Noor Elkhaldi Discovered a New Self in the KitchenThe Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Noor Elkhaldi, host of the podcast Arab-American Psycho, is a newcomer to cooking, but she’s taken to it quickly and passionately. The self-proclaimed “bold cook” now spends her days in the kitchen, cooking the dishes she used to order for delivery — and making them her way. We caught up with Noor at home in Orlando while she cooked up pasta pomodoro, a simple yet delicious go-to.
Arabs love feeding people, and my mom is a compulsive cooker. She cooks constantly — I don't think I've ever heard her not say, “Oh, I have something in the oven.” Mind you, my mom works and has always worked, and I'm one of six siblings; she’s a superhero. She loves making Arab food, but she'll cook up anything: She’ll make lasagna, she'll dabble in Indian food, and she's always watching cooking shows. But I never really cooked with her because, to be honest, she's like, “Get out of my kitchen.” She wants peace and quiet and to enjoy her cooking process. If she could make lamb every day, she probably would. Basically, I got away with not cooking until I was 29 years old because my mother constantly gave me tons of food.
I got away with not cooking until I was 29 years old because my mother constantly gave me tons of food.
At the beginning of the pandemic, my kitchen was my safe haven. I would wake up and look up recipes because I needed to keep my hands busy. I didn't realize how much I love cooking until the pandemic — I really find it so soothing. Which is weird, like I am my mother.
I didn't realize how much I love cooking until the pandemic.I tried to make sourdough, but it wasn’t working. I kept killing it; I couldn't get the starter to take. I’d leave it for three days and I’d go check on it, and nothing was happening. I decided I’ll just go buy one from a local bakery, which feels like cheating, but who cares?
I found another recipe that was simple — you don't need a starter, so it’s not sourdough. It’s just bread. I wanted to make bread so badly, and I’ve tried making sourdough three times and it’s not working! Months later, I'm still trying to achieve my bread goals.
I'm still trying to achieve my bread goals.
I've had success with almost every other thing I’ve made — bread is the one thing I just can't seem to get, which is why I’m just going to buy the starter. I’ve gotten to the point where I can cook without a recipe. Pasta is definitely a go-to — I love making pasta sauces because you can put whatever you want into it. You can wing it and make something really fun and delicious. And it’s definitely comfort food.
You can wing it and make something really fun and delicious.
It's one of those meals that I always want it, it's pretty simple to make, it's fun, it's relaxing, and I'm not worrying too much about every single thing. I can use any ingredient in my fridge to make something delicious, which has been really great for me. I've been dabbling in a lot of recipes that my mom makes, so more Arab food, which I never tried to cook until now. Surprisingly, I haven’t messed up anything — I'm shocked.
Running my podcast, Arab-American Psycho, has been a very eye-opening experience for me. I started off wanting to bring light to the different types of Arab Americans that exist, because, growing up, I didn't really have any representation; I didn't have anyone to look to who looked like me or had a similar life experience to me. The podcast keeps me pretty busy, and I've definitely bragged about how well my cooking has gotten, like, “Hey guys, I just want to let you know I'm a chef now: I've made 10 recipes and haven't messed them up. So I've now deemed myself an expert in the kitchen.”
With cooking, there’s this idea that you have to know how to cook.
With cooking, there’s this idea that you have to know how to cook. The first couple of times I was cooking, I checked the recipe 100 times. Every single moment, I was being super crazy and precise and exact. For baking, you definitely want to be more precise. But, like, if you don't want shallots, don't add them. Add in minced garlic. Cooking has genuinely become one of those things where, if I’m stressed out, I’m like, Let me look up a recipe, stay in my kitchen, listen to music, and chop some veggies. I'm shocked at how relaxing I find it because I never really cooked before this year. I did lots of takeout, lots of Uber Eats — they are definitely confused about where I went because I haven’t ordered anything in months.
If I’m stressed out, I’m like, Let me look up a recipe, stay in my kitchen, listen to music, and chop some veggies.
Now I'm the one who's cooking and making so much food, and because I live alone, I'll show up at my mom's house and my sister's house like, “Here, I brought you food!” And they're like, “Who are you? What's happening right now? Why are you bringing me delicious food?” I'm like, “I know, it's so confusing.”
I was inspired to make this pasta pomodoro by Pia Arrobio, a designer who does these really cool IGTV cooking videos with her Italian husband. I would watch these videos, which were oddly soothing to me even though I wasn't even cooking at the time. One day, I decided I wanted to cook something, so I pulled up one of her videos. She makes it very accessible, and she's not out here claiming to be a chef, so it felt less intimidating. I loosely followed her recipe, as well as one from the New York Times. I took what I liked from each recipe, and it's pretty basic, but I don't use onions or shallots because I’m a 5-year-old and I don’t like onions. I hate the texture — I can’t explain it. But the pasta still packs a punch because I add a lot of garlic.
Every time I make it I'll tweak an ingredient just to try it out and see how I like it.I made the dish, and I was like, Oh my God, this is so good. I wanted to make it again. Every time I make it I'll tweak an ingredient just to try it out and see how I like it. I've experimented with different tomatoes to see how it alters the flavor — before I started cooking, I never would have thought that different tomatoes would make it taste different.
There's something so relaxing about the process of cooking that I viewed as tedious for a long time.
There's something really nice about knowing every single ingredient that went into a meal that you're consuming. It’s like, Why would I pay for this when I can just make it? One day I was craving a cheeseburger, and I went to the store and got the ingredients, and I did it myself. It was 1,000 times better than any burger I've ever had. Now I'm never eating a burger anywhere ever again — you don’t know what they cook it on, and there's something nice about being in control. Cooking helps me feel like I’ve done something that day and that I’ve done something for myself. I’ve nourished my body, which is really important.
Cooking helps me feel like I’ve done something that day and that I’ve done something for myself.
I have no control over anything else right now, and it’s comforting to know exactly what's going into your food. And to cater it to whatever you want it to be. I'm definitely not fully vegan in any way, shape, or form, but I try to eat vegan as much as I can. So it's nice to find a recipe that I like and see if I can make it a little bit more plant-based. That's also been really fun for me because I can make it, and it’s going to taste good, and if I love it, I’ll keep making it.
I’m telling you — I've been changed, I’m a new woman. I only want to make my own food now. It's such a switch in my mentality. If I’m really hungry, my normal old self would say, Let me just go grab something. Now I’m like, What can I make that’s quick and easy?