Gabrielle Hamilton’s new cookbook, Prune, a collection of recipes from her celebrated East Village restaurant of the same name, doesn’t have any introduction. There are no recipe headnotes (you know, those little wind-ups from the author explaining the genesis of the dish you are about to make, or some kind of hold-your-hand cheffy trick that might help as you make it?) There is no flap copy, and no index where one might go to look up Peas with Wasabi Butter and Honeycomb. Those same peas with wasabi butter and honeycomb that I ate at Prune in the summer of 2013, and that have stayed with me all these months later.
The only thing you get to read in Hamilton’s second book, (her first was the memoir Blood Bones and Butter) are the recipes themselves, but if you are after Hamilton’s vision or philosophy on cooking, that’s just about all you really need. Roasted Beets with Aioli, Figs and Raspberries with Steeped Lemon Cream, Grilled Shrimp with Anchovy Butter. As they say, in food and in art, the thing speaks for itself.
Prune was designed to sound and look like the overstuffed binder sitting on the kitchen shelf of every restaurant. The grease-stained recipes, devoid of any extra words, but hyper-specific and comically authoritative nonetheless, are directed at her staff, presumably at work in a hot, busy kitchen, and not necessarily at the home cook. “I know this one is a bitch to prep” she says of her Gazpacho. “Be glad we only serve it one month a year.” When seasoning the braising liquid for the Farmhouse Chicken Braised in Cider (recipe below) she writes, “Adjust now or never.” In her four-ingredient Omelette with Parmesan recipe: “There’s nothing to hide here, so please keep it tight.” Luckily, the home cook gets to listen in on the learning that always follows. With that Omelette: “Make sure your pan is the right temp, your butter is foaming and not sizzling, your eggs are fully beaten to their greatest volume, and that your Parm is neatly shaved and distributed evenly.” And luckily, Hamilton, mother of two, took some time last week to answer a few questions I had about the book, simple cooking, of course, dinner with her kids. Welcome Gabrielle, thanks for taking the time to talk today!
GH: No problem.
DALS: So I loved Blood Bones and Butter, and I remember reading an interview with you where you said you were going to take the easy way out with the next project and just do a cookbook. Most people would not call a 567-page cookbook “the easy way out.” How did you feel about writing a cookbook versus a memoir?
GH: Well, I guess I’d like to issue a giant universal blanket apology to anyone who has ever made a cookbook. I definitely underestimated how much was involved before taking it on. This one was painstaking to put together. PAINstaking. I have noticde, though, that it’s been much easier to talk about. The questions I’m getting in interviews are a lot lighter, not really the case when you’re talking about moms and marriage.
It’s easier for you to talk about food? I’m good talking about food for about eleven minutes. After that it gets boring to me.
Uh oh, the clock is ticking. You’ve described the way you cook at Prune as “negative cooking.” I love that expression and assume it doesn’t mean reheating a frozen pizza. Can you explain? I think it’s sort of like the French woman who gets dressed to go out to the evening — she takes one accessory off, then she shows up, and Jesus Christ she’s fabulous. I find it’s the same thing with cooking sometimes — if you take something away, everything else gets brighter and louder and more focused. Every time I started to go over the recipes in this book, I felt worried for the consumer that they’d be bored by the repetition of olive oil, parsley, and lemon. I’d think, “Shouldn’t this be more complex?” But in the end, I realize, that’s all the monkfish liver needed. And then you’re in awe of the monkfish liver. It just doesn’t need anything else.
So you have two kids and you said once that running a restaurant was great preparation for parenthood. Do you still feel that way? Yes. All of my experiences at work — from time management to psychological personal exchange to physical discomfort and pain — end up playing out in the homefront. Much like in a restaurant you establish which way the stream is going to flow and you’re there to facilitate the stream flowing — we all agree that we’re going to get to school at 8:15 and we’re going to eat dinner and we have to respect for each other.
A chef’s life isn’t necessarily conducive to eating family dinner. John Besh said the smartest thing he ever did was give up on the idea of the fantasy of family dinner and instead do family breakfast. What does dinner look like in your house? When I cook for my kids at home, it’s exactly like any mom in any job in the world. I have no time, I’m very tired. I’m usually starving. My kids don’t want to eat what I want to eat. I’m in an East Village one-bedroom apartment so I don’t have any space. I have the same confines as everyone else who’s trying to raise kids with a freaking job. And I don’t have fancy chef children. In a way, they’re only coming to food now.
What’s on the menu?
I set a boiling pot of water on the stove for pasta almost every meal. There’s some piece of protein. They eat broccoli, they eat apples. I tend to drink my dinner and they eat. We talk, we eat a little bit together. That’s not where we get our time.
So you don’t put pressure on yourself to sit down with them every night.
I had family dinner every night growing up, and you read what happened to me? We had plenty of dysfunction in my house.
Lastly, I have a column here on DALS called 21 Questions — I’m going to give you the abbreviated version, just five. First answer, best answer, OK?
Worst trend in food right now? Instagramming.
Last great book I read? White Girls, by Hilton Als.
Last great book one of my kids read? To Kill a Mockingbird
Best thing my mother taught me in the kitchen? How to use everything.
I stay healthy by…Giving my body what it wants when it wants it. Except for sleep. Still working on that.
Thanks for your time, Gabrielle. Prune is on sale everywhere books are sold.
Farmhouse Chicken Braised in Hard Cider
From Prune, by Gabrielle Hamilton
I cannot overstate how delicious this is on a Sunday night in the fall. We used chicken thighs instead of legs and halved the garlic. Also, I saved the leftover braising liquid for later use, even if that later use is just slurping it like soup straight from the storage container. So so flavorful.
4 large whole chicken legs
extra virgin olive oil
3/4 cup slivered garlic
1 cup thinly sliced shallots
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1 cup hard cider
1 Tablespoon honey
1 Tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup Chicken Stock
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Season chicken legs all over with more pepper than salt.
Brown chicken legs in mixed fats, more butter than oil.
Brown perfectly, on both sides; don’t crowd and don’t crank it, either. Keep heat at medium-high and do a careful job.
Remove chicken, pour off fat.
Add a good hunk of butter, the garlic, and shallots to the same pan, reduce heat, and sweat.
Add tomato paste and stir to fully blend, melt, even toast a little.
Deglaze with cider vinegar and hard cider.
Add the honey.
Simmer to cook off alcohol and reduce slightly, by no more than a third. Stir in chicken stock.
Neatly nestle the chicken legs in the pan and be sure to taste the braising liquid for salt, acidity, sweetness. Adjust now or never.
Cover with parchment and tight-fitting lid, if you can find one that isn’t too warped.
Check after 25 minutes. You want loose joints but not falling off the bone.
At pickup, reduce sauce per portion, to have body, but not to become viscous.
One leg per portion. Good bit of sauce. Shower with parsley, fresh chopped, at pass.
Excerpted from PRUNE by Gabrielle Hamilton. Copyright © 2014 by Gabrielle Hamilton. All photos above by Eric Wolfinger. Excerpted by permission of Random House, A Penguin Random House Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.