Spring 2009 Cookbooks
Some of The Best New Cookbooks
How do we really cook? I don't mean on the big food-centered holidays like Thanksgiving or Passover. Nor the times when we spend an entire Saturday cooking for a dinner party or baking cookies with our kids on a rainy weekend. I mean how do we cook every day? Day after day.
There's been so much written lately about how the economy is changing our food behavior, with less eating out and more cooking at home. This isn't a change for me because I wasn't a restaurant-goer to begin with. When I created The City Cook and our tag line, "for pathetically busy, space-compromised urban dwellers who prefer to cook at home," I was talking about myself and most of my friends, and as I've learned over the two years I've written The City Cook, many of you, as well. For us, eating at home isn't a sacrifice. It's a preference.
Even before the economy became the subject du jour (aren't you just sick of it?), I saw a disconnect between how cooking is portrayed in much of the food media and the daily task of feeding ourselves. Celebrity food judges sit like Romans watching gladiator chefs cook as a blood sport, or rude restaurant bullies run their kitchens with brutality instead of inspiration. I suppose this is entertainment (for someone; not me) but it has nothing to do with the every day challenge of feeding ourselves while also achieving some combination of pleasure, health and practicality.
I recently spent time with The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC to help kick-off and wrap-up a week of special programming about brown bag lunches. Listeners sent in more than 120 lunch ideas and while a few praised ramen noodles and Spam, most were using healthy and appealing ingredients. Some were making portable frittatas. Others cooked grains, or poached fish, or carried their own soups in thermoses. Nearly everyone was making the effort to plan, make and carry a meal that you'd look forward to eating. And many had been doing this for a long time. This is no recent recession compromise. Instead, this is how we really cook.
My friends are probably tired of my speech about how it's not the cooking but the planning, shopping and cleaning up that takes all the time. I'll add another to the list, which is coming up with new ideas for meals and dishes. I admit that I am a creature of long habits (I've had the same accountant for 25 years, worn the same perfume for longer, and wear sweaters until they are in shreds) and can happily eat the same food day after day. I know better than to ask the same of my husband and friends. While I believe that one of the secrets of successful and satisfying home cooking is to establish a core repertoire of dishes and menus, we all have, to some degree, an adventuresome palate. This is the allure of a restaurant meal: we're handed a list of choices and asked, what would you like to eat?
Instead of the menu, we home cooks turn to our cookbooks. They not only give us a list of answers to the question, what do we want to eat? -- but also -- what do we want to cook? The best cookbooks also give us a point-of-view. Some have a voice. Others give us an understanding of food and culture. Some will teach us and make us skilled and more confident. And some just make us want to eat.
Here are five of the best cookbooks published this spring.
The Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg
Molly Wizenberg is the creator and writer of Orangette, one of the original food blogs (she launched it in 2004) and one of the most authentic and appealing food writers on the web or in print. Whether you are a long-time Orangette fan or are completely unfamiliar with Ms. Wizenberg, I hope you get to know her and her new book, A Homemade Life (Simon & Schuster, $25.00, hardcover, no photographs). Subtitled "stories and recipes from my kitchen table," this book is a combination of memoir, letter from a friend, and one of the best caches of recipes I've seen in a long time.
Her voice achieves intimacy without narcissism. She writes a narrative about her family and her life that will quickly make you think she has been your friend for years. She is a literary writer and her book is one that you will read late into the night, and then carry into the kitchen to cook from. There are no photographs aside from the pale green interior of a cupboard that envelops the cover, a photo Ms. Wizenberg took herself, but her essays and recipes create images more vivid than any photographs could. There are 50 recipes intermixed with the stories and the memories, food that for at least Ms. Wizenberg, answers the question, "how do I really cook?" For example, Fennel Salad With Asian Pear and Parmesan, Little Corn Cakes With Bacon, Tomato and Avocado, Cider-Glazed Salmon, Blueberry-Raspberry Poundcake, and wonderful ways to make eggs, pies, vegetables and soups.
As you read her essays, you will get to know her, her family, and how she came to be a writer and a passionate home cook. Without a spoiler alert, you will watch her grow into her life, deal with loss and grief, fall in love, and make a life in Seattle, one based on writing and food. And you will be hungry the entire time you read it.
The Amish Cook at Home by Lovina Eicher with Kevin Williams
If you surround yourself with cookbooks written by star restaurant chefs or by experts in the complex food of a single cuisine, you can end up feeling really insecure. For example, a number of years ago someone gave me a copy of The French Laundry. If that were my only cookbook, I would probably starve.
For the longest time I felt like I needed to apologize for my plain cooking. While I had the skill to do some fancy things, the fact was that I preferred to make simple dishes that featured the best ingredients, preferably locally grown and bought in season. I knew this was a healthier way to eat, but I also preferred this kind of flavor. Plus this style of cooking is doable in a small kitchen at the end of a frantic day, and it is affordable.
Who knew this city girl would find a kindred spirit in the Amish, a people who are largely defined by their rural lifestyle?
The Amish Cook At Home (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $29.99, hardcover with color photographs) is by Lovina Eicher with Kevin Williams. Together they write a column called "The Amish Cook" that is syndicated in 130 newspapers and had been originated by Ms. Eicher's late mother, Elizabeth Coblentz. The book is as much a cultural journey as it is about cooking because it gives us a window into the values, lives and lifestyle of a community that has long inspired curiosity and one that is so strongly identified with food.
The photography, by Betsy Blanton, shows ingredients, finished dishes, and Amish adults and children at play and work. What is particularly special about the photographs are how they depict a rural Michigan Amish community without exploitation. The pictures show adult hands canning tomatoes, children's bare feet kicking a ball, someone standing behind a tree. But we never see a face.
The book is divided into the four seasons with ingredients informing the nearly 100 recipes, many of which make inventive use of the same in-season ingredients. For example there are recipes for zucchini casserole, zucchini patties, zucchini relish, zucchini jam, zucchini bars. Many of the recipes are spare, but there are some big flavors, nearly all made with the best of each season, such as Salsa, Bacon-Wrapped Jalapenos, Corn Pudding, and Fresh Pea Salad. We've been given permission to share their recipe for "Asparagus Potato Soup" just in time for one of spring's first vegetables.
New York has a certain affinity for Amish cooking with farmers and bakers from our nearby Pennsylvania Amish bringing their crops and baked goods to sell in city markets and Greenmarkets. With this book you can now also bring their simple but delicious recipes, developed by cooks who celebrate the seasons, into your city kitchen.
The Art & Soul of Baking by Sur la Table and Cindy Mushet
If you're a novice baker and want to be better, or if you are a long-practiced maker of pies, tarts and breads but want new inspiration and new skills, there is an exciting new and comprehensive cookbook just published on the diverse subject of baking.
The Art & Soul of Baking by Sur la Table and Cindy Mushet (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $40.00, hardcover with color photographs) is a significant and splendid achievement. Already the book has been chosen as a "Gourmet Cookbook Club" selection and is an IACP nominee. And we can see why.
The book is beautiful and big -- it's about 8 1/2 by 11-inches and thick at 455 pages. It's like a core textbook but written with the voice of a home baker, which makes sense since Sur la Table is the nationwide cookware/bakeware retailer and writer Cindy Mushet is a professional pastry chef who has been teaching baking to home cooks for years. This is no store catalog: the most notable concession to Sur la Table's brand visibility in the book beyond its name on the cover is that a few photographs include baking tools made by the retailer. But the store has been talking to home bakers for the past 20 years and it seems to have put all this talking to good use, if the book's comprehensiveness, organization, and helpful details are any proof of their listening to us.
The book is packed with tips that show up right when you need them. The first chapters are "The Baker's Kitchen" and "The Baker's Pantry," both of which are filled with information and guidance, like charts with volume and weight equivalents. Throughout the book there are little pieces called "What the Pros Know" with details on topics like bleached versus unbleached flour. There's advice on tools, which is not surprising given that it's from Sur la Table but much of the advice will apply to tools you probably already own.
The photography is sometimes decorative but mostly instructional as you go through the process of making a recipe, which can make all the difference when you're doing something for the first time.
Recipes come in eleven chapters: Yeast Breads and Rolls; Layered Pastries; Quick Breads; Pies, Turnovers, and Dumplings; Tarts; Fruit Desserts; Cookies, Bars, and Brownies; Cakes; Custards, Bread Puddings, and Cheesecakes; Soufflés, Meringues, and Pâte à Choux; and Basic Recipes and Finishing Techniques. Each chapter begins with special information and techniques, followed by the recipes.
It's my suggestion that if you want to start or broaden your baking repertoire, this book could give you a template for making and mastering one recipe from each of the book's chapters and then you'd have a whole wardrobe of desserts. Given the chance to publish a recipe, and with my cake-making phobia, we've chosen their "Double Vanilla Poundcake" with the thought that it could be an inspiring partner to the fresh and local fruits that are due soon in our markets. And if you're willing to try it, so am I.
The Best Skillet Recipes
In a recent conversation about whether or not city cooks really cook differently than those who have houses (the assumption being that people in houses have full kitchens), someone spoke of her friend who makes very satisfying meals even though all she has in her apartment is a hot plate and a toaster oven.
I should send her a copy of Cook's Illustrated new book, The Best Skillet Recipes (America's Test Kitchens, $35.00, hardcover with color and black and white photographs and black and white illustrations).
Its nearly 300 recipes are presented in the way that many of us have come to value and trust from America's Test Kitchen, the folks that also bring us Cook's Illustrated magazine. There are master techniques and then variations for many of the dishes, like Classic Chicken Pot Pie plus two variations, or Stir Frying 101 followed by 17 recipes, including six sauces. There's also a "Skillet Basic" introductory chapter with tips for ingredients, such as cuts of meat that cook better on top of the stove rather than braised or roasted.
Nearly all of the recipes are done completely on the stovetop in a single pan but a few are finished in an oven, such as their innovative recipe for a skillet Lemon Soufflé and their skillet pizzas.
The chapters: Skillet Basics; From Stovetop to Oven; Skillet Pasta; Skillet Suppers; Pot Pies, Casseroles, and Pizza; Stir-Fries and Curries; Hearty Eggs; Vegetables and Sides; and Desserts. Recipes include some well-known skillet dishes, such as Paella, and a whole series of ways of cooking vegetables on top of the stove, a refreshing option after the sometimes dull taste of microwaving and the ubiquitous roasted vegetables (I plead guilty to both).
I've become addicted to the book's recipe for Spanish-Style Garlic Shrimp, a robustly flavored meal that's quick to cook on a weeknight and beautifully paired with big croutons of grilled stale bread or a bowl of couscous. We're sharing their recipe for Steak Tacos which is made with flank steak, one of the least costly cuts of beef.
With one hot plate, a skillet and this book, you can make an excellent dinner in any city kitchen.
Mollie Katzen's Recipes: Desserts
In her series of small, single subject cookbooks, Mollie Katzen continues a philosophy and palate initially defined in her now iconic Moosewood Cookbook, first published thirty years ago. Mollie Katzen's Recipes: Desserts (Ten Speed Press, $14.95, spiral hardcover with slipcase, no photographs) includes 50 dessert recipes taken from the Moosewood Cookbook and the Enchanted Broccoli Forest. This is the third little volume done in an easel format that is only 6 x 6 inches square (the others are for salads and soups). The book is charming in its format and design, including the familiar Moosewood-style hand-written recipes.
This is the book you can go to for what most of us might call old fashioned desserts: Chocolate Pudding, Moosewood Fudge Brownies, Mandelbrot, Lemon Mousse, Bread Pudding, Honey Cake, Yogurt Pie, and Banana Bread. Many are quick to cook and don't require complex tools or costly ingredients. There is much to make and much to love in this little book.
As spring promises to arrive and bring with it in-season and local produce -- strawberries are among the first -- we've published Mollie's easy and sweet dessert for "Fresh Strawberry Mousse" (it has a non-fat option).
It's been a long winter. Happy spring.