In the Field

Carla Lalli Music on Overcoming Cooking Barriers

By: Hannah Lee Leidy

Preparing a meal at the end of the day, whiling away weekend hours with baking projects, and gathering around the table with loved ones are all sorts of therapeutic escapes for many of us. For James Beard award-winning cookbook author and Bon Appetít alum Carla Lalli Music, however, cooking and thinking about food is very much a job.

You’d never know it from reading a cookbook, watching one of her cooking videos, or listening to her podcast. She talks about it so comfortably: Putting five items on her grocery list and winging the rest once she gets to the store. Or, creating a quick, pantry-ingredient dinner to feed her family of four. Food, for her, is not an escape but the place where her professional and personal lives intersect. She lives by the mantra, “Always be cooking.”

We love cooking here at TLP, but we just had to wonder, “HOW can we always be cooking?” Where is the constant stream of time? Stamina? Inspiration?

We asked Music herself, and it turns out, she’s still figuring that out. Like anyone, she juggles work, family, friends, and has to find ways to throw food into the mix. She says, “I was in quarantine at the time of writing That Sounds So Good, so cooking for my family was necessary. And it was three meals a day! I’m only now figuring out how to do that and develop a book at the same time.”

When her book tour brought her to the Southern states to cook for and meet fellow food lovers, TLP caught up with Music to understand how she keeps cooking, no matter how time consuming, difficult, or intimidating it seems.

Pursuing Comfortable Cooking with Carla Lalli Music

What’s a barrier you often find yourself up against when it comes to preparing a meal for yourself and family?

I think we put so much pressure on ourselves to constantly find the new thing—try something new, find a new recipe. Say, I’m bored with this or that, which is fine if you’re bored and you want to seek change. But there’s also something to be said for leaning into the foods that you love. Sometimes inspiration can come from cooking recipe that you don’t have to follow the recipe for and you can go wherever the wind takes you.

I think the past couple of years have been really hard for creative people in food because a lot of the primary sources of new ideas were taken away. Everybody’s world just really shrunk.

When [That Sounds So Good] went [to print], I just felt spent. It’s hard to get that back, I’m just giving it time, waiting. And in the meantime, leaning in on the things that I find are pleasurable or comforting.

How do you remedy cooking fatigue? Do you have any ritual or tools that you employ to spark the cooking mood?

There used to be so much pressure to figure out what was for dinner. This panic would set in around 4 pm every day. I’ve gotten comfortable with not having a plan. I have enough food in the house to make a meal, and it might not be the most premeditated or thought-out meal, but it’s a meal. 

If you have a solid foundation of a good pantry, basic refrigerator things, like, condiments, then you can make a quick trip to the store and pick up a piece of protein, some kind of produce, and be able to figure it out. Shop often, shop small. 

Your cookbook welcomes creativity in the kitchen—whether it’s going to the grocery store with a loose plan or swapping out all sorts of ingredients for a similar result. Many newer cooks might balk at that, claiming they’re not creative. What advice would you give these people?

Carla Lalli Music stirring over the stove
Image by Laura Murray

This is why recipe developers exist! I think there are a lot of recipes out there, and they’re not all trusted. Not all of them are cross tested, not all are written carefully for people cooking at home. The ten years I spent working in magazines made me sensitive to the kinds of pitfalls people fall into when following recipes. 

Trusting visual cues, for instance, is so much more important than following an estimated time. I think of cooking with my kids, who are twelve and eighteen now. Answering their questions makes it evident: Nothing is too obvious.  

They’ll say, “ok, it’s boiling,” and sometimes it’s like, “no, just because you saw a couple bubbles doesn’t mean it’s boiling. You wouldn’t want to put your pasta in yet.”

It’s like that famous clip from Schitt’s Creek, where they’re making enchiladas and want to know, “But what does that mean, ‘fold in the cheese’?”

There’s no limit to how granular you could get, but you have to find a happy medium where you trust the reader enough, but you don’t want to leave them behind.

Repetition is key. You just have to give it time. You start to learn things intuitively, like time estimates, heat levels, or how much oil you need. Also being exposed to more flavors, and understanding what happens when you combine them or swap them out for other ingredients with similar characteristics. 

For you, cooking is a love language. What are some things you try to keep in mind (to stay sane and enjoy!!) when hosting guests/dinner parties?

Don’t try to do too much. This is a big thing that’s different from when I was a younger host. Remember that the true pleasure is getting to be together. You’re not the White House pastry chef, right? You’re not hosting dignitaries. You’re having friends or family over, and they’re happy to be there. 

Think of it like shopping for groceries: You look at your cart and take 25 percent away before you check out. That’s a great way to reduce food waste. The same applies to looking over your menu of what you’re going to make for friends—take a dish away, then you probably have the right amount. 

Also, let somebody bring something. In the past, when people asked what they could bring, I’d say, “Oh, just your appetite!” And now I’m like, “Thanks for asking! Can you grab a bag of ice? Can you bring dessert? Can you pick up a bottle of wine?” That makes people feel included, and it also makes your life easier. Why wouldn’t you do that?

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