I love cookbooks. You could say I collect them. Someday I would love to open a Chef’s Library (fully licensed of course). I read cookbooks instead of novels, I’ve always said I have too short an attention span for a novel, a cookbook is like a collection of short stories. Tasty short stories.
I have an interesting relationship with cookbooks. They come to me at different times, I flip through them, look at the pictures, read a couple recipes. Sometimes I will become obsessed with the book right away, I’ll read and re-read it, try recipes, seek out more information about the author. Other times, the cook book isn’t really where I am at in that moment. And I will put it away, almost forget about it. And then, at some future moment I’ll remember and rediscover that book and fall in love with it. I had that with Prune by Gabrielle Hamilton. I received it for Christmas one year, flipped through it and put it away. This past winter, I was looking for ideas, pulled Prune off the shelf, and Bam!, I was hooked. I wanted to make everything in the book and I didn’t want to make anything that wasn’t in the book.
Some books are great collections of recipes. Others are great inspirations. Some are both. The French Laundry, but Thomas Keller, is a great coffee table book. It has great recipes, most of which you will never make, but it is punctuated by beautiful little stories of his career as a young chef. I often encourage my cooks to read the story about the rabbits. But I also love books like the Mennonite Heritage Cookbook or cookbooks put out by church guilds and community clubs. These have low production values but are filled with great recipes. They often assume you know how to cook, they use instructions like “add enough flour to make a soft dough” and “cook until done”. But if you want five different recipes for million dollar relish, these are the books for you.
I am often asked, “what is your favourite cookbook?” Sometimes I will say which ever one I am leafing through at the time. But if pushed, I will list two books. The first is always The Joy of Cooking; not the new one, but the old one. You know the one, the one with the hand drawn illustration of how to skin a squirrel. This book is dense with recipes. There is pretty much a recipe for anything you might want to make. But these were recipes for a leaner time. If I am making a dessert out of Joy , I always double the amount of chocolate it asks for. But I particularly love the ‘About’ sections: here the book will give you detailed description of how ingredients work and the techniques behind types of recipes. Anyone interested in cooking would benefit from studying this tome. The other is The Zuni Cafe. I don’t know if I have every made a recipe out of this book, but every time I pick it up, it inspires and educates. I love the stories she tells of working for the Troisgros brothers or of Alice Waters in the early days. I am particularly excited by her lengthy and rule breaking treatises on such subjects as salt or making stocks. Whenever I am struggling with a menu or a dish, I return to The Zuni Cafe.
So, whenever I get an idea in my head of some new food adventure I want to go on, I always start by seeking out a new cookbook. This summer Danielle and I decided to embark on a “Eating Clean” plan. Danielle’s personal trainer gave her an incredibly boring meal plan. It was nutritionally complete, not too onerous to follow, but dull and we knew we wouldn’t be content with just eating yams, broccoli, boneless chicken breasts and eggs. If it was going to work for us we had to make it tasty. So, down we go to the nearest bookstore. After flipping through a pile of healthy cookbooks, we landed on Naturally Nourished by Sarah Britton (Random House, 2017). The recipes in this book fit in with the vegetable intensive lifestyle we lean toward and were embarking on. But more than that, it is a beautiful book with great pictures. It is filled with some gorgeous and creative recipes: charred green beans with romesco sauce, celery leaf salad with balsamic eggplant or cauliflower steaks with charmoula and eggs.
We bought the cookbook on Thursday and we had to bring a dish to a cocktail party on Saturday. So, we decided to make a dish out of Naturally Nourished. After flipping through the book, we landed on “Baked Feta with Olives, Peppers and Tomatoes”. It looked like a great sharing appetizer. Serve it with some of my fresh baked sour dough and it should be a hit.
The recipe is simple, quarter cherry tomatoes (or you could coarsely chop bigger tomatoes), dice red peppers, pit and chop olives. Toss all this together with oregano, olive oil, salt and pepper. Then you crumble feta into the bottom of a crock or casserole dish. Top the feta with the tomato, olive mixture and bake at 400F (200C) for 25 minutes. Then drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle with coarsely chopped Italian parsley and serve with bread or pita. We topped it with oregano flowers from our garden. When we made it, we found it super tasty, but the feta never got soft enough to be a dip. I think a lot depends on what feta you use. If your feta is fairly soft and creamy, it will work fine. If it is on the harder/drier side, I would suggest whizzing it in a food processor with a little heavy cream or cream cheese and then putting into the dish. This dish is a great appetizer, but if you served it with a piece of grilled chicken and some brown rice you would have a delicious dinner.