My Pandemic Diary, Entry #66
Hello Fellow City Cooks,
It’s an overcast, slightly humid Thursday in New York City. No walk today. I have a too long to-do list and Mark has school. So we’re each at our respective work spots in our apartment and will stay there all day.
Besides writing this diary, I’ve got the month’s bills to pay, French homework to do even though there’s no lesson this week (use it or lose it is absolutely true for me and this confounding language), lots of emails that I’m so late in answering that it’s rude, continuing my research into finding hand weights that don’t cost their weight in gold, and I’d like to spend the time to give myself a proper manicure instead of the routine maintenance that stopped being pretty a long time ago.
This morning I got an email from the folks at Epicurious with their latest issue in their series about cooking in the Coronovirus era. This one is called The Smart Cook and much of it seems oriented toward budget cooking, something I always like to know more about. It helps that their planning, shopping, pantry and recipe ideas are very accessible because it’s not very helpful if all the ideas for saving money means you need to know how to make four kinds of broth from thrice-cooked chicken carcasses and then reduce them into demi-glace.
Despite all its good ideas and helpful tips, I will confess that when I looked at The Smart Cook, I felt largely uninspired. What is it about dishes deemed good for our budgets that makes them all seem alike? Eggs, beans, stale bread. My appetite wasn’t responding. So much of cooking and eating is about anticipation, temptation, creativity, memory, pleasure. Yes, of course, we have to work within the frameworks of cost, skill, time, and what those whom we cook for may want to eat and Epicurious’s tips are very useful. But at all price points -- if there’s no aspiration for either the making or the eating, we will feel deprived and unsatisfied.
It’s why I am so serious about home cooking. First, I love to eat. And second, I believe, and know to be true, that home cooks can make amazing foods in their kitchens – without lots of fancy gear or space – no matter their budget or palate. Like any craft, cooking takes some practice and it also takes learning, if not in cooking school, then from a parent or grandparent, or from our best cookbook authors.
I have a lot of cookbooks and over the decades that I’ve collected them, I’ve had to constantly cull which to keep and which to give away because there’s only so much shelf space in a NYC apartment. This parsing of authors and volumes has revealed to me that I clearly like two kinds of cookbooks: One, those by authors whose palate, skill, and point-of-view teach me technique that I can use in all of my cooking as well as recipes and flavor combinations that I and my husband and the friends I normally cook for want to eat.
Two, I like to have books on specific topics that deepen my understanding and abilities to make at home foods that I otherwise would need to either travel or go to restaurants to enjoy. With a few exceptions, I do not like books by chefs because I have too often found that the recipes are terrible for home cooking and there’s no authentic voice; instead they are often ghost-written and mostly just pretty marketing devices for their restaurants. Two exceptions to this are Missy Robbins' really wonderful breakfast, lunch, dinner…life and Zahav by chef Michael Solomonov.
In an earlier diary I had mentioned that Patricia Wells was one of my go-to cookbook authors and I promised to return to the topic and share more names. So in no particular order, and including names from previous diary entries, here are some favorites:
- Patricia Wells: especially Vegetable Harvest, At Home In Provence, The French Kitchen Cookbook, Bistro Cooking
- Ina Garten: I think I have all her books except Cook Like A Pro and Make It Ahead; I appreciate her recipes for being do-able, reliable, and delicious; I’ve had very few disappointments and yes, I cut the amounts of salt and butter she often uses
- Sara Jenkins: Olive & Oranges
- Rick Moonen and Roy Finamore: Fish Without A Doubt (I've used this so often it's falling apart)
- Julia Child: Mastering the Art of French Cuisine (mostly only vol. I), The Way To Cook
- Marcella Hazan: everything she wrote
- America’s Test Kitchen: my favorites are from several years ago – The ATK Menu Cookbook, The Best Simple Recipes, and The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook
- Arthur Schwartz: The Southern Italian Table, Jewish Home Cooking, Naples At Table
- David Waltuck: Staff Meals from Chanterelle
- Christopher Kimball: Milk Street: Tuesday Nights
- Missy Robbins: breakfast, lunch, dinner…life
- Paula Wolfert: The Cooking of Southwest France (this was how I taught myself to make confit de canard)
- Julia Reed: Julia Reed’s South, But Mama Always Put Vodka in the Sangria and her other memoirs which always include recipes (plus she is very funny)
- Alice Waters: The Art of Simple Food
- Clodagh McKenna: Clodagh’s Irish Kitchen
- Canal House: Canal House Cooks Every Day
- Lee Bailey: Long Weekends
- Claudia Rosen: The Food of Spain
- Claudia Fleming: The Last Course
- Barbara Kafka: Soup, Roasting
- Michel Roux: Sauces
- Martha Stewart: Martha Stewart’s Hors d’Oeuvres Handbook
- Darina Allen: Irish Traditional Cooking, The Ballymaloe Cookbook, Simple Delicious – The Classic Collection
- Diana Henry: From the Oven to the Table
- Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook: Zahav
- Karen Solomon: Can It, Bottle It, Smoke It and Other Kitchen Projects
- Eugenia Bone: Well-Preserved (this and Karen Solomon’s book taught me how to do canning)
- José Andrés: Made in Spain
Whew. No wonder I have no spare shelf space. I can't help but notice that very few of these favorites are recent.
Some people love cookbooks just to read. For me, while its voice matters, once that is established, a cookbook becomes a workhorse. I am always looking for ideas and methods as I build an eclectic repertoire of foods I cook for our daily meals, for special occasions and guests, and for me, as creative recreation. Publishers send me new cookbooks all the time, but I not only don’t have the shelf space, I also don’t have the head space to crack a new code from among the thousands of new cookbooks published every year. I stick with what I’ve come to know and the flavors I prefer, written by authors whom I trust to also be, at least for part of the time, fellow home cooks. That is, however, until something special arrives, a new book, maybe from a new author, and then it’s acutely exciting.
Cooking and Groceries
Going back to Epicurious’s The Smart Cook for a moment, I appreciated seeing their article about turning all kinds of ingredients – vegetables, grains, beans, potatoes -- into pancakes.
That’s because for last night’s dinner, I rescued two medium-sized zucchini that were destined to be forgotten and lost in my refrigerator’s vegetable bin, by turning them into zucchini fritters that I served with lemon pepper aioli left over from the previous night’s meal, as well as a bowl of quick-sautéed shrimp that I had first dusted with an aggressively seasoned flour (salt, lots of freshly ground black pepper, and a big pinch of Espelette pepper). Plus a green salad.
But it was the zucchini fritters that were the star of the meal. There are lots of recipes for zucchini fritters, or pancakes as they’re sometimes called, and most are similar to what I did. I had two medium-sized zucchini which I first washed and then grated using the large holes of a box grater. You can also use your food processor but I used the grater because by the time you pull out the processor, assemble the grating blade, get the zucchini in place, grate them, then clean the processor, if you use a box grater you’d already be done and moving on.
Add the grated pieces to a fine sieve that’s set either in the sink or over a bowl. Then add a teaspoon or so of salt and use your hands to distribute the salt. Let this sit for about 10 or 15 minutes and then, by wrapping all the salted zucchini pieces in a clean dish towel or by simply using your hands (I use my often-washed hands), wring or press out as much water as possible. Zucchini is famously moist and if you don’t remove most of the water before making the pancakes, you’ll have a soggy mess.
Then I mixed the dried, shredded zucchini with about 1/3 cup all-purpose flour, 1/4 cup grated parmesan (you could probably also use grated aged gouda or another hard but mellow cheese but I wouldn’t use pecorino because I think it would be too salty for the delicately flavored zucchini), an egg into which I had beaten 2 grated garlic cloves, and salt and pepper.
Add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil to a cast iron or non-stick skillet, place over medium-high heat, and use a soup spoon to create about 3-inch wide pancakes with your batter. Cook on each side for 3 to 5 minutes until golden brown. Some people prefer fritters like these to be softer in the middle; I like them better well-done and crispy. Either way, they are a great way to use extra zucchini that you may have forgotten you bought (that would be me) or this summer when there are the annual zucchini crop explosions in your neighbors’ gardens.
Stay safe and have a nice dinner.