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A Pantry Cookbook to Ease Anxiety & Awaken the Appetite
I'm loving Noah Galuten's Hippie-Cali-Italian cookbook for its sensible approach to healthful eating, and its exciting, eminently doable recipes
I’ve probably said before, if not many times before, that my most favorite kind of cookbook is the one where you open it up to a recipe and think “Ooh, that sounds good,” followed immediately by “I have everything I need to make it!” The gratification is instant. This has been my experience over and over again with Noah Galuten’s new The Don’t Panic Pantry Cookbook: Mostly Vegetarian Comfort Food that Happens to Be Good for You, which I had an early peek at last year and have been so enjoying ever since. It’s a personal cookbook that’s fun to read, but it’s also full recipes that are craveable, immediately doable—and, most importantly, rewarding.
Noah Galuten is a chef and has worked on a number of award-winning cookbooks, but this is the first of his own. In addition to his vast and varied food work, The Don’t Panic Pantry Cookbook stems from the livestream series that he and his wife, the comedian Iliza Schlesinger, began at the beginning of the pandemic. Connecting with thousands of people every week, kitchen to kitchen, that series helped him see firsthand what would be most valuable to modern day home cooks.
Noah graciously offered to answer a few questions for us, but I want to just quickly start with his philosophy of eating and cooking, which he spells out in the intro:
Too much of any one thing is bad.
Balance is good.
Refined sugar is bad (and it is hiding everywhere).
Heavily processed food is bad (this is where the sugar is hiding).
We should be eating less meat, and higher quality meat.
Everyone is focused on protein when they should be focused on fiber.
Stock your pantry to make home cooking the more convenient option.
He calls these “goals” rather than “rules,” which I like, and what I also like is that, at least for my own day to day eating, this approach swiftly simplifies the sometimes complicated business of What to Eat. You know from number 6 that he is, as Steve Sando would say, bean people, and I really connect with number 7 because I always believe that something home cooked will be better, in almost every way, than any alternative.
Scroll on down for our Q&A. And for paid subscribers (recently we’ve made meaty vegetarian chili, a fantastic citrus salad, and the first quarterly recipe bundle went out), he’s shared the recipe for his dead simple but incredibly delicious Tahini Dressing, which, no lie, I have made 5 days in a row. I’ll be sending that out tomorrow along with his suggested uses for it, and a few of my own.
Enjoy the Q&A and be sure to check out The Don’t Panic Pantry Cookbook!
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Your health perspective in this book resonates so deeply with me, because it's so simple, so food- and pleasure-forward and just sensible! How did you come to land here? Have you ever dappled with more restrictive or dogmatic styles of eating?
I have always just tried to find a common-sense approach to eating, while at the same time trying to educate it with a streak of academic research. But I remember being young and (literally) hungry, eating crappy fast food and then feeling gross after, while also not enjoying the food—then thinking, “what the hell was the point of that?” So for the most part, I really try to make sure that everything I eat is either something that I'm really excited about, or is really good for me. If it's neither of those things it is kind of a waste of time. So if I'm at a restaurant and I get menu paralysis, or nothing looks particularly appealing, I just try to pick the most nutritious thing on the menu so that way, even if it sucks, it was at least healthful.
And yeah, I have certainly gone on little super-health streaks. But within a few days, I always just end up having a glass of wine and then saying, “screw it,” and making a bowl of pasta. That being said, I think a lot more about nutrition than I do about weight loss.
The book also seems to have a strong sense of place: California. But, unlike many California cookbooks, this is a pantry cookbook rather than a produce-forward one. What does a California pantry look like these days?
It was a real goal of this book to not require access to an amazing farmers market. While I will always encourage people to support small local farms, I wanted people to be able to cook from this book after shopping at, say, a Kroger in Madison, Wisconsin (with a few exceptions for things you might have to order online or get from Indian, Chinese, Japanese or Korean markets).
But my pantry, which is absolutely a California pantry—or more specifically a Los Angeles pantry—is influenced by a lot of the diversity of the city. Mine started with my mom’s (and grandmother’s) Italian pantry. Dried pasta, dried oregano, canned tomatoes, dried beans, canned beans, olive oil and garlic.
But my parents were also hippies growing up—and so much of the California hippie cuisine of the 80s and 90s was heavily influenced by Indian and Japanese ingredients. Lots of tahini, tamari, turmeric, dal, basmati and brown rice. So that’s all in there too.
But then every time I get excited about finally really diving in on a new cuisine, the pantry expands. So now there is a lot of gochugaru, shichimi, chili de arbol, chipotles en adobo, toasted sesame seeds, cumin seeds, cardamom pods, black mustard seeds and the like. I also, as someone who cooks a lot of Japanese and Chinese food now, have...so many types of soy sauce. Japanese dark soy sauce; Japanese light soy sauce; Chinese light soy sauce; Chinese dark soy sauce and tamari. It's maybe a little much but they all really have different jobs and functions.
In the handful of smoothie recipes in your book, I was elated to see no mention of banana — my least favorite food and that is always in smoothies. Thank you for that. I'm curious if it was intentional? Are there any covert ingredient omissions?
It’s true that bananas are great in smoothies. They provide a lot of sweetness and texture. But it’s also a lot of sugar, and until I had a baby I never really bought bananas very much. I tend to like to go lighter and tarter—so yeah, I will always be a fan of yogurt and almond milk in a smoothie. Or in the case of “Health Sludge,” just making the liquid be water so I can chug nutrients and get on with my day.
The big ingredient though, that is almost nowhere in the book is processed, granulated sugar. So many things that are otherwise really good for you—like oatmeal or seaweed salad—are so often just packed with sugar. If I use sugar in the book, it’s because it has to be there, like in the chai recipe.
That’s where tamari really comes in handy—I think it has this kind of naturally roastier, sweeter flavor that kind of makes up for the lack of sugar in something like the Rice Noodle Salad with Kale and Edamame.
You're a chef with extensive restaurant experience, but you point out that restaurant and home cooking are entirely different beasts. Are there aspects of restaurant cooking that have informed your home cooking?
Yeah I have absolutely learned a ton from working in restaurants. The importance of weight measurements in recipes that you are going to scale up is massive—especially in things like salad dressings and sauces. The repetition is also important in really understanding how certain proteins work. I've been taught so much about the more efficient ways to, say, cut a bell pepper, by the great prep cooks I've worked with in my life.
But truthfully, my biggest lessons have been from people rather than restaurants. Writing cookbooks with Jeremy Fox and Kevin Bludso have completely opened my eyes to the ways I think about food. Learning about pizza from Frank Pinello (of Best Pizza in Williamsburg) when he consulted on the opening of Prime Pizza was massive. And now, getting to work with Nyesha Arrington and Ari Kolender on their upcoming books is just incredibly educational.
I was always a food nerd—long before I thought it could be a career—and now I feel like I’m in this food fantasy camp where I get to learn from some of the greatest minds in food, who also all happen to be wonderful, kind people. I feel so fortunate that this gets to be my career right now.
Lastly, what are some of the top cookbooks that have shaped your approach to food?
I grew up on Lidia Bastianich and Marcella Hazan. Their books were gigantic influences on a kid who obsessed over Italian food.
But as I got older, I discovered one of my favorites of all time: Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji. It came out in 1980, and it is essentially the Japanese cooking textbook that taught me the basis of everything I hope to understand about Japanese cuisine.
I also recently, finally, got a wok, and have been poring over Grace Young's Breath of a Wok. That is a delightful and incredibly informative book.
One last book that always floors me is Marion Cunningham’s Breakfast Book. Every time I open it, I’m like, “Wait, why did anyone else ever write another cookbook?” —and to be honest I'm not even that big of a breakfast person.
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