Cooking in the City
What Is City Cooking?
City cooking celebrates the flavors that come from our small urban kitchens. We cook with ingredients from downtown farmers’ markets, small grocers, community supported agriculture deliveries, and neighborhood merchants.
Our kitchens are small and space is precious. We often take public transit to work. Many of us live close enough to our neighbors to be welcomed home in the evening by the aromas of their dinners. More than half of Americans now live in cities, and for those of us who do, there is an adjacency to our lives that affects what we eat and how we cook.
City cooking means finding a way to put daily home cooking into our always busy, often stressed, urban lives. Days start early and go late. Subways are delayed, and umbrellas are forgotten. Dogs need to be walked. But we’re determined to make dinner instead of having it delivered.
City cooking is about knowing how you want to eat every day and cooking your own meals with flavor and with confidence. We cook for our health, our budgets, and the pleasures of good food. And we want the satisfaction of making our own meals and of time spent in the kitchen with our families and our friends.
Should we still eat in great restaurants? Absolutely. Our chefs delight, inspire, and motivate us. Likewise, we shouldn’t abandon the convenience of takeout meals. I would feel very hard done by if I were never again to have sushi from my favorite neighborhood Japanese restaurant or couldn’t comfort a winter cold with a container of hot matzo ball soup from a much-loved deli. But living in a city shouldn’t mean we eat out or carry-in because we have no other options.
It is impossible to think about being in an urban kitchen without celebrating the changes that are now transforming how we cook and eat at home. Influenced by chefs, food writers, urban farmers, environmentalists, and other activists, efforts are being made to improve and protect the quality of our food because home cooks are demanding better ingredients, improved sustainability of our food supply, and, yes, more satisfying flavor.
This food revolution is under way in cities across America. Urban farmers’ markets are held every day throughout the year. Community supported agriculture lets us give direct financial support to local farms in return for a share of the crops. Regional specialties, often made by the same methods for generations, are increasingly available. Beekeepers are harvesting honey on the rooftops of city apartment and office buildings. New rivals are challenging large supermarket chains as the small neighborhood market returns to viability and popularity.
Finally, our cities are sophisticated global tables, inspired by the ethnic cuisines of our immigrant forebears and strengthened by our own regional cooking. Because we have access to many of the best ingredients in the world, home cooking makes the city kitchen a delicious destination.
How I Became a City Cook
I first learned to cook because I couldn’t afford to eat in restaurants. I was working long hours plus going to school, first in Boston and then in New York. My apartments were always small; my kitchens even smaller. My first kitchen was so tiny that I could pivot on one foot to reach my stove, sink, and refrigerator. But these were welcoming havens as I would come home hungry after a long day, craving both the meal I would prepare and the satisfaction of domesticity. As I chopped and stirred, I would play back my day in my head and begin to relax. Or maybe I would watch the news or invite a friend to join me for supper, making my little kitchen a homey refuge.
The first meals I made were simple, barely spiced, and made from ingredients I could afford. Chicken. Canned tuna. Pasta. Salad. As my career moved ahead, I began to have business lunches and dinners in restaurants—good restaurants, including some of the best in New York City. It was from those meals that I began to develop my palate. I learned why pasta was cooked al dente. And duck left rare. I lost the ability to eat bottled salad dressings and began to taste the difference between food cooked in olive oil and that cooked in butter. I discovered the delicacy of raw fish and the power of chiles.
For a few years my job required me to travel. I had never been overseas, and my journeys to Asia, Europe, and the Middle East were both palate and life changing. My work required keeping project diaries, but I filled the margins with the details of what I ate.
I wanted to find a way to take all these eating experiences and bring them into my daily life, so I began to take cooking lessons. At first, too afraid to pick up a knife in public, I only took classes where I could watch. But soon I was joining others in learning how to sauté a steak, peel a tomato, bone a chicken breast, and reduce a cream sauce. When on vacation I would seek out local cooking classes. I once took a small ship through the Greek islands and pestered the captain until he let me spend time in the boat’s galley; I was determined to find out how the cook made such wonderful and authentic meals in such a tiny space.
After I had learned some of the basics of cooking, I began to take individual classes on subjects in which I felt particularly unskilled, such as cooking fish and shellfish and making pies and tarts. Finally, for a milestone birthday, I gave myself a work sabbatical and spent three months at New York’s French Culinary Institute.
But the way I really learned was by cooking every day. On weekends I’d explore New York’s neighborhoods, food market by food market, from pickle stores and bakeries on the Lower East Side, to pasta makers in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg. Visits to Greek markets in Astoria, mozzarella mongers in the Bronx, and sidewalk fish stands in Chinatown taught me that some of the best ingredients in the world were in my city and that these merchants would provide the means for me to cook well.
How to Buy an Onion
I discovered that I wasn’t the only one cooking at home. New York’s restaurants were crowded, but so were its food markets. On a visit to the produce aisle of Fairway, an iconic, busy New York grocer on upper Broadway in Manhattan, I met a woman who was lamenting the overwhelming selection of onions. The week before Thanksgiving, she held a shopping list that filled a large sheet of paper. But the onions left her stumped, and thus discouraged. She had the bravery to take on a multicourse holiday meal but was derailed by a vegetable.
I started talking with friends and colleagues about their cooking triumphs and failures, and I found that most were baffled by the basics. They have stacks of cookbooks and cooking magazines and piles of Internet recipe printouts but are intimidated when buying ingredients. They want to keep versatile foods on hand to make a meal after a long day but don’t know how to stock a pantry. They have wacky kitchen gadgets but never bought a chef’s knife. They know it’s easy to broil a luxurious veal chop but would prefer a less costly London broil, pork loin, or tilapia fillet. They visit farmers’ markets but are overwhelmed by the choices and go home clutching only a jar of jam.
I saw that many want help in planning meals, buying ingredients, and fitting cooking into already overcommitted daily lives. To share the strategies I learned, I created TheCityCook.com and wrote this book.
Strategies for Modern Urban Cooking
The City Cook became a place to show how home cooking can be put into a busy urban life. There I share tips about how and where to buy great ingredients. And I share the recipes I have developed over my years of cooking—recipes that work for weekday cooking when you come home late and hungry and don’t have time to shop, along with recipes for holiday cooking and entertaining in a small urban home.
Here I’ve developed and adapted recipes that I hope you will enjoy and make part of your regular menus. But even more, it’s my wish that you will use these recipes to help you cook the way you like to eat. You may substitute cilantro for basil or reduce or increase the amount of heat in a dish—the point is to make these recipes yours.
Most of all I hope this book gives you more confidence in the kitchen. If I’ve learned anything from my years of being a home cook despite having a busy life, it’s that we will cook more if we don’t feel discouraged when facing the task of making dinner. And we’ll cook more if our meals are satisfying to eat.
- While it may seem a cliché, it is true that the best food is made with great ingredients cooked simply.
- Knowing how to buy ingredients is as important as knowing how to cook them.
- Cook what you want to eat and follow your own palate. If you prefer certain flavors, spices, ethnic dishes, or ingredients for reasons of health or politics, then these should be the foundation of your home cooking.
- Learn how to shop at farmers’ markets, food co-ops, and community supported agriculture programs; don’t hesitate to ask local artisans for advice. It will not only get you better ingredients; the more we support local farmers and producers, the better our food supply will become in the long run.
- City living lets us shop daily which lets us cook from the ingredients up. If you begin with what’s in season and what’s local, you will get the best flavors.
- Stock your pantry. This includes your refrigerator and freezer. If you keep certain ingredients on hand, you can buy fresh food on your way home from work and have all you need for a stress-free weekday dinner.
- Learn to shop from specialty merchants, such as cheese mongers, fish stores, and butchers, who can teach you about their products and how to cook with them. Many of these specialists now also sell online (I’ve included many of my favorites in the back of the book) so you can supplement the markets where you live with products sold by the best food merchants in the country.
- Equip your city kitchen with the best-quality pots, pans, knives, and tools you can afford. Resist buying too many gadgets that will fill up your precious storage space. For example, you can make any meal with only three knives—chef’s, serrated (for bread and tomatoes), and paring. Learn how to sharpen and hone them yourself, and your cooking will improve.
- Develop your own recipe repertoire. Your grandmother could make her perfect potato gratin or tomato sauce because she cooked it once a week for forty years. Same thing for chefs: they practice a dish dozens of times before it appears on a menu. While making new recipes is always fun, having a core list of dishes that are “yours” will make you a more confident cook. Before you know it, friends will be asking you to make your special short ribs or guacamole or lamb curry.
- Get educated about the changes taking place in our food culture. Learn the language of today’s ingredients: organic, local, artisanal, sustainable. Our food merchants will sell us what we want to buy, but to do so, we need to know what we want. (See the Glossary on page 263 to get started.)
The best thing you can do is just cook. Cook for yourself and cook for others. Take risks. You’ll make mistakes—we all do—but it’s only dinner. And tomorrow you can try again.Plan Your Pantry—Don’t Just Fill ItOn the ShelfOn the CounterIn the RefrigeratorIn the FreezerCooking from Your Pantry
© 2010 The City Cook, Inc.