There are a handful of people who, when their name pops up in your inbox, you get excited. Nilou Motamed is one of those people. The recurring judge on Top Chef and Chopped, former editor in chief of Food & Wine and friend of Social Studies knows how to host a holiday party with ease and joy and celebrate New Year's Eve in style.
Nilou has recently handpicked an assortment of gift boxes and pantry staples for Foxtrot Anywhere that showcase her favorite must-have products right now, with an emphasis on the food artisans driven by passion for craft, creativity and crave-worthy flavors. Read on for her picks and dinner party go-tos.
Q: What products are staples in your pantry?
I’m a maximalist in the kitchen so my definition of staples is pretty expansive (don’t even get me started on how many fish sauces I have). That said, there are a few things I’ve discovered over the years I can’t live without...
Extra virgin olive oil:
I end up buying olive oil whenever I’m traveling – Tuscany, Provence, Sonoma – but my go-to back home is Frankie’s Olive Oil from Sicily. It’s fresh and peppery with a tiny hint of artichokiness. It’s a dream on mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes, if that’s your thing.
I love all manner of vinegars: sherry, champagne, rice wine, you name it, I’m obsessed. But the vinegar I reach for most is my Apple Cider Vinegar by Pineapple Collaborative.
I also take a swig of it with hot water every morning (apparently it’s good for you!). It’s bright but not too acidic and I make a mean Dijon mustard and shallot vinaigrette with it. Plus Frankie’s Olive Oil, of course.
Salt is one of those things you need a variety of too. You definitely need kosher salt to season while you’re cooking but to finish, it’s all about the texture. I love Maldon and Murray River Sea Salt from Australia but the sexiest flake I’ve found is from Jacobsen’s Sea Salt hand-harvested in Oregon.
It’s the best kind of briny and improves the flavor of everything I make – including my spicy Bloody Mary’s.
One of the reasons I love having breakfast in Los Angeles is because no one ever gives you a side eye when you ask for hot sauce or a side of sliced jalapeños with your eggs. I’ve collected a disproportionate number of hot sauces in my global peregrinations but my current rotation is relying heavily on two Brooklyn powerhouses:
NY Shuk Harissa a wonderfully balanced, smokey pepper paste, and Shaquanda Hot Pepper sauce which magically channels the fish fries of Barbados, one of my favorite Caribbean getaways.
Q: What’s your go-to gift for the ultimate hostess?
My husband Peter and I are full of gratitude anytime we get invited to a languorous lunch or languid dinner or any occasion when we can be lazy — and indulgent — with our friends. So, I’ve become the (self-proclaimed) queen of gift boxes. I relish the time it takes to pull together the perfect combination of necessities and joyful surprises in each gift — and that my host will get to enjoy the elements I chose for them long after the last dinner dishes have been cleared.
Of course, my gifts tend to gravitate toward my favorite things: beautiful single origin teas like the ones from Three Gems, lush olive oil from California by Pinneapple Collaborative, live vinegars from Acid League — oh, the probiotics — and beautiful spices from the amazing Fair trade spice disruptor Diaspora. That’s why my collab with Foxtrot was so perfect. I got to curate three amazing boxes full of artisanal goodies that you can send to the ultimate host or hostess in your life too.
Q: What products are most likely to make an appearance in at least one of your daily meals?
Lately we’ve been doubling down on exploring flavor profiles we love in restaurants in our home kitchen. Since we haven’t been able to get to our friend Mike Solomonov’s Zahav in Philadelphia, we’ve been making his amazing Israeli food at home.
One of my fvorites is his velvety hummus and the key to that dish is using best tahini possible. I love how creamy and unctuous Seed & Mill Tahini makes even canned chickpeas.
For a quick dressing over roasted carrots or cauliflower, stir a heaping tablespoon of tahini with the juice of half a lime and some olive oil and microplaned garlic. Add a little salt and cumin. You’ll be hooked.
Q: What is your favorite dish to cook?
Our go-to Sunday night dish all summer and into the fall (as long as there are tiny neck clams and cherry tomatoes at the Farmers’ Market) is our version of Spaghetti con Vongole. The only thing that takes time is softening the cherry tomatoes in a 250 degree oven — which you can do when you get back from the farmer’s market and set them aside. Cook your favorite spaghetti… I like Afletra from Gargano because it’s got a great texture (reserve a bit of of the pasta cooking water).
Cook two slices of bacon, cut into ½ inch strips, slowly till crisp with a couple of cloves of garlic, sliced, then remove both from the pan. Throw in your little cleaned necks with the bacon fat and a healthy splash of white wine and cook covered on high heat till they’ve opened.
Add in your al dente spaghetti and the cherry tomatoes and a bit of the pasta water and a drizzle of olive oil and cover until everything is bubbling and simmering and the pasta is cooked through. Add crushed pepperoncino to taste. Serve with crusty bread and Sicilian natural wine, of course. And tag me in your photos… I’m dying to see.
Q: What is your current drink of choice?
These days, I find myself gravitating toward natural and skin contact wines, especially orange wines.
The weirder, the more wonderful. I like that each bottle has an attitude, a personality all its own. Every cork you pull feels like totally unexpected adventure.
A handful of years ago, my husband and were having an amazing dinner in Clown Bar in Paris’s 11th Arrondisement with our dear friends Adam and Evyn. We were served a bottle of funky fermenty pet-nat (petillant naturel) and Adam remarked that it tasted just like kombucha. Guess orange wine is my health drink of choice. I’ve been loving designer Rosie Assoulin’s Vivanterre and a super-drinkable orange from Spain called Gulp Hablo. Even the name is fun.
Q: What playlist are you grooving along to when you cook?
My husband is the master playlist maker and I’m the happy beneficiary. We ping-pong from Prince to Tabuley Rochereau to Bossa nova to French Pop and back again.
Q: Last but not least, who is your dream dinner guest and why?
I guess I could pick somebody famous here but I’m not all that interested in turning dinner into a show. My dream dinner guest is someone who shows up hungry and ready to stay late. Also, someone who is generous with their stories. I love storytellers.
Foxtrot is donating 10% of the proceeds from each gift box sold to World Central Kitchen, the not-for-profit organization founded by Chef José Andrés that uses the power of food to nourish communities and strengthen economies in times of crisis and beyond. Shop Nilou's Pick's here by Monday, September 6!