This week I was reminded how much I love to read cookbooks. It is a simple but deep pleasure that has been consistent since as long as I can remember.
My parents had a good many cookbooks. There was a shelf in our kitchen, and the bottom two racks were occupied with cookbooks. A large number of them were part of a series titled The Good Cook published by [ Time Life in the 70s and 80s ]. Each volume (I seem to remember there being around 20?) was dedicated to a specific food group – cheese, poultry, eggs, wine, etc. How many a Saturday afternoon did I spend thumbing through the pages of those books, wondering at the still-life-like images of cheese boards, all labeled meticulously, or photographs of aspics studded with hard cooked eggs, ham and pickles, like savory loaves of bread from an another planet.
There must have been recipes that we actually made from these books, but I mostly remember the experience of looking at them resolutely, over and over.
Nothing satisfies me more than acquiring and thumbing through an old fashioned cookbook. These are the only books I still buy in paper-and-binding form, in fact. Everything else- from fiction to the purely academic- is alright scanned or downloadable.
The problem is that throughout my adult life, I have never allowed myself to actually enjoy reading cookbooks. Sure, I have quite a few and I do read them and use them, but there’s a voice in the back of my head telling me I should be doing something more productive. This week it dawned on me as I was thumbing through a new cookbook with my morning coffee that maybe these pleasures are more productive than I previously thought. Sometimes I feel a glaring disconnect between what I do for most of the day and what I love to do – I assume most people do. What if that gap could be shortened? How to go about doing so?
This month I bought two cookbooks that I had been wanting to read for a long while. It’s great to have them and they have made my mornings and evenings a great deal more pleasant.
The first was The Canal House Cooks Everyday, by Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer, of the [ Canal House ]. Just like their photo-blog, “The Canal House Cooks Lunch,” these women present straightforward cooking with just the right amount of elegance and indulgence. It gets me excited about a lunch of tomato sandwiches but also encourages me to invest in a good bottle of wine every now and then. I plan to make their chestnut and pearl onion stuffing tomorrow for Thanksgiving. My mouth waters just thinking about it.
The second was Tamar Adler’s [ An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace ]. So far, this has been worth every cent. I don’t remember reading a cookbook with so many ideas packed into each page or that made me more excited about using what I have in my fridge. There are relatively few full recipes and no pictures in this book (at least in my paperback version), and yet I’ve made more use of it than most of my favorite recipe-and-picture cookbooks. The underlying message is that great cooking can be very simple and frugal and that the best meals begin “on the tails” of the last. It’s a waste-not want-not approach to truly eating and living well, and I highly recommend it.
Last week’s CSA delivery seems to have been cosmically aligned to respond to my mini-epiphany that I should indulge my cook-bookery. More squash and root veg arrived, including Jerusalem artichokes, which gave me the opportunity to turn to the books to figure out what to make.
Until very recently, I have to admit that I thought a Jerusalem artichokes were regular globe artichokes pickled in brine and sold in a jar. I think somehow my wires got crossed, and I mapped “Jerusalem” onto canned artichoke hearts of the Mount Olive Brand (because the Mount of Olives is in Jerusalem?). I had the Mount Olive logo in my mind, but had replaced the words with “Jerusalem.” Every once and a while, a touch of Alabama rears its head in ways I can’t suppress.
Anyway, as I’m sure you all know, Jerusalem artichokes aren’t artichokes and they aren’t pickled. They are delicious, however, and do taste strangely of artichoke. Ever since I read Nigel Slater on the subject, I’d been wanting to cook them, but I just never got around to buying them. Slater’s book is another cookbook that I turn to again and again just to read. I was inspired by a recipe in Tender for braised Jerusalem artichokes with onions and sausages, which I modified slightly to suit what I had around:
1 large onion
3-4 hands-full Jerusalem artichokes, chopped in half
1 lemon, cut into thick wedges
4 pork sausages – mine included fennel seed, which Slater’s recipe called for
A bunch of parsley, leaves removed from stems and stems saved
Salt and Pepper to taste
Brown the sausages in a large dutch oven and then remove, leaving behind a couple of tbs of grease. Meanwhile, chop the onion in medium to large dice – think caramelized bratwurst onions – you want them to keep their shape. Then cook the onions in the grease and some olive oil over low heat until they caramelize and can be smashed with a wooden spoon. Salt and pepper them. Then add the halved Jerusalem artichokes and stir around until they’re coated with the onions. Add sausages and lemons, and enough water to cover. Bring to a simmer, taste for salt and pepper again, and then cook until the artichokes are soft enough so they almost melt in your mouth, add parsley, stir a few times and serve.
Delicious, but not photogenic, so I do not include a picture here.
Following the advice of Adler, I used the leftovers from this dish to make a quick sandwich that I ate on my way out the door to LGA- she recommends this for any leftovers of roasted vegetables. I used the parsley stems and onion husks to make a vegetable stock. I also got 4 full meals out of my squash by making her end-of-the-week vegetable curry. I’m a convert.
This week I was late to pick up my CSA, but it went to a food pantry and I’m in Chicago anyway, so it’s all good.
Happy thanksgiving to everyone.