Why I Cling to Paper Recipes

My folder of ancient recipes, most of them never made.

My folder of ancient recipes, most of them never made.

Nearly any recipe you can cook can be found online. Epicurious, Allrecipes, the Food Network, the New York Times food section…all offer instant gratification and full-color photos and videos for the impatient or impetuous cook. Even obscure recipes from my childhood – such as a recipe for German apple cake made with bread crumbs — can be retrieved with a few well-chosen keywords.

Yet I cling to a long row of recipe books, at least half of them never used. I also have a 30-year-old accordion file filled with yellowing, aging scraps of paper, scribbled with cooking instructions for dishes I’ve never made from people I haven’t seen or heard from in decades. The alphabetized file (do they even sell them any more?) is covered with remnants of wallpaper from the kitchen of my first townhouse, back when ridiculous geese, gray/blue florals and “welcome friends” signs were all the rage.

With few exceptions the books are pristine. Some were gifts from friends. I made appreciative murmurs when they were bestowed and looked through them with good intentions, promising, “I’ll definitely use this a LOT!” Then I put them on the kitchen bookshelf and forgot about them. Their unblemished and uncracked spines stare back at me from the shelf, like the “40-year-old virgin’s” collection of never-played-with action figures. They make me worry that I’m too inhibited a chef. They make me feel lazy because for the past decade I’ve shunned any recipe that ends with the words “serve immediately.” But I keep the books because my friends gave them to me and I feel ungrateful parting with them.

My library of cookbooks, some of them still virgins.

My library of cookbooks, some of them still virgins.

Other cookbooks on the shelf have been used time and time again, but only for a handful of recipes. With apologies to Julie of “Julie and Julia,” I find the challenge of trying every recipe pointless and daunting. Unlike a more organized friend who cooks, I’ve resisted the urge to keep the most-frequently-used recipes in one binder, with each recipe entombed behind protective plastic. That would mean the rest of the cherry-picked books would indeed be useless, strengthening the case for getting rid of them.

“Joy of Cooking” (the 19th printing, from 1980) is a good reference for technique, but it’s like visiting a time capsule from the first half of the 20th century, with recipes like chicken a la king. “Cooking Essentials for the New Professional Chef,” a book son Ryan gave me from a class he took in college, will tell you all you need to know about mis en place, boning a rabbit, or making eight professional-quality apple pies at a time.   The thick tome by Jacques Pepin, heavy enough to flatten a chicken, was from a class at Sur La Table entitled “Cooking with Jacques Pepin,” which I took with son Jesse. I’ve used exactly two recipes from that book, but looking at it reminds me of how we laughed at the fine print that accompanied the promo for that class: “Jacques Pepin will not be in attendance.”

If cookbooks are the kitchen’s reference library, my old recipe folder is the rare documents room in the museum of my personal history. Inside it can be found recipes in my dad’s handwriting or from his old Okidata dot-matrix printer, on perforated paper that once included holes along the edges. While he’s been gone for 17 years, seeing those old recipes in his handwriting brings him back to me. I can almost smell the steam from the pizzelli iron, as I talked with Dad and timed each pizzelli with a Hail Mary.

Other filed recipes recall old coworkers from 30 years ago, including the recipes on large post cards that were part of a bridal shower they gave me for my first marriage. One, for chicken and rice casserole, has been used many dozens of times, and when I see the handwriting of the woman who gave it to me – a fragile, lonely person who had affairs with two married men at the office – I hope that she has become stronger over time. Filed under “C,” the ripped-out pages from a 1989 Good Housekeeping Christmas issue hold my most treasured cookie recipe. That recipe only takes up one page but for some reason I’ve saved the entire article, including the recipe for “Barbara Bush’s Ginger Cookies.” I was a young mother of 35 back then, busier but still driven to make lots of Christmas cookies – unlike today.

So for me recipes on paper are not only instructions, but tangible relics of the past – the friends I’ve lost touch with, my aunts’ cheerful kitchens, the occasions when the recipes were first tasted, the girl or woman I was back then. The most beloved ones are also the most stained and careworn, like a soft old sweatshirt with frayed sleeves. Epicurious will always have its place, but an iPad screen is no substitute for a book that can be perused on a rainy day, opened up on a countertop or stained by an errant splash of gravy; or a handwritten recipe that still bears the DNA of a loved one who is long gone.

Field Notes from An Early Thanksgiving

We didn't make the turkey ourselves -- got it prepared from a turkey farm -- and our cousin Joe, an expert carver, did the honors.

We didn’t make the turkey ourselves — got it prepared from a turkey farm — and our cousin Joe, an expert carver, did the honors.

For the past three years we’ve celebrated Thanksgiving on a Saturday in early to mid-November, not on the last Thursday. So today, while the rest of you are perusing recipes for stuffing and pecan pie or figuring the best place to procure a turkey for the big day, we are getting ready to inter the remains of last Saturday’s feast in the freezer. This will be our last day of shredding turkey into chef’s salads, making shepherd’s pie with stuffing and mashed potatoes, and smearing cranberry orange relish onto sandwiches.

Why the out-of-sync Thanksgiving? For one, it’s easier for our guests to get here before the holiday rush. Bob’s parents can get discounted fares from the west coast; my mom and sister, Bob’s cousins and my cousins don’t need to drive on the busiest driving day of the year. His brother Rich from Houston was able to join us this year; brother Tom from Switzerland was here two years ago. And since we are a blended family, an early Thanksgiving eliminates the need for our adult children to endure two belly-busting meals in one day or choose between parents. We can heartily recommend it for anyone who has similar family demographics.

Another great reason for an early feast is that while I love to cook, I am miserable at roasting turkeys…and our local turkey farm, Out Post Farm in Holliston, Massachusetts, will gladly roast a turkey for you on any day except for Thanksgiving. At noon on Saturday we picked up a steaming, aromatic box with a piping hot, stuffed turkey and a quart of gravy. The price is easily three or four times the price of doing it yourself but worth every penny. It saves many hours brining, massaging, pampering and wrestling with a 22-pound fowl, not to mention the blow to the cook’s ego when it inevitably dries out despite these spa treatments. Farming out the turkey to someone whom you can trust removes some of the performance pressure for Thanksgiving, but not all of it.

No doubt some of you who are hosting Thanksgiving on the real day are feeling a little bit of that pressure right now. Thanksgiving to the home cook is what the Nutcracker is to a ballet troupe: a mythic production with high expectations for everything to be perfectly choreographed, gorgeous to look at, lavish in scale, universal in its appeal and seemingly effortless in the execution.

With the memories of the ramp-up to our early Thanksgiving fresh in my mind, here is some advice:

Do as much as you can in advance – Last Thursday was for shopping at our local Wegman’s, which included several bags of pre-trimmed and pre-washed thin green beans. Friday was for making the extra tray of stuffing, cranberry-orange

Our family crowded around three conjoined tables in our dining room.

Our family crowded around three conjoined tables in our dining room.

relish and a make-ahead mashed potato recipe (thanks to my mom and mother-in-law for all that peeling); and for blanching the green beans. The prepared potatoes went into the crockpot on the day of our feast; everything else was put into pans for re-heating in the double oven while the guys went to the turkey farm.

Get help. One friend, a wonderful cook, prepares Thanksgiving for 35 relatives every year, and does everything herself. One year she decided to ask a few guests to bring desserts, and was dismayed that some of them went to a bakery instead of making it themselves. Now she’s back to doing everything. I’ve learned to ask for help — even if it’s asking a non-cook to bring some beer or chips — and when somebody asks if they can bring something, my response is “hell, yes!” This year our party included a store-bought birthday cake in honor of Bob’s brother Rich, a silken homemade chocolate and tofu pie from daughter Rachel and an astoundingly good apple pie that our cousin Judy bought from Costco. My sister Julie brought her famous squash casserole; cousin John brought homemade wine. All were delicious, and my vastly reduced stress level made me realize that giving up a little control is not a bad thing.

Dessert need not be a homemade apple pie, especially if a birthday is involved.  We marked brother-in-law Richard's birthday with  an apple-themed cake instead.

Dessert need not be a homemade apple pie. We marked brother-in-law Richard’s birthday with an Apple-themed cake instead.

Think seriously about disposable dishes and pans. When your feet and legs feel as sodden as gravy-logged stuffing you will be thankful that you don’t need to do dishes.

Expect last-minute kitchen messes. In our case, we discovered that just one quart of gravy wasn’t going to cut it. Our cousin Bhavani, a topnotch personal chef, insisted we make more. That meant dragging out the cast iron skillet, butter, flour, chicken broth and spices to combine with the drippings from our turkey. This upset my well-staged attempts to avoid a mess in the kitchen that day, but Bhavani was so cheerful and enthusiastic as she stirred the roux that I couldn’t help but get caught up in it. Making the gravy was glorious, creative and messy but well worth it. We needed nearly every drop.

Take a walk between dinner and dessert. If the weather permits, it’s a great way to clear your stomach and your head and to enjoy some great conversation undistracted by a plate groaning with food. About a dozen of us took a wonderful three-mile walk at twilight. By our last steps we had created just enough room for a heaping plate of desserts!

Relax and remember it’s not all about you. Sure I felt lots of performance anxiety about hosting Thanksgiving for 20, and I had a few grumpy and harried moments. But sweating out the details a few days ahead, preparing stuff in advance, and farming out some of the work did make a difference, and in the long run people really don’t care if every detail is perfect. Last Saturday, sitting in mismatched chairs around three conjoined tables in our dining room, I could relax enough to truly savor our families and our many blessings. And that is what it’s all about.

So on Thanksgiving, I will raise a glass of wine and a spoonful of matzoh ball soup to home cooks everywhere and their families!

Between dinner and dessert on Thanksgiving is the best time for a long walk!

Between dinner and dessert on Thanksgiving is the best time for a long walk!

Excuse Me While I Wine a Bit

I gave up wine more than a month ago, just before all those great studies that announced how great it is for you and how you should have at least a glass a day for optimum health. Red wine is just part of the alchemy – along with fruits, veggies, olive oil and fish – that is part of the Mediterranean diet. A glass each day promises to make you as sturdy, robust and long-lived as a Greek goatherd.

So why would I give it up? The reason is simple: it doesn’t do for me what it is supposed to. For starters, once a bottle is open it is very difficult to stick to just one glass like the Mediterranean diet recommends. The liquid left in the bottle beckons. My Italian grandfathers could drink anyone under the table and heartily indulged in heavily fortified homemade wine from unmarked bottles. The Velazquez painting here shows what I feel like after more than one glass.
v4
Wine also toys cruelly with my sleeping patterns, making me sleepy enough to zonk out on the couch during Law and Order-SVU, then waking me at 2 a.m. It toys with my judgment…after a glass or two I feel invincible enough to attack the junk food cabinet, convinced that nothing I consume will matter and that my body will take pity on me since I am too buzzed to be responsible for myself. After a few weeks of daily wine drinking I feel like these gals.
Peter-Paul-Rubens-xx-The Three Graces-xx-Prado

Finally, wine toys with my moods, making me feel as sunny as the Sardinian coast, then stupid as a tottering mountain goat, and finally – after a few days – like this:
Van der Weyden_high
For all of the above reasons – plus the fact that my husband decided to go on a diet six weeks ago – I gave up my daily ritual of pouring a glass of wine (or more) just before dinner. Now I brew tea. It’s not the same. For Twilight fans, it’s the equivalent of the Cullen family preying on animals instead of humans. Or for carnivores, giving up animals for vegetables.

Tea is pinched and disciplined; wine is florid and impulsive. Tea is Downton Abbey’s dowager countess; wine is a young Sophia Loren in a peasant dress. The ritual of setting on the kettle and listening for the whistle is pleasant and relaxing, but can’t compare to uncorking a bottle of Viognier or Brunello. The Zen of Celestial Seasonings will never replace memories of wild nights spent with Robert Mondavi. Going without wine – especially when it’s one of the few vices that has been touted as so good for you – feels like missing the bus that took all your friends somewhere fun. Yet my moods are better and I think more clearly if it’s just an occasional treat rather than a lifestyle, and my husband feels the same.

So now I save wine for special occasions. Those include restaurant meals, dinner at a friend’s or relative’s house, dinners when friends and relatives come to our house, holidays like Christmas and Easter — and what the hell — the ramp-up days before and denouements after, Groundhog Day, Arbor Day, Martin Van Buren’s birthday, etc., etc.

Have any of you had to give up wine? How did it make you feel?

The good cook’s curse

I admit first of all that I come from a family of culinary Olympians. My earliest memories entered my temporal lobes via the nose: my mom’s fragrant Sunday gravy cooking over the stove for hours; the fragrance of garlic sautéing in olive oil on meatless Fridays; the anise-scented biscotti that my Aunt Rita made, Aunt Chickie’s stuffed cabbages; Aunt Anna’s ricotta cheesecakes; Aunt Theresa’s pizza. All were crafted from scratch, sometimes requiring a day of effort, often with the help of a cheerful coterie of aproned aunts.

Thanksgiving dinner at my grandmom’s house was like an Olympic opening ceremony, with wave after wave of outstanding specimens. The salad, pasta with meatballs, the turkey itself with all the trimmings, the desserts that my aunts brought in. Even the simplest food was prepared with great brio and great love, and served in lavish amounts, one gold medal winner after another.

Bad cooking — involving something that came out of dented Ragu cans, an envelope of Spatini or a box with that awful Kraft logo — was something that non-Italians did. We Italians did things the right way, the way we learned from our mothers, with no shortcuts. Any event where the food was stingy or halfhearted was a flop, something to be whispered about afterwards. We avoided most dinners at Protestant churches for this reason.

As I grew older, and learned the basics of mixing meatballs and cooking pizzelli from my mom, I learned that cooking well is not only a way to show love; it also attracts admiration and attention, and puts people in your debt: neighbors, coworkers, boyfriends. This sounds very screwed up but it’s the truth. Anyone who is the least bit insecure can relate.

Yet, while I crave the attention that comes from the results, cooking for me has always been a solitary sport. While the meal is the performance, the actual process of cooking is both grueling and all-consuming, like practicing for hours at the barre before a ballet. I can be in the kitchen for most of the day and lose total track of the time. It is a way for me to lose myself, to tune out the world by disappearing into something all-consuming. That’s why I never answer yes when an anxious guest asks if I need any help, even though we’d probably all enjoy one another more if the meal were a group effort.

So even during my busiest times as a working woman, I always considered skillful cooking as a duty and a pleasure that could not be sacrificed. For my daughter Rachel’s third birthday, when I was heavily pregnant with son Ryan, we spent the day in Philadelphia visiting the old Please Touch Museum, but I still found time to make her a homemade cake in the shape of a train, replete with Oreo wheels, pretzel logs for the flatcar’s cargo, and a boxcar filled with M & Ms. When I coordinated one office Christmas party, I had it catered but still cooked for eight hours. When anybody visits us, whether it’s family or strangers, I feel like it’s a command performance in the kitchen. The command doesn’t come from my family and friends – who probably wish I would just relax — but internally.

But lately I have found myself envying people who’ve let it all go; who can spend the morning before a dinner party cross-country skiing, hiking with their families or reading a good book, or can just transfer some salad from a bag to a bowl and hand their spouse the hamburgers to barbecue for guests. Who can share the same kitchen with a box that has “Kraft” on it. Or who can – as one acquaintance, a well-heeled mother of eight – tell a hungry child at dinner to “just microwave a baked potato.”

Good cooking can be both pleasure and compulsion. It’s a hobby that borders on extreme sport. It’s so absorbing that I not only forget myself, but I also tune out everybody else.

A beautifully cooked meal from scratch is a gift, but nowadays it’s an impractical one. Many times Bob has suggested that we “just have a salad” for dinner but I never act on it. My in-laws, when they visit, beg me “not to fuss too much” but I can’t.

Lately, as I move through middle age and with only Bob and John and I left at home, I am trying to be more relaxed in the kitchen. I’ve given myself permission to top Price Chopper pasta with a jar of Barilla vodka sauce (with some fresh basil sprinkled over it all.) We’ve been making Kraft macaroni and cheese more often; Stouffers if people under 13 from outside the family are dining with us. We’ve discovered the wonders of frozen corn dogs and meals from a Trader Joe’s sack tossed into a hot skillet. Sometimes we even have sandwiches for dinner.

Somewhere in heaven my grandmother is thinking about staging an intervention.