An interview with Tracey Ceurvels highlighting her food life, the ‘luscious legacy’ she is leaving both her daughter and us (!), and her new cookbook, The New York City Kitchen.
Sue Ann: One of the things I love most about our ‘food friendship’ is that each time we meet — whether it’s to romp around New York City to check out your latest favorite foodie finds, markets, or restaurants, or simply to share a home cooked meal — I am reminded of my dad who loved the market experience as much as he loved food.
~ Will you tell us about your personal food narrative? The legacy that feeds, shapes, and influences your cooking and your passion for good food, deliciously prepared?
Tracey: I want to start by saying that I wish I could have met your dad and gone on a food excursion with him. I’m sure we would have been kindred spirits. Although I never met him, there are moments when I step into an Italian shop like DiPalo’s in NYC’s Little Italy, holding Sabrina’s hand, and I envision you as a kid in a similar store with your dad.
As for my own personal narrative, ever since I was a child I’ve always had an adventurous spirit. It started with books and being a bookworm by delving into other worlds through fiction. Later my adventurous spirit revealed itself through food and cooking. I remember being a young teen and poring over my mother’s cookbooks, wanting to make dishes from the glossy Asian cookbook with its vibrant photos and homemade cakes from the Betty Crocker cookbook. Also, while I was growing up, I had friends who came from different cultures. Eating at their homes while I was in high school became a way for me to learn about new worlds and new ways of being. I’ve carried these experiences with me and they’ve become my vantage point, the way I live in the world.
Sue Ann: I work with a lot of women who want very much to nourish their families but they confess that they are actually quite stymied by the need to juggle work, family life, and other obligations leaving very little time left for procuring interesting ingredients and preparing luscious meals. You are a single parent and solopreneur, what suggestions do you have for our readers with regard to time management and kitchen basics?
~ Tell me about your kitchen rhythm.
Tracey: Honestly, even as someone who enjoys cooking, it can be a challenge to juggle it all. But I just do the best I can. I keep a lot of spices and vinegars and such stocked in my pantry and then I pick up protein and vegetables every couple of days. I have a few baking dishes that I love and it’s so easy to make one pot weeknight meals in these dishes. You can add a few vegetables into the dish, top it with say, chicken or fish, add some wine, spice and/or herbs, bake it and then in 20-30 minutes you have dinner. There are a few one-dish recipes in my cookbook, including the baked cod with olives and Lillet and hummus-crusted chicken. Once you make these you’ll see how easy it is to put something together that’s fresh and flavorful. I save more complex dishes for the weekends. I say this in my cookbook, but I usually spend one weekend day out and about. I live in NYC and I take full advantage of living here by exploring with my daughter. Then I spend another day at home, making more elaborate dishes like a tagine, a roasted chicken or a bolognese sauce. There’s something very satisfying about watching my daughter (Sabrina, 9) doing her arts and crafts at the dining room table while I make a meal that she can’t wait to eat.
Sue Ann: What I love about your recipes is that they are infused with flavor and you achieve that with fresh herbs and interesting spices.
~ Will you give our readers some tips for adding flavor to their food without relying on bottled dressings or salty condiments that obscure the food rather than enhance it? I think this is an art worth discussing.
Tracey: I think it’s important to keep a variety of ingredients stocked that you can turn to: some of my go-to items include wine, olive oil, vinegars (balsamic, Saba, red wine, Champagne, rice and many others), miso, tamari, garlic, sesame seeds, pastes (anchovy and harissa), spices, citrus fruits (lemons, limes, oranges), and fresh herbs, lots of fresh herbs. These are my go-to items for adding flavor to dishes without using a lot of sauces. With ingredients likes these it’s easy to whip up a salad dressing, make a marinade or sauce, or a blend or paste to add flavor to meals.
Some of the spices I recommend keeping stocked: za’aatar, sumac, berbere, smoked paprika, herbes de Provence, cardamom, cinnamon, falafel spice mix, Chinese 5-Spice, and whatever else strikes your fancy.
Sue Ann: You have traveled outside the United States quite often in your food writing adventures.
~ Which items do you seek out when you travel to bring back with you to the States?
Tracey: One of my favorite activities when I travel, aside from dining out, is checking out the local food shops. Of course this is an amazing activity in places like France and Italy where food shops abound. But no matter where I go, I seek out specialty food shops and even everyday markets to see how locals shop. When I was in London recently I found my way to a tiny spice store in Notting Hill called The Spice Shop and I bought a few items including, “Italian Lovers Salt” and “Hickory Smoked Salt.” In Germany I shopped at the local market and brought back some German chocolate but more than that I enjoyed watching the local women with their kids in tow picking up that night’s dinner ingredients. I’m not much into the usual souvenirs but I can admit that I once I smuggled in some cured meat from Prague and anytime I’m in Italy I bring back a bottle of olive oil because it really does taste better. When I was in Spoleto, a lovely town in Italy that I just love, I brought back a lot of truffle-related items. I always have so much fun picking and choosing items to take home.
Sue Ann: ~ What suggestions do you have for the more cautious connoisseur?
Tracey: I’d say to ease in with ingredients that you already like or have tasted, or want to taste. Or I’d suggest perusing a farmer’s market or spice shop and perhaps pick up something that draws you in. That’s how I’ve found a lot of items that I’ve used in my kitchen. I’ve strolled the aisles of spice shops like Kalustyan’s, a well-known and incredible spice shop in New York City, and happened upon some flavors and spices I wanted to try. For example, I love paprika so when I went to Kalustyan’s to buy some, I discovered several different types (the smoked is my favorite), plus paprika oil, a bag of whole paprikas as well as paprika paste—so many options with which to use paprika in a dish. I took these home and experimented, which is something I hope to inspire in others. So my suggestion is to gently get out of your comfort zone (usually the spice aisle at the supermarket) and get out there and explore. You just may bring home some new ingredients.
Sue Ann: And finally, many of my readers are also writers. We’d love to know about your process in writing this book. It’s a huge undertaking!
~ What did you learn along the way? What would you do differently next time?
This was bigger than I anticipated! It involved many steps, from first creating the concept (which is extremely important before you even get started) and all that came before pressing “send” when I completed the manuscript. I signed the contract with the publisher in July and then didn’t get to work until September and the book was due December 7th. Next time I will get started much earlier because I was super stressed out (and cooking non stop!) nearly every day in the Fall. But I tend to work well under pressure so it all came together.
I actually have much to share on the topic of writing a cookbook and many have asked me about the process. As such I created a class called the Cookbook Writing Academy. I am going to help future cookbook writers create a concept and a full proposal that they can shop around to agents or flesh out to a full book that they can self-publish.
About Tracey Ceurvels
Author of the cookbook, The NYC Kitchen (Skyhorse, August 2017) and a food and travel writer with articles in The Boston Globe, Relish, NY Daily News, Time Out NY, Condé Nast Traveler, Martha Stewart, among others, Tracey lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her 9-year old daughter. She enjoys traveling and creating fun, adventurous meals for home cooks.