Kelis has certainly created her own space in the music industry (perhaps you’ve heard “Milkshake,” her earworm hit of the 2000s?), but it took us by surprise to find that her latest venture is something as cookie-cutter as a celebrity cookbook.
But Kelis isn’t your typical celebrity, and this is far from a typical celebrity cookbook. For starters, the 36-year-old native New Yorker is not at all new to the cooking game; she stars in her own show on the Cooking Channel, Saucy and Sweet. She even honed her skills at Le Cordon Bleu in 2008 before officially calling herself a chef.
The recipes she serves up in My Life on a Plate: Recipes from Around the World are exactly like the title states—an eclectic mixture of the cuisines she’s eaten and picked up on during her time spent touring the world as a musician, as well as dishes inspired by her Puerto Rican and Jamaican heritage. There are some recognizable dishes like donuts and beef sliders and also some more adventurous fare, like oxtail poutine and smoked bacon arepas, all broken down in a way that’s still feasible for even the most hesitant of would-be foodies. (Sadly, there’s not a single recipe for milkshakes.)
We chatted with Kelis about the things she learned about food from her mom, how her food truck came to fruition, some of her favorite recipes from the new book, and more.
How long was the journey from your singing career to publishing your first cookbook?
Over 15 years! Cooking school was something I had always wanted to do, but I never had the time. I remember being at home one day watching TV when a commercial for Le Cordon Bleu came on. A lightbulb switched on in my mind, and I thought, This is what I want to do. I’m a very all-or-nothing person. If I’m going to do something, I want to jump in and do it all the way. Going to Le Cordon Bleu was one of those things. It was intense, and it was serious, but it was one of the best things I’ve done.
You have a special relationship with food, given your mother’s career as a caterer in Harlem. What are some things you still carry with you today?
One thing I really took away from watching my mom run her catering business was the amount of care and love she put into cooking. Everything was done with such attention to detail. Things came out of the kitchen looking gorgeous, or they didn’t come out at all. Food obviously needs to taste delicious, but we also eat with our eyes, so it needs to look good too.
Writing this book allowed me to revisit a lot of the things I grew up eating and things I’ve never had a recipe for because making them was such second nature. It was fun to revisit those dishes and add my own twist to them.
Motherhood changes a lot of things—one often being the necessity of cooking and paying stricter attention to food. Did becoming a mom have an effect on your cooking?
I think as a mom you’re always conscious of what you feed your children. My son [six-year-old Knight, with ex-husband Nas] has traveled with me all over the world, so he’s been exposed to flavors and ingredients that are specific to the places that we go. I feed him what I’m eating. I don’t want to dumb things down for him. I definitely don’t believe in the children’s menu.
In our house, there’s just one meal for dinner, and I think it’s important to let him develop his palate and form his own tastes and opinions on what he likes. As far as what’s healthy, I think balance is important, and I do believe in knowing where your ingredients are coming from. Fresh, unprocessed food is what we like.
What are your favorite recipes from My Life on a Plate?
That’s a hard one—I love them all! I’d say the pernil is one that’s very special to me because it’s something that I grew up eating. It reminds me of my family and so many special memories, so it’s got a place near my heart. The shrimp alcapurria is another dish I grew up eating when I visited family in Puerto Rico, and it’s one I learned how to cook during a final at Le Cordon Bleu.
Much to the surprise of the women in my family, I pulled it off without a recipe or any real help. (They didn’t think I could do it.) I also love the Smoked Bacon Arepas; they’re a staple in our house. And the Oxtail Poutine, because who doesn’t love that?
We couldn’t let Kelis go without getting the recipes for her beloved shrimp alcapurrias and smoked bacon arepas.
Shrimp Alcapurrias (Makes 16 to 20)
For Yucca Coating:
2 yuccas, peeled and shredded on a box grater, using the microplane side (about 4 cups)
1 tablespoon Sazón con Achiote or 1 teaspoon achiote paste, crumbled with your fingers
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sofrito
1 tablespoon kosher salt (if you are using achiote paste instead of Sazón)
½ teaspoon black pepper
For Shrimp Filling
2 tablespoons olive oil
1¼ pounds shrimp, peeled, deveined, and minced
6 garlic cloves, minced
½ large yellow onion, minced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ green bell pepper, cored, seeded, and minced
½ red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and minced
¼ cup sofrito
1 teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon cayenne
½ teaspoon achiote paste, crumbled with your fingers
Canola or vegetable oil for deep-frying
1. To prepare the yucca coating, put the shredded yucca in a piece of doubled cheesecloth and squeeze to strain out the liquid. Put the yucca in a large bowl. Season with the sofrito, achiote paste, salt, and pepper. Cover and refrigerate overnight or for at least several hours. Strain the yucca through cheesecloth again, and squeeze it in your fists to extract as much liquid as possible.
2. Meanwhile, to make the shrimp filling, heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion, season with ½ teaspoon of the salt, and sauté for about 5 minutes, until the onion begins to soften. Add the garlic and bell peppers, and sauté for about 5 minutes to soften. Add the sofrito, oregano, cumin, black pepper, cayenne, achiote paste, and the remaining ½ teaspoon of salt, and stir to combine. Add the shrimp, and cook until it is translucent, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, and set aside to cool.
3. Fill a large saucepan 3 to 4 inches deep with oil, and heat it over medium heat to 350°F. Prepare a bed of paper towels.
4. Scoop ¼ cup of the yucca, and form it into a patty in your palms. Put about 2 teaspoons of the shrimp filling in the center and close the patty to make a tiny football shape. Continue until you have used all of the yucca or filling. Slide the alcapurria into the oil and deep-fry until it is golden brown and cooked through, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove from the oil, and drain on paper towels.
Smoked Bacon Arepas (Makes 12 arepas)
3 cups masa harina Venezolana (precooked Colombian white cornmeal, available at specialty markets or online), or any other precooked masa harina
½ teaspoon truffle salt
7 cups boiling water
7 ounces bacon slices, pan-fried and chopped
2 tablespoons canola oil or more as needed (if you’re cooking the arepas in a skillet)
¾ pound queso cotija, crumbled (you can substitute feta or Spanish white cheese)
1. Put the masa and the salt in a large bowl. Slowly pour in the boiling water, mixing with a wooden spoon to form a dough. Knead the dough a few times while it’s still in the bowl to form a ball.
2. Scoop ¼ cup of the dough (about 2½ ounces), press in some of the bacon, and shape it into a disc that’s about ½ inch thick and 3 inches across.
3. Preheat a grill to medium-low heat, or heat the oil in a skillet over medium-low heat. Grill the arepas, or cook them in the skillet until golden brown, 6 to 8 minutes per side, turning them only once.
4. Crumble the cheese over the arepas. Sprinkle with a little salt as needed, and serve.
Reprinted from My Life on a Plate: Recipes from Around the World. Copyright © 2015 by Kelis Rogers. Published by Kyle Books.