Oh, welcome! Come on in!

I shoveled the front walk just for you!

With shoveling out of the way (for now), I have time to curl up with the cookbooks and food-related books I have been stockpiling in anticipation of being snowbound once again.  I’ve got some winners to tell you about and – if we’re really lucky – I may have time to whip up a couple of dishes from a book or two, as a sort of test drive.

Among the books that promise to make for wonderful bedtime reading, Salted by Mark Bitterman is exactly what its subtitle proclaims it to be: A Manifesto on the World’s Most Essential Mineral, with Recipes.

I’m a huge fan of anything called a manifesto; the word signals to me that someone is about to hold forth passionately on a subject.  I love passion about food.  I also love to learn things about food or food products that I didn’t previously know, and Bitterman doesn’t disappoint.

Equal parts history of salt, encyclopedia of salt varieties, book of salting techniques (i.e., curing, brining, preserving, seasoning), and cookbook (I’m most intrigued by the confections made with salt), Salted will enrapture cooks and scientists and historians alike.  The writing is accessible but rich in detail and often quite funny (the list of the “Top Ten Reasons Why Cucumbers are Great for Salt Tasting” a case in point).  When I can leave my house again, I am rushing to the market for lemons to preserve.

And June’s peas?  Pinch me.

In heart of the artichoke (and other kitchen journeys), David Tanis uses the artichoke as a metaphor for the meal as  journey requiring a bit of effort, but one with a reward “at the end of the trail” – somewhat like landing on the artichoke’s tender heart after working through its spiky outer leaves.

Tanis, a head chef at Chez Panisse, loves to cook.  He wants you to love it too, whether you are cooking in small, medium, or large ways.  He wants you to take time to make a meal, not find ways to cut time out of the meal making process.  ”I ask you to get your hands in the dough and to cultivate patience…we have somehow forgotten the pleasure of giving ourselves over to the true kitchen experience.”

The book is organized into sections that reflect his small, medium, and large meal concept, and within each category, essays include reflection about ingredients, techniques, season, or feasting in a community.  ”Hooray for Ziploc bags” is a brief bit of applause for the invention, and gives tips for canning, preserving, and freezing using Ziplocs.  ”Dead of Winter Dinner from the Supermarket” (hmmm, now why did I fix on that particular chapter?) is almost a survival guide for cooks producing meals in colder months.  The essay comes complete with a main course, two sides, and dessert, a weeknight meal of medium proportions.  The final section, “Simple Feasts for a Long Table,” outlines the day-long (or longer) cooking extravaganzas, those occasions when all you want to do is set a large table and gather all your friends and family.

Full of inviting prose made complete with stunning photography and charming recipes, this book is both practical and beautiful.  A rare thing.

Whimsical may best sum up the cookbook Alice’s Tea Cup.

Sisters Haley and Lauren Fox use that very word to describe their three Alice’s Tea cup tea shops in the heart of Manhattan.  The girls embrace tea as an experience, and their imaginations soar when creating both tea foods and tea-laced foods for their restaurant menu: Berry Bunch Tisane-Infused Scones, Cumin-Carrot Sandwiches, Thai Chickpea Soup, and the very adult Mar-tea-nis of all kinds.

Longtime afternoon tea devotees will appreciate the sisters’ whimsy and passion, as well as their recipes for sweet and savory scones, sandwiches, soups, lunch and brunch plates, and cakes.  But what I like best about this small but information-packed book is its diversity.  I can find in here recipes for sure, but also cooking tips (an offset spatula is your best friend; put a whole clean potato in a pot of soup sitting overnight if you want to reduce salt concentration; and – my favorite tip of all –  leftover scones can be sliced and turned into biscotti!), a tea index, tea brewing basics, a tea party planning guide, tea and food pairing menus, and the method for tea-dyeing your linens and clothes.  Yowza!

The photos are pretty charming here, too – pretty customers, pretty waitstaff, pretty children, pretty food.  I had hoped to make the Alice’s Tea Cup famous caramel glazed pumpkin scones today but realized I was wrong about possessing one last can of pumpkin puree.  The chewy molasses cookies will have to do.  Somehow they seem just right for the day.

I’m on the fence about this next book.

Food and Wine’s Reinventing the Classics is cookbook primer coming from the angle of update, as in take a classic or old favorite recipe and update it.  That shouldn’t be too hard to wrap my mind around, but honestly, it’s the updating part that has me confused.  Does Food and Wine editor Dana Cowin want me to think updated ingredients, updated techniques, updated kitchen time, or a fresh look at kitchen stand bys; or perhaps all of those things, on a recipe by recipe basis?

The latter seems to be true.  So a molten chocolate cake oozes forth with a hot lava of peanut butter.  Trout meuniere ditches the capers and lemon for an olive-citrus relish.  Spaghetti and lots of little meatballs becomes spaghetti and four giant meatballs made from the same pound of ground meat.  Old school crab salad in an avocado transforms into chile-lime crab salad with avocado served in a small glass (known as a verrine) as an hors d’oeuvre.

My feelings about the multiple personalities of this book aside, I am trying Clark Frasier’s (Arrows Restaurant, Ogunquit, ME) take on trout meuniere tonight.  If the recipe works, does it matter if I have issues with the book’s premise or unifying theme?

A cookbook I have absolutely no issue with is one sent to me by an old friend and coworker.  Kim Pillischafske and I worked together about 20 years ago at the Champaign-Urbana Convention and Visitors Bureau, and we recently reconnected through Facebook.

I remember Kim’s energetic personality and her sense of humor.  I also remember that she loved to entertain; that her daughter, Kelly, was a crackerjack babysitter for my daughter; that Kim was the person who gave me the most influential piece of advice about raising boys I ever received; and that she and her husband were great friends with the members of super group, REO Speedwagon.  If I close my eyes, I can still see my office, Kim’s office, Cheri’s desk in the main reception area, our boardroom; finding Kim again has returned that piece of my life to me.  We go through so many transformations and incarnations in one lifetime that we often lose sight of what brought us to the present day.  Every now and again it’s wonderful to review and remember rather than soldier on wearing blinders.

Which brings me back to Kim’s cookbook.  And it is, in fact, Kim’s cookbook, one she made for her children when they grew and started families of their own and begged her for their favorite childhood recipes.  By turns a book about family dinners and history and memory and continuity,  Mom…How Do You Make That? by Kim Pillischafske is also a life marker.

We review and remember, and Kim’s cookbook ensures her family in perpetuity will remember favorite meals.   “Dear family and friends,” Kim writes in the introduction, “I decided to put some of our favorites and your favorite recipes on paper.  I hope you enjoy them and share them over the years.”

The book is a spiral bound handwritten collection full of reference notes and detailed instructions.  About Grape Salad, Kim notes, “This originally came from Aunt Madeline…she fixed it every Thanksgiving.”  For Banana Salad, she says, “This came from my mom…It’s an old ‘farm’ recipe from her mother….”  About her lasagna, Kim writes, “Dom’s Italian Patio had the best lasagna.  Each time we would eat there I got a little closer to recreating it….”

Kim has done a wonderful thing by putting this book together for her children, and her children in turn appreciate the meaning of this gift.  On Mother’s Day two years ago, daughter Kelly was interviewed by her local newspaper about receiving her mother’s handmade book as a Christmas gift.  She tells a reporter doing an article for the holiday on moms and home cooking, “You know, I love to cook, but honest to goodness, I have to call her and say, ‘Hey mom, how do you make that?’ She’s such a good cook.”

Words of praise that are music to a mother’s ears.

Here’s a recipe from the book, one that Kim made and I enjoyed all those many years ago.  She may have forgotten, but she wrote a copy of this one for me way back when.  I still have it in my recipe files.

Spinach Salad is easily enjoyed this time of year, when spinach still grows well and in abundance.

  • 1 large package fresh spinach
  • 1 can bean sprouts
  • 6-ounce can sliced water chestnuts
  • 4 hard cooked eggs
  • 1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms
  • 1/2 pound bacon, fried and diced

Dressing

  • 1/2 cup salad oil
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup catsup
  • 1/4 cup vinegar
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. Worcestershire Sauce
  • 1 medium onion, diced

Tear spinach into bite size pieces.  Add rest of ingredients.  Mix dressing ingredients well and chill.  To serve, add dressing to spinach salad and toss well.