Mirepoix -- From the French, a mix of aromatics that provide the savory foundation of a recipe. From The City Cook, a periodic report on things that have been collecting on my desk.
This past summer certainly wasn’t one for cooking. At least not for those of us living in the northeast. Heat and humidity is normal but this summer was particularly lethargic with eight weeks of bad hair days. But it remains that our Greenmarkets are glorious and I’ve been happily eating New Jersey tomatoes nearly every day.
While the hot weather meant that I didn’t cook much (making tomato salads doesn’t count), nor write about it either, I can’t fully blame the summer heat. I think I may have also been taking a pause in trying new things. It's been said that we really don’t need much more than 25 recipes -- ones that we love, perfect, and make all the time. But there’s pressure to keep reinventing our kitchens because somewhere along the past decade, food became more about lifestyle than life, and cooking and eating became something so much louder.
I get lots of incoming about food. By this I mean newsletters, review copies of new cookbooks, blogs postings, magazines, story pitches from PR firms representing chefs and producers, and tons of social media stuff. Amidst it all there is a lot of turnover. The blogs are often unreliable; a Google search will take me to a new one (new to me) only to find it hasn’t been updated in years. And restaurants at all price points open and close, and open and close.
I can’t help but wonder if we may be getting food fatigue from all the noise and novelty. If we’re always looking for the next new cookbook or TV star baker or ethnic cuisine to explore, are we ever going to master those 25 recipes so that we can bring home cooking home again instead of seeing it as a spectator sport?
The Harvard Business Review has reported that only 10% of Americans love to cook, relegating home cooking to “a niche activity that a few people do only some of the time.” Plus we’re now spending more of our income on eating in restaurants than buying groceries. The article’s author, Eddie Yoon, who is a change consultant (I’d like to be a no-change consultant) compared the decline of home cooking to what happened with sewing, which really made me feel like a throwback since I can still do a rather lovely French hem stitch.
This summer my husband and I took the train to Philadelphia to visit the “new” Barnes Foundation and to have dinner at Zahav, Michael Solomonov’s truly wonderful Israeli restaurant. We loved our meal – it was just the kind of food you want to eat on a steamy August evening -- and the service was friendly and kind. But after we got back to Manhattan, my primary response to the experience was to pull out my copy of the Zahav cookbook and mark any dishes we had eaten so that I could make them at home. Maybe that’s my way of becoming a Zahav regular.
Back to all that data forecasting the decline of home cooking – I’m not discouraged. Because despite my, and maybe your, recent summer pause, I still believe that those of us who end most days in our kitchens are more enthusiastic about it than ever. For example, Mary Ann Esposito and Ciao Italia are about to celebrate her 30th television season on PBS. That is remarkable. Clearly people must be watching, and I assume, cooking. Or there are the recipe comments at The New York Times Cooking section where you can learn from so many real, proud, and dedicated cooks aggressively parsing types of paprika, comparing curly to flat-leafed parsley, and debating the merits of slow-cookers and Instant Pots versus old fashioned Dutch ovens.
So if you’ve been feeling any cooking performance pressure lately, give yourself a break. Most of us aren’t making major meals every night and not everything has to be made from scratch. That’s what rotisserie chickens and jars of store-bought Tikka Masala sauces are for. Mostly I remain confident that many of us still believe in one of my favorite axioms: if you want to eat well, eat at home.
Cook Only One Star
I recently noticed in my own cooking how I have a habit of combining complex dishes with simple ones. I’m sure I started doing this for practical reasons but I think this is a tip worth passing along. When we go to restaurants, it’s common that every course is trying hard to be special. It’s like the whole meal is in a competition: every dish is a showstopper. But when we cook at home, we have the chance to construct the meal in the same way a piece of music creates ebbs, flows, and harmonies, because if everything is a star, nothing is.
Here’s an example of a recent dinner I made for my husband and me. There was no starter and there was no dessert, which is typical for our weeknight supper. But what was also typical is that I cooked three dishes – a protein and two vegetables: pan-cooked duck breasts that were seasoned only with salt and a pinch of Espelette pepper; a tomato salad of peeled New Jersey tomatoes that I salted to draw out the juice, then drizzled with good olive oil and topped with a few snipped chives and crumbled feta cheese that I had on hand; the third dish was Sweet and Spicy Ginger Green Beans, a great recipe from Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street Cookbook, seasoned with fish and soy sauces, fresh ginger, a little brown sugar (I cut the recipe’s quantity in half), garlic, rice vinegar, and red pepper flakes. The beans took the most effort (mostly for the trimming) and time to cook, but only in comparison to the simple duck and tomatoes, and the complex seasonings elevated not just the beans but also the gamey duck and acidic summer tomatoes.
Another example is a meal of roasted wild salmon, steamed broccolini with a little olive oil, and then an endive and mushroom salad dressed with homemade blue cheese dressing. Put the effort and flavor bomb into the salad dressing and the entire meal will be more special without a taxing amount of time.
My point is that when making almost any meal (except, perhaps, a holiday show-stopper), try to keep most things simple except one. It will help you harbor your energy and time (and food budget because all those extra ingredients add to the cost), and the whole plate and eating experience will benefit.
April Bloomfield’s White Gold Butchers on Manhattan’s Upper West Side recently closed. It seems to have been a side effect of the various troubles that have come to April Bloomfield and her partner Ken Friedman’s businesses following allegations of misconduct against him. But the Upper West Side is not suffering as it is beautifully served by the magnificent Hudson & Charles, local and 100% grass-fed butcher shop which opened last year at Amsterdam and W. 87th Street. It’s the uptown outpost of the original Hudson & Charles located in Manhattan’s West Village (on Hudson and Charles streets, of course).
If you are a fan of Greek cooking, you may want to take a look at Diane Kochilas’ terrific website. An American who moved her life to Greece many years ago, Kochilas is a cookbook author and the host of a PBS program about travel and Greek food. If you haven’t seen the program, you can watch some of the episodes on her website by clicking on “My Greek Table.” Her recipe selection is also very appealing.
One of my favorite kitchen gadgets is my tomato peeler. I see recipe after recipe using fresh tomatoes calling for submerging them in boiling water and then using a paring knife to remove the skins, which can be rather thick in the summer. But this method can be tricky because if you submerge the tomatoes for even a few seconds too long in the hot water, the tomatoes start to cook. Plus who wants a big pot of steamy water on the stove when it’s mid-summer? A few years ago, while renting an apartment in Aix-en-Provence, I found this peeler by Zyliss and recently discovered that it is available (where else) on Amazon. The blade is serrated and gentler than a typical vegetable peeler so you can also use it on soft fruit, like peaches. I know summer is almost over, but tomato season isn’t, so if you are a tomato fan, I suggest you add this to your toolkit.
New and Old Cookbooks
We’re entering a very active season of new cookbooks. I know how hard it is to write and produce a cookbook and so I try to be supportive of these authors, especially those I know personally and those whose previous books have inspired me. But for my own daily dinner, I mostly go back to the cookbooks I know best, many of which helped me learn how to be the cook I am today, which I think is a pretty good one. These are also the books I can trust. Unlike lots of the hyped chef cookbooks, for example (not to pile on) Mario Batali’s Babbo, which is simply awful; if you want to ruin a lot of expensive ingredients, make something from Babbo.
There are a few very exciting new ones coming out soon and I will write about them in the coming weeks, but getting new cookbooks doesn’t mean we don’t continue to rely upon old favorites.
Here are the cookbooks I turn to every day. I use them for daily suppers, dinner for company, holiday celebrations, and the simple solo meals I make for myself. Some of these books are like friends I’ve had for decades; others are newer but have also earned a place on the small bookshelf in my kitchen, an argument for exploring new cookbooks. All of them have many pages that are dog-eared and splattered.
In no particular order –
- Fish Without A Doubt by Rick Moonen and Roy Finamore
- Mastering the Art of French Cooking (vol. I) by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck
- Vegetable Harvest by Patricia Wells
- The French Kitchen Cookbook by Patricia Wells
- The America’s Test Kitchen’s Menu Cookbook (out of print but available from re-sellers)
- The Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan (out of print but available from re-sellers)
- Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
- The Southern Italian Table by Arthur Schwartz (out of print but available from re-sellers)
- Canal House Cooks Every Day by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton
- Olives & Oranges by Sara Jenkins & Mindy Fox (out of print but available from re-sellers)
I didn’t start out to choose just ten books, but there we are. Sure, there are others that I love and turn to as needed and selectively. I think Ina Garten is outstanding and her recipes are reliable and wonderful to eat. I have all her books except, for some reason, Make It Ahead, which I never got around to buying. But recipe staples for me include her Italian Wedding Soup (from Back to Basics); her method for pan-cooked salmon that is part of a recipe with lentils from her Barefoot In Paris is the most genius way ever to perfectly cook salmon; I love her Crusty Basmati Rice (from Foolproof), and for chicken – every volume has a winner which is helpful since I make chicken for dinner about twice a week.
I have many of the America’s Test Kitchen books, generously sent to me, and I turn to them often, especially if I’m working with an ingredient I’m not really skilled with. I learned how to cook duck and cassoulet by working with Paula Wolfert’s superb The Cooking of Southwest France (now out of print but available through re-sellers). Eugenia Bone’s Well-Preserved (also out of print but available) not only taught me how to do canning and preserving, but it gave me enough confidence that now I do it every summer. I have everything Marcella Hazan ever published and yes, taken together there’s a lot of redundancy, but not entirely and there is much to love and eat in all of them. Chris Kimball's Milk Street Cookbook is inspiring and the recipes are excellent; more than one has gone into regular rotation in my kitchen, such as the Herb & Pistachio Couscous (he has a new cookbook coming next month called Milk Street:Tuesday Nights that I'm looking forward to). I love Julia Reed's many books for her wit and charm and her tips on entertaining and especially for hors d’oeuvres (hot cheese olives anyone?). And for an Irish classic I was smart to try Clodagh McKenna’s Irish Stew with Barley from Clodagh’s Irish Kitchen, which actually replaced a family recipe to now be my gold standard. Here it is.
I’ve also found recipes that became favorites in unexpected places. For example, Daniel Boulud’s Harira Soup which I adore – it’s great for a winter’s supper or for company -- was published in an issue of Elle Décor magazine.
And on the subject of magazines, despite the demise of much of the cooking print media, I love Fine Cooking magazine and not only buy my own subscription but give it often as a gift (whereas I gave up my subscriptions to Food & Wine after they fired Nilou Motamed as their editor and then seemed to turn what was left of F&W into a chef fan pub, and also Saveur, which seems very unstable, plus I have never once cooked anything from them). If you don’t know Fine Cooking or haven’t spent time at their website, which has no pay wall, it’s a terrific resource. Their recipe for Classic Pound Cake is my go-to standard, as is their Chicken Pot Pies.
Then there’s my own collection of three-ring binders, full of recipes from family and friends whom I like to think also have tips and favorites from me, as well.
One of those friends was my dear pal Pat Herold who died ten years ago. She was a splendid cook and hostess, cooking for her husband and two sons and for their many friends whom she’d gather in her kitchen. Her gin and tonics, roast legs of lamb, and peach cobblers were as much of her identity as her red hair. When she died, many of her friends grieved not only Pat but also the joy of sitting at her table.
To help pass along that legacy, a group of us tracked down her recipes and one of us who had graphic design skills put a small cookbook together that we all shared. It is a treasure to have but an unexpected gift was learning how every single recipe originated from someone else – her mother, her sister, friends, and many cookbooks. But then in her hands, each recipe became uniquely hers, as when she doubled the amount of peaches in that peach cobbler, or decided to bake instead of frying her crab cakes. Pat's canon of recipes counts barely more than 25, each one practiced, made perfect, and shared.
I'm still working on my 25.