How many cookbooks do you have? Do you have many that you browse through, but never cook from? I keep them as memoirs and texts from a cultural or hermeneutical approach to food that is interesting, but not readily adaptable to my life. Some excellent books in this category: The Art of Fine Baking, by Paula Peck, The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth, by Roy Andries De Groot; Mouth Wide Open, by John Thorne. These three books represent very personal and completely thorough essays on the art of eating.
The Art of Fine Baking is a baker’s dream: precise measurements, line drawings to illustrate technique, and bracingly clear instructions. I just don’t do very much fine baking–but when I do this is my go to book. This effort was baked with very normal ingredients: a bride who couldn’t cook; exposure to French cooking; the help of a grandmotherly Polish neighbor. The leaven was the fact that Paula Peck was an eminently capable woman whose ambitions were channeled into family life and the domestic arena. Baked in the hot oven of a summer in France, she was able to resists the withering drafts of the prevailing wind that said cooking was a difficult, time-consuming activity. She taught at the James Beard Cooking School–no doubt she was funny and resilient if she thrived around that eccentric giant of American cooking! Beard wrote the following jacket copy: “I feel confident that Paula Peck’s book on baking will sail majestically on seas of whipped cream and egg whites.” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961).
The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth is a memoir of a small inn in the alpine region near La Grande Chartreuse. The recipes are of another time and place, and there is a certain Shangri-La quality to the book. De Groot was a fascinating character: a writer and bon vivant who referred to himself as a Baron but who never mentioned in print the fact that he was blind and traveled with a guide dog. After this book was published, the Auberge became a gourmand tourist destination, disappointing many travelers who expected each and every meal to be like the ones described in the book. De Groot had visited the Auberge over years and years, spinning a magic tale from special meals. It is not entirely clear to me that the recipes are completely accurate–I remember an attempt at Cherry Clafouti that ended in coughing and tears because of a painful excess of crystallized ginger. It would be wise to approach the recipes with careful crosschecking from other sources, but as atmospheric food memoir, this is one of the best (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973).
Mouth Wide Open: A Cook and His Appetite is provocative and contentious. It might be irritating if Thorne’s prose were less skilled and thorough. He and Matt Lewis Thorne, his wife and collaborator, live in Northhampton, Massachussetts and publish a food letter called “Simple Cooking.” Thorne’s omnivorous interest crosses every border of nationality and food type. He debates everything in search of perfection of method and ingredients. He writes in the introduction:
“As to the recipes themselves, one day last year I found myself balking when typing ‘freshly ground pepper’ into a recipe ingredient list.
True, when I keyed in ‘black pepper’ instead, the naked plainness insinuated that I might be so boorish myself as to actually use an ordinary, vulgar pepper shaker. Well, to tell the truth, I do use them all the time…”
His chapter: Conflicted about Casseroles includes recipes (and commentary) on Baeckeoffe, creamed chicken and macaroni, Shrimps de Jonghe, Briami, and Jean’s Two Meat Two Rice. One of these days I may cook from this one. (New York: North Point Press, 2007).
Much as I love cookbooks which are friendly conversations, good-natured arguments, or tall tales–sometimes I just want to eat. There are other senses besides sight (oh, endless reading!) and my favorite way to find out what I want to eat is by using my sense of smell. When I walked into a friend’s apartment for dinner some twenty-five years ago, I smelled a meal cooking and knew it would be delicious. I believe that was the first time I insisted on being given the recipe before I left that evening, and it is the most tried and true recipe I have.
Marissa was a Chicago girl from a Yugoslavian family. When she was little she couldn’t say “macaroni,” so she called her grandmother’s dish of pasta and sauce: Nona’s Moni Roni. I have included the recipe as she originally gave it to me. A palm is the measurement her grandmother used, crinkling up her hand and filling the well of her palm with the spices. A more prosaic substitute would be a teaspoon or so. The ingredients will likely be a surprise, and I suggest you try it as written.
Nona’s Moni Roni (4-6 servings)
1 lb. ground beef,
6 chicken wings,
1 large onion (chopped),
1 toe garlic (chopped fine),
1 palm cinnamon,
1 palm nutmeg,
1 palm black pepper,
1 palm salt,
1 Tablespoon Worcestershire sauce,
1 Tablespoon honey,
1 small can tomato paste,
1 jar (commercial) tomato sauce with green pepper,
1/2 box Mostaccioli (or Penne) (8 oz. dry),
2 Tablespoons butter,
Brown chicken wings in oil and remove from pan. Brown beef and remove from pan. Pour off the fat, and melt butter. Saute onion and garlic until soft. Add all the rest of the ingredients. Add water to raise the level of liquid until just barely covering the beef and chicken. Simmer for 2 hours, until you like the consistency. Remove chicken wings and cool, remove the bones and return meat to the sauce.
Cook and drain the Mostaccioli. Return to pot and cover with the sauce. Cook the pasta and sauce together for at least a few minutes to let the pasta absorb some of the flavor of the sauce. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
This is perfect cold-weather comfort food. Enjoy!