The Most Successful Cookbook on My Shelves

June 2, 2014


I have a fair number of cookbooks, but I’m by no means a collector. Compared to many of my friends, I have a relatively tiny collection, and that’s because I don’t use cookbooks that often. For the most part, cookbooks give me ideas. They help me come up with new dishes or combinations of ingredients. Occasionally, I’ll learn a new technique. I’ll even read a cookbook from cover to cover now and then, just because the writing and stories are so good. But for the most part, cookbooks are reference materials, to be picked up now and then for guidance and inspiration.

The first cookbook where I really started to look at how and what I was cooking, the guide that introduced me to Thai cuisine, the book that I’ve followed more recipes than any other book was The Frog Commissary Cookbook by Steven Poses from Philadelphia. An old girlfriend gave me this book as a Valentine’s Day gift over 25 years ago, and it’s as worn out as any cookbook I have. It’s not just dog-eared, it’s dirty. The binding is broken and pages are falling out. I’ve made at least 50 different dishes from that cookbook, and most of them have been great hits. The sour cream apple pie. The Asian chicken wings. The Thai curries. The crab and tarragon and tomato pasta dish. I could go on and on, and maybe one day, I will spend more time highlighting this wonderful cookbook.

But today, I want to focus on Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home. I’m not sure I’ve had a cookbook that has been as slam-dunk successful as this one. Everything that I have made from this book has been not just good, but amazing. His recipes have replaced the tried and true dishes I’ve made for years. Chocolate chip cookies? None can compare to the version in this cookbook, and except for having to chop your own chocolate, they’re really simple. His cream of cauliflower soup has become my family’s favorite soup — nothing else comes even close. I now dress my salads totally differently because of this cookbook. The newest item to make our “best of” list is his brownies. Brownies??? Yes, brownies. I mean, I thought I’ve had brownies every different way and had come to the conclusion that it was a dessert that would always be good, but would never be great. Well, these brownies aren’t just great; they’re fucking awesome. Why you ask? Well, it comes down to chocolate and butter. Chocolate in the form of lots of cocoa powder then with dark chocolate chunks added to the batter. And butter? Well, we’re talking about a 9×9 inch square cake pan of brownies calling for THREE STICKS OF BUTTER!!!! Nope, not a typo — there are 12 ounces of butter in this recipe. Even if cut into relatively small pieces, you’re going to get a couple of tablespoons of butter in each brownie. Holy smokes, these brownies are rich. Over the top without a damn excuse but 0h-my-god-they’re-delicious rich. My daughter made these brownies yesterday, and I want more. I’m channeling my inner Veruca Salt because I want more NOW!

 

photo (14)

The brownies are absolutely perfect on their own, or with a sprinkling of powdered sugar. A little soft cream would be great, too, but of course, we topped them with good old fashioned vanilla ice cream. I didn’t want to take the time to get a quality photo, because, well, once again, I’m a little impatient. So you’re stuck with a photo of ice cream hiding the most amazing brownie I’ve ever eaten.

Now I have to figure out what to make out of this book next. Because I’m a bit uneasy about displacing my current favorites. Like his carrot cake muffins. Or beef stroganoff. Ah, hell, I’ll just give in and be thankful that I have a cookbook that I can always turn to, and come out with something extraordinary.

Ad Hoc at Home Brownies

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup unsweetened alkalized cocoa powder
3/4 pound (3 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-tablespoon pieces
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 large eggs
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla (recipe calls for vanilla paste, but I didn’t have any on hand — plain vanilla works)
6 ounces 61 to 64% chocolate, chopped into chip-sized pieces ( about 1 1/2 cups)

Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter and flour a 9×9 baking dish. Set aside.

Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, and salt; set aside.

Melt half the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat (or in the microwave), stirring occasionally. Put the remaining butter in a medium bowl. Pour the melted butter and stir to melt the butter. The butter should look creamy, with small bits of unmelted butter, and be at room temperature.

In a bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle, mix together the eggs and sugar on medium speed for about 3 minutes, or until thick and very pale. Mix in the vanilla. On low speed, add about one-third of the dry ingredients, then add one-third of the butter, and continue alternating the remaining flour and butter. Add the chocolate and mix to combine. (The batter can be refrigerated for up to 1 week.)

Spread the batter evenly in the pan. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until a cake tester or wooden skewer poked into the center comes out with just a few moist crumbs sticking to it. If the pick comes out wet, test a second time, because you may have hit a piece of chocolate chip; then bake for a few more minutes longer if necessary. Cool in the pan until the brownie is just a bit warmer than room temperature.

Run a knife around the edges, and invert the brownie onto a cutting board. Cut into 12 rectangles. Serve with dusted powdered sugar, soft whipped cream or ice cream. The brownies can be stored in an airtight container for up to 2 days, but if they last that long, there’s something wrong.


Cookbook Etiquette

December 10, 2010

Let me preface this post by saying that it is not a rant.  I am not complaining.  I’m just somewhat confused.

Here’s the story.

In November of 2008, I received an email from a friend who’s in the food industry.  Here’s what the email said:

I’m working on a project and am asking my food savvy friends for help. I am
searching for recipes for a few specific dishes, with these caveats:

1. the recipes must be authentically Southern, although appropriate updates
and variations are fine
2. they must be from unsung cooking hero home cooks, although recipes that
wound up in restaurants and diners are fine if they originated at home
3. the cook must be willing to talk to me and share the recipe and the back
story.

I responded that I might be able to help, and she later wrote that she was working for Molly O’Neill on a “big cookbook project.”  Frankly, I didn’t even notice that comment.  I talked to my friend for about 15 minutes, and then I gave her links to two recipes on my blog, recipes that I had made many times and which were well-received.  That’s the last I heard of this; in fact, I totally forgot about it.

In early November, Andrea Weigl of the News & Observer posted this on Twitter: “Congrats to @VarmintBites, Kavanah and Gabe for their recipes appearing in @onebigtable.”  I had no idea what she was talking about.  I didn’t know what @onebigtable was.  After a couple of messages back and forth, I learned that I had two recipes prominently featured in Molly O’Neill’s new cookbook, “One Big Table.”  Needless to say, I was excited, but I had no clue what those recipes were and how they made it into Ms. O’Neill’s book.  I learned that the recipes were for my Strawberry Shortcake for a Crowd and for the Four Berry Cobbler that I’ve made many times.  Through the power of Gmail archiving, I realized then that it was through my friend, two years earlier, that these recipes made it into Ms. O’Neill’s book.  When Andrea Weigl showed me the book, and how well done it was, I was extremely proud and tickled.

But then, the lawyer part of me started thinking, and this is what this post is about.  Yes, I shared those recipes with my friend, but that’s all I did.  Ms. O’Neill never contacted me.  No one from the publisher contacted me.  No release.  No forms.  Not even a “head’s up” or a thank you.  This may simply be a type of journalism where authorization is not needed, but shouldn’t there be some approval process prior to publication?  If not, shouldn’t there at least be some form of acknowledgment?

I am not complaining, as once again, I’m very appreciative of having not one, but two, recipes included in this marvelous book (yes, I’ll be giving copies for Christmas, although Amazon only let me buy 3 copies).  It’s cool to have your name and recipes featured in such a work.  And let me be clear, this was not a case of Ms. O’Neill lifting these recipes from my blog without my permission.  I readily suggested these two recipes to my friend two years ago, but I certainly didn’t think they were worthy of publication.  Was that act on my part sufficient to move forward with publishing the recipes and my comments?

In the end, what is the appropriate process here?  If not legally required, should etiquette have demanded some follow-up from the publisher?  Help me here, those of you in the cookbook industry!


The Best Community Cookbook Ever — And Two Events to Celebrate It

October 12, 2010

Yes, I love the Southern Foodways Alliance.  Yes, I’m a member.  And yes, I’ve even been nominated to be on its Board of Directors.  So it should be no surprise to you that I’ll do just about anything this organization asks of me — not just because I’m a good soldier, but because there’s nothing this organization does that I don’t support.  Whether it’s a fundraiser for their film or oral history initiatives or for scholarships for burgeoning food writers, I’m going to spread the word.

This time, however, it’s different.  This time, the event is to celebrate a cookbook.  A fantastic, spiral-bound, community cookbook, suitably named, “The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook.”  The cookbook  is divided into chapters that represent the region’s iconic foods: Gravy, Garden Goods, Roots, Greens, Rice, Grist, Yardbird, Pig, The Hook, The Hunt, Put Up, and Cane.  It’s been edited, written and compiled by some of my favorite people in the world, including April McGreger, baker and pickler extraordinaire of Farmer’s Daughter in Carrboro, Chapel Hill’s great cooking instructor, Sheri Castle,  and Sara Roahen, author of the fantastic book on New Orleans, “Gumbo Tales.”  Heck, I even submitted a recipe for the book — and yes, it is a recipe for cooking one type of varmint.

To celebrate the release of the book, there are not one, but two events planned for this weekend in Chapel Hill.

The first event is this Friday, October 15th, at Foster’s Market in Chapel Hill (750 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd).  This event is a book signing and is free to the public — and, yes, there will be a little bit of food there.

The second event has a lot of food, and this is a ticketed event.  It will be on Sunday at 4:00 PM at Chapel Hill’s 3CUPS (227 South Elliott Rd.).  If you just want to come and eat, it’ll cost you $25.  If you want one of these awesome cookbooks (all the cool kids have them), then that will cost you an additional 15 bucks.  That’s less than the Amazon price!  So, you get a soon-to-be iconic cookbook, lots of great food (with both cake and pie, as there will be a debate about which is better), lots of social interaction with writers, and all on a Sunday evening!  And because it is 3CUPS, there will be wine.  Tasty, wonderful wine.

So, get off your butt and head to Chapel Hill this weekend to buy a book — the best community cookbook ever!  And if you need more information, just check out the SFA’s Blog.


Southern Pies — The “Must Have” Cookbook

September 30, 2010

We all receive gifts from time to time.  A bottle of wine, a nice piece of pottery, or a cookbook.  On Sunday, my dear friend Nancie McDermott gave me a copy of her newly published “Southern Pies.”  I have all of Nancie’s cookbooks (as she has been so kind to give me copies of them), and through these books she’s taught me a ton about Asian cooking and Southern cakes.  I’ve enjoyed the books, as they’re very accessible and interesting, and all of the recipes have been winners.

But of all these gifts, this one — this book of pies — is different.  This is not only a gift commemorating a birthday, but it’s a gift for everyone.  It’s a gift from Nancie to the cooking world.  Hyperbole?  Judge for yourself, but if you take a serious look at this book, you’ll see what I mean.

Last night after dinner, I finally got a chance to sit down and take a look at Southern Pies, and my first impression is that this may be the first time I’ve had a cookbook that makes me want to make every single recipe in it.  I’m totally serious about this.  Of course, there are the expected chess, lemon and coconut pie variations, but there are a number of very interesting pies of which I’ve never heard: green tomato pie, sliced sweet potato pie, vinegar pie, bean pie, and a plum custard pie.  There are fruit pies that have added substantial amounts of cream to them.  Rhubarb and scuppernong grapes are featured.

I’ve always been a huge pie lover, but I’ve gotten away from baking them in the past year.  That’s all about to change.  I’ll be sure to chronicle my pie baking escapades here, and I suspect my kids are about to learn how to make pie crust.

Thanks again for this wonderful gift, Nancie.  It will be treasured for a long, long time.


Cookbook Writers, USA

September 24, 2009

I wrote a “guest blog” for the News & Observer’s Mouthful, and this is what got published today.

We’re quite fortunate to live in an area with a plethora of great chefs and restaurants, with the quality of food improving each year.  We have chefs who have won Beard awards, chefs who have been prominently featured in national food magazines, and even chefs who have won silly Iron Chef competitions.

But did you know that we also have an amazing number of cookbook writers here in the Triangle?  Sure, a lot of those cookbook writers are chefs themselves, such as Ben and Karen Barker of Durham’s Magnolia Grill, Bill Smith of Crook’s Corner, Mildred Council of Mama Dip’s, or Andrea Reusing of Chapel Hill’s Lantern, who has her first cookbook coming out next year.

We also have a bunch of folks who are not chefs.  There are a few people who write for the News & Observer, such as former food editor Debbie Moose and columnist Fred Thompson.  Moose has written entire books on single topics, such as deviled eggs, wings, or potato salad.  She’s also written about food for tailgating!  Thompson also has written his fair share of single topic books, but his are typically focused on beverages, such as lemonade, iced tea, hot chocolate, and, soon enough, bourbon!  He’s also written about seafood and grilling with gas.

We’re also blessed to have Raleigh native,  Jean Anderson, one of the country’s most prominent cookbook writers, living in the area.  Anderson has written over 20 cookbooks, including “A Love Affair With Southern Cooking” (which won the Beard award for best “Americana” cookbook) and “The New Doubleday Cookbook.”  Anderson’s books have received numerous awards, and ten years ago, she was honored for her body of work by being inducted into the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame.

One of my favorite people in the world, and a super cookbook writer, is Nancie McDermott of Chapel Hill.  Her “Southern Cakes” has been a big hit in my family, and we recently made an ultra-rich peanut cake from that book (recipe to come in a future blog post).  This book continues to be a strong seller on Amazon, and that’s because the cakes are fantastic and not overly complicated.  I also understand that she’ll soon be coming out with a book on Southern pies, so that’s good news for all pastry chefs in the area.  Interestingly, McDermott is perhaps better known for her cookbooks on Asian food (she was a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand), and these are great sources to folks who have no clue how to cook Asian dishes.  I can personally vouch that these books have helped me become a much better cook of Asian food.

Another great writer is Sara Foster, who scored a big hit with her “Foster’s Market Cookbook” in 2002.  Durham’s Foster’s Market has been a mainstay for area foodies for years, and her three cookbooks have sold well.

I’d be remiss if I failed to mention what I still consider the most influential cookbook ever to come from the Triangle, “Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking,” by the late, great co-founder of Crook’s Corner.  My food epiphany came at Crook’s over 25 years ago, and Neal’s wonderful book came out shortly thereafter.  “Southern Cooking” is not just a collection of recipes, it’s a book focusing on the history and sociology of Southern food.  Neal’s influence on Southern cooking is unquestioned, and his three books remain definitive sources on the cuisine.

So which local cookbook writers have I omitted?  I’m sure there are plenty, so let’s get a solid list put together, and then we can remind ourselves of how lucky we truly are.


Lantern’s Reusing Gets Cookbook Deal

November 20, 2008

Andrea Reusing, chef of Chapel Hill’s wonderful Lantern, recently signed on with publisher Clarkson Potter for worldwide rights to a new cookbook.  According to a trade publication news release, seven different publishers were competing for the rights to the book.  The cookbook will feature over 100 recipes organized by season, with an emphasis on cooking with local ingredients, one of Reusing’s focuses at Lantern.

This is no “Lantern Cookbook,” however. “I wanted to do a book about cooking at home, focusing on using local ingredients,” Reusing told me.  “I wanted to create a snapshot of our local food community and not focus on any single ethnicity.  I want this cookbook to be used, with food stains on the pages.  I don’t want it to sit on a coffee table.”

The book does not yet have a title, and unfortunately, won’t be out until the fall of 2010.  But the writing has begun.  Her first draft is due in a year, and trying to write while managing a restaurant and parenting two small children will be quite a challenge, but nothing should surprise us anymore about Reusing.  As we wait for the cookbook to come out, we’ll all just have to go to Chapel Hill and get the real goods right from the source.