We recently caught up with the genius behind Food52’s Genius Recipes column, Kristen Miglore. She has a new cookbook based on the column, and we’re teaching a new cooking class based on the book. Among other things, we chatted about what gives a recipe its “genius” status, what tools she keeps on hand, and an unconventional way to fry eggs.
Hey, Kristen! So, what first drew you to food?
Food has always been big in my family. My parents brought my brother and me along to all kinds of restaurants from the time we were babies, and from the stories I hear, local restaurateurs treated us like little royalty – letting us pick out a candy from the counter every time we went to the Italian restaurant, teaching me the two-step in the middle of the Cowboy Café – no wonder eating out felt like a magical event. We even dressed up for McDonald’s once for my brother’s birthday dinner.
We cooked a lot at home too – my mom taught me how to follow recipes, and my dad taught me how to ignore them. Somewhere in all this, I came to think that being called a good cook was the highest compliment you could get, and I really wanted to be one.
How did you find your way to Food52?
My first career was in economics, but I realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t for me – all I thought about in my cubicle was what I wanted to cook for dinner. I wasn’t sure how to make the jump into food media until I found the Food Studies Master’s program at NYU, which seemed like a good bet. So I moved to New York and while I finished the Master’s, I also went to culinary school at ICE, staged in restaurants, and interned at magazines and a TV show. When I graduated, Gourmet magazine had just folded and online editorial started to feel even more important. Luckily, Food52 had just launched and the co-founders Amanda and Merrill were looking for someone with cooking and editorial experience, which, by then, I had!
How would you describe your philosophy when it comes to food and cooking?
Start simple and taste as you go. It took a long time for me to learn that’s how you become a good cook. I’d shake a bunch of jars and bottles into a pot and be disappointed at the end, but unable to decipher what went wrong (or even what I was tasting). Or, every so often, I’d stumble on something good, but have no idea how to recreate it.
I also believe in recipes. As much as I like to cook by feel and taste, I’ve learned even more from reading and following recipes from lots of different cookbook authors, chefs and bloggers. Recipes get you out of ruts and give you a window into how someone else approaches food, which can be as good as a cooking class. Otherwise, it’s too easy to just keep making the same salad.
What makes a recipe “genius”? How do you know it deserves that label?
If there’s an unexpected, smarter way to cook something than I’ve always been taught, I think it’s genius. (It also has to work, of course, and taste really good.) And because these are smarter ways, they inherently tend to be simple and call for readily available ingredients. You won’t see anything with four sub-recipes, but you probably won’t see microwave cake-in-a-cup either. Though I guess I shouldn’t dismiss the cake-in-a-cup till I’ve tried it – you never know.
As you were planning the book, were there any recipes you thought would merit genius status, but that failed spectacularly in the testing process?
There were plenty that I DQed because they ended up feeling like too much trouble or I couldn’t see a life-changing angle, but thankfully few spectacular failures. I remember one rice pudding overflowing in the oven, but there are so many things that could have gone wrong there: Maybe that type of baking dish is taller in the U.K.? Maybe the variety of rice I used plumped up more? The truth is the recipe could be brilliant for someone else, but if it doesn’t work for me, I can’t recommend it.
What are some of your favorite genius recipes?
I’ll always make guacamole the Roberto Santibañez way — by crushing the chile, onion and cilantro into a slurry and leaving the avocado mostly chunky. I’ve become a terrible guacamole snob because of it.
But I also have a special fondness for the recipes that I had no hope for at the start of cooking them. Rao’s Meatballs have 2 cups of water in them! There are 5 tablespoons of black pepper in Ottolenghi’s Black Pepper Tofu! There’s no dairy or flour in Claudia Roden’s Orange & Almond Cake, but it’s creamy and pudding-like from whole oranges that get boiled for 2 hours and then puréed. None of these should work, but when they do, I love them for it.
Was your writing process different in any way when working on the cookbook versus writing for the blog?
This was one of the most important things I had to learn in working on the book – how differently you have to approach an article that’s rooted in time versus a cookbook headnote that needs to make sense no matter when you pull it off the shelf. An article can be a series of short, narrative sentences interspersed with photos; cookbook headnotes read better in a tighter paragraph form with the photos offset to help tell the story. You also want to make sure you’re not repeating yourself too much – using the same words or phrases might not be noticeable to anyone (even yourself!) when you only publish once a week, but back-to-back they’ll start to haunt you.
Switching gears: What’s your favorite thing to have for breakfast?
I’m a night owl, so big iced lattes and pastries get me through weekday mornings. But on the weekends, my fiancé Mike and I have breakfast down. He fries eggs in a way that I never would have thought was a good idea, had I not stood back and watched him do it: over raging heat in a lot of bacon fat, briefly flipping once and then back, just enough to set the top. They come out with super-crispy edges, tender whites, and tall-standing over-easy yolks. I weave in at low-pressure moments to handle auxiliaries like toast, potatoes and fruit.
And your favorite dish to make when you’re entertaining?
This is going to sound silly, but I like making people toast. Especially beans on toast. It’s unassuming and vegan-friendly (I can get Mike to add his famous fried eggs on top for vegetarians). My apartment is small enough that dinner parties are always small and informal, and you can make people beans on toast that are better than any they’ve ever had. Fry the toast in olive oil and cook the beans from scratch (especially nice, chubby ones like Rancho Gordo’s). Serve them with a colorful salad made from unusual produce at the greenmarket, you can make people feel comforted but also excite them.
Even when I have a bigger home and dining room table, I will probably still make homey, long-braised ragus that people don’t make time to make for themselves. They also taste better on day two, so you can make them a day ahead and keep calm on the day of.
What are some staples we can always find in your pantry?
Stretching the definition of pantry a little, here’s my arsenal: She Wolf sourdough, nice cheeses that can function as dinner, whole milk, Red Jacket Farms juices, lemons, at least 3 open boxes of cereal, canned tomatoes, dried beans, pasta, anchovies, homemade chicken stock, frozen peas, butter, eggs, bacon, crunchy salts, olive oil, Triscuits, Tate’s cookies.
And are there any kitchenware items you can’t live without? A favorite knife or baking sheet, perhaps?
I use my bench scraper every day – to clean my work surface and scrape up stuck-on messes, transfer chopped ingredients to a pan, to level measuring cups (after I noticed the backs of my table knives were slightly convex, I stopped using them for that). Basically anything where I could benefit from a flat, sturdy extension of my hand. My cast iron skillets, Dutch oven, santoku knife, cutting boards, scale and measuring cups and spoons (a favorite: my mini liquid measure that does tablespoons and ounces, too) are in constant rotation.
Aside from genius recipes, do you have any genius cooking tips you’ve picked up from the column?
A lot of these ended up in the book, which was another wonderful thing about organizing everything into a compendium and taking a bird’s-eye view of genius cooking. I think my favorite is still using a Bundt pan to make a faster ice bath, which I discovered when trying to get David Lebovitz’ chocolate sorbet to hurry up and cool on a hot summer day.
So now what’s next?
I’ve been working at Food52 for five-plus years and I’ve never been bored – the company and the site never stop evolving. Next up: More cookbook reviews, more videos, more DIY design projects, more kitchen and home ideas. And I’m always looking for the next genius tip – so please send them my way!
Thanks, Kristen! So are you guys as big of fans of Genius Recipes as we are? Which one is your favorite?