Monday, January 17, 2011

Cookbook Review: One Big Table

Like many cooking enthusiasts, I read cookbooks the way other people read novels. Some cookbooks are really fun to read this way, and one I especially remember was the New York Cookbook by Molly O'Neill which provided me with hours of entertainment back when I lived in NYC, although I never did cook anything from it.

When someone from the publishers Simon & Schuster e-mailed me a couple of months ago about reviewing Molly O'Neill's newest cookbook, I happily agreed. They kindly let me download a free e-book version of this book to review.

Molly O'Neill's One Big Table was everything I hoped it would be- over the holidays, I spent many many happy hours reading this book, and here are 10 things I loved about this book.

1. It appeals to my penchant for armchair travel. In the introduction, O'Neill talks about how she packed up and traveled around the US searching for "motley crews of food obsessives" as she puts it. With this cookbook, I experienced all the fun of stumbling across wonderful food all over the United States without dealing with airport pat-downs.

2. I love regional food and this food cross-crosses the country discovering local favorites and regional flavors. I am determined to make the Southern pimento cheese; I have now heard so much about it and the recipe in this book has won awards at Pimento Cheese events (!)

3. The cookbook is illustrated with very interesting pictures. It calls itself "a portrait of American cooking" and the book is full of sweet candid photos of home cooks smiling from kitchen tables, proudly holding their dishes and participating in community events. There are also dozens of historical pictures and vintage posters about food and cooking.

4. This is a cookbook without borders. People from almost every culture in the world make their home in the United States, and their recipes are represented in this book in large numbers. Among recipes from home cooks who have roots in India, there is a recipe for rawa dosa using cream of wheat, and another for saag paneer using broccolini and collard greens, and many more.

5. Each recipe tells the story of the cook who shared it. It is immensely entertaining to come across the personalities of these home cooks- passionate, funny, warm people all- and it is easy to identify with them. For instance, the woman who shared a recipe for ranch dressing has this to say about the first time she tasted ranch dressing: "Smack me with a lettuce leaf, those are the flavors I want in my mouth". I hear ya!

6. There is a big dose of history in this book. I learned that the pop-up toaster was invented before sliced bread was widely available, and that the invention of an appliance that would make perfect toast without burning bread was an engineering dilemma that stumped many inventors. There are bits of interesting trivia about the invention of American icons such as Ball Jars, Philadelphia cream cheese and Green Bean Casserole.

7. There are plenty of knock-off recipes, and you know how much I love those. For instance, Campbell's Tomato Soup and Onion Soup Mix both sound like intriguing recipes I would like to try.

8. It contains 600 recipes- there really is something for everyone. Although the book as a whole is very heavy on meat, poultry and seafood, just as contemporary American cooking is, I've still managed to bookmark many recipes, including Jeni's Awesome Dirt Road Ice cream from the famous Jeni's of Ohio.

9. It is available in e-book form as well as the traditional paper form, and I love the option of having a digital paperless cookbook with a search function to quickly look up recipes.

10. I found a new recipe for classic American macaroni and cheese that I will make again and again; see below.

Just last week, V dropped a casual hint that I haven't made mac and cheese in a while so this seemed to be the right recipe to try on him.

I normally make a very non-traditional version of macaroni and cheese (I've posted it 5 years ago!) with a white sauce base. This recipe suits me because I like cheese to play a subtle background role in dishes. My constant dinner companions, V and Neighbor Girl, love cheese to play the main role and to be used in vast quantities. The following recipe is for people like them rather than people like me.

As with all recipes in this cookbook, Molly O'Neill interviews the home cook whose recipe this is. This lady explains that she cannot imagine a gathering without macaroni and cheese and that she likes this dish to be plain and pure. She mentions watching cook-offs on Food Network where people tried to glam up mac and cheese by adding artichokes or whatever, and says, "I don't know anyone who would do a thing like that". I'm shaking my head in agreement- why fix what isn't broken?

The construction of this dish was very unusual for me, but very easy to put together with minimal stovetop cooking. Elbow macaroni is cooked until just tender, then macaroni and tiny cubes of cheese are layered in the baking dish. A custard of eggs and milk is poured over it and with a quick topping, the dish is baked. How beautifully simple!

Mac and Cheese
Adapted from "Helen Griffin Williams' Macaroni and Cheese" from the cookbook One Big Table by Molly O'Neill

1. Mac: Heat a pot of salted water and boil two cups elbow macaroni (8 oz. or half of the standard package) until barely tender. Drain the macaroni and rinse in cold water to prevent the pasta from overcooking.

2. Cheese: Meanwhile, use 1/2 lb. mild cheddar and 1/2 lb. sharp cheddar and chop each block of cheese into small cubes. Mix the cheese cubes and set aside.

3. Sauce: In a bowl, whisk together

  • 2 eggs
  • 2.5 cups milk (I used 2%)
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. mustard (powder or paste)
  • 1 tsp. pepper (I used black pepper but white pepper is recommended)

4. Prep: Preheat oven to 375 F. Spray an 8 x 8 baking dish with oil.

5. Layer: In the baking dish, add one-third of the pasta and spread in an even layer. Top with one-third of the cheese, again sprinkled evenly. Repeat two more times to use up pasta and cheese in even layers. Pour the seasoned milk mixture evenly. Jiggle the pan to distribute the milk sauce.

6. Top and Bake: Top with breadcrumbs and paprika. Bake for 30-40 minutes until bubbling and until the crust is browned. Let the mac and cheese rest for 10-15 minutes before serving.

If you love cheese, this is THE mac and cheese for you. V and Neighbor Girl just about swooned over the taste. There is a very high ratio of cheese to pasta which is what makes it so rich and delicious. I served the mac and cheese with a beet and arugula salad, and chickpea cutlets for a complete dinner.

I'm hosting a Soup Swap this weekend- and I've bullied several of my friends into signing up. If you live in the St. Louis area and would like to participate, write me an e-mail. I have a few spots left.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

On Freezing Indian Food

A reader e-mailed me with this question,
"Do you know how to freeze homemade Indian food for future use? Till now, I have been making fresh meals but now at times I feel the need to have something ready and hate to go to restaurants."
To freeze or not to freeze?
I don't have much experience with freezing Indian meals. It is because my weeknight meals take barely 20 minutes of hands-on time to make. Cooking every evening from scratch fits in well in my schedule. But it is certainly worthwhile to know what Indian (and other) meals freeze well. It comes in handy in various situations when you simply don't have the time to shop or cook but need the comfort of a meal at home. Freezer-ready meals are also a thoughtful gift for friends and neighbors who are dealing with a new baby, recovering from surgery etc.

Freezing ready-to-eat Indian dishes
  • Idlis freeze beautifully. Popping them in the microwave results in soft idlis that are as good as new.
  • Curries containing beans and with a tomato-onion base freeze well, like chana masala (chhole) and rajma.

Freezing for faster meal prep:
  • Meera has an excellent post on freezing sprouts so that nutritious usals, sprout pulaos and curries can be made without planning ahead.
  • I sometimes soak and pressure-cook 2 or 3 times the amount of toor dal I need for one meal. Then I freeze the rest in small containers. This is especially useful when making vegetable-heavy sambar or thin rasams where only a modest amount of toor dal is needed for one batch. 
  • Making curries is a snap if you have the frozen curry base or masala paste on hand. 
  • Anita writes about freezing vegetables, and about freezing steamed koftas for almost instant kofta curry. 
Do share your own experience with freezing Indian food. Any successes or cautionary tales we could benefit from?

Apart from Indian food, I like to freeze
  • Rolls of cookie dough, ready to slice and bake
  • Egg whites
  • Over-ripe bananas
  • Whole wheat tortillas (which double as rotis in my home)
  • Nuts and flours, especially in the summer when these can get rancid quickly in the St. Louis heat
Freezer-friendly links, a baker's dozen:

Know Thy Freezer (or the contents thereof, anyhow)
There's no point stocking the freezer if we forget what's in there- so keeping a well-organized freezer is essential. In fact, writing this post is making me run to my own freezer and clean it out and restock it. An empty freezer is not such a great thing either- freezers are most efficient when they are at least two-thirds full. Needless to say, overstuffing the freezer does nothing for efficiency.

Dale's Tales
Speaking of freezing...