Family Traditions

This post originally appeared in the Bloomington Herald Times on November 30, 2005

I’m writing this the morning after Thanksgiving, and I am still full. We
had “the usual” – family standbys we wouldn’t dare replace, but with
minor variations picked up over the years.

The turkey is now brined and Mom’s bread stuffing features fresh herbs
instead of dried, with mushrooms; the garlic mashed potatoes have caramelized
onions added, the Brussels sprouts are roasted as per an old friend, and the
green beans are roasted too, courtesy of a favorite cooking magazine.


Only the candied sweet potatoes were exactly the way Mom makes them, and
even then, I am not sure she adds cinnamon.

The meal is traditional and unchanging in its fundamentals – all our
innovations are minor enough to preserve the illusion that we aren’t changing
anything, just maybe making it a little better.

How did I learn to cook this meal? Not from any cookbook. It is the
result of years of trials by my mom and her mom before her, and now by me.

Tweaking this and that, borrowing where we like, trying something
completely new, and making it our own – a dynamic, friendly, family process
that is the way we all used to learn to cook.

It doesn’t often work like that any more, of course, at least on an
everyday basis. So many of us are too busy to cook much, and we live too far
away from the ones we love, who could teach us how it’s done. Generations of
culinary trial and error are forgotten in the busy rush of life. Most cookbooks
can’t begin to fill the gap.

Don’t get me wrong – I am a fiend for cookbooks. I devour them whole, as
if they really were the delicious food they tell me how to prepare. I settle in
and dream of perfect meals, held captive by glossy photos and luscious prose.

Trouble is, I almost never cook from those cookbooks. You can always
tell the cookbooks I really use: notes are scrawled in the recipe margins –
substitutions, menus, experiments. And some more graphic reminders of dishes
tried – stains and drips and gritty salt in the binding. A well loved cookbook
is a grim sight, a spotty and smudged disaster.

Glossy and gorgeous is all very well, but for day-to-day cooking, if I
can’t have a full army of moms, dads and grandmothers behind me, I need
something more practical. Case in point: my new very best friend in the kitchen,


Test Kitchen “Family Cookbook.”

This new cookbook epitomizes what ATK does so very well – testing,
testing, and testing once again, noting suggestions and substitutions and
shortcuts. The process replicates all those generations of cooking experience
compressed into a book you can really cook with, a solid reference, and a good
read for the food obsessed who just want to know how things tick.

I am a longtime ATK fan. They do research on food brands, cooking
equipment, and recipes, disseminating the results through their public
television show, their magazine, Cooks Illustrated, and a fabulous Web site
that indexes all their tests and comparisons and recipes in a searchable

Their new book is a loose-leafed gem. Recipes as homey and common as a
great fried egg sandwich, skillet tuna casserole and osso buco, and as exotic
as curried


noodles and Thai red beef curry.

Need a photo of what “properly chopped salmon” looks like or
instructions on how to make perfect fried chicken with a buttermilk brine, or
information on which is the best jarred pasta sauce or even a useful comparison
between flanken-style and English cut beef short ribs? This book’s got it all.

My copy is picking up a few spots and splashes already. I can tell this
one is destined to be a real mess.

Potato-Leek Soup



‘s Test
Kitchen Family Cookbook, (




, 2005)

6 tablespoons butter

4 to 5 pounds leeks, white and light green parts only, sliced (about 11
cups) and rinsed thoroughly

2 garlic cloves, minced

6 cups low-sodium chicken broth (vegetable broth can be substituted)

1 3/4 pounds red potatoes (5 medium), scrubbed and cut into 1/2 inch

1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme or 1/4 teaspoon dried

2 bay leaves

Salt and pepper

Melt the butter in a large dutch oven over medium-low heat. Stir in the
leeks and garlic. Cover and cook until the leeks are tender, 15 to 20 minutes.
Stir in the broth, potatoes, thyme, bay leaves and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a
simmer and cook until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.

Smash some of the potatoes against the side of the pot to thicken the
soup. Discard the bay leaves and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Soup can be cooled, covered, and refrigerated for up to three days or
frozen for up to a month. Reheat over low heat, adding additional water or
broth to adjust the consistency.

Serves 6 to 8

Orecchiette with Broccoli, Sausage, and Roasted Peppers



‘s Test
Kitchen Family Cookbook, (




, 2005)

(Christine’s note: the book notes that you can substitute broccoli rabe
for the broccoli and sun-dried tomatoes for the peppers. A vegetarian version
of this is delicious if you make both substitutions and add a few red pepper
flakes, to taste, to make up for the lack of sausage flavor.)

4 ounces sweet or hot Italian sausage, casings removed

1 cup jarred roasted red peppers, rinsed and chopped (oil-packed
sun-dried tomatoes can be substituted for these)

6 garlic cloves, minced

1 bunch broccoli (1 1/2 pounds), florets cut into 1-inch pieces and
stalks peeled and sliced 1/4 inch thick (broccoli rabe can be substituted if
you can find it – its bitter taste is excellent with the sausage and the
sweetness of the peppers or sun-dried tomatoes)


1/2 cup water

1 pound orecchiette (the name means “little ears” – these are
small round, slightly cupped pasta shapes)

2 ounces Pecorino Romano cheese, grated (1 cup)

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Bring 4 quarts water to boil in a large pot for the orecchiette.

Meanwhile, cook the sausage in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over
medium-high heat, breaking it into small pieces with a spoon, until browned,
about 5 minutes. Stir in the roasted red peppers and garlic and cook until
fragrant, about 15 seconds.

Stir in the broccoli, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and the 1/2 cup water. Increase
the heat to high, cover the skillet, and cook until the broccoli begins to turn
bright green, about 2 minutes. Uncover and continue to cook, stirring
frequently, until the liquid has evaporated and the broccoli is tender, about 5
minutes longer.

When the water is boiling, stir in 1 tablespoon salt and the
orecchiette. Cook, stirring often, until the orecchiette is almost tender, but
still a little firm to the bite.

Reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water, then drain the orecchiette
and return it to the pot. Stir in the sausage and broccoli mixture, Pecorino
Romano, and oil, and toss to coat. Add the reserved pasta cooking water as
needed to loosen the sauce before serving.

Serves 4 to 6

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