I Cooked for Stevie Wonder: Makini Howell Redefines Vegan | Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street

Episode 410
April 8, 2022

I Cooked for Stevie Wonder: Makini Howell Redefines Vegan

I Cooked for Stevie Wonder: Makini Howell Redefines Vegan

In 2015, chef Makini Howell took a sabbatical from her vegan food empire to cook for Stevie Wonder on tour. We discuss her unique take on vegan cooking and what she learned during her year on the road. Plus, we discover the strange history of flavor science; Adam Gopnik reveals J.D. Salinger’s favorite recipe for popcorn salt; and we learn Croatia’s secret to perfect cabbage rolls. (Originally aired March 27, 2020).

Questions in this Episode:

“I recently adopted a 30-year old sourdough starter from a neighbor. It makes good pancakes but it’s not that funky. Is there a safe way to get more funk in there?”

“You and Sara often talk about the quality of spices and flours. But nobody ever really talks about sugar. When you go into the store, the price of the sugar from the local vendor is usually half the price as the name brand vendor. Is there really a difference?”

"When I was little my grandmother and mother frequently took me to Childs restaurant on Queens Boulevard in Forest Hills, Queens, NYC where I always ordered waffles. The waffles had a tangy sharp taste that I’ve been searching for. I’ve tried yeast waffles, malt waffles, and buttermilk waffles. I’m out of ideas. Do you have any suggestions?

“My wife uses hot water from the kitchen faucet as a quick solution for obtaining hot water required in recipes. My question—is this possibly adding dissolved chemicals or an off-taste to recipes that require hot water?”

“I used some old melting chocolate that had ‘white ash’ on it. Since it melted to the proper color I used it to coat some candies. However, they dried with the ash. What is it, and is it edible?”

Milk Street Radio Makini

Christopher Kimball: This is Milk Street Radio from PRX. I'm your host Christopher Kimball. In 2015, Chef Makini Howell took a sabbatical from her vegan food empire to cook for Stevie Wonder on tour. Today we discuss her unique take on vegan cooking, and what she learned during her year on the road.

Makini Howell: Oh, I learned how to cook. I learned how to be a really good cook. I was a chef when I left here, and I was a little bit fancy. But after I left that tour, I can teach you how to be vegan for the rest of your life if that's what you wanted, having all of the good things of life.

CK: Also coming up Adam Gopnik and I discuss food and literature, and we learn Croatia's secret to perfect cabbage rolls. But first, it's my interview with historian and writer, Nadia Bernstein. Nadia, welcome to Milk Street.

Nadia Bernstein: Thank you so much for having me, Chris.

CK: We're talking about one of my favorite topics, which is the food industry in America going back to the beginning of synthetic flavors in the 19th century. So, let's get into the weird history. (Sure) castoreum I don't know if I pronounced that properly, but I read that I almost fell off my chair. So, this comes from a beaver and beavers were hunted, I thought because of beaver hats. But I guess for this, what is castoreum? And where does it come from and how is it used?

NB: Okay, so let me tell you about how I found out about this ingredient. When I first started writing about and talking about the history of of artificial flavors. I sometimes get this weird question from somebody in the audience. Somebody raised their hand and say is fake vanilla actually beaver butt and I was and the first time I heard it; I was a little bit taken aback. I was like, no, (um) but I looked into it a bit. And the thing that's being called Beaver butt is an ingredient called castoreum that isn't actually derived from the beaver anal gland, but from a gland next to the animal gland. So, you know near butt but not quite butt

CK: An important distinction we might add

NB: Yes, very important distinction and beavers use it to to mark their territory, and for other beaver-ish things. But it has long been an important ingredient in perfumery, as other animal Musk's have been. And there's a lot of overlap between perfumery and flavors. So historically, it's a very expensive ingredient. You know, once I figured this out this part of the perfume part of the story, I started answering the question of is fake vanilla really beaver butt with no beaver butt is way too expensive to be used in fake vanilla.

CK: But then, what was it used for a while for that?

NB: Well, I started looking a little bit deeper into the history of vanilla flavors, especially before the Pure Food and Drug Act. And I saw that sometimes musk would be listed as an ingredient that specifically beaver musk, just musk a small amount. And then I started talking to flavorist, especially older flavorist about this. And one flavorist told me he had trained at one of the big flavor houses in the 1970s flavorists by the way are the crafts people really who who build the artificial flavors, or the natural flavors, the flavor additives in foods and beverages. He was a novice and the flavorist who he was training under made him prepare castoreum extract as part of one of the routine tasks of learning how to do it. So, he got kind of this tray of beaver glandular sacs, and he had to turn them into an extract.

CK: But this is what they do the new guy, right?

NB: Yeah, totally

CK: On your first day. Here's some beaver sacs we want you to extract the compound.

NB: Well, his his the master flavorist was training him said I had you do that to see if you had the heart of a flavorist. So, when it was used in flavors, which was rarely it was used in really small quantities, just kind of to add a sort of nuance maybe to the very best vanilla flavorings

CK: It had a certain j’nais se quoi.

NB: Yeah, so I think it was also used sometimes in raspberry flavorings. But what I found was that in the 80s, it's it almost stopped being used entirely. In fact, I couldn't find anybody who had any memory of ever using it who worked in the industry, for the reason that in the 80s a bunch of the big food and beverage companies started striving to make their products kosher

CK: and beaver butt is not kosher.

NB: It’s many things but it is not kosher.

CK: Okay, so let's fast forward to today's world where artificial is a real problem for a lot of food manufacturers. You mentioned that Trix cereal, tried to switch to natural colors, and ditch the high fructose corn syrup. And that really didn't work out too well for them because they got really dull colors. So, what is the industry doing now that they've created, you know, three or 4000, artificial flavors, and colors. And now a lot of consumers want products that don't have them.

NB: It depends on like, on the case, anybody who's gone to a supermarket within the past five years, has almost certainly noticed that all kinds of familiar brands now are proclaiming nothing artificial, right, no artificial flavors, even things where it just seems so ridiculous, like, natural Cheetos.

CK: Right. So, what are all-natural Cheetos? What does that mean?

NB: Well, I can't really answer that. In fact, nobody can natural flavors are defined, right? If you look on an ingredient list, and you see an item that says natural flavors, there's actually you can go to the Code of Federal Regulations, and you can read what that means. It means fruits, leaves, skins, seeds, some natural Yes, exactly. And artificial is everything else. But there's a lot of ingredients that kind of straddle the line, or ways of processing that kind of straddle the line. A major class action court case recently, in the past 10 or so years has been about orange juice, Tropicana orange juice, it's is it’s 100% juice? Well, it is, but it's actually juice that's been recombined with flavor packs, right. So basically, it's been everything in it comes from oranges. But it's been processed to a degree that some consumers claim that it no longer counts as a natural product.

CK: So, the conundrum here is what is natural, right, because as you said, it may all be derived from a plant or from a fruit. But there's a lot of processing going on. So, it may be natural, but it's heavily processed. The second thing is if a Cheeto is natural, doesn't mean it's good for you. (Nope) it's still a Cheeto, which probably is not very good for you. So, there's a lot of complexity here in terms of if the consumer wants to eat foods that are good for them. Just because there's natural is no guarantee that's good for you. Right?

NB: Right, absolutely. While the definition of natural is still sort of up in the air, it carries so much cultural meaning we associate it with the kinds of images that you see on the front of packages of foods that call themselves natural, right, pastoral groves, and this kind of harmlessness and this kind of good for you-ness, right, that you you can you feel safe, assuming that something natural is good for you and also good for the planet. And I think that when you look at the way that the the kind of environmental cost, for instance, of relying on an all-natural food chain, or things that kind of reasonably fall into what we consider natural, that cost might be much higher than using processing technologies or ingredients that we might consider synthetic. So, there's always a kind of balance here.

CK: Nadia, thank you so much for being on Milk Street. I, I don't know how I feel about artificial, but I know more about it. Thank you so much.

NB: Thank you. This was really fun.

CK: That was Nadia Bernstein. She's currently working on a book based on her dissertation, recounting the history of flavor science and the flavor industry. Right now, my co-host, Sara Moulton, I will be taking a few of your culinary questions. Sara is of course the author of Home Cooking One on One, also star of Sara's Weeknight Meals on public television. Sara, before we open the phone lines, here's my question. You're a French cook or trained in French. All the mother sauces you learned right in cooking school and in restaurants. Do you use any of those anymore or any adaptation of those?

Sara Moulton: Well, I absolutely make Bearnaise all the time. That's, you know, take off on hollandaise. That's not a mother sauce, but it's a variation of a mother. I also like mayonnaise. I like those two very much. I guess that's about it. I make marinara but that's not the mother sauce. That’s Italian.

CK: I think I knew the answer that but now it's time to take some calls. Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: Hi, this is Samantha from Sacramento.

CK: How are you?

Caller: Good. How are you doing?

CK: I'm doing great. How can we help you?

Caller: Okay, well, I love the taste of sourdough and a neighbor gave me a sourdough starter that's over 30 years old. It makes good pancakes. It's just not that funky. I'm pretty disappointed. I'm wondering if there's a safe way to make a sourdough starter funkier.

CK: The first thing which you're not going to want to hear is maybe you shouldn't use that sourdough starter. All sourdough starters are different, right? So, they all have different flavors. So, you just happen to have one that maybe is not funky enough for you. So, you could start all over again. There are a few things we've learned though, which does make sourdough funkier different flours like whole grains flours, like whole wheat or rye will give you more flavor because of the complex carbohydrates in them. If you don't feed your sourdough as often, it makes it a little more acidic, and a little funkier it's like you know, you have a dog that needs to lose weight, have to just like feed them as much. And also, the liquid that rises to the top of the starter is really sour. So, if you really want to make the starter more sour, mix that right back in. The only thing that's typical of bread baking is, the slower the ferment, the more flavors developed. So, when I make pizza dough, for example, it will sit in the fridge for three days, then I'll take it out and let it warm up for a couple hours. When you take out part of that sourdough starter, and you make a new recipe. When you make the new recipe. If you give it three days or two days in the fridge, then take it out and let it finish rising. That long period of slow fermenting. Slow fermenting is a way of building flavor. So those are a few things. But ultimately, you could just go buy a starter, and you might like the flavor. And Sara's

SM: I'm completely out of my league here. I have to be honest; I've never made sourdough bread and I don't know all the ins and outs.

CK: Well, another place. You know, one other suggestion, actually some people were down from King Arthur Flour in Vermont. They have hotlines there with people who actually know a lot about

SM: Yeah, they're fantastic.

CK: So, I would also call them but that's a just trying a different starter would be the first thing I would do just to see if you like it. But the long ferments and using some more complex flours like whole wheat, rye, etc. That will add a lot of flavor. (Yeah)

Caller: Perfect.

CK: Yeah. Make sure it's not been sitting there at room temperature for months though, because rice flour and whole wheat flour do go bad

SM: go off pretty rancid. Yeah.

CK: So, you want to make sure it's okay.

Caller: Okay, that's good to know. So, I was wrong in assuming that since the starter is so old that it would be funky. I could get a new one that's funkier possibly.

CK: Well, sourdoughs are like people, you know, they all have a personality. So, it just depends on the starter. Yeah, try new one.

SM: Alright, Samantha thank you

Caller: Great to know. Thank you.

CK: Okay, your pleasure.

Caller: Such an honor to talk to you both.

SM: Bye

CK: Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: My name is Jill.

CK: Hi, Jill, where you calling from?

Caller: I'm calling from Crown Point, Indiana, which is near Chicago. Thanks for taking my call.

CK: Pleasure. How can we help you?

Caller: My question concerns the quality of sugars. You and Sara talked frequently about the quality of spices and definitely the quality of the flowers. But nobody ever really talks about sugar. And when you go into the store, the price of the sugar from the local vendor is usually half the price from what you would call I don't know the quality vendor. Right, which in this in the Midwest is going to be Domino? Is there really a difference?

CK: That's an excellent question. I remember when I got started in the 1970s. It was a big controversy about beet sugar versus cane sugar. And so, I bought beet sugar and cane sugar and couldn't tell the difference in baking. And then I started using palm sugar and coconut sugar and sort of unrefined sugar like at Whole Foods, for example, they don't sell Domino, they sell something that's less refined. And I use that all the time in baking by weight. And I find there's no difference in my baking. So, the short answer is, if you're talking about white processed sugar, I don't think you're going to find a difference in your baking. However, for flavor reasons, coconut sugar, other kinds of sugar, palm sugar, those add a lot of flavor and they're a nice substitute for light and dark brown sugar for example. But I don't believe, and I know there's some studies have been done on this that the brand of white sugar matters in baking, right? I don't think one is more hygroscopic that is it attracts liquid more than than another. I think it's pretty much the same. Yeah,

SM: I think what is pretty true is Domino is cane sugar, and most of the rest of the stuff is beet. Yeah, I haven't noticed any difference myself. I'm pretty sure that most bakers do not care.

Caller: I'm not the kind of baker who's going to make you know, the sugar whips on top of things. I just bake bread and I bake cookies and the occasional cake and brownies and things. And you know, you go out of your way to buy the good stuff and I just stared at the two kinds of sugar and just wondered hmm, does this make a difference? So let me ask the question. You intrigued me with this coconut and palm sugar when you say it’s got more flavor and it can substitute for light or dark sugar, does it have fewer calories of sugar? I'm diabetic, so is there a difference?

CK: I can't answer that question. I would doubt it has less. Okay, I use it my coffee, for example. I just has a lot more flavor. It's very dark brown, it tends to be a little finer. I don't know what the calorie count is.

Caller: Okay. Thank you very much for your time. I appreciate it.

CK: Thanks for calling.

SM: Thank you. Bye. Bye.

Caller: Bye. Bye.

CK: This is Milk Street Radio. If you have a cooking question, give us a call anytime 855-426-9843 855-426-9843 or email us at questions at Milk Street radio.com.

SM: Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: Hi, my name is Deb.

CK: Hi. How can we help are you?

Caller: I'm good. How are you?

CK: Well, we'll see if we can answer your question that always and then then we'll cheers me right.

SM: I'm going to be very good.

Caller: Okay, so when I was growing up in the early 60s, my grandmother and mother used to take me regularly to a lunch net. I always ordered waffles, and they had a tangy almost sharp, tastes like a bite to them. And I have been trying to reproduce that taste for most of my adult life and I cannot do it.

SM: I mean, the obvious question, but I know you've already gone there is buttermilk. You've tried buttermilk.

Caller: I've tried butter milk. I've tried yeasted waffles. I've tried someone recommended malt. Right, which I tried. But it had almost a bite to it that I cannot recreate.

CK: There's one thing you haven't mentioned, which is the world's most difficult waffle recipe which sourdough sourdough would have that tang? I don't think a place like that would making sourdough waffles. I think that's kind of crazy. Yeah, maybe they made waffles out of the milk that had soured. Like sour milk was a typical recipe right and a lot of baking back in the 19th century. Maybe they just use soured milk. That actually could be yeah, but the buttermilk is what I would think would be obvious choice too. And you that didn't do it?

Caller: Well, again, I'm using commercial buttermilk. So maybe they made their own butter milk.

CK: I don't know. I would think in the early 60s, buttermilk was quite different than it is now. That makes the most sense to me. And the kind of buttermilk there was using was tangier than what we have today. That's possible. That would be my best guess because I think the sourdough thing is just not reasonable.

Caller: I guess I can look at recipes for making your own buttermilk.

SM: What about adding some sour cream?

CK: Yeah, well, that's the other possibilities. Well, there we go. That's an excellent buttermilk and sour cream. That's the other part.

Caller: Yeah. I think I came across a Betty Crocker recipe with sour cream.

CK: Yeah. Well, I think that's an excellent suggestion. Yeah, that would be Yang. Yeah. And that's an easy thing to do. Yeah, I would do that.

Caller: Delicious. Yes. If wasn't the same one.

CK: You want to spend two hours churning your own butter just to get some buttermilk to try buttermilk? Waffles. That's a little. That's a little on the stream. Yeah. Yeah. Sour cream. I think of all the things we said sour cream.

SM: Alright and let us know how it goes. Okay, pork back, please. All right. Okay. Okay. Bye bye.

CK: You're listening to Milk Street Radio. Up next, we hear from Chef Makini Howell about vegan cooking. And a year on the road with Stevie Wonder. That and more in just a moment this is Milk Street Radio. I'm your host Christopher Kimball. Right now, it's my interview with Makini Howell. She was raised in a vegan family that's been in the vegan food business since the 1970s. Her Seattle based restaurants and shops include Plum Bistro, also Sugar Plum. In 2015 she was Stevie Wonder’s chef for Songs in the Key of Life tour. Makini, welcome to Milk Street.

Makini Howell: Thank you for having me.

CK: So as a former menswear designer, you obviously think about color. And I love this quote, about food. You said, “there's a lot of color in food, but you have to look for it”. So, it's part of making this food appeared delicious and inviting the color and how you present it.

MH: Well, I have a theory on food like music or anything else that you put yourself into doing. I think that mediums like food are a representation of the individual. And if you look for the brightness and the deliciousness of life, you can find that in plants and you can then replicate that on the plate. So, you know, there's a potato, or there's a yam and there's a sweet potato, and there's a purple sweet potato in this. I mean, there's so much variety, that you just have to look for it and represent it well. And I believe that you should do that in anything you do. I was a designer like that. I think that music is like that. I think that when, you know, when people are truly popular in music, their music represents who they truly are. And I think when you create food that touches people's soul, it really represents who you truly are and what you feel about it, whether it's bright or exciting, are craveable or addictive, or those are all facets of the individual that is making the thing I think

CK: So here you are with restaurants and food trucks, and you're in the process of opening a dessert place. And all of a sudden, Stevie Wonder comes to you and says, hey, join me on tour, was that a tough decision, or that was a snap decision?

MH: But by the time he came in, I had already built quite a good foundation for the business so, it wasn't as trepidatious as just trying to open a store and then leaving, although it's still, you know, the decision did I did have to weigh in, and I only had about three days. But I do think that the reward was worth it. You know, you you just don't know you have to, you got to try. And you got to try knowing that you're willing to risk it messing up. But I felt like I should try. And I'm so glad that I did.

CK: So, about 10 years ago, I actually catered a Grateful Dead concert. This obviously after Jerry died. And I had to say the experience although the band was lovely, was very different than I thought it's not that glamorous, being behind the scenes on tour. Did you find the same thing when you were catering for Stevie Wonder?

MH: That was not my experience. My experience was amazing. First of all, I was his personal chef. So I was on a very small team, I was on a team with him and four other men. I was on an all-male team. I was the next youngest person was like 17 years older than me. So, they were a different, they were a different generation. And they I mean, you know, Stevie Wonder saying it, Martin Luther King, he sang on the March on Washington, he sang the happy birthday song he said, so he came from a different generation of people. And so back to what I was saying about when you create music, how it comes from inside of you, every word that he sings, when every song that you've ever heard is truly him, everything that you hear about his love for humanity, and how we should be as humans, that's truly him. And that's truly how he treats everyone. So, it was an eye-opening experience in that I got to see America through the eyes of a black American that loves this country, that has fought for this country in so many ways for so many years. And so, when you travel with someone like that, that means so much to so many people it any erases color. It erases gender. And you see, you see what we actually all hope is there.

CK: Let's talk about you. You write or talk about we were Rastafarian; we were vegan. We were homeschooled. So, you started out life early, deeply embedded in the vegan philosophy, right? (Yes) And is that something that you ever wavered from, or that's just been part of your life so long that that's just a central tenet of how you view food and cooking and living.

MH: It's been a part of my life so long that it is an essential tenet. You know, it's when you're a kid and you're like, when I get gone and do what I want to do. My mom can't tell me what to do. But then when you get grown, you're like, oh, well, actually, she had a better idea. So, what my parents gave me was this thing, like 20 years ahead of anybody else having it. And so now, as I am cooking in the world, I realized people don't really know what to do with plants. But millennials and Gen Z. those guys refuse to eat anything that has a face, and there's so many of them and, they're looking for something that's good. And it's such a supportive generation and no rally behind you. They just want something. And so many people are so lost as to how to provide it. And so having this thing it would have been i i realized a long time ago, but I see now, what an advantage my parents gave me by giving me this, this thing, this idea of this plant-based diet and these restaurant concepts and how you can turn this into familiar cultural American food.

CK: What do you think about the burger replacements out there? Do you think that's that's something that's here to stay? And is a good idea or not?

MH: (Um) I don't know how long the meat replacement is going to stay. I do think that it's a good idea because I think that what the meat replacement burger does for people is it gives them some familiar substance that helps them to step into veganism a little bit easier.

CK: It's an entry point.

MH: Yeah, it gives them a way to understand veganism versus going from can you imagine I don't know if you're a meat eater or not. But can you imagine like enjoying steaks all the time? And then somebody telling you, oh, no, you actually have to be raw. For the next however long, you're going to go into shock. Shock. You're going to really want that steak. But if you have, you know, a variety of things that can help you get where you're going, it's going to be easier for you to make that transition. And so, I think that all of the things that exist inside of the plant-based world are necessary. Yes, I do.

CK: Now, you said I think that Stevie Wonder had been a vegan for just a couple of years before you started cooking for him. Did you, what did you learn about your art cooking for him? Did you?

MH: Oh, I learned how to cook. I learned how to be a really good cook. I was a chef when I left here. And I was a little bit fancy. I thought I knew what I was doing. I learned how to care for someone, and you learn how to cook when you are on a tour like that, especially when you're an individual's personal chef. So, I had to cook breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, I had to do beverages and teas. After I left that tour, I could teach you how to be vegan for the rest of your life, if that's what you wanted. Having all of the good things of life, like, you know, French toast for breakfast, or scrambles for breakfast, or, you know, I did all different types of tofu and satays and grains and legumes for dinner. And when you have to cook for somebody every day, you really understand how to create variety and a satisfying meal every day. It's like having you know, I guess I guess I don't have one yet. But I would assume it's like when you have a family, and you cook every day. You know it's fuel. And so, it has to taste good and has to feel good. It has to hit the spot and it has to you have to be all of those things.

CK: A few recipes. You mentioned bacon-ish vinaigrette what is bacon-ish vinaigrette mean?

MH: It's a smoked tofu bacon. So, we take a tofu, and we smoke it and we call it a bacon and then I make a dressing with vinegar, stone ground mustard, some fresh herbs, so it's like a smoky vinaigrette.

CK: And you also mentioned hillside quickie sandwiches that your mother created what are those?

MH: Tofu sandwiches. So, my mom created the first tofu sandwich in the natural food market here in the Northwest. When we were little, we she homeschooled us and we worked in our family business. And it was we had to deliver sandwiches. We were the earthy crunchy vegans.

CK: So, let's assume you're talking to someone who's not a vegan or vegetarian, but is thinking about going in that direction. Do you have a couple things you could say to people about how you would put together a plant-based dinner fairly quickly?

MH: Well, you know, I think I think that we overthink veganism, I think that all of the things that make regular food good, also make plant-based food good. So, you have to make sure that you have enough salt, fat acid heat, you have to make sure that you know it's juicy enough, it's saucy enough and if you know how to cook, stop thinking about it as like, oh my god, I have to cook vegan food. Just start thinking about what are the elements that you could replace. Say for instance, something as basic as spaghetti and meatballs. If you already make a killer sauce, you know, all you have to do is replace the meatballs with plant meat. Replace the cheese with a plant cheese, and boom, you got a vegan dish. So don't overthink it. And don't try to make it too fancy or something that you wouldn't eat like I had this, (um) celery root hash. And I was like that tastes terrible in your regular life, so why would you give that to me as a vegan, okay? Like don't give the vegan something that you would not eat in your real life. Think about the things that are good to you every day and start to think about the replacements and if you think about it, most people eat a vegan carrot and most people eat vegan potatoes. Most people you know, there are things that

CK: What I really love about you is your vegan with attitude. I mean, you're going to live why would I eat the celery root? Normally? No.

MH: Who would. would you?

CK: No, that and turnips are not high on my list of favorite things

MH: No, they're not high on anybody's list. They don't taste good not to beat down the lowly celery root. But you got to work with it

CK: You puree it with like potatoes, right?

MH: And then it's good.

CK: Then add some fat. And it's it's a nice dish, right. Absolutely.

MH: Yeah, you got to get rid of that bitter taste. But don't just give a person a bowl of celery root hash.

CK: Good, good for you. You've made it very clear that the restaurant business can be hell. It's very tough.

MH: Yes. God

CK: Looking back, you know, what, what have you learned from this is this were all these things necessary trials you just had to get through to become successful at this. Or maybe you would have taken a different path.

MH: So, I think when you have a crazy idea to change the world, you do have to go through adversity. And I honestly think that in a few years, hopefully, we'll change our opinion on veganism. It'll it'll add a point be insane that we ever thought that it was not okay to be largely plant based, because what are we doing to our planet? Like, we all have to live here together. And so, I think that the way that things are occurring to us today about some of our archaic thoughts, it will occur to us shortly about how we think about what we eat.

CK: Makini what a pleasure having you on Milk Street. Maybe someday we'll sit down and have a meal.

MH: Thank you. I hope so.

CK: That was Makini Howell owner and a chef at several Seattle based restaurants and shops, including Plum Bistro, Plum, Chopped and Sugar Plum. In 2013 she published a cookbook titled Plum: Gratifying Vegan Dishes from Seattle's Plum Bistro. Stevie Wonder liked his comfort foods while touring which made me wonder what other musicians have stocked in their dressing rooms. So according to Taste of Home magazine, Carrie Underwood has three types of hummus. Justin Bieber goes for bread, deli meats and Swedish Fish. Beyonce loves baked chicken well-seasoned with garlic. It's Guinness for Will Ferrell. Mariah Carey goes for wine and Gatorade hopefully not mixed and Lady Gaga as for quote, non-smelly non sweaty cheese, plus roast chicken, and guacamole. The last time I was backstage, all I got was a cup of tea and an old Powerbar so maybe I need to take singing lessons. It's time to head into the kitchen at Milk Street to chat with JM Hirsch about this week's recipe. Paprika pork stuffed cabbage. J M how are you?

J M Hirsch: I'm doing great.

CK: So, this is a story about Zagreb, I guess because you were just there. I was there in 1971 a little bit before you were born

J M: A little before my time.

CK: I was changing trains. So, I think I had some blood sausage in my backpack. You seem to fare better. You actually had a good meal. So, what did you eat?

JM: Yeah. You know, I had to look though because in Croatia, you know, meat is not so much of food as a full-frontal assault. But with little digging, I did find sarma which is the Croatian version of a stuffed cabbage leaf. But it's nothing like any cabbage leaf I've ever had. These were tender and tangy leaves that were not rubbery, like I'm used to here. And the filling was meaty and rich and had tons of paprika in it. And it also had the same Tanginess that was on the outside and the cabbage leaf itself. It was a completely different experience

CK: Are these pickled cabbage leaves, when you say tangy, what does that mean?

JM: Yeah, exactly. They're fermented and actually what they do is they do a yearlong fermentation of whole heads of green cabbage. And then they take those leaves they peel them off. They stuffed them in the cook them in a very paprika rich sauces. Incredible.

CK: So, if you go to someone's home, there's a big cabbage barrel in the basement.

JM: Exactly. Yes, exactly.

CK: And so why is the filling also tangy?

JM: So, what they do is they chop up a little bit of that cabbage, they mix it in with the rice and the ground pork. And then they stuffed that in and then they use even more of that diced up cabbage in the sauce itself.

CK: So, since we don't pickle whole heads of cabbage at Milk Street

JM: We do not, exactly no

CK: What is our go to fixer?

JM: Actually, it was an easy fix. We take just like they do that we take the whole head of green cabbage, and we simmer it in seasoned water with vinegar. And the vinegar does the same that gives you that kind of tangy flavor, but it also helps break down the leaves but they're nice and tender when you wrap them.

CK: So, this is the classic casserole where you stuff the leaves put them in a baking dish into the oven. Is that the process?

JM: Pretty much. Yeah, I mean with a whole lot of sweet paprika. We use almost four tablespoons for the whole recipe. And we precooked the rice a little bit so that it cooks in the same time as the rest of it. And again, the real distinguishing factor though is those cabbage leaves, and you tenderize them you give them a really tangy flavor and they are fantastic.

CK: Any sauce with this?

JM: Yep, it's again it's using some of the cabbage just like we learned Croatia with a lot of paprika, and some of the water that we used to cook the rice. It's got some nice starchiness to it so that comes up as it cooks.

CK: So direct from Zagreb, you had a better culinary experience than I did 50 years later. Paprika pork stuffed cabbage. Thank you, J M.

JM: Thank you. You can get this recipe for paprika pork stuffed cabbage at Milk Street Radio.com

CK: This is Milk Street Radio coming up. Adam Gopnik reveals JD Salinger's recipe for popcorn salt, and more favorite foods from our literary heroes. We'll be right back.

I'm Christopher Kimball and you're listening to Milk Street Radio. Up next, Sara Moulton and I will be answering a few more of your cooking questions.

SM: Welcome to Milk Street, who's calling?

Caller: Hi, my name is Kevin .

SM: And where are you calling from Kevin?

Caller I'm calling from LaGrange, Kentucky.

SM: How can we help you today?

Caller: Well, I have a question that involves something which would seem rather simple, which is hot water. My question is my wife when she is cooking, and she's an excellent cook. But when she has a recipe that needs hot or warm water, especially warm water, what she'll do is use water directly from the tap. And I have a question about that. Because I've had to drain a hot water heater before, and I see all the stuff that means forming them all that crunchy stuff. So, I guess my question is because you know, hot water heaters have they have a sacrificial magnesium anode and they've got all these crunchy stuff in them? Does doing this notably change the face of the water?

SM: Get into the food?

Caller: Yes.

SM: Well, not just that it's just not as healthy. I mean, it sort of depends on your pipes and where you live and what's going on. But hot water dissolves contaminants more quickly than cold water. So no, I think you are right, and that you should not be using the hot water. She should get cold water and then heat it up, Chris?

CK: you're right, the hot water heater. If you've ever drained one, and I have, it's scary, it's very scary. And so, you're better off with cold water. We've also done I've done tests years ago where we were making bread and using bottled water versus tap water. And we could actually tell the difference in some breads. That being said, if you know, once a month, you use half a cup of warm water from the tap, it's not going to hurt anybody. But in general, I agree you want to use start with cold water or use bottled water if it's something where water is going to be important part of the recipe. Yeah, or filtered water?

SM: Yes.

Caller: I've always wondered about that. And I thought well, I'll just ask the question of you guys.

CK: Actually, I have a question for you. My wife is also very good cook. And the question is, how do you get your significant other to change something they do in the kitchen? And they actually change without getting mad at you? Do you have a psychological help?

SM: He's got an advantage here in that he can ask us and what we say matters to his wife.

CK: Well, maybe not

SM: Where's what you say to your wife doesn't matter at all.

CK: That's absolutely true.

SM: I'm sorry. We have to find a different expert for you.

CK: I can say no, I've got it. I can say Kevin, I call Kevin. And he said you should use a wok for this recipe. Not a skillet.

SM: Okay. And she'll say Who the heck is Kevin?

CK: Well, I'll just say Kevin's the expert

SM: The wok expert. Okay.

CK: Okay.

SM: Okay.

CK: Thanks, Kevin.

Caller: Thank you all very much

CK: Take care.

SM: Bye. Bye.

Caller: Bye. Bye

CK: How do you do? I mean,

SM: He doesn't cook.

CK: I know. But you're married. So, you

SM: have little fights yeah.

CK: He does things that are annoying. So, you obviously have to pick your fights but do have a psychological approach that works.

SM: It's very, very indirect.

CK: Yeah, very smart.

SM: So, you know, like, one of the things he does is we collect the New York Times and they pile up and pile up and pile up and you know, maybe one day I'll sort of accidentally knock them over when I walk by. And he'll notice so you know, things like that.

CK: But you don't do things like you someone once told me that leaving piles in newspapers around fire hazard.

SM: No, that would not work. Right. Anyway, moving on. Next call.

CK: Next call. Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: Hi, this is Mel and I live in Mesa, Arizona.

CK: How can we help you?

Caller: I started making candies. And I wanted to use up some leftover melting chocolate. And it had a white ash on it that disappeared when I melted it reappeared when it cooled. And my question is, what is it and is it bad for you?

CK: It's cocoa butter crystals, which end up on the surface because the chocolate was stored in too cool or too hot a location. You can just eat it

Caller: Arizona too hot,

CK: Too hot, of course. So don't put it in the fridge but keep it in a cool dry place. You can melt it and use it in a brownie for example, or a cake.

Caller: Oh Okay,

CK: But for dipping, for example, that's not going to work because as the melted chocolate cools, the fat structure has changed permanently, and those crystals are going to reappear. It's fine for baking a cake. Okay, it's not poisonous

Caller: It’s not harmful to eat. It's just not pretty.

CK: You could actually, I mean, sometimes I have a bar of chocolate and I'm baking, and I noticed it's got white, and then I can just eat it. That's good news. Yeah, I don't have to bake with it. Right? It's strictly visual with that. I can live with that too. So well don't worry about it

SM: The the thing is, you know those beautiful bon bons, you get an A chocolate store where the chocolate seems to snap when you bite into it. That's been tempered. Yeah, this whole process. And the thing about chocolate that's, you know, got the bloom on it. It's not bad for you, but it's going to have that bloom. And also, it's not going to have that snap that you want. You could get regular chocolate and temper yourself before you use it to dip into. As a matter of fact, Jacques Torres, who's a wonderful chocolatier. He has a method for tempering chocolate in a microwave (really) Yeah, that's really pretty cool. So, you might have since we're talking about chocolate, you might want to just Google it and find it and try it sometime yourself to see since it sounds like you maybe you're going to make chocolate candies again, in which case you're going to want it to be tempered just so it looks nice. But just to boil it down to the simplest Google tempering chocolate in the microwave. Jacques Torres, t o r r e s, and he's so much fun to watch anyway,

CK: I think Sara has a little thing for Jacque Torres

SM: Well, he's such a sweetie pie

CK: That accent it gets you every time

SM: I know that French accent

CK: Marilyn, thanks for calling. Don't worry about the light blue. Take care.

Caller: Okay, thank you. Goodbye

SM: Bye bye.

CK: This is Milk Street Radio. Now it's time for this week's cooking tip from one of our listeners.

Caller: Hello, this is Debbie from Littleton Colorado, and I'm calling to recommend that you keep the ingredient vital Squeeze Gluten on your pantry shelf. You can order this online, but you can easily find it in the grocery store. Bob's Red Mill makes it and it's usually in the baking meats aisle right next to the gluten free item. You can change all-purpose flour into bread flour with these ingredients by just adding two or three teaspoons to a cup of all-purpose flour. It also is very helpful in whole grain baking, helping those types of breads to rise better. So, it's a great ingredient and I recommend you keep it on hand. Thanks. Bye.

CK: If you'd like to share your own culinary hack or secret ingredient on Milk Street Radio, please go to 177 Milk Street.com slash radio tips

Next up let's find out what Adam Gopnik is thinking about this week. Adam Gopnik, how are you?

Adam Gopnik: I am very well Christopher, how are you?

CK: I'm good. I'm always alert for a new way of looking at the world after I speak with you.

AG: Well, let me try and take you down on previously untrodden path. If this all began for me when I discovered JD Salinger's favorite recipe for popcorn salt now you know JD Salinger. Of course, we are JD Salinger, the author of Catcher in the Rye and the glass family stories and countless other classics who famously locked himself away almost as a hermit in New Hampshire for the last 40 years of his life forbidding any fans and in fact stopping publishing entirely because he was so fed up with the world. But his son Matthew, organized a little show of Salinger artifacts at the New York Public Library, and I a huge Salinger fan wandered in to see what was there. And of the many things that were their letters to SJ Perlman, the original draft of Catcher in the Rye, the thing that caught my eye given my preoccupations was his recipe for popcorn salt, and it was pinned up there, typed out, and so being the man I am, I came home and decided that the next time we had popcorn with a movie, we would try JD Salinger's popcorn salt. Would you like to know Christopher what is in JD Salinger's popcorn salt?

CK: Anything fermented in it or was it free?

AG: No, what was so beautiful about it is it was so kind of pure and homey and available. It has garlic salt, it has a little bit of curry powder. It has marjoram it has dill, oh, and a little paprika, paprika, curry, dill, margarine and garlic powder. So, I pulled all these things together being such a Salinger fan and I sprinkled it on our popcorn and we sat down to watch a football game and you know what JD Salinger's popcorn salt has the same wonderful qualities as JD Salinger's prose. It's surprising, it's scintillating, and has an undercurrent of wit, and it's profoundly pleasing. I've never had better popcorn salt, (really) This made me think about the whole wider area of what we might call taste by association, meaning food and drink we enjoy in large part because it reminds us of something we've read and admired somewhere along the way. I'm sure you've had experiences like that, or favorite recipes that are strongly associated with a particular reading.

CK: Yeah, oysters with Dickens Of course. Right? Pickwick Papers. Yeah, that would be totally right there.

AG: One of my favorites, I realized as I scoured these things is James Bond's breakfast. Do you remember James Bond's breakfast?

CK: Yes, I do. A soft-boiled egg, Scottish marmalade and black coffee.

AG: Exactly right. I'm so impressed Chris, Chemex coffee, which back in the 1950s was very prestigious. And I remember as a kid, a 10- or 11-year-old reading those novels for the first time. That was by far the most vivid image that the novels gave. I was too young to really care about the Bond girls, but I remember James Bonds breakfast, thinking about some other ones that have affected my life. Now Proust, Madeline is probably the most famous single thing eaten in the history of literature. But more memorable still are the meals that his characters their Swan, you know, dead, eat at the restaurant Larue which is still in business in Paris, and I have gone back to leopard lose exactly in order just to try and be a page out of Proust for a night. Another one that appeals to me is I don't know if you recall this at all the seed cakes that the hobbits eat (Oh yes), throughout the Lord of the Rings, there's lots of feasting in Lord of the Rings. But the only thing that really resonated for me was this idea of these appealing little seed cakes, he would sort of eat for elevens is on your way someplace else. And I never actually got a seed cake until I was spending a day reporting at that wonderful restaurant, St. John, in London run by Fergus Henderson. And he stopped at 11 to have seed cakes, and they were every bit as good as I thought they might possibly be. And what struck me that all of these things have in common, the things that we actually remember in literature, tend not to be the ones that are the most obviously celebrated, not the ones that are punctuated to be great like Babette’s Feast, for instance, in Isaac Dennison. Now, the ones that we really remember are all popcorn salt. They're all things that we eat and passing not things that we focus on the whole image of this gifted hermetic, super gifted super hermetic writer sitting down to watch Hitchcock movies, because that's what he loved best of all, and simply composing this popcorn salt for his family reassured me of the deep underlying humanity of JD Salinger's imagination

CK: You're really saying, it's almost the throw away foods in these novels that tell you more about the character than let's say bad bets feast where it's at the center. I remember my favorite food in in Fleming and bond. Was he orders for dessert, an alligator pear? Yes, that said so much about Bond. He would not eat sweets, right. But he had alligator pear for dessert. And that little detail told you more about Bond than the shake not stirred.

AG: Chris, it's so astonishing that you mentioned that because one of my other favorite moments in Bond was when he orders at one point for dessert. Exactly. Because as you say, he doesn't eat normal sweets, he orders pineapple sliced pineapple. And I thought that was the epitome of elegance, right? Right alligator pear or pineapple for dessert. It's exactly those kinds of sideways throw away things that live most brightly, I think in our imaginations.

CK: And we should just leave with my favorite comment from the Casino Royale with Daniel Craig. He orders a martini. And the bartender says shaken or stirred. And he says do I look like I care? Yes, that was a great update.

AG: They were trying to relaunch the Bond character as a rougher cruder more relatable to use that horrible word character. And that's the way they came up renouncing his previous drink. I'll still have Bonds breakfast before I'll have bonds Martini.

CK: I totally agree. Adam Gopnik. Thank you so much.

AG: A pleasure to talk.

CK: That was Adam Gopnik, staff writer for the New Yorker. That's it for this week's show. If you tuned into later want to binge listen every single episode, please download Milk Street Radio on Apple podcast, Spotify, or wherever you find your podcast. To learn more about Milk Street please go to 177 Milk Street com there you can find over recipes, browser online store or order our latest cookbook The New Rules, Recipes That Will Change the Way You Cook. You can also find us on Facebook at Christopher Kimball's Milk Street on Instagram Witter at 177 Milk Street. We'll be back next week with more food stories and thanks as always, for listening.

Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio was produced by Milk Street in association with WGBH. Executive producer Melissa Baldino, senior audio editor Melissa Allison, co-executive producer Annie Sinsabaugh, associate producer Jackie Novak. Production Assistant Sarah Clapp and production help from Debby Paddock. Senior audio engineer David Goodman, a digital editing from Vicki Merrick Sidney Lewis and Samantha Brown, and audio mixing from Jay Allison at Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole Massachusetts. Theme music by Toubab Krewe, additional music by George Brandl Egloff. Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio is distributed by PRX