I adore and admire a good cookbook, but these days I rarely get the opportunity, or the excuse, to cook from one. As such, I hold each cookbook as a chef’s endearing, enduring story of food on their terms -- and on their turf -- more than a companion for me in my kitchen.
I am a) in the industry and b) a New Yorker, meaning in order to learn, bond, and be inspired by another chef, I often travel to eat out at his or her restaurant. My meals at home are typically late at night and desperate, if I light the stovetop at all.
At home with my family in Virginia one Sunday, I reveled at the excuse to spread out and really dive into Megan Gordon’s West Coast-inspired Whole-Grain Mornings and Anne Stiles Quatrano’s Southern-inspired Summerland: Recipes for Celebrating with Southern Hospitality, a great adventure in both living life through each author and cooking under their guidance.
I cannot face any morning without a strong, loving cup of coffee (it is the most important beverage of the day). And though my seeming “schtick” -- somewhat perpetuated by the media -- has been all about breakfast and its many inspirations, I eat very few, let alone cook them. That said, the 10 early morning meals a year I do prepare, I relish in. At the break of day, I cradled Whole-Grain Mornings in a large green oversized chair in my family’s warm home. Drifting through the seasonal chapters and Gordon’s path from a small bakery to a lovely cookbook, I was reminded that it is time to slow down just a little, and remember how clever, inspiring, and soul-serving a hearty breakfast can be.
I’m a list maker, like all of the other women in my family, and off I went scribbling while flipping through Gordon’s pages. I’m always drawn to “basics” as new jumping-off points of creation and creativity in the kitchen. (At Milk Bar we have milk crumbs and cornflake crunch and cereal milk as jumping-off points.) I began to list: homemade yogurt, make-your-own signature granola, almond milk, infused honey, quinoa crunch!
My mind started to race, imagining what MY signature granola would be, and what if I made pistachio milk in place of almond milk? “I’m definitely buying gallons of honey and taking this infused honey bit to another level!” I thought. This is what sets apart cookbooks for me. The good ones give you a basic guide and an encouraging option to either follow recipes directly or use them as a kind of road map. Gordon urges you to start with her “cooking style" and to spend enough time in the kitchen to work the recipes into your own. And so I did just that.
My granola had apricot jam, pistachios, pistachio oil, and cocoa nibs; my milk was made from roasted walnuts; and my new collection of infused honeys highlighted red onions, coriander, ginger, and smoked red pepper.
The colder months are here, after all, so I was lured into the Baked Pumpkin Risotto and Buckwheat Crêpes. Both wholesome, nurturing, and family favorites, I couldn’t help but question some of the process and technique: Why not salt the sautéed plums so they really pop with the honeyed ricotta, folded up into the Buckwheat Crêpes? Why par-cook the brown rice in the risotto only to bake it the rest of the way in the oven? Why use apple juice -- the sweeter, less seasonal version of its earthy counterpart, apple cider?
I decided to do the dishes rather than criticize. I said goodbye to the West Coast and curled up again, this time with Summerland, taking a trip much further south than Virginia, down to Georgia.
As I flipped through the pages, I scrunched up my nose; I cook even less larger meals for fabulous lunch and dinner guests than I do breakfast. The cookbook is gorgeous, but will I really be able to cook from it on a regular basis? “I’m trying to cook a dinner for my family, and it’s neither Valentine’s Day, nor the 4th of July, nor the perfect day for a masked tea party,” I thought. I read on. I let down my guard, and I lost myself in Quatrano’s story.
Like Quatrano, I have my favorite seasonal produce that I go back to each year, in search of finding a new, inspired approach to cooking each one. It became clear that Quatrano has an unbelievable knack for both setting the table and filling the table, the key balance to festive and true hospitality. There is a seriousness-when-it-counts vibe to her food, and a take-your-shoes-off-and-grab-a-mint-julep-by-the-old-red-barn vibe that leaves me wishing that I were the next generation of lineage to receive her magnificent family farm.
I skipped through the suburban grocery store parking lot to gather ingredients for Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Sweet Potato Purée, Pea and Fennel Salad, Italian Wedding Soup, and Thyme Onion Rolls. I held my shopping basket sweetly under my bent forearm as though I was off to gather fresh eggs from the coop and pick vegetables from the garden.
Though Quatrano has arranged her recipes in a planned menu format, each dish can easily be plucked, prepared, and placed on the daily dinner table. Her cooking style and process clearly balances the home cook in her with her many accomplished years as a restaurateur and chef. The Brussels sprouts were simple yet cleverly instructed, hard-roasted in the pan before finishing in the oven. The pea salad was bitey, fresh, and new with fennel juice and shallots as the stars of the vinaigrette. Generous amounts of caramelized onions, thyme, and honey catapulted the Thyme Onion Rolls into the realm of otherworldliness.
She’s got the “basics” too: homemade mayo, buttermilk biscuits, broccoli stock, and yes, even granola. Did I mention Quatrano is almost as crazy about furry four-legged family members as I am? Only her quirk extends beyond mine -- she vrooms around in a golf cart on the farm, and has dreams of taking her airstream trailer on the road.
Though I sometimes daydream that I’m a calm and peaceful West Coast gal, and Gordon certainly makes me want to be a better, most-important-meal-of-the-day, whole-grain woman, Quatrano reminds me that I am who I am -- a far more Southern spirit, a crazy dog lady, and one who, with or without rules or planned menus, cooks to transport, cooks to unite, cooks to share, cooks to nourish, and cooks to celebrate a big event or a simple meal at home. And that’s the power of a great cookbook.