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.


Upstanding Baked Pasta

I'm not a giant meat eater, and yet here I am again offering you another very heavy meat and pasta dish--the kind of dish Henry VIII or Fred Flintstone or the king in the Hossenfeffer episode of Bugs Bunny (titled "Shishkabugs") or any other cartoonishly big eater would enjoy. I swear on a stack of Bibles we eat salads and green things at my house. We do! We make vegetable soup the way some families breathe air.

For now though, since I'm entering a dish in this week's Food52.com contest, for baked pasta, I may as well share what I've devised. Because sharing is a virtue, whether arteries are clogged as a result or not. That is what I must choose to believe.

I'd seen a recipe in some magazine--I think it was Martha Stewart--for a dish of vertical rigatoni lined up like little soldiers (with sauce poured over them) and baked in a spring form pan. It seemed like a fun dish to make with a kid in the room, and it turns out that I was right. And if you use really good ingredients (I bought hand-dipped ricotta, really good buffalo mozarella, reggiano, and some pasta that I don't even want to discuss--the bag was tied with a ribbon) it's pretty devourable and just what you want a baked pasta to be: plentiful, rich, and very satisfying.

If you have a pastry bag, it would probably be the best way to squirt the ricotta mixture into the pasta, plus it would be fun for the kid that is in the room. If not, you'll be fine. The pasta is big enough to drop a spoonful into using a spoon. This sounds like a lot of trouble, but it's the only thing about this recipe that could possibly make peevish those people who think they don't have time to cook. It is otherwise easy-peasy.

Upstanding Baked Pasta


  • 1 pound Italian sausage, casing removed
  • 1/2 cup plus 1 TB olive oil, divided
  • 2 15-ounce (or 1 28-ounce) cans of whole peeled Italian tomatoes
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 2 cups fresh ricotta cheese
  • 1 cup cup Parmigiano Reggiano, grated, divided
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 pound fresh mozzarella
  • salt, pepper (to taste)
  • 1 pound paccheri (giant rigatoni)

  1. Preheat oven to 375. Get out your spring-form pan, wherever it is, and lightly grease it. Put on a giant pot of water to boil for the pasta.
  2. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large heavy skillet; raise heat to medium high and brown sausage well (without casing), mashing it to break it into very small pieces as it cooks, about 8-10 minutes.
  3. Place tomatoes, remaining half cup of olive oil, garlic in blender. Puree until just smooth.
  4. Once meat has browned properly, add puree to skillet. Add salt; bring sauce to a very lively simmer and cook, over medium high heat, for 5 minutes. Reduce heat and simmer until the sauce has reduced by about one-third (20 minutes). Add red pepper flakes, balsamic vinegar, and continue cooking for 5 more minutes.
  5. Meanwhile, mix together ricotta, half the Parmesan. Stir in the beaten egg. Thin the mixture with a bit of milk if it seems too thick for its own good. Season with freshly ground pepper (about 1/2 teaspoon).
  6. Cook the paccheri at a rolling boil until it is barely al dente. You don't want the large tubes to lose their shape and become too flattened. Rinse with cold water, then toss with a bit of olive oil and the remaining Parmesan cheese.
  7. Place the paccheri vertically in the prepared spring-form pan. Using a pastry bag or a small spoon, squirt about a tablespoon or so of the ricotta mixture into each noodle, pushing it down a bit to make room for the sauce. Pour the sauce over the cheese-filled noodles. Place the spring-form on a cookie sheet and bake for 25 minutes. Remove, cover the top of the casserole with slices of mozzarrella, and continue cooking until the cheese has browned and the casserole has heated through, about ten more minutes. Serve in slices, like a pie.
  8. Run 8 miles.


Boo-hoo? Ragu.

I went away from myself for a while. (Sigh!) That sounds very melodramatic, I realize. As if I rowed away from myself while I remained on the shore, waving goodbye. In a student film. Made in Sweden. Or Germany.

It's been a schmaltzy, self-involved year. But tell me you've never been there! It happens to all of us: we come to a point where we have to sit ourselves down and establish who, exactly, is the boss of the relationship: our worst selves (surly, sockless in winter, feckless in all other seasons, and undecided to the point of absurdity) or our better selves (focussed, sly, claws unclenched from petty discontents). I cried like a slob more than once in the process (and when I say "slob." I mean the charming, adorable, interesting sort of slob whose face does not get red, and whose tears reflect the color of her eyes and the depth of her soul, under particularly flattering lightl). The point is I made a choice.

I still go sockless at the wrong times, but I'm definitely focussed enough to want to get back to being a writer. And I've settled into the idea that it's okay to spend one's days and afternoons doing something a person loves as much as I--and many people I know and admire--love to cook. And that sharing recipes writing about food can be as noble as writing about City Hall. Or as useful, at least. And more noble, certainly, than passing along gossip about American Idol judges.

Actually, let's just leave the word noble out of it.

I owe some of the return of my zest for life (and the reappearance of a lemon zester into my kitchen) to Food52.com, which is dedicated to home-cooking and will result in a cookbook containing winning recipes from a year's worth of competitions (hence the 52). If you don't know about the site, and you love to cook, you really should log on and see what's going on over there. It was created by two friends who've cooked together for some time (the lovely team of Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs), and once you start to participate you feel like they and all the other cooks are your friends, too. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that the competition had something to do with it how much I like the site. Winning (as I did, for my lemony cream cheese pancakes) really will put the git back in your gittyup, no matter how zen-like your resistance to the idea of competition may be.

None of this is to say I didn't cook much over the last 9 months or so. I cooked a lot, and it made me really happy, even when I was being a pill; I think it made the two people closest to me happy, too.

Anyway, here is my Ragu Bolognese, which I perfected during my fallow period and which we have begun serving at Christmas in my family. It will make you cry. But in a good way.

Ragu Bolognese

Yield: 7 cups, which serves at least 10 people, or 10 million, I can’t remember. It’s a rich sauce. It freezes very well.

4 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter (you can leave this out and substitute more olive oil if you insist; I think it helps browning process)
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1 large carrot, scraped and finely chopped
2 stalks celery, finely chopped 4 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound ground veal
1 pound ground pork (or use all beef/veal)
1/2 pound ground beef
1/4 pound pancetta, minced or ground (or you can use bacon, but less)
2 cups cream, half and half, or milk (or use a combination)
1 (16-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, chopped, with the juices
1 cup dry white wine
2 cups chicken stock
Salt and pepper

  1. In a very large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic and sauté over medium heat until translucent.
  2. Add veal, pork, beef, and pancetta to the vegetables, cook over medium high heat for about 15 to 20 minutes. You really want it to brown; stir it often, breaking up clumps of meat.
  3. Add half the milk/cream and simmer until almost dry, about 15 minutes. Add the tomatoes and simmer, breaking up any large pieces, 15 minutes. Add the wine and broth, bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for 2 hours.
  4. After 2 hours, add remaining milk; simmer for another 1/2 hour, or longer, until the flavor has intensified, and the sauce has become somewhat dry. It is not a very “saucy” sauce. It’s a meaty sauce. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Serve on pappardelle, with freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano.