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An Interview with Barbara Kafka

by Sally Bernstein

Sally: Barbara, I've so enjoyed reading through your new cookbook, Roasting. I'm ready to go home and use it.

Barbara: Good!

Sally: There are so many recipes. What would be the first three recipes if I have the book at home that you would tell me or tell others to try?

Barbara: First of all I would tell you to try something that you like. What roasting does is make the flavor more intense and more succulent and richer. If you don't like something to begin with, like parsnips, I could probably convert you. I mean because a lot of people who don't like parsnips, they don't like that mushy texture of parsnips when they cook, they are fabulous. I had a television crew eating parsnips like they were going out of style today. But usually, particularly if you don't cook a lot, I would tell you to make my roast chicken.

Sally: Okay, is this the one on the cover?

Barbara: Yes. It will convert most people. It's simple, it's good, it's quick, it's almost infallible. And, once you can make a roast chicken, you can feed a family, you can make two of them and have a party, so I would suggest that. I suppose I would suggest that you make a main course to begin with. If I lived out here [San Francisco] or where I live, I would roast a fish. A whole fish roasts fabulously. Absolutely fabulously! It's the way I cook. The leg of lamb is super, and you can make a short leg of lamb. You can make a boned leg of lamb. You can make any of these things. I heartily suggest the cherry tomatoes with basil, because even when the tomatoes are not good, when they're out of season, the cherry tomatoes get a great intensity of flavor. They make a gravy of their own and so that you can make it with anything: a simple roasted fish, a simple roasted chicken, whatever and that becomes so soft with the vegetables and it's pretty. The whole shallots [are] absolutely sensational! That's in one of the pictures. It may be on the cover. The whole shallots just do fantastically. Those are Jerusalem Artichokes. That's what we're having tonight.

Sally: That looks good.

Barbara: And the fruits, much to everybody's surprise are sensational. And, there's fennel and then roasted bread coated with a little dab of oil, and that is so much better because under the broiler the whole bread comes to life. It just sings. [pointing to photo in book] You have leeks here, and onions here, and you have onion flowers and shallots. Whole shallots, particularly the bigger ones, they are just ravishing! There are additions here for people, what I call Not on Your Diet Roasted Potatoes. You might as well forget making the rest of dinner. They are so fattening.

Sally: Yes, I've read that. That's the one with butter?

Barbara: That's the one with the butter and they're twice roasted and it uses a very rich field stock. It's wonderful.

Sally: It can't be bad.

Barbara: Oh, it's just terrific. So there are a lot of things that are really...there's no filler in this book and then the one thing I encourage people to do is to get into a new habit which is if you're roasting and you've never roasted before, you're going to have bones, you're going to have fish heads, you're going to have things like that. Keep a stockpot out, throw in the bones as soon as dinner is finished cover with water, and put an otoshibuta, you know what those are? Or the lid of a pot or jar. An otoshibuta is a wooden lid that the Japanese use. It doesn't go on the pan, it goes in the pan and it leaves a space all around the otoshibutaso the liquid doesn't boil away, and it keeps at a constant heat. I have many, many recipes for leftovers which to me are sometimes...we're such a rich country that leftovers kind of have a bad name, but to me, it's like you have a sous chef in your kitchen, someone who's already made the basic ingredients for you and you can turn it into another dish, so that there are hashes, and stews and there's a wonderful trick for anybody who does cook, and are used to saute»ing their meat before they make a stew, if they just put it in a pan, there's a little section on that in the back of the meat chapter, and put a little oil on it and put it in the high temperature oven low down, you don't have to flip it or move it. You turn it over once, it uses much less fat, you're much less liable to get spattered and it's much easier and you can cook more food at one time. You don't have to do batches and batches.

Sally: How did you get from the microwave to roasting?

Barbara: I guess I've always roasted. My first book was called Food For Friends; and it had lots of roasted food in it as well. Several reasons, really. It does what the microwave doesn't do, I mean, it crisps, it browns.

Barbara: And just because it's another oven. I didn't throw out my kitchen when I got a microwave, and I haven't thrown out my microwave because I roast. The microwave was new for me, it was exciting. I learned there's a lot to master, but I have always roasted food, because that's what I do. I walk in the door having dinner for people, I turn the oven on high, make sure the rack is in the right place, either take the food out of the refrigerator or take it out of the bag, and let it come to room temperature. That's really all there is to it. The rest is timing and seasoning and deglazing.

Sally: Deglazing?

Barbara: So, then, of course, you deglaze. And that's another thing. You take the food out of the pan, and you throw some liquid in the pan on top of the stove, whether it's water or wine or stock, and you get your wooden spoon out and scrape-up and dissolve all of those wonderful rich juices that are congealed on the bottom of the pan, and it's an interesting gift it's your gravy, it's your sauce, and it's wonderful. And I believe in simple and logical things, you know, like racks are just one more thing to clean. And one more thing, you lose all the good stuff that sticks to the rack instead of the pan for me to get up and make a sauce. I don't truss birds -- I remove trussing from birds. Because trussing came about when people used to cook on spits, and they had to hold this into a packed thing to make it stay on this spit, but in our world, we're not cooking on a spit, and we're much better off leaving it so the thickest part of the bird, the thigh is not smashed up against another part of the bird which is thick, the body, which is illogical. People keep on doing things because they've always done them that way. I almost had a fit when they went to take the photograph, they did it with neat little string hanging off the ankles, and I said "No, no! I don't do that!" They were laughing so we had to reshoot.

Sally: This is your seventh book. And you've edited four others? Which is your favorite? Is there a favorite? Are these like children that every time you write one? They're so huge, so big!

Barbara: Well, I think I have an affection for Food and Friends which is out in print again now.

Sally: Your first one?

Barbara: Well, no, the first one was really American Food and California Wine which is also out again. But Food For Friends is a book that made me a lot of friends, and people somehow feel very warmly about it.

Sally: And that's out in paperback?

Barbara: No, it was in paperback, but now it's in hardcover, but it's not very expensive. And then Microwave Gourmet is another thing, in other words, each represents a year of my life.

Sally: That was my next question. How long did it take you to write 230 recipes?

Barbara: Three years and the rest of my life. I mean, since I first started cooking, I've been roasting, so you develop a feel and an expertise and a sense of the way that something smells when it's done. And you just get a feel but then you test and test, I don't think I could tell you how many times I did some things until I got it right.

Sally: Do you have recipe helpers or testers or people who help you?

Barbara: Yes, I do.

Sally: That's a lot of work.

Barbara: Well, that's a lot of work. I have to be there anyway, I don't trust anybody's eyes and palette but my own. It's not that they're not good people, it's that when somebody buys one of my books.

Sally: That's your name on the line.

Barbara: That's my name and also they're doing it because they have come, some of them, over the years to trust my taste and whatever. So, you know, I try to do books that I think people will need and keep like Party Food; is a book that is there, and though you may not use it everyday, but every time you do a party or want a dip or a thing like that, you look it up and I know people keep Microwave Gourmet in their kitchen because it's just there as a reference. And I hope Roasting turns into the same kind of book.

Sally: What makes Roasting different from other cookbooks? Is there something it in that people should know is there?

Barbara: Well, I think that like most of my things, I stand behind a firm point of view.

Sally: An opinionated voice.

Barbara: Exactly. It's got high heat. I use high heat and short times, which I think is better because it doesn't dry the food out, it's very intense. It is not a cookbook for the needy.

Sally: Because of the cost of the ingredients?

Barbara: You need good ingredients. You can cook vegetables. This is not the way you would cook bad meat. There are a lot of things like that that I like. I do use the lamb shanks and the veal shin meat and I do roast it as part of a process, but it's not yet fully roasted through. So that's something that people should know. It's a good way to feed a family. My kids, when they were younger, used to always come into the kitchen because there was always something to eat. Because when you roast food, there's always something to eat.

Sally: I forget. I think that one of the early International Association of Culinary Professionals conferences, Flo Braker was giving a talk on desserts or pastries, whatever. She said, "I have the most secure children because they always know where to find me. I'm always in the kitchen" I have remembered that for years and years.

Barbara: Right, and my kids, to this day, I mean they're now grown up and married, they don't head for anyplace else but my house and for the kitchen and they open the kitchen door even if dinner's in an hour.

Sally: Well, they should with you as a mom.

Barbara: Well, it's not that. It's a pattern and a habit.

Sally: I know that you write a monthly column for Gourmet, called "An Opinionated Palate" and you have a book titled The Opinionated Palate. Which came first?

Barbara: The column came first, but there are things in the book that were never columns. Things that I've written that are casual pieces that I've written for other places. One of my favorite pieces is at the beginnings of that which is called "Your Daughter Does What?!" because my mother was a lawyer and she was part of the generation of being emancipated.

Sally: And what are you doing for the TV Food Network?

Barbara: Well, I was doing an art segment for a while, and then I was doing a thing called "Ask Barbara" and people sent in their questions and I answered them about a technique, an ingredient, about a way to serve something, a way to set a table, about how a wine is made.

Sally: And how often was that?

Barbara: That was once a week.

Sally: Did you tape several at a time?

Barbara: No, I went in and did them live.

Sally: Once a week? How many minutes per session?

Barbara: About five. One of the nice things, and that's where the web page yet is not quite at, to really show the thing, which is hard to do still.

Sally: I was there in August and did the TV Food Network with Donna Hanover and David Rosengarten. They came to the hotel and we had our laptop computer and they set the camera in front of the color monitor of our laptop and showed Sally's Place that night and they interviewed me. You can just tell that so many people are knowledgeable about the internet.

Barbara: They're now onto the literal and physical techniques that you can do on television. I think we'll get to it.

Sally: I know that you're a restaurant and a food consultant.

Barbara: I used to be. I don't do it anymore. The only times I still do it is where it's a place I did something before or if it's a close friend. I don't really charge for it. I just don't do it.

Sally: And Sally Shepherd told me that one time you had a retail store?

Barbara: A grocery store. Yes I did. It was called "Star Spangled Foods." I've had a lot of "children" I was fond of, but they didn't live.

Sally: How long did you have "Star Spangled Foods?"

Barbara: About a year and a half, then I got sick and actually a television host of whom I'm very fond looked at me one day and she said, "you know, I was at the store," I couldn't go in because I just physically couldn't. She said to me, "I was in the store the other day and things weren't right." I closed it the next day. It's my reputation. It's what I owe people is for it to be right.

Sally: Is cookbook writing your favorite endeavor? Is that why you continue?

Barbara: I always wanted to be a writer. And being a cookery writer is one way that I can, it works for me to write this. The more successful I became as a consultant, the more time I spent on the road and away from my home away from my husband, I didn't like that.

Sally: How many cities are you doing this time for the book?

Barbara: Oh, this is just two weeks. I mean if you're doing a restaurant or a hotel or a food complex, you're in and out all the time. There is a high to it. It's exciting. I'm bossy. I like bossing people around, but that becomes a way of life. And the more successful, the more people I had working with me, the more I was administering. But I'm not at that place in my life anymore. I just stopped. Who knows, maybe I'll start again. I don't know.

Sally: And you contribute to other magazines?

Barbara: Yes, but not as much as I used to. I seem to keep myself pretty busy doing books and what have you. But I do other magazines.

Sally: You're well known for your two microwave cookbooks which we've already discussed, but I keep hearing about this microwave risotto.

Barbara: Yes. That's in Microwave Gourmet and I would say just simply because of the size of the sale of the Microwave Gourmet as a book that it's the most done recipe of any that I've ever written. But I would say a close second is the roast chicken recipe in Food For Friends which is perhaps a little more precisely written todayin Roasting because I didn't even think of it as a recipe. When I wrote it
originally, it was just sort of a conversation and I realized that there are all of these really simple techniques that I do that other people do differently, and they liked my way better, and they didn't know how to.

Sally: But you still use your microwave?

Barbara: Oh, of course I do!

Sally: Sort of mix and match.

Barbara: You don't choose, besides which, I don't use professional equipment, I only use domestic equipment.

Sally: So you can relate to the home cook.

Barbara: Right. I mean, I have beautiful copper pots. I bought them on my honeymoon when they were really cheap, but my poor husband had to bring them home with us. The microwaves times differently, they cook differently. A commercial oven cooks differently, particularly commercial burners get much hotter, they crank out much more heat. If I work on those, I don't think what I write is accurate for the home cook. I know it isn't, so I don't do it.

Sally: What are three food-oriented things that visitors to New York should not miss? What would you recommend those traveling to New York should do?

Barbara: It depends where they come from. If they come from a place without a great restaurant, then they should go to a great restaurant, because everybody who really loves food should, at least from time to time, splurge on something that's absolutely fantastic. I don't even care what the cuisine is, but you should have wonderful service and wonderful food. New York has a lot of those.

Sally: Do you care to name any names?

Barbara: I would have to name too many. I'm not somebody who says "this is the best." I don't believe that. I think that it depends on what you like. If you like French, you might want to go to Daniel. If you want a slightly more American version of that, you might want to try Aureole. I could go on and on. San Domenico is extraordinary. These are all wonderful, wonderful restaurants. So there is a great choice and I would say go to either 9th Avenue and go down to all the food market places composed of shops there.

Sally: Everyday, or certain days only?

Barbara: Yes, everyday. Or they should go over to Lexington Avenue in the twenties and just go to the Indian stores where the spices and the Indian ingredients are and near Eastern ingredients are. They could go to Zabars once and they ought to go to a place called the "Gourmet Garage" downtown. It's a food store and you buy in quantity and it has a great variety of things and so, in other words, they ought to get a sense and I wish they'll get to see the city because the city is a place of many different populations and they can see the place and the food that's with that population. Also, the city has changed. If you walk through the lower East side, which had parts that were totally Italian and parts were totally Jewish once, and now you have Chinese and Vietnamese and you have all of these other things there and they're all sort of mingling there, and yet there are some of these old Italian places where people are having coffee and fresh pastry.

Sally: I see Ratners is still there.

Barbara: Ratners is still there. But better is to go across the street, and go to Russ and Daughters for the fish and next door to the dairy store, then go to the bread place to get your little knishes. In other words, there are all kinds of areas. There are fresh tofu makers. There is so much to see and to enjoy.

Sally: Is Gourmet Garage only a food store, no cookware?

Barbara: It's only food. Two doors down there's "Broadway Pan Handler" which is a wonderful shop for pots and pans.

Sally: Broadway Pan Handler? That's a cute name.

Barbara: They just moved there. They used to be on Broadway. It's a huge store. And there's lots of variety of small equipment. So that's fun for people to go to, even if you're not going to make anything, say you're in someone's apartment or a hotel. But just go see it. Go see the scale and see how people live and go to a restaurant in that neighborhood and see what that's like.

Sally: It makes it more fun.

Barbara: Yes

Sally: I see by the book jacket that you have a home in Vermont. Do you go there to cook? Relax?

Barbara: Both. They're not antithetical ideas to me. I have a wonderful kitchen in Vermont. I lowered everything because I'm short. It's the right height for me and I have big windows looking out over the green mountains and I have my gardens up in Vermont -- a vegetable garden, an herb garden. All these things make it a very wonderful way to cook.

Sally: Are you anywhere near Montpelier?

Barbara: No, we're further south in the southeastern section of the state.

Sally: Do you know Plainfield, Vermont? It's near Montpellier. We spent a month there one summer, and loved it.

Barbara: I love Vermont and there's a whole other locale for food. It's very beautiful and land is cheap, and I can grow lots of stuff.

Sally:: And what are your plans for the future? Any more books in your future?

Barbara: Probably, but not many.

Sally: Does each book take you three years?

Barbara: At least. By the time you see it through the process and do everything. It's a lot of work, especially the way I do a book, which doesn't mean that everybody has to do it. If I did fifty recipes, that would mean over a hundred vegetable recipes alone in this book. So, all alphabetically arranged so people can find them. So I create a format, a tone of voice, and to me it's not just getting it done, you have to write it.

Sally: There is a lot here. It's a beautiful book.

Barbara: Thank you very much.

Sally: And thank you for joining us at Sally's Place

Barbara: You're welcome.

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