I am a cookbook junkie. I read them like novels and enjoy cracking open a brand-new cookbook almost as much as eating a great meal. I keep a wall full of my favorites right in the kitchen and have others stashed away that have sentimental value or contain a beloved recipe. I am fickle—binging on some for a few years, then shipping them out to the rummage sale and moving on to newer, trendier ones.
My cooking has evolved with the times—from those Pillsbury Classic magazines of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s to Pampered Chef recipes to the community cookbooks produced by various organizations as fundraisers. Currently, I like Barefoot Contessa and Southern Living. I will use Pioneer Woman when I’m cooking for a crowd and don’t care about the calories. I love Ann Bryn’s “Cake Doctor,” “Dinner Doctor,” and “What Shall I Bring?” cookbooks which contain creative and easy recipes with wide audience-appeal. Smitten Kitchen if I’m feeling adventurous. Of course, now I’m just as likely to google recipes on the phone as search through a cookbook.
I developed an adventurous palate growing up. I ate whatever was put in front of me because my mother would announce in no uncertain terms that she “was not running a diet kitchen.” Her cooking tended toward the regional cuisine of well-cooked meat and potatoes along with, for that era, a surprising amount of fresh fish and seafood. My dad didn’t cook but would bring things home like marinated herring and ruby-red borscht from a Jewish deli, and a syrupy Moravian cake from a tiny bakery in a nearby town. He always encouraged me to sample things from his plate and order from the adult menu in restaurants. I have been told that I once ordered my own crab cake when I was still in a booster seat. I thought nothing of eating shad roe wrapped in bacon, common on 1960’s restaurant menus, and slurping down steamed clams. I insisted that my beef be cooked rare and still do. I would happily eat dinner at my best friend’s house on Friday nights when there was a guarantee of fried fish or seafood. “Please eat my scallops for me,” she would beg. “They’re like eyeballs.”
However, I do have some iron-clad rules. I do not eat melons, oysters or any kind of organ meat. I have issues with eggs—they must be thoroughly cooked in either scrambled or hard-boiled form, nothing in between. Ever. I do not care for anything burned, even if it’s supposed to “to bring out the caramelization.” I have been known to remove even the slightest amount of darkened crust from a piece of toast. I am not a fan of seeds. Seeds are for birds, and they have a sort of back-taste that bothers me. (Not to mention that the dinner table stories told by my grandfather, a small-town physician, always led me to believe that an errant seed could lodge in your appendix causing it to become inflamed and rupture.)
Which brings me back to cookbooks. I recently bought two new ones while surfing Amazon for a craft book on writing because, naturally, I wanted to qualify for free shipping. The first book is a work of art, entirely focused on vegetables prepared in their season and filled with enticing but accessible recipes that bring out the flavor of the vegetable itself. I already made a corn sauté that was wonderful and easy.
The second one was described in online reviews as “life-changing,” “the cookbook I will use forever,” with recipes requiring “minimal technique,” and “no pretense.” The writing is delightful, and like in many of the newer publications, the author teaches and shares personal anecdotes instead of just throwing a recipe down on a page.
But, alas, I knew I was in trouble when the earliest chapters instructed me to keep things like “crunchy chili oil,” “everything seed mixture,” “fresh za’atar,” and “yuzu kosho” (google them—not available at Giant) in my pantry to use in the recipes. Grapeseed oil. Aleppo pepper. And ground sumac. Since when did sumac evolve from that terrible stinking weed that causes a rash far worse than poison ivy into an herb to enhance chicken?
The author appears to be obsessed with anchovies, seeds, soaking things in vats of olive oil, and Lord, have mercy, eggs in some kind of semi-cooked form plopped onto just about every salad and entrée. Turn a page and there’s yet another photograph with the cyclops eye of a fried or poached egg glaring back at you from atop a pile of greens soaked in anchovy-infused olive oil, scattered with a buckshot of seeds.
I know my way around an upscale restaurant menu and love to visit cutting-edge eateries on our occasional trips to New York, but most of these recipes stopped me dead in my tracks of culinary enthusiasm. Fried lentils and chickpeas, crispy squid, lamb and garlicky yogurt, (ok, maybe I’d taste that, but I have social issues with eating lamb) figs and persimmons paired with blue cheese. Everything highly spiced and seeded and egged. Tender carrots roasted to utter blackness, zucchini baked in heavy cream. Barley porridge followed by a kimchi omelet and cantaloupe with arugula and black olives for breakfast. I don’t think there is a single recipe in the book that a child or someone with a cautious palate would eat except for maybe a few of the desserts which look lovely, especially since they don’t include anchovies.
I am sure this is a cookbook that many will savor and enjoy, and I am in no way disparaging the author, a nationally-renowned chef whose recipes have become internet sensations. It’s beautifully written and photographed, and I might try a recipe or two that does not involve seeds or eggs, (anchovies may be negotiable.) Some of the desserts are definitely worth a shot. But, for me, this is the anti-cookbook, the one I would cook from if I ever got serious about losing weight.