Interview

By Nancy J. Stohs – Food Editor of the Journal Sentinel

  –  May 5, 2015

Elizabeth Crawford had already worked as a private chef and done some catering.

But the self-taught cook, who has spent many hours practicing classic French techniques, hadn’t given all that much thought to flavor, she said, until she went to work for The Spice House.

Then her whole approach began to change.

With every food you set out to cook, you should ask yourself, how do I want this to taste, Crawford said in an interview last week. She quoted the French epicurean writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: “Poultry is for the cook what canvas is for the painter.”

“How you flavor it is, I would say, 75% of the dish,” Crawford said.

Hoping to share this lesson and others learned in a quarter-century of cooking and food study — including 22 years as a salesperson at The Spice House — Crawford self-published 36 of her recipes in a slim new paperback, “At the Table.”

The book of mostly simple, straightforward recipes features such French classics as tart tatin, chocolate mousse and vichyssoise along with the likes of chicken curry, minestrone soup, pesto allo Genovese, tapenade and everyday basics like steamed asparagus and roast salmon. (A few of these recipes appeared with a 2010 Journal Sentinel story featuring Crawford as a Great Host.)

Some of the recipes open with a story, and the recipes themselves emphasize technique. Crawford retested all of the recipes, even though she’s made them many times, to be able to write precise directions. And yes, spices — from lavender to saffron to thyme — factor into a number of them.

Although she no longer notices the background smells of the spice store on Old World 3rd St., Crawford said she never tires of the aromas of the spices she works with. Whenever she opens a jar, or finds her hands in a bowl of spices, “I just feel overwhelmed sometimes. I think, how did I get so lucky?”

She especially likes working the floor. “I love interacting with the customers, learning from them, hearing their stories, helping them.”

So many customers walk in and say, “Omigod, this is so overwhelming,” she said.

“I tell them, use your instincts. If in your mind you think ginger would be good (in a dish), try it. Trust yourself. There really isn’t anything you can know, you can only experiment and play and have fun.”

“At the Table” sells for $22 and is available at The Spice House, Boswell Books or click here.