NEW YORK, N.Y. — When Deb Perelman started her blog “Smitten,” back in 2003, it was really just a lark: a platform where she could mouth off and vent her twentysomething angst.
“I was living in New York, and I was newly single and going on a lot of bad dates,” she recalls. “And I just liked to tell stories.”
But a month in, she started dating one of her blog readers, Alex Perelman. They got married two years later.
“So I couldn’t write about dating anymore,” she says with a chuckle. “That would have been very awkward for all of us involved.”
From that random beginning, Deb Perelman’s food fame was born.
In 2006, as she experimented more and more in the kitchen, the “Smitten” blog evolved into “Smitten Kitchen,” a blog (which evolved into a website) all about food. To Perelman’s shock, it took off.
“It’s just so crazy,” she says. “I’m really lucky.”
That success led to two best-selling cookbooks (The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook and Smitten Kitchen Every Day), and Perelman has just published her third: Smitten Kitchen Keepers. As she writes in the introduction, these are 100 time-tested, obsessively-tweaked, fuss-free “recipes I hope you’ll keep around for good.”
With Thanksgiving just ahead, NPR asked Perelman to suggest ideas for veggie-centric side dishes that can feed a crowd and that are budget-conscious, since food prices are high. (You’ll find recipes for the two dishes she came up with at the bottom of this page.)
We meet on a brisk, sunny morning at the Union Square greenmarket in Manhattan. Perelman is on the hunt for inspiration in the farm stands.
“Did I make a grocery list?” she asks, rhetorically. “No. I’m going on vibes.”
Those vibes prompt her to zero in on baskets of cranberry beans with beautiful, speckled pods — magenta and a pale, creamy green.
She adds a bag of arugula (“should be really nice and spicy”) and some heavy, squat kabocha squash (“it’s a dark orange and it really roasts up nicely.”)
And then, more inspiration! She spies a mound of purple cauliflower and picks out a petite one.
“This one is so cute!” she exclaims. “Small and, like, low-commitment.”
Back at the East Village apartment that Perelman shares with her husband and their two children, 13-year-old Jacob and 7-year-old Anna, she gets to work in their small, well-organized kitchen. There’s minimal counter space; no fancy appliances.
Despite her best-selling cookbooks and her wildly popular website, with its scads of fanatic Deb Perelman disciples, the kitchen is not much of an upgrade from the tiny, humble kitchen she had when she started blogging about food in 2006.
“It’s real life here!” she says, as she labors to extract a sheet pan from a low shelf. “Everything’s a little crowded in the Smitten Kitchen. Gotta move one thing to move another.”
Before turning on the stove, she opens the oven door – a lesson learned from hard experience.
“I always check for toys in the oven, because it’s happened,” she says. “It’s definitely happened before with kids, where they’ve put a rubber ball in, or whatever. Like, literally the worst thing you could possibly smell.”
Today: No toys. All clear.
One of the dishes Perelman has decided to make is braised winter squash wedges, a recipe from her new cookbook. She calls it a “fork and knife” vegetable dish, perfect for the Thanksgiving table.
“When you’re doing Thanksgiving,” she says, “so many things are like stuffings and gratins and shredded with cream and cheese. Sometimes a recognizable vegetable is like an oasis on a plate.”
Perelman arranges the kabocha squash, sliced into wedges, on a hot sheet pan sizzling with butter and olive oil. When the squash has a dark, crispy glaze, it’ll get a bath of broth and cider vinegar, and be scattered with garlic and herbs. Perelman likes her roasted vegetables with a bit of char.
“Do not skimp,” she advises. “Get the color you want.”
Later, when she takes the squash wedges from the oven, they’ve turned a fiery, deep orange.
“I love the way it looks like flames, almost,” she says.
She layers the wedges on top of tangy plain yogurt, scattered with arugula.
Along with the braised kabocha squash, Perelman has decided to improvise a warm salad with that “cute” purple cauliflower. It gets chopped and roasted, then tossed in a Dijon vinaigrette with the boiled cranberry beans and some emerald green arugula.
Both dishes are a vibrant visual treat.
“I mean we eat with our eyes,” Perelman says. “Why shouldn’t our food look beautiful?”
Ideally, Perelman says, cooking should make you feel triumphant — like you want to do a victory lap.
“You know when you cook something and it’s really good, and you’re like, ‘I did that! I did that!’ ” she says. “I think you should feel that way about cooking.”
Braised Winter Squash Wedges
This is my favorite way to cook winter squash. It takes a cue from fondant, or melting, potatoes, a technique in which thick slices of potato are roasted on both sides before they finish cooking braised in a puddle of broth. From the oven, they’re crisp and somewhat glazed outside, creamy inside, and booming with more flavor than it seems possible to lock inside a potato. Clearly, I’m a fan — but I had no idea that when I applied this technique to big wedges of winter squash I’d never want to cook it another way again.
I add to the pan everything I like with winter squash — thyme, garlic, and cider vinegar, which gets sweet/tangy when cooked and really helps cut through the sweetness of squash — and then I put the whole thing on a plate of tart yogurt and peppery baby arugula. Any slightly syrupy broth left in the pan is poured over everything, and it’s all so good together, you might wonder why you’d ever consider squash a side dish again. This is centerpiece squash, and it wants you to know it.
2¼ to 2½ pounds (1 to 1.15 kilograms) winter squash (about ½ kabocha or red kuri squash)
2 tablespoons (30 grams) unsalted butter
2 tablespoons (25 grams) olive oil, divided
Leaves from 6 sprigs fresh thyme
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 garlic cloves, smashed
1 cup (235 grams) vegetable broth
¼ cup (60 grams) apple-cider vinegar
1 cup (230 grams) plain Greek- style yogurt
2 cups (55 grams) baby arugula leaves
Note: If you can find it — you can often buy squash in halves or quarters from a farmers’ market, which is great, because it runs large — kabocha is my favorite here, followed by red kuri squash. Butternut and acorn squash work, too. The peel of winter squash is fully edible, so no need to trim it away.
Heat the oven to 425°F (220°C).
Cut the squash in half and scoop out the seeds and pulp, then slice the halves into 1½-inch wedges. Add butter and 1 tablespoon of the oil to a 10- by- 5-inch baking sheet, and place in the oven until the butter melts, about 2 minutes. Remove the tray from the oven, and roll the butter around so that it evenly coats the pan. Arrange the squash wedges in one layer, and sprinkle with thyme, ½ teaspoon salt, and lots of freshly ground black pepper. Roast for 15 minutes, or until deeply browned underneath. Flip the slices, and season the second side on top with another ½ teaspoon salt and more pepper. Scatter the garlic cloves in the pan, and return the pan to the oven to roast for another 12 to 15 minutes, until the wedges are browned on the second side. Don’t worry if the squash isn’t fully cooked yet. Carefully pour the broth and vinegar into the pan, and roast for another 10 to 15 minutes, until the squash is tender and the liquid is somewhat cooked off.
To serve the squash: Use the back of a spoon to swirl plain yogurt onto a serving platter into a thin layer. Toss the arugula with the remaining tablespoon olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper, and scatter over the yogurt. Arrange the squash wedges on top, scrape out every bit of pan juice that’s left, and pour it over the squash.
From Smitten Kitchen Keepers: New Classics for Your Forever Files by Deb Perelman. Copyright © 2022 by Deb Perelman. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Warm Cauliflower and Cranberry Bean Salad
(Note: This was a recipe Perelman improvised on the spot. She used fresh cranberry beans, but says you could use any type of canned beans, instead.)
1 small-medium head cauliflower, chopped into 1-inch chunks
1 cup freshly shelled cranberry beans (from about 8 to 12 ounces in pods)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Balsamic vinegar and/or white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon coarse (whole seed) Dijon mustard
Handful arugula, roughly chopped
Sharp cheese — like cheddar or pecorino — to finish (optional)
Heat oven to 450. Drizzle olive oil on a large baking sheet and add cauliflower to it. Season with salt and pepper and toss to coat. Roast for 30 minutes, turning over once for even color.
Meanwhile, cook your cranberry beans in simmering lightly-salted water for 20 to 25 minutes, until tender. Drain, rinsing with water to cool slightly.
Whisk together 3 tablespoons olive oil and 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, white wine vinegar, or a combination thereof, with Dijon, until evenly combined. Season with salt and pepper.
Scrape cauliflower into a serving bowl and add cranberry beans on top. Pour dressing over to taste and toss lightly to combine. Stir in the arugula. Shave — you can use a peeler — sharp cheese on top, if you wish. Season with additional salt and pepper, as needed.