Cooking

Cooking

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Early last spring I received an invitation from Square Halo Books publisher, Ned Bustard. He asked if I would contribute a chapter to a book he was putting together to honor Byron and Beth Borger and the 35th anniversary of their store, Hearts & Minds Books in Pennsylvania. Since I have long admired the Borgers, I was thrilled to be a part of it. As an author and a reader, I’ve benefitted greatly from their contagious love of good books and their encouragement to read widely—from beautiful novels and poetry to biography and history to theology and social justice—on and on through the whole range of topics about which books are written. Through their book shop, mail order services, Bryon’s wonderful and prolific book reviews, and book tables at conferences around the country, they have attempted to create space for serious, reflective readers. Steve Garber writes, “For the years of his life Byron has served the wide world with his deeply-formed commitment to a reading that educates us in the most important ways, teaching us to see the world as it really is and to care for it in its complexity—calling all of us, hearts and minds twined together, into vocations that are born of a love for God and for God’s world, which when all is said and done is the very meaning of a good life for everyone everywhere . . . ” 

As a toast of gratitude to Byron and Beth and their good work, A Book for Hearts & Minds: What You Should Read & Why is now available. The topics (and the writers) are: Reading (Byron Borger), Art (Ned Bustard), New Testament Studies (N.T. Wright), Film (Denis Haack), Creative Nonfiction (Gregory Wolfe), Education (G. Tyler Fischer), Biblical Studies (Calvin Seerveld), Ethics (David P. Gushee), Literature (Karen Swallow Prior), Creation Care (Byron Borger), Fantasy (Matthew Dickerson), History (Daniel Spanjer), Law (Mike Schutt), Poetry (Aaron Belz), Politics (Eric Bryan), Science (Michael Kucks), Sociology (Bradshaw Frey), Urban Planning (Tom Becker), and Vocation (Steve Garber). The essay below on Cooking is my contribution. Order the book through heartsandmindsbooks.com, a full service, independent bookstore and receive prompt and personal service. There is even an option to order books and receive the order with an invoice and a return envelope so you can send them a check. Amazing!

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I love to roam the food writing section of a bookstore, thumbing through cookbooks and looking for the latest cooking memoir. Though my kitchen shelves are nearly full, I can always squeeze in another book of recipes or something educational and fun to read like Michael Pollan’s Cooked. I feel a kinship with people who work with food and spend untold hours in the kitchen. I’m drawn to their stories like a magnet. I savored Bread and Wine, Shauna Niequist’s collection of essays about life around the table. I read Blood, Bones and Butter twice, Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir of becoming a chef and creating her New York restaurant, Prune. I remember the days after Christmas in 2006 because of Julia Child’s My Life in France, written with her husband’s grandnephew, Alex Prud’homme. I stayed in my pajamas and read on the couch, in front of the fire, tucked up in bed. I was sick and the book transformed my memories of that week. And when it seemed like everyone from church folks, to home cooks and chefs, to literary people were rediscovering the utterly delightful and unique The Supper of the Lamb by Episcopal priest and cook Robert Farrar Capon, I bought a copy. First published in 1969, it was chosen to be a part of the Modern Library Food Series and republished in 2002. I read it slowly, taking it in over months, underlining sentences, paragraphs, and whole pages, absorbing Father Capon’s whimsical and wise love of creation and the pleasures of cooking and eating. In his preface to the second and third editions, he wrote, 

. . . it was God who invented dirt, onions and turnip greens; God who invented human beings, with their strange compulsion to cook their food; God who, at the end of each day of creation, pronounced a resounding “Good!” over his own concoctions . . . Food is not just some fuel we need to get us going toward higher things. Cooking is not a drudgery we put up with in order to get fuel delivered. Rather, each is a heart’s astonishment. Both stop us dead in our tracks with wonder. Even more, they sit us down evening after evening, and in the company that forms around our dinner tables, they actually create our humanity.1 

One of the many reasons I’m drawn to Byron and Beth Borger is their insatiable appetite to read widely and expose their customers to books that range across the whole of life. In his BookNotes reviews, I love that Byron includes the latest books on home, cooking, creation care, food justice, sustainable agriculture, and hospitality, as well as referring readers to older classics. In the April 21, 2012 BookNotes post titled “Food, Faith, and Feasting: Books about Faith and Food,” he wrote: 

Although I suppose some Christian bookstores don’t have sections on creation care or even cookbooks, I sure can’t imagine why. There is a lot in the Bible about food and feasting, about farming and famine. We simply must allow our faith to inform our principles and practices in this side of life. 

In the same post Byron mentioned Edith Schaeffer’s book, Hidden Art, as “an early voice helping evangelicals, at least, see that home- making and cooking and sustaining a household with creativity is serious, spiritual business, a human art, to be offered in hospitality to our loved ones, neighbors, and even strangers.” Edith’s books were crucial in helping me understand the meaning of caring for human life, and her inspiration was partly what led me to cookbooks. I needed help for the work God was calling me to. 

I entered marriage at the age of nineteen, armed with only a green plastic file box of Betty Crocker recipe cards, and no knowledge of my future work. I was a blooming feminist and wannabe hippie, eating stir-fry with tofu cross-legged on the floor with my husband, clueless about the nurturing arts or the work of sustaining a household. But as marriage turned into motherhood, and family making turned into a vocation steeped in the work of hospitality, I grew into the challenge. I came to respect the kitchen as a powerful and healing place to labor, to understand that cooking skill and food knowledge are deeply connected to Christ’s teachings about feeding the hungry, and to know that however God might lead me to participate in caring for His world, it would always begin in my own household. 

In our mid-thirties, my husband and I moved our family from California to Nashville, and then to a century-old church we made into our home, recording studio, and community gathering space. Chuck named it The Art House and we welcomed friends and strangers most days. In that beautiful place I became a unique version of family cook, bed and breakfast provider for houseguests, and caterer for in-house projects and events: recording sessions, artist retreats, songwriter weeks, video shoots, and special evenings open to our city. After twenty-five years of service, we now live in a different setting where large-scale hospitality is no longer my daily reality, but cooking remains, and with it my reliance on cookbooks. 

Cookbooks are my tools, my inspiration, and my teachers. They help me answer the ever-present questions that travel with me through life: What should I make for dinner? What should I make for a birthday meal, for Thanksgiving, for dessert on the porch with friends? 

 

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The Breakfast Book by Marion Cunningham

One day this past April as the university school year was coming to a close, I got up early and went to the kitchen. As the coffee brewed I surveyed the counter where I’d laid out tools and baking ingredients the night before: bowls, wooden spoons, measuring cups, flour, butter, lemons, apples. My husband’s songwriting students were coming later that morning and I’d instinctively thought of welcoming them with Raw Apple Muffins and Lemon Yogurt Muffins from The Breakfast Book by Marion Cunningham. I’ve made them both countless times for every kind of reason and they’re always a hit. The apple muffins are especially easy to make with very little notice. I’ve pulled a rabbit out of the hat many times for a morning meeting in our living room or a tracking session in the studio. If I have two apples in the fridge, it’s likely I have everything else on hand: sugar, eggs, oil, vanilla extract, flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. 

I bought The Breakfast Book soon after it was published in 1987 and began using it for my family and for special events. I made Classic Waffles, Bridge Creek Oatmeal Pancakes with buttermilk and oats, Fresh Ginger Muffins, and Apple Pancake, an eggy pancake with apples sautéed in butter that becomes golden and fluffy in the oven. When my daughter Molly was growing up, she often woke up early on Saturday mornings to create a family breakfast restaurant called Musician’s Café. With the help of her little brother Sam as wait staff, she made handwritten menus and used whatever she could find in the refrigerator and cupboards to feed us. She drew heavily from The Breakfast Book and always offered Cuban Orange Juice from the Breakfast Beverages chapter (1/2 cup orange juice, 1/2 cup milk, optional: 1 egg. Blend until smooth and frothy, and serve cold). 

My well-loved copy of the book shows the marks of thirty years of use. Whole sections are loosed from the binding, favorite recipes are starred, and pages are crinkled and food-stained. The recipe for Cinnamon Butter Puffs, a muffin that tastes like a cinnamon-sugar donut, has a note at the top of the page referring to a family get-together for my husband and son-in-law: Triple the recipe for 2013 August birthday brunch

Over the years I’ve added recipes from other sources to my list of breakfast standards, but I’ve never come across another cookbook quite like this one. The recipes range across every conceivable breakfast idea, from scones to granola, from omelets and frittatas to potato dishes, from meats and fish to fruit preserves, from breakfast beverages to Judith Jones’ recipe for homemade yogurt. With its warm, inviting cover, its artful drawings of food and cooking scenes, and the wonderful quotes that are sprinkled throughout the pages, there is no other book I know of that so beautifully highlights the morning meal. Marion Cunningham’s introduction explains why she chose to focus on breakfast: 

The deeper reason that breakfast inspires me is that we have become so busy maintaining our lives in the working world that we often find ourselves sharing the same house with strangers. The meaning of “home” has disappeared. Surveys report that families no longer sit down together for the evening meal. Eating is a lonely experience for many, and we can be lonely without even knowing it sometimes. Standing up by a microwave oven, or refrigerator, or in front of the TV, automatically eating, leaves out a precious human element from our lives . . . If it is true that dinner is becoming a solitary, fast-feed-yourself experience, I’m hoping that breakfast, with its easy, wholesome honesty, will be an opportunity to be with and share oneself with friends and family. There is no greater inducement to conversation than sitting around a table and sharing a good meal.”2 

The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect With Your Kids, One Meal at a Time by Laurie David 

Thirty years after Ms. Cunningham wrote her introduction, the loss of the family table has be come a national conversation, taken up in places as diverse as the New York Times, National Public Radio, the Christian Science Monitor, and the American College of Pediatricians website. A few years ago I was preparing to give a talk on “The Family Table” at a gathering inspired by Arthur Boer’s book, Living into Focus. While I was in the note-taking stage I learned of Laurie David’s book, The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect With Your Kids One Meal at a Time. I mention it briefly as a well-researched, warm, and fun resource on why the family table matters and how to create it. The book is chock-full of recipes (meals that can be put together quickly as well as those that take more time), conversation starters and games for the table, ideas for cooking with kids, tips on keeping a greener kitchen, discussion topics and possibilities for reading around the table, the importance of gathering with grandparents and extended family, and a thoughtful chapter on continuing mealtime rituals after a divorce. It’s a book I would have gone crazy for when I was raising kids, but it still has so much to offer me as a grandmother. For anyone who struggles with keeping a family table given the pace and overwhelming nature of modern life, this book is a goldmine. 

Chez Panisse Pasta, Pizza, and Calzone by Alice Waters

One weekend in the early 1980s as my eyes were opening to the creative and meaningful world of the culinary arts, I drove from Sacramento to San Francisco with my children to spend time with our dear friend, chef, and restaurant consultant, Kathi Riley Smith. After tucking the kids in the first night, I plucked Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Pasta, Pizza, and Calzone cookbook off Kathi’s kitchen shelf and took it with me for bedtime reading. I’d never read through a cookbook before and only knew of Alice Waters through Kathi. I was intrigued and inspired by her writing. She encouraged readers to let the harvest of seasonal, fresh, and local ingredients inspire the menu. Alice and her restaurant Chez Panisse were early pioneers of what is now commonplace: the farm to table movement. As I turned the pages, I saw recipes with foods I hadn’t yet heard of and sometimes couldn’t pronounce: prosciutto, pancetta, tagliatelle, fava beans, pesto, Nicoise olives, radicchio, and chanterelles. She used virgin olive oil, fresh herbs, and fresh garlic. I only knew of dried herbs in a jar and garlic salt. Despite all that was foreign to me, the book was friendly to read and contained an explanation of ingredients and cooking terms in the back. I picked up a copy of my own when I went home and began to cook from it. 

The Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan 

Soon after, I bought Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook through a cookbook-of-the-month club. As I read, I learned that the image of Italian food I’d grown up with (spaghetti, lasagna, and pizza) is only the tip of the iceberg. Italy’s cooking is vast and changes from region to region, according to geography and cli- mate, whether in the mountainous regions, valleys, or by the sea. Marcella placed the home cook at the center of the best Italian cooking. “There probably has been no influence, not even religion, so effective in creating a rich family life, in maintaining a civilized link between the generations, as this daily sharing of a common joy. Eating in Italy is essentially a family art, practiced for and by the family.”3 

The Classic Italian Cookbook is organized by sauces, antipasti, first courses, second courses, vegetables, salads, the cheese course, desserts, and fruit. The instructions are clear, detailed, and easy to understand. As I moved through the book, I sautéed veal chops with sage and white wine, and tried Mushroom and Cheese Salad, a delicious but unlikely pairing of white mushrooms and Swiss cheese tossed with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. I made Lentil Soup with pancetta or prosciutto, onion, celery, carrot, canned Italian tomatoes, and broth. I learned to make risotto and polenta, which became staples in our household. I tried the simple deliciousness of sautéing fresh spinach or Swiss chard in olive oil and garlic, and I stopped using bottled salad dressing. Instead, I learned to dress lettuces with salt, olive oil, good wine vinegar, and pepper, the way Marcella taught, sometimes substituting lemon juice for the vinegar. These days, I often add a tiny smash of garlic, some fresh minced herbs, or a bit of Dijon mustard, but Marcella’s method is always the foundation. 

This cookbook contains some recipes I will most likely never try since the foods are too distant from what I know. I’ll leave Sweetbreads Braised with Tomatoes and Peas, or Fried Calf’s Brains, to someone whose family of origin or cultural experience predisposes them to a more courageous palate. But when I want an excellent meat sauce Bolognese style, or a simple pan-roasted chicken with garlic, rosemary, and white wine, I’ll open The Classic Italian Cookbook and get to it. 

After Marcella Hazan’s death in 2013, David Sipress wrote a tribute to her in The New Yorker. He described her as a “short, compact lady, a tough biscotti with a raspy voice who didn’t suffer fools gladly and had a surprising preference for Jack Daniels over a glass of wine. But in her books her voice is always warm and encouraging. This, and the fact that her recipes are consistently clear and straightforward, enabled me to overcome a lifetime of insecurity in the kitchen.”4 

The Classic Italian Cookbook is true to its name. It is a classic, worthy of the attention of anyone seeking to learn what the book’s title page describes: the art of Italian cooking and the Italian art of eating. It’s been an invaluable addition to my education and I return to it often. 

 

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The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution by Alice Waters

Many years after opening Chez Panisse Pizza, Pasta, and Calzone for the first time, I was fully immersed in my Art House work, preparing to feed the crew for a live concert/video shoot my husband was directing in our home. As I often did when thinking through the menu for a crowd, I called Kathi to get precise directions for roasting large amounts of pork loin. After talking me through the steps she recommended Judy Rodgers’ The Zuni Café Cookbook and Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food as excellent and trustworthy resources for basic cooking instructions. I already owned The Zuni Café Cookbook, but I immediately bought The Art of Simple Food. It is now the book I turn to when I need to know how to do most anything: braise chicken legs, roast a piece of salmon, make croutons, pan fry a pork chop and make a quick pan sauce, or bake vanilla custard. The Art of Simple Food is not encyclopedic like The Joy of Cooking (still a fantastic and far-reaching resource), but I love its elegance and philosophy, the emphasis on starting with good ingredients, ideas for stocking the pantry and planning menus, the wealth of essential cooking techniques, and the pure pleasure of cooking and sharing food that comes through Alice’s writing. It’s a beautiful resource from a woman who’s had a mighty influence on American cooking. 

One fall when overcast days and lowering temperatures put me in the mood for comfort food, I looked through The Art of Simple Food for inspiration and found the beef stew recipe I’ve used ever since. It’s deeply flavored, rich, and hearty. The recipe begins by browning cubed beef chuck in bacon fat, then sautéing onion quarters with two whole cloves inserted into the flesh, chunks of carrots, fresh thyme, savory, parsley, and a bay leaf. Next add diced tomatoes (fresh or canned), a small head of chopped garlic, one thin strip of orange zest, red wine, and beef stock or chicken broth (homemade adds to the intensity of flavor). As one does when personalizing a recipe over time, I add my own touches: fresh rosemary and other vegetables like celery, potatoes, mushrooms, turnips, parsnips or rutabagas. Alice often gives a short list of variations at the end of her recipes, ideas for changing or adding ingredients. The first time I made this stew I stirred in small, pitted black olives at the end of cooking as she suggested, using briny Kalamatas. It sounds like an odd addition, but it is delicious. Last winter I made a pot to deliver to my neighbors down the street. Not knowing them well at the time, I packed the olives separately with a note: throw them in if you feel adventurous! They took me up on it, added the olives, and said it was the best stew they’d ever eaten. 

The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook by Ina Garten 

Along with Marion Cunningham, Alice Waters, and Marcella Hazan, Ina Garten’s cookbooks have enjoyed a wide influence. I first came to know her through a column she wrote for Martha Stewart Living magazine titled “Entertaining is Fun.” She provided tips and menus for a relaxed style of hospitality that I appreciated. I was always looking for more ideas to provide for the many people coming through our doors, so I quickly bought Ina’s first book, The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. Published in 1999, it was the first of what is now a line of ten cookbooks. Every other fall a new one appears just in time for Christmas. I own them all but I have my favorites, the ones that helped me through years of intense hospitality and whose recipes still remain classics in my cooking repertoire. Barefoot Contessa Parties and Barefoot Contessa Family Style have the marks of heavy usage, but The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook is where I often begin when I’m looking for ideas to host an occasion or make a menu for an ordinary week. It’s impossible to say how many times I’ve made Ina’s Homemade Granola, Roasted-Tomato Basil Soup, Perfect Roast Chicken, or Guacamole. Most weeks I roast seasonal vegetables tossed simply in olive oil, salt, and pepper, as I learned from her. I use Ina’s recipe for Peach and Raspberry Crisp at least once a summer (freely substituting blackberries or blueberries). I’ve taken Indonesian Ginger Chicken to friends who just had a baby, and last fall it was the center of the menu for my granddaughter’s thirteenth birthday dinner. 

I return to the Barefoot Contessa cookbooks again and again because of Ina’s no-fuss recipes and their easy-to-find ingredients. Though I’ve used the original book more than the others, I do view them all as a set, a wealth of ideas and recipes to draw from. I’ve made Strawberry Country Cake from Barefoot Contessa Parties, Lasagna with Turkey Sausage from Barefoot Contessa Family Style, Winter Slaw with kale, radicchio, and Brussels sprouts from Make it Ahead, Cheese Straws from Barefoot in Paris, and Herb-Marinated Loin of Pork from Back to Basics. I’ve tweaked some of the recipes to fit my preferences; for example, using less butter or oil when the amount asked for seems too heavy-handed, or leaving dried fruit out of the granola recipe after learning by experimentation that the granola would stay crunchier without it. For years I made double batches every few weeks, adding cinnamon, exchanging the sliced almonds for a mixture of chopped pecans, cashews, and almonds, and once in a while adding a little pure maple syrup to the honey and oil mixture. As I made small changes to fit my tastes, I came to think of it as Art House Granola, the perfect solution to the needs of our unique household. 

My kitchen shelves contain cookbooks I’m just beginning to explore, like the beautiful, inspiring series Canal House Cooking by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton, and Yotam Ottolenghi’s vegetable cookbook Plenty. But I chose to highlight the cookbooks that have had a shaping in influence in my life, and that I think are worthy of an important place in any cook’s library. These books gave me clear instructions, helped form my palate, schooled me on foods and flavors that sit well together on the plate, gave me basic recipes from which to fly on my own, helped shape my imagination for the endless creativity surrounding one of life’s most basic needs, and expressed care for the hospitality and joy of gathering people to the table. 

Whether these cookbook writers have understood their love of food and cooking as Father Capon did, I don’t know, but because of what I’ve learned from them, I understand his words more clearly. “It will be precisely because we loved Jerusalem enough to bear it in our bones that its textures will ascend when we rise; it will be because our eyes have relished the earth that the color of its countries will compel our hearts forever. The bread and the pastry, the cheeses, the wine, and the songs go into the Supper of the Lamb because we do: It is our love that brings the City home.” 5

Endnotes 

1  Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection (New York: The Modern Library, 2002), xxvi. 

2  Marion Cunningham, The Breakfast Book (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), xi-xii. 

3  Marcella Hazan, The Classic Italian Cook Book (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980), 5.

4  David Sipress, “Marcella Hazan Saved My Life,” The New Yorker, September 30, 2013, http://
www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/marcella-hazan-changed-my-life.

5  Capon, The Supper of the Lamb, 190.

Our Gathering Song

Our Gathering Song