Waste Not, Want Not – According to Lidia

So many times when I have been out talking about my new book, The Pleasures of Cooking for One, or joining in panel discussions about food, someone in the audience will ask what I think of the current crop of television food shows, and I have to admit that I don’t think much of them. In fact, it irritates me profoundly when the Food Network boasts, “We’re more than about food.” Why should they want to be “more” when food alone is such an endlessly fascinating subject? Why do they have to turn cooking into a competition, with testosterone as the main ingredient? But then I’ll pause: there is one exception, and often before I’ve said her name, someone will cry, “Lidia!” Everyone loves Lidia Bastianich—and with good reason. Lidia loves food with a passion and conveys her pleasure in cooking so persuasively that you can’t wait to get the pasta water boiling and to follow her lead creating yet one more delicious and often unexpected way of dressing it. Furthermore with every show we learn from her invaluable lessons in the finesse of cooking really good Italian food.

Recently I was in Boston with her where both of us were promoting our latest books, and we did a joint appearance at the Brattle Theatre. Talking about the research that she did for her just published, wonderful new book, Lidia Cooks From the Heart of Italy, she described vividly and lovingly the people she had met in some of the little-known parts of Italy she explored. Because the subject was food and food immediately creates a common denominator, she was able to get to the heart of each recipe, confirming her long-held conviction that what gives a regional dish its special distinction is the terroir, the soil and the environment that produces the fruits and vegetables, the olives and wine and cheeses, that lend a special character. In carefully ferreting out these secrets, she has been able to recreate the genuine flavors and bring them home to our kitchens.

But there was a deeper revelation that emerged in her search for recipes from the heart of Italy. In her introduction to the book, she says: “As overconsumption and greed have come to haunt us, it is now a time for reflection, for looking back at the generations before us, to understand their approach to the table. In my research into the twelve regions of Italy that I explore here, some answers came to light. The recipes I share with you reflect a respect for food—growing it, shepherding the animals, foraging for the gifts of nature in the wild, and hunting respectfully to put meat on the table, not just for sport. Nothing is wasted . . . This kind of respect also leads to a much more sensible and balanced intake of proteins, legumes, vegetables, and so on. In most of the recipes, it is evident that the dish is rooted in the reality of the times, when frugality went along with hard work, and home cooks made do with what was on hand. And of course they wanted dishes that would taste good. So you’ll find these recipes tasty, satisfying, relatively easy to prepare. But, most of all, they are a testimony to the harmony of elements that result in a harmony of taste.”

As we chatted together on the stage of the Brattle Theatre, sparring with one another about whether it’s more fun to cook for oneself or for a tableful of family and friends (both quite different experiences, we agreed) and whether or not almost any recipe can be successfully reduced to serve one (some disagreement there), I realized how much I have learned over the years from this extraordinarily creative, ever curious, and deeply responsible woman. In fact, my own theories about cooking for one took shape as I absorbed some of Lidia’s techniques for recycling leftovers in creative ways.

Several years ago when I was in her kitchen watching her prepare a lasagna with fresh pasta, after the dish had been assembled, there was just one stocking-like strip of pasta left, and I asked her (knowing full well the answer) if she was going to throw it out. “Of course not,” she answered, and promptly picked up the pasta, fit one end into a small baking dish and plopped a bit of yesterday’s bits of cooked meat lurking in her fridge on top. Then she folded and swung another portion of the pasta strip on top and covered that with her own tomato sauce (always on hand), and, of course, there was a layer of cheese. When the baking dish was filled she put it away for tomorrow when it could be quickly baked. Cook’s treat, she declared.

As our onstage conversation continued, Lidia offered a few examples from her book of the inventive ways in which yesterday’s bread can be used. One was a soup for which you first make a pasticciata, or layered casserole, of bread and fontina from Valle d’Aosta as well as Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano, all moistened with chicken broth, and when that has baked, portions of it are transferred to bowls and broth is ladled over it. The other treasure she revealed with an enthusiasm that was contagious was of Chocolate Bread Parfait. Here the leftover bread is soaked in chocolate and espresso and then spooned into glass parfait dishes with layers of whipped cream and sliced almonds.

This is the kind of cooking that is so satisfying, particularly in these days of soaring food prices, and we can all say grazie to Lidia for giving such a wealth of recipes to have fun with.

Two Legendary Editors, One Extraordinary Evening

If you’re in New York, come hear Judith Jones and Jason Epstein chat about the pleasures of cooking and eating. They’ll take questions after.

Tonight, Thursday, November 5, at
The Strand
828 Broadway (at 12th St.)
New York, NY 10003

It’s free!

MORE ON THE LANGUAGE OF FOOD—AND EATING

In my last post I explored the language of food, the subject of this year’s Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. I had been asked to participate on a panel so I began exploring the subject last summer, but I got sidetracked on the issue that I feel so strongly about—good recipe writing. As it turned out, it was not a subject addressed directly by the panelists and presenters of papers at Oxford, at least as far as I could tell (there was no way I could take in three or four sessions all running at the same time).

I also missed Simon Schama’s opening address, which from all reports was brilliant. I’m particularly sorry I didn’t hear what he had to say about the tongue as the essential organ for communication as well as the transmitter of taste. But the day before the opening session Claudia Roden and I had become hopelessly lost driving to Oxford from her house in Hempstead and we only just made it in time for a fabulous, meaty dinner drawn from Samuel Pepys’ Diaries, which included Venison and Trotter Pie, Roast Quail, A Leg of Mutton, and a Fricassee of Rabbit. This was followed by food-themed poetry readings until we finally tumbled into our beds, sated. No sooner was I soundly asleep than a screeching fire alarm went off, arousing everyone in our dormitory from bed to descend the stairs and stand shivering outside in the cold, most of us dressed only in pajamas, until the all-clear sounded. This happened four more times, leaving me so ragged that I was unable to rouse myself in time for the next morning’s opening ceremony.

When I did catch up, I was confronted with a dazzling menu of subjects to be explored, such as “Toward a Phenomenological Semiotics of Cuisine” and “Reconstructing Food History Through Linguistics” as well as more earthy topics like “Sex, Food, and Valentine’s Day” and “The Nomenclature of the Pig and Its Parts.” The panel I was on was mostly bombarded with questions about the future of food writing in our electronic world.

It was unquestionably the best food conference I have attended, with writers and students from all over. And the food was superb, each meal built on a theme culminating in a Saturday night banquet celebrating “The Language of French Gastronomy from the Raw to the Cooked,” created by Chef Raymond Blanc.

Still, I felt that there was one component missing: the idea of recipes as story-telling. I wish that Jason Epstein, the innovative editor and publisher, whose book, Eating: A Memoir, has just published been by Knopf, had been there to speak in defense of the recipe as story.

In his book he even goes so far as to make the recipe itself a conversation: no extracted ingredients, no numbered steps. He wants us to get the feel of the food with “a hint of” this and “just a little of” that. His theory, based on Heraclitus, is that you never make the same dish twice. And each time you do, you improve it. So why pin it down to a formula?

The people Jason has worked with over the years as editor—from Norman Mailer, Vladimir Nabokov, Gore Vidal, and E. L. Doctorow to Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, and Maida Heatter—are all blended into his culinary journey, as are the haunts of his summers in Maine growing up, his first trip to Europe on the Ile de France, the Manhattan of the fifties and the neighborhood of New York bordering on Chinatown that he lives in today. And as he stir-fries his Eggs Foo Yung, he drops fascinating bits of lore into the mix.

Who knows—maybe Jason has invented a new recipe language. Surely Eating will help to loosen us up and we may become a little wiser each time we make a dish.

Meanwhile, Jason and I will be exchanging stove talk at the Strand this coming Thursday evening at seven. We’ve both been in publishing for over fifty years and we have also served one another as editors. Jason was the editor for the L. L. Bean Game and Fish Cookbook by that great huntsman, fisherman, and editor, a true Renaissance man, Angus Cameron, and I played a supporting role in the writing. It was published in 1983 and is still in print. Much more recently as an editor, I encouraged Jason to tell his story through Eating, and now he has given us this delicious book to savor.

THE LANGUAGE OF FOOD

I have been thinking a lot recently about food and language. It all started last summer with the Independence Day Parade in the little village of Greensboro, Vermont, when the former State Poet Laureate, Galway Kinnell, was ceremoniously driven on a float through Main Street and delivered to the library, where he gave a poetry reading to an appreciative audience.

The first poem he read was “Blackberry Eating”—a poem I’ve long cherished because it evokes so sensuously the pleasure of picking the fall blackberries in the woods all around us. But I’d never heard Galway read it aloud and I was once again struck by the power of the language of food. As he mouthed the words strengths, squinched, splurge they became the essence of blackberries and we were pulled into the “silent, startled, icy black language of blackberries in late September,” happily licking our lips.

Then I was asked to be on a panel at the Oxford Symposium, which takes place once a year, gathering food writers from all over, and the subject was to be on Food and Language. How could I resist? So it got me thinking even more about how we use—or don’t use—language to express our feelings about food.

As I looked at the literature, I couldn’t help but agree with the critic Clifton Fadiman who wrote in an introduction to M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating: “We Americans do not take gladly to the literature of gastronomy . . . We must feel there is something licentious or censorable about it.” Certainly I grew up in a household where it was considered impolite to talk about food at the table and we were always being told to shut the kitchen door so the cooking smells wouldn’t escape. Furthermore the food industry ever since the nineteenth century had been telling us that cooking was demeaning and that the poor little housewife shouldn’t have to stoop to such lowly work (so buy our products instead).

What a long way we’ve come in just about fifty years. Finally the veil has been lifted and we’re able to enjoy the art of cooking, to slap the dough around, massage the chicken with butter, and sizzle the garlic until it smells up the whole house. And to write about it with joy. There is also a lot of interesting investigative reporting going on that has alerted us to some of the current practices of the food industry, and we are so much more aware of what we eat thanks to this kind of writing

So good, evocative writing about food has been a part of our culture now for more than half a century, ever since M.F.K. Fisher first wrote ecstatically about picking and eating fresh peas to the sound of a cowbell in the Swiss Alps and, more practically, Julia Child described the signs of doneness in a roast chicken as “a sudden rain of splatters in the oven, a swelling of the breast, and a light puff of the skin, and the drumstick is tender when pressed and can be moved in its socket.”

But at the same time the art of writing a recipe—and it is an art—has not improved; in fact it has deteriorated. In the interest of saving space, magazines, newspapers, even most cookbooks have reduced recipe writing to a formula that isn’t even particularly effective and certainly isn’t sufficiently instructive.

For example, a typical recipe today will tell us, “In a bowl, combine the first mixture with the second mixture.” Why does the bowl have to come first? (That’s not even good English). What exactly is meant by “combine”? Do we stir, fold, toss, mix (aren’t these more accurate terms?)? And what is “the first mixture”? Is it the milk in the first step which was warmed with a little sugar (does that make it a mixture?)? And where is the second mixture? We have to go chasing around for that. Why not say the warmed milk and then refer to the batter or the dough, or whatever the second mixture is? That way we learn accepted culinary terms. Or use old fashioned, serviceable expressions, such as “the dry ingredients” or “the wet ingredients.” I also wonder, if they are trying to economize on space, why the directions constantly tell us to “Set aside.” What are we going to do: throw it out after we’ve done all that combining?

I also find the insistence on telling us the preparation time for a recipe is a joke. Who is doing the prep—Jacques Pépin or you or me? There would certainly be a difference, and anyway who cares! What I miss in these recipes is the voice of the teacher, empowering the home cook, enabling us to make our own judgments, and be creative about correcting, adding, and substituting. It is only through that kind of careful, creative language that we come to understand the heart and soul of good cooking.

LEARN FROM YOUR POTS AND PANS

In writing a story the other day for Saveur, about the evolution of my kitchen, I was made aware once again of how much one’s work space is a reflection of the person whose domain it is. Over the years I’ve not only become attached to my batterie de cuisine but so many of the pots and pans and kitchen implements and memorabilia, even my Garland stove, have taught me valuable lessons in cooking.

When I decided that there was a need for a good book on the strategy of cooking for one, I realized that an important part of reducing recipes and making them work in single portions lay in adjusting the pan size. I had to rethink my cooking habits, and gradually I stashed away the big equipment on top shelves. I hung close to the stove, within easy reach, my 4-cup Le Creuset pot, my trusty 8-inch iron skillet, a small wok, an omelet pan, and my father’s miniature square skillet. They have become my fellow conspirators in conjuring up new dishes.

The wok gave me the idea of sautéing a leafy green vegetable in a little olive oil and a few slivers of garlic until almost tender, then nestling in an egg (or 2) to steam with the greens. The omelet pan always beckons when I’m looking for a quick supper and can put to use some of the tidbits I’ve stored in the fridge to make an omelet or a heartier frittata. The small square frying pan that my father left me inspired me to reduce my Potato Dish for Julia to a potato dish just for me; it was just the right size and shape.

My 6-inch iron skillet is probably the pan I use the most. It is the right vehicle for a dinner-in-one-dish because it lends itself to quick searing and then resting in the oven (just remember to use a sturdy potholder when you take it out). It is the perfect pan for making a dinner such as fried eggplant slices with a thin layer of meaty cutlets; you do the frying and layering on top of the stove, splash in a bit of tomato sauce and broth, top with cheese, and then slip it into the oven for a final 10 minutes. I’ve found that both skirt steaks and fillets of fish are best seared quickly in my iron pan and then left to finish cooking for a few minutes in the oven; when I take them out, the sizzling hot skillet is ideal for making a fast pan sauce. A quick dressing for pasta can also be made in that pan or in the wok while the pasta cooks and then—à la Lidia Bastianich—I fish the strands out of the boiling water with a big mesh spoon and tongs and drop them into the sauce for a final cooking.

Sometimes just seeing a pan in a kitchenware shop can be an inspiration. That’s what happened when I first encountered the relatively new popover pan with its separate cups. I had to have it and went right home to experiment with making just two popovers, which worked (and, of course, you can bake them in Pyrex cups). The individual tart pan with its fluted edge and removable bottom sets off my taste memory and I am thinking of all the possibilities of a little quiche.

I remember that when Evan and I returned in 1951 from three and a half years in Paris I was determined to bring home the cocotte I had bought in the flea market there. I had learned to make in that heavy iron pot reasonably good stews and braises and I suspected that I would never find anything like it in those days in New York, where light aluminum for the frail, beleaguered housewife was still the rage. But there was something deeper here: I knew that that cocotte connected me to the French for whom cooking was a pleasure and sitting down to a meal was to be honored, whether en famille or alone (perhaps even more so if you are alone).

A brief video of Judith on the Wall Street Journal site

Greetings, all. There is a pleasant little video of Judith on the Wall Street Journal’s website. It’s worth a look. It’s accompanied by a brief Q&A.

The Pleasures of Cooking for One

I hadn’t planned to write another book after The Tenth Muse, which included at the end about fifty recipes that represented different phases of my life in food. The final items in that recipe section reflected some of the ways I go about cooking for myself today; in “The Nine Lives of a Leg of Lamb” and “Wanna Buy a Duck?” I was trying to show how many reincarnations a roast leg of lamb could have, and that the single cook who indeed wanted to buy a duck could have a great time using every part of the bird in different ways.

The response to that section convinced me that I ought to share more of my experiences cooking alone. People would come up to me full of questions—from how to make chicken breasts taste good to what to do with all the leftover food that you’re invariably stuck with because supermarkets force you to buy more than you need. Young people on their own for the first time are lost; they don’t know what equipment to buy for one, what essentials they need in the fridge and the freezer and on the limited shelf space their first tiny kitchen offers. And they want to know what book I would recommend to help them. There I was stumped. A number of books have been published aimed at the solo cook, but they are mostly made up of recipes for one and don’t deal with all the strategies involved in cooking for oneself through the week.

So I decided to meet the challenge and to give myself a year to record my own cooking and to experiment with new ideas that would be useful to any cook preparing small amounts. Thus was born The Pleasures of Cooking for One.

The first important principle is not to think of just a single dish at a time but instead understand how one dish leads to the next. So when you’re doing your major shopping, think through the week ahead and visualize how you might use that skirt steak you brought home: how good it will taste not only the first night but later in the week in a hash or a Provençal gratin layered with breadcrumbs and garlic and mushrooms, or just chilled and sliced and slathered in a pickly Sauce Gribiche.

Instead of shunning leftovers I make a point of having extra cooked foods on hand so I can improvise a meal out of whatever may be lurking in the refrigerator. When I make a tomato sauce or a cream sauce or a pesto, I make extra so that I can put small amounts away in the freezer for easy access when I want to whip up, say, a soufflé.

As I was finishing the book, I had lunch one day at the brasserie Cognac, across the street from the Knopf office. I saw on the menu a single cheese soufflé and it seemed so long that I’d had a good soufflé I couldn’t resist ordering it. As the last cheesy, foamy bite slipped down my throat, I thought what fun it would be to go home and make a soufflé—just for me. So I bought a small mold, whittled down the proportions from Julia’s classic recipe, and in about forty minutes (yes, I did have the necessary white sauce all ready-to-go in my freezer), out of the oven came a perfect little puffed-up cheese soufflé. I knew as I put it on the table and poured a glass of chilled white wine that that should be the image on the cover of the book because it represented what I want the book to say.

Not that I think you’ll want to make a soufflé every night—most of my recipes simply represent good home cooking done with care. That means they’re not for the faint-hearted or the people who only think they want to cook but really just want quick and easy shortcuts. That lovely soufflé represents doing something creative, treating yourself well, and, above all, enjoying.

I always feel that a good cookbook is like having someone right there with you at the stove. The kitchen can be a lonely place without that stimulation, so let’s share ideas and empower one another.

BLESS YOU, JULIA

We might have expected a certain amount of twittering from the Nervous Nellies over how much butter Julia lavished on those delicious French dishes that she translated for the American home cook in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The book, after all, was written before the Fear of Fat Mania (Julia’s expression) became an epidemic in this country in the 90s. Julia was never moved to modify the ingredients because they represented exactly what was called for in the classic French cuisine and moreover she didn’t believe in such nonsense. Her motto was that pure butter in moderation was good for us and that if we all ate a little of everything and didn’t indulge in seconds (or heaping platefuls), we’d be fine. Of course, in the aftermath of the fat hysteria, she was proved right. Hydrogenated products were found to be more harmful than butter and pure animal fats, and it was all those hidden fats and corn products in fast foods that were the culprit. Still people cling to old myths, particularly when it’s easier than changing one’s eating habits.

But I found it disappointing that The New York Times had to dredge up these old issues in their story on August 23rd about the soaring sales of Mastering, thanks to the move Julie and Julia. The good news is that these young people inspired by the movie are turning to a book that will really teach them how to cook.

Clearly food writer Regina Schrambling does not agree and in her August 28 piece on Slate, titled “Don’t Buy Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” and subtitled “You will never cook from it,” she claims that Mastering “has always been daunting” and that all those copies bought in the last few weeks are going to remain untouched. She then admits that she herself, after graduating from restaurant school, never cooked from it. So how is she in any position to assess it?

The truth is that she, and The New York Times, too, miss the whole point. The book is aimed at readers who really want to learn how to cook and need a lot of guidance. That’s why the master recipes are sometimes long and detailed. Everything is spelled out so that the neophyte cook understands the ingredients, the techniques involved, the possible pitfalls, and how to remedy mistakes. That does not necessarily make the recipes “labor-intensive and time-consuming,” as the Times reporter gratuitously stated, or that they are geared only to “a rigorous cook with endless patience for serious detail” (Schrambling). How does one learn if you are not given instruction? Is there any other art form that does not require understanding and practicing the fundamentals? Moreover, once you have understood and mastered the method, it is imprinted on your cooking brain so that next time, as Julia often said, you won’t even need a recipe.

I myself learned to cook from Mastering. I had always loved cooking but I knew so little about it that I was frustrated. After spending three and a half years in Paris in my mid-twenties, where I had been exposed to marvelous, everyday French food, I longed to reproduce such lovely dishes. I wanted my food to have the French touch, to taste soigné, not just indifferently cooked. But there was no book that really taught me how—that is, not until Mastering came along. It changed my life, really empowering me as a cook. And I was not alone. After we published this first volume at Knopf suddenly almost everyone I knew in New York was cooking from it—people who had never boiled an egg were giving three-course dinners à la Julia, and loving it.

That’s what I find so inspiring about the current surge of interest in this classic teaching book. I think we’ve had enough of cooking as entertainment and we really want to learn the art of cooking with finesse. I say bless you, Julia, for giving us the tools.

Grass-Fed Beef

Returning each summer to our country house perched on a mountain in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont is always a delight. But this year it seemed even more so, as I turned up the steep driveway and was greeted by our small herd of Black Anguses and Belted Galways grazing peacefully in the pasture just below the house.

We—my step-daughter, Bronwyn, and my cousin John, who is a year-round farmer up here and a close neighbor—decided a couple of years ago that it would be a good idea to use our land to raise a very small herd of grass-fed beef. John is an experienced herdsman, having raised heifers for many years until they were ready to be milked, at which stage he would sell them to local dairy farmers. But with small farms being eaten up by big industrial farms, there was less and less demand for milking cows in the area. So this seemed like a feasible alternative, and there was a clear demand for good grass-fed beef.

I was particularly pleased because it meant that our once lovely meadows—which farmers who settled here in the 19th century had struggled to clear, heaving huge rocks out of the earth—would be returning to pastureland. However, I’m not sure that John fully anticipated what a daunting task he had taken on, harvesting endless bales of hay during the summer months and then hauling them out to the cattle twice a day all through the cold winter months, to say nothing of playing midwife more than once to cows giving birth at below-freezing temperatures.

Last November the first five had gone to market and we kept one half of a 600-pounder to divide among us. So during the holidays and ensuing winter months in New York I had the privilege of eating the best beef I had tasted in years. For Christmas I served a tender, intensely flavorful loin roast, and later shared with food-loving friends the brisket and back ribs, cooked long and slowly with the flavors sealed in. I also feasted on many a pan steak from different cuts, each yielding nuances of taste and texture. When I got back to Vermont the freezer still had plenty to offer, in particular stew cuts, ground meat, and all those organs that most people shun but which I have always relished.

The fourth of July was quickly upon us—and what better way to celebrate than to get the grills going and cook up those American favorites, hamburgers with all the trimmings. By the time we’d counted up family and in-laws and their various guests, we had twenty-one to cook for. Fortunately among our family connections was a young man, Patrick McCormick from Wisconsin, who had just been made top chef at The Tornado Room, a fine steak house in Madison—in fact, the news of his appointment had just come through the day before. And what fun it was to work alongside him, to observe how he treated the coarsely ground meat with such respect, handling it gently, never slapping it down as he seasoned and shaped it, never pressing it with a spatula as it cooked, which only leaches out the juices and makes the meat hard. He knew exactly when the hamburgers were done just by eyeing the patties and pressing them lightly with his fingers (when the meat springs back, they’re done to a rosy rare). All too quickly about 10 pounds of that wonderfully flavorful grass-fed beef was gobbled up, and every one agreed they were the best hamburgers they could remember.

I still have lots left to experiment with—the tongue, the tail, the liver and the kidneys. Not to forget the heart! With that I’d like to make a Welsh dish called “Love in Disguise,” in honor of my Welsh husband, Evan, who prepared it once for his daughter Bronwyn on her 16th birthday. But I have searched and cannot find the recipe. Does anyone have a clue?

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