La Bonne Table

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la bonne table title page

To be a gourmet you must start early, as you must begin riding early to be a good horseman. You must live in France, your father must have been a gourmet. Nothing in life must interest you but your stomach.

Ludwig Bemelmans

This is absolutely a book for the hammock on a summer afternoon. It will sweep you to 1914 when Bemelmans began as a busboy at  New York’s  long-gone Ritz Hotel at Madison and 46th Street and worked his way through commit de rang, waiter, and  banquet manager. It will lift you through space into crazed kitchens and plush dining rooms, and it will introduce you to characters who don’t exist anymore–the cooks and sou-chefs and dogs bodies who’ve

been replaced by media-glorified thug poseurs.

He was born in the Tyrol, crashed out at his Uncle’s hotel, where it was rumored he’d shot a waiter, and chose emigration over prison.With wit, happy good-luck, and connected friends he made his way as an artist and writer. In one essay in this book, a mentoring waiter buys him pencils, paper, and cartooning books, determined that this talented young man should not end up with the flat feet and sour disposition of a life-long waiter.

If his loose-lined drawings look familiar, it’s because you recognize the style from his   Madeline series. Their success funded and fueled more drawing and writing–essays here on taking the cure, visiting Cuba, eating caviar, Hollywood lunches at Romanoff’s and the studio commissary. And to complete the scrapbook feeling, are the reproduced menus from Grand Vefour, Lucas Carton, and New York’s own Le Pavillon.

Excuse me, I’m headed for an afternoon in the hammock.




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Eat Better, Everyday–Cookbook Digest Summer 2107

Both these books know that our first taste is always with our eyes and both authors have carved out a visual space online to explore and promote their recipes. In Everyday Delicious, Izy Hossack, who has been cooking since she was 15, offers real cooking. Some are gluten-free and “healthy options” but others are just good–a few bites of Chocolate & Banana French Toast and back to bed!

In Eat Better Not Less, Nadia Damaso takes a more directly health approach and her recipes are packed with “superfoods” like cashews and chia, and she reworks dishes to be healthy–Nutty Sweet Potato & Buckwheat Brownies.

Get a look at these books and more, including some recipes, in Cookbook Digest.

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The Viennese Kitchen

The Viennese Kitchen by Monica Meehan and Maria von Baich, Interlink Books 2017, $22.00 paper, 223 pages

For almost thirty years I repeatedly saw one and the same dream: I would arrive in Vienna at long last. I would feel really happy, for I was returning to my serene childhood.

Alfred Schnittke

In its culture and life, Vienna seems to be a contradiction–elegant operas and waltzes, punctilious tailoring and social mores, against the tubercular nudes of Egon Schiele and challenging theories of Sigmund Freud.

Stefan Zweig recalls Vienna once the center of the Hapsburg Monarchy “demoted to the status of a provincial German town.” After such a demotion, perhaps one takes comfort in nursery foods, treated punctiliously. If you can’t run an empire, at least you can run a kitchen.

Part of what makes Viennese dishes so appealing is that they seem to be glorified nursery food. Even the sweet pancake called Kaiserschmarren, a supposedly royal favorite, means the Emperor’s mess–a light pancake that tore when flipped, but with an airy sweetness that is nonetheless appetizing.

Recipes cover appetizers, soups, sides, mains–meat and fish, but bakes will love this book–more than half is recipes for cookies, pastries, confections, sweet desserts, cakes, gateaus, tortes, creams and marmalades. You can make your version of the famous Plum Buns from Cafe Hawelka or Gugelhopf, Gingerbread, Linzer Torte and Apple Slices.

But though these are simple dishes–a repertoire of repeated and expected recipes–they have been honed to great refinement. Just as each cafe has its special pastry and each confectioner a special sweet, each family has its special dishes. Dumplings, Lentil Soup, Potato Salad, and deviled eggs may seem like nothing special, but here they are refined to this family tastes.

And what makes them more homey are the family stories that frame the book. These are recipes from the author’s Tante Herthe, a Baroness in the 1900s. Her recipe journal contained only the barest of instructions and measurements, but in a connection between generations, the author’s mother has interpreted them for modern cooks.

And in a further bit of context, the book includes family photos–weddings, country homes,  children, and soldiers–as well as photos of the cafes that are the bulwark of Vienna’s distinct culinary culture. A slice of that culture, recognized as part of the world’s intangible cultural heritage, is captured here.

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One Pan & Done

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One Pan & Done by Molly Gilbert, Clarkson Potter 2017, paper $17.99, 256 pages

Early Rising   In a cook, this quality is most essential, for an hour lost in the morning will keep her toiling, absolutely toiling, all day, to overtake that which might otherwise been achieved with ease.  

Mrs. Isabella Beeton

You might think this is yet another entry into our continuing struggle to somehow cook with cooking. But Molly Gilbert takes on the limits of one pan as a challenge to real cooking just as an artist might limit themselves to a color palette. In fact, this book lands at the opposite end of the spectrum from chef’s books recipes written under the odd assumption that, like them, you also have a kitchen crew to prep and clean for you.

Most of her dishes cook in the oven; naturally the soups, like Lentil with Lardons and New England Clam Chowder, cook on the stove. And Gilbert is creative and wide-ranging in her combinations and inspirations. She eliminates, as much as possible, the hassle of cleaning up so you can concentrate on the cooking and eating. How you manage your shopping is up to you.

Recipes begin with breakfast and include a delicate Lemon-Lavender Pull-Apart Loaf and a hearty Artichoke Shakshuka in your cast iron skillet. Starters, Snacks, and Sides range from the familiar, like a queso dip to the elegant, like a Baked Feta with Figs and Tarragon. Recipes for Vegetable Mains, Poultry, Fish and Meat continue with dishes that use world flavors–like a miso ramen or Chickpea and Andouille Skillet.

And there’s no stinting on sweets. Desserts are homey and appealing–Broiled Berries and Cream, a Giant Cookie Cake, or a Skillet Brownie Pie.

At most, Gilbert’s shortcuts are frozen biscuit dough in a savory Cheddar & Herb Monkey Bread, but  on the very next page, she encourages you with a recipe for homemade biscuit dough. And she does the same throughout the book, for example with a Warm Apple Biscuit Cake–you can use the store-bought or make your own.

Dishes will get dirty, eggs will be broken, milk will be spilled–but it’s all in a good cause.


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Cleaning Out the Basement–Horn & Hardart

I can’t believe I’ve never posted these.

Horn & Hardart was woven into my childhood. I’m old enough to remember the absolute joy of eating at the Automat. Pushing nickels through the slot and opening the little glass door to macaroni and cheese, lemon meringue pie or beef stew and balancing it carefully back to the table.

My grandfather worked as an accountant for Horn & Hardart and I have all his service pins–The pewter colored 5-year pin through the gold 35-year pin with a diamond chip set in the etched cornucopia. It was a job that put three kids through college, bought a house, and paid for vacations. Even after he died when I was young, my grandmother remained loyal and would come to visit with a bag of whole wheat rolls and, our favorite, a coconut custard pie.

When my Dad gave me these stock certificates, he was careful to tell me that they have not value, but I think they’re priceless!

People, places, and pies that have all moved on.


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Sicily, the Cookbook

sicily cover

Sicily, the Cookbook by Melissa Muller, Rizzoli 2017, hardcover $40.00, 336 pages

It is impossible to describe the degrees of yellow from the most candent cadmium to ochre, from discoloured ivory to lemon bronze. The air was full of wisps of straw and the heat beat upon us as if from some huge oven where the Gods had been baking bread.

Lawrence Durrell

Sicily is a mythical place–where Demeter and Persephone we’re split into our seasons, where the River Styx flows without mercy. The rocks along the shore were thrown there by a raging Polyphemus and the dangerous whirlpools are blamed on Charybdis.

Sicily is Magna Graecia, but at the table are also Moorish, Bourbon, Norman, and Roman influences–apricots, pistachios, and lemons in elegantly constructed pastries. Its dishes–pizza, frittata, caponata, and cannoli–are the signature of Italian-American food.

In this book, Melissa Muller traces her own family history, and pulls her dishes from “the reality of Sicily that is the hidden core of the island…”. Muller’s passion for Sicily is rooted in childhood summers spent in her grandmother’s village of Sant’Anna of Caltabellotta–an easily defended mountain cliff, with a fresh spring and fertile flatlands.

She pursued history and cooking with a focus on Sicily and now is part of the Feudo Montani Winery. The book‘s recipes have the imprint of her family, her expertise, and her island explorations.

Muller begins with the Foundational Elements and Preserved Foods that gives Sicilian dishes their particular savor. Olive oil, of course, but also wild fennel, saffron, and orange blossom, and a pantry built with onion marmalade, parsley-mint oil, and pistachio pesto.

And then she moves through a complete menu. Sicily was the granary of the Roman empire and breads like mafalda and muffuletta are shaped, stuffed, and flavored, becoming  savory symbols–a result of imagination, the island’s vast wheat fields, and its history.

The bright flavors of antipasti like Olive Salad, Eggplant Trifle, and Grilled Octopus with Chickpea Puree could be a meal in themselves.

Soups, Rice and Pasta range from homey minestras to elegant risottos (a Northern dish but in Sicily made creamy with olive oil rather than butter). Vegetables dishes are a cornucopia of fertility–eggplant, tomatoes, fave beans, squash flowers, peppers, and cauliflower.

Seafood dishes come from the island’s port towns–grilled, stewed, baked, stuffed shrimp, cuttlefish, sea urchins, monkfish, bream, mussels, skate and swordfish with the flavors of pistachio, mint, marsala, or just simple preparations that rely on absolute freshness.

The island’s goat, pork, lamb, beef, veal, and rabbit appear in grilled sausages,  braised braciola, roasted pigs and chicken, and flavored with pomegranate, chicory, peppers, and even a savory Sicilian Chocolate Sauce.

Just typing the words cannoli, cucidati, and cassata makes me feel at home–the pastries by which I measure all other sweets. The flavors of citrus, anise, almonds, and honey appear in baroque pastries, homey cookies, and delicate custards. Every time Muller went to do her research at a pasticerria, pad and pen in hand, she writes, “the sweet aromas rendered me a child again.” I know the feeling, ask me about Strufoli.

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Savor the South–Corn

corn cover

Corn by Tema Flanagan, UNC Press 2017, $20.00 cloth, 144 pages

A light wind swept over the corn, and all nature laughed in the sunshine.

Anne Bronte

Corn has to be among the most American of foods. Corn is woven through Mayan mythology–marking calendar dates and shaping origin stories. English settlers called the flour Indian meal and used it instead of wheat in their traditional recipes–and in the process, developed new dishes like Indian Pudding.

From a homey staple, corn expands to become an industrial behemoth–transforming into fuel, oil, and corn syrup, the secret ingredient in almost everything on supermarket shelves.

But in this book, Tema Flanagan claims corn for the South–grits, pone, hominy–fresh off the cob, nixtamalized, distilled, or ground into meal.

The recipes show off corn’s range–in chapters on fresh corn, dried and ground corn, nixtamalized and popped corn, and finally mashed and fermented. Nixtamalized corn is an ancient way of processing corn by boiled with kernels with wood ash until the husks released, leaving a soft puffy hominy, which was easier to grind into meal. The process also makes niacin nutritionally available, which helps prevent pellagra.

It’s dishes like the slow saute of Macque Choux, Smoke Signal’s Bakery Mexican Chocolate Chess Pie, and Chicken and Green Chile Posole show off corn’s sweet and savory flavors. Some dishes, like Pimiento Cheese Cornbread and Muscadine Grape Cornmeal Cobbler, are firmly anchored in the South. Others range farther, like western favorite Frito Pie and Succotash, named by New England’s Narragansett Indians.

Even when they take a gourmet turn, like Sweet Corn Ice Cream with Raspberry-Basil Swirl, the recipes have a homey attitude. There’s just something friendly about corn, especially when concocted into mulled cider, milk punch or a mint julep.

And Flanagan solves the mystery of why northerners don’t eat grits. In the North, flint corn is a hard variety, tougher to grind, while Southern dent corn is easy to grind into meal–grits. Though the mystery continues–Italian polenta (grits for gourmets) is made from flint corn. One for the ages and the fork.

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