(Photo credit: Lucy Schaeffer)
You're in for a real treat today: an exclusive interview with 2 terrific men who just happen to be the most prolific cookbook authors I've never met.
And they have a dog named Dreydl. What's not to love?
A quick bit of background: A few years ago when I decided to pursue food writing, I bought scores of magazines. I scoured, and devoured, articles, columns, and bylines to get a sense for the topics being covered and the major players in the field. This research allowed me both to narrow my target list of publications to those that meshed best with my values, and to identify other writers whose work I respected.
Two names appeared over and over: Mark Scarbrough (above, right) and Bruce Weinstein (above, left). There they are in EatingWell! Here they are in Cooking Light! I'd go to the bookstore and see whole sections with their books... The Ultimate Chocolate Cookie Book, The Ultimate Ice Cream Book, The Ultimate Potato Book, The Ultimate Peanut Butter Book.
I could go on.
When I received a copy of their newest cookbook, Cooking Know-How, I knew I needed to profile them here. Why? Because this book is really different. It's technique-driven, so you actually learn as you read, and the recipes at the end -- appearing in table-form -- encourage you to riff on what you've learned by making simple flavor changes and ingredient swaps. So they'll show you how to make fish stew, and then you'll get a table with variations for French bouillabaisse, San Francisco-style cioppino, Italian Zuppa di Pesce, and Catalan shrimp stew.
I'll post my favorite beef stew recipe tomorrow, but today I'd like to introduce you to Mark and Bruce, two men who are not only talented and thoughtful, but also very, very funny.
CHERYL: So, now, Cooking Know-How is officially, what, your 87th book. Am I right?
MARK: Um, well, it’s actually our 15th book. But Bruce has two more in the list, both cocktail books, making this one his 17th. But then there was the problem of both our names not appearing on the original ultimate books like The Ultimate Ice Cream Book because of homophobia and publishing and lots of problems. And then, and then, and then. So it’s our 15th book but it’s complicated.
BRUCE: I stopped counting after 20,000 individual recipes, give or a take. (No joke. We’ve stopped keeping an official record.)
CHERYL: Why did you decide to write a technique-driven book this time around?
MARK: We’ve wanted to write this book for many years. We first had the idea for this very unconventional cookbook after we wrote an article for FINE COOKING sometime back before the crust of the earth hardened. Our editor at the magazine, Justin Schwartz, and the two of us continued to conspire over the years—and when he landed the job as cookbook editor at Wiley, we began planning in earnest. Unfortunately, because of book options and other legal niceties, it took three more years until we were free and clear to write the book for Wiley. Whew.
CHERYL: Is there one recipe in CKH that took longer than the others to perfect? Which one? Why?
BRUCE: Getting a dish right the first time is rare. Sometimes I have an idea in my mind and the whole thing turns out perfectly when I get to the stove. But more often then not, I’ve got to make something a few times to get it right—or stop partway through making something and start over. What’s really hard is conveying certain things to Mark so he can capture them in words, like how to carve a roast or cut up a rabbit. Perfecting the fish dishes was the most harrowing because the nearest place to buy a whole fish where we live is about 45 minutes away. We’d show up at the market with a certain idea of which fish to use—and then have to improvise on the spot. No salmon today, only hake.
MARK: We also had a lot of problems with the simpler dishes: the frittata, for example. Yes, we both knew how to make one, but when the flavors are streamlined, there’s a more exacting ratio among the ingredients. In general, our most challenging magazine assignments are the “use only 5 ingredients” ones. The balance becomes increasingly important with fewer and fewer ingredients.
CHERYL: Why is your beef stew so darn tasty?
BRUCE: The secrets are at the beginning and the end. Browning the meat is most important. Don’t skimp. Let each piece of meat turn a rich, dark brown on all sides so that the sauce will be deep and flavorful. And at the end? Mixing in a tiny bit of sweet or sour brings all the flavors forward. In other words, a little bit of red current jelly turns the stew from great to super great.
CHERYL: What’s so great about your creamy vegetable soup and why should we make it?
MARK: The secret of a great cream soup is not too much cream. Fat carries flavor—but too much fat actually mutes flavor. Our version is a classic velouté—but with a twist: heavy on the veggies and light (as it were) on the cream.
CHERYL: Who does the dishes?
MARK: Depends. When we’re in hot recipe-testing mode, I often do them. As you may know, Bruce cooks and I write. So to earn my keep, I do the dishes.
BRUCE: Yes, Mark helps in the kitchen. He cleans up after me a lot. And one day we’ll agree on how to load the dishwasher.
CHERYL: How large is your cookbook collection?
BRUCE: I’m sitting in the TV room looking at the bookshelves as I type. Twelve full shelves. Hundreds is a rough guess. And every now and then we edit and give some away. And then without a doubt need those for research a week later.
CHERYL: Spicy, sweet, or salty?
MARK: Must I choose? OK, salty. So long as it’s sea salt on dark chocolate.
BRUCE: Sugar is my favorite food substance on the face of the Earth.
CHERYL: Do you really cook on cruise ships? How often do you hit the
MARK: Never. Ick. I don’t do buffet. All that pawing, those sneeze guards, digging into crap with dirty spoons. (Perhaps now you know WAY more about me than you want to know.) So let’s just say I believe thoroughly in the two sweetest words in the English language: room service.
CHERYL: Why did you name your dog after a spinning top?
BRUCE: We got Dreydl on the first night of Hanukkah. When he chases his tail, he lives up to his name.
MARK: Of course, no dog ever keeps his name around here. These days, Bruce calls him Doh-Doh and I call him Doodles. Except when he’s done something wrong. Then it’s just “Dog!”
CHERYL: Do you feed her scraps from the table?
MARK: Him. We’re a six-ball house. And no, he doesn’t get people food. Which is why we can spend three hours at the table in peace.
BRUCE: Dreydl gets one cheese stick a day for fetching his toy tire. If I can break it into small enough pieces, I’ll run him to oblivion.
CHERYL: Why am I so bad at making pork chops? Is it because I’m Jewish?
BRUCE: My grandmother only bought kosher meat from a kosher butcher—but at home, she kept a separate pan for the bacon. When I was growing up, we ate bacon at home but not ham, the most Christian of all meats. Listen, most Jews have some issues with trayf. We love it, we crave it, we eroticize it, but do we cook it? In a separate pan, for sure.
CHERYL: Tell us about your blog, Real Food Has Curves.
MARK: It’s sort of my project. I had a blogspot blog for a while, just as a way to get my feet wet. Then I sort of grew up, gave myself a crash course in html, and started trying to figure out a way to make a blog that was more to my taste. It’s got lots of parts, not just one blog: a book review section, a wine part, a booze part, the food blog, etc. Of course, the food blog is the thing, but I wanted a site with lots of pieces to it. I get bored and want to roam around—I assume other people do, too. I’ve gotten some very positive comments on the photography, believe it or not. I just don’t do anything special. I don’t clean the mixer when Bruce is making a cake, I don’t wipe up the plates, and I don’t necessarily clean the counters. Everything is exactly the way it’s happening. We have not yet staged one shot.
CHERYL: Is a book tour more like a U2 tour, or a Bruce Springsteen tour?
MARK: It’s more like a use-your-frequent-flier-miles-and-stay-with-relatives-and-try-to-help-your-publisher-out tour. We don’t have a TV show, for goodness sake. We’re food writers. We use public bathrooms.
CHERYL: Will you let me take you out to dinner when you come to the Bay Area?
BRUCE: I never turn down a meal with a friend.
CHERYL: Any parting words for loyal 5 Second Rule readers?
MARK: It’s so nice to read a blog and commentators who just opt out of the whole hype thing. Despite making a living out of it, I detest the fetishization of food. So it’s nice to read a blog that’s just so very real.