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Home Cooking and The Cooking Gene

September 26, 2020

Since we can’t go anywhere and try new foods, I’ve been reading books about food and trying to learn to make new things. Recently I read a well-written book and its sequel, full of recipes I don’t plan to try–Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking and More Home Cooking–and a less-well-written book with recipes I will try, The Cooking Gene by Michael W. Twitty.

Colwin’s subtitle is “a writer in the kitchen, so it’s no surprise that her books remind me of reading MFK Fisher, with the pleasure in the prose rather than in discovering new recipes. Everything she says about food is a story, and often she tells the story of how she experienced food:
“Two of the greatest meals I have eaten in a long time were consumed during a recent summer, one in early June and one in August. Our local farm stand featured a sign that read ‘Last Asparagus.’ It was June and cold, and we were told that the asparagus was mostly gone, but we could buy what was left.
We tramped into the extensive asparagus patch, which was now mostly in fern. My daughter managed to spot a number of shoots. Children are good at this, being closer to the ground. These shoots were delicious, and we ate a number of them out of hand.
When we went to pay, we found some fresh-picked spinach, and the farmer’s wife offered us some eggs, which were new-laid. When we touched them they were warm.
Our dinner consisted of eggs over sautéed spinach and some lightly poached asparagus. Nothing was added to anything, except a little butter for the eggs We had a nice loaf of bread and a little dish of salt, and all felt at hme in the world for an hour or so, and reminded ourselves how good things taste when they are fresh.”

Colwin is a Jewish cook and from the New York City area so she reminds me of Ruth Reichl, especially when she discusses where to get exotic ingredients. She says she doesn’t like stuffing–and no wonder, as she describes that northern bread mixture people put inside their Thanksgiving turkeys–but likes her own invented version with cornbread and prosciutto, which she also puts inside the bird (a good southern cornbread dressing is served separately). She rhapsodizes about roasted red peppers, and I did try making her recipe for red pepper roast. It was okay, but in the end it was just beef. Ron and I are omnivores, but we find beef dishes dull.

The part of Home Cooking I liked best is when she talks about tea. I don’t need more recipes for sandwiches, scones, or sweets but I agree with what she says about tea as an opportunity for entertaining:
“A tea party is suitable for people of all ages. It comes at a time of day when people often have time on their hands or are feeling inclined toward a little something to eat and drink and someone to talk to….At four in the afternoon, everyone feels a little peckish but only the British have institutionalized this feeling….In this country high tea is mistakenly construed to mean an elaborate tea with lots of cakes and cookies. The fact is that high tea is merely a dinner tea.”

She does not say that the elaborate tea is properly called “afternoon tea.” We often have a less elaborate afternoon tea with the two friends we’ve been seeing since our quarantine started; in hot weather we serve iced tea, pico de gallo, and tortilla chips.

Colwin’s enthusiasm for potato salad reminds me of the stories about Florence Foster Jenkins and her parties, but Colwin’s recipes for different versions of potato salads don’t sound half as appealing as Twitty’s version (his has more stuff in it—pickle relish, hard-boiled eggs, onion, green, yellow, red, and orange pepper, seasoned salt, garlic powder, sweet paprika, brown mustard, celery, celery seed, lemon juice, and mayonnaise).

I grew up eating southern cooking but didn’t learn to cook until I had children of my own and was living in Ohio, so there are lots of things I love to eat but don’t know how to make. Twitty lets me in on some of the secrets.

For cooking black-eyed peas, which we always eat on New Year’s Day, Twitty clues me in that what has been missing from my pot might be kitchen pepper or fish pepper sauce. I’m inclined to think it’s the latter, with an apple cider vinegar taste.

Instead of one of Colwin’s roast chicken recipes, I’d rather try making Twitty’s sorghum brined chicken roasted in cabbage leaves. It sounds more interesting, and we like interesting foods, full of chopped-up vegetables. Twitty discusses the use of vegetables in southern cooking as he approaches everything about food, from the perspective of someone interested in genealogy and race:
“Sweet potatoes and collard greens, turnip greens and fresh seafood, lean meats and healing spices have always been part of our tradition. Everything in our tradition is not fried. Some of soul food’s glories come from the freshness in the ground.”

Twitty explores cooking as a way of retracing his roots, and his book will make anyone who grew up with southern cooking think about its roots in African cooking and how they have passed that culture on. Field peas, for example. My children grew up in Ohio, and a few years ago I was startled to find out that, like many northerners, they thought of one kind of vegetable when I said the word “pea,” the English pea. They didn’t think of field peas, or crowder peas, or purple-hull peas, all related to what you can buy in Ohio labeled as black-eyed peas.
One of the cooks Twitty interviews mentions field peas when talking about how Cajun and low-country foods are related:
“Our shrimp stew (we serve it over rice) is the Low Country’s shrimp and grits. The Low Country’s okra soup is what we call okra and tomatoes or gumbo without a roux. Both Cajun and Low Country cooks make rice and field peas.”

We’ve learned to make some new dishes during the quarantine, like eggs benedict, which I love to order in restaurants but had never made at home. We’ve also made some of our favorite things, like seven-layer dip, which our former housemate, a nurse, taught us to make, saying that it was a traditional dish invented by people who work long shifts in hospitals.

I made herbed zucchini rice recently, a new favorite adapted from a recipe I found a couple of summers ago when Walker and I were looking for vegetarian dishes to make when his girlfriend Ariel came over.

Have you read any good books about food or learned to cook anything new lately?

30 Comments leave one →
  1. September 26, 2020 12:20 am

    “I don’t plan to try” – what, you’re not going to replicate the worst meal ever? The rice casserole of genius? I guess strictly speaking Colwin does not include a recipe for it, but one can make deductions from the text.

    The Cooking Gene sounds quite interesting. I was just thinking that I should learn to do something with black-eyed peas.

    • September 26, 2020 9:25 pm

      It’s true that one can make deductions from the text about what to put into Colwin’s worst meal ever!
      The Cooking Gene has a lot about genealogy that I didn’t quote. It has fewer recipes, but they are actual recipes whereas some of Colwin’s are just lists of ingredients.

  2. September 26, 2020 2:00 pm

    I’m not a foodie type at all but I did salivate at some of these descriptions and photos, from the simple asparagus, eggs and spinach dish to the zucchini rice meal. Thanks!

    • September 26, 2020 9:30 pm

      The asparagus, eggs and spinach does sound delicious. It’s the right time of year for zucchini, so here’s my adaptation of the recipe:

      2 cups rice, 4 cups water
      3-4 tablespoons oil (we use olive oil)
      4-6 small zucchini
      1 bunch sliced green onion and/or half a white or yellow onion
      2-3 cloves garlic, minced
      Garlic salt, basil sweet paprika, dried oregano
      1 can or 1 tomato, chopped
      2 cups shredded sharp cheddar, divided

      Make the rice.
      Preheat oven to 350 and grease a large casserole dish or 13X9 pan
      Heat the oil, zucchini, onions, and garlic for 5 minutes or until tender.
      Add seasonings and tomato.
      Mix half the cheese into the rice.
      Mix everything together and press into casserole dish
      Bake uncovered for 20 minutes, or until cheese is melted and bubbly

      • September 27, 2020 5:43 am

        Had a double take when I read “Preheat oven to 350” as our oven doesn’t go that high! until I realised you’re working in Fahrenheit… 😁 But this is mouthwatering gorgeous!

      • September 27, 2020 9:44 am

        The other half of the cheese goes on top of the dish? 🙂

  3. magpiemusing permalink
    September 26, 2020 4:11 pm

    You might like An Everlasting Meal. It’s by Tamar Adler, and it’s def in the MFK Fisher vein. While it is chock full of recipes, many are more like loosey-goosey sketches as opposed to specific recipes with absolute ingredients. It’s a book I’ve re-read a number of times – and I absolutely think it’s made me a better cook – I’m more inventive and more confident.

    • September 26, 2020 9:32 pm

      Thanks! I’ll look for Tamar Adler.
      My family recipes are mostly lists of ingredients (a few of them written down by my father while he watched my mother), so I’m definitely in the camp of those who improvise in the kitchen–except when baking.

  4. September 26, 2020 11:57 pm

    I’ve been doing a lot more cooking and experimenting with food while we have been eating in for the past seven months! I’ve been trying my hand at Indian food and Asian food which I never cooked before but we loved to eat in restaurants. Your asparagus recipe sounds simple but fresh and wonderful.

    • October 1, 2020 3:10 pm

      It’s Colwin’s minimalist asparagus recipe but yes, it does sound good!
      We didn’t have anywhere to get Indian food for a while and a very kind friend who lives in Canada sent us some spice packets. I learned how to make butter chicken and realized how much I like it, so now that we have an Indian restaurant in town for takeout, I order that dish fairly often.

  5. September 27, 2020 4:02 am

    While I do love a pretty cookbook, the sure sign of a successfull cook book for me is one that you will actually cook from over and over again!

    I did enjoy how you compared these two books!

    • October 1, 2020 3:11 pm

      Thanks! I love reading about food while I merely like books with recipes, so I enjoyed the Colwin and found the Twitty to be of more use.

  6. Mae Sander permalink
    September 27, 2020 4:15 am

    Your interest in food books is definitely one that I share. Have you read the recent anthology “Eat Joy”? It has a lot of articles by writers who have also written more. I reviewed it here: https://maefood.blogspot.com/2020/05/food-writing.html

    be well… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

    • October 1, 2020 3:12 pm

      I have not read it, but will now. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  7. Susan permalink
    September 27, 2020 7:18 am

    Did you ever read White Trash Cooking? There are actually two of these spiral bound books. The recipes, for foods you will likely recognize, are interspersed with stories of the author’s growing up years. I was going to say “raisin”, but it looked funny with quotes and the apostrophe. I wouldn’t call the recipes cuisine, exactly. He relies heavily on Campbell’s soup, Velveeta cheese and inexpensive meal stretchers. But, he has a flair for storytelling, and occasionally offers a recipe for something you’ve heard of all your life and never eaten, like burgoo. But, the stories of funerals, weddings, and other celebratory occasions, are really funny.

    • October 1, 2020 3:14 pm

      I have not read White Trash Cooking but will now. I think I may have heard of it, but have a slight distaste (ahem) for titles like that. I adore a few recipes with velveeta (Rotel dip, for example) and Campbell’s soup (casseroles) and don’t think we have to look down our noses at people for the kinds of things they like to eat.

  8. September 27, 2020 9:42 am

    My new venture, thanks to Covid-19: I raised my own sourdough in May. Hermann is alive and well, my baking skills are not quite there yet.

    • October 1, 2020 3:14 pm

      I hope you’ll get better with practice and that you’re enjoying the process!

      • October 1, 2020 3:59 pm

        Right now it‘s a mix of enjoyment and frustration. Nonetheless, I am just eating a slice of my sourdough bread with some yummy goat cheese on top and it‘s pretty good… 😌

  9. Beth F permalink
    September 27, 2020 12:50 pm

    I love Laurie Colwin — I remember when she died (all too young). I have both these books and saved many of the articles she wrote for Gourmet, Bon Appetit, and other cooking magazines. I also have some of her other books. I revisit her writing every once in a while. I think I have a copy of the Cooking Gene, but I haven’t read it yet.

    • October 1, 2020 3:16 pm

      I had not read Colwin before but will have to look for some of her other books, as I did like her writing.

  10. September 28, 2020 7:47 am

    I have learned to cook a few new things in quarantine, most notably Trinbagonian doubles, which I am disgustingly proud of myself for mastering. But mainly I have been cooking a lot of comfort food, including this pasta a ceci recipe from Smitten Kitchen.

    https://smittenkitchen.com/2017/10/quick-pasta-and-chickpeas-pasta-e-ceci/

    I double the recipe when I’m making it for two people, but yeah, it’s delicious and easy and cheap, and it makes me feel all warm and nourished and lovely.

    • October 1, 2020 3:17 pm

      Both of those things sound kind of exotic (to me) and good! I had to look up “Trinbagonian doubles” and the photos make it look delicious.

  11. September 29, 2020 4:32 am

    Food pleasure is so often dependent on that word ‘fresh’, isn’t it?

    Laurie Colwin’s book sounds like a joy. Even if most of the ingredients you mention would probably be a bit of a challenge to source here in the UK, I have a fancy to read it just for the vicarious pleasure of feasting.

    • October 1, 2020 3:18 pm

      I think it’s a good book for vicarious feasting. The ingredients she mentions, available in New York City, are also a bit of a challenge to find here in rural Ohio!

  12. Karen K. permalink
    September 30, 2020 12:13 pm

    Colwin’s books are comfort reads around our house, I think I’ve read them so many times I know them by heart. (I will often refer to salmon as “slamber”). Some folks from Food52 had a Colwin-themed picnic at which they each made one of her recipes:

    https://food52.com/blog/13254-our-laurie-colwin-themed-dinner-party

    Her fiction is also beautiful and underrated. I haven’t heard of Twitty but will look for him as I love Southern food.

    I love baking and this year I’ve been trying some of the more challenging bakes from the Great British Baking show. I’ve had pretty good success lately with puff pastry and croissants. And I just made Marian Burros’ plum torte from the NYT, it was a huge hit and incredibly easy, I highly recommend it.

    • October 1, 2020 3:22 pm

      I love the photos of the Colwin themed dinner party! What a great idea! I don’t do a lot of baking because there’s just the two of us here to eat it and we don’t need it, but the plum torte sounds wonderful.

  13. October 5, 2020 4:17 pm

    Sometimes reading about food is even better than eating it and it is easier on the waistline too 🙂 I love reading cookbooks, especially now that there are so many vegan cookbooks; 20 years ago they were scarce!

    • October 5, 2020 4:52 pm

      Yes, our friends used to give us vegetarian cookbooks because they were hard to find (not because we follow a vegetarian diet but because they knew that we like to make a lot of dishes that don’t feature meat). Now there are vegan ones and vegetarian ones and so much choice, which is great!

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