Do you read Little House Pantry? You should! It’s a charming blog written by our friend and occasional contributor Sarah Barthelow, a home cook who favors a simple, vegetables-forward approach to cooking. We recently caught up with Sarah to talk food, writing and Northwest island living.
Sarah, how would you describe your approach to food and cooking?
My food is pretty simple. I cook whole, seasonal foods. I realized a while back that I feel best when I eat as many fruits and vegetables as I can cram into a meal, steer clear of white grains and sugars, and use meat rarely, usually as flavoring. My food is mostly vegetarian and usually falls in the one-bowl-wonder category. Oh, and I put pine nuts on everything.
Has that philosophy changed over time? How so?
I certainly used to eat a lot more ice cream. A few years back I read Mark Bittman’s Food Matters and it really got me thinking differently about how we approach food. I’ve always had a relatively healthy approach to eating, though over time I have moved towards an even more vegetable-based diet and away from refined sugars and starches.
You grew up in the San Juan Islands. How did that affect the way you approach food?
Growing up in the islands certainly limited how we could eat. There was no fast food. In fact, there weren’t really any restaurants at all open during the non-summer months. Everyone cooked and ate at home. A lot of the island is traditionally farm land, so we were surrounded by fields and livestock and local food. In the summer we ate fresh salmon and crab (well, my parents did. I hate crab). Looking back this certainly influenced my approach to cooking.
So when did you become interested in cooking? Did something spark it?
I have this great picture from when I was about eight; I’m standing in the kitchen with flour covering every surface, including my hands and face, sticking my tongue out at the camera after one of my “baking projects.” I’ve been experimenting with food for as long as I can remember. Everyone in my family cooked: my mom made dinner every night, a tradition she learned from her mother who was an amazing cook, and my dad is a talented pie-baker and French cook. I enrolled in 4H cooking club in middle school where we made mile-high lemon merengue pie and “Asian wok stir fry.” My dad took me on two different trips to France to attend week-long cooking schools. After college I applied to culinary school, but opted to get a graduate degree instead. Food has always been a part of what I do, though it’s taken me a while to realize it.
What made you decide to start a blog?
I joke that I could have titled my blog “in which I quit my job with no plan and find myself cooking a lot and wanting to write about it.” I’ve loved reading food blogs for years — Deb Perlman of Smitten Kitchen and Molly Wizenberg of Orangette are my culinary idols — and, when I ended up with more time on my hands, I was finally inspired to start my own. Little House Pantry started off as a site where I wanted to teach people to cook without recipes, which is how I approach most meals, but it turned out that was a much more challenging task than I thought, so it quickly morphed into a place where I wax philosophical on life and food, share cooking tips, and post ingredients and rough recipes of the meals I make at home.
Are there ways you want to push yourself as a home cook?
I’d like to get better about adding different spice profiles to my cooking, try things like harissa, sumac, turmeric, and some of the combinations Ottolenghi uses in Plenty and Jerusalem. My food tends to follow the same profile, which gets old even if you switch up the ingredients.
Is there any type of cuisine that just seems too intimidating?
Indian food. If you ask an Indian grandma to tell you her secret recipes, she won’t. Not because she doesn’t want to share, but because there aren’t any. Indian cooking is by feel, learned over years spent patting parathas back and forth and mixing chai masala from ground spices. One of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had was langar served at the Golden Temple in northern India; simple food, masterfully prepared (and they manage to serve up to 100,000 people a day!). I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’ll never be able to cook good Indian food. I guess I’ll just have to rely on friends with talented mothers and aunties to get my saag paneer and aloo gobi fix.
Do you have a tried-and-tested recipe you rely on to impress people?
Smitten Kitchen’s baked challah French toast is an easy crowd pleaser for a brunch. It takes five minutes to put together the night before, but people think you got up early to prepare a complicated feast. Sometimes it feels like cheating, but I’d rather be able to socialize with brunch guests than slave over a medium-high stove flipping pancakes.
What was the latest spectacular failure in your kitchen that you remember?
I made muffins, which I usually improvise, but I got it in my head to try my hand at gluten free-ish baking and used almond flour in place of regular flour to make them more protein-packed. I’ve never actually eaten styrofoam, but I’m guessing it probably tastes a lot like these muffins did.
Are there places you like to travel, just for the food?
Honestly, I think I eat better during summer in the San Juans than anywhere I’ve traveled: reef net-caught salmon, garden Greek salad, blackberry cobblers. It’s pretty hard to beat an island potluck.
And last, but of course not least, what’s your favorite thing to eat for dessert?
Two squares of dark chocolate, a ritual I picked up from my grandfather.