REMEMBERING JAMES BEARD

Flying to Portland, Oregon, James Beard’s hometown where the 2010 IACP Conference was being held, I found myself rereading Epicurean Delight, the biography of Beard by my husband Evan Jones that was published five years after Jim died in 1985. So many lovely and telling reflections of his character surfaced that I wanted to jot them down but I didn’t have a notebook handy on the plane so I wrote them on what we publishers call the end papers of the book. In Epicurean Delight the endpapers are illustrated with a montage of immediately recognizable action drawings that the artist Karl Stuecklen sketched of Jim at play in his kitchen—whisking the eggs, sniffing the soup, tending the grill, and just contemplating his domain. As I filled in all the blank spaces I could find, writing across Jim’s forehead or the apron covering his ample chest and tummy, suddenly the words seemed to be popping out of Jim himself and the whole mosaic of bons mots came vividly to life.

Here is a sampling of the quotes starting in the upper left hand corner:

  • “In the beginning there was James Beard . . .” wrote Nora Ephron.

And from Beard himself:

  • “Designing hors d’oeuvres is not different from designing sets and costumes . . . Food is very much theater.”
  • “We’re Americans and can do as we please.”
  • “When I walk into a market I may see a different cut of meat or an unusual vegetable and think, ‘I wonder how it would be if I took the recipe for that sauce I had in Provence and put the two together?’ So I go home and try it out. Sometimes my idea is a success and sometimes it is a flop, but that is how recipes are born. There really are not recipes, only millions of variations sparked by someone’s imagination and desire to be a little creative and different. American cooking is built, after all, on variations of old recipes from around the world.”
  • “A cookbook should reflect the personality of the author along with his or her kitchen technique. Some cookbooks are put together like paper dolls. There is no feeling of humanness in them. I write about things I like and the way I like them.”
  • “Hands are our earliest tools. Cooking starts with the hands which are so sensitive that when they touch something they transmit messages to your brain about texture and temperature.”
  • “Freshness in vegetables is more important than anything else.”

I realized as I read these excerpts how much I had absorbed from Jim Beard over the years. I always loved working with him because he helped me develop a more relaxed and creative approach to cooking and I could tell that he was much more comfortable working at the stove that having to tap out words on a typewriter. He welcomed any distraction. If the phone rang and it was Mrs. X from Iowa City he would happily take the call and go through all the steps of the recipe she was having trouble with to figure out why her cake hadn’t risen. Around noon he’d begin to get restless for lunch so we would descend the stairs to the kitchen where he would swing open the door of his large fridge and sniff around for leftover bits that he had tucked away, composing in his taste imagination a harmony of flavors. Half an hour later we would sit down to a simple and always delicious lunch, often interrupted by the sudden appearance of Larry Forgione, the chef proprietor of An American Place, or perhaps Carl Sontheimer, the father of the Cuisinart food processor, seeking advice or enlightenment. You didn’t need Google in those days if you knew James Beard.

I came to know him when one day in 1961 I cheekily picked up the phone myself to ask him if he would look at the advance proofs of a big book on French cooking that we at Knopf were about to publish. He didn’t hesitate to say yes and after devouring it in just a few days, he called me to tell me how impressed he was with the book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and that we must be sure to bring these unknown authors over from France to introduce them to the American public. Then he took charge and persuaded Dionne Lucas to put on a French dinner party at her restaurant, The Egg Basket, and he personally invited the key players of the food world to attend and meet the authors of Mastering.

That was Jim Beard—utterly sure in his judgment when he spotted the genuine article, unhesitatingly generous in his support, creative but at the same time realistic, and above all blessed with perfect pitch when it came to his palate. In a sense he was born before his time and he encountered considerable obstacles as he tried to awaken the American palate to appreciate really good home cooking and to make the most of our extraordinary regional produce. His cooking began in the marketplace in Portland where he would roam with his mother among the farm stands, selecting only the best to be transformed into delectable dishes that she served in her boarding house, or to visit the Chinese quarter with Let, their Chinese cook, so they could bring home the cod cheeks that the fish monger always saved for them.

The first morning of the IACP Conference we took a Being James Beard Tour in downtown Portland and although urban growth has swallowed up the outdoor market where Jim and his mother shopped, the memories still remained. Robert Reynolds, who has sometimes been called the poet chef of Portland, read passages that he had selected from Epicurean Delight at each stop and I could see that he was deeply moved connecting with this man he had never really known before.

The last night of the Conference I had the good fortune to eat at Robert’s very special restaurant, Chefs Studio. The place consists of one room large enough to accommodate a dozen or so at a big table. Votive candles were lit and strewn across the white paper-covered dining table, set for fourteen with big glasses awaiting good Oregon Pinot Noir. On three sides the rough walls consisted of exposed beams and a few posters while the remaining wall was open to the kitchen. There we could watch Robert and his crew of four performing their ballet, adjusting flavors before carefully plating each dish.

From start to finish the food was superb, exactly what Himself would have loved. All the dishes were based on the season’s bounty: freshly gathered morels, tangy ramps and radishes and radish leaves, young spinach greens molded into little vegetable timbales, tiny berries and slim stalks of early spring rhubarb. The only item that had traveled from afar was the grass-fed lamb from the Southwest. As we were relishing its good, pure-lamb flavor, we talked to the rancher who had nurtured the herd—a young woman who clearly loved her calling—and we all exchanged sample bits of our life in food, ending with more stories about Jim.

To me that evening at Chefs Studio was the highpoint of the IACP Conference and I wished that there could be more of this kind of sit-down dinner where people could get to know each other and experience the regional products. Meanwhile I look forward to a visit again in a few years when the dream of the James Beard Public Market that is being planned will have become a reality and I can wander through the stalls and visit with the vendors and learn more. I hope I’ll find some cod cheeks to bring home.

THE PLEASURES OF COOKING FOR EIGHTY

What would it be like, I wondered, to cook for eighty hungry people, particularly for someone like me who is used to cooking for one. So I decided to try it and last Saturday I joined forces with the seasoned crew at Holy Trinity Church in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan, who prepare a supper every week for anyone who is in need of a warm, nourishing meal.

Usually between eighty and a hundred people show up and the kitchen crew has to be ready to serve by 5:15 with the tables nicely set. The schedule is tight because the premises are given over to the Trinity Thrift Shop that same day and there are stacks and hangers full of secondhand clothing spread out all over the ample basement with last minute purchases being toted up. Then suddenly it’s time to clean up the clutter and transform the space into an orderly dining hall before the doors open and the hungry, lined up outside, descend. But this moment of tension only lends to the drama. And that’s always part of the fun when you are giving a dinner party.

Meanwhile, we the sous-chefs have been busy doing the prep work, slicing the baguettes and boules from six large sacks of crusty breads (made even crustier because they are yesterday’s loaves) that Eli’s has donated. That’s a lot of bread. But just when I start to ache I remember Julia Child’s characteristic remark when someone complained about beating the egg whites by hand: “Nonsense. It’s good for the upper arm muscles.”

Suddenly as we are finishing up, about a dozen teenagers descend the basement stairs and are introduced by our pastor as new helpers. It seems that they are from a Staten Island high school and that they wanted to do something helpful so they Googled soup kitchens and read about Holy Trinity’s program. They immediately throw themselves into the work, quickly clearing out the dining room, arranging the long tables, covering them in sheets of white paper to simulate linen table cloths, and setting places with real cutlery—no plastic knives and forks for the HTC guests.

As I look around the busy kitchen, I realize that the unassuming Bob Noorsesion, whom I’ve just met, is secretly the maitre de cuisine here, as though he had been born to the task. He doesn’t give orders; he just performs, gracefully and efficiently. It’s as though he had a timer in the back of his head, and we fall into step, taking up the choreography as we fill big baking trays with commercially prepared breaded chicken breasts, which he pops into the hot oven and automatically clocks. At the same time he tends to the frozen vegetable mix that goes into one of the huge pots of boiling water on the large restaurant stove and to the pasta which he shovels into another pot. When his automatic clock goes off, he hoists the pot (which I couldn’t have lifted without a crane) from stove to sink and drains the chunks of pasta, then tends to the veggies.

At last a cook’s task falls to me when the bowl of steaming pasta is put on the table. I get to toss it with butter and season it with salt and pepper until the balance is right. Fortunately as part of our bread service, we had peeled the foil wrappers from masses of those little pats of butter that restaurants serve so there is a huge pile of butter pats waiting to be tossed in and absorbed (Julia would have approved of that!).

Even the dishing up, arranging the food on real plates with a dollop of tomato sauce on top, is done with care. Just before everyone dives in, Lydia Colon gives the guests a touching welcome. As a seasoned hostess of this kind of neighborhood service, she has learned how to handle the sly ones who try to stuff their pockets with sweets. The Two Little Red Hens Bakery on Second Avenue, just below 86th Street, always sends a dazzling array of beautifully wrought cakes to the suppers, and evidently if we’re not careful they’ll disappear before everyone gets a fair share. But Lydia knows how to fox them: she has the cakes artfully cut up in the kitchen, each slice containing one of the enchanting flowers sculpted with the different color icings and these portions are served with the dinner so that no one can say “I didn’t get my piece of cake.”

Anyway, the night that I am here, there is plenty to eat and second helpings to go around. Of course, there are a few complaints from some about what they can and can’t eat but there is a good feeling all around and, as I pour coffee at the tables, I feel the warmth and the appreciation. These people are our guests and they are glad to be at our table. There is even one table made up only of women, who seem to come regularly less out of a need for food than for the company.

A part of me wishes that we had really cooked the food we are offering. But then I thought of what that would entail: probably forty pounds of meat to make enough for a beef stew that would satisfy these appetites, to say nothing of all the prep work and careful tending involved in cooking up a really good boeuf bourguignon. We’d have to chop up enough onions to rival the pile that Meryl Streep produces in Julie and Julia. And think of all the big skillets needed for braising the onions and mushrooms separately to get a good glaze. No, I am enough of a realist to reluctantly bury that fantasy. But I do learn that by early summer the HTC kitchen gets fresh vegetables from the Community Supported Agriculture group that supplies garden produce as it comes into season. So I’ll be back to peel the carrots and wash the greens.

Meanwhile I cherish what one of the old regulars said to me as I poured him a second cup of coffee, and the look on his face as he said it: “Thank you, sweetheart, for bringing the sunshine.”

The Pleasures of a Plate-Licker

There’s nothing like having a dog around when you’re cooking. He (or she) is always there to catch whatever morsels you may drop, to show his appreciation with a lick of the tongue, and to relieve you of the job of scraping and rinsing all the dishes before they go into the dishwasher. That pre-rinse is particularly appreciated when you’ve given a dinner party and had to play chef and chief bottle-washer, to say nothing of hostess, all at the same time.

It’s more than a year now since my Corgle (short for Corgi-Beagle) Prince Madoc died of old age and I still miss him every time I come home. As I headed for the kitchen he would be several steps ahead of me. If I put down a plate that had a mishmash of leavings (never my plate!), he would always maneuver his long tongue around it to separate the meat scraps and juices from the veggies. When he’d consumed the good stuff, he would look up longingly, hoping there was just a little more to come. Then he would return to the plate for a final lick after I’d put it in the dishwasher just to make sure he hadn’t missed anything.

Madoc 

I would often speak French to him because it was a good way to practice my langue de cuisine. I liked the fact that he never talked back, correcting my accent and grammar. And I could tell that he loved the expressive lilt of spoken French.

Some months after Madoc was gone, I tried to get a small dog from a rescue shelter in Long Island and I foolishly picked a very forlorn little creature, naming him Precious as I snuggled him in my arms and took him home. But I should have been suspicious when I gave him his first bowl of food and he hardly touched it. It developed that he had been so abused that he couldn’t trust human beings, and in the ensuing days, though he gingerly ate a little more, nothing really worked, neither love nor good food, and I had to face the painful lesson that he was as unhappy as I was. So Precious had to be returned.

Now I am looking again and I’m a little wiser. I realize that the refusal to eat is a profound sign of distress in a dog. Moreover, it’s a handicap to humane training methods because how can you use a treat to give a command or reward a fellow when the lure isn’t tempting?

I’ve often wished I could take a dog to Paris with me. I love the way the French treat their dogs, taking them everywhere, letting them run free in the parks and treating them to lunch at a neighborhood bistro, where the chef is likely to send out a little bowl of something delicious pour le chien settled under the table. I am told that the French are considerably less indulgent these days than they used to be, but they are still more civilized than we are. You can see it in a dog’s cocky stride as he accompanies his family shopping in the busy outdoor markets of Paris.

When I was about nine years old, my parents agreed to let me have my first dog. I had been begging for one and they finally gave in when they thought I was old enough to take care of the creature myself. That meant not just walking her but cooking for her because in those pre-World War II days canned and dried dog foods couldn’t be found in your local grocery. So when we brought a Scotty named Sally MacGregor back from Vermont, she settled happily into New York life—primarily, I liked to think, because she loved my cooking.

I certainly loved cooking for MacGregor. It was my first experience alone at the stove and I could do what I wanted, cooking up chopped meat with whatever leftover tidbits I could find. She particularly loved liver and bacon (perhaps that’s where I got my early start appreciating organ meats).

Jeffrey Steingarten wrote a delightful piece some years ago for Vogue describing his moment of revelation as he was grilling fat sausages for himself over an oak and mesquite fire, and his companion, Sky King, a young male Golden Retriever, looked on. After he had been given his bowl of dog food, “Sky King’s look was eloquent,” Jeffrey wrote. “‘I know that you are a fair-minded human,’ he seemed to be saying, ‘and that you have only my best interests at heart. But are you absolutely sure that I should be eating this pile of dead and desiccated pellets while you experience the feral delights of flesh? Who’s the carnivore here anyway?’”

It was a turning point and from then on Jeffrey dedicated himself to preparing such delicious and healthful dinners as Roasted Marrow Bones for his canine friend. He talked with French chefs and, of course, got a positive response (and more recipes), but most of the vets and dog food company spokesmen he consulted worried that Sky would not be getting a “complete and balanced” diet.

But Sky is doing well and Jeffrey is doing well and I think I will join them in practicing what’s-good-for-me-must-be-good-for-my-dog as soon as I find the perfect hungry creature, just little enough so I can tuck him or her under the seat when we fly off to Paris.

Do You Really Want to Make French Bread?

I have been asked by someone who stumbled on my most recent blog, To Knead Or Not To Knead, if I would give more specific details about the French bread I make—in other words, a real recipe. That’s not easy with this kind of bread because there are a number of variables, from the climate to the water content of the flour. I am always experimenting, trying to make my loaves just a little better each time. My friend Jason Epstein, whose book Eating we just published this fall, would understand. He claims that he never makes something the same way twice, that he is always improving on it, so why write it down in a rigid formula? He prefers to treat a recipe as a conversation over the stove with a friend.

So I am going to follow Jason’s lead here and ask you just to join me as I describe how I made my baguettes this past weekend. It was a gray, cold day that I baked them, spreading the warmth of the kitchen and the heavenly smell of bread baking throughout the apartment.

First, you’ll need to check your EQUIPMENT. Unless you happen to have a wood-burning oven, you’ll need a baking stone measuring at least 14 x 15 inches that you set on the middle rack of your oven. You’ll also need something to create steam. The simplest method is to squirt some water over the loaves before they go into the hot oven and to toss of few ice cubes onto the oven floor just before you shut the door. I heat up an old flat iron, as described in my last blog entry, picking it up with sturdy tongs and plunging it into a pan of water.

For INGREDIENTS you’ll need 3 3/4 cups or more of white flour. (You can use bread flour, if you have it, but I find Hecker’s or King Arthur’s unbleached, all-purpose flour is excellent); 1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast (I use rapid-rise these days); 2 teaspoons kosher salt; and 3/4 cup tap water.

The night before I planned to bake I mixed 2 1/2 cups of the flour, the 1/4 teaspoon yeast, 1 teaspoon of the salt, and all of the water together in the bowl of my standing electric mixer, using the dough hook. You can do the mixing with a big wooden spoon but not your hands—at this stage it’s just too wet and sticky. When the dough is mixed it will still be loose and gloppy but that’s okay; cover the bowl in plastic wrap and drape a towel over it. I’ll give it about 18 hours to do its work, sitting in my kitchen where the temperature is around 60 to 65 degrees at night and 70 during the day;

Two hours before I’m ready to bake I add 1/2 cup more flour and the remaining teaspoon of salt and let the dough hook mix it again. If the dough still looks too soupy, I sprinkle in another 1/2 cup with the dough hook turning slowly. Now I flour my work surface generously (mine is a marble-topped worktable) and scrape the dough out of the bowl onto it, sprinkling more flour on top. Very gently at first I start to knead, using a dough scraper to prevent sticking and folding the dough over onto itself. This is such a delicate, moist dough that I have learned not to push down too hard but to coax the dough gently with the palms of my hands, adding more flour as necessary.

Gradually the dough becomes cohesive, then smooth, and it bounces back at me when I stick a finger into it. The kneading seems to take me about 6 or 7 minutes.

NOTE: I often want to make myself a small pizza*—cook’s treat—so at this stage I will tear off a piece of dough between the size of a golf ball and a tennis ball and set it aside, loosely covered with plastic wrap, or I refrigerate it if I’m not using it right away.

To return to the bread dough, I now wash out the bowl and put the dough back in it, letting it rise, covered again, for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until doubled in volume. Because this bread has less leavening, rising times are slower, which adds flavor to the bread.

Now comes the famous forming of the loaves à la Madame Child. I scrape the dough out of the bowl again onto the floured marble, punch it down gently, and divide it into thirds. I take one third of the dough (leaving the other 2 covered with a towel) and pat it into an oval shape 6 or 7 inches long.

Then I fold the long sides toward the middle, overlapping, and with the side of my hand I press the dough to form a lengthwise trough down the middle. I bring the two long sides up and over the trough and firmly pinch the sides together. Flouring the work surface again, I roll out the dough with the palms of my hands, starting at the center and rolling toward the ends, stretching the dough as I roll it to about 12 inches (or slightly less if I’ve stolen a piece for my pizza).

Now I quickly pick up that first rope of dough, which droops a bit as I transfer it to a kitchen towel that I have laid out, well dusted with flour. After arranging the loaf on the long end of the towel, I make a generous pleat in the towel to keep the first baguette separated from the next one. And now I prepare the remaining pieces of dough in the same way and lay another towel on top.

While the baguettes get their final 30-minute rise , I preheat the oven to 475 degrees with the baking stone on the middle rack. I also heat up my trusty old iron over a gas flame.

The last moment of excitement is at hand. The baguettes have doubled. I take my improvised baking paddle, well dusted at one long end with corn meal, and slip it just a little way under the first baguette; then using the far side of the towel I flip it onto the paddle, seam side down now, and make 3 lengthwise slashes on top with a razor blade held at an angle. I pull out the oven rack and I position the paddle at the far end of the stone, then jerk it so the baguette slips off the paddle and onto the hot surface. I very quickly repeat this maneuver with the two remaining loaves, shutting the oven door in between to keep the heat in. Now I put a pan of water on the oven floor and with my tongs grab the hot iron and plop it into the pan.

The baguettes are done in about 25 minutes, although I always peek 5 minutes sooner to see if they have turned golden brown. When ready I remove the baguettes with tongs and prop them up so the air can circulate as they cool.

Voilà. Try not to eat them until they’ve had at least half an hour to settle.

*To make yourself a small pizza for lunch: Preheat the oven to 475 degrees. Flatten your reserved hunk of dough on a well-floured work surface and roll it out to a circle about 6 inches in diameter. Paint the top lightly with olive oil and fill the round with whatever appeals to you. I love eggplant so I grill some fairly thin, lengthwise slices of a small eggplant, brushed with oil, over a gas burner, until lightly roasted. Then I arrang 3 of those slices on top of the circle of dough, interspersed with 6 or 7 cherry tomatoes and topped with a heaping tablespoon of grated parmesan. Using the same jerking motion that I described for sliding the baguette onto the hot baking stone and with the help of a spatula, I slip the pizza into the oven, but if that unnerves you and you feel all the topping will tumble off, bake the pizza for the first 5 minutes on a regular baking sheet and then slide it onto the baking stone when the bottom has firmed up. Bake a total of 12 to 15 minutes, checking to see if the dough is crispy and the filling bubbly.

The possibilities for pizza fillings are endless. See what scraps you may have in your fridge—cooked vegetables, a little sausage or ham, different cheeses, olives, peppers.

TO KNEAD OR NOT TO KNEAD?

Why do we make bread at home, particularly these days when there is so much good bread to be found in our local bakeries? Certainly most of us don’t have a brick oven or a way of creating the steam that is necessary to achieving a great crust, so our efforts can’t be as good as a professional baker’s. I’m talking about crusty loaves—boules, baguettes, ficelles, and hard rolls, which fifty years ago you could hardly find anywhere, even in New York City.

That was about the time that Julia was working on the second volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and as we were poring over the final selection of recipes for it, I mentioned that it was a shame that Americans, who at last were mastering French cooking, thanks to Julia, still couldn’t enjoy that essential element of a French meal: an excellent, hard-crusted, golden brown loaf that when broken open revealed a patchwork of holes with shiny interiors and tasted simply of good bread. Nothing was better suited to mop up the last delicious morsels on your plate and a French dinner just wasn’t the same without it. The only solution, I slyly suggested, was for Mastering II to reveal the secrets and give the American cook a recipe that would work.

My idea caught fire. As Julia put it in the introduction to the book, “Until our editor, in her gentle but compelling way, suggested that we really owed it to our readers to include a recipe for French bread, we had no plans at all to tackle it. Two years and some 284 pounds of flour later, we had tried out all the home-style recipes for French bread we could find”—and they still hadn’t come up with the real thing. Julia put her husband, Paul, to work on it at first because he had made bread in college, but after 60 loaves (a few of which he mailed to me in New York and they all looked like the twisted arms of an old olive tree) he gave up. So they packed up American flour and American yeast and salt, and set off for France where they made contact with Professor Calvel of the Ecole de Meunière in Paris. And then, as she wrote: “It was like the sun in all its glory suddenly breaking through the shades of gloom.” This epiphany was particularly acute because what they learned seemed to defy most of the tenets of bread making they had previously encountered: Calvel’s dough was supposed to be soft and sticky, almost too tacky to be handled, and it was left to rise in a cool spot, not warm, for many hours. The proper shaping of the loaves was a crucial factor, as Julia wrote me in a postcard from Paris, not mentioning that they still had to find a way to simulate the baker’s wood-burning oven and to come up with a device to get that whoosh of steam so essential to the crusting of the loaves. But Paul worked out those technicalities (they were always a great team) and soon Julia was ready with a 20-page recipe for Plain French Bread.

Needless to say, I became addicted to making my own baguettes at home. Initially I used an asbestos plate, as recommended by Paul, as a substitute for the hot floor of a French oven, but after asbestos was condemned I lined my oven shelf with tiles. I also found an old, pre-electric iron that was perfect for heating up on my gas flame on top of the stove. When it had turned red hot and after I’d coaxed the long loaves onto the oven tiles with the help of an improvised baker’s paddle, I would pick up the hot iron with tongs, plop it quickly into a pan of water on the oven floor, and slam the oven door shut. You could hear the whoosh of steam inside. If there were children around, they always seemed relieved once I had performed this feat, and soon they were eager to get into the act.

I have long believed that if you want children to be interested in cooking, start making yeast breads together. They feel something so magical as the dough changes from a sticky mess under their hands to a smooth and bouncy mass that holds together. And it’s all in the kneading. Then they put the dough back in its bowl, cover it, and let it take a rest. When they return some time later and remove the covering, the dough has doubled or tripled in volume, usually trembling at the brim of the bowl. Now comes the part they love best: punching the dough ruthlessly down again. They also love the shaping and are always surprised at how when it comes out of the oven its shape has changed. It has a mind of its own.

So I confess to having an ambivalent feeling when I read in the fall of 2006 that Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan had come up with a miraculous way of making the perfect, authentic country loaf that was going to revolutionize bread making. The attraction for home cooks was that is was easy, required no kneading, and that it was baked in a heavy, very hot Le Creuset-like cooking pot which gave it a great crust and those holes that are the pride of every baker. All it took was time—most of it waiting time—and the ability to handle very wet dough, which didn’t need kneading. Mark Bittman writing in the food section of The New York Times thought the results fantastic and Jeffrey Steingarten, an exacting cook, thought it the best country loaf he had ever made (after a little tinkering, of course) and wrote it up for Vogue.

I tried it a couple of times and was delighted with the taste and the texture of the round country loaf, although some of the holes seemed excessive in size so if slices were used for a sandwich bits of the filling might drop out. Recently I tried again, this time experimenting to see if I dropped a fairly long portion of the moist dough into a foot-long Le Creuset pan I had for making pate, I would get something that resembled a baguette. It was pretty good, but it didn’t really look like a baguette, with its handsome slashes, but like one of Paul’s olive tree branches, only plumper.

The truth is I missed the kneading. For me a good deal of the pleasure of making bread is tactile—kneading the dough gently at first so that it doesn’t stick to my work surface, scraping it off the board, flouring, folding, and continuing to knead rhythmically until my hands tell me it is ready. The dough gradually loses its tackiness and its resistance and comes alive under my palms, springing back at me when I press my thumb into it to see if it has been kneaded enough. My step-daughter tells me I become like a little girl I am enjoying it so much. And Julia used to say that hand-beating and kneading were good for our upper arm muscles. But this tactile sense also tells me when I have added enough flour and when the dough is just cohesive enough to roll out into the baguette shape. After it has had its final rise, then comes the slashing of the loaf, a procedure that takes some practice to master. With the revolutionary no-knead method, on the other hand, the dough is so moist that all you can do is just plop it into the hot pot and slap on the lid.

My objection is not entirely sentimental. Flours vary in their water content, making it hard to rely on precise measurements. Recently I botched a batch because the dough was too wet when it went into the pan, and although it crusted well, the interior remained damp. Had I been handling the dough, I would have known this and worked in considerably more flour.

But I did absorb a valuable lesson: You achieve a better-tasting bread if you use less yeast and allow the dough a long, slow rise. So now I’m playing with these findings and making a better baguette. But I haven’t stopped kneading.

ERRATA

The bane of every food writer’s existence is the careless mistakes we can make: mistyping the amount of an ingredient or a detail in the directions, thereby sending out to trusting readers a flawed recipe. It happens all too often.

After my book The Pleasures of Cooking for One had gone to print, I discovered to my horror two such mistakes in it. The first disturbing revelation occurred when I was describing to a friend the flavor of the Sauce Gribiche that I love as “mustardy and pickly,” and she looked at the recipe and said, “But there’s no mustard in it.” She was right—it didn’t cut the mustard!

Then recently I had a letter from a former rector of the church I have been a member of for many, many years here in New York. He is now living in a retirement community in Ohio and was enjoying a copy of my book. In fact, he said he was cooking his way through it à la Julie with considerable success. BUT he met his Waterloo over Blanquette de Veau. Not enough liquid, so what there was boiled away and left the veal dry and stringy. With trepidation I looked up the ingredients listed in the setting copy, hoping it was the printer who had been at fault. No such luck: I had called for only ¼ cup broth, when clearly I had intended 1 ¼ cups.

Usually a sharp-eyed copyeditor can catch most errors, but in both these instances the omissions were hard to spot. There was no reason than anyone would know that the Gribiche had ½ tablespoon of Dijon mustard in it (except for me—after all I wrote the recipe and have made it dozens of times) and you’re not going to know that the blanquette needed that extra 1 cup broth until you see that the pan has almost dried out.

Fortunately, the errors have been corrected now in subsequent reprints, and I hope those who have early books will find this blog and make the changes. Meanwhile I am consumed with guilt over my pastor’s dried-out veal. I console myself that it at least put us in touch again (food has a way of doing that) and that he revealed himself as an instinctive cook by adding more broth, even if it wasn’t quite enough and a little too late.

What is important is for the author to come clean and confess to the mistake and then for the publisher to correct it. In the old days errata slips were sometimes tucked into copies in the bookstore but in this automated age that is hard to do. And many publishers would rather not be embarrassed by admitting errors. With good reason. Years ago, when Craig Claiborne was the food editor at The New York Times, I persuaded him to do a cookbook for beginners, which we called A Kitchen Primer. Alas, the first printing contained about a dozen errors. As soon as they were discovered we printed one of those errata slips and they were inserted into the books. The Primer was very successful and was nominated as one of the best books of the year by what we then called the Mustard Awards (this was before the days of the James Beard Foundation and the IACP cookbook awards and the modest ceremony was sponsored by French’s mustard). But when the company discovered those errata slips they withdrew Craig’s name and he was disqualified—for being honest.

It isn’t just cookbook writers, of course, who suffer the humiliation of errata. Mysterious things can happen to any writer’s work—usually beyond his control and often without his knowledge. For years every edition of Yeats’s Collected Poems contained a slip of the printer’s finger which changed the whole meaning of a line in one of my favorite poems of his, Among School Children. Aristotle in the botched version was called “Soldier Aristotle,” which never made much sense to me. Finally it was discovered that what Yeats had written was “Solider Aristotle,” comparing him to Plato in the line above, who “thought nature but a spume that plays/Upon a ghostly paradigm of things.” And that did make sense. Poor Yeats. All those years of being misrepresented.

Was it Yeats’s fault? Was it the printer’s? We’ll never know. Whereas with the cookbook writer, it is usually the careless author who is to blame.

Mea culpa.

CHRISTMAS DINNER, THEN AND NOW

Ah, a family Christmas dinner. It was once so simple: a wintry, hearty meal, perhaps embodying some of the ethnic accents that we all carry with us in this land of immigrants. Being of English origin my family invariably enjoyed a standing rib roast with Yorkshire pudding. We were usually about twelve at the table and I, being the youngest, had to wait the longest to get my share of what seemed to me pitifully thin slices of that rosy beef. My grandfather, dressed in Sunday spats and vest, was the designated carver and he performed with considerable flair, being particularly adept at those thin slices. But I wouldn’t have dreamed of complaining, and anyway I was rewarded with a generous spoonful of beef blood that had accumulated on the platter as the roast was carved.

For dessert there was always a steamed pudding, set alight and carried to the table as the blue flames flickered around the molded dark cake. The young ones didn’t much appreciate the strong brandy taste that lingered after the flames had burned out but there was lots of foamy sauce to soften the flavor. And we certainly would not have thought of suggesting an alcohol-free serving.

Today it’s a different story. What with the divided and extended families that many of us are a part of, we never know quite who the players will be. In the old days it was not only the menu but the cast of characters at table that remained the same until one by one we fled the coop.

Several days before Christmas I got a call from my niece whose extended family was coming to me for the holiday feast this year. Could her beloved’s adopted son’s girlfriend be invited to dinner? I counted my chairs and fortunately there was still one left that could be fit into my smallish dining so, of course, she should come.

Then I went over in my mind the various dietary restrictions I’d been told about: my niece is poisoned by garlic; she and her daughter are lactose intolerant; my cousin’s son is a near-vegetarian. So I had to devise strategies to get around these constraints (and still have a good dinner). I would forego the slivers of garlic that I like to insert in the lamb as it roasts and instead I’d indulge in the special sauce that Julia Child always loved with her gigot, which calls for a whole head of garlic. However, as she points out with its two blanchings and slow cooking in milk, the cloves turn buttery and tame. But not tame enough for the allergic, and my niece was warned not to go near the sauce. I also served her a little dish of leftover wild rice because the flageolets—those lovely little French dried beans—that I love to prepare with lamb cook gently with several plump cloves of garlic to enhance their flavor. Then I made a rich, filling ratatouille and a big salad for the meat-cautious.

Everything seemed under control until the day before Christmas when I got another call from my niece. She just wanted to remind me that the men in her family have huge appetites. Evidently they all work out fiendishly, thereby charging up their appetites. So I’d better be prepared.

I panicked. Was my 7 pound lamb going to be big enough to offer seconds all around? I rushed out to the Food Emporium to buy a couple of packages of lamb shoulder chops to strew around the roast—just in case. And I chased down an extra packet of those hard-to-find French flageolets.

I need not have worried. Everyone ate heartily and there was plenty for seconds.

For dessert I had decided to forego the traditional steamed pudding (I could predict anxious looks about all that suet in it) and I settled instead on rich, molten chocolate cakes. So far I haven’t found anyone (except dogs) allergic to chocolate so I thought it would be a safe bet. Arranged on individual dessert plates with a garnish of strawberries and several dollops of vanilla ice cream (non-lactose for the afflicted), each cake had been purposely undercooked so that when it is broken into, warm molten chocolate pours out and mingles with the other flavors and textures. A delectable sensation!

It was Joan Nathan who first introduced me to this dessert in her book The New American Cooking. It seems that the extraordinarily talented chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten created these delights by mistake. Somehow the little cakes had been removed from the oven when they were not yet fully baked and, before he could retrieve them, they had been served to his customers, who were in ecstasy as they devoured their first bite.

Trust a Frenchman to turn a mistake into a triumph. It is a good reminder that the goal of a dinner—any dinner for that matter—is to give pleasure. Isn’t that what cooking is all about?

MILKWEED, FIDDLEHEADS, AND THE LEMONS OF THE NORTH

Somehow it disturbs me to walk by my neighborhood fruit and vegetable stand, when the wintry winds are blowing, and to see bundles of scrawny asparagus displayed. Who wants to eat asparagus when your fingers freeze as you try to extract the several dollars that the overpriced asparagus will cost?

I was raised to eat everything in season—in fact, that’s all we could get from our local groceries. Even though we moaned about being tired of oversized carrots and turnips, potatoes and rutabagas, to say nothing of large heads of frost-bitten cabbage, the long wait for spring only stirred the appetite for the good things to come and it made biting into the first spring asparagus all the more satisfying. Although my mother was of English background and very particular about table manners, we were taught that it was quite correct to pick up the stalks and eat them one by one down to the coarse end of the stem, even though melted butter or Hollandaise would be dripping from our chins. So I have always felt confident, almost defiant, about eating asparagus with my fingers wherever it is served—in fact, it’s a large part of the fun.

Thirty years ago when my husband Evan and I got our house on Stannard Mountain in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, one of the challenges for this city couple (flatlanders, the locals call us) was not only to start a garden but to get to know the land. We wanted to be able to forage for what the woods and meadows had to offer to enjoy every morsel from early summer to fall. Fortunately we met a wonderful woman, Adele Dawson, who used to give workshops on wild edibles and medicinal herbs (she was also a dowser), and she agreed to walk our land with us. As we wandered together over the terrain she would stir up leaves or poke through branches with her stick and point out the hidden treasures of early spring: milkweed shoots, fiddleheads, young dandelion leaves, wild garlic buds. Adele not only guided us in what to look for and where, but how to cook according to the time of year each item was harvested. For instance, the delicate spring milkweed shoots were best simply sautéed in a little butter or light olive oil; then in July, as soon as the milkweed developed purplish blossoms, the tight heads should be plucked and dipped in a beer batter, then fried until lightly browned and eaten with just a squirt of lemon; by late summer, the pods form and they are equally delicious—but different—stuffed and then steamed or deep-fried.

I learned particularly to enjoy sorrel in a rich creamy soup or with eggs or as a tart accent to fish or fowl. I first encountered it as a weed that invaded a patch of heather we were trying to cultivate and I was ruthlessly pulling up the leaves and dumping then on the compost heap—that is, until Adele enlightened us.

I’ve always been drawn to gooseberries, perhaps because they were a mystery fruit whose acquaintance I first made in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. I loved the sound of English puddings like Gooseberry Fool and Gooseberry Flummery. But the berries are hard to find these days even in farmers’ markets. We soon found out why. In our search for a couple of bushes to plant, we learned that during the Roosevelt years, it was discovered that gooseberries caused a pine blight so the President ordered his C.C.C. men all over the country to root them out. It has since been proven that the bushes were a threat only to the white pine and that if they were planted a sufficient distance away, there was no problem. But in the meantime America lost all its gooseberries, and we were intent on restoring them, at least on our hilltop.

Our two bushes, along with one rhubarb plant, now give me plenty of delightfully tart accents not only for desserts but also for sauces and preserves. Once on a trip to Wales, stopping at country inns, we sampled for the first time mackerel served with a gooseberry sauce, as well as the more familiar salmon with sorrel sauce. These—gooseberries and sorrel and rhubarb—are the lemons of the north, I thought to myself. I realized that in northern Europe and the British Isles, where lemons were once a rarity, they have long contributed essential acidic flavor to many a savory dish. In fact, it is ingredients like these that give regional character to our cooking—something we don’t want to lose by eating asparagus from South America in the middle of December.

Nova Kim, her granddaughter, and Les Hook
Nova Kim with her granddaughter and Les Hook at Bryn Teg, my house in Vermont

Several years after our introduction to Adele I got to know Nova Kim and Les Hook, naturalists who seemed to be born with the gift of knowing the secrets of the earth. They have now developed a following among food lovers and chefs in Vermont, supplying them with local wild treats from early summer through fall. They bring me generous samples of the wild mushrooms they seek out and gather—morels in late spring, chanterelles all summer long, boletus and hen-of-the-woods in fall, as well as many others. And I’ve learned to recognize one or two species on my own. There is nothing more exhilarating than spotting a patch of chanterelles thrusting their golden heads up through the soil at the edge of our woods and then bringing them home and cooking up a feast.

As I write this I have been snow-bound for several days in northern Vermont where I was scheduled to talk about my new book in a few of the independent bookstores up here. Fortunately my niece Sally and her husband Tony, whose house is not as inaccessible as mine in a blizzard, have given me food and shelter. A little while ago Tony had an inspiration: why not salvage the rest of the lettuce still in cold frames in his vegetable garden? Insulated by the snow, some of the leaves had survived, last time he checked. So we headed out, bundled in down coats and boots and scarves, with a below-zero wind whipping us, and we managed to scoop up the last of the tiny damp leaves—only a handful after they had been cleaned. But they added considerable sparkle to our salad that night and it was a loving way of celebrating the end of late fall, moving into winter.

A RETURN TO HOME COOKING

In early October I was on a panel with a number of writers discussing the future of food writing—from books, magazines, and newspapers to blogs and twitters. It took place at the Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, Mass., and I couldn’t help thinking that just in my lifetime food had come a long way; it was being honored here as a serious topic, launching a series of programs on the written word.

After much talk about current trends in restaurants and how the electronic media is changing the way we get our information, I suggested that what I really felt people were yearning for was a return to good home cooking. And a cheer went up from the audience. The same happened a few weeks later in a church in Norwich, Vermont (we had had to move from the bookstore to the church because so many food-loving people wanted to attend).

So there seems to be a movement afoot to get back into the kitchen and enjoy cooking. Maybe the downturn in the economy is having an effect. I think often of the artist Ed Giobbi, who wrote so affectionately about how, when he was growing up before World War II in a dreary New England industrial town, his family and neighbors would make frequent excursions to the coast to gather mussels (then considered trash fish by the rest of America). He wrote: “I suppose I remember these occasions because they were joyous and I tend to think of the Depression with some nostalgia. The gathering and preparing of food was a group effort and everyone was loving and open. Perhaps that’s why I have a special reverence for food.”

I have been particularly impressed recently by the number of young people—especially those faced with their first kitchen, usually tiny—who really want to cook for themselves. One of the things that inspires them, I believe, is a nostalgia for some of the good ethnic tastes they may have grown up on or were exposed to through travel. And because there is a growing awareness of how food is a means of telling about a culture, there is a new respect for learning about this endlessly fascinating subject. They not only save money but they eat better and enjoy the satisfaction of doing something creative.

Last week I was in New England promoting my new book The Pleasures of Cooking for One and I was asked by Nancy Supporta Sternbach, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese studies at Smith College, if I would meet with some of her students, who wanted to prepare some dishes for me before my talk at the Odyssey bookstore in South Hadley, Mass. It developed that she was teaching a course called What’s in a Recipeand it attracted students of different nationalities. I met with about ten of them—some with origins in Asia, India, the Middle East, France, and Italy. They delighted in getting together and making some of the dishes that had an interesting past. So they presented me with a sampling to fortify me for my talk. One student had made a tapenade and a spinach-yogurt dip; then there was a delectable rich winter squash soup; and the young lady from France had baked an interesting bergamot-seasoned cake, which was delicious dipped in tea. The elusive flavor of the bergamot led naturally to a discussion of what bergamot was and which countries used it and how.

Then an idea surfaced. Considering the success of reading groups all over the country, why not launch a series of food-and-book clubs? The focus would be on ways in which different authors treated food in their writing and members of the group could make dishes based on these descriptions. For instance, they might try to reproduce the dinner that Anne Tyler describes in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, in which the son in a dysfunctional family, now a chef, makes an eggplant soup with bananas—which, alas, doesn’t exactly succeed in pulling the family together.

Or the reading group might sample different cookbooks and find out which worked for them—which were genuine teaching books and which, through the sensuous description of a creation, inspired the novice cook to try what might have seemed a daunting recipe.

The handicap our young people face today as they start to cook is that most of them haven’t had the privilege of learning by osmosis, watching their mother (or father, or grandparent) cook, and absorbing all the subtle techniques. They are alone in the kitchen and there’s no one to turn to when the sauce curdles. But don’t despair. Help is now at hand. Once again Julia comes to the rescue.

About twenty-five years ago when Julia Child was at the height of her fame, we decided it would be a huge help to the home cook to create a series of tapes devoted to teaching all the basic techniques, from how to make a cream sauce and a hollandaise to cutting up a chicken and forming a tart shell. So I went out to Santa Barbara, where Julia was wintering, and worked with her long-time producer and director Russ Morash to produce a series of six teaching tapes called The Way to Cook. They were, and are, remarkable—the best 6-session cooking class you could ever attend. The only trouble was that the technology then was not up to the task. On those old tapes there was no instant access so you might have to go patiently through hamburgers, Sautéed Veal Scallops, Calf’s Liver, and Pot Roast before you got to the all-important technique of degreasing a sauce. Furthermore, you could only play these tapes on your TV screen, and most of us didn’t have televisions taking up space in the kitchen.

But now with DVDs we can, with our remote at the kitchen counter or stove, order up instantly that degreasing segment. We can take Julia into the kitchen on our desktop computer so it is just like having her standing there beside us when that sauce curdles (and she’ll tell us how to rescue it).

Watching The Way to Cook is mesmerizing and addictive. But you’ll come away a fine and fearless cook, I promise you.

Jason Epstein at Di Palo in New York

Although Judith won’t be there, I’m sure she’d want you to know about her friend, colleague, and author, Jason Epstein, author of Eating: A Memoir, who will be signing copies of his new book on

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 21

at the wonderful Di Palo’s Fine Foods in Little Italy in New York. It’s at 200 Grand Street, NY, NY 10013, between Mott and Mulberry, and it’s one of the most fascinating cheese (and assorted other Italian goodies) shops that you’ll find in the city.

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