I first saw Lucinda Scala Quinn on the Martha Stewart-produced PBS cooking show “Everyday Food.” The show, with short segments each featuring a different person – all of them working for Stewart’s company and all making good food – is pretty low-key in tone. But Lucinda definitely stood out for being totally at ease on camera, telling great stories as she cooked. I later heard her on The Splendid Table radio show, discussing her mom’s awesome-sounding meatloaf recipe with Lynn Rosetto Kasper. That made me decide to get her then-latest cookbook, Mad Hungry Cravings – 173 Recipes for the Food You Want to Eat Right Now. It’s a book that clicked with me immediately, and I turn to it again and again. And yes, the meatloaf was awfully good, in case you’re wondering.
While it’s clear that Lucinda loves to cook, neither Mad Hungry Cravings nor its predecessor, Mad Hungry: Feeding Men and Boys, starts with the premise that everyone reading them will love to cook all the time, the way most cookbooks do. It’s a refreshing attitude. Instead, the idea that emerges is that people want good food for themselves and their families. Cooking is a great way to do this, because you have more control over what goes in your food that way. It’s something she takes seriously, growing up in a family of six and cooking for her own family of five. “It can be a joy to make food for the family, but everything in the books has to be bulletproof,” she told me. “People won’t make anything else from them if one recipe doesn’t work.”
She definitely has the experience to make that happen. First, starting out as a restaurant line cook at 16, then moving through various chef, cooking, and food writing jobs. And up until about six months ago, she was Executive Director of Food and Entertaining at Martha Stewart Omnimedia. She left that job to pursue the Mad Hungry concept as a resource to encourage people to do more cooking at home. Her third Mad Hungry book, out in September, takes on this task in a big way. Lucinda pours her years of cooking for her family – and teaching her sons to cook for themselves as well – into an examination of why we cook for ourselves and others. Especially these days when there are potentially so many options for food.
I asked Lucinda for a half hour of her time, and ninety minutes later I felt like we still could have kept talking. Of all the food and wine conversations I’ve had so far, this post was the most difficult to write up. Not for lack of material, but in deciding what to leave out. I hope you’ll have as much fun reading it as I did talking with her.
I really love Mad Hungry Cravings. Especially the recipes for food that I’d either be eating out or ordering as take-out. It’s great to be able to make them at home. What made you decide to create home recipes for take-out food? Living in New York we have take-out everywhere, and with kids of course they’d try everything they could get their hands on. Especially once they were a little older and had some money in their pockets. Some of that food is really good quality, but the aim of take-out places is to make it taste good and make it in volume. That likely means a lot of salt, fat, etc.
So these recipes will be better for you, first of all. Yes, definitely, but they’ll taste better than most take-out, too. Try eating take-out food slowly, you find that when the flavor first hits the front of your palate it probably tastes pretty good. But by the time you swallow it, it’s kind of yucky on the back end. So the solution is to just keep shoveling it in to keep that bad flavor away. But if you use the best ingredients you can at home and coax the flavor out of them, it’s just so much better.
And how do you coax the flavor out? It’s really a matter of technique – a bunch of things I’ve picked up being in the food and cooking business for so many years. Nothing is really complicated, but it also allows you to use things you probably have on hand or can find in your local supermarket. In fact, as I get older, I like investigating the simplicity of each ingredient instead of piling them on.
I was really impressed with the two Indian recipes I tried, the Chicken Tikka Masala and the Vegetable Biryani. Was it tough to get them to taste the way you wanted them without a lot of different spices? I’m happy to hear you say that. My husband spent time in India so I worked hard to get those right with a more critical audience across the table. It was great to be able to nail big flavors with ingredients in the cupboards at home. With the Chicken Tikka Masala, just blooming the spices in the oil after cooking the onion made all the difference. It’s not anything unusual, but a lot of recipes skip that step – and not just for Indian food. So I found I could keep the spices down to Garam Masala, cumin, and cayenne pepper instead of a whole bunch of them. Making a spice/ginger/onion paste with coconut milk in the blender was the key to more flavor in the Biryani.
What are some of the other techniques and ingredients you found made the food taste better? For what I call “Fake-out Flautas,” preheating the sheet pan means they’ll come out really crispy without frying them or even using more than a little bit of oil. When you’re using the oven for things like these instead of frying, brush the food lightly with oil rather than oiling the baking sheet. You’ll use a lot less oil that way. Then two random ones: first, food professionals have been taking fish sauce for granted for years now, to add a little more oomph to dishes without tasting fishy. And finally, something as simple as pouring an herb vinaigrette over hot lamb chops, or really, any broiled or grilled meat or fish gives you a huge flavor hit, too, and the herbs smell fantastic. You’re drooling by the time you tuck in.
When I e-mailed you about doing this interview your response told me that you really, really like wine. How did that start for you? At first it came through food. I had a job as a line cook in a restaurant at 16. When I was 18 I took a trip around the UK and tasted Claret, which I really enjoyed. Then, after college I went on my own to France and made a food tour, starting in Paris and ending up in Savoie and Alsace. I was already a food person but the trip made me a wine person too. I made it my business to find the best wine I could wherever I was. And a lot of the time, the best wine was the Vin du Pays rather than something more exalted. One sip at a time, I began to understand what I liked.
Was wine a part of eating as you were growing up? My family comes from Calabria and my great-grandfather was a food purveyor for workers on the Erie Canal around Rome, NY. Family events have always had a bunch of food and wine. Just what you’d expect in a big Italian family. But in terms of wine at home, my father was an old-school Italian wine snob. He had a cellar of high-end wines with tags that said “Yes” or “No,” for OK to drink or keep your hands off. One of my brothers brought the last of the “No” bottles to a family birthday event not long ago.
So wine was a serious thing for your father? Absolutely. I first realized it wasn’t just any old beverage to him when I was 14, before I was drinking wine. Dad came home and went to the cellar, then asked my mother where a particular bottle was. She and her friends had drunk a vintage Lafite, and he definitely wasn’t happy about it. I don’t want to make him seem like a dictator or anything, because he wasn’t — it’s just that very good wine was important to him. But his attitude toward wine became part of my overall rebellion and I decided to learn what I liked without being told what that ought to be.
It sounds like an excellent way to rebel and learn about yourself at the same time. There was also some rebellion against the whole Italian patriarchal thing I grew up with. My father thought wine was a man’s game – those good bottles went to my brothers, not me. Unfortunately, I still see some male-centric attitude about wine today.
How so? You haven’t met me, so you don’t know I have a big nose – maybe that’s the reason I’m really sensitive to off-odors and flavors in wine. If I’m out at a restaurant and I order a wine that I think is off or oxidized when I taste it, I’m more likely to get pushback from the server about it than if a man at the table orders the wine and complains about it. I’m not sure why that is, but it has happened enough that I notice it. And it’s made me think as a woman about how I’m going to say something when it happens, which is kind of silly, because I’m a polite person and of course I’m not going to be rude.
That’s crazy – and really poor service, too. But I understand about being more flavor-sensitive. I’m also pretty sensitive to some off-flavors, particularly oxidation. It once put me in an unpleasant situation at a dinner at an expensive restaurant with people I didn’t know very well. It certainly can make things awkward. A few years ago my family had dinner at the home of a famous movie star – our families have known one another a long time, it’s not like we’re intimate friends with a movie star, blah, blah – and we were all in the kitchen cooking. The actor asked what we’d like to drink. I am a fanatic for French Burgundies, so I figured he’d have one and asked for it. Well, he brought up a bottle of Domaine Romanée-Conti from his cellar. Like it was nothing. My eyes just about popped out of my head. The trouble was, it was corked. Not extremely bad, but I could taste it. And I had to tell him.
Wow, a sad thing to have a corked DRC, but it makes a great story. Any other wine moments that stand out for you? There’s one about not drinking wine while pregnant, which of course we rightly have as advice. When I was pregnant with my second son, my husband, older son, and I were in a village outside of Lucca having dinner. I was drinking water, not wine. The old patroness of the restaurant tried to get me to drink the wine, which I’m sure was delicious, and I kept saying no. Finally, she brought a glass with a cut-up peach in it covered in wine to entice me. She couldn’t believe that anyone wouldn’t want to drink the wine!
Well, you probably would have if you hadn’t been pregnant! I’m guessing you don’t drink great Burgundies every day. What do you look for in everyday wines? I wish I could drink them every day! One of my sons worked in Burgundy for a little while – one day after he came home we were out shopping and I suggested he pick out some wine at a store we passed. He was pulling down $50 bottles because those were the kind of wines he was drinking like water over there. I had to put a $20 cap on him. So a lot of times we get Bordeaux blends and Rhône blends. For me they’re the best value in that price range with enough complexity to drink on their own or with food.
Let’s talk about the philosophy of your new book, Mad Hungry Family. From your description on the Mad Hungry site, it goes beyond just feeding ourselves. I have been thinking after the shooting in Orlando that our kitchens are safe havens, among their other roles. They provide a kind of connective tissue for family and community. They’re an anchor, in a way. So I’m not sure why people want to spend less time in them. I recently saw an ad for a food delivery service that said, “Cooking Is So Jersey.” [For those of us outside NYC, this is a phrase we don’t see — as you can imagine, it implies that New Yorkers have much better things to do with their time to even consider cooking.] That night, I said to my husband, what’s next? Are they going to crawl into bed with us, chew our food, and spit it into our mouths?
Only if we let them in! What do you think of the services that bring you portioned ingredients but you cook it yourself? My husband and I tried one on and off for a few months. I liked that it pushed me to things I wouldn’t necessarily have made, but I found it limiting after a while, which seems kind of odd considering that menu variety was a reason I liked it. Not really – because part of cooking for you is deciding what to make, getting the ingredients, and preparing them. I think the once-a-week box could be a good way to get people started cooking. Especially for people who wouldn’t do it at all otherwise. But they leave out the idea of budgeting for your food, plus they’re expensive. Ten dollars per person per meal may not sound like much, but you can make a lot of food for that amount of money.
That’s true, especially once you have a little experience under your belt. You don’t have to be wealthy to enjoy good food at home. Few things have made me happier than seeing my sons cooking on their own for themselves and for friends, budgeting for food, buying some staples, and cooking out of their pantries, no matter how small.
Best of all, they’ll know how to pay that forward in the future. Thank you so much for talking with me! I really enjoyed it – but you’re making me want a glass of rosé and I have a meeting in less than an hour!
It was tough picking just one of Lucinda’s recipes to use. But part of our discussion was riffs on recipes, so I thought I’d include one that I had put my own spin on. Lucinda calls her Spinach Zucchini Lasagna “1970s redux,” and it is – it’s something I remember seeing back then, when vegetarian food had to be smothered in cheese. It’s a béchamel-based dish with two layers of something like creamed spinach, and a top layer of browned, sliced zucchini. Delicious as is, but one day I decided I wanted a layer of eggplant between the spinach and zucchini. And since the dish was creamy already, I decided to use a little tomato sauce in the eggplant layer instead of more cream sauce. It added a nice zip. I told Lucinda about it and she liked the idea, so you have her recipe below with my variation as an option.
Lucinda browns her zucchini in a skillet, but I roast them, particularly if I’m also using eggplant – the oven is on anyway and I can get everything else done while they’re in there. Put nonstick mats or parchment on two baking sheets. Lightly brush the vegetables on both sides with olive oil and put them in the oven for about 30 minutes, until lightly browned.
I like a medium-bodied red with this dish, and Domaine de Mairan Cabernet Franc ($13) fits the bill nicely. It doesn’t have the green pepper flavor you sometimes find in Cabernet Franc, just nice fruit and enough tannins to interact with the milk and cheese. Plus it’s a Vin du Pays, so I know the rebellious Lucinda would approve!
From Mad Hungry Cravings, by Lucinda Scala Quinn. Reprinted with the author’s permission, and courtesy of Artisan Books.
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
2 teaspoons coarse salt
2 pounds baby spinach
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 quart whole milk
1 packed cup grated Parmesan cheese
¾ teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
2 medium zucchini (about 1 pound), sliced lengthwise into ¼-inch-thick planks
8 ounces no-boil lasagna noodles
6 ounces mozzarella, shredded
1/3 packed cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F with a rack in the middle position. Heat a large pot over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil. When it shimmers, add the onions and ½ teaspoon of the salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent, about 3 minutes.
Add the spinach, a few handfuls at a time, to the pot and cook, stirring frequently, until wilted, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer the spinach to a mesh strainer set over a bowl and press against it with a wooden spoon to remove as much liquid as possible.
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over high heat. Add the flour and cook, whisking constantly, until the roux is golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the milk, whisking, and continue whisking until the sauce begins to boil and thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat and stir in the Parmesan, 1 teaspoon salt, the nutmeg and pepper. Cover with plastic wrap pressed against the surface.
Heat the remaining 3 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add the zucchini and cook, turning once, until golden brown on both sides, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate to drain and sprinkle with the remaining ½ teaspoon salt.
To assemble: Spread 1 cup of the cream sauce over the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Arrange one-third of the noodles over the sauce in a single, overlapping layer. Top with 1 cup sauce and half the spinach. Repeat with a second layer of noodles, sauce, and spinach. Top with the remaining noodles, remaining sauce, zucchini, mozzarella, and Pecorino.
Cover the baking dish with foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking for 15 minutes longer, until the cheese is golden in places and the lasagna is bubbling around the edges. Remove from the oven and let stand for 20 minutes before slicing and serving.
In addition to the ingredients above you’ll need:
2 baby eggplant (about 8 ounces each), trimmed and sliced lengthwise into ¼ inch planks
3-4 extra no-boil noodles (enough for an overlapping layer)
1 cup good tomato sauce
4 extra ounces shredded mozzarella (10 ounces total)
Put another rack below the middle rack when preheating the oven. Line two baking sheets with Silpats or parchment. Put the eggplant and zucchini slices each on their own sheet, brush the slices lightly with olive oil on both sides, and sprinkle with salt. Put the vegetables in the oven for about 30 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove the sheets from the oven and set them aside until assembly.
Put the dish together as directed through the two spinach layers. Make a layer of noodles, then spread the cup of tomato sauce over them. Top with the eggplant slices, and about 4 ounces of the shredded mozzarella. Then put on the remaining layer of noodles, the last of the cream sauce, the zucchini, remaining mozzarella, and Pecorino. Bake as directed.