Posts tagged: The Pleasures of Cooking For One

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).

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.

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?

Playing the Mandoline

Most of the really great cooks I’ve known are receptive to new ideas and love to play with the latest kitchen equipment to see if it lives up to what it claims.

I can remember so clearly one of the many times I had gone up to the Child’s house in Cambridge, Mass., for a work session with Julia and how she greeted me with great excitement. She had been testing a new kitchen gadget called the Robot-Coupe, the French forerunner of the food processor, and she was thrilled with its performance. “Now the home cook can make quenelles,” she exclaimed, “zap—just like that.” Whereupon she whirled the batter in the plastic bowl of the processor so we could see what was going on. “No more scraping fish through a fine sieve or a tamis. Look—a perfectly smooth blend in a matter of seconds.” And she zapped it again.

Julia had been working with this powerful little machine on just about everything and was satisfied with the results—except for potatoes. Mashing them a la Robot-Coupe made them gluey, and that was not acceptable.

Jim Beard in the months that followed found even more ways to make the processor an essential aid for the American cook. Many a time I would be working with him in his townhouse on West 12th Street and Carl Sontheimer would drop by for a consultation. He was the clever entrepreneur who brought the Robot-Coupeto this country and converted it to its American version, complete with a safety device so we wouldn’t slice off our fingertips. He would be constantly pumping Jim for new ideas for its use and pretty soon it was mixing pasta doughs and kneading bread doughs, to say nothing of processing a fine mayonnaise and a fair hollandaise. I once timidly ventured the opinion that the pie dough seemed over-blended, and soon “pulsing” because part of our culinary vocabulary. The gifted Lydie Marshall, who taught French cooking to New Yorkers in her own kitchen in Greenwich Village, came up with the wonderful idea of having her students say “alligator” to measure exactly how long each pulse should be (15 alligators for incorporating the butter, 10 more mixing in the ice water) and, voilà, you have perfect pastry dough (although if you’re French there is the final fraisage, and that must be done by hand).

Alas, the French mandoline never succeeded in making its way into the American kitchen for obvious reasons—its use was too limited, it was rather dangerous, it was expensive, and it wasn’t electric. But it did have a certain cache among the food elite. I remember Jason Epstein, the legendary book publisher, who is also a fine cook (look for his book Eating, coming out this fall) once said to me, “What! You don’t have a mandoline?” So I immediately went out and spent a large sum for one, which has been languishing in a closet because I never seemed to get the hang of it. But now there are light plastic models that are available for less than twenty dollars, and it’s worth investing in one.

What’s always fun about a new piece of equipment in your kitchen is that it generates new ideas. With the mandolineyou can slice raw vegetables paper thin and marinate them in vinaigrette to make lovely, fresh salad combinations: raw fennel withraw mushroom slices and/or roasted beets, for instance; or some small pickling cucumbers and young carrots, sliced lengthwise. Katy Sparks, who incidentally gave me my first plastic mandoline and turned me on to its possibilities, has in her book Sparks in the Kitchen a delightful dish for which she slices zucchini lengthwise on the mandoline to create long pappardelle-like strands and then tosses chunks of steamed salmon on top. So get yourself a mandoline and start playing.

What Do You Do with the Duck Fat?

Not long ago my stepdaughter Bronwyn remarked that she loved to watch me in the kitchen because I was like a child, I was having so much fun. And daughter Audrey years ago observed about my husband and me, “You two no sooner finish one meal than you are talking about the next.”

I plead guilty on both counts. It is true that I love to cook. I love smashing the garlic, squishing a tomato, kneading and punching the bread dough, stirring a sauce mindfully, then tasting and tweaking it, as the kitchen comes alive with good cooking smells. When I am making something, I am already thinking of ways to give what’s left a second round. The challenge of making one dish into another with a character all its own is one of the creative aspects of cooking and I find it endlessly satisfying, perhaps even more so now that I am alone.

But I realize that many people consider cooking a chore and they aren’t really comfortable alone in their neat little kitchens. There is no one there to turn to for help when the sauce begins to curdle or to ask a simple question such as how lively should a simmer be. Most recipes today are written in what I call recipe jargon, succinct formulas that don’t explain the whys and wherefores of a technique so you really don’t know what you’re doing.

I have been blessed over the years because as an editor I have worked with some of the great cooks of our time. And I have learned so much watching them and asking questions. They have become the voices in my kitchen: Julia Child reminding me to be sure to dry that meat before sautéing it and not to crowd the pan; Jim Beard showing me how to temper an overly assertive onion to go into his heavenly onion sandwich; Michael Field insisting I rub salt on the steak before searing it (Julia and Jim did not agree); Madhur Jaffrey demonstrating how to fry a paste—a surprising technique I thought peculiar to Indian cuisine only to discover years later that Lidia Bastianich does exactly the same thing when she pushes aside the aromatic vegetables she has sautéed to create a dry spot in the pan, where she then fries the tomato paste to enrich its flavor before blending it into the sauce.

Julia wrote in the introduction to her Kitchen Wisdom, “Once you have mastered a technique, you hardly need look at a recipe again, and can take off on your own.” How true. But we need those expert voices in our kitchens grounding us in the right techniques. And I think we need each other to exchange ideas and goad one another on creatively.

Last year when the Washington Post started a weekly column on cooking for one, I was asked to do an introductory piece and then to participate in their chat room at lunch time on the day the food section came out. It was a very lively exchange about all sorts of food matters. I particularly liked the question, “What do you do with the duck fat?” In the recipe section of my food memoir The Tenth Muse I had written, “Be sure to save the duck fat.” But my questioner was quite right: For what? And it started me thinking how delicious potatoes are pan-fried in duck fat, to say nothing of browning meats in it, or drizzling a small amount onto the breadcrumb topping of a casserole or bean dish such as cassoulet. It is a pure, unadulterated fat that has real flavor, and I find it a treasure to have on hand.

So let’s share our treasures and our experiments and add to the voices in our kitchens as we learn from one another.

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