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Thursday, September 9, 2021



People who cook a lot almost always have a healthy variety of cookbooks (“healthy” being the general goal, but one that’s not always strictly attainable). Some have a few, some dozens. They range from reference books to “how-to’s” on very specific topics. Old favorites, family heirlooms, gifts from your friends who don’t know what to get you for your birthday but are confident that you need another cookbook. After all, you’re a cook.


A word on “cooks” vs. “chefs.” According to our lead instructor for the 6 weekend Professional Cooking series at the California Culinary Academy, the difference in a cook and a chef is that chefs don’t have to clean up after themselves. So, for now and the near future, I suppose I’m a cook since I generally do the dishes as well. 


My daily duties include deciding what to cook, shopping, cooking, serving, and of course… cleaning up. I got in the habit many years ago, of cleaning up “as I go.” Meaning, when I use a pot or miscellaneous utensil, I wash it, dry it, and put it away after I’m finished with it.


Knives get special attention. Use them, wash them, put them back in the block or hang them on the magnetic strips that we love so much. Like most cooks I have dozens of knives and treat them all equally well. My $25 Dexter-Russell 8″ chef’s knife gets the same attention as my $200 Shun Ken Onion. We cooks are an odd breed in some respects, but we seem to treasure our knives with a special zeal.


My cookbook collection occupies a five-shelf bookcase that stands 72″ tall, 30″ wide, and is packed with an eclectic collection of books, recipes, and special cooking magazines. I used to save ALL the old Gourmets, Fine Cooking, Saveur, and Cook’s, but I’ve come to my senses after having to move them too many times. Only the best holiday issues and special recipes that I couldn’t bear to lose, get to occupy space on the bottom shelf of the bookcase which lives in a corner of the kitchen.


I tend to “refer” to recipes and change them to produce what I want to serve. A good cook needs to be able to follow a recipe, for sure, but you only improve your cooking skills when you vary them and think outside the recipe box. As an example, one of my all-time faves is the New Basics Cookbook, which I received as a wedding present many years ago. My New Basics is stained from food splattering onto the pages, dog-eared on many of my favorite recipes, and quite literally falling apart at the seams. I could replace it, but the battle wounds that the poor thing has incurred is sort of a badge of honor. Couldn’t bear to have a clean and tidy new edition.


One of my favorite (and rare) desserts is the chocolate mousse that appears on pages 659-660 of Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins’ cooking classic. I’ve made this dish 100 times, I’m sure. And while I stick to their “Basics,” I take liberties with the chocolate (always two kinds, varying the types), am quite happy with simple brandy and some orange flavoring in place of the uber-expensive Grand Marnier, and I vary the way I serve it. I’ve served it over a slightly whipped, orange-infused whipped cream, topped with raspberries, with varying liqueurs and eau de vie’s over it, with and without whipped cream, etc. It’s always awesome, I always give the authors and the book credit, but I never make it the same way twice.


The mousse is one of very few desserts that I do well. I’m not a dessert person and have never particularly been into sweets. I like a great piece of apple pie, a killer creme broulee, a correctly done German chocolate cake, and I absolutely love strawberry cream pie. But given a limited amount of tummy-room, I’ll fill it with real food before sweet stuff. Always have. Even as a kid, if I had some spare spending allowance, I’d sooner buy a salami and cheese sandwich than a chocolate sundae. Over the years, I’ve found that the bulk of cooks/chefs excel at either main courses or desserts, but to do both equally well is rare. I cook lavish flavorful meals, and I’m quite content with someone bringing a store-bought cake, which means I don’t have to worry about it.


I have books that cover virtually everything I like to cook and serve. Established “bibles” such as the French Laundry cookbook, Julia’s The Way to Cook, Madeleine Kamman’s The Making of a Cook, The Cake and Pie Bibles by Rose Levy Beranbaum, The Silver Spoon, Merle Ellis’ “Cutting Up in The Kitchen,” and of course all the books by the afore-mentioned authors of New Basics.


I have specialty books on all things Moroccan, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Mexican food, BBQ, butchery, rice, beans, appetizers, ceviche, tamales, tapas, paella, slow cooking, wok cooking, tagine cooking, B&B recipes, Legal Seafood’s cookbook, and amazingly, lots of dessert books.


Last night’s dinner was a good one. A friend I’ve known since grammar school, another who I’ve known for 35 years and have watched her raise a wonderful son and is now proud grandma to his 3 boys, plus my sister and brother-in-law who “came down off the hill” (Woodside) to join us. I thought I’d make it a little more special than usual, and dug into the cookbooks (and modified extensively, of course!).


Simple appetizers consisted of an apple-smoked gruyere, an Irish cheddar, and a selection of crackers. This was on purpose – I had no intention of filling people up on appetizers this night.


The basis of the salad was pilfered from Thomas Keller’s French Laundry cookbook. Roasted tomato slices with olive oil and fresh thyme, over small 3″ rounds of puff pastry. Mixed field greens tossed with a raspberry balsamic vinaigrette surrounded the pastry/tomatoes, with parmesan crisps resting at an angle. A couple sprigs of fresh chives topped the salad, and a final bit of fresh ground pepper finished it off. Nice look and drew major “yays” from the group.


Amuse bouche between the salad and main courses consisted of lemon sorbet with a dusting of lemon zest, on a mint leaf, served on a Chinese soup spoon.


The main dinner course consisted of a pesto pasta with fresh blue lake beans and whole wheat fettuccine, garnished with a chiffonade of basil and a sprinkle of parmesan cheese. Inspired by a recipe in The Silver Spoon, utilizing a somewhat classic pesto recipe of toasted pine nuts, basil, garlic, olive oil, parmesan cheese, and a little salt.

Alongside, either chicken or halibut en papillote, which is a simple preparation that you don’t see too often. Matchstick cuts of carrots and leeks, fresh tarragon, salt, pepper, lemon, a few drops of vermouth, baked on a folded together heart-shaped piece of lightly buttered parchment paper. Twenty minutes at 350, and you have a great main course.


The key lime pie I made for dessert was originally from James McNair’s Pie Cookbook, which is a small and remarkably indispensable book that’s chock-full of great recipes. Of course, I vary his recipe a little too. It’s what cooks do!


Wines included great reds from Ridge, Rodney Strong, Chateau St. Jean, and my current favorite zinfandel from Zin Alley in Paso Robles.


Long, tiring preparation which paid off in spades. Lots of compliments, learned some new techniques, sort of raised my own personal “bar” to a new level. Wonderful evening with the best of company. Can’t wait ’til the next one, and I’m sure I’ll have no problem enticing people to come over and join the merriment.

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