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
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.