Other Writers: Nicole Spiridakis

I’m excited about this post because I get to introduce a fabulous person to you. Nicole Spiridakis is the daughter of very dear friends. That alone is good enough to introduce her to you, but it turns out that Nicole has a few special tricks of her own.

Nicole shares my love of fresh, local food, but in her hands, food does truly amazing things. She is fearless and smart and more creative than I could ever be. And best of all – she’s writing a cookbook, to be published in 2014, by Chronicle Books.

Here she is, to tell us all about it.

MD: Hi Nicole! Thank you for joining my blog for the day. First, tell us a little about yourself. Where do you live and what prompted your love of cooking?

NS: I was born and raised in Sebastopol, Calif., which is in Sonoma County. I moved to the East Coast for college, and ended up staying for quite awhile – I lived in Washington, DC, for about 6 years. I finally moved back to California in spring 2006, and I’ve been living and cooking happily in San Francisco since then.

I started cooking a bit when I was in junior high; my dad cut out a lot of fat from his diet for health reasons, and I went on a mission to create and bake him low-fat sweets alternatives. I did pretty well, though of course it was a lot of trial-and-error. I really started cooking for myself when I lived in a group house my last year of school – we had regular Thursday night dinner parties where we invited old and new friends and cooked enormous quantities of food. I love the communal aspect of cooking and eating – it is, of course, quite basic: we need to eat to live. But for me it’s also about that coming together around the table. As a vegetarian I sought to try new cuisines and dishes, and experimented more and more as the years went on, mostly cooking in tiny apartment kitchens and cramming people around my tables. Now I focus mainly on cooking healthy, delicious meals that incorporate as many fresh vegetables and whole grains as possible, with simple ingredients sourced locally (SF is great for this).

On the whole, cooking just feels good to me – it feels right. Not to say some nights I don’t feel like turning on the stove, but there really is nothing like working a ball of dough into a loaf of bread; it’s elemental and real and always compelling.

MD: What is your philosophy of food?

NS: My food philosophy is to cook seasonally and thoughtfully, always with an eye on the healthy aspect of a dish but without letting it get boring. My goal through my blog is to inspire people through words and photographs to make wholesome, tasty, and mostly healthful food that is not overly complicated or intimidating. I love Michael Pollan’s “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” slogan, and I like to think I follow that to some degree. Though of course I also bake quite frequently, and will never say no to a decadently delicious helping of salted caramel sauce!

MD: Me either! What is your cookbook going to be about? Does it have a title yet?

NS: My cookbook is all about naturally flourless desserts – and by that I mean desserts that do not rely on a myriad of gluten-free flours and many of which do not call for flour at all. The aim is to create flourless treats that are absolutely delicious and composed of readily accessible ingredients; the reality that they are gluten-free is simply a bonus. The working title is “Everything Flourless”, though that may change as the process goes on.

MD: So for instance, baked cinnamon apples and ice cream would be a flourless dessert? But I happen to know that you love cakes. You’ve even started to make gorgeous wedding cakes, including your own. What has that been like?

NS: I do love cakes! And I still love, of course, to bake with flour. But it’s certainly very different baking cake-like desserts (and cookies) that do not include flour. It’s a lot more difficult, for one thing. I didn’t realize how lovely gluten is as a binder; gluten-free/flourless baked goods are by their very nature different from ‘regular’ baked goods and I think that’s the main point I’m trying to get across in my cookbook: that these are not substitutes for, say, a chocolate chip cookie, but in fact a cookie that stands alone as being quite tasty and oh yeah, happens to be gluten-free.

MD: This makes so much sense to me. Americans have spent decades trying to avoid the latest “evil” food. When doctors thought people shouldn’t eat eggs because of the cholesterol, people turned to invented egg-like substitutes like Egg-Beaters. When they couldn’t eat butter, they substituted margarine. I’m very impatient with this kind of thinking, so I love how you are approaching how to live gluten-free. Don’t spend time and money trying to find a substitute for flour – instead look at all the wonderful food that just naturally doesn’t have gluten!

You also write about food. There’s your blog, Cucina Nicolina, and you’ve written articles for NPR. Tell us about the journey of your writing experience and where people can find more of your articles.

NS: I studied journalism at the University of Maryland and got a job working at Reuters in Washington, DC, right out of college. I had always wanted to be a journalist, and it was an amazing experience working in a major newsroom (I had also worked on my school’s daily paper as a reporter and copy editor for most of my time there). I also freelanced for several local publications covering music and lifestyle stuff – a I did a feature on a hardware store on Capitol Hill that was a lot of fun – and wrote a few pieces for the Reuters wire when I worked there. I also cooked a lot. When I moved to San Francisco I really started posting more to the blog a friend of mine had set up for me; I eventually took it over myself and designed the site a bit and took better photos/etc. I also just pitched the heck out of almost every publication I could think of and landed a column with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Home and Garden section writing about apartment living, which I wrote for about 2 1/2 years. Still, I really wanted to write about food and eventually was assigned a story with NPR’s Kitchen Window in 2007 … and I have been writing for them ever since. Right now I have limited some of my freelancing as I am working hard on the cookbook, but if I have a good idea I will pitch it to an editor – it is a bit harder now to get assignments than it once was because space and money are much more limited, but I think a good, timely idea will most often get a bite. I have links to many of my articles on my website at nicolespiridakis.com/clips

MD: What’s your advice to the typical busy couple with full-time jobs and a few kids? How do they provide fresh, local, home cooked food on a regular basis?

NS: This is a great question, and one I want to address on my blog. I would say, plan your meals for the week out in advance. I do this now and I don’t yet have kids, and it is a big help! Keep them simple and very veg-heavy – maybe a salad every other night, or extra spinach in the pasta sauce. Make something like a lasagna or enchiladas or a big pot of soup or chili or stew that can serve as more than one meal (and serve some veggies, like steamed broccoli, alongside to mix it up a bit) during the week or as lunches. And roast vegetables – Tamar Adler is a huge proponent of this and actually recommends roasting all your veggies for the week at one go. I haven’t tried this myself but I see the wisdom in it. But if you make a meal that incorporates roasted vegetables – potatoes, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, carrots, etc. – with some sort of quick-cooked whole grain – quinoa, etc. – and a protein – fried tofu, baked fish, roast chicken – your actual ‘active’ time is not too crazy once you get everything in the oven. And when you have some extra time make tomato sauce or pesto and freeze it – the freezer is definitely your friend.

MD: Exactly the advice that I give! Thanks, Nicole!


You can follow Nicole’s blog at http://www.cucinanicolina.com/. She posts terrific recipes!

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