Photo Credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
You know her as the lone female chef on Iron Chef America, kicking ass on a regular basis with her inventive, no-holds-barred food. But you probably don't know that Cat Cora is also a mom to four young boys, and that most of her time is spent dreaming up healthy family-friendly recipes, not strategies to make dessert out of eggplant or serve ostrich five different ways. In her latest cookbook, Cat Cora's Classics with a Twist, the Iron Chef offers up creative spins on standard recipes, along with lightened-up versions of family favorites and easy yet elegant meals. She discussed how to make her kids happy at dinner, her secret weapon for making ice cream at home and which food she absolutely refuses to eat.
iVillage: How does Cat Cora's Classics with a Twist differ from your previous cookbooks?
Cat Cora: I really wanted to do a cookbook that was kind of a celebration of old, classic, nostalgic dishes that we all know from different countries and regions. It's kind of very eclectic—all those things that we really love and we know about but that we're maybe intimidated to cook in the kitchen, but we've had them in restaurants or heard about them.
I really wanted to make a book about that and give it my twist, which makes the dishes healthier and lighter, because the classic dishes tend to be a little bit heavier sometimes … [and include] things that you can get in your grocery store, things that weren't as expensive.... [I] brought back the old classic Grasshopper cocktail, but made it very fresh and with all-natural ingredients, things like that.
iVillage: What are you sons' eating habits like? Are a lot of the recipes in the book geared toward families or kids?
CC: I have Greek nachos in there with some feta on it; my kids love those. I definitely put in recipes that I've done in my kitchen or something I've created that's a little bit different, a little twist on one of the classics, and sometimes I have to do that [at home], especially cooking for the kids and making it a little more kid-friendly.
My kids eat pretty well. I'm kind of old school in the sense that I'm not a short-order cook; I cook one meal. But I do get them involved in what that meal is going to be. I get everybody's opinion—we kind of do a vote and decide together on what dinner is going to be and everybody gets their opinion in. I think that helps get them more invested in the meal and makes everybody a little bit happier when they get the meal in front of them. I definitely don't cook for everybody's different tastes. It's kind of like [what my mom did at mealtimes]: This is dinner and after that the kitchen's closed.
I think that's helped. I've done that from the very beginning. I think that's helped make them better eaters.
iVillage: How do you get them to eat things they don't like?
CC: I think the biggest thing is to get them invested in mealtimes. My kids luckily do like broccoli and green beans, carrots, things like that. But I think it's because I started them at a young age [tasting] everything. I grew up with my parents saying, "Okay, you're going to taste everything once." They may not eat the whole thing, but I don't force it on them. I let them taste it and obviously I try to make it taste as good as possible. Again, when we do mealtime everyone gets an opinion, [they get] to be invested in the meal. Sometimes they may say, "No, I don't want broccoli or green beans," but they'll say, "I'll eat carrots." Then carrots it is. It can't be carrots every night—then the conversation might be, "We had carrots last night, let's do broccoli tonight." Kids are never too young to give their opinion; when they get to be 2, they are going to start speaking and talking and you can definitely get them invested in eating. I think it's important.
iVillage: Do any of them cook, or are they interested in helping you in the kitchen at all?
CC: Definitely. Especially our 3-year-old right now. [All the boys] do come in [to the kitchen]; they love to pop popcorn together, we make pancakes together or we'll make dinner together, but my 3-year-old wants to be in for every single meal. Now, the babies are definitely crawling around in the kitchen and everybody gets a kitchen utensil to play with. Instead of taking them out of the kitchen, you just hand them a whisk or a spatula; that will keep them busy for hours.
iVillage: When you are home, how often do you cook dinner for your kids, or how often do you eat together as a family?
CC: Every night. … I love being in the kitchen. I never get tired of it, and when I do [go out for dinner], we'll go out for sushi or something. For the most part I love to cook at home, and I love to cook and have great meals for the family. I just enjoy it. When I'm working, it's always about on the road and busy and fast; here at home it's more slow and easy. I can enjoy my family. It's just a very different cooking experience. It's very relaxing.
iVillage: Do you have any quick and easy family-friendly recipes that you make a lot that you can share with our readers?
CC: Yeah, sometimes we'll make something as simple as fish tacos, or fish gyros is what I call them, because we'll do tzatziki on them. We do all kinds of fun stuff. We'll do a great lamb burger on the grill with sweet potato fries. What we eat here is very simple food, because when I eat on the road it's usually big meals and this and that and it's fancier, so when I'm home we just like to grill out a lot and do things that are simple, but very high quality and good. If we get lamb, we're getting the best lamb, but we'll make a lamb burger out of it.
iVillage: What kind of lessons have you learned from being an Iron Chef?
CC: Obviously to cook as fast as possible. My cooking speed has definitely picked up a lot. I think definitely cooking efficiently; I've always been pretty clean—cleaning as I go—but I think you have to be even more as an Iron Chef. It's definitely taught me a lot about global cuisine, because to stay fresh and do really cool stuff, I've had to go out and research different cuisines of the world and become more of a global chef. I think that's what I've become. I've learned so much about different regions in, say, Africa, and cooking different types of food in Morocco and Thailand and Malaysia. I may not ever use them in a battle, or maybe I'll use a little bit here and little bit there, but it's just nice to continue learning about different cuisines around the world. I've also gotten to learn a lot about molecular gastronomy, using liquid nitrogen and things like that. That's been really fun thing to do. I'll apply it where it belongs in my cuisine.
iVillage: Do you ever try any of that at home?
CC: Yeah, I'm actually going over to my friend's kindergarten class to make ice cream for them using liquid nitrogen. I make ice cream at home with liquid nitrogen.
iVillage: Is there a food that you absolutely refuse to eat?
CC: I don't do a lot of eyeballs and tongue; I'm just not into to it. I've had 'em and I've tasted certain things, but it's not my first thought when I sit down and I'm hungry and I want something to eat. Chitlins! I will not eat chitlins. Never. They're funky and smelly and I'm not touching... no. Not going there.
iVillage: What things are always in your refrigerator?
CC: We do a lot of soy milk, a lot of organic yogurts and fruits. Tons of veggies, like lettuces and things. We also keep fruit out in our big bowl so we can have them nice and ripe. Lots of condiments; olives, capers, pepperoncini, Asian sauces and lots of mustards and all kinds of things to play with.
What's the one food you refuse to eat? Chime in below!