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Kitchen Classics

Some of my kitchen classics – what are yours?

Here's a question for all you cookbook-hoarders out there: if you were forced to reduce the number of books in your possession, and you were allowed to keep either your books that are at least twenty years old or those that are less than ten, which ones would you keep — the old or the new?

I imagine for most people that's a pretty easy choice: the new ones, of course! Old cookbooks are staid and stuffy and full of recipes featuring cocktail wieners and salad cream. New ones are pretty and glossy and full of the kind of fresh, exciting, modern food we all want to eat now. Right?

I posed that question to myself a couple weeks ago, after our last discussion on cookbooks when I told you about how I was going to try to cook more from my under-used ones. Well that got me thinking about which of my cookbooks do get used and why, and from there I started thinking about whether usefulness and value are one and the same thing (it a nutshell: no, not for me!). That, of course, set me thinking about which of my books I would keep if (horror of horrors) I was forced to choose between them, and to my surprise, I came to the conclusion that as much as I love all that gloss and glamor, if push came to shove my older books just might have the edge.

The world of cookbooks, like most things in this fast-paced modern world of ours, is a pretty quickly-evolving place. Books that were fresh and exciting five years ago now seem like old news. Books that are really old—like, more than two decades—sometimes seem like they were written on a different planet, a sad place where soy sauce is considered an exotic ingredient and people are obsessed with things like sun-dried tomatoes and dill seed. Culinary trends that made the book fresh and appealing when it was published now make it seem cringingly dated, like the ubiquity of canned condensed soups in the sixties, and low-fat everything in the nineties. And then there's the whole issue with photos; until sometime in the mid-nineties, the vast majority of cookbooks went to print without containing a single visual representation of the dishes within (apart, maybe, from a few black-and-white line drawings)!*

There are certainly a lot of books out there that I would reject because their age. I've bought several over the years, in fact, which sounded great in theory, but ended up being so dated that not a single recipe appealed to me (compilation books from newspapers and magazines have been particularly prone to falling short of my expectations). But then there are other books that are twenty, thirty, even forty years old that I couldn't imagine life without. To me, they're simply classics.

What makes a book a classic? For me, a classic book has to be timeless in its appeal. It avoids the pitfalls of overusing trendy ingredients or techniques, although a certain amount of this is certainly forgivable (and unavoidable). Classics are also approachable, well-written and most importantly reliable, something I find sorely lacking in many of today's ghost-written celebrity-chef-driven offerings. The majority of my own personal classics, I'll admit, are books about other cuisines. In contrast to today, the authors of decades past often spent decades researching and writing these books, and many of them contain a truly staggering level of scholarship. Books about other cuisines, I find, are also less likely to seem dated (apart, of course, from the inevitable ingredient substitutions, which are usually pretty easy to work around), since most traditional cuisines around the world haven't changed much in the last half-century or so. If anything, they were probably richer a few years ago, when more mothers and grandmothers were still cooking them and McDonalds and pizza hadn't yet colonized the globe.

One of the things I love most is discovering new classics—books I'd never heard of but can't imagine living without once I have them. One of my newest entrants in this category is the book you can see at the top of the stack above, Food that Really Schmecks by Edna Staebler. Do you know this book? If you're Canadian, I bet you do. Edna and her series of Schmecks books are an institution north of the border, and when she passed away in 2006 at the age of 100 the country lost one of its best-loved food writers. I discovered her books quite recently, when a passing reference to them online woke the linguist in me, 'schmecks' being an anglicization of the German verb 'schmecken', to taste. I was fascinated to learn that this is (or was) a common term among Ontario's Old-Order German-Mennonite community, whose simple, farm-fresh food Edna decided to document in her books, the first of which was published in 1968. I was even more fascinated by the number of reviews I found, once I started looking for them, that rank Edna's books among the most valued and beloved cookbooks of all times. As soon as I had a copy myself, though, I understood; within an hour of it arriving by mail, I had ordered her second one too.

By focusing on the Mennonites and their cuisine, Edna (who was not a Mennonite herself, but lived surrounded by them in rural Waterloo County) created a collection of recipes with timeless appeal. That's because her Mennonite friends, whose lives and kitchens she installed herself in to collect recipes, very much practiced the kind of farm-to-table cooking that we've lately been rediscovering. For the Mennonites, fruits and vegetables were either fresh from the garden, pickled or dried, meat was hand-reared and minimally processed, and the dairy products were rich and abundant. Butter, sour cream, bacon and brown sugar gilded everything. It's not trendy or cosmopolitan food, but it's deeply appealing in a rustic, elemental way.

What's more, these are absolutely delightful books to read. Edna's own personality is larger than life, and her chapter introductions and headnotes are full of witty, charming and hilarious anecdotes. Reading them, you can't help but wishing you could have been one of the endless number of people she was always having over for dinner, or one of her even-luckier nieces and nephews. Before you know it, she feels like your oldest friend and you're trusting everything she says; when you read headnotes like "sometimes I think this is my favorite of favorites" or "watch out—this one will make you a compulsive eater", you start turning down page corners.

There are admittedly chapters in these books that I can't really ever see myself cooking from. Her savory recipes show a lot of age; I looked in vain through her first book for a single recipe calling for garlic and came up empty. She also doesn't shy away from 'modern' convenience foods in the many non-Mennonite recipes she collected from family and friends, things like 'chicken-potato chip casserole', 'schnitzel stew' (with ketchup) and 'ham loaf' (with pineapple!) which sound rather like they belong in the punchline of a bad culinary joke. It also struck me how often she freely admits that she's never actually made the recipe in question, just sampled it at someone's house and printed it as it was told to her. Some dishes she even admits to never having so much as tasted(!), but as long as they came highly recommended from a trusted source she had no qualms about including them. How cookbook writing has changed!

But everywhere else, the recipes gems are just falling off the pages, for everything from crunchy summer pickles (crabapples; fresh corn; cantaloupe), sweet fruit and vegetable preserves (tomato butter; carrot marmalade; gooseberry relish), homemade breads (oatmeal-molasses; apple-cheese-walnut; buttermilk-scone loaf), fried things (potato doughnuts; peach fritters), cookies (ginger crinkles; butterscotch macaroons; cheery cherry bars), luscious pies (green tomato; fresh raspberry; sour cream-raisin-walnut) simple cakes (chocolate chip-date; maple syrup; rhubarb upside-down) to even beverages (at least a dozen varieties of homemade fruit and flower wines).

These oatcakes called to me the minute I laid eyes on them. Not because of any fondness for the original Scottish ones—which always brought to mind compressed sawdust—but because these looked exactly like what I always wanted the Scottish ones to be. Turns out the Scottish immigrants to Cape Breton in Nova Scotia shared my view; their transplanted oatcakes became richer, sweeter, a thousand times better than the original. Somewhere between a cookie and a cracker, they're sweet enough to satisfy a sugar craving, but also savory and oaty and not out of place under a piece of cheese, say, or a smear of jam. In fact, if I were the kind of person to keep a cookie jar, these oatcakes are exactly what I would stock it with. They're perfect everyday cookies: crumbly and rich, with a toffee-like note from the brown sugar and an addictive salty edge, but—and this is a big but—also restrained and modest enough to not play Russian roulette with your willpower (which is the main reason I don't have a cookie jar). If the word 'compromise' didn't have such negative connotations I'd say these oatcakes are the perfect embodiment of the concept: a delicious middle ground between austere wholesomeness and unbridled decadence.

And I daresay they're proof, if any were needed, that good taste never goes out of date.

What makes a classic cookbook for you? What are some of your favorites?

*On this topic, I have to ask: am I the only one who wants to throttle cookbook reviewers on amazon who give a book bad marks for not having photos? For me nice photos are certainly a plus but they're by no means essential, and I would never not buy a book because it lacks a few pretty pictures. Dishes never come out looking like them anyway!

Cape Breton Oatcakes

Edna's original recipe calls for lard or shortening, but since vegetable shortening is something I don't much believe in, I decided to make half a batch with lard and half with butter. The results were strikingly similar. However, both of us decided we liked the ones with lard slightly better. They had a kind of savoriness that the others lacked, and seemed to keep their crunch better after a couple of days. They also seemed a little saltier, probably because the lard's lower water content didn't dissolve all the crystals. You could probably amplify that effect with either kind of fat by simply using a coarser salt, or sprinkling a little flaky salt on top before baking. Or, thinking about it now, you could clarify the butter to get rid of its water (chilling it again, of course), which should give you all the lard's textural benefits. Ooh, and while you're at it, why not go one step further and brown it? Oh, yum.
Source: minimally adapted from Edna Staebler's More Food that Really Schmecks
Yield: about 60 2-inch squares (you can easily cut this in half, or even thirds, but I promise you'll regret not making the full batch!)

3 cups (240g) quick oats, plus more for rolling
3 cups (420g) all-purpose flour
1 cup, packed (220g) dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons fine salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 cups (360g) lard or unsalted butter, cold
1/4-1/2 cup (60-120ml) cold water, or as needed

a few pinches flaky salt (such as Maldon) for sprinkling on top, if desired

Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Combine all the dry ingredients in a bowl. Work the lard or butter in with your fingers until everything is homogenous. Add water, a tablespoon at a time, kneading with your hands everything comes together into a stiff dough (you'll need a little more with lard than with butter). Divide the dough in half and roll each half out on your work surface to about 1/8-inch thick (3-4mm), using plenty of oats on top and bottom to prevent sticking. Sprinkle the surface with a couple pinches of flaky salt, if you like. Using a large knife, cut into 2-inch (5cm) squares. Gently transfer the squares (as well as the inevitable ragged edge scraps, which are the cook's treat) to parchment-lined baking sheets and bake until fragrant and deep golden, about 12-15 minutes. Cool completely on a rack and store in an airtight container to preserve their crunch.


Pkhali, Unearthed

Spinach Pkhali

I recently decided to re-organize my bookshelves. Actually it was a new cookbook that prompted this decision, since when I tried to find a spot for it on the right shelf, I realized I couldn't; not only was the shelf full, the entire bookcase was too. Luckily the one across the room still had some space I could hijack, so I set to work redistributing and rearranging, and in the process, rediscovered a number of books I had completely forgotten I owned.

One of these books gave me a fright when I pulled it off the shelf. At first glance it looked like its top end had been stuck into a paper shredder; on closer inspection, though, I realized the book was just full of bookmarks, ragged little strips of paper poking out of the top like a shock of messy hair. Suddenly it came back to me: this book was a relic of a particular phase in my constantly-evolving recipe-bookmarking strategy. Circa late 2006 my modus operandi when I brought home a new cookbook was to sit down with it and diligently mark the location of each and every recipe I wanted to try with a little scrap of paper. At first I tried to be organized and bought an array of multicolored Post-It notes; when those ran out I moved on to carefully-cut rectangles of white printer paper, and when I could no longer be bothered to make those, scraps of whatever paper I could find lying around: old utility bills, supermarket receipts, used envelopes. The idea was, obviously, to be able to easily find those recipes again, but also to remind me whenever my gaze passed over the book on my shelf that there were dozens of worthy recipes inside patiently waiting to be made. What I didn't take into account, though, is how quickly you become blind to something you see every day. The book in my hand, I realized as I turned it over, I had probably spent hours poring over, planning, salivating and bookmarking—and then never opened again.

Suddenly I felt very melancholy. I noticed as if for the first time how many books on my shelf still featured those little paper fringes, each tattered slip representing a potentially life-changing recipe I never got around to making. Not only that, this was only the visible tip of the iceberg; in all the un-bookmarked books (by far the vast majority) there are no doubt hundreds, even thousands more. Suddenly one of my most basic assumptions—that one day I'll cook my way through each and every book on my shelves, mining it for gems, learning everything it has to teach me—seemed utterly absurd. At the rate I'm currently going, cooking just as often from the internet as from books, getting stuck on things I like and cooking them multiple times, and worst of all, constantly expanding my book collection(!), I'll be lucky if I ever get around to making one one-hundredth of the recipes currently on my shelves. But even if I never bought a new cookbook, and made a new recipe out of these every single day of every single week of every single year, it would take me somewhere around 125 years to get through my whole library. In other words, my recipes have far outstripped my lifetime; I'll die never knowing how most of these dishes taste.

But then I looked down at the book in my hand, at all those little scraps of paper crookedly saluting me, and I realized that maybe I was looking at things the wrong way. I may have more recipes than I can ever work through, but maybe that's also the upside: I'll never run of new ones to try. And feeling a little more cheerful, I finished my bookshelf reorganization, took that fringe-topped book into the kitchen, and made three of those long-ago-bookmarked recipes for dinner.

The cookbook I rediscovered that night was an early one by Anya von Bremzen called Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook. I don't know if its non-enticing regional focus was the reason I ignored it for so many years, but in case you're also in possession of this book don't make the same mistake. In fact the title is more than a bit of a misnomer, since the scope of the book extends far beyond Russia to all the countries of the former Soviet Union. That in itself makes it a fascinating read; it was written just before that enormous and diverse country splintered apart and while it was still perfectly legitimate to pull together recipes ranging from Russian dumplings, Ukrainian borscht, Azerbaijani pilafs, Uzbek kebabs and Georgian salads into one collection. There's really a lot of exotic stuff packed in here, but the best part is von Bremzen herself; if you're familiar with any of her other books such as the phenomenal New Spanish Table, or her wonderful writing in Travel and Leisure, you know that she's a gifted storyteller with fabulous taste. I count her among the few food writers I trust implicitly; when she says something is good, I've learned to listen.

The dishes I made for dinner were no exception. There was an Armenian pumpkin moussaka, layers of dense, sweet squash interspersed with spicy ground beef, crunchy pine nuts and creamy béchamel, and there was an apricot-laced red lentil soup, sour with lemon and warm with cumin. Our favorite by far, though, was the spinach pkhali. It's a Georgian recipe, an intensely aromatic spinach salad/dip hybrid that features what I've come to recognize as the country's holy trinity of flavors: walnuts, garlic, and a haunting herb-and-spice blend that offsets the biting freshness of cilantro and tarragon with the bitter, aromatic edge of fenugreek. Sprinkled with crunchy sweet-tart pomegranate seeds, the flavors were electrifying. I felt like my tastebuds were learning to speak a whole new language.

I was actually so enchanted by that pkhali that I woke up the next day determined to unearth as many of the recipe gems still lurking on my shelves as humanly possible in the years I have left. I felt so inspired, in fact, that the first thing I did was log on to amazon and order a whole bunch of new books to dig through.

Spinach Pkhali

Pkhali (the 'kh' is pronounced as a deep, guttural 'h') is a whole class of Georgian vegetable dishes that straddle the line between salad and dip. The constant is the walnut sauce, and the fact that the vegetable is cut very, very finely - almost (but not quite) to a puree. Beet pkhali is also very popular, and is often served alongside the spinach; to prepare beets this way, wrap 3 large ones in foil and bake until soft, then peel and finely chop (or pulse in a food processor) before mixing with the sauce. If you'd like to substitute frozen spinach in this recipe, I imagine it would work, though I'm not sure about the amount; maybe start with a pound (half a kilo) of the frozen stuff and add more as needed to balance out the flavors.
p.s. After making this again, I've decided I like a slightly smaller amount of spinach, to let the flavors of the walnut sauce really shine. Alternatively, you could use the full 2lbs and make one and a half times the sauce.
source: adapted from Anya von Bremzen's Please to the Table
serves: 4-6 as an hors d'oeuvre or side dish

1.5-2 pounds (.75-1 kilo) fresh spinach, stems removed and washed in several changes of water
1 cup (100g) walnuts
4 cloves garlic
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground fenugreek
pinch cayenne
1 1/2 tablespoons white wine vinegar, or to taste
1 small onion, minced
3 tablespoons finely-chopped fresh cilantro (coriander)
1 1/2 tablespoons finely-chopped fresh tarragon


pomegranate seeds, for garnish

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add the spinach and cook just until tender, about one minute. Drain well and let cool. When manageable, wrap the spinach in a clean kitchen towel and squeeze until nearly dry. Chop it as finely as possible (don't use a food processor or blender, which may puree it; it should have texture) and set aside.

In a blender, combine the walnuts, garlic, coriander, fenugreek, cayenne and vinegar. Add 3 tablespoons of warm water and blend until you have a smooth, creamy sauce about the consistency of mayonnaise, adding a little more water if needed to get things moving.

Add the walnut sauce to the spinach and stir until thoroughly blended and smooth. Stir in the minced onion, cilantro and tarragon, and season with salt to taste. Cover and refrigerate for 6 to 8 hours to allow the flavors to blend. Taste again before serving and adjust the salt and vinegar if needed.

To serve, spread the pkhali on a plate and smooth the top with a spatula. With a knife, make a pattern of diamonds in the top, and sprinkle with pomegranate seeds (or, in a pinch, walnut pieces). Serve with bread.


Out of Africa, Into the Bowl

Senegalese Peanut Soup

In fourth grade there was a girl named Karen who I envied something fierce. Karen was cool and pretty, she beat the boys at every sport in PE, and everyone—regardless of gender—wanted to be her friend. The main reason I envied her, though, was for her lunches. In stark contrast to my tuna or egg salad on whole wheat and fruit-juice-sweetened granola bars, Karen's lunchbags were a cornucopia of forbidden delights: Ritz crackers topped with canned Velveeta, Snack Pack pudding cups, tall stacks of Oreo cookies and the coup de grâce, fluffernutter sandwiches on squishy white bread*.

Fluffernutter. Just the name sent chills down my spine. I didn't even know what it was, but I knew it must be heavenly. When I finally got up the courage to ask Karen for specifics she shrugged wearily, obviously bored to have to educate such culinary dilettantes, and sighed, "oh you know, just peanut butter and marshmallow creme." Just peanut butter and marshmallow creme! The mere idea was so far outside my dietary reality that the only image I could conjure was of Karen's mother standing over a big bowl of whipping cream, tossing in dollops of peanut butter and handfuls of marshmallows as she beat the cream to soft, billowy peaks. One day, I swore to myself, I'd save up enough allowance to buy cream, marshmallows and white bread, and I'd make a fluffernutter sandwich myself. The peanut butter would be no problem, of course; that was probably the one common thread between Karen's kitchen and mine.

To this day I'm not quite sure why I was so transfixed by the idea of that fluffernutter sandwich, since I didn't even like peanuts very much. I loved almonds and cashews and pecans and walnuts and everything containing them, but when I found peanuts in a nut assortment I would usually pick them out. I mean I didn't hate peanuts, but I didn't love them the way everyone else did: in a starring role on bread with jelly, honey and/or bananas, enrobed in chocolate or praline or even just roasted and salted. I often felt like the odd one out for my lack of enthusiasm for them, so perhaps I imagined that the fluffernutter was my ticket into the peanut-lovers' club, the missing link between me and this national culinary heavyweight that no one except me could get enough of. Surely there must be some dish out there that would show me just what everyone else saw in those beany little pseudo-nuts.

There was, but it wasn't a fluffernutter sandwich. It was a soup I made a few years later from a recipe in one of my mother's cookbooks, Mollie Katzen's charmingly-illustrated Enchanted Broccoli Forest. I was probably twelve or thirteen at the time and just learning to cook; the so-called "curried peanut soup" caught my eye because we had most of the ingredients already on hand—no small hurdle for an income-less, rural-dwelling, pre-teen. We were no doubt lacking a good few of the spices, and I seem to recall substituting regular milk for the specified buttermilk, but none of that detracted from the soup, which was a revelation; toasty and creamy and spicy, its warmth filled my belly and wrapped around me like the folds of a familiar blanket. Relegated to a supporting role alongside big, savory flavors, I had to admit that peanuts were actually quite wonderful.

From there, of course, there was a whole world of peanutty delicacies to fall in love with, from the sweet and salty saté dips of Southeast Asia to rich Indian curries and chunky chutneys, to the thick, chile-laced peanut sauces of Central and South America. I also kept a soft spot for spiced peanut soup, though it was several more years before I learned that this improbable dish is not just the brainchild of wooly-sweater-clad vegetarians in upstate New York, but a staple of West African cuisine. There, peanuts were introduced by Portuguese explorers in the sixteenth century and enthusiastically adopted into both sweet and savory dishes; interestingly, the West Africans' attachment to the nuts was so great that when large numbers were forcibly transported to the New World as slaves, they brought peanuts with them, thereby setting the stage for the US to become a great peanut-loving nation as well. But back to the soup: encompassing enough local names and variations to fill an entire cookbook, what seems to be the common thread is a stewy juxtaposition of peanuts, vegetables, tomato and spice—a combination delicious enough to have not only won national dish status across half a continent, but inspired countless imitations from people who have most likely never set foot anywhere near there.

The following version, which I've adapted from Deborah Madison who in turn adapted it from James Peterson, may not be completely authentic, but it's the best riff on the peanut soup theme I've yet tasted. Rich and nutty with a slow burn and a mellow sweetness from the coconut milk, it's exciting yet strangely familiar at the same time. I've thrown in a few more veggies than called for in the original, which not only balances out the richness a little, but thickens it up enough to stand up to a scoop of cooked rice or millet. I've also discovered that an overnight rest before eating does wonders, allowing the flavors to mingle and plunge to new depths. If you can't manage to think that far ahead, though—and let's face it, I usually can't—at least try to save some leftovers for lunch; not only will it inject a little unexpected warmth into your day, a bowl of this at school or the office will inspire a thousand times more envy than a boring old fluffernutter sandwich**.

*Mom, I don't think I've ever thanked you for not giving me this kind of stuff for lunch. I may not have appreciated it then, but I sure do now.

**Which, by the way, I still have never tasted. Those of you who have, tell me: is this something I should rectify?

Senegalese Peanut Soup

My favorite additions to this spectacular soup-cum-stew are green chilies, carrots and spinach, but you could add pretty much anything under the sun. Sweet potatoes, pumpkin, cabbage, eggplant, corn and green beans would be naturals, as would chicken, shrimp or fish if you want some extra protein, all of which you can cook right in the soup. And don't forget: the flavor really improves with age, so make this as far ahead of time as you can.
source: adapted from Vegetable Soups from Deborah Madison's Kitchen
serves: 4-6

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large onion, diced
1-2 garlic cloves, minced
3-4 fresh jalapeños, seeded and minced, or 1 green bell pepper, chopped
finely-chopped stems from 1 small bunch cilantro (coriander)
, about 1/4 cup chopped
2 large carrots, peeled and thickly sliced
cayenne pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons curry powder
3 cups (750 ml) vegetable or chicken stock
2 (14oz/400g) cans crushed or diced tomatoes in juice
2/3 cup (150g) smooth natural peanut butter
1 cup (250ml) coconut milk
8 oz (250g) fresh spinach, tough stems discarded, washed and sliced into ribbons, or washed baby spinach
salt and pepper, to taste
handful chopped cilantro leaves for garnish

cooked rice, millet or couscous for serving

In a large, heavy pot warm the oil over medium heat, then add the onion, garlic, jalapeños or green pepper and cilantro stems. Cook until the onion has softened and turned golden, 10 to 12 minutes. Stir in the carrots, cayenne and curry powder, and fry until the spices are fragrant, about a minute more.

Add the stock and tomatoes, including all their juices. Stir well and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and let cook gently until the carrots are soft, about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the peanut butter, coconut milk and spinach and continue cooking until the spinach is soft and the soup has thickened, about another ten minutes. Season the soup to taste with salt and pepper.

Serve hot alongside the cooked grain of your choice, garnished with chopped cilantro.