Thursday, May 13, 2010

Quality time with Queenie: Erin Ferretti Slattery

Erin Ferretti Slattery (that's her on the right up there) grew up in California and Colorado, and has lived in France, Scotland, Israel, and the Czech Republic. She has worked in PR, book publicity, and international publishing, and has written a cookbook, The Ghost in the Pantry: Culinary Travels through Four Generations. She and her husband, Jakub, live in the food paradise of Astoria, Queens, where she is freelancing as a translator and perpetually starting a novel.

Erin and I first met online over at eGullet many, many moons ago - she helped me plan the Prague leg of the journey Louisa and I took in 2006 - and we finally met in real life last year at a fabulous Jauntsetter party in Williamsburg (Brooklyn, not historical).

How and from whom did you learn to cook?
My mother is the biggest influence, and I learned most of what I cook by instinct these days as a result of watching and helping her from childhood onward--like nearly everyone, I imagine. In the constellation of other inspiring people, there are also friends who can throw together a four-course dinner on an hour's notice, a French host mother with a sturdy yogurt-cake recipe, a British host mother who taught me not to fear lard for the Sunday roast, friends who parted with their grandmothers' cake and goulash recipes, and friends whose individual talents and flair for entertaining are things I try to mimic.

Ultimately, I would say I learned from all the women in my life I've been fortunate to call friends, including my mother, who compiled and printed a book of tried-and-true recipes from friends and family as a wedding gift for me.
And I'm also grateful to my dad for initiating me into Zen and the Art of the Weber grill. (My dad has been known to happily do steaks on the Weber in three feet of snow, which is Buddhism of a sort I'll never achieve.)

Do you consider yourself a baker, a cook, or a hybrid? Why?

Cooking at high altitude (in Denver, where I spent part of my childhood) scarred me as a baker for life; I always either forgot to read the high-altitude directions, or measured by instinct and was off by a lot. I turned out a lot of bricks and dry muffins. If anything, it taught me to leave any precise measuring to someone else. That said, I have my one standby cake (Marian Burros's versatile Plum Torte recipe) and I like experimenting, but I invariably forget an ingredient or use too big a pinch of something, and the cake is born a mutant. My oven in New York has never been leveled, either--it's so bad that skillets occasionally start sliding to the back--and though I've tried to correct it, all baked goods emerge looking like a raised eyebrow.

The savory baked-good recipe that has yet to fail me (knock on wood) is Delia Smith's
Savory Muffins with Two Flavorings . But if it's a family recipe from my side (Irish and Italian) or my husband's side (all Czech), I'll usually keep at it until I get it right; there's something fascinating to me about tasting something that someone long before you (but connected to you) loved, and/or loved to make. What is it about that cake--or that person--that was extraordinary? What sort of crazy line of deliciousness do you participate in by recreating that? (When I wrote a cookbook last summer, I tried to get at that question but mainly wound up buying and consuming staggering quantities of butter.)

If you could prepare any meal in the world, what would the menu be, and who would you invite to join you?
Oh, Lord.

Guest list: Virginia Woolf, Groucho Marx, Shakespeare (I'm sure he's not free, though), Jane Austen, S.J. Perelman, George Gershwin, Madame de Stael, M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Wordsworth, Dorothy Parker, and Joan of Arc. (Note to self: seat the latter two apart from each other.)

Menu: Club sandwiches.

No, really, I've never been any good at that kind of
thing; for one, I have serious entertaining-induced anxiety (ironically so, since I love having people over) and turn into a basket case, worrying about insane things like botulism and e-coli and the federally mandated internal cooking temperature for pork tenderloin and, oh God, will they like it?, so I'm pretty sure I'd die well before my Imaginary Dinner Party showed up. (Sorry to be so darned literal.)

In all honesty, give me a giant plate of antipasto, a few good baguettes, chilled wine, and fresh fruit, good chocolate, and nuts, and I'm happy. I run out of imaginary steam when it comes to the actual food, I guess.

Is there something you love to eat that you never make at home?
This may be cheating, but we go out so often to eat two cuisines--sushi and New Delhi Indian--I rarely attempt at home that I feel like flipping the question around a bit.

You can't typically find Nakládaný hermelín in a restaurant in the U.S., but we occasionally make it at home. It's Czech camembert marinated in vegetable oil and a heady mix of spices along with sliced bell peppers, garlic, and onions; Czech pubs feature giant, keg-sized jars of it looming at the end of the bar. I made a giant batch of it last summer when I was writing a cookbook, and it brought back memories of warm nights around outdoor tables at a Prague pub, drinking a beer with friends and slathering this cheese on dark brown bread.

Pick your poison.
Well, after two drinks, I slide under the table, grinning like a lunatic, so I usually opt for something nonalcoholic. In Israel, you can order limonana, lemonade blended with whole handfuls of fresh mint and ice; I became addicted to those when we lived there and was delighted to find them all over Manhattan cafes.

Otherwise, I order a good white wine--my heart belongs to the Austrian Gritsch winery's Gruner Veltliners--or a Sangiovese. If I have to order a cocktail, it's a dry martini, but then I take no responsibility for the nonsense that comes out of my mouth after two of those.

Describe the best meal you've ever eaten. Where were you? Who prepared it? And what made it so special?
One of the best meals I've ever had was at a wonderful twenty-first-birthday surprise dinner that my best friend sprung on me when we were both studying in London for a semester, 13 years ago; my parents wired him money in advance and asked him to take me to dinner. Since my best friend was an aspiring man of the world, he picked Bibendum, without telling me in advance, of course. So I showed up in a floral sundress.

Even so, it was extraordinary--a flurry of courses; I remember a duck breast that tasted like what I thought gold should taste like. Aside from that, I remember shockingly little (sorry, Mom and Dad)--only that it was dazzling, sparkling, and everything was crisp and delicious. It was the best birthday ever.
But, if I'm being honest, the best meals of my life have always been long, slow, comfortable, wine-fueled things, usually at home or someone else's home, with family and friends, lots of dishes with serving spoons, and that's what I like most.

Whether it's transporting 40 mini-flans across Prague for a friend's surprise California-themed birthday party, or epic holiday dinners with family (or holiday lunches, when we're with my husband's family in Prague), the key elements for me are: well-loved recipes and conversation with people you love.

What's for dinner tonight chez toi?
You caught me on a good night; usually, unless I think about it in the morning, I look up from freelancing around 5 and start to wonder what's for dinner. We live in an amazing neighborhood (Astoria) for food, so whether you want to go out or stay in, you're spoiled. On Fridays, I take the morning off and go get ingredients for the weekend meals.

I think this is a holdover from when we lived in Israel: everything shuts down on Shabbat, Friday evening, so if you didn't grab what you needed, you were out of luck 'til Saturday evening. Now I feel hard-wired to plan weekend meals; by Thursday night, my brain is starting to run through what's in the fridge, what pantry staples there are, what's fresh, and what needs to be used up.

Since today was Friday, I hit the fish market on 30th Ave. and 31st St., which has a great selection; the United Brothers Fruit Market, just down the street from the fish place, for fresh vegetables; and bought a loaf of rustic country bread from an Italian place on our block that seems like what my grandfather's fruit-and-vegetable store would have looked like in downtown Denver in the 1930s.

We had grilled shrimp skewers (and by "grilled," I mean "broiled while fantasizing about a patio") with mango and red onion pieces, plus some sliced tomatoes and bell peppers, and a basket of fresh bread. Simple to the point of bliss. Oh--and a California Sauvignon Blanc. Dessert was a few bites of dark chocolate, although I should've splurged and brought home baklava; the baklava-trays-to-inhabitants ratio is ridiculous here. And you cannot get a bad piece of it. Crazy.

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