Tuesday, April 29, 2014

April in New York

I am just back from New York where spring was in full bloom. The weather was absolutely gorgeous! After I catch my breath, I will write more about the trip. Some of the highlights: Alan Cumming's performance in "Cabaret," "The Little Prince" exhibition at the Morgan Library, the Frick Museum (always!), brunch at Balthazar, cappuccinos at Sant Ambroeus, and "Beautiful" (the Carole King musical). But my favorite part of the trip was walking everywhere and seeing the display of flowers along the streets. Here are some photos of the city all dressed up for spring. I don't think I have ever seen it looking prettier!

Tulips on Park Avenue

The trees were in blossom wherever I looked

Framing the old buildings in the most beautiful way

The Morgan Library had a fabulous exhibition on "The Little Prince"

Carpets of fallen petals on the grass

Daffodils in Central Park

Everyone seemed to be out that day enjoying the beautiful weather

And the tulips were everywhere

This city really knows how to do spring!

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Cookbook Collector

Often it's the little things in life that give us the most pleasure. Like coming home from the bookstore with a stack of new cookbooks. I wonder if you're like me and get an inordinate amount of pleasure from thumbing through a new cookbook. Thinking about this topic, I was struck by the fact that I have been collecting cookbooks since I was twenty years old. Back then I was a college student studying English literature during the week and cooking dinner for friends on the weekend. A pile of Gourmet magazines and an ever growing collection of cookbooks presided over my tiny kitchen.

Sometimes a cookbook is so good that I end up reading it from cover to cover. I believe that many of them are meant to be enjoyed that way. The authors give us more than just a collection of recipes. They give us a slice of life, a philosophy of living that incorporates good food into daily existence. I love reading about serious cooks and how food and the kitchen are at the center of their world. They seem to have found the secret for the good life. Their joy comes from feeding their families and friends. They offer up memoir, advice, and personal anecdotes in the form of essays woven throughout their books. Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking and More Home Cooking are perfect examples of that. I still have her books, as well as others from many years ago -- remember How to Beat Those Cordon Bleus or The Silver Palate Cookbook? Those books had so many good recipes. Don't we all still make Chicken Marbella? These are gems to hang on to. But I also continue to acquire new and exciting cookbooks. Nigel Slater's books have been a recent discovery. The cookbook section at my neighborhood bookstore pulls me in like a magnet. Though I do have a rule: when I bring home new ones, I give away some old ones (or stash them away on a shelf in my pantry if I can't bear to part with them). Here are four treasures I recently brought home that you may want to add to your collection:

This is so much more than a cookbook. Food, art, and love all come together in The Bloomsbury Cookbook by Jans Ondantje Rolls. It seems like it was just a matter of time before someone wrote a food-centered book about the Bloomsbury group. You might think that nothing new could be said about this famous collection of friends -- artists, writers and intellects working between 1904 and 1939 -- whose friendship flourished around the dining tables, tea tables, and garden tables of London and Sussex. And yet this book takes a fascinating and logical vantage point: the cooking and dining lives of the group. It almost makes you wonder why it took so long for someone to write it. These writers and artists were domestic creatures who made homes and gardens for themselves and their friends. Their kitchens were hives of activity, producing meals all day long. They traveled to the south of France and discovered French food, just as they were discovering Post-Impressionist art. They brought home the art and also the recipes. This book captures the cozy domesticity of their lives. Respect for each other's work, friendship, love, and conversation bound them together through the many years. And it all took place over food and wine.

This book is a keeper. Be sure to get yourself a copy -- I promise you will love it. It is filled with art, recipes, quotations, letters, and many Bloomsbury stories. Cressida Bell's charming illustrations decorate the book. She is the granddaughter of Vanessa Bell. Whether you are already a fan of Bloomsbury or just getting to know it, you will be thoroughly entertained. The book is a culinary and social history. All the details add up to a vivid portrait of the group and conjure up the scents, colors, and textures of their social gatherings. There are recipes for Roger Fry's marmalade, Vanessa Bell's famous scones, and Clive Bell's entire dinner that he hosted for Picasso in 1919. You can recreate a breakfast at Monk's House, afternoon tea in the garden at Charleston, or an evening party at Gordon Square. Everything you need is in this book. And there are many funny stories. My favorite -- the button on Clive Bell's ever expanding waistcoat shooting across the room during a society piano recital in 1923. He was obviously eating well. This is one of those cookbooks you will read from cover to cover. I was  happy to learn that the author is donating all the money she earns from this book to the Charleston Trust, doing her part to contribute to the preservation of Charleston, home of the Bloomsbury artists.

In My Paris Kitchen David Lebovitz, the American chef from Northern California (he worked at Chez Panisse), tells the story of moving to Paris ten years ago and setting up a kitchen in his new home. He discovered that finding the right sink was the biggest challenge because more than any other feature in his kitchen, the sink was the most important. It is where his mornings began when he made his cafe au lait and his days ended when he washed up the last of the dishes after his guests have gone home. He needed a big wide-open sink which was almost impossible to find. But after locating one and getting the kitchen finished, he settled in to the life of a Parisian cook. This book is part memoir, part guide, and part cookbook. Francophiles will love it since it contains great recipes for classic French dishes, such as Cassoulet and modern twists on old ones, such as Salted Butter Caramel -- Chocolate Mousse. It is also a love letter to Paris with affectionate descriptions of French neighborhoods as well as humorous depictions of the French people he encounters. And if you have a sweet tooth, you will love the dessert section, since David was the pastry chef at Chez Panisse and excels in this department. His Chocolate -- Dulce de Leche Tart will make your mouth water.

In Family Table, Michael Romano and Karen Stabiner share favorite staff meals and stories that have taken place at the collection of New York restaurants owned by Danny Meyer, such as Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern and The Modern. The foreword by Danny Meyer tells a fascinating story of his culinary education and first apprenticeship in France where he learned how important the "family meal" was at any restaurant. This is when the staff sit down together for a meal before lunch and dinner is served at the restaurant. Everyone has a chance to cook and it is an opportunity for junior chefs to shine as well as camaraderie to develop. Michael Romano, the culinary director of the restaurants, has chosen his favorite in-house recipes. They look easy and unpretentious, just the kind of food you want to serve at home. Mama Romano's Lasagna and Plum and Apricot Crisp with Almond Cream are two that look delicious.

You have probably heard of Valerie Confections, the popular chocolate candy boutique that is located in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Valerie Gordon is the founder of the company and has recently written a cookbook called Sweet. She has spent a lifetime in the kitchen baking and cooking. She decided to create a cookbook featuring her favorite recipes. Her book includes retro recipes from old Los Angles restaurants such as Coffee Crunch Cake from Blums, Banana Shortcake from Chasen's and Apple Cake from Scandia. There are recipes for everyday cakes, pies and tarts, chocolates and confections, cookies and bars, and jams and marmalade. A friend told me I have to make the Vanilla Bean Cake as it is easy and delicious. Serve it with whipped cream and berries for a fabulous spring dessert.

And finally there is this gem which is not exactly brand new (published in 2012) but is one of the most popular cookbooks today. Jerusalem has to be the "It" cookbook of the last year or so. People will probably be cooking from it for years to come. Have you made the Roasted Chicken with Clementines and Arak? It is one of those classics that is destined to be the Chicken Marbella of its time.

Happy cooking!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Almost Dinner in Paris

Maybe it was the flowers 

Or the linens and china

It may have been the handmade menus  

Or the candlelight

Maybe it was the champagne

Or the blinis and smoked salmon

It might have been the dark chocolate 

Or the little ramekins ready to go into the oven

Maybe it was the zucchini vichyssoise 

Or the artichoke tart and salad

It may have been the cheese course

Or the little chocolate cakes

Or possibly the party favors

But all together, it was a night to remember

About six months ago a friend and I donated a French Dinner Party to be auctioned off at a fundraiser. A lovely couple bought it and once we put our calendars together, it was scheduled for last weekend. The pressure was on! Our goal was to make this experience as special as possible for our generous guests. We wanted the evening to feel a bit like -- cue the music -- "April in Paris." We cooked for days and on Saturday night set the table and lit the candles. The flowers were from Hollyflora and the table linens from Heather Taylor Home. Blue and white china felt like the perfect choice for spring. The party favors were filled with French Macarons from a local patisserie.

Our guests arrived and after champagne and appetizers in the garden we sat down for dinner. It was a culinary adventure and a little trip to France. We made new friends, had some great conversation, and  got the chance to make some exciting French food. Our main course was filet of beef with red wine sauce, a french potato gratin and spring asparagus. I loved cooking with a kindred spirit who enjoys nothing better than poring over cookbooks and figuring out a menu as much as I do. Our two-hour planning lunch amidst piles of cookbooks and notes was a highlight of the experience. I got an education in French cuisine. It was a magical spring night filled with joie de vivre. Hopefully our guests felt that for a few hours at least they were transported to "the city of lights." As Audrey Hepburn once said, "Paris is always a good idea." That night we all became Francophiles!

Go here for the recipe for Zucchini Vichyssoise
And here for the recipe for Bittersweet Molten Chocolate Cakes

If you are a Francophile and love to cook (those two often go together), check out this new cookbook by David Lebovitz, My Paris Kitchen. I just picked up a copy from my neighborhood bookstore and from my quick perusal it looks as if it is both a cookbook and a love letter to Paris.

Passez une bonne semaine!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Culinary Adventures

Table set for our French dinner party

I hope you had a good weekend. This weekend found us hosting a French dinner party that we and our friends donated to a fundraiser last fall. A lovely couple bought it, we finally established a date that worked for everyone, and my friend and I spent most of last week planning and cooking. I had intended to write about it yesterday but somehow felt a bit under the weather. Hmm... I wonder if it was the six course French meal we consumed on Saturday night or the superb wine pairings our friend brought to serve with each course. I tried to compose my blog post but instead spent most of the day resting or wandering from thing to thing. I plan to write about it later in the week. Here is where I spent a good part of yesterday...

Reading this book

"Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty that seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress" is the opening line of Middlemarch. I have been getting to know Dorothea Brooke, Mr. Casaubon, Lydgate, Rosamund Vincy, Mary Garth, and young Ladislaw and feel connected to all of them. They are some of the characters who reside in Middlemarch, the provincial English village at the heart of George Eliot's masterpiece. I am half way through the book and loving it. And what a treat to be reading this lovely Penguin edition. Have you seen this Hardcover Classic series by Penguin? Go here to learn more.

Perusing this blog

Photo via here

Yes, the lovely Sophie Dahl of cookbook fame now has a blog. It is called At The Table and it is just as enchanting and beautiful as she is. Take a look. It is a little like wandering through the landscape of the English novel "I Capture the Castle" by Dodie Smith. Go here to see Sophie's recipes for homey desserts such as banana bread and peanut butter fudge, a video on the ancient art of book binding, and a list of "British Boltholes" -- don't you love that expression -- where you can enjoy the out-of-doors in comfort  -- lovely farms, cabins, and even luxurious tree houses to check into and spend the weekend. Wait until you see these tree houses! Look under the "Adventure" category on her blog.

Catching up with this newspaper article

Photo via here

A great travel piece about Oxford, England. The setting for the novel Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh and the Inspector Morse mysteries by Colin Dexter, this beautiful town has so much more to it than just the university. Go here to read more.

Contemplating this beauty

Our garden is producing some amazing irises right now

Checking on the new roses

The Joseph's Coat Rose is starting to take hold

Dreaming of a fall trip

Lake Buttermere in Cumbria, England

My husband is reading the biography of Woodrow Wilson, Wilson, by A. Scott Berg and wandered into the kitchen yesterday to read me a quote. Wilson wrote, "There remained no spot in the world in which I am so completely at rest and peace as in the lake country." I began looking up information on the Lake District of England. Did you know that after the film "Miss Potter" came out a few years ago, tourism in this part of England skyrocketed? I would love to visit.

Admiring my blue and white Burleigh tea set bought at Fortnum and Mason last year

And wondering when I will have occasion to use it

Finding the prettiest scones to serve when I do

Rose and saffron scones -- go here for the recipe.

Buying ranunculuses at the market

They practically arranged themselves!

And finding this in the mail

Can't wait to read it...doesn't she look gorgeous!

By the way, it really was a great party and the people who bought it brought some lovely friends. We spent last week cooking up a storm. I can't wait to share all the recipes. To be continued...

In the meantime, here is Sophie Dahl's recipe for banana bread: