“Cooking at home doesn’t have to be hard,” says Jennifer Segal, “You just need the right recipes.” In her debut cookbook, Once Upon A Chef, an extension of her wildly popular blog of the same name, Segal offers up just that.
This is a great book for people who want to up their cooking game, but with a supportive helping hand, or in this case, perhaps a bit of a fairy godmother. Segal sprinkles the pages of the book with helpful advice alongside the recipes: “Pro Tips,” “Heads Up” and “Sourcing Savvy.” In addition, at the end of each chapter, she provides a more in-depth, full-page “Pro Tips from My Kitchen” relating to that chapter.
These include topics such as balancing flavor; how to tell when meat, poultry and fish are done; creating recipes and how to stock a home bar.
Despite having gone to culinary school and worked in restaurants, her recipes are approachable and unfussy. Segal describes her recipes as “easier but gourmet” and “delicious but doable.” Essentially, she wants to help people to elevate their home cooking by translating fancier techniques into methods that are more achievable with a little less effort.
There’s a little something for everyone here, from ahi tuna poke starters and baja fish tacos, appealing desserts (no-churn cheesecake ice cream!) to cocktails. Segal noted to me that while she would be hard-pressed to pick favorites among the recipes, she is partial to the cover heirloom tomato salad with burrata and pesto, the steak au poivre and the chocolate birthday cake. (Note: While plenty of recipes are appropriate for those who observe, Segal does not keep kosher, and a good number of the recipes are not kosher.)
What jumped out at me was the range of vegetable dishes, such as the unique Swiss chard and feta (and the cauliflower puree with thyme, which are perfect for this early spring bridge season. In a matter of days, I’ll be on to the oh-so-springy sautéed asparagus and peas and three-cheese white pizzas with arugula. And I’m looking forward to the golden tomato gazpacho as we come around the bend into fresh tomato season.
Yes, there is a recipe for pizza from scratch. In her headnote for this recipe, Segal writes, “If you’ve never made pizza dough, it may seem a little daunting. But it comes together in just a few minutes, and then all you do is let it rise. I promise, it really is easy.” This is where the fairy godmother comes in—she provides some hand holding and confidence along with an ingredient list and clear recipe instructions.
Her blog readers trust her, and Segal values that trust immensely. She doesn’t want to squander that relationship so she tests her recipes five or six times each before sharing them. Her four million hits per month on her website and 250,000 email subscribers, many of whom interact with her online, are a testament to her diligence in this regard.
With this book, in addition to her own testing, she had the additional support of an enormous team of volunteer home testers, regular blog readers who were eager to test and comment on the recipes she was considering for the book.
As a cooking instructor, I’m all about getting people in the kitchen with ease and confidence, as I see cooking as a life skill that empowers people; it gives us control over what and how we feed ourselves and our friends and family. And for some, if taught well, it can actually be fun and satisfying, and provide a sense of accomplishment in the outcome.
Segal said that teaching people to cook is now the purpose that drives her to keep doing this. She’s not trying to tell people that they should cook every night, but instead trying to provide ideas and assistance for when they do cook. What’s most important to her is that people are inspired to have fun and try something new. For her, that’s a pretty happy ending
Meet Jennifer Segal, pick up a book and get it signed at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington on May 24 at 7 pm. Register here.