A cookbook of good recipes for busy people
Photography by Amy Roth
Once my son started eating solid foods, my relationship with weeknight cooking became much less of an indulgent hobby and more of a responsibility and task. Gone were the days of deciding at 5 o’clock what dinner would be, spontaneously cooking a special four-course meal, or sitting around the table with a bottle of wine and friends into the night. Cooking was becoming a tedious chore that was complicated by varying daily schedules, the constant needs of a toddler, and the lack of sleep that partially defines becoming a new parent. I wanted to feed my family healthy, homemade meals but I was beginning to feel burnt out, tired of the same old recipes, and in need of either inspiration or takeout. I received a copy of the cookbook Keepers for Christmas and in it I found what I was looking for. Cowritten by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion (a local Jersey girl), friends and colleagues who met while working as editors at Saveur magazine, this collection of tried-and-true weeknight recipes breathed fresh air into my kitchen.
Based on their own experiences, Brennan and Campion have thoughtfully assembled a unique and purposeful resource for the busy home cook who values simple, nourishing foods. I started to work my way through the cookbook, unintentionally Julie and Julia style. Before long I had made more of the recipes in Keepers than I had in any other cookbook that’s been sitting on my shelf for years. Keepers is approachable and casual, the recipes are practical and simple, and the aesthetic of the book is creative and inspiring. Not to mention, each one of the recipes I’ve prepared so far is, of course, a keeper.
Keepers has helped me find my rhythm as a parent while remembering what makes me happy about cooking good food. Brennan and Campion write, “Our goal in writing this book was to help you become a more efficient, confident creative cook—to help you not only survive the Monday-to-Friday dinner rush with your sanity and kitchen intact but also have some fun along the way.” I have found that with a little extra planning, doubling the recipe so there are leftovers for the next day, and a couple limes, I can overcome weekday dinner challenges with more happiness and grace.
Keepers has already claimed its place among the seminal contributors to the culinary world. Brennan and Campion are the winners of the prestigious IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) award for Best General Cookbook of the Year, nominated among legends such as Alice Waters and Mollie Katzen. Most would agree that other signs of a good cookbook include smudge marks on its pages, dog-eared corners and notes in the margins. Judging from my copy of Keepers, one can see that in my kitchen, it also wins cookbook of the year. So I welcomed the opportunity to sit down with the authors in Campion’s home kitchen in Gladstone.
How would a recipe obtain the status of a “keeper” and make it into the cookbook?
(KB) The main criteria for a weeknight keeper is that it had to be reliable, crowd-pleasing and brag-worthy. We were conscious of the budget, the ingredients had to be available at any grocery store and nothing could take more than 45 minutes to an hour.
Were there any significant people or events that shaped your relationship with food?
(KB) Definitely my mom. She loves to cook and does it so intuitively. Growing up, she used to chide me, “It’s not the knife, it’s the way you use it,” and so I learned that you don’t need a fancy kitchen or ingredients to turn out good food.
(CC) My grandparents were from Belgium and I would spend most of my summers in Brussels with them. My grandmother was an exceptional, instinctual cook and watching her cook planted a seed that was the beginning for me.
How did these seeds shape your professional career?
(KB) My three favorite things are traveling, eating and writing, and I realized that going into food publishing was a way to combine all those things. I took the professional program at the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center) and worked in restaurants for a few years. Then I eventually moved to magazines like Gourmet, Saveur and Food Arts.
(CC) I was a very picky eater as a child but I always knew food was important. My “aha” moment was after college when I started cooking for myself. Later, I got a job as an editor at Saveur and my true education began. Sitting in an ideas meeting with the most knowledgeable food people I’ve ever met was where I began to think about food in a larger context.
How did becoming a parent change the way you cook?
(KB) After having kids, cooking involved more planning. I had been of the European mind-set of going shopping for your groceries that day, being inspired by what looks good and that’s what you make for dinner that night. That doesn’t really work when you have little ones. You need to have more of a plan.
(CC) As a parent, you’re trying to make food that’s satisfying and delicious, but without spending too much quality time at a stove. Project cooking like Thomas Keller’s fried chicken and epic Marcella Hazan lasagnas had to be put aside for a while.
What are your key strategies for mastering the challenges of weeknight cooking?
(CC) Cooking starts when you go shopping. Think about what your week looks like ahead of time and force yourself to sketch out a plan before you shop.
(KB) When you have kids, the pantry can save your life. Just having two or three meals in your back pocket is such a stress reducer because you know you’ve got dinner covered and you won’t be shelling out $40 for takeout.
How do you involve your kids in the kitchen?
(KB) We’re very divided on this. A lot of it is based on how we grew up. I realized that the only way to spend time with my kids was to have them in the kitchen with me. So from the time my son was able to sit in the highchair I would have him next to me, and it’s evolved from there.
(CC) Because I didn’t cook alongside my grandmother or mother, and was often cooked for, I like to be the person cooking for others. Especially during the week, it’s my time to relax. I pour a glass of wine, turn the radio on and chop my onions. Weekends are mostly our time to cook together. What are the most important elements of a functional kitchen?
(KB) Functionality is about economy of movement, which is really the way things are in professional kitchens. All you need is the triangle between the stove, refrigerator and sink, where everything is within arm’s reach. Also, it helps to have things out where you can see them. What’s the point of having a fancy vinegar if it’s in the cupboard and you forget to use it?
(CC) If you spend a lot of time in your kitchen, it helps to make it a space that makes you happy, maybe with a bowl, a favorite platter or artwork. In writing the Keepers manifesto printed in the front of the book, why did you encourage cooks to stay off their phones by leaving it another room?
(CC) Besides the fact that we are all guilty of doing it more and more, it’s very hard to detach yourself from your phone, and I’m just as guilty of it as anyone else. You constantly lose focus if you look at your phone while cooking. You aren’t noticing how everything smells and looks. If you’re present and in the moment, it can help you become a better cook.
How much does seasonal and local food play into your weekly cooking and Keepers?
(KB) On a personal level it definitely shapes my cooking. But in making our book, we didn’t want to assume that seasonality was accessible to everyone. Cookbooks can make people feel guilty if the parameters are too narrow. We’re here to encourage, build confidence and help people along.
(CC) When we lived in the city, I used to drag my family to the Union Square farmers’ market. Now I have a CSA membership at Ralston Farm down the street and my kids get to see where our food is coming from. In our book, we have an awareness of seasonality and have recipes for all seasons.
The last item in your manifesto speaks to cooking with love. How does love factor into feeding your family?
(KB) Love helps make cooking less of a chore and more personal, even if it comes out in the smallest ways. Whenever I take an extra few seconds to wipe a drip of sauce off a plate rim or twirl the pasta into a handsome pile, it shows care and makes me feel good too.