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Holiday Shopping for the Foodie on Your List

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It’s the holidays. Soon we’ll have lots of opportunities to cook for or eat with the ones we love. Ever find that overwhelming? Amy Thielen can help. The James Beard-award winning author has a cookbook designed for guests. It’s called Company: The Radically Casual Art of Cooking for Others.

Interview Highlights (Full transcript below)

Why she used the words radically casual in the title: 

Well, I just mean that it's casual and that it's easy and it's regular. … it's kind of what is old fashioned is new fashioned again. …It seems like it's radically casual just to casually invite somebody over for dinner. But really, it's just what my mom did, what my grandmother did. I think in this, I think it's just kind of a little bit of a tension between what is commonly out in the ether right now.

How this cookbook honors her Midwestern roots: 

That is kind of an aspirational form of entertaining and cooking. So this book is not that this book is a return to the roots of entertaining. And honestly, it's very Midwestern in that sense, and rooted in my own family history and just the people that I grew up around, you know, just that easy way of having people over.

Why she wanted to write a menu cookbook:

I like to sit down on a Saturday and write my menu.

I don't think about what I'm going to make Saturday night, you know, a week ahead. And I'm like, OK, what's good right now? I have a chicken from the Amish.

I thought that out. What goes with it? You know, and then it's just, what do I have?

What's beautiful? What am I hungry for? I think that when you're cooking for other people, the most important thing is to kind of tune into your own hunger and your own appetite, because if you try to start thinking about what other people want, oh, you just go down a long road.

You know, it's just people pleasing. Please yourself and everybody will be happy because they'll be like, oh, wow.I didn't know I wanted this. This is great.

How “component cooking” can save time and stress: 

Yeah, that's really just breaking recipes down into their base components. When I was a line cook, I worked in New York City fine dining restaurants for almost 10 years on the line in fancy places. And so we had long prep lists as cooks.

And one thing that I never I never got away from that I stuck with me is just this idea of if the oven's on and I'm already standing at the stove, why don't I just throw in a squash? I'll have it for tomorrow.

And I don't even know what I'm going to make with that squash, but I'll have it and I'm going to scoop it out and I'll put it in a container and then I'll have just that puree for tomorrow. Maybe I'll I'll make a pie or bars or something or I'll make soup, you know, so something like that, like cooking ahead, making simple things. And I often bake potatoes in the wintertime, too, when I don't need them and I'll use them or I'll make double the rice or I'll peel twice the garlic that I need for a recipe and I'll just keep that peeled garlic in the fridge for a few days and it stays a week at least.

Things like that where you're kind of just like just assuming that you're going to be doing something tomorrow or the next day. And it really lightens the load so much. Really.

(Full transcript)

Ashley Thornberg

I want to start right away with the title, the radically casual art of cooking for others, because I gather those were quite intentional choices. What do you mean by radically casual?

Amy Thielen

Well, I just mean that it's casual and that it's easy and it's regular. And really what it actually means is just that it's kind of what is old fashioned is new fashioned again. …It seems like it's radically casual just to casually invite somebody over for dinner. But really, it's just what my mom did, what my grandmother did. I think in this, I think it's just kind of a little bit of a tension between what is commonly out in the ether right now.

That is kind of an aspirational form of entertaining and cooking. So this book is not that this book is a return to the roots of entertaining. And honestly, it's very Midwestern in that sense, and rooted in my own family history and just the people that I grew up around, you know, just that easy way of having people over.

You know, it seems radical.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah, we went through this period where you would only ever meet your friends at a bar or at a restaurant. But I remember older cookbooks. There's even something called a Swedish visiting cake that was designed to take the amount of time to bake as it would take for your neighbors to get to the house.And now this goes back a long way.

Amy Thielen

But I love that. That's so cute.

Ashley Thornberg

It was just assumed that they'd come over Sunday after church and like so you'd start the cake at, you know, exactly that time. Let me ask you this, Amy, when you have friends over for dinner, does it have to be fancy?

Amy Thielen

I like to spend some time on the food, but nothing ever really takes more than, you know, nothing takes more than an afternoon. So, no, it's not fancy. I often line it up as a buffet.

I almost always serve buffet style. It's just easier to get all the food out at the same time and for it to be at the temperature that I want it to be, which is somewhere between room temperature or maybe sometimes tepid or sometimes warm or sometimes hot. And I feel like it's just a buffet is more efficient, you know, except for if it's Thanksgiving and then I want to pass things hand to hand because that's tradition.

And I like that. But yeah, it's casual. People bring their drinks and they put them in the beverage fridge and I make the food and I'm rarely done cooking by the time they get there because, well, for one thing, I want things to be slow. … If I'm making peas or something from the garden, I'm not going to make that way ahead and let it sit.

Ashley Thornberg

Do you run into that sort of Midwestern thing, though, where if the food is hot and people are still just waiting for everybody else to be served and you're like, no, eat, eat when the food says it's time to eat.

Amy Thielen

Oh, that's pretty funny. Yeah. Maybe that's why I gravitate to the buffet style, too, because, yes, people sit around and I'm like, please.

Hi. I know we're talking. Please pass the food.

I do. I think that a buffet is like it's more of my controlling nature at work a little bit.

My mother, she got into me. She got into me, man. She would look at our plates and she would say she would look at you and that look, you knew that she was saying your plate looks dry, that you hadn't taken enough gravy, you know, and she would say your plate looks dry.

And I was like, oh, well, you know, so then we would take more gravy. She's right. Mom's right.

Ashley Thornberg

Amy, you talk about some stress free ways or at least ways to make cooking for other people a lot more manageable.What is component cooking?

Amy Thielen

Yeah, that's really just breaking recipes down into their base components. When I was a line cook, I worked in New York City fine dining restaurants for almost 10 years on the line in fancy places. And so we had long prep lists as cooks.

And one thing that I never I never got away from that I stuck with me is just this idea of if the oven's on and I'm already standing at the stove, why don't I just throw in a squash? I'll have it for tomorrow.

And I don't even know what I'm going to make with that squash, but I'll have it and I'm going to scoop it out and I'll put it in a container and then I'll have just that puree for tomorrow. Maybe I'll I'll make a pie or bars or something or I'll make soup, you know, so something like that, like cooking ahead, making simple things. And I often bake potatoes in the wintertime, too, when I don't need them and I'll use them or I'll make double the rice or I'll peel twice the garlic that I need for a recipe and I'll just keep that peeled garlic in the fridge for a few days and it stays a week at least.

Things like that where you're kind of just like just assuming that you're going to be doing something tomorrow or the next day. And it really lightens the load so much. Really.

Ashley Thornberg

What would it be like writing a menu versus writing a cookbook? Is there a different approach to picking out how things go together?

Amy Thielen

Oh, that's a great question. I I wanted to write a menu cookbook because I enjoy writing menus. And it's funny about, you know, my editors and I, we realized that nobody's done a menu cookbook in a long time and we realized why.

Because the thing is, is now cookbooks are so graphic and layout and there's all these photos and my cookbook has a ton of beautiful photography.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah.

Amy Thielen

Like most most do now. Right. And so when you're doing that, if you don't want the book to be 700 pages, you have to kind of float those things together.

Anyway, we realized that it's a real feat to do a menu cookbook. And I love making menus. I like to sit down on a Saturday and write my menu.

I don't think about what I'm going to make Saturday night, you know, a week ahead. And I'm like, OK, what's good right now? I have a chicken from the Amish.

I thought that out. What goes with it? You know, and then it's just, what do I have?

What's beautiful? What am I hungry for? Um, and I think that when you're cooking for other people, the most important thing is to kind of tune into your own hunger and your own appetite, because if you try to start thinking about what other people want, oh, you just go down a long road.

You know, it's just people pleasing. I guess they call that now, but, um, right. I mean, please yourself and everybody will be happy because they'll be like, oh, wow.

I didn't know I wanted this. This is great.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah. I want to talk about recipes in the book because, you know, you have a recipe for something called an Orange Julius with basil. Well, we've all heard of Orange Julius.

Most of us have probably been there. You know, you can tell that that's not going to be too hard of a recipe, but adding the basil, maybe just a light twist on there. But then you have recipes like a zucchini carpaccio and someone might not know, you know, maybe feel a little bit intimidated if you were to describe the skill level or the curiosity level for somebody reading this book, how would you characterize that?

Amy Thielen

Yeah, it's a real range, you know, and that's just because of who really who I am, but I also intentionally wanted it to have a bunch of a range of skill sets like the zucchini carpaccio is like a thinly sliced zucchini salad. It's really just the title of it, which comes from my my own training and world and fine dining and like what that's what we called it, right?

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah. Carpaccio just means thinly sliced, right?

Amy Thielen

It's a play on like beef carpaccio where you take raw, you know, beef, right, like tenderloin.

Ashley Thornberg

OK.

Amy Thielen

Yeah. And then so there's stuff that's really simple and a lot of the vegetable sides are very easy to do and the salads, a lot of very simple things to do in this book, like the there's a recipe for shrimp for the holidays as an appetizer where you marinate it with like paprika and orange zest and olives and all this stuff, you know, and lemon and all this and you just bake it in a lot of olive oil and garlic.

And that's so simple. And then there's like a 10 degree of difficulty apple strudel cake. So anybody who likes to pull strudel.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah.

Amy Thielen

And that I find it, like completely like a meditation. I love it so much. I started doing this, making this recipe years ago during the winter, and I think I've really got a great strudel dough recipe.

It's super fun, but it's hard.

Ashley Thornberg

It's hard. So much of the book, too, is like you said, it's a menu cookbook. And so I just want to read through some of the different menus that you've put together here, because I love the titles.

Annual birthday blowout for my brother, an outdoor fried chicken party and all you can eat fish fry a lazy day's summer lunch. You have the Nordic backcountry ski supper, the pent up winter grilling idea. And boy, that is a mood.

And then here's my favorite one. A creative more time than money sort of menu. Walk us through that one.What what do you mean by that?

Amy Thielen

Yeah, I mean, I mean that sometimes you have like a whole day, but you don't feel very flush, you know, you don't want to spend a lot of money at the grocery store. And, you know, nothing in this book is like real expensive, except for things that are kind of priceless, like, oh, black currants that you grow or something, you know what I mean? But everything else is really sourced from the grocery store in the winter or in my freezer that I froze from the summer. I got it at the market.

That menu is fun. That one is the recipe. The main main meat protein dish is smashed chicken breasts, crispy smashed chicken breasts with gin and sage juice, kind of like a light gravy or a unthickened gravy.

And that one's really fun. And there's a cauliflower. What else is in that one?

You're looking at it. I'm not sure.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah, the smashed chicken breast. You have the braised potato and cabbage pancake. There's a bacon fat roasted cauliflower, bacon fat kind of always a key.

And then, yeah, the … apple strudel. That one looks a little involved.

Amy Thielen

That's that that's that one that's got the 10 10 degree difficulty rating on it. But it's really fun. You know, no, that's a simple menu, though.

You know, it's like it's stuff that it's like that strudel is definitely more time than money. You know, it's just flour and water and it's skill and it's time, but it's a good time.

Ashley Thornberg

It's interesting to me to right away following that recipe, which, you know, has has lots and lots of steps and very thin dough. And then you have something called the anti hero appetizer section where it's basically you're telling people if you're going to do, you know, complicated or time consuming on the dessert, make it easy for you on the appetizer. Not every step has to be.

Next level.

Amy Thielen

Oh, absolutely not. I mean, we don't need to, you know, knock ourselves out here. I mean, we need to have fun.

I mean, that's what this book's really about, honestly. Like that. What gives you pleasure to cook and also is really, you know, fun for people to have, you know, that's what it's really about. So, yeah. And you don't want to be like you don't need to be a hero here with like this fancy dessert.

And then you truck out this big, complicated appetizer. You know, people are like, what is she getting at or what are you trying to do here?

Ashley Thornberg

You spend all the time working and you don't get to hang out with your guests. It seems like.

Amy Thielen

Yeah. And then you get exhausted and then and then it becomes an unsustainable habit. So, you know what I mean?

It's like, oh, that was really, really fun. But gosh, it was a lot of work. I'm not going to do it for a while.

And so I think that I mean, there's a certain measure of that with a lot of dinner parties that's inevitable. Sure. But I think that I want to minimize that a little bit.… try to make it easy on ourselves. So we want to do it again next week and so that we have people over.

Yeah. Because, you know, I wrote a lot of this book during the pandemic. And so, you know, that's when having people over, ironically, was impossible.

So I really pined for it, you know, and I think I really kind of found like, what is it worth? And I'm glad that I wrote it during the pandemic because it would have been a lighter, fluffier book and not as interesting if I'd written it before.

Ashley Thornberg

What do you always have in stock?

Amy Thielen

Oh, Ashley, I have so much. Amish chicken. Lemons. The joke is that, my friends, the joke is, do you need lemons? Because I'm always saying, can you pick up some lemons?

Because I'm always running out. And I like those Meyer lemons, which you can find almost everywhere now. And they have a sweeter juice and more juice.

I like to have frozen Thai chilies in my freezer at all times so that I don't get stuck with like, oh, I needed a jalapeno or a serrano or a Thai chili. You know, I just always have that that heat and I chop them up when they're frozen so it doesn't get all over my cutting board. Now you're sensing like how neurotic I am.

OK.

Ashley Thornberg

I believe by neurotic you mean living it.

Amy Thielen

I think I mean that I don't want to make more work for myself or for my readers. So, yeah, I have always I always have those things. And then I have just a ridiculous pantry.

If you get stuck, you know, if you're driving across Minnesota and you need something, just, you know, I'm the store. I have five kinds of lentils here.

Ashley Thornberg

I didn't even know there were five kinds of lentils. … Amy, thank you so much for your time today.

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