THE JOY OF COOKBOOKS

It can be more fun to read cookbooks than to use them

A week or so ago, with company coming for dinner, I went to the kitchen cookbook shelf to consult Julia or Craig about something interesting to do with a five-pound eye of round residing in our refrigerator like a captive prince surrounded by peasants. When after a search I located them along with five or six other cookbooks in the cluttered bookshelf next to my side of the bed, I had one of those familiar pangs of self-knowledge: I’d rather read about food than cook it, perhaps even than eat it. Over a long summer when I’d entertained hardly at all and cooked for my family only what simple humanity required, all my best cookbooks had become bedside reading. Night after night I’d pored over roast duckling au naturel, horseradish mousse, aragosta fra diavolo, and fennel au gratin, while my friends went unfed and my family settled for hot dogs and Shake ’n’ Bake.

I know better. I’ve read House and Garden and I know you’re supposed to have this neat little built-in desk in your country kitchen where you plan the menus and read the recipes and make out the grocery list just like that, super efficient, chop chop chop. Well, that’s not how I work. To tell the truth, some of the recipes 1 most enjoy reading are the ones I know I will never, in my most audacious kitchen ventures, ever use. Galantine of turkey? Tournedos Rossini? Not a chance. But as I drift off to sleep I give charming small dinner parties for eight which begin with jellied madrilene and end with hot bourbon peaches with English custard.



On the other hand, sometimes I actually do cook for family and friends with real pleasure. For those times I need on hand a stock of reliable but interesting recipes which will elicit neither a “What is this stuff?” from the children nor, worse, an unspoken “Coq au vin again!” from blase adults. My favorite cookbooks, I realize, cater to both these needs. Each of them offers a substantial selection of recipes which I trust and use over and over. But each also contains recipes from an exotic promised land of gourmandise, which I shall very likely enter only in dreams.

My first “real” cookbook was Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child’s own first foray into many American kitchens. I remember exactly how I acquired it, in 1961, the year of its publication. I had been happily married just over two years and had a baby daughter. For my birthday my husband brought home a pair of mink eyelashes. Out of my young idealist’s heart, 1 fumed and fussed that he could know me so little, could think me so decadent, so trivial, so vain.

Whereupon, he took the offending bits of fur back to Foley’s and traded them in, I’m convinced, for the next object his eyes fell on, Julia’s book.

It’s not quite fair to call it Julia’s book, as she wrote it in collaboration with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. But it was Julia, the intrepid American, whose voice I heard throughout. It was a confident, pragmatic, jubilant, slightly giddy voice that charmed me into believing 1 could cook, as it charmed us all a decade later on television.

“This is a book for the servantless American cook,” the voice began, immediately reassuring me, for I was certainly that. What the voice didn’t say, what I learned on my own as 1 acquired other cookbooks and could make comparisons, was that you really need a servant to clean up the ungodly messes that Julia will have you make in your kitchen. She never uses one pot if two will do, and a third is even better. (She’s a little like my friend Tom who, when complimented on his walnut torte, said, “Oh, it’s fun. You get to use the blender and the mixer.”)

In 1961 I wasn’t so critical. I’d never had a cookbook before, having previously depended on McCall’s and on my mother’s recipes, which began, “Take enough flour to make a piecrust” or “Take a piece of butter the size of an egg.” Now, happily, with the greatest will in the world, I sifted and measured and minced and grated and creamed. I didn’t have a mixer, much less a blender, but I made souffles, whipping up the egg whites with a fork – no one knew they might fall so they never did. One whole winter I spent working on pastry, until my husband, still no doubt longing for mink-laden eyes, acquired a decidedly porcine shape and declined quiche and tartelettes for reasons of survival.

1 had a great time. The recipes were terrifyingly long and looked formidable on the page, with their French titles and English subtitles, like the films we young intellectuals affected: “Coquelets sur Canapes (Roast Squab Chicken with Chicken Liver Canapes and Mushrooms).” The boldface lists of ingredients and equipment were haughtily specific: “1 1/2 cups sauce mornay (bechamel with cheese), see p. 61” and “A lightly buttered baking dish about 8 inches in diameter and 2 inches deep.” Each completed dish was a victory in the campaign waged against the forces of boredom and laziness and colicky babies.

I never really mastered Mastering the An of French Cooking. We were too poor for lamb, veal, or filets; at the time nothing could have induced me to eat kidneys or sweetbreads; and goose and duck I regarded as bizarre, though I liked to read about them. So it was largely chicken, cheese, eggs, and vegetables that Julia taught me: Fricassee de poulet a I’ancienne, coq au vin, hamburgers with cream sauce, spinach mold, petits pois, and galettes au fromage, wonderful little cheese wafers that could turn Gallo and the Dave Brubeck album into a classy party.

I learned some other things: not to use canned soup for sauces, canned onion rings for toppings, or frozen the forces of boredom and laziness and colicky babies.

I never really mastered Mastering the An of French Cooking. We were too poor for lamb, veal, or filets; at the time nothing could have induced me to eat kidneys or sweetbreads; and goose and duck I regarded as bizarre, though I liked to read about them. So it was largely chicken, cheese, eggs, and vegetables that Julia taught me: Fricassee de poulet a I’ancienne, coq au vin, hamburgers with cream sauce, spinach mold, petits pois, and galettes au fromage, wonderful little cheese wafers that could turn Gallo and the Dave Brubeck album into a classy party.

I learned some other things: not to use canned soup for sauces, canned onion rings for toppings, or frozen

apple tart or an apple strudel or even a sour cream apple pie, but a plain old American apple pie. And pot roast and fried chicken and scrambled eggs and all the simple dishes that a beginning cook often hasn’t the foggiest notion of how to achieve.

On a busy day recently I had forgotten to put meat out to defrost, so I turned in desperation to Cheese Casserole, p. 253, and compiled supper for four from butter, cheese, eggs, milk, and seven slices of bread. There was no nonsense from Joy about fresh-baked French bread and Gruyère either – Mrs. Baird’s and longhorn cheddar did just fine. Another lazy afternoon when 1 was bored at the thought of the round steak waiting for me but didn’t want to go to the store, I whipped up West African beef stew, the most exotic ingredients being peanut butter and curry powder.

For really important occasions, for big meals when I want to put the big pot in the little one, as my grandmother used to say when she invited the preacher to dinner, 1 don’t use The Joy of Cooking. When I’m all geared up to make boeuf à la mode en gelée, I don’t want the instructions to begin, “Prepare the beef as for Sauerbraten, above.” I want a little more fuss. More and more for special occasions and family apple tart or an apple strudel or even a sour cream apple pie, but a plain old American apple pie. And pot roast and fried chicken and scrambled eggs and all the simple dishes that a beginning cook often hasn’t the foggiest notion of how to achieve.On a busy day recently I had forgotten to put meat out to defrost, so I turned in desperation to Cheese Casserole, p. 253, and compiled supper for four from butter, cheese, eggs, milk, and seven slices of bread. There was no nonsense from Joy about fresh-baked French bread and Gruyère either – Mrs. Baird’s and longhorn cheddar did just fine. Another lazy afternoon when 1 was bored at the thought of the round steak waiting for me but didn’t want to go to the store, I whipped up West African beef stew, the most exotic ingredients being peanut butter and curry powder.For really important occasions, for big meals when I want to put the big pot in the little one, as my grandmother used to say when she invited the preacher to dinner, 1 don’t use The Joy of Cooking. When I’m all geared up to make boeuf a la mode en gelée, I don’t want the instructions to begin, “Prepare the beef as for Sauerbraten, above.” I want a little more fuss. More and more for special occasions and familyme down was with chupe, “a splendid buffet dish,” “a Chilean seafood casserole that is thickened with bread soaked with milk.” Well, it wasn’t – thickened, that is, even when I baked it twice as long as required. Pouring the excess gooey milk toast into the sink while my guests banged their knife-handles on the table, I figured I deserved this punishment for being such a copycat. I confess that I only chose chupe for our party because Craig had told me that Leonard Bernstein’s beautiful wife, Felicia, who was born in Montevideo, liked to serve it “on occasion,” and I too wanted to be a glamorous cosmopolite. Sans mush, however, chupe tasted fine.

I hardly know where to start recounting my modest successes a la Craig – perhaps, like a good hostess, with soups. My favorite hot soups are the minestrone, which is pure, aromatic, and very vegetably – the only meat allowed is a smidgin of browned salt pork – and the fantastic cream of mushroom, which I regard as the best soup I have ever eaten. For a cold soup I recommend Senegalese, creamy chicken broth seasoned with curry, or the redoubtable vichyssoise à la Ritz (accompanied by Craig’s French lesson: “Vichyssoise is not pronounced veeshy-swah! It is veeshee-swahze.”).

From the entrees, I often make the herbed meat loaf with the snappiest of fresh tomato sauces, the pork chops with basil and marsala, and sherried chicken with green noodles. All three are simple and really good. A little fancier but still easy, nice for informal entertaining, are the chicken curry jaipur (which contains such fillips as lime juice and fresh mint) and moussaka a la Grecque. The moussaka, replete with lamb, eggplant, and ricotta seasoned with cinnamon and nutmeg, makes a super buffet dish – it can be made a day ahead, in fact should be, and may be served warm or cold, as temperature and temperament dictate.

If you don’t want to be Felicia and serve chupe, you might try one of the numerous other seafood recipes. If you’re broke, there’s sayur lodeh, a spicy Indonesian dish with a heavy accent of garlic. Using it you can serve ten people with two pounds of shrimp and a melange of vegetables. If you’re feeling flush, you could use the charcoal broiled shrimp Pierre.

Or there’s veal, stuffed breast of veal or vitello tonnatto, both of which I’ve hazarded with no real trouble. A good bit of trouble but worth every minute if you have a day to kill are the cannelloni alla Nerone, homemade egg noodles filled with ground prosciutto, chicken breasts, and chicken livers, and served in a light cream sauce.

Since after my first martini I often forget I’m the cook, I lean toward the many good make-ahead salads and vegetables. There are cold green peppers stuffed with rice, tomatoes, olives, and capers; and ratatouille Nicoise, which may be eaten hot or cold, and to which you add garlic, as Craig says, “according to conscience and social engagements.”

1 could go on to the desserts, such as the brilliant recipes for fresh fruit – pears Hélène with ice cream and hot fudge sauce, for example – and Sachertorte, and rum cheesecake. But I’m really too hungry. So 1 think I’ll just get myself a peanut butter and banana sandwich and a big glass of buttermilk, climb into bed, and read my brand-new Craig Claiborne International.

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