"For me, there has always been a connection between eating and reading," says Cara Nicoletti, and with her blog Yummybooks, she explores just that. Pairing classic novels with fitting and delicious meals, Nicoletti has come up with a winning combination that has us both craving stormy nights curled up with Jane Austen as well as flavorful comfort food and delicate desserts.
As a part of our food-focused Thanksgiving build-up, we sat down with Nicoletti to discuss how she first got into cooking, the key to a good meal, and also to get her recipe for a killer bowl of clam chowder. Enjoy!
StyledOn: When did you first get into cooking?
Cara Nicoletti: My mom and dad are both fantastic cooks so I was in the kitchen watching and helping them from a young age. Sit-down family dinners were a requirement five nights a week in my house and sometimes, if my parents were too busy to cook, the responsibility of making dinner would fall on me or one of my sisters. The first meal I ever cooked for my family was plain pasta with chunks of boiled potatoes in it. I think things have improved considerably since then, although I’m still powerless against an all beige, carbohydrate-loaded meal.
SO: What are your favorite dishes to make?
CN: I’m actually not a sweets person at all, but baking is my real passion. There is something very comforting about the preciseness of it. I think it’s also comforting to know that I won’t be tempted to eat the entire lot of it once it’s done, no matter how good it is.
SO: What makes for a great meal?
CN: My father panics every time we sit down to eat that there won’t be enough food, so maybe this answer is coming from a lifetime of witnessing his pre-prandial panic, but I think that plenty is a key ingredient to any good meal. There is nothing worse than showing up to a dinner and seeing a scanty food-supply. There has to be a level of comfort amongst the guests that makes it not only okay, but expected, that they will go back for seconds (or thirds). And obviously good booze (and plenty of it) is key too.
SO: If you had to choose one: fashion or food?
CN: That’s really not even a question for me. Food, food, a million times food. My friends get frustrated with me when they try to take me shopping because I always end up breaking into a cold sweat and buying the first white t-shirt I see and then dragging them into the nearest kitchen-goods store.
SO: Favorite restaurants or chefs?
CN: A restaurant called “Traif” just opened down the street from me in Williamsburg and it’s currently my most favorite place to eat. They specialize in pork and shellfish (“traif” means non-kosher) and everything they turn out of the kitchen is flawless—even the cream they give you with your coffee will make you want to weep. Their chicken and biscuits is the best I’ve ever had, and their pork-belly ramen rivals Momofuku.
SO: How will you be spending Thanksgiving?
CN: I’ll be going home to Massachusetts. My family does not mess around when it comes to Thanksgiving. It’s a small crowd but the turkey is usually around 25 pounds and has to go in at 6 am in order to cook in time. My dad makes an unbelievable sausage stuffing and my mom makes a pie so deadly it’s just known as “thigh pie.” This year I’ll also be going to my boyfriend’s house nearby. I absolutely plan on eating a full meal at both houses.
Yummybook's Recipe: Big Jim's Clam Cowder Recipe
This recipe is for my dad’s famous clam chowder. He uses steamers instead of diced quahogs and a spicy Portuguese sausage called linguica.
Serves 8 people (+/- depending on how much milk or cream you add)
1 Large Vidalia onions, diced
4 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes chopped into half-inch cubes
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 quarts steamer clams with snouts (Most chowders use diced quahogs, but steamers are much more flavorful because of all the stuff in their bellies. Ask for the smallest ones they have at the store)
2 cups of linguica (This is a spicy Portuguese sausage. If you can’t find it go with chorizo, but do try to find the linguica. There is no flavor comparison between the two)
2 ears sweet corn, although frozen corn is also fine and you'll want to use about 2 cups
Dash of thyme
Dash of cayenne
Generous amount of ground black pepper
Flour (only if you want a thicker New England style broth—I say go without)
The hardest part of this recipe is getting the clams clean. Nothing will take your appetite away quite like biting down onto a sandy clam, though, so the labor of cleaning them is worth it. Throw away any clams with shells that are closed tightly or cracked. Submerge the clams in a pot of cold water and let them soak. Continue to change the water over a
period of about 3 hours until the water you dump into the sink is running clear. If they’re especially tricky you may want to try adding black pepper to the pot to make them sneeze the sand out (technically an old wives’ tale, but one that I and my dad believe in wholeheartedly).
Once the clams are clean submerge them in water and bring to a boil, then turn off the heat. The shells should all be open by this time. If not, continue boiling. Throw any clams away that won’t open wide after sufficient boiling. Take the clams from the water, and save the water–this is your stock. Remove the clams from the shells and take off the sheath that covers the snouts. Put clams to the side.
Boil the cubed potatoes in the clam broth until half cooked (still a bit firm—don’t overcook or they will fall apart). They will cook some more once in the stock. In a large pot, sauté the linguica in the butter and olive oil. Remove from pan when brown and crackly—put aside for later use. Cook the onions in the pan drippings from the pork until they are translucent. Drain off some (but not all) of the remaining grease.
Add onions, clams, and some of the pork cracklings, the corn, salt, pepper, cayenne to the pot with the stock and potatoes and bring all the ingredients to a boil. My dad likes to put the chowder into the fridge and let it sit for a few hours before serving so that all the flavors really marry together, but if you don’t have the time it’s no big deal.
Heat milk and cream in a separate pan (equal parts according to how many bowls you’ll be dishing out). Reheat the stock and ladle into individual bowls, adding the milk/cream mixture as desired. Top off with pork cracklings and parsley and serve with oyster crackers (N.B. if you do desire a thicker soup add flour to stock to taste, but again, I recommend not doing this, I think the flour dulls the flavor).
Hungry for more awesome recipes? Be sure to try out the following as well:
From Milk & Mode's Carol Han: Portuguese Kale and Potato Soup
From Ramshackle Glam's Jordan Reid: Chicken Cacciatore
What are your favorite recipes?