New Fall 2014 Cookbooks
Did you see the recent piece in The New York Times Magazine by Virginia Heffernan that was a manifesto against making dinner every night? She wrote of the cultural and family pressure to cook and she pushed back.
When I first read Heffernan's essay, I reacted impatiently, thinking she was being whiny -- and okay, I'll admit it -- lazy. My view is that daily food is part of the human condition and as necessities go, it's one that can bring pleasure, not only in the eating but also in the making.
Which brings me back to that Times piece. More than 450 readers left comments to the article and I expected that most would have disagreed with Heffernan. After all, isn't cooking the new religion/fashion/blood sport? So I was surprised that the majority of the comments were supportive and empathetic, some even tinged with a bit of rage.
I went back and re-read Heffernan's slap-down with more patience and while I still think she was whiny, of course, I get it. Plus we smug home cooks are frauds because just like everyone else, the last thing we want to do after a bad/long/boring day at work, coming home to crowded subways/rain-and-no-umbrella/a sick child, is face an open refrigerator and hunger pangs.
The fact is that daily cooking can be tedious and if we cook for others, ovations are rare. Then there's the performance pressure: I appreciated The Times comments assailing how the food world, aided and abetted by cookbook publishers, can make the most kitchen-happy among us feel inadequate and under-achieving. I mean, if the dinners we make for ourselves and/or our families every night aren't Instagram-worthy, aren't we slackers?
Still, I reject Heffernan's main thesis because I believe that if you want to eat well and healthily -- and within a budget -- eat at home. I know that daily home cooking, plus the shopping and the washing, is a challenge and a chore but there's lots of help out there -- cooking classes, blogs and websites, grocers that deliver, food merchants and producers who will do part of the cooking for you (jarred sauces, rotisserie chickens, bagged salads), children who can be taught to help (and eat better), and yes -- cookbook authors who write books that can actually make you if not a great cook, at least a more successful and happy one.
Here are four cookbooks published this fall that I think merit a close look, each for different reasons.
The Kitchen Ecosystem
Eugenia Bone is an intelligent and stylish writer and a true city cook who doesn't let an apartment kitchen be an obstacle to her satisfying cooking and food preservation. We've previously interviewed Eugenia for The City Cook and every summer I take to my bullhorn and tell folks to get and learn from her book, Well-Preserved. I admire her work and envy her growing up in a family of cooks, including her father, author Edward Giobbi who wrote the classic, Italian Family Cooking.
Eugenia's newest book, The Kitchen Ecosystem (hardcover, color photographs, 408 pages, Clarkson Potter/Publishers, $27.00), is a triumph of flavor and practicality. Recognizing the challenge of fitting daily cooking into most of our lifestyles, she has created a way to buy ingredients in season -- cooking some and preserving others, minimize waste, and eat gloriously. It can be a bit glib to tout eating from the ingredients up, but she actually shows us how. The book is not without its politics because at its core, this book promotes eating regionally. And she builds her kitchen ecosystem on smart and strategic shopping. "Shopping is key to cooking," she emphasizes. No wonder I feel kismet with Eugenia because this is The City Cook's mantra as well.
The book has 400 recipes organized by forty ingredients, from apples to beef to ginger, lobster, saltwater fish, to zucchini. For vegetarians, The Kitchen Ecosystem is definitely worth a look since 31 of the chapters are for fruits and vegetables. So far I've made Shrimp and Chorizo With Lobster Reduction (twice -- it was so good), although I reduced some chicken stock to replace the lobster reduction, which I didn't have; and Farfalle with Beets and Bacon, which was luscious.
There are also sections that will teach you food preservation so that if you're still intimidated by canning, you can begin with freezing or preserving in oil. A minor detail worth noting, the book's binding is a hybrid of soft and hard cover, which like its content, is cook friendly: you can actually fully open a page and it stays open.
This is a book for either the practiced cook or a beginner because it will show both of you how to take more control over your cooking and teach you how to outfit and regularly replenish your pantry, save money, and eat better. Even if all it does is get you to preserve summer tomatoes and make your own chicken stock, such small changes can revolutionize your cooking.
We've been given two recipes to share with you: Spaghettini Cooked in Chicken Stock with Broccolini and perfect for this time of year, Grape Custard Tart.
Nigel Slater is a cooking superstar in the U.K., authoring a shelf's worth of cookbooks, writing a food column in the Observer for twenty years, and hosting a BBC series. Even his memoir got turned into a feature film. So when his latest book, Eat: the Little Book of Fast Food (soft cover, color photographs, 440 pages, Ten Speed Press | Penguin Random House, $27.99) was published in the U.S., I wondered what more he possibly could have to say.
In fact I've developed a bit of a crush on this book. Part of it is its charm: the book is small (5 1/2 by 8 inches), friendly, with a yellow fabric cover with "eat" emblazoned in black as the sole cover graphic and Slater's name owning the spine. Then there is its utility. The point of the book is to inspire daily, quick, and tasty meals, mostly suppers, with 600 recipes, or as Slater calls them, "ideas." It's also great that there's a photo for each.
The "ideas" may be fast but they are not careless. Instead this is about simplicity and as with Eugenia Bone's book, the ingredients really matter. After all, if a dish only has two or three ingredients, there's nowhere to hide. Slater's book is organized mostly by method -- "In the hand, In a bowl, On the grill, In the oven, In a wok," and others. Plus a section for desserts. There is a conventional index at the back of the book, but in the front there is also a kind of secondary table of contents in which recipes are listed by their primary ingredients.
Most recipes are for two or four portions, nice for smaller city households, and the flavors are global, including Italian, Indian, Latin, Asian, and of course, British. Mr. Slater is indeed a seasoned pro and you can feel his steady hand in the simplest of recipes. I've so far made two of them -- Chorizo and Sweet Potato Mash (he seems to really like chorizo sausage as there are several uses for them in Eat) and Mackerel with Bulgur and Tomato. The first was wonderfully flavorful, quick to cook, and as simple as a supper can get: cook the sausage and potatoes together, then separately mash the potatoes and serve with the chorizo. The mackerel was excellent and if you're still afraid of your broiler (I know some of you are), this recipe is worth facing those fears. Mackerel is an inexpensive fish (my local fish store filleted two mackerels for less than $6) that broils beautifully. And Slater's method for broiling plum tomatoes and then mashing them with a bit of red wine vinegar into a sauce has entered my regular cooking, even without the mackerel.
The New Family Cookbook by America's Test Kitchen
I think everyone needs a basic go-to cookbook. Maybe you're still turning to an inherited copy of Joy of Cooking, which I have and still consult, especially for recipes like classic apple pie. Or you might prefer one of the Mark Bittman "Everything" volumes, although I'm not a fan of his recipes which consistently disappoint me. I wish some authors, and here I'd include Mr. Bittman, would do less but do better since he's clearly a smart and knowing food writer. I'm digressing.
Back to having a core cookbook -- it should be comprehensive, with a modern view of how we eat, plus we want it to include the ethnic cuisines and seasonal/local ingredients that are now in most of our kitchens. And because we are spending precious time and money on our daily cooking, we want that book to be reliable. All the time.
Which brings me to America's Test Kitchen's latest volume, The New Family Cookbook (hardcover, 888 pages, color photographs, America's Test Kitchen, $40). I'm not sure if the "new" in the title refers to the book because it's an update to one they did a few years ago, or if it's a take on contemporary family life. Or maybe it's both because there is a fresh, useful, and inspiring spirit and purpose to this door-stopping volume with 1,100 recipes.
I am not an advocate of trying to make something different for dinner every night of the year. Quite the opposite -- I recommend building your own repertoire of thirty or so meals you make well and often. But it can take lots of trial and error, especially when cooking for a family, to figure out what those please-everyone meals should be. This cookbook can help.
This handsome volume is divided into conventional sections, starting with appetizers and finishing with dessert, so it's easy to find what you're looking for. I like that the ATK folks respect that most of us are on food budgets and they seek out ways to get great flavor from less expensive ingredients. There are photos to demonstrate technique and finished dishes, 60 tutorials, lots of tips and advice about ingredients and kitchen tools, extra sauces to turn a basic dish into something different, and the kind of advice that can make you far more confident and successful in your kitchen.
We're sharing two recipes from the book: Oat Berry Pilaf With Walnuts and Gorgonzola and a favorite of mine, Mexican Wedding Cookies.
Some admire chef and author Gabrielle Hamilton as much for her writing as her cooking at her 15-year old East Village restaurant, Prune. Her memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter, was a hit. And now she has written a cookbook.
I hesitated before including Prune (hardcover, 576 pages with color photography, Random House, $45.00) in this fall cookbook round-up because this idiosyncratic volume is more like a handbook for her restaurant kitchen than anything a home cook could use. Its exterior starts conventionally, with a prune-purple cover and matching elastic band, like those that keep Moleskine notebook covers shut. It's useful with a Moleskine but here it's an ornament that only makes symbolic sense after you open the cover. That's because inside is an artifice that re-creates a professional kitchen's instruction manual. The pages are printed so to appear to be torn from a food stained and splattered three-ring binder. Some pages have printed masking tape-like strips with ingredient computations for increasing a recipe's portions (or "orders" in pro talk). And Hamilton's voice is talking to her restaurant staff, not to us.
Being a fake kitchen notebook, the formatting seems sloppily inconsistent on purpose. Sometimes there is spacing between paragraphs but other times there isn't. Fake food stains make some words hard to read. Lines of text are randomly highlighted and all of it is written with the swagger and jargon used in professional kitchens, like brunoise (to cut into a perfect, tiny dice) or rondeau (a wide heavy-bottomed pot), and commands to peel 180 potatoes for the weekend. The recipes range from the restaurant's quotidian bar food, like Canned Sardines with Tricuits, to complex dishes made with challenging-to-source ingredients, like Maiale Tonnato made with Octopus Braising Liquid. Others are more like permissions to eat than recipes, e.g., Sugared Ripe Peaches On Buttered Toast, but others are written in the secret code of professional cooks made with ingredients that even a food geek like me didn't recognize (Garrotxa?). The tool kit requires a Vita-Prep, Robot Coupe, Mastic crystals, and Hamilton's personal two-pronged candy fork "(it's on my desk, in the pen bucket -- return it when you are finished!)". And there is no index.
And then there are the margin notes, handwritten scribbles with instructions from chef Hamilton. For example: "use a deep hotel pan for the X30 batch and find the matching lid. Don't use plastic wrap. It loses its cling, falls into the oil, and then drips all over the walk-in floor."
I tried two of Prune's recipes. The first was Grilled Lamb Blade Chops. I often cook this value-priced and tasty cut of lamb, using my broiler. In her version, Hamilton calls for an overnight brine which added time, effort, and cost to the cooking but to my palate, nothing to the chops' flavor or texture. The second recipe was Whole Roasted Cauliflower With Fried Capers and Brown Butter Breadcrumbs. I love whole roasted cauliflower but it took almost twice as long to cook as the recipe estimated and even then was still tough. The breadcrumb topping was messy, especially with the hard-to-serve cauliflower. I wouldn't make either recipe again and I didn't learn anything except not to cook these ingredients her way.
When I first received this book I was charmed by its novelty, but I soon tired of it as an indulgent gimmick. But if you are devoted to Hamilton's aesthetic and restaurant, are a fan of her writing, fantasize about going pro, or simply want Prune's recipe for its legendary Bloody Mary Mix, you might want to make room on your crowded cookbook shelf for Prune.