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, the America’s 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 format.

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 Singapore 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

The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, (Brookline, MA, 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 pieces
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

The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, (Brookline, MA, 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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s