Cooking the Books – Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

“If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him…The people who give you their food give you their heart.”

I stumbled on that quote while I was trying to find a way to start this post, and I can’t think of a more perfect way to sum up everything about this cookbook club and basically my entire philosophy on sharing food. Need more really be said?

Cozy start to the evening

…Well, yes, because that’s what I do here. In three meetings, these dinners have become a highlight of my month, not just for the amazing food (though, obviously, yum), but for the people. February’s dinner included three new members, and all three were among the last of us left drinking, eating, and talking past midnight. You know you’ve found a special group when new people fit in so easily it feels like they’ve always been there.

The crowd descends

It seems particularly fitting, then, that February’s cookbook was Italian, a culture that embodies “people who give you their food give you their heart,” and in which food and home and friends and family are deeply, inextricably intertwined.

Impressive feast

I’m ashamed to admit that, while I read through Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan like a novel at least twice when I got it a few years ago, I’d only made a recipe or two (and the minestrone I did make wasn’t the revelation I hoped it would be). But this dinner was a perfect excuse to really dig into it–not solely for the recipes, but for Marcella’s approach to food.

Dig in

Many of us expected a Julia Child-like friendliness and enthusiastic encouragement from the book, but Marcella’s opinionated style led to some fantastic (and hilarious) discussions throughout the whole month before we met, and again at dinner. There was at least a little angst (and a few foul words) directed towards the impossible-to-find salt-cured anchovies that Marcella insisted were essential. (Jarred anchovies were acceptable if you had no other options. Can only find anchovy paste in a tube or “bargain-priced” anchovies? Make another dish.)

Under Marcella's watchful eye

Personally I loved Marcella’s confidence that there is a “right” or “best” way to choose an ingredient or make a dish or organize a meal (salad course always to be served between the main and dessert, please and thank you). Granted, the best version may be the one her grandmother made (like the ciambella cake), but she also won’t deny you options to discover your own best version (for the ciambella, for instance, she says anise and wine are welcome additions).

Pesto
Cheese, salami, and gallette

Interestingly, this book had both the most ambitious recipes (mushrooms, ham, and handmade fettuccine bundled inside a handmade pasta package–yes, that’s pasta-filled pasta), and the simplest (a salad of raw fennel, salt, pepper, and olive oil) of any book we’ve picked so far. Most of the group went for the more project-y recipes (gelato, homemade tortellini), which were as good as you’d imagine, but the simple ones (the macerated oranges or fennel salad) were perfect compliments to the more complex dishes.

Negronis to go around

The unexpected discovery from this cookbook was finding that my Italian grandmother (who turned 102 last month, incidentally; yes she is amazing) regularly made one of my favorite dishes of the evening, pizza rustica (a.k.a. pork and cheese pie, Abruzzi style), a pastry dough stuffed with cured meats, cheeses, and eggs. As soon as I started describing the dish to my dad, he said “Oh, my mom and aunt always used to make that for Easter. It’s in the family cookbook.” And so it was, under “Italian Easter Pie.” I’m planning to attempt my grandma’s version in a few weeks. And maybe her German chocolate cake while I’m at it.

My Italian grandmother and her German chocolate cake

So, well-armed with Negronis and plenty of wine, these are the recipes we made from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking: Continue reading

Cooking the Books – The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

The grande dame of home cooking Julia Child said, “People who love to eat are always the best people.” No surprise, they’re also the best people to start a cookbook club with.

I posted about the first cookbook club in November (Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table). After this month’s meeting–a 15-dish extravaganza from the pages of the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook–I think this is the best thing I’ve done in the nearly four years I’ve been writing this blog.

We're an entertaining group

It’s all of what I love about dinner parties (great food, entertaining at home, not trying to split a check six ways or feeling rushed by a waiter trying to turn a table) and potlucks (trying lots of different dishes) without the not-so-great parts of each (paying for and cooking all the food yourself, that one person who always only brings a bag of Lay’s and a sleeve of Solo cups). Plus it’s a great reason to use the dozens of cookbooks I have overflowing my bookshelf.

The best part, though, is how quickly a group of strangers can become friends over a shared, homemade meal.

Dinner is served

Here’s how it works so far:

  • At each meeting, we pick a cookbook, date, and host for the next meeting. Many people in the group are willing to host to spread out the effort.
  • Everyone who’s coming adds themselves to a Google doc along with:
    • the name of the recipe(s) they’re planning to make
    • if oven or stove space is needed for reheating/keeping a dish warm
    • food allergies or other restrictions
  • We set a maximum of 15 for most meetings for the sake of space, conversation, and food (even with everyone only making a single recipe, we all go home with something for lunch the next day).
  • As much as possible, we stick to the recipe as written.
  • We meet, we eat, we drink (BYO, and the host usually has libations to share, too). We talk about the recipes we made, what worked and what didn’t, what other recipes we want to try (or have tried).

We picked the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook for January’s meeting. I’ve had this book since Deb did her booksigning in Chicago, but have only made a handful of recipes (though the red wine velvet cake and the carmelized onion and squash galette are two all-time favorites). To stay true to the spirit of the club, we decided recipes from her blog were off-limits; cookbook only!

February’s cookbook is the incomparable Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan. Want to play along at home? Pick a recipe, make it on February 20, and share what you made on Facebook! In Chicago and interested in joining the club? Send me an email!

A veritable Smitten Kitchen feast

When January’s meeting came around, these were the recipes at the table: Continue reading

Around My Table

“Living well is the best revenge.” That saying kept running through my head Saturday night as I sat in my living room talking with new friends, drinking wine, eating a homemade feast from Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table. While this wasn’t the original intent when I planned this dinner weeks ago, at least to the seven of us sitting there, it was the best possible response to Friday’s horrific news from Paris.

The coincidences surrounding this dinner made it feel like fate. It started with two articles: the first from Serious Eats about cookbook clubs (a combination potluck and book club with everyone bringing a dish from a chosen cookbook), the second a New York Times claim about the “death of the party,” blaming its demise on everything from the Internet (…huh?) and helicopter parenting to the real estate market and craft beer.

Around the table

I’ve been looking for more excuses to play hostess and am always looking for a reason to try new recipes (especially from my ever-expanding cookbook collection that gets neglected in favor of whatever’s popped up on the Internet lately) . So I left a comment on the cookbook club article saying I’d love to start one in Chicago and for anyone interested to email me.

Inviting strangers into my home with a vague hope that we’d all have some common interest in food–not something my normally introverted self would take on. But I didn’t want to leave it to chance that someone else would start a group and hope they’d invite me. Between the half-dozen people who emailed me and several other food-loving friends, I gathered about 15 people who were equally excited about the idea.

Sharing wine

I chose Around My French Table as the inaugural selection for the “Cooking the Books” club since it had a huge variety of recipes and Dorie Greenspan’s recipes are almost always fool-proof (and, of course, I’ve become a bit of a Francophile over the past year). I found out one of the people who emailed me from Serious Eats was from France and that the date I picked, November 14, coincided with the first French Restaurant Week in Chicago. Fate, I thought.

Then I heard the news on Friday and my heart broke.

Suddenly this dinner was so much more important than just meeting new friends and eating delicious homemade food–or maybe it was so important for exactly those reasons. The attack in Paris targeted those simply enjoying life with friends and loved ones–a dinner out, a concert, a soccer match. If there’s one thing I can do in response, I thought, it’s this: I can bring a handful of people together to share a meal.

So I braised short ribs, set out candles, found good party music, chilled bottles of wine–not to avoid what had happened, but to control the one thing I could when everything on the news seemed determined to show how little control we have.

PB140195

The dinner itself was everything I hoped for. Every dish was outstanding (I think that speaks both to everyone’s cooking skills and the recipes) but more importantly a group of near complete strangers with such varied backgrounds turned almost immediately into a dinner of dear friends, laughing, eating, and drinking like we’ve known each other for years. Of course the conversation revolved around food–what tweaks we made to the recipes, what inspired us to make a particular dish, what else we want to try. There’s something to be said for a group of people that can collectively nerd out over the kind of butter used in a dish.

Dinner is served
Pumpkin flans
Short ribs
Bread

Every bite was delicious
Credit to Sarah for this picture! Her plate looked much tidier than mine.

Sarah, our resident Frenchwoman, made a comment at the end of the evening that meant everything to me, though: after spending the better part of the past 24 hours on the phone with her family and friends, she was glad to have this dinner to look forward to. This was what she would be doing with her friends on a Saturday night in Paris.

Cheese plate
Dessert
I still can’t watch the news. It’s all too much–the posturing, blame, and misplaced anger, the sights and sounds and overwhelming pain–and too similar to so many, too many, other stories lately. But I can find and share food and comfort with friends. It might be a small thing, but when the world seems hellbent on making us afraid of enjoying life (and of welcoming strangers into our lives), it’s the least I can do.

Good people and good stories

Heavy thoughts aside, this dinner was incredibly fun and I can’t wait to do it again (Smitten Kitchen cookbook is on the docket for January!). Here’s what we made and a few thoughts on each dish:

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What’s Cooking Wednesday: Cooking Inspiration (and a Theatrical Interlude)

I won’t bury the lede here: last weekend I met Dorie Greenspan and now I have a new cooking hero.

One of the great things about having a passion is constantly discovering how much more there is to learn. In my research on Paris (…at some point I will talk about something else, I promise) I realized how much I really don’t know about French cooking. As much as I adore Julia Child, firmly believe cheese is a food group, and really don’t think a meal is complete without bread of some kind, French cuisine has just never been something I’ve made a conscious effort to learn about. Needless to say, that’s changed.

I discovered one of my favorite shops, The Spice House, was doing a booksigning with Dorie Greenspan to promote her new cookbook on French baking, Baking Chez Moi, the weekend after my Paris trip. I knew very little about her, really, but the timing was too perfect, I had to go. The signing was great fun, not least because there was champagne and delicious little treats made by the students at the French Pastry School.

Baking Chez Moi

As soon as she started speaking, I knew it was fate–I had just finished my last macaron and she said this was the first of her 11 cookbooks in which she was finally convinced by her editor to include a recipe for the Parisian sweet (or is it American now? though I categorically object to framing it as “macarons are the new cupcake”). I anticipate a baking project…

More importantly, Dorie was everything I always hope cookbook authors will be: obviously passionate about the topic, incredibly knowledgeable, and imminently kind. To give you a clue exactly how kind, I bought two of her (not insubstantial) cookbooks before the event in hopes she’d be willing to sign both. Not only was she happy to do that (and wrote the sweetest custom inscription when I told her I just got back from my first trip to Paris, which always earns extra points in my mind), she actually apologized for making me hold both cookbooks while I waited in line. And she was happy to take a picture with me (I need a do-over on that one).

Inscription

Dorie Greenspan

And on a totally different subject (not food- or Paris-related for a change), I went to the opening night of Drury Lane Theater’s production of Camelot last week. I love musicals and it was a nice way to stretch my “on vacation” feeling a little bit longer. The show was great fun and well sung and acted; Lancelot was a cutie; the theater was small enough that everyone had a really good view of the stage (always my struggle when buying theater tickets in downtown Chicago without cringing at the price). If you’re in the Chicago suburbs looking to see a show, check it out. (The theater comped my tickets but my thoughts on the show are my own.)

Camelot

Next post, a new recipe: a simple, beautiful French dessert!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year everyone! I hope you all had a wonderful holiday with friends and family, lots of good gifts, plenty of tasty food.

I’m not usually one for new year’s resolutions, but in the name of accountability, I wanted to gather up a few of my cooking- and home-related goals for the year and share them here. Any resolutions for you?

Continue reading