Food, to me, has always been about much more than meals. It’s how I communicate. It’s how I show that I care.
I love bringing people together at our dining room table for a formal dinner or having them gather outside for a porch party. I always make whatever cake the birthday person at my house wants—even if it’s an all-day affair like that showy, yet delicious, coconut cake from Paula Deen. I try to cook a new dish once each week. During troubled times, I cook and share what I’ve made with friends and family. I still remember the many soups and stews and slow-cooker meals I made following 9/11. Creating and sharing meals is how I reassure myself and those I love that everything will be all right.
When my daughter went to college, I sent her off with a big binder full of our family’s favorite recipes. There’s a teacake recipe that was the result of a summer-long quest for that real, old-fashioned taste I remember from my childhood. A wintertime tomato soup made with canned tomatoes that you first roast in the oven with thyme to concentrate the flavors. A few stir-fry dishes, sesame noodles and peanut noodles and Thai coconut soup because that’s the kind of thing my girl likes. Pimento cheese (the Highlands recipe) to remind her of where she’s from. On the back of every recipe, I offered advice on when and how to serve the dish; techniques and tips to make preparation easier; and sometimes just funny, personal anecdotes about the foods.
These asides were essential because, personally, I enjoy reading a good cookbook as much as cooking from it. And since Allison is still learning how to cook, I figured she’d get some immediate gratification from my musings.
Since food is all tied up with giving, in my mind, I am especially excited about a slew of new cookbooks that have landed on my desk lately. We’re entering the season for big, celebratory meals and gift giving. And I do love to multitask! These books are all incredibly different and so will suit a variety of tastes. Give them as gifts, and be sure to share the things you cook from them.
Essential Pepin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
by Jacques Pepin
Talk about a readable cookbook! You’ll want to curl up with this one before you start chopping anything because Essential Pepin is, at once, a very personal book about the master chef’s life in food as well as a collection of 700 of his favorite recipes that span a six-decade career. Roast Duck with Orange Sauce is haute cuisine. Polenta with Mushroom Ragout is more contemporary American. Quick Almond and Plum Cake sounds delicious and easy. I baked a batch of crisp, buttery (incredibly simple!) cookies called Cats’ Tongues just because. Pepin writes about his childhood in France, where he worked in his mother’s restaurant; his stint as the personal chef for Charles de Gaulle; and his time in the kitchens of some of the world’s most famous restaurants (his own and those of others). He even shares stories from when he worked developing recipes for the Howard Johnson restaurants. Plus, this giant cookbook includes a searchable, three-hour DVD demonstrating pretty much every technique you will ever need—from chopping garlic to boning a chicken.
Basic to Brilliant, Y’all (Ten Speed Press)
by Virginia Willis
The author of Bon Appetite, Y’all has made a name for herself by taking traditional French cooking and giving it a down-home, Southern kind of feel. In short, this is classic cooking that a girl from rural south Alabama can really sink her teeth into! I love cookbooks that invite you to expand your skills, using a little more effort and know-how to take a dish from good to great. This book does that with 150 duel recipes. You’ll start with a perfectly wonderful basic dish and then, with a new technique, a fresh presentation style or an inventive variation, you can dress your dish up for company. The author also shares stories of growing up in Louisiana and Georgia as well as anecdotes from her adult life living in and visiting France. So, again, you’ll want to read and cook.
Big Ranch, Big City (Ten Speed Press)
by Louis Lambert with June Naylor
This big, impressive cookbook is filled with hearty dishes (lots of soups and stews and sausages and cured meats; there’s a great deal of braising going on), but it also features beautiful photos of ranch life. Even with its Sunday Three-Bean Salad, Gingered Acorn Squash Soup, and Red Grapefruit and Avocado Salad with Honey-Poppy Seed Dressing, the book seems quite manly. Nonetheless, I’m giving it a go. Tex-Mex is one of my very favorite things. The Creamy Chicken Casserole with Hatch Chiles, the green chile queso and the serrano escabeche are sure to be big hits at my house. Lambert is a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, and he owns a number of restaurants in Austin and Fort Worth including Lambert’s Downtown Barbecue, Jo’s, and Dutch’s Burgers and Beer.
Maman’s Homesick Pie (Algonquin)
by Donia Bijan
OK, read this one first since it is a memoir. But then cook from it, too. There are lots of recipes included here. Bijan’s pomegranate granita sounds too good to pass up. So does her Ratatouille with Black Olives and Fried Bread. I might send Bijan’s mother’s bread stuffing recipe to Allison in her next package and tell her to add it to her binder. Bijan is from Iran. She grew up in Tehran until the Islamic Revolution forced her family to flee to America in 1978. Bijan uses food to tell her story and, in doing so, honors the memory of her mother who first taught her how to cook. The author went on to study in France at the prestigious Cordon Bleu, and today she has a restaurant called L’Amie Donia in the San Francisco Bay Area. This book is about using what we have on hand to make a home wherever we are. That’s exactly what I’m encouraging Allison to do with her recipes from
This column originally appeared in the November issue of Birmingham magazine.