How To Let Cookbooks’ Seduction Guide You

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in: Vegetables w/recipe

Carrot and split pea soup with toasted cumin. Credit: Barbara Haber

I read somewhere that people generally use only two or three recipes from each of their cookbooks, and realized this was true for me, so I began to wonder why we select the ones we do from the vast numbers of recipes that are available.

For answers, I took a look at my own preferences, and while I make no claim to speak for anyone else, I will describe why certain recipes appeal to me. I sometimes come across a recipe that becomes a favorite when I am searching for ways to use up ingredients.

For instance, I had on hand eggs nearing their expiration date and a surplus of corn on the cob. I went through a few cookbooks and soon found a tempting recipe for fritters that called for eggs, lots of corn kernels and, happily, not much flour. This has become a standard dish in my house. But while I appreciate practical reasons for favoring recipes, I am more intrigued when I randomly come across a description of a dish I find so compelling that I must try the recipe as soon as possible or else I will obsess about it.

I should say right off that for me, and for other food lovers I am sure, reading a recipe is comparable to sight-reading by a musician. Just as an orchestra conductor can hear the music in his head by following the notes on a score, I can almost taste a dish by reading the ingredients and cooking instructions. Therefore, reading cookbooks has become an enjoyable pastime for me and maybe even adventurous because I never know when I will stumble into my next great find.

My latest discovery comes from Michael Romano’s “Family Table,” a cookbook focusing on the family-style meals prepared for restaurant staff that is filled with down-to-earth recipes. Among them is blue smoke oatmeal cookies. You may wonder what could be so special about an oatmeal cookie, that old standby that can be mealy and taste more healthy than delectable. But, this recipe includes some crushed cornflakes and coconut — not too much — so that the texture and flavor of this oatmeal cookie surpassed any I had tasted.

A well-written split pea soup recipe

I am often attracted to a recipe because of its use of a favorite seasoning not found in standard versions of the dish. Dried split pea soup recipes always struck me as pretty much alike until I came across one in the cookbook “Season to Taste,” which calls for lots of sliced carrots and roasted cumin, a flavor I love. The result is so good than whenever I serve this soup to guests I am bombarded with requests for the recipe.

I also find myself seduced by claims made by cookbook writers. For example, Madhur Jaffrey has a recipe for crisply fried onions that are slowly cooked and then stored in a jar in the refrigerator to use as toppings for a variety of dishes.

“It’s like money in the bank,” she promises, and she is right. Her words ring in my ears not only when I make those onions but when I cook and freeze the thick soups I prepare each winter and pull out to serve on cold nights.

James Beard’s work is also full of opinions and advice. In one of his books he counsels us to always have on hand a roasted chicken because then you will be prepared for many occasions. I listened to him and find that in the summer I can pull off a great salad at the last minute, and, at any time, have available the fixings for sandwiches, stir-fries, hash or my latest favorite, chunks of cooked chicken warmed in a curry sauce and served over naan instead of rice.

I sometimes find irresistible comments made in a cookbook writer’s head notes. In “Flour,” Joanne Chang says about a recipe for a multigrain bread she learned from a bread-baker, “If I had to pick one recipe that I am most grateful for, it would be this one.” Finding such a recommendation pretty compelling, I immediately tried the recipe and understand why it deserves Chang’s rave.

Cookbooks by Nigel Slater. Credit: Barbara Haber

Cookbooks by Nigel Slater. Credit: Barbara Haber

But a writer’s high opinion of a recipe I follow does not always lead to a good result. On the lookout for a definitive biscotti, I came across one whose author claims “these are hard, crisp, full of roast-almond flavor, and addictive for either dunking or munching.” They were so hard I wound up breaking a tooth and sitting in the chair of a dentist for a root canal. I should have dunked, and not munched.

Garden inspiration in the depths of winter

These days I am under the spell of Nigel Slater, the gifted British writer whose recipes are elegant and simple. “Tender,” a book about how he uses the produce from his backyard vegetable garden, is my current favorite, perhaps because we share an enthusiasm for growing and eating potatoes. But I also am drawn to his stylish writing and wit. In flipping a pan-sized potato pancake he instructs, “I find doing this with one positive movement and no dithering tends not to end in tears.”

And in “Áppetite,” a book I ordered from a dealer in England, he talks about why we should cook even though it creates a mess and takes up time. He says that if you decide to go through life without cooking “you are losing out on one of the greatest pleasures you can have with your clothes on.”

Carrot and Split Pea Soup With Toasted Cumin

(Adapted from “Season to Taste” by Jeannette Ferrary and Louise Fiszer)

Serves 6

Ingredients

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 small onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

2 celery stalks and leaves, chopped

2 teaspoons cumin seed, roasted and ground

1 pound carrots, cleaned and sliced thin

6 cups chicken broth

1 cup dried green split peas

Salt and pepper

Directions

1. In a large saucepan, heat oil. Sauté onion, garlic, and celery about 5 minutes.

2. Add cumin and carrots and cook for 2 minutes.

3. Add stock, bring to a boil, and add split peas. Simmer partially covered, for about 45 minutes or until peas are very tender.

4. In a food processor or blender, purée 2 cups of soup mixture, leaving the rest in the pot.

5. Return purée to pot, taste for salt and pepper, and serve.

Note: If soup has thickened too much before serving, thin with stock or water.

Top photo: Carrot and split pea soup with toasted cumin. Credit: Barbara Haber


Zester Daily contributor Barbara Haber is an author, food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, was elected to the James Beard Foundation's "Who's Who of Food and Beverage" and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d'Escoffier.

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Comments

Sonya
on: 1/14/14
What an intriguing subject! I too, love to ponder this one. I am very detail and project oriented, as well as being a minimalist, so I've been cooking my way through my cookbooks and (mostly) not looking elsewhere, and I only have 6 cookbooks and maybe a dozen magazines. My goal is to cook nearly every recipe in them - they're all quite good books - and I'm about half way through. But I'm always super curious about other people's relationships with their cookbooks, and I enjoyed this article thoroughly.
Barbara Haber
on: 1/16/14
Sonya - I am, of course, wondering about the titles of your six cookbooks and hope you are having a good time as you cook your way through them.
Julia della Croce
on: 2/12/14
Thanks for this, Barbara. I've so often contemplated the question myself. And I can't think of anything I want to try more on this frigid NY day--you reminded me that I love pea soup.
Barbara Haber
on: 2/13/14
Hi Julia - I hope you try the dish since I think you will enjoy it. I have always found mysterious why some recipes jump out at me while I skip over others. I also wonder if I went through old favorite cookbooks I would select differently, since I know that our tastes change.

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