supposed to get bacon, but I prefer my bacon separate from sandwiches. I get it on rye bread, and people are like, “You put eggs on rye bread?” And I'm like, “What's wrong with that?”

CULTURED: I feel like the bodega is the place to get what you really want. What in your kitchen do you splurge on?

Perelman: I tend to splurge a little bit on pots and pans. I feel like that's kind of basic, but I've been cooking for a while and I just want the one that I can give to my grandkids. I get so frustrated buying something that dies three years later. Of course, I'm a person who contributes to a landfill, but I'd like to not have my own personal kitchenware landfill named after me.

I use completely basic butter, but when I'm putting butter on something I want very good butter. I think it's totally worth it to keep a good butter around. I love this salted butter—and this is not sponsored, I'm paying an arm and a leg for it— called Isigny Sainte-Mère. If you like to bake and you like chocolate, I think good cocoa powder is a worthwhile thing to buy, because I feel like there really is a difference in the flavor. I try to buy it in larger amounts and then share it with friends, or just make sure it's being stored in a dry, cool place so it can last a couple of years.

Braised Winter Squash Wedges. Image from Smitten Kitchen Keepers and courtesy of Perelman. 

CULTURED: And is there something you save on?

Perelman: I tend to use very regular ingredients, because I feel like if I'm gonna develop a recipe with the cherries that I plucked off the vine yesterday, you won't necessarily get the same results. But if I can make this—oh my God, I’m still talking about lemon cakes—if this cake tastes good with grocery store lemons and basic butter and a regular old yogurt, then I know that if you wanna go fancy, it'll be even better. I don't want you to feel like you have to go running around for extra fancy things, and if there's a place where I think good butter is gonna make a difference, I will definitely tell you.

CULTURED: Is there a kitchen etiquette rule you actually live by?

Perelman: I have two kids. I joke about getting a tattoo on my arm like, “Chew with your mouth closed,” you know, or “Don't wave your fork in the air when you're talking. And, by the way, they're not that young. I have eating etiquette on my brain at all times.