It’s been so long since I had the opportunity to properly obsess over the stream of cookbooks flowing into my house that many of them can no longer even be considered “new.” Just the same, I’m making my mental lists: recipes to make, recipes to pass on, recipes to horde for the perfect occasion. Essays to read. Tips to internalize. Books that inspire. Books that turn on. (Books that turn off.)
There’s a stack that travels from my kitchen counter to my dining room table to the bureau in my bedroom, depending on where I have space and whether I want the house to look cleaner than it really is. It’s more or less the same-sized stack that accumulates every so often, made up of books tagged with little scraps of paper where they need more attention. Only this time, in the midst of planning a cookbook of my own, the stack looks suddenly different.
Like a teenager with a brand-new set of braces, I’m suddenly hyper-aware of details that might have completely escaped me a year ago—things like how the color of recipe titles contrasts with the page, which recipes they’ve chosen to photograph, how the recipes are organized, and whether I think the headnotes are giving the right kind of information. Most importantly, I’m trying to figure out what it is about a cookbook, exactly, that makes me use it.
The answer, as far as I can tell, is a little complex. The average cookbook in my household enters through the front door, but beyond that, they all have pretty disparate paths. There’s an immediate split, for sure: standing at the door with my purse falling off my shoulder and a toddler hanging off my hip, there are books I open and books I don’t open. But the eventual pleasure derived from each set of books might be the opposite of what you think: If I’ve heard good things about a book, and/or know that it might be interesting for some particular reason, I don’t usually open it right away. I place it on the counter, where it sits until I have time to pick it up with both hands. Books are usually only opened when they land on my doorstep unsolicited, in which case I’m more or less expressing surprise and outrage at something having entered my personal realm without my express permission. These books aren’t doomed, by any means, but I admit there’s a definite difference between how I approach books I recognize and those I don’t.
In any event, hours usually pass. Then I open the book. From there, after much geekery, I decided cookbooks have four possible paths before the actual cooking begins:
Per the flowchart above, cookbook may be:
1. Rejected. This book holds nothing for me. I would have no compunction starting a fire with the pages, and it will not garner a spot in my downstairs cookbook collection. There are very few books that fall clearly into this category, but when they do, it’s miserable.
2. Regifted. Often, I find a book that I think is interesting, but for some reason or other I don’t think I’ll use it as much as another person might. This can be a good or a bad thing. It may mean that I’ll buy the book multiple times as a gift, but it also may mean that I just don’t have the heart to actually throw it away.
3. Perused. I leaf through the pages, making mental notes of which recipes I might actually follow—which, for me, means opening the book, buying some or all of the ingredients, and cooking more or less in the same general vein as the recipe. (For someone who writes them for a living, I very rarely actually follow recipes.) Sometimes, I leave the book on my counter for a day or two, until I have the chance to bastardize a recipe in my own special way. Once I’m finished, I tend to memorize how happy I was or wasn’t with the recipe, and shelve the book – in which case it’s a success – or use it to decorate my house, as described above, until I have a chance to call yay or nay. Most typically, the books that spend the most time traipsing from counter to counter are those I deem the most successful. In rare cases, I cook something I don’t like, and the book gets a spot in the basement.
4. Devoured. For me, the difference between perusing and devouring is a matter of posture. A book is perused standing up. A book is devoured sitting down. If a book is interesting enough to cuddle with, there’s a pretty good chance it will earn a spot on the kitchen cookbook shelf (which, theoretically, gets cleaned out every so often). Devoured books get assaulted with sticky notes, and typically birth a cascade of other ideas, most of which are scribbled on the back of junk mail envelopes. They follow the same path as perused books, only they get priority status, a veritable red carpet into the week’s dinner rotation.
Once it’s cracked, I use a book like most people use a thesaurus: for ideas, and for education. When I open cookbooks, I usually open four or five at a time. And like good new words, good new recipes stick with me—not their ingredient lists and instructions, verbatim, but their concepts. That pasta dish with lemon, anchovies, and olives, from Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef? It introduced me to mixing lemon and olives in pasta, which I’d somehow never done before. I made it without the pine nuts, because I didn’t have them, and I only made a half recipe, which I regretted after bite number two. I’ve made three variations since then, each a bit different. But I know people who wouldn’t dare turn on the stove without having every ingredient listed in a recipe on hand, people who would always make a recipe the exact same way they made it the first time if they liked it the first time, and people who would never try a recipe for something they hadn’t tasted before. We’re all different.
Until yesterday, I’d forgotten that there are times when I simply don’t know how to use a cookbook. (You’re not the only one.)
Take Amanda Hesser’s hefty new tome, The Essential New York Times Cookbook. With 1,400 recipes that chronicle America’s culinary history of the last 150 years—from a New York perspective, anyway—the thing’s a giant red linebacker of a book, and it scares the shit out of me. I have many books like hers on my shelves, but they seem like books that have always been there. They’re fixtures. It’s rare to put a book like that on the shelf for the first time, especially when you know it’ll be there when your kid goes to college.
When I saw Amanda speak at an event last night, I peeked into it to read the recipes she referenced as she spoke, and found they somehow had as much personality on the page as they did when she talked about them. But when I got home, arm aching from carrying two of the suckers, the book intimidated me again. I put it on the high counter between the kitchen and dining room, and looked at it in a way I’ve never done, peeking in fits and spurts. I’d walk by and open it at random (Shredded Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Pine Nuts from 1990), have a little swoon, then snap it shut. After a quick email check, another opening: Snow Pudding from 1877. Some tea. Cream of Carrot Soup from 1974. The book is a culinary cave of wonders.
And I can’t help but wonder myself, as I stare at it now, whether this book will somehow be used differently. I clearly won’t marvel at the photos, because there aren’t any. I won’t bring it to bed, because I don’t tend to do that. (To paraphrase what Tom Douglas said last night, people who read cookbooks in bed need better lovers.) And goodness knows I won’t cook my way through the entire thing. Will the historical nature of many of the recipes encourage me to – gasp! – follow a recipe from start to finish? Maybe every book I have is used differently, based on some signal it sends my brain telepathically the moment I first crack the binding.
Which brings me to the question I ask every time I look at this here stack o’ books: How different are we in our cookbook use? How does the way we use cookbooks change over our lifetimes, and over the lifetime of the books themselves? I feel like planning my book, I’m making a stew I want everyone to like, and I have to decide what to put in it right now. Like Thanksgiving, in a way. Only 75 recipes long.
Decision anxiety is a common problem for me in the kitchen, too. Last weekend, I initially bought beef oxtail to be used in an oxtail bolognese, again from Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef, but it somehow turned into a variation on the oxtail, farro, and root vegetable stew from Ethan Stowell’s New Italian Kitchen.
Of course, I changed things. (I always do.) But the resulting stew – a rich mix of shredded oxtail, carrots, and kale, much more like the stew I tasted at Tavolata once than the stew in the book – was exactly what I wanted. Yet somehow I was sort of depressed to think that no one else would ever make the same variation.
Ultimately, I’d like to follow a good cookbook from the inside out. I’d like to plant a little video camera inside, say, the aforementioned oxtail stew page, and send the book around to everyone I know, so it can record what people add and subtract, how they shop for it and how they serve it, or whether they even pause to look at the recipe at all. Ideally, the camera would also be able to tell me, in retrospect, every time the recipe inspires the user to cook or create down the road – which, to me, is the essential sign of a successful recipe.
Thus far, I haven’t heard of such a camera. So for now, I’ll have to rely on this old-school internet thing, and wonder what the big red book (and its little cousins) will bring in the months and years to come.
You tell me: How do you use a cookbook?
Oxtail Stew with Wheat Berries, Carrots, and Kale (PDF)
It only takes a slower trip past a good butcher shop to learn that there’s more to cook from a cow than steak and hamburger. Cooking the oxtail for this stew, an uber-rich mixture of ancient grains, beef, and kale adapted from a recipe for oxtail stew with farro and root vegetables in Ethan Stowell’s New Italian Kitchen, is criminally easy—you just stick it in a pot with some water, and it stews itself into a rich, fragrant stock while you do something else for a few hours nearby. I just might call it The New Beef Stew.
I won’t lie. Picking the meat off the bones is a project. (Think eating ribs, only you use your fingers instead of your teeth, and you have to do it for everyone at the table.) But I’ll make you a promise: If you make this unctuous, beef-rich stew, filled with tender shreds of oxtail, and don’t feel it was worth every second of your time, call me, and I’ll come take it off your hands.
Since oxtail is often sold in many different sizes – because, you know, cow’s tails aren’t exactly evenly cylindrical – it might help you to think of needing roughly enough meat and bone to cover the bottom of a 9” by 13” pan in one layer.
Start the stew the night before; the fat on the stock is easier to remove if you let it cool overnight.
Makes 8 servings.
4 pounds oxtail
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 small onions, chopped
2 shallots, chopped
4 large cloves garlic, chopped
3 ribs celery, sliced into 1/4” half-moons
1 cup wheat berries
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
1/2 cup crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup dry red wine
5 large carrots, cut into 1/4” half-moons
1/2 pound lacinato (dinosaur) kale, ribs removed, chopped into 1/2” pieces
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Hot pepper sauce, to taste
Place the meat in a large, heavy-bottomed pot and add water until the meat is covered by about 2 inches. Bring to a simmer and cook, turning once or twice and skimming any foam that collects on the surface off with a large spoon, for 4 hours, or until the meat is tender. Use tongs to transfer the meat to a platter. Set the stock aside to cool to room temperature.
While still warm, pick the meat off the bones, discarding bones and cartilage but keeping as much fat as you’re comfortable with. Package the meat in an airtight container and refrigerate overnight. Once it’s cool enough to handle, transfer the stock to a vessel that fits easily in your refrigerator, and refrigerate overnight.
At least an hour before dinner (or up to 2 days before), heat the soup pot over medium heat. Add the olive oil, then the onions, shallots, garlic, and celery, and cook, stirring, until the onions begin to soften, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, remove the stock from the refrigerator, and use a spoon to remove the white cap of fat that has formed on the top.
Add the wheat berries and thyme to the pot with the onions and cook, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and wine, and bring to a simmer, stirring. Add the stock (it should have the consistency of Jell-O), bring to a simmer, and cook for 20 minutes at a bare simmer. Add the carrots, kale, sherry vinegar, and reserved meat, along with enough water to submerge the chunky ingredients, if necessary. Season with salt, pepper, and a few dashes of hot sauce. Simmer for another 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Check for seasoning, and serve hot, with crusty bread.