The Best of My Cookbooks

These days most of us don’t look to cookbooks when we’re thinking about dinner. We just google “pesto” or “Asian drumsticks” or whatever it is we want to cook and voilà ! In the blink of an eye we have a recipe. I do have quite a few books that I count on when I want to serve a better than average meal, though. Whether it’s American or international cuisine that I’m planning, these books always come through for me. (Unfortunately, most of them may be out of print, but are probably available secondhand on eBay or at Abe or Powell's Books, for example.)

First and foremost, I have to pay homage to one of my culinary heroes, Julia Child. I truly admire her for the role she played in changing the way Americans cook. Yet, I can never imagine being like the blogger in Julie & Julia who spent a year going through the entire two-volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking,
preparing all 524 entries! No, I prefer to find recipes that appeal to me and try them out. I have several of her cookbooks, including Julia and Jacques Cooking At Home, which I really like. But mainly I go to the first one I received from my husband, From Julia Child’s Kitchen. There are quite a few delicious international dishes here, like the fish in a creamy mushroom sauce, Filets de sole bonne femme (…which reminds me of the French saying “C’est la sauce qui fait passer le poisson”…“Sauce allows you to serve fish”!) Another favorite from this book is Médaillons de porc sauté à la crème. This simple main dish, also made with cream, combines slices of pork tenderloin with allspice and thyme, garlic, shallots, and white wine. So quick, easy, and delicious.

One of the books I bought for my children when they left home is the outstanding Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen. I’ve heard that his New Orleans restaurant is not that impressive, but that’s not the case here. Unlike some of his later cookbooks which require the purchase of his seasoning mixtures, these recipes call for herbs and spices that you probably have in your cupboard. Okay, so it’s Cajun cooking; that means that it’s spicy. I would encourage neophytes to halve the amount of white, black, and red pepper until your tongue builds up a tolerance. In some recipes, too, you might want to cut down on the butter. That said, we have not had a bad meal from this book! Trust me on this. The list of exceptional recipes includes: Seafood Crêpes (oh, là, là, how delightful!), Shrimp Diane, Barbecued Shrimp (which we had Saturday night and inspired this post!), Chicken Étouffée, Chicken and Tasso Jambalaya, Roasted Pork…and I could go on! If you love—or think you might like—Cajun food, this is a must.

Another purchase I felt I had to make for my boys is Eva Zane’s Greek Cooking for the Gods. Perhaps my Greek friends will disagree, but I think this is perfect for beginners in this type of cuisine. I have made very many of her recipes and love them all: her stuffed grape leaves, moussaka, pastitso, broiled lamb steaks, Greek salad with feta dressing...mmmmmm! Many of the stew-type entries, like stifado, are easily adaptable to the slow cooker, too.

Finally, there are the two Silver Palate series cookbooks, which I first heard about from a college friend of one of my sons. Luckily for me, at separate times both volumes were on the shelves of my local secondhand bookstore. You can find a bit of everything in the area of American classics from dips to soups and main dishes in these texts. Written by two women who got together to start a catering business, Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins, the recipes each seem to have a nice little twist, like egg salad with fresh dill and beef stew with cumin. Yummy!

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Thanksgiving recipes

In graduate school I read something that has stuck with me over the years. It’s that modern people, with all of the mental concentration required to perform our everyday tasks, tend to seek out leisure activities which force us to work with our hands. I know this is true in my case. There is nothing I enjoy more than the relaxation that comes from gardening, drawing, or cooking. Focusing on such interests is, at least for me, a great stress reliever. Of course, preparing for big holiday celebrations can add a whole new level of pressure to an already busy life. To alleviate some of the strain, I start by preparing the food early. (In fact, one of my friends contends that I serve “leftovers” to my family…which is not exactly the case!) Before Thanksgiving each year, I begin on Sunday by baking the cornbread for my southern-style dressing; then Monday, I usually get the sweet potatoes ready; on Tuesday, it’s the cranberry sauce. Anyway, whatever the schedule of events, I think you get the picture.

In the time that we have been married, we’ve collected a stash of recipes that we use for the holidays, particularly for Thanksgiving. I would like to share two of them with you today. The oldest of these, from a secretary at Clark College in Atlanta, is still written on the same red index card from decades ago. This delectable dish, called “Sweet Potato Soufflé,” is not a true, puffy, hard-to-create soufflé, but a richly satisfying side dish, perfect for the excess of the holiday table. Over the years we have tinkered with the recipe slightly and have now passed it on to the next generation.

3 cups of cooked, mashed sweet potatoes, ¼ cup melted butter
¾ c. sugar, 1/3 cup flour
¼ cup milk, 1 teaspoon grated orange peel
2 eggs, 2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1 teaspoon vanilla

For the topping:
1 cup chopped pecans, ¼ cup melted butter
1 cup brown sugar, 1/3 cup flour

Combine the sweet potatoes, sugar, milk, eggs, vanilla, melted butter, flour, orange peel, and orange juice; mix well. Pour into a 2 quart baking or soufflé dish. Combine the topping ingredients and scatter over the mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes or until bubbly. Serves 8.

Another all-time favorite of our family is “Cranberry Applesauce.” This one came from a sister-in-law and again dates from our time in Georgia. This easy to make dish tastes so much better, in my mind at least, than canned cranberry sauce. As I look at this card, I realize that it really needs to be rewritten…but I’ve made it so often that I could practically do it without any reminders!

2 ounces butter, ½ teaspoon ground cloves
1 lb. fresh cranberries, 1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 Golden Delicious apples, 1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)
1 ½ cups dark brown sugar,

Melt the butter in a pot and add the cranberries. Cook until they are popping and mushy. Peel the apples and cut into pieces. Add to the cranberries and mix well. Turn off the heat and add the brown sugar, spices, and nuts. Grease a 2-quart baking dish, add mixture, and bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes. If prepared in advance, cook 10 minutes, covered with aluminum foil, then refrigerate. Warm for 15 to 20 minutes before eating. (Note: this dish is supposed to be served covered with marshmallows, but I think that is too much of a good thing.)

There you have two of our choices for the Thanksgiving table. Let me know if you try them and what you think. Enjoy this best of the American holidays!

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