The Great Recipe Box
A couple of weeks ago I had set aside a weekend afternoon to do my closet switch, that semi-annual ritual of moving clothes around as the seasons change. Some go from the back to the front of the closet and visa versa. Others to a box under the bed. And a few get tucked behind the winter coats in the front hall. I'd readied a big bag for things to go to the dry cleaners and another for give-aways. But as I began to dig among the hangers, I discovered a small plastic bin on the closet floor, pushed back out of sight. Pulling it out I remembered having shoved it into the closet months ago when we were having company and I needed to quickly hide the mess that had filled the floor around my desk.
In the bin were recipes. Hundreds of them. Most were torn from cooking magazines but there were also printouts from Food TV, Epicurious, and a dozen or so other on-line sources. Among all the ragged-edged pages there were about a dozen complete issues of the now defunct Gourmet magazine, including September 2008 that was dedicated to "Paris on a Budget," its pages decorated with yellow Post-Its, each one marking a recipe I hoped to try.
The bin was disorganized and full-to-overflowing so that its lid barely fit. With one glance I knew I could cook every recipe and not eat the same thing twice for several years. Yet discovering this treasure box did nothing for my appetite. Instead my reaction was dread. Not unlike when you think you'd found all the receipts you needed to file your taxes only to open one more desk drawer to find a stash. After the taxes are done. But in this case, I knew I could throw the entire bin of recipes into the trash and never miss a thing.
I was surprised by my own reaction because like many of you, I love to read cooking magazines and tear out pages with a combination of curiosity and ambition. But this was finding a box of filing to do and I doubted it would be fun, especially since here I was in late April moving summer dresses and linen shirts to the front of my closet while looking at recipes for hearty short ribs, winter mushroom ragouts, and Thanksgiving cranberry cheesecake.
Organizing The City Cook
The task I faced was one that nearly all home cooks wrestle with, and that is how to organize and store recipes. Both the ones we already love as well as those that are new and we wish to try.
If there were some perfect solution for how to keep and organize recipes, between the 40,000 food blogs, scores of food magazines, dozens of cooking TV programs, and all those apps, don't you think we'd know about it? Clearly there is no single answer and instead, we each need to find our own way that works for how we cook and how we live.
That said, the old-fashioned recipe box gives us a clue to how those who cooked before us made it work. Recipes would be written by hand on index cards and kept in a box -- usually a pretty painted wooden box -- organized by type of dish. In some communities, the ladies of a local church or community group would select a few favorites in a self-published recipe book to raise money for a cause. I have one from The Episcopal Churchwomen of St. Paul's Parish in Queen Anne County, Centreville, Maryland called Queen Anne Goes to the Kitchen. Published in 1962, each recipe is neatly typed and many are accompanied by a small illustration done by whoever contributed the recipe.
Taken even more directly from the recipe box is another precious book called Out of Vermont Kitchens, first compiled in 1939 by the Women of St. Paul's Cathedral in Burlington, Vermont. Each page is written by hand and signed and illustrated by its contributor.
Here's a recipe by Dorothy H. Hammond of Burlington, exactly as she had neatly hand-printed it, for Scotch Woodcock:
1 medium size onion - shred and sauté
2 tablespoons of butter until tender
Stir while cooking
Remove from fry pan to top of double boiler. Add one lb. medium strong cheese. Broken into small pieces. When cheese has melted, add one egg and stir quickly. Add one teaspoon Worcestershire Sauce. Add one cup of strained tomato juice.
Serve on thin slices of toast and toasted saltines.
The recipe was accompanied by a very charming drawing of a man wearing a kilt and a small bird, presumably a woodcock, sitting on a leafy branch.
Today, instead of hand-printed and illustrated recipes and pretty wooden recipe boxes we have apps. I'd reluctantly give up the romance of the recipe box if in fact the new technology did a better job of organizing and retrieving. But it doesn't. A quick Google search produces page after page of storage products and ideas -- including sites that let you upload your recipes, scan saved magazine pages or your grandmother's saved recipe cards into a document, email your own recipes to yourself and create folders, and send everything to a cloud where you not only get to input, store, revise and comment on the recipe, you also get to blog about it, tweet about it, take and share photos, and turn every recipe into a nutrition-noted shopping list. But after all that, who has time to cook? And who'd want to?
A Modern Recipe Box
I don't know a home cook who doesn't struggle with how to keep track of recipes. We no longer cook from a single cookbook, as many of our mothers did, keeping a copy of The Joy of Cooking or Betty Crocker on the shelf alongside her wooden recipe box. Today more is always better and instead of a short list of options we have many. There's always a new TV chef to learn from, a new cookbook to buy (one day we're not supposed to use more than five ingredients and the next we need a Microsoft-financed laboratory to make a burger), or another socially-mediated community of cooks. It's exhausting and there's not a plastic bin big enough to store it all.
I've explored a few of the better recipe-sharing sites like AllRecipes.com or BigOven.com. Some, like Sous Chef, charge a fee to store your recipes. Or you can register at Epicurious and create a personal file from their recipe database.
For something low tech, Moleskine notebooks (I've carried one in my bag for more years than I can remember) can be adapted into portable recipe books with little tabs to separate pages. Of course you can also turn any plastic bin into a filing system with folders and dividers.
I've tried some version of all of these but none of them worked because the inputting, organizing and maintenance always becomes more important and more effort than the cooking itself. But the good news is that I've finally figured out a simple system that thus far, is working for me. And maybe it will for you, too.
Here's what I do:
First, on a shelf above my desk is a line-up of six white three-ring binders, each filled with printouts and magazine pages, probably about two thousand pages in total. These are the recipes I either use or stroll through the most often, including multiple versions of favorite dishes. For example, I've got about a dozen versions of cheese wafers (a favorite hors d'oeuvres) and various ways to roast a turkey, bake brownies, assemble a tart tatin, and fill my own ravioli. There are lots of illustrations and how-to photos and lots of details about technique, which to me is more important than the recipe.
Second, sitting below these binders is another shelf filled with the cookbooks I use the most. Others I use less often or that are single subject cookbooks (canning, goat cheese, sauces, soups) are in another room along with three small notebooks that were the first collection of recipes I put together when I was in my twenties, each page carefully written by hand. These were the first dishes I ever cooked and I keep these notebooks as much for sentiment as usefulness. One page in the vegetable section gives detailed instructions for cooking frozen peas; I must have been pathetically adorable in my striving.
To earn a spot on that bookshelf above my desk a cookbook must give me at least three great recipes that I make often. In my long experience of buying and using cookbooks, a good one gives you one favorite recipe that becomes part of your cooking repertoire. A great cookbook will give you more. Here is what is currently on my shelf, all of them meeting my standard for "great":
- Vegetable Harvest by Patricia Wells
- Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I by Julia Child
- Made In Spain by José Andréas (on page 33, the recipe for Pepper, Onion, Cucumber and Tomato Salad with Cured Tuna Loin, aka smoked tuna, which I buy at Fairway, Zabar's or The Lobster Place, make this book worthy but there's much more since I love Spanish food)
- Simply French by Patricia Wells
- The Silver Palate Cookbook by Julee Rosso and Sheila Likins
- Modern Classics Book 1 by Donna Hay
- America's Test Kitchen Menu Cookbook
- Fish Without A Doubt by Rick Moonen and Roy Finamore (I use this book at least weekly)
- The Southern Italian Table by Arthur Schwartz
- The Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan (she taught me how to cook authentic Italian cuisine and is my first go-to Italian cookbook. Always.)
- The Scandinavian Cookbook by Trina Handemann (love how she does fish)
- On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee
- The City Cook. By me. Of course since it's filled with dishes I make for dinner almost every night.
This is not to say I don't have a dozen other much-loved cookbooks that I use often (all of Lee Bailey's, Bouchon by Thomas Keller, anything by Donna Hay, the earlier books by Ina Garten, Roasting by Barbara Kafka, Paula Wolfert's Cooking of Southwestern France). But my shelf is small and for my go-to sources, space mandates that I keep at hand those I know will frequently deliver for me.
Third -- and this is the key to my system -- is a simple Word document entitled "Favorite Recipes." In this document is a list that notes the favorite things I like to cook. There are no recipes, just the name of each dish, organized in predictable ways -- fish, salads, desserts, etc. However, for each recipe I also note where to find it. For example, in the category of salads, I have a Couscous Salad With Spinach and Spring Onions. It's from page 150 of Vegetable Harvest by Patricia Wells and is a favorite recipe that I make often. In the cookbook itself I've made margin notes about how I've changed the recipe, substituting Israeli couscous for instant and using mixed baby greens instead of only baby spinach.
In a few places the list gets more specific. Among the vegetables is Julia Child's Spinach Gratin but with some adjustments by Deb Perelman at Smitten Kitchen that make me love the recipe even more. But I don't actually have the recipe here; instead I just note where to find it, in this case in both Volume I of Mastering The Art of French Cooking on page 471, as well as Smitten Kitchen, along with some of my own changes, which include significantly reducing the amounts of butter and cream that both Julia and Deb use. See the link below to the recipe at Smitten Kitchen.
My simple list is therefore a kind of notated index that lets me keep track of my favorite things to cook and where to find the recipe. Some of the recipes are in those three-ring notebooks, which forces me to do some digging as I search out that perfect recipe for Martha Stewart's lemon curd. Some are on the web and I'll make it easy to find them, like adding the link to that spinach gratin. And many of them are in cookbooks, such as Crispy Fish Sticks With Tartar Sauce (page 168 from America's Test Kitchen's The Best Simple Recipes). And if I don't know what to make for supper or a dinner party, this document is packed with ideas and reminders, including some particularly successful dinner party menus I've tried over the years.
The list is easy to update and requires no special software or cloud or registration. It's just a Word document that I don't even bother to print out.
Finally, I keep a notebook that is an entertaining diary. Using a very pretty paper-covered notebook, I simply write down the date of a dinner, list the guests, and describe the menu including where a recipe may have come from and if a dish was particularly good. Or not. Sometimes I'll also add if the meal was a celebration or if something memorable happened, making it a treasure of memories to look back on.
I've since taken that plastic bin out of the closet and it's back near my desk, getting in the way of anyone walking past. I've resisted throwing out its contents and I have this ambitious idea that some summer weekend I'll do triage on all those pages that at some point I obviously thought were worth saving. I remain hopeful that among them is one or two recipes that may be deemed good enough to make it into a three-ring binder and onto my list of favorite dishes. I try not to think about how every month another bunch of cooking magazines will arrive with fresh pages to tear out and add to the bin, just like in that Sondheim song from Company called "Another Hundred People." There's always more.
In the coming weeks I'm going to share some of the recipes that have made their way into that Word document. These are recipes that may have originated with someone else but in my hands and in my small kitchen, using ingredients from local food stores, they are huge successes. First up, is the recipe originally from Patricia Wells -- Couscous Salad With Baby Greens and Spring Onions. I've never not had it be a huge hit. Plus my husband and I love it. See our link.
And for something a little more quotidian, I've added a link to my favorite way to make meatballs. These are made with a mix of ground beef, veal and pork and are quick to cook and to my Italian-red sauce-loving palate, taste exactly like what a meatball should be.
As spring continues to stagger its way toward summer, and if you, too, find a bin of recipes sitting in the back of a closet, resist throwing them out. You just may find new ways to cook asparagus, artichokes, cherries, apricots, early summer lettuces, baby beets, peas, and strawberries -- all of which are on their way to our kitchens.