In Rachel Khoo's Kitchen Notebook, the author opens up her titular notebook to share ideas and recipes she's gathered while traveling the world. She shares some of them with The Splendid Table contributor Shauna Sever.
Shauna Sever: You first burst onto the food scene several years ago with books about French cooking and your life in Paris, and you really became known for that. This book feels so much more personal and eclectic in terms of the ingredients and the flavors that you are working with. Tell us what inspired this new book.
Rachel Khoo: For my new cookbook, I really wanted to share my notebook. I travel around the world with this little notebook, and I scribble random things, doodle little drawings, and it's very eclectic in terms of flavors, tastes, recipes, and inspiration. It's a little flavor of what I've experienced in the last couple years, plus flavors from my childhood. My mom's Austrian; my dad's Chinese and Malaysian. I grew up in the U.K., but I also lived in Germany, then I lived in Paris for eight years, so I have this United Nations, eclectic food background. It's a hodgepodge of foods and flavors.
SS: But you do use all of these great flavors to spice up the everyday, quite literally, and what I would like to hear about is your process of recording notes and ideas for recipes as you travel. For instance, when you visit a new place, do you have a specific approach for culinary exploring, or do you leave it open ended?
RK: Sometimes, it's just about getting lost wherever you go, or wandering down a little street. I always have to go to a supermarket. I was in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, and I went to the supermarket and I was like, "Ooh, this is a nice turquoise colored box, I'm going to buy it." Then I went home to my friend's place and I said, "I bought this", and he said, "You bought a box of salt."
SS: You never know; it could be the most amazing salt that you ever had.
RK: Exactly! It's a good way to discover what the locals eat--to head to the supermarket or the market.
SS: That's a great tip. Even if people travel within the U.S., you can learn so much regionally by going to the Piggly Wiggly or the Publix, because there are things that you can bring home and literally bring those flavors into your own kitchen. I think a lot of us could use tips on how to liven up our everyday cooking. If we are talking about building a more global pantry, what are some tips to do, some things that we can do every day that are a bit different from what we might normally use?
RK: One of the places I went when I was researching the cookbook was Istanbul, and that was really inspirational in terms of flavors. They use a spice called sumac, which has this sour, sweet, very fragrant flavor. I use it in my lamb kebabs. They are simple, mint lamb kebabs, and you just blend the sumac into the mints. You could also use it on grilled fish or meat if you are doing a barbecue; just a bit of olive oil, mix it in, and brush it on. You could even blend it into a salad dressing.
When I went to Barcelona, they have this beautiful paprika you get in these lovely tins. Sometimes, I'm just a sucker for packaging, so I buy the tins like I'm buying random boxes of salt in Estonia. They have this lovely, sweet paprika, and it is great in this spice rub I make for my trout in the cookbook. It's really simple, and you just put it on the trout and grill it. You've got this lovely, delicate fish that really goes with that sweet paprika flavor, then add a nice green salad on the side. and you have a simple dinner. Nothing fancy but just a little bit different than your regular, "Oh, I'm just going to grill the trout with some olive oil and salt.'
There's one thing I have from my Malaysian heritage. I always have wonton mee, which is wonton dumplings with noodles and a special sauce, when I'm in Malaysia. When you go to a good place, they do pickled chilies with them, and it's sweet, sour, and spicy at the same time. You have all of these crazy sensations going on in your mouth. Those kind of chilies are not easy to find outside of Malaysia, but they're something that you could easily replicate at home. You could make them, and they can keep in your fridge for months. You can add it to pizzas, you can add it stews, you could eat them out of the jar. I put it on cheese on toast. It's a great way to add that zing and that "ooh" to your dish when it's lacking something.
SS: I want to talk about your flavor combinations, because that's one of the things that you do so well. A perfect example is your shepherd-less pie. It's a vegetarian shepherd's pie, where you use lentils instead of meat, and it has a polenta topping. You do a strawberry and cream layer cake with black pepper, which is a really interesting twist. I just wanted to know, if you could tell us some tips for thinking of flavors in a different way? You have a unique perspective on how you combine flavors.
RK: When it comes to food and flavors, because I have such a mixed heritage, I've always mixed things up. I'm never afraid of trying new things. One thing I experienced in Istanbul was Asia meets Europe, and they combine butter with soy sauce. I love butter, and I love soy sauce, but I never thought of putting them together, and it's an amazing combination. I do this hot butter and soy sauce mackerel, and the saltiness from the soy sauce plus that creamy, rich flavor of the butter, is just divine. If you think something might work, give it a go. There is nothing to lose.
I do a smoked haddock hash, and the recipe came from random ingredients in my fridge: cornichons, crème fraîche, and some salmon fish eggs. I'm like, "Well, I've got potatoes, let's see what I can make." Those cornichons, which are little, crunchy gherkins, work so well with the salty fish eggs and the creamy crème fraîche. I was like, "Why didn't I do that beforehand?" When you discover things like that, it's a revelation.
SS: Happy accidents in the kitchen. Those are the best ones.
SS: And butter and soy sauce. Everyone has butter and soy sauce. I'm very hungry right now. I'm going to have to go home and try that out for myself. It sounds amazing.
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Shauna Sever is the author of the cookbooks, Marshmallow Madness!, Pure Vanilla and Real Sweet. Her next book, Midwest Made, is now available for online pre-order (Release date: October 22, 2019). She is also the voice behind the baking blog Piece of Cake. She's appeared on The Today Show, Food Network, Home and Family, Serious Eats, Chow and Ulive.com. Her writing and recipes have been featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, Food and Wine, Bon Appetit, Fine Cooking, Family Circle and USA Weekend.