Emily Walker is a writer who currently lives in Algiers, Algeria with her Foreign Service Officer husband and their two Diplocats. She spends her days trying to finish her first novel, procrasticooking, arranging and rearranging rooms, and planning her next dinner party. She blogs at The Next Dinner Party.
Name three herbs you couldn’t live without. What is your favourite way to use them?:
- I wouldn’t want to live without fresh basil. I love the licoracy herbaciousness of it and because what I cook often leans toward Italian, it works well. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen much of it in the nine months I’ve lived in Algiers, Algeria. I’ve been relying on jarred pesto, which doesn’t actually hold a candle to fresh pesto. Here’s how I make mine.
- Second, cilantro! To me, it’s the freshest and cleanest tasting of the herbs, which is probably why some people find it soapy. Lately, every green salad I’ve made has beaucoup cilantro leaves in it and it gives a bright sweetness to the salad.
- My garden in Algiers is lined with rosemary bushes, which is so fragrant. But it’s a very strong herb so I only use it with hearty dishes that won’t be overwhelmed by it – like a creamy mushroom rosemary pasta or a caramelized onion and rosemary jam slathered on grilled bread smeared with fresh goat cheese.
Name three spices you couldn’t live without. What is your favourite way to use them?:
- I’ve lived abroad in various countries for the past eight years and I’m always interested in what the local popular spices are. In Spain, there wasn’t a whole lot of spice in the local foods, except for paprika. It was there I discovered smoked paprika, and that’s become one of my spice staples. It has a place of honor next to my stove, along with the salt (course and regular) and pepper. Smokey flavor is most often associated with meat and because I don’t eat meat, it’s a flavor I miss. I add smoked paprika to black beans and veggies to use as a “meaty” tasting taco filling and to a paprika-heavy Hungarian Mushroom Soup from the Moosewood Cookbook.
- I’ve also been using a jar of Aleppo pepper that I bought at the Ottolenghi shop in London a lot lately, it makes things a tad spicy, but mostly just a little smokey but in a more subtle way than the smoked paprika. Also it’s a beautiful burgandy color that looks gorgeous sprinkled atop fried eggs.
- The spice I just consistently use and replace constantly is cumin as I make a lot of Mexican and Middle Eastern food, both of which bow at the alter of cumin. My favorite cumin-heavy (and spice-heavy) recipe is the mejadra (I call this mujadra) recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem cookbook. I’ve eaten mujadra in Jerusalem, Jordan, Bahrain, and Dearborn, Michigan, and this recipe blows everything I’ve had before out of the water.
Name five pantry staples, why you’re so committed to them, and what you cook most frequently with them.
- Tomato paste. Couldn’t do without it. It’s an easy way to make something richer and more savory (ie add that umami). I use it for obvious things like making pizza sauce or a herby marinara and to give depth to a pot of beans or lentils.
- Chipotles in adobo sauce as another way to add that smoky flavor. I’ll mix a little of the rich tomato liquid that is the “adobo sauce” in with mayo, plain yogurt, and a grated garlic clove and keep this addicting sauce in my fridge to put atop scrambled eggs and quesadillas.
- Canned artichokes. If I’m invited to a party and it’s cold weather, chances are good I’ll show up with hot artichoke dip, a Midwest classic. I roast red peppers or caramelize onions and mix that with the artichokes, lots of mayo, plain yogurt or sour cream, smoked paprika, and tons of grated cheese (usually cheddar, mozzarella, and parmesan) and bake until bubbly. What’s not to like?
- Nuts. Nuts are the easiest source of protein for a vegetarian. I could pretend to be healthy and say I can’t get enough raw almonds but the truth is ick. I love roasted salted nuts and eat an extraordinary amount of peanuts and almonds. I think Trader Joe’s mixed roasted salted nuts are heaven. Every time I go to Spain I bring back dozens of bags of Marcona almonds, which are grown in Spain and are cheap there. (Whereas they’re like $10 for a small container at Whole Foods). When I entertain (which is often), I open a bag of these delicately sweet almonds and put them in a bowl with a little truffle oil and flakey salt. I first had truffled marcona almonds at a speakeasy in Washington DC years ago and they really left an impression!
- Lentils. Lentils are fast to cook and have a pleasing bite to them. I’ll make faux ground “beef” for tacos and taco salads, lentil soup, and of course, the above-mentioned mujadra.
Who or what is influencing you in the kitchen these days?
Well, we’re in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, and so, like everyone else, I’m stuck at home, wanting to eat comfort food to assuage my constant sense of worry and I’m also feeling like I don’t care as much what my body looks like because I’m just wearing a bathrobe and pajama pants lately and will I ever see another human again? So lots of carbs, lots of cheese, and my husband and I shared a pint of Ben & Jerrys the other day that cost $17 at the local Algerian supermarket. We don’t ever do that. Strange times. Biggest cooking inspiration right now is what everyone is sharing on Instagram, which is mostly brownies and cakes and creamy pastas.
What are your dietary restrictions? Is there anything you tend to avoid eating? How does this influence of affect your cooking?
I’ve been a pretty strict vegetarian since I was 13 years old, although I’ve recently re-introduced shrimp and bi-valves. This has greatly influenced my cooking. When I have folks over for dinner or for a party, I want them to love the food, and often this means shattering their preconceptions of what eating vegetarian looks like. It’s not just salads. And when it is salad, it’s like the best salad you’ve ever had with plenty of crunch, zest, protein, and creaminess and not just a shard of lettuce and a shredded carrot. It’s my mission to show people that they can eat delicious, satisfying, and varied food without killing animals for it. Cooking vegetarian is more complicated than the “meat and three” mindset. It takes a little more planning and work to make things balanced, but the options are many and interesting.
What is one of your most profound food memories?
My first real, grown-up dinner party involved my college boyfriend’s family recipe for spanokopita, Greek salad, and green beans with almonds. It was nearly 100 degrees on that night in August, and my cooking heated up the kitchen of my house in the “student ghetto” of Kalamazoo, Michigan so much that the dinner guests and I had no choice but to take the entire meal up to the roof, the only place with an inkling of a breeze. I can still see our group of 20-year-olds dining al fresco atop that dilapidated brick house and taste the sweet white wine and salty, savory spinach pie. In that moment, I had a vision that this might be the best part of being an adult: Enjoying a delicious homemade dinner with your friends. Fifteen years of dinner parties later – in my apartments in Washignton DC, Yemen, Madrid, Jerusalem, Rabat, and now Algiers – and I can attest my rooftop vision holds true: Making a big dinner and having my friends over is my favorite part of being a grown up.
Do you have a go-to hosting trick or tip?
I live for dinner parties and it almost pains me to admit this, but the least important part of a dinner party is the food. (I once made handmade mushroom tortellini for a friend’s birthday dinner and when the tops all ripped off the dozens of little perfectly folded pastas before they went into the boiling water, I figured the evening was ruined, but really it was my bad attitude that could have ruined things as no one gave a shit about eating perfect tortellini). The most important part of hosting is to create an atmosphere that is warm and welcoming, and this has nothing to do with food. The ambiance should be nice, good lighting, candles, nice temperature, but it’s crucial that you welcome each guest, try to engage everyone as a group the best you can, and possibly have something up your sleeve if the vibe isn’t as cohesive as it could be. I recently went to a “literary salon” at the home of a smart and stylish Algerian woman and she had placed a phrase from a book on the plate of all the guests. We all had to talk about how we each interpreted the phrase – mine was “what is not said.” Although the multi-course menu she prepared was amazingly delicious, what I’ll remember most about this night was the atmosphere of her chic and arty home and how intellectual yet welcoming the whole thing felt.