At home with Atlanta pastry chef Sarah O’Brien

231113 Atlanta, Ga. (Grant Park neighborhood): Portrait of Sarah OÕBrien in her Grant Park homeÕs kitchen. Photo for AJCÕs At Home series. Home of chef Sarah OÕBrien, baker and founder of Little Tart Bakeshop in her home in Grant Park. Styling by Sarah OÕBrien. AAJC112623ATHOMEOBRIEN (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)



231113 Atlanta, Ga. (Grant Park neighborhood): Portrait of Sarah OÕBrien in her Grant Park homeÕs kitchen. Photo for AJCÕs At Home series. Home of chef Sarah OÕBrien, baker and founder of Little Tart Bakeshop in her home in Grant Park. Styling by Sarah OÕBrien. AAJC112623ATHOMEOBRIEN (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Sarah O’Brien, 41, owns and operates three Little Tart Bakeshop locations in Atlanta, plus the Big Softie ice cream shop in Summerhill.

Growing up on a 100-acre farm in rural northeastern Ohio among a family of home cooks and bakers, she seemed destined for the culinary life.

“I grew up around people who were cooking from scratch and baking from scratch,” O’Brien said. “The story I always tell is that when I turned 10, my grandmother walked over to our house with a rolling pin and a bag of apples and said, ‘Now you’re old enough to make pie.’ And pie is something I’m still obsessed with.”

O’Brien left Ohio when she was 18 to attend college at Brown University in Rhode Island, where she studied comparative literature and French. During her junior year she moved to Paris, where she became interested in French pastry.

In spite of her patisserie discovery, O’Brien went on to earn an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. And her book, “Catch Light” (Coffee House Press, 2009), won a National Poetry Series award.

“I went to some good schools,” she said with a laugh. “I loved Iowa and my classmates and my teachers, but I was baking almost as much as I was writing. I remember buying Nancy Silverton’s ‘Breads from the La Brea Bakery’ cookbook, and feeding a starter three times a day, and baking a ton in my tiny little kitchen.”

After returning to Paris, where she worked in two different pastry shops, O’Brien moved to Atlanta in 2009 for a job at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But that didn’t last long.

“I found a shared kitchen and I started baking for farmers markets,” she said. “I was one of the first vendors at Grant Park. I was at the East Lake Market, the Emory Market, and Decatur Market, and getting a really good response.”

After that, O’Brien found the space on Memorial Drive that would become the first iteration of Little Tart.

“That was 12 years ago,” she said. “We opened at Krog Street (Market) nine years ago, and Summerhill four years ago. For about the past year, it’s really felt like the full expression of the businesses, and it’s wonderful.”

Sarah O'Brien, husband Paul Calvert, their eight-year-old son Wally and four-year-old daughter Stevie sit on the front porch of their home in Atlanta's Grant Park neighborhood. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)


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On the home front, O’Brien’s two children Wally, 8, and Stevie, 4, are exuberant kitchen helpers. And her husband, Paul Calvert, who she describes as a “consummate hospitalitarian, dedicated father, extremely gifted writer, and just the best guy,” is a partner in Ticonderoga Club at Krog Street Market and Southern National in Summerhill.

Q: What are your favorite ingredients to cook with at home?

A: I find myself reaching for chickpeas, Parmesan cheese (the good stuff) and eggs from my six chickens at least a couple of times a week. I round those ingredients out by roasting whatever veggies I have in the fridge and toasting up slices of Little Tart sourdough, et voila! A healthy dinner my children will eat.

Sarah O'Brien slices a loaf of sourdough bread from her Little Tart Bakeshop. A slice of toasted bread spread with high-quality salted butter is one of her favorite snacks. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)


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Q: What is your go-to dish for a quick dinner?

A: We eat a lot of ramen; my kids love noodles. I buy fresh ramen online, and serve it either cold in the summer or in homemade stock in the cooler months. Top anything with an egg and it’s dinner. My husband and I eat it with chili oil and the kids content themselves with soy sauce.

Q: When time is not a factor, what dish do you like to prepare for a meal at home?

A: If I have hours to luxuriate at the stove, I’m making Bolognese. My recipe is a mishmash of Samin Nosrat’s and Alice Water’s.

Q: What is your signature dish to impress dinner guests?

A: I really love making a whole spread of Moroccan-inspired dishes. We don’t eat a lot of meat so this generally ends up being a vegetarian meal. I’ll slice tomatoes and season them with toasted cumin, mix up a fragrant cucumber salad with oregano and almonds, and then serve those both with turmeric-laced couscous, briny olives, and a simple vegetable stew flavored with ras el hanout. There’s something really lovely about putting a whole bunch of plates for sharing on the table all at once and telling your friends to dig in.

Q:What is your favorite midnight snack?

A: Popcorn, forever and ever, topped with an egregious amount of nutritional yeast, salted butter, olive oil and salt.

Q: What is your favorite cookbook in your collection?

A: I love “Six Seasons” by Josh McFadden. I’ve used it so much that the cover is falling off. Other cookbooks in heavy rotation are Rick Martínez’s “Mi Cocina” and anything by Alice Waters or Ina Garten – their books taught me to cook.

Q: What are your three favorite kitchen tools or gadgets?

A: I can do almost everything I need to with a nice cutting board, a sharp knife and a whisk.

Sarah O'Brien's favorite kitchen tools include a nice cutting board, a sharp knife and a whisk. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)


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Q: What is your best kitchen hack?

A: Honestly, I’m not sure that I have one. This isn’t a hack, but meal planning when I’m not stressed and don’t have two small children asking me what’s for dinner has saved my sanity many a weekday night. I take some time on Sunday to see what veggies are coming in my farm box, what I have in the fridge, and to poll my family on what they want to eat that week. I make a plan and then I stick to it. I love cooking dinner and meal planning helps me enjoy the process rather than scrambling nightly for a new idea.

Q: What ingredients do you always keep in your fridge?

A: Parmesan cheese, good salted butter, lemons, limes, eggs and whatever veggies have come in my box that week. Hopefully a head of lettuce and some fresh herbs.

Q: What do you think is the most underrated food and why?

A: A simple bowl of simmered beans is one of my favorite things to make and to eat. Now if I could just get my kids as excited about Rancho Gordo’s catalogue as I am.

Q: What is your worst home cooking disaster?

A: I have been known to make a dish and forget to serve it. Twice I made red rice and found it the next day on the stove in the pot I cooked it in.

Q: What are your best words of advice for home cooks?

A: Other than meal planning, I recommend getting a box of local veggies weekly from a service like Rise ‘n Shine Farm or Fresh Harvest. I love spending my money with local farmers, and cooking with whatever comes in my box has taught me a lot about working with vegetables. There’s built-in inspiration in the constraint of having to cook with whatever you have.

Q: What music do you listen to when you cook?

A: Paul is our official family DJ, so probably a really great mix of everything from Destroyer to Otis Redding to Stevie Nicks — sometimes the same playlist that is on at Ticonderoga Club nightly. Or, worst case, my son gets to my phone and we’re listening to the Lego Ninjago soundtrack. Again.

Kitchen Sink Green Goddess and Tuna Salad is a dish that Sarah O'Brien frequently prepares for her family.  Styling by Sarah O'Brien. (CHRIS HUNT FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)


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Kitchen Sink Green Goddess and Tuna Salad

The staple for this kid-friendly dinner is tinned Ortiz Bonito Del Norte White Tuna in Olive Oil, available in four packs from Amazon. It is expensive, O’Brien notes, but both of her picky kids love tuna. The rest of the ingredients are whatever she has on hand, including potatoes, hard-boiled eggs and whatever greens she has lying around. This recipe is O’Brien’s favorite version. But any combination of green goddess dressing, plus a protein, a vegetable, greens and something with crunch will work.

1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided

1 tablespoon Morton’s kosher salt, divided

1 pound Yukon Gold or other thin-skinned potatoes, thinly sliced

3 cups lacinato kale or other greens, chopped

1/2 cup Green Goddess Dressing (see recipe)

2 (3.95-ounce) cans Ortiz Bonito Del Norte White Tuna in Olive Oil, drained

Salt and pepper to taste

Fresh lemon juice (optional)

1/2 cup lightly toasted salted pistachios, coarsely chopped

2 small radishes, thinly sliced

Heat oven to 425 degrees.

Lightly coat chickpeas in about 2 tablespoons olive oil on a sheet tray and sprinkle with 1/2 tablespoon kosher salt. Roast for 10 minutes, give the tray a shake, and roast a few minutes more until they reach desired crunchiness level. Set aside.

Toss sliced potatoes in about 2 tablespoons olive oil in a bowl. Place potatoes on a sheet tray and sprinkle with remaining kosher salt. Potatoes that have more space between them will be crunchier; with less space they will steam a little but will still be delicious. Roast for 15 minutes, rotate the tray and continue roasting until nice and crispy around the edges, about 25 minutes total. Set aside.

Allow chickpeas and potatoes to cool for 5 minutes.

In a large mixing bowl, toss the kale with the dressing; don’t be afraid to really massage the kale for a moment so it softens.

Add tuna, chickpeas and potatoes to mixing bowl and toss again.

Taste a spoonful. Add salt and pepper to taste. If the salad is dry (unlikely!), add a bit of olive oil. If it needs to be a bit brighter, don’t be afraid to squeeze a little lemon over it.

Pile into wide bowls, top with pistachios and radishes, and serve with a freshly toasted buttered piece of quality sourdough bread.

Serves 2 to 4.

Per serving, based on 2: 1,007 calories (percent of calories from fat, 39), 60 grams protein, 96 grams carbohydrates, 15 grams total sugars, 24 grams fiber, 45 grams total fat (7 grams saturated), 25 milligrams cholesterol, 2,154 milligrams sodium.

— Inspired by Molly Baz’s recipe “Anything-Goes Green Goddess Salad” in Bon Appetit magazine

Green Goddess Dressing

This recipe is loosely based on a Bon Appetit recipe that O’Brien found many years ago. It has been her go-to ever since.

3 cups fresh herbs, such as basil, cilantro, parsley, chives and tarragon

1/4 cup to 1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/2 cup to 3/4 cup plain whole-milk yogurt (see note)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon drained capers (optional)

1 garlic clove, peeled

1 lemon, juiced and zested, plus more to taste

Salt and pepper to taste

Clean the herbs and, if necessary, pull the leaves off the stems; you can use tender parsley and cilantro stems.

Place herbs, mayonnaise, yogurt, olive oil, capers (if using), garlic clove, lemon juice, lemon zest, a big pinch of salt and a couple of grinds of black pepper in a blender. Blend until you have a nice, smooth dressing with flecks of herbs.

Taste for salt, pepper and lemon. Adjust as necessary.

Note: I prefer this dressing to be yogurt-heavy, so I do 1/4 cup mayo to 3/4 cup plain yogurt. The original version is a 1:1 ratio, so 1/2 cup mayo to 1/2 cup yogurt. Molly Baz’s recipe says you can use buttermilk or sour cream in place of the yogurt. I love it with buttermilk but find sour cream to be a bit too rich. Yogurt is my absolute favorite here. This dressing keeps in the fridge for a few days, so I make a big batch and use it as salad dressing and dip until I’ve scraped the Tupperware clean.

Makes about 2 cups.

Per 1/2 cup, based on 1/4 cup mayonnaise and 1/2 cup yogurt: 177 calories (percent of calories from fat, 89), 2 grams protein, 3 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams total sugars, trace fiber, 18 grams total fat (3 grams saturated), 9 milligrams cholesterol, 173 milligrams sodium.

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