We're sitting down with our favorite writers and cooks to talk about their upcoming cookbooks, their best food memories, and just about anything else.
Today: Peter Miller, author of Lunch at the Shop, convinces us that life's most fleeting midday meal should really be our favorite.
About 8 years ago, Peter Miller began preparing lunch in the back of his eponymous Seattle shop, where he's been peddling architecture and design books since 1980. Communal staff lunches are now an essential part of the workday, and have inspired a new cookbook, Lunch at the Shop; The Art and Practice of the Midday Meal.
After an introduction to the shop's lunchtime history and a handful of pages discussing tools, ingredients, and strategies, Miller offers up over 50 recipes, with advice on what to prep in advance and which steps can be done at the office. There is a section on lentils, Miller's favorite legume; a few pages on pasta; a treatise on proper salad composition.
It is a cookbook with recipes, but it reads like a longform poem to lunch. Miller is an advocate for the midday meal, for stopping, and sitting, and coming together with coworkers over food. His language is elegant and lyrical, but his advice is specific; it's the most practical poetry you'll read all spring.
More: While you read, sip on this rhubarb cordial.
Until we can convince him to join us for a Not Sad Desk Lunch at Food52 HQ, we're talking to Peter about which tools and ingredients to keep on hand, and how lunch can be a great equalizer. Read on for a lentil recipe you'll want to eat tomorrow, and a chance to win a copy of your own.
Why is lunch so important?
??It is not important that it be elaborate -- like most people, I am going back to work and I have work to do. It is important that it be separate. I love stopping what I am doing, taking a seat, even if only for twenty minutes, and getting away. And it is, to my mind, crucial that whatever I am going to eat, it be clean and fresh and cared for. I will be honored if you pack a sandwich for me but thrilled if we can make a salad right then to go with it.
??Lunch is halftime, intermission, a strip of land between work -- stop there, take a break, then go back and get to it.?
What are the most important tools and ingredients to keep on hand to make lunch at work?
Have a good knife and a flat cutting board. A simple cheese grater, a good pepper grinder (with GOOD peppercorns), some sea salt, good olive oil, and good vinegar, a lemon, a lime, a chunk of Parmesan, two stainless steel mixing bowls (they can be dented, old, thin, cheap, or expensive). Have some parsley that has been washed, perhaps cilantro as well -- they store perfectly in large, reused yogurt containers with the lid on.
??Obviously good is only part specific -- the olive oil, for example, need not be the most expensive but it must be good, and that can be a little tricky. Taste it -- it will be showing up later and you do not want to find that it is a bully. ??That is the subtlety of lunch -- for a moment, everything matters. The preparation is so quick that you can taste each part.
Once you have a few tools and ingredients on hand, then start bringing in the cast -- the avocado and the bread and the soup and the grains and the pasta and the vegetables. Whatever you fancy, bring it in and see how it plays. ?You always have bread and cheese for a back up!?
More: This Roasted Carrot Soup packs particularly well.
Due to your staff's lunch tradition, you've started selling cooking equipment alongside books. Has your cookbook collection been affected as well? How so???
We now have about 12 to 14 different cookbooks, not very many, and they are all there for particular tales. We have carried the Canal House books from the start and had literally no idea who they were, but loved each volume. We have Da Silvano's book, with the lulu photo of him in cargo pants on the cover among the olive branches. Giorgio Locatelli's Made in Italy is, to my mind, a great piece. And every August and Autumn I pull Ripe out to help me with bounty. There are many brilliant cookbooks I love that we do not carry -- it is not our task.?
What cooking tips have you picked up from your coworkers? Any ingredients you've started cooking with that you hadn't known before?
??I am still amazed that I so completely misunderstood cilantro. I would delicately chop the flowers of two or three stems. But then a class from Mexico City came to visit and they would wildly chop four or five bunches of cilantro and scatter it all over the meal and the kitchen and the bread and the olive oil and then I understood. And they would do the same with the parsley -- and the salt.??
And rice -- someone could offer a Rice Sanctuary, where you go for a week, change into work clothes and study the hundreds of ways that the rest of the world cooks their rice. The ways are complicated and brilliant and, of course, make all of the difference.
How does a communal lunch affect the relationships between your shop's employees???
All is fair at lunch. For a moment, the hierarchy is based not on pay or position but on food and, quite frankly, that gives people a place to share and a place to feel comfortable. There are a million ways to help and sometimes it is no more than saying, "that was great."
1/2 ?cup pine nuts or chopped walnuts
2 ?cups baby spinach
1 ?cup fresh basil leaves
1? cup cooked lentils
2? tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped
1? garlic clove, finely chopped
1 ?cup Greek yogurt
1/4? cup olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
We're giving away 2 copes of Lunch at the Shop! Tell us in the comments: What's your go-to weekday lunch? We'll choose 2 winners at random this Friday, April 18.
Author photo and lentil photo by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton. Salad photo by Kristy Mucci. All other photos by James Ransom.