She’s a seasoned chef who appreciates ketchup-glazed meatloaf as much as the rest of us. Get to know Amanda Freitag.

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Amanda Freitag
David Malosh
| Credit: David Malosh

Amanda Freitag’s appreciation for teachers runs deep. She hails from a family of educators. Her home economics teacher inspired her to attend culinary school. That her career as a chef has come to center on teaching seems like fate. The Chopped judge has recently brought her talent for instructing, guiding, and engaging to YouTube. On her channel, Easy AF, she focuses on beginner-friendly recipes. Moreover, she explains how elements like starch work in dishes. And like the best teachers, Freitag hopes her students (or viewers) gain not just knowledge but confidence. Download it for free at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and anywhere else you listen to podcasts on July 8.

On this episode of Homemade, Freitag chews over competing on Tournament of Champions, her dad’s beef stew, and traveling the world as a culinary diplomat. She also reveals her secrets to stocking a pantry and testing out unfamiliar spices.

About Amanda Freitag

New Jersey native Amanda Freitag first worked at a restaurant in high school before enrolling in the Culinary Institute of America. She went on to land jobs at a handful of restaurants in New York City, gleaning insights from chefs and her travels through France and Italy. She began judging Chopped in 2009 after competing on Iron Chef America. She has since competed on some of TV’s most heated cooking shows. Freitag is the author of The Chef Next Door, which she calls "a love letter to the home cook." She films her current project, Easy AF, from her New York City kitchen.

Follower her on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and check out her website.

Episode Transcript

MARTIE DUNCAN Welcome to Homemade from Allrecipes. I’m Martie Duncan. On this show we celebrate good food, the people who make it, and stories behind the recipes. And today, my guest is a woman travels the world as a culinary diplomat. You know her as a judge on Food Network’s Chopped and you’ve seen her compete on some of TV’s most prestigious cooking competitions, including Iron Chef America. These days she’s also cooking from her home in a new series called It’s Easy AF.

Her cookbook, The Chef Next Door: A Pro Chef's Recipes for Fun and Fearless Home Cooking, is one of my favorite go-to books, y'all. Everybody say hey and welcome to Chef Amanda Freitag. Hey there!

AMANDA Hi. Thanks for having me.

MARTIE I want to get to know a little bit more about you, the non-cooking you, first, before we dive into all these fantastic competitions and all the tips that you can give our audience when it comes to cooking at home. I know you grew up in New Jersey.

AMANDA I did.

MARTIE Believe it or not, even with this accent, my daddy grew up in New Jersey also.

AMANDA Really?

MARTIE Yeah. He graduated from Plainfield High School in Plainfield, New Jersey. But he came to Alabama and never left.

AMANDA Oh wow.

MARTIE So did you grow up in a house that was a cooking household? Was your home a place where y’all cooked a lot as a family?

AMANDA No. So, it was kind of the opposite of that. I was kind of a latchkey kid, and I have two older brothers, and both my parents worked. And so, my grandfather, he was kind of our babysitter. He was there after school. And we were pretty much on our own. And, you know, it was a typical upbringing where — suburbs, everybody was busy, parents were working. Dinner just had to get thrown on the table. So, it wasn't like I grew up on my mom's or dad's apron strings. I fell in love with the restaurant business by working in a restaurant when I was a teenager.

MARTIE I never did that. And my brother did. And I was always a little bit envious of those big tips. I worked at JCPenney. I didn't get any tips. My brother would come out with a pocketful of money. I'm like, I might be in the wrong business over here.

AMANDA That was a good advantage. Yes.

MARTIE But I did read somewhere that you got some encouragement to go to the Culinary Institute of America from your home ec teacher.

AMANDA Yes. My home ec teacher, Miss Joan Levine, was working in a restaurant on the weekends, which, of course, you know, when you're a kid and you're in school, you never picture your teachers doing anything but teach, and that's their life. But she had a whole life outside of that. And I was really interested in restaurant world and chefs and European chefs. And I was obviously her star student because nobody else in home ec even paid attention.

She told me that there was a school, and I was fascinated by it because like I said, again, in the U.S. at that time, being a chef was blue-collar labor.

MARTIE It was. It absolutely was.

AMANDA Yeah, it wasn't a highly regarded career like it was in Europe. So, I followed a lot of European chefs when I could read or watch on television. And I went with her and my parents on a tour of the Culinary Institute of America. At the time, they would run these things called the "Taste of the CIA", and we went up to beautiful Hyde Park, New York, and went to the campus. And all these chefs were walking around with their big white tokes and their neckerchief and their crispy uniforms. And it looked like nirvana to me.

MARTIE These are my people. I found my people.

AMANDA Yeah.

MARTIE You hit the mothership.

AMANDA It was what I wanted. I seemed untouchable, but I so wanted it.

MARTIE It's remarkable to me that you had a teacher that was that invested in your career and your future to go with you and your parents to check it all out.

AMANDA I thank her constantly, and I am so grateful for that. My family's a family of educators, actually. My grandmother was a librarian. My oldest brother's a professor. My middle brother is a school counselor. So, it only makes sense now that a lot of what I'm doing is teaching and talking food all the time.

MARTIE Most of what you do is teaching. Even when you're competing, you're teaching people at home. I learn a lot from these competition shows. All right, so, we've been going through this whole coronavirus shut down. Have you been binge-watching anything?

AMANDA I'm a huge fan of the Great British Baking Show.

MARTIE Me too.

AMANDA I'm in love with it and I've watched them all. So my little nighttime, you know, calming television is watching that over and over again. I watch my favorite seasons, my favorite contestants.

MARTIE Me, too. I love it. And Paul, too. I think he's quite handsome. Alright, so what about music? Is there any music that you're listening to you want to share with us right now?

AMANDA Because everybody's home — you know, you're on Zoom calls, you're on phone calls — everybody knows you’re home and accessible. So, I never get off the phone. So, I've been giving myself Saturdays to turn the phone off and just turn on music.

MARTIE I've been doing the same thing.

AMANDA Yeah. And cook.

MARTIE And I do my housework.

AMANDA Yeah, it's really great. I mean, I have a very eclectic taste in music. So, the last couple of days I've been listening to a lot of Prince because it was the anniversary of his passing.

MARTIE Right.

AMANDA But on Saturdays, I have actually been just listening to some old school classic rock when I've been cooking.

MARTIE That's my favorite.

AMANDA Yeah, it's been great because it just takes me to another time and takes me back. And I don't think about it because it's just familiar.

MARTIE Well, let's go back since we're talking about the old school stuff. So even though you grew up latchkey with not a lot of cooking in your house, were there any special recipes or family favorites that you have for holidays or things like that?

AMANDA The great thing that happened was my dad, who, his everyday job was a systems analyst — very analytical mind. He got interested in pastry while I was at culinary school. He started to dabble in it and then really found a passion for it.

MARTIE Wow.

AMANDA So, he started baking a lot. He really liked the technical stuff. We got him some cooking classes, baking classes that he took, and he was an excellent baker. And I'm an impatient baker. I like savory. I mix and stir and taste. You know? Baking is a science and once that thing goes in the oven, that's it. Your chances of fixing it are over. And he was fantastic at it.

So, he started to serve up things that were his favorites on holidays, bake cakes for us. Every Christmas we would have a cookie called a pecan tassie that has this beautiful — it's like a baby, almost, pecan pie. It's a cream cheese dough with the pecan filling.

MARTIE We make those too. Those are really big around our family for the holidays.

AMANDA Yeah and it would just fill up the house with these wonderful aromas. I have a couple of his recipes in my book. He had a beef stew that he would...

MARTIE I saw that.

AMANDA Ah, that beef stew.

MARTIE Pop's beer-braised bold beef stew. I was gonna talk to you about that. I wondered if that was your daddy's recipe.

AMANDA It is. And he would take out this cast iron Dutch oven, which was so heavy, nobody else could lift it, and put it on the stove. And he took his time and just the smell of the onions and he would use red wine and dark beer and that thing just cooked for hours. And the silly fun part about it is, a lot of times he would serve it in a bread bowl, which is just kind of cheesy. But it was so good.

MARTIE Oh, but who wouldn't like that though? That sounds delicious. In your book, do you have the recipe with, was it, mashed potatoes?

AMANDA Yes. I highly recommend it with the smashed potatoes that I have in the book. But obviously you can serve it with anything as long as you've got something to soak up that delicious braising liquid.

MARTIE It sounds fantastic. I can’t wait to make that. One thing I also wanted to talk about, and while we're in the way back machine, let's go back to when you did your very first Iron Chef appearance. Was that when you had to battle Bobby Flay?

AMANDA Yes, that was 2008, I believe? I was asked to do it and I said no at first, which was really funny because at the time I had a PR representative at the restaurant where I was the chef. And he called, and he said, "Did you say no to Iron Chef?" And I said, "Yeah, I don't do that stuff. I don't make caramel cages and exploding ketchup and..."

MARTIE Right.

AMANDA He was like, "Um, it would be really good for the restaurant. And I think you'd love it. So, I think you should do it." And I was like, "Ugh, OK." And it was a great day, and it was a new experience for me. Obviously, we're competitive as chefs in restaurants, but I didn't realize, personally, that I was a very competitive person.

MARTIE Oh, yeah. I recognized that about you. You're very competitive.

AMANDA I didn't know until that very day because I was never into sports. So, I didn't really get it about myself, until then. And so, wow. I wanted to win. I felt the adrenaline, the rush. And, you know, I lost by one point.

MARTIE That's so hard. One point. Ugh, heartbreaking.

AMANDA Really frustrating.

MARTIE Still, it was Iron Chef Bobby Flay. And it was just one point.

AMANDA Great experience.

MARTIE That's a win.

AMANDA It was a huge win for me because then that was my first thing I ever did on Food Network. And then I got connected to the woman who created Chopped and then Chopped started that same year. So that was a big year for me.

MARTIE And you're still on Chopped now.

AMANDA Yes.

MARTIE Do you ever have anything you just won't eat? I mean, I look at some of those things. I'm like, I wouldn't eat it. I'm not eating that. I would not eat it. Do you ever feel that way?

AMANDA I feel that way quite often. But I have to eat it. There are many, many things that I see the ingredients, and I think, "Oh, my God. I really don't want to eat this." And I'm not alone in that sentiment. You know, we'll turn to each other and we'll be like, "Wait a minute. Really?" And I have to give so much credit to the chefs. They find a way to transform. They make something out of nothing. And honestly, it's always a surprise.  They make things I could never dream of. And in 30 minutes! Come on.

AMANDA Yeah.

MARTIE Are you kidding me? You coming up with some of these things? Two ice creams and a cake and you've done it in 30 minutes. I don't know how anybody does that.

AMANDA I just don't think people who watch realize how difficult it truly is. It's not a lot of time, and it's a lot of pressure. A lot of very skilled chefs don't do well in that environment. It's about the tips and tricks and how to be fast and how to put flavor in a short amount of time. It's not necessarily about your pedigree all the time.

MARTIE I know just from doing Food Network Star that sometimes it is really about taking a second to get organized, too.

AMANDA Oh yeah.

MARTIE The organization and the prep is the hard part so that you're not running to the pantry 62 times.

AMANDA I know. I know. You can definitely experience a blank brain as soon as you see those ingredients. And the only way to get your juices flowing is to start to do something. Cut an onion, start to taste what's in the basket. You have to do something because I've been there before. I've opened that basket. And completely blank. Oh, my God.

MARTIE Well, you're cooking these days on your YouTube channel.

AMANDA Yeah!

MARTIE Which I absolutely love. I've been watching and following along with your It's Easy AF. What a great name for that.

AMANDA Thank you.

MARTIE Because for those of you don't know...

AMANDA My initials.

MARTIE Yes, her initials. And you know what it means, too. I don't have to tell you. But you've done some really fun things. I like the risotto one because you really demystify risotto for us and explain how the starch works in the dish. And I thought it was really — you're a good teacher, a really good teacher.

AMANDA: Thank you. I really enjoy teaching. And the most rewarding part to me is when somebody — if I'm doing class in person, obviously, they'll tell me how much they loved it. Or, when somebody comes back with feedback after watching one of the videos and said, "I was so afraid to do that, and I did it. And I feel so confident now." And I love knowing that just a little bit of instruction and guidance can help somebody up their culinary game or do something they were afraid to do.

And I wanted to do more of the basics in my videos so that people aren't intimidated. I think people are afraid to ask, "You know what? I don't know how to cut an onion. And I'm just afraid to even say that out loud," or, "You know what? I really have never poached an egg. How am I going to figure that out?" So, I think it's really important to have the basics so that people can at least just experience what it's like to be in the kitchen. Sometimes if you don't feel confident at all, you're not even going in there.

MARTIE I think the one thing that you also do that is helpful to novice cooks, for people who are maybe a little bit afraid in the kitchen, is that you take the time to explain how it works. And I think that helps to take the mystery out of some of the things, too.

AMANDA Sure.

MARTIE And you take your time doing that, which I think is so important. Because a lot of times chefs will breeze through that stuff and just assume you know. Even me, I'm a cook. I cook for a living. Sometimes I don't know. Because I'm not a restaurant chef. So, I haven't done it 365 times a year, for years and years on end. So, I don't know. And so, the way that you take your time and explain it, I think is quite helpful.

AMANDA Thank you. I think it's important for people to understand why something works that way, and then they can translate it into other things.

MARTIE In your cooking, you use a lot of over the top ingredients. I know you do a lot of Asian things. But now that we're stuck kind of pantry cooking or refrigerator cooking, what is your go-to dish while we're sheltering in place?

AMANDA That's such a good question because I have been cooking constantly. And I also love the flavors of the Mediterranean and Italian food. And it's changed. No, that first week we were on lockdown, I cooked a lot of pasta.

MARTIE Yeah, me too.

AMANDA Beans and rice and baked dishes. I made lasagna. And now I'm finding that I can have a little more access to other things. So, I've been doing like a classic roast chicken. I've been tapping into grains, like lentils. And I made some meatloaf last weekend, which I know sounds so comforting and boring, but my meatloaf came out so good.

MARTIE I don't think it sounds boring at all. I think it sounds delicious.

AMANDA I grabbed just a couple of simple, bold condiments, which I think is my recommendation to anybody who's stocking a pantry. Have these things like mustard in your pantry to use. Have Worcestershire to spice things up. Keep capers on hand to throw into pasta or vegetables, things like that that are brining and pickley. So I really, I zinged my meatloaf up with a lot of mustard and ketchup and Worcestershire, and it came out great.

MARTIE That sounds like my mama's meatloaf, actually.

AMANDA Yeah?

MARTIE My cousin just gave me my mom's meatloaf recipe, which I've never had. And it was in her handwriting and it was on her stationery. And she ran across it in her mother's recipe box. So that was such a treasure to get that. So, tell me, how do you make your meatloaf? Like, do you cook it in a pan? Do you free-form it?

AMANDA No, I pre-formed it because I was making two and I only had one loaf pan and a baby loaf pan. And I took a pilgrimage to New Jersey and brought my mom. So, I made sort of two of everything. So, I brought her some cooked food that she loved.

MARTIE I bet she did. I bet she said, "You can quarantine with me. Do all the cooking."

AMANDA Yeah. You know, she was very happy because she's lonely. And even though we social distanced, she ate the food and felt the love in the food. So, I did it free form. And I used a mix that was pork, beef, and veal, like a meatball, and so super tender.

MARTIE Did you put any breadcrumbs or bread in it?

AMANDA I did. I always put bread crumb and egg.

MARTIE Yeah, my mom did too.

AMANDA Yeah, inside of my meatloaf, and I always do a little ketchup glaze on top.

MARTIE Me too. It's tradition, you kind of have to.

AMANDA I think any of those ketchup naysayers are really missing out.

MARTIE I do too, because that's part of comfort food, isn't it?

AMANDA I've been making also a lot of potato gnocchi. I have had a few like virtual cooking events and I've been demonstrating potato gnocchi. So, I've had leftover gnocchi around. I'm serving it up with some pesto. I browned it in the pan the other day with just some brown butter and cheese.

MARTIE Oh, that sounds delicious. Will you walk me through that really quick? Now, if I want to make the gnocchi at home, how do I make it?

AMANDA Oh, my God. My gnocchi recipe is so satisfying because, first of all, it's easy and it comes out fluffy and light. They're not thin.

MARTIE I want that. I want that.

AMANDA So I use Idaho potatoes and I cook them with the skin on.

MARTIE OK.

AMANDA The key is to work with them when they're hot.

MARTIE OK.  

AMANDA And then I peel them when they're totally cooked. And I put them through a ricer. And then they get seasoned with salt and pepper. And then I add two egg yolks to two potatoes, half a cup of flour, and then I roll them.

MARTIE Oh, my gosh, that sounds so good. And then what did you say you were doing for your sauce?

AMANDA I've made this a couple of times, so initially I just had a homemade marinara, which I love.

MARTIE Oh, I saw your video for your marinara.

AMANDA I highly recommend, while you're cooking at home, to start making your own because obviously you've probably stocked up on canned tomatoes. And I think it's a way better flavor profile than the jarred sauce.

MARTIE Oh, me too.

AMANDA But I got a hold of some herbs last week, which was great. And I made a pesto. Then I par-cooked some of the gnocchi and chilled it because I was just going to pop it in the freezer and save it.

MARTIE Right.

AMANDA And I ended up heating up a pan, real, real hot with just a little bit of olive oil. Put the gnocchi in, in one single layer, and I got it crispy.

MARTIE Oh, yum.

AMANDA Then I threw in a little pat of butter. Then the butter turned brown and I had some cheese.

MARTIE You know all the right words to say. I can't wait to get up from this and go in my kitchen, start making gnocchi. I have all those things. I'm going to go and do it. It sounds amazing.

AMANDA I love making it because it's just like playing in the kitchen. It’s so creative.

MARTIE We’ll have more with Amanda Freitag right after the break.

MARTIE Welcome back to Homemade.

MARTIE I meant to ask you this earlier, but I just was addicted, like most of America, I was addicted to get the Guy Fieri's Tournament of Champions show. I was so shocked when I saw all of you, like all your superstars came out to battle in that thing. I'm like, oh boy. Guy must have really had to twist some arms because, you know, he's known for his dastardly tricks.

AMANDA Oh, yeah.

MARTIE I did Grocery Games.

AMANDA You competed?

MARTIE I did, with Justin. Justin and I did it together on a teams thing. Justin Warner and myself. And we won. So that was really fun.

AMANDA That's a hard thing to do.

MARTIE Well, Justin's judged a lot and he's competed a lot on that show. He has a photographic memory. I don't know if you know that about him, but he does. And he can remember where every single thing in that grocery store is.

Because I would still be in there if it was me. They would have had to get the police department or something to get me out. I'd still be there. But Justin knew where everything was. So that was amazing. And we had so much fun.

But he's known for his dirty tricks and his whammies. And so, I saw this thing and I saw you superstars come out. And then he goes, "Oh, and by the way, we have this randomizer."

AMANDA Ugh, the randomizer. Oh, my God. When I was standing in front of that thing, I was just a ball of nerves. It never lands on what you want it to land on, first of all.

MARTIE No, and you have to think it's rigged because there's no way it's going to give you something like, I don't know, fish sauce and a waffle iron. I don't know.

AMANDA You know, it was one of the most challenging competitions I'd ever done. Every competition has a different twist to it. But I think with a randomizer, with the judges being blind, blind tasting, it was really, truly a step above all the other competitions. The fairness level, obviously. And the suspense and watching people who are such great chefs not be able to make it to the next round was fascinating to me.

MARTIE It was to us watching at home, too. That was really unbelievable.

AMANDA Yeah.

MARTIE And I think part of what you said was that the blind judging.  I had never known in any of these competitions for there to be a completely 100 percent blind judging.

AMANDA That's completely new. And of course, leave it up to Guy to do that. And I think it was great because he thought outside the box. It's different than any other competition show that we've seen. And he really kind of cracked the code on that. I enjoyed it because I think the fairness level was high.

MARTIE They had asked me to do Grocery Games and I said no for a long time because after the Food Network Star, I'm just like, gah, just no. I'm never doing another cooking competition. But it was so fun. And Guy and his team and the producers, they're just so good at what they do. And they make it, even when it's stressful, they make it as hospitable and fun, and they're all lovely to deal with. And so it's a fun experience, even though it's terrifying to a certain degree.

AMANDA That's what I always say about Chopped. You know, we've done so many episodes of Chopped and sometimes chefs come up to me at events or at meet and greets and they'll say, "Oh, you Chopped me," or, "I was on Chopped," or this and that. You don't always remember everybody. I mean, we've filmed over 600 episodes.

MARTIE Yeah.

AMANDA My first question to them is, "Well, did you have a good experience?"And everybody always says, "Yes. And you have a great crew." And I did. And to me, that's the most important thing, honestly, because only one out of the four are going to win.

MARTIE Right.

AMANDA And everybody else just needs to have a really good experience. And I think any time you're under that sort of pressure, you learn a lot about yourself as a person and as a chef.

MARTIE You sure do.

AMANDA I think that you can take away a lot from it. And I think for me, when I'm judging, I try to teach the contestant a little bit about themselves, too, and what they may not see.

MARTIE Amanda, speaking of Chopped, what is one of the biggest mistakes that chefs make when they come to a competition like that?

AMANDA Being overambitious.

MARTIE I think that's a big one, isn't it?

AMANDA I know chefs want to show off while they're there. They want to show us what they got. And I've made this mistake myself, and you try to do too much because you want to do it. You have one chance and you want to show off. And I think you just have to focus on a few really good items with really good flavor and not try and do too much because, honestly, you don't have time. You just don't.

MARTIE Well, hey summer's just around the corner. And I know you love to cook with the best and freshest ingredients that you can find. What summer produce are you looking most forward to? And if you could grow a garden of things, what would you grow outside your house?

AMANDA That's such a great question. Well, as a Jersey girl, the Garden State, I really look forward to tomatoes. And I don't ever get sick of them. I truly don't. Tomato salads, fresh tomato sauces, roasted tomatoes, tomato jam, any kind of tomato you can think of, I'll take it. Grilled tomatoes.

MARTIE Now, do you ever make tomato sandwich?

AMANDA Sure, of course.

MARTIE Like Alabama style? Like white bread, mayonnaise, salt, and pepper, that’s it?

AMANDA I probably usually toast my bread and there's microgreens. And there's usually an avocado on there because I just always have a little California love in me.

MARTIE Now, I've never really grilled a tomato very often. You just slice, add olive oil and salt and pepper, then just put them flat on the grill? Is that it?

AMANDA Yes, I do a nice thick slice. Just a little bit of olive oil because you don't want too much flare up. Always salt. Salt and tomato is a must. And then I just go on a hot spot.

MARTIE Really?

AMANDA Quick sear on both sides.

MARTIE Just to bring the sugars out? Is that when it's for?

AMANDA It just starts to melt the tomato a little, gives it a tiny bit of a char. I love to have that with steak. Simple. Delicious. And just a little cook on the tomato. You know, when they're ripe and beautiful, they don't need much.

MARTIE That's right.

AMANDA But when you get a little heat on them, they start to give off their juices and it changes the game.

MARTIE While I've been home during the lockdown, I've planted about 20 tomato plants outside in my new raised beds. So, I'm going to be grilling some tomatoes this summer. So thank you for that.

AMANDA Yeah, I look forward to sun gold tomatoes as well. The sun gold cherry tomatoes are so delicious. They're like candy.

MARTIE All right. So, we're getting close to the weekend. If you're going to whip up a big batch of cocktails, what's your go-to cocktail?

AMANDA Well, I'm a tequila girl. So, I was experimenting with a frozen margarita last weekend, and my refrigerator was not keeping up with the ice production.

AMANDA So, I have some of the base in my freezer. So, I'm going to conquer this. And it's a mezcal margarita, inspired by my friend. T.J. Steele, who has a restaurant called Claro in Brooklyn and he makes these unbelievable, delicious frozen margaritas with mezcal.

MARTIE That sounds delicious.

AMANDA Tequila and mezcal. And you know, one of my favorite things that Guy does is he has his Tequila Mezcal brand.

MARTIE Yeah, what’s it called?

AMANDA Santos.

MARTIE Santos, yeah.

AMANDA It's so delicious.

MARTIE Is it?

AMANDA I think just Mezcal on its own, for me, is overly smoky. I love tequila. So, a little bit of that smokiness really counteracts the sweet and sour. It's so delicious. I love it. So, I'm definitely going to whip up the rest of that frozen margarita and see if I can conquer it. Get it to that slushy consistency. But typically, I just like tequila with grapefruit.

MARTIE That's one of my favorites, too. What a beautiful combination. Like a nice grapefruit juice with tequila.

AMANDA Yeah.

MARTIE Tequilas are all the rage right now. Bourbons were it for a long time, but now when it comes to parties and things, a lot of people are doing, instead of bourbon bars, are doing tequila bars with tequila tasting.

AMANDA I think it's fun because you can really play around with flavors. Right at the beginning of the quarantine, as well, somebody sent me a delicious bottle from 21 Seeds, and the tequila is a mix of cucumber and jalapeno infusion.

MARTIE Oh, wow.

AMANDA And I honestly, I put it over ice with lime. That was it. And you got really good flavor, a little bit of spice, a little bit of freshness from the cucumber. It was fantastic.

MARTIE Well, for all of you who don't have a great ice maker — mine's broken, it's been broken for about 20 years, and so I have an ice tray that I'll make my own ice. But I do keep in the summertime a big container, a big plastic container of a base of some sort, whether it's lime or whatever it happens to be. And you freeze it and then you sit it out right before you start to mix. And you add your tequila becomes slushy, and then you just pour ‘em up. It's so easy and so fun. You don't need a blender.

AMANDA So delicious.

MARTIE All right. So tequila it is for Friday night cocktails.

AMANDA Right.

MARTIE You know, you've done something that I and probably almost every single person listening to this podcast would like to do. You traveled extensively through France and Italy, and you explored the markets and the restaurants and the food scenes and all these places. So let's pretend we're off of lockdown and we can travel anywhere we want to go. Give me you like your top two or three experiences or places that, if we do get to go back to France and Italy, that may be something we can look forward to.

AMANDA Well, you know, I've been so fortunate. I'm so lucky to be able to travel with friends, travel for work. Last year I was in Jordan.

MARTIE Oh, wow.

AMANDA And I can't even describe to you what a wonderful experience that was. I would have never gone on my own. I'm involved in something called the Culinary Diplomacy Project, and it connects people all over the world through food and everybody sits down at the table. And that's a universal language. So, we went on that trip with the woman who runs the organization. And the flavors of the Middle East are just addictive and wonderful. And the feasts, every meal is a feast.

MARTIE Every meal is a feast. And they take such time and patience to go through a long, drawn-out experience for all the meals. Even coffee!

AMANDA Even coffee. Oh, their coffee is delicious. And I love all of the flavor profiles. Working with tahini, all the different yogurts and labneh and za’atar and sumac and the flatbreads that they make, you know, at every table, there's always the flatbread that's so delicious. The dried fruits, the dates. Oh, my God. The dates.

MARTIE The dates. And the markets, all the markets that you can go to, like the fresh, big, open spice markets where you can go and just pick up all the most amazing things on the planet.

AMANDA Ugh, it's heavenly to me. It's just heavenly. So that was probably the most exciting, most exotic trip I've ever taken because it was a place where I never thought I would go. And now I want to go back.

MARTIE Right.

AMANDA We got to go to Petra, which is one of the new seven wonders of the world. And we got to go to the desert of Wadi Rum. And, again, a place where I never thought I would be. And everything was still around food. The love of food and the way food brings people together in that part of the world is so strong. And I just came back with that feeling of, wow, it really is true how you can connect people with food.

MARTIE It is the most unbelievable unifier. Because even if you have a difference of opinion with someone or a difference of upbringing or religion or politics, typically you can find some common ground over food.

AMANDA Yep.

MARTIE I know you use a lot of unusual spices, let's say, for an everyday kitchen. A lot of times there are Asian spices or whatever. How can somebody who is a bit fearful of incorporating something different, how can they go about just getting started with little baby steps?

AMANDA I personally rarely follow recipes, as you can tell, being the impatient baker. So, I think sometimes if you were to, let’s say, dabble in Middle Eastern cuisine and open up a book that has a recipe that has 10 different spices in it. And you're overwhelmed just because you don't have half of them.

I say if you found, let's say, za’atar at the market and you're like, "OK, I've heard about this, I want to try it." Just use it by itself. Right? On its own. So, you can experience just the flavor of that, whether it be sprinkling it on your roast chicken breasts that night — instead of just using oregano, use za’atar. Or mixing it into a little bit of yogurt to make a sauce or a dip.

Try that one spice on its own. And understand the flavors of it, and don't get intimidated. Add it to a dish that you've made before. Add it to something that you are familiar with. And then start to venture out with other flavors and other dishes because I think if you're diving into somebody else's ethnic cuisine and it's multi-layered, it can be very intimidating.

So, take those spices and bring them into your own cuisine and see which one you like. Sumac is a perfect example. It's really lemony. If you've never had it before, you would be so surprised by it.

MARTIE Especially, because at some places, everybody just thinks sumac is the poison...

AMANDA Right.

MARTIE The itchy poison ivy, poison oak sister.

AMANDA If you had it in a dish that had 10 other spices, you really wouldn't be able to just appreciate that sumac or know the flavor profile of it. So, I think if you get new spices and you're playing with them, eat them as a singular spice at first, and then decide what you think they should be blended with, and then go from there.

MARTIE So, is it za'atar?

AMANDA Za’atar, is, yeah.

MARTIE Tell me a little bit about it. I don't even know what it is.

AMANDA It’s the Middle Eastern spice. It is a wild oregano that's dried and pulverized. And it's mixed along with some sesame seeds.

MARTIE OK.

AMANDA And I believe there's also — there might even be a little bit of sumac inside of that blend. Everybody makes a different za'atar blend, but the green one is the most popular. It’s sprinkled on flatbreads and gives it the most wonderful herbal flavor. And there's always that sesame with it. Za'atar in your chicken with a squeeze of lemon is just excellent.

MARTIE You have inspired me to try it. I'm gonna run to the store and get it. I don't know where I'll find it near me, out here in the country, but I will find it somewhere. But you've inspired me to try it.

Because, I mean, sometimes those things are intimidating. And sometimes they're super expensive, too. So, you buy them, and you think, ‘Gah, I don't even know if I like it, and I’ve got to spend $30 dollars to get it.’

AMANDA Right. Of course, you want to use it you've spent that money on it.

MARTIE Yes.

AMANDA You need to know how. Right? You know.

MARTIE Right. I love the idea of starting with just a roast chicken and substituting one of your regular ingredients for something different. And because you know what a chicken tastes like.

AMANDA Right.

MARTIE And so that's a great sort of benign place for you to try new flavors. That's a great idea. And not terribly expensive if you mess it up. So, you're on your website is AmandaFreitag.com.

AMANDA Yes.

MARTIE And then we can find you on YouTube, It's Easy AF.

AMANDA It's Easy, AF. And also, the Easy AF videos are there on InstagramTV. So my Instagram is ChefAmandaF.

MARTIE ChefAmandaF on InstagramTV. OK, y'all. Tune in. Check out these videos. She's going to teach you how to be a better cook and teach you some new tips and tricks. Amanda, thank you so much for being with us here on Homemade.

AMANDA Thank you.

MARTIE That was culinary diplomat and Chopped judge Amanda Freitag.

Coming up on the next episode of Homemade, we’re talking comfort food and home cooking with Chef Carla Hall.

CARLA The secret to making my peach cobbler — I take my peaches. I macerate them in the sugar and a little bit of lemon juice, brown sugar, little but of almond and just let them sit. Then I put them on a sheet pan and let them cook in the oven for passive cooking. Because, you know, for your soul food peach cobbler, those peaches need to be cooked and like dark. Right?

MARTIE This conversation is going to make so hungry. You don’t want to miss Carla Hall. And you don’t have to. Subscribe to the podcast right now. It’s free, and you won’t miss a single episode. And if you like what you hear, please consider leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts or telling your friends about the program.

And don’t forget, you can find thousands of recipes, meal ideas, and cooking how-tos from the world’s largest community of cooks at Allrecipes.com. You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

This podcast was recorded in Birmingham, edited in Atlanta, and can be found wherever you get your podcasts.

Homemade is produced by Allrecipes with Executive Editor Jason Burnett. Thanks to our Pod People production team: Rachael King, Eliza Lambert, Tanya Ott, and Maya Kroth.

Thanks for listening. I’m Martie Duncan, and this is Homemade.