Marcus Samuelsson is a whoppingly big fish in a big pond. He's in the class of celebrity chefs whose faces and names are known well beyond the scope of the food world. Since he first garnered attention in the 1990s as the chef at Manhattan's Scandinavian fine-dining institution, Aquavit, he's received multiple James Beard Awards, cooked the Obama administration's first state dinner, won Top Chef Masters, judged on the TV shows Chopped and The Taste, written four previous cookbooks and an award-winning memoir, and opened acclaimed Harlem restaurants Red Rooster and Ginny's Supper Club. So when you get to peek inside his home kitchen to see what he cooks for himself and his family and friends, you'd be well-advised to take notes. Scratch that—he's taken notes for you. His hot-off-the-press cookbook, Marcus Off Duty: The Recipes I Cook at Home, is a compilation of recipes from Samuelsson's personal collection, and it's an eclectic, bordering on wacky, mix.
In fact, some of the recipes get downright weird, but in the deft hands of Samuelsson, the results are predictably delicious. He pulls flavors from far-flung food traditions, drawing heavily on his Ethiopian heritage, Swedish upbringing, and soul-food inclinations, but incorporating tastes from India, Greece, Mexico, the Carribbean, and beyond. Really, he sets out to paint a picture of what America is eating right now, at home, with those nearest and dearest, and that happens to include flavors from every corner of the world. So there are mash-ups like Ethiopian tostados and corn dogs topped with Swedish shrimp salad. There are Baja fish burgers, Texas brisket, lamb lasagna, and tomato soup flavored with vinegar, lemongrass, and ginger. There's a spiced apple pie with cheddar cheese in the crust and a garam masala-pumpkin tart. Really all over the map. And that's a good thing.
Samuelsson started cooking in restaurants when he was very young, and for much of his life seldom cooked at home. But once he married his wife, Maya, his life became more grounded in the domestic, and he began to find great pleasure in cooking for and with her and their friends. He reconnected with the casual, personal, gratifying nature of home-cooking, which had been fostered in his childhood by his beloved Grandmother Helga. He credits her with his love of cooking and his appreciation of food's ability to gather together and convey affection. Marcus Off Duty feels very personal, like a "love letter," as he puts it, very warm and real and homey (a vibe that's helped along by folksy illustrations from Rebekah Maysles). A far cry from his Aquavit days, and a refreshingly intimate look at what a larger-than-life chef cooks at home.
We'll start with my favorite recipe from this week's testing: Parsnip Soup with Apples and Walnuts. It's delicately spiced and garnished with a tarragon-heavy walnut and apple mixture that I've been eating as a salad. Then we'll make his Salmon in a Sea of Coconut, a noodle soup with coconut-miso broth, shiitakes, water chestnuts, hearts of palm, avocado, mint, and dill topped with wasabi-and-sesame-seed crusted salmon—this is where the weirdness comes in, but it works. Because I couldn't pass up Marcus Samuelsson's take on Swedish meatballs, that's what you can look forward to later in the week: tender meatballs in Grandmother Helga's lingonberry gravy with oniony mashed potatoes laced with carrots and apples. And finally, loosen your belt for Mac & Cheese & Greens, in which he adds coconut-milk braised collard greens and bacon to crazy rich mac and cheese.
Win a Copy!
Thanks to our friends at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, we are giving away 5 copies of Marcus Off Duty this week. For your chance at a copy, tell us your go-to dish for an impromptu gathering of friends in the comments below.