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Curious Cook Prefers Roadmaps to Recipes

For someone who spends most of her waking hours thinking about food and cooking, Adina Steiman has a surprising confession: “I kind of hate recipes,” she said. Of course, that isn’t entirely true. Steiman is special projects editor at Epicurious, one of the country’s leading food websites that houses new recipes and the recipe archives of food media giants like Bon Appetit and the late Gourmet magazine. Recipes are, by definition, kind of her thing.

But on the page (or in Epicurious’ case, the screen), she said, written recipes can be misleading and alienating to home cooks. “A lot of people think of them as these magic incantations that you have to get exactly right or everything goes wrong,” she said. “But they can’t really teach someone how to cook. And they can’t capture how my grandmother cooks” — a style that she described as from the hip and from the heart. Over eggs and coffee at Mile End, the Brooklyn delicatessen that serves as an epicenter of the city’s nouveau Jewish food scene, she explained.

Steiman’s maternal grandmother (a Holocaust survivor, as are all of her grandparents) was, and at 89 still is, a remarkable cook and willing teacher. Starting as a young girl, Steiman spent time in her grandmother’s kitchen, learning how to cook Russian and Jewish classics, like ground chicken and onion cutlets made with an old meat grinder. “She didn’t just tell me what ingredients go in the dish, she taught me the rhythm of how to fry,” Steiman said. She also began to pick up some Yiddish, and as a teenager, asked her grandmother to speak exclusively in her native tongue while they were in the kitchen.

Her father also played an early role in shaping her food outlook by bringing her to South Philadelphia’s historic Italian markets. These were places where whole animal carcasses and, as Steiman put it, “enormous provolones like Rocky punching bags,” hung from the rafters. Steiman remembers staying outside while her father shopped, unable to stomach the scene. “I had a lot of people I loved showing me things I wasn’t quite ready for,” she said. “But they stayed with me and made an impact.”

It is no surprise, then that Steiman gravitated towards a career in the food world. After college, she attended culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and never looked back. She returned to America for an internship at Saveur magazine, and then worked as a cookbook editor, and a magazine editor at Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food, Men’s Health, and Self before landing her current role at Epicurious in 2014.

While at Epicurious, she has been instrumental in creating features that move beyond recipes and get at the heart of why people cook, as well as how. The recently launched series, Lost in the Supermarket, which goes inside the country’s most eclectic and beloved markets, is one good example.

“My goal is to get right to the intersection between food and real people’s lives,” she said. “I want to give people the roadmap to becoming liberated cooks.”

As for Steiman’s grandmother, she continues to cook regularly for her husband and family – though a recent illness put a wrench in her routine. This Friday, Steiman is planning to make chicken cutlets for her grandmother to welcome her home from the hospital. “My family brought me into their world through food,” she said. “I think my grandmother will be happy to see that I listened.”

Leah Koenig is a contributing editor at the Forward and author of “Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes & Customs for Today’s Kitchen,” Chronicle Books (2015).

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