Frances Palmer is a well-known ceramist whose beautiful pots, plates and vases have graced the pages of Martha Stewart Living, Elle Decor, and Vogue. While pottery is clearly her calling, she's also a cook and a gardener and a passionate advocate of the handmade life. Read on for her take on what's essential to be a happy and successful cook!
I learned to cook from my mother when I was very young. She loved to entertain and so I was always very comfortable in the kitchen making food for people. When I went away to college, I was the one in my group of friends who always had the dinner parties.
I find that there are a lot of parallels between making a meal and making ceramics. In a funny way, following a recipe to make a cake is not that different than following a recipe to make a glaze. I think it all boils down to the fact that I love to make things with my hands."
1. Have good basic equipment.
You really don't need a lot of stuff in the kitchen but the things that you do have should be good basic stuff. Everyday I use a cast iron skillet that I got when I was in college (I really don't want to tell you how many years ago that was! Well, let's just say decades.) A favorite tool is this little hand cranked pasta machine from those college years as well. We have the same Braun coffee grinder that my husband got when he was in his 20s. We still use it every day.
Similarly, I have a few tools in the studio that I use every time that I make a pot. I gravitate to the same tools. I'm attached to them. There are so many new gadgets available now but the truth is, we need just a few really great things at our disposal. They're like old friends. They say 'Oh we know what you want to do. We'll help you do this!'
2. Learn a few basic recipes.
If you want to entertain, learn a few basic recipes. Once you have the technique down, once you're really familiar with the recipe, it will allow you to improvise and play around and have fun. For example, I do this basic chicken recipe from Daniel Boulud but I swap out vegetables depending on the season.
It gives you confidence. Sometimes when people entertain they try new recipes but I would say don't do that! Try the recipe another time! You want to spend time with your guests, you don't want to be sitting there in the kitchen trying to figure it out.
Again, it's similar to pots. I always want to make bowls and cups and vases — I have a basic understanding on how to throw a pot correctly. I work within these basic forms, and from there I can have fun doing all sorts of things. I can leap out into the unknown!
3. Surround yourself with handmade things.
I'm a potter and so obviously I have all my bowls and cups and things like that around my kitchen. I also have handblown glasses and handmade the cutting boards from other artists. I try to surround myself with things that are very real, not commercially made. I grow my own flowers, I have a garden.
It's so much easier to find handmade things these days at craft shows, galleries, online. There are so many artists working now — you can find handmade wooden bowls and knives and tablecloths, linens. It's such a wonderful way to put together a beautiful table.
4. Use your hands.
I love to use my hands when I cook. I love to make pie dough and I love to make pasta and tear up herbs or toss a salad. I like knowing the way a piece of fish feels as I lift it in and out of a marinade. I love getting very involved in the process, it's a way of understanding ingredients and how to prep them. I'm always wandering around my garden, picking things for a meal. If you don't have a garden, go to the farmer's market and (gently) handle the vegetables, handle the fruit and really feel it.
My hands are really integral to my cooking, to my whole life. I make a pie crust and then I walk out to my studio and I wedge clay. I never get tired of it.
5. The well-sourced table.
We're living in an age when local farms and farmers' markets are everywhere so it's easier than ever to source good food. Seek out and purchase good produce, sustainable raised meat, local flowers as much as you can and let them shine through. Simple cooking is the thing.
In the warmer months, I always have flowers on the table that I grow in my garden. In the winter I go dormant for a little while but I also plant terra cotta pots with bulbs and place them around the house. I don't mind having a dormant time and besides, spring whips around so fast that it's not long before it's flower time again.
Other Notes from Frances on Life & Cooking
On her pottery business. I'm not interested in getting bigger. I like to make my work myself and because of that, it's only going to get a certain size based on what I can produce. I'm in my studio everyday, though, and I'm constantly exploring.
On cookbooks. I have all the Chez Panisse cookbooks. I love Suzanne Goin's Sunday Suppers at Lucques. Another book which I keep reading over and over because I'm determined to figure it out is Tartine No. 3. It's pretty intense but I want to get this yeast thing down. I love to bake so there are two favorite baking books. They're both quite old. One is Lee Bailey's Country Desserts. His cake recipes are perfect! And of course Maida Heatter's Book of Great Desserts. I also make up my own recipes and I have a few in the new Kinfolk cookbook, The Kinfolk Table. I did a roast chicken and a butterscotch pudding for them. I'm a total cookbook addict.
On the future. I say on my website that I love to make pottery and send it out into the world. Likewise, my three children are grown now and out on their own and all of them are cooking and entertaining. I feel like I passed that on! I'll get texts that say 'mama, I want to make that roast chicken …' I'm so happy that they understand how lovely it is to have people around the table, to share in that companionship and appreciation of friends and good food. The next generation already has caught on that cooking and making food are important. They understand that they need to support each other and grow community.
—- Frances Palmer, as told to Dana Velden