One of the great pleasures of this year has been having my friend Gail Arnold around more. Gail is married to Islander Livingston Taylor, but she is often away cooking for Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw and their family, which she has done for more than 25 years. Gail and I have spent some of this pandemic time together tramping through the woods, talking about life and food.
I’ve known Gail for at least 20 years, and she always reminds me of a Beverly Cleary character — a little sassy (maybe it’s her red hair and bangs?), bespectacled, and sharp as a tack. Little gets by her. And she has a great talent for solving problems — in relation to what to do with wilted vegetables.
Our conversations over the past year have rambled as much as we have, but, at some point, alway seem to arrive on food, a shared love. And if our conversation doesn’t naturally find food, I direct it there, asking what Gail is cooking. She always has some incredible recipe or technique up her sleeve, which has kept me inspired in what I have come to think of as The Year of Relentless Cooking.
Early in the spring, Gail arrived for one of our walks and handed me a small glass Ball jar with the words “Chili Crisp” written on a piece of blue painter’s tape fastened to the lid. “This is fabulous stuff. Put it on everything.” She said. “I mean it. Condiments are the name of the game.”
Of course, Gail was right. The chili crisp made our morning eggs special, avocado toast decadent, and my recipe for Taiwanese Mee Fun spectacular. And as I made my way through the jar, I began considering condiments in a new light. They were no longer an afterthought, pulled out of the fridge as I’m putting dinner on the table. They became a forethought: What sauce could I make on a Monday that could work throughout the week? My daughter is vegetarian, husband an omnivore, and I’m somewhere in the middle. It turns out that condiments help to bridge these gaps.
Jar finished (within a week or two), I called Gail up and told her I wanted to formalize our condiment conversation. Could I interview her? Would she share some of her condiment secrets? She laughed, “It’s really easy. Well, it is not easy if you try to make them the day of everything else, but if you devote some time to them at some point in the week before you are cooking a meal, they will make things easy. Does that make sense?”
It does! And when we get together in her beautiful green kitchen, she echoes my experience with her chili crisp, “The food I make is relatively simple: grilled fish, meat, vegetables. The condiments are what make the meal special. This makes cooking for many different dietary needs and palates much easier. When I cook for Steven and Kate, there are always at least six condiments on the table. This really matters because I’m often cooking for about 20 people. For those who like spicy food, there’s a homemade sriracha hot sauce. For those who want something with fresh tang, there’s a salsa verde. You get the idea. And I change the condiments up. I might put more oregano in a salsa verde for steak or capers, and lemon zest for fish. And I love the versatility of them. The next day, I can tuck some pickled onions into a tuna sandwich, and it will take it up a notch. Or put a day-old pico de gallo in a blender and make a sauce.”
As Gail and I talked, she was making a peach pie for a friend and planning for a week in East Hampton cooking for the Spielbergs’ annual Fourth of July festivities. She explained that her first day in the family’s kitchen would be prep work for the week, which of course would include making condiments. The week would feature: homemade mayonnaise; salsa verde; sriracha; chili crisp; some kind of gingery, cilantro Southern Indian something; but she’d also make sure that she had black garlic molasses, pomegranate molasses, a good spicy German mustard, miso paste, and shichimi togarashi, Japanese Seven-Spice, on hand. “These are staples in my kitchen, and make everything better,” she said.
I try the black garlic molasses. It is delicious, and I can imagine it dazzling the tongue if it were drizzled on grilled onions. I take a bite of her favorite mustard, Schwerter Senfemuhle, which is a German mustard. Iit has heat and depth to it. Delicious in a dressing or on a grilled sausage. She also likes Marukome white or red miso for salad dressings. And the Japanese Seven-Spice is heavenly. Umami in a jar. Wow.
When I ask about recipes, she laughs again, “Well I use Bon Appétit’s recipe for Chili Crisp — the key there is to cook the garlic low and slow. It has star anise in it, but if you don’t like star anise, you could leave it out. And I love Lee’s Homemade Sriracha from Gwenyth Paltrow’s first cookbook. She has a great team working with her. For my salsa verdes, I always use Italian parsley as a base, and then riff on it. By the way, you can revive a day-old, tired salsa verde by just adding more fresh parsley. There is zero reason to throw most things out.”
As we roll into a summer where our tables are joyfully full of family and friends once again,
Gail’s condiment approach — economy of effort yet maximum flavor — feels like the way to go.
Gail Arnold’s Basic Salsa Verde
Depending on what you have in the garden or are serving, adapt the herbs and the quantity of oil (grilled fish likes more oil than a fatty rib-eye). There are no hard and fast rules in salsa verde making. I don’t think that I have ever made two that taste exactly the same. Makes 1 to 1½ cups.
1 cup chopped (not too fine) flat-leaf parsley
¼ cup chopped other herbs: cilantro, chervil, mint, chives, basil, tarragon (your choice)
1 Tbsp. drained chopped capers (or more, if you like caper flavor)
zest of one lemon
1 Tbsp. lemon juice or red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp. finely diced shallot (or red onion or scallion)
salt and pepper to taste (maybe a tsp. of salt)
½ to 1 cup good olive oil
Depending on what you are making, these optional add-ins will add a different character to the salsa verde:
grainy or Dijon mustard
chopped hard-boiled egg
pickled hot peppers
Stir together all basic ingredients, and add about ½ the olive oil, in a bowl. Add a little salt and pepper; taste, and then add more olive oil to taste again, and adjust salt and pepper to your liking. If adding anything optional, stir it in at the end.
The salsa verde will keep for a few days in the fridge, but really is best freshly made.