Shopping and cooking with NPR’s Ari Shapiro
By Susan Able, Photography by Sarah Culver
Traipsing around a city farm market getting to know Ari Shapiro is a pretty wonderful way to spend a Sunday morning. And trust me: The affable co-host of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” does know his way around fresh produce.
Shapiro had brunch on his mind. He had invited a small group of friends over to his nearby home to gather for a market brunch. After long stints on the road, Shapiro loves to host informal gatherings, and his casual group meals are his favorite way to catch up with friends. His globe-trotting influences his cuisine and ideas about what to eat: Recent business trips have taken him to India, England, France, California, Florida and Texas, and vacations have led him to Cape Cod, Mallorca and the Virgin Islands. Oh, and he also travels on occasion as a guest performer with the band Pink Martini.
He’s covered the White House; embedded with the Mitt Romney presidential campaign; covered wars in Iraq, Ukraine and Israel; and been at the forefront of covering domestic stories as they evolved, most recently in Orlando. Before moving into his current role, Shapiro spent two years as NPR’s international correspondent based in London, a city he loves and that helped to shape his gestalt about food and cooking.
All of which makes for a lively conversation about food, cooking, community and connection. We walk, talk and peruse produce.
Edible DC: So, Ari, what we are we shopping for today? Do you have a list?
Ari Shapiro: No, I don’t. I gather ideas before I come, thinking about what would be good when I see things and also what I have at home. I hit the 14th & U Street Market yesterday, where I picked up these shishito peppers. So today these baby squash are looking amazing, and look at this garlic—it’s huge. This is Mountain View Organic Farm, they have such great things. Now I can see this all coming together: I have half of a fantastic watermelon at home, so I’m thinking about watermelon salad, pan-fried squash, eggs and toast—my friend Carl is bringing over sourdough bread he made this morning.
When I lived in London, I really loved “Sunday roast.” It’s massive, and you just sit down and really enjoy this big meal that is anchored usually by a roast meat with lots of sides. And you don’t need much the rest of the day. So I’m thinking about my own Sunday roast as I put this together. For me, the ritual of going to the farmers market on the weekend and then making a meal is one of the loveliest things about returning home.
EDC: When did you start cooking? Are you a good cook?
Shapiro (laughing): Well, you’d have to ask other people if I’m a good cook—but I do love to cook and entertain, so I would say I’m confident in the kitchen. I’ll go that far. I started cooking in college; I lived in an apartment and my roommates and I just plunged into making things from starter cookbooks. I also was a vegetarian at that time, so that influenced my cooking as well. I grew up in Portland [Oregon] and eating together as a family was important. We ate a family meal most nights, and we’re Jewish, so we had Shabbat dinner on Friday nights, where my parents would make challah and all the dishes. being an Oregonian also influenced me, and my parents are foragers—they love the foods of the Northwest: wild mushrooms and salmon. As a kid I helped out by offering to make desserts. I think my culinary efforts started there.
We walk past overflowing tables of corn (he buys several ears), more squash, peppers and tomatoes. He tells me that he likes buying large quantities of tomato “seconds” and preserving them by roasting them and freezing them. We both buy garlic and start rambling towards Shapiro’s house, joined by his friend Carl with his sourdough bread and another friend. We stop to pick some mint from Carl’s garden and soon arrive at the home Shapiro shares with his husband, Michael Gottlieb. Shapiro’s kitchen is bright and airy, a cook’s kitchen to be sure.
EDC: Do you have a favorite cookbook?
Shapiro (he beams): I do—let me show it to you. When I was in London, I was so lucky to get to meet and know many chefs, and I learned a lot from them. [Chef-author] Yotam Ottolenghi is all about merging cultures and flavors and breaking rules and creating a new definition of what British food means. I became friends with The River Café’s Ruth Rogers and she is all about cooking from the best ingredients possible and being true to who you are. One of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve been ever been given is this cookbook she made just for me to take home, filled with recipes I love and that she taught me to make. It’s my favorite cookbook. But so much of the time, I just cook what is fresh, simply, and add herbs and garlic. You can’t really go wrong.
Shapiro starts prepping the vegetables and assigns tasks to the others. Soon everyone is dicing and chopping.
EDC: All this about cooking is making me hungry… which reminds me: What are your favorite things in your kitchen?
Shapiro: Cast-iron pans. A cast-iron Dutch oven. Love these things and couldn’t live without them. (He opens his pantry, and takes a look). In terms of ingredients… well, it’s probably the usual things… I believe everyone has a couple of banal super powers. Mine? My husband will tell you that I can fall asleep anywhere or anytime—and I can also make a meal from a kitchen that seems like it has nothing in it. For example (he holds up can), if I can find some chickpeas and some smoked trout, I can make something happen. I do think about sustainability. As an example, I’m eating canned trout instead of tuna. I mentioned being a vegetarian, which I was for about 10 years. Now I would call myself a conscious omnivore.
I care about where and how the food that I eat was raised. I came to the idea that choosing to eat meat that has been raised deliberately by that kind of farmer who champions sustainability and compassion has more impact then blatant prohibition. Moderation is harder than abstinence.
EDC: Your Instagram often features amazing meals, wherever you go. I loved your passion about the man who made the best food in India from his teeny boat kitchen. What other countries that you’ve visited have food that’s stood out in your mind?
Shapiro: I see Instagram and other social media as an extension of journalism and a way to help translate an experience. And yes, that was incredible curry that guy was turning out. Every cuisine has standouts, but I was really impressed by the food in Bulgaria. My producer’s mother in Sofia cooked stuffed peppers, feta cheese pie, and Bulgarian salad for us. And exploring the real food of a place, it gives you insight into the local culture in a way that you don’t get as a tourist. Like in Sarajevo—they have amazing dairy and pastry shops. In many ways, it can seem like a place struggling to recover from a succession of wars over the last century, but when you spend time in their markets, they seem so radiant—and unless you get out there and go eat in neighborhoods, you wouldn’t see that.
I’m also still in awe of what I experienced in Korea. I visited a Buddhist temple where the presentation of a vegan meal is a form of art. The fish markets in Seoul were an overwhelming sensory experience in every way.
EDC: You’re really very brave and experimental in the kitchen, is there anything you really won’t eat?
Shapiro: Well, having grown up kosher, I would say that shellfish still feel a little verboten. That doesn’t stop me from eating it, though.
We climbed the stairs to the herb garden Shapiro grows on his roof deck. He gathers a few more bunches of herbs for brunch and we head back down to the kitchen, where each friend takes another assignment to help prep for lunch. Shapiro begins cutting the kernels off the cobs of sweet corn.
EDC: This has been fun, but we’ve got to get going. Final thoughts?
Shapiro (opening a bottle of bubbles for his friends): I really see cooking and gathering as a very personal expression in creating community—and it reflects that moment in time and place. That’s why local food is essential to that process: It helps define us.