I can't think of a more perfect person to interview for our Expert Essentials series (see the whole series so far here!) than Sam Mogannam, owner of Bi-Rite Grocery in San Francisco. Not only did Sam grow up in the grocery store, which was owned by his family, but he went to culinary school and worked as a chef before returning to Bi-Rite to reinvent it from a cooks point of view. He is absolutely dedicated to helping people love, appreciate, understand, and enjoy food and cooking. Read on for his lively, engaging list of essential things for a happy home kitchen.
Sam was just catching his breath after a very busy March which included opening Bi-Rite's new second location on San Francisco's Divisadero Street and hosting the Food & Farm Film Fest to raise money to support a local non-profit that offers nutrition and cooking classes in low-income communities. Still, there's no rest for this passionate, engaged, and resourceful man. He is looking forward to refining Bi-Rite's farm project and growing PUBLIC, their in-house label, and he's excited about the new offerings coming up at 18 Reasons, their community center dedicated to helping people deepen their relationship to food and each other.
Our conversation took place at 6:00 a.m., the only time Sam, also a husband and father, had free in his busy schedule.
Sam Mogannam's 5 Essentials for the Home Cook
1. Get to know your ingredients.Sam recommends becoming very familiar with your raw ingredients, especially vegetables. "Taste them at every step of the cooking process: raw, after you've cut them, during cooking, at final seasoning. That way, you are deepening your understanding of what they can offer and you have an intimate experience with the transformation taking place." Sam recommends this with brassicas such as kale and broccoli, the alliums, and, perfect for right now, asparagus. "Some high school kids were touring Bi-Rite the other day and I had them taste raw asparagus. It blew them away how sweet it was!"
2. Taste as you go."Food should be tasted and seasoned at every stage of the cooking process. Taste for more salt or pepper, of course, but also acid and fat." Sam recommends to build your cooking intuition and instincts. "You should always be strengthening your basic skill set," he says. "But also build your instincts. Don't become a slave to recipes. If you taste at every step, you will deepen your experience and become more independent. Then you can create a dish on your own." Which brings us to the next point.
3. Sugar, salt, acid, fat.
"These are the foundational tastes in cooking, says Sam. "When you add one component, it complements the others, rounds out and tightens the flavor. Every dessert should have a pinch of salt to heighten the sweetness, and a touch of sweetness such as honey or agave will do the same for savory dishes."
"I use lemon or an acid in almost everything. It heightens the flavor and makes everything fuller, brighter, richer tasting. It stimulates a specific portion of our tongues and helps the flavor to last longer, it gives it legs. It's like when you taste a bright, acidy wine on its own, it doesn't do much, it's too bracing. But when you have it with food, you experience how it works in harmony with the flavors."
"I never skimp on lemon. Or on olive oil. Olive oil is not just for sautéing or as a lubricant, remember that it adds flavor. Finish your dishes with a touch of olive oil to add balance and depth."
4. Try not to stress out.Cooking for or with other people should be an enjoyable experience. "Prepping as much as possible in advance will facilitate a lot of your stress. Chop, dice, pluck everything you can and then the assembly is easy and you aren't freaking out when your guests arrive." Sam also recommends cleaning as you go as another pressure-relieving technique. A messy, chaotic kitchen adds to the tension and anxiety people can feel when cooking for others, so clean and clear up along the way. "Plus, things don't stick to your pans as much when you wash them right away!"
5. Small jars.Sam and I share a love for saving and collecting small jars for storing herbs and spices. "If you buy a large, 4-ounce jar of spice, you're getting something like 1/2 cup which is too much. Spices need to be really fresh and need constant replenishing, so buy in smaller amounts and store in jars." You can purchase them from the bulk bins or look for small 1-to 2-ounce boxes, such as the ones from Spicely Organic that Sam caries in his stores.
Bonus: What's exciting you in the kitchen right now? "I'm crazy for raw kale. The spring kale is coming in really sweet and tender. Also this purplish/red asparagus from Capay Organic and of course, the strawberries from Swanton Berry Farm on the coast. The Albions are here but I'm really looking forward to the Chanders. This is also green garlic season but you have to be careful because it will be gone in a flash. Already we're noticing that little bulbs are starting to form on the stalks."
Image: France Ruffenach