This week, we talk to Boston-based entrepreneur Erin Baumgartner about her company, Family Dinner. Listen to learn more about the innovative meal kit/CSA hybrid.
And then we’ve got an interview with author Ronna Welsh (above) about her inspired new cookbook, The Nimble Chef. You might need to hear what Ronna has to say about how to free yourself from the shackles of meal planning.
Recommended Recipe: Edible Queen’s fish tacos
Family Dinner: An Innovative CSA in Edible Boston
Joy Manning: I’m Joy Manning and this is Edible Potluck, a podcast that gives food lovers a taste of Edible Communities’ magazines. First up today, we’re going to New England to talk to Erin Baumgartner. I read about her company Family Dinner in Edible Boston and needed to know more about her innovative meal kit CSA hybrid. And next, I talk with author Ronna Welsh about her inspired new cookbook, The Nimble Chef. You just might need to hear what Ronna has to say about how to free yourself from the shackles of meal planning.
Recipe: Fish Tacos
Joy Manning: But first, can we talk tacos, specifically fish tacos? The bad news is I’m not going to the beach this summer. The good news is homemade fish tacos make me feel like I’m on vacation, even in the middle of the city. I struggle to follow an exact recipe when making fish tacos, but this recipe from Edible Queens provides a lot of instruction and inspiration. These tacos start with fish seasoned with a zesty spice rub that includes garlic, smoked paprika, my favorite, white pepper, and coriander.
Joy Manning: This recipe calls for flounder, but when I made it, I used cod because it looked better at the market that day. And any white flaky flash will be perfect in this recipe. The recipe calls for dipping the fish fillets in a beer batter and deep-frying them, a delicious method, obviously. But I didn’t do that. Instead, I broiled my seasoned fish, which worked out well. If you want to fry, go right ahead, but I’m telling you, you can just broil them very simply and flake them before you make your tacos and you’ll have a delicious fish taco as well.
Joy Manning: I did follow the directions for topping. Chopped tomato, shredded cabbage, and cilantro. Classic. Tacos rise or fall on the merits of their tortillas. So I think it’s worth trying to find a local tortilleria or a restaurant that makes homemade tortillas in your area that will sell you a dozen. Not only are they more flavorful, they don’t fall apart when you eat them, so that’s a win. All right, go forth and Taco. You’ll find the link to this recipe in the show notes for today’s episode at ediblecommunities.com/podcast.
Joy Manning: Have you ever quit CSA because the ingredients in your box just didn’t reflect the way you want to eat, or canceled one of those meal kit subscriptions because you were just playing horrified by the amount of packaging? I definitely have done both of these things and I don’t think I’m alone. That’s why when I read an article called Family Dinner: An Innovative CSA in Edible Boston, I wanted to know more. It’s a story about how one new data-driven startup is modernizing the local food system in Boston. Family Dinner co-founder, Erin Baumgartner, is here to tell me more about it.
Joy Manning: Thanks for coming on Edible Potluck, Erin.
Erin Baumgartner: Thanks so much for having me. It’s such a pleasure to talk to you.
Joy Manning: So tell me a little bit more about what inspired you to start Family Dinner. What problems are you trying to solve?
Erin Baumgartner: Sure, so Family Dinner kind of has two stories to tell. The first of which is that we are a farmers’ market delivery service. We’re really interested in bringing the best local food that New England has to offer into people’s homes. The second, but parallel narrative is that we are trying to use data, and software, and technology to make improvements on the food supply chain. What we’re really trying to do is make the distance between where your food is grown and your plate as short as possible. And so that’s the problem that we’re trying to face over here at Family Dinner.
Joy Manning: Yeah, I think that that’s a problem that a lot of people that are in the Edible Communities universe are very interested in and trying to solve. I know it’s something that I think about a lot. What I read in the article was that Family Dinner is like a cross between a meal kit and a CSA, but I didn’t get like a crystal clear picture of what the box, like what you expect when you get it. Can you tell me exactly what customers get?
Erin Baumgartner: Sure, so customers can choose between a variety of different shares. They can be omnivore, paleo, pescatarian, vegetarian. And once they’ve made that selection, each week we curated a share of food. So local meat, and fish, and cheese. Let’s say grains like fresh pasta, fruits, and veggies. Fun things like cookies, and brownies, and little local candies, and stuff. And we curate that together and deliver it in an insulated bag to people’s homes every week.
Erin Baumgartner: We also then send them an email trying to highlight the stories of some of the local growers and makers and say to them, “Here’s what’s in your share this week. Here’s how you can approach it. Here’s a few recipe ideas. Here’s how to deal with your leftovers. Here’s what to do with carrot tops.” Because we’re trying to get people to a point of really enjoying the food and valuing it to a point that there’s as little waste as possible.
Joy Manning: So are you putting items in the box that work together? Is there like an eye toward what a meal plan might look like for the week?
Erin Baumgartner: That’s right. So it’s different from your typical meal kit where you might get a quarter clove of garlic wrapped in three plastic bags, and a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar in some little droplet.
Joy Manning: Which you already have.
Erin Baumgartner: Which you already have. But the ingredients are whole. So imagine you’re getting a pound of salmon, and a pound of fresh pasta, and a bag of arugula, and a couple heads of garlic. And then I’m trying to think about all those things, putting them together as harmoniously as possible so that you can conceive of cooking two or three different types of recipes with those items.
Joy Manning: Now do you do that yourself or do you consult with chefs or anything? Where do the culinary ideas come from?
Erin Baumgartner: So the culinary ideas come from existing recipes that I find on the internet. I love food, and wine, and kitchen, and The Spruce Eats, and things like that, and always obviously credit where it comes from. And I’m trying to think about recipes that are approachable enough that use as many as the ingredients as possible and have high reviews, and recipes that I’ve used as well.
Joy Manning: So it’s mostly your experience as a home cook yourself?
Erin Baumgartner: That’s right. And sometimes we throw in things that aren’t recipes that preexist, but are just things that we do in our house. Like frittata and fried rice. We bring up things like that a lot because it’s like, how do you look at your refrigerator and empty it out into one pan?
Joy Manning: Yeah. Frittata is the ultimate crisper cleaner …
Erin Baumgartner: That’s right.
Joy Manning: … in my experience. I eat a lot of frittatas.
Erin Baumgartner: Yeah, same.
Joy Manning: So you mentioned that you can choose from, I think you said paleo, omnivore. So how does that customization work? And it seems like it would make a lot more trouble for you customizing all those boxes. How does that work out for the customer and for Your business?
Erin Baumgartner: Sure. So this is where we rely on software, and this is sort of the innovation of the business and where the disruption is happening. So our service is weekly. It’s not that you, in the way the typical CSA, sign up for a season and you’re bound to every single weekend.
Joy Manning: Oh, you can opt-in week to week?
Erin Baumgartner: Correct.
Joy Manning: That’s great.
Erin Baumgartner: So customers are in, unless they opt-out, and you can opt-out on your own through the user interface on the website. You can skip eight weeks in a row, you could skip every other week. We want it to be as flexible as possible for people. But with the software, orders process every Monday morning. And so unless people have skipped an order, we’ll process for them on Monday morning.
Erin Baumgartner: We then created a spreadsheet that allows us to sort the orders. So on Monday morning I see I have x number of pescatarian orders, x number of omnivore, x number of veggie-only, et cetera. And I order to meet that exact demand. Therein lies the innovation. So I’m ordering to meet exact demand again, there’s zero waste and we keep zero inventory in our kitchen from week to week. We order to meet exactly what the customer demand has come in for some. So Monday morning, I sit down and understand I need these certain amounts, and I order to those numbers pretty exactly.
Joy Manning: And what is the typical price point? I mean these different types of boxes must cost different amounts.
Erin Baumgartner: That’s right.
Joy Manning: Can you give me some idea of what the range is?
Erin Baumgartner: Sure. So it’s not that the type of box changes per price, but rather the size, the size of the share. So we have half shares that are $59 a week. We have whole shares that are $89 a week. And we have double shares that are $139 a week.
Joy Manning: But if the veggie-only share and the pescatarian share the same price?
Erin Baumgartner: Yes. So the vegetarian share and the pescatarian share would be the same price.
Joy Manning: That’s interesting.
Erin Baumgartner: Because thing within the vegetarian share, we are still including vegetarian proteins, whether it be local vegan meat or tofu or tempeh or whatever it might be, eggs, yogurt, he variety of vegetables, the grains. And then we always love to throw in a little treat every week, which is like a little cookie or a brownie or candies or something like that because it adds this element of whimsy to it. And I think that people really appreciate it.
Joy Manning: That’s a very interesting way to approach that because I think of tofu was being cheap and fishes being expensive, but it sounds like you really make sure that you even out the value.
Erin Baumgartner: Correct. And so if it were, for example, a tofu week, the vegetarians would get tofu and let’s say, a dozen eggs or tofu and extra veggies to make sure that the value is really there for them.
Joy Manning: Now, you talked a little bit about how your goal is to get local food onto people’s plate. How do you define local? I find that people’s definition of local can be pretty flexible. And actually I just read that some consumers consider anything grown in the U.S. as local.
Erin Baumgartner: Wow! That’s a very interesting question. So I’ll answer it, and then I want to talk a little bit about why I think that question itself is really valuable.
Erin Baumgartner: So for us, the majority of our food comes from … The majority of our produce and animal products and fish come from Massachusetts. We get produce from New Hampshire as well. We do work with a dairy farm in New York that produces butter for us that does an incredible job. And that’s sort of our area. We try to stay as close to the Boston area as possible, but understanding that some of the products are coming from, as I said, New Hampshire, New York. That’s our version of local.
Erin Baumgartner: But the reason I think that the question is really interesting is that local is a word that’s being thrown around like natural or healthy or the word farm that you see on absolutely everything as you walk through the grocery store. And those words make people feel good about their food, but they have absolutely zero metrics attached to it. Like what you just said, is food grown in the United States local? Right? Or is it just food that …
Joy Manning: For some people.
Erin Baumgartner: Right. Or is it food that’s just grown within 20 miles of your house? What does natural mean, right? And so these words are being bandied around without really having any, as I said, qualitative, quantitative measures to them. It’s like saying that food is awesome or cool or tasty. Those give a feeling, but they don’t have any numbers behind them. And I find that a really interesting question.
Joy Manning: So you don’t have a specific number of miles, but rather just the three or four states in your immediate region.
Erin Baumgartner: That’s right. And the gross majority of it is coming from Massachusetts and right over the border in New Hampshire. But we do go to other states for the specialty items that we just can’t get of the same quality and the same quantity that we’re looking for.
Joy Manning: Now, you come to the food business from a data science background. We talked a little bit about this, but can you tell me some more about what role data plays in Family Dinner?
Erin Baumgartner: Sure. So I spent 11 years of my career at MIT within the Senseable City Lab that was in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. And that lab was really trying to think about how to use data to understand complex systems. Stuff like transportation, and waste systems, and environmental emissions, et cetera. So what I was thinking about is how do you use Family Dinner, how do you use data to understand a complex system like food? And how do you use data and software to allow you to make improvements on that system? And we’re using technology in three ways.
Erin Baumgartner: The first of which is that we are using this e-commerce subscription-based platform, which we have customized to allow us to do that direct ordering that I mentioned, so that we ordered to meet exact demand limiting waste in the system. We’re also using data to predict where we will be, where our customer demand will be in three months, six months, nine months. And that’s valuable, not just to us as a business to know how are you growing and where are your numbers going to be, but even more fascinating, it allows us to go to the farmers and say, “Okay, great. Right now, we’re at this number of shares per week, but we predict that in three months, in six months, our numbers will be here.” So what we’re allowing the farmers to do is plan crops and plant them in advance based on our predicted demand. And the reason that’s great for farmers is that they can plant with the assurance that we will buy everything that they’re growing for us.
Joy Manning: And have those predictions been accurate so far?
Erin Baumgartner: So far, yes, we’re exceeding them slightly, which is, I’d say a problem, but a good problem to have. And so far the data has been correct, and the predictions have been correct, and the growth model has been accurate.
Joy Manning: Now, I read in the article that Family Dinner boxes are much less wasteful than the typical meal kit box. Can you describe how you’re doing that?
Erin Baumgartner: Sure. So our shares come in an insulated bag, an insulated branded Family Dinner bag that’s about the size of a grocery bag. And those bags are reusable. We give you one any week and you return last week’s to us. Then we have the incredibly joyous task of cleaning, sanitizing, and packing it, all of those 250 bags every week. It’s really fun.
Erin Baumgartner: The things that we try to minimize the packaging within the share itself. And so also as you’re opening up your bag, you will just see a full head of lettuce, and unless the produce itself is very wet, we try not to then repackage it. And if we are repackaging in another bag to protect the other items from let’s say moisture, we try to use compostable bags so that … They’re not gorgeous. They’re sort of tacky green color, but we’re trying to eliminate waste in that way as well. Other bags that we use are going to be paper. So to put things like heads of garlic or potatoes, it might be a paper bag. So we’re trying to eliminate plastic as much as possible.
Joy Manning: Does the bag come with an ice pack or something in it to keep them cold?
Erin Baumgartner: Yes. So also our drivers are delivering directly to customers with all of their cold items in coolers.
Joy Manning: Is there an ice pack in that bag?
Erin Baumgartner: Yes. Like if we have to leave your share at your home, an ice pack will be left with it.
Joy Manning: And then what happens to that ice pack?
Erin Baumgartner: It comes back to us and it gets cleaned and sanitized and reused.
Joy Manning: That’s what I was hoping you say. I had a brief flirtation with Purple Carrot and what really pushed me over the edge was the ice packs.
Erin Baumgartner: And then you just have to throw them away and you’ve got no recourse?
Joy Manning: Yeah. I mean I only got the box like once because I thought to myself, I hardly have room for this ice pack, you know, what am I going to do with future ice packs?
Erin Baumgartner: Right, exactly. And they just say, “Oh no, you can keep it.” You’re like, “Yeah, but I don’t want 15 of these.”
Joy Manning: Right, right. I didn’t even want one of them. So I ran in the story that you are thinking that what you’re doing in Boston could potentially scale to other cities. You know, as a hungry Philadelphian, I would like to hear more about that. Do you think that that’s … Is that just pie in the sky, or do you think that that’s something that could be a reality?
Erin Baumgartner: I don’t think it’s pie in the sky. I think that it’s absolutely scalable. So the model, and the technologies, and the approach is 100% scalable. I think that there is a certain portion of it that isn’t just cookie cutter. We couldn’t pick up Family Dinner and bring it to Philly quite yet and just start immediately. There’s a long runway of building relationships with farmers, and building trust, and getting people to be on board with what you’re doing because it’s different, right? It’s sort of a meal kit service and it’s sort of a CSA, but it’s a hybrid of both. It’s like a better way to CSA.
Erin Baumgartner: And so I think that those relationships really take time. I spend a lot of time on the farms, a lot of time testing and eating, which is great, and a lot of time talking to people, trying to find the best stuff that we can put in the shares for our customers. And of course that work can be done in any given city or any given geography, but it just takes time and effort in order to do it well.
Joy Manning: And so would you imagine that you would be like a franchising organization, where you would like sell the system to a local person who perhaps had those relationships, or have you not thought it out that far yet?
Erin Baumgartner: I haven’t thought it out that far. We’ve got some very near-term goals. We currently deliver to about 30-40 towns in the Greater Boston area, and we do that using right optimization software. So we’re really trying to eliminate miles for the drivers as well. But there’s certainly more saturation that can happen there. We’ve got a great customer base, but I’d like to grow it within that community and start bringing this ultra high quality local food to more people in my specific area, and then maybe potentially bleed it out into Portland, Maine, Providence, Rhode Island sorts of areas. But I could certainly see farther down the road that it would be fascinating to be able to franchise it and to be able to truly create our goal of creating a distributed network of local farms that could be nationwide.
Joy Manning: Yeah. I think the community that you are serving is pretty lucky. I would definitely jump on this if I had it in my city as a local food lover.
Erin Baumgartner: Thank you. We get a lot of wonderful feedback from folks. I think the thing that I hear the most is that they think that Family Dinner coming every Saturday is like Christmas morning, right? You open up this bag and it’s like, “What’s in there?”
Joy Manning: Very exciting.
Erin Baumgartner: Right. And I guess that makes me Santa Claus and that I’m fine with that.
Joy Manning: Yeah, that’s a good job. If you can be like the Santa Claus of food.
Erin Baumgartner: Right. It’s not a bad job. And then you get the joy of people sharing through Instagram and other ways, the great food that they’ve made that week, and things that they’ve shared with their families. And I think there’s just this recurring feedback loop that is so often very positive. That’s a great joy for us as we’ve started the company.
Joy Manning: Well, thank you so much for joining me today to talk more about this. I loved hearing about the business and where it’s potentially going.
Erin Baumgartner: Thank you so much. I really it and I appreciate the time that you took to speak with me. Thank you so much.
Joy Manning: That was Erin Baumgartner, co-founder at Family Dinner. We’ll link to the article from Edible Boston in the show notes for today’s episode. Follow Erin on Instagram @sharefamilydinner, and learn more at sharefamilydinner.com.
Joy Manning: Be honest, do you always use up that whole bunch of celery before it wilts and needs to be thrown away? Most of us buy celery needing only a stalk or two, and the rest is the doomed. Not chef, writer, and cooking instructor, Ronna Welsh, her new book, The Nimble Cook, aims to teach you how to waste less and love your time in the kitchen more. It’s full of ideas, tips and strategies that just might make you a more confident cook. Whether you’re following one of her recipes or improvising based on what’s in your crisper.
Joy Manning: Thanks for joining me today Rana.
Ronna Welsh: Thank you.
Joy Manning: So let’s start by you filling me in on what it means to you to be a nimble cook.
Ronna Welsh: A nimble cook is somebody who is attentive, flexible, ready, and always game. So she can step into any kitchen, no matter what ingredients she has on hand, the number of people she has to feed, how little or how much time she has to cook and put together something delicious to eat. I think that to do this, she needs to look at the contents of her kitchen as flexible pieces in all kinds of possible plates rather than as parts of one specific planned meal.
Joy Manning: I think that’s the dream for most home cooks, but it’s not always so easy to get from here to there.
Ronna Welsh: Exactly. I mean, in my experience, everybody wants to be a nimble cook. They just want to be that kind of cook.
Joy Manning: Well, thankfully your book is full of, not just recipes, but also strategies and dare I say, philosophies when it comes to the home kitchen. And one of the ways that we see this is you have sort of an unorthodox approach to serving sizes. You just mentioned how, you know, you want to make as little or as much as you need.
Ronna Welsh: Right.
Joy Manning: So maybe you can just tell us how you set up the serving sizes and why you did it that way.
Ronna Welsh: Sure. So the book takes an unorthodox approach and truthfully a somewhat controversial approach, as it turns out. Most recipes are written for four and six. And I think that it’s time to do away with that convention. For one thing, even families of four don’t all eat the same thing or maybe all at the same time. But the other thing is recipes that are written for four don’t allow you to deal with leftovers or parts of ingredients in a fridge. So they ask you to look for one dish that will serve all for which you often need to go shopping for additional ingredients.
Ronna Welsh: I just wanted to give people the option to be able to fill the table with an assortment of delicious, sometimes smaller plates of food from what’s on hand than to shop for another full set of ingredients for this specific unifying dish based at, you know, maybe not everyone will eat
Joy Manning: You mentioned that it was controversial. Can you tell me a little bit about what the controversy is?
Ronna Welsh: Sure. So the idea that I would write a recipe that wouldn’t feed the conventional family was unsellable. So the team of editors and publishers were concerned that I would alienate people who have become so accustomed to doing a kind of math that we would have to somehow retrain them to think differently. And in fact, the whole point of the book is to retrain people to think about ingredients first, using what you have on hand, using them for the quantities that they present, rather than forcing them into a specific idea of what we think dinner should be.
Joy Manning: Right. This idea comes up again and again in your own book, your book. The idea of ingredients first, ingredients not recipes.
Ronna Welsh: Yeah.
Joy Manning: Can you tell us a little bit more about that philosophy? Sort of where it came from and how it looks on a day to day basis.
Ronna Welsh: Right. So basically I flipped the whole process of making a meal on its head. So rather than start with a meal plan or specifically just a recipe which suggest we go shopping for an array of ingredients and then tells us specifically how to work with those ingredients. I prefer that at least sometimes we look to ingredients first, whether those are the ingredients we have in our fridge before we set out for the store, the things we pick from the garden, what’s on sale at our local market, and ask ourselves, “What can I do with you?” It’s a hard question to answer if we think, what dish can I make? What meal can I make? But instead I like to focus on the ingredient, understanding what it is and all of its parts, and then doing one thing to one ingredient to give us many possibilities for many different dishes.
Joy Manning: Well, that brings us to the idea of the starting point. Every recipe really is divided or categorized as a starting point or an exploration.
Ronna Welsh: Yeah.
Joy Manning: Can you tell us what you mean by starting point?
Ronna Welsh: Sure.
Joy Manning: Maybe with some examples
Ronna Welsh: Right. The book is divided into starting points and explorations. So it’s organized by ingredient. And then within each chapter on ingredients, I provide one, two, sometimes three different ideas for ways to ready those ingredients. Those are called starting points. An onion chopped is an idea of a starting point. I don’t have that as a recipe in the book because it’s something that most people know they can do. But I might have a recipe for example, onion jam. And that’s one of those things, it goes way beyond just the typical griddled caramelized onions.
Ronna Welsh: It takes two to three hours to make, uses two pounds of onions, is entirely worth it because once you have onion jam, you are minutes away from so many fantastic dishes. So starting points are ingredients prepared singly, braised celery, molasses, roasted peaches that then can be served on their own or used in a variety of other dishes.
Joy Manning: That onion jam you mentioned and how it positions you to be minutes away from some other dishes. Like what? What are the dishes that you might make with that?
Ronna Welsh: So actually you can make a really fantastic quick, I know these two words don’t go together, quick French onion soup. But one that does not short change the quality of the thing you imagined to be delicious French onion soup. The idea is that if I’ve taken some time, two to three hours to make this pot of onion jam, and with that pot I take a couple of tablespoons, that’s all I need, and then I put that into some really good chicken stock, and throw a bunch of grated cheese on top, throw it into the broiler. I have the goodness, the attention, the quality, and the effort that went into making something for two to three hours that I can access in a matter of minutes to put together a dish that takes 45 seconds to heat up.
Joy Manning: Yeah, that’s really fascinating. So you take something that on the front end is kind of time-consuming, but then it pays dividends that are quick later on.
Ronna Welsh: Right. It pays dividends exponentially. And that was simply a matter of fronting the work required to make French onion soup to another time, that might be a kind of strategy that feels smart to some people, but it would be useless to others. So my intention is to take, let’s say the onions that would go into making French onion soup and make them count for more than just the soup. And in that way, I justify that initial time.
Joy Manning: So I don’t want to put you on the spot, but can you think of something else to do with that onion jam?
Ronna Welsh: Sure. So actually there are two soups. There’s the French onion soup. And then I also make a soup with onion jam and cheese stock, which is made from using rinds of all the hard cheeses I collect over time in my fridge. And then there’s the simple cheddar cheese with pickles and onion jam on toast breakfast.
Ronna Welsh: Onion jam is the kind of thing that when you buy your rotisserie chicken at the store, because let’s face it, we need to allow for those things as well. I get to bring home the parts of that chicken the next day, combine it with onion jam, and throw it next to some potatoes.
Ronna Welsh: So if the onion jam is short-changed at all, if I make it sloppily, which frankly is sometimes what happens when people set out to make a really ambitious dish. Maybe bite off more than they can chew and they work through a recipe such as French onion soup where you caramelize the onions and then instead of taking two to three hours. You kind of did it in an hour or so. You’ve got to the soup, but maybe you’re left with something that isn’t as good as if you could have made it if you broke it down into two steps.
Joy Manning: I want to talk about another potentially controversial topic, which is meal planning. You take a rather dim view of meal planning.
Ronna Welsh: Yes. Only because I wish it would work, but it doesn’t.
Joy Manning: Can you tell us what your thoughts are on meal planning and why it doesn’t work?
Ronna Welsh: Sure. I mean meal plans provide guidance, direction. They provide us with a task list of things to do. And when we’re busy in our days doing other things, but we still need to come home to cook, we really appreciate somebody just giving us the step by step guide. But meal plans don’t flex and bend with our ever-changing lives. In the best of circumstances. If I’m walking down the street, somebody comes up to me and says, “Hey, let’s go get a drink.” I have to say, “I’m so sorry, the chicken’s in my fridge.” In typical circumstances though, it’s a kid is sick or you know, I actually have no time to cook the chicken or my air conditioning broke.
Ronna Welsh: So meal plans are with the best of intentions, but they exist in the abstract. The other thing is they create a good deal of waste. So if I set out to make one dish on a Monday, unless I’ve gotten things so tight that every Monday I eat the same dish. Every Tuesday, the same dish. But if I’m going for a little variety and I change it up, then each recipe, each dish has a bit of excess that finds its way to the back of my fridge. And unless I’m so good and I use that quarter a bunch of parsley in another dish later in the week, it’ll eventually go to waste if I need to find a specific recipe to work it into.
Joy Manning: So what’s the alternative?
Ronna Welsh: The alternative is not to throw out planning or recipes entirely because I have my own load of cookbooks, and it’s a thrill to be able to follow somebody else’s instruction and vision for a dish. But it’s to incorporate strategies that make use of what you have alongside.
Ronna Welsh: So let’s say it’s Sunday and I decide I want to make a big batch of minestrone soup. I could make two to three times and I could have courts of it in my freezer. That’s one thing to do. Another is to buy two to three times the amount of ingredients the soup requires, which we do anyway, if you think about it, because the soup doesn’t require a whole bunch of celery. So probably in buying the celery we need for the soup, we’ve already bought two to three times what we need. So two to three times the quantity of ingredients for the soup. And while I’m making that soup, I’ll dice the onions and the celery for it, and then maybe I’ll dice a few more, and I’ll set them aside in containers. Or maybe I will take the celery, and the onion, and the carrot and I’ll saute two to three times worth in the pot and remove what I’m not turning into soup that moment.
Joy Manning: Not yet knowing what you’re doing with it.
Ronna Welsh: The key is to not know, except it’s okay to not know because the next time you come around, you’re looking at what you have, not at what something’s supposed to be. And the worst that happens is you go back to that container of diced celery and say, “Huh, I don’t know what I’m going to do with you.” And you come back to it maybe the next day and then you say, “Chicken salad.” Right? Nothing has to be gourmet or life-changing. It just has to give you pleasure and get used. And I bet that if you have a container of diced celery on a shelf at eye level, it’s more likely to get used than if it were in stock form in your produce drawer, out of sight.
Joy Manning: That’s the truth.
Ronna Welsh: And that’s the point.
Joy Manning: So your book has … You know, it’s sort of a big book. It has many possible entry points. Do you have a favorite recipe or technique or someplace where you’d love a reader to start?
Ronna Welsh: Oh, that’s a great question. It’s been really fun to hear people’s responses to the book. I like when people have said, “Oh, I like the combination of flavors and ingredients.” Oh, great, thank you. And then I really love when people say, “I love how simple the book is.” And I say, “Oh, you think it’s simple? Tell me more.” And what they refer to are these starting points. So braising celery, right? It doesn’t sound very sexy, except it’s really good. And then it gives you lots of different dishes if you don’t need it all at once.
Ronna Welsh: Some of my favorite things though are using whole ingredients. So I have a collard green frittata, which is sort of an inverse frittata. So you cook it in the same size pan that you would your frittata that feeds eight. And instead of using 8 to 10 eggs to fill the pan, and then a couple handfuls of collard ribbons, what you do is you take the whole collard leaves, just snip off the end stem, and then dip the leaves in egg, in beaten egg, and then layer those with cheese in a pan, pressing it down with your hand. And in the end you’ve used one, maybe two if they’re small bunches of a whole leaves and only two eggs.
Joy Manning: This is my favorite recipe in the book so far. I have never seen something like this. And it’s genius.
Ronna Welsh: Yeah. And it’s so much better than an egg Frittata It’s delicious. It has some crunch to it. It’s really good at room temperature.
Joy Manning: It’s so unusual.
Ronna Welsh: And it’s just, to me, it’s also intuitive.
Joy Manning: Where did you get the idea for that? I mean really I’ve never seen something like that. Did it just come to you or had you seen it somewhere?
Ronna Welsh: So you know, here’s how inspiration works. I’m rarely in the kitchen. It’s when I’m saddled with a bunch of ingredients and tired of doing the same thing. My route from bunch of collard greens to something to eat is not to go looking for a dish to use them in. Because if I did that, I wouldn’t have come to this. Instead it’s saying, “What do I do with you?”
Ronna Welsh: So when I think about coming up with something new for an ingredient, it’s really just, you know, me, and the ingredient one-on-one. I stare at it, shove it in my mouth, it tasted raw, I taste the stem. I don’t force myself to come up with something right away except … You know, my only timeline is how do I make it not perishable? How do I use it up? And then at a certain point I say, can I … If I don’t want to go through the trouble of washing, drying, and ribboning it only to see it reduced, can I use the whole thing? What if I had a garden and all of a sudden I had bunches of collard greens? The frittata was a try. I said, “What if?”
Joy Manning: Well, I think that that’s probably the thing I’ll take away from the book. I love it. I think that’s such a cool idea. And I think that anyone who … I am a frittata lover, and I think anyone who likes that type of an egg dish will like it too.
Ronna Welsh: Thank you.
Joy Manning: Well, the way that you organize the book is by ingredients. It’s not really like we typically see, you know, appetizers or soups, you know.
Ronna Welsh: Exactly.
Joy Manning: Some of the ingredients are grouped together in slightly unexpected ways. How did you group them?
Ronna Welsh: So they’re arranged by ingredients and like you said, not by dish, loosely by season, and then by characteristic. And so what I mean by that is I have all the roots together, and it’s true that most root vegetables do grow in the same season. But I have them together because I treat them similarly. I look at them in the same way. They have a bulbous and often leaves. Many of them have peels that you have to ” with.
Ronna Welsh: So I like to take these ingredients apart and say, can I do something with the leaves? Can I do something with the peels? What if I roast or braise or slaw or dice them? I think that it’s sort of like if you were to do a, I don’t know, a medical study, and you were to try to find groups of different people to test things out on, you would find people with similar traits. And I guess that’s how I arrange the book.
Ronna Welsh: What’s interesting to me is in the end, out of the, I think there are 14 chapters, only three of them have to do with meat or seafood or poultry. This is not a vegetable-focused book, although it probably is vegetable-forward. But I think when I laid out all my recipes, I realized that the arrangement of chapters simply reflected the real variety in how we eat. We simply have more vegetables, grains, and fruits available to us or that we generally do eat than we do types of meat or fish or poultry.
Joy Manning: That’s true. Well, I have certainly learned a lot from it so far and I expect to keep on learning from it as I cook through it. Thank you so much for coming on Edible Potluck to talk to us more about it today.
Ronna Welsh: Thank you, Joy.
Joy Manning: Thank you for joining us today on Edible Potluck. Our podcast producer is David Wolf. If you like this episode, please subscribe on Apple podcast or wherever you get your podcast. Please take a moment to leave us a rating or review. You know it helps other listeners find the podcast. Don’t forget to pick up a copy of your own local Edible magazine. If you don’t know where to get one, find out at ediblecommunities.com. You can find links to everything we talked about today in the show notes for this episode at ediblecommunities.com/podcast. Until next time. Remember, eat local.