Nina Planck–The Real Food Cookbook

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Editor’s Note: We met Nina a little over ten years ago, when she was heading up the Greenmarket Farmers Markets in New York City.

Her husband Rob once told us that essentially, Nina is a food scientist, and we agree! Her knowledge about the many facets of food is vast and we have learned so much from her in the intervening years. 

We spoke with her recently about her life, her family and her passion for real food. 

Her new book, The Real Food Cookbook: Traditional Dishes for the Modern Cook, is to be published on June 10, 2014. 

Your latest book, The Real Food Cookbook, seems to be your most personal writing to date. Tell us from where this book came.

Nina Planck: Well, I honored my mother and father by starting farmers’ markets in London, honored my mother by writing The Farmers’ Market Cookbook, honored my mother again by writing Real Food, honored her one more time by writing Real Food for Mother and Baby, and with this cookbook, I honor my husband and the way I cook and eat today.

I’ve been cooking for twenty-six years, and the only thing that has not really changed is the way I cook vegetables: in large quantities, with plenty of salt and butter. My mother taught me that.

Real food is like a disco ball: all those little facets are sparkly and worth a look, and it doesn’t matter much where you start.

With three kids, two households–we all know your cheesemonger husband needs, shall we say, attention–how did you find the time and energy to produce this gorgeous book?

NP: I tend to knock things out. The idea hits me as if fully formed and then I write a proposal. If it sells, I write a draft quickly, from top to bottom. I wrote my first two books–The Farmers’ Market Cookbook and Real Food–as a single, childless person in one year apiece. But I need editing for quality, clarity, and even quantity. I had to cut forty percent of the Real Food manuscript not once but twice, at the wise suggestions of my editor at Bloomsbury, Kathy Belden.  

After my son Julian was born my general productivity slowed a bit, but I knew what I wanted to say, so when I rented a tiny office and wrote Mother and Baby, which is much shorter than the others, the writing work took just a year.

Once again, there was lots of mandatory editing after. By the Mother and Baby book tour, I was pregnant with Rose and Jacob, eating seven meals a day, puffing and panting a lot, throwing up once a week, and falling down all the time. Those symptoms lasted 38 weeks; after being pregnant, giving birth to and breastfeeding twins for two and a half years was a great physical relief.

Once we had three children, it took me three years, six photo shoots, and the help of three friends (Emily Duff, Martha Wilkie, and Michele Pulaski) to write The Real Food Cookbook. And this project waited ten years to be born. I have notes dated 2004 from my dear friend Wendell Steavenson on the idea for this cookbook.

Quoting from your book: “Most of my farm memories are of abundance.” Talk about what that means to you and how it informs what you do nowadays.

NP: You’d walk into the greenhouse where we kept tomatoes in the shade and in high summer there’d be a hundred ponies–that’s a wooden half-bushel–of all shades and sizes. You’d walk into the basement and there’d be yesterday’s squash pick and today’s too, and the cukes and the bell peppers.

You’d come home from the melon pick on a wagon piled very, very high with melons, probably Gold Star and Ambrosia, and you’d be hip-deep in melons. The Melon Queen stuck in the middle (sometimes me) couldn’t get out until the crew unpacked the melons into baskets.

In August, massive corn picks, in October, dump trucks filled with pumpkins.

Nowadays, you ask? I buy a lot of vegetables and I cook a lot of vegetables and I eat a lot of vegetables and I let a lot of vegetables rot and I compost a lot of vegetables. 

What would you like your readers to take away from this real food cookbook?

NP: Eat the best food you can find and afford, and when you can’t, who cares? Learn some basic methods and perfect them.

Eat what you love. Phooey about what other people think. I don’t care anymore what other people eat.

I told them what I thought a good diet looked like, and they can do anything they like. 

And a special message for the eaterati–try to have one meal per week, during which the topic of food is banned.

The book is titled The Real Food Cookbook. Talk a little about your definition of  “real food.”

NP: The dishes are made with whole foods (meaning full-fat, skin-on, all micro-and macro-parts intact), ideally raised, processed, and prepared in a slow, organic, or traditional manner. The dishes are simple in that certain ingredients hold center stage, and classic in that I’ve invented nothing.

This is the cookbook I needed when I was a reformed omnivore eating everything at my London farmers’ markets.

What advice would you give someone who wants to dive into the “real food” end of the pool?

NP: Real food is like a disco ball: all those little facets are sparkly and worth a look, and it doesn’t matter much where you start.

Maybe you’ll start with a food you love or your family eats a lot of, like olive oil. Now buy a better version.

Or start with the gateway foods, like milk. Ditch the skim-milk-powder-plus-water and buy organic milk or whole milk or cream-line milk (or a milk which is all three).

Then move on to the harder stuff, like raw milk and whipped lardo with rosemary.

For some of you sinners out there (and yes, you are sinners), it’d be good to eat vegetables every day.

Don’t eat anything engineered to be different than God or Nature made it–not “low-fat” cheddar, not “light” olive oil, not “low-carb” sourdough.

Whatever you eat, stop when you’re full.

Tell us what it was like around your family table growing up?

NP: Four sweaty, smudged people would come in from picking vegetables or loading trucks, take a bath in the pond or a shower, cook, clean up the papers and other family detritus in the living room, scrape the same stuff off the round kitchen table, sit down, eat a lot of vegetables and some meat, and talk their heads off.

Or one did, anyway. I suspect I did most of the talking, a bad habit my family indulges to this day.

Do you find anything in common with how you ate as a kid and how you feed your children today?

NP: My mother did not believe in restricted diets for babies; she was a Clara Davis mother. Nor do I, with two exceptions: I didn’t serve grains before age one or industrial soy foods of any kind.

As babies, our children ate everything: salmon roe, beef, eggs, honey, yogurt, spices, nuts, citrus, milk, raw milk, sharp cheddar, blue cheese–everything.

Around about age three, there’s typically a shrinkage (large or small) in the palate, and mine were no exception. All three stopped eating fish, but the sweet little things still take their cod liver oil.

Today our two four year-olds are eating herring again, to my amazement, and we serve (yes, I call it service) three distinct eating personalities, nothing to do with how their mother thinks or feeds them.

One loves steak, another kombucha, another peas with extra butter, another (to my horror), homemade Russian dressing (his father’s idea).

Here’s a quote from our mutual friend, the food writer Betty Fussell: . . . many of us Americans believe food kills us. Stupidly we make it an enemy. . . It’s not food that does us in. It’s life. So let’s treasure and pleasure it while we may with all our senses flashing a red alert of joy. . . This sounds similar to something you might have said. Can you talk about this, and about the great Betty Fussell?

NP: Gorgeous Betty lives fully, and she’s so generous (unlike certain charismatic figures) that she wants us all to live fully, too. That means intense feelings, lively debate, and good books, occasionally wicked conversation, and certainly, the pleasures of the flesh, which shall include food. Or so I understand (and worship) the Gospel of Betty.

Give us your take on where the real food movement finds itself here in 2014.

NP: I’m cheerful! Everywhere I turn there is more real food I want to buy and can buy. 

Case in point: savory yogurt, by Sohha, made in Brooklyn from local milk to a Lebanese recipe with unrefined sea salt (a standard ingredient in the plain version, very tasty) and a host of savory toppings a grown-up could eat at every meal– and I do.

On the other hand, the Industrial Food Juggernaut–merciless, destructive, and yet feeding billions–stomps on, unbowed and unbroken. 

But as Kevin Kline, as the Pirate King, in The Pirates of Penzance, says nobly, “I choose to overlook that.”

Well, thank you, Nina for taking the time to give us your insights into real food and congratulations on your new book.

NP: You are welcome. I enjoyed myself. Your questions made me think, for sure.

What did Nina say about real food that made you take notice?

Photo credit: Staci Strauss