In all of our personal collections, there are a handful of recipes we go back to again and again. They are simple but delicious; hassle-free but impressive. These are the ones we’re always in the mood for, no matter what the occasion.
For Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion, authors of the new cookbook Keepers, those recipes are called just that: “keepers,” or “brag-worthy, reliable, crowd-pleasing preparations that we confidently turn to again and again.” In the book, they share more than 125 recipes that have become weeknight regulars in their homes, from dishes you can make in bulk and reheat (Smoky Turkey Chili) to those that come together in a flash (Shrimp with Green Curry). Then there are the “lifesavers,” the sauces and dressings that take any dish to the next level. They also share plenty of tips for home cooks looking to create healthy, homemade dinners every day — without losing their sanity.
Here, we ask Kathy and Caroline all about the book, including their favorite recipes, biggest weeknight challenges, and secret weapons in the kitchen. Read on for their responses and a sample recipe!
Tell us about your backgrounds. How did you come into food writing careers?
Kathy: My story sort of meanders a bit, but even though I didn’t always realize it or necessarily plan it this way, food and travel have shaped my life both personally and professionally. My mother, who is Japanese, is a gifted cook with an adventurous palate. My Irish-American father has simpler tastes. Give him a hearty stew, crusty bread, and some good ice cream and he’s happy. Growing up, I ate pretty much anything that was put in front of me. I just loved food in every way: growing it in the garden, shopping for it, cooking it, reading and talking about it. When I got older and started to travel on my own, I even plotted my trips around it (living abroad for much of my twenties helped make this possible).
But my hobby became my career when I was working as a journalist in Tokyo. An editor needed someone with a food background to write restaurant reviews. I figured knowing how to cook (thanks, Mom!) and how to navigate menus in a variety of languages was enough of a qualification, so I applied for the job and got it. I eventually went to The French Culinary Institute in New York (now the International Culinary Center), toiled in restaurants, and then started working at food magazines: first FoodArts, then Gourmet and Saveur. I now work mainly in cookbooks. Most recently, I was the recipe editor of the Gramercy Tavern book, which is being published in October, and co-wrote Keepers with Caroline.
Caroline: My interest in food really comes from my family. My mother is from Belgium, and I would spend most of my summers either at my grandparents’ apartment in Brussels, or at my uncle’s organic farm in a small village called Ittre. It was during these childhood visits that I learned about the pleasure of good home cooking. My uncle would bring my grandmother ingredients from the farm—everything from cassis and raspberries, rabbit, celeriac, potatoes, greens, fresh eggs—and she would turn them into sorbets, stews, salads, dauphinoise, omelets, etc. Just watching my grandmother (who was not a professional chef but worked her whole life while raising a family) prepare these amazing meals, and how much everyone she fed loved to eat her food, was an inspiration to me as I got older. As for the writing part, I started off as a features editor — first at Good Housekeeping, then GQ and Glamour, before landing my dream job as a food editor at Saveur. After leaving Saveur I went back to being a features editor, but I missed writing about food. So I started my blog devilandegg.com so I would have a reason to write about what I was cooking and eating, while also teaching myself how to take photos of food (although I continue to embarrass my family by making them wait to take a bite of their food until after I’ve taken a photo of it first!).
How did the two of you meet and what was the inspiration for writing the book together?
We met about ten years ago when we were editors at Saveur. We had a lot in common—not least being food obsessed and moms of toddlers—and found ourselves having almost daily desk-side conversations about dinner: what we were making that night, what to do with a loaf of stale bread, how to deal with a picky eater, our favorite fast pasta recipes, what pantry ingredients always save us… Those recipe swaps and pep talks were invaluable; they also made us better weeknight cooks. The conversations continued even after we both left the magazine and we eventually realized that we had a lot to share that could help other home cooks get dinner on the table Monday through Friday more easily and with more confidence, and maybe even have some fun in the process.
How did your careers prepare you to write this book?
Our general life experiences put us in a unique position to write a weeknight meals cookbook. We had the benefit of being raised by moms and grandmoms who showed us around the kitchen, working at food magazines where advice from wonderful home cooks and chefs was plentiful, culinary schooling (Kathy), and restaurant experience. Moving to Delaware also had a big influence on Kathy, as moving to rural New Jersey did on Caroline. When you’re in a big city, you are so spoiled when it comes to food choices. It’s not just all the incredible restaurants; it’s the quality, variety, and accessibility of ingredients and prepared foods, too. And we took all that for granted.
There’s also a lot more schlepping of kids, which can leave little to no time to cook in the evening. So after our respective moves, we learned pretty quickly that if we don’t plan and shop ahead and always keep certain key ingredients on hand, dinner often devolves into boxed mac and cheese or a pizza. Our goal was to create a book that would be useful for anyone who wants to do better with weeknight meals, regardless of their demographics, and living in our current locales certainly helped with that.
Describe the recipes in Keepers. How did you develop them, and what’s unique about them?
The term “keepers” dates to our food magazine days in New York. Every so often, the Saveur food editors would rave about a recipe they’d tested and declare it to be a “keeper”—meaning it was a dish worth adding to one’s personal recipe file. To earn “keeper” status, a recipe had to transcend delicious: it also had to be the best of its kind, be a crowd pleaser, and be something you’d want to make repeatedly, regardless of how elemental or involved it was. And that’s what we give in this book, focusing on our favorite weeknight keepers—simple, satisfying dishes that are never boring: Skillet Lasagna, Smoky Turkey Chili, Deviled Panko-Crusted Chicken Thighs, Sausage and White Bean Gratin, Shrimp with Green Curry, No-Fuss Roasted Potatoes, Parmesan Broccoli, Everyday Salad with our three staple dressings.
Many of the recipes are rooted in our backgrounds and travels, including Caroline’s grandmom’s Mussels the Belgian Way and my mom’s Japanese-Style “Meat and Potatoes”; others are from friends, were developed to solve a specific problem (trying to expand a kid’s culinary horizons beyond chicken fingers yielded Deviled Panko-Crusted Chicken Thighs, page 45), or came about by chance (say, discovering a pack of turkey cutlets in the freezer and some aging proscuitto in the back of the fridge = “Jump in the Mouth” Turkey Cutlets, page 69).
You spoke to friends and family members while planning the book. What were some of their biggest challenges, and how have you addressed them?
There are many great cookbooks out there, but what we found from talking to people—moms, dads, singles, couples without kids—was that they needed that one go-to book with a laser-like focus on helping them survive the weeknight dinner gauntlet. Their feedback helped shape our book. Our recipes don’t call for exotic, expensive, or hard-to-find ingredients, they won’t leave your kitchen looking like a typhoon hit it, and they aren’t prefaced by long personal headnotes. They are highly practical and approachable, but not dumbed-down in any way. And they are accompanied by lots of tips and advice, such as how to season food, stock your pantry, substitute ingredients, and use all your senses in the kitchen. After all, it takes more than good recipes to become a good cook.
Time and scheduling are also universal issues. The idea of everyone being home at the same time and ready to eat dinner by 6 pm is just not a reality in most households: spouses work late, kids have different practice times or after-school activities, there’s inevitably a missing homework assignment, a sick dog, a neighbor stopping by in need of a favor. We think the best strategy is to try and sketch out a plan of what you’ll be making for the week ahead of time. That way you’re not trying to figure out dinner in the midst of juggling everything else and you can chose your meals based on the day. And to help people figure out which dishes to serve based on their particular circumstances, we included a Recipes by Category section (“Extra-Fast”, “One-Dish Meals”, “Staggered Dinner Times” at the back of the book for easy reference.
What are some of your personal “keeper” recipes — for easy weeknights and for entertaining?
One group of dishes from Keepers that we love to make for both weeknight dinner and parties are what we call “Toasts.” The idea came from a desire to break away from the traditional dinner of meat, vegetable and a starch. We were also trying to find a creative way to use all the odds and ends in the fridge and pantry, things like a pint of cherry tomatoes, a couple of eggs, a ripe avocado, a can of white beans, etc. The only thing you need is a good loaf of bread (a baguette or day-old country-style loaf works great) that you slice, toast, and then top with a combination of raw and/or cooked ingredients. Some of our favorite combinations are smashed avocado with lime juice and radish, crisp Spanish chorizo on aioli (we have a cheater version that doesn’t require using raw egg!), melted tomatoes on goat cheese, and peas with lemon and Greek yogurt. For cocktail parties or something like a baby shower, we serve four or five varieties on large trays or cutting boards, but at home, we put the toppings in bowls and let everyone assemble their own toasts. Making the meal DIY is not only easier and more fun, but it’s great for the family that has different dietary restrictions (something that seems to be much more common these days); so the vegetarian can add extra peas but skip the chorizo, the pescatarian can load up on the smoked salmon, etc., and you just made a super-simple meal that miraculously pleases everyone.
Any tips for busy home cooks who are trying to make time to cook?
One of our favorite strategies is to make a few things ahead of time so that they’re at the ready, which is particularly handy later in the week, when you start running out of energy but still want something homemade on the table. For example, on Sundays, we’ll roast a few trays of vegetables to mix with pasta, top a green salad, or combine with grains like a quinoa or farro. Right now we’re doing lots of butternut squash, cauliflower, eggplant, carrots, and beets. You can keep it simple and just toss the vegetables with salt, pepper and olive oil, or you can get creative and add spices and herbs. Some of our favorites are red pepper flakes, ground cumin, rosemary, and thyme.
Another strategy is to make a few dressings or sauces (we use a clean jam or mustard jar) that keep for several days in the fridge and can be pulled out as needed to spruce up leftovers or something like a rotisserie chicken. We call these “Lifesavers” and some of our staples are chimichurri (great on chicken, fish, or roasted vegetables), carrot-ginger dressing (great on grains and cold noodle salads or as a dip), and avocado spread (great on turkey burgers, baked potatoes, and quesadillas).
What are some of your best secret weapons in the kitchen? (tools, ingredients, techniques, etc.)
Our favorite tools include:
- Tongs. We like the classic Edlund brand with the scalloped top; they come in various sizes and we use them to stir, flip, grill, sauté, pretty much everything.
- Kitchen shears. We use them for snipping herbs instead of chopping them with a knife so they don’t bruise; cutting pizza slices (much better than the traditional rolling cutter); and also cutting chicken parts at the joints).
- Bench scraper. Most people think of these for pastry, but we find them indispensable for chopping and scooping up bits and pieces from a cutting board, and they’re also brilliant at cutting brownies.
Our favorite ingredients: We’d have to say that our VIP ingredient is lemon juice. In general, we love adding acid to a dish to brighten the flavor (when you taste a dish and it seems underwhelming, a splash of lemon juice or vinegar will usually do the trick). We also use tomato paste to lend intensity to sauces; anchovy paste to provide umami; miso paste to contribute richness and flavor to dips, dressings, soup, and marinades; and seeds like pumpkin and sunflower to add texture and crunch to pestos and salads.
Our favorite techniques: This is not so much a technique as it is a tip, but we always urge people to let refrigerated ingredients come to room temperature or at least lose their chill before cooking them. It seems simple, but you’d be surprised how many people come home from work, check the mail, feed the dog, change their clothes, and then pull the meat, fish, veg, etc. from the fridge and start cooking them right away. This not only results in food cooking less evenly, it will also take longer and steam rather than sear/bake/etc.
What’s for dinner tonight?
Good question! This time of the year, more than anything we both crave chicken pot pie. To us, it’s the quintessential comfort dish and there’s just something about pieces of moist chicken under a buttery, flaky crust with lots of peas and carrots in a rich sauce that just screams fall. Our families always ask for it, too. You may not think of pot pie as a weeknight meal, but this version is really easy, in part because it uses store-bought puff pastry. Another plus: no cream! This surprises people because it’s so rich and flavorful, but that comes from deglazing the pan with chicken broth and marsala wine, a terrific ingredient.
What do you love about the dish we’re sharing with readers today?
We love making this gratin recipe, particularly during the colder months, because it’s a lovely combination of comforting and rustic (the buttery bread crumb topping, the ground sausage, the tender beans) and also sophisticated (say “gratin” and you think French, ooh-la-la!). We like to add a leafy green like spinach to the mix, and for vegetarians you can substitute the pork sausage with tofu sausage (some of the ones available now are actually pretty good and have lots of flavor).
Also, it’s a great make-ahead dish, not to mention one-dish meal: You can prepare the sausage-and-bean-filling a day or two in advance and then add the topping and bake when you’re ready; or bake the entire gratin, cool, store in the fridge, and reheat as needed for amazing leftovers.
Sausage and White Bean Gratin
There’s a lot of wiggle room in this hearty crowd-pleaser. You can cook the sausage and bean mixture a day or two in advance (just allow for extra oven time since it will be cold). If you have an ovenproof pan, such as a cast-iron skillet, you can also use that for the entire recipe. Folding some spinach into the mixture before baking is an easy way to add some color and vegetables, but you can skip it or use other leafy greens, such as Swiss chard, escarole, or broccoli rabe (sturdier ones will need to be blanched first). The gratin also reheats well.
2/3 cup panko or regular dried breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound sweet Italian sausages, casings removed
1 small yellow onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 heaping tablespoon tomato paste
1 scant tablespoon fresh thyme leaves or 1 scant teaspoon dried
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
Two 15.5-ounce cans white beans, such as cannellini or Great Northern, drained and rinsed
4 large handfuls of baby spinach (optional)
Preheat the oven to 425°F, with a rack in the middle position. In a small bowl, combine the panko and butter, season with salt, and set aside.
In a large skillet, heat the oil over high heat until it shimmers. Add the sausages and cook, stirring often and breaking up the meat, until browned, about 4 minutes. Leaving as much oil in the pan as possible, transfer the sausage to a medium bowl and set aside.
Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the onions and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are softened, about 8 minutes. Add the tomato paste and thyme and stir for about 30 seconds. Add the wine and briskly simmer, scraping up any caramelized bits from the bottom of the pan, until almost evaporated, about 2 minutes.
Add the broth and bring to a simmer, then add the beans, cooked sausage, and any juices. Season with salt and pepper and simmer, stirring occasionally, until heated through and some of the liquid is absorbed, about 5 minutes. The mixture should be wet, but not drowning in liquid. Off the heat, stir in the spinach (if using). Check the seasonings, then transfer the mixture to a 3-quart baking or gratin dish.
Top evenly with the panko mixture and bake until bubbling and the top is golden brown, about 15 minutes. Let rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
Look for Keepers in Williams-Sonoma stores!