A Fascination With Food
In early January, resolute people join gyms and begin diets. The holidays were fun, but now it’s time to pay the piper for all that sugar and alcohol.
What an odd time to find myself drawn to cookbooks. I admit that I’m a big fan of the genre and have more cookbooks on my shelves than anyone who has tasted my cooking would imagine.
I love the tempting pictures, but my greatest joy is reading the backstory of the recipes and why they are worth the time. All cookbooks are written with love and care, whether written by famous chefs or members of the Junior League, but all are not created equal.
One of my favorite books about cooking and eating is “The Art of Simple Food” by Alice Waters, a famous chef, organic food activist, and the author of numerous books. She owns Chez Panisse, a restaurant in Berkeley, California famous for its organic, locally grown ingredients. Waters writes:
Good cooking is no mystery. You don’t need years of culinary training,
or rare and costly foodstuffs, or an encyclopedic knowledge of world cuisines.
You need only your own five senses. You need good ingredients, too, of course,
but in order to choose and prepare them, you need to experience them fully.
It’s the many dimensions of sensual experience that make cooking so
satisfying. You never stop learning.
Tamar Adler learned well from Fisher about economy and ingenuity. She describes her weekly routine of visiting farmers’ markets to buy “the leafiest, stemmiest vegetables I can find. … I start cooking them as soon as possible after shopping, when the memory of the market’s sun and cheerful tents are still in mind.” Once prepared, the squashes, greens, and root vegetables form the basis of meals for a whole week.
She’s a big fan of using seasonal vegetables in salads, omelets, soups, or gratins. As their freshness wanes, she recommends making a curry. There are recipes in the book, but most of them simply say something like, “add 2 cups cooked vegetables.” Adler uses vinaigrette on salads, beans, and rice dishes. The recipe for basic vinaigrette is so simple that you will never buy bottled dressing again.
1 shallot, minced (if you have one but it’s fine without it)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, smashed (I use a garlic press.)
1/3 to 1/2 cup olive oil
Mix all but the olive oil and let sit for a minute. Mix in the oil.
“An Everlasting Meal” is filled with poetry and literature. I feel that I’m not reading a cookbook, but a fabulous lifestyle idea. Readers are encouraged to think of food preparation and consumption as a celebration. Ms. Adler playfully urges us not to take cooking too seriously when she names chapters “How to Boil Water” or “How to Snatch Victory from the Jaws of Defeat.” Whenever I reread her book, I feel confident that I can cook more intuitively and successfully.
For the past 25-plus years, I have lived a primarily vegetarian life. Some meat and fish are allowed into our diets, but we prefer vegetables. My favorite cookbooks are vegetarian. My earliest attempts at cooking were aided by Mollie Katzen and her charmingly illustrated books, “The Enchanted Broccoli Forest” and “Moosewood Cookbook.”
These days I like to consult “The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook” by America’s Test Kitchen. This book is a treasure-trove of hints and techniques. Each recipe starts with “Why This Recipe Works,” which explains the result of extensive research in the test kitchen. It’s easier to be inventive when you understand the basics of preparation.
A small book titled “Mezze” is another favorite of mine. Mezze dishes originate in North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean, and the Middle East. Comparable to Spanish tapas or Italian antipasti, mezze are small dishes served as appetizers or grouped together to form a meal for sharing. The recipes for hummus and eggplant dip are easy and delicious. There’s a carrot salad that looks sweet, but is quite savory thanks to cumin and turmeric. I love the oven roasted chile shrimp with its spicy juices for sopping with bread.
Today food blogs are very popular and number in the thousands. It’s not easy to separate the best from the mediocre, but here are a few that I enjoy:
My Paris Kitchen (davidlebovitz.com)
Cookie + Kate (cookieandkate.com)
101 Cookbooks (101cookbooks.com)
Sprouted Kitchen (sproutedkitchen.com)
The First Mess (thefirstmess.com)
I believe that preparing and consuming good, fresh food enhances our lives. Meals shared with friends and family offer great satisfaction and pleasure. All of our senses are engaged and our overall well-being is improved. I read cookbooks to become a more confident cook, not one ruled by recipes. I want to enjoy the preparation and sharing of meals with the people I love.
Our two local bookstores, Pass Christian Books (sponsor of this column!) and Bay Books, have a good selection of cookbooks for consideration. The Bay St. Louis Library and other branches of the Hancock County Library System have shelves filled with books about food.
Get out the knives, and shake those pots and pans.