"I'm just really focused on home cooking and I wasn't sure I could get anything I needed from going to school," said Durand, whose cookbook "Not Your Mother's Casseroles" was published this winter by Harvard Common Press, as part of the popular "Not Your Mother's" series.
Durand, who grew up in Pataskala, also is the managing editor of TheKitchn.com, a food blog that's part of the Apartment Therapy web family of home-oriented blogs.
"The Kitchn has been a huge source of my training," Durand said during an interview last month in the Clintonville cottage home she shares with her husband, Mike, an Ohio State University earth-sciences professor.
Durand had a lemon brioche breakfast casserole cooling on the sprawling wood dining-room table where the couple regularly hosts dinners for family and friends. She had just pulled a pancetta-and-onion baked risotto out of the oven, and there was a curious looking powdered-sugar experiment going on in the breakfast nook out back. Durand, it turned out, was making her own sprinkles.
"A blatant ploy for a (web) traffic spike before Valentine's," Durand explained later. "I think it worked, too!"
Now before visions of autocratic lifestyle mavens start dancing in your head (who else but Martha Stewart would make their own sprinkles?), you have to know that Durand, 32, comes across as just a thoroughly busy and curious soul. After earning a degree in English studies at Ohio State, she spent a few years in Orlando, Florida, working for a high-tech venture.
"I was living on my own and I wanted to learn how to cook better," Durand said. "I just got really into food, and blogs were a great way to learn, especially visually. I also had a really international group of friends in Orlando, people from Thailand, Japan, Latin America, India, and all of them exposed me to more foods."
As the oldest of eight kids, born to a Christian minister dad and a mom who homeschooled them, Durand also learned the basics of home cooking early. And she's an enthusiastic advocate of getting kids into the kitchen at a young age. She and her husband hope to expand their own family soon, but in the meantime Durand said she borrows friends as young as 7 to cook with her.
"Find something that really sparks you," she said. "You don't have to go all geeky and study things in an abstract way. Just get in the kitchen and find the thing that excites you."
Baked Risotto with Pancetta and Caramelized Onions
Here's an easy baked risotto that is oh-so-delicious and indulgent. It's a marvelous winter dish, with the smoky richness of crispy pancetta and a topping of sweet, dark caramelized onions. Serves 6.
CASSEROLE DISH: 3-quart Dutch oven or large ovenproof saucepan with lid
BAKE TIME: 20 to 25 minutes
- 1/4 pound pancetta, diced
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 medium white onion, finely diced
- 4 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 3/4 cup Arborio rice
- 1/4 cup dry white wine
- 2-1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 medium yellow onions, cut in half from top to bottom and then lengthwise in thin half-moon slices
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 425F. In the Dutch oven or ovenproof saucepan, cook the pancetta over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, or until crisp. Add the olive oil and finely diced onion and turn the heat to medium-low. Cook the onion slowly, stirring frequently, until translucent. This will take about 10 minutes.
- Add the garlic and the rice and cook, stirring to coat the rice grains with oil. Cook for about 5 minutes, or until the garlic is fragrant and tender. Turn the heat back up to high.
- Stir in the wine and cook until it has completely evaporated, about 1 minute. Stir in the broth, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil. Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid, transfer to the oven, and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until most of the liquid has been absorbed by the rice.
- While the risotto is baking, caramelize the onions. Heat the butter over medium heat in a heavy saut pan, preferably a cast-iron skillet. When the butter foams up, add the sliced onions and stir to coat them with butter. Sprinkle them liberally with salt. Cook, stirring every 5 minutes or so, for at least 25 minutes, or until the onions have turned a rich mahogany brown.
- When the risotto is finished, remove from the oven and stir in the Parmesan cheese. Serve immediately, topped with spoonfuls of caramelized onions and sprinkled with parsley, if using.