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 Katen of Kat+Maouche.
Please describe your kitchen.
It’s really a standard industrial loft style kitchen hidden under all of our stuff. Our building was converted from a warehouse into loft condos about 15 years ago and we still have the original kitchen. It could probably use an update by now, especially after the intensive use of this past year. But we like to limp appliances along, to fix rather than replace for as long as we can. And it’s a very functional space, open to the rest of the loft. It’s also a jungle. It gets good light so Latif’s large (and growing) plant collection has taken over. I guess in the end it’s part industrial and part wild. We like things untamed.
What’s your style of cooking? Do you taste as you go?
Always taste! I cook out of habit and by feel. I snack and taste while I cook and am usually full by the time dinner is served. I’m very picky about good ingredients and then very unfussy about how they come together. I was raised by hippies from New York who moved to very rural Oregon and farmed. I cook a lot like my mom did. Latif is from Algeria and we add a lot of North African dishes and ingredients. I guess we cook like his mom, too. Here is to the mothers! And the cuisine is different but the style is similar. An informality runs through it all. A little bit of a food obsession (We talk about food a lot!) and meals as community events, even if that community is our small family these days.
What is the soundtrack to your cooking? Do you like snacking/drinking while cooking?
I used to listen to the news while I cooked but I’m trying not to have it on now because I read news all day long. So I’m back to cooking with music which I’ve missed and I love. Lately it’s David Bowie, Rachid Taha, whatever plays when you choose “global Flamenco.” If Latif isn’t home I’ll play Linda Ronstadt or The Velvet Underground, both of which I’m sentimentally attached to. I fall asleep after one glass of wine now (damn middle age!) but sometimes it’s worth it for a glass of Lillet with a twist of orange while I cook. In the summer, it’s pastis.
“I can’t be bothered” meal?
A fried egg over some kind of roasted vegetables and some bread and cheese.
“I want to feel comfy” meal?
Soup. I think we all should just live on soup and good bread. We also cook a lot of tagines.
We always eat pretty healthy food. Just pile on the vegetables be it in a big salad, roasted in olive oil, or pureed for soup. Our almost-every-day-healthy snack, or even lunch, is popcorn popped on the stove in oil and butter and just a touch of sugar, with more melted butter, piles of yeast, and a sprinkle of tajin on top. I’m eating it as we speak.
Dungeness crab, homemade french fries, sparkling wine. We make it easy. Fresh whole crab on the table with lemon and lots of melted butter. It’s all finger food and it should be messy and boisterous. It started as our NYE tradition but now it’s migrated to anything we want to celebrate during crab season. The crab has to be fresh and it’s all the better if you catch your own.
Favorite take out meal?
Wow, hard one. Portland has such phenomenal food and places have been wildly creative in adapting to take out. Kachka for caviar and dumplings, maybe? Hat Yai to go boxes got us through every picnic last summer and they probably will again this summer. And then there are the home bakers who popped up and deliver beautiful things. We just got a matcha spread from Takumi Patisserie that felt like spring. Portland food really is incredible.
First meal you will indulge/a Portland restaurant you’ve missed during COVID?
I’m never going inside a restaurant again. Just kidding though I’m in no rush. What I really want to do is meet my morning coffee group at any of our coffee spots. I miss my mornings out in the world with friends and a walk in the woods. And I can’t wait to be able to have people over for dinner again.
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?
My mom was a prolific everyday cook. We lived on a farm and she made everything from scratch, often from food we had grown or raised. My entire family talked about, and still talks about, food obsessively. She never actively taught me how to cook and I didn’t really start cooking seriously and regularly until after she died. I’m sure it was a way to honor her and to carry on family traditions at a time my family was falling apart. By the time I started cooking I just kind of knew how to do it, good home cooked food having been such a huge part of my upbringing. And I cook a lot like her. But there is also the labor of cooking daily for a family that we’ve long failed to acknowledge and is a big difference between our generations. I constantly feel that push and pull, of loving to cook for people and of resenting the daily chore of it. This year, of course, laid that bare. I find a lot of the neo-domesticity in current culture to be really politically regressive. But I’ve also been greatly comforted and distracted by cooking for my family. It’s complex, this nurturing thing in a modern world.
My mom was also a wonderful baker and I am not. Baking is just too precise and time-consuming for me. My brother is the baker so a lot of family recipes live on through him. And during the pandemic my father has started baking over zoom with Salma, teaching her some of my mom’s stand bys. That’s been really wonderful and made me want to buck my ad libbing temperament and learn to bake. Walnut crescents are officially back as a family tradition.
Latif’s side of the family plays a big role in how we cook as well. As with many an immigrant story, food is his tie back to his culture. One Ramadan many years ago he decided he wanted to cook the iftar food he knew. He called his mom and wrote down recipes for his favorite tagines, for bourek. Those are now standards in our everyday cooking. So are a lot of the ingredients he grew up with. We always have merguez, harissa, olives, and dates around. The way we eat is really a combination of the food we each grew up with.
What ingredients/staples do you always have stocked in your pantry and/or fridge?
This has a pandemic twist as there are simple things I started buying that made our routine feel different. Yuzu juice is a big one. I add it wherever citrus would go--salad dressing, a gin and tonic--and it feels like something new. I also now get a few condiments I can add to anything. Hot Mama Salsa’s Chili oil and Zhong Dumpling sauce can turn almost anything into dinner. Then the true basics include dried beans, good rice, dates, olives, eggs, at least one bunch of fresh herbs, some lebnah, feta, or chevre, bread, ice cream, whatever fruits and vegetables come in the CSA. We could eat for a month with that list.
Meal plan or wing it?
Wing it entirely.
Recipe hunting: where do you enjoy finding recipes? Online? Cookbooks? Which are your go to cookbooks?
I love to read cookbooks but I don’t follow their recipes. I buy anything interesting on the sale shelf at Powell’s that they slyly put by the checkout line. I used to buy cookbooks at garage sales all the time. Cookbooks have become a lot about the history of a cuisine or ingredients and I’m all for it. History through food. But when it comes to cooking something new I just scan recipes online and flip through some cookbooks to get a sense of the basics and then I wing it. I finally subscribed to the NY Times cooking app and look at it a lot. I guess I do use recipes from The Silver Palate that my mom cooked. Paula Wolfert’s The Food of Morocco is a great book. Jerusalem deserves all the accolades. I love The Zuni Cafe cookbook but maybe only because I loved the Zuni Cafe. My mom’s old beat up copy of Joy Of Cooking may yet turn me into a baker. And I want to learn the basics of Portugese food. I’m going to need to find a good cookbook for that.
What is your most well-loved cooking utensil?
Tongs, a wooden spoon, a good knife. You really don’t need anything more than that.
Who would be on your imaginary dinner party guest list? Just me and Leonard Cohen. Alternatively, I would replicate Kim Hastereiter’s soup parties if I could. There was a small piece in the New Yorker about her recently and they sounded perfect. Any guest that will bring their own soup is more than welcome. That’s how I want to eat and whom I want to eat with.
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?
Forest bathing and melatonin.
To find more about Katen:
Photographs by Naz Sahin