La Cocina showcases women we admire and their kitchens. Part photo essay, part interview, all admiration.
Here is our new episode of La Cocina, a conversation with Jessica Donnell.
Please describe your kitchen.
Our kitchen is a work in progress, a two butt kitchen that always has at least five to 10 butts trying to squeeze in. It’s tiny and efficient and full of things I love, ceramics from my grandmother, glassware that I love to sip from and beautiful cookbooks for inspiration.. I have tried to pare it down to only what we really need to cook and serve a good meal.
Do you taste as you go? Do you like snacking/drinking while cooking? What is the soundtrack to your cooking?
I love a one pot meal, it’s my favorite.
I taste and nibble as I go, I always have a small bowl of something to snack on and something to sip as well. Wine, lillet, a glass of beer. NPR is the soundtrack to my cooking, haha! But I actually prefer to put on one of my boys' excellent playlists and feel festive while I cook. If I had to choose an album to cook to, it would be Joni Mitchell Blue or Buena Vista Social Club.
We all have our tried and true meals. What is your...
“I can’t be bothered” meal?
It changes, but usually it’s a frittata with whatever i can find in the fridge and a salad and good bread.
“I want to feel comfy” meal?
Lentil minestrone soup with sausage and loads of kale with biscuits.
Brown rice and a pile of sautéed seasonal veggies with an egg and kimchi.
Oysters, bubbly, grilled meat, big salad, asparagus, and panna cotta for dessert.
Favorite take out meal?
Hat Yai chicken and curry and roti.
What is your all-time favorite meal, where did you eat it, and with whom?
My parents put on really wonderful family meals, for holidays, birthdays etc. They are in my favorite meal list for sure! Those always start with cocktail hour and a beautiful spread of veggies, oysters, salami, cheeses. Dinner is at their huge table, always set with lots of candles and fresh flowers. Plenty of wine and usually grilled meat, big salads, seasonal veggies and my aunt's bread. It always goes on the table much later than planned because we are a festive crew and enjoy our cocktail hour.
But I have to say the most memorable meal out I have had was at Nobu on La Cienega in LA. My husband was there for work and I was tagging along as a vacation from two small kids at home. We got scooped up by his work mates, a festive group, one night and went for a late dinner. We sat at a long table, there were probably 12 of us, and ordered the chef's choice, with endless sake. Each course that came was better than the last, every flavor, texture, and tiny detail of the meal was unforgettable. Being a stay at home mom and then finding myself with all of these young, vibrant people, drinking sake and eating this incredible meal felt like such an indulgence.
Who taught you to cook? What was the first food you ever made?
My mom taught me to cook. As well as aunts and family friends, food was always the center of gatherings in our family. My mom made everything from scratch, bread and pancakes and baked goods never came from a mix. Salad dressing and mac n cheese and pastas would all get made from real ingredients. She and my aunt had a huge garden that we would eat from all summer. She canned everything from pickles to peaches and cherries to tomatoes and we would eat those all winter. I taught myself to make popovers and that was a family favorite that I made regularly. When I was in middle school she taught me to roast a chicken so that I could make dinner on the nights she stayed late at staff meetings (she was a 1st and 2nd grade teacher). I’ve always loved to be in the kitchen and cooking.
We love how food can travel through our lineages. Are there things you love to cook that have been passed down from generation to generation?
Spicy, dill pickles have been passed down from generation to generation and we all still make them most summers. If you aren’t able to make them you can definitely find them in someone else’s pantry to hold you over until the next year.
Food shopping can be a drag or a dream; where is your favorite spot to gather ingredients?
Food shopping has become a drag recently, mostly because I am the primary cook in our family and with covid I have been working overtime on providing homemade meals. I normally shop at New Seasons, but my favorite is Providore, I love to take my time and go up and down the aisles finding inspiration.
What ingredients/staples do you always have stocked in your pantry and/or fridge?
I always have onions and garlic, french green lentils, chicken stock, canned tomatoes, anchovies, rice, flour and other baking goods stocked in our pantry. Always seasonal fruits and veggies. In the fridge you will always find kale, salad greens, eggs, cheese, half n half, pickles and anchovies.
Meal plan or wing it?
I want to be the person who meal plans and i do on occasion and I am happy when i do, but I am definitely more of a wing it kinda cook.
Recipe hunting: where do you enjoy finding recipes? Online? Cookbooks? Which are your go to cookbooks?
I have used Joy of Cooking for years, I also use Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food, I love Nothing Fancy by Alison Roman and I use Bon Apetit magazine often. .If I look online I search Bon Apetit, epicurious and New York Times almost exclusively. I use pinterest to gather recipes. I created a weeknight meals page and invited some of my favorite cooks who are also mamas to join. I use it often.
What is your most well-loved cooking utensil?
My wooden spoons and cast iron pans.
Doing the dishes: soothing or annoying? What’s your relationship to dishwashing?
I actually don’t mind washing dishes, I turn on the radio and try to enjoy it, use it as a moment to slow down.
What is the kitchen task you most dread?
Cleaning the oven and stove.
What has your relationship been with food over time, has it changed? If motherhood is a part of your story, how did becoming a mother impact your relationship with food?
I have always loved food, I am not a picky eater and will try anything. I feel fortunate as a woman to have a healthy relationship with food, I eat for pleasure and always have. Of course as I age I try to be sure I am nourishing my body with good foods, but most of all I want to delight in eating as I always have. When I became a mother I wanted to pass that joy on and I tried hard to just go with the flow of what they wanted and what tasted good to them. I nursed them all for over two years and in that time I really didn’t worry too much about solid foods, I would just let them nibble on our meals, grind up fruits and veggies for them or make smoothies full of good stuff. In their toddler years they really liked a bland diet, which was frustrating at times. Some wise person reminded me to think of their eating habits in terms of the week rather than each meal. That helped me to see it usually balanced out over a week. I still try to keep this in mind during the teen years. When they were young I always tried to have fresh, not processed foods and organic and seasonal foods as the first choice. I let them pick around our meal and always tried to have something on the table I knew they would eat.
Are you pro kids in the kitchen? Or do you prefer to cook alone? What meal/food do your children most request?
I am pro kids in the kitchen. I used to bake and cook with them when they were little and everyone learned to fry or scramble an egg when they were pretty young. But at a certain point I remember what a luxury it felt like to just do it on my own. My kids don’t get sick of buttermilk biscuits, when friends sleep over pancakes or waffles are a favorite at our house. And their comfort food is definitly my lentil soup.
What do you gift to friends who love to cook?
Usually a favorite ingredient, good salt, olive oil, a local honey or hot mama’s chili oil.
Would you rather cook or be cooked for? Do you prefer to host or be a guest?
I love both equally. I love to spoil my people and I love to go and be spoiled. Luckily I have some really wonderful friends and family who do just that. It is my love language for sure.
Whose cooking makes you feel the coziest and most cared for?
My sister’s cooking makes me feel very cared for, my mom’s cooking makes me feel cozy.
MADRE’s tagline is We all eat. We all rest. We’ve asked a lot about eating, so how do you build rest into your day/week/month?
I love to take a bath and it has always been my form of rejuvenation and rest, I love to sit and read with a glass of wine in the evening, I love snuggling with my kids for a movie, I love a long day on a beach with friends talking and laughing, these are the forms of rest I think of first.
I am good at rest, it is not a struggle for me, I have been told by friends that I am channeled when rest is needed. But it’s not something I have thought of as a strength in the past. I am learning to appreciate that in myself.
To find more about Jessica:
Photographs by Naz Sahin