You might think he's doing something else. But in reality, he's learning how to sit/stay, and not doing a very good job of it (he eventually learned how to do so beautifully ... sort of ).

mercoledì 21 dicembre 2011

Hard Candy Christmas

We’re coming upon Christmas, and we’re all supposed to feel full of joy and good will. If you’re not feeling full of joy (and we know who we are), we should at least try to feel full of good will, and go through the motions of perhaps stringing lights on a tree (if we decide to have one), of baking Christmas cookies (if we can be bothered), of playing Christmas music (if Dolly Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas” won’t reduce you to tears), and of giving Christmas presents.

My Facebook wall is cluttered with many food writers promoting their own, just-published cookbooks. End-of-year lists promote the ten best of 2011. It’s pleasing to see that Yotam Ottolenghi has broken into U.S. consciousness (his “pepper tofu” might be the best tofu recipe, ever) – his Plenty was named one of the 10 best cookbooks of 2011 by the Washington Post.

My mother always gave me cookbooks at Christmas. I often returned the favor. It ran in the family: my sister also frequently gifted my mother with cookbooks, and we consistently and predictably gift our brother-in-law with them. (He is becoming the best cook in the family.)

My mother almost always inscribed these books. She was feeling a little full of swagger when she inscribed 1986’s present – in this case, Marcella Hazan’s Italian Kitchen in the following manner: “Merry Christmas to the 2nd or 3rd best cook in the family.” Clearly she thought she was the best, though whom she meant by the 2d best cook will elude me forever.

I own Marcella’s entire oeuvre, and I have always been partial to this, because I think it is her best. Is it because it is the only Marcella my mother ever gave me? Is it because when I made her “Baked Stuffed Bluefish Fillets” for my visiting sister my sister proclaimed me a marvelous cook? (It was the recipe!) Do the recipes taste better because my mother inscribed it? Unclear. But what is clear is that so many of these recipes have entered our repertoire, and have been part of our lives for 25 years.

In 1987, she gave me Deborah Madison’s (with Edward Espe Brown) Greens Cook Book. My mother had carefully cut off, in triangular fashion, as everyone did and does, the price tag. Her inscription? “Merry Christmas to the Gregarious Gourmet!” I can remember spending many an enjoyable evening in front of my mother’s roaring fireplace mentally devouring the recipes – this was the most sophisticated vegetarian cook book at that time, period. It was well-written, insightful. Better than that, the recipes were stimulating unlike those in Diet for a Small Planet, which exhorted us to eat vegetarian, whose recipes would have driven any well-meaning vegetarian wannabe to the nearest steakhouse. The recipes were stultifying, and could easily have done double duty as paperweights.

(That same year, for my birthday a couple of months before, she’d given me the 2d revised Joy of Cooking, with the following inscription: “Happy 28th, S.H. The great chef will get even greater!”)

1994 brought me Provencal Light by Martha Rose Shulman, and the inscription? “Merry Christmas, Patti. You can (and may!) practice on us anytime!” (Us, in that case, referred to her second husband who, unlike my mother, really didn’t much like food at all.) This volume isn’t nearly as dog-eared (excuse me Pups and Puppers) as her earlier Mediterranean Light, though I am very happy that it's on our shelves.

Chez Panisse Cooking arrived in 1998, with the inscription: “Merry Christmas, S.H. from a sous chef [my mother] and a salad boy! [non-food-loving second husband].” We cooked many, many wonderful things from this book, and we still overdose on all the marvelous green garlic recipes (our introduction to that product) every spring. In fact, the spine has cracked between pages 112-113. At left, “Green Garlic and Cheese Soufflés” and on the right, “Green Garlic Soup.”

Her inscription with the 1999 (Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook) book was simple and to the point: “Merry Christmas, Patti/with love, Mums.” This was the first time in nearly 20 years that she didn’t sign her second husband’s name (he’d died that February) and even the printing of the book reflects the fact that things were awry. The “Sweets” chapter is totally muddled; the printer must’ve had a mechanical malfunction. One recipe appears over several pages. Apt, however.

I am 100% clueless how Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook came to be such a laughing matter in our family, but it did. It was the first, and only, coffee table cookbook she ever gave me, and it came via early in 2000. She had one, too (I gave my mother’s copy to a dear cousin who loves to cook), and so did my sister. In fact, she gave it to me as a joke. It’s a glorious cookbook, brilliantly produced, but who really has time to make “Fricassée of Escargots with a Purée of Sweet Carrots, Roasted Shallots, and Herb Salad?” (Like St. Francis looking for inspiration and then receiving the stigmata, I just randomly opened the book and that’s what appeared.)

[Please don’t get me wrong here: I would kill to eat anything made by Thomas Keller –perhaps even snails.][Years ago, while Sunday lunching at a friend’s house in Florence, a Ducasse-trained chef – who made our Sunday lunch – stoutly defended the cookbook as a “how to” rather than a “do it” kind of thing, and his point was well taken.]

The Puppers chewed the hell out of this book just a few weeks ago, and it now needs to be re-bound.

My mother came from the United States twice to visit us. The first time, in 2007, she gifted us with Marion Cunningham’s re-revision of her Fannie Farmer Cookbook. It’s a glorious tome, sadly uninscribed, with a faint whiff of dog pee on it (Harry).

The second, and last time, she visited was in 2009 (the last time I saw her not in a hospital), and she brought with her the Momofuku cookbook. She would not have figured that one out by herself; it was my sister’s wise counsel that led her to gift me with it. The inscription, her last to me in cookbook-giving, was simple and to the point: “Merry Christmas, S.H.!”

I took two books from her shelves last month. One was one I’d given her – Anna Thomas’s Vegetarian Epicure in which I’d self-righteously inscribed (as only a junior in college can do): “May you turn your wandering eye to meatless vistas. Merry Christmas!” This in 1980.

Did she cook out of it? I know she loved the Cheddar corn chowder, and the book’s spine is inexplicably broken on popovers/hot herb bread on the left, corn bread on the right. (As much as I adore and treasure this book, it seems somehow dated.)

The other was the Better Homes and Garden Cookbook (1962), and I am sure that my mother took its lessons to heart. It’s a most amazing volume. It tells the fledgling cook how to put meals together, how to rely on canned goods (among other things). A two-page spread entitled “ Plan meals the easy way – borrow these ideas” puts the whole meal in perspective: Meat/Starchy Food/Vegetable/Salad/Dessert/Nice to serve. She eschewed the “Choose variety meats for change” – if we ever ate sweetbreads or kidney, the four of us must have been dining somewhere else.

The beauty of this book? Right up front, on the page that starts with “Why nearly 9,000,000 women cherish this cook book” is an explanation as follows: “the new Cook Book is easy to use” because it 1) has a washable cover, 2) has loose-leaf binding, and 3) it has tab-index pages (and, just so our priorities are straight, chapter 6 (Candy) precedes Casseroles and one-dish meals (Chapter 8), Chapter 9 (Cookies) … we don’t get to Meats/Poultry/Fish ‘til Chapter 13).

“Ideas for lunch-box meals:” Deviled Ham and Pickle Bunwiches (bunwiches?), Potato chips, Perfect iced tea, olive and celery (the salad or vegetable section), and brownies and/or a Ripe Pear. My mother didn’t pack many lunch-box meals for us once she, a single parent, went back into the work force. We were among those kids who “bought” and our elementary school lunches, if memory serves, cost 35 cents. Would that she had made us bunwiches!

The book seems largely unused except for the dog-eared pages in the pastry section. Thinking about it, my mother came a long way on her culinary path. From Better Homes and Gardens to Momofuku ...

This year I make her stuffing, to go with our turkeys (two boneless/stuffed with good stuff from our butcher) and remember that the last time I ate it, she was in our kitchen, making it herself.

As you may have gathered, my mother was a marvelous cook. She particularly went all out during the holidays, and this recipe I associate with Christmas at her house. For those of you not living in the United States, you can substitute speck.

Happy Holidays/Tanti Auguri.


8 oz. package cream cheese
1 c. sour cream
¼ lb. dried beef (or speck)
¼ green pepper, chopped
2 T. dried onion flakes*
½ t. garlic salt
2 shakes of pepper
2/3 c. pecans or walnuts, coarsely chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put nuts in a shallow baking pan and toast until golden brown – about 5 minutes.

While the nuts are baking, combine the remaining ingredients in a one-quart casserole. Remove the nuts from the oven, put them on top of the dip, and bake for 20 minutes.

Serve immediately on rye or sesame crackers.

*Do dried onion flakes even exist anymore? Probably yes, somewhere. Use diced red onion instead.


Paul Bertolli with Alice Waters, Chez Panisse Cooking, New York, 1988.
Better Homes and Garden New Cookbook, New York, 1962.
David Chang and Peter Meehan, Momofuku, New York, 2009.
Marion Cunningham, The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, New York, 2006. 13th ed.
Marcella Hazan, Marcella’s Italian Kitchen, New York, 1986. HEINOUSLY OUT OF PRINT.
Thomas Keller, The French Laundry Cookbook, New York, 1999.
Deborah Madison, The Greens Cook Book: Extraordinary Vegetarian Cuisine from the Celebrated Restaurant, New York, 1987.
Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker, The Joy of Cooking, New York, 1997.
Martha Rose Shulman, Provencal Light, New York, 1994.
Alice Waters, Chez Panisse Café Cookbook, New York, 1999.

For lyrics to as sung-by Dolly Parton Hard Candy Christmas, go to

9 commenti:

  1. Your beef dip recipe sounds delicious. I may have to do some cut and paste action!

  2. It's totally awesome. If you make it, AKB, please let me know what you think.

  3. Dear P,

    I found this post very poignant. What a lovely way to look back on life, via the inscriptions from mom in cookbooks--and via the cracked bindings and favorite recipes from over the years. Great job, wonderful writing!

  4. Dear P,
    You're mother had wonderful taste and a great sense of humor--just like you. What a wonderful tribute to your mom. Incredible, and glad you're back. xod

  5. Thank you so much, Papaya. Can't wait to see you.

  6. Um, I think she was referring to me as possibly the 2nd best cook. Remember, this was before you became you.

  7. You must be forgetting the pickled tripe (run that by Italians for a laugh), oyster "stew," and potato soup???

  8. Oh, indeed I had. Perhaps I should blog those recipes ... That potato soup comes back to me, slowly. Didn't it have slices of hard-boiled egg in it?