“I grew up on canned vegetables and processed foods,” says Mary Cunningham, the home-cooking blogger behind The Arugula Files. “Now my goal is to throw away my can opener.”
Cunningham started the blog in March 2008. She says it helps to keep her motivated to shop at the farmers market and learn how to cook with fresh ingredients. “I’ve cooked a lot of vegetables I’d never tried before and learned that I love arugula in everything,” she says. “Parsnips? Not so much.”
Her blog tracks what she buys at the markets and includes recipes as well as photos of her kitchen successes. She also writes about meals out—she favors hole-in-the-wall ethnic places, such as those on The Washingtonian’s Cheap Eats list—and tests recipes from food magazines and cookbooks.
We caught up with Cunningham to get her take on the best and worst home-cooked meals. Read on to see recipes for her favorites, stories of kitchen disasters, and farmers-market ingredients she’s looking forward to for fall.
Rate your cooking skills from 1 to 10—where 1 is a bachelor with Ramen noodles and 10 is Julia Child.
“I’d say 6. I’m not an expert cook, but I try. I tend to make simple food with fresh ingredients. I don’t want to spend five hours making dinner.”
Number of cookbooks you own:
“I own about 12 cookbooks, which I think is a normal amount for an avid home cook. My problem is not collecting cookbooks; it’s too many subscriptions to food magazines. I have about five coming to my mailbox each month.”
Favorite cookbook in your cache:
“Anything by Ina Garten. Fun fact: Did you know she was an examiner at the Office of Management and Budget before she became the Barefoot Contessa?”
Best and worst recipes you’ve ever tried:
“Best: my Uncle Sonny’s eggplant Parmesan. Worst: anytime I attempt making something with yeast in it. Making bread is wicked hard. I’ve tried those no-knead bread recipes and ended up with a giant rock on my counter.”
Best recipe you’ve ever invented:
“Blueberry-and-crème-fraîche ice cream.”
Biggest kitchen disaster:
“I once attempted to make Jamaican jerk chicken with some Walkerswood spice that I bought in Jamaica. I didn’t read the directions and used the entire spice jar for a few pieces of chicken. Let’s just say that the chicken was so spicy and hot that there was steam coming out of my ears. We had cabbage for dinner that night.”
Advice for newbies in the kitchen:
“Use fresh herbs, and don’t crowd the pan.”
Pantry item you most frequently run out of:
Embarrassingly simple recipe that always impresses guests:
“Spinach-and-artichoke dip—what a crowd pleaser. My mom’s meatballs are popular, too.”
Pain-in-the-ass dessert that’s worth the hassle:
Best cocktail you’ve ever made:
“How about the best I’ve ever had? The martini caprese at Firefly. From what I gathered from the mixologist, the drink is made with basil-and-thyme-infused vodka and tomato water, and it’s garnished with a basil leaf, cherry tomato, and mozzarella. It’s light, refreshing, and tastes like a giant salad with alcohol. What could be better?”
Favorite farmers market in Washington:
“A toss-up: Dupont Circle or 14th and U streets, Northwest.”
Fall ingredient you’re looking forward to at the farmers market:
“I can’t wait for Brussels sprouts. I hated them as a kid but love them as an adult. I think people who don’t like Brussels sprouts have never tasted a batch that’s perfectly cooked. Of course, soggy, previously frozen Brussels sprouts taste horrible. Buy them fresh at the market and roast them in your oven with a little bit of olive oil and kosher salt. You can also make them Cajun style by adding lemon, butter, bread crumbs, and some Cajun spices. Delicious!”
What to do with leftovers:
“Mix with eggs, cheese, and fresh herbs—dinner is served.”
What you’d eat for your last meal:
“Arugula-and-apple salad with lemon vinaigrette, stuffed mushrooms, pasta carbonara with Parmigiano-Reggiano, garlic bread, and a bottle of Pinot Grigio.”
Kitchen appliance or tool you can’t live without:
“I couldn’t live without a sharp knife. Someday I’d like some counter space, but for now I do okay in my tiny kitchen.”
Favorite local food blog besides your own:
“I love reading about Gradually Greener’s urban garden, and I really enjoy the food porn at Houndstooth Gourmet. If I want to stay on top of new restaurant openings, I read Metrocurean or Capital Spice.”
Next week, we go fashion crazy with Belle from Capitol Hill Style. Come back next week to hear her thoughts on Washington fashion, who she pegs as local style icons, and where she shops for bargains and splurges.
Have a favorite local blogger you’d like to hear from? Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with suggestions.