How to Write a Cookbook

I do not hold with people who will not share recipes; that’s just mean. Most all of the good cooks I know are friendly and generous with their expertise. If you find yourself in the kitchen a lot, you should keep a cookbook of your own. Sooner or later, you’re bound to do something different and wonderful and you owe it to yourself to write it down and pass it on to others. Once you’ve got a dish down pat the way you want and like, it becomes your own exclusive property anyway. You’ll probably find that no one will be able to replicate the dish to yours or even their satisfaction. The secret to your dish might very well prove to be your cooking container (especially if it’s seasoned; woks are said to have their own signature) a particular cooking method you consider unimportant enough not to write down or even something as ineffable as your own special touch. At least give other people a base opportunity by listing your ingredients and procedures.

Include information aside from just the basics, too. For instance, mention if the dish was a favorite of a family member.  If you serve it every year on a particular holiday, garnish your recipe with what other components were elemental, especially those involving heirlooms (your Uncle Earl’s china platter, or the centerpiece Millie made out of sewing scraps and pine cones), activities like having a breakfast on the morning presents were opened or memorable incidents (“Earl pulled a gun when Judy dropped that teacup . . . “). Such documentation not only enriches the book itself, but it also provides fodder for other stories, perhaps even novels or off-Broadway plays.

Let me also encourage you to write recipes by hand. While this exercise might serve as an irritating reminder of how bad your handwriting actually is, it gives the recipe verisimilitude. Handwritten pages also aspire to art when splattered with slopped liquids; it’s so Pollock. You just don’t get that with a laptop. Writing recipes by hand does require some precision, but don’t let getting caught up in the heat of the moment stop you. Later you can find another pen, more red wine or chocolate syrup, and amend the entry.

As to what recipes to include, for once in your life, don’t worry about diversity. Put your best foot forward. If your forte is cakes, casseroles or seafood, concentrate on those and don’t make any spurious attempt to fill in with recipes you simply copy from another place unless you actually try them out first. Bear in mind that this book should be as personal as you can make it, as reflective as possible of your personality and idiosyncrasies. By all means, include recipes from friends and relatives as well, since those enrich your work by leaps and bounds, but always identify your contributor and provide details of them as well as a genealogy of the recipe itself. For instance, an entry in my book reveals that a recipe for chicken soup with corn and rivels came from a lady from Lancaster, Pa. who was 6’2”, a psychologist with a unibrow who got the recipe from her Quaker grandmother, the wife of a Lithuanian stockbroker. Such seemingly irrelevant details make for richer reading than a dry recitation of ingredients.

Marchand de Vin

A smart-ass from New Orleans—they’re all over the place down there, trust me—once asked (in a job interview, no less) if I knew how to make marchand, and when I said no, the bastard actually curled his upper lip a definitively unctuous, condescending sneer. If I had heat vision, he’d have been char. I got the job anyway because the guy who asked me to apply owned the joint. The smart-ass from New Orleans got fired four months later for stealing and selling coke under the bar. We never did get eggs Hussard on the menu, but here’s how to make marchand de vin sauce This version of Brennan’s batch recipe makes about a quart and refrigerates well.

In a stick of butter, brown a half-cup flour. Add a clove of garlic smashed and minced, three or four chopped green onions, and a cup of diced fresh mushrooms. Working quickly, whisk in two cups of beef stock mixed with a cup of good red wine. Reduce heat and cook until smooth. The sauce should be somewhat on the thin side, and the wine shouldn’t be overpowering. Season with thyme, parsley, salt, and fresh black pepper.

Eggs Adrianne

This sumptuous brunch dish is a riff on eggs Florentine. In culinary parlance, “Florentine” indicates a recipe contains spinach, which in this instance is enriched with mushrooms, crab meat, and plenty of butter.

To poach eggs, heat water to a depth of about 2 inches in a in a saucepan or skillet. Some will tell you to add vinegar to keep the whites intact, but in my experience (which is vast and defining) it’s best to use the very freshest eggs possible and drain their excess liquid by breaking them into a tea strainer. Bring water to a to a simmer, then reduce the heat so that the surface of the liquid barely shimmers; in France, where of course they have terms for such things, they will say that the water is souriant: “smiling.” Gently pour the eggs into the water and, with a large spoon, ladle hot water over the yolk and repeat until the yolk whitens. Cook the egg for about 3 or 4 minutes until the whites are set and the yolks are still soft. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the eggs to a large bowl of lukewarm water. Drain on paper towels before serving.

For the sauce, add a quarter cup plain flour to a half stick of melted butter over medium heat and stir until the bubbling subsides Whisk in a pint of whole milk and cook over low heat until thickened and smooth. Stir in a half pound thawed frozen leaf spinach that’s been squeezed and coarsely chopped, along with a half-pound sauteed fresh mushrooms. Artichokes are a nice option. Add white pepper and salt to taste. Reduce heat to low and keep warm. Prepare a pound of picked lump crab meat by heating with butter, lemon juice and a little black pepper. To serve, place a Holland rusk or slice of thick toast on a large saucer. Cover with creamed spinach, add a heaping spoonful of buttered crab meat, and, with the back of the spoon, make a depression and add an egg.

A Yankee in the Kitchen

Syracuse, New York is hometown to Tom Cruise, Grace Jones, and Jake, who says his ancestors were involved in Greek shipping. Every now and then he’ll offhandedly mention “Uncle Ari and Aunt Jackie.”

Jake sniffs at my Southern heritage, reminding me that his parents contributed to programs for eradicating hookworm and pellagra in Mississippi. He came to Jackson over two decades ago as the result of a convoluted series of circumstances I’ve long since quit trying to unravel. He says he stayed because he likes the weather, and indeed his recollections of lake-effect snow are indeed horrific.  Even after twenty-plus years, however, people still ask him where he’s from. It drives him nuts.

With a few notable exceptions—chicken and dumplings foremost—Jake loves Southern food, so in an effort to reciprocate charity, I decided to learn how to make good Yankee baked beans using the sturdy pots he brought back from Maine last year, which of course had been made by the ancestors of exceedingly sweet people in a religious community near Bangor.  (No, I didn’t go; he was meeting his mother to visit an aunt, and I was better off here with weed and cable.)

I used a pound of dried navy beans, a cup of diced ham with rind instead of salt pork, and since I was out of black strap, a half cup of sorghum molasses had to do. The beans, pork, and syrup went into the (2 quart or thereabout) pot with a cup of chopped onions and a bay leaf. I covered them with water to about an inch of the top, seasoned with a teaspoon of black pepper and a heaping tablespoon of dry mustard. Once in the pot and covered, they went into the oven at around 250, and there they stayed for a little over three hours. I added water as needed. The beans were damn good, almost buttery; the mustard cut the syrup just enough to let the beans make a statement.  Of course Jake credited the results to the pots, so I whacked him with a wooden spoon. Twice.

Jumping Chicken

At the Warehouse in Oxford we had frog legs on the menu and made damn sure we had them prepped to cook, because if someone came in for frog legs, by God, they wanted frog legs, and raised Cain if we didn’t have any.

The legs came to us individually wrapped and frozen in a block, from—of all places—Pakistan (actually, East Pakistan, aka Bangladesh). This was puzzling because in Mississippi we have a frog season, which this year is from April Fool’s Day until September 30th. Limit is 25 frogs per night/day. Then again, the Warehouse operated in the 1980s, before all this half-harted emphasis on local sourcing.

Though the frogs were from Asia, they were undoubtedly American bullfrogs, the frog of choice for connoisseurs thereof because their hind legs—the only part of any frog that’s eaten, in case you didn’t know—are large and meaty. The Larousse Gastronomique lists about 20 recipes for frog legs including grenouilles a la aurore (“pink frogs”) in white sauce with lobster coral. Here frog legs are fried or grilled. For best results, soak overnight in buttermilk.

 

Ripening Off the Vine

Do tomatoes ripen after picking? Yes, they do. Tomatoes are climacteric and produce ethylene, which triggers and promotes ripening, a complex process that softens and—most importantly—sweetens fruit. Climacteric fruits (a tomato is a type of berry) include apples, bananas, mangoes, papayas, pears, apricots, peaches, plums, avocados, plantains, guavas, nectarines, passion fruits, and blueberries. Non-climacteric fruits are citruses, berries such as raspberries, strawberries and cherries, grapes, pineapples, melons, and pomegranate. Putting a greenish tomato on its stem end in a paper sack with an apple or banana will help it ripen.

Coconut Pie

Whisk 3 egg yolks with ¼ cup cornstarch. Blend in two cups whole milk and ½ cup sugar. Cook on low heat, stirring constantly, until very thick and smooth, about 5 minutes. Add a pat of softened butter, a tablespoon of the best vanilla you can find, and a cup of freshly-grated coconut. Cool, spread onto a browned crust, refrigerate and top with meringue before serving.

Patio Puppies

I can just hear y’all: “Yancy’s click-baiting a recipe for squash fritters!”  What I’m saying is these nuggets are great for any outside meal. Even a fish fry. Summer squash—yellow, white, or green—with chopped chiles and onions are go-to vegetables. Grate squash, and squeeze out the water. For one cup grated squash to two cups self-rising white corn meal, add a one large egg, well-beaten, about ¾ cup milk and ½ cup vegetable oil. Stir until just mixed and drop by spoonfuls into hot oil. The puppies should rise and turn as they cook and brown. Put pups on a pan with paper towels in a low oven to crisp. Serving with a citrus-y comeback or a thin salsa.

Scampi

In the life of any given classic recipe, you will find instances where it becomes caught in a backwater eddy and becomes a poor, grotesque thing far removed from its heyday, rather much like a fading star of stage and screen who can only find an audience where their celebrity is no more than their name (think Citizen Kane). Many recipes fall subject to this farce simply because their name on a menu is a draw: a pasta prima vera with frozen vegetables, for instance or a  steak Diane with canned cream of mushroom soup. In capable hands classic recipes made with fresh, quality ingredients can be magical, but I’m here to tell you somebody’s bound to fuck up just about anything with alarming frequency.

I worked in a restaurant where the house recipe for scampi was particularly wretched. The sauce consisted of garlic powder, a commercial oil product (Whirl) and the remnants of whatever open bottle of wine the bartender on duty had available. That’s it. This concoction was poured over a dozen medium-sized shrimp arranged in a small circular metal dish and placed in a salamander. More often than not, the results were dry and chewy. Had our customers been more sophisticated, no doubt they would have complained with vigor and frequency, but the very fact that they didn’t led to the recipe becoming entrenched on our menu and likely defining this trash as scampi for many people.

To make proper scampi, sauté or broil the best shrimp available in a really good butter with plenty of fresh, finely-minced garlic, a fruity white wine, salt and white pepper. Before serving, add a jolt of lemon juice and a sprinkling of parsley. Some thicken the sauce with starch,  add scallions, or even chopped drained tomatoes, which I consider rather excessive. Scampi can be served as an appetizer or over pasta as an entree.

About Limas

All butter beans are limas, but not all limas are butter beans. Got that?

Actually, it’s a lot more complicated. While lima beans and butter beans are usually thought of as two different types of beans, they are both varieties of Phaseolus lunatus (literally “moon bean”), which has a very complicated history of domestication in Meso- and South America. During the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru (16th-19th centuries), when limas were exported to North America and Europe, the boxes of beans were stamped with their place of origin (“Lima, Peru“), and the beans got named as such. But of course, when referring to the bean, the word is pronounced LY-mah, while the Peruvian capital is (as you all know) pronounced LEE-mah.

As a rule, large, yellow/white/speckled limas are generally known as butter beans, while the smaller, green varieties are called, well, limas. The smallest may even be called “baby” limas. However, I have been told that “they call butter beans limas up North,” which puts another spin on it. Among the most popular varieties grown in Mississippi are ‘Thorogreen’ and ‘Henderson,’ both small green bush types; ‘Jackson Wonder,’ also a bush variety, is small and brown or speckled; ‘Florida Speckled’ is a larger pole variety, and the hard-to-find ‘Willow Leaf,’ also a pole variety, has something of a cult following. Butterpeas are also a type of limas. Limas are a warm-weather crop and come into season sometime around mid-June and, with the planting of second crops in late July and early August, stay in season well into October.

Fresh beans should be smooth and plump, somewhat tacky to the touch. Limas have a low glycemic index, are rich in fiber, iron, protein and B vitamins. Fresh beans should be washed and picked over for damage, dirt, or detritus, washed, and set to cook in water 2:1; fresh beans don’t need as much water as dried, and they don’t need pre-soaking. As with most beans, hambone is a classic addition, but many people simply use stock. Bring beans to a boil, then lower heat to simmer and cover until beans are soft. I always use white pepper instead of black to season, and rarely use anything more until the beans are cooked, at which point they become the basis for any number of wonderful dishes.

Every summer I make baked limas in sour cream. For a pound of cooked limas with about a half cup of the liquid, add a quarter cup of brown sugar, and a cup of sour cream mixed with a teaspoon corn starch to keep it from separating. Flour will work in a pinch. Mix well. Bake in a low oven until set. This dish goes with anything at all but is open to any number of frivolous variations.