Interview with Hannah Kaminsky of Bittersweet
In this Why I Cook column, I’ll ask Hannah questions that allow me to understand their thought process and what drives her to constantly create. Join us as we virtually chat!
I always love to see what Hannah posts about on her blog, which spans from sweet to savory recipes, and how she balances everything out with vegan eats and experiences outside her own kitchen. But what keeps me coming back is Hannah’s writing style, which is so warm and welcoming, with an eloquence and cadence that’s uniquely her own. Hannah’s photography style is a beautiful visual reflection of her writing, which is instantly recognizable and always stunning.
Read on below to find out what influenced Hannah’s love of cooking, who some of her culinary heroes are and how she defines her own style of cooking. And be sure to keep an eye out for Hannah’s newest cookbook, Real Food, Really Fast, which comes out right after the New Year!
When did you start to cook and what about the process itself kept you interested in it?
Food wasn’t the least bit important to me until the moment I decided to go vegan. Although my mom would do her best to cook wholesome meals, all I really cared for was instant ramen and grilled cheese sandwiches. Though supportive of the switch, my parents made it perfectly clear that I was to fend for myself at the dinner table, since there were only so many hours in the day to spend crafting different meals for their picky children. Plunged into the world of cooking for the first time, my first year of veganism was full of many burnt tofu pups, brick-like muffins, and frozen meals. Through trial and error, I came to love the process of creating real food from scratch, and eventually made dishes that were more than merely edible.
Describe your process of recipe development. How do you come up with fresh and new ideas on a regular basis?
Inspiration is endless! From blogs to magazines, television shows to cookbooks, there are more innovative cooks out there than ever, and better yet, more adventurous eaters to foster such deep appreciation for great food. I can’t turn on the computer or tv without finding something that resonates. Beyond the media though, what moves me to create new dishes is often finding different ingredients that I haven’t encountered before, or thought of from a fresh perspective, which always means trying new things. I’ll eat anything at least once, as long as it’s vegan! I’ll often look back to nostalgic dishes or classic preparations to inform the final composition, but always with a unique twist.
What influenced your love of cooking?
Cooking transformed from a necessary task into a genuine passion thanks to my blog. Although I had initially created it to share my crafts, from knitting and crochet to beading and sewing, I soon grew to see food as its own art form. The feedback that I got was tenfold what I saw for my stuffed animals, and the joy that I got from sharing my recipes was beyond measure. While my own meals were far from ambitious, I was spurred on to get more creative to share better dishes with those kind readers sounding off from across the globe. I don’t mind eating plainly, but I would never want to disappoint or bore them!
Define your own style of cooking.
Few common threads tie together the dishes I enjoy cooking most, aside from being vegan, of course. I wasn’t formally trained as a chef and can’t claim any cultural foundation to my food, so much like my own heritage, my style is a patchwork mishmash of widely varied influences. My first job was at Health in a Hurry (which has since passed on to restaurant heaven), before I even knew how to dice a potato. Sue Cadwell, my boss and now dear friend, taught me the basics of cooking that have go on to inform my life in the kitchen to this day. Her guidance prepared me well, always emphasizing quality ingredients, fresh, simple flavors above all else, with an eye towards healthier techniques than the average quick service establishment. While I love a good project that I can tinker with for days or weeks on end, like long-fermented pickles or homemade miso, for everyday meals, I’m terrible impatient. I want things done quickly, with a minimum of effort, and maximum flavor.
Describe the best dish you’ve ever made.
Honestly, I can’t wrap my head around anyone who cooks frequently could pick just one favorite, or two, or ten for that matter. I have a short attention span and limited memory, so I rarely make the same thing after I’m satisfied with the formula. Some of the best dishes I’ve made don’t have a recipe, in fact. One of my favorites from this past summer is a mélange of roasted vegetables (Portobello mushrooms, eggplant, zucchini, heirloom tomatoes—anything that catches my eye at the farmers market, really) picked at the peak of season, tossed in a bright, herbaceous pesto sauce. Paired with some crusty grilled bread to mop up all the juices, there’s nothing else I can add to improve that meal.
If your current self could give your past self one piece of sage cooking advice, what would it be?
Dear self: Don’t rely so heavily on sugar for your desserts. Since I started out baking more than cooking, I realize now that I often used sweetness as a crutch, rather than seeking greater substance. Too many of my earliest desserts were just sweet instead of flavorful, or so sweet that any additional flavors got pushed aside.
Do you have any culinary heroes?
Celebrity chefs don’t do much to excite me, but there are a number of brilliant minds out there doing incredible things in the culinary scene. Grant Achatz, for example, is unparalleled in his creativity. He doesn’t allow any previous cuisine define his menus, fully respects and pays homage to his ingredients, and yet doesn’t take himself too seriously. There’s a certain whimsy to his dishes that invites the diner to genuinely enjoy the experience. Yotam Ottolenghi is a genius with vegetables, with an innate sense for seasonality and flavor pairing. He’s not a vegetarian chef and yet wins over countless omnivores with his plant-based cooking. Finally, on the sweet side, Johnny Iuzzini was the person I looked up to the most when I began crafting desserts. Stylish, beautiful plates and fearless sweets define his approach, which always pushed me to look beyond conventional treats.
If you could choose anyone to cook with in the kitchen, who would it be?
Martin Yan is a master at his craft. I was lucky enough to watch him make hand-pulled noodles in person and it was simply magical. It’s a very hands-on technique that I would never be able to master from reading a cookbook or watching YouTube videos. It would be a dream to actually step up to the stove alongside him!
If you could throw a party for anyone, who would be there and what would the menu look like?
This will undoubtedly sound bizarre, but I would throw a party for Isis, my dog. Her birthdays were opportunities to spoil her rotten, cooking up cakes and treats perfectly suited to her (admittedly, undiscerning) palate. She was invariably thrilled with everything I served, and I really miss her unrestrained enthusiasm. Not a crumb would be left, each dish demolished in a matter of minutes. I would start with an appetizer of carrot crudité and peanut dip, two favorite flavors and frequent snacks. The entrée would be a sweet potato stew, thick and hearty, warm and comforting. The crowning jewel of the meal would be dessert, of course, finishing with unsweetened apple cake and dried apple rings. I’d invite all the neighborhood dogs, cats, and even the squirrels to join us! Though Isis would chase try to chase them away from our yard, I know she secretly loved their persistence.
Name one ingredient and a kitchen gadget you can’t live without.
Unoriginal, I know, but there’s nothing more important than a sharp knife and an ample supply of salt for any cook, amateur or professional. You need to break down those tough vegetables somehow, ideally without breaking through your own skin, and nothing tastes right without proper seasoning. Maybe I go a bit overboard with a half-dozen different knives and at least twice as many options for salt, but I like to think that I’m just well prepared!
CHECK OUT MORE OF MY WHY I COOK INTERVIEWS BELOW!
Stay in touch with Hannah!