Food Writer Tells How To Reinvent The Classics

You've got your traditional holiday meal menu all set. It's the same one as last year...and the year before that. Time for some change? Host Michel Martin speaks with Dana Cowin, Food & Wine magazine editor-in-chief, about the new cookbook, "Food & Wine Reinventing the Classics." They'll discuss ways to add a twist to your holiday offerings with ingredients you may not have considered.

MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

Okay, so you've been serving the same holiday meal every year, and sure, it's comforting to know ahead of time what will be on the table, how it will taste and who's going to eat it. But what if you switch things up a little bit this year? Seriously, what if you reinvented a classic dish or two, or put a new twist on an appetizer or a desert? If you're ready for change, Food & Wine magazine has something to help you. It's a new cookbook entitled "Reinventing the Classics," and the magazine's editor-in-chief joins me now. She's Dana Cowin. She also edited the cookbook. She's with us from New York.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

DANA COWIN: I'm so happy to be here with you.

MARTIN: Now, maybe I'm scarred for life by my chocolate drizzle pumpkin pie experience.

COWIN: I have two (unintelligible) inventions from(ph) you.

MARTIN: Well, you know what I mean? Well, it wasn't from me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I loved it. I'm the only one who ate it. So I had a whole chocolate drizzle pumpkin pie to myself a couple of years ago, so maybe I'm a little scarred by this, so I'm going to start out by being a curmudgeon. Why do I want to change? My holiday meal is just fine.

COWIN: If it's just fine for you, that's great, but there could be people around that table who want something a little bit new, and I feel that you can tweak a dish that you love and just make it a little better, a little more interesting, so you still have the essence of the flavor that you crave but you don't go off the rails in the chocolate direction.

MARTIN: Okay. Don't go off the rails with that chocolate - I thought it was kind of exciting just to drizzle a little bit of chocolate onto it. But anyway, I'm going to try to get over that experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: SO let's start with the classic, the herb roasted turkey with gravy. Now, of course a lot of people have turkey at Christmas time. It's a standard kind of holiday main dish. What do you recommend for kicking it up a notch a tiny bit, to borrow another chef's famous phrase?

COWIN: Right. This is not a recipe that will go bam. But it's a recipe that is completely delicious. What you want to do with your turkey is brine it first. And that means that you basically plunge it in a flavor bath for several hours. And what that does is it infuses the bird with the flavors of the brine, which in this case are fennel, mustard and coriander and bay leaves, and it gives it flavor from the bone to the skin, so already your bird is going to be plumped up with flavor. And then the extra flavor is when you're roasting the bird, you make a delicious herb butter and you put it over the top of the bird and then under the skin and it gets crispy and delicious. So your turkey, which might have been just sort of been plain and boring - I mean to be honest, is there a more boring meat in the meat world? No.

MARTIN: Hey, stop talking about my friend turkey.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COWIN: We'll have taken your...

MARTIN: I like turkey. But anyway...

COWIN: ...turkey from, you know, traditional to tremendous.

MARTIN: And what do you think makes the difference here? Is it just adding a little bit more interest to the flavor of the meat itself? You don't have to cover it all up with the gravy and all that.

COWIN: That's right. You actually have a turkey that on its own tastes good. But also, you've got a two-step labor process, because you've got flavor from the brine, so that's one, and then you've got flavor from the herb crust. So I think you've got two flavors that added together just make a more interesting bird.

MARTIN: Now, that's a main course. So what about a side dish? What about sweet potatoes? I don't know what's wrong with - what's wrong with the marshmallows? What's wrong with the marshmallow topping?

COWIN: You know, I have to tell you, I'm very, very partial to the marshmallow topping, so it takes a lot to me over into another camp. But the sweet potato casserole that's in "Reinventing the Classics" has pecans and brown sugar and a secret ingredient, which is cornflakes. So what you don't get with a marshmallow topping is something that's crunchy. But if you have a topping like, you know, pecans and cornflakes, it's a little crunchy. So I don't know, I think a bite that has a little contrast in it is a good thing.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about reinventing some of those holiday classics - just tweaking those recipes just a little bit. There's a new cookbook out from the editors of Food & Wine magazine that try to help us do that. We're talking with the editor-in- chief of the magazine, Dana Cowin. She's also the editor of the cookbook.

Now, what about, there are some dishes that I think have become standard fare for a lot of Americans, like guacamole, for example. That's something that even though it's a traditionally Mexican dish, a lot of people will be having it as part of their advertiser assortment. Any suggestions there?

COWIN: Well, the thing with guacamole is sometimes you make guacamole with onion and garlic, and those flavors can be very raw. And so we have a recipe that has charred jalapeños and charred scallions. So instead of getting something raw in your mouth, you get something that's sort of roasty and toasty along with that yummy avocado taste. So I think guacamole is such a great appetizer as it is, but when you add the level of complexity that's so simple - sounds like a contradiction in terms but it's not - with a little extra bounce, you've got the jalapeño and the scallions, I think it's pretty great.

MARTIN: Now, of course we have to talk about dessert. Now maybe, as I said, I'm still getting over the whole pumpkin pie experience. I'm going to just push right past the bourbon spiked pumpkin pie. I'm just not ready to go there again. But why don't we talk about sugar cookies. That's - who doesn't like sugar cookies? And...

COWIN: Yeah, we're in the very safe territory here.

MARTIN: Especially because, you know, if you have little people about, you know, maybe the bourbon spiked pumpkin pie isn't for them anyway. So sugar cookie's something that everybody likes. What possibly needs to be different with sugar cookies?

COWIN: Okay, sugar cookies are fantastic on their own. But what we like to do is we like to cut out the cookies and then make a second cookie to put on top that has a little cut out in it, sort of like a window into the life of your cookie, and what we do is we like to spread a little bit of jam or Nutella or anything that you love that's spreadable and put it between the two cookies, so you basically have created a delicious sandwich cookie. So nothing wrong with sugar cookies, but you can make it a little more interesting if you put a lovely glaze in between the two cookies.

MARTIN: What could be wrong with that? Is there any trick to reinventing the classics - something to keep you from going off the rails, as you put it earlier?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COWIN: I think the trick with reinventing the classics is that you want to stay true to the original idea of the dish. So, for example, with the guacamole, we stayed true to the idea of the dish, which is that it has onions and jalapenos, but we took those and gave them a little more flavor. And I think when you sort of go off the rails or off the deep end or off in some bad direction, it's really because you're marrying two very un-alike things that sort of don't want to be friends. And so I think whenever you reinvent the classics, you just have to keep that friendship in mind - the friendship between what it is that's the traditional thing and what it is the new thing that is giving it a new life.

MARTIN: And what - the other question I had for you is when you're planning your holiday meal and you're trying to tweak things a little bit, what do you recommend? Do you recommend maybe only change one thing, one or two things? Better(ph) not talk about it? Just don't talk about it?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COWIN: I think it depends...

MARTIN: Just going to let it unfold.

COWIN: ...how confident you are as a cook. I think we're here to make people happy, right? So if you're feeding people traditional dishes that they love, that's great. But you also want to excite people. And so without over- stimulating them, I think you could take one dish. You could tweak desert, which is really hard to go wrong with something sweet, unless, of course, you add chocolate to pumpkin pie.

MARTIN: Oh...

COWIN: Or, you know, I would play with side dishes. If you're really concerned, the place to play is not the main course, like your turkey or your beef, because that's the thing you want everybody to have, but it's the side dishes, where, you know what, if somebody gets two side dishes instead of three, because they don't like the thing you reinvented, they're okay. They're going to have a good meal anyway.

MARTIN: All right, Dana, I'm going to put you on the spot here. What are you serving this holiday, and are you tweaking anything?

COWIN: The recipe that I would tweak is the one that I grew up with. I grew up with a rib roast for Christmas. It's my favorite meal of the season. And instead of doing just salt and pepper, which actually is pretty fantastic, I'm going to put a horseradish herb crust. And so it's kind of a minor tweak but I think it'll add that pow of flavor while the beef is still beefy. So that's what I'm really looking forward to making.

MARTIN: Are you going to call us back and let us know if you had to eat that whole thing by yourself...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COWIN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...because everybody else went out for takeout? Oh, that's great. I ate before I got here. Sorry.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COWIN: You know, I really hope that doesn't happen, and I'm confident it won't.

MARTIN: Dana Cowin is editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine. She's talking about the cookbook "Reinventing the Classics," which she also edited, and she joined us from our bureau in New York.

Dana, thank you and Happy Holidays to you.

COWEN: Thanks. Happy Holidays.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Let's talk more tomorrow.

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