The Cookbook Addict: Top 10 Local Eating Cookbooks, Part 2

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June 16, 2011 at 2:55 pm

Photos by Sharon Hoogstraten

The Cookbook Addict’s Top Ten Essential Eat-Local Cookbooks, Part 2

Most afternoons you’ll find me thinking about tonight’s dinner, idly thumbing through one of the cookbooks in the first half of my Top 10 Essential Local Eating Cookbooks. The five books I chose to lead the list are so deeply ingrained in my cooking psyche their recipes drift in and out of my mind like favorite songs—flipping through their pages is like scrolling through a well-loved playlist. While a favorite weeknight supper may be as satisfying as a familiar tune, cooking is also communion, and sharing our table with friends and family is one of life’s essential pleasures. My Top 10 list would be incomplete without the cookbooks I turn to when planning a dinner party. For a special meal I want to bring on a little jazz, so I reach for menu-focused cookbooks to study the rhythm and flow of courses and the harmonious interplay of flavors and textures. I’ll share two that suit my entertaining style and a third for ending special meals on a sweet note. Preserving the food I grow or buy at the farmers market is another essential facet of local eating and cooking. So many inventive books about the art of canning, pickling, and jam making have been published in the last few years that my preserving bookshelf is overflowing with new titles. I’ll tell you more about some of these newcomers in a future post, but for now I’d like to introduce you to a pair of books from my preserving guru—one on pickling, one on sweet preserves. Both are comprehensive and trusted resources for “putting up” the seasons’ bounty.

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6. Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Susan Goin

Now and then you simply hit it off with someone you’ve just met. That’s how I felt the first time I flipped through Sunday Suppers at Lucques, Susan Goin’s celebration of the family meals from her childhood. I’d found a kindred spirit who cherishes the comforting warmth of a Sunday spent around the table with loved ones as much as I do. What sealed our instant bond, though, is the graceful way she combines bold flavors and textures with a painterly eye for color on the plate. Within minutes the lively flow of courses and rustic elegance animating her recipes propelled me into the kitchen to riff on the menus. Organized in four sections corresponding to the seasons (even Los Angeles chefs have a winter, of sorts, to contend with), Goin composes 32 pitch-perfect three-course menus using local, sustainable food gleaned from her farmers market. The menus are down-to-earth but feel special enough for company and I appreciate that she includes both a fish and a meat option for the main course. Each section opens with a brief introductory essay and a seasonal “Market Report” filled with Goin’s discerning advice and infectious enthusiasm—reading the reports is like walking through my own farmers market with a savvy friend. While scanning her summer menus last August, I found one perfect for a late-summer barbeque. It begins with the vivid “Yellow Tomato Gazpacho,” a noble use for the first heirloom Pineapple tomatoes I’d harvested from our garden earlier in the day. Because some of the friends joining us that evening don’t eat meat, I decided to serve both of Goin’s main course options for this menu. In “Grilled Halibut à la Niçoise,” a warm tangle of slender string beans, roasted potatoes, cherry tomatoes, and hard-cooked farm egg make a colorful nest for halibut fillets, everything glossed with a veil of savory anchovy butter. For carnivores, Goin skewers garlicky thyme-infused lamb on rosemary branches, grills it over a hardwood fire, and finishes the smoky meat with a drizzle of pungent salsa verde spiked with feta cheese. Served on a pillow of pale green lima bean puree, the salty feta, suave puree, and herbal bite from the sauce were a brilliant foil for the tender lamb. To end the meal, a gratin of raspberries uses one of those rare, nearly effortless techniques that yield a dessert so sophisticated no one would guess how simple it is to prepare. (It works for any summer berry or stone fruit, too.) Goin’s fall menus feel tailor-made for our Midwest harvest. A warming supper of “Pork Chops with Sautéed Quince, Apples, and Potatoes” was comforting and savory-sweet on a crisp late-October evening. We made it with La Pryor loin chops, honeycrisp apples, and fragrant quinces I bought from Oriana Kruszewski at the Green City Market. Even the approach of a Chicago winter is no match for Goin’s exuberant palate. When the wind whips off the lake we can enjoy the striking contrast of textures in “Broccoli with Burrata, Pine Nuts, and Warm Anchovy Vinaigrette,” her satisfying winter analog to a summer Caprese salad. Jewel-like colors in “Winter Vegetables Bagna Cauda,” a beautiful plate of slender Purple Haze carrots, ivory cauliflower, rosy leaves of Treviso radicchio, and deep green broccoli, glowed like a Renaissance tapestry on my holiday table, all sourced from the indoor Green City Market or harvested beneath heavy row covers in our December garden. Inspired by Goin’s imaginative menus, local eating becomes a colorful, flavorful, four-season adventure.

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7. Cooking by Hand by Paul Bertolli

While Susan Goin’s menus bring the improvisational energy of jazz to my table, Paul Bertolli’s Cooking by Hand invokes the intimate virtuosity of chamber music. In ten absorbing, deeply personal, often unconventional essays (with recipes), Bertolli shares his mastery of rustic Italian cooking, wielding its traditional raw materials and exacting techniques with fluid harmony. What, you might ask, does Italian cooking have to do with local eating in Chicago? Just about everything, it turns out. “Food is determined by place and inseparable from it,” he says in his Introduction, “and nourishment . . . is not only a matter of filling one’s belly but of taking part in a daily ritual that celebrates and confirms a sense of belonging to the food and to the long, recurrent traditions of a place.” And so in essays like “Ripeness,” “Twelve Ways of Looking at a Tomato,” and “A Pasta Primer” we learn from Bertolli’s keen observations and obsessive attention to nuances of flavor and texture how to truly taste, savor, and recognize the essential character inherent in our own local food. In “Bottom-Up Cooking” he demonstrates the Italian way to extract deeply satisfying, soulful flavor from poultry or meat while “The Whole Hog,” a thorough introduction to preparing and curing Italian salumi, is the inspiration many local chefs cite for their house-made charcuterie plates. “Cooking Backward” is Bertolli’s lucid account of how he conceives the progression of a meal, and by extension, plans a menu. This, for me, is among the most important sections of the book and one I often turn to when planning a dinner party. The irony, for those who know me, is he starts planning with dessert! Bertolli explains, “Beginning with dessert, I find myself returning to the simple principle that variety and contrast are the keys to sustaining interest in the forward moving elements of a meal.” He illustrates the principle with fourteen five-course menus, each annotated in fascinating detail with an outline of his thought process. Every step reveals his mastery of form and flavor, from meditations on seasonal food, to studies of a menu’s weight, texture, or color, to explorations of conceptual ideas like the “shape” of a menu or the essential qualities and character of “refreshment.” Bertolli’s cooking backward elevates the food on my table like a virtuoso performance heightens a favorite piece of music.

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8. Pure Dessert by Alice Medrich

Did I mention that dessert rarely appears on our table? Matt doesn’t have a sweet tooth, and while I might indulge in the occasional (OK, daily) piece of dark chocolate, it seems too great an investment of time and good ingredients to bake a cake or roll a pastry crust when we’re both indifferent to dessert. And, to be honest, my improvisational nature chafes against the precise science of baking—I have trouble following directions. But dinner for friends doesn’t seem complete without dessert and birthdays or other celebrations demand it. In my favorite dessert cookbook, Pure Dessert, Alice Medrich muses, “The best chefs cook savory food simply, with the best ingredients. That’s how I like to eat. Why don’t we make more desserts that way? [We] need an infusion of new and better ingredients and new approaches to working with them.” Amen to that! Medrich points us to our backyards or farmers markets for artisanal dairy products, local fruit, nuts, honey, flowers, and herbs and her smart, simple techniques enhance rather than hide the character of these great raw materials. “Sensational Strawberry Sorbet”—a recipe title with a little more drama than its four ingredients might warrant (strawberries, sugar, water, a few drops of lemon juice)—delivers flavor that lives up to the hype. She purees raw berries with a bit of sugar then mixes in a small portion of mashed, lightly cooked fruit. This ingenious method tempers the bright, sweet-tart quality of the raw berries with rich, rounded nuances from the cooked fruit to produce a complex and compelling spectrum of flavors. Try it! Hands down, it’s the best strawberry sorbet you’ll ever taste. It works for raspberries and blackberries, too. Like me, Medrich objects to over-sweet and too-rich desserts. Clarity of flavor is her Holy Grail and she achieves this by stripping out ingredients that obscure flavor or compromise texture. If her desserts are less sweet or rich, that’s just a bonus. In simple and elegant baked goods based on whole grains, Medrich cleverly mitigates formation of the gluten that typically makes “healthy” deserts tough and leaden. Kamut, spelt, buckwheat, corn, and whole wheat appear in her cakes and cookies, not for their nutritional virtue but because they contribute rich flavor, texture, and tenderness. “Whole Wheat Sablés” sound like penance, but these tender, buttery cookies are more delicious and interesting because of the whole-grain goodness. Combined with hazelnuts or cacao nibs, as Medrich suggest in her recipe variations, the cookies are addictive. I keep a parchment-wrapped roll of dough in the freezer to slice and bake on demand. They make a splendid tea cookie when a friend drops by or a quick last-minute dessert served alone or with a scoop of ice cream (her “Sour Cream Ice Cream” is a revelation). Medrich’s simple technique for cakes whirred together in a food processor is a marvel. In “Italian Chocolate-Almond Torte” she pulses together four ingredients (whole almonds, chopped unsweetened chocolate, sugar, and salt) in a food processor until reduced to the size of breadcrumbs, then folds in egg whites whipped to soft peaks. Bake 30 minutes. Done. In less than an hour I have a moist, light cake with a nutty crumb and an intense bitter-chocolate edge that I find irresistible. (This fall, instead of almonds, I’ll try swapping in local pecans from Three Sisters Farms.) Matt asks for this cake on his birthday. That says it all.

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9. and 10. The Joy of Pickling and The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Sweet Preserves by Linda Ziedrich

As a suburban teenager I learned from a kind neighbor how to “put up” fruits and vegetables. Mrs. Harsten followed the Ball Blue Book with a fanatic’s zeal, so we loaded our sweet preserves with sugar and packaged pectin, drowned our vegetables in vinegar and salt, then cooked the life out of everything in a pressure canner or water bath. While proud of my new skills, the sad truth is the food wasn’t very good. Cloying sweet-sour dilly beans and rubbery grape jelly held little appeal, even for my adolescent palate. My taste in preserved food evolved as I was exposed to exotic chutneys and kimchi in ethnic restaurants, mostarda in Northern Italy, brandied and pickled fruit in southwest France, and the glorious repertoire of British marmalades and fruit preserves. It was impossible to go back to Mrs. Harsten’s way. Happily, Linda Ziedrich stepped into the breach with two volumes, The Joy of Pickling and The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Sweet Preserves. Ziedrich inspires confidence with a clear introduction to the science behind pickling and preserving, a comprehensive outline of the equipment needed, and step-by-step instructions for prepping and processing the raw ingredient. While her tone is not so stern or dire as Mrs. Harsten’s canning bible, Ziedrich tolerates no nonsense. Her firm assertions about why a step or ingredient is critical to the process—whether for the sake of safety or flavor—carries the right balance of admonition tempered by reason so that directions-averse people like me toe the line. With only two in my household, I appreciate that Ziedrich’s recipes yield manageable amounts—just enough to put in the pantry with a few jars left over for gift giving.

The Joy of Pickling’s encyclopedic scope covers every imaginable type of pickle. The fresh, sweet, and fermented pickled vegetables and fruit typically found on Midwest farm tables are well represented across several chapters. Ziedrich devotes an entire chapter to fermented cabbage with Asian and European accents and another to unusual pickles made with soy, miso, and rice bran. The short chapter, “Freezer Pickles,” changed my reaction to our annual cucumber glut from dread to anticipation. Instead of turning to the mushy mess I expected, these extraordinary, fresh-tasting herb-flecked cucumber pickles retain their crunchy texture and bright herbal notes in the freezer thanks to the alchemy of vinegar, sugar, and salt. Now those excess cucumbers go into the deep freeze to perk up sandwiches (think Vietnamese bánh mì) or winter gratins of grain or rice. The Joy of Pickling also includes more than 40 recipes for relishes, chutneys, and savory-sweet sauces (nine kinds of ketchup!) and closes with a section on pickled meat, fish, and eggs. I’ve bookmarked “Rhubarb Chutney,” “Chowchow,” and “Cranberry Ketchup” for this year’s pantry experiments but with 250 recipes I will mine this exciting trove for many seasons to come.

Homemade jams and jellies hold an exalted place in my pantry. A jar of blackberry jam perfumed with rose geranium has the power to transform a sleet-lashed February morning from bleak to bearable. Although we’re tempted to consume our entire berry harvest fresh, I set aside enough every year to keep us in jam until the next spring. In The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves Ziedrich’s notion of a great sweet preserve completely aligns with mine—no packaged pectin, as little sugar as possible, and quick cooking in small batches to keep flavors fresh and colors vibrant. She includes every fruit from the orchard, bush, cane, or garden in her book, as well as flowers and some fruits we commonly think of as vegetables like eggplants, peppers, pumpkins, tomatoes, and tomatillos. I always fill my pantry with apricot, blackberry, currant, and raspberry jams and jellies but I’ve recently developed a minor obsession with what I think of as Ziedrich’s savory preserves. “Red Pepper Jelly,” “Cardamom-Infused Quince Paste,” “Fig Jam Spiced with Fennel and Bay” are a few of the outstanding recipes I’ve tried. They are terrific with cheese or charcuterie plates and make unusual hostess and holiday gifts. If we have an abundant crop this year, I’ll also make blackberry and raspberry syrups and vinegars. They brighten pancakes and salad dressings, and both also make refreshing, healthy, non-alcoholic drinks when mixed with water or seltzer—perfect for kids or teetotaler friends and one more deliciously local way to welcome everyone to my table.

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