Top | The Culinate Interview

Sally Schneider

(article, Angela Allen)

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p(blue). Food writer Sally Schneider is an expert at combining practice and theory. Her cookbooks (including A New Way to Cook and The Improvisational Cook) teach readers both how to think about cooking and how to get creative. They are kitchen liberators.

How do your methods encourage creativity and confidence?
When I write a recipe, I give explanations. When people understand how a recipe works — its various options and directions — they can improvise right away. Otherwise, they’re stuck with a recipe that seems finite.

You have to let go of inhibitions and fears. Being willing to try things is a huge key in learning, and in cooking, because you make great discoveries. There’s a big section on flavor affinities. Whether adept cooks or not, a lot of people say they feel they’re weak in that area.

How can people put flavors together without fear?
You have to know what goes with what. The underlying principle is: What goes together, grows together. The ingredients are invariably compatible. 

In terms of cultural compatibility, you can take the American South and see how they use pork, corn, greens, and beans. These ingredients have a true affinity. If you go to the spring market, you’ll see asparagus, artichokes, and peas there together, and they go together.

I also teach strategies for improvisation: You can replace an ingredient. Fresh fava beans and shaved Parmesan cheese go together, but a lot of people can’t get fresh fava beans and they are a lot of work. So what about frozen fresh green soybeans? Edamame. That works. Think synonyms, visual and otherwise.

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What kind of cook would do well with The Improvisational Cook?
It’s really designed for the ordinary, average home cook who wants to do fun, delicious things easily. It's for basic home cooks who could use a little shove toward more imaginative ways of cooking. 

A lot of people feel too rushed, so I create strategies for them to make cooking easier. You can create a wonderful pantry — onions, carrots, root vegetables, oranges and lemons, freezer staples, butter, bread, pastas. Keep things you can rely on; a good hard cheese like Parmesan can be used in endless ways. 

It’s a lovely idea to do your shopping every day in an open-air market, but who has the time?  

Do you think most cookbooks lack the whys and the wherefores?
Absolutely. The real problem with many cookbooks is that the many people who don’t learn from their grandmothers and mothers don’t have that basic knowledge. 

The enduring cookbooks are different. Like Simple French Food. Olney writes about the possibilities of a dish, and his approach instilled in me how the dish worked, rather than just being a recipe.

How is The Improvisational Cook, your newest book, a step forward from 2001's A New Way To Cook?
The approach to food is natural and easy in both books. New Way, which is 739 pages, focused on health, not necessarily low-fat. Improvising was another important theme. 

Both books are guides to improvising. I showed how to plug different things in for ingredients. Everything has multiple uses. So I take that idea and really address it in The Improvisational Cook without the health angle.

Has flavor always been your focus?
I am a chronically hungry person. I am among people who love to eat flavor and experience texture. I’m always in for peak experiences. 

Where do you see yourself in the evolution of American cooking?
I really don’t know. I didn’t start out to make an impact on American cooking. But I think I’ve done some worthy things. A New Way to Cook and The Improvisational Cook have been a bit a ahead of the trend. I say: Fats are fine; diet is not about low-fat. It’s about how you live. The recipes are written in an open way to encourage creativity. 

What got you into food and cooking?
My maternal grandmother was born in Greece and cooked Greek food. My mother learned from Dione Lucas and became a wonderful French cook. We had a housekeeper, so I learned chicken pot pies, pork chops, biscuits, home-canned peaches, all of that. We weren’t allowed to have anything bought and prepared, which we begged for. 


h1. Want more Sally Schneider?

Head over to the Powell's website, where there is a lengthy interview with this author.


I always kind of cooked. It never occurred to me to cook professionally. Then I woke up from a dream (I was about 27) that told me I should cook. The dream was so strong, I quit my job. I was one of the few women in New York working as a captain in a fancy restaurant, but I realized how attracted I was to the kitchen. 

What are you working on now?
A book of food writing. One part focuses on Helvetia, a town in West Virginia’s Appalachia that I visited for years. They have a ramps (wild leeks) supper there. This tiny town is in a remote area and was once a Swiss settlement. There are still quite a few very old people there who are original, eccentric. I just kept going back. It’s kind of a memoir.

p(bio). Angela Allen writes about food, wine, fashion, and opera, among other things.

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