Cooks & Books

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Cookbooks are funny.

Despite the fact that they follow a rigid structure and are fairly circumscribed, the personality of the author comes through so strongly. Maybe because they’re prescriptive — the reason they exist is to tell you what to do — and people often have a visceral reaction to being told what to do. For instance my default reaction to people telling me what to do is to do the opposite. (I’m not saying that’s a good thing, just how I am. I’m working on it.)

So maybe the voice of someone giving you orders is particularly prominent, even if they’re not trying to be.

There are some very successful and popular cookbook writers I do not like at all.

Deborah Madison, who was chef at the acclaimed vegetarian restaurant Greens, has written a number of respected and well-received cookbooks that have become kitchen standards, including The Greens Cookbook and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. I have both of those, and while I love the concept of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, what’s not to love, I don’t love the cookbook. I find the recipes stuffy and overly precise, they call for ingredients I don’t have and may or may not be able to get (epazote? dulse?), and they discourage substitution. In general, the cookbook is useful, and there are recipes I like, but I pull it out grudgingly and put it away quickly.

Another cookbook writer that everyone loves that I do not is Mark Bittman.

I do love the idea of a column called the Minimalist — how could I not? — and what could be better than The Minimalist Cooks at Home? Yet I don’t find that his recipes live up that billing. I think maybe being a minimalist is relative, and his starting point, as a New York Times writer and denizen of New York, is so much higher than mine that even his minimalist version is more than I can handle.

On the other hand, I love Mollie Katzen of Moosewood fame. I find her recipes accessible and almost always good. And my favorite vegetarian cookbook is from someone who is (or was, at least) a chef but who I know only from her cookbook — Vegetarian Planet by Didi Emmons. If one of her recipes calls for exotic ingredients, she tells you why it’s important, where you might be able to get it, and what to substitute if you can’t find it. No pooh-poohing people who don’t have a Lebanese/Japanese/Scandinavian market on every corner.

I feel like Deborah Madison and Mark Bittman are looking down their noses at me, they’re likely to tell me what I did wrong and how what I made was not quite right, while Mollie Katzen and Didi Emmons are people I wouldn’t mind having in my kitchen with me while I cook. They would be happy with whatever I came up with and would think it was just fine. Go team!

A number of years ago — so long ago that I can’t remember when — my aunt and uncle who live in England but often spend summers in California gave me a Christmas gift of The San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook. This is a great cookbook. It has recipes from many different people who contributed recipes to the San Francisco Chronicle food section over the years, and one of the main contributors to the paper was Marion Cunningham.

I think the first recipe I made of hers was Ginger Jack Cookies. This is a more-or-less basic cookie recipe that includes corn flakes, which make them light and crunchy; oats, which make them chewy; and candied ginger, which makes them both sweet and spicy.

So they are cookies that are light, crunchy, chewy, sweet, and spicy.

They are really, really good.

Another Marion Cunningham recipe I happened upon in the cookbook was for Lone Star Chicken, which is one of those magical recipes that takes a bunch of things you already have in your house — canned tomatoes, onion, garlic, chicken, a few basic spices — and turns them into a fabulous meal with hardly any work at all.

I soon learned that this is a hallmark of Marion Cunningham’s recipes: simple ingredients, prepared in an easy, no-nonsense way, resulting in a meal that is deliciously satisfying, and that, no matter what else is going on in your life, makes you feel like maybe life isn’t so bad after all.

I still don’t have a copy of the Marion Cunningham revision of the Fannie Farmer cookbook (I do have a version of the original, which is an interesting reference) but I have several of her cookbooks that I use all the time.

The Supper Book is my go-to cookbook when I want something easy and good, and Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham is an invaluable resource, even for people who already know how to cook.

I think I came across Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham when I was browsing the shelves at The Regulator here in Durham, and I believe I first bought it as a gift, then later bought a copy for myself. It’s now out of print, though I recently bought a copy for a friend when I was at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. So you may not be able to get it locally (well, unless you live in Portland, in which case you’re set), but you should be able to pick up a copy online.

There are a number of things I love about this cookbook.

From an information design perspective, I think it’s brilliant. It explains things in very clear, very direct terms — after all, it’s designed for people who literally do not know the first thing about cooking — yet it manages to do so without being at all condescending, and in a way that people who already do know how to cook can read and use without being annoyed.

That is no mean feat.

And I feel like even if you do know how to cook, you don’t necessarily know how to cook everything. When I was starting to cook on my own, I didn’t buy meat because I couldn’t afford it, and as the years went on, I started to feel like there was a significant gap in my knowledge base. For instance, pot roast. How would one go about making a pot roast? I had no idea. Until I got Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham. Now I know.

All of the recipes are good, there is nothing exotic or complicated about any of them. Just food that anyone can make without too much effort. And there is no showing off — it is not about Marion Cunningham. It is about you and what you can do to make your food better, and your life too. Because Marion Cunningham was above all a champion of home cooking, and as much for its importance in our lives as for the food.

Simple food, prepared simply. That was the beauty of Marion Cunningham’s work.

I’m grateful for her legacy and everything she did for American cooking.¬†And she is certainly someone I enjoy having in the kitchen with me.

I’m not sure if this is my favorite Marion Cunningham recipe — as I said, there are so many I love, it’s hard to pick just one — but it’s the first one I remember making. And also it is one of the most requested recipes I make; I don’t think I’ve ever served these cookies without being asked for the recipe. So by virtue of that, it gets the nod.


Ginger Jack Cookies
from The San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook, edited by Michael Bauer and Fran Irwin
recipe from Marion Cunningham

1-1/4 cups vegetable shortening
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup packed brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups corn flakes
1 cup uncooked oatmeal [rolled oats]
1-1/4 cups finely chopped candied (crystallized) ginger [approx 4.5 oz.]

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease baking sheets.

Put the shortening into a mixing bowl and, using the back of a large spoon [or an electric mixer] cream it around the sides of the bowl. Slowly add both sugars and continue to cream and blend until the mixture is smooth. Add the eggs and vanilla and mix well.

Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt; mix with a fork until mixed. Add to the creamed mixture and beat until thoroughly mixed. Add the corn flakes, oats, and ginger. Mix well.

Drop by teaspoonfuls 1-1/2 inch apart on the prepared baking sheets. Bake about 8 minutes, or until the edges of the cookies are lightly golden. Transfer the cookies to racks to cool.

Store or freeze in airtight plastic bags.

Yields about 7 dozen 2-inch-diameter cookies.

July Odds and Ends

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

I have many things I’ve been thinking of writing about, all of which seem like they will take more time and energy than I have right now for writing. But I hate to leave this with nothing new for so long so here’s a quick update.

Marion Cunningham, my favorite cookbook author, passed away last week at age 90.

I still have hopes of writing a nice post in her honor, and my first thought was that I need to select a favorite recipe to highlight, but then I got hung up on picking a single recipe of hers, there are so many that I love, I don’t see how I could pick just one. Also I realized I’m in the middle of 18 different things and I don’t have more than half an hour for anything and I can’t do justice to Marion Cunningham in half an hour so that will have to wait.

In the meantime, I did want to mention her passing, and express my sorrow at our collective loss, and my gratitude for everything she did for cooking in America. She was a real treasure.

Also, for local readers, I would like to talk up my new favorite place, the Green Market on Pettigrew Street.

It is the place to be for cheap produce, holy cow, it’s amazing. It’s basically a flea market with produce stands and food vendors — and the kind of food vendors where there is no menu because they’re just selling one thing, the only thing you have to figure out is how much you want. (It’s like the Chinese food place I used to go to when I lived in Princeton, where all the Chinese grad students would go, you would order a small or a large of whatever they cooked that day.)

It has a distinctly Third World vibe. And I mean that in the best possible sense.

Usually when I go, I just go and get produce but the last time I went I was hungry and was unable to resist the lure of the stall in back with a man chopping pork for tacos. I didn’t see any prices and I wasn’t sure how to order, so I asked for two and hoped for the best. They were delicious. (I think they were $1.50 each; I got two tacos and a Coke and it was $4. Or maybe that’s just the gringo price, I don’t know.)

I’m not sure how the pork was cooked, it didn’t seem to have much spice or flavoring in it but there were big chunks of pork fat mixed in with the meat, and it just really hit the spot. In addition to the pork, the tacos were made with fresh corn tortillas and topped with chopped onion and cilantro, and the tables had bottles of hot sauce on them. And the man across the table gave up his chair and handed it across for me so I could sit while I ate. It was very sweet.

My friend Ann usually gets the flavored ice, like a Mexican sno-cone, but those don’t tempt me, she’s never able to talk me into getting one with her. Maybe next time.

My first visit this year, at the end of May, I bought 5 oranges, 3 small red peppers, 5 roma tomatoes, 3 red potatoes, 2 avocados, 2 limes, a mango, a cucumber, 3 nectarines, and 4 plums for $9.75. It immediately became my new favorite place.

Last week I bought ingredients for gazpacho, which I made and am still eating, and which, along with peach pie, is a big highlight of the summer for me. Everyone should make a big batch of gazpacho soon, if you haven’t already this year.

And, for those of you in the area, you should go to King’s on Club Boulevard and get a watermelon — they have seeded ones, which feel like an endangered species to me — for $6. The one I bought last week for a party was so big I almost couldn’t carry it, it was giant. (I like the seeded ones because I think you get more for your money and I think they have more flavor than the seedless ones, but I am apparently in the minority on that because the seeded ones are really hard to find.) And I meant to cut part off before I went to the party so I could process it and freeze it for watermelon sorbet but I forgot, so I think I’m going to have to go and get another one.

Enjoy the summer food while it’s here, it’ll be gone before you know it.

Over and out.

Gratitude, Fourth of July Edition

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Peaches in peach tree

My Peach Tree

I generally always feel a low level of angst about my life — Am I doing what I should be doing? Should I be doing something else? Am I doing a good job? Does any of this even matter? — but I think I’m now at an age where a lot of my friends are going through the same thing, not just generally angsty people like myself. So I’ve been having lots of mid-life crisis discussions lately, “Oh no, I forgot to have a baby!,” “Oh no, I forgot to have a career!”. Things like that.

After many discussions with me both offering and receiving some useful and some not so useful input, I realized that the advice I gave to wrap up my Pioneer Woman series was probably the best thing anyone can say.

Don’t spend energy worrying about what you did or didn’t do with your life, or what you should or shouldn’t be doing, and focus instead on your actual life that you are living right now, and be grateful for what you have.

So in an effort to take my own advice, I decided to focus on gratitude today. And it turns out that what I am most grateful for right now is … pie!

Peach Pie

Peach Pie

I made my grandmother’s peach pie last week with Latta’s eggs and Mapleview Dairy whole milk and peaches from the peach tree in my front yard and it was divine.

(I also made homemade Snickers bars¬†recently and they were divine, too. In fact they were so divine that they need a warning label — you should make those only if you have somewhere you can physically remove them to and give away before you return home. Or if you have like 40 people coming over. No one needs three and a half pounds of the best thing you’ve ever tasted lying around the house. Totally dangerous.)

And on this Independence Day eve I’m also grateful that I have the freedom to celebrate the holiday in whatever manner I see fit.

So I wish everyone a relaxing and enjoyable holiday, and if you’re looking for something to take to a potluck, make this pie. Everyone will be grateful.

Grandma Beulah’s Peach Pie

1 Tbsp butter
8 Tbsp (1/2 cup) flour
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
2 cups milk
2 egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla

1 prepared pie crust (pastry or graham cracker crust)

Melt the butter in the top of a double boiler.

Combine separately the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, salt) and the milk and egg yolks. Add the milk and egg yolks to the dry ingredients and stir to combine, then add to the double boiler and heat until thick, stirring occasionally.

Remove from heat and let cool. Stir in the vanilla.

Put in prepared crust and chill. Add sliced peaches to top when ready to serve.