Among my many collections - heart-shaped rocks, vintage table linens, scraps of bubblewrap (they can be reused, people!) and flower vases in the shape of heads — my accumulation of cookbooks may reign supreme. Curling up with a morning coffee and a scrumptious food tome of recipes and fare can be deeply satisfying, especially when the dishes are accompanied by the stories or anecdotes that inspired them. When I read a cookbook, to me it is no different than a novel. I start from the beginning and become absorbed within the story of someone’s kitchen, never missing a chef’s note or an ingredient. It’s a ritual that is part curiosity and part comfort that can only be found through the nurturing solace of food.
I prefer to cook unfussy dishes that are more soul soothing than snap worthy, but when it comes to my cookbook obsession, how often I will put the pages to use when I am at the stove is of no matter, as I do not treasure them for their utility alone. Some books in my collection have added only a single recipe to my repertoire and others are dotted with dozens of sticky flags, the pages splashed with syrupy evidence from the preparations of countless celebrations. I cherish cookbooks mostly for the joyous opportunities that they represent — homemade gestures of love, sharing a table, coming together, celebrating life.
While planning the menu for a large family dinner at my home, I recently came across an old cookbook that my grandmother had given to me shortly after I graduated college. Covered in the same pink and violet floral wallpaper that decorated her kitchen, as all of “Loni’s” cookbooks were, her 1965 second printing of “The Blessings of Food and Flowers,” had originally been compiled as a synagogue fundraiser, the mid-century heirloom describing itself as, “The most prized recipes of members of the Sisterhood.”
The plastic spiral binding disintegrated long ago, but it is still easy to get lost within the volume’s pages, the dishes and entertaining tips a window into a bygone era. The options are neither fancy nor complex, like beef stroganov and “Tanta Betty’s Chicken in the Pot.” Offerings like cottage cheese jello salad are no longer de rigueur and others, like deviled tongue, should probably be left to the archives. When it came to grocery lists, sherry was clearly essential to a well-stocked pantry. Proper recipe format was abandoned for what presumably appeared on the handwritten recipe cards of inherited tradition or were dictated like familiar instructions recited from friend to friend over a rotary phone. “Have fish dealer roll sole around salmon,” begins Mrs. Bases’ recipe titled “Sole and Salmon Rolls.” Some of the notes are cinematic in the Mad Men era images they now evoke. Mrs. Louis A. Jaskow’s recipe for “College Punch” consists of three types of fruit juice, four cups of sugar and eight bottles of wine. It serves 100. I would like to have been invited to one of Mrs. Jaskow’s parties.
The potato puffs that I baked in homage were ultimately less inspiring than the evening I spent immersed in the kitchens of women I will never know, but I went to bed that night with an unusual sense of calm, imagining that our current volatile world was momentarily replaced for a simpler time, at least within my home. Both cooking and the written word can have that effect.
The fantasy renovation plans for the Barn House (more on that another time) include a kitchen library, complete with floor to ceiling shelves dedicated to the food alters that are currently stacked around my home, an antique ladder to add some culinary drama and a cozy reading nook to soothe my soul. Below are my most recent additions to those shelves — one made me laugh, two made me cry, all gave me a sweet escape. Try them. You’ll like them.
A couple of years ago, inspired by one of those last warm New York nights of summer, Mike and I decided to take the boys for scooter rides and a family dinner date downtown. We were in the area of Jack’s Wife Freda, a West Village restaurant whose accolades we were eager to affirm, but figured a last minute seating request on a Friday night with two toddlers in tow was unlikely to be met with the same enthusiasm. But, as I now know is customary, we were warmly greeted amongst a patient gathering of patrons, our server quick with crayons for the kids and a glass of wine for their momma. Having lived on both coasts in cities that can sometimes be more scene than substance, this is just a warm and happy place. Mike and I still reminisce about that magical New York night with our boys, which was highlighted by our time at their neighborhood table. The food is, as it’s regulars testify, delicious, but their welcoming approach truly elevates the experience.
Owners Maya and Dean Jankelowitz’ new Jacks Wife Freda cookbook begins with an introduction that is as much biography as it is culinary, offering a glimpse into the flavors of their childhoods in Israel and South Africa through the homemade dishes of their families, including Dean’s grandparents for whom the restaurant is named. It probably says a lot about someone’s emotional capacity if a cookbook can move them to tears, but I too have a business that is named after my beloved grandparents whose love inspired me, and so I found myself getting choked up at the preparation of Dean's family's Friday night feasts. I am an untethered happy crier, but I presume that most readers will have the fortitude to indulge in chef Julia Jaksic’s trademark grain bowls and zucchini chips without drama. Although, the savory croque madame could make any sane person emotional. I waited patiently to inaugurate the grill this season with chicken kebabs and Peri Peri sauce, while I anticipate the Bloody Marys and mint lemonade becoming hallmarks of our summer. And just as the recipe for smoked paprika egg salad is my lunch dream come true, the prospect of warmer nights promises we’ll also be scooting back for dinner real soon.
Like many home cooks, when in doubt, I turn to Ina. From “my” signature mac n’ cheese to “my” trademark brussel sprouts, the foundation of many of the dishes in my rotation are found within the pages of her Barefoot Contessa Cookbooks. Even last night’s craving for a sweet butternut squash sans sugar was scrumptiously resolved with a dash of olive oil, salt, pepper and maple syrup via a frequent culinary Google search, “Ina Garten recipe for (fill in the blank).” Sometimes I follow the direction to the 1/2 tsp of salt and other times it is a method of preparation or squeeze of lemon that I borrow to inspire when my own creation is just missing something.
In her latest book Cooking for Jeffrey, Garten fills her devotees in on the relationship that has fortified her recipes and career. A culinary valentine, Garten writes about her husband Jeffrey’s early belief in her and his encouragement to follow her passion. Knowing firsthand what it feels like to be buoyed by a husband’s unwavering confidence and support, her words reminded me to count my blessings…and also to keep cooking for him. In full disclosure, I once again cried from a cookbook without even a chopped onion to blame, but true love is a trigger point for me.
The book’s skillet-roasted lemon chicken and tsimmes have both made their way to our table and the pumpkin flan will no doubt have a Thanksgiving debut.
With considerably less success, seeing that I almost poisoned Mike on my first attempt, I too began cooking as a young college graduate wishing to care for the person I loved, and I can count Ina Garten’s many books as guidance on my road to competence in the kitchen. Her recipes are usually simple in approach, but also flavorful and foolproof. But as I plan to attempt the chocolate creme brulee shared in her latest pages, operating a kitchen blow torch does give me pause. I hope that if he is running for the fire extinguisher, Mike once again remembers that it was made with love.
In order to curb my compulsion for carbs and brisket, I try to avoid meat and pasta during the week so that on weekends I can blissfully eat like I’m on death row. If health was not an issue, I’d enjoy a steak dinner every night with an appetizer of bolognese and I’d only scoop out a bagel if I could stuff it with pasta. But that sort of gluttony is apparently frowned upon.
Food Swings, Jessica Seinfeld’s latest cookbook is separated into “Virtues” and “Vice,” offering meal choices ranging from healthful to downright indulgent, depending on your mood or, in my case, day of the week. I wonder what it is says about someone when a cookbook makes them feel understood.
Nightly family dinners with our two boys feature wholesome ingredients and a variety of flavors and dishes, so cookbooks that include hearty vegetarian options, like Food Swings’ eggplant cauliflower meatballs and “Deceptively Delicious Tacos,” keep my whole family feeling satisfied with a single dish. Plus, those “almost vegan” tacos call for sour cream, which albeit accidentally, I once literally drank through a straw. I typically switch it out for greek yogurt, which tastes less like sadness than you’d expect, but if Jessica Seinfeld proposes the real deal in a virtuous recipe, I am obligated to follow direction.
As for vices, I spent the better part of an evening planning my Saturday morning cookoff, flipping back and forth between the cinnamon buns and the strawberry shortcake. The sweet and sticky ribs were obviously a given. Chocolate-popcorn-almond-clusters were a hit with the boys during a family movie night screening of “The Money Pit” (I want them to be cultured foodies) and strawberry buckle muffins are now officially in the repetoire.
The bottom line…As many of you know, I am constantly encouraging people to just cook if you want to cook! Don’t say you can’t because it’s not your thing. It’s not that deep! You don’t have to be a professional cook, the best cook or even a good cook. Just start somewhere. Follow solid recipes for those staple dishes that make people happy and you’ll learn. Have fun. Enjoy the process.
While there are plenty of recipes in Food Swings for those who already wow guests with their culinary creations (see key lime pie), this is also the perfect cookbook for easing yourself into the enjoyment of finding your happy place in the kitchen, no matter if you are hoping to nurture a family or nourish yourself. Seinfeld’s friend to friend style will give you a comfortable start. Basically, she keeps it real. Plus, she writes about her granny and you can imagine how I feel about that. Many of the recipes, like chicken parmesan and meatballs marinara, are personal takes on traditional dishes that may not be groundbreaking in menu, but are savory signatures for adding to your new epicurean resume. Then you can make me the pasta carbonara. Also the chocolate banana pudding. And the lasagna. But only if it’s the weekend.