Exclusive: Athena Calderone Takes Us Behind the Scenes of Her New Cookbook
The visual nature of our modern lives has changed our everyday habits in more ways than one. For instance, preparing a meal—whether a weekday dinner or a holiday feast—is no longer a private affair. Each step, from preparing the vegetables to cooking and plating, has become a visual affair ready to be Instagrammed. This is something that Athena Calderone, home chef, entertaining expert, and founder of EyeSwoon, has understood all too well. In recent years, she built a cult following on the promise of delivering beautiful recipes that were just as delicious as they were visually pleasing.
Her latest venture is one we've been highly anticipating: the launch of her first cookbook, Cook Beautiful. "When I was trying to figure out what I wanted to share in this cookbook, I got one really amazing piece of advice: Why does someone need a cookbook from you? Why do we need another cookbook in the world? What is it that you have to say that nobody else has said before?" Calderone told MyDomaine. "I pondered on that for awhile—and I thought combining my sense of style with the food I cook is something that I had never necessarily seen done before."
Her new cookbook takes us on a visual food journey that awakens all senses and touches on every aspect of entertaining, from preparing fresh ingredients the right way to plating food beautifully. Just like her own experience of entertaining, the book is divided by seasons, including carefree summer backyard barbecues in addition to moody and cozy fall dinners—all using ingredients that can be purchased at the farmers market. "There's no reason to try to find something that is obviously out of season," she says. "If you can't find it at the farmers market, it means it isn't grown locally. I'm not saying that if you're absolutely craving artichokes in the winter not to make them, but they're not going to be fresh, and they're not going to taste as good. If you can't find it, it means you aren't supposed to be eating it during that time of year."
Take a deep dive into Calderone's culinary universe, including what she's learned as a home cook, how she got out of her comfort zone, how she creates beautiful and delicious original recipes, and how she built a cult following doing what she loves—recipes included.
On Cooking Seasonally
Calderone's entire approach to cooking revolves around entertaining her family and friends, and each season has its own vibe and list of ingredients, so it's no surprise the cookbook is centered around seasonality. "The gatherings that I have in the summer are so much more carefree—in my yard or in our bathing suits from the beach—and the food is casual," explains the author. "In winter, days are longer, and people linger. You get cozier. This got me thinking about how seasonality affects so much of our lives, and I wanted to express that in every form throughout the book. Each chapter has a different hue attached to it. Each has a different vibe with styling, food, and the recipes, of course, bear sentiments of the season."
When the weather cools down, the cook and mother loves to get back to a heartier style of cooking: "Fall is all about roasting vegetables, simmering things down on the stove, and brazing more," she explains. "But I also love that you're still in this transitional season." This in-between season lends itself to a mix of comfort food along with more vibrant summer notes. One of her favorite recipes that displays this transitional season is a braised pork with squash and gremolata: "I love to have some sort of additive element or sauce that kind of juxtaposes the whole dish. This pork recipe just simmers for hours and is flavorful, but it is also kind of rich and fatty. It's crisp and composed and yet cozy and warming."
For Calderone, the perfect fall shopping list involves lemons, a great olive oil, and, of course, squashes: "Delicata squash is probably my favorite fall ingredient because it's only around for fall. You can get acorn squash and butternut squash at any time of year, but Delicata squashes are more elongated, and they have yellow and green stripes. I would encourage anybody to try at any time of year, but especially during fall, to shop at the farmers market because you get to see all these ingredients in the ways that they come out of the earth. You know, like buying carrots with their big bushy tops and apples with their leaves still clinging to them."
On the Importance of Presentation
To Calderone, presentation is just as important as taste when it comes to serving food to the ones you love—something she's become an expert at. In her cookbook, she shares her knowledge through "Swoon Tips" that touch on anything from how to properly brown cauliflower to how to plate a dish family style. "There are little tips like, for instance, when you are roasting cauliflower or any vegetable for that matter, if you overcrowd the roasting pan, they're going to steam against one another," she explains. "Or if you clean them with water, and then put them in the roasting pan with water still attached to it, again they’re going to steam instead of getting a beautiful golden sphere. So I feel like so many tips in my book are cooking tips, but they will also help in visual presentation."
When it comes to plating, she always follows her number one rule: "First of all, you should never put too much on a plate. Especially when serving family style, a lot of times people just pile on so much on the plate. And while that's probably more practical, if you're trying to wow your guests in visual presentation, you should always think about the composition of things. It's just being aware of composition and negative space, and adding texture and color as a finishing touch makes a big difference."
For Calderone, a shaving of parmesan, a dusting of fresh herbs, or a sprinkle of lemon zest can make all the difference in the presentation of a dish: "You know there are certain dishes, especially in winter, that are not the prettiest—mushy or brown or greyish looking—and just adding that little pop of color, as well as texture, makes a big difference. We all know it's so much easier to buy pre-grated parmesan cheese, but if you hand-shave it, then you have some chunkier bits. Those are just a couple of thoughtful things that you can do as a finishing touch that can just kind of elevate the whole plating experience."
On Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone
Calderone's culinary path wasn't a traditional one, but that didn't hinder her to become a top-notch cook. Her secret: getting out of your comfort zone. "My mom used to tease me all the time because when I was an amateur cook and just starting, I was such an avid recipe follower. And when I started cooking, it was baking that first kind of drew me in because baking is so much about the equation and the science. I am a perfectionist, and failure wasn't an option, so I knew that if I could follow exact measurements for baking, then I would have the right results. But the more I explored and would go out to restaurants and taste different dishes, it made me confident to try new things. If I had a dish I liked at a restaurant, I would almost come home the next day and try to do my best to re-create it."
Through writing her first cookbook, her author's culinary skills sharpened even more as she learned how to create recipes from scratch and learned how to manage a team of photographers and food stylists. "I had people test the recipes. I wanted to give people creative license to use their own instincts with their cooking, but then again, I also had to make sure that someone who doesn't cook could follow my recipes easily. Having the recipes tested by other people allowed me to see where I needed to be more descriptive or clearer in the instructions."
Through cooking with chefs a lot, Calderone learned the basics of cooking that many people still lack today, like adding enough salt in the cooking process. "I think that nobody salts their water enough for pasta and vegetables. I see my mom do it all the time— she just adds a little pinch of salt in her water. I learned so much from working beside chefs. I remember with this one chef, he was about to blanch vegetables. It was like peas or something, and he put, like, straight from the Kosher salt, like, half of the box in there, and I was like, 'whoa.' He said, 'you know, that's how you build flavor.' I think that salt is one thing that people don't use enough of to cook."
Get a sneak peek at Calderone's new cookbook, and give one of her favorite fall recipes a try.
Creamy Cauliflower Soup With Dukkah and Watercress Pesto
"When I was a kid, my mom's pureed broccoli soup was my number one cool-weather craving," says Calderone. "My son has clearly inherited some of my taste buds—he's obsessed with this similarly creamy cauliflower version. This soup combines sweet roasted florets with buttery Yukon Gold potatoes and an aromatic trifecta of leeks, garlic, and thyme. The key when pureeing is to add liquid just a little at a time. If the soup becomes too watery, there's no turning back. And to avoid a cauliflower volcano, remember to remove the center insert of your blender, and cover the hole with a kitchen towel so steam can escape."
Ingredients for the creamy cauliflower soup:
1 large head cauliflower (about 2 pounds), cored and cut into bite-size florets
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
2 leeks, white and light green parts only, cut in half lengthwise and rinsed clean
3 sprigs fresh thyme
2 cloves garlic, minced
8 ounces Yukon Gold potatoes (about 3), peeled and quartered
3 cups chicken stock
2/3 cup heavy cream
2 lemons, zested and juiced
Freshly cracked pepper
Watercress-Pistachio Pesto, for serving
Dukkah, for serving
Directions for the creamy cauliflower soup:
Preheat the oven to 425°F.
Spread the cauliflower florets on a baking sheet. Drizzle them generously with oil, season with salt, and toss to coat. Roast for 15 minutes, tossing the cauliflower halfway through. Continue to roast until golden brown, about 15 minutes more.
While the cauliflower is roasting, chop the leeks crosswise into roughly 1/4-inch slices. In a medium saucepan, heat the oil and thyme over medium heat, and sauté the leeks until they are slightly softened (about two minutes). Add the garlic, and cook until soft and fragrant (about two minutes more).
Add the potatoes, stock, cream, 2 cups water, and the roasted cauliflower to the pot. Bring the mixture to a gentle simmer over medium-low heat, and cover, cooking until the potatoes are fork-tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Once the potatoes are tender, remove the thyme stems from the mixture (the leaves should have fallen off during cooking).
Transfer the mixture to a blender, and cover the hole of the blender top with a towel. Blend until the mixture is very smooth. Stir in the lemon juice, and season with 2 teaspoons salt and some pepper. Divide the soup among four bowls, and top it with lemon zest, a swirl of the watercress pesto, and a sprinkle of dukkah.
Ingredients for the watercress-pistachio pesto:
1/3 cup unsalted pistachios, toasted, plus more for garnish
1 1/2 cups packed watercress
3/4 cup packed fresh parsley
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
Zest of 1 lemon
Directions for the watercress-pistachio pesto:
In a food processor, pulse the pistachios, watercress, and parsley until coarsely chopped, about ten pulses. Add the oil and lemon juice, and process until a smooth, loose paste forms, about three 10-second pulses. Transfer the mixture to a bowl, stir in the lemon zest, and season with salt. The pesto will last three to four days when left covered in the refrigerator with a layer of olive oil on top.
Ingredients for the Dukkah:
3/4 cup unsalted pistachios
1/4 cup sesame seeds
2 tbsp. coriander seeds
2 tbsp. cumin seeds
1 tsp. whole black peppercorns
1 tsp. kosher salt
Directions for the Dukkah:
In a small skillet over medium-high heat, toast the pistachios for two minutes until warm. Add the sesame seeds, coriander seeds, and cumin seeds. Continue to toast for two to four minutes or until the seeds are fragrant. Transfer the mixture to a mini food processor along with the peppercorns and salt. Pulse until the pistachios are coarsely chopped. The Dukkah can be used immediately or stored in an airtight container in a cool place for up to one week.
One-Pot Stewed Pork With Butternut Squash and Walnut Gremolata
"There's nothing quite as cozy as the smell of a braise bubbling in the oven on a lazy Sunday afternoon," says the author. "And in my opinion, pork shoulder is the braise to end all braises—it falls apart naturally as it cooks, shredding into the perfect texture. As you might have noticed by now, I love to top my proteins with crunchy, bright finishing sauces, and this gremolata is particularly crunchy and bright. The pomegranates, walnuts, and orange lend a refreshingly vibrant bite to the richly developed flavors of the pork."
Ingredients for the stew:
6 cups peeled and cubed butternut squash
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
1 tbsp. honey
2 tsp. minced habanero chile, divided
Salt and freshly cracked pepper
2 tsp. canola oil
4 pounds boneless pork shoulder
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 onions, chopped
4 carrots, peeled, halved lengthwise, and chopped
4 stalks celery, diced
2/3 cup dry sherry
2 bay leaves
1 bunch fresh sage (1 or 2 sprigs reserved for garnish, leaves chopped)
1 head garlic, halved
6 cups low-sodium chicken stock
2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
Directions for the stew:
Preheat the oven to 425ºF. Place the squash on a baking sheet, and drizzle it with olive oil and honey. Sprinkle with squash with 1 teaspoon of the habanero, and then season with salt and pepper. Toss to evenly coat the squash, and then spread it in a single layer. Roast, tossing halfway through, until golden and crispy (about 30 minutes). Remove from the oven, and let sit at room temperature until ready to use. Lower the oven to 325ºF.
While the squash is roasting, heat the canola oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Trim any excess fat from the pork, pat it dry, and season it generously with salt and pepper. Sear until it's well browned on all sides, 20 to 25 minutes total. Transfer the pork to a plate, and set aside.
Lower the heat, and add 1 tablespoon olive oil, the chopped garlic, onion, and remaining 1 teaspoon habanero. Sauté until the onions are soft and translucent, three to five minutes. Add the carrots and celery, and sauté until they begin to soften (about five minutes). Add the sherry, and use it to deglaze any browned bits that are sticking to the bottom of the pot. When the sherry has reduced by about half, add the bay leaves, sage, and halved garlic head. Add the stock, and bring it to a simmer. Return the pork to the pot. Crumple and wet a piece of parchment paper, and place it directly on top of the braise. Cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid, and place it in the oven. Cook until the pork is tender, about four hours.
Ingredients for the gremolata:
3/4 cup pomegranate seeds
3/4 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped
1/3 cup fresh parsley
3 tbsp. fresh chopped chives
3 tbsp. finely diced shallot
1 orange, zested, plus 3 tbsp. juice
Salt and freshly cracked pepper
Directions for the gremolata:
Toss all of the ingredients together until well combined, and then season with salt and pepper.
When the pork has finished cooking, remove and discard the parchment paper. Transfer the pork to a large plate. Remove and discard the sage, bay leaves, and halved garlic head. Return the pot to the stovetop, and simmer the cooking liquid for five minutes. Add the vinegar, and simmer until the liquid has thickened slightly, about five minutes more. Remove from the heat, cover, and keep warm.
Break the pork into large pieces, discarding any large pieces of fat. Return the pork to the pot, and then add the roasted squash, and toss gently to combine. Taste for seasoning.
Serve the braised pork with a generous spoonful of gremolata and a pinch of chopped sage.
Set the Scene
Slow-Roasted Arctic Char With Cranberry Chutney
"One of my all-time favorite fall outings is visiting the cranberry bog that's just a few miles from our home in Amagansett," says Calderone. "To get there, we stroll down the Walking Dunes Trail and through an otherworldly area known as the Phantom Forest, where 30-foot trees are almost entirely covered by shifting sand. Every year, just before Thanksgiving, we gather as many wild berries as we can carry. While I love them in desserts, this savory chutney might just be my favorite cranberry concoction. The jewel-toned fruit teams up with thyme, shallots, and preserved lemons to create a puckeringly tart counterbalance to creamy acorn squash and rich Arctic char. Hearty and full of fall flavors, it's a perfect pescatarian option for Thanksgiving."
Ingredients for the Arctic char:
1 acorn squash, halved and cut into 1-inch half moons
Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 whole Arctic char fillet (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1 orange, zested; 1/2 juiced
A few sprigs fresh thyme, reserve some leaves for serving
2 tbsp. pepitas, toasted, reserved for serving
Directions for the Arctic char:
Preheat the oven to 425ºF. Spread the squash on a baking sheet, drizzle it with oil, and season with salt and pepper. Roast the squash until golden and crisp on one side, about 15 minutes. Using a spatula, flip the squash, and cook for another five minutes. Reduce the heat to 325ºF.
Remove the squash from the oven, and push it to the perimeter of the baking sheet. Place the Arctic char on the baking sheet, and sprinkle it with the orange juice and half of the orange zest. Drizzle the fish lightly with oil, scatter with the thyme sprigs, and season with salt and pepper. Roast until the fish is cooked through (about 20 minutes).
Ingredients for the cranberry chutney:
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 shallot, finely chopped
A few sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed and roughly chopped
1 tsp. minced habanero chile
2 cups whole cranberries
3/4 cup fresh orange juice, divided, plus more if needed
3 tbsp. turbinado sugar
1 tbsp. orange zest
1 preserved lemon, rind finely chopped, a handful reserved for garnish
Directions for the cranberry chutney:
In a medium saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and shallot, and sauté until soft and translucent. Add the thyme and chile, and sauté one minute. Stir in the cranberries, 1/2 cup of the orange juice, and the sugar. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the cranberries have burst and the sauce has reduced, six to eight minutes (if your cranberries are frozen, this will take eight to 10 minutes). Stir in the orange zest, lemon rind, and remaining 1/4 cup orange juice. If your chutney seems too thick, thin it with additional juice.
Just before serving, garnish the fish with the reserved lemon rind, reserved orange zest, toasted pepitas, and a handful of thyme leaves. Serve the cranberry chutney on the side.
Cardamom-Cognac Apple Cake
"Without fail, as soon as the weather gets crisp, I get the urge to head upstate on an apple-picking adventure," says Calderone. "And also without fail, I end up with an enormous, overflowing bushel of fruit—way more than my little family could ever eat out of hand. One of my favorite ways to make use of them is this classic French apple cake. I started off making a traditional recipe years ago, but I have been experimenting with it pretty much ever since. The result is a moist, bread pudding–like cake—thanks to the addition of buttermilk—that tastes deliciously decadent but not too sweet. Cognac and cardamom add a little something special, but they don't overwhelm the bright, clean apple taste."
Servings: 8 to 10
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp. ground cardamom
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
2 large eggs, at room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3 tbsp. cognac (Calvados, rum, or bourbon work well too)
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/3 cup well-shaken buttermilk, at room temperature
3 medium Honeycrisp apples
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus more for greasing the pan
1 tbsp. turbinado sugar
Confectioner's sugar, for dusting
Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Nestle a piece of parchment paper into an eight- or nine-inch cast-iron pan, and grease it with butter.
In a bowl, whisk together the flour, cardamom, baking powder, and salt. In a separate large bowl, beat the eggs until foamy. Whisk in the granulated sugar, cognac, and vanilla extract. Pour in the buttermilk, and whisk to combine.
Peel, halve, and core 2 1/2 of the apples, and then cut them into 1/2-inch cubes. Reserve the remaining half apple, unpeeled, and cut it into 1/4-inch slices for the top.
Add half of the flour mixture to the wet ingredients, stirring until just combined, and then gently fold in half of the melted butter. Repeat with the remaining flour mixture and melted butter. Gently fold in the cubed apples, reserving the slices. Transfer the batter to the pan, and arrange the apple slices in a circular pattern on top of the batter. Sprinkle with the turbinado sugar. Bake until the cake turns a deep golden brown and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 55 to 65 minutes. Transfer the skillet to a cooling rack, and let it sit for five minutes. The cake may be served warm or at room temperature, directly from the skillet. Whichever you choose, make sure to dust it with confectioner's sugar before serving.
And now, this is what it looks like when fashion girls throw a backyard dinner party.