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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Cozy in the Kitchen

This poor old cooking pot in the snow won’t be called into service again, but there are others in the kitchen, and the kitchen is where I’ve been for a large part of this winter day.

At 5:45 this morning, when I called the weather line at Northwestern Michigan College, a recorded message told me that all classes for the day had been cancelled. What a relief! High winds had scoured the driveway bare, so drifts weren’t a big worry, but that same cold wind was brutal, and swirling snow would have severely reduced visibility on the road. In fact, the sheriff’s office and state police were warning people against any unnecessary travel. David and I were glad to oblige. I talked to Bruce (more intrepid than a postman!), who had gone to Northport and opened the bookstore as he usually does on Mondays and Wednesdays. “The windows are so frosted over I had to scratch ‘OPEN’ in the frost to see out,” he reported. “I’m looking through the ‘O’ now, and there’s not a car in sight.” We agreed that being open for the rest of the day was not a priority, that he would go home and David and Sarah and I would stay home.

Fortunately, the wind had not knocked out our power. Coffee and oatmeal from steel-cut oats were the first order of the day. Minestrone followed. A pan of oatmeal-apricot cookies, along with herbal tea, cheered the early afternoon, and my foraging in the freezer turned up an intimidating rack of ribs. “Be brave!” I told myself. Nothing ventured, etc….

Every foray outdoors with the puppy brought me back as hungry for something to read as for something from the kitchen, and I spent the day going back and forth between cookbooks and the Beatrix Potter biography by Linda Lear that I’ve been wanting to read for an entire year. I’m captivated by the latter but will write about it another time, because cookbooks have been on my mind for the past week.

My first cookbook was a wedding shower present in 1966. It’s still with me, missing cover and title page, along with half the index, the remaining text in large chunks rather than an integral volume. “Can we throw this away?” David once asked innocently. No way! Odds are I’ll never use the recipe for roast possum, but those cookies made with leftover oatmeal, the brownie recipe modified in ink over the years, the well-thumbed table of equivalents pages—all these, along with the old, familiar, corny color photographs and outdated menu ideas are part of my kitchen history. And that’s what I’ve been thinking about.

Every person, every couple, upon setting up housekeeping for the first time, needs a good, basic cookbook. The one I started with was good for the 1950’s and 1960’s but would hardly satisfy 21st-century young Americans. JOY OF COOKING is still around, it’s true, and it’s still a good cookbook, but my vote for this generation’s wedding present cookbook (family and friends, take note) is THE ART OF SIMPLE FOOD: NOTES, LESSONS, AND RECIPES FROM A DELICIOUS REVOLUTION, by Alice Waters.

This is not an offhand recommendation. The first consideration for a foundational household cookbook is that it be, indeed, basic, and SIMPLE FOOD fills the bill on this count. Before embarking on recipes, Waters provides annotated lists of kitchen staples and equipment, giving details, for example, on varieties of potatoes and what to look for in a pair of tongs. Moving on to basic sauces, she continues in a conversational, informal tone, and the reader listens, trusting the source. I’ve already noted in an earlier post that there are additions I would make to her list of staples (honey, maple syrup), but additions are easily made. That’s how one makes a cookbook one’s own.

“Don’t hesitate to experiment,” reads one line in the salsa verde recipe, and this urging the reader to improvise on the basics is one way SIMPLE FOOD will speak to today’s fledgling cooks, regardless of age. Many dishes include variations following the basic recipe, and over and over, from the first pages of the book, the reader is encouraged to experiment. “By cooking your way through these lessons,” the introduction promises, “tasting and learning from your success (and your mistakes), you will get to know some fundamental techniques by heart and you won’t have to look them up again. This will enable you to cook with ease and confidence, inspired by recipes—rather than being ruled by them….” From basic food and basic techniques, one progresses to confidence and improvisation.

Fresh, local, organic: This is the Alice Waters mantra, taken seriously by Americans serious about good food. Here again, this book suits the tenor of the times (Alice Waters having contributed greatly to the creation of that tenor) in ways that older cookbooks would not. Local farmers markets, CSA membership, a garden or at least a few pots of herbs on the windowsill--Waters begins with urging fresh, local, organic, and is not shy of reminding the reader at later points in the book. The point of all this is not self-denial but the fullest flavor possible, the most pleasure that can be obtained from the simplest food.

Recipes themselves are divided into the usual chapters (e.g., soup, vegetables), as well as into chapters focused on technique (e.g., slow cooking, over the coals). Pages are not crowded with recipes; instead, certain delicious basics are presented, with plenty of commentary on details of technique and explanations for the directions given. And here is another important feature in any basic cookbook. Beginning cooks need commentary on instruction, and all serious cooks enjoy it. SIMPLE FOOD is thus a good starting-out cookbook and one that will stay on the shelf for the cook’s lifetime.

But now I must close for the day and start another little ‘soffritto’ for tomorrow’s barley dish. Thank you, Alice, for teaching me that wonderful new word!


Anonymous said...

Oatmeal apricot cookies! Wow, that sounds wonderful. In fact, so does the steel cut oatmeal, the ribs and everything else you had cooking. It could be that I am being influenced by the hunger pangs lurking in my stomach. It is early afternoon and I have yet to do anything that would tell my stomach do be in any state other than hungry. In other words, I have been too busy or at least too preoccupied to eat yet today. Certainly, I am also inclined to be enamored of food just thinking about being "snowed in" in Northport. It seems that I always like to cook/eat when the weather is inclimate. Yesterday during the storm, I came home and hunkered down in my own kitchen cooking chili, bread, seasoned breadcrumbs and a new recipe for carrot cake. Anyway, I am putting in a request for one of those oatmeal apricot cookies some time in the future.

P. J. Grath said...

Will that carrot cake have (drool!) cream cheese frosting? And the chili--will you be making another batch to enter in the Winter Carnival chili cook-off? I'll be happy to make the cookies sometime when you're here, but skipping lunch is totally INSANE...even when I do it!

Anonymous said...

Oh yes, cream cheese frosting, coconut, raisins, pecans and even a little (just a little) pineapple. Oh no, chili is not one of my fortes. so I'll think that I'll stay on the tasting side of that event and keep out of the production mode.

Anonymous said...

From Susan: Something I learned from my mother: Write in every cookbook you own! Jot notes, reviews, changes on every recipe you cook, including the date you first made it. That makes a cookbook your own.

Susan Och said...

I took cookbooks into work last night, as tips are slow and groceries are going up and everyone's trying to figure out how to eat without breaking the bank.

I chose the 1930's era Joy of Cokking and the More With Less cookbook. But I ended up telling the story of when I worked in an orchard and there were Jamaican migrants on the farmnext door who had caught a possum.

They kept it in a cage at the edge of the woods and fed it corn for a week. Then one day I was walking up the lane and found them hunched over a fire with the dead possum. It was whole, and they were holding it by the stiffened tail over the fire.

I had never seen anything like this and was sure this was some sort of exotic voodoo thing. What a hoot to find the whole process described on page 315 of The Joy of Cooking!

P. J. Grath said...

Well, rats! (or, possums!) I wrote a long comment, replying to z and the Susans (great name for a band, you guys--think about it), then lost it due to improper sign-in. Thanks for joining in, anyway. Isn't cooking great this time of year?