Cookbook Love

Once you've become addicted to cookbooks (taking them to bed the way old movie stars tote along pitchers of frozen margaritas) you will begin to notice that you've made only one or two (if that) recipes from each of the books that tumble from your shelves and onto the coffee table, kitchen counter, the floor etc. It's hard to get to them all.

A lot of cooks I know claim to feel a nagging guilt about this. I try instead to reserve my guilt for other uses and treat my cookbooks with lightheartedness. Remember that every cookbook you own has a reason to be in your life, even if it is to remind you why you don't make your own puff pastry. And it often happens that a cookbook you've ignored for years will fall open while you are dusting and lead you to discover that you would indeed love to do something with freshly cooked favas.

And your relationships to cookbooks change, of course. I used to like healthy vegetarian cookbooks (I know!). Then I started to like homey cookbooks, full of buttery things. Then I got stuck on on the Mediterranean style, olive oily, fresh lemony stuff. And on and on. In the last year, I've been attracted to cookbooks featuring more far-flung cuisines, Indian and Thai food most recently. I have never owned a book about baking. But it turns out that I need one.

I have tended not to fall for any cookbook that is way, way, way over my head.

But now I seem to be coming into an aspirational cooking phase. I love my new favorite cookbook the way I love certain people: I look up to it, and I know I'm never going to tire of it.

The Man, who is a great example of one of those of people, bought me a copy of the cookbook I refer to, Thomas Keller's "Ad Hoc at Home."

As we've all heard, opposites attract: Thomas Keller, of The French Laundry, is one of the world's most revered and famous chefs, and, obviously a very precise man for whom every motion in the kitchen is deliberate. His cookbook is also very precise and deliberate, but its tone and effect is very homey (hence the title) and warm (which I gather has not been true of his earlier cookbooks). I, on the other hand, am unknown, and imprecise in the kitchen--some might say a culinary loose cannon--but I think of myself as just lovely. Can you see what I'm saying?

I can go on being just who I am at this moment, as a cook, and leave it at that, or I can choose to stretch. And Mr. Keller is encouraging me to do that, whether he knows it or not, especially in terms of precision and focus. I know this is off the topic a bit (see: typical) but I grew up in a large family where food was made for 8, with enough for leftovers the next day. So if I make chicken today, I buy the one that looks like a heavyweight boxer. If I make soup I don't measure I just throw things in the pot until it's almost full. That's a slight exaggeration, and only slight.

But ever since I made my first dish from this book, the plain-sounding Sauteed Chicken Breast with Tarragon, I have started to think there may be something to this whole culinary/chef thing. I've actually begun to assemble my mise-en-place, which I used to think was only for suckers or people forced to do it in their restaurant jobs. Now, I find it makes me feel fancy, like I have a cooking show, as well as calmer in the face of time constraints. I like the ritual of chopping assembly-line style, then placing my work in little dishes for using later. Cute little carrot slices!

This is only the first dish I have cooked from the book (I've also made a lentil-sweet-potato soup with curry, and a whole roast chicken on a bed of root vegetables, both fabulous). It was a good one to start with because aside from being absolutely wonderful, and something that the 10-year-old around here requests by description, it was no trouble at all, and left me feeling like a genius. You throw some spices on boneless breasts, let them sit in the fridge, pound them, then fry them up, make a pan sauce with some shallots, wine, etc. We have this dish with roasted butternut squash seasoned with cayenne and lime and a cold cucumber salad. It's all perfect together.

Sauteed Chicken Breasts with Tarragon, from "Ad Hoc at Home"

Serves 6
  • 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • 1 teaspoon yellow curry powder or Madras curry powder (which is what I used)
  • 6 large boneless skinless chicken breasts
  • Kosher Salt
  • Canola oil
  • 3 Tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon minced shallot
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc
  • One cup chicken stock
  • 1 tablesoon coarsely chopped tarragon
  • freshly ground pepper

  1. Mix together the paprika and curry in a small bowl. Season the chicken on both sides with the mixture. cover and refrigerate for 2 hours
  2. Lay 2 pieces of chicken on a large piece of plastic wrap. Cover it with a second piece of wrap and pound the chicken using a meat pounder or a rolling pin, to about 1/4 inch thickness. Transfer to a plate and repeat with the remaining slices.
  3. Preheat the oven to 200. Set a cooling rack over a baking sheet.
  4. Season the chicken on both sides with salt. Heat some canola oil in a large frying pan over medium high heat Working in batches, without crowding, add the chicken smooth side down and cook, adjusting the heat if necessary, until golden brown on the bottom, about 90 seconds. Turn and cook the other side until golden, about 90 seconds. Transfer cooked chicken to the rack in the oven; repeat process with the remaining chicken, adding oil to pan if necessary.
  5. Wipe out the frying pan, removing burned pieces if there are any. Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter over medium-high heat. Add the shallot to the pan, reduce the heat t o medium, and cook for 30 seconds, stirring to coat the shallot. Pour in the wine, increase heat to medium high and cook until the wine has reduced by halve, about 1 minute. Add the chicken stock, bring to a boil, and cook until reduced and thickened, about 2 minutes. Stir in the chopped tarragon, remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, and any pan juices that have accumulated on the baking sheet. Stir in the butter, season with salt and pepper. Arrange chicken on a platter and pour sauce over. Garnish with some tarragon sprigs.
  6. NOTE: These directions are almost verbatim from Mr. Keller's cookbook. The chicken turns out absolutely perfectly cooked this way, so don't mess around with that. I had to cook the sauce a bit longer to reduce, and I like a little more of the Paprika curry mix on my chicken, but just a bit.. And I did not make my own stock, nor did I thaw the frozen homemade stock in my freezer. I imagine it would be even more wonderful if I had.


  1. Not a huge fan of fancy chef cookbooks, but I may need to add this one to my collection based on your recommendation -- and this great-sounding recipe!

  2. Sasha, I hear you sister. I've bought cookbooks by fancypants chefs that have actually made me angry. One involving chemicals I've never heard of and sheets of gelatin. But this is a really nice gateway cookbook.

    One confession: we did make a "parchment lid," for the lentil and sweet potato soup with bacon, but it was very cute and the soup was cray-zee. Thanks for reading my blog!!