As a successful freelance producer for network and cable television, Amy McCoy once enjoyed gourmet food with little concern for price. Then the recession hit and the freelance work all but disappeared. But in the economic downturn, she found her mission: to eat the best food she could while spending as little as possible. To that end, she created her blog, which led to her book, Poor Girl Gourmet. Amy and her husband live on a gentleman’s farm in southeastern Massachusetts.
Gina: Do you have any formal culinary training in your background? How did you develop your recipes?
Amy: I’m a home cook, so all of my training comes from family, reading about food, and from a desire to learn more and improve my technique as I grew older.
When I was a child, my mother’s mother owned an Italian restaurant in Rhode Island, which she and her husband later relocated to my hometown in Massachusetts. My Nana’s recipes were the recipes on the menu, and that was an accomplishment that I really admired as a child. My mother raised four children as a single mother, so eating well on a budget was always a focus in our home, and, because my mother was influenced by her mother, she was also a fabulous cook and baker. The torch – or gas burner flame – was passed on to me, and I started cooking and creating recipes during high school, the first recipe being a recreation of my Nana’s red sauce. I still remember how proud I was when I tasted it and realized that it tasted just like hers.
Throughout college and into adult life, I continued creating recipes. They started out simply–oftentimes more an assemblage of items than a proper recipe, like a favorite dish from my early 20s, tortellini with pesto, broccoli, and shrimp, which used frozen tortellini and jarred pesto–and as my technique improved, so did my recipes.
Some recipes, such as that first recreation of my Nana’s red sauce, are inspired by dishes my family makes, while others are inspired by meals that I’ve eaten at restaurants, or are centered around a particular flavor that I’m craving, or a vegetable in my garden, or the season.
So I may start thinking, ‘you know, that butternut squash that’s in the cold cellar would be good with Italian sausage. Oh, and I still have sage from the garden, too.’ Which leads me to Rigatoni with Roasted Butternut Squash with Italian Sausage and Fried Sage.
Or I crave my mother’s meatballs, and update them with my own touches for Mom’s Meatballs and Not My Nana’s Red Sauce. Or after eating pea puree as a side dish in a restaurant, it inspires me to think of other uses for pea puree–and that leads to Pea Puree Lasagnette. I think inspiration can come from anywhere, really, and that’s one of the most exciting things about developing recipes–it’s a creative process, so it satisfies that desire to create (which I always seem to be carrying around with me), and then you get to share it with your friends and family for them to enjoy, too. What could be better?
Gina: What surprised you about the process of adapting your blog posts to book form?
Amy: Because I knew that I wasn’t writing a memoir with recipes from the outset, there wasn’t a lot of surprise in writing the book. On the blog, I tend to write long, storytelling posts that are followed by a recipe. For the book, I knew that an involved introduction to a recipe wasn’t what the reader would expect, so the headnotes were greatly whittled down–rather than reading two pages of story, there are maybe two paragraphs–and because the majority of the recipes were developed for the book, they hadn’t appeared on the blog, so it was easy to adjust my writing style to be more along the lines of the expected cookbook format–a brief (or as brief as I can muster!) introduction, followed by the recipe.
One really wonderful aspect of writing the book was that my editor at Andrews McMeel, Lane Butler, gave me the freedom to keep the conversational style I use in the recipe methods on the blog for the recipe methods in the book. This also allowed me to keep my personality in the writing without having those long, storytelling introductions. And ending up with a 500 page, 82-recipe cookbook.
Gina: It’s challenging to eat well on a budget during winter in New England. What sorts of dishes do you focus on when the farmers’ markets aren’t in season?
Amy: We are really, really, really fortunate to have a fabulous wintertime farmers’ market nearby in Rhode Island, so we are able to get excellent quality, locally-grown, inexpensive produce throughout the winter. The Providence Wintertime Farmers Market is held in an old factory building in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, which is just 15 minutes from our house, and every type of root vegetable is available, along with other good winter keepers, so I’m able to get not-so-perfect apples from the local orchard for $1.00 per pound, or a head of cabbage for a dollar, and winter greens for $2.50 to $3.00 per bunch. My husband and I also grow a lot of food in our garden, so we have enough potatoes to get through the winter, along with winter squashes, though if we were to buy those items at the wintertime farmers market, they’re still inexpensive.
I know that there are skeptics who feel that shopping at the farmers’ market is more expensive than the grocery store, but even in the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City, I found the prices to be reasonable: apples for $1.00 to $1.49 per pound, bunches of fresh herbs for a dollar, and winter greens for $2.49 a bunch.
The key to shopping at the farmers’ market on a budget is to know that you won’t be buying specialty items, like morels, or ramps, or asparagus. Instead, stay focused on the basics, like onions, apples, cabbage, winter squash, and kale during the winter, and summer squash, zucchini, corn, and tomatoes (just be sure to select a variety that works for your budget) during the summer. And definitely try to grow something on your own, even just one potted herb. This winter, our rosemary plant is working wonders for us by adding flavor to roasts and soups, and because we paid less than $3.00 for the baby plant last spring, we’ve more than made our money back. Treated properly, this rosemary plant will keep on giving for years to come.
Gina: What are your favorite cookbooks?
Amy: I love Donna Hay’s cookbooks and magazine. Her approach to cooking is simple, with clean flavors, and I love that she comes up with work-arounds for dishes that are considered time-consuming or difficult, such as oven-baked risotto and blender Bearnaise sauce. Her food styling is also stunning, and makes for a great, end of a long day, soothing and inspiring glance.
Sicilian cooking fascinates me, and I really enjoy British food writer Clarissa Hyman’s Cucina Siciliana. Her recipes are easy to follow and the photography is lush. The whole book makes me want to spend many, many months in Sicily, cooking and taking photographs.
Gina: What are you working on now?
Amy: It’s been a whirlwind since Poor Girl Gourmet came out last summer, and I’m still doing events in support of the book, which I love. It’s so much fun to get out into different places and chat about food with other people who love good food. I do hope to follow up with another cookbook soon, and am currently exploring freelance writing and recipe development work, all while working on the blog, and eating well, of course!