I’m sitting in Bar Stuzzichini in the Flatiron District, with Melissa Clark, eating the small dishes that give the restaurant its name. She is wonderfully expressive and charming, and her enthusiasm for all things food-related is infectious. Last year Clark, a James Beard Award winner, came out with In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite, and she has co-authored several books with such chefs as Daniel Boulud and Claudia Fleming. This October, Hyperion is publishing Clark’s 32nd book—Cook This Now, which offers 120 simple seasonal recipes.
How did your love of food develop?
My psychiatrist parents were obsessive foodies, and every August—psychiatrists’ month-off, as they say—we swapped our house in Ditmas Park with someone in France. And it was during those months that I really learned to cook.
When was this?
From 10 to 16 years old.
You went to Columbia’s MFA program. Who did you study with there?
I took classes with Richard Locke and Patricia Bosworth. But in high school at Stuyvesant, I took a class with Frank McCourt—and he told me that I should be a writer.
And when did you first start writing about food?
Actually in grad school, where I thought I had wanted to write historical fiction. I started a catering company then, and ended up doing a lot of wine & cheese events at the university. A friend who was editing cookbooks asked me to write one on a quick deadline. That book was the Bread Machine Cookbook—and that’s still one of my bestselling cookbooks!
How do you go about creating a recipe?
First, I ask myself what I’m hungry for, then I have to take it up to the next level and decide what makes it special—what makes it extra yummy. I look for an ingredient or technique that sets it apart. Like I will make quinoa, but I will brown the butter in a pan first.
How has writing informed how you cook?
I am interested in the story behind the food. I could use quinoa, but if I use red quinoa, for example, I can explore the history of that food.
It’s summer, it’s the season of barbecues and cook outs. So, when you’re invited to a party do you feel people expect you to be at the top of your culinary game? Do people invite you just because they know you’re going to bring something really good?
Oh, no, I love bringing food! But it’s when I invite someone over for a potluck that they tell me they are too intimidated. I love everything someone makes—especially if they put love in it.
So do you have a standby potluck dish?
My friends all know that I like to make sweets, so I often make something to do with short bread—like one with black pepper, slivered almonds and dark chocolate on top. But in the summer I may bring a watermelon salad—with feta cheese, cucumber, black olives and a bit of red onion.
What’s your go-to ingredient?
Anchovies—my favorite food in the world.