Profile: Culinary Educator/Author Diane Phillips & Mint-Crusted Lamb Racks
Diane Phillips is a very good cook. I first met her daughter Carrie, a fashion publicist, at my old job. One day we were talking about food, how I like to experiment in the kitchen, and how I couldn’t find a reliable recipe for popovers. Right away, Carrie said I should talk to “Mama D.,” an excellent cook who would surely know what to do.
Her mom emailed me a sweet note (“I hope this helps you to achieve popover nirvana. Have a great weekend. —Diane”) and a foolproof recipe that I still use all the time. A few days later, I also got a package containing two of her cookbooks (she’s written 20 to date) inscribed to me. Throughout the years, whenever I had a cooking question, I would email Diane and swiftly get expert advice, usually with a variation or two. Logically, she was one of the first people I thought of featuring on Very Good Cook, but her busy schedule wouldn’t allow it until now.
Finally, on a recent Thursday, I went down to San Diego to meet her in person and talk about her approach to cooking and teaching.
“My mission is to get people to the dinner table,” she told me as we sat in her airy kitchen. “I also think food shouldn’t be a big production.”
Diane got her start as a culinary educator after she got married. She took some courses at Le Cordon Bleu but wasn’t crazy about the classical French cooking techniques they taught there. “I don’t think they translate into everyday life. People want an easy and stress-free way of cooking without having to go to 40 stores.”
Instead, she developed recipes based on how her Italian mother and grandmother cooked at home: no-nonsense, with a short list of easy-to-get ingredients and a streamlined method of preparation (Diane’s other nickname is “Diva of Do-Ahead”).
This philosophy clearly works. For the last 25 years, she has regularly taught workshops in cooking schools and culinary shops in San Diego and around the country. She translates her ideas into practical cookbooks—ones you actually want to cook from, not just look at—on such topics as pressure cooking, slow cooking, party food, rotisserie, and make-now/bake-later.
Every year, Diane and her husband Chuck (“He doesn’t cook—I went Italian mother on him”) travel to Spello, an ancient, picturesque town in Umbria, Italy. They typically stay four to five months, allowing Diane time to test and develop recipes, eat local food (pork, wild boar, lentils, sausage, pecorino cheese, cipollini onions), practice Italian, and write about the whole experience on her blog, Cucina Divina.
“Somehow I fit better in Italy,” she said. “You can go anywhere and be welcomed.”
Age 66 — Hometown This is a tough one. Born in Rutherford, NJ, I was a Navy brat (emphasis on the “brat”), and we moved every two years till I was in high school—went to high school and college in Boston. I’ve lived in San Diego for over 40 years, so this is home. — Where do you live? San Diego, CA. — Occupation Cookbook author, culinary educator, product spokesperson, consultant, soon-to-be visiting scholar at the American Academy in Rome. — Signature dish Anything make-ahead—or Mediterranean. — Who taught you how to cook? My mother (first generation) and grandmother (Italian from Umbria) were two of the best cooks I’ve ever known. They were instinctive cooks, rather than formulaic. — Favorite kitchen tool Depending on the day, love my gravity-operated pepper mill and salt mill, sharp knives, Cuisinart. — Always in your pantry San Marzano tomatoes, pasta, Italian tuna, Vialone rice for risotto, extra-virgin olive oil, at least 10 different vinegars, including 25-year-old traditionally aged balsamic vinegar. — Go-to snack Italian cheeses—Parmigiano Reggiano is my favorite. — Favorite cuisine Mediterranean, since there are so many flavors that overlap in the region. — Do you diet? No. — Food addictions Cheese, cornichons, Sumo oranges when in season. — Food allergies Raw tomatoes, avocados, and salmon. — Food fad pet peeve Gluten-free idiocy; if you are celiac, yeah, I get it—but if Gwyneth Paltrow told you to jump off a building, would you do that, too? And kale—it’s like “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” When you find a dish that makes kale taste like chocolate, then maybe I’ll listen. — Who’s your sous chef? At home, me; when I’m teaching at a cooking school, fabulous assistants. — Drinking while cooking? My rule is: When the knives are put away, then we can open the wine. Usually don’t drink unless it’s with food. — What’s for dinner tonight? Still not sure. — Do you ever cry over spilled milk? No, but I have cried over exploding apple cider. I left the house to do some last-minute shopping before our annual Christmas party, plugged in the pump pot with the apple cider in it, only to come back and find that it had exploded all over the kitchen. Most kitchen disasters just have to be dealt with. Another episode was when I was in Berkeley, teaching a Thanksgiving class. It was pouring outside, and the cooking school is down by the Bay. About halfway through the class, I smelled this very disturbing odor, only to turn around and realize that the sewer was backing up into the cooking school floor. We took a break, hoping to get it under control, which we did, and the class never knew what had happened. — Best meal you ever had A seven-course truffle lunch at La Cucina di San Pietro a Pettine outside the town of Trevi. I’ve had so many great meals all over the world (sukiyaki in Tokyo, foie gras in the Dordogne, lobster in Maine) that it’s hard to say which was the best. This meal was the most recent one. — Contact dianephillips.com
Mint-Crusted Lamb Racks
This easy recipe, requiring a little skill, is Diane’s Easter alternative to a baked ham. First, to impart flavor, the meat is marinated for a day in a fragrant mixture of fresh mint, garlic and oregano, and then roasted in the oven at a high temperature. The result is a succulent, remarkably good roast that she serves with a crisp cucumber-mint salsa. Baked or mashed potatoes would be a great side as well.
When shopping for lamb, look for pink, firm meat with visible marbling. Avoid wet, mushy, dark meat—in general, the pinker the meat, the younger the lamb. The rack is the side of the animal’s rib cage; it will have about six to nine cutlets. It should have an even outer layer of white, waxy fat that you can ask your butcher to trim, or you can do it yourself at home (about ¼-inch thick). To figure out doneness and how you like your roast, use a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part: 140 degrees means medium-rare, 160 medium, and 180 well-done.
- Serves 4
- ½ cup packed fresh mint, leaves only
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled
- 2 teaspoons rice or white vinegar
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 5 leaves fresh oregano
- Pinch cayenne pepper
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 1-pound racks lamb, trimmed of excess fat
- In the bowl of a food processor fitted with an S-blade, combine the mint, garlic, vinegar, olive oil, oregano, cayenne pepper and salt, and process until smooth.
- Using a sharp knife, make ½-inch slits all over the lamb racks, and transfer to a plastic bag. Pour the marinade in the bag, and thoroughly massage it all over the meat. Seal the bag, and refrigerate for 12–24 hours.
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Remove the racks from the bag, and place them fat-side up, along with any marinade from the bag, in a roasting pan. Roast in the oven until a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat registers 140 degrees, about 25–30 minutes.
- Remove from the oven, and let rest for 10 minutes before carving. Serve with Cucumber-Mint Salsa (recipe to follow).
The pesto can be frozen for up to 2 months. Defrost before using. If you would like to roast the racks ahead of time, roast them until a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat registers 125 degrees, then remove from the oven. Allow to cool to room temperature and wrap in aluminum foil, or place in a zipper-top plastic bag. Refrigerate for up to 2 days. An hour before serving, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and place the lamb racks on a roasting pan. Let sit for 30 minutes at room temperature. Roast for 15–20 minutes until heated through.
- Makes 2 cups
- 1 English cucumber, cut into ½-inch dice
- 2 green onions including some green part, trimmed, chopped
- ½ cup packed fresh mint, leaves only, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- ¼ cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- Pinch cayenne pepper
- Mix all the ingredients in a bowl, cover with plastic food wrap, and refrigerate for 2–8 hours. Toss again and serve.
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