“PEOPLE WILL COOK MORE IF THEY SEE IT AS FUN AND CREATIVE,” says Alison Cayne, founder of cooking mecca and events space Haven’s Kitchen and author of the new home cook bible The Haven’s Kitchen Cooking School. “The key to enjoying it all is confidence — and in order to build confidence, you need some basic understanding of the fundamentals of cooking. I wanted to offer a ‘how-to-cook’ cookbook that didn’t dumb things down while also inspiring and giving home cooks the creative freedom to make what they want to eat.” To wit, Cayne’s information-packed manual could be considered a must-have to any cookbook collection in which she breaks down everything from assembling the perfect salad to what to do with week-old veggies. Below we caught up with the author who talked her fave springtime plants, the power of pleasure and what big mistake every novice cook makes.
Photos by Leslie Volo and Recipes/Food Images excerpted from The Haven’s Kitchen Cooking School by Alison Cayne (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2017. Photographs by Con Poulos.
In your opinion, what three tips for the novice cook (or non-cook!) to building confidence in the kitchen?
- Thinking: What am I doing to these ingredients. What is my purpose here? Not just of what the final meal will be, but the process: What does roasting do? Why boil then simmer? Once you take a moment to think about things, it feels as if you’re leading the way, not anxious about keeping up with the recipe.
- Consistency: One of the reasons good knife skills are important is to create chopped onions or minced garlic, or whatever you need in pieces that are roughly the same size. That will help you avoid some parts of your dish burning while others remain barely cooked, the kiss of death to a lot of otherwise good meals.
- Pleasure: Cook what you want to eat. Don’t cook as a performance. If you enjoy it you will feel the flow and you will want to do it more. Confidence comes with practice.
What is your favorite recipe in the book?
My favorite chapter is the sauce chapter because I really believe in the power of sauces. They can change lives. For real.
What are three spices or ingredients that can liven/change any dish?
Chopped fresh flat leaf parsley or cilantro.
Citrus (I am in a committed relationship with yuzu juice at the moment).
What is the biggest mistake(s) novice cooks make? And how can they correct it?
Less experienced cooks think they have to do something. Most of the time, food just likes to be left alone for the first several minutes: don’t flip, don’t stir, don’t poke, don’t add more stuff to the pan or pot. Experienced cooks know to leave a piece of meat on the grill and step away, letting the heat do its work to creating a sear before they try to flip it. When it’s good and crusty, it will flip easily. Nervous cooks feel compelled to poke. Don’t poke.
You have a whole section based on fritters. What do you love about them? And what’s your favorite one to make?
I have this recurring dream where I am essentially teleported around the world dunking sizzling fritters into their savory sauces. Fritters are a crispy-veggie-oozy lover’s fantasy food. My favorites are the ones that emerge out of whatever is in my refrigerator on a Sunday afternoon. They’re also a great teaching tool for organization and knife skills.
Over the years of hosting cooking classes at Haven’s, are there certain cuisines/types of food you’ve become more open to and love to cook now more than ever?
I’m a member of the Ottolenghi fan club and have grown to love and feel more comfortable cooking with Middle Eastern ingredients like cumin and sumac, cardamom and tahini paste. I’ve also learned about Japanese cooking and Southern Indian cooking. More than any one cuisine though, I’ve learned chef habits that have made me a more capable cook. And I kind of know how to break down a chicken, which makes me feel rather competent.
What is the secret to cooking a different culture’s cuisine even that is completely foreign to you?
I’d say approach it with curiosity. Learn about the trade routes and the history of the region you’re cooking from. Try to gain understanding of the ingredients and how they got there, why and how people use them, the climate, the religious restrictions, how meals are expressions of culture– all of those details make cooking the food so much more of an experience and the outcome so much better (and more respectful). Ask questions, don’t just follow recipes. When I go to a specialty store for ingredients, I ask a ton of questions. How would you use these curry leaves? When would you add the coconut milk? Most of the time people are happy to tell me their favorite recipes.
You discuss seasonality in the book when it comes to picking veggies. What are your top choices when it comes to spring veggies?
Peas! Pea shoots! Baby veggies and of course, asparagus.
What are three plant-based ingredients you could live on forever?
I love super sweet baby Japanese yams. I love beans, all beans, all ways. And cabbage, any variety — it’s super crunchy, refreshing and versatile. I would like to give celery a shout out though, it tends to get overlooked and a bit underloved.
Smashed Cucumber Salad
Serves 4 as a side
4 small to medium Persian cucumbers (about 1 pound)
Fine sea salt
½ teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar or Chinkiang vinegar
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
¼ teaspoon white pepper
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon hot chili oil (optional)
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro, both stems and leaves
Using the flat side of a cleaver or a rolling pin, lightly smash or roll the length of each cucumber until it splits. This allows the dressing to absorb into the core of the cucumber quickly. Cut them lengthwise and then into 1-inch diagonal slices.
Put the cucumber slices into a bowl, add a large pinch of salt and the sugar, mix well, and set aside for 10 minutes.
While the cucumbers are marinating, make the dressing. In a small bowl, mix the black vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, white pepper, garlic, and chili oil, if using.
Drain any liquid from the cucumbers that accumulated during salting. Add the dressing and mix well.
Toss with the cilantro and serve immediately.