Geoffrey Zakarian's My Perfect Pantry Is Bringing Cooking Back to Basics
Photo courtesy Clarkson Potter
In addition to his regular TV appearances on Chopped and Iron Chef America, working as executive chef and owner of The Lambs Club (132 West 44th Street; 212-997-5262) and The National, and overseeing numerous concepts on the Norwegian Breakaway cruise ship, Geoffrey Zakarian debuted the newly renovated The Palm Court in his position as culinary director at The Plaza. He is also the chairman of City Harvest's Food Council. Oh, and he became a father, yet again, when his wife gave birth to son George Harris in the spring.
On top of all that (and various other projects and commitments), the celebrity chef recently released his second cookbook, My Perfect Pantry: 150 Easy Recipes From 50 Essential Ingredients.
As the title suggests, Zakarian's latest book is all about going back to basics, with the 50 most important items that should be stocked in any cook's pantry. His goal was to create the sort of resource that any novice or intermediate cook keeps on the shelf. "The recipes are very simple," Zakarian tells the Voice. "You don't have to go to Whole Foods to get this stuff; you can go anywhere."
After two years of work, Zakarian released the book last month. It's a simpler, everyday addition to his first work, Geoffrey Zakarian's Town/Country: 150 Recipes for Life Around the Table. Where his original tome explored the the ways in which one could reinterpret the same proteins, his newest is more of a baseboard for cooking.
To put it all together, the Iron Chef had to seriously pare down his list of ingredients, from 80 or 90 to 50, not only to appeal to a wider audience, but to make the process of stocking easier. He acknowledges that in New York, sourcing is the least of anyone's worries; however, with this volume, he aimed to bring the rest of the country into the fold. "I didn't want to be pretentious," he says. "I wanted people to go, 'Wow, this is stuff I see at the grocery store every day, and I never knew that I could work with this stuff, and here are the recipes for it.' "
The idea stemmed from frequent conversations with friends and fans. With his frequent TV appearances, including his current slot on Food Network's The Kitchen (which covers everything from food trends to family meal tips and answers to viewers' Twitter questions), Zakarian is constantly being quizzed on which items should be kept on hand, which brands to buy, and how to use them. To him, the pantry is all about supporting the cook, and from his experience, it can often be the messiest part of the home cook's favorite room. "The pantry is the engine of the kitchen," says Zakarian. "It's the ability to season. Everything is an ascension of something else. On Chopped, the biggest mistake contestants make is they don't use salt and pepper."
While that concept of the pantry may seem foreign to many -- let's be honest, we have entire generations that have been raised on microwaved dinners -- to Zakarian, it's just the way things are done. He rose to the top of his class with a slew of prestigious restaurants and television spots, and he grew up eating well-prepared, home-cooked meals. A self-proclaimed food snob from the age of four, he credits his mother's cooking with inspiring his fascination with "real food." Even with his oftentimes hectic schedule, the chef ensures that his family eats the way he did as a kid. "We were poor, but I was spoiled," says Zakarian. "Because we would make things. We would never in a million years go out and buy a rotisserie chicken or something like a premade salad. It was just heresy."
With his own children, Zakarian encourages experimentation. Although he and his wife don't force them to eat anything, the chef presses his five- and seven-year-old to, at the least, sample everything that adults eat. "It's very natural," he says. "If you don't like this, don't eat it. But we never scared them into food they should be eating, shouldn't be eating, or whatever."
It's this idea of experimentation with whole foods that has helped the chef garner a reputation as one of New York's top toques. Hailed for his stylish American cuisine, the chef's most recent endeavor came about in his role of culinary director for The Plaza. Just last month, he opened the doors to the newly renovated The Palm Court. With a new center bar, mirrored tabletops (that highlight the stunning Tiffany glass on the ceiling), fresh palms, and lighter furnishings, Zakarian and master architect Thierry Despont brought the classic room into a relevant modern space. In another year, he'll be adding his touch to the hotel's Oak Room & Bar.
As if that's not enough: Zakarian is also planning to expand one of his existing concepts, The National, in the coming years. He has a new location on the books for Greenwich, Connecticut, and although he won't divulge specifics, the chef is planning on opening a third location somewhere in Florida -- not Miami. While he's interested in doing something in the Magic City again at some point, he's currently mum about details or possibilities. "I want to do something in Miami, but I'm not sure what I want to do yet," says Zakarian.
Courtesy Clarkson Potter
Geoffrey Zakarian has had quite the year. Pomegranate-Ginger Sweet Potatoes with Pecans and Pumpkin Seeds A unique side dish, these superfood potatoes get children's taste buds exposed to a natural kind of sweet instead of artificial sugars, and adults are equally pleased to get in their nutrients in a tasty way. The sweet-tart pomegranate syrup can be drizzled on other roasted root vegetables as well -- carrots, parsnips, and butternut squash, to name a few. (Serves 6)
Syrup 2 cups pomegranate juice 1 12-ounce can ginger ale 1 ⁄4 teaspoon ground ginger 1 tablespoon unsalted butter Kosher salt
Sweet Potatoes 3 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks (about 21 ⁄4 pounds) 4 sprigs fresh rosemary 1 ⁄2 lemon, thinly sliced 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil Kosher salt 1 ⁄4 cup coarsely chopped pecans, toasted 1 ⁄4 cup pumpkin seeds, toasted
1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. To make the syrup: In a medium saucepan, combine the pomegranate juice, ginger ale, and ginger. Bring to a boil and simmer rapidly until reduced to 1⁄3 to 1⁄2 cup. The mixture should be syrupy and coat the back of a spoon. Whisk in the butter, season with salt, and keep warm.
2. To make the sweet potatoes: Toss the sweet potatoes with the rosemary, lemon slices, and oil on a rimmed sheet pan. Season with salt. Roast until the sweet potatoes are tender, tossing once or twice, 30 to 40 minutes. Toss with the pecans and pumpkins seeds and roast 5 minutes more. Mound the sweet potatoes on a platter and drizzle with the syrup, making sure you hit all of the potatoes.
Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.
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