Ideas for putting a new meal together crop up around fine dining tables, farmers’ markets and food trucks. There’s no shortage of inspiration whether from a bunch of baby carrots waving their green tops to an endless stream of tempting digital food photos just a swipe away on the phone.
Though traditional cookbooks may seem stodgy compared to a perfect post of pasta primavera on an Instagram feed, printed and bound works of cooking devotion share much more than how-to instructions. Story-driven cookbooks can introduce a world beyond the recipes and ingredients that they present.
Lately, cooking prompts arrive by text from a friend who shares an interest in sampling good eating at hole-in-the-wall restaurants while a host of menus and meal propositions finds a way to my email inbox from food news subscriptions. Some draw a quick look while others move to a list of saved recipes to consider. But even with constant access to a vast selection of online food pages, menus and quick-tip videos, I still linger over traditional cookbooks, not only for cooking’s sake but to soak up an author’s connections to farming, gardening or composing a repertoire of ethnic family favorites. It’s not instructional guides that I love, but tapestries of recipes woven together with scenes of life and illustrated with artful design and photography presented on paper.
One of my prized treasures weighs several pounds and claims a generous space on the pantry bookshelf. Written by John Besh, My New Orleans: The Cookbook piles on pleasure with cooking, culture, history and a dash of food tourism.
When we sold our family home in Austin several years ago, the buyers were making their relocation from New Orleans. Shortly after the sale’s closing, the cookbook arrived at our new home with a note from the buyers about their appreciation of Besh and the chef’s respectful nod to New Orleans tradition and progressive invention of contemporary tastes. It’s a beautifully written book paying tribute to friends, family and the freshest finds in food. I may never make his crawfish agnolotti with morels or dewberry streusel pie, but Besh won me over with descriptive narrative (“waist deep in a cypress swamp”) from his crawfishing adventures. Two years ago my family hosted a Mardi Gras dinner using Besh’s big book, breaking in the pages with a few smudges of buttermilk and corn meal. Cooking together ended up becoming a cultural awakening of Louisiana cuisine thanks to Besh. We honored the recipes but had a little fun making them our own. If a copy of Besh’s cookbook that includes 200 of his favorite recipes and stories from his hometown presents itself, make room for it in your collection.
I try to limit new cookbook acquisitions in my own collection to one or two a year simply due to space restrictions. But when there’s a chance to borrow or browse a new publication, it’s a joy to find more than something to eat in a cookbook. One recent rainy evening, I found a shelf of cookbooks at the Desmond-Fish Library in Garrison. The selection kept me out of the rain and engaged with a range of good reading. Some featured step-by-step instructions while others centered more on food travel and finding the choicest raw ingredients. In Pure & Special: Gourmet Indian Vegetarian Cuisine by Vidhu Mittal, a tangy lettuce wrap presented a possibility to include the nuances of Indian vegetarian cooking in spring’s rotation. I stumbled on a few pages of brilliance with Diana Henry’s “healthy meets delicious” cookbook, A Change of Appetite. A great read because the images and layout help tell the story, but Henry’s work suggests a year of feasting on inventive healthy food, organized by seasons and showcasing dishes like yogurt with honeyed saffron syrup, almonds and apricot compote. Not too intimidating and who doesn’t love apricots?
The combination inspired me to put apricots on my shopping list and I’ve been testing salads in my home kitchen. The recipe shared here combines crispy cauliflower and tangy toasted sesame seeds to create a somewhat nutty flavored medley. Try sharing a small portion as a side salad or just a tasting to welcome hungry guests before breaking out more substantial fare. For this simple combination, dip in to your premium extra-virgin olive oil and the best sea salt on hand. The ingredients are all everyday finds and inexpensive, but together they’ll please on any plate.
Crisp Cauliflower with Apricots
1 head cauliflower
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1 cup dried apricots, chopped
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 scallions, chopped
1 teaspoon sea salt flakes, crushed
Cut cauliflower into small florets and set aside. In preheated oven, bake sesame seeds on flat ungreased baking sheet at 400 degrees Fahrenheit about 5 minutes or until lightly golden. Remove seeds from oven and place baking sheet of cauliflower florets on top rack. Bake 20 minutes until florets begin to brown. Toss cauliflower, apricot pieces and chopped onion in mixing bowl. Mix sesame seeds with olive oil and add to mixing bowl ingredients. Stir mixture and sprinkle generously with salt. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Text and photographs by Mary Ann Ebner, first published by The Highlands Current