Thursday, February 3, 2011

Sunday Dinner Questionnaire: Lynn Chen

In the early days of my television career, I was a producer who traveled all over the world to interview on-camera experts for various documentaries.  One day I'd interview a Voodoo Priestess.  The next day I'd drink margaritas with Shirley Corriher, world-renowned food scientist and author of the James Beard award-winning cookbook BakeWise.  I loved my job because it was a great way to meet smart people with interesting careers and to have an excuse to ask them lots of personal questions.  I was promoted out of that job over ten years ago and I still miss it.  I invented this blog-- and the Sunday dinner questionnaire-- to have an excuse to continue to meet smart, interesting people with great jobs.  And to talk with them about the food they eat.  
Photo courtesy Lynn Chen.

I met Lynn through this blog, and I asked her to contribute a Sunday dinner questionnaire because I wanted to know more about her life and her complex relationship with food.  Lynn is a gorgeous woman (see photo) with an enviable career as a  successful working actress in Hollywood (she's best known for her role in White on Rice).  She's also paid the price for that career and she tells her compelling story on her blog The Actor's Diet.  In it she describes her journey as an actress struggling with an eating disorder and her quest to make healthy eating choices on a  daily basis.  I started reading her blog because I was curious to hear her story, but I continue to read it because it's full of easy recipes and good local resources, like the BVSLA (a guide to the "Best Vegetarian Sandwiches in Los Angeles").  It's a fun read, especially for anyone who wants an insider's view of what actors in Los Angeles REALLY eat.  (She has an entire page dedicated to "Other Actor's Diets" as well.) 

Thanks, Lynn, for your response!  I'm looking forward to trying out the recipe below for "Erik E." Strata.   (See recipe following this questionnaire.)

Eat Sunday Dinner Questionnaire

1.     What is your favorite food to eat?  
Thanksgiving.  (Is that too general?)  Turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, etc.  When it’s all on one bun, like Capriotti’s “The Bobbie” sandwich, I am in heaven. 

2.   What is your favorite food to cook?  
One pot meals like soups, stews, and pastas – only vegetarian dishes, though, because I’m married to a vegetarian and don’t know how to cook meat.  I might poison you. 

3.   Who or what is your greatest culinary influence? Why is he/she/it an inspiration to you?  
My mother will kill me for this, but Rachael Ray.  I started watching her in my mid-twenties, when I was beginning to use my kitchen, and she has taught me everything I know – how to chop an onion, make a roux – it’s probably also why I only cook meals that take less than 30 minutes and don’t bake.

4.   What is your favorite kitchen utensil and why do you love it?  
Tongs!  Keep those hands clean and burn-free!

5.  What did you eat for dinner this past weekend?  
Friday night: Pink Pasta (orzo with beets and other veggies). Saturday night: Japanese skewers (chicken, shitakes, asparagus, eggplant, zucchini and parsnips) with chicken rice porridge.  On Sunday I had a late afternoon “brunch” of pizza and salad so I just sipped on miso soup with asparagus for dinner.

6.  When you were growing up, did you eat Sunday dinner or another meal that brought your friends and family together on a regular basis?  
I can’t remember Sunday dinners (though I’m sure we had them) but I remember weekly Sunday breakfasts with my parents and brother.  I almost always made pancakes or omelets.  Sometimes we would go to McDonald’s as a special “treat.”

7.  Do you have a garden?  If so, what do you grow in it?  
For a TV pilot I was shooting with a friend, she had a gardening professional set up a pot of tomatoes to grow on my front porch.  I produced one ugly (and rather gross tasting) heirloom tomato after months of watering it religiously.  I have since turned it into an herb garden, and use it about once every few months.  I neglect it.  I am notorious for having a black thumb.  Please do not trust me with plants. 

8.   What is your ultimate food fantasy?  
Did you see “Spain - On the Road Again,” the Gwyneth Paltrow/Mario Batali/Mark Bittman/Claudio Bassols road trip show on PBS?  That’s it.  Getting paid to travel Europe with foodies and eat amazing food?  Cooking with amazing chefs?  Having Michael Stipe randomly show up in the midst of it all?  Please please please sign me up. 

9.   If you could choose to have any person living or dead prepare a meal for you, who would it be? 
Nigella Lawson.  I so want to be one of those people she feeds in each of her episodes, or I would happily scarf down the leftovers, as she does, in front of the fridge at midnight.  The woman can cook, bake, and converse.  I could watch her braise an old boot and be enraptured.

10.  Fill in the blank:  "The most important element of a good meal is __________." 
Satisfaction.  Whether that’s taste, or the company, or feeling like you got a good deal.

Erik E. Strata
by Lynn Chen
(named after the actor from “Chips”), which is essentially just a…

Spinach, Onion, and Cheese Strata (serves 6-8)
Erik E. Strata by Lynn Chen.  Photo courtesy of Lynn Chen.

  • 12 pieces of sandwich bread, chopped
  • 1/2 cup shredded cheese
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 6 handfuls organic baby spinach
  • 6 eggs
  • 2 cups milk
  • Olive oil
  • sea salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Grease a 3 quart Pyrex with veggie oil and cover with bread. Sautee the onions and garlic til brown in oil, adding spinach til wilted and seasoning each with S + P. Top the first layer of bread with the spinach mixture, the cheese, and cover with the remaining bread.

Whisk together eggs, milk, and 1 tsp. salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Pour over everything, cover, and let sit in the fridge for at least an hour (you can do this overnight too).

Bake (uncovered) for 45 minutes to an hour, til a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.