Ronna Welsh, owner of Purple Kale Kitchenworks in Brooklyn and author of The Nimble Cook, is an expert at using waste that others wouldn’t think twice about throwing in the garbage. I wrote about her cookbook when it came out in 2019 for Edible Brooklyn, and I was most taken with the recipe for garlic skin vinegar. This was a book in the vein of Abra Berens’s Ruffage and Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat that took an old-school approach to recipes: Here, you’re taught how to cook, how to use ingredients, rather than just how to make some specific dishes. It is invaluable.
We recorded at the end of 2020, but because of myriad technical difficulties, I’m running it now because it’s only just been stitched together. We discussed her path to being a teacher, her approach to food waste, and true sustainability. Listen above, or read below.
Alicia: Hi, Ronna. Thanks so much for taking the time.
Ronna: Yeah. Hi.
Alicia: Thanks so much.
Ronna: Thank you.
Alicia: Yeah, for those listening, we've had some technical snafus today. But we are getting through it.
So, Ronna, can you tell me where you—about where you grew up and what you ate?
Ronna: I grew up outside of Philadelphia, in the suburbs. And I don't recall much about what I ate.
Well, food was really important. We were really big eaters in my family. What I most remember is holidays and holiday food and Jewish holiday food in particular, and the stuff that my mom made for those holidays.
But growing up, we ate a lot of convenience foods day to day. We relied on canned vegetables and powdered mashed potatoes. My mom worked. So for her, the luxury of getting dinner on the table in an instant was really valuable, was really important. High school years, we ate a ton of frozen meals and canned soup. So I grew up eating, really a voracious eater, but with very little experience cooking.
And so, how did you end up as a professional cook?
Ronna: Almost by accident, because I was in my twenties and a graduate student in Texas at the University of Texas. And I was in a field that was really academic, really cerebral. I was in my head a lot, and became disillusioned with my studies just at the point where I was finishing a degree. And one day stumbled into a friend of a friend, who told me that she was leaving her job as a cook, and did I want to apply?
So as I was finishing my graduate degree and writing my master's thesis, I also took this job in a sweet little café in Austin, Texas. And that was my first taste of what it was like to get my hands dirty and make something. And it was the process of making something, I think, which was so compelling to me.
Alicia: You stayed in the kitchen instead of, I guess, pursuing what you were studying in graduate school. Why? Why was that your direction, your path?
Ronna: Everything was tangible in the kitchen. I loved the reward of cooking, of taking raw ingredients and turning them into something that then somebody else ate: of going into the kitchen in the morning, turning on the lights, filling the pots with water, filling the dish sink, getting the cash register ready, cooking all day, working really hard. And then taking the kitchen down at night so that you closed it and put it to bed. And then the next day, you got to repeat the whole thing over again.
There was a satisfaction in that [that] I had been missing for me in graduate school. And there was an immediacy and a gratification to it, to getting my hands dirty, to the physical work, to producing something in real time and witnessing others make use and love it. And that itself became something I felt I needed to have.
Alicia: And you note in your bio that cooking professionally wasn't a help when you began your family and started up children and needed to cook at home. What were the differences there for you and how did you learn to overcome them?
Ronna: Cooking professionally teaches you tremendous skill. It teaches you how to move fast. It teaches you how to create good systems of prep and production. But at the same time, you have a lot of support that you don't have at home. We don't have dishwashing crews at home. We don't have people bringing us ingredients.
And the real, for me, the fundamental difference is that when you are working in a restaurant, even one where a menu might change pretty frequently, you're always working with a menu or a set of dishes that then you set out to prepare. So, you come into the kitchen in the beginning of the day and you slice the onions so that you can put it on your station for this one particular dish. And you get everything ready so that when orders come in, you can make these various dishes with the highest quality, really efficiently and seamlessly.
The difference with home is that an infant becomes sick, or your fridge stops working, or you drop the chicken on the floor. And so this nice tight system of planning and prepping and executing falls apart with the mishaps of life. So I quickly realized that it wasn't skill or experience that was going to serve me well as a new parent, but it was the ability to adapt, the ability to be nimble. So to start from where I was, which was a tired new person, I'm sorry, tired new parent, and then to be able to craft systems that enabled me to feed myself and my family in spite of my new circumstances became really important to me.
And that's how I made the shift from cooking professionally to then beginning to teach.
Alicia: For Purple Kale Kitchenworks, how did you kind of blend these two approaches to cooking, the professional and the home, into something that was accessible to new cooks?
Ronna: Well, accessibility was really key. And, for me, I felt that the home cook needed, benefited from a change in perspective, one where you focused on ingredients rather than recipes, on what you have rather than an idea of what to make. And while that initially feels pretty intimidating for cooks, it actually is the simplest and most accessible place to start.
So for me, I try to teach people to look at the ingredients they have in front of them and ways to prepare those individual ingredients, and then ways to take those individually prepared ingredients and build dishes with them. So it's sort of an elemental, fundamental approach that starts not with an idea of what you're going to eat but ends up with something delicious by just using what's in front of you.
Alicia: And then in your cookbook, The Nimble Cook, which came out at a time when it seemed that cookbooks were starting to kind of refocus on teaching techniques and methods rather than recipes to be followed to the letter, yours focused a lot on reusing waste. What was your vision for that book, and how did you adapt teaching in person to teaching in writing?
Ronna: The food waste part became, was kind of a bonus, I think.
While I had done a lot of writing and incorporated the idea of minimizing food waste into my classes, it was never the point. Nobody likes to waste food, and I didn't need to tell anybody that. But I did need to provide people with some ideas about using food, whether it's parts of ingredients that they might otherwise throw away or leftovers from a dish they made the night before, about using these ingredients so that they could follow them to where they might lead.
So for example, if you have a head of cauliflower that comes with all of its greens intact—and it's a fresh head of cauliflower, not one that's been sitting on the shelf for a while—then you begin to nibble around at the leaves and realize that they taste very much like a cabbage and can be used on their own. And what you've done is you've seized an opportunity to make use of something in front of you rather than throwing that opportunity away.
A lot of what was in my book was just a direct result of materials that I used in class in combination with so many conversations that I had in people's homes and in the classroom itself. The workbook that I used in my class became fatter and fatter as time went on and my classes became harder to fit into even five hours, that it became clear I had more material than just for the classroom. And I set out to try to take the things that people most wanted to know, and distill them down into a system where I could teach people through the book.
Alicia: And how did you kind of figure out the recipes in the book that would be the most kind of accessible? For Edible Brooklyn, I wrote about the garlic-scrap vinegar that you make. And that's something that sounds very kind of heady and very nerdy and maybe not something that the average home cook would like to attempt, but at the same time you make it very approachable. How did you create that voice in the book?
Ronna: Well, I had to really balance the emphasis on strong, simple, good technique paired with really good ingredients with this option to explore ideas, and explore dishes and combinations of flavors that were—these ingredients could take you.
In the case of garlic, if you looked at a head of garlic on its own, then it leads you to mince it or to slice it or to do what you would normally do. But if you had a bunch of garlic, then all of a sudden in preparing that garlic, you have a whole bunch of peels that—and when, in moving them to the trash, becomes sort of more to reckon with as an aggregate as a pile of peels than they would have if you had peeled one clove at a time.
And it's in seeing possibilities in things like that, that then help you build new ways to use them. So the garlic-peel vinegar came about, because I had a whole bunch of garlic that I had long neglected and was not able to use up just by mincing and chopping. And so one day, put them in a pot of water and said, 'What the hell?' I turn the stove on and cook them away. What I got in the end was delicious, soft poached garlic that I had no plan for, but was—I could immediately put to use, because of how good it was.
But then I also had this kind of broth in the pot as a result of cooking so much garlic in this amount of water, and I saved that broth. And then I had the peels themselves, which were all of a sudden soft, but when they came off of the garlic cloves were tacky with some of the garlic itself. And so, it's just a simple act of putting those peels into a bowl instead of straight into the trash can, which clued me in to the fact that maybe I could do something with them.
So in the same amount of time that would have taken me to dump them in the trash can, I instead got a bottle of just cheap red wine vinegar and glugged it on top. Came back to it the next day and was fully prepared to still throw it away, but instead realized that I had a delicious garlic-infused mellow vinegar at my disposal.
I think the trick with the cookbook is to remind people that the point is never the garlic vinegar. The point is just to see an ingredient through to the extent that you want and it's possible for you, and understanding that even though the garlic vinegar does not give you dinner, it remains part of your kitchen toolkit and your arsenal. So that maybe in a couple months’ time, if tomatoes come your way, you slice some, remember that you have this garlic-infused vinegar that you can drizzle on top.
And what you've done is create a little plate of food with the ease of opening a package of cereal, but one that is as presumably elegant and thought out as if you were sort of brainstorming new options for a new tomato menu.
The thing about food waste for me is that whatever you can save has value if not immediately, then certainly later on.
Alicia: And yeah, as food waste has been kind of the most, I think, popular aspect of sustainability conversations in food. And I do think that people find sustainability in their—when they think about it in terms of food and in terms of cooking, they find it very overwhelming. How do you broach the subject of this in your classes?
Ronna: Well, I think that people come at it in their own way. And I personally believe in smaller local food economies and certain kinds of growing practices.
But it's not up to me to tell others what to believe. So I think the most powerful thing I can do is show them that by choosing the very best ingredients they have access to, that will make them better cooks.
Again, back to the head of cauliflower. If you have a head of cauliflower where its florets taste almost sweet because it's so fresh, then you need to do little to it to make it into something you can enjoy, certainly less to it than you would if you had a head that was wrapped in cellophane and maybe tasted more of plastic or supermarket shelf then of itself. Then it needs more work, then it needs to be corrected.
So to let people know that great ingredients actually make it easier to cook well, I think is more compelling than to tell them they should spend their money at the farmers' market than at the large chain grocery store.
Alicia: And for you, is cooking a political act?
Ronna: I think that to the extent that it is an act itself, to the extent that I make things, maybe. For me, it's about bonds between people. The idea of nourishing somebody else is really powerful. It's also really elemental. It feeds me at the same time that I'm feeding others.
When this whole pandemic struck, and we all were at home, as much as I cooked before the pandemic, I found that I cooked nonstop all of a sudden at home; I cooked everything and all the time, and it was just for my family. My classes were canceled. My studio was shut. But it was the fact that there was something I could do, something that I could make and something that I could contribute that made me feel a little less helpless in the face of all the things going on.
I don't know that that's a political act. But it is one that I approached with intention and trying to support and nourish others. So, I suppose it could be extended into one.
The other thing I think that I want to try to do with cooking but also with teaching is—and this comes back to the question of sustainability—I'm really interested in helping people cook the way they want to over the long term for the long haul. For me, true sustainability is making it work day in, day out, not only when you have time to make a menu plan or only when you have time to go to the grocery store.
I want you to be able to walk into your kitchen and to find a source of confidence, a source of empowerment in it to be able to say, 'Ok, what have we got? Let's figure this out together.' That, to me, is how cooking becomes part of your life, how it becomes less of a task and a chore, and more of just a practice and a habit.
The only way that we can truly sustain feeding ourselves and feeding our community is if it's something that makes us feel gratified rather than tired most of the time.
Alicia: And I think most people are feeling quite tired, right now? [Laughs.] Yeah.
Well, thank you so much for taking the time.
Ronna: Thank you so much, Alicia.