If time travel were possible, and I could somehow hop back as my current self to the early 1990s, I would like to have met Laurie Colwin at a party somewhere. Or even better, drop into her book-filled garden apartment in Chelsea for supper one night. Once we got to chatting, I think we both would have been delighted by how many things we had in common.
I wish I could remember what it was, this past February, that made me go find my copy of More Home Cooking. Maybe it was because I had been kicking around a few essays about life and food, making a general mess of things, which is what I like to do in early drafts (and in the kitchen), and I was craving inspiration from her clear, intimate, and comforting voice.
I hadn’t reread her collection of food essays since it came out in paperback in 1993. At that time, all we had in common were tiny Greenwich Village apartments.
Like her oft-described place on Bethune Street, I had my own small studio where I tried to work magic with a partial kitchen. My apartment on 13th Street had exactly 12 inches of counter space, a fridge that never fully got cold (the milk would sour in mere days), and a wonky stove with an oven that only got hot on one side. This should have been enough to make me throw in the kitchen towel and just be grateful to live in a city with staggering takeaway options and hundreds of speedy delivery saints. Sung Chu Mei, the popular Chinese restaurant on Hudson Street at the time, was so fast I used to joke it was like the Lucy episode where she makes a fake call in front of Ricky to order the hat she had already purchased: The delivery man rings the doorbell as she hangs up the phone.
Seemingly possessing the same fortitude as Ms. Colwin, despite the circumstances, I was determined to entertain. This was my first Manhattan address after years in the outer-boroughs, and although it was small, it had a beamed ceiling, an exposed brick wall, and an almost-working fireplace. There were only two windows in the apartment, but they were light and airy thanks to the asphalt basketball park that it overlooked. To further enhance the urban romance, it even had a fire escape where you could carefully balance a glass of wine.
Gathering people around meals seemed to be in my DNA. I once cooked stuffed Cornish game hens for a visiting pal in a toaster oven in my college dorm. For intimate dinners, I had a card table tucked under my bed that could be covered with a French cloth. If I sat on the bed, one other person could be opposite in my desk chair. Eventually I bought a few used folding chairs that could also hide under the bed, and I could accommodate up to four. Any more than that and it was a buffet, and guests would perch where they could because space was tight.
As I made my way through Colwin’s collection of essays this past winter, I realized it wasn’t just the village we had in common. I, too, had eventually progressed to a larger apartment in Chelsea, just a block away from her place. I was delighted to learn that we shared several culinary heroes: Edna Lewis, Marcella Hazan, Elizabeth David, and John Thorne, who greatly deserves to be more widely read. Colwin and I both loved transferware and collected tablecloths. We shared an affection for potato salad, flank steak, biscuits, and roast chicken. The further I read, the connections accumulated, so much so that I started Googling for more details about her life. We even had a connection with Issac Bashevis Singer—she had worked as a translator for him, and I once escorted him to the stage at the Metropolitan Museum where he was being awarded the Governor’s Arts Award. He was frail at the time, so as one of the Arts Council staff members working the event, I helped him up the stairs and stayed by him at the podium while he railed against modernism. Despite the fact that I was twice his size, several in the audience assumed I was a grandson.
As any of my acquaintances can tell you, I was in complete agreement with Colwin that
One of the delights of life is eating with friends; second to that is talking about eating. And, for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends.
I have to admit, these are my happiest times at the table. A very prominent writer and scholar once huffed away from a dinner party I was attending, mid-meal, because she said there was “too much talking about food.” I’m pretty certain I was the guilty party.
The biggest surprise, however, was that we shared a current connection. While I sat in my Litchfield Hills studio in Connecticut and reread her essay “Catering on One Dollar a Head,” she not only mentions West Cornwall, which is just down the road from where I sat, but also writes about an open studio she catered for a painter friend. That very day I happened to have come across the painter’s name in my Facebook feed, as the Cornwall Library was hosting an exhibition of his new paintings at this very moment.
I’d been unknowingly following in her footsteps for many years.
On my way home I started wondering who might still be around that knew her. It occurred to me that my favorite farmer had been in these parts for quite a while, and on a hunch, once I got back to my studio, I looked at the acknowledgements at the front of the book that I had (as almost always) skipped past. There, in the paragraph beginning “In West Cornwall:” I found his name.
“I remember Laurie being very enthusiastic and supportive of our farm early on,” Gordon told me later. “Things do not always go well on a farm. It is very important for us to have cheerleaders who value our work and products and keep us going.”
So even in this regard I find myself once again following her path. In addition to the occasional trips to the farm stand, during the season I visit with Gordon weekly at the small but more-than-adequate Cornwall Farmers Market on the pristine green in Cornwall Village and kibitz about organic vegetables, recipes, and politics.
“Thanks for remembering a pioneer foodie,” he said.
I feel so grateful to live in a place where I can buy meat and vegetables and actually know where they come from, to be able to see where the orchards are and the animals are pastured, and to know none of it had to travel very far to make it to my kitchen.
That was the one place, yet, where I hadn’t followed Colwin: into the kitchen. Like so many others, I enjoyed her vivid and intimate writing but had somehow never made any of the recipes in her books. In honor of my pilgrimage and her upcoming birthday (June 14), I decided I would dive in that very day.
From my recent reading, the three recipes that received the most mentions were her roast chicken, her spinach and jalapeño dish, and gingerbread. That also seemed like a very satisfying menu, so after a quick trip to the store for the few items I was missing, I started cooking.
I roast a lot of chickens. In recent years I’ve become fixated about food waste, and also about money waste: why pay $6 a pound for chicken breasts when you can buy a whole bird for $2 a pound. When I was working a nine-to-five job, six days a week, it was a part of my Sunday game plan. With a roast chicken, I knew I could get at least three meals out of it and a few chicken sandwiches.
As Colwin says in her essay on the subject, “A chicken sandwich is a mood elevator. If they were served in prisons people would commit felonies to get in.”
Because it was my almost weekly habit, I would also save the livers in a container in the freezer until I had enough to make pâté or a mousse. The roasted bones and giblets would all go into another bin with the carrot shavings and onion peels and herb stems to make stock. I’m now somewhat astonished I haven’t purchased chicken stock in years. I freeze it in pint-sized containers which, for me, are much easier to deal with. Anything bigger and it just ends up in freezer Siberia because it’s usually more than I need, which is generally for sauces or stir-fries. Three minutes in the otherwise barely used microwave, and I can have a pint of hot stock.
Also, because roast chicken became such a habit, I learned that it really is okay not to brine, marinade, truss, or fuss. I’ve done all of those things, but now I mostly shower it with salt and pepper and bung it in the oven at 425 degrees for 20 minutes and then lower it to 325 until it’s done. I also know about wiggling legs and juices running clear, but I’m devoted to my instant-read thermometer. It was a surprise gift from a friend that arrived in the mail at my office one day, and my colleague said, “Oh, that’s going to change your life!” She was right.
Of all the things I have tried with roasting chicken, however, I had not tried Colwin’s method, and I was a bit trepidatious.
“If you tell people that you roast a three-pound chicken for almost three hours they gasp with horror. ‘But it must be completely dry!’ they shriek,” Colwin says in her roast chicken chapter. “Actually,” she continues, “it is completely moist and juicy, crisp and tender, all at the same time. The secret is to slow-roast at between 250 degrees and 300 degrees F. and baste constantly. This is the chicken of my childhood, and it is the chicken you get at my mother’s and sister’s houses, and none of us has ever had any protests.”
I’m not certain I could even find a three-pound chicken in my grocery store, and in truth, I don’t want to. Whenever I’m going to make the effort in the kitchen, I always want to maximize it, and I do want those other meals to follow (stir-fries, enchiladas, pasta with chicken and Brie, to name a few). In that regard, I veered from her instructions and my bird was closer to six pounds. I roasted at 275 degrees since that was the median of her range. Since my bird was twice as big as hers, I was sure I’d be in for the full three hours. I decided “constantly” basting meant every half-hour. In the early stages there was nothing in the pan to use to baste, so I melted a little butter and started with that. By the third basting there was plenty to drizzle over the hen. I also dusted the skin, as she said she and her mother would, with salt and pepper and some paprika for color and slight smokiness.
While that was in the oven, I worked on her Creamed Spinach with Jalapeño Peppers.
I followed this recipe nearly to the letter, though I had no celery salt (a spice she seems fond of), so I used celery seed and salt. The recipe calls for 45 minutes of cooking at 300 degrees, so I put this in the oven with the chicken after two hours and 15 minutes, and goosed the heat to 300 figuring I could pull the chicken if it was done before that. It wasn’t. But just at the three-hour bell, both bird and side were ready for the table.
I wanted to make the gingerbread that night and have it for desert to round out our tribute meal, but I think two new recipes might be my maximum when the super-sous-chef husband isn’t around and I’m alone in the kitchen.
I don’t know if it was the best roast chicken I’ve ever had, but it was very, very good. One thing about her chicken that did stand out: I think the combination of low temp and basting kept the chicken very tender. It wasn’t quite as taut as chickens cooked at higher temperatures have been, and that was very appealing. And there were those mood-elevating sandwiches for the next two days...
The spinach was delicious, and I could easily imagine it with many other mains or even on its own for a vegetarian supper with some rice or buttered orzo on the side, or topped with a fried egg as Kristen Migliore suggests. My husband had the leftovers with his lunch the next day and thought about sharing it with some colleagues in his office, but once it was out of the microwave and he tasted it again, he decided otherwise. Since he is the most generous person I know, this means it was really, really good.
A few days later, we made the Damp Gingerbread.
I’d had this gingerbread once before when a friend brought it for dessert to a dinner party at our house and I liked it so much, I asked her for the recipe. Six years went by and I still hadn’t made it, so I’m very glad I finally did.
The batter came together easily and quickly with common pantry items, the only slightly tricky bit being the Lyle’s Golden (cane) Syrup, but my local market happened to carry it. I’m certain you could try replacing it with honey or maple syrup or corn syrup, but I really wanted to try the recipe as it was written.
Do not do what I did and eyeball your pan to decide whether or not it’s the right size. Measure the darn thing—across the bottom, please, and the sides. It turned out my pan was not nine inches wide and two inches high, but rather eight and a half inches wide and an inch and a half high! I learned this when I opened the oven door at the 30-minute mark and, instead of a fragrant beauty, was greeted by Jabba the Hut. Boy oh boy, was I happy we had stuck it on a rimmed sheet pan.
But here was the interesting takeaway: Those blobs on the sheet pan were pretty hard to stop eating once the cake was done. The bottoms even caramelized in a very pleasing way that made me think one could experiment on purpose with this batter. Miraculously (thank you parchment), once the edges were trimmed to release the blobs (mostly on one side of the pan thanks to our, apparently, slightly tilted oven), the cake came out in one piece. Served upside down, to hide the ragged edge, it was delicious for dessert later that day with a dollop of whipped cream on the side. I’m sure a lemon glaze or cream cheese frosting would be lovely, as many have suggested, and powdered sugar would be fine, but what I loved most about this gingerbread was its elegant simplicity.
It is a comfort to know I have many more recipes to cook from these books, and at the same time sad to realize that there won’t be more of her calm and levelheaded advice to follow into the future. I think what she had to say about roast chicken could have easily been said about her:
There is nothing like roast chicken. It is helpful and agreeable, the perfect dish no matter what the circumstances. Elegant or homey, a dish for a dinner party or a family supper, it will not let you down.
That last bit, I think, summarizes her enduring appeal to so many armed with only a wooden spoon: She will never let you down.
Though it is often repeated, it is true that, given the chance, everyone congregates in the kitchen. It’s an easy place to find comfort and solace, especially when someone else is cooking. But as the designated cook, I find that the kitchen can be a place where it is hard to have a friend. In my 40 years of cooking, I’ve still only had a few pals that didn’t drive me completely crazy in my cooking zone: Please, seriously ... don’t help ... stay over by the table … seated … with a glass of wine … and chat with me.
As far as I’m concerned, the myth of the fun of everyone “cooking together” quickly devolves into a turf war for counter space akin to a game of Risk, and instead becomes a competition about who can make the biggest mess and use the greatest number of dishes. I once had a dear friend who thought it was okay to chop carrots on the Formica kitchen counter just because it was designed to look like butcher block. Those gashes are still in that countertop, I’m sure.
As Colwin writes, “No one who cooks, cooks alone.” With confidantes like her in the kitchen, we have the best kind of friend, indeed: helpful, agreeable, perfect no matter what the circumstances.