the cookbook whisperer
As an unapologetically enthusiastic cook, I own a lot of cookbooks. A quick survey from where I sit reveals four bookshelves-one with easily 125 books-and six piles of books in varying states of precariousness. Books with recipes make up the bulk of these, but McGee, Nestle, Pollan, Schlosser, Parsons and others contribute a couple dozen reference books to the clutter in my office. It should be noted that I can only see the dining room and my office.
Out of sight, the guest room has a bookcase of food essayists, designed to be read in small bits: Reichl, Steingarten, Bourdain, the annual Best Food Writing series. Two more boxes, utterly untouched, sit where they were shoved under the entryway bench a few months ago "until we build more bookshelves," an event I expect to happen real soon now. Like next year.
A substantial number of the actual cookbooks-you know the one with recipes-are on bread, herbs or focused on the Pacific Northwest; not surprisingly, these three groups are the most used. Baking books get a bit of attention, too. I am constantly referring to them for one thing or another. Some of them have been read cover to cover, a few more than once.
The rest, however, are somewhat neglected or ill-used, being primarily used as a warm-up for my usual improvisational cooking. Like stretching before a race.
I love having a source of
inspiration at my fingertips and often flip through several books while
sipping tea and debating dinner options. Checking the index for recipes
that use the ingredients I have on hand leads me on the paper
equivalent of an Internet wanderer's clickstream:
Lemon rosemary chicken leads to feta-stuffed chicken breasts, which
inspires a peek at savory Greek pastries. In the time it takes to drink
my tea, I have mentally prepared and discarded a dozen or more dishes,
whether any of them will have an influence on the eventual dinner menu
is anyone's guess.
Actually following a recipe, however, is a far rarer occurrence. I've often mused to myself that for every hundred recipes I read, I consider making ten and end up making one. It is more likely that I will make one dish that uses elements of ten recipes.
Having said all of that, there are a few cookbooks that stick with me, speak to me; darned near literally.
Reading my grandmother's
notes in the smeared and stained margin of a cookbook as old as I am, I
can hear her voice in my ear saying, "I always double the cinnamon..."
or "this fits perfectly in the blue ceramic casserole" (something else
I was fortunate enough to inherit). When I hesitate before taking on a
challenging recipe, I remember her (literally) nudging me to the
kitchen for a secret late-night taffy session so I would look like an
expert at my 7th birthday party, where she hosted a taffy pull for a
dozen rambunctious seven year-olds. It set a standard of bravery in the
kitchen that I try hard to meet.
There is a particular cookie cookbook that has been floating around my family since I was a child. The spine is bound in electrical tape; the first dozen pages, along with several good recipes, are missing; a single index page hangs by a corner, and some of the most used pages are near impossible to read under the accumulated splashes of forty years of baking. A few years ago, it was reissued and I happily ordered a new copy for theKid's birthday.
At the last minute, I called her and asked cryptically, "If you could have a new thing or an old, rather velveteened, not quite fully functional, family thing, which would you want?" When she opted for sentimental value, I had a fleeting twinge of regret that I had asked. I did the grownup thing, however, and the inscriptions-first from my grandmother to my mother, and again from her to me-got an addition as the book found its way to yet another kitchen. Lord only knows what will be holding it together in another generation.
Other books have recipes I made until I created my own version that I now do from memory. A few have many of those recipes.
My current go-to repertoire includes a more than a few adaptations from The Herbfarm Cookbook by Jerry Traunfeld. Pairing regional food with fresh herbs, this book includes many dishes from the Herbfarm restaurant menu without substantial simplification for the home cook. (Traunfeld's follow-up, The Herbal Kitchen is a lovely book and much more accessible for the less experienced cook.)
I love that there are recipes in the book that we ate when we had dinner there and can easily think of more than a dozen recipes from this book, a number of which we had when we ate at the restaurant, that I make all the time. I have broken the spines of two copies - one autographed. Menus from dinner and cooking classes at the Herbfarm serve as bookmarks, and evoke memories that never fail to make me smile.
This menu, from a November meal, serves as one of my current inspirational pieces. someoneElse even wants to get squab so we, actually he, can make the thyme-grilled squab. I remember the cheese course from that meal particularly; the waiter told us a sad tale of Sally Jackson, who had made amazing chestnut leaf wrapped Guernsey cheese. Until her cow had died. When the folks at the Herbfarm heard that the cow was no more, and that meant no more amazing chestnut leaf wrapped Guernsey cheese, they decided they had the answer: they bought Sally a new cow, and, not surprisingly, they named her Rosemary. Now they get all of the amazing chestnut leaf wrapped Guernsey cheese for themselves. Pairing it with the cherry tart is pretty amazing too.
Fast forward a couple of years from that dinner to the day I received a copy of the 25th Anniversary edition of the Silver Palate cookbook. This was a particular thrill for me because this was the first cookbook I became one with. Delightfully illustrated by Sheila Lukins, the Silver Palate cookbook contributed many recipes to my early adulthood. Living in the Pacific Northwet made the salmon mousse mandatory, and those chocolate and nut topped bar cookies are still on my top ten list.
It was a transitional book for me: the first of my adult cookbooks, bought with the thought that I might someday entertain like that. Somewhere along the line I lost my copy, if by lost I mean theKid has it; probably on the shelf next to the cookie book.
Flipping through the new Silver Palate cookbook when it arrived, I scanned the book to see what was new: mostly sidebars and those gorgeous photos. My eye skidded to a stop on the bit of text shown here and I turned to someoneElse saying, "Read this." The cow, the dead cow... the amazing chestnut leaf wrapped Guernsey cheese...the outcry...the new cow. I swear I heard the waiter whisper, "We bought Sally a new cow, her name is Rosemary..."
We've all got them, the cookbooks that whisper, or maybe even sing, to us. Care to share some of yours?