Christina Liva’s Sunday Rituals

All photos: Matt Rubin (www.mattrubinphotography.com)

Christina Liva‘s Sunday is imbued with ritual. For the MindBodyGreen food editor, it is a day for developing recipes, for preparing a roast for friends, or for chefing and instructing at Sunday Suppers

It is also a day for interviewing. We visit Liva at her Carroll Gardens apartment on a bright Sunday in November. The light from the window makes a halo, and throughout our conversation, everything is still. We discuss, of course, rituals; the personal and interpersonal effects of making a meal or of making a space one’s own. 

Afterwards, Liva prepares her first Sunday ritual, an exercise in self-care for her and her expectant baby: making cold-pressed juice. Roasting a chicken—ritual number two—comes later in the day. 

My husband and I moved into this apartment about a month ago. At first, I had this idea of what I wanted the kitchen to look like, and I imagined that the first thing I was going to do was redo all the cabinets. But then we moved in, and I came to love it in a weird way, just how it is. Making it my own is easy—things as simple as having foods I like out on the counter, or flowers, or nice tea towels out.

As a food editor, I’m sitting most days writing and editing, so at the end of the day I am eager to get in the kitchen. Coming home from work, changing into something comfortable, opening a bottle of wine, and dropping everything to start chopping or sautéing, totally relaxes me.

Cooking was always second nature in the household. My dad would cook when he came home from work. It was a de-stresser, something mindless to do, his way to relax. I have two older sisters; when they would hear my dad pull the car into the driveway they would run upstairs because they knew that someone would have to chop the onions, peel the garlic, and do all that shitty stuff. As the youngest girl, I got stuck doing that at a young age. My dad is a surgeon—he’d go from the operating room to the kitchen—so he was used to having an assistant hand him stuff: garlic, onion. Seeing the pleasure he got from cooking, even after working eighteen hours, was totally inspiring. Cooking gives you the opportunity to create, everyday.

Part of my job is to help people cook better; the more people cook, the better it is for health, family, the environment. I’m trying to find ways to make that enjoyable and easier for others—and for myself too—because I know how it feels, you get home and you’re hungry and you just want to get it done. But cooking is a form of meditation in a way. It clears your head.

I’ve always wanted to write about food, but right out of college I got a job at a magazine that turned out to be a society rag. I had read a lot of Judith Jones—Julia Child’s publisher—and both hers and Julia’s books, My life in Food and My Life in France respectively, inspired me. These two women who I admired both went to France at a young age to try to write and learn more about food, so I followed suit, quit the society rag and moved to France. I got a job as an English teacher, and wrote restaurant reviews for a newspaper, but spent most of my days going to markets. It was the first time I saw rabbits hanging with their skins on. I had this great French roommate who wasn’t super culinary, but for whom meals were still such a sacred time. I was 20 or 21, and the contrast to living in New York or D.C.—20 year olds back home didn’t really gather so much around meals. So that was really awesome to see. And she had cheese after every meal, including breakfast!

Between my own upbringing, my time in France, and having lived in Italy for a while, I really learned the importance of savoring a meal, of sitting down to eat with one another. When I came back to New York I would try to have friends over a lot. It’s my favorite thing to do. You can cook, get totally drunk, and you’re just in someone’s home. It’s a lot more intimate than going out; it leads to better discussion, closer friendships.

The recipes I develop start at home. It takes effort to give yourself the time—to give yourself a Sunday to get creative—and that’s why I like having people over because it forces you to get creative. So the process starts alone, but then working with others pushes you further. You have a way of doing something, or you have a recipe developed and then someone says ‘oh, what about this?’ Working with someone and bouncing ideas off each other is great. I feel very fortunate to be in a situation where I have other recipe developers and editors to learn from and experiment with.

When cooking is leisurely and lends itself to collaboration, the meal can be shared. I love cooking for friends, but there’s always that awkward moment when you have to bring out this thing you made. So it’s nice to have people involved so that it could be a mutual effort, so it doesn’t feel like you’re just presenting.

ON SUNDAY SUPPERS

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I met Karen [Mordecai, founder of Sunday Suppers] this summer and we really hit it off. She was looking for someone to chef and instruct. For the Sunday Suppers, we teach people how to make something and then they sit down for dinner. The other suppers are the larger, private dinners—the last one I did was the Kinfolk gathering for 50 people. The theme was “A Messy Meal”. We made a lot of stuff from her book, which just came out—ribs and some slaw, and my sous chef Demetria, who is also a baker at Four and Twenty Blackbirds, took care of the cornbread and pies. We encouraged people to eat with their hands and really get in there.

Karen, and what she’s built, is pretty amazing. You know, I’m not professionally trained, I’m not a chef. Though I’m professional in recipe development, I’ve never worked in a professional kitchen. I’m a home cook. And I think the reason why Sunday Suppers resonates so strongly is because, most times, people do learn from other home cooks and not from taking a formal class at a culinary school. I learned how to instruct from the way I learned how to cook too, from the people who taught me. Most of it comes from watching and doing it oneself.

To me, cooking is not about perfection, it’s not about being a chef, and it doesn’t have to be amazing every time —it’s just a natural, necessary and pleasurable part of life.

I’m not sure I’ve ever followed a recipe from a book. I have a ton of them, but I use them more for inspiration. On some level, cooking is intuitive, but ‘intuitive’ to me means that you can learn. Everyone has it in them to cook, because they have it in them to eat.  You know how things taste. The desire to cook arises from context—whether you’re just sick of getting takeout, or you start dating someone and it’s more fun to be at home and cook—and curiosity; you find yourself more interested in learning and trying stuff out. And there is not that much to learn; the skills build upon themselves.  It’s amazing to me how far five basic kitchen skills can get you.

Every night, ‘What do I make?’ That’s the eternal question.

THE ITEMS THAT MAKE CHRISTINA’S KITCHEN

1. Olives: My family is Greek and we try to make an annual pilgrimage to Athens to spend time in the motherland but mostly just to pick up these olives. They are in these random looking bags, which cost about three euro each and are better than anything you can get over here. We get so many bags that we usually bring a separate piece of luggage to carry them all back (along with ouzo).

2. My mom’s silver pepper grinder: When I got married three and a half years ago, my mom pulled this out of her china closet to give to me. She has had it for 30 years but only ever used it a handful of times—holidays mostly. Since I don’t have a china closet (or china for that matter), I keep it on my counter and use it everyday.

3. My juicer: To balance out my love for pasta, I make cold-pressed green juice with this baby every Sunday.

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5 BASIC SKILLS THAT GO A LONG WAY IN THE KITCHEN

1. A few basic knife skills: if you know how to chop, slice and mince, you’re halfway there.

2. Sautéing onion and garlic in olive oil: you can use this as a base for a million different dishes. (Many people add celery for the complete soffrito, but just onion and garlic is my go-to). Add greens for a quick sautéed side, add canned tomatoes and red chili peppers to make a basic marinara, add beans and broth to make a soup, etc.

3. Roasting a chicken: A roast chicken is something you can easily make and eat once a week, and will want to. It’s a perfect comforting one pan meal, and if you know how to throw the chicken and some potatoes and or vegetables into a pan, how to season it and how long to roast it for, you can feed yourself well and often.

4. Cooking rice: Knowing how to boil rice on the stove is an important skill and can help you eat healthier throughout the week. I usually make a large pot of brown rice at the beginning of the week and use that as a base for whatever else comes up. Add canned beans and salad greens and season with some soy sauce, lemon and olive oil and you have a tasty 5 minute dinner. For such a simple food, it’s easy to mess up, but once it get it down you’re set. Even better: get a rice cooker.

5. A basic vinaigrette: Figuring out the best ratio of acid to oil is the main thing here and once you get a sense of that and nail down a basic vinaigrette, a world of dressings and condiments opens up. Use these to dress salads, marinate meats, as dips for steamed veggies, to pour over rice, etc.

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