BY JOAN CUSICK / PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOAN CUSICK
"I love soup," she says while peeling heirloom carrots. "If it's just me and I'm alone and I get to choose something, it's soup."
Maren Conrad has not only learned the art of home cooking. She has also learned how to strike a balance between art and cooking.
Conrad, 35, is an artist, teacher, mother and entrepreneur. Just last year, she cofounded Prosper Design Studio, which features her work on a line of kitchen and table linens that are as beautiful as they are sustainable.
The role of home cook didn't come naturally, she says. "I was the youngest child in a pretty bossy family, and by the time I got to college I realized I didn't know what I liked to cook, or what I liked to eat." About 10 years ago, her now-late husband, Dennis, urged her to do something she had always wanted to do. So Maren took classes at the Culinary Institute of America. She studied under James Beard Award–winning chef Joanne Weir, who had been an understudy of Alice Waters. That's where Maren found her cooking mantra: Get the best ingredients possible, and don't overcook them.
For a recent dinner party, Maren shopped at farmers markets and the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, bringing home fresh vegetables for one of her favorite recipes: minestrone soup. To round out the meal, she also prepared a seasonal slaw with homemade dressing and an heirloom tomato salad.
"I love soup," she says while peeling heirloom carrots. "If it's just me and I'm alone and I get to choose something, it's soup.
Photo 2: Maren brings home fresh vegetables, such as these onions, from farmers markets and the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op.
Photo 3: Maren always looks for ways to use herbs and fennel for flavor, rather than adding fat.
Maren considers making soup the perfect way to use the abundant fresh produce in the Farm-to-Fork Capital of America. "Minestrone is a really fun soup because you can incorporate so many different vegetables, but it can change seasonally. In the winter, it can be hearty with cabbages and potatoes and root vegetables, and you can have a totally different version in the spring or summer."
The vegetable mixture for her spring minestrone includes heirloom carrots, baby asparagus, shaved fennel, cauliflower and green beans. As she chops fresh basil to add to the broth, the U-shaped kitchen suddenly smells like a fresh herb garden. Maren savors the smell and always looks for ways to use herbs and fennel for flavor, rather than adding fat.
As Maren moves the bowl of coleslaw to the dining table, her artistic vision becomes clear. Her aqua dandelion linens help create a vibrant spring table. Platters of coleslaw and vegetables are within easy reach of every diner. Three small vases of flowers allow conversation—and laughter—to flow through.
Maren moves the bowl of coleslaw from the kitchen to the dining table.
"I have an unrelenting love of creation," Maren says. Her creative streak can strike anywhere—in her art studio, at a farmers market, even in the hardware store. "I'm always looking for the finest ingredients, interesting colors or textures, materials or foods I haven't tried. My challenge is figuring out how to make my somewhat random palette come together in harmony."
She steps back from the table, delighted with the way her art and life are coming together. "I have an absolute passion for cooking," she says, "because home is where our hearts are."