I do not much care for celebrity chefs, their cooking shows or their glossy coffee-table books. John Besh, for those who have never watched the Food Network, “Iron Chef America” or “Top Chef Masters,” is a wildly successful chef and entrepreneur who owns a burgeoning restaurant empire and has won just about every food/chef award that exists.
So how did I fall for his glossy, large-format, new cookbook, “My Family Table: A Passionate Plea for Home Cooking?”
In a reversal of the usual “can’t judge a book by its cover” aphorism, this one’s Norman Rockwellian cover photo of a dimpled dad cooking with his two tow-headed son disguises what’s inside: a solid, practical collection of simple recipes, well-larded with personal history and strategy tips. It’s well-written and timely for anyone pressed for time And isn’t that pretty much all of us?
Besh begins by admitting that a passionate plea for home cooking coming from a person who makes his living by serving people who dine out may seem disingenuous. But he quickly settles any doubt about his motives by boldly stating: “Today a terrifying wasteland of food options lurks between our kitchen stoves and our favorite restaurants. The packaged foods we use are loaded with salt and sugar … our meat is shot up with hormones and antibiotics, our produce is sprayed with God-knows-what, and fast food options are the devil’s work.”
His sentiments echo those of the Slow Food movement, emphasizing the importance of cooking with seasonal and local produce, eating with family and friends, and eschewing processed foods, the kind Michael Pollan calls “edible foodlike substances.”
An inspiring conversation at home
But Besh’s reasons for writing this book turn out to be more personal than political. He explains that when he questioned his wife Jenifer (a lawyer and mother of their four boys) about the quality of food she was feeding the kids, she shot back that if he was half as concerned about feeding the family as he was about serving diners at his restaurants, he’d come up with recipes that are quick and easy to prepare, and things kids will actually eat.
Chastened, Besh thought long and hard about the problems busy people face when they want to cook healthy, delicious meals for themselves and their families. The results of his thinking are the recipes and strategies in this book, ranging from the super kid-friendly “Heat & Serve Chili,” “Sloppy Joe Sliders,” “Hearty Baked Pasta” and “Cauliflower Mac & Cheese” to family favorites such as “Perfect Mashed Potatoes,” “Sweet Corn Pudding,” “Braised Beef Short Ribs” and “Hummingbird Cake.”
But before launching into the recipes, Besh says that good home cooking, just like good restaurant cooking, needs two things: the best ingredients and planning ahead. By this he means stock your pantry. His own pantry is rather idiosyncratic, combining basics like pasta, Arborio rice, and olive oil, with more unusual items like harissa, pepper jelly, and pimenton (smoked paprika).
Once you stock your pantry and refrigerator with a few basics, you are ready to do reality-based home-cooking without worrying about buying specialty ingredients or mastering complicated techniques. In fact, with good basic ingredients and minimal planning, you can make great meals at a moment’s notice — and here’s where Besh’s book really shines.
I knew I was truly in love with this book when I browsed Besh’s “anything” recipes in the first chapter: “Risotto of Almost Anything,” “Creamy Any Vegetable Soup,” “Curried Anything” and “Warm Any Fruit Crumble.” This is not fetishized-ingredient, spectator-sport cooking, but open-your-fridge-and-make-a-great-meal-with-what’s-there cooking.
And it’s not just the first chapter that’s a winner. Other chapters chock full of great recipes and strategies, include: “Sunday Supper,” “School Nights,” “Breakfast With My Boys,” “Barbeque Wisdom” and “Fried Chicken (& Other Classics).” That fried chicken chapter is particularly good, drawing upon Besh’s Southern heritage and giving us not only his grandma’s recipe for fried chicken, but that of Miss Ruth, the woman who worked for his grandparents, and whom Besh clearly loved and admired. He writes: “She wouldn’t measure much or worry about temperatures, she just knew. She could tell when the oil was ready because she’d float a match in it and wait for the match to ignite before she started cooking. Apparently, those white-tip matches will light up at around 350 F.” He then adds (or perhaps his publisher’s lawyers told him to add): “I don’t recommend this method!”
Home cooking for love and for money
Putting the lie to the recent kerfuffle in the Slow Food movement about whether you can properly pay the farmer who grows good food and have affordable food, Besh shows how with one chicken, one pork shoulder or one pound of black eyed peas, you can feed a family for many days — and you can feed them meals that are less expensive and more nutritious than processed food or fast food.
For example, Besh says if you’re going to roast one chicken, you may as well roast two, and then use every part of the birds in great meals over the coming week. Use the meat for quick and easy Asian chicken salad with cabbage and noodles, or wraps, or pasta, and use the bones for stock for soup and other dishes. Similarly, Besh calls Sunday beef or pork roasts “money in the bank.” The leftovers are perfect for easy meals of pasta, soups, salads and sandwiches the rest of the week.
As if writing cookbooks and running seven restaurants and keeping up with his family is not enough, Besh also oversees the John Besh Foundation, which provides micro-loans to farmers. For minority students wanting to enter the restaurant industry, the foundation provides full scholarships to the French Culinary Institute plus a mentor, and a paid eight-week internship with a Besh Restaurant Group restaurant after school.
After reading “My Family Table,” I returned to the cover and saw it not as Rockwellian nostalgia for a bygone era, but as a picture of the kind of simple, mystique-free cooking that will lure a new generation into the kitchen. And when I returned to the dedication, this time I believed it. This is not just another famous chef’s “Hey look at my cooking-at-home book,” but a book that really is dedicated to his family and your family too.
Terra Brockman is an author, a speaker and a fourth-generation farmer from central Illinois. Her latest book, “The Seasons on Henry’s Farm,” now out in paperback, was a finalist for a 2010 James Beard Award.
Top photo composite:
Author John Besh.
Book jacket of “My Family Table: A Passionate Plea for Home Cooking.”
Credits: Courtesy of Andrews McMeel