Friday, May 28, 2010

Tiptoeing through the Chefs’ Cookbooks – Part 1

Okay – I confess. When I started this post, I was going to review my latest find, Thomas Keller’s ad hoc at home. And then,...I decided any review should really pit this book against its truest competitors, i.e., the cookbooks of other great chefs. And since I have quite a few of those, it became another of those what-the-heck moments, and what my husband always refers to as a random strike, when my brain goes off at a full tilt. So of course this process has taken me quite a bit longer than I expected, but I’m getting there. Just as a show of faith, I’m going to give you the first half now. I’ll be back in a couple of days with the rest, which will – I promise – include ad hoc at home.

How do you know when you find a great cookbook? You can’t rely simply on the author being a great chef – I have cookbooks by Daniel Boulud (Daniel, db Bistro Moderne, and Café Boulud) and Georges Perrier (Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia) and Eric Ripart (Le Bernardin), and while I enjoy reading them all, I don’t think of those books as great cookbooks. (I also have A Day at elBulli by Ferran Adrià, but his food is so far out there that I think of the book as more like science fiction, and don’t even shelve it with the others.) The photography in each is luscious enough that you can practically taste the dishes, and it’s fun to imagine what it must be like to inhabit the kitchens of these creative geniuses, to peek over their shoulders or be privy to their thoughts; but these are not where I turn to figure out what to cook for a cozy dinner party unless it’s a really special occasion.

I should add here that all of these chefs except perhaps Georges Perrier have multiple books to their names, so maybe the comparison isn’t fair. But my library is my library – my universe for this task is defined by it.

Boulud’s Cooking in New York City offers a sort of romp through the day at a top-tier NYC restaurant... There’s some fun stuff about the craziness of the kitchen and the shopping and the deliveries, but the recipes are presented in a jumbled mess of type that’s 11-point on some pages and shrinks to 9-point on others. And complex? Tomato Tarte Tatin (can you say that five times fast?) takes up a full page, in six separate procedures: for the pistou sauce, the puff pastry, the tomatoes (no simple peel and chop here), the caramelized onions, the herb goat cheese (which of course you must make yourself – and who is this guy Herb?), and the frisée salad. It’s a dish that promises to be an all-day affair in the making. And this would be for an appetizer. Needless to say, I haven’t found much that I’ll tackle in his book.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


I've just become aware that the pasta recipe in my last post had 4 CUPS of parmesan. ACK!!!! No, that was supposed to be 1/4 cup. This must be what comes from writing in the wee hours. So sorry – hope I haven't ruined anyone's dinner.

For anyone just now reading that post, I've corrected the recipe. But here it is – again – with the appropriate quantity of Parmesan.

Pasta with Asparagus and Peas

1 Tbl butter
1½ Tbl shallots, minced
1 lb asparagus (I prefer the thinner stalks for this recipe), trimmed and cut into one-inch pieces
8 oz frozen peas, thawed
salt and pepper, to taste
¼ c heavy cream
8 oz dried pasta (I used ½ box of bowtie pasta)
¼ c grated Parmesan cheese
¼ c fresh basil, slivered

Cook pasta in salted water as directed. Meanwhile, in a large sauté pan, cook shallots on medium-low heat about 4 mins. Raise heat to medium, add asparagus and peas, salt and pepper. Cover and cook 7 mins, or until asparagus is firm-tender. Remove cover and add cream. Simmer vegetables in cream until the cream thickens (~2 mins). When pasta is ready, drain it and add it to the vegetables, along with the Parmesan cheese, stirring well. When the cheese is melted and well incorporated, add basil and stir well again. Adjust seasoning. Serves 2 with leftovers.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Another Year, Another Asparagus Recipe
What’s cooking? Pasta with Asparagus and Peas

It was a great birthday. I slept late, ate breakfast out on our screened porch, then had my coffee with the cat out in the kitchen garden. Some days, you just have to let yourself do nothing, and if your birthday isn’t one of those days, then you are missing something.

One son sent me the cutest flower arrangement I think I’ve ever seen: a flower cupcake. It’s right here on my desk, where it looks like it’ll last for a while.

And the other son sent Thomas Keller’s new cookbook, ad hoc at home. This book, of family-style recipes, is rapidly becoming one of my favorites, even though I haven’t made anything from it yet. I’m a big fan of Keller – his gazpacho is a staple of my hostessing menus, and his instructions on cooking vegetables changed my life – but some of his concoctions get just a little too precious for a kitchen with a staff of one. I’m thinking in particular of a white truffle custard – and you know, I always keep a bit of white truffle in my pantry – served in a hollowed out egg shell. Oh, please. The dishes in this new book, however, are designed for serving to a group of friends who don’t care if you’re using liquid nitrogen or tweezers or an immersion circulator. (More on this book in my next post.)

So for my birthday, my husband wanted to take me to dinner at a nice local place, but we’d been out the previous couple of nights, and had plans for the next couple of nights after that. And sometimes, I just get a hankering to cook something. It was one of those nights.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Great Gift Idea

You know, I started off my last post talking about the binder of family recipes my Aunt Marcy gave me when I left home for a career in NYC. The whole idea was to link that thought to the recipe book I put together just recently for my daughter-in-law-to-be. But my mind’s ability to wander off into the woods, following any random trail, seems to apply even when I’m writing. I apparently am in desperate need of some mental breadcrumbs.

Maybe it’s the siren call of Spider Solitaire. I’m something of a, ahem, professional at it. At least I would be if there was such a thing. The problem is that I replay the same game over and over until I win. Which can take much more time than I’m willing to admit. And so, I digress, again.

Back to the recipe collection I assembled for my DILTB. Let’s call her Sue. Some time ago, I discovered a website called Tastebook, which is somehow affiliated with epicurious. I played around with the site, but never really got cranked until Sue came into the picture, which gave me a real reason to put a book together.

The Tastebook people have a broad selection of attractive photos you can use for the cover, and they offer a dedication page that can even include your own photo. Then you choose recipes from some online sites, or enter your own recipes on a formatted page (with photos there, too, if you want). And you can add personal notes to any of the recipes. It’s pretty simple, and the book looks great. They even managed to get it to me in time for it to be a sort of reverse-Mother’s Day gift for Sue. Pretty cool. (And by the way, they didn't pay me to say all this.)

The only downside to this little (?) project was that I spent the entire weekend before typing in various family recipes, and cooking a number of them so that I could take photos of them for the pages. This is the sort of activity that drives my adorable spouse straight up the wall. (“Aren’t we going to eat this? Stop taking pictures. The food’s getting cold, and I’m hungry.”) Ah, what we sacrifice for art.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

From My Mother’s Kitchen
What’s cooking? Corn Pone Pie

When I left home in Texas for a job and apartment in New York, my Aunt Marcy gave me a binder with a starter handful of family recipes in it. Mostly, they were her recipes with a couple from my grandmother, who only cooked things with lots of sugar in them. My mother’s recipes were largely absent, I suspect because I don’t remember ever actually seeing her use a recipe.

She was an artist, and in a less culturally restrictive time, I doubt she’d have cooked much at all. (N.B., The photo above is one of her paintings. I have now decorated two kitchens around its colors.) But women in those days weren’t supposed to spend their time painting or building collages or working with mosaic tiles, so I suspect she was more than a little grateful for the advances in packaged food that made those activities possible. As a result, frozen TV dinners, Kraft macaroni and cheese, and instant mashed potatoes were regulars in our house. But when she decided to cook, she relied mostly on instinct; and her instincts, while not fancy, were good.

As with her art, my mother’s cooking was eclectic, and often involved mixing things up in a skillet until they tasted good. If the meal included shrimp, most of the time it became gumbo and was served over rice. Turkey morphed into tetrazzini, with mushrooms, cream sauce, and pasta; and chicken or pork evolved into chop suey served over those crunchy Chun King noodles.

But my favorite dish started with a pound of ground beef, which she turned into a simple chili that was topped with corn bread and went by the name of Corn Pone Pie. It is only as an adult that I’ve discovered that Corn Pone Pie appeared on other people’s tables, and in fact is about as common in the South as pimento cheese. Ok, maybe not that common, but pretty well known just the same.

I started early serving the dish to my little Yankee children, and they liked it as much as I ever did. Maybe it’s the name that makes it sound like such a friendly concoction, but I suspect the corn bread is what gets my sons.

The best thing about this recipe is that you only need to add a green salad for a complete meal.

Mumzy’s Corn Pone Pie

For the chili:
1 pound ground beef (can substitute turkey without loss of flavor)
1 medium onion, chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, mashed (This would be the Texas version; in NJ, we say crushed.)
1 green pepper, diced (optional)
1 16-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon chili powder (more, if you like)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 dash Tabasco
1 16-ounce can kidney beans or pinto beans
salt and pepper to taste

For the corn bread:
1¼ cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup yellow corn meal
3 tablespoons sugar
4½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg
⅔ cup milk (at room temp)
⅓ cup melted butter

Preheat oven to 425º.

In a deep, oven-proof skillet, cook together on medium heat the ground beef, onion, garlic, and green pepper (if using), breaking up the meat with a spoon into bite-sized pieces, until the meat is fully cooked. Add the tomatoes, chili powder, cumin, Tabasco, beans, and salt and pepper to taste. [Kitchen Goddess note: As you may guess, there’s a lot of flexibility in this recipe, depending on how you like your chili. Feel free to experiment.] Simmer the mixture on top of the stove for 10-15 minutes, while you make the cornbread batter.

For the cornbread topping, sift together into a medium bowl the flour, corn meal, sugar, baking powder, and salt. In a separate, small bowl, beat the egg well with a fork, then stir in the milk and melted butter. Pour the liquid mixture all at once into the dry, stirring with a fork only until the flour is moistened. (It’s okay if the mixture is lumpy – the point is not to overstir.) Spoon the batter on top of the chili mixture. Bake 25-30 minutes until the corn bread is done.  Serves 4-5.