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Perfumer Mandy Aftel now has a line of essential oils for her cooking. Credit: Copyright 2015 Emily Grosvenor

Mandy Aftel was well on her way to becoming America’s most highly regarded natural perfumer when she started using essential oils in cooking. She had a book out, “Essence and Alchemy,” and a line of beloved natural perfumes she made by hand in her studio. But while on book tour, she was encountering a troubling problem. She noticed that so many of the people she met said they hated perfume.

“As a perfumer, I wanted to be around people who cared about ingredients, and I found them in the food world,” she said. “For me it’s all about how stunning these aromas are and what you can do with them when you know how they work.”

Aftel, who lives directly behind Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, was no stranger to chefs obsessed with using only the finest quality whole ingredients. But what she needed was a chef who cared very much about aroma, and how it shapes how the mouth experiences food. She found that partner in Daniel Patterson, who has since become famous in his own right as a chef, food writer and primary proponent of California cuisine. Aftel took her traveling perfume organ — a suitcase of sorts in which she carries samples of the essential oils she uses in her studio — and shared them with him.

“He was knocked out, especially with the black pepper essence,” Aftel said.

Soon, Patterson began incorporating essential oils in his dishes. The two later collaborated on their first shared cookbook, “Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Food and Fragrance.” Since then, Aftel has worked with all manner of people in the food industry to develop aromas for food products based on real, natural essential oils and has become a steady proponent of their use in the home kitchen. More recently, she has developed her own line of essential oil sprays — edible essential oils in an alcohol spray mist — for use in restaurants and home cuisine.

The American food scene has welcomed her approach as a next step in the country’s move back to a more natural relationship with food. A long history exists of using essential oils with cooking. But as with perfume, at the beginning of the 20th century, consumers became enamored of the synthetics because they were cheaper. In the past, people were took active plant material and infused or they were using the essential oils directly. In her new book, “Fragrant,” Aftel has resurrected a number of recipes for staples such as ketchup, which relied heavily on essential oils, and has made the relationship between perfuming and food even more tangible.

“Daniel and I were real trailblazers, because the history had been lost,” Aftel said. “I think it’s so exciting, deeply exciting to have the essence of the plant. It offers insanely creative possibilities and can provide flavor that you really can’t arrive at any other way.”

Aftel discussed how one might go about using essential oils in the kitchen:

What essential oils are safe to ingest?

It’s pretty simple. You should always trust who is providing the oils themselves, but you can eat all of the oils listed on the FDA’s GRAS list (Generally Regarded As Safe).

Can you give me some examples of situations where the essential oil is preferable to the spice?

There’s really no heat in black pepper oil, for example, it’s all in the peppercorn itself. If you used a lot of black pepper to get that black pepper essence it would be way too hot. But if you use a drop of the oil it’s an amazing flavor unto itself. In the middle of winter you might want the flavor of basil, but you don’t want the texture of basil leaves and the ones in winter aren’t really that good anyway. So you use the oil, and just a drop. When you use these oils it’s like being the master of the universe to use just one drop and have the result be so aromatic and lovely.

Where does one begin? What’s a good way to start?

A very good dark chocolate, say 65% dark at least, and vanilla ice cream can be a great place to start. Here’s the pink pepper. The sprays are really idiot proof — they are drops within alcohol and very easy to use. Drops themselves are just so strong, so you might want to use the drops when you are cooking them into something. But if you’re just doing a finishing then I recommend the sprays. Things like rose essence, cinnamon and vanilla, violet, sarsaparilla, all go great with a good vanilla ice cream. Yellow mandarin, cardamom, great with chocolate. Pear and chocolate. Anything that is creamy and rich is a nice base upon which to start because they have their own vibrant character, but they can blend in. The naturals, for better or worse, don’t last. But then again, people are used to the olfactory equivalent of McDonald’s. If you can isolate the aroma and use it in something or another. I like to keep things as simple and beautiful as possible.

Do you think people really think that much about the quality of their spices?

People are very familiar with some spices, but when they became easy to get, the thing that made them so powerful and amazing became less appreciated. People will buy a giant container of cinnamon and then let it languish in their cupboard for years, not understanding that the thing about the cinnamon is slowly going away, its nature is gone. With oils, you can create your own flavor and retain what is so powerful about the natural ingredient. I think it’s a very creative process.

How do you use essential oils in your home cooking?

I love roasted Brussels sprouts. One of the things I’ve found about beef is it’s great with chocolate. It adds a richness to it, a new flavor. I also love roasted red and green peppers with basil oil. The licorice/anise aspect of it really gets out. Or Foster, my husband, will get a tomato soup and I’ll add a little cinnamon, kind of a Mediterranean mix. I love the experience of changing things just a smidge, it makes all of my food experiences very aromatic.

What about drinks?

Drinks are the bridges from perfume to food. I’m thinking a lot about this for my new book with Daniel Paterson. Coffee, tea, wine, alcohol, these are very aromatic experiences. Citrus rinds. When someone has a drink, they are also smelling it. It’s no fluke that the experience people most associate with drink is very aromatic and very convivial. I think the aromatic aspects of it are what make it so wonderful. People take a lot of liberty with experimenting with drinks, in a way they don’t always necessarily do with food. It’s a wonderful bridge toward learning.

Are the oils better than the spices?

The oils, when they are done well, allow you to appreciate the real identity of the spice. A lot of the oils don’t have the sharpness of the spices. When you use the essential oil, you are actually harnessing the best version of the spice and holding on to it. There’s this awful thing that happens when you have access to things because of our global world. They stop being prized. I don’t think luxury should be attached to status. I like to retool the relationships between things that being available and things being prized. I like to prize that experience and have it drop by drop.

Main photo: Perfumer Mandy Aftel now has a line of essential oils for her cooking. Credit: Copyright Emily Grosvenor

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Court Bouillon is tap water with a little bit of salt, peppercorn, sliced onion, parsley, bay leaf, sliced carrot and something acidic -- often lemon juice, but equally often white wine and occasionally vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

Culinary icon Anne Willan has just released “Secrets From the La Varenne Kitchen,” a brief compendium of “50 Essential Recipes Every Cook Needs To Know.” This amazing book includes the recipes that are the backbone course for professional chefs and that Willan’s legendary school Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris has been creating since 1975.

Among the dishes are fish aspic, exquisitely specific details on puff pastry and 10 types of sorbet. But one recipe caught my eye: Court Bouillon — or in rough English translation: “Quick Broth.” As a mom who doesn’t have the time for more intricate recipes and whose two young girls don’t have the palates for aspic yet, I liked the sound of that. I called Anne Willan to get her thoughts.


“Secrets From the La Varenne Kitchen”
By Anne Willan, Spring House Press, 2015, 133 pages
» Click here for a chance to win a free copy
» Click here to buy the book


“It’s very interesting that you’ve chosen court bouillon,” Willan said from her home in Santa Monica, California, “because it’s not something anybody thinks of using nowadays. It really is right in sync with contemporary cooking,” she continued. “It’s very useful because today people always want to cook things healthfully and simply.”

Willan’s definition of court bouillon is simple and clear: “It’s a meatless and fatless broth, so very simple, but something that just adds flavor to whatever’s cooked in it.” The recipe, which is included below, is easy, but I was hoping to get some insider secrets. Willan was happy to comply, although clearly none of this seemed like a big secret to her: “Thinly slice the carrots,” she told me, “so that they give up their flavor in 15 or 20 minutes. Slice the onions fairly thinly, but not to worry about it. The green herbs you just drop in, keep the stems, they have lots of taste.”

The real secret of court bouillon is properly pairing the food being cooked in the broth with a sympathetic acidic ingredient. Traditionally, the acid used in court bouillon would be vinegar, wine or lemon juice. Willan provided more nuanced distinctions: “For whitefish, I’d probably go for wine, because you don’t want too strong a flavor. For darker fish, possibly lemon juice or vinegar because it balances the stronger flavor of the fish.”

In traditional French cuisine, court bouillon is a liquid used for simmering, and then it’s tossed out. But as we discussed using the broth as a part of the meal, Willan became intrigued, because that’s simply part of her cooking ethos. “Never throw anything away,” she said. “When you’ve got lovely cooking liquid from something like a big salmon, do something with it — fish soup with the leftover.”

I could hear her brain begin to click as she explored the Culinary Thought Experiment: “The liquid will have acquired the flavor of what’s been cooking in it,” she said. “So what I would like to do is boil it down, and make a little sauce with it, mount it with butter or something.”

Then her brain went into high gear: “You could do lovely experiments with it. I certainly haven’t gone into it myself, but you could do an Asian court bouillon, or a hot court bouillon. You’d use chili peppers, wouldn’t you? It’s got to be something pure, hasn’t it?”

From the wisdom behind La Varenne

This was more intriguing than interview questions: Willan was asking and answering herself, giving me a view into a creative culinary mind that has long fascinated me as I’ve gobbled up her writings and her recipes from the classic “From My Château Kitchen” to her dish-y memoir “One Soufflé at a Time.” As she brainstormed the possibilities for court bouillon, her encyclopedic knowledge of cooking became clear, as did her passion for food and good eating.

“Perhaps I’d use coriander instead of parsley. And then, what would you use it for? If you push it a little bit, you could use it for a risotto or cooking quinoa. Or even grits or corn meal.”

By the time we were done, Willan had improvised a court bouillon for down-home Southern cooking and an Asian-influenced broth with the addition of soy sauce, cilantro and rice wine vinegar. She cautioned me against using too much chili pepper if I wanted to try a hot version because the flavor of the pepper would concentrate as the broth cooked down. It was an invigorating conversation — an insight into a culinary mind-set deeply rooted in the basics, but excited to jump in and experiment.

I love my copy of “Secrets from the La Varenne Kitchen,” and I intend to use it to build those basic skills that every cook needs to know — whether they’re a chef at a high-end restaurant or a mom with kids to feed. And court bouillon seems to be an inspired place for me to start. Check out the slideshow that includes Willan’s secrets and two dishes that riff on the recipe.

Court Bouillon

By Anne Willan, courtesy Spring House Press

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
Yield: 1 quart

Ingredients
1 quart water
1 carrot, sliced
1 small onion, sliced
1 bouquet garni
6 peppercorns
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup white wine or 1/3 cup vinegar or 1/4 cup lemon juice

Directions
1. Combine all the ingredients in a pan (not aluminum), cover and bring to a boil. Simmer uncovered 15 to 20 minutes and strain.

Main photo: Court Bouillon is tap water with a little bit of salt, peppercorn, sliced onion, parsley, bay leaf, sliced carrot and something acidic — often lemon juice, but equally often white wine and occasionally vinegar. Credit: Copyright 2015 Susan Lutz

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Nuala Cullen's herb-encrusted salmon is a show stopper for St. Patrick's Day, or any other day. Credit: Copyright 2015 Courtesy of Interlink Publishing Group Inc.

Corned beef and cabbage. Irish stew. Soda bread. These are the foods Americans associate with Irish cooking, especially on St Patrick’s Day. But while these dishes are certainly old favorites, they have little to do with modern Irish cooking.

According to Nuala Cullen, culinary historian and author of the new cookbook “The Best of Irish Country Cooking,” contemporary Irish cuisine is both a rediscovery of the country’s rich culinary heritage and a reflection of its international influences.

“Food was generally simple and used seasonal homegrown produce,” said the Dublin-based writer of her childhood in post-World War II Ireland. “Even in urban areas, many families grew potatoes and salad vegetables. Soups and homemade bread were common, and there was no such thing as preprepared food.”

Today the approach is much the same, but with a creative twist.

“The ‘new style’ of Irish cooking incorporates a lot of outside influences, such as Asian and Thai, as well as all sorts of ingredients from continental Europe,” Cullen said. “It is a merging of these ingredients with a pride in fresh, quality Irish products to produce something fresh and exciting.”

Visitors to Ireland these days are often surprised to discover that there’s more to eat than corned beef and potatoes. “Many tourists expect lots of ham, cabbage, potatoes and fried food,” Cullen said. Instead, they find wonderful Irish cheeses, butter, fresh seafood, meats and vegetables.

Forget the green beer

While no particular dish is traditional for St. Patrick’s Day, a roast dinner around the family table is the typical format.

“For many years pubs and bars were closed on the day, so celebrating was done in the home,” Cullen said. “Most families will have their favorite Sunday dinner. The appetizer can be a warming soup or smoked salmon. The entrée is often roast chicken, beef, turkey or salmon, usually served with roast or mashed potatoes and a green vegetable.”

And no, Cullen confirmed, they do not wash it all down with green beer.

"The Best of Irish Country Cooking" is Nuala Cullen's fourth Irish cookbook. Credit: Copyright 2015 Courtesy of Interlink Publishing Group, Inc.

“The Best of Irish Country Cooking” is Nuala Cullen’s fourth Irish cookbook. Credit: Copyright 2015 Courtesy of Interlink Publishing Group, Inc.

Although Cullen’s cookbook does include traditional favorites such as corned beef and Irish stew, most of its recipes showcase Ireland’s fresh seafood, meats and produce.

Baked salmon encrusted with herbs; crab soup with saffron; mussels with bacon and red wine; and ham wrapped in pastry are just some of the unexpected dishes featured in “The Best of Irish County Cooking.”

And if you still feel the need to consume something green on St. Patrick’s Day, there’s always Cullen’s brightly hued “spring green soup,” or cream-simmered peas with little gem lettuces.

Baked Salmon Encrusted With Herbs

For maximum effect and not too much effort, this baked salmon has it all. Ask your fishmonger to split your fish lengthwise into two long fillets. A 3-pound fish will be enough for six with side dishes. From “The Best of Irish County Cooking” (Interlink Publishing, March 2015)

Yield: 6 to 7 servings

Ingredients

1-inch cube of fresh ginger

6 canned anchovies, drained

8 tablespoons butter, divided

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley

3 tablespoons finely chopped scallions

Grated zest of 1 lemon

3 to 5 pounds salmon, filleted

¾ cup bread crumbs made from day-old bread

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the sauce

3 egg yolks

1 ¼ cups cream

5 to 6 sorrel leaves, ribs removed, leaves chopped

Grated zest of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon fresh chopped cilantro or parsley

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 325 F. Mash the ginger to a paste with the anchovies, 5 tablespoons of the butter, the parsley, scallions, and grated zest of half the lemon. Butter a sheet of parchment paper that will fit the salmon and use it to line a large baking sheet. Lay one salmon fillet on the paper, skin-side down, and spread with half the herb butter. Lay the other fillet on top, skin-side up, reversing the wide end over the narrow end of the bottom fillet. Spread the remaining herb butter on top. Cover the salmon with the bread crumbs, patting them down lightly, season well, and dot with the remaining butter.

2. Bake for 12 minutes per 1 pound of fish for smaller fish, but a 6- to 7-pound fish will not require more than an hour.

3. Meanwhile, make the sauce. Season the egg yolks with salt and pepper and beat them together. Bring the cream to a boil with the sorrel leaves and lemon zest and cook to reduce for a few moments. Cool slightly, then pour the cream mixture slowly into the yolks, stirring all the time. Return to the saucepan and over a low heat, cook, stirring continuously without allowing it to boil, until the sauce thickens slightly.

4. When the fish is cooked, use the parchment paper to lift the fish onto a heated serving dish and strain the buttery fish juices into the sauce. Add the cilantro or parsley and serve.

Note: If the sauce shows signs of becoming lumpy, scrape immediately into a blender and purée for a few seconds.

Main photo: Nuala Cullen’s herb-encrusted salmon is a show stopper for St. Patrick’s Day, or any other day. Credit: Copyright 2015 Courtesy of Interlink Publishing Group Inc. 

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Meyer Lemon Pizzelles From Bon Appétempt. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matthew Bookman

Photos of perfect-looking prepared food in glossy magazines used to make Amelia Morris mad — really mad. So in 2009 she decided to start a blog called Bon Appétempt to help beginners like her feel good about their cooking attempts, no matter how badly they turned out.

“I want to show what life is like for the rest of us: messy, poorly lit and falling well short of our aspirations,” she wrote in one of her first blog entries.


“Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (With Recipes!)”
By Amelia Morris, Grand Central Publishing, 2015, 320 pages
» Click here to buy the book


Bon Appétempt is a now an award-winning blog that features recipes Morris adapted from magazines, along with fun cooking videos shot by her husband, bits of food memories and photos of herself and her family — because, after all, food is all tied up with relationships: who you’re cooking with, and for, even if it’s just yourself on a lonely night.

This is abundantly clear in Morris’ new memoir — “Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (With Recipes!)” — where she traces her journey as a novice cook while navigating difficult relationships with her parents (her father hoped she’d become a wrestler), and trying to find herself as a writer.

Cooking to heal and celebrate

Through financial hardships, deaths of family members, a long-distance relationship, and then marriage and parenthood, Morris consistently turned to cooking to soothe hurts, celebrate happy gatherings and give herself a feeling of pride and success.

Amelia Morris, author of “Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (With Recipes!)”   Credit: Copyright 2015 Matthew Bookman

Amelia Morris, author of “Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (With Recipes!).” Credit: Copyright 2015 Matthew Bookman

Recipes that have given her comfort and joy, such as “My Mom’s Chicken Cordon Bleu” and “Simple Vanilla Cake With Dulce De Leche,” which she learned from a woman in Argentina, fill the pages.

Cooking as a creative activity is something Morris understands well, which is why she’s honest and even proud of her flops — each one made her a better cook.

“… [A]ll of these so-called failures taught me that though writers would like readers as much as chefs would like eaters, at the end of the day, if there are none of either to be found, we can continue creating anyway just to feed ourselves,” she writes.

I caught up with Morris to ask her to tell us more about her story. She happily shared a recipe for an Italian cookie called pizzelle that she adapted from the version her grandmother used to make (see below).

Q&A With Bon Appétempt’s Amelia Morris

It seemed that cooking sustained you through the trials of becoming a writer, is that correct?

It did — it helped me in a lot of ways. Working on a novel took a long time and was lonely work. It was nice to get away from computer and go make dinner. Cooking is a tangible thing; it feeds your family, it feeds yourself. It’s way to take care of yourself.

Can you describe one of your cooking failures?

There was one with fried chicken — I used a cookie sheet for the oil, so it dripped off the sides. People were coming over for dinner, so I jumped into the shower and my husband came in and said, “There’s black smoke coming out of the oven, I don’t know what to do!” All I could think of was the blog, so I said, “Can you get a picture of the black smoke?” It was comical! I did serve the chicken to our dinner guests, but it wasn’t great.

You tell the story of a fabulously ruined cake that you had planned to serve for Christmas.

Yes, the chocolate peppermint cake. It’s one of those things with baking — you think if you follow the rules and have the tools, you can do it! I set myself up for success. I started three days ahead and made all the components. I was so impressed with what I’d done — Matt took pictures of me putting it together. The cake was layers of ganache-cream-cake, ganache-cream-cake. But as I began to ice it, all the icing started to slide — and there was no stopping it! We started taking pictures of it — you can see the whole thing on the blog.

When did you cross the line as a cook and begin to really feel confident?

It took a really long time. Through the blog, people started coming to me with cooking questions and recipe tips, as if I was this knowledgeable cook, and I resisted it. But recently I realized — I am a decent cook. I don’t have formal training, I learned by just doing it. Seeing my grandma cook, I am sure I absorbed some basic knowledge.

Who are some of your favorite food-memoir writers?

Ruth Reichl was my introduction to food memoirs — I really love her writing. Also, M.F.K. Fisher‘s “How to Cook a Wolf” — I loved it from the minute I opened it up. I also love Molly Wizenberg’s books, and am inspired by “Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin.” He had a diner in Manhattan for a long time; he’s an interesting guy and his cookbook is really great.

Is there anything that still scares you, cooking-wise?

Yes! I’ve always wanted to grill a whole fish. That seems hard and scary, as well as cooking any big cuts of meat.

Meyer Lemon Pizzelle (Adapted From Food 52)

Prep time: About 25 minutes
Cook time: About 45 minutes
Total time: About 1 hour, 10 minutes
Yield: About 40 to 50 cookies*, depending on iron size
(*If you want to make a ton like Grandma did, you should double this recipe.)

Ingredients

1 2/3 cups granulated sugar

6 large eggs, room temperature

2 sticks of butter, melted and cooled plus more for brushing on the pizzelle iron

3 teaspoons vanilla extract

Zest of 2 to 3 Meyer lemons (If you can’t find Meyer lemons, substitute with regular lemons or oranges.)

4 cups all-purpose flour, spooned into measuring cup

4 teaspoons baking powder

Directions

1. Combine the sugar and eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat on medium speed for 1 to 2 minutes until well incorporated. The eggs must be at least room temperature.

2. Slowly drizzle the melted butter into the mixture, while mixing on medium speed. Add the extract then the zest.

3. On low speed, add the flour, 1/2 cup at a time, and the baking powder, one teaspoon at a time.

4. The batter should have a satin sheen to it, but should be light and stiff. If your batter is too liquid, add more flour, a tablespoon at a time until the batter is stiff.

5. I can’t speak for other pizzelle irons, but I have this one, and here is my advice for using it: Make sure the iron is super hot before beginning! Also, to avoid getting the batter stuck in the iron, I quickly brush all four sides of it with melted butter. Using a tablespoon scoop, place dollops of batter onto the iron. Close the iron tight and wait about 30 seconds before opening. Repeat 20 to 25 more times depending on iron size. Fresh, hot cookies can be rolled or shaped into cups, although I haven’t experimented with that yet. Next year!

Main photo: Meyer Lemon Pizzelles, hot off the press. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matthew Bookman

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Invented in 1922, blenders populated upwards of five million American kitchens by midcentury. Credit: iStock/Eva-Katalin

Blenders today are ubiquitous and taken for granted, but there was a time when these humble kitchen tools were central to aspirational American cooking — with one cookbook elevating the appliance to its proper place in the kitchen.

Ann Seranne, a lesser-known but prolific cookbook author, published “The Blender Cookbook” in 1961 with Eileen Gaden after they both left editorial positions at Gourmet Magazine to form a food consulting company. Inspired by their consulting for Waring, the first major American blender manufacturer, Seranne and Gaden began work on a blender cookbook. Invented in 1922 by Stephen Poplawski, blenders populated upwards of 5 million American kitchens by midcentury. In his musings on the appliance, however, Craig Claiborne of The New York Times bemoaned that the average housewife used her blender for little more than daiquiris and whiskey sours. At the same time, gourmands from Julia Child to Alice B. Toklas embraced the appliance’s abilities, even as they favored more traditional techniques.

Describing herself as “a devoted disciple of the electric blender,” Seranne assured readers that next to the stove and refrigerator, the blender was the kitchen’s most essential appliance, a “treasure” worthy of a permanent place on the kitchen counter. Wrapped up in both haute cuisine and convenience cooking, Seranne and Gaden brought this enthusiasm to home cooks with “The Blender Cookbook.” With dozens of black and white illustrations, the text features more than 500 recipes not only for dips, soups, sauces and drinks, but also for scrambled eggs, turkey stuffing, crab-and-macaroni casserole, meat loaf, beef Stroganoff, lamb curry, white-fish quenelles with sauce Normande, and fruit tarts.

In his initial review, titled “Blender Magic,” Claiborne honored Seranne’s contribution, asserting that the cookbook “fills a culinary void that has been apparent since the first blender was placed on the market nearly three decades ago.” Overall, he rated the cookbook as the “most comprehensive and imaginative and by all odds the best” among blender texts. Although Claiborne critiqued one of the recipes (a blended minestrone recipe that he quipped was simply “not minestrone”), he lauded Seranne’s hollandaise sauce. Easily whipped up in mere seconds with the blender’s aid, Claiborne proclaimed, “This alone should qualify her for some sort of gastronomic hall of fame.”

Far beyond a gimmicky contribution, “The Blender Cookbook” appeared in Claiborne’s round-up of the year’s best cookbooks, alongside seminal gastronomic tomes, such as the English translation of “Larousee Gastronomique,” “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (which he called “a masterpiece”), the newest edition of “The James Beard Cookbook,” and Claiborne’s own “The New York Times Cook Book.”

The 1960s cookbook boom

Among such esteemed company, “The Blender Cookbook” came into being during a meaningful culinary moment. In her Oct. 23, 1961, New York Times article, “Food: Cookbook Boom,” June Owen wrote that more cookbooks were to be published that year than ever before.

Nika Hazelton, a well-known cookbook author and food writer, echoed this sentiment, albeit more colorfully, in 1963, when she observed, “Americans are taking to cookbooks the way the Romans took to orgies.” Orgies aside, Owen situated cookbook publishing and sales within broader changes in American culture. She argued that etiquette rules, like those penned by Emily Post, which quieted discussions of cooking at the hostess’ table, had shifted. As Americans developed a “tremendous interest in food,” kitchen labors became a topic of newly suitable conversation over dinner.

In her analysis of these burgeoning food interests, Owen also engaged David Reisman, Nathan Galzer and Reuel Denney’s “The Lonely Crowd,” a sociological study, both landmark and contested, first published in 1950 and again in 1961, in the midst of this cookbook boom. Reisman traced growing interest in cooking to the rise of servant-less households among the middle class, which shifted the responsibility for cooking. He also cited the increasing abundance of food that made eating well an accessible luxury for more than just the supremely affluent. He argued, as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu also would, that under such conditions, food became a primary method for demonstrating taste and social status.

Cookbooks in midcentury America — focusing on desserts, eggs, ethnic cuisine or even blenders — served as both the means and symbols of this upward mobility. Or as Hazelton quipped on the price of cookbooks, “You’ve got to spend a little to build up your reputation as a gourmet, which appears to be the current ambition of every red-blooded American” — a sentiment not too far afield from today’s mainstreamed and seemingly ever increasing interest in food and cooking, sipping and tasting, cookbook buying and kitchen outfitting.

Ann Seranne, kitchen sorceress

Beyond the prominent position of “The Blender Cookbook” in the 1960s culinary canon, what do we know of the woman behind the blender? Originally from Canada, Ann Seranne came to the United States in the 1930s and worked her way to executive editor at Gourmet before she began her consulting partnership with Gaden in the mid-1950s. Throughout her career, Seranne published not just “The Blender Cookbook,” but more than two dozen cookbooks, including “Ann Seranne’s Good Food & How to Cook It,” “Good Food Without Meat,” “The Complete Book of Home Preserving” and “The Art of Egg Cookery.”

Claiborne wrote fondly of her in The New York Times, describing her as a tall (she was 5′ 8″), blond, handsome woman; “a born cook;” an indefatigable food consultant; and “a kitchen sorceress who would rather cook than eat.” His description of her 1963 cookbook, “The Complete Book of Desserts,” may have applied to her as well: “At once as down to earth as an apple fritter and as sophisticated as a cream-filled génoise.”

Impressive as they are, Seranne’s cookbooks were but one of her life’s accomplishments. She nurtured twin passions for cooking and breeding Yorkshire terriers, five of which shared her New York home and whose breeding line claimed more than 60 championships. Her canine brood supped on a ragout of beef, lamb shanks, parsley, carrots and garlic; garlic being her dogs’ most favored flavor. When famed dog show reporter Walter Fletcher purportedly asked Sarenne of the similarities between cooking and dog breeding, she replied, “Both contain equal parts science, art and luck.”

Main photo: Invented in 1922, blenders populated upwards of 5 million American kitchens by midcentury. Credit: iStock/Eva-Katalin

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Cherokee Purple heirloom tomato, named by Craig LeHoullier, author of

Gardening in winter hardly seems ideal to those of us in cold climates, but for Craig LeHoullier, the season of snow brings the first opportunity to plan his summer tomato crop. A tomato adviser for Seed Savers Exchange and author of the recently published book “Epic Tomatoes: How to Select & Grow the Best Varieties of All Time,” LeHoullier is an expert in the field, having developed, introduced and named almost 200 tomato varieties.

Over the past 30 years, LeHoullier has brought a number of heirloom tomato varieties back from the brink of extinction. Perhaps his most notable contribution is the Cherokee Purple, a tomato that came to him as an envelope of seeds sent by John D. Green and is now one of the most popular varieties in the Seed Exchange catalog.

LeHoullier’s love for heirloom tomatoes began as a hobby, but after retiring from his career as a chemist and project manager in the pharmaceutical industry in 2007, this passion blossomed into a second career. LeHoullier lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his wife, Susan, and is known within the heirloom tomato community as NCTomatoMan.

I caught up with LeHoullier before the launch of his book tour and got his advice on how to successfully grow heirloom tomatoes in my own backyard.

Winter gardening: prime time for research

LeHoullier says he gets about a monthlong break between digging up the last of his dead tomato plants each fall and the appearance of the first seed catalogs, when the real work of planning the garden begins. This lull in the action is prime time for research. Online sites such as Dave’s Garden, Tomatoville and GardenWeb can provide a good starting point for new gardeners. LeHoullier recommends searching for “garden discussion groups,” “tomato discussion groups” and “top 10 tomatoes” to begin your reading.

Craig LeHoullier, author of "Epic Tomatoes," holds a Cherokee Purple tomato.  Credit: Susan Lutz

Craig LeHoullier, author of “Epic Tomatoes,” holds a Cherokee Purple tomato. Credit: Susan Lutz

Determine your gardening goals

LeHoullier points out that gardening is a personal experience and that “Each one of us will choose how much of our lives we’ll pour into it.” Growing great tomatoes requires figuring out what kind of gardener you are — or would like to be.

LeHoullier suggests that you think about what you want to get out of your tomato garden. Before you place your seed order, consider whether you want to garden because you want to grow food; because it’s a good hobby to work off a few extra pounds; or because you want to use it as a teaching tool for your friends, family or children.

Ask yourself: Do I want a high yield? Am I looking for huge tomatoes to impress my friends? Do I want an incredible flavor experience? Or do I want to grow something that I’ve never seen before? The answer to these questions will help you focus your research on the tomato varieties that suit your gardening goals.

Figure out what kind of tomatoes you like to eat

Tomatoes come in a wide variety of colors, flavors and sizes. Most of us have not tried many of the thousands of tomato varieties that exist in the world. LeHoullier believes that the best way to know which tomatoes you should grow is to decide which tomatoes you’d like to eat. Visit farmers markets and stores such as Whole Foods to try tomato varieties you’ve never eaten and notice which flavor profiles excite you.

Get to know your gardening climate

Epic Tomatoes

Understanding your growing season is crucial. If you live in a warm climate where summer lasts more than 150 days, then the maturity date doesn’t matter much. But if you’re in a colder climate, pay close attention to the maturity date of the tomatoes you want to grow. Talk to friends in your neighborhood who are avid gardeners and vendors at local farmers markets to see which tomato varieties grow best for them.

Seeds vs. seedlings

LeHoullier says that “At a basic level, people will want to understand that growing tomatoes from seed opens up the world for you to try different colors, sizes and shapes.” That said, starting tomatoes from seeds can be a tricky proposition. Consider your capabilities and experience with growing tomatoes from seed. If your tolerance for failure is low, begin by planting seedlings.

Hybrids vs. heirlooms

Although LeHoullier says he “won’t make the blanket statement that some make that heirlooms are always more disease susceptible and difficult to grow than hybrids,” he does allow that heirlooms can be finicky and that “every tomato — including the hybrid varieties — has its own personality and foibles.”

Start small (Do as I say, not as I do.)

After you’ve familiarized yourself with the seemingly endless choices in the tomato world, it’s time to get planting. Showing restraint is key, especially for new gardeners.

Raising thousands of tomato varieties isn’t for everyone. (Or in fact, for most people.) LeHoullier cautions new growers to start small, in spite of the fact that he has a huge and ever-growing tomato collection. LeHoullier identifies himself as a “hobby collector” — he’s into beer brewing, roasting his own coffee, bird watching, kayaking, and has countless other hobbies in addition to what he calls “the tomato thing.” He describes himself as a “seeker who is never satisfied.” It is this tendency that has led LeHoullier to raise a collection of tomatoes that now hits the 3,000 mark.

One reason that LeHoullier’s collection has grown so large is that he has inherited the collections of gardeners who have become overwhelmed. “People send me entire collections because they can’t take care of them.”

Disappointment is an opportunity for learning

A scientist by training and experience, LeHoullier sees gardening as “an exciting hobby to learn stuff” and reminds us that “Each year, X number of plants are gonna die. Critters are gonna eat another bunch of plants, but that’s great because we learn from it and the next year we try different things to avoid that problem, knowing that other problems will arise.”

The bottom line

LeHoullier asserts some basic goals: Do a lot of searching. Ask a lot of questions. Make an accurate assessment of your interest level. Taste every tomato you can get your hands on. Recognize that there aren’t a lot of hard and fast answers to gardening questions. There are just, as LeHoullier says, “an infinite number of variables for every act a gardener takes.”

Perhaps most important, LeHoullier cheers us on in our tomato-growing efforts by reminding us that, “If you can find them, and buy them, and taste them, and like them, there’s no reason you can’t grow them.”

Main photo: Cherokee Purple heirloom tomato, named by Craig LeHoullier, author of “Epic Tomatoes.” Credit: Susan Lutz

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Julia Child, Craig Claiborne and James Beard were among Hazelton’s recommended cookbook authors. Credit: Emily Contois

People buy cookbooks for a variety of reasons: to inspire, impress, beautify, edify and love. For famed cookbook author and food writer, Nika (Standen) Hazelton, however, there was only one reason to purchase a cookbook: to cook from it.

The daughter of a German diplomat, Hazelton was born and grew up in Rome. In addition to international travels with her father, she attended the London School of Economics and worked as a reporter in Europe, before marrying and moving to the United States in 1940.

It was stateside that her cookbook-writing career took off. Esteemed as a specialist of European cookery, she penned cookbooks dedicated to the cuisines of Scandinavia, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, France, Denmark and Germany. At the time of Hazelton’s death in 1992, Molly O’Neill, food columnist for The New York Times Magazine, declared Hazelton’s “American Home Cooking” (Bobbs Merrill, 1967), “French Home Cooking” (Viking Penguin, 1979), “International Cookbook” (Harper & Row, 1967) and “The Italian Cookbook” (Henry Holt, 1979) standards. Hazelton published 30 cookbooks throughout her career and wrote countless articles for major food magazines and newspapers. No title better communicates her unwaveringly simple, straightforward and unpretentious perspective on food and cooking, however, than her 1974 cookbook, “I Cook As I Please.”

Conceding her “literal mindedness,” Hazelton laid out in a 1963 article in “The New York Times” exactly how one might judge a cookbook to determine whether it is not just delightfully escapist, politically radical or aesthetically pleasing, but well and simply good. Hazelton’s advice rings as true today as it did in the 1960s, at least if you are shopping for a cookbook that aligns with her functional, no-nonsense approach.

Accuracy and clarity

For Hazelton, “Accuracy is the first virtue when writing about cooking.” Recipes ought to list all ingredients at the beginning of the recipe and with accurate measurements. Authors who arrange ingredients “more coyly” do readers a disservice as they forsake clarity. Directions ought to be lucidly written, one step at a time, and in order. If recipes include misspellings or confusing instructions, beware, as these reflect poorly on the author.

Specificity

Well-written recipes notify the reader of specific details, such as the type of pan, the size of baking dish or whether a dish should be cooked covered or not. Such specifics indicate the thoroughness of the recipe writer’s testing process. A lack of specifics, on the other hand, can reveal a writer’s laziness, an unforgivable failing according to Hazelton.

Reliability

Recipes ought to turn out if followed correctly and, equally important, to work every time. Since reliability is impossible to blindly predict, Hazelton recommended purchasing cookbooks from only respected authors and publishers, remarking, “Few newcomers to cookbook writing do reliable recipes.”

Character

Hazelton not only firmly asserted that a recipe “should be correct and the best of its kind,” but also that it ought to “promote the cause of good food and not of brand names.” Further condemning the likes of packaged-food cuisine and back-of-the-box recipes, Hazelton believed, “Commercial recipes, however splendid, belong to advertising and publicity.”

Authenticity

Writing in 1963, Hazelton lamented, “Really authentic and first-class foreign cookbooks are few and far between,” as recipes were often revised for American styles, tastes and measurements, losing their magic along the way. Good cookbooks of this sort require time and investment to retest the recipes, but are worth it, processes with which Hazelton had significant experience.

With these strict criteria, Hazelton recommended an elite group of reliable authors. She “saluted” Craig Claiborne, James Beard, Julia Child, Paula Peck, Helen Evans Brown, Dione Lucas, the Chamberlains, Ann Seranne, Marian Tracy, June Platt and John Gould. She also cited the editors of the McCall’s, Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping cookbooks, reasoning that their quality was “reliable if not always inspired, because the editors know their business can’t afford to make their readers mad with poorly done work.”

Main photo: Julia Child, Craig Claiborne and James Beard were among Hazelton’s recommended cookbook authors. Credit: Emily Contois

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After spending the summer learning some of the ins and outs of foraging, I was delighted to find a new cookbook dedicated to my all-time favorite foraged food: earthy, meaty mushrooms. Written by Becky Selengut, a Seattle chef, author, teacher, humorist and forager, “Shroom: Mind-bendingly Good Recipes for Cultivated and Wild Mushrooms” provides a detailed yet fun-filled look at 15 wild and cultivated mushrooms and how to select, store, clean, prepare and pair each.

On a recent trip to Seattle, I caught up with Selengut at Bedlam Coffee, where we chatted about food, cooking, writing and, of course, mushrooms.

A native of New Jersey, Selengut’s infatuation with fungi began in childhood, when she tinkered with cooking white button mushrooms at home and indulged in stuffed mushrooms with her family at the Basque restaurant Jai Alai in Dover, N.J.

A post-college move to Seattle and her first morel and porcini hunt, led by friend and author Langdon Cook, turned her crush into a full-blown love affair.

“It wasn’t great porcini hunting that day, but he told me how to spot them, just coming up through the duff, and, well, I had beginner’s luck and kicked at the dirt and I found the only ones we saw that day,” Selengut said.

Thrill to unearthing treasure

As Selengut can attest, there is a unique thrill to unearthing one of nature’s edible treasures. An even greater rush occurs when you slip into the kitchen to cook your wild, hand-plucked bounty. But what if you’re a newcomer to mushrooms and unsure how to properly prepare this delicacy?

Realizing that bad recipes and poor cooking techniques have thwarted many prospective mycology fans, Selengut leads “Shroom” readers through basic recipes, storage advice and cleaning tips for mushrooms. She also provides links to handy how-to videos she has filmed. Thanks to her thoroughness and approachability, even the greenest cook can step into the kitchen with confidence and create a scrumptious mushroom dish.

Selengut arranges each chapter of “Shroom” from the simplest to the most difficult recipes. Her first two offerings speak to novice or time-pressed cooks. Perfect for those craving easy dinners ready in 45 minutes or less, they include such flavorful specialties as oyster mushroom ragout and Sweet Potato Soup With Lime Leaves, Beach Mushrooms, Basil and Peanuts (see recipe below).

Meals requiring multiple techniques and exotic ingredients are classified as intermediate recipes. With these, readers learn how to whip up Roasted Portobello Tacos With Cacao-Chili Sauce and Cabbage and Lime Slaw; cheese and fig-stuffed morels; and pickled chanterelles. In every chapter, Selengut provides two intermediate dishes.

The remaining fare in “Shroom” speaks to adventurous and skilled home cooks as well as professional chefs. Sauces, meats and sides factor into these preparations. Savory entrees such as Hanger Steak With Porcini, Blue Cheese Butter and Truffled Sweet Potato Frites and Black Trumpet Mushroom Tarts with Camembert, Leeks and Port-Soaked Cherries are part of this advanced category. Although more challenging and time consuming than earlier recipes, these courses remain accessible and delicious.

“My favorite way to prepare mushrooms flavor-wise would be over a live fire — cast-iron skillet on the grill, lid down to capture the wood smoke — or in a wood-burning oven. My favorite way to prepare mushrooms efficiency-wise is to spread them out on a sheet pan and roast them in a hot oven, at least 400 degrees, with a little oil, salt and pepper,” Selengut said.

Countless dishes around the world

In “Shroom” Selengut points out that whether they star or play a supporting role, mushrooms appear in countless dishes around the world. This global presence flavors much of her vibrant book. Vietnamese báhn xèo, Indian tandoori, Italian acquacotta and Japanese chawanmushi all find their way into the cookbook.

So, too, do a variety of wild and farmed mushrooms. Along with the tried and true Portobello, cremini and button, the petite beech, spiky lion’s mane and reddish-orange lobster receive their due.

Among all the uncultivated mushrooms found in the Pacific Northwest and in her book, Selengut singles out the black trumpet mushroom as her favorite. “It’s naturally smoky, earthy and just a little fruity — buckets of flavor and umami. It smells like the sexiest forest imaginable. Favorite cultivated is a tie between maitake and shiitake, both extremely flavorful despite being farmed and lots of promising research about health properties, specifically in preventing and treating cancer,” she said.

Don’t despair if your local market doesn’t stock black trumpet, maitake or even shiitake. For every mushroom featured in “Shroom,” Selengut offers substitutions.

Whether you’re a neophyte or longtime mushroom consumer, you’ll want to check out “Shroom” for its informative and lively look at selecting, cooking and enjoying this fabulous food.

Sweet Potato Soup With Lime Leaves, Beech Mushrooms, Basil and Peanuts

Sweet Potato Soup With Lime Leaves, Beech Mushrooms, Basil, and Peanuts. Credit: Clare Barboza

Sweet Potato Soup With Lime Leaves, Beech Mushrooms, Basil and Peanuts. Credit: Clare Barboza

Recipe from “Shroom” provided by Becky Selengut. The beech mushrooms are less the star here and more of a textural element used as a garnish. Because of this, it’s extra important to use homemade mushroom stock to highlight the mushroom flavor. This soup started in my mind’s eye somewhere in Thailand (lime leaves, basil) and then — somewhat inexplicably — migrated to West Africa (sweet potatoes, peanuts). This is the perfect kind of soup to serve when it’s raining, you’re snuggled up on the couch with a blanket, a fire is lit, Thai music is playing and a zebra is running through your living room.

Prep Time: about 10 minutes (if not making mushroom stock from scratch)

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour

Yield: 4 servings

Wine pairing: French Riesling

Ingredients

3 tablespoons coconut oil, divided

1 small yellow onion, small diced (about 1 cup)

¾ teaspoon fine sea salt, divided

2 pounds orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, peeled and large diced

5 lime leaves (substitute 1 teaspoon finely grated lime zest)

¼ cup white wine

5 cups mushroom stock (see recipe below)

1 tablespoon seasoned rice wine vinegar, plus more as needed

1 tablespoon fish sauce

7 ounces beech mushrooms, base trimmed and broken apart into bite-size clumps

½ cup lightly packed fresh Thai basil

⅓ cup roasted, salted peanuts, chopped

Chili oil (see recipe below) or store-bought Asian chili oil, for garnish

Directions

1. In a soup pot over medium-high heat, melt 1½ tablespoons of the coconut oil. After a moment, add the onion and ¼ teaspoon of the salt and sauté for 10 minutes, until starting to brown. Add the sweet potatoes and lime leaves. Sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, then turn the heat to high, add the wine, and deglaze the pan, scraping up any brown bits. Add the stock, bring to a boil and then lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook until the sweet potato cubes are tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

2. Add the rice wine vinegar. Remove the lime leaves. Puree the soup in a blender until very smooth, or puree in the pan using an immersion blender. Season with the fish sauce, another ¼ teaspoon salt and more rice wine vinegar. If you feel it needs more salt, add more fish sauce (a little at a time). Keep tasting until it’s right for you.

3. Meanwhile, prepare the beech mushroom mixture. In a large sauté pan over high heat, melt the remaining 1½ tablespoons of coconut oil. After a moment, add the mushrooms and the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt. Toss the mushrooms around in the oil, and then spread them out. The idea is to get them to release their liquid and brown quickly. When they brown, stir in the basil and peanuts and transfer to a small bowl.

4. Serve the soup in wide bowls, garnished with the mushroom mixture and drizzled with chili oil.

Mushroom Stock

From “Shroom: Mind-bendingly Good Recipes for Cultivated and Wild Mushrooms” by Becky Selengut.

You won’t be sorry you took the time to make your own. As you cook and are busy prepping vegetables and such — carrots, celery, onions, mushrooms, parsley, thyme — save the trimmings instead of tossing or composting them.  (Skip vegetables such as kale, cabbage, broccoli or anything with a dominating flavor or color that you wouldn’t want in a mushroom stock — no beets!)

To make the stock, add these vegetable scraps to a quart-size resealable plastic bag that lives in the freezer. When the bag is full, you are ready to make your stock. At the market, pick up a small onion, a handful of fresh shiitake mushrooms and some dried porcini. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Drizzle a little high-heat oil on a rimmed baking pan. Throw the shiitakes, along with the chopped-up onion, onto the pan, and toss with the oil. Roast until caramelized, about 20 minutes. Deglaze the pan with a little wine or water, scraping up any brown bits stuck to the pan. Dump the mushrooms and onions, along with the liquid, into a stockpot along with the contents of that freezer bag (no need to thaw) and a few rehydrated pieces of dried porcini (along with the strained soaking liquid). Cover with 3 quarts water, chuck in about 5 peppercorns, bring to a boil, lower to a simmer, and cook, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Pour the contents of the pot through a fine-mesh strainer set over a large bowl, pressing on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. You should end up with about 2 quarts mushroom stock.

Want to make vegetable stock? Do the same thing, but just use fewer mushrooms and more vegetables (and a big flavor bonus if you roast some of the vegetables as you would the shiitake and onion). If you want to make mushroom stock but don’t have a full bag of trimmings in the freezer, just use an assortment of vegetables and mushrooms (equaling roughly 1 quart) and follow the same general procedure. See the video on making mushroom stock at www.shroomthecookbook.com.

Chili-Peanut Oil

From “Shroom: Mind-bendingly Good Recipes for Cultivated and Wild Mushrooms” by Becky Selengut.

You can find many varieties of bottled chili oil in Asian markets or online, but it’s ridiculously easy to make a batch from scratch and store it in your fridge. Plus, your homemade oil contains none of the additives and preservatives that are commonly added to the bottled versions. To make your own, in a small saucepan set over medium heat, combine 1 cup peanut or coconut oil, along with 3 to 5 tablespoons red pepper flakes (see note). (The quantity will depend on how hot you want the oil to be.) Heat the oil to 300 F on an instant-read thermometer. Remove the pan from the heat and try not to breathe in the fumes!

Let the oil cool to 250 F, and then add 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil and 2 tablespoons minced, roasted, unsalted peanuts. Transfer to a clean glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Add 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon sugar. Seal the jar, shake it a few times to distribute the ingredients and leave at room temperature for 2 days. Refrigerate. It will keep for at least 1 month, if not longer, in the fridge.

Note: You can purchase whole dried chiles, toast them in a dry pan until flexible and fragrant, and then pulse them in the food processor, or just use regular bottled red pepper flakes.

Main photo: “Shroom” is written by chef Becky Selengut. Credit: Book cover photo by Clare Barboza; Selengut photo by Greg Mennegar

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