Thursday, August 7, 2014

Summer time and the living is easy

Summer Cooking
by Elizabeth David
Penguin Books 1955

It's high summer in Michigan now and it's time for my annual reading of Elizabeth David's Summer Cooking. I don't remember when I first started reading it in the summer, but it has become a small ritual of the season. Sometimes I read one or more of the others in my Penguin box set: French Country Cooking, French Provincial Cooking, Italian Food or Mediterranean Food; the latter is just as timely for the season with its emphasis on warm weather crops.

But Summer Cooking is a must each year as the days get a little too warm and the threat of too much produce becomes more real. It's a slim book so it doesn't take long and it's packed with ideas on how to make the most of summer eating. Not necessarily cooking, because one of the book's strengths is David's recognition that although summer is bountiful in terms of produce, we often don't feel like cooking with a lot of heat or fussing over complicated recipes. Simpler is better in the summer and many of her recipes are ideas for salads and cold plates.

The more I read David the more I wonder at her food. Given that when she wrote these  England was barely past WWII and had only just begun to end rationing, her books must have been like a fever-dream to UK eaters. Not only did David draw on foreign cuisines, she called for ingredients that were neither in vogue or readily available to her readers including such modern staples as olive oil, red peppers, and zucchini.

Yet somehow she doesn't come off as snooty or contrived. Rather than causing anger at food that is hard to obtain, she inspired generations to reach higher. And if you couldn't get bottarga or fresh anchovies, then you could use her same focused approach on the ingredients you did have. In David's world a good cook stops complaining about what she can or cannot get and uses what is good to make something worth eating.

Summer Cooking is all over the map culinarily-speaking. Perhaps that is one of the reasons it still seems fresh. The flavors are bold, with liberal use of herbs and acids. There is an emphasis on seasonal vegetables which is useful, as well as advice that still holds up today on how to cook when on vacation. Perhaps that is because many of today's summer cottages still have kitchens equipped from the 50s.

I use this book more for ideas than for recipes. I have made some and adapted some so thoroughly that they look nothing like hers although in my head I still think of them as a Elizabeth David recipes. Take her tonnato sauce for example. For years, every summer I make this once or twice and eat it on top of green beans and/or sliced tomatoes. Traditionally tonnato is a tuna-based mayonnaise sauce that you pour over cooked veal and let chill. I'm sure that is good, but I've never bothered with the veal roast. It just sounded like it would be good as a dip/sauce for veggies so I made it.

I think I make it from David's recipe but in looking it over for this post I realize I have drifted far off course. I don't measure it anymore either, just add everything to taste. I think David would approve, but she was known for her opinionated voice, so perhaps not unconditionally.

If tonnato sauce intrigues you, feel free to play with mine:

1 5oz can of chunk light tuna (note not albacore--you want the mushy stuff for this)
2 Tbs of mayonnaise
1 lemon--you'll need ½ to all of the juice
1 Tbs water
1 Tbs olive oil
½ tsp of anchovy paste
fresh pepper. Salt if needed

Puree all ingredients in a blender. Serve with cooked green beans, tomatoes from the garden and/or hard-boiled eggs.

In contrast, here is what David's recipe says:

"Make a good cupful of mayonnaise with 2 yolks of eggs, olive oil and lemon juice. Pound or sieve about 2 oz. of best quality-tunny fish in oil, and add this to the mayonnaise."

So where did I get the rest of mine? Perhaps an amalgamation of other recipes, perhaps I stole it from Marcella Hazan? More research will be needed.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

A Bible of berries

The Berry Bible
by Janie Hilber
William Morrow 2004

This may be the best single-subject cookbook I own. Not only does it have delicious, reliable, and inventive recipes, it also offers comprehensive information on 41 types of berries, including history of cultivation, culinary uses, picking and storing information and a color supplement of identification photos. 

Hilber explores so many types of berries it can be torture to read this book in winter. I highly recommend perusing it in early summer; it will help you plan your summer. And maybe your vacation. And what you will grow in your garden.

Even though I have loved this book since I got it (one of my rare full-priced brand-new purchases) I forget how much good stuff is in it. I just noticed her handy table that converts ounces to cups of berries and a table of puree yields for different types of berries.

I thought I knew my berries, but it turns out I, and most likely you Dear Reader, are woefully ignorant of the bounty that is out there. Here are just some I have never heard of: arbutus, buffalo berry, jostaberry, ohelo berry, and salal. Others I have only read about, such as cloud berries and salmon berries, as they are both highly regional and highly perishable.

Interspersed through the text are sidebars on Native American ways with berries, quotes on berries from literature and history, as well as remembrances from foragers, cooks, and eaters.

Beautiful and delicious
In short, this book makes me happy. And the recipes are excellent. They include drinks, salads, soups and entrees as well as the expected baked goods, desserts, and preserves. Her Raspberry Buttermilk Muffins are my standard now. They have excellent balance between sweet and tart.

Things I want to try this summer: Staghorn Sumac Lemonade (I haven't had this since summer camp), Black Currant Conserve, Boysenberry Honey, and Boccone Dolce (chocolate coated meringue disks topped with whipped cream and strawberries).

I may try her Perfect Strawberry Shortcake. I am sure it is good. It calls for a scratch baked biscuit, strawberries, sugar and cream. Nothing weird nor any attempt to gussy up what is, when done right, perfection. But I am wedded to my own version, which is my mother's, which was her mother's version.

It too is made with a biscuit. While strawberry shortcake does have the word cake in its title it MUST be made with a biscuit. Strawberries on cake with cream is also a lovely dessert but it is not the same thing. And those of you who have only had strawberry shortcake using those pre-packaged spongy rounds from the grocery store, well…I just feel sorry for you.

Strawberry Shortcake for a day in June

whipping cream
confectioner's sugar

While it is still cool in the morning make your biscuits. Unless it is very humid; they won't hold well, so make them later. You do this early so that the kitchen will be cool when you eat this for supper. Yes supper. It is wonderful as a dessert, but for a pure summer moment, have shortcake for dinner.

I use Christopher Kimball's' recipe from the Yellow Farmhouse Kitchen cookbook. I like the texture--short but not too crumbly and the addition of vanilla rounds out the flavor. One recipe will serve 4 for dessert, and 2 for supper.

You, of course, may use whatever biscuit recipe is your favorite. Even Bisquick or Jiffy Mix works, though both are saltier than a homemade biscuit. You'll have to adjust the sugar accordingly. You want to make drop biscuits; their rough texture and browned bits is more appealing for this than a rolled biscuit.

While the biscuits bake, or at least an hour (two is better) before serving, slice the strawberries. You need a good pound, pound and a half for 4 people. Better to be too generous than skimpy. And you can always have any leftovers for breakfast.

Hull and slice the berries into a bowl. Add sugar. This is where it gets tricky. I admit I do this by eye and by taste. It is slightly different each time, because berries vary so much. I start with a quarter cup--it may take up to ½ a cup. Put in a smaller amount first and let the berries macerate until they release their juices, 30 minutes or so. Mash about half the berries in the bowl--you don't need to separate or measure out half. Just press down with a potato masher, or if you are among the fortunate, your grandmother's strawberry masher. Let sit another 30 minutes or so until you have a beautiful jewel-like blend of syrup and strawberries.

When it is time to eat, whip a cup of heavy cream until soft peaks form. Add a smidge of confectioner's sugar--1-2 Tbs for the whole batch. You want the rich cream to contrast with the sweetness of the berries, not override them.

Do not add liquor to the berries or the cream. Do not try using fancy turbinado or maple sugar for the white sugar with the berries. You think it will enhance; it doesn't; it just muddles the berry flavor. I know, because I have tried. Herbage in the cream or the berries can be nice--but then it becomes something other than strawberry shortcake.

Split the biscuits, place half in a bowl, generously cover with strawberries and syrup. Splodge a lot or a little of the whipped cream, per your constitution. Top with the other half of the biscuit. Try to squish it down into the berry mixture a bit so it, too, can soak up some of the juices. Serve with any extra berry mixture and cream. This way you can adjust for the proper ratio as you eat. Ponder the fleeting nature of summer as you eat with joy.

If there are leftovers (and if you are canny you will squirrel away some extras from your guests; any amount put on the table tends to get eaten) this makes a sublime breakfast.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

There's gold in them there hills!

I've never been lucky with mushroom hunting. Like all Michiganders I am familiar with morels and the lore around them. I keep a sharp eye out when walking in the spring and have gone out once or twice to find some but to no avail.

Always prized and usually elusive, morels are the stuff of legend--the serendipitous glade full of morels found while walking; the secret spots that produce year after year; injunctions about preferred habitats and neighbors: dead oaks, old apple orchards, burn patches. In fact there is no logic--just luck. In this way, morel stories remind of me of fish stories---"and it was THIS big."

Over 14 ounces!
But in recent years, my mother has found one or two each spring in her yard and this May we hit the mother lode! We were positively giddy as we picked them--carefully leaving a few to spore out and hopefully come back again next year.

But what to do with them? While always good simply sautéed in butter with salt and pepper, this seemed to call for a greater effort. But it's actually hard to find a good recipe that celebrates the morel without overwhelming them. In fact, it's hard to find recipes at all. Some of my upper Midwest books mentioned them, but most recipes used dried mushrooms. Others were less than forthcoming with details about cooking them. The consensus was simpler is better. In fact, the morel entry in the Woman's Day Encyclopedia of Cookery from 1966 basically implied it was insane to do anything but sauté them.

I did check out Kitchen Magic with Mushrooms from the Mycological Society of San Francisco, but the recipes just didn't appeal. But I do like this book. It is utterly charming with little line drawings in the margins and half sheets illustrating each genus. The cover drew my eye at a book sale because it reminds me of the Florentine papers used in book binding. The recipes, which cover many types of mushrooms, run the gamut from simple to complex. Some are a little convoluted as a way to use up mushrooms and justify the hunt, such as Maramisus Cookies, which combines chocolate chip cookie dough, maraschino cherries and fairy-ring mushrooms. Ugh. Others seem quite palatable, including Puffball French Fries.

I must say that the book has not inspired me to go mushrooming beyond the easily identifiable morel and puffball. The book is quite clear that it is not an identification guide, but reading caution after caution, makes me…well…cautious. Not to mention all those British murder mysteries that employ mushrooms.

In the end, I went with a simple and delicious recipe from Molly O'Neill's A Well-Seasoned Appetite: Recipes from an American Kitchen that mixes sautéed morels with cream, pasta and a little cheese. It was magnificent! This book deserves it own entry, so look for that in the future.

Fettuccine with Morels

1 Tbs butter
3 Tbs chopped shallots
½ pound of fresh morels
1 tsp kosher salt
2 Tbs cognac (I used brandy)
¼ c. heavy cream
2 Tbs. grated Parmesan cheese
1 pound dried fettuccine
3 Tbs chopped Italian parsley
salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and cook until soft, about 3 minutes. Add the morels and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Add the cognac or brandy and let cook off a bit. Add the cream and simmer for 5-10 minutes. Longer won't hurt and may be better as long as you keep the heat low--you want to infuse the cream with all the good morel flavor.

Meanwhile, get the pasta water boiling. Cook fettuccine until al dente. Drain, reserving some liquid, and mix with the morels and cream. Add the cheese and parley, pepper, and salt if needed. Add ¼ to ½ cup of pasta liquid to loosen sauce as needed. Like all pastas--eat it while it is hot and fresh. I finally realized that one of the reasons pasta is traditionally served as a first course is because larger portions cool and congeal too quickly. Serves 4 as a main course.


I'll close with something I noticed on a trip to New Orleans at the beginning of Carnival season. In making conversation with locals, it seemed natural to ask them where they liked to view parades but I got a weird vibe after asking this. After noticing the hemming and hawing along with the vagueness of the answers I realized, "Oh! That's like asking someone at home where they find their morels. It's simply not done." In fact, even after people move in Michigan they still don't tell their spots (you know who you are!)

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Charleston, SC Part 2

Lee Brothers Keynote Address
As I noted earlier, I was in Charleston SC for the annual conference of the Annual Society for Indexing. The keynote speakers were Matt and Ted Lee of the Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts Catalogue and the authors of several cookbooks, including the IACP and James Beard award winner The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook.

Charming, funny and entertaining, the Lees are natural speakers, and I thoroughly enjoyed their tale of getting started in the food retail business and the process of creating cookbooks. I fear some of my indexing compatriots hoped for rather more indexing talk, but I was busy taking notes about the New York cookbook publishing world, obscure local foods, and where to eat in Charleston.

They began with reminiscing about their childhoods and how it wasn't until they were adults that they realized how fortunate they had been to grow up in Charleston, where food traditions are strong and the microclimate allows for a wide range of produce. As children, they and all the neighborhood kids would forage fruit trees including persimmons, citrus, loquats and mulberries. They went crabbing and shucked oysters. They ate regional foods like glasswort, fig preserves and tomalos (pickled baby green tomatoes). They had a special fish guy for fin fish and another guy for shrimp.

Living in NYC and homesick they began their catalog of foods for displaced Southerners. From that sprang the first book and the rest was culinary history.  In addition to their books, catalogue and other projects they dropped this gem: they run a cookbook bootcamp! It's a two-day seminar about cookbook writing both from the recipe side and the business side. It sounds challenging and fascinating! They understand something it took me years to articulate--a great cookbook isn't just a collection of recipes, it also tells a story.

Alas, they had to wrap up the talk, so I didn't get to ask any questions. But I did get a new cookbook: The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen. It's a good-looking book, with attractive photos of Charleston people and places, as well as the food. I haven't had a chance to try anything yet, but several recipes are on my to-do list, including:

  • Pickled Shrimp with Fennel
  • Skillet Asparagus with Grapefruit
  • Grapefruit Chess Pie
  • Caramel Cake

I'd like to make the following, but I fear obtaining the ingredients will prove difficult:

  • Loquat Manhattan
  • Butter Beans with Butter, Mint, and Lime
  • Deviled Crab
  • Whole Flounder with Sunchoke and Shrimp Stuffing

Any requests?

Friday, May 9, 2014

Charleston SC, Part 1

 Charleston Receipts
Junior League of Charleston, 1950

Working from home I rarely get to see my colleagues, but once a year the American Society for Indexing has a national conference, and I usually try to go. This year, the conference was in Charleston, SC, which would have been impetus enough to attend, in addition to all the excellent continuing education, trade talk, and just plain fun of being with other people who actually get what I do for a living.

Historic Charleston is charming with its lovingly preserved old homes and gorgeous gardens, plus many great restaurants and rich food traditions. One of those traditions is Charleston Receipts, by some accounts the oldest Junior League community cookbook. My copy is from the thirty-fourth printing in 2009. I think it can be deemed a success.

A friend gave this to me after he served our book group the Hampton Plantation Shrimp Pilau. Though it looks sort of plain on the page, it is a mixture that is greater than the sum of its parts--all savory, shrimp-y and bacon-y rice. I only wish I had had leftovers to fry up the next day for lunch.

Hampton Plantation Shrimp Pilau
By Mrs. Paul Seabrook (Harriott Horry Rutledge)
Charleston Receipts, 1950

4 slices bacon
1 cup rice (raw)
2 Tbs. butter
½ cup celery cut small
2 cups shrimp (cleaned)
2 Tbs chopped bell pepper
salt and pepper to taste
1 tsp. Worcestershire
1 Tbs. flour
water for rice

Fry bacon until crisp. Save to use later. Add bacon grease to water in which you cook rice. In another pot, melt butter, add celery and bell pepper. Cook a few minutes; add shrimp which have been sprinkled with Worcestershire sauce and dredged with flour. Stir and simmer until flour is cooked. Season with salt and pepper. Now add cooked rice and mix until rice is "all buttery" and "shrimp." You may want to add more butter. Into this stir the crisp bacon, crumbled.

I believe my friend adds more Worcestershire sauce to taste and usually doubles or triples the batch, which serves 6.

I think one of the reasons for Charleston's Receipts longevity is it pre-dates the convenience foods boom of the 50s. There are no name-brand recipes in here or canned cream soups. Plain gelatin, canned vegetables and commercial mayonnaise are about it for pre-made ingredients.

There are recipes for punches made by the gallon, crab and shrimp done in myriad ways, a huge section on desserts, and a small, but intriguing, assortment of pickles and preserves. I love the historical reach, including a White Soup that would be at home in a Jane Austen novel.

The book captures several levels of cuisine including Low Country, Gullah, and the French-influenced cuisine of the upper class. Class and race are definitely present in the book. The illustrations are beautiful drawings and paintings, but they romanticize (and possibly caricature) the hard work of Black Charlestonians. Most of the recipes are signed, but given the social structure of Charleston at the time of publication, it can be safely assumed that many of the recipes were created not by their presenters but by the cooks of those presenters.

The Lee brothers, who were the ASI conference keynote speakers and are native Charlestonians, noted this fact in their address and offered some other fun tidbits about the book including the existence of a precursor pamphlet called Charleston Recipes and that the Junior League sued the creator of White Trash Cooking for plagiarism. Oh scandal!

More on the Lee brothers themselves next time….

Friday, April 25, 2014

Yes, we have no bananas today

Bananas…How to Serve Them
Fruit Dispatch Company 1940

While I focus on cookbooks, I do have a few pamphlets as well. I once met a collector who specialized in pamphlets and I can see why: the visuals are profuse, especially when compared to mid-century cookbooks, the corporate copy is usually amusing at this remove, and they are just fun, kind of the comic books of the cookbook collector's world.

This pamphlet was produced by a subsidiary of the United Fruit Company, the same people who brought us the original banana republics. But first they had to teach Americans how to eat, cook, and desire bananas. A precursor to this pamphlet is one made in 1924, but until I can see that one, this one will have to do.

The inside front cover begins with the injunction "suit the color to the use." That is, it describes green, yellow, and flecked bananas and how to use them. The inside back cover pages give tips on how to buy, slice, ripen, mash and cool bananas. It's hard to take such instructions seriously when you know that a 3-year-old can handle most banana operations. The back cover page also touts the advantages of bananas for all types of people, including babies, children, teens, athletes, and "old folks" who find bananas "easy to chew, easy to digest."

And the recipes! Of course there are many traditional uses--banana bread, bananas in Jell-O (yes, once we needed a recipe for that dish), and banana desserts. But what about entrées with bananas? Don't you think your bananas need some savory treatments? How about:

Ham Banana Rolls Bananas wrapped in ham, baked with mustard and then topped with cheese sauce.

Banana Salmon Salad Bananas, pineapple, flaked salmon, celery, pickles, mayonnaise, mustard.

Broiled Bananas and Bacon Bananas wrapped with bacon and broiled: a test for the mythic powers of bacon to make anything taste good.

Plenty of the desserts are equally scary:

Banana Grape Marlow Mashed bananas, marshmallows, grape juice, and whipping cream. A note warns that this requires the use of an "automatic refrigerator."

Banana Prune Whip Sliced bananas, prune purée, sugar, and egg whites.

Banana Butter Frosting Mashed bananas, butter and powdered sugar.

Throughout there are cheerful exhortations about bananas, such as "bananas are good mixers - with meat. fish, vegetables," and "nature seals bananas in a germ-proof package."

The overall effect is equally fun and disturbing, and it left me with no desire for eating a banana. Rather the opposite, but I will own that I am odd about bananas--I like them as bananas, in banana bread, and in bananas Foster. And that's it.

I also find it nearly impossible to finish a banana. No matter how big or small, I alway have a leftover bite or two. I blame this on my childhood dog, Argos, who loved few things as much as he loved bananas. He would sit patiently watching every bite of banana disappear with his big, brown, sorrowful eyes, while his whole body emanated quiet hope for those last bites of  'nanner. Of course, I obliged.

What's black and white and yellow all over?

Saturday, April 19, 2014

If I could only have one book on desserts...this may be it*

Classic Home Desserts: A Treasury of Heirloom and Contemporary Recipes from Around the World
By Richard Sax
Houghton Mifflin 1994

Where to begin with this wonderful book? It is a trove of solid recipes, historical information, and useful tips. It is huge--nearly 700 pages and over 350 recipes. Everything I have tried has been good. It won multiple awards, including IACP and James Beard awards. And it's as good to read as it is to cook from.

When I need to bake something for a group, I turn here. When I need a comfort dessert, I turn here. When I need a basic dessert formula, I turn here. The flavors are always spot on, the instructions clear, and I usually find some inspiration just by turning the pages

Sax wrote several cookbooks as well as writing for Bon Appétit. His voice is friendly, assured, and calm. The word "classic" in the title is telling--very little fusion or forced pairings are present. This is not competitive cooking, but practical and joyous cooking.

Although the subtitle references world cuisine, my experience with the book is that it is dominated by American and British cookery, followed by French and European. And that's ok--it's big enough as it is.

One of the fun extras is the use of sidebars highlighting historic recipes and accounts of traditional foodways. Another plus is how many recipes can be converted into breakfast items!

Sax died way too young. I would have enjoyed more from him. But at least we have this great book. Here's what I have made from this:

Coffee Coffee Cake with Espresso Glaze--it's like a cappuccino flavored sour cream coffee cake!

New York-Style Sour Cream Cheesecake--I am not a huge cheesecake fan, but I have family members who are, so I make this for them. It not only has the right flavor (not too sweet) and texture (dense), it also one of the simpler recipes, with no fussing about with a water bath. Sax says it is based on Lindy's original recipe.

Double Chocolate Pudding--Pudding for grownups, this uses both cocoa and chocolate. The result is actually a tad closer to a mousse than a pudding, but it has excellent flavor.

Reuben's Legendary Apple Pancake--a kind of Dutch baby with apples. The whole thing is repeatedly flipped and caramelized with butter and sugar. I'm sure the original at Reuben's was fantastic, and Sax's is also delicious, but over the years, my tinkering has resulted in something different from halving the recipe, ditching the raisins, wanting a higher apple percentage, and trying to make the flipping go more easily--no matter how hard I tried the sheer volume of the original recipe in the 8 inch pan just didn’t work for me. Here’s where I am so far, but this is one that always comes out a little differently. Feel free to make it your own.

Caramelized Apple Pancake
1 large apple
3 Tbs butter
3 Tbs sugar
1 Tbs brandy or bourbon
2 eggs
¼ c. milk
½ tsp vanilla
pinch of salt
¼ c. flour

Peel and slice the apple. In a 10-inch nonstick skillet sauté apple slices in 1 Tbs of butter until tender and golden. Add 1 Tbs of sugar and toss. Let the apples caramelize a little then, carefully, add the brandy. Let the alcohol cook off.

While apples cook, mix the eggs with the milk, vanilla and salt. Whisk in flour to make a smooth batter.

Crank up the sauté pan with the apples and add a Tbs of butter, when foamy, pour the batter over the apples and cook over medium high heat, pulling the set sides away from the pan with a spatula to allow the runny batter to flow under and cook. Shake the pan occasionally to prevent sticking.

When the pancake starts to firm up (about 3 mins) it's time to flip it. Since this is pretty big I cheat, and use a plate like so:  Take a dinner plate and place over the pan. With potholders, grab the sides of the pan and the plate and flip the whole thing over in one movement--don't falter or you will have a mess.

Now, in the newly emptied pan, place another Tbs butter. Let melt and sprinkle evenly with 1 Tbs of sugar. Then slide the pancake back in with the cooked side up.

Let this cook another 3 minutes or so until lightly caramelized--you need to be careful now that the sugar doesn't burn. Check it frequently. Flip it again onto the plate and repeat the butter and sugar treatment at least one more time--though you could go longer. I always get too hungry by this point.

When I serve it, I like to add one more shake of a crunchy sugar, like raw sugar or a flavored one like Chicago Old Town Spiced sugar, which has cardamom and cinnamon.

Serves one, heh. What can I say, I like a big breakfast. Favorite beverage with this is a pot of Lapsang Souchong tea.

Note: If you want to serve two like Sax's original, I suggest using 3 eggs as he does, and take the flour and milk each up to a ½ cup. Splitting eggs is always a bit tricky and it is probably why this recipe didn't split so well for me.
*Choosing just one would actually be hard. But this is definitely a contender for a book I would want with me on a desert island.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Six-Minute Soufflé

 The Six-Minute Soufflé and Other Culinary Delights
by Carol Cutler Clarkson N. Potter 1976

I picked this up at an AAUW sale (always a good bet for some cool cookbooks). I was initially drawn in by the design and the title and thought it would be a quick-cook book with lots of processed ingredients. But my initial scan showed lots of simple classic French dishes instead along with some intriguing flavor combinations. Once home, a more thorough reading revealed an accomplished book whose recipes don't feel dated at all. A little quick research showed I am not alone in my appreciation; the James Beard Foundation gave it an award in the Basic category of 1977.

It does have a very 70s layout with tan pages and maroon titles, but it is attractive and the recipes still seem fresh--perhaps because of the emphasis on timeless French classics. Cutler lived in France for 12 years and studied at the Cordon Bleu, but she is quick to point out that the recipes in the books are geared toward the home cook who needs to be practical with his or her time.

One way the book reflects changing social mores is her frequent recommendation that a recipe would work well for an "important" dinner. We no longer entertain bosses or clients in our homes any more; we impress by going to Nobu or Bouchon or someplace equivalent. It may be more financially impressive to pick up a whopping restaurant tab, but it is not as intimate as entertaining at home, perhaps mercifully so. We are no longer socially required to invite people into our homes who actually mean to judge us. Back in the day, failing at dinner could mean losing a promotion or a deal. Now screwing up dinner for friends usually just means calling for a pizza and opening another bottle of wine. The result is that pulling off a well-cooked meal for non-friends is now exclusively the purview of the professional, not the home cook, no matter how accomplished.

Pale but pretty
Danish Cauliflower
by Carol Cutler

This is quite good--cool and tangy, a bit like celeriac remoulade but with a different texture. Cutler has it as a first course, but it works as a salad or a side dish. The chilling does make a difference, as it allows the flavors to mellow and permeate the cauliflower.

This is also a little more formal than one of my go-to lunches of roasted cauliflower with a dipping sauce made from mayo mixed with either tarragon and tarragon vinegar or with a dash of Taste No. 5 Umami paste. It's astonishing how much cauli I can eat when dipped in mayo!

1 large head cauliflower
1 tsp salt
1 cup mayonnaise
½ cup plain yogurt
juice ½ lemon
salt and pepper
2 teaspoons chopped parsley

Break the cauliflower into florets and cook in boiling water with the salt just until tender about 5 minutes. Do not overcook. Drain at once. Plunge into cold water again and drain very well. I suggest patting dry with a tea towel.

Mix the mayonnaise, yogurt, mustard, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Place cauliflower in a deep bowl and pour sauce over, carefully turning florets over to coat in the sauce. Chill for about 3 hours. When ready to serve sprinkle with the parsley. I like parsley quite a bit, so I upped the amount to 2 tablespoons.

But what about that Six-Minute Soufflé of the title? Once I read the technique I had to try it. Cutler's trick is to use cream cheese as a base instead of a cooked starch. She does not whip the egg whites. All the ingredients go into a blender and then into the oven. It really is 6 minutes to mix up--at most.

It was a white food kind of day
The result is a bit denser than a classic soufflé--but I did cook it well done instead of tremblant, as that is what I was in the mood for. It rises, but not as dramatically as a regular soufflé. Therefore, it doesn't collapse very much on cooling and was very good the next day cold. Then it had the taste and texture reminiscent of boursin cheese. Hot or cold, this would be good with a salad. I made the blue cheese base recipe, but Cutler also offers variations that sound good, like cheddar or ham, and ones that sound questionable like canned salmon and hot potato--despite my love of the potato I am not sure about it as a soufflé flavor.

Roquefort Soufflé
By Carol Cutler

6 eggs
½ cup heavy cream
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
dash Tabasco
¼ tsp pepper
pinch of salt
½ pound Roquefort or blue cheese
11 ounces cream cheese
1 Tbs butter

Put eggs, cream, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, pepper, pinch of salt in a blender. Blend until smooth. With the blender running, break off pieces of the blue cheese and add to the container. Do the same with the cream cheese. Once combined, blend at high speed for 5 minutes. Smear a 6-cup soufflé dish or individual 1 cup soufflé dishes with butter. Pour in the batter and bake 40 to 45 minutes for the 6-cup soufflé or 15-20 minutes for the individual molds. The top should be browned and the center should jiggle just a bit when shaken. If you like a firmer set, cook 5 to 10 minutes longer; the filling will crack. Serve at once while hot. If it must be held, turn off the oven and open the door a crack to prevent overbaking.

Notes: I used an indifferent supermarket brand of blue cheese. It came out cheesy but not super blue. A better cheese would give better results, I'm sure. I halved the recipe quite successfully and baked it in two 1 ½ cup ramekins. Cutler adds that the recipe can be prepared and held in the baking dish at room temp for 1-2 hours before baking or held in the fridge for longer. Bring up to room temp before baking or add another 5-10 minutes of oven time.

A bonus feature is Cutler's suggested menus for many of the dishes. I've always enjoyed reading menus, though I never actually recreate them in full. I remember reading the month-of-menus in my mother's Family Circle and Woman's Day magazines and being fascinated by the structure and fussiness of the precise amounts and the insistence of listing simple things like milk, butter, and rolls. I even liked reading the school cafeteria menus though I knew from bitter experience that no matter how good a menu sounded on paper, I was sure to be disappointed!

Cutler places the Danish Cauliflower as a starter for a meal that includes Boeuf à l'estouffade des mariniers du Rhône (Beef Braised in Piquant Sauce), Baked Gnocchi, and Tropical Sherbet. The soufflé goes well with Sautéed Soft-shelled Crabs, Cauliflower Gratin, and Blueberry Clafouti. That sounds like a lovely spring meal.

Such joie de vivre!

Friday, April 4, 2014

In the kitchen with Peter Rabbit

Peter Rabbit's Natural Foods Cookbook
By Arnold Dobrin Frederick Warne 1977

Here is a little gem. Children's author Arnold Dobrin takes inspiration from the world of Beatrix Potter in a small cookbook for children. Richly illustrated from Potter's work it is a feast for the eyes and conjures up a halcyon world of cozy tea-tables and kitchen gardens.

I wish I knew more about Dobrin and how he devised his recipes. They are a fairly standard set of natural food recipes: lots of sandwiches made with creamed or cottage cheese, some simple soups, and most of the baked good include whole wheat flour or wheat germ.

There are no meat recipes, though some of the soups call for the option of chicken stock, so it is not a strictly vegetarian book. I can't tell if the vegetarianism is deliberate or a result of avoiding the dangers of sautéing and roasting and the increased food safety issues of raw meat.

But the techniques are not all simple. Dobrin calls for some surprisingly sophisticated techniques, including blanching tomatoes to remove their skins, using a food mill, and stir-frying, all advanced moves for an adult in 1977.

There are technique and safety tips at the back of the book, but it clearly assumes that children will be cooking with adult supervision. Dobrin never talks down to his audience, and I like his frequent tag for optional ingredients like raisins and nuts--use them "if you like them." What better way to learn about taste than to learn to trust your own palate?

That being said, some of the recipes have more appeal than others. Mr. McGregor's Scrumptious Pureed Beets may not get as many takers as Samuel Whiskers' Roly-Poly Pancakes. The breakfast and dessert sections are the most appealing, but I love the page entitled "How to Like Onions" which elucidates the different members of the allium family, their culinary uses, and how onions enhance the flavors of many dishes.

While I was past the target age for Potter when this book came out, I remember being fascinated by it and wanting to 1) cook from it and 2) be in Potter's world. I think it may also have been an early experience of nostalgia. I remembered reading the books as a small child and being frightened for Peter in the garden. I remembered trying to figure out what cambric tea was and how it would taste. Just as I had when very small, I identified more with some characters than others and that spilled over into my liking or disliking of recipes based on their associated characters rather than their ingredients.

In addition, it was somewhere around this time, or maybe a bit later, that I read Nothing is Impossible: The Story of Beatrix Potter a biography written for children by Dorothy Aldis. Although Kirkus slammed its lack of detail and authority, I loved its portrayal of how a young artist found her medium and her subject matter. It is a very interior book, but it suited the subject. And while today I am only an occasional reader of biographies, those I do read tend to be about artists and musicians.

Aren't I sweet? And my cover is washable!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The saddest cookbook in the world?

The Golden Age Cookbook: The Key to Happier and Healthier Golden Years
By Phyllis MacDonald Doubleday & Company 1961.

Don't bother opening me. I'll just bring you down.
Just in case the recent hint of Spring in the air was cheering you all up, The Golden Age Cookbook is here to bring you back down. From the gray-blue cover with its sad wheat ring to its mildly condescending tone this book just screams "Give up!" Well, actually, it more whispers in a despairing tone: "just give…up." While I believe the designer was aiming for dignified, the result 40 years later is just depressing.

According to the jacket copy, this is the first cookbook designed for older people. If that is the case, I applaud MacDonald for seeing a need and tying to fulfill it. Cookbooks for special diets and special populations are now a popular niche, but I can imagine that at some point they would have been innovative. A Kirkus Review entry from the time points out that the book serves a real need. But at least today we acknowledge that people with special needs still have full lives.

MacDonald begins with a list of do's and don'ts--helpfully reproduced on the back cover. The first one is the tip that sold me on the book: "Have at least one hot food at every meal." This made me laugh and shudder at the same time. And a reaction like that means I need to own that book!

As for the recipes, they are a mix of convenience foods and simple cooked meals. Considering the 1961 vintage, the use of canned soups and the like is actually restrained and perhaps realistic, in that it allows for its readers to purchase parts of their meals.

This is clearly a dietician's book obsessed with nutrients over flavor, but its woefully inadequate seasonings (there is little called for besides salt, pepper, paprika, and dried parsley) are also a function of its time and place--America before the ethnic food boom, before hippies and back-to-the-land (at least the 60s version) and before Julia Child had us all hooked on something better than Dried Beef Sandwiches and Baked Stuffed Franks.

Some gems:

Surprise Tomato Meatballs with Steamed Rice The surprise is a can of V8!

Deviled Ham French Toast I admit I am both repelled by and drawn to this idea.

Oyster Milk Toast Evaporated milk, canned oysters and toast.

Escalloped Macaroni and Tuna Tuna, noodles, cream of celery soup, pimento and American cheese. There's just something about tuna in these older books that makes my skin crawl. And I like tuna!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Sap season

I have a minor leaning toward learning to live off the grid. I love the Foxfire series of books and the idea of DIY projects like creating a pergola out of repurposed rebar. However, I am not that interested in actually doing the projects--work, friends, books, and other fun gets in the way. Plus, being raised by handy people in farm country teaches you early just how much work is involved in pioneer activities. Thank God for the Rototiller and running water. I may not get any projects done, but my back is still in good shape.
Last of the 2013 vintage. Note I failed to filter it.
But I do like complex cooking/food projects. A couple of years ago I noticed the local natural parks and historic sites were all offering demonstrations on how maple syrup is made. Which got me thinking about the maples around me. Were they sugar maples? Could I get something out of them?

I had always heard/assumed that you could only do sugaring if you had a lot of trees and a sugar shack and boiler, etc. That is, it was a job for professionals. But when a friend showed up for brunch one day with a jar of homemade syrup from her old farmer neighbor, I got interested. A little poking around county extension web sites and I found it was a pretty simple process. The hard part of the information gathering was trying to find instructions for the really small-time hobbyist.

The upshot is that this is the 4th year we've tapped my parents' trees. We don't get a lot of syrup, but it's fun to do and makes me feel like I am getting something for nothing. Plus, we can taste the changes in the syrup as the season goes on, not to mention how it varies from other local producers.

We tapped a little late this year. I don't know what kind of harvest to expect given the unusually harsh winter. But it's nice to go out and check on the trees, see how the sap is running, and listen to the birds chatter at you.

And this is perhaps the ultimate in cook's treats--drinking off a cup of the fresh sap. It's a serious spring tonic when slugged from the collecting jug while surrounded by snow on a sunny day in late February. Crystal clear like spring water, you can taste the light sweetness of sap--but it doesn't just taste like sugared water. There are very slight notes of fruit, flowers, and minerals. I have to stop myself from just drinking it all. Much like when you go berry picking, you have to stop eating the berries already and put some in the bucket.

Most of the homegrown syrup is destined for pancakes, but I like to make buckwheat crepes with sautéed apples at least once--the delicacy of home syrup can really shine through.

Morning Food by Margaret S. Fox and John Bear of Mendocino's Café Beaujolais (Ten Speed Press, 1990) has a recipe that I've been tempted to try for hot cereal cooked in sap. I'm sure it's good, but I don't love hot cereal enough to use the sap on it. Morning Food is a great book that I often flip through on Saturdays for some breakfast inspiration. Café Beaujolais seems like an ideal mix of California's natural foods and indulgent eating. There are Morning Glory Muffins and Waffles with Smoked Turkey Sauce and Birchard Soaked Oats. I always imagine a sun-soaked room with lots of wood and the smell of coffee when I read this book.

I also have The Sugar Bush Connection by Beatrice Ross Buszeck (Nimbus Publishing, 1982), a charming hand lettered book of maple sugar/syrup recipes that I picked up on a glorious lobster- and lupine-filled trip to Prince Edward Island, Canada. This is a book for people overwhelmed with syrup. Many recipes would simply cost too much for most people to make, but I love the ingenuity of these cold-country cooks determined to use up something so hard-won. Her recipe for Spring Tonic sounds like it will cure anything that ails you: 

Spring Tonic
¼ c. maple syrup
¼ c. lime juice
1 c. light rum
1 c. ginger ale

Combine and stir well. Pour over crushed ice. Serving size is not indicated, but I am assuming 1-4 depending on you guests' tolerances for grog.

And in late breaking news. I spotted this at my local health food store (go Arbor Farms!): commercial Maple Tree Water. I don't know whether to be appalled or impressed with their entrepreneurial energy. But this is America, and if you can dream it you can sell it.

It's called sap, people

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

RIP Fat Lady

Food: What We Eat and How We Eat It
By Clarissa Dickson Wright Ebury Press 1999

I was saddened to learn of the death of Clarissa Dickson Wright. As part of the Two Fat Ladies, she and Jennifer Paterson were a hoot to watch riding around the English countryside by motorcycle and sidecar, cooking in improbable locations including boarding schools and army barracks, and quipping bons mots as they basted everything in butter and lard.
Treasure is inside here!

Though they were criticized for their liberal use of fat, I found it historically accurate considering the origins of many of their recipes. They relished the old ways of cooking, of grand dinners, and hunt breakfasts, and the more obscure bits of game cookery. No one cooks like that anymore, though you can see echoes of it in the nose-to-tail trend of today.

It was also refreshing to see two such real, earthy characters on television. This was back in the day when the Food Network was an upstart channel that would throw just about anything on and see if it would stick. A far cry from the slick package we see today--including a show that shows the selecting and packaging of the next food "star." I'm sorry, but I don't think you can manufacture personality.

And Dickson Wright was a personality. Many of the obituaries called her a real English eccentric. And maybe she was, but I think that is reductive. I think she was in on the game and well knew her entertainment value. But she always came across as genuine, intelligent, and witty. I would have loved to have had a meal with her.

Surprisingly, I don't have a Fat Ladies cookbook. But I do have Dickson Wright's anthology Food: What We Eat and How We Eat. It is a collection of favorite food writings in an A-to-Z format (the librarian in me approves). Each entry is introduced by Dickson Wright and you can hear her rich voice by turns informative, amused, vitriolic, and nostalgic.

The cover is pleasant but a bit bland, with no hint of the quirky visual collection inside. The images include standard photos, of course, but also  many period illustrations from advertisements, books, paintings, cartoons, etc.

The entries range over the 20th century and include the expected: breakfast; junk food; haute cuisine and the unexpected: iguana; pong (as in odors not as in Atari); and ubiquitous. By covering the century, the reader gets a sense of the massive changes that occurred in food and cooking during that time, especially from the upheaval of the World Wars, with its changes to the class structure, the role of women, and the shrinking of the British Empire.

I'll end with this passage from the introduction:

"I have tried to capture here all these rites of passage. Food has become the new rock 'n' roll, and is commemorated in song, humour and wit, if not on the table. When I was young people spoke of food being replaced by a pill--and so far they have got that very wrong."

Thank goodness, Clarissa. And thank you for your writing, cooking, and spirit.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Pie Manifesto

I want to talk to you about something serious now. Something that weighs on me. Something that everyone likes to eat but no one likes to make. We need to talk to about pie.

I make a good pie. I still occasionally dream about the best cherry pie I have ever made or ate. It was 10 years ago. Somehow I had managed the perfect synthesis of cherries, nutmeg, sugar and pastry. We all shut up while eating it and kind of curled our left hands around our plates, prison style. I didn't even tell my brother that the pie was in the house.

Today's world of boxed pies promises so much but delivers so little. Even very good pie purveyors are just ok compared to a well-cooked homemade pie. And here is why: Pie is ephemeral and maddening and different every time. You have to adjust on the fly and accept that inconsistency is part of the deal.

"If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." Carl Sagan
I have rules about pie.

Pie rule #1

Freshness is everything. No matter how good the ingredients, technique or decoration, pie is not cake. Time does it no favors. Pulling a pie out of the oven is like pulling the pin on a slow-moving grenade. You have a window--and it ain't 3 days. It's a few hours.  Of course, if that's not enough complication for you, a fruit pie needs to cool first--which also takes time. But for the best set you need a room temp or just barely skin temperature pie.

So when someone asks me to make a pie, my first question for them is "When are you going to eat it?"

Pie rule #2

Cook the damn thing! Most pies, commercial or homemade--even in beautiful magazine spreads, look woefully underdone to me. Most commercial ones are underdone--probably because they encourage customers to re-warm them and it gives a little wiggle room on the browning. But I suspect that Hostess and the like have so degraded our sense of what pie should be that we have become accustomed to pallid, doughy crusts. Many recipes call for a mere 45 minutes of bake time. I routinely go over an hour in baking. The fruit can bubble up (one so-called sign of doneness) pretty quickly, but if the crust is not baked, the pie is not done. If you want a flaky pie, you need to keep cooking. I look for a friable texture on the top crust; actually touch the pie lightly to feel it. It should feel flaky.

I am not alone in these feelings about pie. A Hungarian chef I had the pleasure of dining with once barely repressed a shudder at the thought of pie--he clearly had been badly burned. And John Thorne in Outlaw Cook has a great essay on inferior pie and why it exists.

Pie rule #3

Use butter. Not margarine or olive oil or anything healthy. Butter is what the pie wants and it's what you want too. Using a small amount of shortening (1/4 c. for a 2 crust pie) will give you a bit of insurance against overworking the dough. After cutting in the butter, do not overprocess. My flakiest doughs look almost like a mosaic of dough and butter when I role them out. Lard crusts are good for savory pies, like chicken, but I find the bacon-y top notes clash with any fruit other than apple.

Taste the filling--adjust sugar, spice, and lemon juice to the fruit. Yes, it will be different every time. Accept it as part of the process of pie.

Pie rule #4

And finally, don't forget to have pie for breakfast the next day. While most "cook's treats" come during the cooking process and before serving, this is one worth the wait. The pie will have lost some of it's freshness and crispness, but there is something both decadent and nourishing about having a slice of cherry or blueberry pie in a cool kitchen before anyone else is up that soothes the soul. Plus, you will be upholding a grand American tradition. If Daniel Webster hopes there's pie for breakfast--shouldn't you?

Books I use to make my pies:

Julia Child's The Way to Cook  Her pâte brisée is my go-to crust. I have it memorized.

Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book  The 1961 edition has good ratios of fruit to sugar for many kinds of pie and sizes of pie plates. I use these ratios as a starting point. The new editions are useless, IMO.

John Thorne's Outlaw Cook A great book of food writing, the essay on pie dramatically improved my pecan pie recipe when I realized I could make a less sweet pie simply by doubling the amount of pecans.

Cook's Illustrated has a technique for thickening pies with Minute tapioca that works well for fruit pies. I have the original magazine, but I am sure it is in some of their books as well as on their paid website.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Dreaming of Spring

How to Eat: The Pleasure and Principle of Good Food
by Nigella Lawson
John Wiley & Sons 2000

It's been over 10 weeks since there wasn't snow on the ground and I am ready to crack. Growing up in Michigan, I am used to a real winter, but this has one truly has been brutal with more snow and more cold days than I remember since I was in elementary school.

I am sick of seeing only white and gray outside. I need some green. And if I can't see it outside, then maybe I can at least eat something green. The seed catalogs have been piling up and I just sorted and tabulated the seeds leftover from last year, so I have gardening on the brain.

Perhaps it is foolhardy to look at veggie catalogs and dream of tomatoes and zucchini that you will not be able to eat for 5 more months, but those catalog writers know what they are doing and they are torturing me.
In response, I have been craving spring vegetables including peas, asparagus, and artichokes. Having just seen Nigella Lawson wrapping up the latest season of the Taste, I remembered that she's a pea-lover and a fun and interesting read.

How to Eat is one of Nigella's more substantial books with no glamor shots of the author and a high text-to-recipe ratio. It is a primer of sort; she works seriously at getting readers to think about cooking as well as teaching basic skills. There are no photos of the food, which may be a detraction in a book for beginners, but it clearly didn't bother me as I didn't even notice the lack of photos until I sat down to write this.

She has several recipes that involve peas, and she points out how useful frozen peas are. I love Nigella, because despite the recent kerfuffle over her lifestyle with the thousand dollar dresses and the expensive drug habit, she really is not a snob at all when it comes to food. She's practical when she needs to be and indulgent when she wants to be.

While I have made her Peas and Avocado Salad before, this time out I made her Pea Risotto. What drew me to the recipe was the use of pea puree in the risotto as well as whole peas--it turns the whole risotto a pale green. Plus, I also happened to have some of the recommended ham stock on hand:

Pea Risotto

4 Tbs butter
1 cup frozen young peas
4 cups ham stock
2 Tbs grated Parmesean
black pepper
2 shallots or 1 small onion, minced
1 cup Arborio rice
½ c. white wine or vermouth

Now, Nigella is a bit wordy in this book, and while I love reading that type of recipe, I don't enjoy typing it out, so I am going to paraphrase. If you are uncertain about risotto making procedures, then I encourage you to seek out the original recipe as she does a good job of walking one through the process. But here is the quick version:

Melt 1 Tbs of butter in a sauce pan and add the peas. Cook for 2 minutes. Remove half of the peas and reserve. To the remaining peas add a ladle of stock (about ½ c.).  Cover and cook for 5 minutes until the peas are soft, but still green. Puree the mixture with 1 Tbs of cheese and 1 Tbs of butter, a little black pepper and a little nutmeg. Set aside.

In a heavy pan, melt 1 Tbs of butter and cook the shallots for about 4 minutes until softened. Then add the rice, stirring to coat with the fat. Add the wine and let the rice absorb it. After that, add the stock in ½ cup increments until the rice is cooked through, about 15-20 minutes--you may need more or less stock. Add the reserved peas and pea puree. Turn off the heat. Taste, add salt and pepper if needed (you may not if you use ham stock) and then stir in the remaining butter and Parmesean. I find all risottos benefit from a little 5-minute rest before serving.

Serves 4 as a side dish; 2 as a main dish if you are not greedy. The color is glorious and the taste is of spring. Not bad Nigella! Too bad we ate it all before I thought of taking a picture.