Kathleen Brennan and Caroline Campion forged their culinary partnership while editors at Saveur. What began as desk conversation between two busy moms swapping go-to weeknight dinner recipes became Keepers: Two Home Cooks Share Tried-and-True Weeknight Recipes and the Secrets to Happiness in the Kitchen. They spoke with PW about their collection of foolproof recipes helping home cooks answer that eternal question ”What’s for dinner tonight?”
You’re both well known food journalists who worked for gourmet food magazines. However, you identify yourselves as two home cooks. Is that how you prefer to see yourselves?
Kathleen Brennan: I consider myself a home cook with the benefit of culinary school and restaurant experience. Our combined experiences make us better home cooks with tips and tricks to share. It was actually easier to cook night after night for 200 people than for my own family. In restaurants others plan menus, do prep and cleanup, but at home you have to chop the vegetables and do your own dishes.
Caroline Campion: I’m definitely a home cook. I’ve worked in and been around lots of restaurants, but not as a chef. I’ve also worked with many knowledgable food directors, so I’ve had the best of both worlds. I’m proud to say I’m a home cook.
When collaborating, did you divide recipes equally, or is one of you, say, more of a dessert than main meal person?
KB: We identified categories of dishes first. We considered a seasonal approach, but the average person hasn’t time or resources to shop seasonally. We then shared recipes and put the puzzle together. As partners we contributed different perspectives, a balancing of skills and tastes; my mom is Japanese, and I’m more of a purist/minimalist while Caroline likes to add more ingredients. We surveyed friends and neighbors, so in a way the cookbook was community driven. We had to speak to the people we wanted to relate to our cookbook.
CC: Busy home cooks need recipes that work all year around, not just seasonally. We each listed 50 dishes, then swapped lists. If I created a recipe, Kathy tried it, and then we refined it. Like Kathy, I drew on personal recipes. We developed dishes people wanted, like grain-based salads. We included memorable dishes we’d eaten, but had lots of discussions about the basics. While we wanted to elevate home cooking, we didn’t want fancy ingredients. By combining our tastes and backgrounds, we introduced each other to new dishes and ingredients. Since collaborating, I make her Japanese beef recipe all the time, and now she buys tortillas. Like a friend in the kitchen, our cookbook helps make home cooks better and possibly more adventurous.
How is a “keeper” different from other recipes? What criteria did you use in selecting recipes?
KB: Keepers are crowd pleasers you make over and over again. The term comes from our recipe-testing days at Saveur. When we found a gem, someone would say “This is a keeper.” There are plenty of great recipes, but they’re not necessarily weeknight keepers, which are the most prized of all.
CC: We wanted to evoke the spirit of our test kitchen days and to give people a whole bunch of keepers. A keeper creates a response, an overall emotional burst of goodness when you eat it. Keepers then become an automatic part of your repertoire.
In what ways does your approach cater to modern dining habits and tastes of real life families? What is the single best piece of advice you’d give the busy home cook?
KB: We’re two working moms in the trenches night after night who understand the realities of Mon-Fri. We want to be both practical and to cook delicious food. I cook with my kids whenever I can and have since they could stand on a chair; they also help me grocery shop, whichI believe helps develop their interest in food. Our cookbook works for all types of households. I think it is important to have a few back pocket recipes you can always make with what’s in your pantry--the arsenal of a busy weeknight cook. You can’t overstate its importance. Your pantry will save you.
CC: There are so many problems that home cooks need to address, issues affecting how modern families eat. They’re up against a lot-- crazy schedules, pre-made stuff, and the challenge of wisely navigating supermarket aisles. It’s amazing anyone gets any cooking done at all. Philosophically speaking, it’s important to avoid cooking with a negative attitude; if you expect the worst, it will manifest itself in the food. Also, own your kitchen. During the week, I don’t cook with the kids. I want to be in charge of my kitchen. The kitchen is your place of creation and can become your sanctuary.