Amanda Hesser: Representing NYT To The Fullest

Somewhere on the western outskirts of Philadelphia, in the living room of the well-appointed home of a stranger, I find myself sitting on a couch with renowned New York Times food columnist Amanda Hesser.  Nursing a pleasant buzz from a hearty quaff of Victory Brewing Company’s Festbier, we’re discussing the benefits and disadvantages of no less than three different Twitter clients that I have installed on my iPhone.  Nearby, a dining table creaks under the weight of pimento cheese, venison stew, stuffed mushrooms, cold sesame noodles, and a myriad of other delectable, homemade dishes.

How did I get here?

The story begins six years ago, with Hesser putting out a call for readers to submit their most beloved recipes from the pages of The New York Times.  Six thousand responses later, and after years of culling, testing, and refining, Amanda Hesser has debuted The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century, a collection of nearly 1,000 dishes spanning a culinary epoch that began in the 1850s and ends with me standing over a food processor last Tuesday night, making pimento cheese.

To celebrate the release of the book, a call to arms was heard throughout the City of Brotherly Love, beckoning food bloggers to a potluck, hosted by the author herself, Audra Wolf of Doris and Jilly Cook, and Marisa McClellan of Food in Jars, with libations to be provided by Victory Brewing Company.  “Food bloggers!”, I said to myself as I read the invitation, “I are one!”  And so a plan was hatched to attend the fete.  But first, I had to decide what to bring.  And before that, I needed to get my hands on a copy of the book.

Thanks to living in the future, Amazon was able to drop a copy of The Essential New York Times Cookbook on my porch the very next day.  I hefted the 4.6 pound work onto my coffee table and started flipping, making mental notes, poring over interesting recipes, and flipping some more until I reached the index.  The first impression that one gets from the book is how strikingly organized it is, for such an extensive collection of recipes.  Yes, we have grown accustomed to expecting chapter headings leading us to soups, salads, poultry and game, fish and shellfish – but what surprises and delights the harried cook is the breakdown, for example, of the soup chapter into listings for cold soups, vegetable soups, soups for each season, even soups for 8 and soups for 2.

I decided to make two easy dishes that would survive the trek in below-freezing temperatures to University City.  Pimento cheese was a natural choice, seeing that I had used other recipes to make it many times before, and could easily adapt to a different preparation.  The other dish, Take-Out Style Sesame Noodles, was selected partly due to its ease of preparation and partly due to my ongoing quest to find the perfect cold sesame noodle recipe (hint – the search is over).

On Wednesday evening, our GPS guided us to a row of darkened homes on a short street that was made to appear even narrower by the fact that the houses sat above us, with imposing brick and concrete stairs arching upwards at a sharp angle.  We made our way to the house number that was designated on the invitation, rang the doorbell, and basked in the warm glow of incandescent lighting as Audra Wolfe answered the door and invited us into her home.

Once inside, I set the dishes on the table and made a point of making nametags – not for myself and my wife, but for the dishes – “Hi, my name is Pimento Cheese.”  With that duty discharged, I scribbled my name and site name in sharpie and proceeded to mess up my “look” with an inartfully placed adhesive rectangle over my heart.  I made small talk with the other invitees and started grazing, taking small samples of everything.  Over the course of the next few minutes, more folks arrived and the table started filling up, with the statistically improbable outcome of my pimento cheese meeting up with two of its twins.  At least my sesame noodles stood alone in their spicy, peanut-y goodness.

Amanda Hesser, as it turns out, is far more approachable than I had ever anticipated, which is not to say that I expected her to be mean or anything like that – she’s just an incredibly friendly and open person.  Someone who, despite her extensive list of accomplishments, still retains the humility to write her name out on a name tag at a party featuring her own book.  We found each other hovering over the three bowls of pimento cheese, and started chatting amiably like soccer moms in the produce department of a grocery store.

At one point, I asked her if she had ever had the opportunity to try any of the offerings from Victory Brewing Company (a local favorite which, coincidentally, is ten minutes away from my house) and, when she said no, I took that opportunity to introduce her to one of my favorite beers, Festbier, a lovely Oktoberfest-style lager that uses all German malts and whole flower European hops.  With the bottles of Festbier being in the shortest supply out of all of the varieties, we were lucky enough to snag two of the last bottles.  While we were at it, she also had the good fortune to try a sample of the Bee Sting Ale, the homebrewed creation of our friends Melissa and Ray of Bathtub Brewery.  And there we all were, my wife and I, Melissa and Ray, Dave Speers from Victory Brewing Company, and Amanda Hesser – drinking beers, crammed into the narrow hallway next to the staircase.  It felt like college again, but with more flavors of awesome than the human mind can even begin to imagine.  And without classes to attend the next day.

As the party wound down, I was glad to see that all of the sesame noodles were consumed, saving me the trouble of hauling the leftovers back home.  We rendered the last of the pimento cheese onto a paper plate, and my wife was kind enough to give the bowls a quick wash.  We bid goodbye to Amanda, Audrey, Marisa, and all of our friends both new and old, and scurried off into the dark of night, just a bit warmer than when we had arrived.

December 16, 2010   Comments

How to Build the Ultimate Cookbook Library

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from a Best Food Blog Ever reader who was interested in building a cookbook collection, and was soliciting my recommendations on the best titles to pick up.  It seemed like a simple question, but before I realized it, my reply had already reached four paragraphs and a deeper level of analysis than I ever would have deemed appropriate for the query.  Though I never have given much thought to the subject, it turns out that I actually do have a process – a method to my madness – and I’m sharing it with you today.

I’ve written about my cookbooks before, but never really discussed my library in detail.  As I would imagine is the case with any media archive, whether it’s books, music, or a certain movie genre, there are a handful of titles that serve to establish the foundation of your library.  These are your “desert island” titles, the books that you know, for certain, contain the core recipes that enable you to whip up almost any appetizer, side dish, main course, or dessert that you can envision.  Your library doesn’t need more than one or two foundation titles, as you’ll find that the ingredients and techniques for a basic recipe of, say, hummus, are not going to vary much – if you’re aiming for a traditional interpretation of hummus, that is.  Think of the recipes in your foundation titles as starting points that you can riff off of to come up with your own style.  My foundation titles are The Best Recipe, which I cherish because of their scientific approach to finding the optimal ingredients and methods for each dish, and The Joy of Cooking, which is encyclopedic in its scope, especially since they’ve recently updated with a new edition.  I may not completely agree with the preparation for a specific dish in The Joy of Cooking, but I know to a certainty that I am holding a baseline recipe in my hands.

After you’ve settled on your foundation titles, you want to begin exploring method-specific cookbooks, which I refer to as “Technique” titles.  Technique titles delve deeply into a specific topic like roasting, pressure cooking, slow cooking, baking, braising, or any other method that’s used in the kitchen.  By using these books, you’ll learn to identify the best methods of preparing something that you come across at the market – a nice piece of fish, a good cut of beef – and you’ll also prevent your repertoire from becoming boring.  Face it, there are not a lot of protein options in your local supermarket; it’s either chicken, pork, beef, or fish of some sort, and not all of those alternatives will be available on a given day.  If all you knew how to do was roast things in the oven, you and everyone that you cook for would quickly grow weary of roasted chicken, roast beef, roast pork, and roast fish.  Being able to prepare a single type of meat using several methods opens up choices, and it also makes for space economy when you’ve got other things going on in the kitchen.  If the oven is busy with a casserole or other side dish, for example, it becomes essential to know a few recipes that don’t need to use the oven.  I try to pick up as few Technique titles as possible, although sometimes new titles hit the shelves that represent a new “best” guide.  Some of my Technique titles include Roasting – A Simple Art, The Gourmet Slow Cooker, The Pressure Cooker Gourmet, and Splendid Soups.  I also tend to favor the Williams Sonoma Essentials series.

The last tier of cookbook titles that should be in your collection are ethnic classics, and this is where you need to be the most selective.  It’s important to note that when I say “ethnic” I am also referring to regional American cuisines, as well – southern cooking, Tex-Mex, and New England recipes come to mind.  There are many, many ethnic cookbooks on the market, and they all vary in their degree of authenticity.  Ideally, you will want to choose titles that truly convey a sense of a particular culture, beyond just the recipes of that culture’s cuisine.  Peruse the bargain bin of any chain bookstore and you’ll find dozens of Quick and Easy-type of cookbooks that promise to make you the next Martin Yan, Mario Batali, or Madhur Jaffrey.  But, if you really think about it, if you really wanted to cook like these chefs, you would just buy their own cookbooks.

Don’t shy away from an ethnic recipe because it contains ingredients that you haven’t heard of, or are otherwise hard to find.  Many times, an unfamiliar ingredient is the first step on a journey of discovery that will take you to ethnic markets and parts of the city that you would otherwise never know about.  As a last resort, there are sometimes substitutions that you can make (orange and lime juice for bitter oranges in Cuban cuisine comes to mind) that will enable you to experience the recipe in as near-completeness as possible.  Some of my most well-worn books for ethnic cuisine are The Breath of a Wok and The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, A Taste of Old Cuba, and Lidia’s Family Table.  By flipping through any one of these titles, you’ll see that the authors go to great lengths to educate the reader on their own experiences growing up as part of that culture, and it makes you appreciate the dishes even more when you know a little more about them.

I love talking about this stuff, as you can tell.  If you have any questions, shoot them my way at ddl[at]bestfoodblogever.com.

January 28, 2009   Comments

Introducing My Cookbook Collection

Books

For some people, it’s shoes. For others, it’s consumer electronics. For me, the object of my collection obsession, as it has been for a number of years, has been the cookbook.

You may have noticed that, so far, a lot of the recipes that have appeared on The Best Food Blog Ever have been sourced from cookbooks and culinary magazines, and this is by design. I am approaching the development of this blog much like the evolution of my own skills in the kitchen. At first, you prepare recipes exactly as they are presented in a cookbook, to the letter, and as someone new to the kitchen, you fear any variation lest you “mess up” the final dish. Then, one day, you really want to make a particular recipe and you find out that you’re missing one small ingredient – and you substitute, and it works. Then you do this more and more, and one day, you’re using the cookbooks and recipes as launching points, taking an idea here, a technique there, and making your own creations based on tried-and-true past experiences.

That’s my rationale for having so many cookbooks. Quite a few of them are good for only a handful of recipes, but they are solid, dependable recipes that will always work. Others, like the Joy of Cooking and The New Basics, are the go-to books for master recipes covering a broad range of different ingredients and techniques. Still others form the basis for my core knowledge of ethnic cuisine, and I try to limit myself to the “best of the best” for a certain nationality, but someone’s always writing a better one that will be published one day, and that will invariably end up in my bookcase.

The oldest cookbook that I own was probably picked up when I was fifteen, and the most recent was likely found at an outlet store for a killer price. I used to avoid books that had a lot of fancy photography and advanced layout (I still have a small collection of Frugal Gourmet paperbacks) but in today’s modern times that’s all we seem to get, and I don’t mind the shift. I’ve come to realize that food photography can go a long way towards illustrating what a dish is supposed to look like, and without it, you’ve lost an important barometer of how well you’re executing a dish.

Perhaps the best part about finally buying a house was being able to display all of my cookbooks in one place, as opposed to having random stacks of them on the floor in our old apartment.

Well, that, and the larger kitchen.

May 10, 2008   Comments