Melissa Clark returns home with recipe inspiration from her international travels

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As a popular food writer and author of over 30 cookbooks, Melissa Clark has developed hundreds of recipes. Many of her favorites were inspired by her travels abroad, trips in which she embarked from her childhood. She spoke with Francis Lam about the culinary inspiration she draws from international travel. Over the years, Melissa has shared with us her world-inspired recipes for Turkish Bulgur ‘Pilaf’ with Swiss Chard and Dried Apricots, Pan Bagnat and Max’s Arctic Char with Egg Sauce. and lemon and dragon. You should see her too New York Times pieces with recipes included for Indian inspired pasta and Turkish style pasta with lamb, eggplant and yogurt sauce.

The Splendid Table is also pleased to announce that we are producing a new podcast titled Kitchen of the week with Melissa Clark. Each week, Melissa presents us with a unique recipe that’s easy enough to keep in your pocket for any weekday meal. Episodes begin September 4, 2019. If you want to cook more on weeknights in your own kitchen, join Melissa in her kitchen by subscribing or following Kitchen of the week with Melissa Clark wherever you get your podcasts.


Francois Lam: You are originally from New York, but as far as I can remember you have a real fondness for French cuisine, professionally.

Melissa Clark: It’s true. I grew up in Brooklyn and my family spent every summer, every August, in France. We traded homes before home swapping became a thing. We would get this actual physical book. It was before the Internet. Take back your mind. Just remember the days when you had to handwrite or hand-typed – I guess we typed them – letters on blue onion skin envelopes, and we mailed them out. There would be this book that would list everyone interested in exchanging their homes, and we would just send letters back and forth. There was no Google, there was no way to monitor these people, and you just blindly left your house and went to their place. For me that meant that I went to their kitchens and learned to cook in France.

FL: Like a kid.

MC: Child, because both my parents worked. They are both psychiatrists, so they took time off in August because at the time the psychiatrists took the whole month of August. And so they were very busy and they didn’t do a lot of cooking, especially with me during the regular year. But in the summer, we would go to France and cook together as a family. And so I really – French chefs say, “I learned to cook on my grandma’s knees,” and I kind of learned to cook on my parents’ knees in France. We didn’t exactly cook French food. We weren’t cooking – I don’t even know what New York food is. We were cooking this crazy hybrid; it was very improvised and very inspired by what we could find in the markets and what we ate in restaurants. And that’s absolutely the foundation of how I cook today.

FL: No kidding. So, do you have any specific culinary memories from your childhood, of being in this wonderful and strange new place?

MC: Yes, because every summer there was something new. I remember not wanting to eat frog legs for a very long time, and then I remember when I was, it smelled a little garlic and pretty good. I guess I was a teenager at the time. I remember that first bite. And I remember my mom would – they were lying to me all the time, so my mom would say, “Here, have some steak,” neglecting to mention that it was actually horse steak. Or the rabbit was chicken. They totally lied, which I forgive them, even though I tell my daughter the truth. But I tried a lot of things and it was always so exciting. But I also remember the prime times when I got to choose what I was going to try, like when I first had a snail. So you’ve got the snail, you’re in France, you’ve got this garlic butter and it’s all green, and kid you take your baguette, you put it in the butter, but you don’t touch snails because uh, right? And I would love this snail butter so much, and I remember grabbing my fork and finally tasting a snail, and I was like, wow this is really good. It’s earthy, it tastes like mushroom. Take that memory and fast forward 40 years, and now I take snail butter and I take shrimp and mushroom and make a dish, because snails really taste like shrimp crossed with mushrooms, don ‘ is this not ? And so this stuff stays with me; like those memories, it still influences the way I cook.

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FL: What other recipe did you come up with from these memories?

MC: From France, I remember being a small child. I barely remember eating this, but I do remember the physical nature of how it was made. We always took sandwiches to the beach. In France there is a kind of sandwich called pan bagnat, and basically it’s a tuna salad sandwich, except instead of mayonnaise you had the provincial flavors of tomatoes and olives and capers and tons of olive oil. In restaurants, they make these sandwiches heavier. They make the sandwiches – you get a big country bread or you can use a baguette. You would almost hollow out the middle and stuff it with tuna and all those flavors I just mentioned, and then you would flatten it with a weight. But if you’re my parents and you have two young children, you make them sit on the sandwich. I remember when I was little, sitting on this big sandwich – it was a giant loaf of bread. I was sitting there in my swimsuit, I really wanted to go to the beach, like we can go now? No, you have to sit on the sandwich!

FL: You’re making lunch, honey. Stay seated. [both laugh]

MC: It was well packed. We wrapped many layers of foil so it was definitely protected, but it was just this funny memory. It was like that tuna cushion. I took this souvenir and I love making a pan bagnat. When my daughter was little, I could sit her on the sandwich, especially when she was three and four. Now she’s almost eleven, and she looks at me and rolls her eyes like, okay, and I take a big frying pan and fill it with cans.

FL: To be fair, with an 11 year old, it doesn’t matter what you do. The eyes will roll.

MC: Law. And I think I could probably bribe her to sit on the sandwich, but it’s that funny tradition of helping physically prepare the food before I can cook. I almost feel a little proud of it.

FL: For sure. Now you can cook, and very well. As an adult, however, when traveling do you actively seek recipes or just do your thing and let the inspiration wash over you?

MC: The two. I am still actively seeking recipes. I’m actively looking for flavor combinations I’ve never seen before, so more than asking someone how to make this dish, especially when I’m traveling. When I was in India it was difficult to communicate because I didn’t speak the language and often I was with a group so it was difficult to talk to the real cook and get the recipe but the flavors stayed with me. And when I came back, I was craving spices in this intense way. If I’m going to cook with spices, I’m probably not going to cook with as many spices as I’ve tasted in India, so it pushed me in that direction, and I was combining them in a way that I didn’t. had never done before. I’m going to look for these flavor combinations. There was this dish that I remember. I had just returned. I went to India last fall and craved spices, and I didn’t just crave it in Indian food. I wanted them in everything. For example, pan-fried pasta, like pan-fried cheese pasta, something where I normally would put the Italian on the bias. I would take my tomato sauce and my cheese. It’s like no, I need some spices. So I added a ton of spices. I added cumin, turmeric, and garam masala and created this really spicy skillet pasta, and it wasn’t Indian food and it wasn’t normal Italian skillet pasta; it was this strange hybrid. I put cheddar cheese all over the top and some onions and it was absolutely delicious. It was really good. I was just trying to get that memory back, but it wasn’t even something I ate. It was just those scents and scents of spices that I needed. I felt like I needed them.

FL: It didn’t have to be literal, did it? It was impressionistic.

MC: Exactly.

FL: It was like, what’s that feeling that I had?

MC: Yeah, it really is. Or the things that I felt. I wanted to go back. I liked it so much that I wanted to go back, and since I couldn’t go back, I had to cook to find my way into a state of being.


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