Meet Phyllis Grant: former pastry chef, mom to Dash and Bella and author of the blog of the same name, and writer behind the upcoming food memoir Feed Me. Phyllis’s blog is beloved for her beautiful, family-friendly meals, as well as her heartwarming (and funny!) stories about cooking with her kids. In honor of back-to-school season, we asked her all about the inspiration behind Dash & Bella, how to cook for — and with — kids, and what she eats when she’s alone. Read on!
After graduating from The Juilliard School, I was auditioning for modern dance companies in New York City and getting nowhere. I was nannying and working at a café. I was eating muffins for dinner. I was losing my freaking mind. I started teaching myself how to make pastries.
Through a family connection, I got an entry-level cooking job at Michael’s restaurant. I went on to work as a pastry cook at Bouley and Nobu. This was before the Food Network and celebrity chefs, so it was possible to just walk in the back door of a restaurant, with no experience, and ask for a job. If you were presentable, willing to do the grunt work, and okay with a low salary, almost any restaurant would give you a shot. Then it was up to you. You had to sacrifice a lot and work insane hours on your feet. I did this for a few years and then went back to school to study writing.
What inspired you to start your blog, Dash & Bella?
True story. This is what I said to a friend about a year before I started Dash & Bella: “If I start writing a blog, please shoot me.” At that point I imagined that whatever I had to say would be a whine-fest all about kids and diapers and postpartum depression. A year later, my mom forwarded me an email about a contest at Knopf that was tied in with the Julie & Julia movie. It involved cooking several Julia Child recipes and then describing what went down. In order to enter the contest, I had to start a blog. My story involved a few culinary hits, a few misses, and lots of calls to my parents asking, “When the heck is this leg of lamb done?” I posted the tale of the weekend cooking with my kids, some lessons learned, and my first batch of food photos. I won the contest. And my blog was born.
Can you describe the blog? What kind of recipes and stories do you share?
Thanks to the contest, I had a few hundred readers from the beginning so there was some built-in momentum. It was a lovely way to start. My first few posts involved living with a cookbook for a few weeks and then writing about what we had learned. My kids were involved in making everything from Jacques Pepin’s Poached Pears to Marcella Hazan’s Meat Cannelloni. It was too much for them. And too much for me. I continued cooking with them, but I let go of the structure and just started telling stories about the chaos of parenting. And inevitably these stories involved food: ice cream, tarts, salads, stews. Lots of comfort food. I’ve been doing it for five years now. So far I haven’t written about diapers.
How old are your kids? What are their favorite things to eat?
My daughter is 11 ½ and my son just turned 7. My daughter would gladly eat ice cream all day long if I let her. My son would eat hamburgers. My kids have very different constitutions. But they’re able to meet halfway when salad is involved, especially when it’s a make-your-own situation. I’ll set out walnuts, parmesan, apples, bacon, sliced chicken, avocado, and anchovy garlic vinaigrette. And they will assemble salads according to their whims. Dash tends to overdo the vinaigrette. Bella doesn’t eat enough protein. But it all works out in the end.
What are you about to make?
I managed to get my kids out of the house for a few hours so I could do this interview (last week of summer!). Since they’re not around to stick out their tongues and gripe, I’m going to make myself some 5-minutes eggs topped with crème fraîche, Sriracha, and anchovies. The perfect combination of fat, heat, cool and salt. Texturally wonderful as well. Great as an hors d’oeuvre or as an accompaniment for a summer dinner of poached chicken and crispy greens. But I usually just eat them at my desk, with my fingers, while I write.
Especially with the young one, use your hands, not your words. In other words, don’t give them all kinds of verbal instructions. They will get overwhelmed. Instead of asking them to help, just hand them a peeler and a carrot, as if these things are toys. Let them peel the carrot on the floor, outside, even down the hall. Don’t be precious about it. Worst case scenario, they will peel away the entire carrot. Salad spinners are really fun and safe for little ones. For beginning knife skills, have them cut soft bread, creamy cheese, or a banana with a dull butter knife. This way you can turn your back and they won’t feel helicoptered over. Then they can get a bit more involved by placing a hand on your wrist as you cook. They can feel the rhythm of the chop, the whisk, the flip, the fold. And no matter what age they are, involve them when you select recipes and do the grocery shopping.
What cooking tasks do your kids like best?
My daughter loves making salad dressing with the mortar and pestle. She sets up her mise-en-place before making chocolate chip cookies. She even cleans up as she goes along. She is her father’s daughter. My son, like me, is a bit of a tornado. He makes honey pies with tart scraps. A bit of flour, a squirt of honey, a handful of sugar (with some sprinkled on the floor along the way), and into the oven it goes. And his most favorite kitchen tool is the chef knife. He tells me, “Back off, mom. You taught me everything I know.” And I do.
What about tips for getting them to try new flavors and ingredients?
Just keep putting things on the table. Don’t get attached to their likes and dislikes. Don’t reinforce their current food aversions by repeating them out loud. They might hate curry this week in a lamb dish. No big deal. Introduce it again a month later in a chicken, mayo, apple, pecan salad.
Massaged Kale Salad is my number one weeknight dinner. As hokey as it sounds, massaging kale with oil makes it soften up and allows it to absorb whatever delectable dressing you end up adding. You can throw anything on top from avocado slices to chicken breast to pumpkin seeds. And if there’s any massaged kale left over, you can save it in the fridge for a few days. You can toss it into pasta, lasagna, omelets, or even a batch of pesto.
The second go-to dinner would have to be some sort of panzanella. The great thing about my Pea and Bacon Panzanella with Warm Vinaigrette is that it’s made with frozen peas so you can bust it out any time of year.
The third overplayed dinner around here is spaghetti tossed with pesto or Jammy Anchovy Tomato Sauce. Both recipes are in the memoir that I’m finishing writing right now (Clarkson Potter, Fall 2015). But you can get a sneak peek over on Instagram, where I incessantly post pictures of our dinners. One of the most gratifying experiences is when I post a photo and then a few hours later someone tags me in their own photo and they have made the same dish. In New Zealand. Or Scotland. So moving.
Oh, and here’s a fourth. The ultimate salad: Romaine Salad with Bacon, 5-minute Eggs and Creamy Garlic Anchovy Dressing.
Can you share any quick dinner tips for busy parents?
Use your freezer. It will save you. Scraps of baguette become croutons. Scraps of beef transform into stew. Tarts dough scraps can top a dessert made from frozen blackberries. Pesto, tomato sauce, lasagna, stew, and soups all freeze beautifully. The most important tip: make extra whenever you cook. That way, there will always be a last-minute meal available in the back of your freezer.
Do you pack lunches? What goes in on a typical day?
Yes. I have made school lunches for almost 11 years. It’s a thankless job. But a few years back I stopped stressing about it all. When your kids say they’re sick of carrots in their lunch, they mean it. Don’t give them carrots. They won’t eat them unless you’re hovering over them. They will throw them in the trash.
I involve the kids in the shopping and then the preparation. Not every day. But just enough so that they feel they have some control. Then once you find a sandwich or pasta or quesadilla that appeals, you can give it to them until they’re sick of it. Then back to the drawing board. For most of last year, my daughter had grilled sandwiches with Monterey jack and homemade pesto. When she was burned out she started trading it for her friend’s lunch. Very resourceful.
You have a Food52 column, Cooking What I Want. What do you look for in a solo meal? Any staples?
My solo meals are usually a mashup of my favorite things. But ramped up. When the kids aren’t around, I really follow my cravings. I stack things high. I overdo the mayonnaise or the pesto or the balsamic reduction. I top everything with one anchovy or four. Here are a few examples from my Food52 column: Anchovy, Creamy Havarti, and Pesto Panini, Summer Tomato Tartines With Garlic Confit, Kale and Corn Quesadillas, and Avocado Bowls with Citrus Herb White Bean Salad.
It changes all the time. But this week, it’s French Toast from a post called “Stay.” It’s all about parenting and wanting to escape and the depth of the love that we feel for our kids. I’ve expanded it and made it the introduction for my book.
What ingredients do you look forward to the most every year?
I love the shifting of the seasons. The moment I get sick of tomatoes, along comes winter squash. We got a CSA box for a few years. This was the best way to learn about fruits and vegetables. There they were in my vegetable drawer. I had paid for them. I needed to figure out ways to use them. Yes, turnips, bok choy, sour plums and celery root can be exciting. I now go to the market in search of these formerly intimidating items.
Do you cook with music on? What’s playing?
I always cook to music. I’m too embarrassed to tell you about some of my musical predilections. Let’s just say they occasionally move in the light rock less talk direction. But most of the time (to my husband’s huge relief), I listen to Mozart, Bach, Pergolesi, The Cure, Cat Power, William Fitzsimmons, Bob Dylan, The xx, and The Rolling Stones. And a tip: on a gloomy day, there’s nothing more satisfying than rolling out tart dough to Prince’s “Purple Rain.”
What’s for dinner tonight?
Recently, Food52 did a round-up post that included 12 of my summer recipes. I had forgotten about some of them. I love how even your own recipes can feel new again. The recipe that really grabbed me was my Fig and Blue Cheese Tart With Honey, Balsamic, and Rosemary. My kids are so burned out on tarts. But, as I said above, they love salad. So I plan to deconstruct the tart. Bella will make some sort of balsamic and honey dressing for the hearts of romaine. And I’m going to stuff the figs with blue cheese, wrap them in bacon, and crisp them up under the broiler. We’ll assemble it all on a platter into some sort of layered salad.
What’s the first food blog you look at every day, besides your own?
I have to admit that I don’t look at food blogs very often. We have traveled a lot this summer and I’ve carried a cardboard box around with me filled with my favorite books. Lots of memoirs, poetry and short stories. But if I go online, I look at my friends’ blogs. We’re all working on books so we don’t post every day. But when Erin Scott at Yummy Supper, Cheryl Sternman Rule at 5 Second Rule, Jenny Rosenstrach at Dinner a Love Story, and Adrianna Adarme at A Cozy Kitchen have something to say, I put on the kettle, lean back into the kitchen tiles, and inhale their beautiful words, photos, and recipes. I love my food blogger community. These women keep me going.
Phyllis Grant portrait by Isabel Ross. Kale image by Matthew Ross. All other images by Phyllis Grant.