A tale of two cookbooks

By Caitlin Kelly

I love cooking, and cookbooks and folders filled with recipes clipped from everywhere.

I knew Jose, my husband, was a potential keeper when he had the same 1989 cookbook I’ve used for years, and love, written by American ex-pat Patricia Wells, “Bistro Cooking.”

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We once had friends over for dinner and the recipe — flambeed chicken with mushrooms — contained the unforgettable phrase “Avert your gaze” for the moment when you ignite the bird. (Or singe your eyelashes and eyebrows.)

Two cookbooks I’m getting to know and enjoy are so utterly different. Even their covers and photos are as unalike — as the British would say — as chalk and cheese.

One, Tamasin’s Weekend Food, is written by Tamasin Day-Lewis, sister of the British actor Daniel Day-Lewis. I have no idea where I bought it — probably on a visit home to Canada, where it’s much easier to find books by British publishers than here in New York.

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I love everything about this book, from its silver end-papers to the way it’s structured: Friday Night, Saturday morning, Saturday lunch, Tea time, Saturday supper and Sunday lunch.

I love her elegant assumption, (so not true for us), that one has fled the craziness of city life for a weekend spent with kids and dogs in some crumbling 16th century rectory with muddy Wellies in the entryway.

It has a soft red ribbon with which to mark your place.

I love the photos of her — no make-up, lean-limbed, clutching a bunch of carrots in her blue jeans like some Celtic Scarlett O’Hara, long hair askew. Even on the cover, she’s looking down, not smiling and looks tired.

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The recipes, each quirky enough to be interesting, are a mix of humble — home-made bread — and vaguely exotic, like pan bagnat., one of my favorite French things to eat.

I recently — on a weeknight even! — when it was rainy and windy and the night air smelled of woodsmoke, tackled her salmon fishcakes with creme fraiche tartare sauce. All of it made from scratch. She insisted on wild salmon — and, indeed it had a wholly different consistency than the filets we usually buy. The tartar sauce, as promised was “moreish, the sort of thing you have to dip your finger into.” Indeed! It was light, creamy, tart and unlike any gummy, nasty bottled tartar sauce I’ve eaten.

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The other book, “The barefoot contessa back to basics” is very American, from its cover image of jolly, not-thin Ina Garten looking into the camera with its perky lime-green lettering, spine and end-papers to the photo of her gorgeous country house — a mansion in the Hamptons and super-elegant kitchen. It was a wedding gift to us from friends who, like us, love to entertain guests.

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I like that she includes recipes for cocktails, one of which we served at a brunch for friends — mango banana daiquiris.

I like her list of 10 things not to serve at a dinner party, including garlic and raw onions, nuts and two fish courses. (We now make sure to ask every guest if there is any food they loathe, having once made a fantastic salmon dish at which my friend J [sigh] sniffed: “I don’t eat fish.”)

Not the right answer!

The recipes offer a nice range of choices and the color photos are terrific. I’m looking forward to exploring it further even as, (yes, somehow), I try to shed 30+ pounds over the next few months.

Here is a review of 14 cookbooks that came out in 2013, from Time Out New York, and 12 more from The New York Times. (Several books made both lists.) The one I’m most intrigued by is “Ottolenghi”, by the owner of the London restaurant that bears his last name.

Do you have a favorite cookbook or two to recommend?

I Love Dinner Parties!

Dinner party at a Mandarin's house.
Image via Wikipedia

When Jose and I started dating, it was a very short time before I put him to the acid test — helping me throw a dinner party.

I love giving dinner parties!

They satisfy many urges: to make people happy, to feed them well, to set a pretty table, (candles, flowers, home-made place cards, linen or cotton napkins, colorful plates, shiny silver), and to create new connections between the people I love.

We had two couples over recently who had never met, but I knew would get along and enjoy one another, (another key to a great dinner party. No random guests!) The two women, even with a 15-year age difference, had both worked in book publishing in Manhattan. Their husbands are quieter, but both have a dry sense of humor. They all love to eat well and everyone loves to laugh.

The menu:

tomato soup (with a touch of gin!)

salmon with tangerine/butter/soy sauce glaze

asparagus

mango rice

chocolate ice cream with my invention, (what I call drunk fruit), served hot on top. (Throw blackberries, raspberries, apple, pear, butter, cloves, cinnamon, maple syrup, lemon or lime juice, scotch and/or Marsala and/or sherry into a heavy pan and boil. Yum!)

The best part was remembering that one of the women had cut a CD a few years ago, a gift from her family. So we all listened to it, and the other woman happily sang along.

We love remembering dinner parties we held a decade ago, like the one that included our minister and his wife (in their 60s), a young photographer and journalist, a Times shooter just back from Afghanistan and my web designer. One couple locked eyes across our table — and married a few years later.

The mix matters!

No boors/bores. No mean jokes. No one smokes. No one drinks to excess. We’re passionate about the news and current affairs. Aggression, whether passive or active, is deeply unwelcome; here’s a sadly accurate blog post about watching three sorts of moribund marriages across the table.

Our friends have generally traveled the world, are educated, read widely and avidly, share enough cultural references we’ve got something in common but enough (civil!) difference of opinion to enjoy talking to one another.

We’ve got it down to a science, helped by the fact I work at home and can easily make time for fussy niceties like ironing a tablecloth and napkins or re-filling the votives. I love settling in with my recipes and cookbooks to plan a meal that’s balanced, interesting and good-looking. Our kitchen is very small, so we do it restaurant-style, with prep work in advance, and plating on the kitchen counter.

I grew up in a family that frequently had friends over for dinner, and Jose’s Mom, as a small-town minister’s wife did often for family and church visitors.

It’s one of the happiest traditions he and I now continue. (I do know that having kids, especially small ones, makes this sort of thing more difficult. We don’t have kids.)

Do you enjoy entertaining?

Come For Dinner

Thanksgiving dinner in Canada.
Image via Wikipedia

I love throwing dinner parties. If I were rich, and less busy, I’d have one almost every single week.

They combine all the things I love most:
creating and setting a pretty table; choosing recipes and shopping for good food and wine; cooking; making people happy — and spending quiet, uninterrupted time face to face with people I care about.

I use a collection of antique and colored plates and glasses, new and old linen napkins, and love to sit by candlelight as we all share stories.

As I write this, I’m sitting at our antique farm table, the one I bought in Montreal in 1985 and still use, layered with a blue and white vintage cotton tablecloth.

We sit on a bench my ex-husband made that stores all our hardware and tools, and top with custom-made cushions covered in lime green cotton with cobalt-blue piping. I turn the ugly glass balcony divider into a wall by throwing a pretty coverlet over it and lining up big, soft cushions covered in a variety of fabrics, from a 1930s floral print I found in a Paris flea market to a great blue and green check I found in Fredericksburg, Texas (where else?)

Instant outdoor restaurant!

My friend Tamara, whose fun cookbook is here, holds dinner parties in the backyard of her Queens, NY apartment. I attended the first one two summers ago and was instantly charmed — strangers pay $40 per person and sit at a motley array of tables, set with mismatched china and cutlery, and eat great food and get to know one another. It’s very un-New York to travel from one borough to another, let alone risk an evening with people you don’t know. But Tamara’s crowd is smart and fun and creative: I’ve met everyone from radio reporters to a dentist to attorneys.

I made a new friend there whose career as a singer of 1920s music is rocketing along; if you’re ever in New York, you’ve got to hear the Hot Sardines and Mme. Bougerol. The woman rocks a washboard! (Turned out her mom, also at that first dinner where we met, went to the same school and camp as I did. Small world.)

This is the whole point of dinner parties — unlikely combinations, the germination of new friendships with people you would never have met elsewhere. We held one, midwinter, about eight years ago that included our Maine-born minister and his wife; a war photographer, a British journalist and his girlfriend; an interior designer. Ages ranged from 30s to 60s. We ate chili and rice and salad — and a man and woman who met there that night have been happily married for years. Ka-ching!

I grew up in a family that loved to entertain, and eat well, so it all feels like a normal and lovely thing to do. We also don’t have kids, and so it’s easier for us than for those who do, especially little kids or lots of kids.

Here’s a gorgeous new magazine devoted to the art of small dinner parties.

And here’s a very odd French website selling Last Supper placemats with images of all the apostles’ hands.

Do you love to entertain? Tell me about one of your best parties!