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Archive for the ‘Cookbook’ Category

In which I hunt for the perfect cooking narrative to satisfy a homey craving

Title: Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen

Author: Laurie Colwin

What it’s about: Recently I wanted to read something about food. I enjoy food writing the way some people enjoy chic lit. It’s light, it’s easy, and for me personally it’s very soothing. In particular, I wanted to read something about food in America. I didn’t want it to be political or historical, a la The Omnivore’s Dilemma or In Defense of Food. These could be spectacular books and I may very well read them some day, but it’s just not what I wanted. I also wanted it to be written by a woman, i.e. no Anthony Bourdain or Jeffrey Steingarten. Again, great men, great books, just not in the mood. Furthermore, I had one last requirement: no Paris. Look, I’ve eaten in Paris. It was delicious at first, but after so much bread and cheese I literally had to excise them from my diet for weeks because the rich food was making me ill. But my problem with Paris isn’t in the excess, it’s just in the expectedness of the subject. Does every culinary revelation have to happen in the City of Light? So Julie and Julia was out, as was My Life in France, another book I’ve considered picking up.

These criteria in hand, I went to the internet: food, women, America. This year’s earlier foray into cookbook reading was successful and in the vein of what I was craving. I made a list with several intriguing options. I liked the look of Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires, but thought it might not satisfy my craving for comfort since it’s about her life as a food critic in New York. Cookoff: Recipe Fever in America seemed fun and kitschy, but wasn’t available at the bookstore. Finally I settled on what I now know must be a classic, but which I came to merely by chance: Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin.

This collection of essays penned in the 1970s describe Colwin’s various misadventures in the kitchen, as well as her advice to novice chefs and dinner party planners. It’s her wit that really shines through and I laughed aloud several times. In a chapter on stuffing she admits, “It was years before I could come out and say how much I hated stuffing. Everyone in the world but me was fired by an elemental urge to fill up bird cavities with this and that.” She has this to say of dinner parties: “It is a fact of life that people give dinner parties, and when they invite you, you have to turn around and invite them back. Often they retaliate by inviting you again and you must then extend another invitation. Back and forth you go, like Ping-Pong balls, and what you end up with is called social life.” She tells the story of mixing giant cans of tuna fish and beating the cores out of iceberg lettuce in college as she assembled tuna fish sandwiches for hungry undergrads. Or the tale of her tiny New York kitchen, in which she hosted many a dinner party even though she had to cook on a two-burner hot plate and wash the dishes in the bathtub. Essays like “How to Disguise Vegetables” or “Easy Cooking for Exhausted People” combines a story with recipes, which are often very simple and homey like Chicken with Chicken Glaze or Shepherd’s Pie. Not every recipe has that classic timelessness—she claims chicken salads have “a certain glamour” and that there’s “no such thing as a bad potato salad,” and I’d politely beg to differ on both counts. Still, it’s interesting to see how our eating habits have changed and also how they’ve evolved. Colwin mentions trying to get organic chickens and eggs on several counts, a difficult find at the time but now practically ubiquitous. Part memoir, part cookbook, the book was what I wanted: homey, comforting, and amusing.

Would I recommend? If you enjoy throwing dinner parties or witty women in the kitchen, Home Cooking will serve the dual purpose of taking you back to a different culinary era in America but also making you feel right at home.

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In which I “read” a cookbook and ponder the ethics of “borrowing” recipes

Title: In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite

Author: Melissa Clark

What it’s about: Recently, I was discussing what to make for dinner with my boyfriend. “Oh, I’m reading this cookbook…” I started. He interrupted. “Wait. You’re reading a cookbook?” “Well, yes,” I replied. “But it has lots of stories!” His incredulity made me realize that, of course, there are many types of cookbooks we don’t “read.” We refer to them, searching in the index under “pork chops” or flipping through until a glossy photo of lemon squares catches our eyes. But there are some types of cookbooks that are meant to be read and Melissa Clark’s In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite is one of them.

Clark begins each chapter with a short essay, usually including a story from her childhood or a special connection to the subject. Growing up, she and her sister traveled with their foodie parents around the globe, and their expeditions almost solely focused on food. Because of this, she was exposed to kinds of foods that children normally avoid like the plague–seafood, innards, slimy and spicy things. Her family also employed a technique that is very similar to my own family’s. When they went out to eat, each family member had to order a different dish. They would then eat precisely one-fourth of their meal and swap plates around the table clockwise. My family doesn’t do the organized rotation, but it is taboo in the Kenny family to order the same thing as someone else at the table.

Clark also developed a cooking style very similar to my own, what I like to call the “what’s in the fridge” approach. She often asked friends or relatives for recipes and then tweaked them based on her own tastes and what was available that day. Sometimes the results seem quite close to the original and sometimes an entirely new dish was born.

Each recipe begins with the story behind its creation. Perhaps it’s the Whiskey-Soaked Dark Chocolate Bundt Cakes she perfected in high school, trying to win the hearts of the boys in her class. Or maybe it’s a meal she tried to replicate based on a memory of dinner long ago, like her Not-My-Grandma’s Chicken with Lemon, Garlic, and Oregano. Maybe it’s her own update on a time-honored classic, like her Brand-New Heirloom Potato Latkes. Or maybe it’s one of the many recipes she “borrowed” from a friend or fellow chef and tweaked to her own liking, like the Really Easy Duck Confit, courtesy of Eric and Bruce Bromberg, Blue Ribbon restaurants, New York. (more…)

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